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Paul Allen’s tearing into Gates seems familiar

You’ve probably heard by now about Vanity Fair publishing an excerpt from Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen’s autobiography,  which doesn’t give the most flattering portrayal of Bill Gates, his former business partner.

I’ve heard most of these stories before, though I’m trying to figure out where. What surprises me is the people who are acting like this stuff came out of the blue. If I’ve heard most of this stuff before, then so have a lot of people.
Read More »Paul Allen’s tearing into Gates seems familiar

How to check SSD alignment

If you didn’t align your partitions when you upgraded to an SSD, there’s a pretty good chance you’re giving up performance and life expectancy. Here’s how to check SSD alignment.

But first, a bit of good news. If you created the partition with Vista or Windows 7, your partitions should be aligned. If you upgraded from XP and didn’t re-partition the drive in the process, then it probably isn’t.

Get ready for some command-line jockeying and some math.Read More »How to check SSD alignment

Beware Nigerians seeking computer equipment

It wasn’t really a 419 scam, but I think I came a little too close to falling for another Nigerian scam this week.

Some time back, I listed some computer equipment on Craigslist. Not really high-dollar stuff, but stuff I’m not using, and while I’m not in desperate need of the money, it would come in very handy. And Craigslist is a lot less hassle than a garage sale.I listed it about a month ago, and interest was ice cold. Then yesterday I got a message from someone named Anna Gray asking if I would agree to sell it to her. Interesting way of putting it, but at the time I didn’t really take much note. I was just excited at the possibility of turning a computer that was just taking up space into 50 bucks.

The would-be buyer wanted to use a money transfer. “Aren’t you in St. Louis?” I asked immediately. My whole reason for using Craigslist was to avoid shipping and money hassles. Women are rightly nervous to meet strange men for transactions (and when they aren’t, they probably should be), but I’ve handled several transactions like this lately. Standard procedure is to meet in a public place that’s as convenient as possible for both of you. I generally take my wife so there’ll be a female present. If you’re a woman and can’t take another person with you, make sure you have a cell phone with you, and to make sure the other person knows you have it, make sure the person sees you casually talking on it as you arrive (even if you’re faking it). The ability to quickly dial 911 heads off a lot of trouble.

“No, I’m not in St. Louis,” she responded.

Well, so much for that.

She said she would pay me using Moneygram. She would send them the money, and then when I shipped the item, I would provide Moneygram with the tracking number, and I would get the money.

I would later find out that’s not how Moneygram works, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Knowing it could easily cost more to ship the computer than my $50 asking price, I asked my would-be buyer if she was willing to pay the shipping. She said she would send me a FedEx ticket. Then she said she would send me the money via Moneygram. She asked me every 30 seconds if I’d received the confirmation e-mail yet. “No,” I said. “But I’m in no particular hurry.” It wasn’t like I could ship the laptop immediately anyway.

She informed me that Moneygram was having technical difficulties and begged me to be patient. I found it odd that she was able to ask and receive an answer so quickly. Usually when a company is having technical difficulties, their customer service is slow too. I didn’t think anything of it yet.

Then I got busy and didn’t write back right away. She got just plain rude. “Are u there? BUZZ!!! BUZZ!!!”

Obviously she wasn’t willing to extend me the same patience she expected of me.

Once I got less busy, I got back to her. I’d received an e-mail message claiming to be from Moneygram, and I’d received a shipping label from Fedex, and told her.

“Take the package to Fedex tonight and give the tracking number to Moneygram and you’ll get your money,” she said.

I told her I was busy that night. Which I was. I’d had plans for a week and I wasn’t going to cancel them over a $50 computer–especially now that I was going to have to go to the trouble of finding a box and packing materials for the thing.

“I guess it’ll be OK if you ship it first thing in the morning,” she said.

Umm, well, I didn’t know what time I would be in, and I had to be at work first thing in the morning. Besides, if I had to drive it to the Fedex station, I was looking at a 45-minute drive.

“Take it to the closest Fedex. But if there isn’t one, you’ll have to take it to the station. First thing in the morning.”

How considerate. But that wasn’t the first thing that came into my mind. Actually the first thought that came to mind is a not-so-pleasant one-syllable word.

