Computing At Chaos Manor

December, 1998

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BOOK Reviews



The User’s Column

December 1998 5200 words

Jerry Pournelle

Copyright 1998 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

December 1998

Column 219

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The first news is that I’m alive.

I was driving home from Fall COMDEX in Las Vegas, and decided to drive off roads through Death Valley on my way home. I’m not sure why, but I had the Delorme GPS satellite receiver with their software running on the Compaq Armada laptop, and it was a good test to take it into Death Valley. I’ve taken my Bronco on that desert track before.

The Delorme system worked wonderfully: it installed in minutes, attaching the GPS was simple, and as I drove it kept up my position on a map it generated on screen. At first it showed me on highways, and I could see when I was coming to a town. Then I left the highway for a smaller paved road. Still showed on the map. Finally I left that for a gravel track, and even that showed up on the map! Those US maps are pretty detailed, even for Death Valley. If you do much travel in the United States, you really should get the Delorme system and maps. That way you’ll never get lost. I don’t know what other countries they have maps for, but you can find out at their web site, and it’s worth the effort.

I didn’t get lost, but I did lose a tire on a desert road, and over I went, several times, coming to rest with the Bronco lying on the driver’s side about 40 kilometers from the nearest paved road. A full description, with pictures, is at for anyone who wants to see. Obviously I was able to walk out to a paved road.

Incidentally, while I hadn’t done it before the crash, you can download the Delorme GPS software and a local map section into your Palm III, and connect the GPS unit; after which the Palm III will know precisely where you are. This might be great for hikes into the High Sierra. I have gone into the mountains many times and I’ve never been lost, but there were times in snowstorms where the only way I kept from getting lost was to stay where I was; with a GPS system I could have kept moving and still have known where I was. On the other hand, you’d have to be an idiot to try hiking in a blizzard. You’re much safer making camp. I suspect, though, that given the litigious nature of America – the Japanese ambassador once told me there are more lawyers in Los Angeles County than in all of Japan – it won’t be long before carrying the Delorme GPS and Palm III will be required for all Scoutmasters taking boys into the mountains.

I don’t go to COMDEX for the parties, but they are part of the scene, and I often learn from them. One of the best COMDEX parties was Andy Seybold’s WIRELESS party. Seybold publishes a newsletter, Andy Seybold’s OUTLOOK ( ), some 26 pages a month, about mobile computing and communications, and if you’re in that business you really ought to know about it. It has the latest in what’s going on in the wireless world, both phones and computers, and the product reviews are a lot like this column, based on actual experience.

Karen Thomas held a great dinner party, and I found myself seated with the CEO of Polaroid. While it’s no news that photography is extremely popular in Japan, he notes that small but detailed pictures are more popular there than in the US. He has a plan for Polaroid to compete with the new digital cameras. You can get a great deal more detail on a conventional silver halide photograph than you can with the best digital cameras: even a small silver halide picture has the equivalent of 5 megapixels. Suppose, then, you provide an instant develop Polaroid camera, and a small electronic scanner: now you have a hard copy of your picture as well as an electronic, and your hard copy will have far more detail than a printout of a digital image. Look for this product in about a year; I think it has a great future. I’ll tell you more when I know more.

For myself, I generally carry an Olympus digital camera; they have several, and all are excellent. I don’t suppose anyone has the practical experience to say which digital cameras are "best"; I can say that both Olympus and Agfa are "good enough", small enough to fit in a pocket, rugged enough to survive harsh conditions – my Olympus obviously survived the crash, as you will see if you go to my web site – and enough detail for reasonable size pictures and more than enough for web site pictures. I am very fond of both, but I have to say I carry the Olumpus almost everywhere, and the Agfa only on special trips. Both work fine, though. Digital cameras are very convenient, especially if you carry a laptop on trips. I download all my pictures each evening, and when necessary arrange them in albums with labels and dates and notes. You can do that with Polaroid, of course, but those are expensive.

