01/17/2001

Mailbag:

Commodore; Relocating My Docs Folder

Bottom fishing. I was over at my church’s sister congregation Monday night, looking over their computer situation. They just got a grant to build a lab, so they asked me to come assess what they have and tell them how to most wisely spend the money they got.

If I were buying all new, I’d be torn. I like the idea of the Compaq iPAQ. It’s $499, it’s all integrated, it’s powerful enough (once you up the memory), comes with Windows 2000, and someone else built it. I can just get seven of them, plug them into a hub, set one up properly, clone it to the rest, and be done with it. It’s a business-class machine from a proven maker.

On the other hand, Compaq Presarios start at $399 and include all the software they need. I’d have to get NICs for them, but that’s $40. Memory’s another $60. So for the cost of the iPAQ, I get similar hardware plus Win98, Word, and Works. But it’s consumer-grade hardware and I’m not impressed with Presarios. I’d really rather have iPAQs with Windows 2000 and StarOffice, frankly. I think they’re better machines. (And there’s probably money to buy the software we need.)

But what about what they have? It’s truly a mixed bag. Mostly a mixed bag of junk. There’s an XT in their room, along with one of the first Compaq 386s. The Compaq is junk. I’m trying to find an appropriate word for the XT. There are a whole bunch of LPX form-factor 386SXs, some Dell and Compaq, others Packard Bell. Junk. There are three Compaq Proliant servers, 486-based, decked out with SCSI drives. Rugged and reliable, I could turn one of them into a Linux gateway, and put Samba on another for use for file serving and authentication. I thought I saw a Compaq Deskpro 486/33. Reliable, but not very useful these days. And there are three ATs: one a 386 and two Pentium-75s, one of which works. The other gives beep codes, so probably either the memory or video’s shot. All in all, 90% of it’s useless, and none of it’s even worthy of being called a museum piece.

Normally I’d say junk it all, maybe keep one of the Proliants and the working Pentium-75. But in light of those $29 Soyo BAT Celeron motherboards… Do the math. The board’s $29. A Celeron is $50. A 128-meg stick is $60. I can probably salvage the video cards, except for the one in the 386. So add a video card, say, $35. Of course I can salvage everything else I need from that big stack of obsolete stuff. So for about $150 each after shipping, I can have two Celerons. For another $180, I could have a third.

Sounds good on paper, but a new Presario costs $399, has more than $220 worth of software, and is covered under warranty. Compaq’s not my favorite computer company, but I don’t really want to be their computer company.

Those $29 Soyo boards are good enough for me. That’s why I ordered two. So I’ll get one final tour of duty out of my souped-up IBM PC/AT, which has done time as a 286 of course, a 386DX-40, a Pentium-75, and a Cyrix 6×86-166. Sick thought: If I end up putting a Celeron-500 in it (I haven’t decided what CPU it gets yet), that AT could be my fastest computer again.

But what makes sense for me often doesn’t make sense elsewhere. And I guess that’s why I write books and magazine articles–sometimes I can figure out when and why that is.

A disk tool that could save your bacon someday. You find all kinds of cool stuff in online forums, let me tell you. I probably find one or two gems a week, but for me, that’s worth it. MBRWORK allows you to play around with partitions, and can even allow you to restore deleted partitions. It’ll also remove those disk overlay programs for you, which is great–the only sure way I could ever get rid of them was to low-level format the drive, which takes forever and is destructive, of course. You can find it at www.terabyteunlimited.com . You can find some brief documentation and screenshots online at www.webdev.net/orca/mbrwork.htm . Download this and keep it in a safe place.

I don’t think do-it-yourself data recovery is something anyone wants to get good at, but it’s usually better than paying someone to do it.

Mailbag:

Commodore; Relocating My Docs Folder

01/16/2001

AMD and DDR. Good news for hardware enthusiasts wanting AMD-based DDR systems. Via shipped its 266 MHz DDR chipset Monday. This is good news because Via can in all likelihood supply their chipsets in larger quantities than AMD can or will. It’ll take a little while for the KT266 to appear in earnest, but this should soon silence the DIY crowd, who’ve been protesting very loudly that they can’t get boards or chips. Virtually all of Gigabyte’s 760 boards are going to Compaq and Micron, which does make sense. Compaq and Micron will order boards and 266 MHz FSB chips in quantities of hundreds of thousands. The shops catering to the DIY crowd won’t. Given a limited supply, the big fish will get first dibs–it’s easier and less expensive to deal with two big customers than with a hundred tiny ones.

Infoworld. I think my Infoworld subscription has finally lapsed. I’ve been trying to let it lapse for months. I’d get a “This is your last issue if you don’t renew NOW!” warning attached to the cover, which would then be followed by six issues or so, before I’d get another warning. I think I’ve been getting these since last June.

Well, today I went to Infoworld’s site, and I remember why I’ve been trying to let my subscription lapse. They’re bleeding pundits. Q&A maestro Mark Pace quit. Then his partner, Brooks Talley, quit. Bob Metcalfe retired. Sean Dugan quit. Now, Stuart McClue and Joel Scambray are quitting, to be replaced by P.J. Connolly. They tried Connolly as a columnist once before. That experiment lasted about a month, probably because he wrote more about the Grateful Dead than he did about the subject at hand. (Which made me self-conscious about mentioning Aimee Mann and the Kansas City Royals too frequently, but I generally don’t mention them on a weekly basis, so I’m probably OK.)

Their best remaining columnists are Brian Livingston, Nicholas Petreley, and Ed Foster. Livingston has a lot of useful tips, while Foster is genuinely entertaining and provides a useful service to readers. Infoworld’s Robert X. Cringely isn’t quite as entertaining or as insightful as PBS’ Robert X. Cringely, but he’s usually worth a quick read. But there are half as many reasons to read the magazine now as there once were.

