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View the documentMailBITS/18-Mar-91
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View the documentFoot Notes

Topics:

  • MailBITS/18-Mar-91
  • Input Devices, Newer and Weirder
  • Apple Bargain Basement
  • Learn Unix the Easy Way
  • Reviews/18-Mar-91

Copyright 1991 TidBITS Electronic Publishing. All rights reserved.
Information: <info@tidbits.com> Comments: <editors@tidbits.com>


MailBITS/18-Mar-91

Some people have suggested that we start a regular letters section, so we've decided that a quasi-sporadic, semi-edited section does make sense. Some mailfiles will come through complete; others we'll edit for space reasons. We will also use this article to inform you of TidBITS administrative trivia, stupid errors on our part, and the like. Hope you like it. Just so we don't have to mention this with every letter we print, please assume that we are extremely grateful for this information.

Mark H Anbinder forwarded us this note from Brian Westley of DigiBoard:

"The WDEF A virus was inadvertently included on the driver disk for the DigiCHANNEL Nu/Xi serial port board; the disk is numbered PN 40000480B. The new driver is PN 40000480C; contact DigiBoard customer service at (612) 922-8055 to get the new driver (the software is the same). We are also adding the Communications Toolbox installer and connection tools to the release, so you can get these as well. Sorry for any inconvenience."

Richard Johnson writes that the numbers we gave for IPT in Harry Skelton's article, "The Crocodile Smile," were incorrect, each by a single digit (bloody typos!). Here are the correct numbers for IPT.

IPT -- 800/233-9993 -- 818/347-7791

Karl Smith writes, "Your article in TidBITS about the Apple/Microsoft suit didn't mention the League for Programming Freedom, a group that is opposed to 'look and feel' copyrights. For more information about them, you can send email to league@prep.ai.mit.edu, and/or ftp to prep.ai.mit.edu and read the files contained in pub/gnu/lpf. Some of their ideas (such as boycotting Apple) may not be compatible with yours (or mine), but many of their goals overlap with the sentiment expressed in your article."

Thomas Robb, an Associate Professor at the Kyoto Sangyo University in Japan (so he should know), writes, "A couple of comments on your most recent issue. Concerning the new project to develop a 16-bit standardized character set, you mentioned a number of "languages" at the end of the article. Actually, two of them are not languages at all, but just alphabets. Devanagari is the alphabet used to write classical Sanskrit as well as modern-day Hindi. With the population of India being what it is, it is probably a good idea to standardize these scripts now before India leaps into the personal computer age. Both Oriya and Gurmukhi are Indo-Aryan languages related to Hindi, but used by other areas of the sub-continent. Their alphabets are originally derived from Devanagari, but are rather different in their shapes - sort of like the differences between the Greek, Cyrllic and our alphabet. Bopomofo is an alphabet, now primarily used on Taiwan, for writing Chinese phonetically. I believe it is taught to the children there before they are started on learning the Chinese characters-proper. Mainland China now uses the Pinyin system which is comprised completely of Roman alphabetic characters, thus now a special character set is needed."

Information from:
Mark H. Anbinder -- mha@memory.uucp
Richard Johnson -- johnsonr@spot.colorado.edu
Karl Smith -- ksmith@jarthur.claremont.edu
Thomas Robb -- TROBB@JPNKSUVX.BITNET


Input Devices, Newer and Weirder

Cool new input devices are always a hard call - on the one hand you want companies to challenge the status quo and come out with the ultimate in control, but on the other hand, if an input device is too strange looking, no one will even think of buying it. There have been a number of introductions recently, and a few of them are quite interesting. As with any input device, you have to try it before you buy it, and it would be nice if these companies put a little more effort into supporting user group demonstrations (and sending them to TidBITS for review!) so people could get their hands on these beasties.