Olympus sells a small printer that you can attach to your camera, so that you can have paper copies of your pictures quickly and easily. This isn’t cheap, but on the other hand you only print the ones you want, so the total cost is acceptable. Finally, Olympus sells a package of NiMH batteries and a nickel metal hydride charger that’s just short of wonderful; you pop in the batteries at night and in the morning you have enough juice for a hundred and more flash pictures with an Olympus camera. I’m very fond of that camera, and if you look at my crash pictures on my web site you’ll see why.

COMDEX seemed much smaller this year, and all my contacts say their booths had far fewer visitors. Part of this was the economic slowdown in the Pacific; we had far fewer Asian visitors this year than last. There were also fewer booths, and for the first time in many years there were food service areas out in the main prime convention space area. There were also empty spaces, and a number of big names were missing from the exhibitor list.

I spoke on a panel about the future of computing, and we not only had standing room only, but the fire marshal wouldn’t let anyone else, including my son, into the room; I am told they turned away over a thousand people. All told I found COMDEX worth going to, although I could have done without the trip home through Death Valley.

I’ve been doing a lot more with Socket 7 motherboards. First, the reason my MSI MS-5169 motherboard would not run at 100 MHz was the memory: although I bought it as certified PC 100 memory, it wouldn’t work at that speed. When I replaced that memory DIMM with a genuine Kingston memory the MSI board ran fine at 100.

I had been running the system with the AMD K6-2 chip at 300 MHz. The mother board was set to 66 MHz, and a multiplier of 4.5; I used the jumpers to set the system at a mother board speed of 100 and a multiplier of 3. Just how much improvement 100/300 is over 66/300 is hard to tell; as a first approximation, I can’t tell the difference. However, some games do make use of the greater speed. The drawback is that some peripheral boards don’t like the faster bus speed and may cause problems. The memory is more expensive, too, and a lot of memory that says it is PC 100 quality really isn’t good enough. If your board runs fine at 66 and won’t run at 100, it’s easy to blame the video card, but the chances are very good that you don’t really have PC 100 memory. The reason many blame the video card is that with faulty memory you don’t get a video image of any kind. You turn on the system and nothing happens. Usually, though, that’s not the video board, it’s the memory.

If you are going to run the mother board at 100 MHz, be sure to get premium quality memory. I recommend Kingston, but there are other brands. You might also think whether you need the incremental increase in speed; 66/300 is pretty fast, and you may not notice when you change to 100/300. Of course if you want to go REALLY fast, set your mother board to 100, and get an Intel Celeron A chip; you can set the multiplier to 4.5, so that you’re running the Celeron chip at 450. You are not supposed to overclock a chip that way, and if you do it, be sure to have a BIG cooling fan on the chip; but we haven’t yet found a Celeron A that won’t run at that speed, and it gives about 90% of the performance of a Pentium II system. This can be fun, but I certainly wouldn’t run any mission critical system at those speeds. Among other things I am not sure how long the chip will last, although again I have no indication of early failure. Celeron at 100/300, 66/300, or 100/400 is quite stable. At 300 it’s not as fast as the AMD K6-2 for graphics, but it’s certainly good enough, and many video boards run better with Intel chips, although I am not sure why. When you work out at the edge of technology (100/450) you just have to go with empirical observations.

About the time I finished Eagle One (see last month), Roberta ran out of disk space on "Joizy", her Gateway 2000 Pentium 200. She has been recording sounds in wave table format for her reading instruction program ( ) and those wave files take a lot of disk space.

The simple solution would be to add a new disk drive, but Joizy is just old enough that we don’t think the BIOS will work with the latest IDE Ultra drives. Another possibility would be to put in a SCSI drive, but big SCSI drives cost a lot compared to IDE Ultra, and I already had an eight gigabyte Seagate IDE drive, which I knew was reliable but I wasn’t sure Joizy was up to it. Testing would be difficult since Roberta uses her machine every day. So, rather than take chances, I decided to build her a new machine. I got an iWill XA-100 mother board, and set it up with the Seagate XXX 8 gigabyte hard drive. I have always had good success with iWill boards, and since this was for Roberta I wanted to be sure of a reliable system.