Amazon. Amazon’s under fire again from a number of directions, including Ed Foster, and I can’t say I’m in love with all of their practices, but I can’t help but notice something. From my limited vantage point, it would seem consumers don’t really seem to care all that much about Amazon’s business practices. I provided links to buy my book elsewhere, but the sales rankings at the other places are pathetic even after doing so. Sales at Borders and B&N are nearly non-existent. Sales at Fatbrain are sporadic at best. But there are a handful of venues where it sells well. The used places sell what copies they can get very quickly. And when Amazon can manage to allow people to order it, it sells very well. If they can’t get a used copy cheap, people would rather buy from Amazon, period. And they’ll even pay a higher price at Amazon than they will elsewhere. A number of people paid full cover price from Amazon off links from this site, even when it was available for less elsewhere. (Amazon seems to be currently selling it for $19.95 or so.)

Some people swear by Apple. I swear at Apple. Apparently Steve Jobs does too . (Not for the easily offended.)

01/15/2001

Mailbag:

Misc things; The trade; Depression

Why am I still messing with 486s and low-end Pentiums? I found a reference to this on the Ars Technica message board. Let’s see. I’ve got a genuine IBM PC/AT case sitting under my futon doing nothing other than looking old. I’ve got a Media Vision Pro Audio Spectrum sound card with a SCSI port on it. I’ve got a couple of old SCSI CD-ROM drives. I’ve got an AGP video card I can put in it. I’ve got a network card I can put in it, of course. And I’ve got hard drives. Plus I’ve got systems with DIMMs in them that I put there because I’d rather put too much memory in a system than have it just sit in a drawer. So basically I can have a modern system for a song. A Backstreet Boys song.

I’ve got mail. Hopefully I’ll take care of it this evening.

The American Dream again. Friday’s R.I.P.: The American Dream got a far greater response than anything I’ve written since college other than Optimizing Windows itself, which had more than a year’s head start. I had some people write in saying I was right. Frank McPherson’s response echoed another common sentiment: the original dream may be dead, the problem is that this generation needs to find another. That’s certainly a valid point.

One letter asked if I really thought we need a depression. Now, mind you, I don’t want one, and I’m certainly not advocating sabotage of our economy. I think we’ll get our own depression anyway–the Great Depression came about because of heightened expectations that grew unrealistic. Had it not been for regulatory brakes on the system, I think we’d already have had one, because there’s a widespread Las Vegas mentality in investing these days. People aren’t content to double their money in seven years anymore. They want to do it in seven months. And while people can do that, it’s like Las Vegas: the odds are against you. So they take irresponsible risks. People who understand the math much better than I do tell me that if you save 10 percent of your income and just dump it in an index fund–a mutual fund that follows the stock market–and do that from the day of your first paycheck to the day of your last, you’ll retire a multimillionaire. No genius involved. And now that we have Roth IRAs, we can pay our taxes up front and reap the benefits tax-free.

I’m testing that theory. I forget what retirement age is supposed to be for my generation. Is it 70? Like those details matter. Come talk to me when I’m 70 and I’ll tell you how it worked out for me.

Let’s get back to that idea of finding another dream. Frank McPherson pointed to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream. That’s productive use of our discontent. I like that. It’s something we should be doing anyway, but often we have to have a certain degree of angst before we’ll consider doing the things we ought to do.

But will it give us fulfillment? Some. Is it better and more noble than materialism? You bet. Should we? You bet. But will it solve the problem?

No.

I’ve thought about it a lot myself. And yesterday one of the people I respect the most made an observation. God is popular. God’s making a comeback. He’s a star. There’s a wave of spirituality crashing through Hollywood and there’s even another one in Washington. The stars are finding God. Filmmakers are making movies about Him, or at least letting Him make cameos. Slimy politicians are talking about God. Heck, even some not-as-slimy politicians are. C.S. Lewis once observed that there are longings in our being that no travel, no education, no spouse can ever fulfill. He said it made sense that the existance of those longings suggests the existance of something that can and will one day fulfill them: God. So we’ve got some people turning in that direction now. This is good.

Or is it?

The God of pop culture isn’t it. The God of pop culture is God on your own terms. It’s a very American God. In America, cars from the factory aren’t good enough. We get special options. Sometimes that’s not good enough either, so we put the car in the garage and we hot-rod it. In America, we build our entertainment systems from discrete components, getting speakers tailored for our environment and other components to best take advantage of it all. Hey, even a lot of the mystique behind the computer is gone, and people are undertaking projects they never would have dreamed of. They visit hardware sites and talk in forums and stumble across sites like this one, looking for advice on the best motherboard, the best hard drive, the best video card, then they go build the computer of their dreams–or the closest thing their budget permits. In America, we get cars, entertainment, and computers–as well as other things–on our own terms.

No wonder there’s so much appeal to Universalism. Eastern religions are nice, because you can take what you like, leave what you don’t, and they aren’t exclusive. If I remember my world religions class correctly, the Buddha was a Hindu, and remained one until the day he died. And Christianity isn’t incompatible with them, at least on the surface. Self-help pioneer Jess Lair once said someone told him his book I Ain’t Much Baby, But I’m All I’ve Got had a lot of Zen Buddhism in it. Dr. Lair was a devout Catholic. How did Zen Buddhism end up in a book written by a Catholic who admitted in his own words that he never thought much about Zen Buddhism? There’s a lot of Zen Buddhism in the Bible, that’s how. Or is it there’s a lot of the Bible in Zen Buddhism?

If linguists can point world languages and say they can trace all of them back to a single language, it only makes sense that at one time there was a single world religion, from which all of them can be traced.

But I don’t subscribe to the idea of Universalism, which says all of them are correct. And even if I’m wrong, why does it matter?

After all, what do the other religions promise? They promise me that if I do certain things, if I lead my life in a certain way, I might find my way to some kind of heaven. The paths are slightly different, and the destination often is slightly different, but you can pretty much boil down the major world religions to that. What they don’t promise is assurance. There are a lot of mights in it. And none of them promise anything bad will happen to me if I don’t believe them, especially if I lead a good life anyway. I may cease to exist, just as anyone else who doesn’t quite do a good enough job would. Or maybe I won’t get reincarnated in the most desirable way. But if that happens, I get another chance.