Three button devices are showing up more frequently these days now that Apple has A/UX and X Windows running on the Mac, since X Windows basically requires three mouse buttons. Logitech, a long-time mouse maker, has two new input devices, a mouse and a trackball, both with three buttons. Mouse Systems (with whom I'm still irritated for not releasing the PageBrush hand scanner already) has the $169.95 A3 (that's A cubed, but HyperCard 1.2.x can't handle superscripts), which like the Logitech $129 MouseMan and $149 TrackMan has three buttons and works with A/UX and X Windows. All three devices have Control Panels that allow users to assign macros to the buttons during normal Macintosh use, and at least the A3 can be configured so that left-handed people can use it easily. And if three buttons isn't enough for you, the $29.95 MVP Foot Switch from Curtis works with the company's $149.95 MVP Mouse (which, despite the name, is really a three-button trackball). I've been haranguing for a long time about foot controls, and I'm glad that someone has finally issued one.

Logitech has been busy. Aside from the MouseMan and TrackMan, they are working on a small trackball that works with portable computers. This is obviously mostly a problem for PC portables, since the main Macintosh compatible portables have built-in pointing devices, either a trackball or the Isopoint. I don't know offhand what Colby and Dynamac use for pointing devices, though. Microsoft also has a $175 trackball for portables, called the BallPoint, that will clip on the side of the computer and can be used with either hand, because it has two sets of two buttons on the side the unit. The Logitech trackball will probably look somewhat similar but will have the added advantage being able to work standing alone or held in the user's hand. The obvious problem with these devices is the slow refresh rate of portable LCD screens. Fast cursor movements disappear while the LCD displays refreshes, which is irritating and might be maddening if coupled with a bumpy plane trip. Nonetheless, Compaq will bundle Microsoft's BallPoint with its LTE and SLT portable PC clones between now and June 30th, 1991.

Apple is almost certainly working on handwriting recognition software with the announcements of PenPoint and PenWindows. However, you may not have heard that a small company, Communications Intelligence Corp. (CIC) has been working with Apple on a tablet-like device that can recognize Kanji characters as well as certain gestures, much like PenPoint. In theory the Mac Handwriter, as the device is called, could be modified to accept and recognize other alphabets.

EMAC has been advertising an interesting looking trackball recently. Called the Silhouette, the trackball is cut away on the top right side so you can get both your thumb and forefinger on the ball (which comes in a number of colors, to judge from the advertising). That design should provide quite a bit more control. The $99 Silhouette is ergonomically designed to fit the curve of the hand and offers well-placed buttons and a lighted lock button. Spark International's new trackball and mouse can't compete in the aesthetics department, but both are cordless, a welcome feature on many cord-covered desktops. The trackball will list for $185 and the mouse for $175, and in theory, both can operate up to 15 feet from the infrared receiver. Depending on the setup, an infrared pointing device could be very handy in a presentation setting because you could control the Mac from a different spot in the room.

The BAT keyboard's entrance to the Macintosh market (which I talked about earlier) is delayed slightly, in great part because it wasn't snazzy looking and Infogrip is concerned that too many people will care about its appearance. Infogrip will first target the PC CAD market with the serial version of the BAT and then will release Mac and Unix versions with a fancier design. Some people are already using the BAT in an interesting way - to provide a better controller for disabled people (my apologies if I've offended anyone, I couldn't bring myself to write "people of the disabled persuasion" :-)). California State University at Northridge has a universal interface where you can plug whatever device you need, be it the BAT, a normal keyboard, or a head-mounted pointing device, into any of the computers they have. For those of you who are especially interested in access to computers for disabled people, there will be a conference on the topic at the Airport Marriot in Los Angeles on March 20th through 23rd. Infogrip will be in the Genovation (the people who worked with CSU on its system) booth if you want to see the BAT.

One way or another, we at TidBITS are going to have to do something, because our mouse has started to skip and stick seriously despite rigorous cleaning. We're about ready to relegate it to the cats, who would enjoy it immensely, and get something else. Suggestions anyone?

