Beware the Black Friday electronics

Beware the Black Friday electronics

Ars Technica ran an aptly timed article today called How to talk your family out of bad consumer electronics purchases. It’s definitely worth a read, to steer you away from bad Black Friday electronics.

There’s a great tip in the article. If a doorbuster item has a model number that isn’t available the rest of the year, you don’t want it. That’s a good rule.

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How to maximize a Computer Science degree

Yesterday an interesting question popped up on Slashdot, asking for an alternative to a computer science degree for an aspiring web developer. He complained that what he’s learning in class doesn’t relate to what he wants to do in the field.

Assuming that by “web developer” he means someone who can code stuff in ASP and/or PHP with a database backend and do stuff in Javascript–as opposed to a designer who just does HTML and CSS–I think he’s best off staying where he is and asking better questions.
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Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson needed to explain himself

I understand Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson’s predicament. I don’t agree with how he handled it.

You see, both Scott Thompson and I work in the technical industry, and neither of us have a degree in computer science, computer engineering, some other kind of engineering, high mathematics, or another socially accepted relevant-to-the-industry field. Read more

Security+ test taking tips

One of my coworkers is being required to get a Security+ certification, and asked me for advice. She’s gone to class, read some books, and she’s going to another class on TCP/IP, but she’s just not comfortable yet. I gave her some Security+ test taking tips.

Since other people might be in her situation, I figure it’s worth writing about. Read more

What does religion have to do with the United States falling behind in math and science?

This morning on one of the Sunday morning political shows (probably "Meet the Press"), I heard a statement that troubled me. I may be misquoting, but I heard the moderator ask how we can afford to have a vice president who believes in Creation in a time when the United States is lagging so far behind in fields like science and engineering.

I call irrelevance.I’ll tell you why the United States is falling behind in science and engineering. It has little or nothing to do with religion (or lack of it) and everything to do with society and education.

I know several engineers. Some are practicing and licensed; others have the degree but haven’t had need for the license. One is the godfather of my son. He’s in church every Sunday and I know it, because I usually sit in the same section.

You can pretty much name any large company that makes something made of metal in the United States, and chances are he’s designed a press for them. Companies buy his presses because they are reliable, safe to operate, and cost efficient. I don’t know what he thinks about when he’s designing his presses, but it’s certainly possible to design one without thinking about God once. And being well-versed in biological evolution isn’t going to make his presses any safer or cheaper.

But if we want to debate Creation vs. Evolution, I’ll drag Dad into this. I have to speak for him, because he died in 1994. Dad had bachelor’s degrees in chemistry, physics, and biology in addition to his medical degree. He was also a practicing Lutheran, so he believed in God and could find his way around a hymnal and a Bible.

Dad believed in evolution and was told more than once he was going to hell because of what he believed. But the church elders never let Dad finish his argument. He and I had this talk once, and let me tell you the last thing Dad said.

Evolution’s dirty little secret is that at the very beginning, some force had to set it in motion. Dad said God set it in motion, and the same God gave Darwin the brain to figure that out.

As someone who was much stronger in English than any science, I’m not qualified to argue with my Dad. But I can say that more people would have listened to him, and the discussions would have been more civil, if he’d said that first instead of last. Dad was guilty of burying his thesis.

In 1998, I had a conversation with another doctor, one who had known Dad. Unlike Dad, this doctor wasn’t an evolutionist. He said it’s bad science, because its earliest stages are neither repeatable nor observable. So rather than plug God into it like Dad did, he preferred to throw out the theory.

If you want to say evolution disproves God, then you have to assume that original lifeform and the world it lived in happened by chance. There’s a word for that. It’s called faith. The difference is whether you believe in chance or in God.

When engineers set out to design a car or airplane, or part of one, their personal beliefs about the origins of life don’t help them design a better machine.

Personally, I couldn’t care less whether public schools teach evolution alone or side by side with some variant of intelligent design because that’s not going to make or break mathematicians and scientists and engineers. The educational system and popular culture is what’s keeping our country from being on top of those fields.

First of all, the portrayal of anyone who has any interest in math and science in popular media needs to stop. Now. Television shows like "The Big Bang Theory" and "Beauty and the Geek" reinforce the negative stereotypes of anyone with those inclinations. But it’s not new. Twenty years ago the same stereotypes existed.

I knew lots of science and engineering majors in college. And you know what? Most of them didn’t wear glasses. I never saw any of them with pocket protectors. One of them enjoyed Star Trek but wasn’t obsessed with it by any means. Most of them had girlfriends, and without exception they were all what any normal person would consider good girlfriend material. And perhaps most importantly, you could sit down with any of them and have a pleasant conversation about anything you would talk about with anyone else with a college education.