Then there’s the great teacher Jesus–just about everyone regards Him as a great teacher–who taught something kinda sorta similar. He taught how to lead your life. But Jesus said something else. He said he was the fulfilment of Judaism, that He was the way to heaven. Period. There was no other way. Him or damnation.

I find it interesting that non-Christians regard Jesus as a great teacher today. If you believe one of the other messiahs, what Jesus said is pure heresy. You might find it interesting that members of Jesus’ own family thought he was a madman. His own family! He was either what He said He was, or a madman. The others may not be incompatible with Him, but He is certainly incompatible with them.

But there’s more to Jesus’ message than just that. The alternatives are works-based. Jesus said just one thing: believe. Everything else is a byproduct of taking Jesus for what He said He was and is. Don’t sweat the other stuff. It just happens, and it’s better that way than if we’d done it on our own. And Jesus said one other thing. He promised assurance. With Him, you know exactly where you’re going.

Christianity really is very simple. You can boil it down to a really simple question. Well, two, I guess. God asks, “Why should I have anything to do with you?” Then after you die, God asks, “Why should I let you in here?” The answer to both questions is the same thing. I can put it articulately, but really a one-word answer will suffice. And it has absolutely nothing to do with me.

So if I’m gonna hedge my bets, that’s where I’m gonna hedge them. I was afraid at first what I’d have to give up, but the truth was I didn’t have to give up anything. Given a little time, I just wanted to give those things up.

I realized just after college that I wouldn’t be able to buy happiness, and that the capitalism I spent four years writing about wouldn’t accomplish much. I went looking for something else. I went looking for what every unmarried 22-year-old male looks for. I thought I’d found the key to happiness when I found her. Along the way I picked Christianity back up too. When I hadn’t proven sufficiently the sincerity of my faith, she took a hike. I was crushed, but I still had something. If you subscribe to the belief that it takes 9 positives to counteract a negative, my ratio’s a bit lower than that. The difference is I always have the ace in my hand. So the ratio of disappointments to triumphs really is irrelevant, because I’ve got the triumph that trumps all disappointments.

So I guess what I’m trying to say in a roundabout way is I agree with Frank. Tell materialism to take a hike, go make the world a better place.

Just don’t try to do it on your own, and don’t rely solely on human help.

Mailbag:

Misc things; The trade; Depression

01/14/2001

I found a good IE trick yesterday. Go to Tools, Internet Options, Advanced, Multimedia. See that checkbox that says “Play animations?” If you uncheck that, you disable animated GIFs. If you find those distracting like I do, this provides a way to banish them. A little bit of blinky stuff will still get past that setting–some animated ads use Java, JavaScript or Flash. So you can refuse to install Flash and disable Install-on-demand (I forget where I found that setting–I’d better find it) and you can disable Java and JavaScript from Tools, Internet Options, Security. So it’s possible to give yourself a nice, static, animation-free Web. The advantages: less distraction and faster-loading pages and slightly higher stability.

Are you listening, Netscape and Opera?

I’ve dropped off the face of the earth. I’m writing another article for Computer Shopper UK, one that probably won’t surface until the April or May issue at the earliest but I want to get it out of the way. All told, it takes me about 8 hours to write a 4,000-word article from scratch. I don’t know if that’s low or high. Seeing as a single-spaced page of text is about 470 words, that’s probably fairly quick.

Going steady with Computer Shopper UK. Or something like that. I was talking with one of the girls at work–everyone knows I’m peddling my words in the UK these days–and she asked how that was going. I told her I liked the magazine staff and I liked the magazine, and that I wanted to write for them some more, but I couldn’t quite tell if they wanted me to write for them again. And I suspected they didn’t know whether I wanted to write for them again. So we had a stalemate, not unlike asking a girl to a dance in high school, where neither party knows what the other is thinking and neither wants to make the first move.

Well, the stalemate’s broken, and it looks like I’ll be peddling words at Shopper until I run out of ideas. While magazine writing’s not as profitable as writing books that sell, when you’re doing magazine writing, you’re a writer, period. When you’re doing book writing, you may have to do an awful lot of your own marketing, and I’m not so comfortable there yet. I think doing a book some day where I write it, do most or all of the artwork and photography, and do the marketing would be very interesting–and would definitely allow me to leave my mark on it–but the time’s not right for that.

Can I do it? I’m a competent designer, and I have a good eye though I lack a steady hand to match. The computer can compensate for that. I don’t know much about my marketing ability, but when I was talking to that aforementioned girl about an idea I had, she smiled, looked at me, and said, “You’d be good at marketing.” She’s working on a business degree and she’s one of the smarter people I know, so I’ll assume there’s a good chance she’s right.

And in the meantime, Shopper UK gives me a place to further refine my writing and start to define a market.

Drawing diagrams. I’m pretty impressed with a program I found on the Computer Shopper UK issue 156 cover disc. British mags usually come with a CD that contains some programs–a PD utility or two, some commercial demos, and often the full version of some commercial program. Well, issue 156 came with SmartDraw 3.0, a quick-and-dirty diagramming program that competes with Visio but bills itself as a sort of “Visio for the rest of us.”

The idea is, you get these predefined libraries of clipart that you just drop into place. I diagrammed a network by dropping images of three desktop PCs and a server on a page. Then I dropped an image of a hub in. I took the line tool, dragged it from each PC to the hub, then moved the PCs around to make it look decent and balanced, typed labels on each PC, and boom, instant network diagram, elegant and professional. It took me all of 15 minutes to do it, and that included the time it took to figure out where all the menu items are and what they do.

When you’re done, you can export your diagram as a scalable WMF or a raster BMP, PCX, TIFF, GIF or JPEG so the files will work in just about every program imaginable.

The next time I have to do a project analysis or write something that needs a diagram, I’ll be reaching for this.

01/13/2001

Have I been brainwashed by Redmond? In the wake of MacWorld, Al Hawkins wrote a piece that suggested maybe so. My post from Thursday doesn’t suggest otherwise.

So let’s talk about what’s wrong with the PC industry. There are problems there as well–problems across the entire computer industry, really. The biggest difference, I think, is that the big guns in the PC industry are better prepared to weather the storm.

