Computing At Chaos Manor

October, 1998

read book now




BOOK Reviews



The User’s Column 5600 words

October 6, 1998

Jerry Pournelle


Copyright 1998 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.


Column 217

read book now





The new "resurrection" Pentafluge works just fine. You may recall, this is a minimum Windows 95 writing system built up from what was left of one of the first Pentium systems ever assembled outside Intel, courtesy of Intel who supplied the chip and mother board.

The original Pentafluge used a Pentium 50 chip in a Socket 4 board. I doubt that they even make those chips now. A couple of years ago I upgraded the system with an Intel Overdrive, and that made it fast enough to serve as a general purpose writing machine. It wasn’t really fast enough for modern games, but it was certainly fast enough for Office 95, and it would burn CDROM’s with a Phillips CD/R External SCSI drive. It was connected into my network with an Intel EtherExpress 10 base 2 (coax or ‘thin net’) board, and had a Maxstor 5 1/4" optical Read/Write drive for backup, overflow, and mass storage. All told, it was a perfectly serviceable general purpose system.

Then I got what I thought was a 200 mhz Kingston chip upgrade for Pentafluge. That sat here for weeks until I began to feel guilty about it, so one afternoon I hoisted Pentafluge up on a work stand and opened him up. The machine was full of dust. The motherboard was "full size" as was the DPT SCSI disk controller. All this was mounted in a full size tower PC Power and Cooling case heavy enough to make it hard work getting it up on the work stand.

After I vacuumed out the system I removed the Intel Overdrive chip and set it aside. Then I took out the new Kingston chip, and realized I had a problem. The Kingston chip was for a Socket 7 system. Socket 7 chips have one chip missing in one corner, making it impossible to insert them in the wrong way into a Socket 7 chip mount. Alas, Socket 4 chips do not have that missing chip, and Socket 4 has holes for all the pins. I realized to my horror that it might be possible to mount the new chip into that old socket, but I had no clue as to which way it should be oriented, and in fact I shouldn’t try that. Time to put it back the way it was.

Unfortunately, I hadn’t marked the orientation of the Intel Overdrive chip I had removed. The Overdrive documents were long gone. I made what I thought was an intelligent guess and inserted the Overdrive chip, held my breath, turned on the system – and saw a bright red glow on one spot on the chip. That chip was well cooked. Dead in a second. As a result I changed motherboards for Pentafluge. I used an EFA Socket 7 motherboard and an Intel Pentium 133 chip, both obtained on sale from Fry’s for about $89. This has the advantage that if I ever need USB I’ll have it easily available.

The main problem with the installation was that the DPT controller board is "full size". Most new motherboards won’t take full size boards in either PCI or ISA slots. Fortunately I had an Adaptec 1520 ISA SCSI board, and I used that to drive the DEC SCSI 1 gigabyte hard disk. DEC doesn’t make disk drives any more. That’s a pity because this sure is reliable and quiet. I had feared that changing controllers would require me to do a low level reformat of the hard disk, but that turned out not to be the case. When I changed controllers, the machine booted up from the old hard disk with no problems. I never used an EFA motherboard before, but this one works just fine.

The rebuilt system went upstairs to the Monk’s Cell (a spare bedroom where I write fiction: no telephones, no modems, no games, and no books), and has become my fiction writing machine. It works just fine. It’s no faster than the old Pentafluge with the Intel Overdrive chip, and in fact it may be just a bit slower. I’d have been better off just carrying the old system upstairs, another proof of the old adage that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. On the other hand, my "upgrade" cost less than $100, and the machine is certainly fast enough for the writing I do on it. I suppose there’s a moral in that story although for once I’m not sure what it is. The main lesson here is that if you do intend to change motherboards, be sure that the boards you intend to put in the upgraded system will fit: with many new motherboards the chip fan or power conditioner will get in the way.


