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Heading back to Way Back When for a day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I guess I was just due for a visit.

Dot-matrix printers in Windows

I had e-mail today about running dot-matrix printers in Windows, which confused me at first because fundamentally, getting one type of printer to work in Windows is no different from getting another one to work: You load the right driver and you go.
I guess people are used to having a disk or CD from the printer maker that they have to load, but if you go into the Printers control panel and punch through the options and tell Windows you want to set the printer up manually, eventually you’ll get a list of printer makes and models. I’ve never run a dot-matrix printer from Windows (I bought an inexpensive Panasonic laser printer with my first PC) but Windows 2000 includes drivers for a lot of printers that I remember from the past, including the Epson MX-80, which was common 20 years ago. I used one of those in high school, but this was the same school that was using manual typewriters to teach typing as late as 1990.

And I remember that during at least one of my stints selling computers at retail in college, we sold Epson and Panasonic dot-matrix printers. People bought them too, because they were cheaper than inkjets. I remember demoing a Panasonic unit under Windows 3.1 and possibly even Windows 95.

If you have an off-brand printer that Windows doesn’t include a driver for, there’s still hope. Find out what printer(s) your printer emulates. If you happen to still have the manual for the printer, it used to be common for the manual to include that kind of information. If you don’t, you may still have a chance. Epson was the de facto standard for dot-matrix printers, so just about every 24-pin printer could emulate an Epson LQ-1000, while most 9-pin printers could emulate either an Epson FX-80 or an IBM Proprinter, and most 7-pin printers could emulate an Epson MX-80. And most printers could step down and emulate 9-pin and even 7-pin printers, making the Epson MX-80 the lowest common denominator, but it had really lousy resolution, so it should be a last resort.

If the printer still doesn’t work, you can use Windows’ Generic Text-Only driver. You’ll be limited to whatever fixed-pitch font the printer uses by default (which will probably display onscreen as Courier), but it’s better than nothing, and should work with anything you can manage to connect to a PC.

My first lengthy exposure to digital photography

Well, I took the plunge. I’ve entered the world of digital photography.
Panasonic lowered the retail price of its Lumix DMC-LC20 digital camera to $249. That, along with a promotion that threw in some memory cards, made me bite.

It’s a 2.1-megapixel unit (2 megapixel usable, according to the sticker on the front of the camera–kudos for truth in advertising) and its main selling point is its Leica lens. Leica, for those who aren’t hard-core into photography, is a German camera maker known for its high-quality and very expensive lenses.

I’ve been playing with it a little, and here’s what I’ve found (besides my need to practice some more).

You’ll probably have to take precautions for the included single set of charged AA NiMH 1600mAh batteries to have enough juice to take more than 16 meg worth of pictures. That’s not a lot. They aren’t the bottom-line batteries available (an awful lot of people seem to be selling 1400mAh batteries), but you can get 1800mAh or even 2000mAh batteries. The 1800s are a proven, mature technology. Buy at least two pair of 1800s, charge them up and take them with you. This thing munches ’em fast.

The included 8-meg SM card doesn’t hold a lot of images. Of course, people go ga-ga over the Sony Mavica cameras that use floppies, and a floppy is less than 1.5 megs. Be glad that Panasonic is throwing in a couple of bigger cards.

USB transfers from the camera’s SM cards are quick and easy, which really makes me wonder what the big deal is about Mavicas.

Image quality is very good. I’ll share some images once I’m not posting over dialup.

Professional photographers aren’t too keen on consumer-grade digital cameras, because a 1600×1200-resolution image is only enough to print a 4×5 print with acceptable quality (and it’ll look better smaller). But the only way to get good at taking pictures is to take a lot of them. An inexperienced photographer is going to take a lot of bad images. With digital, you don’t have to pay to process and print all the bad images. And digital gives you instant feedback. You’ll find youself compensating immediately for the effects of lighting.

The downsides of printing your own photographs are the cost of the prints (no less than the individual cost of a print off film, by the time you figure the cost of the ink cartridges and the special paper), and the longevity, or lack thereof. Inkjets aren’t known for producing long-lasting images. Inexpensive color laser printers will eventually give great strides in the right direction towards solving both problems, but right now “inexpensive” means $1,000. It’ll be a year or two before they hit the magical $499 mark.

But if you figure $1 per print, it won’t take long for a digital camera’s savings to pay for itself and for that printer.

