Jerry Pournelle: A Time Machine in Chaos Manor

Jerry Pournelle

In his latest dispatch from Chaos Manor, Jerry Pournelle reviews new tech, opens up his mailbox and tells you what is really going on with The Precious.

aNewDomain — I’m still upgrading Choas Manor.I haven’t looked at some of my systems since 1998, when I began the hard X-ray treatments for brain cancer. The cancer was gone by June of 2008, but recovering from radiation sickness took longer.

So I have spent a month now trying to set up The Precious, our sort-of-new Microsoft Surface Pro 3, to work in my breakfast room. In the course of that we learned a lot about Wi-Fi in old houses with lath and plaster walls and ancient electrical wiring.

A Belkin Pre-N router ran the original Chaos Manor Wi-Fi network. That is, we set it up before the IEEE 802.11n standard was adopted, upgrading from 802.11b or g or whatever we had before that — and it was enormously better than anything we had before. It was put in an upstairs window in my office suite, and for the first time I could sit out by the pool in the back yard and have good Wi-Fi service.

This was also the first router I owned which supported multiple antennas. We take that feature for granted now, in phones, computers and tablets, but at the time the added reliability was a revelation.

jerry pournelle chaos manor at anewdomain.net chaosmanor.comWe also sort of had Wi-Fi in the TV room in the back of the house, and Good Enough Wi-Fi in the Monk’s Cell. That’s a room in another part of the house, an upstairs that doesn’t connect to my office suite. It was the room of the oldest of the boys still living in the house when any of them were still here. It serves as a guest room now, but I keep a Lenovo ThinkPad with Microsoft Comfort Curve keyboard and big flat screen monitor at a writing desk I use when I want to get away from the telephone, house noises, and other distractions.

The Monk’s Cell has its own window-mounted air conditioner and a lamp stand at the writing table – and nothing else other than some high school textbooks. There are no games. And the Wi-Fi service up there is good enough to use for Google but nowhere speedy enough for online games if I really need them.

In the breakfast room, Wi-Fi was never good enough. That is where I really want to use a tablet while I am reading the morning newspapers.
Over the past week we installed new Wi-Fi and Internet routers. Scroll to the end of this piece to get a report on all this from my long suffering associate Eric Pobirs on the rest of this adventure …

My Wi-Fi Adventure Gets Hairy

We were working on this story and the deadlines were coming up. We knew we should update the Wi-Fi network, because everything in it was several years old.

When Eric called from the computer store about what he should get, he warned me that we hadn’t investigated all the problems and we might be buying more than we needed. I considered the deadlines and told him to get everything we might need. It was time to update anyway. Besides, I do lots of things so you don’t have to. Now we have working Wi-Fi all over the house, and it ought to last a while.

One of our problems was that everywhere we went our devices could see the old Starswarm Pre-N network. This was odd because we had taken every wireless router out of service; how was this ghost operating? Eventually Eric discovered that buried under magazines, forgotten for years, is a Mac Airport Time Machine dating from early 2008, installed at the same time that we got our first Mac systems: the iMac, iPad, and the first of my iPhones. The Airport sits there on a stand inviting use as a temporary seat for magazines and books, and hasn’t had any attention after the day it was set up: and it has been working quite well ever since.

The Time Machine on half of that box has been turned off since early 2009. That discovery sparked a general cleanup of the rat’s nest of cables that have accumulated behind the main machines here.

One of Pournelle’s Laws of troubleshooting is that “It’s probably a cable.” That’s not as true now as it was when I formulated it, but it’s still a good principle: if you have a problem, before you do anything drastic check the cables. Our discovery of the inactive Time Machine has generated another story, but right now we’re waiting for it to catch up with six years of missed backups. There’s a story in that, and we’ll get to it next month.

Precisely how much work that Airport has done can’t be determined, because it was given the Starswarm Pre-N name just like all the other Wi-Fi routers, so whether one connects to it or some other router with that SSID name – a complication we have now eliminated – depended on where the device seeking Wi-Fi was when it was turned on.

Since the Airport is right here, next to my desk, it’s the first thing many Wi-Fi devices see when they wake up, so it got a lot of business, and it has always handled the load so well that we all forgot it was here.

I went looking for anything I may have written about the Airport Time Machine before and found one of my 2008 pieces here.That was the daybook for a week in which I was getting radiation treatment for brain cancer.

Further on down on that web page is stuff about getting into Macs and installing the Airport. There are also pictures associated with my brain cancer treatment, from back in the days when I couldn’t really talk.

Anyway, I’d forgotten that one service my MacBook Air gave was as my “talker.” I could type in what I wanted to say and it would say it, back when I could think, sort of, but couldn’t speak intelligibly. I believe I even talked to the LASFS that way once.

But what I couldn’t find is anything about the Airport itself, but it is the last bastion of Starswarm Pre-N Wi-Fi network. It still has the most powerful signal here in this room.

