The Last Chaos Manor BYTE Column

Saturday, June 16, 2001

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BOOK Reviews

This column was written in May for the August BYTE. As you know, there never was an August BYTE.


Here is it, with a David Em report, 13,000 words including letters. It hasn't been edited by the BYTE staff. It's as I wrote it.

Notable was The Finland Trip with Dvorak. And other good stuff.

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The User’s Column


Jerry Pournelle



Column 214



Last month I said you should get Norton Utilities for Windows 95 3.0 and use it. I stand by the advice: When you have a problem, NU 3 does a great job of fixing it. Its registry cleaner is the best I have come across. It can handle a variety of problems that would drive you nuts if you had to deal with them by hand. Having said that, let me also advise you not to allow this annoying program to run in background. Bring it up, use it to fix problems, then turn it off.

There are two reasons: first, it natters at you incessantly. It finds viruses in files that have no virus, and it cannot be ordered to ignore that file. In one case it decided that RELEASE.EXE, a program that’s part of the old Aldridge Company QDOS DOS utilities suite (still worth having around) had a virus, and worse, it was doing this on Roberta’s machine, which scared the daylights out of her. (Oddly enough, that same file is on Cyrus the Cyrix P-166, and Norton doesn’t see it as a virus there!) Nothing I could do would make it stop giving the breathless THIS MACHINE HAS A VIRUS! warning, so in desperation I allowed Norton Utilities to delete the file. That did no good at all. It continued to believe the file existed and that it had a virus. Emptying the ‘recycle bin’ didn’t work. Finally, emptying the "Norton Protected" files in the recycle bin, then instantly (you dare not wait a moment) shutting down and restarting, stopped that particular virus notice; after which it found another. At that point I turned off the Virus Protection part of Norton on Roberta’s machine.

About then Niven and I went down to the beach house to blitz a novel, and I began getting mysterious crashes on Royal Armadillo, the Pentium 266 COMPAQ Armada I now carry. The crashes were generally associated with closing Netscape Communicator, and stopped when I purged all traces of Norton from running in background. My guess is that the problem is ‘Crashguard", since Norton System Doctor with the neat little CPU usage chart and resource gauges ran (in Version 1) on all my systems without problems, but we’ll see. Netscape does some odd things too. Meanwhile, my advice is, get Norton Utilities 3 and have it, particularly System Doctor, available at need; use it to make your rescue disks (it really will restore your system after a fatal crash, especially if you have a ZIP disk and use ZIP Rescue); and be very careful what you allow to run in background.

That latter, by the way, isn’t easy to manage even if you know how. In the old days, the programs that ran at startup were those in the "Startup" folder. There might also be a few named in WIN.INI and SYSTEM.INI under the line items "Run =" and "Load =". You could control all this by creating a folder called OSTART and dragging icons from the STARTUP folder to it; then use SYSEDIT to remark out the RUN and LOAD lines in your INI files.

Aside: if you have not added SYSEDIT to the "Systems Tools" section of your toolbar, do so now; you’ll find it in the Windows\system directory. Oddly enough, SYSMON and REGEDIT, also useful system tools that Windows doesn’t install by default, will be found in the Windows root directory. Go figure.

Anyway, at one time it was easy if a little tedious to control what ran at startup. No more. Now startup programs disguise themselves as DLL’s and VXD’s and like enough PDQ’s. You can’t tell what is going to run when you bring up Windows. The way to control Norton is through a desktop shortcut called Norton Utilities Integrator that lets you specify what will and will not run on startup. With some programs, though, you’ll never find what launches them, and you can either uninstall the whole mess, or tediously shut down each component after each reboot. I sure wish program designers would go back to the old method of a distinct icon in the STARTUP folder.

My bottom line on Norton is that you really should have it, and it’s quite possible that some parts can and should run in background; but don’t run them all, pay attention to what you do run, and there’s certainly no harm in turning off any of the ‘features’ that natter incessantly.

The real pity is that you need something like Norton Utilities 3 in order to get your work done. I suppose we no longer expect Microsoft to produce really stable products, but it does seem a bit odd that they’re pouring out all this effort to "improve" Windows to W 98, but they can’t manage to get out a version of Windows 95 that doesn’t periodically suffer complete catatonia. They haven’t got any understanding of the registry and don’t seem to be getting one, so you must have Norton just to clean up messes; meanwhile they have ‘improved’ 98 with such silliness as making you click on a warning screen in order just to look at the file names in the Windows Directory, and making the "My Computer" screen go away if you open, then close, one of the disk drives in it. (This and other such confusions can be made to go away with the proper settings, but the defaults will drive power users wacky.) They also tell you that you can map network drives from My Computer, but in fact you can’t; you have to open an explorer. You can manage it from Network Neighborhood but it doesn’t work the way it used to. There is a way to turn on the ‘map network drive’ tool bar button, but it’s off by default and hidden under about 3 layers in a place called view folders. And so forth.

All these ‘improvements’, if that’s what they are, were done by people who wanted to be cool. Fixing all the known bugs in Windows 95 isn’t cool. You don’t keep your stock valued at 70 times earnings by bug fixes, you have to keep growing by selling new products. But if W 98 is as buggy as W 95 (and I suspect it is far more so: certainly relatively late betas were. I have had crashes that I couldn’t fix without removing the battery from my mother board to reset the BIOS settings!) then at some point Microsoft is setting itself up for a fall. Sure. Most users don’t want to pay for rock solid applications, and if you do want things solid, you go to NT (which isn’t that solid when you get more than a couple dozen users on your network, but is the Rock of Gibraltar compared to Windows 95). Most users don’t do a lot of experimenting with their computers, so they don’t see the crashes I see.

Yet. But as software developers get more daring, and add more Active X conrols, and VXD’s and OCX’s and DLL’s, it will happen to everyone some day. Microsoft taking the course of adding features without fixing bugs is I suppose one way to boost Apple and SGI sales, and perhaps that’s the purpose?

Probably not. Probably it’s just hard to get bright young people to work on tedious stuff like fixing bugs when they can be adding new features and bringing in more sales; probably Gates is no longer really in control of his company, and people do what they want to do, and no one wants to fix bugs. But whatever the reason, the result is going to be a disaster.

Take the DLL situation for example. DLL’s were originally a way for applications to share code. They made sense back when memory was dear and disk storage space was hard to come by. Sharing code between applications was a bit risky, especially if the applications were not only written by different companies but often by companies that wished each other ill, but in the days of 8 Megabyte systems it made sense. No longer. DLL’s are an idea whose time has long gone; yet they are with us still, and there’s absolutely no control over them. You get a new application, it comes with its own versions of some vital DLL’s; it wants to replace the ones you have; and if it asks you at all, it only asks if you want to keep a ‘later’ version or overwrite it. Often you have no idea, and worse, since it’s easy to misdate a file, you may not in fact have a later version. You’ll find out after the new application crashes and you can’t run your old ones either.

Microsoft will say it’s not their fault: they only provide the operating system, and they provide perfectly good DLL’s; it’s not their fault if a software publisher decides to ‘improve’ things and ends up making a mess.

Which is a cop-out. Microsoft is arrogant enough about asserting control in other areas; here’s one vital to the operating system and they can’t disclaim responsibility fast enough.

Well, enough for the day; but I do wish Microsoft would turn some attention to fixing problems in what they have instead of pumping out Windows 98. Me, I’m going to continue using W 95 for games and NT for everything else until at least the first service pack for Windows 98; 95 has bugs enough without adding new ones. Windows 98 has some neat stuff, but the most important new feature is USB support, and I don’t have any good USB devices anyway. When I get some, maybe I’ll change my mind.