It’s very easy to increase the Lumix’s exposure time for taking night shots, and I got some good ones. But I was missing my tripod. My hands aren’t steady enough to take sharp images without one once you lengthen the exposure time.

I’m not feeling any tinges of buyer’s remorse over this thing. Especially not after a night on the town with it. (Kansas City on the night after Thanksgiving offers lots of interesting subjects.)

Picking out a camcorder

I had someone ask me for some advice in picking out a camcorder yesterday. I know I’ve talked a little bit about that before, but this field is always changing, so it doesn’t hurt to revisit it.
I’m going to link to a bunch of stuff on Amazon here. Amazon’s not the only place to buy this stuff, of course, but their selection is good, and I have an affiliation with them. If someone clicks on one of these links and ends up buying something, I get a kickback. But my primary motivation is informational.

Second things second: I know they’re cheap, but think twice about analog camcorders. A Quasar VHS-C camcorder will run you $200. You get a nice 20X optical zoom and a few digital effects, and it’s nice to be able to play your tapes in your VCR, but those are the only benefits you get. The image resolution is a lot lower than with a digital camcorder, and it’s a lot less convenient to dump video from an analog camcorder into a computer for editing. Since any computer you buy new today will have at least some editing capability (current versions of Mac OS and Windows include at least rudimentary video editors, so all you’d need to add to a PC is a $25 Firewire card if it doesn’t have built-in Firewire), you’ll probably want to be able to take advantage of it. If you don’t have Windows XP or ME, you can pick up a $65 Pinnacle Studio DV, which will give you the Firewire ports, rudimentary editing software, and most importantly, slick capture and titling software. The capture software is especially nice; it’ll detect scene changes for you and catalog them. Even if you do have editing software, you might want this. It saves me a lot of time.

Digital8 cameras are getting hard to find. Their chief selling point, besides price, was the ability to use analog Hi8 tapes, which was nice if you were upgrading. If you have some Hi8 tapes and want to continue to use them and want an easy way to move them to a computer for editing, look for a Digital8 camera. But there’s a good possibility you’ll have to buy online. And the resolution isn’t as high as MiniDV–Digital8’s selling points in the past were price and backward compatibility. The price advantage is evaporating, leaving just backward compatibility as a selling point. MiniDV is the future.

Panasonic has a digital 4-in-1 device that does video, still, voice, and MP3 duties. I don’t recommend it. The image quality is substandard, its fixed focus will make it even worse, and you can’t mount it on a tripod. Its list price is $450 and I saw it at Amazon for $340, but it’s a toy. Given a choice between it and a $250 analog camcorder, I’d go analog every time.

MiniDV is pretty clearly the way to go. It’s the emerging standard, as it’s become inexpensive, the tapes are compact and reliable, and the resolution and picture quality is fantastic.

You can spend as much as you want. An entry-level MiniDV camera, such as the JVC GRDVL120U, will run you about $400. For $400, you get 16X optical zoom, S-Video output for TV playback and a Firewire connection to dump your video to computer for editing, image stabilization, the choice between manual and autofocus, and the ability to take still shots and dump them to tape.

Pay no attention whatsoever to digital zoom. Using digital zoom to get much more than double your maximum optical zoom is completely worthless. There’s enough fudge factor in NTSC television that you can get away with using a little bit of digital zoom, but with this camera, once you’ve zoomed in to 32X, you’ve cut your effective resolution from that of DVD to that of VHS tape. Zoom in much more than that, and your image will look very pixelated. This particular JVC advertises 700X digital zoom, but you definitely don’t want to use it.

You can spend three times as much on a Sony DCRPC120BT. For your money you’ll get a better lens, so your image quality will be a little bit better. Whether that makes a difference will depend mostly on the television you’re displaying on. You’ll get much higher-resolution still shots, and the ability to store your stills on a memory stick. That’s a very nice feature–no need to advance and rewind your tape to find shots, and no need to interrupt your video sequences with stills. You actually get less optical zoom. You get less digital zoom too, but that’s not important. You’ll also get a microphone jack, which is very important. The microphone built into the camera will pick up some motor noise and won’t necessarily pick up what’s happening across the room. It’s very nice to have the ability to wire up a microphone to get away from the camera motor and possibly get closer to the sound source, to keep the sound from being muffled. You probably won’t buy an external mic right away. But chances are it’s something you’ll eventually want.

