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Best public DNS – finding the best for you

If your Internet connection is slow, it almost always helps if you optimize your DNS. But there’s more to the best public DNS than just speed. I’ll tell you how to find the fastest DNS, but using a DNS that offers improved security gives your computer protection beyond what your antivirus and firewall provide.

Sometimes it’s enough, and it’s definitely cheaper than buying a new router. Even if you do get a new router, using fast DNS helps. Here’s how to find the best public DNS to use, to improve your speed and your security.

Read More »Best public DNS – finding the best for you

Heading back to Way Back When for a day

Someone I know house-sat this weekend for a couple who are slightly older than my parents. Their youngest daughter, from what I could tell, is about my age, and they have two older daughters. All are out of the house.
It was like walking into a time warp in a lot of ways. There’s an old Zenith console TV in the living room. My aunt and uncle had one very similar to it when I was in grade school, and it spent several years in the basement after it lost its job in the family room. First there was an Atari 2600 connected to it, and later a Nintendo Entertainment System. My cousin and I used to spend hours playing Pole Position and Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out and various baseball games down there.

The living room housed a modern JVC TV, armed with a modern Sony DVD player and RCA VCR. But in the other corner was a stereo. The Radio Shack Special 8-track player was the stereotypical 1970s/early 1980s brushed metal look, as was the graphic equalizer. The tuner was also a Radio Shack special, styled in that mid-1980s wanna-be futuristic style. If you lived through that time period, you probably know what I’m talking about. But if you’re much younger than me, you’re probably shrugging your shoulders. Beneath it was a Panasonic single-disc CD player in that same style, and a Pioneer dual tape deck. A very nice pair of Fisher speakers finished it off. It was definitely a setup that would have turned heads 17 years ago. (I have to wonder if the Fishers might not have been added later.)

It seems like there are only two genres of music capable of being emitted by an 8-track player. Once genre includes Led Zeppelin and Rush. The other includes John Denver, Rod Stewart, Barry Manilow and The Carpenters. Their collection was on the latter side, which sent my curiosity scurrying off elsewhere.

But I had to try out that stereo. I kind of like The Carpenters, but I have to be in the mood for them, and I’ve heard enough John Denver and Rod Stewart and Barry Manilow to last me forever. So I checked out the CDs. Their CD collection was an interesting mix, but with a good selection of contemporary Christian (albeit mostly pretty conservative contemporary Christian). I popped in a CD from Big Tent Revival. I don’t remember the title, but the disc was from 1995 and featured the song “Two Sets of Joneses,” which I still hear occasionally on contemporary Christian radio today.

About three measures into the disc, I understood why they hadn’t replaced that setup with something newer. It blew my mind. I heard a stereo that sounded like that once. In 1983, we moved to Farmington, Mo., which was at the time a small town of probably around 6,000. We lived on one side of the street. Our neighbor across the street owned the other side of the street. Any of you who’ve lived in small midwestern towns know what I mean when I say he owned the town.

Well, in addition to owning the biggest restaurant and catering business and tool rental business in town and a gas station, he also owned a mind-blowing stereo system. Hearing this one took me back.

I almost said they don’t make them like that anymore. Actually they do still make stereo equipment like that, and it costs every bit as much today as it cost in 1985.

And Big Tent Revival sounded good. If I’m ever out and see that disc, it’s mine.

Upstairs in one of the bedrooms, I spied a bookshelf. It was stocked with books of Peanuts cartoons, but also tons and tons of books I remember reading in grade school. Books by the likes of Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume, and books by other people that I remember reading 15 or even 20 years ago. The only things I didn’t remember seeing were S.E. Hinton and Paul Zindel, but as I recall, those books hit me so hard at such a period in my life that I didn’t leave those books at home. Or maybe Hinton and Zindel were a guy thing. I’m not sure. But seeing some of the names that made me want to be a writer, and being reminded of some of the others, well, it really took me back.

Next to that bookshelf was a lamp. Normally there’s nothing special about a lamp, but this lamp was made from a phone. This reminded me of my dad, because Dad went through a phase in life where there were exactly two kinds of things in this world: Things you could make a lamp from, and things you couldn’t make a lamp from. Well, this was a standard-issue wall-mount rotary phone from the pre-breakup AT&T Monopoly days. One just like it hung in my aunt and uncle’s kitchen well into the 1980s.

The computer was modern; a Gateway Pentium 4 running Windows Me. It desperately needed optimizing, as my Celeron-400 running Win98 runs circles around it. Note to self: The people who think Optimizing Windows was unnecessary have never seriously used a computer. But I behaved.

I don’t even know why I’m writing about this stuff. I just thought it was so cool.

But I remember long ago I wrote a column in my student newspaper (I’d link to it but it’s not in the Wayback Machine), which was titled simply “Retro-Inactive.” Basically it blasted retro night, calling it something that people use to evoke their past because their present is too miserable to be bearable.

Then I considered the present. Then I thought about the 1980s. We had problems in the 1980s, but they were all overshadowed by one big one–the Soviet Union–that kept most of us from even noticing the others. We had one big problem and by George, we solved it.

So I conceded that given the choice between living in the ’90s or living in the ’80s, well, the ’80s sure were a nice place to visit. Just don’t expect me to live there.

