The tradeoffs between AMD’s Phenom and FX CPUs

Micro Center is dangling some dirt, dirt cheap AMD CPUs these days, which has me thinking. I have a couple of pokey machines hanging around that I don’t use very much, so what if I modernized one of them?

The current-generation FX processors are cheap, but previous-generation Phenom CPUs are even cheaper. What to do?
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Games would be just what Linux needed

Valve is intending to develop for Linux, as an insurance policy against Windows 8. I think that will lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy. If more games are available for Linux, demand for Linux will increase, along with market share.

There’s historical precedence for this. Read more

DOS nostalgia?

I’ve been getting nostalgic for DOS lately. Well, certain DOS games *cough* Railroad Tycoon *cough*.

One of my coworkers’ wives is nostalgic for ’80s boy bands whose name I refuse to mention, so there certainly are worse things for me to be nostalgic about. Sure, DOS is terrible, but not that terrible.I’m using an old 128MB compact flash card in a cheap CF-IDE adapter. While 128 megs isn’t a lot, it’s adequate if you’re not going to have Windows and Windows apps loaded. After all, you can get all the DOS you’ll ever need for game playing in less than 1.5 megs. Even still, I’ll probably pick up a bigger card the next time I order stuff from Newegg. A 4 gig card is cheap, and to DOS, 4 gigs is huge.

DOS boots to a C prompt in about five seconds off the CF card, and a good chunk of that is the CD-ROM driver scanning the IDE channels for drives. The system takes a lot longer to POST than it does to boot.

The system itself is an old Micron Pentium II-266. Severe overkill, but I hear Railroad Tycoon Deluxe really wants a fast CPU. Plus, my 486 is missing in action right now anyway.

Now that I have the system running, I need to hunt down drivers for the system’s Sound Blaster card. Then I’ll get Railroad Tycoon Deluxe loaded, and then all I’ll have to do is find a little time to play it. That last step will probably be the hardest part.

If the games I want to play don’t like the P2 (unlikely but possible), I’ll just dig out a Pentium 75 or a 486 from somewhere. That won’t be a huge setback, since I’ll have everything I need gathered up to build the system at that point.

When to call it quits and get a new(er) computer

Mom’s computer is fading fast. I built it in 2002 or so, but I used stuff from her old computer, including the operating system, which dated to more like 1998.

I’m tired of fixing it. There was a time that I might have enjoyed it, but she needs something reliable, and I don’t have that kind of time anymore. Windows 98 was anything but rock solid when it was new, and this is a 10-year-old build. And do I know for certain that all the hardware is perfect?

It’s cheaper and easier to just start over.I didn’t find any earth-shattering deals at, although I did find some stuff that would have been usable. I wandered over to Craigslist and found the usual myriad of people selling their old home PCs. I decided to just do a search for something I knew would work. My wife and I have had a Compaq Evo 510 for about two months now and everything about it impresses me. So I went looking for another one.

I found one. It’s a 2 GHz P4 with 256 MB RAM (I quickly upgraded it to 512) and a CD burner. It even had a fresh install of Windows XP Pro on it, and a certificate of authenticity so it’s legal. I paid less for it than I charged the last time I had to fix someone’s computer. Actually, I paid less for it than a copy of XP Pro sells for. So it really was like getting the hardware for free.

XP isn’t perfect but it’s a lot more stable and reliable than Windows 98 ever was or will be. While this hardware isn’t new, it’s newer than what Mom has, and it’s built with quality components. It’s a business-class machine, and in my experience, business-grade hardware isn’t flashy but it’s very reliable. As long as you feed clean electricity into it, the only thing that’s likely to go wrong is a hard drive crash, and those can happen no matter what you buy.

There is a ton of former office equipment on the market now that’s perfectly usable, replaced only because corporate policy mandates that computers get replaced every three or four years. As long as the hard drive gets replaced, or at the very least reformatted and Windows is freshly reinstalled, these PCs will make very good home computers for a very long time.

They make terrible gaming rigs, although with a better video card you can do some light gaming with them (my Evo 510 runs Railroad Tycoon 3 and Baseball Mogul 2008 just fine).
For word processing, e-mail, and web browsing, they’re all you need.