The newest machine at Chaos Manor is Linette, so called because the notion was to build a box to run Linux. For those few who haven’t been watching, Linux is a "free" version of the UNIX operating system and has become quite popular among computer enthusiasts.

I built Linette out of an MSI motherboard and a CYRIX MX chip. That’s probably more chip than a Linux box needs: one of the great advantages of Linux is that it will run quite nicely on older machines, including old 486 systems. Once I get used to Linux I intend to install it on an elderly 486 computer just to see what happens; stay tuned. The Linux (UNIX) operating system is much more efficient than Windows 9X or NT, which is why you get so much speed out of older systems. Of course it doesn’t do the same things as Windows. There is an X-Windows component to Linux that does give you a kind of Windows environment, but some Linux enthusiasts think that’s not worth the bother.

I set up Linette with a Maxtor 6.5 gigabyte EIDE hard disk, a random 3.5" floppy, 64 megabytes of Kingston memory, the TEAC 6 CDROM Changer (largely because that wasn’t in use when I was putting the system together and it was handy), a Creative Labs Ensonic PCI Sound Card, an STB Velocity 128 Video Card, and a Sohoware Fast SFA110A 10/100 PCI Fast Ethernet adapter. That latter was on sale at Fry’s with 25 feet for Level 5 Ethernet cable for under $25 and was a bargain I couldn’t resist.

I first used fdisk to create a 1 gigabyte partition for DOS and Windows 98. Since I don’t know Linux at all, I thought I had better stick to something I did know until I was sure all the hardware worked properly, so I installed DOS including the CDROM drivers, then started installation of Windows 98. When I am setting up a machine that will normally run Windows, I generally copy the setup and "cab" files – the system files compressed using Microsoft’s compression system – to a subdirectory conventionally named WINDOWS/OPTIONS/CABS and install from there. However, that takes up considerable disk space and since this machine wasn’t going to run Windows much longer than it would take to check out all the hardware, I didn’t do that.

My first problem was that I have an upgrade edition of Windows 98, and I had no Windows installation on the machine. The Win 98 installation program demanded proof that I owned Windows to upgrade from. I had the Windows 95 installation floppies stored in the back room, and rather stupidly I thought to use those rather than the Windows 95 CDROM.

Big mistake. The Win 98 installation program wanted nine of those disks, and trundled from 4 to 9 minutes per disk, wasting about an hour of my time. Long before it was over I was ready to dump the whole mess and start over, but by then I wanted to know just how far this Microsoft paranoia would go. It went a long way. Fair warning: if you want to install an upgrade version of Windows 98, it’s about as fast to install Windows 95 first. Of course if you have Windows 95 on a system it’s rarely worth upgrading to Windows 98 to begin with; and if you are a Word Perfect user, DO NOT under any circumstances "upgrade" to Windows 98. Windows 98 hates Word Perfect, and can destroy Word Perfect files in interesting ways that make them unrecoverable. Let me repeat this strongly: if you use Word Perfect, stay with Windows 95 and DO NOT change to Windows 98.

My second problem was with the mother board: for some reason the PS/2 mouse just doesn’t work. The motherboard has a documented pinout for a PS/2 mouse. It wasn’t the mouse: I made sure to use a well tested mouse. For that matter I used the same PS/2 mouse that the system couldn’t detect, added a serial port adapter, and inserted that into the COM1: port. It worked just fine, so I decided to stay with a serial mouse.

That done everything else went perfectly, and soon enough I had the system working under Windows 98. I tested the Ethernet, the Sound Card, and various video settings. I put in Microprose THIS MEANS WAR and tried that. I use This Means War to test system performance because it puts a lot of moving objects on the screen, and on older and slower machines it tends to hang up for multiple second periods. That didn’t happen. The Cyrix MX chip and the STB Velocity 128 Video Board are fast: I never saw This Means War run smoother, even on a Pentium 266 system. Then and there I decided that when I get Linux installed on this machine I’ll change to a different chip, and use the Cyrix MX for a new Windows 98 system intended for games.


