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The limits of compassion

My phone rang Wednesday night. I’d laid down around 9, intending to just call it a night, because I was tired. It was 9:30 when the phone rang. I thought about not picking up, but something told me I should. I was glad I did.
It was someone I admire a lot, a relative. She works with a lot of disadvantaged people. She told me about some of them. One woman she works with can’t afford to buy groceries. But the last time she visited her, she was excited. “You gotta see my TV!” she said.

She wasn’t impressed. If anything, she was a bit appalled. We’re talking someone who’s perfectly happy with a 10-year-old Sony 19″ TV and an antenna made from aluminum foil by Yours Truly sometime last summer. But this woman who can’t afford to buy groceries had a big-screen TV and super-premium cable with a couple hundred channels. She asked how she could afford it. “Rent-a-Center,” came the reply.

“You know,” I said. “One of my teachers way back when said that if the government came in, seized all the money in the country, then handed everyone an equal amount, within 15 years everyone would be unequal again, and the money would pretty much be back in the same hands it was before.”

“Because some people do things like make TV a higher priority than groceries,” she said.

Some people have next to nothing because they spend what they do have so frivolously. She said she doesn’t feel sorry for those people. But other people have next to nothing, have their priorities straight, but still don’t have enough to make ends meet. I knew one of those stories. She moved, and when she moved, she forgot to get the name on the utilities changed. So her former landlord went in and cranked the heat, running up a nice four-figure bill. She’s slowly paying the debt down now. It’s easy for me to sympathize with her, having a psycho ex-landlord in my past as well. Fortunately for me, my psycho ex-landlord is dumber than rocks, but I know that’s not always the case. I haven’t met this woman, and I probably never will, but I did what I could to help her. It wasn’t much, but it was the right thing to do.

She knows another woman who had to come up with $350 by Friday to keep her car from being repo’ed. And that was the dilemma she called me about.

“You or I could just write a check, straight up,” she said. She’s right. While not exactly pocket change to either of us, I know I spend about $150 a month just eating out. I could adjust for an unexpected $350 expense without much trouble. I could give up eating out, eating meat, and drinking soda for a month and probably save $200. But I probably wouldn’t. I might give something up, but I’d just dip into savings and get on with it.

Which raises a question: When is it right to help someone out? Doesn’t God want us to help our neighbor?

The answer, of course, is yes. But that just raises another question: How much?

Chances are, if I knew the needs of everyone around me and I met all of them, I’d have nothing left. I saw it at work earlier this year. For a while I was working 50-55 hours a week and still falling behind. Finally someone sat me down and told me that at 55 hours a week, I was running myself into the ground and at the rate I was going would soon be no good to myself or anyone else. I listened, for once, and backed off. What I found was that I could work 40-45 hours a week and be productive. I got more done in 45 hours than I could get done in 55, because I was fresh.

So the answer is, no, you don’t meet every need of every person you know.

Then I asked what everyone expected of her. Her boss expected her to open up lines of communication and listen. Done. This woman asked her to look into whether there was help available for her. She started doing that too.

“So you have helped her,” I said.

And I think she did the right thing. Most people make you earn the right to help them. They don’t want a big favor until you’ve proven that you’re trustworthy, won’t ask something completely unreasonable in return, and won’t nag them about it every time a cloud moves.

And sometimes you just know what to do. I can’t explain it, but you probably understand. You find yourself in a situation and it’s like you were born knowing what to give.

Come later today, if this woman asks for fifty bucks, should she give it? I’m inclined to say yes.

And if the day passes and this woman doesn’t ask for anything, should she feel guilty? No.

More of the same.

As I watched my Royals’ parent club, the Oakland Athletics, play the Yankees, I burned a CD under Linux for the first time. I honestly don’t remember when I last used my old Sony CD-R (it’s so old it’s a 2X burner!) but that was under Windows.
But burning an ISO image is insanely easy, at least if you’ve got a SCSI drive. Here’s the voodoo I needed:

cdrecord -v speed=2 dev=0,0 binary-i386-1.iso

By the time I could have pulled up the ISO image in Easy CD Creator, I’d typed the command line and cdrecord had already burned a meg.

How do you know the numbers? cat /proc/scsi/scsi.