I’m sure people older than me have similar feelings about the ’70s, the ’60s, the ’50s, and every other previous decade.

And I guess I was just due for a visit.

The pundits are wrong about Apple’s defection

Remember the days when knowing something about computers was a prerequisite for writing about them?
ZDNet’s David Coursey continues to astound me. Yesterday he wondered aloud what Apple could do to keep OS X from running on standard PCs if Apple were to ditch the PowerPC line for an x86-based CPU, or to keep Windows from running on Apple Macs if they became x86-based.

I’d link to the editorial but it’s really not worth the minimal effort it would take.

First, there’s the question of whether it’s even necessary for Apple to migrate. Charlie pointed out that Apple remains profitable. It has 5% of the market, but that’s beside the point. They’re making money. People use Apple Macs for a variety of reasons, and those reasons seem to vary, but speed rarely seems to be the clinching factor. A decade ago, the fastest Mac money could buy was an Amiga with Mac emulation hardware–an Amiga clocked at the same speed would run Mac OS and related software about 10% faster than the real thing. And in 1993, Intel pulled ahead of Motorola in the speed race. Intel had 486s running as fast as 66 MHz, while Motorola’s 68040 topped out at 40 MHz. Apple jumped to the PowerPC line, whose clock rate pretty much kept up with the Pentium line until the last couple of years. While the PowerPCs would occasionally beat an x86 at some benchmark or another, the speed was more a point of advocacy than anything else. When a Mac user quoted one benchmark only to be countered by another benchmark that made the PowerPC look bad, the Mac user just shrugged and moved on to some other advocacy point.

Now that the megahertz gap has become the gigahertz gap, the Mac doesn’t look especially good on paper next to an equivalently priced PC. Apple could close the gigahertz gap and shave a hundred bucks or two off the price of the Mac by leaving Motorola at the altar and shacking up with Intel or AMD. And that’s why every pundit seems to expect the change to happen.

But Steve Jobs won’t do anything unless he thinks it’ll get him something. And Apple offers a highly styled, high-priced, anti-establishment machine. Hippie computers, yuppie price. Well, that was especially true of the now-defunct Flower Power and Blue Dalmation iMacs.

But if Apple puts Intel Inside, some of that anti-establishment lustre goes away. That’s not enough to make or break the deal.

But breaking compatibility with the few million G3- and G4-based Macs already out there might be. The software vendors aren’t going to appreciate the change. Now Apple’s been jerking the software vendors around for years, but a computer is worthless without software. Foisting an instruction set change on them isn’t something Apple can do lightly. And Steve Jobs knows that.

I’m not saying a change won’t happen. But it’s not the sure deal most pundits seem to think it is. More likely, Apple is just pulling a Dell. You know the Dell maneuver. Dell is the only PC vendor that uses Intel CPUs exclusively. But Dell holds routine talks with AMD and shows the guest book signatures to Intel occasionally. Being the last dance partner gives Dell leverage in negotiating with Intel.

I think Apple’s doing the same thing. Apple’s in a stronger negotiating position with Motorola if Steve Jobs can casually mention he’s been playing around with Pentium 4s and Athlon XPs in the labs and really likes what he sees.

But eventually Motorola might decide the CPU business isn’t profitable enough to be worth messing with, or it might decide that it’s a lot easier and more profitable to market the PowerPC as a set of brains for things like printers and routers. Or Apple might decide the gigahertz gap is getting too wide and defect. I’d put the odds of a divorce somewhere below 50 percent. I think I’ll see an AMD CPU in a Mac before I’ll see it in a Dell, but I don’t think either event will happen next year.

But what if it does? Will Apple have to go to AMD and have them design a custom, slightly incompatible CPU as David Coursey hypothesizes?

Worm sweat. Remember the early 1980s, when there were dozens of machines that had Intel CPUs and even ran MS-DOS, yet were, at best, only slightly IBM compatible? OK, David Coursey doesn’t, so I can’t hold it against you if you don’t. But trust me. They existed, and they infuriated a lot of people. There were subtle differences that kept IBM-compatible software from running unmodified. Sometimes the end user could work around those differences, but more often than not, they couldn’t.

All Apple has to do is continue designing their motherboards the way they always have. The Mac ROM bears very little resemblance to the standard PC BIOS. The Mac’s boot block and partition table are all different. If Mac OS X continues to look for those things, it’ll never boot on a standard PC, even if the CPU is the same.

The same differences that keep Mac OS X off of Dells will also keep Windows off Macs. Windows could be modified to compensate for those differences, and there’s a precedent for that–Windows NT 4.0 originally ran on Intel, MIPS, PowerPC, and Alpha CPUs. I used to know someone who swore he ran the PowerPC versions of Windows NT 3.51 and even Windows NT 4.0 natively on a PowerPC-based Mac. NT 3.51 would install on a Mac of comparable vintage, he said. And while NT 4.0 wouldn’t, he said you could upgrade from 3.51 to 4.0 and it would work.

I’m not sure I believe either claim, but you can search Usenet on Google and find plenty of people who ran the PowerPC version of NT on IBM and Motorola workstations. And guess what? Even though those workstations had PowerPC CPUs, they didn’t have a prayer of running Mac OS, for lack of a Mac ROM.

