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04/20/2001

Games. Anyone who knows me well knows that, in my mind, there are three computer games worth owning: Railroad Tycoon II, Civilization II, and whatever the year’s hot statistical baseball simulation might be (but I’m always disappointed with the lack of a financial aspect–gimme a lineup of Ty Cobb, Rod Carew, George Brett, Ted Williams, Jimmie Foxx, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Nomar Garciaparra, and Mickey Cochrane, along with a pitching rotation of Walter Johnson, Lefty Grove, Cy Young, and Denny McLain, and I’ll slaughter you no matter who you’ve got–though my payroll would probably be upwards of $200 million just for those core 13 guys).

But if I were stranded on a desert island with a computer and could only have one game…? I’d take Civ 2.

Well, Sid Meier’s working on Civilization III now, and expecting a late-2001 or early-2002 release. And I found a great Civ site at www.civfanatics.com , with info on the upcoming Civ 3, along with info on the rest of the series, including strategies, loadable scenarios, patches, and other good stuff.

Hardware. Now that I suddenly don’t owe four figures to the government like I suspected I might, the irrational part of me has been saying to go buy some new computer gear. The rational part of me is reminding me that the markets are down, interest rates are down, interest rates are going to be cut again, and thus it’s probably a good time to sink some money into the market, preferably unsexy, proven blue-chips like General Electric, Coca-Cola and Anheuser-Busch. No matter what the economy does, people aren’t going to stop buying light bulbs, soda and beer, right? And I don’t care about dividends or short-term gains. I’m reading up about nutrition with the goal of increasing my life expectancy into three digits. I’m in this for the long, long haul.

But computer hardware is a lot more fun than stock certificates. And no one wants to read about me buying GE stock, right? So, let’s talk hardware.

First off, some people say you shouldn’t swap out motherboards because you should never take down a working system. Build a new system, then part out the system you’re replacing. I understand the logic behind that. That means starting off with a case and power supply. Time to buy for the long haul. For the long haul, there are two names in power supplies: PC Power and Cooling, and Enermax. Where to go, where to go? I hit PriceWatch and searched on Enermax. Bingo, I found Directron.com , which stocks both brands, along with a good selection of cases and allows you to swap out the stock power supply with whatever you want. Sounds great, but you generally only get about a $12 credit when you do that. Bummer. I went to resellerratings.com, looked up Enermax, and found a rating of 6 on 42 reports. That’s comparable to companies like Dirt Cheap Drives and Mwave, both of whom have given me excellent service over the years and get my business without hesitation.

What else have they got? Well, if you want to build a stealth black system, black cases, floppy, CD/DVD/CDRW drives and keyboards, for one. Nice.

Unfortunately, they don’t seem to offer PCP&C’s cases. They do offer the ultimate l33t case, the Lian Li line. Cost of entry: $159 and up, no power supply included. The ultimate l33t solution would be a Lian Li case and an Enermax power supply. But would I really want to spend $200 on just a housing and power…? They also offer cases from Palo Alto, who makes cases for Dell and Micron. Working in a Micron shop, I’m very familiar with the Palo Altos, and they look good and won’t slice you up, though sometimes you have to disassemble them more than you might like. Cost of entry: about $70, including a 235W power supply, which you’ll want to swap out for something better. They also offer InWin and Antec cases, both of whom I’ve had good luck with. Reading further on their site, they claim only to stock cases their technicians have been able to work with easily and without injury.

And unfortunately, their commitment to quality doesn’t necessarily seem to extend to motherboards. I found the accursed PC Chips amongst their offerings. Boo hiss!

On the good side, if you want a PC on the cheap, here’s the secret formula: At Directon, grab an Enermax MicroATX case for $29, a Seagate 20 GB HD for $89, a socket 370 PC Power & Cooling fan for $19, a vial of heatsink compound for $1, and a Celeron-433 for $69 (highway robbery, but watch what I do next), then head over to Tekram and grab a closeout S-381M Intel 810-based motherboard for $34. Then head over to Crucial and pick up whatever size memory module you want (a 64-megger goes for $35, while a 128er goes for $60). Boom. You’ve got a real computer for well under $350, even accounting for shipping and a reasonable floppy, CD-ROM, keyboard and mouse. Or salvage them from an older PC. Get it and spend the money you save on a really nice monitor. For most of the things you do, you need a nice monitor more than you need clock cycles.