So there’s no more truth to that stereotype than there is to racial stereotypes. But how much does that stereotype dissuade kids with the gift from speaking up in math or science class when they know the answer?

I know it kept me quiet. I stopped speaking up, and probably on some level I stopped trying as hard as I once did.

But the educational system also bears some blame. Do you want to know why German kids score better in math and science than U.S. kids?

Because German schools know how to teach math and science and U.S. schools don’t, that’s why.

Twenty years ago, I was sitting at the kitchen table of my parents’ house with a German national named Peter. Peter was little more than a drunk and a con man, but I still learned something from him. For some reason, a math problem came up. I attacked the problem using long division, the proper, sanctioned, U.S. method. Peter came up with the same answer I did, and he came up with it a lot faster. He showed me the German way. I’ve long since forgotten the details, but it was quick and easy, unlike long division, which was one of the most difficult and painful things I ever had to learn in school.

Why are German cars better than U.S. cars? Maybe because German schools don’t use math as a way to torture their kids. And, heaven forbid, German kids might actually grow up knowing what they can do with the math skills they’re learning.

In high school, I quit math after trigonometry. The point of no return for me was when one of my classmates was building a speaker box for a car. He knew the size of the box that would fit the car, and wanted to know the maximum size of the speakers he could fit in that area. So he asked the teacher. The teacher tried some equations, but couldn’t figure it out.

The message to me (and the rest of the class) was pretty clear. We were learning this garbage because someone else before us had to learn it, not because it was something necessary for us to succeed in life. Let’s call it for what it is: institutionalized hazing.

Today, I’m 33 years old and I can tell you what basic trigonometry is good for, but that’s only because I watch This Old House on a regular basis and I see Norm Abram and Roger Cook using trig to figure out if something they’re in the process of building is going to be square or not. But I learned so little in trigonometry in high school that it’s a miracle I even know they’re doing trig.

So if we want to keep up with the rest of the world, I have a start. First, burn every math textbook currently in use. Second, launch a crash program to translate German math textbooks into English. Third, fire any teacher not willing to use those methods and replace them with teachers who are. Replace them with people like me who struggled to get Cs under the old method.

Yes, in high school and college, I got Cs in pretty much anything that required the use of numbers. Yet today I can look at business-related data and use statistical methods to figure out how to make that business more efficient and profitable. I almost always need help with the math, but once I manage to get past that, profits increase.

I struggled in Dr. F. Tim Wright’s Statistics 31 class at Mizzou, but his word problems always sounded like a something that might happen in the real world. He’s probably the reason I have that ability today.

Right now the biggest decision my son faces on a day to day basis is what toy he’s going to put in his mouth. So I don’t know what he’s going to decide to do with his life. I know when he reaches adulthood, there will be a shortage in several fields. Medicine and engineering will be among them.

He probably has the genetic disposition to be one or the other. Four of the six generations who preceded him were doctors–his father and great-great grandfather were the two exceptions.

What he decides to do with his life will have very little to do with the personal beliefs of the next president and vice president. It will have everything to do with the kind of education he receives. If a couple of math and science teachers show him how those subjects can change the world, he might head that direction. If it’s a language or social studies teacher who ends up wielding the most influence, he’ll be a lot more likely to go that direction.

I care about that, but I’m not under the illusion that Washington D.C. has much control over it.

Words to live by

I do what I do, and I don’t plan how I ought to do it. I never have. I don’t believe in being rigid about anything. If I see an opportunity, I will drop all the rules, even when doing so is probably a mistake. –John Cocke, inventor of RISC
I’d never heard of John Cocke until he died, but that figures. Since I didn’t major in CS or EE, there are a lot of important people I’ve never heard of. But the father of virtually every non-x86 CPU still standing died this past week at age 77. Like many geniuses, he was eccentric and didn’t like to be bothered with mundane, everyday stuff. And like many geniuses, he didn’t think about his methods much. Read more

Will ZDNet ever get a clue about Linux?

The next time ZDNet runs a story about Linux and you start feeling the urge to click on the link and read it, I’ve got a piece of advice for you.
Lie down until it goes away.