Windows 2000 and XP were exclusively x86-based (although there were beta versions of 2000 for the Alpha), but adjusting to accomodate an x86-based Mac would be much easier than adjusting to another CPU architecture. Would Microsoft go to the trouble just to get at the remaining 5% of the market? Probably. But it’s not guaranteed. And Apple could turn it into a game of leapfrog by modifying its ROM with every machine release. It already does that anyway.

The problem’s a whole lot easier than Coursey thinks.

Stand by your SCSI.

The Storage Review recently ran a feature on the Seagate Barracuda 36 series, Seagate’s current economy-class SCSI drive. Like many low-end Seagate SCSI drives of the past, it is a converted ATA/IDE design. And Storage Review eats these kinds of units up, because theoretically they provide a nice way to demonstrate the difference between IDE and SCSI.
The result? The SCSI unit was actually slower than its IDE brethren in some of the tests.

The conclusion? SCSI isn’t necessarily faster than IDE.

That’s partially right. Taking the same drive mechanism and replacing the IDE circuitry with SCSI circuitry won’t result in a rockin’-fast drive. SCSI does have more overhead than IDE, so without some other changes, the drive won’t be an impressive performer.

The thing is, people don’t buy expensive SCSI controllers and then put retreaded IDE drives on them. Or at least they shouldn’t. The Barracuda 36 series is intended for people replacing SCSI drives in older equipment. Since the drive will frequently be replacing a five-year-old drive (or older), it doesn’t have to be a screamer. Anything made today will be faster than anything you can find from the mid-90s.

SCSI gives other advantages over IDE. First, with a modern host adapter (don’t call it a controller; you’ll get dirty looks) you can connect 14 devices and only use one interrupt. On today’s crowded PCs that try to be everything to everyone, that can be a real boon. Second, you have far fewer limitations over cable length. Don’t buy an IDE cable longer than 18 inches; you’re just asking for trouble. I know, I know, some of you have 36-inch IDE cables and they work fine. Trust me: Replace it with a shorty, and you’ll get fewer data errors, which means a more reliable system at the very least, and possibly a faster system as well due to fewer retransmissions. With SCSI, you can actually use the top bays in that five-foot-tall megatower you bought. Third, you can get external SCSI devices, in the event that you made the mistake of not buying that five-foot-tall megatower, or if you just like portability. This is less of a factor in these days of Firewire and USB 2.0, but it’s still a nicety you don’t get with IDE. Fourth and most importantly, SCSI devices sharing the same bus can talk at the same time. When you put two IDE drives on the same channel, one drive has to wait for the other to shut up before it can speak its peace. This limits the advantage of having multiple drives. With multiple SCSI drives, you can actually saturate all that bandwidth you paid for.

The fifth advantage of may soon fade: command queuing. SCSI drives don’t have to perform requests in the order received. If you’re constantly accessing two files at once, reading one, then writing to the other, in alternating fashion, the IDE drive will be jumping all over the place. The SCSI drive will figure out how to reorder those requests so it doesn’t have to jump around as much. IBM’s recent Deskstar drives can do command queuing as well, provided the operating system supports that mode of operation. But it’s not a common feature in IDE drives yet. This advantage usually won’t show up in benchmarks, but it’s significant. SCSI drives, to use a popular middle-management buzzword, work smarter. If you’ve got a Windows 2000 or XP system with a SCSI drive in it, try using the system while defragmenting the drive. The system will be slower, but not unusable. That’s never true of an IDE drive.

And the sixth advantage of SCSI doesn’t really have much to do with SCSI. With SCSI, you get cutting-edge technologies first. You can’t buy a 15K RPM IDE drive. You can’t even buy a 10K RPM IDE drive. There’s only one IDE drive on the market with an 8-meg cache on it. Caches that size are commonplace on contemporary SCSI drives, and the gargantuan Seagate Barracuda 180 has a 16-meg cache. It also costs as much as a nice computer all by itself, so it’s not exactly a consumer-class drive, but it’s available if you’ve got more money than patience.

Benchmarks are deceiving. Some changes will double the benchmark scores, but a user won’t tell much difference. Other changes barely register, but the user notices them. SCSI is one of those, especially if you multitask a lot.

It’s true that there’s no point in spending $400-$500 for a disk subsystem in a PC you use for word processing and e-mail. You’ll notice a difference, but it’s not worth the extra cost. Although if you’re buying a used system and have a choice between a system with IDE disks and SCSI disks, you should get the SCSI system, even if it means ponying up another 50 bucks. You’ll thank yourself for it.

As for me, I love my SCSI systems with 10K RPM drives in them. They’re wicked fast, and no louder than the IDE drives of four or five years ago. (I don’t have a current IDE drive to compare them to.) I can let my e-mail inbox fill up with thousands of messages without it dragging beyond belief, and my non-Adobe applications load in less than three seconds. Most of them load in less than a second. The drives themselves are small and expensive, but you’re buying performance, not capacity. I can’t fill up a 9-gig drive with applications anyway. Neither can most people.

So no, SCSI isn’t a magic silver bullet. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth having.

But that’s just my opinion.

