Repair a Lionel train motor

Repair a Lionel train motor

If you want to fix a Lionel train, what you probably really need to do is repair a Lionel train motor. There isn’t much to the rest of the train.

The motors tend to be pretty rugged and they’ve held up over the years. Most “repairs” are really more of a clean and service job, not unlike taking your car in for an oil change. Here are some general principles to follow when you clean and service a Lionel motor.

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Why the government (and others) still deal in floppy disks

The revelation that the Federal Government still relies on floppy disks for some of its business is making it the butt of some jokes this week. And although that will serve as confirmation for some people that the government is completely backward, there are actually multiple good explanations for it.

From a security standpoint, using floppy disks isn’t a bad idea at all. Read more

SSD future isn’t bleak, just flash

Computerworld is predicting that the end of the line for SSDs will be the year 2024.

That’s based on the projected year MLC flash memory becomes impractical to continue producing. There’s one problem with that assumption: it assumes SSDs will still be based on flash memory in 2024.

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How to revive an old PC

Somewhere, stashed in a corner of the basement or a closet, pretty much anyone who works on computers or even has just owned computers for a long time has a stash of obsolete hardware, stashed for a just-in-case moment.

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How to get Black Friday specials without camping out before the crack of dawn

So, tomorrow’s the biggest shopping day of the year, with deals like 2-gig SD cards for digital cameras for $25; Sony Playstation 3s for, well, regular price while they last; 1-gig USB disks for $13, select CDs and DVDs for $9.99 and under, laptops for under $300, and so on.

Did you know you can get some of that stuff without leaving home?Right now I’m buying a USB disk and an SD card for a digital camera from OfficeMax’s web site. They’re actually offering the specials today. Some sites don’t offer the specials until the stroke of midnight. But if you don’t want to fight the crowds and camp out in parking lots, or if you’re like me and–ahem–have to be at work tomorrow (I was going to say “have to work,” but we all know how productive tomorrow’s going to be), it’s still possible to get the deals.

So, hit the newspaper or your favorite Black Friday site (blackfriday.info isn’t a bad place to start), find what you’re after, then start hitting the web. Maybe you’ll have to stay up until midnight tonight, but that’s a lot easier than getting up at 4.

I won’t keep you.

Is this Apple a surprise to anyone?

So, Apple unveiled its new Imac today. (I’m sick of improper capitalization. We speak English, not C++.) To no one’s surprise, I’m sure, it has a bigger screen. And I’m sure it’s not too surprising that they crammed everything into the unit next to the screen. It’s the next logical step, after the lamp-shaped Imac.

So how’s it gonna do?I think it has potential. Do people really want laptops because they can carry them everywhere they go, or do they want laptops because they can move them about the house freely and don’t have to have a dedicated “computer room”?

I suspect to most people, the latter is more important. Most people have better things to do with their lives than surf the ‘net at Starbucks or Panera Bread.

This new Imac can go on a small desk in a study or spare bedroom and not take over an entire wall the way computers have been doing since the late 1970s. As long as there’s a way to add some memory, and there are ports for people to plug in their digital cameras and their portable MP3 players and a printer, they’ll be happy.

Who knows, maybe demand for wireless printers will increase too.

Some analysts have said they don’t think all-in-one is the slam dunk it was in 1998. I agree it isn’t, but small is a slam dunk. Witness the explosive popularity of cube PCs. Yes, it flopped for Apple, but Apple’s cubes lacked the flexibility, there was too much confusion about their expandability and what exactly they were compatibile with–I designed a Mac network for a client right around the time the Cube was released, but the rumor was it would only work with Apple monitors. That alone killed the deal. They bought G4 towers instead, which would work with NEC and Viewsonic monitors.

But the other problem with the Cube was the price. Yes, it was cheaper than a G4 tower. But the price difference wasn’t enough to make people willing to take a chance on it. And besides, if it was cheapness you wanted, there were at least four companies willing to sell you a PC for half the price of a Cube. Emachines would even sell you a PC for half the price of an Imac.

And that’s the biggest problem I see with this new Imac: price. $1299 gets you in the game. Ten years ago, that was cheap. But this isn’t 1994. Emachines didn’t exist in 1994, and while a Mac would cost you more than a Packard Bell, there wasn’t much price difference between a Mac and a Compaq or an IBM. Compaq or IBM usually had one model that sold for a hundred or two less than the cheapest Apple, and Apple usually wouldn’t give you quite as much CPU speed or quite as much disk space, but if you walked into the store with $1500 in your pocket, which was pretty much the selling price of an average PC, you could walk out with a Mac just as easily as you could walk out with something that ran Windows.