IBM’s PC business has been so bad for so long, they’ve considered pulling out of the very market they created. They seem to be turning it around, but it may only be temporary, and their profits are coming at the expense of market share. They retreated out of retail and eliminated product lines. Sound familiar? Temporary turnarounds aren’t unheard of in this industry. IBM as a whole is healthy now, but the day when they were known as Big Black & Blue isn’t so distant as to be forgotten. But IBM’s making their money these days by selling big Unix servers, disk drives, PowerPC CPUs and other semiconductors, software, and most of all, second-to-none service. The PC line can be a loss leader, if need be, to introduce companies to the other things IBM has to offer.

Compaq is a mess. That’s why they got a new CEO last year. But Compaq is a pretty diverse company. They have DEC’s old mini/mainframe biz, they have DEC’s OpenVMS and Digital Unix (now Tru64 Unix) OSs, they have DEC’s Alpha CPU architecture, and DEC’s widely acclaimed service division, which was the main thing that kept DEC afloat and independent in its day. Compaq also has its thriving server business, a successful line of consumer PCs and a couple of lines of business PCs. The combined Compaq/DEC was supposed to challenge IBM as the 800-pound gorilla of the industry, and that hasn’t happened. Compaq’s a big disappointment and they’re having growing pains. They should survive.

HP’s not exactly in the best of shape either. They’ve made a lot of lunkhead decisions that have cost them a lot of customers, most notably by not releasing drivers for their widely popular printers and scanners for newer Microsoft operating systems. While developing these drivers costs money, this will cost them customers in the long run so it was probably a very short-sighted decision. But HP’s inkjet printers are a license to print money, with the cartridges being almost pure profit, and HP and Compaq are the two remaining big dogs in retail. Plus they have profitable mainframe, Unix, and software divisions as well. They’ve got a number of ways to return to profitability.

The holidays weren’t kind to Gateway. They actually had to resort to selling some of their surplus inventory in retail stores, rather than using the stores as a front for their build-to-order business as intended.

Dell’s not happy with last year’s results either, so they’re looking to diversify and give themselves less dependence on desktop PCs. They’re growing up, in other words. They’re killing IBM and Compaq in PCs, and those companies are still surviving. Dell wants a piece of that action.

Intel botched a number of launches this year. They had to do everything wrong and AMD had to do everything right in order for AMD to continue to exist. That happened. AMD’s past problems may have been growing pains, and maybe they’re beyond it now. We shall see. Intel can afford to have a few bad quarters.

As for their chips, we pay a certain price for backward compatibility. But, despite the arguments of the Apple crowd, x86 chips as a rule don’t melt routinely or require refrigerants unless you overclock. All of my x86 chips have simple fans on them, along with smaller heatsinks than a G4 uses. I’ve seen many a Pentium III run on just a heatsink. The necessity of a CPU fan depends mostly on case design. Put a G4 in a cheap case with poor airflow and it’ll cook itself too.

Yes, you could fry an egg on the original Pentium-60 and -66. Later revisions fixed this. Yet I still saw these original Pentiums run on heat sinks smaller than the sinks used on a G4. The Athlon is a real cooker, so that argument holds, but as AMD migrates to ever-smaller trace widths, that should improve. Plus AMD CPUs are cheap as dirt and perform well. The Athlon gives G4-like performance and high clock speeds at a G3 price, so its customers are willing to live with some heat.

And Microsoft… There are few Microsoft zealots left today. They’re rarer and rarer. Microsoft hasn’t given us anything, yet we continue to buy MS Office, just like Mac users. We curse Microsoft and yet send millions and billions their way, just like Mac users. We just happen to buy the OS from them too. And while we curse Microsoft bugs and many of us make a living deploying Windows-based PCs (but the dozen or so Macs I’m responsible for keep me busier than the couple of hundred PCs I’m responsible for), for the most part Windows works. Mac owners talk about daily blue screens of death, but I don’t know when I last got one. I probably get one or two a year. I currently have eight applications running on my Windows 98 box. OS/2 was a far better system than Windows, but alas, it lost the war.

I can’t stand Microsoft’s imperialism and I don’t like them fighting their wars on my hardware. They can pay for their own battlefield. So I run Linux on some of my boxes. But sometimes I appreciate Windows’ backward compatibility.

I always look for the best combination of price, performance, and reliability. That means I change platforms a lot. I flirted with the Mac in 1991, but it was a loveless relationship. The PCs of that era were wannabes. I chose Amiga without having used one, because I knew it couldn’t possibly be as bad as Windows 3.0 or System 7.0. I was right. By 1994, Commodore had self-destructed and the Amiga was perpetually on the auction block, so I jumped ship and bought a Compaq. Windows 3.1 was the sorriest excuse I’d seen for a multitasking environment since System 7.0 and Windows 3.0. I could crash it routinely. So I switched to OS/2 and was happy again. I reluctantly switched to Windows 95 in 1996. I took a job that involved a lot of Macs in 1998, but Mac OS 8.5 failed to impress me. It was prettier than System 7 and if you were lucky you could use it all day without a horrible crash, but with poor memory management and multitasking, switching to it on an everyday basis would have been like setting myself back 12 years, so the second date wasn’t any better than the first.

Linux is very interesting, and I’ve got some full-time Linux PCs. If I weren’t committed to writing so much about Windows 9x (that’s where the money is), Linux would probably be my everyday OS. Microsoft is right to consider Linux a threat, because it’s cheaper and more reliable. Kind of like Windows is cheaper and more reliable than Mac OS. Might history repeat itself? I think it could.

The computer industry as a whole isn’t as healthy this year as it was last year. The companies with the most resources will survive, and some of the companies with fewer will fold or be acquired. The reason the industry press is harder on Apple than on the others is that Apple is less diversified than the others, and thus far more vulnerable.

01/12/2001

Let’s talk about wealth. When I was 15 or 16, I was sitting in English class and the teacher stood up and told everyone that the American Dream is dead. We would be the first generation that would have it worse than our parents did, she said.

