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Leave your DIY PCs at home

This is a response to the eWeek editorial Bring DIY Systems to Work. Nice theory. Unfortunately, lab theory and the real world don’t always mesh.

I like building PCs. I built my first PC in early 1994, back when everything was on a separate card and you had to set interrupts and DMA channels using jumpers and DIP switches and in most cases you had to tell the BIOS exactly what size drive was in it–it wouldn’t detect anything for you. I built my main PC at home myself. I built my secondary and tertiary PCs at home myself too. And my girlfriend’s PC, and my mom’s PC, and my sister’s PC.

Get the idea?

Read More »Leave your DIY PCs at home

Buy, don\’t build, enterprise servers

Steve sent me some questionable advice he found online–basically, someone advocating that you build your high-end servers rather than buying them, but admitting that it’s difficult for someone to build a $20,000 server and still be able to afford to maintain the thing.

There’s a solution: Buy it.This is the opposite of the best advice for desktops (although I increasingly tell people to just buy their computers because you don’t really save any money by building), but there are lots of very good reasons for it.

First and foremost is maintainability. The last time something went wrong with one of the HP servers at work, an LED on the front case came on before the problem became critical. Pop open the case, and an internal LED next to the failing component is lit up. Does your off-the-shelf motherboard have that feature? It may or it may not.

How does hot-spare memory sound? It’s kind of like RAID. You buy identical DIMMs to put in the system, but you buy one extra one, which goes into a specially designated slot. When a DIMM starts to fail, the system switches over to the hot spare. In the case of the mid-range HP servers, you can even open the case up, remove the failing module, and replace it, without powering down.

Of course you want your server to have RAID, and use hot-pluggable drives, so a failed disk doesn’t mean downtime. All but the very cheapest commercially-built servers have that feature from the factory.

But if you really have a budget of $20,000 per server, you shouldn’t even mess around with local storage. Buy some kind of a Storage Area Network instead. Basically, it’s a large bank of disks that connects to any number of servers. Some use a Fibre Channel connection, while others just use an Ethernet connection. Then you buy disks, slap them in the SAN, and configure the SAN to split the storage up between the servers. Ever run into a situation where you need 40 gigs of storage, and one server has 10 gigs free and one has 30 gigs free, but there isn’t much of anything you can move around to consolidate that free space? The SAN eliminates that. You can add one monster 300-gig disk to an array and split that storage up however you want. And one hot spare protects the entire array–no more need to buy one hot spare for every server on your network. On a big network (40 servers), that alone can pay for the SAN.

Finally, as far as spare parts go, a company ought to keep a couple of spare hard drives around for the times when a disk in a RAID array or SAN fails. But you put the servers on a maintenance agreement with someone like HP, IBM, or EDS, so that when anything else fails, that company comes out and replaces parts with its inventory. Outsource your server organ donor bank. You’ll save money, not just on the parts themselves, but also on physical storage space.

When I can get all of these features (except for the SAN) in an HP Proliant server that costs about $3,000, there’s no point in my employer wasting time building its own servers.

When an AMD system gives you problems, always suspect the power supply

I did some power supply swapping this weekend. My video editing PC had outgrown its 300-watt power supply and I needed something fast, so I bought an Antec 430-watt TruePower box locally. I paid $30 too much, and it’s definitely a show-off box, with gold plating everywhere and multicolored sheathing around the power cables. I don’t care at all about that, but I do care that now my jammed-to-the-gills video editing machine has lots of steady, reliable power. How jammed? It has one PCI slot and one drive bay open. It can suck down some juice.
I then turned my attention to my 1.1 GHz Athlon. I’ve been building it for months. At one point I thought the motherboard was bad because the system always hung after the second reboot during an OS install. Always. I tried different Linux flavors, different Windows flavors, everything. Then the problems continued after I changed the motherboard. Prior to that I’d suspected the memory, but that worked fine in other systems. Then I tried every hard drive I could lay hands on. It didn’t matter how great the drive worked anywhere else, if I tried to run anything but DOS on my AMD, the system wouldn’t let me finish installation.

Once I’d tried a different motherboard, that only left the power supply. My case is an Inwin, with a 250w Powerman power supply installed at the factory. I swapped in my 300W Antec–newly unemployed after being replaced in my video editing box–and the system became stable.

Rule number one, which I’d forgotten, is to always suspect the power supply when dealing with AMD stuff.

In all honesty, I don’t remember when I bought that Inwin case, so I have no idea whether that Powerman was AMD approved or not. But the Antec provides considerably more power on the +3.3v and +5v rails and it works. The Powerman powers old Intel (P2-class) and AMD K6 stuff just fine, but none of my Athlon stuff.

So if you’re cobbling together an Athlon from spare parts and it’s not working, either cannibalize or buy a decent-quality power supply, preferably one that you know has successfully powered AMD gear in the past. I’ll bet it starts working.

Feeling cynical

I went out looking for a fridge and washer/dryer.
I came home with the new Aimee Mann CD and Office Space on DVD.