I told her I’d do my best, thanked her for her help and her interest, and reminded myself that I was being paid to free up some clutter from the house. Emily would like that. And if I spent $10 of it on her, she’d like it even more. So I put it out of my mind and told myself I’d print off all the paperwork that night, when I went in search of a box.

And aside from telling Emily I’d sold the computer, I did put it out of my mind until late that night.

Emily had a box and packing material ready for me. It wasn’t perfect, but we could have done a lot worse. So I packed it all up, then I went to the computer and printed off the paperwork. The Moneygram e-mail said I would have to provide them with a tracking number, full name and address, and either a driver’s license or social security number before they would free the money.

I didn’t like that. I didn’t like it at all. Nobody needs that information.

Making matters worse, the e-mail included a tracking number on the cash. I followed the link in the e-mail, punched in the tracking number, and it said it had no information on the tracking number.

The e-mail from her containing the Fedex shipping label also contained a customs form. She asked me to print and sign three copies. Customs? That seemed odd.

I printed the label. It had a declared value of $1. While the computer isn’t worth much, it’s worth more than $1. A DEC VT100 terminal is worth more than $1 to someone who needs it. I started to realize I wasn’t dealing with a very honest person here.

Then I printed the Fedex shipping label. The address looked odd to me. It registered when I pulled the label off the printer.

Nigeria.

It all made sense now. The unorthodox English. The belligerence. Demanding information they shouldn’t need. Classic symptoms of 419 scams.

Another rude one-syllable word came to mind. This time I said it out loud a few times. Someone in Nigeria had my name and address!

Mind you, not everyone in Nigeria is a crook, but suddenly I had a whole host of reasons to be suspicious.

So, when I was supposed to be getting up at the crack of dawn to send a computer halfway around the world, instead I was doing research.

On Moneygram’s own site, I found this:

MoneyGram is not an internet escrow service or a shipment service. We do not email a confirmation notice to inform a person that a MoneyGram transfer has been sent to them for payment of an internet purchase. Do not believe that such an email is genuine even if it contains the MoneyGram name and logo. The MoneyGram service should not be used as an escrow service.

And then I found indication that some Nigerian scammers have an affinity for buying computer equipment, particularly Apple Powerbooks, off Craigslist, using Moneygram.

Of course, seeing as part of the process asked for my social security number, losing the laptop was the least of my concerns. Once she had my name, address, and social security number, chances are she’d be able to get lots of other things at my expense as well.

Needless to say, the computer is still in my living room and I’ve kept the digits to myself.

My Nigerian buddy sent me a number of messages in the morning asking me if I had shipped the laptop, and since I had expressed some doubt in my last message, took pains to assure me that all was well. I replied to the message that said all was well, quoting that paragraph I found on the Moneygram site and asking her to explain.

I never heard another word from her. Seeing as there was a point in time when she couldn’t go three minutes without hearing from me, maybe I should find that odd.

Unless it was a scam, of course. In which case, there’s nothing at all strange about this new silence.

The RIAA owes you $20

In case you haven’t read about this elsewhere, be sure to file your claim if you purchased a CD, tape, or record at retail between the dates of Jan. 1, 1995 and Dec. 22, 2000.
This is the RIAA’s slap-on-the-wrist punishment for price fixing. If too many people file, the money goes to charity. And I’m curious what this will do to CD prices.

On an only semi-related topic, the RIAA asks for the last four digits of your social security number. I don’t know why they need that. You can find social security numbers of several of your favorite dead celebrities, including Richard Nixon, Dr. Seuss, and Kurt Cobain, here. (If the link goes dead, plug the URL into the Wayback Machine.

Another look at Mozilla’s anti-spam features

I downloaded and installed the most recent Mozilla 1.3 alpha build today (actually from Dec. 12).
For the past few weeks, I’d been using a nightly build I downloaded back in early November. It was buggy, but without assurance that any given night’s build would be any more or less stable than what I already had, I stuck with the familiar.

Initial impressions: The spam filtering still isn’t complete but it works (it just won’t act on the spam it finds–yet). The speed is comparable to anything else I’ve used, and one annoying bug in the mail client is gone. I’ve grown so used to having the spam filtering that I’ll put up with almost anything in order to have it–I get an unbearable amount of spam, and Mozilla quickly identifies it all for me. After a couple of months of using it, I think it’s pretty safe to say only one or two messages per week get past it anymore. I can definitely live with that.