I didn’t argue, though I should have. I figured I’d at least be the one to buck the trend, if what she said turned out to be right. A couple of years before, my dad had actually bothered to sit down with me at the kitchen table, candidly tell me the mistakes he’d made in life, and then he told me it didn’t look like I’d make those same mistakes. I trusted my dad’s judgment.

But when I look around today, I wonder if my English teacher might have been right. Wealth isn’t  about money or possessions, after all. In that regard, she’s very wrong. There’s a high school next  to one of the buildings I work in. Most of the cars in that parking lot are nicer than the cars in the parking lot for the building I work in. And there are plenty of highly paid IT professionals like me in my building.

Am I better off than my dad? Well, let’s see. In 1981 my dad decided he’d made it, so he splurged. He  bought a luxury car: a Chrysler LeBaron. It wasn’t the swankiest of cars, but it was far and away the  most loaded car he’d ever owned. The only features it was missing were a tape deck (not sure if  Chrysler was offering that in 1981), the famous Corinthian leather, and speech synthesis (which I think they  were offering that year). I thought it was a nice car.

Today, nearly 20 years later, I drive a Dodge Neon. That car has everything that 1981 LeBaron had, plus some things it didn’t. By today’s standards, it’s not a luxury car.

Ten years later, my dad bought a 1980 Chrysler Cordoba, which he let me drive most of the time. That was the swankiest car Chrysler made in 1980. Leather seats, everything adjustable… It was still  awfully nice in 1991. The car my sister drives puts that Cordoba to shame. Leather seats, but these are heated. And my sister’s car isn’t a luxury car either. It’s mid-range.

I can’t quite afford the last house my dad bought. Give me a couple of years. I could afford the  next-to-last house my dad bought pretty easily. I don’t see the point–I’d just fill the place with computers and books, and I’d have to drive longer to get to work. I like where I’m living now.

Compared to my dad, I’ve got it good. Real good. And my dad was no pauper. He was a successful doctor. Not a high-priced doctor like a brain surgeon, but he did fine.

This weekend, I was talking to my good friend Tom Gatermann. He was talking about a friend who’s  about to marry a girl from the former Soviet Union. Her hometown is just south of Siberia. His friend was talking about living conditions there. Indoor plumbing is a luxury.

I spent a couple of weeks on a Navajo reservation in 1998 and 1999. Out there, a telephone is a luxury. Sometimes electricity is a luxury. Usually, those who go without budget so they have  electricity during the hottest parts of the year, then shut it off during the mild months.

For me, budgeting involves raising or lowering the thermostat by about 5 degrees if I’m going to be  gone for a few days. Or if a month looks like it might be particularly tight for some reason, I’ll  move my thermostat and turn off all but one of my computers. I did that last year, around tax time. Comparatively, that’s not a big deal.

No, wealth isn’t about possessions. I learned that in New Mexico. Wealth is about gratefulness. My  friends down there are much wealthier than I am. They’re grateful for just about everything they  have. I take my car, my computers, my phone, my indoor plumbing, my lights… I take all of that for granted pretty much. I complain when my DSL connection isn’t working right. Meanwhile, miles away, there’s someone walking half a mile to use a neighbor’s telephone, or someone walking outside in the dead of winter to an outhouse.

My generation’s spoiled. The generation after mine is even worse. We take everything for granted. Those younger than me take everything for granted and many of them want it handed to them. And if we  don’t have something we want, it’s always someone else’s fault. Eight years ago it was George Bush’s fault. Now it’s Bill Clinton’s fault, or those mean-spirited Republicans in Congress. Or maybe it’s Bill Gates’ and Larry Ellison’s and Warren Buffett’s fault, because they’ve accumulated all that  money and won’t share.

My cubicle neighbor agrees. We talked about that the other day, and he asked me the same question my  mom asked me last week: How do we fix it?

I remember my grandmother was grateful for everything she had, which by today’s standards, was zilch. But she never thought of herself as poor. Never. She lived through the Great Depression. People who  lived through the Depression looked at things very differently.

So I told my cube neighbor and my mom the same thing: We need a good, long, hard depression.  Capitalism gave us everything we ever wanted. But we changed the rules and said it wasn’t what we  wanted. We don’t know what we have, and we won’t all make a pilgrimage en masse to see how great life  is in Siberia. The only way for us to find out what we have is to struggle for a while.

So, was my English teacher right? Are we better off than our parents? NO.

I’m very sad to say I couldn’t prove her wrong.

01/11/2001

Mailbag:

My docs; Apple; Lost cd rom drive

It’s that time of year again. MacWorld time. I work with Macs way too much, so of course I have opinions. If you expect me to withhold them, you don’t know me very well.

Let’s face it: Apple’s in serious trouble. Serious trouble. They can’t move inventory. The Cube is a bust–unexpandable, defect-ridden, and overpriced. The low-end G4 tower costs less than the Cube but offers better expandability.  Buying a Cube is like marrying a gorgeous airhead. After the looks fade in a few years, you’re permanently attached to an airhead. So people buy a G4 tower, which has better expandability, or they get an iMac, which costs less.

Unfortunately, that gorgeous airhead metaphor goes a long way with Apple. The Mac’s current product line is more about aesthetics than anything else. So they’ve got glitzy, glamorous cases (not everyone’s cup of tea, but hey, I hear some people lust after Britney Spears too), but they’re saddled with underpowered processors dragged down by an operating system less sophisticated under the hood than the OS Commodore shipped with the first Amiga in 1985. I don’t care if your PowerPC is more efficient than an equivalently-clocked Pentium IV (so’s a VIA Cyrix III but no one’s talking about it), because if your OS can’t keep that CPU fed with a steady stream of tasks, it just lost its real-world advantage.

But let’s set technical merit aside. Let’s just look at pure practicalities. You can buy an iMac for $799. Or, if you’re content with a low-end computer, for the same amount of money you can buy a low-end eMachine and pair it up with a 19-inch NEC monitor and still have a hundred bucks left over to put towards your printer. Yeah, so the eMachine doesn’t have the iMac’s glitzy looks. I’ll trade glitz for a 19-inch monitor. Try working with a 19-inch and then switch to a 15-inch like the iMac has. You’ll notice a difference.