You could save a few bucks by picking up an old PPGA Celeron at your favorite Web closeout store, or on eBay, but the extra shipping will probably chew up all the savings. The going rate for a PPGA Celeron, regardless of speed, seems to be right around $60. You’ll pay $10 to ship it, while adding a CPU to an order that already includes a case and other stuff won’t add much to the shipping cost. One thing that did impress me about Directron is they don’t seem to be profiting off shipping, so they get honesty points. I’d rather pay $5 more up front and pay less shipping, because at least the dealer’s being honest.

I didn’t come to any conclusions and my credit card stayed in my wallet, but maybe I’m a little further down the road now.

And I guess it’s time for me to go to work.

03/25/2001

A dose of my own medicine. I was plugging away on my Celeron-400 yesterday and it was feeling sluggish. I mean it was bad. At times, barely usable. I started wondering what I’d pay for a Duron-700 these days, though I’d really rather put off any more hardware upgrades seeing as I just got around to ordering a new 19″ NEC FE950 monitor.

After I rebooted and Windows started booting really slowly (Linux never gives me this kind of trouble), a number of questions started running through my head. Is the hard drive going out? Are my backups current? Hmm. It froze, so I hit Ctrl-Alt-Del to restart it, picked Windows off my boot menu (against my better judgment, because Linux, even a really old distribution, is miles better than anything Microsoft has ever made, especially if you invest a little time learning its command line), and watched it boot in something resembling its normal time. Probably the system’s memory had just become totally blitzed and needed a harder reboot than my usual pick-the-restart-option-while-holding-shift procedure.

So I ran Norton Disk Doctor, found Outlook Express had blitzed the dates on a number of its files–typical Microsoft–and let it fix it. I looked in my system tray and noticed a couple of parasite programs (but I won’t mention any names, Real Networks) had reinstated their startup status. So I ran MSConfig and killed those. Then it occurred to me that I probably hadn’t run Speed Disk in a long time. I launched Speed Disk and found a huge mess. Before letting it proceed, I checked the options and noticed, adding insult to injury, that when I last ran it I hadn’t used the optimal settings either (the settings to use are in Optimizing Windows). Before letting it run, I did a little more cleanup (some manual directory optimization, also described in Optimizing Windows, or in the DOS 5 manual if you happen to still have it). Then I had Speed Disk rescan the drive and let it rip.

And after about 25 minutes, I had a fast computer again. That’s a whole lot nicer than spending $200 on system upgrades. Besides, if I’d paired that drive up with that motherboard without a totally clean reformat and reinstall, it wouldn’t have performed all that much better anyway. Better to make the computer work smarter instead of harder.

Micron’s departure from the PC business. I’m not sure why I didn’t comment on this yesterday. I really like Micron PCs, at least their Client Pro line. The Millenia line is basically consumer-grade, no worse than anyone else’s consumer-grade stuff and in some cases better, but still consumer-grade nonetheless. Although with the tighter and tighter integration of motherboards that probably makes less difference now than it did a couple of years ago.

I found the quality of Micron Client Pros to be much higher than Gateway, and frankly, usually better than Dell. Their service is first-rate. Now granted, I’m approaching this from a corporate perspective–my employer owns about 700 of the things, so it gets better support than a home user might. Generally they use the same Intel motherboards Dell and Gateway use. They’ve always tended to come up with combinations of video and sound cards that work better than Gateway’s combinations do. (Gateways can develop weird problems with their video and sound drivers that I’ve never seen on other PCs.) They were less stingy with the quality of power supplies they used. I didn’t always care for their hard drive choices, but then again, most PC makers just buy hard drives from whoever can deliver the quantities they need at the best price at any given moment. Unless you custom-build, you’re not likely to get cream-of-the-crop drives.

I’m afraid Micron’s departure from direct sales will mean the same thing Dell’s departure from retail did. When Dell left retail, there was a noticeable decline in the quality of PCs sold at retail. AST’s quality decreased, Acer’s quality decreased, Compaq and IBM’s quality didn’t change much but they didn’t seem nearly as inclined to keep their prices competitive anymore.

