Pournelle’s Law

Chaos Manor View Saturday, April 18, 2015


In the early days of my old BYTE column, when the important systems were Apple ][ and CPM on an S-100 Bus system, and everything was experimental and flakey, my column was called The User’s Column. In those days, if you wanted to get computers to do anything useful you spent part of your time poking around, trying this and that until it worked. I developed some rules, one of which became known as Pournelle’s Law. It said 90% of the time the problem was a cable. Actually the first formulation was “you’ll find by and large that it’s a cable.” I just had another confirming instance.

I’ve been feeling a bit down all week, probably the a milder form of the same cold that caused Larry Niven to miss his weekly story conference with me and Steve Barnes – which reminds me that I have to go over Steve’s new text, but that’s not today’s story. So I’m down, and not very productive, and the back room TV, a 50” LGT that’s just fine for us, started blinking and stuttering. We called Time Warner.

First thing: if you are going to call the cable company, try to do it at a time other than Prime Time. That’s when everyone calls. Second, if there’s any way you can do it, do it with a phone that works in the same room as you keep the television. Alas, in Chaos Manor that doesn’t work so well. The back room where we watch TV doesn’t get telephone reception on the new cordless system, and the old wired system connects, not to a landline, but to an ancient TIE system that has pretty well stopped working. It’s a real pain to get physical wiring back there, and we just haven’t got around to it. My cell phone gets a boost from an AT&T MicroCell, so I have communications on that, but Time Warner knows of us on the old land line number, which was on the TIE system and when that died away was replaced by a net of Panasonic cordless phones which work splendidly – except of course in the back room.

I was planning to do something about all this, but came The Stroke, and I haven’t got a round tuit, and neither have my son Alex or my associate Eric Pobirs. And of course this happened when they were at NBA which I wanted to go to and will, I hope, make next year, when with luck I’ll only need a cane, not a walker and wheel chair. At least that’s how I project the progress I have mad with physical therapy.

Eventually we got through to Time Warner. They tried remote reset of our set top box, and for a few moments I thought it helped, but then things got worse. Another call, and they tried again, and so did I – the Big Red Button reset. Turn off the power switch on the surge protector/extension box that powers both the TV and the set top box.

That did no good. Worse, although we didn’t know it at the time since neither of us was using computer, one of the Time Warner attempts at remote resetting scrambled the cable modem. Next morning Roberta’s computer wasn’t connected to the Internet, and on looking at my system I had no email since the night before. Call Time Warner again, this time at mid day. They were surprisingly easy to get, but I had used my cell phone, and it took a while for them to figure out who I was. They informed me that a technician was coming Saturday morning, did I want to change that? No! Please no! This was not TV related at all. I gave the phone to Roberta because long phone calls are tiring, and they decided that they need to reset the cable modem. And that, of course, is a big deal because the cable modem is upstairs where they don’t let me go without more physical assistance than Roberta can provide.

So Roberta had to go upstairs with my cell phone, find the cable modem in the little room were I keep servers and tools and spare parts and monsters, know what it was she was looking at, find the right power switch – anyway, the Time Warner lady talked her through it, and as I watched my system the lights began blinking, and all the stacked up mail poured in and all was well. Didn’t help the TV of course.

So Saturday morning the technician, a nice young man named Vincent, came within the hour they’d said he’d be there. By that time I was convinced that it was the set top box. The small TV in the front bedroom works fine, the Internet works fine, it’s clearly the set top box…

Vincent did what I would have done, except the TV is too close to the unused fireplace to get behind it with the wheelchair, and I am too unsteady to work standing in the walker without holding on: he fiddled with the cables connecting the set top box to the LG TV. And of course that did it. A lot of the splutter went away. Next move was to unplug all the cables, clean the contacts, plug them in: Voila!

You’ll find by and large, the trouble is a cable.


new laser weapon

What are the chances of Lockheed Martin’s new 30kw laser (or similar) being used to recharge batteries or capacitors on airborne drones?

jon spencer

Interesting to speculate on. I don’t know. And then there’s this:


Tactical Laser Weapon Module Can Laserify Almost Anything

The thing in this picture isn’t a photon torpedo. But, it’s close. It’s a photon cannon, currently under development by General Atomics. Small, versatile, and completely self-contained, it turns anything onto which you stick it into a powerful laser weapon. And at just two cubic meters in volume, you should have no trouble mounting it on the roof rack of your Volvo.

General Atomics’ Tactical Laser Weapon Module is one of those pieces of futuristic technology that can show up out of nowhere at a military expo (in this case, the Navy’s Sea-Air-Space Exposition) and just sit there, attracting plenty of attention while also being almost entirely classified.

What we were able to find out about this thing is that it’s a laser weapon with output energies (that’s output, not total power in the system) ranging from 75 kilowatts all the way up to 300 kilowatts. To put that in perspective, about a year ago we wrote about how Lockheed was using a portable fiber laser to shoot down rockets at a range of 1.5 kilometers using just 10 kilowatts of power. Suffice it to say, 300 kilowatts is rather a lot. The weight of the system is dependent on its output power and the number of shots you want, but General Atomics engineers say that they’ve gotten it down to just 4 kilograms per kilowatt.