I understand Microsoft’s dilemma. When your capitalization is greater than that of the entire automobile industry, and soars to seventy times earnings, you have to keep growing: earnings alone are not going to sustain that valuation. A lot of pension plans depend on the stock staying high. So do bonuses, not just for executives, but for programmers who poured their youth into the company in the hopes that by the time they burned out they’d be able to live on what they’d accumulated. It’s no small responsibility, especially since the worst case is that Microsoft collapses, drags Silicon Valley (which is valued at lower than 70 times earnings but still at some ungodly ratio unheard of twenty years ago, and cumulatively is capitalized for more than the rest of the US industrial establishment put together!) with it, and that starts a world wide Depression. For Microsoft it’s literally grow or die—but that still doesn’t excuse them from doing the unglamorous but necessary work of big fixes.

My guess, though, is they won’t do any more of that than they have to, because they are betting the company on NT, with Windows 98 being a temporary measure, part cash cow and part amelioration in lieu of real bug fixes. As BYTE Editor Mark Schlack noted a couple of issues ago, the whole Windows edifice is built on the spongy mass that is DOS, and real bug fixes just aren’t going to happen without tearing it all down and rebuilding. Since they can’t do that now, it means we users can either look for another operating system, or hang on for the ride. We get to live with craziness like programs that crash when run and crash worse when you try to uninstall them, endless rebooting of the system—you can spend hours at this really dull task—and trying to find the original installation disks so that you can uninstall a program that has become corrupted and keeps blasting your system. It’s happening to me right now: I’m writing this on Princess, the COMPAQ Professional Workstation, because my Windows 95 system died horribly with corruption in Office 97, but I can’t get rid of it and start over. Meanwhile (over there on the 95 machine) Word keeps telling me my documents can’t be registered, whatever that means. Thank heaven I have more than one computer, because the only way out of this problem is to format the C: drive and start over, because nothing I have will uninstall Office so I can reinstall it. Cleansweep gets killed trying when Windows crashes, and Uninstall from the control panel wants the original disk, after which it won’t uninstall the thing, it tries to reinstall it. It’s format time. I’ll finish this on Princess. Sigh.

For those who don’t have more than one computer, good luck, and if your work is at all critical, get NT. NT 4 with Service Pack 3 is stable. You can even play Starcraft on it. One of the right machines to get NT on is Intergraph. They’ve just dropped their prices again. I’ve got a good Intergraph NT system sitting on the other side of the room, and I keep wondering just why I am putting up with all the Windows 95 idiocies. Just for games? But of course one reason I do silly things is so you won’t have to, and so long as most of my readers are stuck with Windows 95, I am too. So the 95 machine will stay by my desk a while longer, and I’ll continue to back up early and often.

Final bulletin: formatting the C drive and reinstalling Windows, then Office 97, fixed all problems. It was definitely software, and it was not a virus: I checked with both Norton and Dr. Solomons. The best scenario I can construct is that a board or cable was jarred loose when I brought the Cyrix back from the beach. That introduced a seed of corruption into the Windows Registry, and it spread from there even though I reseated all the boards the instant I saw the first glitch. I don’t suppose I’ll ever know. The moral of the story is, back up early and often, and keep your installation disks handy; and don’t count on Norton or Cleansweep to save you when you’ve really got problems.




The bribe of the month was a snowmobile trip into a Finnish National Park well above the Arctic Circle. (Pictures on my web site.) It all came about when Nokia had a big press familiarization event, including a tour of the new Nokia House in Helsinki, and ending with a product announcement held in a resort hotel way north in Lapland. Most of the journalists were European; John Dvorak and I were the only Americans. We got in on snowmobiling, driving a team of sled dogs, and some cross country skiing. As Nokia’s rival put it, it sure beats a trip to the ViewSonic plant in Walnut.

Nokia is a Finnish company founded in the last century, and until 1991 made a wide variety of consumer goods, including toilet paper. Then they sold off everything but their high tech operations, and began a growth pattern matched by few companies: a dollar invested in Nokia in 1991 would be worth a bit more than $70 now. They’re probably best known for their pocket telephones, some of which include small LCD screens and keyboards; this press junket was intended to get some attention to their display products, namely flat screens and monitors. In both quality and price Nokia Display Products fits in between ViewSonic and Eizo (Nanao).

I got back just in time to head for Chicago and the smallest and dullest Spring Comdex in some years; when I got home there was a Nokia 445xPro 21 inch monitor waiting. Before I could uncrate it, Joizy, Roberta’s 200 MHz Pentium Gateway 2000, developed display problems, intermittent miscolorations and garbage on the screen: apparently the Matrox video board was going, and just after the Nokia monitor arrived, it went out entirely. Joizy wouldn’t boot into Windows 95. I’d been promising Roberta an upgrade for weeks, now I had no choice in the matter. She also wanted a larger monitor: the 17" that came with the Gateway 2000 is all right, but once you see 21" monitors in action you won’t be happy until you get one.

While I was at it I upgraded her system to Windows 95 OSR2, which handles plug and play a lot better than the original W 95. Joizy has an Olympus Magneto/Optical 230 MB and a Nomai 750 MB (SyQuest compatible) disk cartridge drive (both SCSI external) as well as internal regular CDROM and CD/R drives; the original W 95 plug and play can get confused about such things unless you install them one at a time, but OSR2 has no problems at all. If you can get OSR2 it really is an improvement, enough so that you may not need Windows 98 for a while.

We had a spare Number Nine Revolution video board left over from when I was testing their new drivers, so I installed it with the Nokia monitor. Number Nine still has some problems with their system setup: you have to beg and plead before the setup program takes over. Once it does, though, the rest is simple, and in 15 minutes everything was fine. The Nokia comes with a driver disk, and can accept astonishing refresh rates with the result that the display is as steady as if painted on. I have no complaints about my own ViewSonic 21" monitors (I have two), but I will say the Nokia makes a noticeably better display, good color balance, and I think crisper lines than any other monitor in the house. More another time, but if you stare at monitors all day, you want to seriously consider the Nokia line. I don’t recommend products lightly, and certainly not as a result of bribes and junkets – I get more offers of such things than I can endure, much less enjoy: but Nokia joins ViewSonic and Nanao on my list of highly recommended monitor vendors. It also gets the Cold Dead Fingers Award: that’s the only way I am ever going to get it away from my wife.

Good monitors are important. Flicker and fuzzy lines tire you out and worse, unless they’re really bad you may not even notice until your head hurts. It’s important to run at high refresh rates – the higher the better, and this is particularly so for big monitors whose display fills a larger part of your field of vision. In my experience flicker on large displays will give you headaches faster than on small ones. If you spend a lot of your time in front of computer screens, spend the money to save your eyes: get a big moniter that will take a high refresh rate, and a good video board to drive it with. You won’t regret it.

While in Finland I had the chance to try the Konexx road warrior kit. There was no local connection, so the only way to log in for my email was an overseas call to the United States; clearly I wasn’t going to be doing that for long.

My big problem was making the system dial in the face of that European warble that passes for a dial tone. Dvorak was able, somehow, to convince his dialup program to ignore that, but I never did. Eventually I got a phone splitter, set up the computer to be ready to jump in, dialled manually, and when the negotiations were all done and the connection established, launched Dialup Networking. It just worked except that the first two times Earthlink, being overly busy or something, detected my critical need and blew me off. By the time I made it I was thoroughly cursing Earthlink; but I have to say that once I was on, it worked fine.

With Konexx kits you have a chance of getting through from anywhere. You still need a place to connect to; next time, I’ll call my IBM network connection. IBM Advantis, I have found, is never too busy for me, and that network connection always works.