Since everyone’s using basically the same Intel motherboards with a different BIOS these days, I imagine the impact on quality won’t be tremendous (though Gateway’s love affair with 145W power supplies will probably continue indefinitely), but it will probably have an impact on price. Micron always undercut Dell, and frequently undercut Gateway. Dell probably won’t be so eager to cut prices with Micron gone.

Micron makes it sound like they have a buyer lined up for the division and it’ll continue to operate. I hope that’s the case, but I’m not too optimistic. Gateway’s having problems, Dell’s not happy with its recent results, and I can’t imagine a group of investors new to the industry will do better than Michael Dell and Ted Waitt.

Micron’s PC business shouldn’t be confused with their memory business. Micron the memory chip company is the parent company. Crucial, the manufacturer of memory modules, is a subsidiary. Micron Electronics Inc., a.k.a. micronpc.com, is another subsidiary. Micron Electronics’ two big businesses were PC building and Web hosting. So the Micron name won’t disappear off this mortal coil.

Monitor buying tips

Monitor time. Looks like I’m in the market for a new monitor now. I was talking about monitors the other day with a Web developer, who observed that when you buy a good monitor, it tends to stick around forever–the CPU just changes. He’s right.

My personal monitor experience goes way back, of course. In my Commodore days, we just used a 13″ TV for a monitor for a long time, until I needed an 80-column display. In came a Commodore 1084 monitor, which was actually a relabeled Magnavox. It was the biggest piece of junk I’d ever seen at the time. It was constantly breaking, and at the time, when a 14-inch monitor cost $300, you fixed them. That monitor migrated to my Amiga 2000, and its streak didn’t improve any with age. After it broke again, I spotted a used NEC Multisync II monitor for sale on a local BBS for $100. Just a couple of years before, that monitor had sold for about $600, so I bit. I never regretted it. Best $100 I ever spent on computer equipment. This would have been in 1991 or 1992. That monitor finally died last year. It had been built in 1988, so it lasted 12 years. Nice streak.

Through the years I’ve owned some other monitors. I had a Dell monitor that ran for about a year and died. I had a Sony monitor that ran for three years and died. I replaced it with a used NEC MultiSync 3FGe. That monitor’s still going strong. I bought an Iiyama Vision Master Pro 17, which has a great picture (it’s got a Mitsubishi DiamondTron tube in it) but it’s getting flaky. It’s about three years old now. I had a pair of Pionex monitors that ran about a year before burning up. I got a used no-name monitor from work for my sister–paid $15 for it–and it ran about 6 months for her. It was never heavily used at work.

So, the rule seems to go about like this: cheap monitors run a year. Expensive monitors run three years. NECs run longer than that.

That’s not a fair sample size, but my experience at work is very similar. In five and a half years of doing this, I’ve seen one dead NEC in the workplace, and it was an ancient monochrome model. I’ve seen new Hitachis and old Hitachis. The old Hitachis are four or more years old and seem to have time left. I’ve seen about five Sonys, one dead. We ship out dead cheapies by the palletful.

I don’t think there’s much question. I want an NEC. I like the displays a Trinitron or derivative give, but NECs just seem to last longer. For the $30 price difference over a Sony, I’ll go NEC. When it comes down to longevity over an ever-so-slightly better picture, I’ll take longevity. Nothing against Hitachi, but it’s much easier to find an NEC, NEC has a broader selection, and I have more experience with them.

So the choices are NEC, NEC, and NEC. There’s the Accusync, Multisync, Multisync FE, and Multisync FP series. I went and looked at the different monitors available. The Accusync is a decent entry-level monitor, but it seems to target the budget-conscious who probably wouldn’t buy an NEC except the Accusync’s price comes within $10-$25 of a lesser monitor and gives a better picture. Chances are it isn’t built as well as the higher-end stuff. I concentrated on the Multisyncs and the FEs. The problem with looking at monitors side-by-side at a computer store is the splitter always makes the picture blurrier and more washed out. The FEs still looked pretty good, but the Multisyncs didn’t look so hot. Then I spotted a 17″ Multisync sitting on a display computer. It looked really good. I tried it at all resolutions, displaying text at various sizes. I liked it. And the 19-incher was $299. That’s an awful, awful lot of monitor for the money. (If I’m going to buy a monitor with the intent of keeping it 10 years, I’m not buying a 17-incher.) The FE950 costs 50% more, at $449 locally, but connected to a computer directly, it must be gorgeous. It looked good under conditions where lesser monitors looked like twice warmed-over coffee.