Linux is a freeware operating system. That means that in theory you could surf the Internet and download everything you would need to install Linux on any system you like. In practice this would be very difficult, and most people choose instead to buy a packaged version with installation aids. Of those, by far the most popular appears to be RED HAT LINUX, which I have seen on sale at Fry’s. I have also seen it being given away at computer shows. I installed Red Hat on Linette.

This is a pretty daunting operation. The Red Hat book is thick and full of information, some of which is in the style of "clear only if you already knew it." Other information is clear enough but scattered through the book. My first advice: if you are seriously interested in Linux, take the time to read through the first half of the Red Hat book before you begin. Then get the O’Reilly book "Learning the UNIX Operating System". Spend some time with that, but more important, have it handy for when you get started.

Secondly, use a Windows machine to go to and familiarize yourself with that web site. There’s a wealth of information there as well as new hardware drivers. Much of the useful information is contained in FAQ files, and unless you’re familiar with the site, some of them can be hard to find.

Once you do start, things go better than you might think. I inserted the Red Hat floppy in the drive and turned on the machine. It came up quickly, and had no problems finding the Red Hat CDROM in the TEAC 6 drive changer. The installation instructions come in many languages including Japanese and Turkish. Naturally I chose English. Then came the first problem: it wanted me to partition the hard drive. It offered me two means of doing that, fdisk, and Red Hat Disk Druid.

Whatever you do, use Disk Druid. It’s self explanatory, and easier to use than fdisk.

In the old days, UNIX users were taught to make a number of drive partitions: one called simply / which is the root partition; another ‘swap’ partition which isn’t named and which ought to be about twice the size of your physical memory; then /home, /usr, /var, and a bunch of others. Exactly why all this partitioning is desirable isn’t clear to me, nor have I got a satisfactory explanation from UNIX guru’s I’ve spoken with. I suspect it has to do with disk fragmentation and the fact that UNIX was originally intended as a multi-user system on big dinosaur machines (which would nevertheless have fairly small hard drives by today’s standards). One had different partitions because each of those directories might well be on a different physical disk drive.

In any event, it isn’t necessary to do all that partitioning. You can get away with a swap partition of, say, 120 megabytes or so, and put all the rest of your hard disk in one big / or root partition. You might also want to make a 10 megabyte /boot partition to hold all the bootup information and keep that separate from everything else.

As it happens I didn’t do that: I made a whole bunch of partitions to use up the 5 plus gigabytes I had left on my big Maxtor drive. I’m not sorry I did that, but if I had it to do again I probably wouldn’t bother.

Anyway, once I had all those partitions up I sort of followed my nose through the installation, and pretty soon I had Linux running. Alas, it was then I found there was no support whatever for the Sohoware Fast Ethernet card. I also got myself stuck in x-Windows without a mouse due to my having plugged the mouse into the wrong serial port. Since I was going to have to shut down and reinstall with a new Ethernet card, I decided to exit the drastic way: I pulled the plug.

The next time I turned the machine on, it took several minutes making tests. UNIX does that. It hates being improperly shut down even more than Windows 98 does. Eventually all was well, though, and I shut down in a more normal way. (/usr/bin/shutdown –h now issued from the root directory). Then I put in a Bay Networks NETGEAR FA 310TX Fast Ethernet PCI adapter ($29.95 at Fry’s), inserted the Red Hat installation floppy, and started over. This went as smoothly as before, and as of now I have Linette up and running Linux, which means that I have this mysterious UNIX operating system prompt staring at me.

And there, I fear, the story ends for the month. I have Red Hat Applixware and other applications packages to install, I need to get the network running properly, I need to put in a modem, and once I have the network running properly I need to set up Linette as the print server and the net server talking to both Apple and Windows machines. Moreover, I’m told that I can make this Linux box a router so that I can use it for Internet connections from every machine (including Apple) on my internal network. I’m looking forward to that—but I am out of time.