What will Dell give you today for $800? 2.8 GHz, 256 MB RAM, 40 GB hard drive, CD burner, printer, 17-inch monitor, and some software.

For the same money, Apple gives you 1.25 GHz, 256 MB RAM, 40 GB HD, CD burner, and a 17-inch display. No printer.

For $1,299, the price of the new Imac, Dell gives you twice the CPU power and twice the memory. Just not as much wow factor.

Yes, I know the Pentium 4 is a horribly inefficient processor but the design does scale surprisingly well, and efficiency alone won’t make up a 1.6 GHz speed deficit. Besides, if you’re willing to spend four figures, you can get an AMD Opteron. Just not from Dell.

Will this Imac sell? Yes. Will it do much to increase Apple’s 2.2 percent market share? I doubt it. The main audience is going to be people with aging CRT-based Imacs who’ve been holding out for something with a G5 in it. They’ll buy it, find it’s a lot faster than their old one and takes up less space. Of course they’ll like it. But it’s still the Amiga problem. The Amiga didn’t take over the market because it it only sold 6 million units. The Amiga was a commercial failure because those 6 million units sold to 1.5 million people.

People will ooh and ah over how little space this new Imac takes and how convenient its wireless keyboards are. But most of them will buy a Dell because it’s faster. Or cheaper. Or both. Maybe they’ll complain about how much less convenient it is, but it’s just as likely they’ll forget about it.

It happened with the first Imac and it happened with the Cube and it happened with the dual G4 and it happened with the G5. Who are we kidding? To some extent, it’s been happening since 1983 when the Lisa came out. People see the machine and it knocks their socks off until they see the price tag. The classes buy it anyway, while the masses figure out how to get by with something cheaper.

History is going to repeat itself one other way too. Somewhere in the Far East, I guarantee you a no-name maker of whitebox PCs is designing a box that puts the brains of the outfit behind the LCD, just like this Imac. Maybe the thought didn’t occur to the designer until this week. Maybe the designer has been working on it for months already.

It will look a lot like this new Imac, only it will have an AMD or Intel processor in it, and it will run Windows. It might be three months before we see it. It might even be six. But it will appear, and it will be priced under $1,000.

It will sell. And within another six months, everyone will be doing it. This new form factor may not come to dominate the market, but it won’t take much for it to outsell this new Imac. A small percentage of 97.8 percent is likely to be a lot bigger than even a large percentage of 2.2 percent. Compared to the new Imac, these clones will look like a runaway success.

And Mac fanatics will be screaming about another Apple innovation stolen by someone else.

Optimizing dynamic Linux webservers

Linux + Apache + MySQL + PHP (LAMP) provides an outstanding foundation for building a web server, for, essentially, the value of your time. And the advantages over static pages are fairly obvious: Just look at this web site. Users can log in and post comments without me doing anything, and content on any page can change programmatically. In my site’s case, links to my most popular pages appear on the front page, and as their popularity changes, the links change.

The downside? Remember the days when people bragged about how their 66 MHz 486 was a perfectly good web server? Kiss those goodbye. For that matter, your old Pentium-120 or even your Pentium II-450 may not be good enough either. Unless you know these secrets…

First, the simple stuff. I talked about a year and a half ago about programs that optimize HTML by removing some extraneous tags and even give you a leg up on translating to cascading style sheets (CSS). That’s a starting point.

Graphics are another problem. People want lots of them, and digital cameras tend to add some extraneous bloat to them. Edit them in Photoshop or another popular image editor–which you undoubtedly will–and you’ll likely add another layer of bloat to them. I talked about Optimizing web graphics back in May 2002.

But what can you do on the server itself?

First, regardless of what you’re using, you should be running mod_gzip in order to compress your web server’s output. It works with virtually all modern web browsers, and those browsers that don’t work with it negotiate with the server to get non-compressed output. My 45K front page becomes 6K when compressed, which is better than a seven-fold increase. Suddenly my 128-meg uplink becomes more than half of a T1.

I’ve read several places that it takes less CPU time to compress content and send it than it does to send uncompressed content. On my P2-450, that seems to definitely be the case.

Unfortunately, mod_gzip is one of the most poorly documented Unix programs I’ve ever seen. I complained about this nearly three years ago, and the situation seems little improved.

A simple apt-get install libapache-mod-gzip in Debian doesn’t do the trick. You have to search /etc/apache/httpd.conf for the line that begins LoadModule gzip_module and uncomment it, then you have to add a few more lines. The lines to enable mod_gzip on TurboLinux didn’t save me this time–for one thing, it didn’t handle PHP output. For another, it didn’t seem to do anything at all on my Debian box.