And I know now why my people at work who are in the know on Linux love Debian. How big is a default installation of the current release? 141 megs. Including XFree86 3.36. It’s definitely not a distro for those who like the bleeding edge or even the leading edge, but if you’re wanting to build a Firewall, Debian looks like the distro of choice, and it’ll fit on a discarded 170-meg drive with room to spare.

I reformatted my experimental mail server, then I installed Debian. Then I made it a mailserver. Exim, a sendmail replacement, was already installed. So was procmail. So here’s what I did to make a mail server:

apt-get install courier-imap
apt-get install fetchmail

I created a .fetchmailrc file in my home directory:

poll postoffice.swbell.net with protocol pop3
user dfarq password noway is dfarq

Then I made the file secure:
chmod 0710 .fetchmailrc

I configured courier-imap. I had to scroll down to the bottom of /etc/courier-imap.config and uncomment the last line to activate it. Then I configured exim. I searched for the phrase “maildir” and uncommented the line that enables maildir format (courier doesn’t work with the default mbox format, and maildirs are more efficient anyway).

Then I ran fetchmail: fetchmail -d.

That should have worked. It didn’t. Exim continued to use mbox format. So I can connect to my IMAP server, which is populated by fetchmail, which is in turn served by exim, but since exim doesn’t put the mail in a format the server understands, I’ve got nothing to read.

So I guess I’m going to think about ditching exim for qmail. I have no great loyalty to exim except that Debian put it there by default.

And the Cardinals are eliminated (I’m furious with the way LaRussa handled Matt Morris; he won’t win 22 games next season, that’s a given now) and the A’s are going to have to play Game 5 without Jermaine Dye. I see the Royals have problems with the Yankees even when they’re wearing another uniform. Hopefully they can pull it off today. I’d have liked to have seen Johnny Damon, Jermaine Dye, Jeremy Giambi and Mike Magnante go to the Series in Royals’ uniforms, but if they get there in someone else’s, I’ll take it.

Just had a conversation with Dan Bowman to confirm my feeble grip on sanity (but I was afraid I may have let go, so that is good news), and now it’s way late. It’s actually about 11:30; this server runs on Farquhar time. I’m gonna go make friends with my pillow. Apologies if this is poorly edited.

A nice Labor Day.

Yesterday was nice. I got up late, then bummed around all day. I did a couple of loads of laundry, and I put a different hard drive in my Duron-750. Then I ignored my e-mail, ignored the site for the most part, and installed Wintendo (er, Windows Me) and Baseball Mogul. Around 6 I went out and bought a CD changer. My old 25-disc Pioneer died around Christmas time and I never got around to replacing it until now.
I knew I didn’t want another Pioneer. I’ve taken that Pioneer apart to fix it before, and I wasn’t impressed with the workmanship at all. And current Pioneer models are made in China. So much for those. I looked at a Technics and a couple of Sonys. Finally, swallowing hard, I dropped $250 on a 300-disc Sony model (made in Malaysia). I still suspect it’ll be dead within five years, but maybe it’ll surprise me.

I am impressed with the sound quality. It sounds much better than my Pioneer ever did. It’s really sad when you can tell a difference in sound quality between two CD players, but I guess that just goes to show how many corners Pioneer cut on that model. Next time I go CD player shopping, I’m going to bring a disc or two along to listen to in the store so I can hear the difference.

Anyhoo, I played two seasons of Baseball Mogul and guided Boston to two world championships and a boatload of money. But something happened that made me mad. I noticed over in the AL Central, Tony Muser’s Losers, a.k.a. the Kansas City Royals, were above .500, with essentially the same team that’s looking to lose 100 games this season. Well, there was no Donnie Sadler, Muser’s secret weapon, currently batting about .137 (which also seems to be about Tony Muser’s IQ, seeing as he keeps playing the guy). So the Royals minus Muser and Sadler were a .500 club. That’s nice to know.

Then, for 2002, Kansas City went and got the biggest free-agent bat they could afford. They also didn’t trade superstar right fielder Jermaine Dye, and they re-signed shortstop Rey Sanchez. And what happened? Well, the first round of the playoffs was a Boston-Kansas City affair, that’s what. I’d used the previous year’s windfall to buy myself an All-Star team, so I rolled over Kansas City in four games. I felt kind of bad about that, but it was partly because of my record against KC’s rivals that year that they made it that far, so not too bad.