The module in the picture above represents almost the entirety of an operational laser weapons system. You’ll have to wire it up to your own controller, but otherwise, all it needs to finish it off is a beam director—basically, a glorified steerable telescope that can intercept the laser beam as it comes out of that hole on the front of the module and then point it at what you want it to torch. You don’t even need to connect the module to an outside power source; it’s packed with enough lithium-ion batteries to give you some number of shots (although, as with almost every question we asked, General Atomics won’t give us specific numbers, because it’s, well, classified).

General Atomics did go so far as to suggest that this laser would be great as an add-on to the AC-130 gunship or V-22 Osprey. Since it’s so small, though, it would also fit onto UAVs like the Predator C. It could even be carried by ground vehicles like the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, which means that I bet my Volvo could handle it as well. Take that, traffic jams.


Too true

Mutually Assured Destruction in 21st century – the Ramirez take:



Herman Kahn pointed that out a long time ago. The rationality of being irrational.


Long lost nuclear warhead found…


Wonder what that might have been “worth” on the black market? Not counting the lives of the finders/sellers, which would have probably been forfeit after the bomb was located by the buyer.

Charles Brumbelow

In the old days, the Company would buy fissionables no questions asked, no ID wanted; but again a long time ago. And of course fissionables deteriorate.


Red’s latest ‘Weapon’ is an 8K full-frame camera

Red launched the first mainstream 4K camera when 1080p seemed like overkill, and now that this whole 4K thing might work out, it’s got an 8K RAW model. The Weapon ‘Vista Vision’ features a mind-boggling 8,192 x 4,320, 35-megapixel sensor that can do up to 75 fps, widescreen 8K. The chip is also 40.96 x 21.6mm or Vista Vision-sized, considerably larger than the full-frame sensor on a camera like the Nikon D810. Video can be recorded in RAW and scaled-down ProRes formats simultaneously, just as with the company’s 6K Weapon models.

So, how much does it cost to be on par with Peter Jackson and James Cameron? A helluva lot. If we’re reading the (rather confusing) pricing correctly, you’ll need to order the company’s 6K Weapon Woven CF “brain,” or bare camera for a cool $49,500, then add another $10,000 for the 8K sensor upgrade. That makes $59,500 by our counting, plus whatever your accessories, storage and lenses cost. The upgrade price is only good until the end of NAB on April 16th, after which time it’ll be $20,000. If you already own a Red Scarlet or Epic camera, you can get credits in various amounts towards the Weapon models.

Other specs are still unknown, as is the exact shipping date. Red actually launched its 6K Weapon camera just a few months ago, and it’s still not shipping. We’re not sure who exactly needs 8K, since there aren’t a lot of TVs out there in that format — but it might look great blown up to IMAX size. Red said the sensor would arrive by the end of the year.


clarifying Iran’s intentions

Iran’s intentions could be clarified if the Supreme Leader and/or other prominent government officials had to take lie detector tests which would ask if the government had any intention to create nuclear weapons. Lie detection methods will inevitably improve as technology advances, and the results of the lie detection tests could help determine subsequent policy toward Iran.

If wishes were horses then beggars would ride – which is to say a false premise implies the universe class. Of course we have voice stress analyzers – you don’t hear much about them anymore – but I doubt they have been normalized for Farsi, and diplomats and agents can be trained. You won’t get the Mullahs to agree to a polygraph.


Length of copyright,


I note that Boss Flynn’s autobiography [You’re The Boss] was published in 1947. He died August 18, 1953. Under the old copyright limit, the book would long have been in the public domain. Under Victor Hugo’s copyright scheme, it would have been PD from August 18, 2003. Now we have to wait until August 18, 2023 for it to go PD. I hope I’m alive to see it. Maybe I’ll get to read it then.

Which brings another question: is the length of copyright a form of censorship of old books, not yet in PD?


An interesting question. Of course it’s unlikely that anyone would enforce copyright on that book, but also unlikely there’s enough in publishing it to cover the work involved. Pity. It’s worth reading.

Copyright is egregiously too long. When I get to be Emperor I’ll make it life plus fifty at most.


1600 Slowdown and Net Neutrality

Your 1600 slowdown has nothing to do with net neutrality and everything to do with how internet service is provided over cable systems. Years ago, my network manager used to complain about an evening slowdown, as did my operations manager, both of whom got their internet service over the Comcast cable network.
The issue is fairly simple. Internet service over cable is a shared bandwidth service. Depending upon network topology, the cable company may only have a few hundred megabits per second of bandwidth to spread around to dozens of users. As more users access the internet at the same time, the smaller the share of bandwidth each user can have. Because of this, the cable company will only promise you an average data rate, not an absolute data rate like you would get on a dedicated copper or fiber connection.
1600 sounds like a typical time of day for your neighbors to start coming home from school and work. The first thing that they will do is jump onto the web and download lots of media. You, who work from home all day, have the benefit of a largely idle cable network until the evening hours, giving you most of the bandwidth available on your edge of the system for most of the day. You get to see that bandwidth eroded away by you neighbors every evening.
Cable companies are touting a new breakthrough in technology that should expand the available bandwidth of their existing copper coax network and allow them to offer 1GBS service to their customers, which should help, but this will still just be average bandwidth, not absolute bandwidth.




Freedom is not free. Free men are not equal. Equal men are not free.




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