Full disclosure and integrity

I feel like I owe it to my readers to disclose a few things, due to the events of recent weeks raising a few questions in some people’s minds.
First, I want to point out that the issue of payola is an ethical issue most journalism schools deal with in class. We dealt with it in several classes. At the time I was working as a journalist. And there would be times when I would conduct an interview with a band, and they’d be playing in town soon, and they’d ask for the proper spelling of my name so they could put me on the guest list, which meant I could get into the concert for free. Some people thought it was OK. Others said I shouldn’t take bands up on such offers. I know on at least one occasion I did go. It didn’t color the way I wrote the story at all, mostly because I was already so enamored with the band anyway. Maybe if he’d taken me out to dinner with the band and written a song with me, I’d have changed what I’d written. But that didn’t happen.

I had one instructor stand in front of the classroom and speak very frankly. “Look. You’re college students. You don’t have much money. And in a couple of years, you’re going to be working for tiny newspapers that pay you $15,000 a year, and you’re going to be struggling to pay your rent and pay for your car. If someone offers you food, take it. If they offer you tickets, go. You can’t really afford not to,” she said.

I skirted the issue by changing careers, but that’s another story.

In 1999, I resurrected my writing career. I wrote a book. I received an advance from my publisher for writing that book, as is standard practice. I could have contacted the various software vendors and asked for copies of their software. I opted not to do that. In most cases, the software I recommended in the book was software I used and had purchased myself, in some cases, for years. In other cases, I downloaded evaluation versions of the software, and if it was possible to determine the best way to use it from the eval, I used that to finish the job. My recommendations were not tainted by anybody.

The computer I used to write the bulk of that book was one I built myself, using parts I bought new. I wrote parts of a couple of chapters on a Pentium-75 I built from used parts. Late in the book’s development I purchased a pair of Celeron-400 PCs so that I could run different versions of Windows side by side and find the differences. Again, I might have been able to beg or borrow PCs or components from hardware vendors. I did not. I don’t like kissing up to people, which is usually necessary to get those kinds of favors. I don’t play that game, so I don’t get much free stuff. I also don’t like being influenced unnecessarily. And when I need something, I don’t like waiting longer than necessary. And, keep in mind, money was coming in for this project. Sometimes you have to spend money to make money. I was willing to spend some of my own money to do a better job on that project. We have the ability to write off business expenses; you’d better believe I did so.

In one of my articles for Computer Shopper UK, I recommended Partition Magic. I still recommend Partition Magic. I bought version 2.0 of the product, back when it was known only to OS/2 enthusiasts. I’ve been a happy user of it ever since.

In early 2000, I wrote a very favorable review of Mandrake Linux 7.0. I was very excited about this distribution, because it installed quickly and easily and it had enough stuff to be immensely useful. A Mandrake executive contacted me after the review appeared on Linux Today. He asked me for my address so he could send me a retail copy when it was released. I took him up on his offer. He asked me to remove a snide remark about French cars that appeared in the review; since French cars have nothing to do with Linux, I removed the comment. He sent me the package. I felt my integrity was intact. I was very excited about Mandrake 7, and excited that when I later e-mailed that exec with feature requests, he listened and passed them on and some of those ideas were incorporated in subsequent versions. Whether it was my request that prompted them or not, I don’t know. They were features that just made sense to have and were easy to incorporate. For all I know I was the 100th person to suggest them. But I was never wedded to Mandrake; I still have 7.0 installed on one of my PCs, dual-booting with Win98, but my workaday Linux machines run Debian.

I have never been offered cash or product to change a statement I made in print or on the Web.

There is one other thing I need to disclose. Most technology journalists abstain from investing in technology companies. This is a good thing. It avoids the appearance of conflict of interest.

I have some investments. I’ve invested in mutual funds in the past, some of which have undoubtedly owned technology stocks. I’m reasonably sure that one of those funds was a technology index fund of some sort. I have a money manager who makes those decisions for me. Occasionally he mails me paperwork that tells me what I’m invested in. I don’t pay attention to them. I trust the man with my life, so I don’t have to double check him, which frees me to not think about the financial implications of anything I write.

I have at times owned a few shares of stock in individual companies. At one time or another, Dell, Intel, Microsoft, and AOL have been among them. I do not know exactly when those periods of time were, nor do I know the numbers involved. My accountant knows and my money manager can look it up. It doesn’t matter to me.

I don’t talk about Dell much because I don’t own any Dell PCs and the company I work for buys Microns. I’ve worked on a few Dell PCs here and there and I know there are far worse PCs out there. I know a whole lot more about Micron and IBM and Compaq and Apple, so I’m more likely to talk about them.

Owning stock in AOL hasn’t changed my attitude about AOL. I don’t use it and I don’t recommend you use it either. My money manager might not like me saying that, but I don’t care. We also both know I don’t have enough influence to affect their stock price one iota.