By next month I ought to know a lot more about UNIX in general and Linux in particular. Stay tuned. Meanwhile you now know enough to get started if you want to try it yourself.


ON MICE: Last July my coauthor Larry Niven and I went down to the beach house to finish our latest novel, The Burning City. Actually, it was me, Larry Niven, and Roberta Pournelle. After five days of keeping house for a pair of monomaniac psychotics in the full throes of creation Roberta couldn't stand it and took the train home, leaving us to finish the book alone. We did, mostly by eating out. Even so the place began visibly to deteriorate with popcorn all over the rugs, and the sink slowly filling with dirty dishes. But finish we did, and it looks like it has been sold to a major publisher for a decent figure, so all's well.

Niven likes the Microsoft 'humpback' or ‘ergonomic’ keyboard, and I keep one at the beach for when he's there. I also keep one of the last of the Pournelle Configuration Northgate OmniKey keyboards for when I’m using the machine. I am not all that fond of the Microsoft ‘ergonomic’ keyboard, and greatly prefer the Northgate. Keyboards are a personal thing.

When we go to the beach I typically carry Cyrus, the CYRIX P-166 system that now has an Evergreen AMD chip in it, along with the Fujitsu 640 meg DynaMO magneto optical drive, and a SCSI Zip. I've grown weary of carrying monitors down the stairs here and up the elevator there, so I have kept a ViewSonic PT-810 17" down there. I normally prefer a 21" monitor, but I find that for writing text I can work just as well with a 17.

Incidentally, if you are not familiar with the Fujitsu DynaMO drive, you should be. The 3.5" cartridges hold 640 megabytes; the same drive works with 230 mb cartridges as well. The magneto optical system produces rewritable files that are extremely stable and unaffected by magnets. When I have new text saved on a DynaMO drive cartridge I feel safe, much safer than with a ZIP drive. ZIP is fine for hasty backup and file transfer, but if your work is important, get a DynaMO.

On this trip I forgot the mouse. I had an ancient serial mouse down at the beach, but I've got used to using the Microsoft wheel mouse, with the scrolling wheel.  I had Royal Armadillo, my Pentium 240 Armada laptop from Compaq, and when Niven and I work together at the beach I typically use the laptop and he uses Cyrus. I carry a Super Zip drive that will run as either SCSI or parallel, and run it off the Compaq's parallel port. This not only gives us a sneaker net, but makes backup copies each time we do a file transfer. Thus the mouse problem was mostly one of inconvenience for Niven, but what the heck, we had some talking to do anyway, so we set out to Staples near Hotel Circle to buy a PS/2 mouse, preferably a Microsoft wheel mouse.

Getting to Staples is an adventure in itself: it is clearly located for people who know the area better than I do. You can see it from the freeway, but by the time you do you're past the correct exit, but that's all right because the correct exit takes on you a complicated route that’s even worse. Eventually we spiraled to Staples, and I mean that literally: we circled it at least twice.

I had forgotten just how expensive Microsoft mice are. I was offered an alternative, a Logitech First Mouse Plus, which has a wheel. Since I normally use a Microsoft teardrop wheel mouse for Cyrus I didn't really want to install new software, so the simple thing would be to buy Microsoft, but the Logitech cost only half as much. I ended up buying both. The clerk assured us the Logitech First Mouse Plus would work with Microsoft software, and if it didn't, we could bring it back. "Assuming we can get here," Niven muttered. I think he wasn't too happy with my navigation. Anyway we got them.

The rest of the story is short. The Logitech First Mouse ( works without fuss: plug it in, and the system thinks it's a Microsoft wheel mouse. The Logitech mouse comes with its own software, but I never bothered to install it. Niven liked the feel of the mouse so well that when we drove back to LA -- by ourselves, Roberta having fled for her life -- and stopped at Staples on the way to return the Microsoft mouse, Niven bought a Logitech First Mouse Plus for himself.