The bottom line is that we have real Wi-Fi in all rooms of the house as well as out by the pool. Devices already connected to something – like Starswarm Pre-N – may hang on to that connection after it’s no longer useful, but the remedy to that is turn off the connection and log in on another. That may require me to learn more about how the ThinkPad software works, but that’s for another time.

Precious, Windows 8 and Getting Some Work Done

I really like the Microsoft Surface Pro 3. It feels right and it’s the right size. The screen is bright and very readable. When it’s working properly it does so very well indeed. I like it enough that I’m willing to work hard at learning it.

Dr. Jerry Pournelle Precious has a very steep a learning curve for me. Part of that is a problem with Windows 8, part with the latest Word. I rented Office 365 and the version of Word that currently comes with that is Word 2013. Some of it is the way the tablet works: It’s quite different from the Compaq TC 1100, which I carried to several COMDEX and Consumer Electronics conventions as my only computer, and never regretted doing that. I filed a number of stories from Las Vegas with that Compaq, and I really miss it.

Of course the TC 1100 didn’t have a true touch screen, but you could do all those things with a Wacom stylus. There was an editing program – I don’t recall which, but it read and wrote .rtf documents – that I could use to hand-edit long documents, using the standard proof readers’ marks to change the text, capitalize words, and even insert new text. I edited many a column on that Compaq TC 1100 while on an airplane in an uncomfortable seat with the passenger in front of me leaning back as far as he could. I really liked that machine and I have been hoping that the Surface Pro 3 would work as well as the Compaq did.

I should note that Peter Glaskowsky has been doing some research, and he suggests that Ink Gestures as
demonstrated in this video would be the editing program I used with the Compaq. I fear I don’t remember and it is no longer for sale. And I do hope that someone will come up with such a program as an app for the Surface Pro 3.

Can the Surface Be Your Only Laptop?

There are two discussions here, hardware and software.

The major hardware problem with the Surface Pro 3 is the keyboard. It’s a nice keyboard, and I may get used to it, but I probably won’t. Two finger typists won’t have any problem with it at all: the keys are large enough that you won’t miss them, even when typing in a long password, and the key labels are big enough to see.

jerry-pournelleSloppy touch typists – that’s me – will have a different problem. The keys, while large enough, are very close together, and it’s extremely easy to hit two keys at once.

The Surface Pro is also small enough that those with poor eyesight – that’s me again along with just about everyone else my age – need to sit fairly close to the screen. The good news is that kickstand screen backrest can be set to nearly any angle, so that the table height is not critical. Given a decent table – the desk in most motel rooms will be fine – you’ll be able to grind out a good bit of text with this machine, assuming you can type with that keyboard.

The software is good. It makes use of the touch screen, and given some practice the stylus is neat. I’m used to the Wacom stylus, which is quite different from this in both buttons and feel, but it’s not that hard to get used to this one. There are two buttons on the stylus barrel. The top one right-clicks, the bottom one erases. It doesn’t take that long to make their use automatic.

The bottom line here is that you’ll want some accessories – a good port expander will be the first one, and that TrendNet USB 3.0- to-Ethernet adapter will be the second – but yes, you could go to a major conference with nothing else. You’ll know you compromised, but you can get the work done.

That’s provided you are guaranteed a table and chair.

On using a Laptop as a Laptop

What is important about the Surface Pro 3 if you’re considering it to be your only laptop is that they’ve made it so small that it’s not really a laptop at all. That is, if you put it on your lap and try to write with it, you must sit upright and keep your knees fairly close together. That gets uncomfortable fast. Moreover, the angle between the screen and the keyboard is not set by the machine: the screen needs that kickstand backrest set, or it will simply fall over. You have to let that kickstand rest on a knee.

If you do sit upright with your feet on the floor – about the only way it’s going to stay steady enough to use for much – the screen is a bit small, but that of course is a function of age and eyesight.

All in all, though, if I were caught in a conference that didn’t provide tables for the press, I’d rather have a pen and paper log book. Of course I haven’t tried Precious with OneNote and simply a stylus; I never quite had the nerve to do that with the Compaq either, but I could actually type with the Compaq on my lap more steadily than I manage with this.

The bottom line is if I ever go on the road with only the Surface, I’ll be sure to have a paper log book – but then I’m never without one, so that won’t change much.

Or will it? Peter Glaskowsky reports:

I frequently use my Surface Pro, like all my previous Tablet PCs, as a notepad with a stylus. When I’m traveling, I usually leave the keyboard(s) behind in the hotel room and take only the tablet with me to the conference. OneNote works very well on these modern tablets, since they’re fast enough to eliminate the sluggishness that plagued the early Windows tablets.

I’ve long since reached the point I will only write something on paper when I have no way to access OneNote. With OneDrive, Microsoft’s cloud-based storage service, OneNote automatically backs up its notebooks to the cloud and syncs them with all my other OneNote devices– including my Mac, my iPad, and my Samsung Slate. By comparison, a piece of paper seems unacceptably fragile.”

That’s more encouragement for relearning OneNote, and I’ll keep at it.