Yeah, I’m feeling really cynical. Yeah, something happened at work Friday. No, I’m not at liberty to talk about it (but Charlie knows because he was in on the project too).

Aimee Mann’s Lost in Space is a very typical Aimee Mann record. She plays half a dozen different instruments and she’s as cynical as usual, though she’s lost the potty mouth. I went looking for this record’s “I Should Have Known”–the tune that reaches out and grabs your consciousness and won’t let go of it–but didn’t find it. This one will have to grow on me, like most of her records.

And Office Space… Well, I started building up a Windows box with my DVD drive out of some spare parts, and ran into a lot of problems. First, my junk Cirrus Logic-based AGP video card didn’t support DirectX, which my DVD app needed for playback. So I pulled it and replaced it with my old STB Velocity 128, which had nVidia’s first chipset. At the time, it was the fastest video card I’d ever seen. Seems really slow now. Well, that card caused any OS I tried to install to hang. I guess it’s the end of the road for that card. A shame, really.

So I figured I’d install Debian and see if I could figure out how to make it play DVDs. The Velocity 128 worked a lot longer in Linux than it did in Windows, but eventually it kicked into a corrupted text display similar to what I got in Windows. So I couldn’t just blame Windows. Rats. So the Cirrus Logic–definitely the Neifi Perez of video cards–came off the bench.

I couldn’t get any of the rogue DVD software for Debian to work, so I ended up pulling the S3 Savage4 card out of one of my working systems to put in there, since it supports DirectX. I need to order a couple of ATI Radeons from Newegg.com to replace some of these junk cards I’ve got. They’re solid and cheap–$42 delivered.

Windows 2000 ran fine with the S3 in it.

I think this is God’s way of telling me I’m a better journalist than computer tech at this point.

If you want to chase rainbows…

It was a Sunday, in the spring of 1998. I was 23 years old. I was driving on I-435 outside of Olathe, Kan., on my way to I-70, returning from a seminar that changed my life. But I wasn’t thinking too much about that at the moment. I’m plenty familiar with I-435 north of I-70 on the Missouri side, but I’d never driven the southern portion of I-435 before. I hate driving on Interstate highways during a storm, and the rain was coming down in buckets. I hate driving in unfamiliar areas when I’m low on fuel. My orange gas indicator was lit and my car had dinged at me a time or two: “Feed me, you dingaling!” it was saying.
Finally, I found a sign that indicated a service station. It was a couple of miles off the highway, but I took it. Better to take something you know than to take chances when you’re low on fuel. The road twisted and turned, and I didn’t know if the gas station would be on the left or right. Finally I found the station, on the left. I pulled in, swiped my credit card, fueled up, and found out once again that my 12-gallon tank actually held more than 12 gallons. Meanwhile, the storm continued to relentlessly pound the earth. I got back into my car and realized I didn’t completely remember which direction I’d come from. I took a chance on my hazy short-term memory and turned right, out of the station, praying that I’d run back into I-435 because I had no idea where the unfamiliar road would lead if I’d turned the wrong direction.

Finding I-435, I continued on my journey. The road twisted more than I liked, and when I continued onto I-470, conditions didn’t really change. But as I approached I-70, the storm lightened a little. I saw a rainbow, then another, then another. Three rainbows. No matter how the road twisted and turned–which seemed like a lot at the time, even though I had a new set of Michelins and I’d already had one opportunity to find out just how good they were–those rainbows stayed directly in front of me. The storm picked back up and the rainbows faded. The storm relented some more.

It was a good metaphor for my life at the time. I was attending a church that was simultaneously admonishing me to use my talents for the glory of God and telling me that serving God in its ministries was a right that had to be earned. My ex-girlfriend was sending mixed signals at a rate of a million a minute any time she came around, which was often. Meanwhile I fought an internal battle. I wanted her back like the desert soil wants rain, yet I knew more and more with each passing day she wasn’t good for me. On top of all that, some of her friends and acquaintances seemed to be eyeing me up, making me wonder if they weren’t trying to figure out what was wrong with me that would make her leave, and whether they were wondering if I’d be good enough for them. Some of them had just ended relationships themselves, while others hadn’t had one in a long time. I wasn’t especially interested in finding out–I was gripped by a mortal fear that they’d do the same thing she did in the end. And if that wasn’t enough, my career was falling apart. I had computers breaking left and right, no budget to replace them outright, and heavily-used spare parts that were more than three years old. For lack of anything else to use, I was routinely deploying three-year-old systems to do things they were never designed to do. Things weren’t working well and I was taking the heat.

I considered all of this, looked out at the storm, and at the rainbows beyond. A thought came to mind. “If you want to chase rainbows, you’ll have to weather a few storms.”

I didn’t catch all the rainbows, but I caught some of them. And the storms are different today. Some of them are smaller and others aren’t. But the things that got me through those old storms haven’t changed.

And some of today’s rainbows are cooler than the rainbows were then.

