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Steve Jobs

How to turn around an automaker

So if you’re a CEO of one of the Big Three automakers, you have to fly a private plane, as corporate policy, for safety reasons.

Congress suggested they save money by flying first class, or plane-pool at the very least.I guess the problem with flying first class is that they might run into some angry shareholders. And maybe one or more of those angry shareholders would recognize them and beat the snot out of them?

But that raises another question. Speaking as someone who lost a lot of money in Ford stock (but back in 2000 or so, so don’t cry too hard for me), how many of those shareholders would have enough money left to fly first class? The angry mob would have to be sitting in coach, right?

But seriously. There’s a lot wrong with the three domestic automakers and cutting the corporate jets isn’t going to fix the problem, at least not alone. But let me tell you a story.

In the mid 1990s, I was briefly the treasurer of a student organization while I was in college. My organization had a serious cashflow problem. At midyear, I estimated the remaining expenses for the year based on bills from the first half, and came to the conclusion that we were spending more money per member than we were taking in.

I made this startling discovery by dividing the amount of money we were spending by the number of members we had. It was a bigger number than the amount of money we charged to be a member of the group.

Sure, it’s sixth-grade math, but someone had to do it.

The problem was that I faced a room full of good-ol’-boy, stubborn German Lutherans, some of whom had difficulty doing sixth grade math, and I just couldn’t convince them what we needed to start charging more.

I couldn’t balance the budget by cutting things, but I figured being $100 short at the end of each month was better than being $200 short. And I knew it would get my point across. So I started slashing line items like the stingy Scottish miser I am (and was). Cable TV? Gone. Telephone service? Gone. But most importantly, everything related to parties and beer got cut. That sure got the good ol’ boys’ attention. After all, the only thing more important to a German Lutheran than stodgy hymnals and poorly maintained pipe organs is beer.

When I refused to sign any checks related in any way to the annual Super Bowl party, I got the changes I needed in the budget. They got a slightly cut-down party, and I got the bank account balance back up above zero. This was a compromise, because I wanted to have a surplus at the end of the year. You know, just in case anything broke sometime and needed to be fixed or replaced.

Sometimes you make cuts in the budget not because it’ll balance the budget, but because it sends a message.

If I were the CEO of an auto company, I’d get the rules changed so I could fly in commercial aircraft. I might even go so far as to fly coach. And I’d get rid of those planes.

I’d also get rid of the executive cafeteria. Bob Lutz argued in one of his books that the executive cafeteria isn’t just a perk, it’s a great place to get work done. The problem is the message it sends. I’m not an auto executive, but somehow I manage to get my fair share of work done over a microwaved lunch from Costco that I bring from home every day and eat at my desk.

Incidentally, my boss eats lunch at his desk too.

I don’t need to eat gourmet food provided by the company behind locked doors in a lavish room to be productive. And if you do, you’re not creative enough.

I’d go even further than that, though. I read that Rick Wagoner made $14 million last year. A $14 million salary suggests that you’re the executive of a successful and growing company. Rick Wagoner is not. Time for another story.

In 1997, there was a struggling computer company in Cupertino, California. This struggling company merged with another struggling company, one that specialized in trying to sell underperforming, overstyled computers that ran Unix. I say trying because nobody was buying.

It wasn’t long before the CEO of the struggling company departed, and the erstwhile CEO of the company he bought became interim CEO.

The interim CEO gave himself a base salary of $1. One lousy dollar. The bulk of his compensation came in bonuses and stock options. I don’t know exactly what his motivation was, but it tied his yearly compensation to performance.

It worked. Prior to his taking the helm, pundits had the company on a deathwatch. I don’t have to tell you how the company is doing today or how it got there. All I have to tell you is the name of the company was Apple, and the executive was Steve Jobs.

I don’t know if Apple would have turned around if Steve Jobs had taken a more traditional compensation package. But it’s safe to say that Jobs is highly motivated. And while I personally don’t care much for the products his company makes, he’s obviously successful.

Taking a page or two from Apple’s book seems like a good move for car companies, starting with executive compensation. How Apple manages to remain highly profitable and successful with a market share of around 10 percent would also be a good case study for U.S. automakers, since it’s clear they’re going to have to live with a smaller market share than they’ve been used to having, at least for a time.