Have I ever appeared to be a Microsoft lackey? I certainly hope not. Microsoft’s an investment that’s made a lot of people a lot of money. I don’t know what it’s done for me. The company is despicable regardless. I’ve been pushing Linux here and I’ve been pushing Linux at work. I’m much more interested in seeing that company get its due than I am in the small amount of money I may have tied up in it.

As for Intel, again, I have no fondness for the company. They’ve made some respectable chips at various times. But the Pentium 4 is crap, and the Itanium is worse, the company’s recent upgrade switcheroos are despicable enough to be worthy of Microsoft, and I don’t recommend anyone buy either pf those two products. AMD chips perform better, cost a lot less, and provide better upgrade paths. And before anyone questions AMD’s reliability, keep in mind that AMD was making microchips before Intel. And I’ve got a true blue IBM PC/XT motherboard kicking around. There are more AMD chips on that board than there are Intel chips. AMD has a long tradition of making reliable products. They’ve flubbed a few, but so has Intel. I’ve been buying AMD chips since the early 1990s and I’ve always been happy with them, and I recommend them. Regardless of whose stock I own. (I don’t own any AMD stock, to the best of my knowledge, and would be very surprised if I ever did. My manager considers them too risky of an investment. Not as risky as Red Hat. But too risky for his tastes.)

So, that’s my story. I hope no one has questioned my motives in writing anything I’ve written over the past three years. If they have, I hope this clears things up a little.

3 thoughts on “Full disclosure and integrity

  • March 9, 2002 at 12:59 pm

    Dave, I’ve always thought that the opinions that you expressed were just because that’s what you really thought. Nothing more or less.

    As for AMD vs. Intel, I’ve followed Jerry Pournelle’s recent discussion. It sounds like the informed opinion is that there are perhaps small differences in reliability, likely of more concern in an server environment where minimizing downtime is a big deal. The impression that I get from Pournelle is that any measurable differences have been more likely due to AMD chips being matched with poorer quality motherboards (via chipsets). I don’t keep up with hardware in that much detail, but I understand that there are now more quality motherboards for AMD, so that this shouldn’t be much of an issue now.

    I’ve owned 3 AMD powered systems, and now have my Linux box on my first Intel CPU. I found a 1MHZ Celeron bundled with a MB at Fry’s and price was an object, so I bought it. The one really nice thing about it is that Intel chips run cool. At first I had Win2k on the box, and a utility to check CPU temp…it was running about 80 degrees F in a room that was probably 75 (Antec case with good ventilation and whatever heat sink/fan they bundled with the CPU). Aside: I don’t know how system-specific such things are, but anyone know of a good open source CPU temperature utility for Linux?

    I hate to wait on slower computers as much as the next guy, but I’ve had several cheap computers bite the dust in 2-3 years. I’d like to have my older computers stay alive and make them into Linux routers or non-gui fileservers or donate them to charity. Tom’s hardware site had an article about how they pulled the heatsinks off Intel and AMD CPUs and the AMD ones melted down, taking the mobos with them. The Intel CPUs just slowed down or shut down with no damage.

    I’m inclined to think that Intel and AMD are about equally reliable day-to-day given quality motherboards mated with both. What I wonder about is the long term effects of greater heat, even with better heat sinks for the AMD CPUs.

    I prefer choice, and want AMD and Linux to prosper as alternatives to Intel and Microsoft. However, I’m hesitant to buy another AMD CPU until I’m a I’ve learned a little more about the effects or lack thereof of the higher temperatures that they run at.

  • March 9, 2002 at 3:22 pm

    The VIA chipset issue is incredibly disappointing. The initial statement never should have been made, the retaliation from certain immature enthusiasts was way out of line, and unfortunately a few people who did have valid things to say couldn’t resist getting a dig in at the end that colored their otherwise very valid points. As a result, the valid things they had to say were largely ignored.

    Cheap motherboard designs transcend chipsets. The very worst motherboards I’ve ever seen were based on Intel 430VX chipsets. The VX was a decent low-end chipset for its day, but these particular boards were of such shoddy quality that the virtues of the VX chipset as opposed to any other chipset were completely covered over.

    I have run various motherboards with VIA chipsets in them since 1995, starting with 486s and moving on up. I’ve run systems with VIA and Intel chipsets side by side since 1999, and I can’t say I’ve noticed any demonstrable difference in stability. All of the systems have crashed mysteriously on a couple of occasions. And there have been times that I’ve done something stupid that I figured probably would crash the system and it didn’t. Was it the fault of Windows or the hardware? More likely it was Windows.

    At work, we mostly have Intel CPUs on Intel motherboards. We bought a batch of Intel CPUs on Tyan boards with VIA chipsets last spring. The default BIOS settings needed a little tuning to run NT4 reliably, but I have yet to see any indication that those systems are any less reliable than the strictly-Intel based systems.