I can’t find an FP locally; it gives a slightly lower dot pitch and slightly higher maximum resolution. It’s really more monitor than I need, though if I still did serious DTP, that low dot pitch and 1920×1440 resolution sure would be nice.

Frankly the Multisync has me wondering why people bother with anything less. The price is good and the picture is good, if not excellent. Meanwhile, the FEs rival the best Trinitron displays I’ve seen, without the two fine lines, and it’s an NEC.

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.

The AT’s coming out of retirement

Scary thoughts. UPS dropped off a pair of Soyo AT socket 370 motherboards while I was at work yesterday. So I’ll be picking those up from the apartment office after it opens this morning. That only means one thing. My PC/AT is about to come out of retirement.

Let’s think about that for a minute. When this ancient thing was built, Ronald Reagan was just starting his second term. The Soviet Union still existed, and the Evil Empire loomed large. The most popular game console wasn’t the Sony Playstation–it was the Atari 2600. Some popular rock’n’roll bands of the day: The Police and Duran Duran. U2 was on the map and rock critics knew them, but to the majority of people, the name conjured up images of a spyplane if it meant anything at all. The minivan as we know it today was just coming onto the market.

Dell Computer Corp. existed only as an operation out of a dorm room at the University of Texas at Austin, and it was known as PCs Limited. Gateway 2000 didn’t yet exist. The #2 maker of IBM-compatible PCs was Tandy.

Popular movies included Romancing the Stone, The Terminator, and Sixteen Candles.

U.S. airlines that were still in business: TWA, Eastern, and Pan Am. The most troubled airline at the time was Branniff Airways, which was in a long bankruptcy proceeding (it would later make a comeback, then die again).

Anyway… I pulled the PC/AT case out of storage, dug out some drive rails, found some Phillips screws that fit it (IBM insisted on using old-style slotted screws for some insane reason–I hate those), and I even dug out a vintage YE Data 1.2 MB 5.25″ floppy drive like IBM used. Then, noticing the 17 years’ worth of accumulated grime, I gave the case a bath. Now it looks two years old instead of 17. Actually, it looks pretty darn good. They don’t build ’em like that anymore. Of course, for what that case would cost to build today, an OEM can probably build an entire PC.

I’ve also accumulated other components: a junky Trident-based AGP video card is also about to come out of retirement, as is my old Media Vision Pro Audio Spectrum card with SCSI interface. That CD-ROM drive died long ago, but I’ve got an NEC 2-speed SCSI drive that looks great in the case. (This system’s all about retro looks; if I need speed, I’ll use a CD-ROM drive off my network.) To accomodate that, I’ve got a D-Link 10/100 PCI NIC.

Just one thing’s holding up this project: Computer Surplus Outlet just shipped my Celeron processors. I ordered the boards and chips the same day. That’s annoying.

01/17/2001

Mailbag:

Commodore; Relocating My Docs Folder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mailbag:

Commodore; Relocating My Docs Folder

01/13/2001

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12/08/2000

~Mail follows today’s post~

It’s my birthday today. Birthdays cease being a big deal at some point; maybe after age 21 (though the big deal about my 21st wasn’t my age; I had a program for my C class due at midnight–all I remember is it involved linked lists, I hate linked lists, and the only good thing you could say about my program was it did compile–and I had copy editing and Irish history finals the next day). I’m going out tonight; last night I ate out and went to a concert, so I guess I’m treating myself right in spite of this not being a big deal.

I realized at one point a few weeks ago that I’d accomplished everything I’d set out to do by age 25, though not always in the way or quantity I’d hoped. That’s a nice realization to come to. Hopefully I’ll have similarly nice things to say about my second quarter-century.