If you have a clue about Linux, the story will just make you mad. If you’re trying to learn about Linux, ZDNet will fill you up with enough misinformation to confuse you for weeks.
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Odds and ends

Way too heavy for me to deal with at the end of this fine Wednesday night. Bo Leuf sent me this link, which tries to explain emotions. From what I could gather, this is from the “programming emotions” standpoint–and I don’t mean willfully controlling your emotions. I mean programming a machine to feel.
I would never want to inflict what I feel on anything, even a machine. But I’m not everybody else either. I remember arguing this in a philosophy class. I was in the minority opinion that you couldn’t program a machine to feel. Strangely enough, I was the only one in the class with any CS background. Oh well.

I suspect it makes for an interesting read. I’ll add it to my to-do list.

And I passed the test…

They got my test results back yesterday, and according to the late Professor Emeritus Wolfe’s analysis, I have the potential to be a competent computer programmer. Of course my high school CS instructor could have told them that and charged a lot less money for it.
As for the question of what programming has to do with a sysadmin job… Well, an NT administrator does have to write logon scripts. I’ll leave the reader to come to his or her own conclusion whether such a test is necessary to determine whether you can write logon scripts or not. It’s not in my best interests to comment on that. I will say there have been a few instances in my professional career where I’ve had to sit down and write some code (besides batch files), be it a quick-and-dirty-utility in QuickBasic or C or KiXtart, or some maintenance programming in Perl. I’ll also say it hasn’t been much of a struggle.

So now I know I’m promotable without changing employers, and that feels good. There’s pressure on me from outside to change employers, and they have some valid points. I guess I like having options.

Dan Bowman sent me a link, which is currently 120 miles from me (I’m in Columbia), which he speculated was a response to what I wrote yesterday. I read it and I concur. The argument there was that you shouldn’t necessarily look for fulfillment in your job when you can find fulfillment in what’s staring you square in the face when you get home: your wife and kids.

There absolutely was a time when I believed that, and there may come a time when I’ll believe it again. My gut reaction to Dan was my standard gut reaction to everything: “Why, that reminds me of a story…”

I had a late dinner a week ago with a buddy and some of his buddies. Technically it was his bachelor party, though some people might argue that a preseason hockey game followed by dinner doesn’t count as a real bachelor party. His 21-year-old future brother-in-law was there. And at one point, the subject of relationships came up. I argued that if you’re alone until you’re 40 when the right relationship comes along, that’s better than bouncing around from wrong relationship to wrong relationship until you finally find the right one. He disagreed.

“Nothing’s worse than being alone,” he said. “I know. I’ve been alone a long time.”

I told him I’ve dated exactly three girls since I turned 18. The first of the three was much worse than being alone. At one point I wouldn’t answer the phone, just in case it was her, for fear of what she’d say. She was always mad at me about some piddly little thing or another. It was cool for about a month. The last two months, forget it. We broke up and I was a whole lot better for it.

The second of the three was always mad at me for some piddly little thing or another too, but at least she didn’t nag. We broke up twice. A few months after the second breakup, she started talking to me again out of the blue. Another female friend asked why we didn’t get back together. All of a sudden it hit me. She had no respect for me. When I told my friend that, her attitude changed 180 degrees. “Forget that,” she said. “Everybody deserves respect.”

The third of the three was worse than being alone too. She was always mad at me because I only e-mailed her every second or third time she e-mailed me, and my messages were always shorter than hers. She only called me once or twice, so I wasn’t afraid to answer my phone, but I was afraid to check my e-mail. She prompted me to write my first-ever mail filter. For some reason I wouldn’t stand up to her. I never understood the relationship, because we never had long conversations, there was no emotion whatsoever, and we never laughed. She didn’t get my sense of humor, and I certainly didn’t get hers. All we could do was talk about baseball. Of course, I could talk about baseball with my guy friends, and they never nagged me.

That lasted roughly six months, if I remember right. I wanted to find out whether being with her was better or worse than being alone. Finally I decided I liked being alone better.

Along the way, I’ve met The One several times. I’m sure everyone knows what I’m talking about. You meet the world’s most beautiful woman, and she turns out to be really nice, and funny, and has several other qualities about her too. But I always ran into a problem. I could never talk to The One. Well, I could talk, but the words never came out right.

So, at best, The One and I would become very casual friends. And that was it.

Then a few months ago I read something that sounded wise. I don’t remember where I read it, but it sounded like it was directed at me. If you’ve met The One several times and you keep blowing it, you’re probably putting too much pressure on yourself. You’re trying to say the one line or one word that’ll win her heart for good, and you’ll never do it, so you’re fighting a losing battle. The article said to forget that approach. Get used to talking to women, it said. If there’s a woman around, talk to her. Not even if you’re not interested in her–especially if you’re not interested in her. Do that, and you accomplish two things. You learn what women think about and what they like to talk about, and you eventually quit putting pressure on yourself, so when you finally do talk to a woman you’re interested in, you sound natural.