Once when I visited news.google.com in the browser and clicked on a link, after I hit the back button I got a confusing “The file / can’t be found”. The nightly builds I used previously had the same bug. So far that’s the only one I’ve found, and the workaround is to visit a couple other sites, then go back to the troublesome one.

I’ve only been messing with it for a few hours so I can’t make any sound judgments on its quality. But as an evolutionary, not revolutionary, upgrade from its predecessor, it ought to be fairly stable.

If you’re desperate to get unburied from beneath an avalanche of spam and you’re willing to put up with a few quirks from your Web browser in order to do it, this is the most effective filter I’ve found yet.

Ten Years of Life

Sometimes it seems like life’s problems are about to swallow us whole and we wonder if we’ll survive. Then we meet someone who has real problems.
I met Mark in the summer of 1983. He was 21 then, and seemed ancient to me at the time. But he was one of the nicest guys I had ever met.

He was also one of the most unlucky.Read More »Ten Years of Life

A stupid BIND trick

My head’s still swimming from my crash course in BIND. I knew enough BIND to be dangerous–I’ve known how to set up a caching nameserver for years, and even stumbling through creating a master server for someone with a fixed IP address who wanted to host a domain wasn’t beyond me. Creating BIND servers for an enterprise isn’t too big of a deal, but creating one right can be.
After reading a lot, I set to the task.

Here’s a hint: If you’re migrating your servers from another OS to some Unixish OS and BIND, you can avoid re-keying all those zone files. (We’ve got more than 60 of the blasted things; our external server alone is 404K worth of configuration files. I didn’t bother to check the internal files.) Set your server to be a slave server to your current server. Be sure to comment out your allow-updates line; BIND 9 will complain if you mention slave servers and updates in the same breath. Now restart BIND (/etc/init.d/bind9 restart in Debian 3.0; the command may be /etc/init.d/named restart or /etc/init.d/bind restart in other distros) and wait. In my case, the files started appearing within seconds, and within a couple of minutes, my server had downloaded all of them. Reset your server to master status, then find a few people to change their TCP/IP configuration to use it. Give it a day or two, and when you’re convinced that all is well, turn off DNS on the old server and put the new server in production.

Yes, my Linux box was perfectly capable of pulling DNS records from an NT-based DNS. This is good. If you’re running DNS on NT currently, I wholeheartedly recommend you migrate away from it. Don’t waste clock cycles and network bandwidth on an expensive NT server. Grab a server-grade machine that’s too old to be a useful NT server and load Linux or some BSD variant on it. I know a company that ran BIND on some old 25 MHz DEC VAX workstations for years. That’s a too low-end to be comfortable, but if you’ve got server-grade 486-66s kicking around in a dusty corner somewhere, they’ll be adequate. A Pentium-133 will treat you a little bit better. A good rule of thumb: If the machine ever ran NT Server with any competence at all (even if it was in 1996), it’s got enough oomph to run BIND.

The nice thing about machines like that is that you usually have more than one of them and it doesn’t cost you anything to keep a hot spare. If one fails, unplug it and boot up the spare. Yes, DNS is mission-critical, but by definition it’s also redundant.

I’m shocked that there isn’t a single-floppy Linux distro that’s basically just Linux and BIND. Here’s a challenge for some sicko: Make a mini-distro incorporating BIND and Linux 1.09 so the minimum requirements will be a 386sx/16 with 2 megs of RAM and an NE2000 NIC.

I believe there are other slick BIND tricks, but I think I’ll wait and see if they work before I go touting a bunch of stuff that might not work.

First look: The Proliant DL320

I’ve had the opportunity the past two days to work with Compaq’s Proliant DL320, an impossibly thin 1U rack-mount server. All I can say is I’m impressed.
When I was in college, a couple of the nearby pizza joints sold oversized 20″ pizzas. The DL320 reminded me of the boxes these pizzas came in. The resemblance isn’t lost on IBM: In its early ads for a competing product, I remember IBM using an impossibly thin young female model holding a 1U server on a pizza-joint set.