Even with all the quirks and quibbles of the Compaq TC 1100, I found the combination of that tablet and OneNote with fast access to the Internet to be the most powerful and effective research tool I had ever experienced; and in fact I haven’t found anything yet that would top it. Once I get more familiar with Windows 8 and the new OneNote, I may not need that paper log book.

But problems remain. One of the main irritations with the Surface Pro 3 is that when I am trying to fix a problem with Word, I invariably touch something that activates a Windows 8 feature I didn’t want. Closing that can bring out something else. Precious is fast, so very fast that a few touches can take me far away from what I was doing.

Problems with Word 2013 Continue

Another problem with using Precious is more the fault of Word 2013 than of either the Surface or Windows 8. For reasons I don’t understand, Microsoft has made AutoCorrect more difficult to use. Fortunately there’s a way around that, because AutoCorrect is a very powerful tool. It can help a lot with problems caused by fat fingers and strange keyboards.

I became addicted to AutoCorrect because of one of its lesser known features. For nearly every version of Word ever sold, including Word 2013, if you misspell a word and it is marked with that squiggly little red line, you can right click the word and you will be offered one or more words to correct it to. This is how most people use the spelling check program, and it works just fine. If you’re on a writing roll you can simply ignore misspellings until you’re done, then go back and fix them. Everyone knows about this.

But if you are a sloppy typist, as I am, there’s a much more elegant solution to the problem. When you see a mistyped word and you notice it’s one you see a lot with this keyboard – such as “fro0m” for “from” because you hit both keys – you can, in Word 2003 through Word 2010, right click on the word and you will see, in addition to a choice of words, an offer to go to AutoCorrect. If you do that, you get to choose the correct spelling, after which it not only corrects this instance, but all of them in future. You’ll never see “fro0m” again unless you deliberately go back and retype it again as I just did for both instances in this paragraph.

Obviously this can be misused, but used with a spot of care it’s a lifesaver. I try to use Microsoft Comfort Curve keyboards on all my machines, but I generally can’t do that with laptops and portables, and new key layouts encourage me to make mistakes. If I notice that I make the same mistake often I can put that mistake into AutoCorrect and it won’t happen again. Of course you want to be careful and aim AutoCorrect only at mistakes with unambiguous resolutions, but given a bit of common sense in its use AutoCorrect can save you a lot of time in your writing.

No Key Separation At All

As we’ve noted, for many people the Surface Pro 3 keyboard is quite usable, not as good as the old Compaq 1100 TC board was, but a lot better than many tablet keyboards. The keys are large and square and have a good feel. The problem for me is that there is no key separation at all. They are real keys, and actually depress with a decent feeling, but they look a lot like the “keys” you see on a touch screen. They are only separated by a thin line, so it is very easy to hit two keys at once if you type fast, which I tend to do.

I am an admittedly sloppy typist – back in the controversy over the first IBM PC keyboard an IBM executive flat out told me to learn to type if I didn’t like the IBM PC key layout – but there’s not a lot I can do about it now, and I suspect I am not alone. I keep wondering if there can’t be software that prevents double key pressing, so that if you hit two keys at once, only one will actually print. That would solve a lot of the problems. The problem is that some good typists haven’t let go of the last key before striking the next, which makes the problem very complex. I can keep hoping. After all, I don’t type that way. But see this article on Rollover in Wikipedia …

My solution to the problem of keyboards only encourage me to make frequent errors has always been AutoCorrect. When I type “gfind” the resolution is ambiguous, but “qwuick” has only one likely outcome.

When I encounter a new keyboard it may take me a couple of days, but eventually I can use AutoCorrect to tame that keyboard so that I can get some work done.

I always tell new writers that the secret of becoming a successful writer is to have written enough that you no longer pay attention to what you are doing, but simply tell the story. The less you have to think about the mechanics of writing, from typing errors to grammatical complexities, the better your story will come out.

Alex tells me that’s important advice that I should repeat, so you may see it again.

Alas, Word 2013 makes taming the Surface Pro 3 keyboard much more difficult. With the default settings it can be done, but you need to be determined. With default Word 2013, when you encounter a misspelled word, right clicking on it displays a choice of words, but no access to AutoCorrect. To get to AutoCorrect, mark the word either with the pen, or your finger, or double-click it to mark it, but don’t single click it. Go up to File, and click that. You’ll see options as the last on a list of menu items. Click options, and you’ll see proofing on the menu that displays; click proofing and you will see a bunch of options for spell checking. Look them over.

While you are here, this will be as good a time as any to unselect the option not to spell check words that have numbers in them. It is selected by default, but since many of my typing errors with computer keyboards involve hitting a number which is above the letter I am reaching for, I need to deselect it, because otherwise the spelling checker won’t see “r4esources” as misspelled. Whether you do that or not you’ll see AutoCorrect enclosed in an oval, sort of a button. Click that and you’ll be at AutoCorrect and if you correctly marked the word to correct it will be in the left side of the area that lets you add to AutoCorrect options.

Carefully type in what you want it changed to. Do OK and get back to your text. Your word will now be corrected, and you’ll never make that typing error again unless you really want to.