I’ve never tried one of the on-line tax preparation programs. We always use Intuit TurboTax, and I’ve always had my own copy. Eric Pobirs, our sometime intern, decided to give TurboTax On Line a try, going in through Yahoo as he usually does. Unfortunately, he was using Windows 98. Turbo Tax On Line insisted that he have "Windows 95 or later", evidently unaware that 98 exists; the result was that he could not use Turbo Tax on Line at all. The really odd part was that on the same screen that told him he didn’t meet the minimum requirements for TurboTax on Line was an advertisement for the Kiplinger Tax Cut tax preparation program. Kiplinger was perfectly happy to work with Windows 98, so he got his taxes paid. I expect there’s a moral to this story...


Interactive Magic makes some great games, including the best classical era computer games I know of. Their Great Battles (Alexander, Hannibal, and Caesar so far) are nifty, and Seven Kingdoms is both unusual and fun. Alas, probably because of the endless reboots, I am thoroughly weary of installing I-magic’s Liberation Day. This Direct X game won’t run on anything I have, and I have a lot of equipment. On Cyrus, the former CYRIX P-166 that now has an Evergreen 200 MX upgrade chip, it installs, runs the intro movies, and locks up at a splash screen just before the game begins. Email to the help desk at Interactive Magic got me a way to edit out the intro animations, and the instruction to install again. I did. Same result. Twice.

On Fireball, which runs Windows 98, it installs, but when you try to play it, the program expects to find the CDROM in I:; unfortunately, I: is the Ricoh Media Master CD R/W drive. K: is the CDROM I installed the game from. The program simply won’t look past drive I. Putting the CDROM in Drive I: gets the message that some files are missing; apparently internally the program knows it came from K:. I could, of course, uninstall and reinstall from the Ricoh, but this seems a silly thing to have to do just to run a game.

Installing on the Intergraph NT system doesn’t work either. It installs all right, but when time comes to play, it wants 256 colors. Alas, the Intergraph only does True Color. So, after listening to the hideously repetitive music that plays during startup, I had to uninstall there. The Uninstall works well, I’ll give them credit for that.

Installing it on Princess, the Dual Pentium NT system, almost works. By now I was nearly mad from hearing the installation ‘music’, but I doggedly went through with it. This time I got past the splash screen that locks everything up. Unfortunately, that’s about all I got. It didn’t work right.

Finally I booted up Princess in Windows 95. That worked. Perhaps because by this time I was pretty weary, I wasn’t able to figure out how to play the game properly. One thing I did notice, the animations when you are not playing are pretty smooth, but the game graphics are not good at all compared to, say, Warcraft or Starcraft, or even, for that matter, Total Annihilation. The game itself appears to be a sort of turn based Warcraft, which in theory is something I would like a lot, not being addicted to mouseclicking and whack-a-mole. The story line is science fictional, so perhaps ‘turn based Starcraft’ would be more accurate. In any event, I wasn’t able to get out of my first ‘building’ phase. Apparently you have to use up all your credits, but I didn’t see how to do it. I also didn’t understand what was going on. A good tutorial would help here.

Maybe I’ll try again another time, but I probably won’t. Perhaps an intern will play it and explain it to me. And perhaps I have another coaster. As a rule I am fond of I-Magic games, but this one escapes me.

The game of the month, meanwhile, is Blizzard’s Starcraft, which really is Warcraft in Space. It’s a long game: after a month I’m no more than a third of the way through the scenarios. You’ll note I’m still playing them through, although I confess to a couple of rounds of Total Annihilation as well.

The computer books of the month are O’Reilly series: Windows Annoyances, Office 97 Annoyances, Managing the Windows NT Registry, and Developing Windows Error Messages. The O’Reilly books are ‘perfect’ bound quality paperback, with distinctive covers of really weird animals. The first two are for all of us; if Windows or Office has bugged you lately, these will help with some very specific advice. The latter two are more for professional developers and systems managers. The NT Registry book is about the best I know on that subject.

The book of the month is, naturally, STARSWARM by Jerry Pournelle (TOR Books). It’s selling well: thanks. Meanwhile, Niven and I have just about finished The BURNING CITY, about 150,000 words; technically it’s a heroic fantasy, but it’s got some pretty odd elements for that genre. Of course Niven and I never do anything the standard way.

Let me close with a good word for Net Objects Fusion, a web site creation and maintenance program approved by all my sons (two of them do web designs professionally), Chaos Manor Associate Darnell Gadsberry, who runs a web service and will be the host of my web page as well as Discontinuity when we get that up; and everyone I know who has used it. I’ve been using Word 97 for my web site work, but watching the pro’s use Net Objects Fusion has convinced me that’s the hard way.

I’m running a bit behind as more and more good stuff pours into Chaos Manor. Don’t let my momentary unhappiness with Windows 95 spoil your enjoyment: little computers really are fun as well as useful. Lots more next month.

- 30 –




Jerry Pournelle



Column 214


FLASH: Diamond has purchased Micronics. We have used Micronics motherboards for a number of the Chaos Manor built machines, and we like them. This could lead to some very interesting integrations. I think it’s good news.

If you haven’t noticed yet, speech recognition is getting there. We’re still a way from the Abominable Autoscribe (The dictation computer the Abbot of St. Leibowitz used in Walter Miller’s classic A Canticle for Leibowitz); that would accept dictation in English and write neatly in Church Latin. On the other hand, we may be closer than you think. I now have three Japanese translation programs that purport to take English text and turn it into Japanese and vice versa. Of course I can’t possibly ‘test’ these other than to start with English, go to Japanese, and then bring it back to English. The result isn’t very good, but then you don’t expect it to be. So long as you warn the recipient that you’re sending him a machine translation into a language you can’t yourself read, you can probably get away with business letters or simple inquiries.

Probably. I’d hate to bet very much money on it, though.

A long time ago the CIA invested rather heavily in machine translation technology, particularly of newspapers. I never knew precisely how that came out, because I got dropped off the daily read list about the time they thought they had it good enough to send Peking People’s Daily out. I do recall an early attempt to translate Russian. They fed in "The spirit is weak, but the flesh is willing," translated it to Russian, then back to English again. The English that returned was "The vodka is good but the meat is rotten," and I am told that’s no bad translation of what it said in Russian. Warned by that, I learned not to depend too much on machine translations, but I’m sure things are a lot better now.

Even when humans do the translation you can get odd mistakes. Pepsi revives your spirits translates literally into Chinese: "Pepsi will resurrect your ancestors." That might sell a lot of Pepsi, but is it truth in advertising?

As to dictation software, I believe IBM is ahead this week, having pulled ahead of Dragon in the continuous speech recognition race. Then just today I got a new program from Lernout and Haspie which promises to be better than either IBM or Dragon. Lernout and Haspie will also make text to speech that hooks into Visual Basic. So will the Lucent text to speech programs. About the time you read this, we should have several text to speech programs to choose from, and continuous speech recognition – speech to text if you will – should be pretty good also. Get that and some of the translation programs and you’re three quarters of the way to the Abominable Autoscribe, except I don’t suppose there will ever be a program that does Church Latin now.

If I seem to be uncharacteristically avoiding choosing one of these programs to recommend, you’re right: I haven’t seen the Lernout and Haspie program in action except on a show floor, where it looked good indeed. The last time I saw Dragon in action it was being used fondly by a parish secretary who assured me it was a lot better than having her boss give her hand scribbles or try to dictate personally; she liked it, although I thought there were more errors than I would tolerate. Of course I wasn’t paid to transcribe the sermons.

I have personally used the latest IBM dictation system, and it takes getting used to. You. no. longer. have. to. talk. like. this. which is just as well since that drives me crazy, but you do have to sort of talk,like,this: there does have to be some way to mark the end of a word, or so I found. On the other hand, the program learns from being corrected, and it may well be I didn’t use it long enough. I am no expert on dictation. Over the years I have taught myself to type, and I am keyed in to seeing what I have written as a stimulus to do more. Legend has it that Barbara Cartland used to dictate in a darkened room, with relays of stenographers quietly changing places behind her couch, and thus she was able to turn out prodigious amounts of prose each year.