I spent yesterday continuing my dual-boot experiments. For some reason, all of my motherboards want to think my >8.4-gig drives are half-gig jobs. I don’t get it. They’re all reasonably new; but even my year-old Abit BP6 is doing it. Normally not a problem, but some utilities software yells “out of bounds!” when it sees it. Using a UDMA-66 controller solves the problem (the BP6 has an HP366 controller built in, and I have Promise Ultra-66 I keep around), but that alerts me to another problem: XOSL doesn’t want to work with either controller for some reason. I e-mailed the author about that; I know I’m not the only one who uses these things because a lot of people buy the line that they need a UDMA-66 or UDMA-100 controller if they buy such a hard drive. I’m hoping he’s got a workaround of some sort.

I’m hoping I can find a solution before deadline; otherwise the 98/Me dual-boot article will have problems. I can give my editor a different article–there’s certainly a lot about Windows optimization I’ve left unsaid in the seven pages I’ve written so far–but seeing as he specifically asked me to investigate this, I’ll feel bad if I don’t deliver something, or if I deliver something with significant strings attached. Strings are good for guitars, not computers.

And a good question. Someone asked me today about something that I interpreted to be about the build-to-order strategy of PCs, a strategy which Dell and Gateway have ridden to such great success. I held them up as examples that work, and Apple as an example that right now isn’t. They have 11 weeks’ worth of unsold inventory built up at the moment and expect to bleed cash again this quarter. I guess the lesson there is that having huge databases to analyze can help, and computerization of the ordering process can help you buy exactly what you need right when you need it, but computers are no better than humans at predicting the future. I.T. won’t solve all of a business’ problems.

I have no idea if that’s what she was looking for in an answer, but I think that bit about IT not solving all problems is something not everyone gets yet. Computers solve a lot of problems. They also raise expectations greatly, and they (and we) don’t always live up to them.

~~~~~~~~~~

From: “John W. Braue, III” <braue@nospam.ratsnest.win.net>
Subject: For the Greater Good
In your daynotes for 6 December 2000, you quote Chris Miller as saying:  “Lawbreaking is relative. Your greatest presidents, Lincoln and Roosevelt, bent the rules for the greater good[…]”.

Didn’t Hitler and Stalin bend (and, indeed smash all to pieces) rules for the greater good?  What they proclaimed to be the greater good, of course, but it’s difficult to hold a reasoned discussion when the tanks are bearing down on one…

If the U.S. is a democracy, then let us acknowledge , as Mark Bridgers wrote, that the law is the Will of the People (with, granted, a certain time lag), and that opposing it by demonstrations and civil disobedience, even for a “greater good”, is itself Undemocratic and, _ipso facto_, evil (how many people would be willing, in this day and age. to deny the truth of _vox populi, vox Dei_?).  If it is a republic, then let us acknowledge that the law is indeed the law, and then breaking it and getting away with it does not justify either that action or future repetitions of it.  And, if the U.S. neither, let us can all of this election foolishness, and get down to the serious business of coups, revolutions, and civil wars to determine which _caudillo_, machine pistol in hand, is going to enforce his vision of the “greater good”.

John W. Braue, III

~~~~~

Well, I didn’t want to think of it in exactly those terms, but yes, they did.

The best time to make a decision is usually not when we’re caught up in the moment, as that leads to haste. I find myself agreeing with what you say and not really having anything to add.

~~~~~~~~~~

From: Gary Mugford
Subject: My script and Bless the Sound Card

Dave,

“The guys over at Junkbusters have a different solution. Make ’em sweat. They’ve even got a script with questions to ask. Visit them if you’re sick of the bother.
“Print it out, then keep it by the phone. And when you pick up the phone and get that tell-tale delay, followed by an unfamiliar voice who mispronounces your name, pounce. “Is this a telemarketing call?” (That question weeds out the other annoying phone calls, like Chrysler and MCI Worldcom calling up because of billing problems–sorry, you’ve gotta deal with those on your own.) If the answer is yes, then keep going. “Could you tell me your full name please? And a phone number, area code first?” And they’ve got 12 other questions, where those came from.”

For years, I’ve had the dickens to try and talk family members OUT of talking with telemarketers. My mom used to get involved in the talk, apologize profusely for declining and then be mad upon hanging up. I gave her a copy of my script to use:

“I’m sorry, I must interrupt you. We do not accept over-the-phone solicitation. Please feel free to mail us literature. Thank you very kindly for calling, good-bye.” THEN HANG UP. She wouldn’t use it.

This works pretty well, except for the ones that DID manage to get mom to send them something. Long after the parental units were retired and moved down to the Lake, I would still get phone calls at their number. I finally went to the trouble to record the little speechlet and put the file on the toolbar to press whenever I got ONE of THOSE phone calls. Now, it’s answer the phone, realize what’s happening, double-click and hold the phone DIRECTLY over my speaker and then hang-up.

GM