Ghosts from the past…

Wednesday night, 6:35 PM: I was in my South St. Louis County apartment, getting ready for church, when my phone rang. I’d had at least one telemarketing call that night already, but I picked up the phone anyway.
“Hello?” I said, maybe slightly agitated.

“Dave?” a female voice asked. So much for a telemarketer. I recognized the voice but didn’t place it immediately. And obviously she knew me.

“Yes?”

“It’s Wendy.” Ah, Wendy from church. OK.

“What’s up?” I asked. She doesn’t routinely call me–she doesn’t routinely call anyone, I don’t think–so I figured she probably needed something. That’s OK. I take care of my friends.

“What’s it mean when your computer says, ‘Bad or missing command interpreter. Enter path of a valid command interpreter, e.g. c:windowscommand.com’?”

“Oh. That means one of the files your computer needs to get started is blitzed,” I said. “What happens if you type it?”

“You’re gonna hate me,” she said as she typed the filename. “You deal with this stuff all day and now I call you wanting computer advice.”

I could never hate her. She’s too nice. Besides, guys like fixing things, especially for people they like. I probably should have told her that.

“It just repeats the same thing again,” she said.

“I see.” I had her try a couple of other locations–Microsoft OSs have always installed command.com in too many places. But no go.

“Are my other files OK?”

“Hopefully,” I said. “My computer used to do this to me once a year.”

“My whole life is on this computer, Dave,” she said, sounding a little distressed. My heart melted. I hate it when bad things happen to good people. I especially hate it when bad things happen to good people and one of Bill Gates’ or Steve Jobs’ toy operating systems is involved. But sometimes it’s just a minor inconvenience. I hoped this was one of those instances.

“I just need to boot your computer off a floppy, type a command or two, and it’ll probably come right back to life,” I said.

“Do you have time to do this? I mean, really have time to do this?” She didn’t want to inconvenience me.

“Yeah, I’m on my way to church, and you’re on the way, and it should only take me a couple of minutes,” I said as I formatted a disk and copied sys.com to it.

After assuring her again that I was sure, I told her I’d be there in about 10 minutes. I hopped in my car, disk in hand, ready to go be a hero and still make it to church on time. I rang her bell, heard her dog scream bloody murder, and she opened the door. As soon as she let me in, her Labrador warmed up to me. She led me to the computer room, where I sat down and popped in a disk. She yanked on her Lab’s leash, trying to keep her away from me. She wasn’t having much luck.

“That’s OK,” I said to Wendy. “I like dogs.” Then I turned to the dog and started scratching behind her ears. “I’ll bet the most dangerous part of you is your tail. You just like people so much you thump ’em to death, don’t you?” I turned to the computer and booted off the floppy. It didn’t work. So I restarted, and when it asked for a command interpreter, I typed “a:command.com” and got a command prompt. Meanwhile, her dog grabbed onto my hand with her paw so I wouldn’t go anywhere. Shadow, the Cocker Spaniel/Irish Setter mix I had growing up, used to do that.

I ran sys.com and rebooted, expecting to be a hero. Instead, I got the dreaded invalid media type reading drive C error.

I told Wendy I’d need the heavy artillery to fix this problem. I kicked myself for not bringing any more sophisticated tools like MBRWORK. It looked like a blitzed partition table to me.

I rebooted a couple more times to try to get symptoms. The Windows logo splashed up ever so briefly. The drive didn’t make any weird noises. That was good. That meant the boot record was intact, and that some data was intact–obviously, because it was reading the Windows logo. It looked just like the time my Pentium-75 crashed and forced me to cycle power, then didn’t come back up. I didn’t know how to fix a blitzed partition table then. But that was a long time ago.

By now, it was 7:20. “I can go get some more tools,” I offered.

“Go to church,” she said. “I’d feel really bad if you miss church. Tell Pastor John it’s my fault.”

I did my best to reassure her that I could get her data back. I told her the odds looked like about 50/50. In reality I was more confident than that, but unless I’m about 99% certain, I won’t say the chances are any better than 50/50. There’s nothing I hate more than disappointing people.

I went to church mad at myself that I hadn’t gotten her data back. I came home from church, got ready to gather up my tools, and checked my messages. It was Wendy. She said she’d gone to school to work on a paper, that we’d worry about the computer tomorrow but it wasn’t a big deal.

Maybe it wasn’t to her. But it was to me. I hate losing, especially to a computer. I have since I was in first grade and played Atari at my neighbors’ house. True, back then I got mad when I lost at Donkey Kong, but in my mind there’s no difference. Even though it’s a different game today and I lost a lot then and I rarely lose now, it doesn’t make me hate losing any less. Especially when I’m playing with other people’s stuff. Her words echoed in my mind: “My whole life is on this computer, Dave.”

I wasn’t going to let her down. I wasn’t going to let myself down by letting her down. I was going to get that data back, and I didn’t care what I had to do to get it.