I wish I could do that, but for me the bottleneck is thinking what to say, not getting it into my machine. I truly hated writing with a typewriter; I really despised having to type a page over again after rewriting by hand. Now rewrites are a pleasure. I’ve got in the habit of skipping back a couple of paragraphs each time I go get coffee or pop-corn – more on that in a moment – and rewriting as I read. Earnest Hemingway said that he always started work in the morning from the beginning of a story, so that by the time he finished it the opening had been rewritten a dozen and more times. It’s a bit that way with me, and I don’t think I could do that kind of rewrite/edit by dictation, so a dictation program would save me at most the labor of original draft; and that, for me, is limited more by how fast I think than how fast I type. The bottom line, then, is that the best dictation program isn’t likely to do me a lot of good, so I probably have no business evaluating them. At the same time, I do see them all, so I’ll try to keep you informed about the merits of each: and just now the contenders are Dragon, IBM, and Lernout and Haspie, in alphabetical order.

I don’t often envy John Dvorak, but I did when we were in Finland. He must spend more time on the web than I do, because he has learned a lot about using his Palm Pilot. He had downloaded just a ton of useful stuff, maps, phone numbers, phrase book phrases (which weren’t needed: most in Finland speak English and they all know Swedish, so communication isn’t as tough as you’d think). He even had a little plug-in for the calculator that translated Finnmarks into dollars and vice versa. Very neat, and it made me realize I am not getting anything like enough use out of my Palm Pilot. I promise to do better in future. That’s one neat gadget.

Meanwhile my son Richard is having a lot of fun with the Phillips Windows CE machine. He does much of his email with it. And Eric Pobirs has my Portfolio and Backpack CDROM drive and won’t let go. I fear I am falling further and further behind in the cool gadgets you carry with you department, and my only defense is that I’m willing to lug my Compaq Armada with me most places, and it’s so neat and does so much that I don’t feel the need for something more portable

That’s a bit of a falsehood, of course. Besides, I have learned to write the Palm Pilot graffiti pretty well. There’s nothing for it but to spend a couple of days on the web learning just what all I can do with the Palm Pilot. Now all I need is a couple of days. I wonder how Dvorak managed it?

On popcorn. Over the years I accumulated more penalty weight than I needed, and this Lent I decided to do something about it. I managed to drop something more than 10 pounds, but the problem is that I munch constantly when I work, and that plays merry hob with any weight loss.

You can munch all the celery you like: it takes more calories to digest that stuff than it gives you back. A cow fed exclusively on celery will slowly starve. Lots of fiber, too. The problem there is just how much can you stand? Carrots are another possibility, but they don’t stay appetizing all that long.

Comes now popcorn. Unlike celery there is a net caloric gain from popcorn but it’s very low: you’d have to eat a lot of the stuff to stay alive on it. The big calorie input from popcorn comes from the oil for popping and the butter you put on after its popped. Air popped or microwaved popcorn (use a microwave oven bowl with loosely fitting cover and no oil at all) hasn’t any fat, but it doesn’t taste very good either. Then Redmond Simonsen, the games expert, told me on line about I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter: not the tubs of margarine substitute which is pretty good but still has fat and calories, but the little spray bottles. This stuff tastes like butter, and has NO calories and NO fat. None. Zero. And sprayed on popcorn it tastes just like butter. Add Morton’s Lite Salt – it’s half potassium chloride – and be sparing with that, and you have something to much all afternoon and evening while losing weight. At least it works for me.

As a bonus, fresh corn on the cob has not many calories if you don’t butter it, and this stuff tastes just like butter on that, too. I’m down ten pounds and headed for ten more.

As usual all the disclaimers apply. I am not a physician, I can’t guarantee that you’ll get any result at all, you follow my advice at your own risk, yada yada; ain’t it wonderful how we have become intimidated to the point that we can’t give advice to friends without being scared of being sued? But we were born free.

Now for David Em’s graphics report, which, I have to say, left me saying "WOW!" The things we can do now!



David’ Em’s Graphics Report


MAY, 1998

This is the second in a series of three columns devoted to the state of the art in 3D Graphics on the NT platform. The core software I'll be focusing on is 3D Studio MAX by Kinetix, first because it's engineered from the ground up to capitalize on NT's strengths, and second because its open architecture has allowed third parties to create remarkably powerful plugin extensions for it.

Although many of the products I'll be discussing exist only in the MAX universe, similar functionality can be found in varying degrees in other high end products like Microsoft's Softimage and Newtek's LightWave. Taken together, I think the selected products we'll look at this month offer a revealing snapshot of where 3D's headed.


Before launching into the wonders the new generation of 3D plugin tools is bringing us, a word of caution: plugin-reliant programs have a couple of significant dangers woven into their fabric.

The first big one is that if your 3D databases require extensive plugins, it is highly probable that no one will be able to read your files, since every machine attempting to open the file will need to have all the correct plugins installed. This, as we've discovered, can be a problem on your very own network.

Another situation we've come up against it the joy of updating your plugins. Most commercial third party plugins require both a serial number and an authorization code. If you use a lot of plugins, as we do, contacting all these companies for codes can be a major pain in the butt.

But it gets worse. When we upgraded our MAX 1.2 to a fresh installation of version 2.0, we discovered that all our plugins had cleverly locked themselves to our old hardware dongle, and in some cases, to the specific computer they were originally installed and authorized on, as well. Apparently, if you buy the product, it's only authorized for use on the specific version of the parent software it was bought to go with. If you upgrade the parent software, and keep your lock, they'll reauthorize your upgraded software; but try to run it on a new version of the software, and you're out of luck.

Here are a couple more horror stories: Two companies reauthorized our codes, but got them all wrong. Another told us we could update their software on their Web site, but when we got there, it required us to request a password to get in; it took them over a week to get back to us with the password.

This sort of thing is worse than annoying. Most plugins are made by small companies, which as often as not go out of business or are bought up by their larger competitors. In a business where production outfits upgrade both hardware and software every six months to stay competitive, requiring key software components to be dependent on specific program versions, let alone physical machines, is a potential invitation to disaster.


Our current 3D testbed machine, a "blurple" colored Intergraph TDZ 2000, got a quick surgical operation a couple of weeks ago in preparation for our tests. Seeking to improve the 2000's already impressive polygon rendering abilities, Alex and I switched its VX25 graphics subsystem with Intergraph's new VX113, which can display an astounding 60 million trilinear mipmapped pixels per second. Once installed, we discovered to our dismay that the VX113 only has 16MB of frame buffer memory, compared to the VX25's 32 MB, and that is not enough to drive our superb Intergraph 28" onitor at its full 1920x1080 resolution.

This presented us with a serious problem, because programs like 3D MAX are designed with such a plethora of popup menus and controls, organizing screen real estate effectively is a big issue. Intergraphs' 28" monitor and Sony's 24" GW900 both feature 1920x1080 resolution, and this is our current screen configuration recommendation for this kind of work, if you can afford it. The other solution is to go with two monitors, but since this requires exactly matched graphics cards (a situation that will hopefully be remedied with NT 5), it's more costly still.

Fortunately, both the VXs are two-slot boards, with the frame buffer memory on one, and the geometry and texture circuitry on the other, so Alex decided to try a mix-and-match operation to take advantage of the best of both boards, and to everyone's surprise, including Intergraph's, it worked perfectly (don't try this at home, though, you'll probably void your warranty).


The first program I put the screws to was Animatek's World Builder. World Builder does just what its name indicates; you can create and animate lush landscapes made of mountains, rivers, clouds, and plants, as well as control elemental forces like wind and water flow.