HP announced last week that Compaq’s Proliant series will remain basically unchanged, it will just be re-branded with the HP name. HP had no product comparable to the DL320.

I evaluated the entry-level model. It’s a P3 1.13 GHz with 128 MB RAM, dual Intel 100-megabit NICs, and a single 40-gigabyte 7200-rpm Maxtor/Quantum IDE drive. It’s not a heavy-duty server, but it’s not designed to be. It’s designed for businesses that need to get a lot of CPU power into the smallest possible amount of rack space. And in that regard, the DL320 delivers.

Popping the hood reveals a well-designed layout. The P3 is near the front, with three small fans blowing right over it. Two more fans in the rear of the unit pull air out, and two fans in the power supply keep it cool. The unit has four DIMM sockets (one occupied). There’s room for one additional 3.5″ hard drive, and a single 64-bit PCI slot. Obvious applications for that slot include a gigabit Ethernet adapter or a high-end SCSI host adapter. The machine uses a ServerWorks chipset, augmented by a CMD 649 for UMDA-133 support. Compaq utilizes laptop-style floppy and CD-ROM drives to cram all of this into a 1U space.

The fit and finish is very good. The machine looks and feels solid, not flimsy, which is a bit surprising for a server in this price range. Looks-wise, it brings back memories of the old DEC Prioris line.

The rear of the machine has a fairly spartan number of ports: PS/2 keyboard and mouse, two RJ-45 jacks, VGA, one serial port, and two USB ports. There’s no room for luxuries, and such things as a parallel port are questionable in this type of server anyway.

Upon initial powerup, the DL320 asks a number of questions, including what OS you want to run. Directly supported are Windows NT 4.0, Windows 2000, Novell NetWare, and Linux.

Linux installs quickly and the 2.4.18 kernel directly supports the machine’s EtherExpress Pro/100 NICs, CMD 649 IDE, and ServerWorks chipset. A minimal installation of Debian 3.0 booted in 23 seconds, once the machine finished POST. After compiling and installing a kernel with support for all the hardware not in the DL320 removed, that boot time dropped to 15 seconds. That’s less time than it takes for the machine to POST.

Incidentally, that custom kernel was a scant 681K in size. It was befitting of a server with this kind of footprint.

As configured, the DL320 is more than up to the tasks asked of low-end servers, such as user authentication, DNS and DHCP, and mail, file and print services for small workgroups. It would also make a nice applications server, since the applications only need to load once. It would also be outstanding for clustering. For Web server duty or heavier-duty mail, file and print serving, it would be a good idea to upgrade to one of the higher-end DL320s that includes SCSI.

It’s hard to find fault with the DL320. At $1300 for an IDE configuration, it’s a steal. A SCSI-equipped version will run closer to $1900.

I shoulda stayed home and read a book!

The last few days have been nuts. I’ve been wrestling with tape drives, trying to get them to work on a brain-dead operating system from a company in Redmond whose project is headed up by a potty-mouthed ex-DEC employee. Its initials are N and T.
And, riddle me this, someone, please. On Unix, I just hook up the tape drive, then I type this:


tar -cf /dev/tape /home

Badda bing, badda boom, I got me a backup of all my user data, assuming the drive is good. One command, keyed in. One command that’s no harder to remember than the phone number of that pretty girl you met last week. (Or wish you met last week, whatever the case may be.) What’s hard about that?

In NT, you plug in the drive, you load device drivers, you load your backup software, it doesn’t recognize it, so you stop and start 47 services, then it finally recognizes the drive, and then you stumble around the backup software trying to figure out just how you tell it to make you a tape. By the time you figure all this out, in Unix, you’d have finished the backup.

Ugh. So, when I get home, I don’t want to have much of anything to do with these brain-dead machines infected with a virus written in Redmond. And the virus from Cupertino isn’t any better. I don’t have much appetite for my computers that run Linux either, because, well, it reminds me of the crap spewing out of Redmond and Cupertino. It’s kind of like a messy breakup, you know? You meet a girl who’s nothing like the last girl, but you don’t want to have anything to do with her because she’s female, breathes oxygen, and she’s carbon-based, so there’s the off chance she might remind you of that last disaster.

