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Computing At Chaos Manor:
July 11, 2011

The User's Column, April/May/June 2011
Column 367
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
www.jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2011 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.


Just after I finished the last column I came down with something insidious that pretty well laid me low. I was also caught up in a number of tasks and events that while necessary tended to use up what energy I could come up with. The result was this long hiatus, but now I am back. So is BYTE.

I'll say that again. BYTE is back. The arrangement is that I will do some specials for BYTE, and BYTE will be associated with Chaos Manor Reviews. The new BYTE will be edited by Gina Smith, who has the kind of energy that the old BYTE people had. This promises to be fun.

Road Warrior

Many years ago during one of the mini-recessions following one of the bubbles in the last Century, we invested some of the royalties from a best seller in a beach condo in San Diego, and periodically Roberta and I go down there. For some years I had high speed Internet connectivity in the place, but for reasons I won't go into that recently ended, and I found myself using dialup.

Dialup works, in the sense that my ThinkPad knows how to connect to my EarthLink.net telephone access account. It's slow. Worse, some Internet Service Providers don't want to accept email sent by dialup through EarthLink, presumably because that's the source of a lot of spam. Internet browsing is very difficult, because many sites have enormous advertising burdens and the site calls dozens of ads, and in general the whole thing is painful.

In my case it was worse. After many years of more than satisfactory — indeed in my case, epic — service Greg Lincoln and Brian Bilbrey decided to close the boutique hosting service they had been providing for a few commercial clients and a bunch of their friends on a server named ‘zidane'. They were closing that service down. Fortunately they were willing to help me find a landing place, and Rick Hellewell, a security expert, web designer, and consultant who has done more than thirty web sites, offered to oversee the transition to make sure I didn't invite disaster. The problem was that the change was coming on a weekend I would be in San Diego without high speed access. I needed something reliable and fast.

AT&T coverage at the beach house is good, and there's an AT&T store a couple of miles from Mission Beach, so I decided to go there. AT&T is seldom the low cost solution, but I figured that at AT&T it shouldn't be hard to get things set and working fast. I used my iPhone to find the store and a map of how to get there, and off I went.

The store is in a big block of stores near Rosecrans and Stadium Way. And it's still The Phone Company. At least that was my first impression. A young lady, supposedly the receptionist — it's hard to tell, since she was standing near the reception sign talking to someone else — pretended I was invisible as I stood there looking around. Eventually I made enough noise that she abandoned her conversation with some younger man and acknowledged my existence. She asked a bunch of questions about what I wanted, seemed to make notes on some kind of tablet, got my name, and told me it would be half an hour before anyone could talk to me. There seemed to be about 4 customers in the place all talking to people at consoles, and two teen age girls were spread out with their things on the only seating; they were watching a series of AT&T ads on a big screen.

I wasn't keen on standing for half an hour, and across the parking lot I could see a Radio Shack. I made sure my half hour wait didn't need to be spent in the store and went across to Radio Shack, where I was informed that they had gizmos that would connect me to the Internet with 3G wireless service, but they had to be activated by AT&T; it couldn't be done at Radio Shack. I wasn't offered any other alternatives, which is a pity because I later found out that there was a way to do this through Verizon that would probably have worked out better and cheaper than AT&T; but the Radio Shack clerk didn't seem very familiar with any of this, and had little enthusiasm for telling me more; so back I went to AT&T.

Alas, while I was out looking into AT&T, Henry Vanderbilt sent me this:

You mentioned $50 a gigabyte for your dialup? I've recently found a cheaper faster mobile option. For $35 a month from Verizon, I have a "mobile hotspot" that seems to work anywhere my cell phone works. Decent data speeds (slower than cable, far faster than dialup) and the $35 covers the first three gigabytes per month - it's $10 per extra gigabyte after that.

Not quite enough to do all my internet on (not without severe bandwidth-saving tricks) but just fine for when I'm away from home a few days here and there.

I just took a look, and they still have the plan, plus others with more data for higher monthly fees. http://www.verizonwireless.com/b2c/mobilebroadband/?page=plans

Henry

That's clearly what I should have been looking at. But I was in a hurry, I didn't have a way to connect the ThinkPad to the Internet except by dialup, and I hadn't brought it along on my shopping excursion; so I went back to the AT&T store. In my defense I was in a situation where time was far more limited than money. Actually, I had only a few hours to take advantage of that anyway: the offer ended that weekend. The moral of the story is that you ought to stay connected when possible. On the gripping hand, I wouldn't have saved much because I wasn't looking for anything long term, I was just trying to get 3G connectivity for a couple of weeks.