    This Web server is running on a Soyo motherboard with a SiS chipset in it. It’s been running 277 days straight. And SiS is supposed to be the worst of the chipset makers.

    I am aware of bugs in VIA chipsets. I’m also aware of bugs in Intel chipsets. That’s why it’s important to get current drivers when you install the OS.

    In my experience, when you buy a motherboard from a reputable maker (I prefer Asus; I’ve also been successful with Abit, FIC, and AOpen boards, but I’ve yet to see an Asus fail) and pair it with good-quality power supplies, memory, and IDE cables, and if you run Windows, stay reasonably current on your drivers, and you won’t have much trouble regardless of the chipset.

    Frequently when people have problems they attribute to a particular component (VIA chipsets are in vogue now; Cyrix CPUs are another scapegoat of ages past that come to mind) there are other possibilities involved. Are they using brand-name memory? Are they using knockoff video and/or sound cards? Are they using no-name power supplies? Frequently the answer to those questions is yes.

    Take multiple systems with identical power supplies, memory, video cards, CPUs and cases, with the only variance being the motherboard and the chipset on it. Ideally, testing should be done on a mature Linux or FreeBSD kernel to eliminate as much possibility of OS stability issues as possible.

    Now, in that environment, show me an intense process that will run reliably on the systems with Intel chipsets but not on the systems with VIA chipsets. Then I’ll be convinced. So will any reasonable individual. I haven’t seen that test yet.

    Pournelle’s just repeating what people have told him. I suspect he’s repeating what one person has told him. That person has been talking poorly about VIA chipsets for a couple of years, but he’s never cited any test (certainly not like the one whose parameters I just outlined) to corroborate his statements.

    Without seeing the methodology, we know nothing useful. And stating something over and over doesn’t make it fact.

    Pournelle knows the scientific method and I’m disappointed that he didn’t ask for backing before publishing that statement about VIA chipsets. He states that if the problems are numerous enough to mention, they’re too high. But you have to have something worth measuring. Since VIA chipsets cost less, they are more likely to be paired with questionable components than their Intel counterparts. That’s why a valid stability test would have to eliminate those other possible variables.

    CPU temperatures are another topic. Fortunately it’s also a simpler topic. Cooler is generally better. AMD’s Athlon series tends to run hotter than Intel’s P2/3/Celeron series, but have you seen the monster heat sinks and fans for the P4? And both of them run alarmingly hot compared to Motorola’s PowerPC. Apple enthusiasts tout this as a huge advantage, but while there’s no doubt that Apples are more reliable than Packard Bells or eMachines, I’ve never seen anything that demonstrates Apples have more longevity than the business-class PCs from Tier-1 PC makers. I used to worry about CPU temperature but now the only thing I care about is whether it’s running within the design specs.

  • March 10, 2002 at 12:20 pm

    Interesting comments with a lot to chew on. I think you nailed it with your comments about the scientific method. There are just too many variables to draw reliable conclusions from anecdoctal evidence. I would like to see the results of tests like you outline. Of course, even if someone did this, the results may only apply to similar setups. For instance, it might be that Intel works better with some OSs, peripherals, etc. and AMD with others. Controlled testing with a variety of different types of systems and OSs might allow some conclusions to be reasonably drawn.

    My guess is that the OS is easily the biggest factor in system reliability. Memory may be another; with almost no price premium for Kingston and Crucial using a good brand seems to be a no-brainer. I also suspect that power supplies are underrated as a source of problems, and may be (along with a good UPS) the real key to system longevity. My last system to bite the dust died not long after I had to replace the power supply, and I suspect there was damage done by that power supply as it died.

    Good peripherals may be underrated also. After trying various setups and experimenting with varous software on my Red Hat 7.2 box I decided that the easiest way to get back to a clean install was to scrub down and do just that. Four or five straight attempts failed at various points, abruptly aborting out of the install program. I have 2 cd drives in the system, a fairly fast el cheapo several years old and a name brand but very slow, somewhat old cdrw. The cdrw has usually worked when I’ve occasionally had problems installing something with the faster el cheapo.

    I tried both drives, in both graphical and text mode, with no success. Finally, having a second unused older hard drive in the system, I decided that I’d better do an install from the second hard drive. I’d done my original install with downloaded ISOs, but now had no working system on the PC to use for downloading. I’m guessing that there’s probably some decent dos ftp programs still around, but I decided the easiest thing was to download to my other (Windows 2000 pro) PC, then use Ghost.

    I ghosted the partition that I downloaded to a partition on the second Red Hat hard drive and tried to install. The install program didn’t recognize the partition. At first I thought that the install program didn’t recognize it because it was an extended partition on the drive, but eventually I realized that when I ghosted I inadvertently converted the drive to ntfs. Trying again, with a fat partition worked like a charm, and the install went without a glitch.

    Long story, but I suppose that the lesson is that older/cheaper peripherals cost me a lot of hours.

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