It’s all I can do to keep from e-mailing Royals GM Allaird Baird and asking him why, if Tony Muser insists on playing Donnie Sadler every day, he doesn’t consider letting the pitcher bat and have the DH hit for Sadler instead.

And shocking news. HP is buying Compaq. I didn’t believe it either. Compaq’s recent problems, after all, were partly due to its purchase of Digital Equipment Corp. and its inability to digest the huge company. The only benefit I see to this is HP getting Compaq’s service division and eliminating a competitor–Compaq’s acquisition of DEC made more sense than this does.


Just a note about yesterday. The missing backslashes in Tony Brewer’s mail were my fault, not his. Manilla uses the backslash as a control character, so unless I double up on them Manilla munches them and you get run-together strings like c:windowscommandattrib.exe.

And a memory tip. I read in The Register yesterday that at least one industry expert expects memory prices are about to climb. With brand-name PC133 128s going for $40, if you’re in the market, go get it.

My sources have been wrong every time I’ve said memory prices looked like they’d level off, so I almost hesitate to say anything, but I’d hate to see prices quadruple next month without me saying something.

Then again, if brand-name PC133s are going for $20 next month I’ll feel equally foolish, so I guess I can’t win, can I?

Speaking of prices, I don’t have any new sources of $35 motherboards this week, but I can probably find one if someone wants…

Given the title of this site, I wish I had some great tidbit to pass on, but I spent half the day playing with ramdisks and the other half trying to figure out why someone’s laptop couldn’t see the router even though the router was seeing the laptop. Not very inspiring.

So enough about computers. Let’s talk about music, seeing as Napster has some ultimatum by today. I think today’s the day the hammer falls if they aren’t filtering out certain titles. This should be interesting, seeing as Sony didn’t provide them with filenames to filter like the court ordered, and there are at least two efforts under way to encrypt/decrypt filenames real-time. Ironically, record companies’ efforts to defeat that effort are supposedly forbidden by the Digital Millenium Copyright Act.

One of my favorite bands of all time is coming back. I’ve been hearing rumblings off and on about a new album from Depeche Mode for several years, but they actually look to release a new album in a couple of months.

It’s hard to imagine that Mode’s last great album, 1990’s Violator, came out 11 years ago. Songs of Faith and Devotion, their 1993 effort, was overshadowed by the efforts of that year’s up-and-coming alternative rock bands, and the band’s troubles didn’t end there. First keyboardist Alan Wilder left the group, then lead singer Dave Gahan, battling heroin addiction, attempted suicide. After Gahan spent time in rehab, the band released 1997’s Ultra, which was just totally ignored. I’d love to be proven wrong on this, but I suspect this newest effort will be ignored too.

My grandparents’ generation swooned to Frank Sinatra. My parents swooned to Elvis Presley. My generation swooned to The Cure and Depeche Mode. (I’m trying to figure out if this should frighten me.) I guess I should find out what the youth of today swoon to, but I’ve got a feeling after I find out, I’ll understand it about as much as my parents understood The Cure and Mode. And that’s why I don’t think this album will go too far. Mode’s audience doesn’t buy that many records anymore, and to the demographic who does buy records these days, Mode will sound like a relic of a bygone day.

The quality of the album is hard to gauge from the 30-second snippets on their site, but the content isn’t. Mode specializes in two types of songs: spiritual alienation songs and make-out songs. And somehow they usually manage to sound depressed in both types of song. What can I say? They’re talented. People don’t call ’em “Depressed Mode” for nothing.

But I’ve gotten off track. Exciter looks to be a make-out album, with one obligatory song of spiritual alienation (“Breathe,” which is a bit surprising because that sounds like a make-out title if I ever heard one). As for the sound, the synthesizers are much more prominent this time around than they were on the last two albums. They sound like Depeche Mode again, rather than sounding like Depeche Mode following whatever’s trendy that year.