Peter Glaskowsky notes that

Verizon's $30/month plan-- which requires a contract-- provides only 2 gig of data and is specifically NOT allowed on mobile hotspots.

Verizon's cheapest prepaid plan (no contract) seems to be the same as AT&T's-- $50/month and 1 GB of data, and it isn't allowed on mobile hotspots either.

So I think you got as good a deal as you were going to get.

Back at the AT&T store I wandered about looking at exhibits. One seemed interesting: a portable Wi-Fi hot spot. Set it up, turn it on, and there's your local network. It would let me use the iPad, my iPhone by Wi-Fi, and of course the ThinkPad. The problem was that it was expensive. The box itself would be nearly free with a long enough commitment, but that turned out to be a total cost of $840, and I didn't anticipate needing that much telephone access bandwidth — although if I were doing a lot of travelling, that is an option worth considering. I often pay $10 a day and up to a hotel service to connect to the Internet. On the gripping hand, sometimes it's free, and again, I'm not on the road all that much anyway.

Eventually I asked the "receptionist" if there were any place to sit — there was a conspicuous lack of chairs in the large store — and she looked a bit flustered, said of course, and went over to speak to the teenagers waiting on the only bench. They removed all the stuff they had distributed on the area between them, and moved to sit together at one end, leaving room for two other people on the bench, so I was able to sit and watch the AT&T advertisement stream. Eventually someone called the teenagers. I was next. So forty minutes after finding the AT&T store I was talking to Genard, a pleasant enough young man. He stood on the other side of a counter, mostly looking at a screen I couldn't see. Sometimes he remembered that I couldn't see it.

I explained what I wanted, and he discouraged me from the mobile Wi-Fi hot spot as being needlessly expensive. Eventually I settled on the AT&T USBConnect 900. It looks a like a large thumb drive about 4 inches long by an inch wide. There is no long term contract. You can pre-pay by the day, the week, or the month. The rates are $15 for a day with 100 megabytes; $30 for a week with 300 MB; and $50 for a month with a gigabyte. We were planning on being in Mission Beach for two weeks. It was pretty clear that what I needed was the monthly plan so I prepaid on the spot.

AT&T USBConnect 900

The rest was simple enough. Disconnect the telephone line from the ThinkPad and insert the 900 into a USB port. If you buy the AT&T USBConnect 900 without setting up an account, the first time you plug the device into a Windows machine that can see enough AT&T 3G bars it will offer to sell you the account. In my case it just offered to connect me to the Internet. That all went simply and easily, and there were no problems.

The connection also shows you bandwidth usage. I connected in mid afternoon. By midnight it showed that I had used 169.12 megabytes. That was 17% of what I had bought for a month. What in the world was using so much bandwidth? I wasn't watching YouTube or other videos. Indeed, I wasn't doing a great deal of anything other than Outlook mail. There was a lot of spam. A very great deal of spam. Could that be it? I looked for something else and found it.

It was my bad habits. I tend to leave a lot of Firefox tabs open. It turns out that many of those periodically update themselves — they bring in fresh new advertisements, update their pages, and do other stuff. Closing a bunch of those pages cut down on bandwidth consumption. The moral of that story is that if you are paying for bandwidth by the megabyte, close all your tabs!

Postini Spam Control

Greg and Brian's service used Spam Assassin, and I had over time built up a white list of people and phrases to be passed along through the spam filter. The rest was stopped at their server and never got to me. My mail address is open and known, and has been harvested by thousands of spammers, so I get a lot of spam; I was astonished at how much now that Spam Assassin wasn't killing most of it. Since I am still fairly active in journalism, I also pass through a lot of press releases, and I am on a number of discussion lists. In other words, I get a lot of legitimate mail, much of which I deal with through a complex hierarchical system of Outlook rules. All this works fine for me — when I have a high speed Internet connection. And it uses a lot of bandwidth.

You don't pay for that on dialup, but of course it takes a long time to download all your mail if 70% of it is spam. When you're on unlimited high speed access it still doesn't matter so long as the machine is fast enough. But when you're paying by the megabyte, spam can eat up what you've paid for. It needs stopping at the source before it gets here.

One solution to that, of course, would be to stop downloading the mail into Outlook. Use web mail and go deal with it there. Another would be to use IMAP which leaves the mail on the server until you go look at it and tell it what to send down to Outlook. Neither of those is feasible for me: it just takes too much time. Sorting out spam is the sort of task computers should do. It's not a fit project for humans.