CIC -- 415/328-1311
Curtis Manufacturing -- 603/532-4123
EMAC -- 415/683-2222
Infogrip -- 504/336-0033
Logitech -- 415/795-8500
Mouse Systems -- 415/656-1117
Spark International -- 708/998-6640

Information from:
Lots of propaganda
Ward Bond of Infogrip

Related articles:
MacWEEK -- 29-Jan-91, Vol. 5, #4, pg. 10
InfoWorld -- 11-Mar-91, Vol. 13, #10, pg. 21
InfoWorld -- 04-Feb-91, Vol. 13, #5, pg. 3
InfoWorld -- 21-Jan-91, Vol. 13, #3, pg. 38
PC WEEK -- 11-Mar-91, Vol. 8, #10, pg. 15
PC WEEK -- 07-Jan-91, Vol. 8, #1, pg. 4

Apple Bargain Basement

A lot of people had to quiet down when Apple introduced the Classic, LC, and IIsi because those machines aren't priced to compete with workstations. They are quite affordable (though it's still easy to find PC users bellyaching about how expensive Macs are), and Apple has lowered prices on a number of other machines to spread the savings across the product line.

                   New Suggested Retail Price          Reduction
     Mac IIfx 4/floppy          $7,369                   $1,600
     Mac IIfx 4/80HD            $8,069                   $1,800
     Mac IIfx 4/160HD           $8,669                   $2,300
 
     Mac IIci 4/floppy          $5,269                   $700
     Mac IIci 4/80HD            $5,969                   $700
 
     Mac SE/30 4/40HD           $3,369                   $1000
     Mac SE/30 4/80HD           $3,869                   $1700
 
     Personal LaserWriter NT    $2,599                   $700
     LaserWriter II NT          $3,999                   $500
     LaserWriter II NTX         $4,999                   $1000

In addition to these new prices, Apple is increasing the standard memory for the IIsi to 3 MB (we think that Apple will accomplish this using 512K SIMMs in the IIsi) and for the IIci to 5 MB. With the price of RAM these days, the move allows Apple to get rid of some 256K SIMMs in the IIci's and make a few friends in the process.

And finally, Apple officially dropped IIcx and IIx. Considering how useful they still are to those who own them, I doubt that muttering anything to the effect "Rest in peace" would be appropriate, especially considering that you can upgrade a IIcx to a IIci and a IIx to a IIfx.

Information from:
Mark H. Anbinder -- mha@memory.uucp
Apple propaganda


Learn Unix the Easy Way

by Ian Feldman -- ianf@random.se

Undoubtedly many reviewers have heralded the epic and factual qualities of Cliff Stoll's book "The Cuckoo's Egg." Indeed, his account of how he first discovered and then dealt with an anonymous intruder in the computer system that he managed is a potent read, and I found it difficult to lay down the book to attend to everyday chores. By virtue of being the first extensively documented case, "The Cuckoo's Egg" has largely dispelled the doubts about whether or not such intrusions occur, what proportions they take, and what possible consequences they may lead to. On the side it has also effectively killed the Hollywood myth of computer break-ins being some kind of War Games scenario: a pair of well-scrubbed suburban teenagers guess a secret password to a super-duper military computer in a Pentagon basement (complete with an array of randomly-blinking lights), start a make-believe thermonuclear war, then succeed in tracking down the computer's elusive chief scientist just prior to the initial ICBM launch. This killing of a Technicolor[tm] myth should be considered Stoll's major achievement, literary and otherwise. And for that reason alone the book cannot be recommended highly enough, the best $5.95 US/ $6.95 CAN (paperback) investment one could ever make.

Another side to this book has hardly been mentioned because it feels so, well, mundane. I'm thinking of its value as a textbook for teaching the basics of computer networking, software, hardware, and everyware. This applies for both the computer-illiterati and those with more varied electronic experiences. Stoll manages to clearly explain the interdependencies of a computer's operating system and its managed programs, the very principles of computer security, and the basics of what it takes to maintain a complex, many-tentacled computer system. Indeed, over the years having read a great many books about computer-basics (not to mention 'hacking') I can think of no other that approaches "The Cuckoo's Egg" in terms of clarity of thought and presentation of complex knowledge. All this while retaining the tension of a good spy thriller. Remembering my first, very frustrating months of learning Unix on my own, I'm sure that I'd have it much easier had I'd been able to read the book prior to my initial login.