I put a better video card in it anyway, to free up the memory that the onboard video was using. I put in a $10 Nvidia TNT2 card in it that came out of an old IBM. I got it off Craigslist too.

If anything, I’m more comfortable with Mom having something like this than I would be with her buying a new Compaq Presario or HP Pavilion because it’s made with better components.

If you have an aging Windows 98 computer, this is a good time to upgrade to something a little bit newer. You should be able to get a former business computer with a 2 GHz Pentium 4 running Windows XP for less than $200. It will be money well spent, in any case.

Mom will be happier because she’ll have a much faster and more reliable computer. I’ll be happier because if I play my cards right, I’ll never see Windows 98 again.

Fixing choppy audio in Windows XP SP2

So I’m sitting at this 2 GHz PC with 2 GB of RAM and a reasonably fast video card, and the audio in Railroad Tycoon 3 skips and sounds a little bit distorted.

It’s maddening when the game played fine on 400 MHz systems. I did some digging, and bad audio seems to be a common problem in XP SP2, but solutions are rare.I’ll cut to the chase: A little-known hotfix, KB920872, fixed the problem for me. This isn’t the specific problem this hotfix addresses, but since it does affect the audio subsystem, I figured it couldn’t hurt.

It worked for me when all of the conventional fixes didn’t, and I haven’t seen this hotfix mentioned anywhere. So if your new computer can’t play MP3s or stream online video or audio as well as a Pentium-166 running Windows 98, try the hotfix.

The usual advice is to update or reinstall your sound drivers, and if possible, to use drivers from the manufacturer of the computer or of the sound board, rather than drivers that Microsoft provides.

In my case, I already had the newest manufacturer-supplied drivers, so that didn’t help. Utilizing the newest drivers from the manufacturer is usually a very good idea anyway, of course.

Another piece of advice was to install Windows and all the service packs and hotfixes before installing drivers and software. That’s a good practice–and I like to use something like nlite to slipstream all of those updates so the system doesn’t accumulate too much cruft. But I didn’t want to rebuild this system, partly because the vendor didn’t provide an XP CD or installation files on the hard drive, only a certificate of authenticity. (Doesn’t it stink when you have to pirate software you already legally own?) So that wasn’t a very practical option in this case.

Another suggestion I’ve seen is to go into the control panel and either increase or decrease the sound acceleration. I don’t like this option; you always want to use whatever hardware acceleration you can. You paid extra for it, after all.

Using discrete hardware as opposed to built-in sound doesn’t make a difference. I was using onboard, but I found people using Creative’s highest-end cards experiencing the same problem, which must have been maddening.

Finally, I found some people saying they had the problem go away when they upgraded to Vista. I don’t like that option either, because I found just as many people saying their audio skips in Vista but worked fine under XP SP2.

And no, I don’t know how to fix skipping audio in Vista. I haven’t seen it yet and have no plans to mess with it. Maybe in five years. Maybe.

So now I just have to figure out how to get XP SP2 to get along with my Firewire card. It seems to be a common problem.

Upgrade diary: Compaq Evo D51S

Compaq Evo D51S
The Compaq Evo D51S is a well-built, small computer and it offers a few upgrade options

I upgraded a Compaq Evo D51S today. This was also sold under the name D510, and may have also been sold under the HP or Hewlett Packard brand. It was intended to be a low-profile, relatively affordable business computer.

Upgrading it poses some challenges, but there are some things you can do with it.This one has a 2.0 GHz Celeron in it. It will support a 2.4 GHz P4 without any issues (and a lot of them were sold with that chip), but I think that’s as high as you can go with the CPU.

The 2.0 GHz Celeron that came in this system will bog down with a heavy Photoshop filter and I’m sure some of the things I do in Adobe Premiere would bring it to its knees at times, but if your primary use of the machine is word processing, spreadsheets, web browsing and e-mail, it’s plenty fast. I would max out the system RAM before I replaced the CPU.

You can forget about motherboard replacements in this machine. Everything about the motherboard inside is odd, to get everything to fit in a smaller case. Compaq used to be criticized (sometimes unfairly) for using proprietary motherboards, but this one’s definitely proprietary.