If this seems a long way around Red Robin’s barn to do something Microsoft previously made easy with a single right-click, I agree completely. I can’t think why Microsoft took the easy path to AutoCorrect out of Word 2013, but it’s one more proof that Microsoft has given up having actual users of their product do pre-distribution testing. In the early days of the computer revolution, many companies used their customers as their quality control department. Most of those that did this have not survived.

Fortunately Microsoft’s revision programmers left in a better way to do AutoCorrect, but you have to discover it.

Discoveries

I’ve been writing thousands of words about high tech stuff for thirty years, and I have an astonishingly low record of flat-out errors. It’s not that I’m all that smart. For more than twenty of those years I had the BYTE editorial staff as backup, and if I got something wrong they told me. After BYTE went away I was in a quandary, but fortunately a number of friends and readers have volunteered to serve the same purpose, and I run this stuff through my advisors before publishing it.

I learn a good bit that way. In this case, I learned that Microsoft hasn’t actually eliminated the easy path to using AutoCorrect. You can make it fairly painless, but it takes determination. Thanks to Peter Glaskowsky for having the patience to teach me.

First, Word has a feature I never even thought about: the Quick Access Bar. This is a series of tiny icons, by default at the top of the Word window. It’s always there, even if you make the rest of the ribbon vanish with control-F1. The Quick Access Bar has been there for a long time, certainly since Word 2007 because I see the little icons now, and in fact I often use one of them, the little curly arrow that undoes whatever you just typed. There’s also the familiar 3.5-inch floppy icon that now means Save, and which I still use out of habits formed back when you saved early and often or you lost your work.

There are others, but one, which is always on the far right of the Quick Access Bar, is nearly invisible. It’s a tiny hyphen above a tiny down arrow. Mousing it tells you that it’s Customize Quick Access Bar (QAB hereafter). Click it and a confusing – at least confusing to me – menu drops down. At the bottom of that is the menu item More Commands. Clicking this shows you what looks like a large list of commands you can add to the QAB. Some of them may interest you, but in fact you ain’t seen nothing yet. Above that long list of commands is another little window that has above it a label: “Choose Commands From.” This little window lets you select a source for more commands.

Choose “All Commands” and the list of items you can add to the QAB becomes enormous. The one we’re interested in is AutoCorrect Options, which will have associated with it a little icon that contains a lightning bolt. Click on it, look over to the right for the “Add” button, click that, and Lo! That icon will appear in the list of QAB commands it shows you have enabled.

The Windows 2013 AutoCorrect problem is now 90% solved. (It would be better if you could add it back to the right-click menu.) When you mistype a word, double click it to mark it; go up to the Quick Access Bar above the ribbon, and click the tiny lightning bolt you have just added. The AutoCorrect screen will open, your mistyped word will be in the input area, and you need only (carefully) type what you want it changed to and exit. This also works in Windows 2007, but the right click option is a bit faster.

Now that I have this technique installed, I can begin to tame the Precious keyboard to correct mistakes my fat fingers seem intent on making; and I have done enough of them that she’s already a lot easier to use.

Why Not A New Keyboard?

Many of my complaints about Surface Pro 3 seem to be centered around the keyboard. Peter Glaskowsky suggests I can get any Bluetooth enabled keyboard I like and use that. And so I can, but of course that sort of negates the whole point of a small combination tablet and laptop. Apple makes a pretty decent little Bluetooth keyboard that works quite well with the iPad, and if you packed up a briefcase of iPad, keyboard, port expander, and iPad desk stand you’d have quite a good tablet that you could use to write with, but I think I’d rather just bring a good laptop, and add a tablet to the mix.

My hope is that the Surface Pro 3 will turn out to be as useful as the Compaq TC 1100, but faster and more versatile. I still haven’t given up on that.

There are several morals to this story. One is that Microsoft sometimes leaves you important options rather than taking them away, but they aren’t much good at telling you about them. When Chris Peters was VP of Development at Microsoft – his principal product was Word, then later all of Office – he frequently brought in users from Seattle offices to try his new stuff. Executive secretaries, engineering secretaries, writers, journalists – he had a fairly large team of users he could rely on. They even had an internal team of developers/testers who watched through one-way mirrors as users tried to adopt a new feature. During that period Microsoft documentation got better, as did user friendliness. All that seems gone now. I think Microsoft ought to bring Chris back to re-establish that team. Surely he’s bored with running a bowling association?

And if they can’t get Chris Peters back, they should try Peter Glaskowsky.

On Windows 10

I have previously said that I am not greatly impressed with Windows 8. It now resides only on the Surface Pro 3; all our other machines either have Windows 7, or Windows 10 which is now available as a free trial upgrade to Windows 8. (The technology preview version will time out in April 2015.)

Windows 10 installs easily, and it is a great deal more intuitive in use than was Windows 8. I have been using it for a week or so, and it will probably be the OS for my secondary “main machine”. I’m still using Windows 7 this column, my daybook on, and email. At some point I’ll probably change but I am in no hurry. On the other hand I have no urge to restore the Windows-8-upgraded-to-10 system to Windows 7, and I find some parts preferable.