Intruder-hunter or no, Stoll excels in teaching. He explains the security aspects in an environment of 'multitasked processes in a computer' in terms of a house subdivided into many apartments, each of which does function and houses [sic!] people independently of one another, each of which can be opened by a superintendent's key. Steal the key and you're in, er, business. Steal a Unix super user's password and you're doubly in business, holding the system hostage whenever dark forces are in you, reading others' mail, peeping-tom-ing, wrecking havoc, wiping out the entire accumulated data contents with a single system-wide 'rm -r *' command. Such power at your unaccountable beck and call! The concept and consequences of multitasking (and multithreading [and multi-anything]) may be easy to explain in abstract terms to a bunch of future computer science students but it hardly is IOTTCO all on its own ("Intuitively Obvious To The Casual Observer", an acronym spewed out by the book's resident VMS guru to describe his system's command syntax superiority over Unix. Strange, Unix gurus find it seldom worth while to compare their systems with VMS. Tells a load, doesn't it?).

One could argue of course that reading about computers' operating systems doesn't exactly sound like entertainment for the casual, non-hacking bystander. Not enough sex-appeal or something. Only in this case it does, the story being incomplete without Stoll's account of his attempts to find a military or counter-espionage government body to pursue the investigation (then being accused by a housemate of "dealing with people without a sense of humor"), nutty conversations in SMERTCH-Russian in the shower ("Ees time for ze secret plan 35B." "Brilliant, Natasha! Zat will vork perfectly! Ah, darlink... vhat is secret plan 35B?"), and a cookie recipe (later termed "grotesquely unhealthy" in the BYTE magazine review of the book [all that sugar, no doubt]). Perhaps the most choice nugget of cloak-and-dagger humor comes on a visit to the CIA headquarters. Stoll discovers a battery of lovely "Top Secret" rubber stamps of various shapes, which he uses to make himself a nice memento-mori on an otherwise empty sheet of paper, then has it questioned and ultimately confiscated by a guard because "they take security seriously around there."

In short: read the book, don't wait for the movie. There aren't enough blinking lights on Stoll's computer for Hollywood to take notice. Then again, what do I know of movie making. Add a teenager or two and maybe it's 'hackertime-in-Hackerville' all over again.

[Editors' note: Hollywood it's not, but PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) recently aired a one hour version of "The Cuckoo's Egg" called "The KGB, The Computer and Me." PBS escaped the flashing lights and well-scrubbed teenagers by using no professional actors. Everyone in the TV show plays themselves and does so wonderfully, all of which adds to the effect of Cliff Stoll's excellent narration. The show was written and directed by Robin Bates, so ask your local PBS station to show it. We've watched it three times now, and we're sorry we couldn't find out any more specific details.]

References:

Clifford Stoll, "The Cuckoo's Egg/Tracing a spy through the maze of computer espionage", Pocket Books (nonfiction), 1990
Hugh Kenner, "Our man in Berkeley", Print Queue, a review of the book in BYTE, March 1990, pp. 360-362.
Don Libes and Sandy Ressler, "Life With Unix/ A Guide For Everyone", Prentice-Hall, 1989. Should be second on a reading list of anyone trying to learn Unix.
J. R. Hubbard, "A Gentle Introduction To The VAX System", TAB Books Inc., 1987. A concise and fairly straightforward teaching book of the VMS operating system.
"The KGB, The Computer and Me," written and directed by Robin Bates, Public Broadcasting Service, 1990.

Reviews/18-Mar-91

  • MacWEEK
    • Personal Press, pg. 32
    • GraceLAN 1.1.1, pg. 32
    • Forms Programs, pg. 38
      • Fast Forms 2.0
      • SmartForm series
      • if:X Forms Designer 1.1
      • Informed series
    • Ashlar Vellum 2.0, pg. 38
    • Correct Grammar 2.0, pg. 43
  • InfoWorld
    • FileMaker Pro, pg. 72

References:

  • MacWEEK -- 12-Mar-91, Vol. 5, #10
  • InfoWorld -- 11-Mar-91, Vol. 13, #10

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