World Builder isn't actually a plugin for 3D MAX, rather it's a standalone program that integrates almost seamlessly with MAX. By running the two programs simultaneously, lights, cameras, and objects can be shared between the two, with the final rendering taking place in either, by means of MAX's Video Post compositing feature. This means you can have your MAX-designed monsters and aliens traipsing through World Builder's hills and dales.

World Builder's environments can be extremely realistic and complex. I've designed photorealistic fractalized mountain ranges, eroded hills, deep lakes, moon craters, and grassy plains with it. AWB features very rich plant life such as trees and flowers that can be spread through a landscape randomly or by the use of controls for density, type, height, area, slope, and elevation. The program also includes a complete growth subsystem called L-Systems, with which you can program your own lifeforms, if you're so inclined.

AWB has an efficient Phong renderer built in to it, but be forewarned that rendering complex scenes is not for the silicon-challenged; as scenes increase in complexity, render times increase significantly as well. Animatek compensates for this with a progressive rendering scheme wherein you set a camera view which only updates changes made to the frame, making designing elaborate scenes considerably more practical.

The program comes with an extensive library of ready-to-render landscapes, skies, rocks, and plants that makes getting a handle on the software very manageable. I had a lot of fun just learning to run the program, which is not usually the case with 3D software. If you need to model realistic or fantastic digital worlds, AWB is a powerhouse. Highly recommended.


3D MAX 2.0 comes with an impressive array of modeling tools, but it also has a lot of gaps, a situation that will hopefully be considerably improved with version 2.5's updated NURBS tools. My current favorite modeling tool, however, is MetaReyes 4 from REM Infografica in Spain.

MetaReyes is a blob, or "metaball" modeler. Blob modelers allow model elements, such as spheres, to "blob" together based on their proximity to each other. This blobbing action allows for the creation of organic models that would be either impossible or very difficult to pull off using any other method.

There are several blob modelers on the market, but the Infografica implementation is outstanding. I reviewed version 3 of MetaReyes favorably a while back, but this version is a significant advance over its predecessor. One improvement over the previous version is the workflow. Where before there were a number of convoluted steps required to finalize a model, now everything is extremely straightforward: you can quickly lay out your elements, immediately modify them, then fuse them into a mesh surface with no muss or fuss.

MetaReyes 4 lets you determine the size, position, shape, and rotation of your elements and string them along a spline. The resulting blob shape can be blended with other blob shapes additively or subtractively at blobbing ratios determined by the user, which intelligently applied, can result in very realistic organic forms. If you've ever wanted to sculpt on a computer, this is the tool to do it with.

MetaReyes 4 takes blobbing to the next level with their animatable "Dynamic Metamuscle" feature, whereby metaball-based forms take on properties such as contraction and expansion, effectively simulating the structural dynamics of muscles in action. Blobs and metamuscles can also be textured, converted to meshes, and be controlled by the standard 3D MAX translation and rotation tools.

The MetaReyes 4 manual is short but complete (a rare blessing in the 3D firmament), and numerous examples of highly realistic organic models, including a dalmation, a cow, a horse, and a dinosaur, are provided on the installation CD, showing both the final rendered models and the metaball infrastructures they were designed with.

REM Infografica has a number of powerful 3D tools in their lineup, including DirtyReyes, which very effectively "schmutzes up" excessively squeaky-clean computer model surfaces, ClothReyes, a dynamics-based cloth simulator, and JetaReyes, a facial animation controller. All these products are extremely powerful and innovative; next month I'll talk about CartoonReyes, which converts 3D models into classic animation-style renderings.


Okay, so now we've built a world in World Builder, used MetaReyes to model critters to inhabit it, and employed some standard keyframe animation techniques to get them moving. Now let's make them come alive with HyperMatter, a plugin physical dynamics simulation engine from Second Nature Industries in England.


There's no way around the cold fact that traditional keyframe animation is dreadfully tedious; it's painstaking work only a masochist could enjoy. But dynamics simulators bring another paradigm to the table: assignable physical properties such as gravity, elasticity, and friction. For instance, you can assign a property such as rubber to a sphere, and presto, it becomes a rubber ball. Drop your rubber ball from a height and have it collide with a floor, and it will bounce, then keep bouncing until it rolls to a stop. Not only will the animation be superior to anything you could have done by hand, you will have accomplished it with a few mouse clicks. Not too shabby.

HyperMatter uses a meshed set of cubes that envelop an object or part of n object to determine the areas that will be affected by the dynamics engine. The resolution of the cube mesh can be increased to simulate ffects very precisely, but as usual in 3D, the more precise you get, the igher the price you pay computationally. All the programs discussed here can bring any computer to a virtual standstill just by dialing in a few umbers.

HyperMatter yields particularly interesting results with effects like obbling and squashing. The program comes with a library of substances ith names like Soft &; Sticky, and Lube Putty, all of which are easily assignable to models. You can vary the presets on these substances, or esign our own from scratch.

Another important tool is the ability to blend dynamics with keyframed nimation, allowing you to achieve effects in a carefully choreographed eyframe animation sequence like making a rotund character's belly bounce. Be on alert, however, that HyperMatter doesn't play well with Physique, a popular skin mesh deformation plugin sold by Kinetix in conjunction with the Character Studio character animation system. The last thing you want s two different plugins duking it out for dominance over your model's vertices.

HyperMatter is not a solution to every animation problem under the sun that requires real world property simulation, but it's a big step along the way. For many productions, it could spell the difference between staying up all night tearing your hair out keyframing animation, or heading for home early and letting the machine do the all the tedious work, which, after all, is what they're best at.


The last product we'll examine today is Painter 3D, just in from

MetaCreations. Painter 3D used to be called Detailer, a standalone

painting program that let 3D artists interactively paint surface textures directly on onto models. The newly christened Painter 3D can be opened directly from within 3D MAX or Metacreations' own RayDream Studio, and its feature set is nearly identical to MetaCreations' popular 2D paint program, Painter 5.

Painter 5 has been my 2D painting program of choice since the day I first used it, primarily because of its fabulous natural media brushes, which simulate everything from chalk to watercolors. There are a few good 3D paint programs on the market, but none of them have the brush selection that Painter 3D does, and speaking for myself, there's nothing that matters more in a digital paint program than a good selection of brushes.

If you've ever tried to get textures to wrap properly around a model, you'll appreciate the benefits afforded by being able to paint right on the model itself. For anything more complicated than a decal, there's no better way to get what you want, exactly where you want it. Painter 3D lets you work on your bitmap texture either in a 2D window, or on the model itself; changes in one window are instantly updated in the other. All the selection, masking, compositing, and effects tools from Painter 5 are available, as well as Photoshop filters.

Painter 3D lets you work on an object's texture, bump, highlight, reflection, and glow maps. A nice feature is the ability to apply a paint stroke to more than one map at a time, such as texture and bump, although you cannot paint across adjacent maps on an object. Painted objects can be rotated and lit with multiple light sources, but Painter 3D is primarily CPU dependent for display; it does not support OpenGL, so object translations revert to bounding boxes while an object is moving.

Despite these shortcomings, Painter 3D is a real pleasure to work with, especially when coupled with a good pressure-sensitive tablet like our Wacom ArtZ. With a street price of around three hundred bucks, it's hard to justify not having it in your 3D toolkit.


So much for building dynamic worlds and objects and texturing them right on your own desktop. Clearly we've come a long way from the multi hundred thousand dollar systems of just a few years ago. But the final step in the 3D process is rendering your image, and that's where we'll pick up next month.




From: Philip Crawford <>

Date: Mon, 27 Apr 1998 20:04:35 +1000

Subj: IE4 Desktop Down(sic)Date ____________________________________________________________

Jerry, I read your column monthly and thoroughly enjoy it. I work in computer support and sometimes find some strange things, but none, I think, stranger than Microsoft's Desktop Update for IE4.

