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The Northern Spy
August 2006

To Rule the Desktop

Rick Sutcliffe

The book of the hour

is "To Rule the Waves--How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World", by Arthur Herman, a fascinating and sobering reminder of how the largest empire the word has ever known was assembled over centuries, but lost in mere decades.

"What's the British Navy got to do with Macintosh computers?" Nellie demanded from behind me--as usual reading over my shoulder, and as often, unanounced.

"Hi Nellie. Nice of you to knock."

She ignored my lesson in etiquette. Nellie wasn't much changed since the old days of the early eighties when I relied on her to type my columns and books. We've both grown older, but no mellower. "Well?" she insisted.

"It's very relevant, Nellie. The British Navy stayed on top as long as it had superior technology, better leadership, a sense of destiny, and the backing of the people. It enforced the elimination of piracy and the slave trade, and maintained free trade, which benefited Britain as the world's premiere trader. Eventually most of the world's trade goods flowed through London.

"Mmmm," she replied, helping herself to the can of peanuts I keep on my desk. "Once they lost their edge, their nerve, and their backing, it was all kaput. I suppose you're telling us that the same thing can happen in today's technological trade and commerce."

"Right-o, kid."

She snorted at the cognomen, and I grinned. She might not be my student or employee any more, but you gotta maintain some distinctions.

"You see, Nellie, "I went into professorial mode, "The stock-in-trade today may not be so much agricultural and industrial goods as it is ideas and the tools for manipulating them, but the principles are similar."

"I'm a programmer. I'll buy that to some extent. But how come Pa Jobs, the world's greatest innovator, isn't king of the roost instead of BillG?" she demanded.

"Apple had the technological edge, the leadership, and the marketplace mindshare back in the late seventies and early eighties, lost all three between then and the mid-nineties, and took the first two back as the millennium ticked over."

"And mindshare?"

"It's coming, Nellie. It's coming. The iPod, the consistent innovation, even the Intel switch, have all won friends. Market share is approaching five percent again, profits are at record levels, the press sharks are eating other people's shorts, and the former monopoly is losing confidence--its own and everyone else's. And don't forget the Spy's Fourth Law."

"That 'marketshare lags mindshare by two to five years.' Is there a prediction coming on, oh one who is never wrong? Her sarcasm could cut down walls."

"Well, let's not mention my forecast that IBM would go into the business of making G5 personal systems with Apple, and just recall all the times I got the specs of new machines pretty well right, shall we?"

"No hard trick with an outfit as predictable as Cupertino, but what say, Professor?"

"All other things staying equal (which they won't), a one to two percent growth in marketshare per year for the next two years, and three or more thereafter, to about the sixteen percent level in five. Not a revolution, but certainly a big dent in the monopoly. After that, anything could happen, and something probably will."

"Even that much requires a breakthrough into business. My boss only bought me a Mac when I promised to maintain it myself. Little does she know. If she bought all Macs, she could let most of her support staff go and not notice."

"The breakthrough will come as the current crop of university students gets into the workplace. Business can't afford to go on buying technology whose productivity is inferior and whose total cost of ownership is so much higher. Sooner of later cold hard logic will prevail."

"So Apple isn't really going to rule the desktop in five years," she groused.

"No, but neither will anyone else."

She changed the subject. "I notice you're not going down to WWDC next week."

"Not a good time of the year. I preferred it in the spring. Besides, the agenda is pretty well set this time. New desktop, faster portables, and attendees get to play with Leopard. Only a slight chance of a really big product announcement, more likely save those for back-to-school and/or Christmas shopping."

"Still wanting the all-in-one dodad you wrote about twenty years ago? What'd you call it, the Personal Intelligence Energizing Apple? "

"PIEA is right, but that's 'Enhancement Appliance', Nellie. Cell phone, wireless modem, book reader, music player, camera, personal computer, and everything else you can think of, with perhaps a few things you can't."

"Anybody going to do it?"

"Not yet. Apple maybe someday. Meanwhile, they haven't perfected the eBook reader or the telephone yet, or they'd have released them by now."

"What about this new eBook reader Sony just announced?"