Turning the Big Three around isn’t going to be an easy process, and it’s going to take a lot more than a $25 billion loan from the government to get it done. A true turnaround is going to require a change of culture, lots of shared sacrifice, and the motivation to think long term, far beyond the next quarterly report.

Changing things like corporate jets and corporate cafeterias won’t balance the budget, but it’ll help in the shared sacrifice and changing the corporate culture.

And in the long run, maybe some of those perks can come back some day. I don’t know this for certain, but I’d be willing to bet Steve Jobs doesn’t eat lunch at his desk.

Intel inside the Mac–no more question mark

OK, it’s official. Intel has conquered one of the last holdouts: Soon you’ll be able to buy a Pentium-powered Mac.

Of course there are lots of questions now.First of all, Apple having problems with its CPU suppliers is nothing new. Apple’s first CPU supplier was a small firm called MOS Technology. You’ve probably never heard of it, but MOS was a subsidiary of a company you may have heard of: Commodore. Commodore, of course, was one of two other companies to release a ready-built home computer about the same time Apple did. The problem was that the Commodore and Apple computers had the same CPU. Commodore, of course, could undercut Apple’s price. And it did. Commodore president Jack Tramiel was an Auschwitz survivor, and Tramiel pretty much assumed his competitors were going to treat him the same way the Nazis did, so he never cut them any breaks either. At least not intentionally.

When other companies released licensed versions of MOS’ 6502 processor, Apple was the biggest customer. Rumor had it that Commodore was hoarding 6502s.

When Motorola released its legendary 68000 CPU, Apple was one of the first companies to sign up, and the first two commercially successful computers to use the m68K were made by Apple. And life was good. Apple wasn’t Motorola’s only customer but it was one of the biggest. Life was good for the better part of a decade, when Intel finally managed to out-muscle the performance of the Motorola 68040. So Apple conspired with Motorola and IBM to come up with something better, and the result was the PowerPC. And life was good again. The PowerPC wasn’t the best chip on the market, but of the two architectures that you could buy at every strip mall on the continent, it was clearly the better of the two.

Over time Apple’s relationship with Motorola cooled, and the relationship with IBM was off again and on again. Intel meanwhile kept trotting out bigger and bigger sledgehammers, and by brute force alone was able to out-muscle the PowerPC. Steve Jobs got creative, but eventually he just ran out of tricks. Switching to Intel in 2006 may or may not be the best option, but it’s just as easy to do now as it’s ever going to be.

So, now there’s the question of whether this will hurt Microsoft or Linux or both. The answer is yes. The real question isn’t whether it will hurt, but how much. As soon as Microsoft loses one sale, it’s hurt. The same goes for Red Hat.

To me, the question hinges on how attached Apple is to its hardware business. Steve Jobs has only said that OS X has been running on Intel in the labs for years. I have never heard him mention whether the hardware was a standard PC clone motherboard, or something of Apple’s design. I suspect he’s avoiding the question.

It would be possible to make OS X run on Apple hardware and only Apple hardware, even if the CPU is a standard Pentium 4 just like Dell uses. And at least at the outset, I expect Apple will do that. Apple may only have 3-5 percent of the market, but it’s 3-5 percent of a really big pie. The company is profitable.

It would also be possible to let Windows run on this hardware. That may be a good idea. Apple still has something to offer that nobody else does: The slick, easy to use and stable OS X, but on top of that, you can boot into Windows to play games or whatever. It makes Apple hardware worth paying a premium to get.

If Apple chooses to let OS X run on anything and everything, it hurts Linux and Windows more, but it probably hurts Apple too. There’s a lot of hardware out there, and a lot of it isn’t any good. Apple probably doesn’t want that support nightmare.

I think this will narrow the gigahertz gap and, consequently, the speed gap. I think it will help Apple’s marketshare, especially if they allow Windows to run on the hardware. I don’t see it having a devestating effect on any other operating system though. It will hurt marginal PC manufacturers before it hurts software companies.

The Microsoft Killer

Yet another story about what’s going to kill Microsoft popped up on Slashdot today. This time it’s cheap solid-state computers running open-source software. I didn’t bother reading it.

Here’s what I think the Microsoft killer will be: Windows.

Say what?Yeah, Windows.

Computers are cheap enough now that the majority of people who want one have one. Even those who can’t afford to buy new can turn to the used market–used 1 GHz systems are now selling in the $100-$150 range without an operating system.