The temporary answer to this was Postini, an anti-spam system operated by Google. It may be the permanent solution. After a few initial problems we got Postini set up properly. At first it offered a great deal of legitimate mail as junk, but it's fairly simple to pass the recognizable through while white-listing senders, and after a few iterations of that, it now takes perhaps 5 minutes a day to go through the Postini "junk" list, tease out the increasingly infrequent good stuff, and let the rest die.

Postini also offers a way to blacklist domains. I have found that a lot of spam from outfits like AARP comes from certain domains. I can't imagine wanting to get mail from "qualityadvertisers.com" and many other domains with decidedly unsavory names, and they go into the domain blacklist. I hope that this causes Google to pay attention to domain blacklists and possibly take even more stringent action. In any event, Postini reduced the bandwidth usage by about half before I left San Diego. Now that I am back here I don't know how much bandwidth I use. I used to run DU Meter, but somewhere among machine changes I stopped doing that mostly because I don't really care; it's something else running in background and while it's efficient it is using (not very much) memory and CPU cycles. But however much bandwidth I am using, the spam continues, but there's less now than when we began Postini. If you're looking for a simple spam killer, this one's pretty good, it's maintained by Google, and there is a free trial period. After that it's $1/month per mail address. I've already decided I'll sign up for it. Recommended.

Spam and the Dot Info Top Level

One of the things I noticed was that a very great deal of the spam came from domains with the extension .info. That got me wondering, and I asked my advisors if anyone ever got anything useful from anything dot info. Peter Glaskowsky answered with an interesting observation.

Those suffixes are "top level domains" (TLDs). Whoever selected that method for defining domains totally failed to understand the conflicts they were creating by exposing national trademarks and local "doing business as" naming practices to a global Internet, so it's been a hopeless mess from the beginning.

And... it's about to get much, much worse, since it will soon be possible to buy new TLDs. For a six-figure sum, you can have .jep, .pournelle, .chaosmanor, or anything else you want. Unless they decide you aren't entitled or the name is inappropriate in some way; I gather they won't be allowing [complete obscenities].

Bottom line-- perfectly legitimate businesses are using every available TLD today, so it isn't practical to filter mail according to TLD. In the future, that kind of filter might allow blocking individual businesses, but that won't really be practical either.

He also said that he had in fact got wanted mail from sites with the .info TLD. I have been watching — not closely, I admit — ever since, and I think I have yet to get anything I wanted from .info, but perhaps it will happen. What I do know is that spam is working hard to kill the Internet. If downloading porn is the largest consumer of Internet bandwidth, and downloading movies is a candidate for second, surely spam is also a contender? Actually a casual Googling on the subject gets the answer that P2P services is the biggest bandwidth user, but I am not sure what evidence that conclusion is based on, and it's a very old conclusion. A more recent link says that Netflix streaming is now the biggest bandwidth consumer in the US.

That could be an important trend: that's all legitimate and legal. It also saves a lot of gasoline: no one has to go to a video rental store — assuming you can find one, they're vanishing fast — and there's no delivery of physical DVD's. I don't know what the piracy trends are — it depends on who you listen to — but at least honest people are getting affordable options.

I do know that spam was using up a lot of my bandwidth, but Postini has been getting it more or less under control.

My son Alex notes

A coda from real life: We had a client go to Postini for their spam/malware preprocessing, and the MX (Mail) record was misspelled, and so all 30 users at the nursing home lost all incoming email for about 4 hours while the correction took effect. This boils down to "check, check, and check again" for critical changes, hardly new advice but perhaps worth repeating.

We had some similar difficulties caused by similar operator mistakes that killed certain mail for a few hours, but it was repairable. You can make an unholy mess with Postini if you try really tricky stuff, but that's true of almost any anti-spam program. Use it straight out of the bottle and get used to it...

Bluehost and WordPress

One of the consequences of losing Greg and Brian's hosting was that both the View from Chaos Manor and Chaos Manor Reviews had to be moved to the new web hosting. Brian Bilbrey is the Managing Editor of Chaos Manor Reviews and takes care of everything there. CMR was already "modern", so I don't have to worry about it; but my main web site, www.jerrypournelle.com with View and Mail also had to be moved. Content on that site has always been done by FrontPage. I was and am happy with FrontPage, but Microsoft hasn't kept it up to date, and few site host services support it. There are, I am told, site hosts that do FrontPage, but after conferring with my advisors we decided to "go modern" with View and Mail as well.

