Cult of Linux, and cheap cheap hardware

Potpourri. I just have two little things to write about today, so that’s what I’ll do.
The Cult of Linux, and cults of computing past. In yesterday’s comments, Dave Thorarinsson brought up an interesting phenomenon. He observed, when talking about his new Linux box and losing track of time learning it, “It pretty much feels like the time I had my Amiga.”

I remember reading in the mail section of Amiga magazines, more than a decade ago, “I haven’t had this much fun since I got my C-64!” And the old Commodore magazines noted that their C-64s had a special place in their devotees’ hearts and asked, “Have you ever heard of anyone getting attached to a PC clone?”

The inferred answer is no. And that doesn’t seem to have changed. Today, the biggest PC enthusiasts replace their machines frequently, relegating their old, unbeloved machines to grunt roles, or scrapping them for parts.

The C-64, by contrast, was a simple machine. Although it only had one slot for expansion, the motherboard itself was simple enough that just about anyone with a little bit of patience could trace it out and understand it. There was some unused address space in it that you could add chips to. Common projects included speech synthesizers and an extra sound chip, so you could have six-voice, stereo sound. And it seemed like most C-64 owners had tried their hand writing at least simple programs.

The Amiga was similar. It was harder to program, and a little harder to hack, but I had a subdirectory on my Amiga’s hard drive that was called “PD Hardware,” containing makeshift schematics for stuff I could build. I wired in a PAL/NTSC switch so I could change video standards and run European software correctly. I even designed an add-on board for it myself, once, to give myself an extra ROM socket. And of course I replaced much of the operating system with replacement utilities written by hobbyists that were smaller and faster, had more features, or both.

You want to know why the Amiga and C-64 fanatics were so loyal? They knew their machines inside and out, and to a degree that just wasn’t possible with a PC clone.

With Linux, the hardware doesn’t matter anymore, but you can customize the software to whatever extent you want. The hardest-core Linux people are doing just that. At a level below that, people compile the OS from source, from scratch. At a level below that, they just replace utilities with smaller and faster or more functional ones, like I was doing with my Amiga.

The long and the short of it is tweakers have a lot more liberties with Linux than they’ll ever get out of Redmond.

People who liked my book can certainly find a lot to like with Linux. People who fancy themselves experts but don’t really want to know how their computers work and who think books like mine are a waste of time will never be tied to Linux like the fanatics are.

Cheap hardware. It’s a buyer’s market. I’m building an intranet server for my church, and they have lots of bits and pieces but not quite enough for a complete system, so I did some looking around at my favorite bottom-fishing holes. You can get an awful lot of computer for next to nothing these days.

I’ve bought things at least once from each of these vendors, and they got stuff to me reasonably fast (within a week, ground shipping) so I feel reasonably comfortable recommending them.

Slot-1 barebones systems — case, power supply, slot 1 mobo (66 MHz FSB, so you’re stuck with P2s up to 333 MHz or Celerons, and according to the manufacturer, Celerons will work), and a floppy drive. $24.50. $19.95 if you don’t mind some wear. Very nice.

At the same place, scroll down and you can pick up Tier-1 business-class P2s for under $200. If you’re lucky you can sometimes even find a dual-capable machine. They go fast, but the getting’s good. Lots of businesses are dumping these due to their 3- or 4-year upgrade cycles. For someone who just wants to do word processing and e-mail, these systems are overkill. If you want to upgrade in pieces over the course of the next couple of years, the P2s with a 100 MHz FSB are workhorses and you can add lots of cheap memory, nice video cards, and fast, cheap hard drives. Gatermann just picked up an HP Vectra P2-266, dual capable, with SCSI, for $117. It will serve him well. He plans to run Debian on it, but I don’t know if he’s thinking of it as a server or a workstation. It’d make a fabulous server.

72-pin SIMMs — if you’ve still got a system that takes them, nice deals on 4-16MB sticks, and good deals on bigger sticks.

Low-end Pentium I desktops — P75-120, 16 meg of RAM, 1 MB video, who knows what else. $29.99. Nice for a low-end Linux box, or for a Win95 system that’s going to see limited use. Put a fast hard drive in it and it’ll surprise you. After you get yours, check and see what CPUs the system will take; a P200 can be had for as little as $16 and makes a nice upgrade. It’s a pretty big step up from 75 MHz to 200 MHz.