The biggest problem with a computer these days is keeping it running. People throw away VCRs and DVD players because it’s cheaper to buy a new one than to have one repaired. And had I charged fair market value for the last computer repair I did, it probably would have exceeded the cost of a $399 Emachine.

But there’s a problem. When a VCR or DVD player dies, you unplug the old one, plug in the new one, and get on with life. You’re looking at three or four cable connections. It takes most people less than 10 minutes, usually much less. When you go to swap out a computer, you have to worry about all your data and the programs you installed.

Most people don’t know that 99% of their data is in one place, and even fewer people know where that is and how to get to it. These same people are the ones who are most likely to inadvertently end up with their data in weird places.

The result is the cost to replace a computer is much higher, and it’s not necessarily something the majority of people want to undertake themselves.

The result is lost revenue. And an opportunity.

Google, if you’re the one who wants to unseat Microsoft, find a way to help users move their data from one computer to another. Someone else, if you want to beat Google to the punch, find a way to help users move their data and their programs. I know such a program won’t be foolproof, but if it works even 75% of the time, it’ll sell like crazy.

Of course if someone does it and it proves successful, Microsoft will just clone it and assimilate the market.

But if no one does, maybe Steve Jobs will sell a lot more Macs, because this is one task that’s always been easier on a Macintosh.

The big question: PC or Mac?

I haven’t stirred the pot in a while, so to prove that I am a professional writer after all, I’ll go tackle the most inflammatory question I can imagine, something that makes Bush vs. Kerry look like a game of paddy-cake.

What’s the better computer, a PC or a Macintosh?OS X closely follows the history of the first Macintosh in that the first version showed lots of promise, but had lots of problems, probably shipped too soon, and lacked some important capabilities. But Apple, to its credit, washed its dirty laundry in public, fixing the problems and adding capabilities. And now, OS X has a reputation as something that “just works.” And it has something to back it up with.

Windows XP, well, that joke about 32-bit extensions to a 16-bit graphical interface on top of an 8-bit operating system originally written for 4-bit computers by a 2-bit corporation that can’t stand 1 bit of competition is almost true. Microsoft bought the 8-bit OS from a company that may have stolen it. And while Gary Kildall‘s first operating system was 4-bit, he may have written CP/M from scratch. But I digress.

Unlike Apple, Windows XP tries really hard for backward compatibility. And for all the stink about the things SP2 breaks, I’ll bet you a dollar you can go download the 1981 edition of VisiCalc for MS-DOS and it’ll run just as well on your three-point-whatever gig Pentium 4 running XP as it did on the first IBM PC. And if you can find old copies of WordStar and dBASE II and Turbo Pascal, chances are they’ll run too. Old programs that break are at least as likely to break because of timing problems with CPUs that are almost a thousand times faster than they expect as they are because of Windows. Probably more.

Sure, you’ll find programs that break, but you’ll probably find a thousand that work for every one that breaks. Especially if you limit yourself to titles that aren’t games.

This is a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that software you bought almost a quarter century ago still runs if you need it. If you think that isn’t important, I’ll introduce you to one of my clients who’s still using dBASE II. It sure is important to him. The curse is all that spaghetti code you need to keep those billions and billions of old programs running.

I have a little bit more sympathy for Microsoft when I remember that Windows XP is really OS/2 1.3 with DOS bolted on, and Windows 3.1 and 98 bolted on next door.

Just a little.

When you look at it that way, is it any wonder that sometimes when you plug in your digital camera it acts goofy?

But truth be told, more often than not, your mouse and your digital camera and all your other stuff works, whether you plug it into a Windows box or a Mac. And when it doesn’t work, it’s every bit as infuriating on a Mac as it is on a Windows PC. When Windows has an error code, it spits one out in hexadecimal. The Mac spits out an error code in decimal. I guess that makes the Mac friendlier.

But I guess it doesn’t matter whether I say “deleterious” in English or in Pig Latin. It’s still not going to be a word you’re likely to have heard today, either way. And there’s a decent chance it’ll send you reaching for a dictionary (or Google).

I’ll be frank: I hated OS 9 and OS 8 and everything else that came before it. I tried to get the Mac Toss turned into an official olympic sport. If there are any old Macintoshes in the pond in front of the office building where I used to fix Macintoshes, I know nothing about them.