Free PR advice. I see the Taliban hunted down and assassinated four journalists. Well, OK, it’s not proven that they did it, but it looks like that’s what happened. Now, I know journalists are pretty low on the slimeball scale. I have a journalism degree from the oldest school of journalism in the world, after all. But terrorists and third-world dictators are such a completely different league of low that even a journalist-turned-lawyer-turned-politican who put himself through college selling used cars wouldn’t begin to approach it.
Bad move, guys. There’s anti-war sentiment brewing in Europe, but killing four unarmed civilians will do very little to fuel that. Reminding the people that the enemy they face is irrational and unrelentless and unmerciful isn’t a good way to end wars. You lose points in the court of public opinion, and it doesn’t put you in a good negotiating position either.

But even beyond all that, you should never kill that which you can manipulate–unless you’ve lost so much belief in your cause that you’re no longer confident of being able to put the right spin on things to convince anyone else that you’re right.

So we have further evidence that our enemy is mind-numbingly stupid. We have indication that their belief in themselves, or at least in their ability to escape from this alive, is wavering–instead of feeding information to journalists they’ve resorted to suppressing information by killing them. And we have indication of growing desperation. See above.

This is no time for protesting. This is exactly the time to start squeezing harder. Much harder.

I want to believe this. I mean I really, really want to believe…

Incidentally, if Gator isn’t uninstalling for you, Ad-Aware seems to do a nice job of eradicating it.

New toys. My 10,000 RPM Quantum/Maxtor Atlas 10K3 arrived yesterday. It takes the drive a while to initialize (upwards of 30 seconds) but once it gets rolling, it’s incredible. A completely unacceptable 37 seconds passes between the time Windows 2000’s “Starting Windows” screen appears and the time the login prompt appears. The thing’s amazing. Just to be obnoxious, I defragmented the drive while other things were running. They didn’t interfere with each other much–that’s the magic of SCSI command reordering.

I installed MS Office 2000 just to see how that would run. Word launches from a dead stop in three seconds. Kill the Office Assistant and it loads in less than two.

I know SCSI drives don’t benchmark much faster than high-end IDE drives, but the difference I see between a high-end SCSI drive like this one and a fast IDE drive is significant. Everything that ever has to touch the disk runs faster. This includes Web browsers pulling data out of the local cache.

Users who don’t do much multitasking probably won’t see much difference, but for a multitasking freak like me–I’ve only got 8 windows open on this machine as I type this, and I’m wondering what’s wrong with me–it’s unbelievable. I haven’t been this overwhelmed since my days playing with an Amiga (which, come to think of it, had a SCSI drive in it).

Witness the birth of a SCSI bigot.

Two chipsets from the AMD front

Yesterday AMD formally unveiled and shipped the AMD-760MP chipset. Right now there is one and only one motherboard using it, the ritzy Tyan Thunder K7, which runs about $550 minimum. (Wholesale cost on it is rumored to be $500.) Considering its 64-bit PCI slots, two built-in 3Com NICs, onboard ATI video, onboard Adaptec SCSI, and four available DIMMs, that’s not a half-bad price. It’s obviously not a hobbyist board. This dude’s intended to go in servers.
At any rate, reviews are all over the place and the quality varies. Far and away the best I found was at Ace’s Hardware, where he tested the things people actually likely to buy this board would do with it: workstation-type stuff.

Anand does his usual 10 pages’ worth of butt-kissing and he’s living under the delusion that people will buy this board to play Quake. However, he does test the board with plain old Thunderbird and Duron CPUs (they work, but AMD won’t support that configuration). Skip ahead to page 11 after reading the story at Ace’s. His tests suggest that for some purposes, a dual Duron-850 can be competitive with a dual P3-933. That information is more interesting than it is useful at this point in time, but we’ve all been curious about dual Duron performance, so if and when an inexpensive AMD SMP board becomes available, we have some idea what we’ll be able to do with it.

All the usual hardware sites put in their two cents’ worth; by the time I read Ace’s and Anand’s and Tom’s reviews I stopped learning anything new.

Some of it bordered on ridiculous. One site (I forget which) observed that the AMD 766 northbridge looks just like a K6-2 and said they must have made it look that way just to remind us where the Athlon came from. Whatever. The AMD 766 northbridge and the K6-2 use the same heat spreader. The intention is to keep the chip cool. It’s not there just for looks–the chip runs hot. But that’s the kind of quality information we get from most hardware sites these days, sadly.

More immediately useful and interesting, but not yet available, is the nVidia nForce chipset. You can read about it at Tom’s and elsewhere. This is technically nVidia’s second chipset, their first being the chipset in Microsoft’s X-Box. This chipset is a traditional two-chip solution, linked by AMD’s high-speed HyperTransport. It includes integrated sound better than anything Creative Labs or Cirrus Logic currently offer (now we know what nVidia was doing with those engineers they were hiring from Aureal) and integrated GeForce 2MX video connected via a high-speed port that would be equivalent to AGP 6X, if such a thing existed. And nVidia pairs up DDR controllers to give dual-channel, 128-bit memory with a bandwidth of 4.256 GB/sec. Suddenly DDR provides greater bandwidth than Rambus in addition to lower latency.

Just for good measure, the chipset includes Ethernet too.