So a few months ago I started doing that, to a degree. It’s not like I walked up to every woman I passed in the grocery store and started talking, but since I work with a lot of women, I had that opportunity at work. I talked to a moderately attractive intern at work. I struck out hard. Then I ran into someone who reminded me of someone I used to know, but I couldn’t place her. I walked up to her. “I feel really stupid asking, but you look really familiar,” I told her. I told her my name, and asked if it meant anything to her. Turned out I went to high school with her. We had a couple of long, pleasant conversations, and she didn’t run and hide! I was on a roll!

So I kept on. One thing I learned I should have known all along. There’s a girl at work who’s still in college, working part-time, who was getting some help on a project from someone else. I happened to be in Someone Else’s cube fixing her computer at the time. At one point, Someone Else asked me how you’d adjust the leading in Microsoft Word. I gave her the bad news: You can’t, which was why I wrote a lot of my papers in college in QuarkXPress–I could finely adjust leading and tracking all I wanted, to make a paper whatever length the professor was looking for. At one point, Someone Else went upstairs for coffee, leaving the part-timer and I alone in her cube. She and I talked, mostly about my job. It was pleasant.

The next day, I was in her area, so I stopped in. I asked how her project was coming along. She was completely floored. “It’s almost done. Every second it gets closer and closer,” she said. “Thanks for asking. That’s so sweet!”

Lesson #1: Take an interest in what girls are doing. Especially The One. Judging from this girl’s reaction, she doesn’t get that from guys her age very often. Lesson #2: I already knew Lesson #1, but rarely expressed it. So if you’re interested in what she’s doing, make sure you ask.

So now I’m sure you’re wondering what I’ve accomplished. I’ve talked to all these girls but haven’t found The One lately, right? Wrong. I don’t know if she’s The One, necessarily, but she’s a good prospect. We talk a lot and she doesn’t run away. I know her well enough to know there’s a joke hidden somewhere in almost everything she says, but I don’t know her well enough to catch it every time yet. She understands. I don’t fret when I talk to her, and I don’t dread hearing from her. We seem to understand one another. Good signs, definitely. So what am I doing about it?

I didn’t look for a smooth way to ask her out. I brought it up. She saw it coming. I wasn’t visibly nervous, but I got choked up for a minute. You can’t control your subconscious, after all. “I’ve been thinking,” I said. She saw it coming and seemed to enjoy it–here’s a guy who’s confident, yet vulnerable. My vocal chords betrayed that. (Girls seem to like confidence spiked with vulnerability.)

Then I asked her out.

She said yes. She left herself a small door for escape. Then she closed that door.

And that’s the end of the story, for now.

Now, if I were in the mode of relying on wife and kids for my self-fulfillment, I’d be a basket case right about now. What if she cancels? What if it doesn’t go well? What if it does go really well, but then when I propose to her she says no? What if I never find another girl like her?

That’s thinking way too far ahead. That’s too much pressure. It’s not fair to her. She’s got too many other things to think about to have to deal with all that. Every worthwhile girl does.

I’ve said a few things to her that seemed to really make her feel good. So yes, I get some fulfillment from that. I get some fulfillment from work. I get some fulfillment from this site, though it’s been months since I’ve checked my logs so I have no idea how big my readership is now. I get some fulfillment from the things I do at church. And I get some fulfillment whenever a friend calls up and asks for advice or a favor.

If I’ve learned anything, it’s that fulfillment shouldn’t come from one place. All of those things will let you down at one point or another. But if you’ve got enough other things, when one thing lets you down the others can still buoy you up.

04/06/2001

Mailbag:

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Three days down… The server was down while administrators removed dead sites, in hopes of increasing performance. Performance does seem better, but time will tell… Let’s get on to some serious business.

More memory alphabet soup. JHR wrote in with a good question that I realized I haven’t answered: Can you use your existing plain, cheap old SDRAM on a new DDR-capable motherboard?

The answer, unfortunately, is usually no. DDR comes on 184-pin modules. SDRAM usually comes on 168-pin modules. A few companies, like Fujitsu and Apacer, have talked about putting SDRAM on 184-pin modules. It’s been mostly talk. The price difference between DDR and SDRAM isn’t enough to justify it.