But Apple knew it was b0rken and threw it away and bought something better. I still think they bought the wrong something better and would have gotten here a lot sooner if they’d bought BeOS, but they bought NeXT and got Steve Jobs back, so here they are.

All things being equal, I’d go with a Mac, if only because it’s got a Unix layer underneath it.

But all things aren’t equal. Macintoshes cost a lot of money. And when you’re 2 percent of the market, you don’t have a lot of software to choose from. I know. I had long love affairs with Amiga and with OS/2 before I threw in the towel and installed Windows. And it wasn’t until 1997 that I actually used Windows as my everyday OS.

When someone hands me a disk, I can read it. When someone tells me I’ve gotta try out this new program, it runs.

On the other hand, there’s virtually no problem with viruses and spyware on the Macintosh. If I want to spy on people or cause enough damage to make the front page of USA Today, I’m going to set my sights on 90+% of the market instead of the Macintosh’s 2%. Being a minority can have its advantages.

But, after living for years with good computers and operating systems that were years or even decades ahead of their time but had no software availability, I run Windows most of the time and exercise caution to keep my system clean. I don’t use Internet Explorer, I keep my virus definitions up to date, I don’t read e-mail from strangers and don’t open unexpected attachments, and I don’t install freeware software unless it’s open source.

And guess what? I don’t have any problems with my computer either.

I know and respect other people who’ve gone the other way. For me, there never was much choice other than PC hardware. I can afford a Macintosh, but that’s money I really need to be putting towards paying off my car and my house sooner, or saving for retirement. Or any number of other things. I’m a legendary tightwad.

Other people may have had their own other reasons for making the same decision.

The pundits are wrong about Apple’s defection

Remember the days when knowing something about computers was a prerequisite for writing about them?
ZDNet’s David Coursey continues to astound me. Yesterday he wondered aloud what Apple could do to keep OS X from running on standard PCs if Apple were to ditch the PowerPC line for an x86-based CPU, or to keep Windows from running on Apple Macs if they became x86-based.

I’d link to the editorial but it’s really not worth the minimal effort it would take.

First, there’s the question of whether it’s even necessary for Apple to migrate. Charlie pointed out that Apple remains profitable. It has 5% of the market, but that’s beside the point. They’re making money. People use Apple Macs for a variety of reasons, and those reasons seem to vary, but speed rarely seems to be the clinching factor. A decade ago, the fastest Mac money could buy was an Amiga with Mac emulation hardware–an Amiga clocked at the same speed would run Mac OS and related software about 10% faster than the real thing. And in 1993, Intel pulled ahead of Motorola in the speed race. Intel had 486s running as fast as 66 MHz, while Motorola’s 68040 topped out at 40 MHz. Apple jumped to the PowerPC line, whose clock rate pretty much kept up with the Pentium line until the last couple of years. While the PowerPCs would occasionally beat an x86 at some benchmark or another, the speed was more a point of advocacy than anything else. When a Mac user quoted one benchmark only to be countered by another benchmark that made the PowerPC look bad, the Mac user just shrugged and moved on to some other advocacy point.

Now that the megahertz gap has become the gigahertz gap, the Mac doesn’t look especially good on paper next to an equivalently priced PC. Apple could close the gigahertz gap and shave a hundred bucks or two off the price of the Mac by leaving Motorola at the altar and shacking up with Intel or AMD. And that’s why every pundit seems to expect the change to happen.

But Steve Jobs won’t do anything unless he thinks it’ll get him something. And Apple offers a highly styled, high-priced, anti-establishment machine. Hippie computers, yuppie price. Well, that was especially true of the now-defunct Flower Power and Blue Dalmation iMacs.

But if Apple puts Intel Inside, some of that anti-establishment lustre goes away. That’s not enough to make or break the deal.

But breaking compatibility with the few million G3- and G4-based Macs already out there might be. The software vendors aren’t going to appreciate the change. Now Apple’s been jerking the software vendors around for years, but a computer is worthless without software. Foisting an instruction set change on them isn’t something Apple can do lightly. And Steve Jobs knows that.

I’m not saying a change won’t happen. But it’s not the sure deal most pundits seem to think it is. More likely, Apple is just pulling a Dell. You know the Dell maneuver. Dell is the only PC vendor that uses Intel CPUs exclusively. But Dell holds routine talks with AMD and shows the guest book signatures to Intel occasionally. Being the last dance partner gives Dell leverage in negotiating with Intel.