What’s all this mean? High-speed motherboards with everything integrated (and with integrated peripherals definitely worth using) for around 200 bucks. By the end of the summer, last summer’s monster PC will be integrated onto two chips and priced for building PCs at the $600-$800 price point.

This summer’s computer revolution won’t be Windows XP.

And, in something not really related, here’s something you probably missed, unfortunately. Start rubbing your hands together if you enjoy the Mac-PC or Intel-AMD wars. This is a hard benchmark comparing AMD Athlon, Intel P3, and Motorola PowerPC architectures and their relative speed. The methodology: under Linux, cross-compile a Linux kernel for the SPARC architecture (compiling native isn’t a fair comparison; this way they’re all creating identical code and therefore doing the same work, or as close to it as you’re gonna get). You know those claims that a Mac is twice as fast as an equivalent-speed Pentium III running Photoshop? I always countered that with Microsoft Office benchmarks, where a Mac is about 1/4 the speed of a PC, at best, when doing a mail merge. Neither is a fair test. This benchmark resembles one.

Anyway… Yes, a G4 is faster than the equivalently clocked Pentium III. How much faster? Roughly 10 percent. And an Athlon turns out to be about 20 percent slower than the equivalent P3. Of course, the Athlon reaches clock speeds the P3 never will, and the Athlon is also much more than 20 percent cheaper than the equivalently-clocked P3, so who really cares?

This still isn’t a totally fair comparison of CPU architecture, since chipsets vary (and it’s entirely possible that the difference between the P3 and the Athlon in speed is due to chipset quality), but if indeed the G4 was twice as fast as the P3, it would surely outperform it by better than 10 percent in this test. But it’s a decent comparison of real-world performance, because it doesn’t matter how much better your CPU is if it’s burdened by a chipset that doesn’t show up to play on game day.

Most telling is the end, where he gives the cost per speed unit. AMD wins that chart handily.

Enough of my babble. Read all about it here.

More Like This: AMD Hardware

03/07/2001

Virus. I don’t normally give virus alerts because chances are you already know about anything legit before you get around to reading me, but if you get an e-mail attachment named “nakedwife.exe,” don’t run it. It won’t destroy your hard drive and your neighbor’s hard drive and cause your toaster to blow up and your car not to start; it’ll just delete a bunch of files in your Windows hierarchy, which will probably affect system stability greatly, and it’ll e-mail itself to everyone in your Outlook address book (how nice of it).

I’ ll talk more on this tomorrow. Count on it.

Benchmarks. Jerry Pournelle lamented Wintach’s passing this week in his Byte column, and he presented some benchmarks: a Celeron, a P3, and a P4. The Celeron and P4 results were very clearly ludicrous. WinTach, like most benchmarks, gives results that mean absolutely nothing but they may make you feel good about spending money on a new PC.

But most benchmarks are purely synthetic. They tell you what your CPU and memory subsystem are capable of, but the memory load, underlying filesystem and fragmentation level of the drive, all of which dramatically affect performance, don’t play into it. They’re not a very useful tool, WinTach included.

I talked very little about benchmarking in Optimizing Windows for just that reason.

That may be about to change. I’ve seen a few references to CSA Research lately, partly because of their falling out with Intel (their benchmark shows just how little improvement the P4 gives, which Intel didn’t like–and they were working for Intel at the time), but partly because it takes a new approach. The apps installled on your system actually get some use. So suddenly the software aspect of your system comes into play, and the numbers it mean something. Revolutionary thought, that. And, unlike other benchmarks, this one gives a meaningful idea of what dual processors do for you.

The only drawback is that the benchmark only runs on Windows 2000, at least for the time being.

Check it out at http://www.xpnet.com/download.htm .

Keep an eye on this. We might actually, for the first time in over a decade, get some benchmarks that actually mean something.

Mail. I’ve got some good mail, hopefully I’ll get to it tonight. No promises though, I’ve got to put together a Bible study for this week (and come up with something to say for tomorrow). I normally spend 3-4 days writing a Bible study, and I haven’t even started yet. Hopefully this one will be quicker to put together, since I’m using more sources than I did last time. Last time was my Bible and my insights, period. No need for much else, it was a character study, like you’d do with any piece of literature. Heavier topic this time around, so I’m tapping some other people’s brains.

02/20/2001

Windows Me Too? I’ve read the allegations that Microsoft aped Mac OS X with the upcoming Windows XP. Maybe I’m dense, but I don’t see much resemblance beyond the resemblance between two cars made by different manufacturers. The Start menu has a new neon look, which is probably Apple-inspired to some degree. The Windows taskbar has had Dock-like functionality for several years now–it was added with IE4. The biggest change seems to be the Start menu–they’ve taken the Windows 2000 initiative, where only commonly used stuff is shown, to an extreme, and now the Start menu, at least in some screenshots, looks bigger. I don’t know if it really is or not–I saw another 1024×768 screenshot in which the Start menu actually takes a little less real estate than my current box at the same resolution. And they’ve re-drawn some icons.

As a whole there’s a more textured look now, but some of the Unixish Window managers have been doing that stuff since 1997. The login screen bears a definite resemblance to some of the Unixish login screens I’ve seen of late.