I called her back, expecting her not to be there. Her mom, Debby, answered the phone. She gave me a few more clues, told me she didn’t expect Wendy home until late, said one or the other of them would be home about 3:30 the next day. I’d been at work until close to six on Wednesday and saw the possibility of having to stay that late on Thursday. I didn’t make any hard and fast promises about when I’d be there, but I started plotting how I would escape work by 4:15.

On Thursday, I loaded up floppies containing all the standard Microsoft disk tools, plus Norton Disk Doctor, plus Spinrite, plus MBRWORK and a few other partition recovery tools, along with a Windows 98 CD, and took the whole wodge of stuff to work. At 4:20, I called. Debby answered. I told her I was leaving work and I’d probably get there in about 20 minutes.

Along the way, I listened to a bunch of punk rock, really loud, and got myself pumped up. Whether it’s stepping up to the plate in the bottom of the seventh with runners on second and third and two out, or just a tricky computer problem, I get myself into the same mental place. The world fades away and I see nothing but the challenge. By the time I got to their house, I was in the zone. I was so in the zone that I walked up to the front door of the wrong house. Wendy’s Lab was in the front yard giving me the “I know you! What are you doing over there? Get over here and pet me!” look. I didn’t notice. The neighbor pointed next door. Feeling stupid, I walked over. The dog congratulated me on getting smart, Debby greeted me, and I went another round with her computer, running MBRWORK. It recovered the partition successfully, it said. I got excited. I rebooted and the computer asked me for a command interpreter again.

Cantankerous computer 2, Dave 0.

I went home, fixed myself a little something to eat, pondered the situation, and wrote my Bible study for Friday night on my company laptop. That calmed me down enough to let me think rationally again. I packed up everything I could possibly need: Norton AntiVirus, Ghost, an extra hard drive, two laptops, a couple of Linux CDs, both versions of Windows 98, utilities disks…

I booted off my disks and tried a few things. Nothing. I booted my company laptop up with the disks–that laptop doesn’t have DOS installed–and added a couple more toys. They didn’t help. Wendy got home and asked if it was a bad sign I was there. I muttered something and probably came off as rude. I was in the zone, after all. I asked her if she had any floppies she wanted me to scan for viruses. She handed me one, and I tried to boot my laptop into Windows. It showed the very same symptoms as her computer.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Virus writers, PLEASE get a life. Get interested in girls or something. Anything!

Wendy didn’t like the look on my face. I told her what happened. She said a phrase I won’t repeat here, then apologized. There was no need. I felt like saying it too. Or something worse.

For grins, I tried booting the laptop into Linux. It booted up like it was cool. Hmm. Boot sector viruses that kill Windows dead don’t even make Linux flinch. I owe Linus Torvalds a beer.

I tried mounting my main Windows partition. Linux reported NTFS errors. Visions of virus writers getting beaten to a bloody pulp danced in my mind.

Since I was now convinced we were dealing with a boot sector virus, I replaced the MBR. No joy. I booted off a Linux CD, switched over to a console, ran cfdisk, and viewed the partition table. One 4-gig partition, FAT32. No problems. Odd.

Wendy started fretting. “You’ve spent all this time and you’ve lost your laptop. I’m about to start to cry.”

I stopped what I was doing, turned to her, and looked her straight in the eye. “I take care of my friends.”

She looked back at me like she thought that was kind of cool.

“I don’t care about the laptop. I can fix that later. I can rewrite the Bible study that was on it. It took me 20 minutes to write, so it’ll take me 15 minutes to rewrite. I’m going to get your data back.”

The Bible study I lost indeed took me about 15 minutes to rewrite, and the second version was a lot better. But I didn’t get her data back that night. Eventually I gave up, pulled her drive, installed a new drive, and installed Windows and Office on it so they’d have a computer that was useful for something. Debby walked in as I was switching drives, noticed the dust inside the case, and gave it a disgusted look. She came back with a rag and Wendy started laughing at her.

“She can’t stand dust anywhere. I guess not even inside electronics,” Wendy said.

Debby lit up when she walked in the room and saw the Windows 98 screen on her computer. Later when Wendy walked back in, she let out a whoop and told her mom she was missing beautiful things in the computer room. I was pretty happy about it too. Windows 98 didn’t install easily–the intial reboot failed and installation didn’t continue until I booted it in safe mode, then rebooted. I gave the computer a lecture as I booted it, reminding it that I have enough spare parts at home to build a computer like it and would have no qualms about destroying it and replacing it with something else. I know it didn’t hear or understand a word I said, but I felt better afterward.

I felt bad about not getting the data back that night. Wendy and I talked for about 45 minutes about other things. I felt better afterward. I forgot to thank her. Around midnight, I packed up the stuff and drove home.