I think Apple’s doing the same thing. Apple’s in a stronger negotiating position with Motorola if Steve Jobs can casually mention he’s been playing around with Pentium 4s and Athlon XPs in the labs and really likes what he sees.

But eventually Motorola might decide the CPU business isn’t profitable enough to be worth messing with, or it might decide that it’s a lot easier and more profitable to market the PowerPC as a set of brains for things like printers and routers. Or Apple might decide the gigahertz gap is getting too wide and defect. I’d put the odds of a divorce somewhere below 50 percent. I think I’ll see an AMD CPU in a Mac before I’ll see it in a Dell, but I don’t think either event will happen next year.

But what if it does? Will Apple have to go to AMD and have them design a custom, slightly incompatible CPU as David Coursey hypothesizes?

Worm sweat. Remember the early 1980s, when there were dozens of machines that had Intel CPUs and even ran MS-DOS, yet were, at best, only slightly IBM compatible? OK, David Coursey doesn’t, so I can’t hold it against you if you don’t. But trust me. They existed, and they infuriated a lot of people. There were subtle differences that kept IBM-compatible software from running unmodified. Sometimes the end user could work around those differences, but more often than not, they couldn’t.

All Apple has to do is continue designing their motherboards the way they always have. The Mac ROM bears very little resemblance to the standard PC BIOS. The Mac’s boot block and partition table are all different. If Mac OS X continues to look for those things, it’ll never boot on a standard PC, even if the CPU is the same.

The same differences that keep Mac OS X off of Dells will also keep Windows off Macs. Windows could be modified to compensate for those differences, and there’s a precedent for that–Windows NT 4.0 originally ran on Intel, MIPS, PowerPC, and Alpha CPUs. I used to know someone who swore he ran the PowerPC versions of Windows NT 3.51 and even Windows NT 4.0 natively on a PowerPC-based Mac. NT 3.51 would install on a Mac of comparable vintage, he said. And while NT 4.0 wouldn’t, he said you could upgrade from 3.51 to 4.0 and it would work.

I’m not sure I believe either claim, but you can search Usenet on Google and find plenty of people who ran the PowerPC version of NT on IBM and Motorola workstations. And guess what? Even though those workstations had PowerPC CPUs, they didn’t have a prayer of running Mac OS, for lack of a Mac ROM.

Windows 2000 and XP were exclusively x86-based (although there were beta versions of 2000 for the Alpha), but adjusting to accomodate an x86-based Mac would be much easier than adjusting to another CPU architecture. Would Microsoft go to the trouble just to get at the remaining 5% of the market? Probably. But it’s not guaranteed. And Apple could turn it into a game of leapfrog by modifying its ROM with every machine release. It already does that anyway.

The problem’s a whole lot easier than Coursey thinks.

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.


“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.

Optimizing DOS and the BIOS, plus new iMacs

Optimizing DOS (Or: A New Use for Ancient Equipment). I was thinking yesterday, I wished I had a computer that could just hold disk images and do data recovery. Then I remembered I had a DECpc 320P laptop laying under my desk. I cranked it up. MS-DOS 5, 20 MHz 386sx, 80-meg drive, 6 MB RAM, grayscale VGA display. So I installed Norton Utilities 8, the main thing I wanted to run (I had a retail box sitting on my shelf), then of course I set out to optimize it. Optimizing DOS is really easy: it’s just a question of disk optimization and memory management. I cleaned up the root directory, pulled the extraneous files in the C:\DOS directory (the .cpi files, all the .sys files, all the .bas files). Then I ran Speed Disk, setting it to sort directory entries by size in descending order, put directories first, and do full optimization. It took about 30 minutes. If I’d been really bored I could have mapped out what executables are most important to me and put those first. Since DOS doesn’t track file access dates it can’t automatically put your frequently accessed files first like Speed Disk for Windows does.

Of course when I installed Norton Utilities 8 I installed NDOS, its command.com replacement. Built-in command history, improved resident utilities, and thanks to its memory management, it actually uses far less conventional memory (but more memory total) than command.com. That’s OK; with 6 MB of RAM I can afford to give up a fair bit of extended memory for better functionality.