Inside, you’re limited to two DIMM slots. I pulled the memory and replaced it with a pair of PC2100 DDR 1 GB DIMMs, which is the maximum the system supports. According to Crucial, PC3200 memory is compatible. Of course if you’re buying new memory, it makes sense to buy the faster stuff, in case you ever want to put the memory in another system.

In late 2010, 2 GB of PC3200 RAM sells for about $90. That’s close to the price of the computer itself, but more memory is probably the best thing you can buy for one of these machines, especially if it came with 256 MB of RAM.

The onboard video is the Intel 845G integrated video. It was better than I expected, but it steals system memory and, at least theoretically, it reduces memory bandwidth. The AGP slot is oriented vertically, so there’s only room for a low-profile card. That limits your choices somewhat. I had a low-profile ATI card with an early Radeon chipset on it. It’s not the most exciting card in the world, and may not even be better than the integrated Intel video, but it freed up some system memory for me. For what I want to do with this system, it will be fine. I’m not sure that Sid Meier’s Railroads! will run on it, but Railroad Tycoon 3 will, and from what I understand that’s the better game anyway.

There are a number of low-profile AGP video cards on the market that would be a suitable upgrade for this machine. None of them are cutting edge, but there are a few that are DirectX 9-capable, and prices range from $20 to $40. The built-in video is adequate, and while my first impression of it was that it didn’t bog the system down nearly as badly as the integrated video in the P3 days did, I’m still not a big fan of it. I think adding a discrete video card is a good move.

The stock Seagate Barracuda 7200.7 is a pretty good performer. At 40 GB it’s relatively small, and it won’t keep up with a brand-new drive, but for a lot of uses it’s plenty fast. From what I understand it will support hard drives larger than 137 GB but you may have to mess with IDE modes in the BIOS to make it happen. The trick appears to be to set the BIOS to use bit shift instead of LBA. Additionally, you have to be running Windows 2000 SP4 or XP SP2 to see the full capacity of the drive. I don’t have a large drive to put in it, so I haven’t tested that.

There’s no room for a second drive in there, so if you want additional storage beyond what’s already there, it will have to be external. Or you can jettison the floppy drive, but then you’ll have a goofy-looking hole in the front of the computer. That’s the price you pay for a low-profile system.

The CD-ROM drive in my particular unit was pretty balky. I’m going to replace it with a CD-R/RW drive for the short term, and eventually (probably early next year) put a DVD burner in it. I’m primarily interested in putting home movies on DVD. For backup and data transfer, I pretty much use USB flash drives exclusively now. They’re a lot faster and more convenient than messing around with CD/DVD burning software. Any drive with an old-school 40-pin IDE connector will work.

Speaking of USB, the USB ports all seem to be USB 2.0, which is nice (installing software off a USB 2.0-based flash drive makes you want to swear off optical media forever), but the ports on the front are recessed far enough that only a standard cable or a very low-profile flash drive can plug into them. My SD reader would only plug into the back, which is inconvenient.

The system has two full-size PCI slots for expansion. I put an IEEE 1394 (Firewire) card in one of the slots, since I want to do some light video work with it. The other slot will probably get an 802.11b wireless card. If I needed that PCI slot for something else, I could plug in a USB adapter for wireless networking.

I used to be in the habit of buying the biggest case I could afford or find (they weren’t always the same thing), so a really low-profile desktop like this Evo 510 feels a little strange. But a lot of things are different now. I could put a 1 TB hard drive in this system if I needed an obscene amount of storage. USB ports eliminate the need for Zip or Jaz or Syquest drives and even, to a large extent, for CD or DVD burners. If it weren’t for my interest in video, I wouldn’t bother with a burner in this machine at all. And since sound and networking are built in, there’s no need for a lot of expansion slots. It would be nice to have three PCI slots instead of just two, but I would imagine a lot of people never even fill two.

As it is, this computer fits on a small desk, and if you put an LCD monitor on top of it, the combination will take less real estate than a 17-inch CRT monitor does.

There are a lot of these machines on the market now, either coming off lease or being replaced due to business upgrade policy. They’re cheap ($75-$150 depending on configuration) and I think they make an excellent home PC. They’re cheap, unobtrusive, and surprisingly expandable.

A decked-out 510 probably won’t run Vista all that well, but a lot of new PCs don’t run it very well either. I think a 510 running Windows XP or Linux can be a very useful computer for a good number of years.