I wanted to test the STB Velocity 4400 video board in the AGP slot, so I started with that. It seemed to work fine. The STB 4400 is very fast and has good color balance; and all around hot board suitable for gamers or for business.

If you’re building machines you need a kit of startup disks. Mine are made by doing format /s of a floppy on a machine running Windows 95 OSR2 (the "b" version; earlier versions of Windows 95 cannot recognize or format FAT 32 disks). I copy onto that disk a number of DOS utilities from the Windows 95 machine, including fdisk and format. Then I fdisk the system to make the partitions, and format /s to put the system onto the hard disk. It will then be in FAT 32. I also copy in the CDROM drivers for the particular CDROM I am installing (TEAC drivers work with almost anything) and mscdex. While I’m at it I add Then I boot from the C: drive (it comes up in DOS) and first thing I do is install a copy of ancient old Norton Commander 4.0 for DOS. I use this because it makes it very easy to set things up, and the Norton Editor built into the system lets me configure config.sys and autoexec.bat.

Now create the directory WINDOWS\OPTIONS\CABS and copy the Windows 98 CDROM into there. Log into that subdirectory, type SETUP, and go. If you are using an "upgrade" Windows 98 disk the system will ask you to put in the disk that qualifies you. I just drop a Windows 95 CDROM into the CDROM drive, and use browse to tell Windows 98 setup where to look. It takes almost no time. Warning, if you try to "qualify" from floppies, prepare to spend about an hour inserting floppies: it wants a dozen of them and it can take several minutes with each.

In my case the system worked fine. I downloaded the latest STB video drivers from their web site, expanded the self extracting exe file, went to Control Panel/Display/Settings, click Advanced, Change Display Adapter, "Have disk" and use "browse" to point to the directory that has the updated drivers.

Do note that very few video cards ship with drivers that work. In almost every case you’ll have to download new drivers before your new video card is useful; this seems to be true with every brand of video display adapters I have tried, including ATI, Matrox, Diamond, and STB. Of course this means that if you don’t have a second computer to chase things on the web, you have to set up in VGA mode, get your modem installed, and go web crawling with your machine in standard VGA. That’s not convenient, but you can do it; and I advise you to do that rather than install the drivers that came with your new video card, even if the box says it’s guaranteed to work with Windows 98. In my experience there are enough companies whose shipping drivers will crash the system as to justify getting the updates before installation. After all, if you crash the system it’s going to be even harder to download those drivers.

I had the system running nicely with the STB Velocity 4400 AGP board, but then I installed a Creative Live! sound card; and as soon as the sound drivers were installed (I downloaded new drivers for it off the web, too) the system began to lock up on startup, at about the time when it should play the welcome sound. The only way out was to turn off the machine with the power switch.

Of course that starts up Scandisk, and with an 8 gigabyte disk it takes it a while. I had enough of that, so I went into MSDOS.SYS in the root directory. Insert the line

AutoScan = 1

and Bob’s your uncle. Now it asks if you want AutoScan.

My problem sounded like an IRQ conflict, but when I would bring it up in Safe Mode I couldn’t find any problem. System Manager thought both sound and video devices were working without conflicts. Then I’d exit and restart Windows in normal mode, and it would hang up again. I played with this for a while, then scrubbed all the sound drivers and removed the sound card, made sure it was working again – it was – and installed a Creative Ensonic PCI sound card. Same thing happened again. Finally I removed the STB Velocity 4400 card and installed an STB Velocity 128. This worked perfectly, and it’s still working. Clearly there are some driver problems with the STB Velocity 4400 and the AMD K6-2 chip. I’ve reported all this to STB and the problem may be fixed by the time you read this.

Because this is Roberta’s system and I don’t want to take any chances, I am operating on the "If it ain’t broke don’t fix it" principle. While I have no doubt that the Creative Live! sound card will work fine with the Velocity 128, (or half a dozen other video cards) I am out of time and haven’t had a chance to test it. I did note that during the brief time when I had the Creative Live! card running the sound was awesome. This gives you quad speakers with balance, wonderful MIDI input, and a lot of nifty software controls; I predict great things for the Creative Live! sound card, and next month I’ll have a lot more to say about it. For now, the Creative Ensonic PCI sound card is good enough for what we want to do, and I’ll keep it in the system, but I’m looking forward to the upgrade to Creative Live! after I figure out what the conflict was. Clearly not everyone has this problem, so it may be specific to that video board and the AMD K6-2 chip.