So the eMachine will be obsolete in a year? So will the iMac. You can spend $399 for an accelerator board for your iMac. Or you can spend $399 for a replacement eMachine (the 19-inch monitor will still be nice for several years) and get a hard drive and memory upgrade while you’re at it.

On the high end, you’ve got the PowerMac G4 tower. For $3499, you get a 733 MHz CPU, 256 MB RAM, 60 GB HD, a DVD-R/CD-R combo drive, internal 56K modem, gigabit Ethernet you won’t use, and an nVidia GeForce 2 MX card. And no monitor. Software? Just the OS and iMovie, which is a fun toy. You can order one of these glitzy new Macs today, but Apple won’t ship it for a couple of months.

Still, nice specs. For thirty-five hundred bucks they’d better be nice! Gimme thirty-five hundred smackers and I can build you something fantabulous.

But I’m not in the PC biz, so let’s see what Micron might give me for $3500. For $3514, I configured a Micron ClientPro DX5000. It has dual 800 MHz Pentium III CPUs (and an operating system that actually uses both CPUs!), 256 MB of RDRAM, a 7200 RPM 60 GB hard drive, a DVD-ROM and CD-RW (Micron doesn’t offer DVD-R, but you can get it third-party if you must have one), a fabulous Sound Blaster Live! card, a 64 MB nVidia GeForce 2 MX, and in keeping with Apple tradition, no monitor. I skipped the modem because Micron lets me do that. If you must have a modem and stay under budget, you can throttle back to dual 766 MHz CPUs and add a 56K modem for $79. The computer also includes Intel 10/100 Ethernet, Windows 2000, and Office 2000.

And you can have it next week, if not sooner.

I went back to try to configure a 1.2 GHz AMD Athlon-based system, and I couldn’t get it over $2500. So just figure you can get a machine with about the same specs, plus a 19-inch monitor and a bunch more memory.

Cut-throat competition in PC land means you get a whole lot more bang for your buck with a PC. And PC upgrades are cheap. A Mac upgrade typically costs $400. With PCs you can often just replace a CPU for one or two hundred bucks down the road. And switching out a motherboard is no ordeal–they’re pretty much standardized at this point, and PC motherboards are cheap. No matter what you want, you’re looking at $100-$150. Apple makes it really hard to get motherboard upgrades before the machines are obsolete.

It’s no surprise at all to me that the Mac OS is now the third most-common OS on the desktop (fourth if you count Windows 9x and Windows NT/2000 as separate platforms), behind Microsoft’s offerings and Linux. The hardware is more powerful (don’t talk to me about the Pentium 4–we all know it’s a dog, that’s why only one percent of us are buying it), if only by brute force, and it’s cheaper to buy and far cheaper to maintain.

Apple’s just gonna have to abandon the glitz and get their prices down. Or go back to multiple product lines–one glitzy line for people who like that kind of thing, and one back-to-basics line that uses standard ATX cases and costs $100 less off the top just because of it. Apple will never get its motherboard price down to Intel’s range, unless they can get Motorola to license the Alpha processor bus so they can use the same chipsets AMD uses. I seriously doubt they’ll do any of those things.

OS X will finally start to address the technical deficiencies, but an awful lot of Mac veterans aren’t happy with X.

Frankly, it’s going to take a lot to turn Apple around and make it the force it once was. I don’t think Steve Jobs has it in him, and I’m not sure the rest of the company does either, even if they were to get new leadership overnight. (There’s pressure to bring back the legendary Steve Wozniak, the mastermind behind the Apple II who made Apple great in the 1970s and 1980s.)

I don’t think they’ll turn around because I don’t think they care. They’ll probably always exist as a niche player, selling high-priced overdesigned machines to people who like that sort of thing, just as Jaguar exists as a niche player, selling high-priced swanky cars to people who like that sort of thing. And I think the company as a whole realizes that and is content with it. But Jaguar’s not an independent company anymore, nor is it a dominant force in the auto industry. I think the same fate is waiting for Apple.

Mailbag:

My docs; Apple; Lost cd rom drive

01/10/2001

Mailbag:

Relocating the My Docs folder

First, some computer news. AMD is building a third fab after all. Location still TBA. Reportedly they’re looking for someone to share this $4 billion facility, but that of course could change by the time it’s ready in 2004. They were looking for someone to share their Dresden fab up until the day it opened, it seemed, but it turns out that capacity kept all to themselves really isn’t enough.

Time to talk baseball. My Royals did it. They made their first blockbuster trade since 1991, when they traded their beloved pitching ace, Bret Saberhagen, for a bag of baseballs. Well, actually they got Gregg Jefferies, who played third base with an oven mitt and hit .270–his biggest contribution was helping George Brett get his 3,000th hit by giving him some protection in the lineup, forcing pitchers to pitch to Brett–before getting traded across the state for Felix Jose, a bust who played right field for a couple of seasons, then played himself out of a job and dropped off the face of the earth. They also got Keith Miller, a scrappy player who was murder in the clutch, but he couldn’t stay healthy. He only lasted two seasons before he was done too. The most noteworthy guy from the trade was Kevin McReynolds, an underachieving power hitter past his prime, who lasted a couple of seasons, then was shipped back to the Mets in exchange for Vince Coleman, who provided some needed speed but his expensive contract and poor defense led them to ship him to Seattle for a prospect. His replacement was a youngster by the name of Johnny Damon.

Well, the Royals have once again traded a franchise player. Johnny Damon, their leadoff hitter, team leader, and sometime center fielder (he also plays left) is gone. Traded to Oakland, home to many an ex-Royal, in a three-team deal that brought a 20-year-old shortstop prospect and a backup catcher to Kansas City. (Ironically, this backup catcher lost his job with the A’s because Sal Fasano was better. Sal Fasano’s old team? The Royals.)