Wendy and I talked the next day over e-mail. I’d taken my disks to work and scanned them on a non-networked PC nobody cared about and found the Form virus. Wendy had taken some disks to school and had them scanned. They contained both Form and antiCMOS. Since antiCMOS resides in the MBR and Form resides on the primary partition, the two viruses can coexist. Form was relatively harmless on FAT16 drives, and although antiCMOS was potentially destructive in 1991, it’s much less so now that PCs autodetect hard drives at boot rather than relying on parameters stored in CMOS. My work the night before would have eliminated antiCMOS, which explained why it wasn’t present on my disks. I did a Dejanews search on Form and FAT32, to see if that would explain the apparent partition corruption. I found that the symptoms were exactly what Wendy was showing. And I found recovery methods that had a high success rate.

I haven’t put Wendy’s drive in one of my PCs yet to recover it. But I’m pretty confident I’ll get her data back. That’s a good thing. I’ve met nicer people than Wendy and Debby. But only once or twice. People like them don’t come around very often, so I’d like to do something nice for them.

Bringing their data back from oblivion would do.

Airshows, photography and Linux routing

Gatermann and I went out shooting again yesterday. More exploration of the warehouse district, and we found out that the warehouse district is a halfway decent place to watch an airshow. A couple of cargo planes buzzed us, tipping us off to what was going on, so I went chasing. I’m not the airplane junkie my dad was (few people are), but I’m still a sucker for exotic military planes. I borrowed Gatermann’s telephoto lens and took shots as planes went by. A pair of vintage P-51 Mustangs zoomed by, so I got a few shots of those. A couple of modern fighters made a brief appearance, but I couldn’t get them into the lens quickly enough to identify them. Chances are they were F-16s; not as common a sight as they once were, but you still see them.
I was hoping for a chance to see the Stealth Bomber; about four years ago I was in St. Louis on the 4th and as Gatermann and I were stepping outside to go get something to eat, we heard a low rumble overhead, looked up, and got a spectacular view of the rarely seen and highly classified B-2. Of course there wasn’t a camera in sight so we didn’t get a shot.

This year, a B-52 came from out of nowhere. It was huge–I mean HUGE–and very obviously not an airliner. I’d never seen one in person before so I didn’t identify it immediately. I got it in the camera, zoomed in on it, and figured out what it was. I got several shots. The B-52 is an oldie but a goodie; we used it heavily in Vietnam and in the late 1970s we intended to replace it with the B-1. Carter cancelled the B-1; later Reagan re-initiated it, but it was a disappointment. The B-1 never fully replaced the B-52 and now there’s talk of decommissioning the B-1 completely.

The B-52 was followed by a series of stunt pilots. I guess that’s good for oohs and ahhs, but I wanted to see weird airplanes.

The grand finale was the B-1. It totally snuck up on me; I think Gatermann spotted the thing first. I recognized it but the camera couldn’t catch it–the autofocus wasn’t fast enough. I switched to manual focus and waited. And waited. I spotted it looping around on the east side of the river; most non-classified stuff makes two passes. But you can’t get a good shot from that distance with this lens. I never saw it come back. It didn’t really look like it was landing (Scott Air Force base is across the Mississippi River, in Illinois), but I couldn’t find the thing. I gave up, turned around, and started walking back when Tom yelled and pointed. I quickly turned around, and the B-1 was just barely in range. I pointed and shot as it disappeared behind a warehouse. I think I got it.

I shot more than a full roll of just airplanes.

After airplanes and lunch, we headed out to CompUSA. Gatermann wanted a KVM switch; I wanted Baseball Mogul 2002. A Belkin 4-port switch was $200. A Linksys was $150. Gatermann grabbed the Linksys. I came up empty on Baseball Mogul. We went back to his place, hooked up the Linksys, and it was a real disappointment. It doesn’t pass the third mouse button. Numlock doesn’t work. And it has a slight ghosting effect on the picture. I didn’t notice it but Gatermann did. Stepping the resolution down and lowering the refresh rate didn’t help a whole lot. He’ll be taking the Linksys back. (To Linksys’ credit, the box is made in Taiwan, though its wall wart is made in Red China. I’m not a fan of financing World War III, nor am I a fan of slave labor, so I try to avoid products made in Red China whenever possible. Gatermann does too. I’m not sure what his reasons are but Red China’s treatment of the seven prisoners of war after their pilot kamikazeed our spyplane probably has something to do with it.)

Bottom line: Belkin’s KVM switches are better. I like the Linksys’ metal case better than the plastic case on my Belkin, but the Belkin performs a lot better and its buttons feel more solid. I also like the ability to change displays from the keyboard, rather than having to reach over to the switch like the Linksys requires.

I’m generally not impressed with Linksys’ products. Their DSL router, though it looks really slick, doesn’t forward ports very well. If you just want to split off a cable or DSL connection, it’s great. If you want to learn how the Internet works and run some servers behind your firewall, it’s going to frustrate you. It’s just not as stable as Gatermann’s Pentium-75 running Freesco, which we cobbled together from a bunch of spare parts. Get a used Pentium-75 motherboard with 8 megs of RAM, put it in a $20 AT case along with a $15 floppy drive and a pair of $15 PCI NICs and download Freesco, and you have something much more versatile and reliable for half the price. And a lot of us have most of that stuff laying around already.