Once I was happy with all that, I also attacked the startup files. I started off with a basic config.sys:

device=c:\dos\emm386.exe noems

Then I went into autoexec.bat, consolidated the PATH statements into one (it read: PATH C:\WINDOWS;C:\DOS;C:\DOS\u;C:\MOUSE) and added the prefix LH to all lines that ran TSRs or device drivers (such as MOUSE.EXE). Upon further reflection, I should have moved the Mouse directory into C:\DOS to save a root directory entry.

I added the NCACHE2 disk cache to autoexec.bat– NCACHE2 /ext=4096 /optimize=s /usehigh=on /a a c /usehma=on /multi=on. That turns on multitasking, enables caching of both C: and A:, tells it to use 4 MB of memory, use high memory, and use extended memory. My goal was to use as much memory as prudently as possible, since I’d be using this just for DOS (and mosly for running Norton Utilities).

I also set up a 512K RAMdisk using RAMDRIVE.SYS (devicehigh=c:\dos\ramdrive.sys 512 128 4). Then I added these lines to autoexec.bat:

md d:\temp
set tmp=d:\temp
set temp=d:\temp

Now when an app wants to write temp files, it does it to a RAMdisk. The other parameters tell it to use 128K sectors to save space, and put 4 entries in the root directory, also to save space. With DOS 5, that was the minimum. I don’t need any more than one, since I’m making a subdirectory. I could just point the temp directory to the root of D:, but I’d rather have dynamic allocation of the number of directory entries. This setting is more versatile–if I need two big files in the temp directory, I’m not wasting space on directory entries. If on the other hand I need tons of tiny files, I’m guaranteed not to run out of entries.

It’s not a barn burner by any stretch, but it’s reasonably quick considering its specs. Now when someone trashes a floppy disk, I can just throw it in the 320P, run Disk Doctor and Disktool on it (and in a pinch, Norton Disk Editor), copy the data to the HD, then throw the recovered data onto a new, freshly formatted floppy. I’ll only use it a couple of times a year, but when I need such a beast, I need it badly. And if I have the need to run some other old obscure DOS program that won’t run on newer machines, the 320P can come to my rescue again too. It runs the software well, it boots in seconds–what more can I ask?

I could have done a couple more things, such as a  screen accelerator and a keyboard accelerator . Maybe today if I have time.

I was tempted to put Small Linux ( http://www.superant.com/smalllinux/ ) on it, but frankly, DOS 5 and Norton Utilities 8 is more useful to me. I’m not sure what I’d do with a non-networkable Linux box with only 6 MB RAM and a monochrome display.

A useful (but unfortunately dated) link. I stumbled across this yesterday: The BIOS Survival Guide , a nicely-done guide to BIOS settings. Unfortunately it stopped being maintained in 1997, so it’s most useful for tweaking very old PCs. Still, it’s better than nothing, and most modern PCs still have most of these settings. And reading this does give you a prayer of understanding the settings in a modern PC.

If you want to optimize your BIOS, this is about as good a starting point as you’re going to find online for free. For more recent systems, you’ll be better served by The BIOS Companion, written by Phil Croucher (one of the co-authors of this piece.) You can get a sample from that book at http://www.electrocution.com/biosc.htm .

New iMac flavors. Steve Jobs unveiled the new iMacs this week. The new flavors: Blue Dalmation and Flower Power. Yes, they’re as hideous as they sound. Maybe worse. Check the usual news outlets. They’d go great in a computer room with a leopard-skin chair, shag carpet, and lava lamps. And don’t forget the 8-track cranking out Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead tunes.

I think the outside-the-box look of Mir, the PC Gatermann and I built as a Linux gateway (see yesterday), is far more tasteful–and that’s not exactly the best idea we ever had.


Ah yes, a sequel. But this sequel’s not as long as yesterday’s, to be sure, because I’ve got an 8:30 meeting this morning and I’m most definitely not awake. We’ll be revisiting this topic soon.

My longtime friend Steve DeLassus wrote in yesterday (yet another e-mail message I haven’t responded to or even acknowledged), voicing objection to my implication that Steve Jobs innovates more than Bill Gates. Well, if the use of tacky transluscent plastic on computers is your idea of innovation–I had toys in the 1970s made of translucent plastic so you could see the multicolored gears and motors inside–then, sure.