With the introduction of Office95 and MSWorks95, Microsoft introduced the concept of all documents living under one directory, though why they chose "Documents" for Works, a home-oriented product, and "My Documents" for Office, a business-oriented product, I have no idea. This always lived under the Root directory, keeping data separated from applications as I try to encourage users to do.

However, along comes the "Windows Desktop Update" for IE4 and it moves the "My Documents" folder, without asking, to the Desktop. A simple shortcut there would suffice. Now the Desktop lives in C:\Windows\Desktop (C:\Windows\Profiles\... if Profiles are implemented).

So now all your documents are now in a subdirectory of Windows.

Along comes a helpful user, who fortunately had reasonably recent backups, installs IE4 without the Uninstall possibility due to lack of space, gets a virus which does sufficient damage to require reinstalling Windows. I could not get IE4 to re-install. So out to DOS, move Cabs to directory off Root and "C:\>deltree windows". Yes I want to delete Windows and all its subdirectories. This user is too smart to put his files under Windows. He puts them all in "My Documents". Well organised, too.

Fortunately, we were able to retrieve most of the files from a backup. Only 2 weeks work down the gurgler, including a manuscript submitted to a journal for publication! Ouch.

Of course, if we used Linux, all user data would be in separate directories, well away from the root. But then Linux is free, whereas Windows has to be paid for and is professionally developed.

Thanks for a great column. Wish I had time to read the web installments.

Phil Crawford Computer Technician, School of Physiology &; Pharmacology, University of NSW, Sydney, Australia, 2052


You don’t know what you’re missing! Including your own letter. Thanks for the kind words and a good story. Jerry


From: Gilles Reichert <> Org:FICS Group

Date: Tue, 28 Apr 1998 16:53:50 +0200

Subj: Copy Disk command

Hi Jerry,

The Copy Disk command is hidden in the Registry at the following place: HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT\Drive\shellex\ContextMenuHandlers\{59099400-57FF-11CE-BD94-0020AF85B590}

That key is an OLE entry. Just check if it is correctly configured under: HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT\CLSID\{59099400-57FF-11CE-BD94-0020AF85B590}

The value for the "Default" string is "Disk Copy Extension". The value for the "Default" string under "InProcServer32" is the path to the DLL that does the copy and manages the interface. On my system it's C:\WINDOWS\SYSTEM\DISKCOPY.DLL . Check that this DLL is on your system. If it is not, I suppose you can take it from another PC.

I hope it will help you resolving the problem. Unfortunately I can not answer the question "Why did it disappear?".

Best regards, Gilles


Thanks for the information. I don’t know what happened to it. I had to reinstall anyway, and of course that fixed the problem.



The next came from a conference on BIX. BIX is a place I hang out a lot. You have to WANT to be there: to get in on BIX conversations, you join the Delphi conference system (this is sort of like a tiny version of AOL) for something like five bucks a month. Then you send email to me ( or Joanne Dow ( asking to be let into the BIX conference system. (You must be on Delphi first.) You will then be among a small group of interesting people. BIX is pretty carefully controlled to keep the signal to noise ratio high, the spam nonexistent, and timewasting blather low. I love the place.

Wclardy was responding to a gibe of mine about centralized control by net administrators:

Conf: #5260


Posted: Wednesday, April 29, 1998 11:47:05 AM

Subj: comment on #5242 from jerryp ____________________________________________________________

Dr. P, control is not necessarily bad.

Right now, we are working through a nightmare at my office which I've been asking for for years: we're revamping our customer record-keeping.

My coworker (who has more years programming than I have been out of the Army) has spend the last couple of weeks sifting our old database to pick out identifiable patterns which we can use to sort out customer names. I think his logic for identifying "ATTN:" in one of the address fields required some 7 or 8 case conditions (and that is excluding the discovery of records where there is nothing after the "ATTN:"). We're just starting to logic out how to consistently identify companies with multiple subscribers, and that one is looking really hairy already.

Needless to say, I am taking the anal-retentive route in specifying how the new system will work. Everything is getting broken into the most precise logical units we can think of, and the emphasis will be on selecting from options rather than keying in entries. If we could find a way to cost-effectively add in an address-selection capability, that would make me ecstatic.

(Dr. P, maybe you could stick a suggestion for this in a "Chaos Manor" column: an address-validation software component to check addresses against the USPS' lists of known valid mailing addresses, and then cross-matching to provide the postal routing information for barcoding. The market for such a "killer component" is huge, especially if it were priced and designed so that small businesses could afford it.)

Now, this is in a small company with fewer than a dozen full-time employees averaging 7 or 8 years on the job. Imagine the problems with data consistency you would get with more people (or a higher turn-over rate). Any time you have a group of people munging data, it pays to have some centralized control.

Bill Clardy


I had to concede he had a point.



From: "Ahlsen-Girard, Edward F." <>

Date: Wed, 29 Apr 1998 16:46:07 -0500

Subj: Out and running fast versus efficient (1998 User's Choice Awards)


Dr. Pournelle,

For office automation I can go along with your comments amplifying the Orchid for Delphi. In our environment, however, C is indispensable. Yes, Pascal does type and bounds checking, and makes it easier to write something that rarely crashes. But sometimes throwing hardware at the speed problem is impractical. We take telemetry and position data passed at 100Mbps and use it to generate 3d real-time displays. I don't think there is any hardware short of a Cray that would let us do that in Pascal.

Granted, we are an extreme case. But anybody in modeling and simulation is likely to be in the same category; the code has to run fast, or you won't get the job done.

Ed Ahlsen-Girard

Well, yes, but to make things go really fast you have to hand optimize anyway. C may be easier to maintain and more useful than assembler, but as the routine language I think it’s the wrong choice. Oh. Well.

From: Ian Stoffberg <>

Date: Thu, 30 Apr 1998 13:35:45 +0200

Subj: Emulation news from South Africa


Before I make my point, thanx for the years of excellent writing I've enjoyed so far. Unfortunately, although I'm a science fiction / fantasy nut, I've never been a *great* fan or anything. I guess I was spoilt by lighter authors like Anne Maccafrey / David Eddings / Raymond Feist, etc. What I'm referring to is Byte magazine. I've been reading your articles for years and now that the web is around, I've been catching up.

Knowing that your time is precious, allow me to elaborate a bit.

Frankly, I've been bored by PC's for a few years now. I haven't seen anything really interesting (and downright cool) on the pc since clarion for dos v2. I am an ex-amiga user so we are hard to please in the "cool-factor". I've had a PC for 7 years now and 3 things have surfaced to collectively rekindle my interests.

1) Delphi - you've touched on that, nuff said. Although have a look at Delphi Super Page for some great add-ons, most of them free.

2) 3D Acceleration - 3dfx, etc. Marvellous stuff, gotta have it.

3) Emulation - Okay, a broad topic, but, having been raised on Spectrum, Texas Instruments, Commodore 64, Amiga, etc, it is the most nostalgic fun to have with a pc today, period.

I only want to comment on the last one as I feel it is the one with the least public attention. Basically, in case you haven't been in touch with the scene in the last year or two:

Programs exist which can run software for computers / console systems / calculators, etc which are now considered defunct / outdated / condemned. e.g. TI-99, Commodore 64, PET, Vic 20, Spectrum, MSX, Amiga(almost dead) Even systems like Macintosh, Sega Genesis, Super Nintendo, Gameboy, etc are currently emulated by the pc. Hewlett Packard / Texas Instruments have also been targetted and emulators for some of their calculators exist which run on your windows 95/98/NT desktop. Finally have a real RPN calculator for windows...hmmm

The amazing thing is that these systems are completely emulated in software. You can even hook up a Commodore 1541 diskdrive to your serial port and load commodore disks of the emulator. The programs / roms executed by the emulator is actually the same code running on the original machine whether from a ROM / disk or cartridge.