Dvorak is at least partly right about the gaming industry

The big-time gamers are all up in arms over John C. Dvorak’s assertion that the game industry is dying. But he’s right an awful lot more than he’s wrong.

The games aren’t nearly as original as they used to be.Let’s track the evolution of the first-person shooter. Games where you run around in a maze and shoot everything that moves aren’t new. Castle Wolfenstein was a huge hit for Muse Software way back in 1981. The premise was simple: You’re trapped in a castle full of Nazis and your job is to shoot everything that moves and escape. Simple enough.

Was it the first game of its type? I don’t know. I don’t even know for certain that it was the first popular game of its type. But it at least proves the idea is is at least 24 years old as of the time of this writing.

Eleven years later, Wolfenstein 3D was published and released. It took the same premise and put it in a 3D setting. Its inspiration was obvious. And like its famous predecessor, it pushed the limits of the time: You needed a pretty advanced CPU to play it, and the better your graphics and sound cards were, the better gaming experience you got. In the early 1990s I remember people bragging about the slowest computer they managed to get to run Wolf3D.

A year or so later, Doom was released. It was considered revolutionary. The graphics and sound were better, and it required a better computer, but as far as a plot went, all one had to do was replace the Nazis with monsters and give the main character a larger assortment of weapons.

And that’s pretty much where we stand today. There is no revolution here. Each generation adds more eye candy and another layer of complexity, but the basic premise isn’t really changed since that 1981 game. Some people like that kind of thing and others don’t. Dvorak clearly doesn’t. I never really got into it much either. Once I got over the initial wow factor of seeing a computer-generated 3D world, I found I just didn’t enjoy it. I had a brief fling with a 3D FPS called Redneck Rampage. It used a recycled game engine, just replacing the original setting with a backwoods theme and replacing the characters with rednecks and aliens and playing off every stereotype in the book. I enjoyed the game mostly because I thought it was funny. Once the jokes wore off, I quit playing.

Whether this genre has been worked over to death depends on whether you like this sort of thing, I guess. And maybe that’s where Dvorak is wrong. Neither he nor I see the originality, but people enjoy the games and keep buying them. I don’t see the originality in country music either–to me, the songs pretty much sound alike, and the words are all about pretty much the same thing–but the country music industry is huge and it ain’t exactly shrinkin’, y’all.


But maybe this is just a sign of a mature industry. One of my high school writing teachers was fond of pointing out that Shakespeare never wrote an original plot in his life. But the stories seemed new when he put new and compelling characters in new settings along with those tired old plots.

Some people will get bored with the FPS games and move on to another interest. Others will keep at it, no matter how bad or unoriginal the games get. The only question is whether the audience will grow or shrink as a whole over time, and if it shrinks, how profitable the genre will become.

I think part of the problem for both Dvorak and me is that we’re both old enough to remember the early 1980s, when new games would come out and the new games really did seem new. All told, a total of about 900 games were released for the Atari 2600, and of those, about 100 were really common. (Of the remainders, a very large percentage of them were knockoffs or sequels and some of them were so bad that they sold terribly, so nobody saw them.)

Most of us who lived through that time and were really into technology saw those 100 or so games and enjoyed them.

There’s another difference too. Those games were a lot simpler. That’s both good and bad. A really avid gameplayer will probably master the game too quickly and get bored with it. But a more casual gamer can pick it up and learn it and enjoy it.

A really good Civilization player will probably enjoy Civ3 more than the original because it’s more challenging. But I’ve come to prefer the first two, because I can still pick up the original and play it well. If I spent ten hours a week playing video games, it might be different.

The gaming industry hasn’t completely lost me. There are still a handful of games I enjoy: the Civilization series, the Railroad Tycoon series, and the Baseball Mogul series. I haven’t bought the new Pirates! yet, but I’m sure I will if and when the price comes down because I loved the original.

But I only pick up one or two of those games per year anymore, and I probably don’t play them for more than a few weeks when I do.

Since my fiancee enjoys racing games where the two of us can race, if I’m ever out somewhere and I see two copies of a cheap racing game that looks decent and offers network play, I’ll get it and a couple of USB steering wheels. I imagine she’ll want to play a lot at first, and then it’ll become something we do occasionally when we might otherwise go to the movies.