"Got possibilities, Nellie, but it introduces yet another proprietary file format. That could be the kiss of death, even if it were a good one. It has for lots of others. Apple might get away with it in an iTunes environment, and only if the device also allowed owners to put their own files on it in any format they wanted. In the long run, electronic ink on a sheet of plastic as thin as paper is the right hardware, but that won't take off without the right approach to digital rights."

"But isn't Microsoft going to kill iTunes and the iPod with this Zune thingummy they announced end of June?"

"How many companies have announced an iPod killer? How many have gotten anything to market? How many are still around? Other than W*nd*ws keyboards, has MS ever produced a successful hardware device? Have they built one we've even used since the Z-80 SoftCard? How many announced MS products are intended for anything but FUD generators? Case closed. If the Zune ever arrives, it will zune be gone."

"Har-dee-har. Are we going to say anything nice about anybody other than Apple this month?"

"We? You haven't worked for me in over fifteen years."

"So? I still have a proprietary interest, even if not a paycheck. And I have an e-mail account on your system. And I keep an eye on the web site."

"True. How be I tell the upgrade story? It has at least one hero."

"How be."

In one of his alternate personas,

the Spy runs Arjay Web Services, a sister in Arjay Enterprises to The Northern Spy, Arjay Books, Sheaves Christian Resources, and opundo (word garage)."

The hosting server AWS runs was getting long in tooth and kinda slow, so he upgraded it to dual Opteron iron running CentOS 4. Ah, now before you complain that's not a Mac, I already suspected that was so. Most hosting, you see, is done with commercial control panels, the most common being CPanel, which runs under Unix and various flavours of Linux, but not Mac OS X. Too bad, but that's life. It's none too practical to do consumer level hosting on Mac OS as yet, and frankly, doing on W*nd*ws is a really bad idea.

Anyhow, the new box can't hold a candle to the Spy's office machine--a quad (two dual) 2.5G G5s, but with CentOS, CPanel, and a variety of other software, it's optimized for web sites and their associated FTP and mail traffic. Once the Atjeu data centre people set the box up, it took a few days to harden the security (sublet task to the good folk at ConfigServer) and install all the software (including MailScanner anti-spam filters), and a few more to move accounts from the old box to the new. An interesting exercise, both in the doing and in the learning.

Interestingly, although the new box benchmarks only 73% faster than the old single processor Pentium machine, throughput is ten to thirty times as great because of better software and more memory. Indeed, the latter is a good reminder, to Apple and its customers that 512M is not enough memory. No computer should have less than 1G, and no serious work box less than 2G. Buying more memory for a standard box has a greater effect on performance than any other single upgrade, and this is particularly so for Macs, which come notoriously under-memoried from the factory.

The Spy believes that anyone who messes up should fix up, so there were a few trouble tickets submitted to software vendors to get things working, including to the Netenberg people (makers of excellent CPanel skins and script installer Fantastico) whose Universina skin was reporting files as .php when they were really .html (it'll be interesting to find out how). He had to answer a few tickets of his own customers' to cover off minor glitches in moving up ten or eleven OS versions, but that's par for the course.

He notes by the way, that Red Hat Linux seven and nine (like eight), along with Fedora Core one and two are all being end-of-lifed for legacy support. So all servers running one of these will have to be upgraded by 2006 12 31, for after that bugs will not be fixed and security upgrades won't happen, making all these useless for servers. Hey, it happens with Apple, too.

He also notes that it is an interesting exercise in planning and execution to move a hundred accounts under various IP numbers, and their associated nameservers, from one box to another, while keeping all the IP numbers, and not interrupting mail service.

Anyway, all went pretty well, excepting some of the technical answers were a bit thin. During the process however, he noticed that SFTP wasn't working to one of his own accounts on the new box though FTP was. Deleting and reinstalling the account didn't help and neither did editing the Mac's own known_hosts file (necessary to accommodate the new certificate being presented by the new box). So he put in a service request to Stairways, maker of Interarchy, the FTP client he's used since long before it was called that.