Next I installed a Netgear FA 310tx Fast Ethernet PCI Adapter, from Bay Networks. This has become the standard Ethernet card at Chaos Manor. They cost under $30 and on sale less than $20, they work at 10 or 100 Mbps, and installation is usually simple. For some reason I had to install twice this time, but that could have been forgetfulness on my part about configuration: I thought I had installed Microsoft NetBuei and bound it to the Netgear card, but when I looked after the net didn’t work, it wasn’t there. It took about a minute to add it and reset, after which the network was just fine, and I can fill Roberta’s machine with stuff from all over my net. Networking cards are not a major expense, and system administrators tell me that for large networks with dozens to hundreds of work stations on the net they’ve experienced clash problems with the Netgear cards so they always specify genuine 3Com. That’s probably a wise precaution, but in my case, with as many as 20 systems including Macintosh and printers and routers, I have never had any problem with the Netgear cards at either 10 or 100 Mbps, and I have no hesitation in pronouncing them ‘good enough’. Recommended.

Roberta has named the system "Scarlet" after Scarlet O’Hara in Gone With the Wind: there’s a scene where Scarlet says "I’ll never be hungry again!" Roberta says of her 8 gigabyte disk "I’ll never fill up the disk again!" I suspect she’s wrong…

Scarlet with Windows 98 starts faster than her older machine, and everything seems crisper. I am losing my prejudices against Windows 98, and I may yet convert some of my other machines to it. We’ll see.

Once I installed Windows 98, I installed Play Inc.’s "Gizmos" for Windows 98. Play ( ) is the company that makes "Snappy", the best video capture device I know of. Gizmos is a "skittles" program; there’s nothing here you have to have, but all the gadgets are fun, and some are very useful. For instance, there’s a Picture Explorer that makes it easy to see what electronic pictures you have in your system, and Performer, which lets you make still picture and sound slide shows from your picture and sound files. This is probably worth the price of the product all by itself.

There is also FreeCell, the game that originally came with the Microsoft game pack, and still the best solitaire game I know. There is a simple encryption program, and a vault that will let you lock files away where no one – including you – will be able to find them without the pass phrase. There are calendars and alarm clocks. There is a truly awesome series of calculators, simple, financial, and scientific; you’ll never need another calculator again with this package.

All told, Play’s Gizmos is a welcome addition to Windows 98, and while you don’t have to have it, I bet you’ll like it. Recommended.

I used fdisk to set up Scarlet’s disk because the job was simple: I only wanted one big disk partition. If I’d had anything more complicated to do, I’d have used the new Partition Commander from V Communications, Inc ( ). This program adds partitioning to the Systems Commander magic that let you have multiple operating systems on one computer. If you experiment with computers and operating systems, you need this bad.

Disk partitions can be set up for multiple operating systems – boot your computer in DOS, Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows NT, or Linux – but there are other good reasons for partitioning. For example, you can create a partition for untried and shaky software; that way no matter how crazy the program goes, it can’t wipe out anything else. You can also set up partitions to save disk space, and a special partition for the swap file. That alone can speed up operations.

When Systems Commander came out I said it was a bloody miracle, and gave it my User’s Choice Award. Partition Commander is even better. They have been careful to make it easy to use, and nearly fool proof. There’s a wizard to help you decide what you want to do. It will partition drives larger than 8.4 gigabytes so that you can use really big drives with FAT 16. It does FAT16 and FAT32, and converts from one to the other. If you have Windows 95 OSR2 installed you can convert to FAT32 and save a whole bunch of disk space. If you do any fooling around with your computer at all, you need this program. Highly recommended.