Microsoft is claiming this is the most significant user interface change since Windows 95. That’s true, but it’s not the big step that Windows 95 was from Windows 3.x. It’s an evolutionary step, and one that should have been expected, given that the Windows 9x Explorer interface is now older than the Program Manager interface was when it was replaced. Had 24-bit displays been common in 1995, Microsoft probably would have gone with a textured look then–they’ve always liked such superficialities.

Stress tests. New hardware, or suspect hardware, should always be stress-tested to make sure it’s up to snuff. Methods are difficult to find, however, especially under Windows. Running a benchmark repeatedly can be a good way to test a system–overclockers frequently complain that their newly overclocked systems can’t finish benchmark suites–but is it enough? And when the system can’t finish, the problem can be an OS or driver issue as well.

Stress testing with Linux would seem to be a good solution. Linux is pretty demanding anyway; run it hard and it’ll generally expose a system’s weaknesses. So I did some looking around. I found a stress test employed by VA-Linux at http://sourceforge.net/projects/va-ctcs/ that looked OK. And I found another approach at http://www.eskimo.com/~pygmy/stress.txt that just speaks of experience stress testing by repeatedly compiling the Linux kernel, which gives the entire system (except for the video card) a really good workout.

And the unbelievable… Someone at work mentioned an online President’s Day poll, asking who was the best president? Several obvious candidates are up on Mt. Rushmore: Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt. Most people would add FDR and possibly Harry Truman and Woodrow Wilson to that list. I was talking with a good friend the other day about just this issue, and I argued in favor of Lincoln. Washington had a tough job of setting a standard, and he was great, but Lincoln had an even tougher job of holding a bitterly divided country together. So if I had to rank them, I’d probably say Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, and then we have a mess. I don’t agree with their politics, but FDR and Woodrow Wilson probably belong in there. James Madison and James Monroe belong in there, the question is where. Then it starts to get really tough. Was Harry Truman in those guys’ league? Not really, but he’s worlds better than Warren G. Harding and Bill Clinton. Fine, pencil him in at 9. Now who gets #10? Some would give it to Ronald Reagan. It seems to me that Reagan is at once overappreciated and underappreciated. A lot of people put him at the very bottom, which I think is unfair. But then there was this poll  that put him at the very top, by a very wide margin. When I looked, Reagan had 44% of the vote, followed by George Washington at 29% and Abraham Lincoln a distant third at 14%.

When I speak of the hard right in the media, that’s what I’m referring to: blind allegiance to an icon, however flawed. Don’t get me wrong, Reagan was no Warren G. Harding–he did win the Cold War after all. Conservatives say his economic policies saved the country, while liberals say it very nearly wrecked it. All I can tell you is my college economics professor taught that Reagan at the very least had the right idea–the big problem with the theory behind Reagan’s policies is the impossibility of knowing whether you’d gone too far or not far enough. Fine. FDR played a similar game. Both are revered by their parties and hated by the other party. But as president, neither Ronald Reagan nor FDR are in the Washington and Lincoln league. As a man, FDR probably was in that league, and if he was not the last, he was very close to it. But with the truly great presidents, there is very little doubt about them–and in the cases of Lincoln and Jefferson, their greatest critics were the voices inside their own heads.

Great people just don’t run for president anymore, and they rarely run for political office, period. It’s easy to see why. Anyone truly qualified to be President of the United States is also qualified to be en executive at a large multinational corporation, and that’s a far more profitable and less frustrating job. And the truly great generally aren’t willing to compromise as much as a politician must in order to get the job.

Early on, we had no shortage whatsoever of great minds in politics: Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe certainly. Plus men who never were president, like Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton. We had, in effect, from Washington to Monroe, a string of men who met Socrates’ qualifications to be Philosopher-King. (Yes, John Adams was single-term, but he was a cut above most of those who were to follow.)

But as our country developed, so many better things for a great mind to do sprung up. Today you can be an executive at a large company, or you can be a researcher, or a pundit, or the president of a large and prestigious university. In 1789, there weren’t as many things to aspire to.

If we’ve got any Benjamin Franklins and Thomas Jeffersons and George Washingtons and Abraham Lincolns out there today (and I believe we do), they’ve got better things to do than waste time in Washington, D.C.

No, our greatest president wasn’t Ronald Reagan, just as it wasn’t Dwight Eisenhower or John Kennedy. That’s nostalgia talking.

02/02/2001

Linksys revisited. Thanks for the corrections on the Linksys router. Yes indeed, with recent firmware you can change the MAC address. It’s buried, but that’s good–you shouldn’t routinely do that anyway.

Reviews of reviews again. Time to get back in the saddle. Yee-hah.

Pentium 4 systems (THG)

In this roundup, Tom Pabst complained bitterly about PC makers’ exploiting public ignorance, selling high-clock speed systems with shoddy peripherals in order to drive down the cost. So he built systems roughly equivalent to four PCs–a low-end P4 and similarly priced Athlon, and a high-end P4 and the top-of-the-line Athlon. Then he pitted them against each other. The P4s came up sorely lacking.

Performance of the real McCoy could vary significantly (no one thinks about the power supply in performance equations, but it plays a role), so this test is anything but conclusive, but it does finally and authoritatively point out the differences good components make. People who’ve read Computer Shopper (US) religiously and seen system shootouts know this–Shopper always printed system configurations, and occasionally an overachiever would show up, with great components, and blow away supposedly higher-end systems. This article on THG examines this phenomenon and does it well, I think.