That’s not really my idea of innovation. No, Jobs is a lot like Gates. He knows a good idea when he steals it. Sometimes. Both of them have stolen some good ideas, and both of them have stolen ideas that never should have been thought of in the first place. Anyway, there’ll be more on that later, because he raised some good points, coming from the angle of a software developer (that’s what he is, after all) and maybe I’ll raise some decent points in response, from the sysadmin’s and end-user’s standpoint (because that’s what I am, after all) but not right now because I’m out of time. Look for that tomorrow, I guess.



Fatal Exception Error

Ahem. Dan Bowman decided to rile me up yesterday by sending me this link.  What is it? An allegation that the press kisses up to the likes of Larry Ellison, Scott McNealy, and my all-time favorites, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. They put them on the front page at least once a year and don’t call them on their lies because then they wouldn’t pose for photographers.

There’s a big difference between journalism and PR. Journalism reports the facts. PR casts personalities in the best possible light. What Dave Winer was describing yesterday isn’t journalism, it’s PR. And that’s why I read a lot fewer newspapers and magazines than some people might think a professional writer would.

I interviewed a few people in my days as a newspaper writer. (That photo up in the left corner is the photograph of a 21-year-old crime reporter for the Columbia Missourian newspaper. I scanned it off my press pass.) You’d better believe I hacked some people off. Did I give a rip what the county prosecutor thought of me, or the things I wrote? No. He had to talk to me. Sure, there was a competing newspaper in town (that’s a long story why a town the size of Columbia, Mo., has two papers), but he felt like he had to talk to me anyway. If I cast him in an unfair light, well, that was what the editor was for. Or he’d go tell my rival at the other paper how unfair I was. He’d listen.

I didn’t kiss up to RPs either. (That’s jargon. It means “real people.”) Once I covered the story of a separatist who was living about 15 miles north of Columbia. Now, this guy was one of the biggest looney tunes I ever talked to, but he did have a couple of good points. Everyone does. Even Steve Jobs. (He’s right when he says Microsoft doesn’t innovate, for instance.) But this guy was a criminal, convicted of a DWI. His solution rather than to pay the fine was to withdraw from the union, declare himself sovereign, and declare war on the United States. Really. He also placed liens on the property of everyone he didn’t like–city officials, judges… I believe he demanded payment in gold. He made a lot of people really nervous. He didn’t like me or the story I printed all that much, so he never talked to me again after that. He did get one of his cronies to call me up at the newsroom and threaten me with bodily injury though. (I guess he decided it wasn’t worth it to place a lien on my 1992 Dodge Spirit, or maybe he couldn’t track down that piece of personal property.) So I told my editor, carried around a can of mace for the next few months, and reminded myself that the guy could barely move, whereas I was 21 and still in decent enough shape to play softball well, and the cops all knew me and they knew him.

Oh, and when we did need to get a quote from him after that, I just grabbed the best-looking girl in the newsroom at the given time, asked her to turn the charm on, call him, and talk to him in as soothing and polite a voice as possible. They’d usually be good for about a one-minute conversation, which was enough to say we had talked to the man. By that time, I’d talked to him enough and talked to enough of his separatist allies to know how he thought and put what little we could get out of him in context. Plus I still had my notes from our original interview. It’s amazing how you can milk multiple stories out of a single interview when you have to.

We couldn’t get that separatist to pose for pictures either, needless to say. So we’d find out when he was scheduled to be in court, and one of our photographers would camp out on the courthouse steps and shoot half a roll of film as he walked past. Plus we maintained file photos for just those occasions when someone wouldn’t talk to us, or we couldn’t arrange to have a fresh shot taken due to the lack of a photographer’s availability.

I handled elected officials the same way. I wrote an extremely unflattering story about then-Gov. Mel Carnahan in early 1994. Carnahan wouldn’t talk to me; one of his aides denied the entire story, but I had half a dozen sources from both political parties who gladly talked to me. And a story that I wrote about former Rep. Harold Volkmer (D-Mo.) in 1996 undoubtedly hacked off more than a few Republicans.

So you hack off Bill Gates or another Silicon Valley personality. Big fat hairy deal. There’s a solution to that problem. Show up at the next speech he gives. Snap three rolls’ worth of pictures during his speech, each in the middle of saying a word. In half or even two thirds of the shots you get, he’ll look like the world’s biggest idiot. Find the least flattering picture, then run it really big. That’ll make him even madder. But remember, he can’t win. The press never loses. Freedom of the press is for those who own one, and, well, most of those guys don’t. Those who do don’t have as big an audience.