There is a new edition, 4.0, of Diskkeeper, the defragmentation tool for NT. ( )This does a few more tricks than the previous edition, and allows more automation. If you don’t have a defragmenter tool for NT, I strongly recommend you get one. Until recently you had no choice but to get Diskeeper, which wasn’t cheap, but was the only game in town. It’s still quite good, and you can be sure it will do the job.

The alternative is Golden Bow’s VOPT for NT 2.0. You can download that from and it only costs $40. Long time readers of this column know I have recommended Golden Bow software, particularly VOPT for DOS and later for Windows, for years. In fact, VOPT has been on my recommended list practically forever, and I can truthfully say I have never lost a byte of data to a Golden Bow program. VOPT is considerably faster than Diskeeper for NT. You can also get a Windows 98 version for $40, and the same version will work in both FAT32 and FAT16 drives. Disk fragmentation can be serious, and it doesn’t cost a lot to prevent it.

You can rely on both Diskeeper and VOPT. Both are more than good enough.

One of the most important trends of the computer revolution has been development of tools that make programming easier. The early dreams of CASE – Computer Assisted Software Engineering – never worked out as well as its advocates hoped. Microsoft, meanwhile, continued to improve the BASIC language until Visual Basic made it possible for rank amateurs to develop highly complex programs, and many have done so. Now true: you must develop decent programming habits, and there is a good bit to learn; but with Visual Basic, experts in fields other than computer programming can teach computers to do complicated things. This is a great and positive development.

Comes now Visual Basic 6.0, which isn’t a dramatic improvement to Version 5, but does continue the trend. Visual Basic 6 has improvements to the interface, a faster compiler, and many new tools for working with data bases. In addition there are Web tools; put them together and many new programs become possible without extensive code writing.

If you’re just beginning with Visual Basic, Version 4 or 5 will be good enough and just at the moment there are many more books and teaching tools for learning those versions; but of course that won’t last, and soon enough there will be plenty of learning courses for Visual Basic 6. If you are interested in learning to program, your best bet might be to find a copy of Visual Basic 4 or 5, and as many of the learning books as are available in your local used book store, and start in; by the time you are ready for the more advanced tools in Visual Basic 6 there will be more books and disks and courses available for that version. But whether you start with 4, 5, or 6, you really should look into Visual Basic; it is astonishing how many complex programs you can write and how easy it all is. It’s work, but it can be fun too; and it might lead to something a good bit more. There’s still a demand for competent Visual Basic programmers, particularly if they already have some other business skill and use VB to implement it.

END NOTE from Niles Software ( makes bibliographies, and is the best tool I know of to do this. If you do scholarly work in English you had better become aware of this program. It will make your notes and bibliographies in proper scholarly format format – there is a list of more than 300 bibliographic styles and the journals that use them. It will search web bibliographies to build a data base for your book or article. It keeps track of all bibliographic and note information, and does that painlessly.

Endnote works with all versions of Windows including NT. It works with Microsoft Word and Word Perfect, and even AmiPro. It understands both Internet Explorer and Netscape Communicator.

If you don’t do scholarly work with notes and bibliographies you don’t need this program; but if you do, you can’t be without it, and if you don’t know about it, go get it immediately. It will save you hundreds of hours of time if you do a lot of formal writing. Endnote is comparatively easy to learn, and simple to use. Highly recommended.

The original Wing Commander was a wonderful game, highly advanced for its time. It was then followed by a series of games that were more "cool" than fun to play, as if the programmers were determined to show what they could do without much regard to what the players wanted.

Early on there was a spinoff game called Privateer which used the original Wing Commander engine and some of the original ships, but had a free form universe you could explore until you stumbled across the story line. That was followed by an ad-on scenario called "Righteous Fire" that was the single most enjoyable action game I have ever played. I loved Privateer and Righteous Fire. Alas, Privateer II came out and again it was "cool" but not much fun. For one thing, in the original Privateer if you were outclassed you could run away to fight again another day. In the second version you couldn’t jump into hyperspace to escape; you had to stay there and kill all the enemies, and there were a lot with more coming. Only the really die hard fanatics ever completed Privateer II. I know I never did.