~~~~~

That approach works too. The Junkbusters solution is legally binding in the States, though I’m sure Canadian laws are different so up north your approach is probably at least as good.

Of course, if I were to take your approach and I happened to be listening to some doom-and-gloom Sisters of Mercy or Joy Division when the call happened, that’d make some nice background–serenade them with some music that’s definitely an acquired taste while they get my schpiel.

Another suggestion I’ve heard was to put them on hold for five minutes, then come back on and sing showtunes very badly until they hang up.
~~~~~~~~~~

From: “Michal Kaznowski” <michalkaznowski@nospam.yahoo.com>

Subject: Re[2]: DPMI error while zipping windows

Hello Dave,

Monday, December 04, 2000, 3:06:44 PM, you wrote:

DF> Try downloading this. Put the executable files from this archive into the same directory as your Info-Zip executables. Let me know ASAP if that doesn’t fix it. (This is as painful as some Linux programs’ installations!)

Done.  It will probably work when I have mastered the syntax.  At the moment after running the csdpmi executables I get

ZIP I/O error no such file or directory

with your command line. I have also tried making a windows.zip file for zip to write to.

(MSDOS mode cd to C:zip run cwsdpmi etc then your command line)

DF> Thanks for your encouraging words on Optimizing Windows.

You have a nice line in understatement.  My brother, who is computer tech support for the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital, tells me it is the best reference book he has ever used!

DF>  Unfortunately, O’Reilly cancelled the Linux book, so for now I’m just writing Windows optimization articles for Computer Shopper UK and taking a few months off from book writing while I decide what to do next.

There is an air of Linux taking off here in the UK and just recently {I have been looking for some time) two magazines have appeared catering for Linux use.

Linux Format (Future Publishing) www.linuxformat.co.uk

and Linux Magazine www.linux-magazine.co.uk

as well as the coverage in PCPlus also Future Publishing.

Maybe a series of articles in one or other could be the backbone of your Linux book on the back of the terrific reviews your Optimizing Windows had.

All the best,

Michal Kaznowski

(PS My kids thought the arch was terrific this summer – but I felt awful queasy up there).

~~~~~

What command line are you using? I seem to recall there was a typesetting error on one of the Zip commands in the book, though I can’t remember which one at this point.

I’m very much enjoying working with Computer Shopper UK, which I’ve hopefully expressed to the right people. I think they’ve done an outstanding job on my “Optimise Your PC” series, and I still sound American, even after translating my spellings to the British form. I’m trying to remember it so they’ll have to make fewer changes with the next one.

I’m not sure when I was last up in the Arch–it must have been 10 years ago. The slight sway in the wind always made me think the thing was about to topple over, though it’s survived minor earthquakes without damage so that’s ridiculous. I also remember it being pretty cramped.

Computer ethics

Damsels in distress. Every time I turn around, there’s a girl who needs her computer fixed. Not that I’m complaining. I was having a beer the other night with the music director from my church and told him about it, to which he said, “That’s not a bad situation at all to be in.” He’s right.
So that’s what I was doing Thursday. I don’t exactly get it, because I always have great luck with the PCs I build myself, but when I build a PC for a friend, we always manage to get a bad power supply, or a bad video card, or something else–even though I use the same type of components in their systems as in mine. That’s why I’m not in the computer building business, and I may get out of the business of building them for my friends. I’ll find ’em a good deal if they want, and I’ll play hardball to get a good price and the best components for them, and I’ll gladly set it up for them, but when it comes to procurring all the parts and assembling them, it may be time to give it up.

But I got dinner out of it last night and got to meet some interesting people. That was good.