And Linksys network cards are absolute junk. Their workmanship isn’t good, their drivers aren’t stable, and the cards have a tendency to just die. Or they age really poorly, spitting out tons and tons of bad packets as they carry out their wretched lives. Netgears are much better, and not much more expensive.

I also gave Gatermann’s Linux configurations a look. Freesco didn’t appear to be forwarding port 80, even though we configured it to, and Apache was installed and I’d verified it was working by opening a browser and going to 127.0.0.1. I tried a variety of things–including forwarding the ports manually from a command line, using the ipportfw command if I remember right–but it never worked. Finally, I tried hitting the Web server from a Windows PC inside Gatermann’s private network. It was denied too. Workstation-oriented Linux distros tend to come locked down really tight by default these days, which is probably a good thing in general, but it makes it really hard to just turn on Web services to the world. I know it can be done but I wouldn’t know where to begin. So I had him download TurboLinux Server 6.5, which will probably solve all his web serving problems.

04/25/2001

The St. Louis Cardinals want a new stadium. It seems like everyone else is building a new stadium, and Busch Stadium was one of five multipurpose stadiums built in the late 1960s (Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Cincinatti, St. Louis, and Atlanta) that looked almost exactly alike–and that wouldn’t have been so bad, I suppose, except they all looked like toilets. Well, after Anheuser-Busch sold the team to a group of investors, the new owners realized that humongous toilet-shaped stadiums with artificial turf are ugly, so they moved in the fences, ripped out the turf and put in grass, and since retro is in, they erected a hand-operated scoreboard in the upper deck (the seats they displaced were lousy anyway).

Now, Busch Stadium has always been a lousy place to watch a baseball game. The architecture harkens back to post-war East Germany. The stadium has no charms, aside from the retrofitted scoreboard. And unless you’re in the box seats, you need binoculars to see anything. There isn’t a good seat in the house. Once you’ve been to a game at Wrigley Field, or Royals Stadium (yeah, yeah, it’s officially Kaufmann Stadium now, but I’ll never change), you realize what watching a baseball game is supposed to be, and Busch Stadium ain’t it. It’s more fun to watch the Royals and Cubs lose in their home parks than it is to be there–it’s hard to call what you do at Busch “watching”–when the Cardinals win in theirs. Force large numbers of Kansas Citians to watch a few games at Busch Stadium at gunpoint, and they’ll realize how good they’ve got it with Royals Stadium, and then the Royals will start drawing two million fans again.

So the Cardinals want to tear it down. Great, I say. Blow it up. I’ll help. I’ll even donate a little money to the cause.

So, what’s wrong with the Cardinals’ plan to get rid of Busch? They want the State of Missouri to pay for it. And that’s wrong. Why should the citizens of Kansas City be helping to pay for St. Louis’ new stadium? Why should my mom, who’ll probably never go to another baseball game in her life and who almost certainly will never go to a Cardinal game, be ponying up towards that stadium? The argument is that it’ll bring in jobs and revenue.

Fine. So if Boeing decides it wants to move its corporate headquarters here to St. Louis, where it already has some presence anyway, the State of Missouri should pay for it. After all, that’ll bring in even more jobs (and white-collar jobs at that!), and the revenue it brings in will last all year.

There is no difference between those two things. They’re private enterprises that should get their own funding. Period. And besides, the Cardinals aren’t a good investment. If the players strike or are locked out at the end of the season, which is likely, nobody knows what will happen. At best, baseball will be damaged goods. At worst, diehards like me will be following Japanese baseball next season because there won’t be any pro baseball left in the States. If the State of Missouri wants to give the Cardinals a loan, fine, but a handout, no.

And that’s not even figuring in the other parts of the argument. The proposed new stadium is smaller and has less seating capacity than Busch. The Cardinals draw three million fans a year. They fill that wretched place. Cardinal fans would watch baseball on a playground in a slum if that was where the Cards were playing. So, somehow, building a smaller but much prettier stadium is going to help team revenue? Only if they raise ticket prices through the roof. And ticket prices are already awfully high. That move could very easily backfire. Football and hockey are already so expensive that you can’t go to a game without sitting in the middle of a bunch of yuppies complaining that they only made $100,000 on the stock market last year. So the solution is to make baseball, with its 81 home games, the same way? While it might work for a little while, it’s not sustainable. The Cardinals have a rabid following in central Illinois and throughout Missouri, but neither of those places is exactly yuppie town. Make baseball a game for the elite, and the The Rest of Us, who the team’s revenue is built on, will go to fewer games and spend less money as a result.