Personally, when I’m on a project, I’d much rather have the inexpensive JVC (or something less expensive that offers a microphone input) because the $800 more I would spend to get the Sony would let me buy a digital still camera with much better capabilities than the Sony offers. And when I’m shooting a video, having two cameras is an advantage–I can set them both up on tripods and shoot, or hand one camera off to someone else and tell them to get me some shots. Having two cameras can get me a whole lot better picture of what’s going on. But not everybody’s shooting documentaries like me. For travel, the Sony is a whole lot more convenient and more than worth the extra money. And if you’re recording your child’s birthday party, you probably just want one camera in order to avoid turning your living room into a TV studio.

So you need to figure out what you plan to do with it.

As far as accessories go, you absolutely want a tripod. Again, you can spend as much as you want. Amazon offers a Vivitar kit for about $40 that includes a bag and a tripod. With image stabilization, you can run around shooting birthday parties and vacation scenes and have a reasonably good-looking image that won’t give you the shakes. But if you’re recording Christmas morning, then set the camcorder up across the room, then go over and open presents with your family. I know, I hate being on camera, and you might too. But I wish I had some home video footage of my Dad. I remember his laugh and I remember how he loved to joke around, but I can’t show that to anyone.

If you just want to set the camcorder up at a fixed angle and run across the room, a cheap tripod will do the job nicely. If you’re going to be standing behind the camera and panning the scene, buck up for a fluid-head tripod. You’ll be able to move the camera much more smoothly. My Bogen tripod wasn’t cheap, but I wouldn’t be without it now that I have it. I think some people with arthritis have steadier hands than I do, but even I can do good-looking pans and zooms with that tripod.

Sometimes people ask me about brands. I learned on JVC equipment, so I’m partial to it. But it’s hard to go wrong with any of what I call the Big Four: JVC, Panasonic,
Sony, or Canon. Professionals use all four brands with excellent results. Sure, every professional has a preference. But the differences among the Big Four will be pretty slight. I’m less comfortable with offerings from companies like Sharp and Samsung. They haven’t been in the business as long, and they’re consumer electronics companies. The other companies sell to professionals. Some of that expertise will inevitably filter down into their consumer products as well. And the difference in price and features between a Sharp or a Samsung and a JVC, Panasonic, Canon or Sony isn’t very much, so a top-tier offering is a better bet for the money.

Recovery time.

Taxes. I think I’ve actually filed my taxes on time twice in my adult life. This year isn’t one of them. I filed Form 4868, so Tax Day for me is actually Aug. 15, 2002.
In theory Uncle Sam owes me money this year, so I shouldn’t owe any interest. I’ll have a professional accountant test that theory soon. Make that fairly soon, because it’d be nice to have that money, seeing as I expect to make the biggest purchase of my still-fairly-short life this year.

Some people believe filing a 4868 is advantageous. The thinking is this: Let the IRS meet its quota for audits, then file. That way, the only way you’re going to get audited is if you truly raise red flags, which I shouldn’t because I’m having a professional (and an awfully conservative one at that) figure the forms. That’s good. I’d rather not have to send a big care package off to the IRS to prove I’m not stealing from them.

Adventure. Steve DeLassus and I dove headlong into an adventure on Sunday, an adventure consisting of barbecue and Linux. I think at one point both of us were about ready to put a computer on that barbie.

We’ll talk about the barbecue first. Here’s a trick I learned from Steve: Pound your boneless chicken flat, then throw it in a bag containing 1 quart of water and 1 cup each of sugar and salt. Stick the whole shebang in the fridge while the fire’s getting ready. When the fire’s ready, take the chicken out of the bag and dry thoroughly. Since Steve’s not a Kansas Citian, he doesn’t believe in dousing the chicken in BBQ sauce before throwing it on the grill. But it was good anyway. Really good in fact.

Oh, I forgot. He did spray some olive oil on the chicken first. Whether that helps it brown or locks in moisture or both, I’m not quite sure. But olive oil contains good fats, so it’s not a health concern.

Now, Linux on cantankerous 486s may be a health concern. I replaced the motherboard in Steve’s router Sunday night, because it was a cranky 486SX/20. I was tired of dealing with the lack of a math coprocessor, and the system was just plain slow. I replaced it with a very late model 486DX2/66 board. I know a DX2/66 doesn’t have three times the performance of an SX/20, but the system sure seemed three times faster. Its math coprocessor, L2 cache, faster chipset, and much better BIOS helped. It took the new board slightly longer to boot Linux than it took the old one to finish counting and testing 8 MB of RAM.