Windows 8 has been called a disaster for Microsoft. Some put it in the same category as New Coke. Coca Cola found some relief in reviving Coke Classic, but Microsoft doesn’t really have that option. Everyone eagerly awaited Windows 9, and over on my day book I asked readers to suggest ways Microsoft could get them to love Windows 9. (Note that these responses were received before the “Windows 10” name was announced.)

Here are a few typical answers.

Jerry,

You asked if anyone likes Windows 8, which it seems the general consensus rates a disaster. For myself, the answer is both yes and no. My touchscreen tablet and mouse-interfaced PC both use Windows 8. I love it on the tablet, but hate it on the PC. The tabular start screen array and the simulated page turning feature are terrific when used with touchscreen. With mouse they add nothing. The page turning function, which has the irritating tendency to flip applications whenever one drags the mouse across the screen, is downright annoying! So I adore Windows 8 in touchscreen mode, but think very dimly of it minus that. My own non-expert, somewhat ‘conspiracy theory’ take on things is Windows 8 was specifically developed for touchscreens, which the tech industry probably considers the immediate future of user interfaces. Disseminating it across the board was done both in anticipation that touchscreens will soon dominate the tech market, and to accelerate the progression by forcing users to rapidly assimilate the touchscreen methodology in all venues.

I speculated touchscreens are the immediate future of user interfaces. Their ultimate future can be glimpsed in Mary Lou Jepsen’s remarkable TED talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vNDhu2uqfdo

Your insight on these matters would be most appreciated.

Dr. Ian Nieves”

Actually, we have fairly similar views. Microsoft was so concerned about touch screens that they forgot that most users don’t have them yet, and they put too much of that and too little of more traditional mouse/keyboard utility into Windows 8.
I have been experimenting with the tech preview of Windows 10, and I think it has taken much of the sting out of Windows 8. I wouldn’t recommend the present edition of 10 for Surface systems, but it has made my desktop Windows 8 system fairly pleasant.

Dr. Pournelle,

What would make me love Windows 9 would be abandoning reliance on a touch-screen based UI development. In Win8, Microsoft has tried to emulate IOS and OSX, going to a similar interface for telephones and desktop. Apple could do this, but Microsoft cannot. The small-screen + touch concept is really antithetical to the PC usage model for the majority of people. They’ve tried to apply UI concepts for telephones and gaming machines to their base, niche product, and alienated the users of the product.

As it is, I have learned to get along with (not like) Windows 8 minus Metro. I bought a Dell all-in-one 21 desktop, without touch, for my business with Win 8 pre-installed, and as of 8.1, have made the default look-and-feel like Windows 7 standard desktop, only resorting to Metro when I must access some of the built-in management applications. I did not put on MS Office, since I do not care for the pricing model, but use Libre Office, since it meets all of my needs and has features not available in MS Office. I installed and am learning to use Quickbooks, which feels and appears like a Win 7 program from desktop.

I have an older, small ASUS Vivobook, also with Win 8.1, that I also have customized the same way. Mostly, I have do not use the touch interface, and have tried to customize it to prefer the mousepad and physical keyboard.

And with all those, my main computer is a dual-boot, traditional laptop with a 17 inch screen. Win 7 is available, but seldom used, with most of my work and entertainment done through Linux.

Like the screen keyboard, I do not like most of the features that were supposed to make Win 8 into an iPad (some of which Leo Laporte has approved) like the ability to snap an application to the entire desktop, or split the desktop into two applications — on the larger screen they are not useful, and on the Vivobook, these features are unnecessary.

It is possibly unfair (to Coke) to compare it to Windows 8, after all, New Coke was a one-time, deliberate, and successful marketing campaign. Win 8 comes after Vista, Win 98, Win 2K, Win 3, DOS 6, DOS 4, and many others not well received, and even the successful MS releases have needed many modifications: IMO Win XP and 7, DOS 5 either were faulty as introduced or fell much short on needed functionality. In connection with MS OS releases, I keep thinking of the Ian Fleming line from James Bond, something like “Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, thrice is enemy action.” MS does learn, if temporarily, from their mistakes, so your suggestion for WinHEC could help. Certainly giving prior notice of their innovations has helped in the past.

MS has always had Mac envy, and has always done well when they forgot that, and really did their own thing. What would make me love Windows 9 would be a concentration on a traditional PC desktop (with touch options for touch-pad only devices), and low-cost applications.

Happy belated Birthday, and many returns.

Anxiously awaiting Mamelukes,
-d”

Thanks for the kind words. I do not believe Microsoft has any malice toward its customers. Napoleon Bonaparte once said “Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.” They really need someone like Chris Peters back as a VP.

What Would Make Me Love Windows 10?

  1. A newer better interface that yet at the same time doesn’t force me to learn the new interface but instead conforms to what I know (the Windows 7 interface). I’m gripping onto Win 7 for as long as I can for this very reason.