There are a few boards, like the Asus A7A266 (reviewed at http://www.dansdata.com/a7a266.htm ), with both types of sockets for both types of memory. But the A7A266 isn’t the best performer out there, so you pay the price of convenience by buying speed instead. It’s a mediocre DDR performer and a terrible SDRAM performer.

It’s a shame to throw away memory, but this isn’t the first time. As recently as 1997, 72-pin EDO memory cost less than SDRAM. The 72-pin SIMM replaced the 30-pin SIMM as the type of memory to have in 1994, though 30-pin-capable boards remained available for upgraders through 1996. Before 30-pin SIMMs, there were all sorts of weird memory technologies, like 30-pin SIPPs, and different types of individual chips, which generally were a huge pain.

Usually when memory was replaced, adapters came out. There were SIMMs with sockets to plug old chips into. There were adapters to plug a SIPP into a SIMM socket. There were riser cards to allow you to plug 30-pin SIMMs into 72-pin slots. The problem was, they tended to hurt speed and stability, and in many cases they were nearly as expensive as new memory.

History’s repeating itself. There are adapters to let you plug DIMMs into RIMM sockets, and 168-to-184 sockets, though they’re expensive and hurt speed and stability, especially in the case of those RIMM adapters. There’s no point in using them.

I really should have been shouting louder that PC133’s time in the sun is over. The problem is, nobody knows for sure what will replace it. There’s DDR and Rambus, both of which perform really well in certain benchmarks, neither of which seem to make much difference in the real world yet. DDR’s pricing is very close to PC133, assuming you’re buying Crucial. Rambus is still priced way too high. I suspect DDR will win, but there’s no way to know.

It’s a shame to throw out memory, but there usually isn’t much we can do about it. If it makes you feel any better, PCs using SDRAM should be useful for a number of years. I’ve still got two systems with 72-pin SIMMs in them doing useful work for me. One’s a Compaq 486 I bought back in 1994 that just finished a tour of duty as a DSL router; its next incarnation will be as a file/print server if I can find an ISA SCSI card to put in it. I’ll probably also have it automate some parts of my network, courtesy of cron. The other one is a Pentium-120, which has done time as a file server and also as a testbed.

Anything new enough to have SDRAM is new enough to make a very useful Linux box, and it can also make a good Windows box, particularly if you scale it back to just do a handful of things very well. If I ever get around to retiring my K6-2/350, my sister would love to have it because it’d make a great word processing/web browsing/e-mail box–better than the Cyrix 233 she’s using right now, though she doesn’t complain much about that computer. That computer was built out of a bunch of stuff Tom Gatermann and I pulled out of our spare parts bins. And if I did make that switch for her, I know who’d get that Cyrix 233, and that person won’t be complaining either.

The key to responsible upgrading, I think, is to buy stuff that you’ll be able to recycle whenever possible. A good SCSI card and hard drive, though expensive, will be good enough to be worth recycling when you make your next motherboard upgrade. The same goes for a good monitor, and unless you’re a 3D gaming freak, the same goes for a good video card as well. My STB Velocity 128 video card, even though it has an ancient nVidia Riva128 chipset in it, is still fast for the games I play and frankly, it’s overkill for business use. I’ve had that card for three and a half years. I expect I’ll still be using it in three years. Heck, my Diamond Stealth 3D card is still useful. It won’t do justice for my 19-inch display, but it’s fast enough for routine work and it’ll drive a 17-inch monitor at 1024×768 at refresh rates and color depths that won’t embarrass you. And that card’s five years old. It cost me $119 at a time when low-end cards cost $59, and it’s still better for most things than the $40 cards of today. The $25 cards of today will give you higher color depth and sometimes better refresh rates, but they’re not as fast. So that card saved me money. My STB Velocity 128 and my Diamond Viper 770 haven’t been recycled yet, but I’ll get at least three more years’ use out of both of those, even if I turn into a flight simulator fiend. The 770 would be decent for flight sims, and both of them are outstanding for what I do now.

Everyone I know recycles good keyboards and mice, when they think to buy them.

You’ll generally replace motherboards and CPUs on every upgrade cycle. Depending on how often you upgrade, you can expect to replace memory every other cycle.

A lot of people are recommending you buy a motherboard capable of either type of memory, then buy cheap PC133 and upgrade later. But the performance difference isn’t great enough to justify that. If you think you’re going to want DDR, I recommend you just bite the bullet and get DDR. Crucial’s now selling 128 MB PC2100 DDR modules for under $65, so 256 MB of PC2100 costs slightly more than a mid-range video card.

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