Some might dismiss this as childs play, but technically, think of this. Can you imagine taking a CPU like the 6502 or Z80 and then duplicating it in software?? Imagine the code required to actually mimic each opcode and register. What about how the cpu accesses memory or custom chips for sound or graphics?? Amazing. As a programmer it boggles my mind just writing an assembler program, but to know the assembly of the PC so well that you can emulate another system, e.g. 68000 in software must take an exceptional mind. Many of the programmers of these emulators must be incredibly talented. Yet most of the emulators that exist are freeware. Quite a contrast to the dog-eat-dog of Microsoft and co and lately the shareware world who expect you to debug their software and pay for it.

Anyway, a word of caution, you can only legally use the emulator with a rom if you actually own the emulator and the original cartridge or disk. As most of the systems / games are no longer in production or for sale, most people do this illegally anyway, but that's not actually condoned.

In addition, arcade machines are getting the treatment too. Imagine having a software application which runs in Win95 and allows you to play the original arcade roms which filled up arcades in the 80's and early 90's. Many people have their own pinball machine or a full-size defender machine, but this is almost as good. MAME, the multiple arcade machine emulator currently emulates about 470 games + variants. In one program you could relive the history of videogaming from 720 degrees to Zaxxon, encompassing, Asteroids, Pacman, Moon Patrol, Donkey Kong, and a host of others. ALL in one program.

It amazes me to see what programmers could do with 16k in those days. The main reason i'm telling you about all this is just to invoke some nostalgia at chaos manor.

Hope it gets your thumbs up. Check out

Regards from Cape Town,

Ian Stoffberg


I did look into them, and you’re right: astonishing! And way cool. Thanks for the tips.




From: R. Paul Hampson

Date: Tue, 05 May 1998 22:55:19 +0100

Subj: MCSE

Re: Your comments at the end of the May column. "These are tough exams, and having some coaching in a trade school certainly does no harm; but you don't have to enroll in classes to take and pass the MCSE exams. You can learn on your own."

For the record, my son just qualified after seven months of self-study while he was working full time (email tech support for SpryNet); he and his wife moved in the middle of his studies as well. So I know it can be done, although I can't keep up with him.

p.s. Just got a Ricoh MediaMaster myself (before reading your column) and like it a lot.

Thanks for all your writing



Thanks for the kind words.




From: Niall O Broin <>

Date: Wed, 06 May 1998 17:16:04 +0000

Subj: RAID-5 disk usage


I read your May column, as always, with interest. I too use DPT SCSI controllers and they are good, but I've had problems with low quality cabling, which as you know is always an issue with SCSI. This note is just to clarify the issue of space on a RAID-5 array. You mentioned that RAID-5 turned your 11GB of storage into one 6.3 GB RAID-5 array. RAID-5 is not that profligate in its use of disks. What happens is that one disk in the array is used for parity, and that the amount of space used on each disk is the size of the smallest disk. In your case, your 3 GB disk (actually 3.15 GB) meant that only 3.15 GB could be used from each disk, one of which was used for parity, so your resultant array size was 2 x 3.15 GB = 6.3 GB, as you found. If you had used 3 4GB disks, you would have had an 8 GB array. With 6 4GB disks, you get a 20 GB array and so on . . .

RAID-5 array size = (number of disks - 1) X (capacity of smallest disk)

The DPT RAIDstation is a nice box - it's a pity that they don't make a bigger version (they do make much bigger cases but they are very much more expensive). Apparently RAIDstations will be chainable together, but not yet.

-- Kindest regards,

Niall O Broin

UNIX Network Administrator Ground Systems Engineering Department

European Space Operations Centre, Darmstadt, Germany

Thanks for that explanation!



From: slade <>

Date: Fri, 08 May 1998 10:58:04 –0500

Subj: June '98 Chaos Manor column

I'm sure I'm not the only one who will express a difference of opinion regarding Linux, but I'll likely be one of the most civil about it.

You stated that Linux can be tricky to install. However, if you buy hardware that's listed in the Linux hardware compatibility guide, installation is pretty much a no-brainer now. Red Hat has hardware detection that's better than Windows in most cases.

In your "How to Get My Job" column, you said that a writer wanna-be should aquire and learn a good office suite. In the June column, you suggested that there's a lack of application software for Linux that's relevent to what you do. There are two major office suites for Linux now: Star Office and Applixware. Both can read and write MS Office file formats. I prefer Applixware, but since you're on the record as liking MS Office, you'd probably prefer Star Office. Why not give one or both a try before dismissing them?

You suggested that you'd need to install a NOS like Netware if you wanted to run Linux. Not so, sir! Linux comes out of the box with full TCP/IP capability, and every installation routine I've seen configures it for you. You can also install Samba, which allows the partitions on the Linux box to be shared as drives to Windows machines, and vice versa. Admittedly, it's a bear to configure, though.

I can't argue with your point about games. I know there are some high quality games for Linux, but I'm not a "gamer" myself, so I have no idea how well they compare to games available for Windows.

At any rate, the past couple of years have shown a great deal of progress for Linux in both usability and quality application availability. It may be time to give it a try.

-- Mike Larsen Systems Analyst UNIX &; Internet Services MidAmerican Energy Company


Oh it’s way past time for me to give it a try. Darnell (Darnell Gadsberry, our Webmaster Chaos Manor Associate) hounds me weekly to try Linux. My problem is time: it is not something I can do justice to in a hour or so a day, and getting a block of time to install and learn is not easy. I’m off on trips shortly; when I get back, we will build a LINUX Box and install it and see what happens. Thanks for writing.




From: (name withheld by request)

Date: Sat, 09 May 1998 08:34:25 -0400

Subj: Microsoft and OS components

Jerry, I have been reading your column for years because it takes a pragmatic approach to the tools we all use. Much appreciated. Because of that long standing respect I decided to get something off my chest by writing to you and asking for your opinion. (Please do not disclose my name if any of this topic should creep into Byte, I manage a major technology area for [a major financial firm] and what I say publicly about products and companies is limited by legal compliance.)

I have worked with and developed for every version of MS-DOS from 1.0 on. Likewise with Unix from V.2 to Linux to Solaris, etc. The danger I see from Microsoft is not legal, it is technical. Each time they add a "feature" to the OS it implies several things:

the feature is itself a universal OS service that is well defined and stable;

it will result in full scale regression testing of the OS to identify any side effects on other parts of the OS and on other application programs using OS services.

Given the common experience of thousands of users installing IE only to have subsequent difficulty booting or losing the use of multiple previously installed applications, it seems pretty clear the the idea of regression testing wasn't a big topic of conversation in Redmond. This illustrates my concern. Every bug fix, enhancement, and new version of IE means that the OS has been changed. This common utility used by all other software has been casually modified without consideration of its impact on anything else. In fact, Microsoft's entire approach to the notion of OS seems naive and careless.

That careless attitude is my motivation for this email. A few days ago , I took a giant risk, I attempted to install a new application. Woe is me!! Because any application (not only Microsoft's) can replace virtually any DLL in the system directory with versions that are not properly versioned or identified, the end of the installation meant the end of operation!! As I watched the installation progress on screen with the copying of many files to the directory I had specifically created for this application, I also saw many files copied to C:\WINDOW\SYSTEM. Two days later, having tracked down the offending DLL and restored the old one I can now write to you, do my checkbook, etc. The point is, who gave this little piece of software the right to change my operating system?

The fuzzy line between OS and application as defined by Microsoft is DANGEROUS. A nearly infinite number of permutations of DLLs have been accumulating with each upgrade and installation. Soon they will reach a critical mass of interacting defects that will bring down entire industries.