  2. Microsoft does have something with OneDrive and OneNote and the Windows phone. I have all three, but the fragile ecosphere is broken multiple ways. It was a PITA going from Skydrive to OneDrive since I was trying to link across: 1 windows phone 7.5, 2 desktops running windows 7, and a laptop running windows 7. Even worse, my Windows phone got bricked and I needed a complete reinstall by my cell carrier, resulting in a complete lack of integration. If I’m going to use the cloud I’d like a way to restore the cloud. I’ve heard that Social networking apps in Win 8 are more broken than in Windows phone 7, because Microsoft wants to be big brother.

This caused MS to lose the hearts and minds of customers. If Microsoft encouraged this 3rd party integration they could steal market share from Android and Apple. For all of the outed win phone benefits of a closed ecosystem it lacks:

A. backup/restore to include settings, as I found out the hardware.
B. Better privacy/OS isolation from apps. Every app wants all sort of unfettered access to MY data (address book, GPS, etc).
C. Multiple user/profile support. I actually carry two cellphones. One for work and one for personal use. Having two phone numbers and user profiles linked to the phone would be hugely beneficial….making N profiles (thing anonymous throw away profiles to run 3rd party apps in a Jail) would be incredible.
D. Plug ins for 3rd party privacy and encryption, such as TOR, SIM ID masking, etc…In other words, do one better than the “Blackphone”
E. Continue the awesome camera support from Nokia F. Add better microphone/transcription support.

A better less bloated MS Office. Better disk data management/indexing. I doubt if MS would ever do this, but the ability to switch desktops and actually use third party desktops such a KDE.

I remember when Office exceeded 60 megabytes. I called it “bloatware” at the time, despite pleas from friends at Microsoft, but I was mistaken: when it first came out, 300 megabyte hard drives were plummeting in price, and within a year it was hard to find a new machine with fewer than 500 mb. One thing Microsoft always did well was anticipate the effects of Moore’s Law. If it works at all, ship it. The machines will get better, and early quirks due to machine speed and memory limits will soon be forgotten. Moore’s Law essentially assured Microsoft’s victory in the Windows/OS-2 contest.

The comments on Windows 9 can be largely summed in Rod McFadden’s observation, “If 9 becomes to 8 as 7 was to Vista, I’m not sure I’d love it, but I’d sure welcome it!”

I encourage all of you to send suggestions on what would make you love the new Windows 10.

Books of the Month

The book of the month is Does Santa Exist (Dutton, 2014), by my neighbor Eric Kaplan. Eric is a writer and co-executive producer of TV’s The Big Bang Theory. He is also a candidate for a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of California at Berkeley. Think about that background, and speculate what kind of book the writer of one of the most popular TV comedies might produce. Now fold in his philosophy studies, and the subject matter. The result is about what you might hope for, a serious work on ontology (what does it mean to exist?), and epistemology (how do we know anything at all?) that is very readable. Imagine Sheldon Cooper and Amy Farrah Fowler in a dialog on the matter of existence and understanding. Now understand that it’s a serious work. Recommended.

Another book this month was Amy Chua, World on Fire, (Anchor 2003.)

The subtitle is How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability, and that summarizes the book quite well. Liberal democracy and market capitalism may well be the best goal to work toward, but if you don’t start with a tradition of law and order and property rights, trying to impose it can do more harm than good: particularly in ethnically divided societies which have “market dominant minorities” – think Chinese in Indonesia, and Indians in South Africa. Democracy empowers the poor majority to despoil the already resented minority, while encouraging the wealthy to defend themselves, their families, and their property. The End of History with the triumph of liberal democracy was predicted after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This is a more realistic assessment of the future.

I didn’t get any computer books to review last month.

Winding Down

Our experiences with the long neglected iMac and Time Machine have made us appreciate the iMac again. It’s rugged, has consumed little of my time, and goes on working without fuss. We haven’t had a backup in six years – and we haven’t needed one.

Alex is using Office 365 and he cautions “If you use Office 365 and you want to run Word on an airplane, you had better start in the terminal where you have Wi-Fi because you must log in to Office 365 before you can use it.” Logging in requires Internet access.

Those using or contemplating getting a Surface Pro 3 should see this article on customizing Surface Pen with the Surface Hub app.

This may be the app you’ve been waiting for.

The Time Machine took seven hours to do the six year backup of the iMac. Next month more on iMac, Time Machine, iPhone, and of course the Surface Pro 3 as we continue to upgrade computing at Chaos Manor. The Airport, with its network renamed, continues to work as always. Tomorrow I intend to upgrade the iMac OS, now that we have a good backup.

We’ve got Chaos Manor into the 21st Century. Now to bring it up to date.

For aNewDomain, I’m Jerry Pournelle.

As promised at the top of this column, here is my long-suffering associate Eric Pobris with a report on what really went on with my Wi-Fi.

Report by Eric Pobirs

I’m going to cut to the chase and put the solution first.