Computer Ethics. I found out last night that this friend once dated an IT professional I know. I don’t know him well–I didn’t put the name and the face together until she showed me a picture (he knows me better than I know him, apparently). She knew him about eight years ago.

Eight years ago, a typical date for them was him taking her to a weekly 2600 meeting. He evidently learned everything he knew by hacking. We’re not talking writing code here. We’re talking infiltration of systems illegally. At one point he had a notebook full of private phone numbers: people like the Pope and the Prime Minister of Canada. For kicks, he’d call the numbers and record the conversations. He also had her address and phone number in the notebook. One day he left the notebook on top of his car in a parking lot, then drove off. Someone found the notebook, couldn’t believe what was in it, and turned it over to the authorities. Since hers was the only non-VIP address in it, the Secret Service showed up on her doorstep. Her parents were less than amused.

I don’t really understand this. This guy isn’t the only “reformed” hacker I know who has a high-paying, high-security, high-integrity job. And that’s a real problem. If you didn’t have integrity at 18, you probably don’t have it at 25 or 26 either. You can’t count on eight years giving you any measurable amount of maturity, let alone integrity. If you have no respect for other people’s property at 18, you won’t have much a few years later. I don’t understand why anyone hires these kinds of people. You can sum up my run-ins with the law really quickly. I’ve been pulled over three times since the age of 16. I recieved two verbal warnings and a written warning. That’s the extent of it. But I’m not sure I’d trust myself in these peoples’ jobs.

———-

From: Paul S R Chisholm

There have been a series of excellent articles, written by Martin J. Furey and published at Byte.com, describing how the sound cards and microphones can effect the success of using Dragon Naturally speaking. Rough summary: 128 MB RAM or better, PIII or Athlon (speech recognition is one of the few applications that can use that much power, and the latest versions have installation options with executables tuned to those processors), very good mike or headset, very good sound card or USB headset, perhaps Win98SE. More detail:

http://www.byte.com/feature/BYT19990720S0003
http://www.byte.com/feature/BYT19991020S0004
http://www.byte.com/feature/BYT19991103S0001

In particular, a PIII or Athlon is supposed to greatly reduce the training time. It’s not clear how much its power is needed once the software is fully trained.

I ordered my Dell system based on these recommendations. (I got a 700 MHz PIII.) Since I didn’t want to spend the time putting a computer together, and since Dell didn’t have much of a sound card choice, I got the USB version of NaturallySpeaking Preferred, which comes with a USB mike in a headset form factor.

I haven’t tried writing a book this way. I did write up technical review comments for a book. In my experience, I could get a rough draft out much faster than if I’d typed it; even after making a review pass, something I probably would have done anyway, and which found some truly odd typos, I think I saved time.

It’s not STAR TREK. One Byte.com reviewer “had to speak like Queen Amidala of the Naboo to make it work right”. I wouldn’t go that far, but I’d lean in that direction.

I had less luck using NaturallySpeaking for total control of my PC. Mouse-clicking was surprisingly good. Saying “Press” and the name of a key was surprisingly bad. (My office mate tried this for a few weeks and had even less luck.)

I’ll leave the final word to John Ousterhout, creator of Tcl/Tk, who dictates even code but still “mouses by hand”:

http://www.scriptics.com/people/john.ousterhout/wrist.html
Good luck! –PSRC

———-

Yes, I read those articles myself after David Pogue suggested I try Naturally Speaking. So I’ve ordered an Andrea ANC-600 mic, which got good marks in the series, from www.speechcontrol.com (good price and quick delivery; the makers of the highest-rated mics say 6-8 weeks for delivery, while speechcontrol.com can get the ANC-600 to me in 4 days and the owner answers questions very quickly). Now that DNS 5.0 is out, I’m going to order it and an SB LIve! Platinum, the successor to the Sound Blaster card that came in second-best (I’m leery of buying the best-rated card, since it’s ISA and there’ll come a time when my fastest PC won’t have ISA slots), and we’ll see how that works. As for a P3 or Athlon system, that is something I’d probably get anyway, but I’ll see if the C400 has enough punch first.

As for ViaVoice, I guess I can hang it on the wall along with all those AOL and MSN CDs.