Hence the mail piling up in my inbox and the lack of updates for a couple of days.

So what have I been doing?

I’ve been reading books. I finished Dave Barry Turns 40 a couple of nights ago. It wasn’t as good as his later books, but it had a few howlers and part of a chapter that was actually sincere and serious and really made me think. It was about his mother after his dad died. They lived their lives together in this brick house he built himself, and after he died in 1984, she would write on her calendar, on April 24, “Dave died today, 1984. Come back Dave.” And on the day of their anniversary, she would write, “Married Dave, 1942. Best thing that ever happened to me.”

Finally, the house turned out to be too much for her to handle on her own, so she sold it and moved away.

And he went on for another page or two, talking about the last years of her life, trying to relate to her and failing miserably, as she wandered from place to place, living with relatives, never finding a place to call home, because what she really wanted was that brick house back with Dave Sr. in it.

As she died, she had that smile that all mothers have, that smile that tries to reassure her boy that everything’s going to be OK.

The story had a flashbulb effect on me. Partly because it came from Dave Barry, the guy who went on and on about cell phones, and how people who get cell phones have no escape at all, and sometimes they’re trapped in their cars for months, stuck on the phone, surviving on drive-thru food and peeing in the ashtray.

I can’t say I read very many things that jar me, but that short essay definitely did, especially the insight it gave on his parents’ relationship. How many people feel that way about the person they married 42 years ago? All too few, in this day and age. And since it came from the person I expected it from the least, it made it all the more jarring.

Since then, I’ve been reading White Palace. I understand it was made into a movie in the early 90s. It takes place in St. Louis. It’s a book about a relationship, and the relationship has absolutely zero substance. Sex sex sex sex sex sex sex. And more sex. (I wonder what that’s going to do to my Google rankings…) I really don’t want to like the book, especially after having my world rocked by a short essay that Dave Barry snuck into a comedy book and apologized about.

But I learned something.

The book has no plot. Guy meets girl in a bar. Guy and girl begin torrid affair. It’s a cheesy romance-novel plot. You find better plots laying outside on the sidewalk or in the parking lot.

The book does have compelling characters. The main character is 27 and his beloved wife died tragically when they were both 25. I’m 27 so I can relate to the guy on that level. And all of us have lost someone that we miss. And there’s a lot more about the guy too. I won’t give it all away. His (ahem) girlfriend has more substance than a plastic blow-up doll, although it would have been very easy not to give the character any substance. She’s in her early 40s, she drinks a lot, and she forgets to pay her bills. (At least she has priorities.) She works in a fast-food joint, and at at least one point in the book, she stops dead in her tracks, looks the character in the eye, and asks, “Why are you so good to me?”

Heart-wrenching line, that.

OK, so the book’s got good, well-developed characters. It also has a good setting. It takes place in St. Louis, and you can tell from the way he describes it all that he’s actually lived here. The main character lives in Kirkwood, and any St. Louisan instantly draws a mental picture. She lives in Dogtown, and any St. Louisan instantly draws a mental picture. He draws in places that St. Louisans are familiar with. He talks about Tony’s restaurant, and the book’s name comes from a fast-food joint that litters the St. Louis landscape (without infringing on a trademark). He even works in Concordia Seminary, and Cindy’s Motel. Any St. Louisan will instantly love the book because it describes home. I wonder how many St. Louisans utter aloud the words, “Where’d you go to high school?” while reading it.

He made St. Louis real, and he made it compelling.

Great characters, great setting… He didn’t need a plot.

And now I find myself itching to write fiction. I get that bug every couple of years. I wrote 100 pages’ worth of novel while I was in college. It was the opposite of White Palace. It had a good plot. Maybe even better than good, but I can’t be objective about my own work. But to the very few people I’ve described it to, it’s been riveting. But the characters were awful and so was the setting.

That manuscript is lost, as far as I know. Some version of it might be on my Amiga’s hard drive, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. No great loss. I intend some day to revisit that plot, plop it down in a compelling setting, and drop some compelling characters into it. There’s really only one question.

Have I lived enough yet to pull it off?

Who knows. Right now, who cares? I’m gonna go read some more. I think the UV from this monitor is getting to my head.