The powerline bridge in Roberta’s office, which served as the connection point between the Cat5 and powerline networks in Chaos Manor, decided to go on strike. This was a Trendnet model that had been used to get the TV room at the far end of the house on the network. The one in the TV room had been replaced with a Netgear powerline Wi-Fi Extender, which is the same generation of powerline bridge with an 802.11n AP on board. Another had been installed in the dining nook off the kitchen. Because these are sold in kits with a bridge, there were two unused bridges left from the purchase. Installing one of those in place of the elderly Trendnet restored service.

It is unclear as of this writing whether the Trendnet failed or just needed a reset. It should also be noted that this was the same location where a switch recently needed to be reset.

Now the problem is solved but the process of how I got there is another problem. Several somewhat expensive items were purchased that ultimately had no bearing on fixing the problem. It can be said that two of these items were desirable upgrades anyway, and the third added a useful bit of versatility to the Surface Pro 3; but in a situation where no upgrades were planned this would have been a costly misadventure due to inadequate troubleshooting. Some aspects would never have come up in a more, shall we say, boring household but such is the life of a tech journalist.

The problem began when Jerry found he couldn’t connect to the wireless network from the Surface Pro 3 aka the Precious. This appeared to be limited to just Precious but it became clear in testing that while other phones running iOS and Android were seeing the Starswarm-Pre-N SSID, they weren’t making a usable connection. This appeared to be a repeat of a problem in Larry Niven’s home where a room that had been connected by powerline successfully for several years would no longer allow it. Powerline networking was still functional in other parts of the house, where it was driving Wi-Fi extender modules. The same thing appeared to be happening at Chaos Manor but in two locations at once. We tested a number of conditions but it wasn’t until much later that I checked to be sure that the bridge between the network types was still working, which should have been one of the first things I examined.

But upgrades beckoned and that siren call could not be ignored. The existing Wi-Fi had, or at least we thought, consisted of an aging Belkin Pre-N (802.11n before the spec was finalized) router in bridge/AP mode, a D-Link router whose radio may or may not have been turned off, and the two Netgear powerline Wi-Fi Extenders servicing the two downstairs areas. If powerline was no longer an option, we’d see if more up-to-date Wi-Fi equipment could be made to reach those areas. The Belkin Pre-N was positioned by the window of the large storage room upstairs, overlooking much of the downstairs area it hoped to serve. The D-Link router lived next door in the utility room with the cable modem, main switch, D-Link NAS box, and various tools and implements of destruction. The utility room is fairly noisy in the RF sense and cuts a fair amount of the signal from any radio inside, thus the rationale for having a separate AP in the other room.

All of the radios went by the name Starswarm-Pre-N as their SSID, though their MAC addresses remained distinct, of course. It was hoped that client devices would automatically choose the AP with the strongest signal and switch as needed. This is Netgear’s advice in their manual for the powerline Wi-Fi extender. In real life, some do and some don’t. When moving around the house it could be necessary to disconnect and tell the device to rescan. Still, this meant less clutter to the device’s list of connections than having a distinct name for every AP. But this also made diagnosing the failure more complicated.

In pursuit of upgrading the network infrastructure and finding the point of failure, we picked up three items. First was the APA20 Access Point by Amped Wireless. ( http://www.ampedwireless.com/products/apa20.html ) This device was pretty much the only option, as everything else I found was much older and lower powered. In any case, retailers no longer bother to stock dedicated Access Points and instead favor routers with a bridge mode in their firmware. That should be adequate and in fact the APA20’s feature set makes it clear that it is a router in all but firmware. But I’ve had hassles in the past with equipment that implemented bridge modes poorly and didn’t want to have an ongoing battle between two devices that both thought they should be performing the same service to the network. The annoying aspect of this is that these days consumer APs sell in lesser numbers and are thus priced higher than the router model that are the exact same hardware and only distinguished by the firmware.

The unit is pretty loaded. Dual-band 802.11AC Phase 1. Five gigabit ports, one for connecting to the main network and four for serving local devices. (These can be given their own range of DHCP addresses and kept separate from the larger network.) USB 2.0 port for making flash or hard drives available on the network. A very good feature set but I’d trade some of it for a lower price in this usage case. One nice aspect of the AP firmware is that it will attempt to configure itself for your network automatically. This would be very handy for novices so long as they don’t mind using the pre-configured SSIDs and encryption keys. On the downside, it appears the USB storage functionality doesn’t include DLNA support, which is used by devices like Blu-ray decks and game consoles to find content like video files on a network. (A search on ‘DLNA’ at the Amped Wireless site produces several hits but none of the documents contain the term. Also, the logo for certified devices isn’t found on any of the product pages I examined.)

Next up was the Netgear R6200 Wi-Fi Router. (http://netgear.com/home/products/networking/Wi-Fi-routers/R6200.aspx#tab-features) Another good feature set at a bit over $100. If they’d put the power specs on the outer packaging or on the web page, and if the signal power was comparable to the APA20, and if I was confident of it being well behaved in bridge mode, I might have instead have gone with two of these for a significantly lower cost. Among the notable features of the Netgear are USB 3.0 for much better throughput from the attached storage device (assuming USB 3.0 on its part) and a button on the side that switches the Wi-Fi on and off. This is handy when there is already Wi-Fi present that you don’t want to interfere with or need to diagnose a problem with multiple Wi-Fi sources in operation. Also, the USB storage is presented as a DLNA volume for devices that use that to find local content.