There’s always the veiled threat that the Cardinals will move, to the Missouri suburbs or the Illinois suburbs, or, ridiculously, out of St. Louis entirely. That last prospect won’t happen. The Cardinals won’t draw three million fans anywhere else. Two million, tops. The move to the Missouri suburbs isn’t likely–Missouri doesn’t want to pay for the stadium whether it’s in St. Louis or in Creve Couer. Illinois is a possibility, but not a risk the Cardinals ownership should be interested in taking. The Illinois suburbs are known for two things: crime and strip clubs. Do they really want their brand-new stadium to be next door to the Diamond Cabaret?

Yes, Cardinal fans will go watch baseball next door to the Diamond Cabaret. They’d watch baseball in the middle of East St. Louis if they had to. Or they’ll keep right on packing it in at Busch, lousy though it may be. It’s lousy, but it’s a good match for the team because it seats buttloads of people, and they consistently fill it, and the stadium may be an eyesore, but it’s nowhere near as old as Fenway Park or Wrigley Field and no one’s complaining about their structural integrity. Busch Stadium will be around for a while. And a lot of fans even like it.

Cardinal management doesn’t know how good they’ve got it, and Missouri needs to continue to call their bluff.

Enough of that. Let’s talk about us. That got your attention I’m sure. Performance this morning was, to put it mildly, pants. Then the system went down like a… never mind. I’m getting really tired of it. I’m paying nothing for this, and lately I’m getting what I pay for. I want to control my own destiny, and I’ve got this nice broadband Internet connection, and some spare parts (and what I lack is cheap) and I want some real sysadmin experience. So, I’m thinking really seriously about moving. I wanted to hit the Userland Top 100 before I moved on, and enough time may pass between now and the time that I get set up for that to happen I may meet that goal yet.

At the moment I’m leaning toward Greymatter, as it’ll give me everything I have here, just about, plus better discussion facilities. Suggestions welcome.

04/06/2001

Mailbag:

File Name;Resume; CS; Ad Blocking; 602 Suite; Scary; Plextor

Three days down… The server was down while administrators removed dead sites, in hopes of increasing performance. Performance does seem better, but time will tell… Let’s get on to some serious business.

More memory alphabet soup. JHR wrote in with a good question that I realized I haven’t answered: Can you use your existing plain, cheap old SDRAM on a new DDR-capable motherboard?

The answer, unfortunately, is usually no. DDR comes on 184-pin modules. SDRAM usually comes on 168-pin modules. A few companies, like Fujitsu and Apacer, have talked about putting SDRAM on 184-pin modules. It’s been mostly talk. The price difference between DDR and SDRAM isn’t enough to justify it.

There are a few boards, like the Asus A7A266 (reviewed at http://www.dansdata.com/a7a266.htm ), with both types of sockets for both types of memory. But the A7A266 isn’t the best performer out there, so you pay the price of convenience by buying speed instead. It’s a mediocre DDR performer and a terrible SDRAM performer.

It’s a shame to throw away memory, but this isn’t the first time. As recently as 1997, 72-pin EDO memory cost less than SDRAM. The 72-pin SIMM replaced the 30-pin SIMM as the type of memory to have in 1994, though 30-pin-capable boards remained available for upgraders through 1996. Before 30-pin SIMMs, there were all sorts of weird memory technologies, like 30-pin SIPPs, and different types of individual chips, which generally were a huge pain.

Usually when memory was replaced, adapters came out. There were SIMMs with sockets to plug old chips into. There were adapters to plug a SIPP into a SIMM socket. There were riser cards to allow you to plug 30-pin SIMMs into 72-pin slots. The problem was, they tended to hurt speed and stability, and in many cases they were nearly as expensive as new memory.

History’s repeating itself. There are adapters to let you plug DIMMs into RIMM sockets, and 168-to-184 sockets, though they’re expensive and hurt speed and stability, especially in the case of those RIMM adapters. There’s no point in using them.

I really should have been shouting louder that PC133’s time in the sun is over. The problem is, nobody knows for sure what will replace it. There’s DDR and Rambus, both of which perform really well in certain benchmarks, neither of which seem to make much difference in the real world yet. DDR’s pricing is very close to PC133, assuming you’re buying Crucial. Rambus is still priced way too high. I suspect DDR will win, but there’s no way to know.

It’s a shame to throw out memory, but there usually isn’t much we can do about it. If it makes you feel any better, PCs using SDRAM should be useful for a number of years. I’ve still got two systems with 72-pin SIMMs in them doing useful work for me. One’s a Compaq 486 I bought back in 1994 that just finished a tour of duty as a DSL router; its next incarnation will be as a file/print server if I can find an ISA SCSI card to put in it. I’ll probably also have it automate some parts of my network, courtesy of cron. The other one is a Pentium-120, which has done time as a file server and also as a testbed.

Anything new enough to have SDRAM is new enough to make a very useful Linux box, and it can also make a good Windows box, particularly if you scale it back to just do a handful of things very well. If I ever get around to retiring my K6-2/350, my sister would love to have it because it’d make a great word processing/web browsing/e-mail box–better than the Cyrix 233 she’s using right now, though she doesn’t complain much about that computer. That computer was built out of a bunch of stuff Tom Gatermann and I pulled out of our spare parts bins. And if I did make that switch for her, I know who’d get that Cyrix 233, and that person won’t be complaining either.