Or, if you’re not quite that mad (or your editor isn’t), run a file photo. Run a nice-looking one if you’re somewhat interested in making peace. Run one from the 1970s if you’re less so.

If the press quits kissing Bill Gates’ butt (and those of his sworn mortal enemies), they’ll lose a few interviews and photo ops. But what else will happen is the papers who quit will gain some credibility. Not all will fall into line, at least not at first. But those papers’ reputations as just a cog in the Microsoft PR machine will grow, and it will cost them. So slowly they will fall into line. And Gates will eventually realize that he has to talk to the press, even those he doesn’t like, because that’s the only way you have any control at all over what goes into the press. If you don’t talk, the press has total control.

In journalism school, one of the things they taught me was your integrity is far too high a price to pay for an interview. Your ultimate loyalty isn’t to your sources, but rather, your readers. But not everyone went where I went, and not everyone paid attention in class. But if the computer press would take that advice to heart, eventually we might start seeing less gum-flapping and more action. And that can only mean better products.


Fatal Exception Error


AMD and DDR. Good news for hardware enthusiasts wanting AMD-based DDR systems. Via shipped its 266 MHz DDR chipset Monday. This is good news because Via can in all likelihood supply their chipsets in larger quantities than AMD can or will. It’ll take a little while for the KT266 to appear in earnest, but this should soon silence the DIY crowd, who’ve been protesting very loudly that they can’t get boards or chips. Virtually all of Gigabyte’s 760 boards are going to Compaq and Micron, which does make sense. Compaq and Micron will order boards and 266 MHz FSB chips in quantities of hundreds of thousands. The shops catering to the DIY crowd won’t. Given a limited supply, the big fish will get first dibs–it’s easier and less expensive to deal with two big customers than with a hundred tiny ones.

Infoworld. I think my Infoworld subscription has finally lapsed. I’ve been trying to let it lapse for months. I’d get a “This is your last issue if you don’t renew NOW!” warning attached to the cover, which would then be followed by six issues or so, before I’d get another warning. I think I’ve been getting these since last June.

Well, today I went to Infoworld’s site, and I remember why I’ve been trying to let my subscription lapse. They’re bleeding pundits. Q&A maestro Mark Pace quit. Then his partner, Brooks Talley, quit. Bob Metcalfe retired. Sean Dugan quit. Now, Stuart McClue and Joel Scambray are quitting, to be replaced by P.J. Connolly. They tried Connolly as a columnist once before. That experiment lasted about a month, probably because he wrote more about the Grateful Dead than he did about the subject at hand. (Which made me self-conscious about mentioning Aimee Mann and the Kansas City Royals too frequently, but I generally don’t mention them on a weekly basis, so I’m probably OK.)

Their best remaining columnists are Brian Livingston, Nicholas Petreley, and Ed Foster. Livingston has a lot of useful tips, while Foster is genuinely entertaining and provides a useful service to readers. Infoworld’s Robert X. Cringely isn’t quite as entertaining or as insightful as PBS’ Robert X. Cringely, but he’s usually worth a quick read. But there are half as many reasons to read the magazine now as there once were.

Amazon. Amazon’s under fire again from a number of directions, including Ed Foster, and I can’t say I’m in love with all of their practices, but I can’t help but notice something. From my limited vantage point, it would seem consumers don’t really seem to care all that much about Amazon’s business practices. I provided links to buy my book elsewhere, but the sales rankings at the other places are pathetic even after doing so. Sales at Borders and B&N are nearly non-existent. Sales at Fatbrain are sporadic at best. But there are a handful of venues where it sells well. The used places sell what copies they can get very quickly. And when Amazon can manage to allow people to order it, it sells very well. If they can’t get a used copy cheap, people would rather buy from Amazon, period. And they’ll even pay a higher price at Amazon than they will elsewhere. A number of people paid full cover price from Amazon off links from this site, even when it was available for less elsewhere. (Amazon seems to be currently selling it for $19.95 or so.)

Some people swear by Apple. I swear at Apple. Apparently Steve Jobs does too . (Not for the easily offended.)