Pabst does seem to forget that businesses aren’t in business to care about consumers though–they’re in business to make money. I’d like to think the marketplace rewards straight-shooters, but considering my book sales, I know that’s not always the case. As long as Dell thinks it’s good for profits to stay in bed with Intel, Dell will be in bed with Intel, no matter what it does to consumers.

MSI MS-6339 P4 motherboard (Sharky Extreme)

This is a good look at a fairly competitive P4 board, which explains the ins and outs of this board and why Intel changed the ATX standard. It points out this board’s quirks, and benchmarks it against an Intel and an Asus board. It does a good job of pointing out the reasons why you probably don’t want to buy a P4 at this time. I found it interesting that this benchmark didn’t mention Quake 3, which is one of the few things the P4 is really good at. Refreshing (I couldn’t care less about Quake scores, and I know I’m not alone on that) but ironic.

Congratulations to a fellow Missourian. I don’t like to talk politics much here, but… My fellow Missourian John Ashcroft is the new attorney general. Appropriately, the supposed racist was sworn in by Clarence Thomas.

As for the “Missouri fired him” rhetoric, here’s the truth on that: John Ashcroft and Mel Carnahan were the two most popular governors of recent memory. Were it not for term limits, Ashcroft would probably still be governor. Ashcroft and Carnahan were locked in a too-close-to-call race up until the point when Carnahan died in a plane crash. Carnahan then attained sainthood and won the election on a sympathy vote. Possible voter fraud in the city of St. Louis didn’t help matters any. But Ashcroft is a class act, so he didn’t contest the election, either on grounds of fraud or on grounds that a senator must be a citizen, and a dead man can’t be a citizen. Carnahan’s widow was then appointed to the Senate.

Teddy Kennedy threatened to filibuster Ashcroft, because he didn’t like Ashcroft’s conservatism. Never mind Ashcroft knows what the law is, and one of the tenets of his so-objectionable religion is that you obey and you uphold your government’s laws–no government exists without God’s allowing it to exist, according to John Ashcroft’s religion and mine. John Ashcroft is responsible to God to do his job, and to do it properly. His job is not to do Congress’ job. John Ashcroft knows this.

John Ashcroft, unlike most of his predecessors, has actually been an attorney general before. It was the post he held in Missouri before he was elected governor. John Ashcroft will do no less to uphold the law than his predecessor Janet Reno. If ever there was an honest and decent man, it’s John Ashcroft.

Jean Carnahan voted against Ashcroft. She said it was a matter of conscience. Really, what she was saying was John Ashcroft is too different politically from her dead husband.

John Ashcroft’s very different from her dead husband in another way too.

John Ashcroft suspended campaigning when his opponent, Mel Carnahan, was killed. It was a matter of conscience. It cost him the election. At the time he suspended campaigning, he said he didn’t care, whatever the cost–it was the right thing to do. That’s the kind of man John Ashcroft is. He does the right thing, whatever the cost.

John Ashcroft was good for Missouri. Now he’ll be good for the United States.

01/31/2001

Mailbag:

Music, HD, Linux modem

Sick. Something you’ll (hopefully) never see: DefragCam. I can blame one of my twisted coworkers for that idea.

A sad referrer showed up in my logs yesterday. It was a search request, from Hotbot, on the string, “I’ve never had a girlfriend.” I’m pretty sure that phrase appears as part of a sentence in Are we talking about more than just sunsets? but as part of a phrase. I seem to remember writing, “I’ve never had a girlfriend outside the winter months,” or something like that. I have no way of knowing where that request came from. Probably a bored, lonely teenager. More people have never had a girlfriend than anyone’s willing to admit. Including a majority of teenagers.

It’s only a problem if you let it be one. Unfortunately a lot of people do, and that makes them vulnerable to all sorts of scum, like advertisers and fringe religious fanatics and seedy individuals, all promising things they can’t or won’t deliver.

Not that I’m much of an advice-giver (unless you’ve got a slow computer, then I’m pretty good), but the best suggestion I’ve got is to find something you’re good at. Lose yourself in that. If you’re not good at anything, find something you enjoy and lose yourself in it. You’ll get good at it. That alleviates the boredom, and it builds confidence, which makes you good at other things. Does it make girls notice you? Only indirectly. But it’s better to be a winner who only occasionally has girlfriends (and remember, ideally you should only be in a successful relationship once anyway) than to be a loser who always has a girl.

I hate to sound callous, but given the choice between having a book published to my name, or having any of my ex-girlfriends back, I’d choose the book. I wouldn’t even hesitate. When I find a girl who’s cooler than writing magazine articles, and she thinks I’m pretty cool too, then I’ll know it’s time to settle down.

I guess that’s the other good thing about losing yourself in other interests. If a girl starts hanging around who’s more interesting than those things, great. If she’s not, that’s your subconscious mind’s way of telling you to keep looking.