But the key to the deal was Roberto Hernandez, a 36-year-old closer. He throws hard and routinely saves 30 games a season. Lately the Royals have been doing well to get 15 from their closers. The Royals routinely scored 6 runs a game, but their bullpen routinely gave up 7. Hernandez and newly acquired setup man Doug Henry look to end that trend. Without Johnny Damon they won’t score 6 runs a game as much anymore, but the improved bullpen can reduce the number of runs they give up by one or two.

I feel good about this trade. Johnny Damon talked about how much he loved Kansas City, but he acted like a hired gun. And when he wasn’t making threats about leaving, he was trying to run the team. The solution to all the Royals’ problems last year, according to Damon, was Paul Sorrento. Paul Sorrento was a .240-hitting first baseman with some power and an average glove. The Royals already had Mike Sweeney at first base, a converted catcher who thinks he’s the second coming of George Brett. He’s good for .320 or .330, 20+ homers and 100+ RBIs a season. Not a great fielder, but he’s getting better. Paul Sorrento only would have taken playing time from Sweeney and wouldn’t have given them much. I guess 29 other teams agreed, because after the Royals let Sorrento go, no one else snapped him up. Then the Royals went and got Dave McCarty, a career minor leaguer with a fabulous glove who’d always managed to hit .230 or .240 in his brief stints in the bigs. But as a part-time player, McCarty found his groove. He flirted with a .280 average and hit a number of big homers, in addition to playing well, if not spectacularly, at first base and also spending some time in left and right field. Great move. Paul who? Good thing the front office didn’t listen to Johnny Damon.

This off-season, Johnny Damon was talking about how the Royals needed to go get some pitching, like, say, Darren Dreifort. Darren Dreifort. Who? Exactly. Darren Dreifort is an overpriced career National Leaguer who in a typical season goes 8-8 with an ERA around 4.50. The Royals already have six guys who can do that, given the kind of bullpen support Dreifort always got in LA, and they won’t ask for $7 milion a year to do it either. What’s so special about Darren Dreifort? He and Johnny Damon have the same agent. Can anyone say conflict of interest?

Johnny Damon was fun to watch, believe me. I liked the guy, as long as he kept his mouth shut. He played hard and did everything they ever asked him to do. Move to left field to make room for Carlos Beltran? OK. Hit third? Sure. Uh oh. All of our cleanup-type hitters are dropping like flies. Will you do it for a while until one of them gets healthy? OK. Uh oh. Carlos Beltran’s hurt. Would you move back to center field for a while? Sure, and might as well field spectacularly and hit .387 the second half of the season too.

But Johnny Damon didn’t want to sign a long-term contract. Johnny Damon wanted to make Bernie Williams money. And the Royals don’t have Bernie Williams money to offer. So Johnny Damon was going to move elsewhere the instant he became a free agent. The best thing the Royals could do was trade him for whatever they could get.

What they got was an expensive relief pitcher and a shortstop prospect, but Roberto Hernandez is no more expensive than what the Royals offered Johnny Damon. And now the Royals have cleared the logjam in their outfield. Mark Quinn can keep on playing left field. Carlos Beltran can go back to center. Jermaine Dye’s a lock in right. Dave McCarty and Mike Sweeney can rotate between first base and DH, which had been Quinn’s old role. Or power-hitting prospect Dee Brown can take over at DH if he’s ready, with Sween at first and McCarty back in the old role of supersub. Carlos Beltran or second baseman Carlos Febles can hit leadoff. If they falter, third baseman Joe Randa doesn’t have Johnny Damon’s speed, but he can replace his on-base percentage.

And as for the shortstop prospect, Angel Berroa, the Royals had no successor to smooth-fielding Rey Sanchez. Sanchez is a free swinger, but he’s managed to hit .270 or .280 for the Royals for two seasons so he’s not as bad as some make him out to be, but he’s 33 and has been a bench player most of his career. (Rob & Rany don’t like him much, but I have two words to say to that: Felix Martinez. Martinez was Sanchez’ predecessor, and he had one good hit his whole time in a KC uniform. It was a sucker punch in a brawl with the Anaheim Angels.) But Sanchez probably can’t be an everyday shortstop much longer and the Royals had to think about the future. Berroa looks to be one of those rare shortstops who can hit and field.

And Mike Sweeney is more than ready to take over Johnny Damon’s role as team leader. Sween loves the community, and the community loves him. Sween leads a Bible study in the clubhouse already, and players come. When a player has a problem, Sween’s the guy he’s most likely to seek out. What’s his manager have to say about him? He once told a Kansas City Star reporter that he has a twentysomething daughter. Now don’t get me wrong, he said. I don’t want her to marry Michael Sweeney. But I want her to marry someone like Michael Sweeney.

This from a guy who doesn’t give many compliments.

Sween’s as good a guy as any to build the team’s future around. Johnny Damon’s been around a little bit longer, but Mike Sweeney has qualities Johnny Damon never had and might not ever have.

Yes, Johnny Damon was nice to have, but he wasn’t the team. He looked irreplaceable, but his mouth made management wonder otherwise, and I think management was right.

Now, what do the Royals have to do to get Bret Saberhagen back? He’s been not-a-Royal for longer than he was a Royal, but I’ll always think of him as that 21-year-old who won two World Series games.

Not everyone agrees with me, of course. KC Star sportswriters pretty much do. Rany Jazayerli doesn’t. Rob Neyer hasn’t spoken yet.

Mailbag:

Relocating the My Docs folder

01/09/2001

Mailbag:

DOS games under Windows; Today’s post; Disk I/O tweaking

Overheard: [I’d] rather spend a lot of money for a new top-notch and super-light mountain bike, dive gear or quality clothing than on another computer system. The performance of my PC is just fine for the work I do and the games I happen to play once in a blue moon. My PC is over a year old! Shocking!

–Thomas Pabst, of Tom’s Hardware Guide, in his Duron 850 review released Monday

I think that’s another argument for optimizing your PC right there. If Tom Pabst, of all people, can keep a PC for more than a year, then so should everyone else.

Let’s talk about cheap PCs. In college I lived next door to a marketing guy. In 1994, a couple of years before PCs broke the $1,000 barrier for good, I was thinking about $700 PCs. At that time, 386DX motherboards retrofitted with Cyrix 486DLC processors were dirt cheap, and I figured with 4 MB of RAM and a sub-300 MB hard disk, it would be possible to build a PC for that, and I figured it would sell on price alone.