The new site host is Bluehost, which was the more or less unanimous choice, and more to the point, the recommendation of Rick Hellewell, my web design expert, who offered to do most of the work in making the transition happen — and to do it with minimum stress and distractions. Amazingly that pretty much happened. There were a few panic situations, but the panic was unwarranted and more related to my mental condition than to reality. All my operations have now been moved there, including mail with the Postini spam fighting system, the vast resources of the Chaos Manor website and all the past Mail, View, Reports, Special Reports, and other stuff. It all seems to work just fine.

The big operation was reinventing the www.jerrypournelle.com Chaos Manor site. Again after considerable discussion it was decided to try this in WordPress. Much of the travail is told over in View, ending with a sort of summary in a View post for Saturday July 9 for anyone interested. The story will continue, of course, and you'll undoubtedly see more about it in future. I'll try not to tell you more than you really want to know.

Wi-Fire

Another solution to high speed connectivity on the road is Wi-Fi. I presume you know that there can be serious security problems with using Wi-Fi in public places; in any event that's for another discussion. I also presume you know that private Wi-Fi nets using the older WEP security protocol are quite vulnerable to anyone who seriously wants to break into them, but the newer WPA protections work. There are myriads of discussions of this on the web. Last time I looked, Wikipedia was pretty good.

The question is, can you find a Wi-Fi net you can use? Most portables including my ThinkPad have pretty good built-in wireless capability, but the distances are limited by the antenna system. You can get far better range and faster connectivity with a better antenna. The one I have is Wi-Fire, and it works very well indeed. Wi-Fire is an external directional Wi-Fi receiver and antenna that connects through USB. It extends the useful Wi-Fi range considerably. They advertise that it will work to 1000 feet. I haven't tried that, but it certainly added at least a hundred feet to my local Wi-Fi range.

I was a bit concerned about installing it with the ThinkPad because the Lenovo ThinkPad has its own Wi-Fi management system which sometimes argues with the Windows 7 Wi-Fi management system, and I thought that adding yet another might be a problem. It wasn't, precisely, but a story goes with that.

I unplugged the Ethernet connector from my ThinkPad, and connected to my local Wi-Fi net with the ThinkPad's wireless. When that was working properly I turned off ThinkPad Wi-Fi. Then I let the Wi-Fire software disk auto-run to install Wi-Fire. When that was done I plugged the Wi-Fire antenna in. Getting it to run was tricky: clicking and doubleclicking the Wi-Fire icon did essentially nothing. Eventually I did a right click on the Wi_fire icon, and saw a menu that included "Run as Administrator." That did it. I was shown an astonishingly large list of potential Wi-Fi sites, most of which I never knew existed. One was my own. Telling Wi-Fire to connect to that got a demand for the password, and seconds later I was connected. I had previously opened FireFox for the test run; after a few seconds FireFox decided I was connected properly. Everything ran fast and well.

Wi-Fire connected to the ThinkPad
Wi-Fire connected to the ThinkPad

Just to be sure, I closed the Wi-Fire software and turned on the ThinkPad's wireless. That worked as expected. The ThinkPad doesn't care if there's a Wi-Fire so long as you're not actually running its software.

Wi-Fire does pretty well what it is advertised to do: it makes good connections to Wi-Fi networks that would otherwise be out of range entirely and improves connection speed with marginal Wi-Fi locations. It works with Windows, Mac OS, and various forms of Linux. If you use Wi-Fi out on the road, Wi-Fire is a good tool to have in the road warrior kit.

Sandy Bridge

I have a new Intel Sandy Bridge chip, and I'm looking into motherboards. There's no big hurry on this. My main Windows systems are Bette, a nearly ancient (now) Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600 system on which I do most of the work here, and Emily, an Intel Extreme. Both work well enough — and better is the enemy of Good Enough. Still, Bette is a bit creaky, and she's getting a bit low on unused space on her main drive. A larger primary drive would help, but if I am going to get into playing with hardware I may as well build a new main system and have done with it. I'm still looking into motherboards.

The case will be a new one from Thermaltake. It's considerably more case and power supply than I need for this system, but since the Sandy Bridge chip I have can be overdriven, perhaps I'll try that. Actually I am unlikely to do that. I don't really believe in overclocking, and I don't play the extreme games that tend to benefit from that. Actually my intent with the Sandy Bridge is to see just what games don't play with the Intel on board video and require something faster. Here's what Thermaltake has to say about it:

For high-end builds like your Sandy Bridge system, Thermaltake power supplies don't just meet their specs; they offer headroom for high-current-demand systems plus flexible handling of wide swings on the AC power line; these PSUs also incorporate advanced fan designs for more cooling with less noise. Their case designs help keep cabling out of the way to improve airflow, offer both standard and optional fan mounting points, provide a large number of drive mounting points including externally accessible removable drives, and incorporate thicker, sturdier materials to also help deaden the noise of the various motors inside the case.