ON TRACK BALLS: A number of friends I respect including editor/publisher Jim Baen have over the years recommended the Kensington Track Ball ( ) as the right pointing device for wordsmiths. I confess I have got used to the Microsoft Teardrop Wheel Mouse (I believe the technical name is Intellipoint) with the scrolling feature. On the other hand, what was in the Monk's Cell where I do most of my fiction was an ancient two-button Microsoft Dove Soap Bar mouse that was attached to Old Cow when I first set up the Cell as a writing place. It seemed to go with the Spartan conditions up there.

When I switched over from Old Cow to the new and revised Pentafluge as my Monk's Cell machine, I had to choose a mouse. I suppose I could have continued to use the old mouse, but I didn’t really want to. On the other hand I sure didn’t want to use the mouse I’d used to set up Pentafluge. I set up machines at a workstand that has a Fry's Special El Cheapo $9.95 PS/2 mouse, and I wouldn't use that thing for writing on a bet. When I looked through my inventory I found I didn’t really have any spare mice at all.

What I did have was a Kensington Track Ball, which works as either serial or PS/2. This seemed a good opportunity to try that. After I changed over from Old Cow to the revised Pentafluge (and what a task that was! Pentafluge is heavy and had to go down the stairs here, across the house, and upstairs to the Cell. Wow.) I installed the Kensington Track Ball.

My first impressions were good. I certainly prefer the Kensington track ball to the Dove Soap Bar mouse that used to be there. It's more precise and tires my hand less. The software remains the same, although I will today install the Kensington software and see if that helps. I have noticed a certain reluctance of the thing to work in the vertical as opposed to the horizontal axis; I figure a squirt of my tuner cleaner/lubricant will fix that. I did turn up the speed in the mouse section of control panel.

The Kensington mouse ball is big, massive, and unsecured: turn the thing over and it drops out, no retaining ring. It has a more precise and positive feel than the Logitech trackball; this is mostly due to the massive size of the thing. Choice of trackball vs. mouse is probably a religious thing, but I am coming to like this. I'd like it a LOT more if there were a scrolling wheel somewhere on it. The lack of that wheel may drive me to Frys to get a Logitech First Mouse Plus. Or even a Microsoft Tear Drop Wheel, which, I have to say, I prefer to the Logitech, purely on subjective feelings. (And I start with a prejudice toward Logitech since the President is an old friend.)

After I wrote that, I discovered that some time ago Microsoft had sent me a PS/2 Microsoft Track Ball with wheel. I took that upstairs and installed it along with Intellipoint mouse software.

And that’s pretty well the end of the report. I’ve left that Microsoft Track Ball with Wheel up there at my main fiction writing machine, and I don’t intend to change it. In fact, if I ever see those on sale, I’ll buy several and put them on all the machines I use regularly. It did not take me long to discover that I like the Microsoft Track Ball with wheel better than anything else I’ve tried. The only thing I even suspect I’d like better would be a Kensington Track Ball with a wheel, and that only because I did like that massive Kensington ball. However, I haven’t seen a Kensington with a wheel, and the Microsoft Track Ball with wheel is more than good enough. Recommended.

Entropy runs fast at the beach; at least I suppose that’s what it is. In any event, the ViewSonic PT-810 17" monitor I have kept down there for several years began to fail. It hasn’t quit entirely: what happens is that the screen has gone dim and while I can read what’s on it, I can’t make it bright enough to be comfortable with. I suspect it’s electronics rather than the picture tube, but I wouldn’t get it fixed over the weekend, and it certainly wouldn’t do for writing. Since I was down at the beach to work, and it’s a long drive (130 miles or so) back to the house, I decided to replace the monitor rather than try to live with it. As it happens, FRY’s San Diego had a sale on Princeton Graphic Systems Ultra 17+ monitors for well under $200. I ran out and bought one, installed it in minutes, and have used it ever since. This is another of those "nothing to report" paragraphs. If what you need is a good 17" monitor for text and games, the Princeton is more than worth what I paid for it. Recommended.