From time to time I speculate (partly tongue-in-cheek) that the big danger to computing is not Y2K. The big danger is a new release of a Microsoft OS on 80% of the world's computers. I can visualized thousands of systems with blue screens due to problems that cannot be defined.

In any event I would be interested on your take on the accumulating problems of DLLs and OS-application interactions.

Thanks again for your fine articles and if you got this far thanks for listening to a frustrated computer veteran.

[Name withheld by request.]


I very much hear you, and had something to say on the subject in the print part of the column. Much to think about here, and I am trying to do the thinking…




Some definitive words on memory:

From: "van der Stock, Andrew" <>

Date:Sun, 10 May 1998 14:43:30 +1000

Subj:64 MB limits



You mentioned in your May web exclusive, that "For a number of reasons including cache limits in Intel chips, when you get above 64 MB it depends entirely on the application. Many programs go to the swap file if they need more than 64 MB, and there's not a lot you can do about that."

This is only true of some early and low end Intel Pentium chipsets, and affects all operating systems that run on those motherboards, not just Windows 95 or certain applications. The bug is that when you read or write to RAM with a physical address above 64 MB, it is not cached, which results in performance loss from minor (10%) to heavy (50% or more), depending on the way the application is reading from and writing to the RAM. A large Photoshop image, in this case, would be penalized heavily, whereas something like Word, which reads and writes to RAM based documents frugally will be scarcely affected.

Windows 95 can use RAM above 64 MB effectively, but realistically, if you're commonly using more than 64 MB, NT is the correct answer. NT is much better at memory allocation than Windows 95, and the paging mechanism is considerably faster and more robust.

Andrew van der Stock, MSCE


Thanks! And best regards,




And finally, some thoughtful words on the Great Microsoft Bashing:


Date: Mon, 11 May 98 09:19:54 EDT

Subj:byte letter regarding MS internal procedures


A great deal of the industrialized world has been watching the current Microsoft situation with dismay. A friend rightly points out that the U.S. small computer industry has become one of the great engines that drives our ecenomy. Irregardless of the merits of Sun, et al vs MS suits to come, technical managers have been searching for ways to get Microsoft to improve the quality of their product.

It seems to me that a great deal of Microsoft’s problems stem from what may be a sloppy approach to operating system developement and management. You know that I'm talking about here; the rampant swapping, changing, and updating of .dll files in the /windows home directories. It unconcionable to allow (and to encouraged by standard practice) applications software to step on any operating system code modules. The much-despised registry is another problem that needs discussion elsewhere.

This isn't the place to discuss Windows 95 or 98. Those two systems are developmental dead-ends and really should be viewed as large-scale R&;D stopgaps until Windows NT is fully marketed (by Microsoft) to the desktop.

It seems like a simple point to make, but the stability of a MS operating system would be greatly (immeasureably??) enhancd if NT developers could take complete and documentable control over their code modules.

I have no idea what internal procedures exist within MS to validate and approve 'modifications', 'enhancements', and 'replacements' for OS code modules that are loaded by the likes of MS Office and IE.

BUT, given the results that many have witnessed, I cannot believe that the NT development group has any kind of authority or responsibility to manage their .dll file loads.

Time and again, Microsoft appears to be unaware of or deliberately ignoring accepted industry management practices for systems developement. The rush to market and the rush to include features may well have overwhelmed their ability to create a stable base of code for NT. Judging by the results of software loads and Service Pack updates, MS has proved time and again to be indifferent about backward or crosswards compatibility. Compatibility appears to be a 'happy accident'; great if it happens but not to be cried over if something slips through the cracks.

I looked at my Microsoft software library over the weekend. I could not find a single program that does not mess around with system .dlls. Not one.

Now, it is 'generally' a good thing to get updates to your OS for bug fixes, performance issues, etc, etc. But the keepers of the OS need to do considerable regression and compatibility testing for such updates. It makes no sense to fix one problem for one narrowly focused program only to create a dozen more. This is a freshman level CS concept.

MS software is not alone in screwing with the OS (95/98 and NTv4). But if MS cannot follow even the most basic of acceptable practives for a reliable and dependable OS, how in the world can they (or we?) require others to do so?

It would be pretty straightforward for MS to make NT more 'self protective' of it's code modules and be able to reject anything that is not 'approved' by the mothership.

A few items would greatly enhance the reliability of MS opreating systems. These items would of course require individual product and developement managers to be held professionally and personally responsible for their product.

a) Introduce an aggressive internal source code control and versioning system within Microsoft. Make it a line item responsibility of managers and developers to abide with the program or seek employment elsewhere. Code does not make it into the operating system unless it can be traced directly to the developer who wrote it, the testers who signed off on it, and the specific results of that testing.

b) Add functionality to the OS that makes it impossible for application programs to change out modules that belong to the OS. Use an internal software inventory, the dreaded registry, or black magic. But make the OS more resistant to deliberate or accidental screwing from the 'outside'. Make compliance (and do NOT use the wishy-washy term 'compatibility') with this scheme mandatory for any OS 'branding' of app software.

c) Ban applications developers (internal and external) from using systems calls that are not available in the current level of the OS (including current Service Packs). If developers need the OS to do something new, they need to get into the OS development cycle and ask for something to be included in the next dot release. Service Packs do not add functionality.

d) Publish the full documentation for each and every call available at the operating systems level. This must include source and version history information on each and every file used by the operating system.

e) Move the concept of a 'Service Pack' into a 3 or 4 times a year release cycle. Nothing gets in to a SP that is not fully regression tested against the whole of the MS software catalog and selected major non-MS packages including the top two competetors in every single category. Absolutely nothing makes it into a Service Pack that 'adds' functionality. Service Packs must be exclusivly reserved for bug fixes.

f) Get into a twice a year dot release cycle. Dot releases would incorporate all available bug fixes as well as incremental functionality additions (such as Direct X upgrades) above and beyond what Service Pack bug fixes deliver.

There are more but I am not going to fully interpret and apply the CMM Level 3 specifications here.......

From the quality and support requirements of the product they deliver, I'm guessing that MS does not meet even CMM level 2. A company of MS' size and alleged concern for 'enterprise' computing should be able to document their internal process at CMM level 4 or better. (on a scale of 5-0, with 0 being the best,

CMM = Capability Maturity Model, a Software Engineering Institute standard for code and process documentation that has been proven over the years to greatly enhance systems reliability. CMM is not compatible with the stereotyped mentality of the "traditional hacker". This is something for discussion elsewhere.

Someone pointed out that mediocrity is NOT yet a Federal Crime. If anything, MS is guilty of creating and distributing operating systems that are barely 'good enough' and certainly not as good as the marketers say.

The current state-of-the-art of Windows NT is pretty good. It is not as good as MS would tell you, it is certainly not good enough for any kind of situation where reliability is key. As it stands, NT makes a fine desktop OS but I would be loath to deploy and support it as a server system in any situation.

Microsoft is to a great extent responsible for the problems it faces in the courts. MS really needs to apply some draconian top-down internal discipline. By adopting internal procedures and process that force developers and managers to give more than lip service to computability and interoperability, the code base which make up Windows NT would have a chance to build the kind of trusted and documented lineage that just might start to solve many of the problems that currently plague it.

If Microsoft was delivering code that was in fact as good as Mr. Gates and friends say, their detractors would be blowing just so much hot air. By their actions, Microsoft has managed to elevate the acceptance of the mediocre all the way to the corporate board room and this is the real problem than needs to be solved. The old adage of 'no one ever got fired for buying Microsoft' needs to be tossed out. Maybe it's time someone was fired.

Thank you. Now if only they’ll listen.


And that’s about it for this month.



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