But Debian wasn’t too impressed with Steve’s Creative 2X CD-ROM and its proprietary Panasonic interface. So we kludged in Steve’s DVD-ROM drive for the installation, and laughed at the irony. Debian installed, but the lack of memory (I scraped up 8 megs; Steve’s old memory wouldn’t work) slowed down the install considerably. But once Debian was up and running, it was fine, and in text mode, it was surprisingly peppy. We didn’t install XFree86.

It was fine until we tried to get it to act as a dialup router, that is. We never really did figure out how to get it to work reliably. It worked once or twice, then quit entirely.

This machine was once a broadband router based on Red Hat 6.1, but Red Hat installed way too much bloat so it was slow whenever we did have to log into it. And Steve moved into the boonies, where broadband isn’t available yet, so it was back to 56K dialup for him. Now we know that dialup routers seem to be much trickier to set up than dual-NIC routers.

After fighting it for nearly 8 hours, we gave up and booted it back into Freesco, which works reliably. It has the occasional glitch, but it’s certainly livable. Of course we want (or at least Steve wants) more features than Freesco can give you easily. But it looks like he’ll be living with Freesco for a while, since neither of us is looking forward to another marathon Debian session.

Nostalgia. A couple of articles on Slashdot got me thinking about the good old days, so I downloaded VICE, a program that can emulate almost every computer Commodore ever built. Then I played around with a few Commodore disk images. It’s odd what I do and don’t remember. I kind of remember the keyboard layout. I remembered LOAD “*”,8,1 loads most games (and I know why that works too, and why the harder-to-type LOAD “0:*”,8,1 is safer), but I couldn’t remember where the Commodore keyboard layout put the *.

I sure wish I could remember people’s names half as well as I remember this mesozoic computer information.

It stands on shaky legal ground, but you can go to c64.com and grab images for just about any Commodore game ever created. The stuff there is still covered by copyright law, but in many cases the copyright holder has gone out of business and/or been bought out several times over, so there’s a good possibility the true copyright holder doesn’t even realize it anymore. Some copyright holders may care. Others don’t. Others have probably placed the work in the public domain. Of course, if you own the original disks for any of the software there, there’s no problem in downloading it. There’s a good possibility you can’t read your originals anyway.

I downloaded M.U.L.E., one of the greatest games of all time. I have friends who swear I was once an ace M.U.L.E. player, something of an addict. I have absolutely no recollection of that. I started figuring out the controls after I loaded it, but nothing seemed familiar, that’s for sure. I took to it pretty quickly. The strategy is simple to learn, but difficult to master. The user interface isn’t intuitive, but in those days they rarely were. And in those days, not many people cared.


PC building sanity check. I’m getting really tired of reading hardware forums because I keep seeing the same awful advice over and over again. One of the fairly big vendors, I forget who, is offering 128-meg DIMMs from some outfit called Zeus Components for $25, and 256-meg DIMMs for $57. One person who bought this wrote in talking about how it was a no-name PCB with no-name chips on it (a sure bad sign if there ever was one) and how great it is.

Reality check: Why would anyone spend good money on decent components, then cripple them by putting bottom-feeder memory on it? Stability will go down the toilet. Performance won’t be as good as it could be–memory performance is overrated, yes, but so is CPU performance and the same people who cry about how miniscule the gains from using quality memory are often the same ones who waste a weekend by trying to milk an extra 25 MHz out of their CPUs. Getting memory that runs at CAS2 instead of CAS3 makes about as much difference as that extra 25 MHz does, and it won’t burn out your system prematurely either.

Let’s consider all of this, and use numbers to back them up. I just priced a Gigabyte 7ZX-1 motherboard with a 700 MHz Duron CPU. This is the slowest, cheapest Duron that’s still available everywhere. Price, including fan: 165 bucks. The motherboard is respected as a stable board, priced nicely, and includes Creative audio onboard. A decent Enlight midtower case that won’t slice you up and a 300W power supply is $62. A 32-meg Guillemot GeForce256 card–not state of the art, but for mid-range gaming and anything I do, it’s drastic overkill–is $80. So you’ve got a foundation for a system that was absolutely unbelievable just 18 months ago, for 300 bucks.