The third item was a Trendnet USB 3.0 to Gigabit Ethernet Adapter. (http://www.trendnet.com/products/proddetail.asp?prod=315_TU3-ETG) This was for use with the Surface Pro 3 to determine if a wired connection could work when the Wi-Fi offered by the same powerline module did not. It’s also a handy item to have when traveling with a device like the Surface or an ultraslim notebook that may lack a dedicated network port but does have USB.

I decided early on to do away with the ‘one SSID to rule them all’ approach and give everything a unique name in order to have a better idea which radio was in use at any given moment. This lead to a surprise that could only happen in this house. First we put up the new AP in place of the old Belkin. It was broadcasting as Starswarm-1 for 2.4 GHz and Starswarm-1-5 for the 5 GHz band. Then the new router took over in the utility room with SSIDs Starswarm-2 and Starswarm-2-5. (It remains to do a better survey and pick the best channels for each radio.) At this point the two powerline Wifi extenders downstairs should be the only remnant of Starswarm-Pre-N but it was still not only visible upstairs but quite strong. How could this be? If the signal was that good and delivered internet access, why was it unusable in far closer proximity? And was this eating into the valuable shared RF spectrum upstairs?

I pulled out my old Asus TF201 tablet and ran WiFi Analyzer, a handy free app from the Google Play app store. One of its features is to look at MAC addresses and tell you what company produced each signal it detects. It said Starswarm-Pre-N was coming from an Apple device. What? Why? Where?

After some looking around I came across a box for an Apple Time Capsule, which includes 802.11b/g/n among its functions. At least now I knew what I was looking for. After some more searching I found it, on top of the old HP Windows Home Server and under an accumulation of papers. I switched it off and sure enough, Starswarm-Pre-N became a faint signal as one would expect at that range from the extenders downstairs. I then turned it back on. It wasn’t harming anything now that I knew it was there and the iMac nearby was possibly expecting to use it for a scheduled backup. It would probably be best to give it a more distinct name at some point but that was low on the agenda. Meanwhile, John Dvorak had come visiting and we were all headed out to dinner. It was while we were eating that it occurred to me that I’d never verified that the powerline bridge in Roberta’s office was working correctly.

Changing out that module for one of the spare units I happened to have in my car resolved the problem that started all of this. The Netgear recommendation of using the same SSID across multiple APs turned out to be ill-advised in practice. Too many client devices aren’t smart enough to change connections as needed and the lack of distinct names made it more difficult to find the point of failure. Given an enterprise-class WiFi network, where the network intelligently hands off clients from one AP to another, this would have been fine but such are still far too costly for homes and most small businesses. The Ruckus gear we (LocationConnect) use for events has a device called a Zone Director to manage the network and perform load balancing between APs regardless of how smart or stupid the client devices might be. We’ll eventually see this in SOHO gear but not for a few more years.

Now that service had been restored to the far end of the house, there were a few more things to do. Jerry had a Seagate 4 TB USB 3.0 hard drive just sitting there waiting to be put to use. I connected it to the new Netgear router and let it apply the default settings. A few minutes late a new node was on the network: a shared drive named ReadyShare with 3.6 TB of available space. Further, this volume would be visible to devices that spoke the DLNA protocol, such as the LG BP-220 Blu-ray deck in the TV room. (I favor LG for this purpose because they support a much larger range of codecs and file formats than most. TiVo DVRs can use DLNA storage but are limited to MPEG 1 and 2 video, MP3 audio, and JPEG pictures.) I threw some video files from the flash drives in my pocket on to the volume and looked to see if they could be played in the TV room. They weren’t to be found but the video files that had been factory installed on the Seagate drive were visible and playable.

It wasn’t until later that I remembered that DLNA is designed to support very lightweight devices that lack all but the most minimal networking functionality. As such, they depend on the host to do all of the heavy listing, even for such minor tasks as displaying a directory. This means the host device has to regularly survey itself for changes and update the data it provides to clients. In this case there hadn’t been enough time for the update cycle. The automatic update can be turned off in the firmware but the default setting is ON. I’ll check it next time I’m at Chaos Manor to be sure. I have another reason to look in the router anyway, as follows.

I also noticed that the existing D-Link NAS box wasn’t appearing any longer. I believe this is due to it having a static address and the address range used by the new router not being set correctly. This should be quickly changed on my next visit.

About the author

Jerry

Based in Southern California, Dr. Jerry Pournelle is the most-decorated tech columnist of all time and leads aNewDomain's technology commentary. Also a multi-award winning science fiction author of such books as The Mote in God's Eye, Dr. Pournelle is known to millions worldwide for his Computing at Chaos Manor computing column, a tech column spanning five decades. Find more on Jerry at http://www.jerrypournelle.com.