The gaming industry changed, and in doing so, it lost John Dvorak and it’s probably written people like me off too, because I only spend $50 every two or three years on games.

Dvorak seems to think the gaming industry needs people like him. And that’s the only point he makes that I’m not wholeheartedly ready to agree with. The gaming industry is very different now than it was when I was 15 and playing games a lot, but it’s also a lot bigger.

Help! I do tech support for everyone I know! (Version 1.1)

Here’s an interesting dilemma: How do you avoid becoming the primary technical support contact for all of your friends and family?

(If this sounds vaguely familiar, yes, this is a revised version of something I wrote a year and a half ago.)This was a question Richard “Rich Job” Jobity asked two Christmases ago. I thought it was an unbelievably good question. I had to think about the answer for a while. That label fit me for a very long time. Sometime within the last couple of years it stopped, but I never knew exactly why. He made me think about it, and I found I’d done some interesting things on a subconscious level.

There was a time when I didn’t mind. I was 16 and still learning, I had some disposable time on my hands, and, frankly, I enjoyed the attention. You can learn a lot by fixing other people’s computers. It can also be a good way to meet lots of interesting people. And I used at least one of those friends as a reference to get my first three computer-related jobs. But over time, my desire changed.

I think a good first step is to identify exactly why it is you don’t want to be the primary technical support contact for all your friends and family.

In my case, I spend 40 hours a week setting up and fixing computers. And while I definitely spend some time off the clock thinking about computers, I also definitely want to spend some time off the clock thinking about something other than computers.

I have a life. I have a house to take care of, I have meetings to go to, and I have a social life. Not only that, I have bills to pay and errands to run, and physical needs to tend to as well, like cooking dinner and sleeping. And people get really annoyed with me for some reason if I don’t ever wash my clothes.

I’ve been in that situation. Once I had a friend calling me literally every night for a week with some new computer problem and keeping me on the phone for several hours a night while we tried to sort them out. A couple of years before that, someone in Washington was running a computer company and using me as his primary (unpaid) technical support, often taking an hour or two of my day, and getting upset if more than about 12 hours passed without me responding.

I think it’s perfectly understandable for any reasonable person to not like situations like this. So here are my tips for someone who wants to head off that kind of a problem.

Have realistic expectations on all sides. So the first step is to make sure your friends and your family understand that you have responsibilities in life other than making sure their computers work. You’ll do your best to help them, but it’s unrealistic to expect you to drop everything for a computer problem the same way you would drop everything for a death in the family.

Limit your availability. Don’t help someone with a computer problem while you’re in the middle of dinner. You’ll be able to concentrate better without your stomach growling and you won’t harbor resentment about your dinner getting cold. Have him or her step away from the computer and go for a walk and call back in half an hour. The time away from the computer will clear his or her mind and help him or her better answer your questions. Don’t waver on this; five-minute problems have ways of becoming hour-long problems.

Here’s a variant of that. I had a friend having problems with a Dell. She called Dell. She got tired of waiting on hold. “I know, I’ll call Dave,” she said. “Dave’s easier to get ahold of than this.”

She may have tried to call me, but last week I was everywhere but home, it seemed. She didn’t leave a message, so I didn’t know she’d called. The moral of the story: Don’t be easier to get ahold of than Dell. Or whoever it was that built the computer or wrote the software.

What if I’d been home? It depends. If I’d been home and playing Railroad Tycoon, I’d be under more obligation to help a friend in need than I would be if I were home but my girlfriend was over and we were in the middle of dinner or a movie. The key is to remember your other obligations and don’t compromise on them.

Sometimes that means not answering the phone. In this day and age when 50% of the population will answer their cellphone even if they’re sitting on the toilet, this is heresy. I usually make a reasonable effort to answer the phone. But if I’m in the middle of something, I won’t. At least one time when I made no effort to answer the phone when my girlfriend was over, she took it as one of the biggest compliments she ever got. (That relationship didn’t last, so maybe I should have answered the phone, but hey, at the time I didn’t feel like it.)

Whoever it was didn’t leave a message. If it’d been important, either they would have left a message or they would have called me back. (Maybe it was the friend who’d thought of using me as a substitute for Dell tech support. Who knows.)