Considering what you get for $300, I think you can afford to put something other than $25 128-meg DIMMs in them. Save those for some other sucker.

The same vendor had 256-meg CAS2 PC133 Corsair DIMMs for $129. Corsair’s not my first choice and Crucial is offering free shipping right now. A Crucial 256-meg CAS2 PC133 DIMM is $96. The highly regarded Mushkin high-performance DIMMs (latency of 2 all around, so they’re great if your motherboard allows you to adjust all your memory timings but admittedly they’d be overkill on some of the boards I have) are $150.

So we’re at $396 for an awfully nice PC that just lacks storage. CD, DVD, and floppy drives are pretty much commodity items these days. Buy Plextor, or buy whatever’s available at a decent price and doesn’t look like it cost $12 out of the back of a van parked at an abandoned gas station. That leaves hard drives.

Now that memory costs next to nothing, a lot of people think real computers have to have 768 megs of RAM. Really, you get diminishing returns above 128 megs. Two years ago I was ridiculed for suggesting people should get 128 megs of RAM. Now people are routinely buying six times that amount. Trends. (sigh.) Since a 256-meg stick costs around 100 bucks, fine, get 256 so you can run any OS you want and run it fast. But really we need to be thinking about hard drive speed. Sure, a hard drive doesn’t do anything for Quake frame rates, but for everything else it does, and if you’re like me and actually use your computer, you’ll appreciate a fast disk really quickly.

The IBM 75GXP is currently the fastest IDE drive on the market. At $135 for a 30-gig model, it makes absolutely no sense to buy anything else, period. If you need more storage than that, a 45-gig costs about $150, a 60-gig $215, and a 75-gig $275. The sweet spot seems to be 45 gigs.

But if you’re going to run Linux or NT or Windows 2000 and you were ready to buy 768 megs of RAM anyway, why not look at SCSI? An Adaptec controller will run you $200, while a Tekram will start at around $100. You can get a nice 10,000 RPM drive from IBM, Quantum or Seagate for around $235. Now we’re talking a 9-gig drive here, but speed’s more stem out with a $33 LG Electronics CD-ROM and a $14 Panasonic floppy drive. The damage? $844. That’s without a keyboard, mouse, or monitor, but seeing as everyone likes different things there, I always leave those out of base pricing. And of course you still have to buy an OS.

That’s an awful lot of computer for about $850. The components are high enough quality that they should be good for 4-5 years, and I suspect the system won’t be a slouch by then either. The specs will be laughable, but if someone sits down to use it, they’ll have difficulty believing it’s “only” a 700 MHz computer. And if you want to upgrade it down the line, it’ll continue to be worthy of your trouble for a long time to come.

I think I found my new hangout. Well, in about five weeks it’ll be my new hangout. I was going to give up using Windows for Lent–not that I enjoy using Windows, but not using it would be a terrible inconvenience, and the purpose of Lent is to give up something that reminds you of what Jesus gave up. Since Windows is an everyday part of life, it would suffice–I could use a Mac at work, and just run Linux on my PCs at home. But since my job is partly fixing PCs that run Windows, or writing about Windows, I can’t very well do that. So instead I gave up meat. All meat. If it used to be an animal, it’s meat–no using seafood as a loophole.

So, Penny’s BBQ, a little place I stumbled upon yesterday, won’t be my hangout until Lent’s over. I love BBQ–must be because I’m from Kansas City. My favorite R.E.M. song is “The One I Love,” which Michael Stipe wrote after his favorite BBQ joint burned down. Listen to the words really carefully sometime. He’s not talking about his prom date.

I always get sidetracked when I’m talking about BBQ. Penny’s is about 10 minutes from home, depending on how obnoxious St. Louis traffic feels like being. It smelled good outside the place, which is always a good sign. It’s tough to find BBQ in St. Louis, let alone good BBQ. But Penny’s turns out to be comparable to the typical fare you find at every other stoplight in Kansas City, I’ll be a very happy camper. But that’s easier said than done. I’ve never really understood it, because there’s plenty of good BBQ in Chicago and in Kansas City and, frankly, throughout Missouri. If you’re ever driving through Missouri on I-70–my condolences if you are–in a tiny little town about an hour east of Kansas City named Concordia, there’s a BBQ joint called Biffle’s that’s nearly as good as the best places in KC, and it’s easier to get to and not as crowded. I plan my trips to KC so that I end up driving through Concordia around meal time.