I have the darndest program: it sets up an aquarium on your PC, and with a big monitor the darned thing looks a lot like a real fish tank. Fish are lively and act appropriately for their species: tetras school, angelfish pair off, etc. Of course it's about as exciting as watching paint dry, but then so is a real aquarium, and I kept one of those for 25 years until the earthquake dropped 4500 books on my study floor and tipped the fish tank on top of the pile. This is artificial life with a twist. You have to feed the fish and think about changing water and so forth. I found it a lot more interesting than I thought I would. There’s something very restful about staring at a fish tank. It also startles visitors, because from across the room it looks very real.

Aquazone from Mindscape, and the darndest thing I have seen in some time.

The movie of the month is ANTZ. This is one of the most spectacular jobs of computer animation you have ever seen, worth going to just to gape at what they can do now. Actually, though, there’s a pretty good story in there as well. Woody Allen has become rather jaded lately, so it’s odd that his best performance in years is as the voice of a computer generated ant; but it is. Of course Robin Williams gave a splendid performance as the genie in Aladdin.

The computer simulation in ANTZ works. You KNOW that’s Woody Allen you’re seeing: although it looks like an ant, it has his facial expressions as well as his voice.

The plot isn’t all that wonderful, but it’s good enough to keep you interested, and parts of it are hilarious. The social commentary on meaningless conformity is rather politically correct (this year), but there’s nothing wrong with a mild pep talk on individualism. And any faults you can find in the writing are more than made up for by the spectacular computer graphics. See this movie. You won’t regret it.

The book of the month is Robert Jastrow, GOD AND THE ASTRONOMERS, Norton, ISBN 0-393-85005-6. I’ve known Bob Jastrow for several years. He’s not religious, but his inquiries into what astronomers now believe about the universe force him to admit there are vast and totally unexpected similarities between the "revelation" and observation. He’s also extremely readable, so if you’re looking for an account of what cosmologists now think, this is a good introduction. And it’s hard to quarrel with his final conclusion: "Despite scientific claims to the contrary, the destiny or meaning of the human race, and of the cosmic order, cannot be ascertained by a study of discrete biological or historical events. It is no more logical to argue that the world has no ultimate cause or purpose than to argue that it does—in both cases the empirical or scientific evidence for deciding the matter is inadequate."

Both Computer Books of the Month are from QUE: Rick and Patty Winter, The Microsoft Office 97 User Manual, ISBN 0-7897-1706-9, a relatively inexpensive (for a computer book) work subtitled "The Manual You Should Have Received With Office 97". It lives up to its name and for under $20 it’s a bargain. The other Computer Book of the Month is Mark Van Name et al. Windows Performance Secrets ISBN 0-7897-1752-2. This comes with two CD’s of benchmarks, and a great number of specific directions on tuning up your Windows systems to get the most out of them. Even if you’re not a performance freak you will learn a lot from this book, and no gamer or user club should be without a copy.

The game of the month is SSI PEOPLE’S GENERAL, a near future war game using the PANZER GENERAL engine. If you liked Panzer General you will love this, and if you’re not familiar with that series, this is a great way to learn about it. The Panzer General games balance playability with detail and do a very good job of it: they’re fun, but you can learn something about the future of war from playing them. All games are compromises with reality, but I like the set of compromises SSI has chosen in this series. Warning: you can spend a lot of time with this game.

I have the new Palm III upgrade to my Palm Pilot. It installed in under two minutes, and gives me a lot more memory and options. The most dramatic effect is that display of letters on input is much more readable; it was worth the upgrade for that alone. More next month, but if you have a Palm Pilot, seriously consider the upgrade option.

Next month Linux Applications, sound recording and compression, and with luck I’ll get to some new Apple systems.

- 30 -


birdline.gif (1428 bytes)