Don’t do a company’s work for them. If someone’s having a problem with a Dell, or having a problem dialing in to the Internet, I stay away from the problem. If a Dell is having hardware problems, the user will have to call Dell eventually anyway, and the tech will have procedures to follow, and there’s no room in those procedures for a third-party diagnosis. Even if that third party is a friend’s cousin’s neighbor who supposedly wrote a computer book for O’Reilly three years ago. (For all the technician knows, it was a book about Emacs, and you can know Emacs yet know a whole lot of nothing about computer hardware, especially Dell hardware. But more likely he’ll just think the person’s lying.) For the record, when I call Dell or Gateway or HP, I jump through all the same stupid hoops. Even though I’ve written a computer book and I’ve been building and fixing computers my entire adult life.

And if someone can’t dial into an ISP, well, I may very well know more about computers than the guy at the ISP who’s going to pick up the phone. I may or may not be more intelligent and and more pleasant and more articulate than he is. But the fact is, I can only speculate about whatever problems the ISP may be having. And seeing as I don’t use modems anymore and haven’t for years, I’m not exactly in a good position to troubleshoot the things. Someone who does tech support for an ISP does it every day. He’s going to do a better job than me, even if he’s not as smart as I am.

Know your limits. A year ago, a friend was having problems with OS X. She asked if I’d look at it. I politely turned her down. There are ideal circumstances under which to try to solve a problem, but the moment you’re seeing the OS for the first time isn’t it. She called Apple and eventually they got it worked out. It’s a year later now. Her computer works fine, we’re still on speaking terms, and I still haven’t ever seen OS X.

Around the same time, another friend toasted her hard drive. I took on that challenge, because it was PC hardware and she was running an operating system I’d written a book about. It took me a while to solve the problem, but I solved it. It was a growth opportunity for me, and she’s happy.

And this is related to the next point: If you’re not certain about something, say so. It’s much better to say, “This is what I would do, but I’m really not sure it’s the best thing to do” than it is to give some bad advice and pretend that it’s gospel. Get your ego out of the way. There’s no need to try to look good all the time. No matter what you do, you’ll be wrong sometime. And one of the easiest ways to be wrong is to run your mouth when you don’t know what you’re talking about.

Limit your responsibility. If your uncle has a six-year-old PC running Windows 95 and ran out and bought a USB-only printer because it was on sale at Kmart and now he’s having problems getting it running and he never asked you about any of this, how much responsibility should you be willing to shoulder to get that printer running?

I’m inclined to say very little. It’s one thing to give some bad advice. It’s another to be dragged into a bad decision. If the only good way to get the peripheral running is to buy Windows XP and wipe the hard drive and install it clean, don’t let that be your problem.

Don’t allow yourself to be dragged into giving support for free software downloaded off the ‘Net, supercheap peripherals bought from who-knows-where, or anything else you can’t control.

You can take this to an extreme if you want: Partition the hard drive, move My Documents over to the second partition, and then create an image of the operating system and applications (installed on the first partition, of course). Any time you install something new, create a new image. When your friend or relative runs into trouble, have him or her re-image the computer. He or she can reinstall Kazaa or whatever notorious app probably caused the problem if desired, but you can disclaim responsibility for it.

Which brings me to:

Disclaim all responsibility for poor computer habits. Gatermann and I have a friend whose brother repeatedly does everything I’d do if I wanted to set out to mess up someone’s computer. He downloads and installs every gimmicky piece of free-with-strings-attached software he can find, turning his computer into a bevy of spyware. He runs around on Kazaa and other file-sharing networks, acquiring a busload of who-knows-what. He opens every e-mail attachment anybody sends to him, amassing a large collection of viruses. He probably does things I’ve never thought of.

Gatermann installed antivirus software on the computer, and we’ve both run Ad-Aware on it (if I recall, one time I ran it I found 284 instances of spyware). Both of us have rebuilt the system from scratch numerous times. The kid never learns. Why should he? Whatever he does, one of Tim’s friends will come over and fix it. (I guarantee it won’t be me though. I got sick of doing it.)