The key to responsible upgrading, I think, is to buy stuff that you’ll be able to recycle whenever possible. A good SCSI card and hard drive, though expensive, will be good enough to be worth recycling when you make your next motherboard upgrade. The same goes for a good monitor, and unless you’re a 3D gaming freak, the same goes for a good video card as well. My STB Velocity 128 video card, even though it has an ancient nVidia Riva128 chipset in it, is still fast for the games I play and frankly, it’s overkill for business use. I’ve had that card for three and a half years. I expect I’ll still be using it in three years. Heck, my Diamond Stealth 3D card is still useful. It won’t do justice for my 19-inch display, but it’s fast enough for routine work and it’ll drive a 17-inch monitor at 1024×768 at refresh rates and color depths that won’t embarrass you. And that card’s five years old. It cost me $119 at a time when low-end cards cost $59, and it’s still better for most things than the $40 cards of today. The $25 cards of today will give you higher color depth and sometimes better refresh rates, but they’re not as fast. So that card saved me money. My STB Velocity 128 and my Diamond Viper 770 haven’t been recycled yet, but I’ll get at least three more years’ use out of both of those, even if I turn into a flight simulator fiend. The 770 would be decent for flight sims, and both of them are outstanding for what I do now.

Everyone I know recycles good keyboards and mice, when they think to buy them.

You’ll generally replace motherboards and CPUs on every upgrade cycle. Depending on how often you upgrade, you can expect to replace memory every other cycle.

A lot of people are recommending you buy a motherboard capable of either type of memory, then buy cheap PC133 and upgrade later. But the performance difference isn’t great enough to justify that. If you think you’re going to want DDR, I recommend you just bite the bullet and get DDR. Crucial’s now selling 128 MB PC2100 DDR modules for under $65, so 256 MB of PC2100 costs slightly more than a mid-range video card.

Mailbag:

File Name;Resume; CS; Ad Blocking; 602 Suite; Scary; Plextor

01/02/2001

Mailbag:

IE shortcut; Optimizing WinME; Partition; 10/100 NIC; Mobos

Trimming down Windows 2000.┬áSomeone else observed last week that, among other things, Windows’ included games are now critical system components. That’s messed up. Fortunately, it’s fixable.

Open the file C:WinntInfsysoc.inf in your favorite text editor, after making a backup copy of course. Search for the string “HIDE,” (without quotes, but including the comma). Delete all references to this string. Save the file. Reboot. Now open Control Panel, Add/Remove Programs, and go down to Windows System Components. You can now cleanly uninstall the Windows components that may not be useful to you, such as the Space Cadet Pinball game, or the Accessibility Options. I’m in the habit of just banging on the shift key several times to turn off my screen blanker. Why shift? Because it won’t send weird keystrokes to whatver application I left running in the foreground. Unfortunately, hitting shift five times usually pops up the Accessibility options, much to my annoyance. So I was very glad to finally be able to uninstall that feature.

And a bargain NIC. This week only, Circuit City is selling the D-Link DFE-530TX+ 10/100 NIC for $14.99 with a $9.99 mail-in rebate. While I prefer the DEC Tulip chipset for inexpensive 10/100 NICs, the Realtek chipset in this D-Link works with Linux and Windows, and that’s an absolute giveaway price. I mean, come on, most of us spend that much every week on soda.

I’ve got a D-Link laying around as a spare, but I had a Circuit City gift card with about $7 left on it, so I picked one up. Besides, I needed a stereo miniplug-to-dual-RCA cable, so suddenly I had two semi-compelling reasons to go to the shark-infested cave. It’s good to have some spare parts, and the D-Links have much better compatibility than the NDC card with the obscure Macronix 98715 chipset I still have in at least one of my systems.

I’ve seen some ludicrous claims that D-Link gives you 3Com and Intel quality at a Linksys price. I don’t buy it for a minute. But for a small home-based network, why pay $40-$60 for a NIC if you don’t have to?

And somehow I managed to avoid the sharks as well. I guess I just didn’t have Pentium 4 tattooed across my forehead.

Amazon now seems to be selling Optimizing Windows at its full retail price of $24.95. Obviously sales are slower now than when it was selling at (sometimes deeply) discounted prices, but still much better than November levels. If you’ve bought it, my heartfelt thanks go out to you. If you’ve posted a review, another thank you.

If you’ve read it and like it and feel like writing a review, either at Amazon or another online bookseller such as Barnes & Noble, Borders, Bookpool or Fatbrain, please feel free to do so. I appreciate it greatly. And if you have comments or questions on the book, feel free to e-mail me.

If you’re wanting to do a price compare on Optimizing Windows, visit www2.bestbookbuys.com/cgi-bin/bbb.cgi?ISBN=1565926773.

Mailbag:

IE shortcut; Optimizing WinME; Partition; 10/100 NIC; Mobos