And at the risk of going off track again, do girls take it as an insult when someone dedicates a Depeche Mode song to one of them? They probably should. “Enjoy the Silence” sounds like a love song, and on one level it is, but the lyrics are really just a long-winded, disguised way of saying, “Shut up.”

“Words are very unnecessary, they can only do harm…”

Or maybe I’m the only one who pays that much attention to lyrics. Probably.

And speaking of albums that’ve been long overdue… I checked in on Peter Gabriel’s Up over the weekend. Supposedly that’ll be released this summer. Gabriel announced Up in 1998, days before R.E.M. announced their next record, which was also titled Up. As I recall, R.E.M. actually apologized for that. That turned out to be totally unnecessary, seeing as it’s now two and a half years later, R.E.M.’s Up is mostly forgotten (a shame because it was good), and Gabriel’s album of the same name still hasn’t been released.

Let’s see… After four self-titled albums, Gabriel got caught in a rut of two-letter names for his studio albums: 1986’s So, 1992’s Us, and then whenever’s Up. Who’s to say his follow-up, which at this rate would probably come out in about 2013, will be titled It? Fits the pattern, and it’d be a fitting title for a final effort.

Monitor buying tips

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The AT’s coming out of retirement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Selecting a mass storage medium

Thursday, 5/4/00
CD-RW vs. Zip vs. Superdisk. Mail from India.

I am writing from New Delhi, India.

I read your comments on the site concerning ‘super floppies’. I would be very grateful if you could help me in this matter.

I have been thinking for some time about whether to buy a CDR drive or a ZIP drive. Recently my computer was hit by the CIH virus. Some of my data was lost.

I am a graphic designer as well. Consequently I need to transfer heavy files of an average of 10-15 MB to the printers or to show to my clients. I have been using file splitting softwares of late — but now I feel the need of alternative means of carrying the data for them.

Also some people say that CDRW cannot be read by some CD ROMs. I primarily need the drives for data back-up and transferring 10-15 MB files b/w printers, clients and my office.

Should I be buying an HP CDR or an Iomega 250 MB zip drive ?

I would be extremely helpful, if you could help me in my decision.

Thanking you,

Anshuman Bhargava.

First off, I’m sorry to hear about CIH getting you. We really need to find other ways to amuse 15-year-olds.

You are correct that some CD-ROM drives won’t read CD-RW discs. It’s a sure bet that any drive more than about three years old (pre-1997) won’t. Drives made since 1997 are supposed to be able to read them, but that doesn’t always happen. But with CD-R discs selling for peanuts, at least in the United States, that’s not too much of a concern. I’m usually willing to spend 75 cents on a CD-R I only use once. (I try to think of it as wasting 75 cents, rather than wasting 600 megs when I use a CD-R to transport a 20-meg file. Somehow that seems less wasteful.)

I had a conversation at work about Zips vs. Superdisk vs. CD-R/CD-RW the other day. I have a Zip drive, and I use it exclusively for installing Windows on computers I can’t easily connect a CD-ROM drive to. That’s it. I don’t trust it with any data I value. I’ve just seen too many of them fail. I know graphic designers swear by Zips when they aren’t swearing at them, but I’ve seen too many disks and drives fail. The Superdisk looks good, and Imation is on more solid financial ground than Iomega so I’m much more confident that Imation will be around in 5 years than I am about Iomega, but the LS-120 superdisk is much less common, and its capacity is lower.

If I were in your position, I’d get a CD-RW drive (I like Yamaha and Plextor, though I’ve also used HP, Sony and Philips drives) along with a spindle of CD-Rs and CD-RWs. Once you have a good idea which of your clients can handle CD-RWs and which ones have to use CD-Rs, you’ll be in good shape.

From an archival standpoint, CD-Rs make me a lot less nervous than either Zip or LS-120, because they’re optical rather than magnetic. I have plenty of 15-year-old floppy disks still floating around, but I’m not very confident many of them are still readable. Longevity varies greatly depending on the quality of the media, but you should be able to expect a couple of decades at least from quality CD-R (Kodak, Taiyo Yuden, and Mitsui discs are the safest; Kodak is the easiest of the three to find), plus they’re cheap, plus they can’t be damaged by viruses or user error. I periodically burn everything that matters to me to CD.

I hope this helps.