Some good rules to make people follow if they expect help from you:
1. Run antivirus software and keep it current. This is a non-negotiable if you’re running Windows.
2. Stay off P2P networks entirely. Their clients install spyware, and you know about the MP3 buffer overflow vulnerability in WinXP, don’t you? Buy the record and make your own MP3s. Can’t afford $17 CDs? Buy them used on then.
3. Never open an unexpected e-mail attachment. Even from your best friend. It’s trivially easy to make e-mail look like it came from someone else. If someone who knows both of you got a virus, you can get virus-infected e-mail that looks like it’s from that friend.
4. If you don’t need it, don’t install it. Most free Windows software comes with strings attached in the form of spyware, these days. If you don’t want to pay for software, run Linux.
5. If you must violate rule 4, run Ad-Aware religiously.

Don’t take responsibility when someone asks your advice and then refuses to follow it. That unpaid gig doing tech support for a computer company in Washington ended when he had a computer that wouldn’t boot. He sent me the relevant files. I told him how to fix the problem. The next day he complained it didn’t help, and sent me the files again. It was obvious from looking at the files that he didn’t do what I told him to do. I called him on it. He got defensive. He caught me on a bad day and I really didn’t want to hear it. The next day he sent me a long list of questions. I answered the first two or three, then said, “Sorry, I’m out of time.”

I never heard from him again. But at that point it was just as well. Why help someone who doesn’t respect you enough to follow your advice?

A less extreme example was when an ex-girlfriend’s younger brother refused to give up Kazaa. Every time I fixed the computer, he reinstalled Kazaa and one problem or another came back. Finally I told him, her, and their parents that I’d fixed the problems, but they were going to keep coming back as long as he used Kazaa. Ultimately they decided that free music was more important than a stable computer and staying within the law, but that was their decision.

Have other interests besides computers. My former high school computer science teacher took me aside a few years ago and asked me if it wouldn’t be great if someday people asked me as many questions about God as they were asking me then about computers.

I have relatives who know I’m into Genealogy, and they know that I’ve traced one branch of my family through William the Conqueror and all the way back to before the time of Christ. But some of them don’t know I fix computers for a living.

Some nights when I come home from work, I don’t even turn a computer on. I go straight to the basement, plug in my transformers, and watch a Lionel train run around in circles. I might stay down there all night except for when the phone rings (there are no phone outlets in my basement) or for dinner. Ronald Reagan used to do that. He said it helped him relax and take his mind off things. My dad did too. It works. And no, there’s no computer hooked up to it and there won’t be. This is where I go to escape from computers.

So I don’t find I have the problem anymore where people only want to talk to me about computers. Balance is important. Don’t let your computer knowledge keep you from pursuing your other interests.

Charge money. I don’t charge my family members, but with very few exceptions, I don’t do free technical support. I do make sure I give friends, acquaintances, and neighbors a good deal for their money. But if helping them is going to keep me from mowing my lawn, or if it’s going to force me to cancel plans with my girlfriend, then I need to be compensated enough to be able to pay someone else to mow my lawn, or to take my girlfriend out for a nice dinner that more than makes up for the cancellation.

It’s all about balance. So what if your entire block has the most stable computers in the world, if your grass is three feet tall and you have no friends and no significant other because you can’t make time to meet anyone for dinner?

I’ve had employers bill me out at anywhere from $50 to $75 per hour. Under ideal conditions, where they drop the computer off with the expectation of getting it back within 2 weeks, I bill myself out at significantly less than that. But for on-site service at odd hours, I believe it’s perfectly appropriate for a computer professional to bill at those kinds of rates.

Even if you’re a hobbyist, you need to be fair to yourself. Computer repair is a skill that takes longer to learn than mowing lawns, and the tools required are every bit as specialized and every bit as expensive. In St. Louis, many people charge what amounts to $25 an hour to mow a lawn.

And? This doesn’t mean I never get computer-related phone calls. One Sunday when a family member called me with a noisy fan in a power supply, I found him a cheap replacement. I’ve fixed girlfriends’ computers before. The last computer I built was a birthday present for my current girlfriend.

But I’m not afraid to answer the phone, I don’t find myself giving people longshot answers just to get them off the phone long enough for me to go somewhere or start screening my phone calls. And I find myself getting annoyed with people less. Those are all good things.