Charlie Sebold to the rescue. He provided the following lines that worked for him on his Debian box, and they also worked for me:

# mod_gzip settings

mod_gzip_on Yes
mod_gzip_can_negotiate Yes
mod_gzip_add_header_count Yes
mod_gzip_minimum_file_size 400
mod_gzip_maximum_file_size 0
mod_gzip_temp_dir /tmp
mod_gzip_keep_workfiles No
mod_gzip_maximum_inmem_size 100000
mod_gzip_dechunk Yes

mod_gzip_item_include handler proxy-server
mod_gzip_item_include handler cgi-script

mod_gzip_item_include mime ^text/.*
mod_gzip_item_include mime ^application/postscript$
mod_gzip_item_include mime ^application/ms.*$
mod_gzip_item_include mime ^application/vnd.*$
mod_gzip_item_exclude mime ^application/x-javascript$
mod_gzip_item_exclude mime ^image/.*$
mod_gzip_item_include mime httpd/unix-directory
mod_gzip_item_include file .htm$
mod_gzip_item_include file .html$
mod_gzip_item_include file .php$
mod_gzip_item_include file .phtml$
mod_gzip_item_exclude file .css$

Gzipping anything below 400 bytes is pointless because of overhead, and Gzipping CSS and Javascript files breaks Netscape 4 part of the time.

Most of the examples I found online didn’t work for me. Charlie said he had to fiddle a long time to come up with those. They may or may not work for you. I hope they do. Of course, there may be room for tweaking, depending on the nature of your site, but if they work, they’re a good starting point.

Second, you can use a PHP accelerator. PHP is an interpreted language, which means that every time you run a PHP script, your server first has to translate the source code into machine language and run it. This can take longer than the output itself takes. PHP accelerators serve as a just-in-time compiler, which compiles the script and holds a copy in memory, so the next time someone accesses the page, the pre-compiled script runs. The result can sometimes be a tenfold increase in speed.

There are lots of them out there, but I settled on Ion Cube PHP Accelerator (phpa) because installation is a matter of downloading the appropriate pre-compiled binary, dumping it somewhere (I chose /usr/local/lib but you can put it anywhere you want), and adding a line to php.ini (in /etc/php4/apache on my Debian box):

zend_extension=”/usr/local/lib/php_accelerator_1.3.3r2.so”

Restart Apache, and suddenly PHP scripts execute up to 10 times faster.

PHPA isn’t open source and it isn’t Free Software. Turck MMCache is, so if you prefer GPL, you can use it.

With mod_gzip and phpa in place and working, my web server’s CPU usage rarely goes above 25 percent. Without them, three simultaneous requests from the outside world could saturate my CPU.

With them, my site still isn’t quite as fast as it was in 2000 when it was just serving up static HTML, but it’s awfully close. And it’s doing a lot more work.

 

Reports on the death of film are [you know the rest]

Giddy Slashdotters are proclaiming the death of film since Kodak has announced it’s not going to sell film cameras anymore, at least not in the United States and Europe.
It proves to me that whoever wrote that story summary knows little or nothing about serious photography.

For many years, Kodak was a big name in serious photography. But come the 1960s, you started seeing serious cameras from a lot of other manufacturers. For the duration of my lifetime, Kodak cameras were pretty much relegated to the casual point-and-shoot arena.

But meanwhile, Kodak remained one of the largest producers of film. It remains so today. Go into any store and look for film, and the two brands you’re most likely to find are Kodak and Fuji.

Serious photographers have only recently begun to prefer digital. Some serious photographers still prefer the look of film. Pictures shot on film have a different look from digital shots, and they probably always will. Neither type of camera’s view on reality is necessarily more correct, but they’re certainly different, sometimes subtly, sometimes blatantly.

Casual photographers like digital point-and-shoots because they can take hundreds of pictures and only print out (and thus only pay for) the good ones. And there’s the perception among certain laypeople that digital is always better. CDs sound better than cassettes, so digital pictures will look better than film, right? That’s what the girl I was dating a year ago thought, and I never convinced her otherwise.

The money is in disposable cameras, film, and digitals. There’s just not much money to be made in the traditional point-and-shoots–too many companies are making them, and the margins are too thin. So Kodak is concentrating on the areas where it can make money. And Kodak can make a lot of money selling $150 digital cameras to people year over year (people will want to upgrade so they can make bigger prints, after all), or disposable cameras to people who forget to pack a camera, or film to people buying razor-thin-margin cameras made by someone else.

Once you can buy a $40 digital camera with resolution comparable to film, you’ll be able to declare film dead. But you can’t do that yet, and you won’t be able to for a few more years.

But I’m sure you already knew all of this, so I’m not sure why I’m writing this. But I feel better now.

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