My marketing buddy agreed. Then we did nothing with the idea. But I still think about cheap PCs.

There’s an article over at The Register today talking about a new motherboard from PC Chips that sells for about $80, based on the SiS 730S chipset. An unnamed vendor states that he can buy these PC Chips boards, slap a low-end Duron on them, put it in a case with the smallest hard drive available, and voila, you’ve got a $300 PC. He’s right. For $80, you get audio, video, modem, and LAN. All you need is a CPU ($60), memory (under $50), hard drive ($85), case ($35), and a keyboard and mouse ($15). It won’t be a high-powered system, but it’s miles ahead of anything we had three years ago and we weren’t complaining.

Now, I don’t trust PC Chips motherboards one bit, but I expect a lot of people will follow this dealer’s plan. This will lead to sales and market share for AMD, but it might come at the expense of reputation. You and I can assume people will blame the inevitable problems they’ll have with these systems on the dealer, or on the motherboard, but historically that’s never happened. People equate the CPU with the computer, so problems tend to fall on AMD or Cyrix, right or wrong. But AMD is hedging its bets, rightly focussing on the business market, where it got its big break last week: Micron will be offering Athlons in their Client Pro line of business PCs.

And speaking of Cyrix, they’ve revised the Cyrix III chip yet again, adding L2 cache. Performance is still lackluster, leading people to predict Cyrix’s demise, but I’m not so sure of that. If VIA can sell Cyrix chips at a significantly lower price than Intel or AMD are willing to charge and still make a profit, there’s room. That $300 PC can become a $250 PC if VIA prices its CPUs at $35 and dealers cut available memory.

Inexpensive PCs done right do sell. Commodore and Atari proved that. Their demise came when they reached the point where they no longer could (or would) sell a useful computer at a significantly lower price than everyone else. The Amiga was tremendously useful, but it was at a me-too price. Here was Commodore, the budget computer maker, selling a computer for twice as much as Packard Bell. Hence its demise. Atari’s price was closer to Packard Bell, but the software compatibility wasn’t there. Packard Bell’s death was inevitable once HP and Compaq started eroding their price territory. Packard Bell had a terrible reputation, but they sold until they lost their price advantage. People aren’t going to settle for a Kia if they can get a Honda for about the same price.

Mailbag:

DOS games under Windows; Today’s post; Disk I/O tweaking

01/08/2001

An open letter to a spammer. I found this excerpt amusing from a message that slipped past Brightmail (I don’t know why I bothered to read it):

This is not a SPAM. You are receiving this because you are on a list of email addresses that I have bought. And you have opted to receive information about business oportunities. If you did not opt in to receive information on business opportunities then please accept our apology. To be REMOVED from this list simply reply with REMOVE as the subject. And you will NEVER receive another email from me.

Sorry, dude. If I didn’t solicit it, it’s spam. I guess I opted in the way most people do, by simply existing. But I can bet if I do respond, I’ll be opting in to a “known active” list that you’ll sell for even more money. I may never receive another message from you, but I’m sure I’ll get messages from 47 of your slimy customers, so no thanks.

SCSI on a budget. Well, I did it. I dug up an ancient Quantum Trailblazer 850 SCSI drive and connected it to my K6-2/350, which contains a Promise SCSI controller (it has an NCR chipset on it). I’m thinking I may install Mandrake 7.2 on it and give myself a crude dual boot by reversing IDE and SCSI in the boot order. An all-SCSI setup in Linux, even old SCSI drives, ought to be pretty nice. I’ve got a Lightning 365 drive around here too that I can pair up with it. Hmm. I could also add the ProDrive 52 LPS drive to the mix, but that’s big enough to hold /boot and not much else, so that’s getting a bit ridiculous. Sadly, that drive’s probably not worth the 5-10 watts of power it would consume anymore. But between the two bigger drives I have a gig of space, which is the minimum you want if you’re going to do much of anything useful with Linux.

The bigger drives actually aren’t as pathetic as they sound. They spin at 4500 RPM, and the Lightning has a 12 ms seek time. The Trailblazer has a 14 ms seek time, so it’s not quite as fast on the seeks, but the Trailblazer has a slightly higher platter density so for the long stretches it’ll be a little quicker.

Given their re-orderable command queue and ability to share the bus, I’d say they stand a chance of being OK. I’ll have to think about where to mount the 365–I want it to hold something used frequently so as to take advantage of having a second spindle, but it needs to be something that’s not going to grow much because 365 megs isn’t all that much space these days.

You can demonstrate command queue reordering by trying to use the drive for something else while defragmenting. The drive will hesitate much more noticeably than an IDE drive would, but the defrag is much less likely to be interrupted.

It’s been so long since I used SCSI drives extensively that I’d forgotten about their advantages.

Your own SCSI on a budget. I did a Web search over the weekend and found a number of places selling first-generation 10,000 RPM drives for under $100. Given the 3-year warranties they’re probably refurbs, but the price is right.

Working. I worked a rare Sunday yesterday, putting in a couple of hours’ worth of overtime. I think this is the second Sunday I’ve worked since finishing Optimizing Windows; I try not to do that as a general rule. I burn myself out if I don’t follow it.

Paying me time and a half to run around to a few dozen PCs and log on, then log back off in order to verify the re-wiring job works seems a waste of my skills and salary, but I do what I’m told. Quick, easy money.

Catching up on mail. I almost caught up this weekend. I think I have two or three messages left in my queue. One of them is really important, which is why it’s still in my queue. I didn’t have time to deal with it properly over the weekend. What’s Dave have up his sleeve? You’ll see. Stay tuned.

Speaking of Optimizing Windows I went ahead and put up an informational page which includes review excerpts, links to all known reviews on the Web, links to major booksellers, the ISBN number so you can have your local bookseller special-order it for you, links to chapters 2 and 10 online, and my own thoughts, looking back at it a year after publication, about why this book remains relevant in this fast-changing industry.

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