Scribus isn\’t a bad open-source DTP program

A Slashdot mention of a MadPenguin review of Scribus brought up a very insightful lament: No reviews of Scribus appear online from someone very familiar with the competition, namely Adobe PageMaker and InDesign, and QuarkXPress.

As a University of Missouri journalism graduate, I’m going to tell you what I think of Scribus and simultaneously try to amuse you.Let me first get something out of the way: Microsoft Publisher is a toy. And I mean “toy” in the most condescending manner possible. I’m not talking a charming vintage toy that brings good feelings of quality and nostalgia. No sir, I’m bringing to mind cheap, mass-produced junk from a factory that makes its workers pay to work there, sold in vending machines in seedy-looking stores in seedy neighborhoods.

And I’m not talking the nice vending machines that take two quarters either.

I’ve been forced to do production work in Microsoft Publisher. I wish they’d just gone all the way and handed me a copy of Print Shop and told me to use that. At least Print Shop doesn’t have any delusions of grandeur.

I didn’t go to the best journalism school in the country and endure classes taught by professors with nicknames like “The Nazi”–I took a class from the instructor who inspired Brad Pitt to drop out of journalism school and run away to Hollywood when he was a mere three hours from a journalism degree, and I endured her class and I passed it, but I do have to say I don’t blame him–I’m sure I lost your train of thought there, but I didn’t endure all of that to have my hand held by a misguided wizard that looks like a #^%@$ paperclip.

There. I feel a lot better now.

Wait. Let me say one more thing. Microsoft Publisher isn’t the competition for this program, nor should it be.

The proper introduction to desktop publishing is Adobe PageMaker. It’s the easiest to learn of the “serious” DTP tools, and while it’s not well suited to particularly complex designs, and quite possibly the buggiest piece of software not manufactured by Microsoft that I’ve ever had the displeasure of dealing with, it does the best job of teaching people how to throw a bunch of text into columns onto a piece of paper without overwhelming them with too many tools.

But QuarkXPress is king. At Mizzou, once we’d learned QuarkXPress, we j-students were known to ditch word processors entirely and just use XPress for everything because of its enormous text-handling capabilities. And in spite of its features, it’s a much leaner, meaner program than any word processor on the market, taking up less memory, loading faster, and generally doing everything else faster. I even used it to write term papers for my history classes. I hate Quark the company, but I’ll tell you how I feel about its product.

Rolls-Royce tries to be the QuarkXPress of cars.

(I couldn’t tell you if Rolls-Royce ever succeeded or not, having never ridden in one of its cars.)

OK, so what about Scribus?

Well, you already know my bias. From an ease of use standpoint, I found it somewhere between PageMaker and QuarkXPress. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Ease of use has never been the goal of this type of software. Frankly I don’t know how you make a program of this type any easier to use without dumbing it down to Publisher’s level, and by the time you do that, you might as well just go all the way and create a Print Shop clone. That way you’ve actually created something useful.

Concentrating too much on making DTP software easy to use is like trying to make a chainsaw that’s incapable of injuring the operator. The end result isn’t going to be very useful.

But I’ve digressed again.

Feature-wise, I’ve found it to be at least the equal of PageMaker. Whether it lacks some of the features of QuarkXPress or I wasn’t able to quickly find them, I’m not sure. So while I wasn’t able to quickly figure out how to make it bend and distort text, it took me about 30 seconds to figure out how to do the really important things like scaling text and changing tracking and leading.

I wasn’t able to work as quickly in Scribus as I could in QXP, but that’s not a fair comparison. For a semester I spent more time in QXP than I spent in Word, if that tells you anything.

I also spent more time in QXP than I spent in Civilization and Railroad Tycoon combined. (Not by choice though. Yes I’m crazy, but not that crazy.)

I guess I should come to a conclusion here.

I’m really glad to see Scribus. I think it’s pretty good stuff. I think it’s really incredibly good stuff for the price. You see, QuarkXPress is priced like a Rolls-Royce. Scribus is free.

Better than Publisher? Of course. Then again, so is a trip to the dentist.

Better than PageMaker? I’m inclined to say yes. Better enough that if both programs cost the same amount of money, I’d buy Scribus.

Will I use Scribus again? You bet.

I can’t wait to see what they come up with for version 2.0.

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