That is of course from them, but I have every reason to believe it. Most of my systems here have been built in Antec cases, and for the most part I am quite happy with them. There is an exception: Emily was built in an Antec full tower case with what must be the worst front panel attachment system I have ever seen in my life: it's now held on with duct tape after I removed the unworkable fasteners in a fit of sanity. The case is black as is the tape, so no one notices. Let me hasten to add that this is one case, it may well have been a lemon, my other major systems all use Antec cases and power supplies, and I'm happy with them. I do caution those who build their own systems to pay a lot of attention to how the front panel is held on: do you have to remove the side panel to open and close the front? If so, think about using something else because unless the tower sits out in the open you may not be able to remove the side panel without disconnecting everything.

More on this after we build the new system. Meanwhile I have the new Thermaltake tower case, and it looks very good. I also have Thermaltake chip cooling systems.

I've said all this before, but if you are contemplating building your own PC, or even wondering whether that might be a good idea, what you need is Bob Thompson's Building the Perfect PC. I reviewed that in the December 2010 column, and it's still recommended.

Book Reviews

Step by Step Microsoft Expression Blend 4

There's a whole new world out there in enterprise computing. Microsoft Net Studio and Silverlight are creating all kinds of stuff that many of us who grew up in the computer era have never seen or heard of. The crash in 2008 slowed down the inexorable growth of cloud based interactive commerce, but it's only slowing. It sure hasn't halted.

This has changed the skill sets needed for software designers, particularly interactive site designers. This can be a good thing: it allows people with creative skills to concentrate on the look and feel of an interactive design, rather than spend most of their time trying to figure out how to make a particular interactive experience happen. Most of this is a team effort anyway, and the new tools make it easier to work with the team.

The problem is that it's all fairly new, and doesn't bear a lot of resemblance to the old school of programmers/hackers — and there are not a lot of introductions. The Microsoft Step By Step series tries to do that. The books start with a low assumption of reader skills, and build on that. Obviously you won't become skilled in building interactive design skills by reading a book, but that's been pretty true for a long time. One learns much of this by doing, and that usually requires being part of a team. The Step By Step series will save you — and the team — a fair amount of time by systematically presenting the fundamentals you'll need to know. Microsoft has done a pretty good job of editing this series, and Step by Step Expression Blend 4 is well done. If you're being yanked into the interactive design tool game — or want to be — this is as good a way to begin as any. The book comes with a voucher code to allow access to the on line lessons and tools that are part of the learning experience.

Beyond Bullet Points

Beyond Bullet Points by Cliff Atkinson is another in the seemingly endless series of books both amateur and professional on how to make briefings and presentations more interesting. It makes use of the usual motivational speaker techniques, invites you to build tensions and resolve them, and give you advice. Find your story thread. Cut through the chatter and distill your message. Bring your story to life.

Atkinson brings his story to life by opening with the story of the Vioxx case tried in Angleton, Texas.

"The room was silent, here at the eye of the storm, when a man stood up to face the jurors. Little did anyone know that this lawyer was about to unleash a storm of his own from his laptop computer. After all, this was no ordinary PowerPoint presentation he was about to give — it was a Beyond Bullet Points presentation. Like many of the hurricanes that have passed through Texas, this presentation would make headlines for its devastating force."

That's how this book opens. Cliff Atkinson was a consultant to attorney Mark Lanier, the plaintiff who gave the Beyond Bullet Points presentation. The book analyses the presentation, including its construction, design, and effect, through the course of the book. It's an effective technique if a bit breathlessly presented. It details intentions of the presentation and techniques of its construction. If you are interested in the Beyond Bullet Points system — and some companies have paid stiff consulting fees to have that system taught to employees — this is probably the place to start.

Winding Down

I have been under the weather since the last column, and we haven't been out to any movies, so there is no movie of the month. Similarly I haven't had any time for games.

I did try to watch the new TV series Falling Skies, but the presentation technique of picking up six months after the alien invasion, with 90% of the human population dead, left me in confusion: I hadn't read up on the series in advance, so I didn't know who was doing what to whom, and I soon lost interest. I may try it again now that I know what it is actually about. Meanwhile, I didn't watch The Big Bang Theory when it first came out, mostly because I try not to spend too much time watching TV anyway. Now I am frantically looking up reruns, and looking forward to new episodes starting next season.

And I am looking forward to the last Harry Potter movie.