A new way to benchmark. Finally, there’s a multitasking-oriented benchmark, available from www.csaresearch.com . Keep an eye on these guys. I didn’t use any benchmarks in Optimizing Windows, because they don’t reflect real-world performance and they generally test your hardware, not the operating system as it stands on your machine. This benchmark uses new methods that try to take multitasking into account, so it will do a better job of reflecting how a system feels. It was like I was telling my sister yesterday. If I put two computers in front of her, she doesn’t care which one puts up better numbers. She knows which one’s faster. But with a lot of the benchmarks today, the faster machine doesn’t put up the best numbers. Or a PC might put up numbers that appear to kill another, but when you sit down to use the two, you can’t tell a difference.

Time for a review. I’ve been so critical of reviews lately I decided to try my hand at writing one myself, to see if I’ve still got what it takes.

Linksys Etherfast Cable/DSL Router

Broadband Internet connections are increasingly common, and it’s hard for a single PC to use up all the available bandwidth. Plus, more and more homes have multiple PCs, and it’s a shame to spend $50 a month for Internet access and limit its use to a single PC. A number of third-party programs for sharing an Internet connection exist, and recenolution. These devices are about the size of a hub, plug into your cable/DSL modem, have a built-in firewall, and include one or more ports. You can plug your PCs into these ports and/or plug in a hub or switch so you can support a larger number of PCs. Another advantage of a standalone router is additional security against hackers. A Unix box can be very secure, but if a hacker does get into it, he can do a lot of unpleasant things, to you or to someone else (but make it look like you’re the one doing it). A hacker can’t do much to a router besides mess up its configuration. You can reset it and reconfigure it in five minutes. So the security of one of these devices is very tough to beat.

One of the most popular standalone cable/DSL routers is the Linksys BEFSR41, also known simply as the EtherFast Cable/DSL Router. It’s widely available for around $150. The best price I could find on it was $131. I tested the 4-port version. A 1-port and 8-port version is also available. The 1-port version is less expensive but requires a separate hub or switch. If you already have one of those, you can save some money, but the 4- or 8-port version is ideal since it includes a built-in switch. I have an 8-port dual 10/100 hub; the Linksys router therefore gives me three additional higher-speed network ports, since switches are faster than hubs. Most people will probably want the 4- or 8-port version, because it’s easy to get spoiled really quickly by a 100-megabit switched Ethernet LAN.

Configuration is wickedly easy. Plug it into your cable/DSL modem, plug a computer into it, turn all of it on, configure the PC for DHCP if it isn’t already, then open a Web browser and go to http://192.168.1.1 . Feed it the factory password (which is undoubtedly documented all over the Web, but I won’t document it here as well), then make the changes you need. Most people won’t have to do any configuration other than changing the configuration password. If you want to put it on a different subnet, do it, then run winipcfg, push the release all button, then the renew all button, reconnect to the router, and make other changes if need be.

Administration is easy too. Just connect to the router via its Web interface, and click on the Status tab. You instantly get your network status. If your ISP drops your connection, hit the Release, then the Renew button. From the DHCP tab, you can tell the router how many clients to support. You can go to the advanced tab to configure port forwarding or a DMZ if you want such a thing–most of us won’t.

The only thing I had difficulty doing was upgrading the firmware from the browser interface. The router must not have liked the version of IE I was using. However, nothing stops you from downloading and running the firmware upgrade directly–as long as you’ve got a Windows box handy. Mac and Linux users may have problems there. Firmware updates seem to come every couple of months.

The firewall built into the router is unable to pass Steve Gibson’s LeakTest, but all hardware routers have this weakness–it’s virtually impossible for a hardware router to tell the difference between innocent traffic and malicious traffic caused by a Trojan Horse. However, the router passes ShieldsUp! ( www.grc.com ) with flying colors.

The speed of the connection is certainly acceptable; with me running a caching nameserver on the Linux box it replaced that machine should be able to outperform any standalone router any time. Of course this is purely subjective; the speed of the Internet changes constantly. Nothing stops me from running a caching nameserver behind this router, which will help performance significantly. Local network performance on the built-in 10/100 switch is outstanding.

Appearance-wise, it’s a solid product, made of two-tone blue and black plastic but it’s not cheap plastic. Styling is modern but tasteful–no wild colors or translucent parts. It has indicator lights up front, a reset switch up front, and ports in the back. It also has built-in legs, so presumably it’s stackable with other Linksys hardware (I don’t have any Linksys switches or hubs, so I can’t check that).

The only flaw I can really find with this router is that the MAC address can’t be changed. Some ISPs authenticate against the card’s MAC address, which allows them to control how you connect to them. It also prevents you from using this type of device. Some competing routers allow you to change their MAC address, so they can spoof that card and get around the limitation.

I read of problems using it with services that use PPPoE (PPP over Ethernet). My service doesn’t, so I can’t test this. Buyer beware.

I was disappointed that the 45-page manual didn’t have an index, but it had a lot of nice information in it, such as pinouts for Ethernet cables. It’s written in clear, plain and straightforward English. Manuals of this length and quality are rare these days.

I think it’s a decent product, but for my purposes I want something else. I don’t want something so easy to reset to factory defaults and configure. Why? It’s getting corporate use, and I want it to be complex enough to scare people away. I want the user interface of an HP LaserJet printer control panel. It’s a pain to configure, so therefore end-users don’t mess with it. I’m not sure if I’ll find such a beast, but you bet I’ll look for it.

Mailbag:

Music, HD, Linux modem