The downside to giving up meat is I can’t really write about it, beyond that. Had I given up Windows, chances are a lot of people would have wanted to read about how it was going and what I was finding. Oh well.

Heh heh heh. Need a cheap computer for someone? How’s a Tekram Socket 370 microATX board with built-in audio and video sound? Promising? You bet, especially considering its $35 price tag here. Put it in an inexpensive microATX case, drop in a $50 Celeron-533 PPGA (this board only works with Celerons with the old Mendocino core, not a Coppermine) and a $50 Crucial 128-meg DIMM, add your favorite hard drive, and you can have a really nice system for $350 or so. Or if you’ve got parts laying around, you know the drill.


Printer shopping. My sister, Di, was in town this weekend, with her printer: a hand-me-down Panasonic KX-P4410 I bought my freshman year of college, which would make it 7-8 years old. It started jamming every time you print not too long ago, and now it doesn’t even respond at all. Looking at it, I couldn’t tell if the printer’s problem was the drum unit or the toner cartridge; a new drum unit costs nearly as much as Panasonic’s current closest equivalent printer today costs. Put a drum and a toner cartridge in it, and you’ve paid as much as you would for a new printer. So while I hate for a possibly good printer to go to waste, it’s just not worth it to spend that much on what was at the time Panasonic’s entry-level laser-class printer.

Panasonic printers aren’t so easy to find these days, so we ended up getting an HP LaserJet 1100. We found one for $285 with a $30 rebate, which isn’t bad for a printer that normally sells for $425 on the street. It’s a low-end printer, but it’s HP, so it’ll last a long time. And at 8 pages per minute, it’s got plenty of speed for what Di does–she’s not going to be printing book manuscripts with this. Driver support isn’t the best from HP these days, but it’ll work with an HP LaserJet 4 PCL5 driver, which means any new OS should support that printer even if HP is slow in supplying official drivers. I’m not in love with HP’s driver policies these days but they still make good iron, and I can keep it working for years to come.

Napster. With Napster on the ropes, the time seems to be right for this. I wrote a piece a month or two ago, without really knowing what I’d do with it. With Napster’s days numbered, it seems pretty obvious: post it now because there is no market for such a piece. It’s long so I think I’ll split it up. What is it? It’s an industry insider’s perspective on Napster. How much of an insider? Well, my interviewee is a musician, producer, and at one time owned an indie record label. His views will be a bit surprising. I’m guessing this’ll be a three-parter by the time I split it up.


Windows and dot-matrix printers. Why do I remember this old, next-to-useless information? I was talking today with someone at work about traits inherited from our parents. We both thought we got our parents’ worst stuff, but I must have gotten my dad’s memory.

But I digress, as usual. Over on Shopper UK’s message boards there was a question about using an old Star Micronics LX-10 dot-matrix printer with Windows 2.5. A Star Micronics rep (I had no idea the company was still in business!) was stumped–the printer’s old enough that it’s not in Star’s database, I guess. The model number seems vaguely familiar to me, but I don’t know anything specific about it other than it must be a pre-1987 printer because by then Star was making the NX-1000 and not much else (I know because I had one). But the trick to running a dot matrix printer with any piece of software if you can’t find an exact driver is to first try an Epson LQ series driver, then try an Epson FX series, then try an Epson MX series. In that order.

Virtually all dot-matrix printers (Okidata, Star, Citizen, Panasonic) were Epson-compatible; the major differences between various printers were number of pins (24, 9, or 7), speed, and number of built-in fonts. An Epson driver won’t get you all your printer’s unique features, but it will at least get it working.

I don’t know how many people need this kind of information anymore, but I might as well put it online as it comes up. Since search engines have this site indexed, people will find it.

Speaking of Shopper UK, Chris Miller tells me my first “Optimise Your PC” article is now up on their site, at www.computershopper.co.uk . Registration is required (sorry), but it’s there if you want to read it. The second article in the series will appear in the February issue, and the third (which I’m writing now) in March. Presumably that means they’ll be online in approximately a month and two months, respectively.

I’ve come up with a method to dual-boot Windows 98 and Windows Me (or any other two systems that don’t get along) using Partition Magic and Boot Magic. It’s so easy it ought to be considered cheating. Now to accomplish the same thing with XOSL… And I thought I had more to say but I’m out of time. If you mailed me the last couple of days, I’ll get back to you shortly.