Stairways' guru Peter Lewis ran a few tests and discovered shell access wasn't enabled on the server for that account. Duh! Easy to fix this rookie mistake, though having Interarchy return a "length error" perhaps wasn't the most informative thing possible. (The all time grand champion error message is still a tie between: 1. "This is an error", and 2. "This error cannot happen, but if it does, please call the following number...."). Anyway, Lewis, Stairways, and Interarchy earn a hero award for the most helpful response to any technical question coming out of the move.

Four lessons to learn from this: First, that there are times when being a generalist is not quite good enough. You need a real guru. Second, that technical people need to give real answers as Peter did. Too many were of the type "I fixed a configuration error." So, what error? Don't hand me a fish. Teach me how to fish. Third, the Spy should have known better. He's getting old and forgetful.

Oh, and while we're at it, most useful utility award of the move goes to ConfigServer for their File Manager/Console, which allows the root owner to sign in to CPanel's Web Hosting Manager and edit/rename/move/view/change permissions and owners on any file without a separate SSH logon. Dangerous, but very nice.

The pitter patter of little feats

Don't you just hate it when someone comes along out of the blue and tries to patent a technology/algorithm everybody has been freely using for years? Shades of SCO's attempt to kill Linux, some outfit called Forgent Networks tried to assert a patent against the JPEG compression standard used for graphics in cameras and computers. In a show of common sense, the U.S. Patent Office ruled there was prior art and threw out the attempt. Nice. A few more of these and perhaps companies that live by the lawsuit will all die by the lawsuit. Couldn't happen too soon. Are you listening, Steve?

Interesting Mac Product Noted

(but this is not a review) is Graph Paper Maker, which allows the user to create custom graph papers with linear of log scales, on a variety of paper sizes, line weights, colours, etc. According to the company bumph, a graph paper can be saved as a pdf for later repeat printing. Don't know how good this is (haven't tried it yet), but when the Spy was a high school teacher it could have come in very handy. Hey, he assigned himself to teach first year calculus for a change this fall, so perhaps....

I remember taking calculus from you," Nellie grumbled, pushing back her chair and making ready to wander off. "That's where you showed us really practical things like the container with finite volume but infinite area, so that it couldn't hold enough paint to cover its own surface, and where we calculated how fast the surface area of the water in a toilet bowl is changing 1.345 seconds after you flush it. Real practical."

"That'll do, Nellie. There are people in the world other than computing science types, you know. Besides, if I'm not mistaken, you needed Calculus to write gaming software. A little matter of differential equations and numerical analysis?"

"She flinched but tried to ignore the hit. "See you around sometime."

--The Northern Spy

Rick Sutcliffe, (a.k.a. The Northern Spy) is professor of Computing Science and Mathematics at Trinity Western University. He's written two textbooks and several novels, one of which was named best in the science fiction genre for 2003. His columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers, and he's a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of BC since 1972.

Want to discuss this and other Northern Spy columns? Surf on over to ArjayBB.com. Participate and you could win free web hosting from the WebNameHost.net subsidiary of Arjay Web Services. Rick Sutcliffe's fiction can be purchased in various eBook formats from Fictionwise, and in dead tree form from Bowker's Booksurge.


The Northern Spy Home Page: http://www.TheNorthernSpy.com

WebNameHost : http://www.WebNameHost.net

WebNameSource : http://www.WebNameSource.net

nameman : http://nameman.net

opundo : http://opundo.com

Sheaves Christian Resources : http://sheaves.org

Arjay Books: http://www.ArjayBooks.com

Booksurge: http://www.booksurge.com

Fictionwise: http://www.fictionwise.com

The Spy's Laws collected: http://www.thenorthernspy.com/spyslaws.htm

MailScanner : http://www.mailscanner.info

ConfigServer (CPanel security) : http://www.configserver.com/

Netenberg (Fantastico, Universina and XController) : https://netenberg.com/

Stairways Interarchy : http://www.stairways.com/main/

Black Cat Systems' Graph Maker : http://www.blackcatsystems.com/software/graphmaker.html

CPanel : http://www.cpanel.com

Atjeu : http://www.atjeu.com

This Arjay Enterprises page is Copyright 1983-2006.
The Northern Spy is registered at WebNameSource.com and is hosted by WebnameHost.net.
Last Updated: 2006 11 08