I wasn’t all that happy with the various Wing Commander sequels, either, in part because the story line wasn’t anything like as good as in the original, and there was a lot more concentration on film clips rather than role playing. The games got increasingly harder, and they kept raising the stakes in the game.

Then came Wing Commander Prophecy. That one is fun again, almost as much fun as the original was. The graphics are wonderful, and the missions are less impossible. Mark Hamill is back as Commander Blair, and he does the role well. The supporting players aren’t as stereotyped stupid, either. Now Wing Commander Prophecy is out in a "Gold Edition" with "secret mission" extra scenarios, and if you like space action games, you should like this one. Recommended.

I still wish they’d simply publish the specs for writing ad on scenarios to the original Privateer, though. If they want to improve the graphics levels, fine, but in fact that was about good enough; and it sure was fun. I can think of a number of stories I could write in that universe.

I still play Starcraft, although I didn’t much like having to take the role of the Zerg. I don’t like the Zerg. Recently I got RETRIBUTION, a series of scenarios for the Starcraft game – you have to own the original Starcraft for this to be useful. They’re quite playable. If you liked Starcraft, you’ll like Retribution.

Interactive Magic produced Seven Kingdoms, a game I found fascinating, with magic and detailed medieval economics. Now they have the misnamed Knights and Merchants, which, alas, is about as interesting as watching paint dry. If you are really into micromanagement of a medieval village you may like this game, but I am not sure I want to know anyone who really enjoys it. The medieval combat simulation is almost great, but it too has some problems. You can’t dig ditches or put stakes out to protect your archers, and there are other problems; still, the real difficulty with combat in this game is that it takes you forever to build and army.

I say the game is misnamed, because there are no merchants in the game. If there were trade strategies, or even the possibility of trade, and protection of trade routes or raids on the enemy to steal supplies, it would make for a better game; as it is, you build up a village economy in excruciating detail in order to equip your army, then you go bash away in hopes of conquering someplace to build another village that will take up most of you time to administer.

The graphics are beautiful, and as a teaching aid to the complexities of Medieval life this game might be pretty good, but it’s not, I fear, much fun as a game. Too bad, really. I’d like to see a really good medieval war game.


The movie of the month is A BUG’S LIFE. This movie is so good you will have to see it twice. The story line is typical cartoon story, but charmingly done and enjoyable; and Pixar’s special effects are simply wonderful. You will really believe in those cartoon creatures; and you’ll want to see the movie twice because there is no way you will catch all the tiny details on the first viewing. This picture is better than Toy Story.

When you do see A Bug’s Life, be sure to stay for the credits. I won’t spoil the surprise: just don’t leave the theater until the credits are done. You’ll be glad you waited. I give this picture an enthusiastic 95 out of 100.

The computer book of the month is Sandra Osborne, Windows NT Registry, A Settings Reference, New Riders; one o those books that if you don't know about it and you need it, you need it a lot. With this book and Robert Bruce Thompson's WINDOWS NT SERVER 4.0 (O'Reilly) you can, in a pinch, be an NT Administrator even though you don't know as much about it as you should.

A second set of computer books worth looking at are the Microsoft Press MCSE guides; they are getting better and better, and if you fancy a career in this business and don't expect to take a full college degree in computer science, an MCSE certificate is about the best thing you can get.

The entertainment book of the month is Elizabeth Moon, RULES OF ENGAGEMENT (Baen) the sequel to Once a Hero. Quite as good as the original. Fast action, good space opera.

The game of the month is Interactive Magic ( ) Great Battles Collector’s Edition. This combines the Great Battles of Alexander, Great Battles of Hannibal, and Great Battles of Caesar with a scenario editor so that you can pit these great generals against each other. The Imagic Great Battles series are the best classical games simulations I know of, and are based on tabletop games with miniatures. The rules make sense – mostly – and the action is fast. The system of leader initiative is superb. If you like classical warfare or military history you will like these games. You will also learn a lot about warfare in the classical era. Recommended.


Next month it’s back to Linux, more about building Scarlet, and some tests to see just what you do get from raising the motherboard speed.


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