Seagate 9-gig 5.25″ full-height SCSI HD — $12.95. If you’ve got two 5.25″ bays open and no spacer between them, here’s a cheap way to fill it with 9 gigs of storage. I know a couple of people who have these drives. They’re surprisingly quick (they hold their own next to 7200-rpm 3.5″ disks). Back up your data and buy some spares if the shipping doesn’t kill you. One of the guys I know has several of these, and he’s had one or two die on him.

FIC AZ-11 ATX mobo — $34.95. It’ll take Durons and Athlon Thunderbirds. The fastest chip I’ve put in one is a 1 GHz Duron. No ISA slots and just 5 PCI slots, but it’s a capable board. I use one in my video editing workstation, and I paid more than 35 bucks for it. Totally obsolete, but when you can get a 1 GHz Duron and fan on this board for $89, who cares? It’ll still be a good computer in three years. Trust me.

I keep seeing this board on the closeout places, so I expect even after the current supply dries up, there’ll be more.

Speaking of closeout motherboards, there’s a variety of them over at Just Deals. You can get a Soyo Socket 370 board for $28 and various Socket A boards in the $35-$40 range. If it’s Slot 1 or even Slot A you’re looking for (maybe you’ve got a CPU laying around), you can find stuff there too.

And if you need a cheap copy of Word 97, you can get the Works 99 suite for 30 bucks.

Need an operating system for that new old computer? Prices range from $25 for Win95 to $180 for WinXP Pro.


Troubleshooting Windows NT and Outlook. This one had me totally stumped. We have a PC that’s always been a little flaky, but very recently Outlook just stopped working reliably. Access violations every 5-20 minutes, always at the same address, became the norm. In addition, it would claim to run out of memory every time you tried to read anything other than a plain-text message.

I traced the latter problem to a corrupt file; he was using Word as his e-mail editor and as his format for fancy messages.

Finally, I coaxed another error message out of it while logged in with an administrative account: Unable to find or register vbscript.dll. Fine. Time to uninstall, run Eraser 97 to get rid of the last of those bits, then reinstall both Office 97 and Outlook 98.

Vbscript.dll still didn’t register, so I grabbed a copy off a working PC, dropped it in WinntSystem32, and issued the command regsvr32 vbscript.dll to register it. It took.I launched Outlook 98, Word 97, and Internet Explorer 5, since that combination seems best able to coax whatever errors out of Outlook I’m going to get. I configured Outlook to go read my mail account via IMAP and waited. Access violation once again.

So I loaded a program we have from Seagate Software, called Modules.exe I believe. It tells you exactly what’s loaded in memory and at what address. Being able to count in hexadecimal doesn’t get you any dates, but it sometimes helps you troubleshoot a problem. Plus it lets you make jokes about how much more fun it makes you at parties. So I sort by memory address, look at the ranges, and find the culprit. I forget the name of the DLL offhand, but the description Modules gave was “Outlook Network Folders.” Net Folders. Net Folders: one of the best but most poorly implemented ideas Microsoft ever foisted upon the unsuspecting masses.

So I copied that DLL over from the properly-working machine, then used the command-line utility fc.exe to compare them–if they’re different, I’ve found my culprit. I compare them, and find they’re identical.

That leaves two possibilities: Either the OS is corrupt beyond repair and just needs a clean re-install from scratch, or we’ve got a hardware problem. I find it suspicious that the problem always occurs at the same address, so I take the address, translate it into decimal using Windows’ calculator, then divide it by 1024 and then by 1024 again to get the address in megabytes rather than in bytes, and I get… 1221-something. Ouch. In a machine with 64 MB of RAM? So I went and found a programmer to confirm whether I was running through the right mathematical process. Indeed I was. He asked what kind of memory translation Intel PCs and Windows NT do (he’s a VMS programmer).   Then I remembered NT uses a 4-gigabyte address space, regardless of how much physical memory is there. So much for getting a number between 0 and 64 that I could use to determine which DIMM in the system was bad.

So instead, I just swapped the DIMMs. The problem went away. A smoking gun! Problem is, which of the two was bad? I can’t just leave it that way, because eventually something else will break.

Popping out RAM Stress Test , from the unfortunately-named Ultra-X, Inc., is the best way I’ve found to conclusively find a bad module. So I ran it for a couple of hours. Nothing. So I left it to run over the weekend. Hopefully that will turn up the problem by the time I return to the office on Monday.

And of course the PC in question is the one on the desk of one of our most important executives. Figures.

A minor change. Seeing as I have a growing number of British readers, still cursed with dialup connections, and since I tend to write really long, I switched to a three-day view rather than the seven-day view I’ve been using. Older pieces are of course accessible through the calendar and through the Best of this Page link, both to the left.

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