Dave vs. Mmm-Bop

NPR recently released its Songs of the Summer, which invokes memories of summers past by conjuring up (or dredging up, in some cases) songs you couldn’t go anywhere without hearing. Songs like “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley (2006), or “Hips Don’t Lie” by Shakira (also 2006). Or the bane of 1991, the unforgettable “Summertime” by the equally unforgettable DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince.

In 1997, one of the songs of the summer was “MMMBop” by boy-band Hanson. And mercifully, I avoided hearing it. I remember the summer of 1997. While everyone else was listening to that, I was listening to aging bands like The Cure and Echo and the Bunnymen, and that habit saved me. I managed to make it until 2004 without hearing that boy-band staple. It’s an achievement I’m proud of. Read more

How to make your laptop more reliable (or at least die trying)

People have been asking me a lot of notebook/laptop questions lately, so I figure it’s probably a good time for me to write about them. I’ll tackle reliability first, then I’ll tackle upgrades. Here’s how you can make your laptop more reliable.

About five years ago, I wrote and published a newspaper column titled, “10 Reasons You Shouldn’t Buy a Laptop.” I still think the best way to get a reliable computer is to skip the laptop and get a desktop, but since people are going to buy laptops anyway, here’s what I’ve learned about keeping them reliable.

Buy the extended warranty. My normal response when people ask me if I want these is to say, “I fix these things for a living. I am an extended warranty.”But most laptops have no technician-serviceable parts inside and few technician-replaceable parts inside, let alone user-serviceable stuff. Aside from swapping a hard drive, RAM, or optical drive, a laptop might as well be a car with the hood welded shut.

Plus, a common malady of laptops is a busted screen. The manufacturer’s warranty won’t honor that. I wouldn’t cover it if I were offering extended warranties either, but most extended warranties do. If the warranty costs $150 or less and covers a busted screen, get it. At $300 it’s a tougher sell, seeing as entry-level laptops cost about $600, but I’d even think about them at that price.

Brand matters less than it used to. I used to look at PC Magazine and PC World reliability ratings. Usually people who asked already had their mind made up and bought something other than what I recommended anyway (and then regretted it), but the difference in manufacturers is evaporating. Most laptops are designed by the same engineers and made in the same factories these days regardless of whose name goes on it. And most support is outsourced to India too. I specifically recommended IBM primarily because their support was still U.S.-based, but with the sale of its PC business, that could change at any time now.

So no matter what you buy, you’ll get something of questionable reliability supported by technicians of questionable experience and ability, not that that’s going to matter much because you won’t be able to understand him or her anyway. If the terrible VOIP connection to India will get you if the accent doesn’t.

Buy a really good laptop bag. My laptop has lasted five years. I know at least one person who knows as much or more about computers than I do, but his laptops generally have a shorter life expectancy. The only difference I can see is the laptop bag.

He (along with everyone else I know) uses the typical laptop bags. My bag is an oversized, overweight leather bag. When the bag hits something, it usually leaves a mark. It weighs more than the laptop does, but seems to do an outstanding job of protecting it. I live with the weight. I’d rather have a laptop that works, and besides, I can use the exercise. I’m not exactly buff.

The bag discovery isn’t anything I can take credit for, by the way. The manufacturer messed up the order and included that bag with the laptop as appeasement. So a $150 bag to protect a laptop, whether it costs $600 or $4500, seems to be a good investment. Remember, you can always use the bag for the next laptop, so you only have to buy it once.

On the other extreme, I’ve seen people carry laptops in plastic grocery bags. They deserve all the troubles they get. That’s usually a lot, if you’re wondering.

Don’t put your laptop in overhead storage bins on airplanes. This should go without saying. But I’ve seen people with PhDs do it, so maybe that’s a truth that’s only obvious to computer techs. When the other stuff in the compartment shifts, the bag will get crushed, and that’ll be the end of your laptop screen. When the screen breaks, it’s usually cheaper to buy a new laptop.

Take the laptop as carry-on luggage, and stow it underneath your seat. There’s no other safe place for a laptop on an airplane.

Be aware of the hidden costs. Assuming your laptop makes it beyond its warranty period, there are two things that are as certain as death and taxes: The battery is going to die and need to be replaced, and the same goes for the hard drive.

Batteries aren’t cheap. If it’s under $100, count yourself lucky. And don’t be shocked if it’s $200. Don’t bother buying an extra one now to save for later; it’ll be dead by the time you need it. You might like having a spare to keep charged and swap in when the other one dies though.

Fortunately, laptop hard drives have gotten cheap. You can still spend $200 on a laptop hard drive if you want, but Newegg.com has drives starting in the $60 range.

Make backups. Buy yourself a nice, big memory stick and copy over anything you care about (certainly your My Documents folder at the very least) every day. Laptop hard drives die all the time and usually without warning. So be ready for it. Or get yourself an external USB 2.0 hard drive. A copy of Ghost or a similar program for making images of the internal drive is also useful–that way, when the drive dies, you don’t have to spend all weekend reloading everything.

Get a good laptop surge protector. A portable single-outlet surge protector sells for $10-$20. Get one and use it. Those summertime hiccups that cause your lights to flicker aren’t good for your laptop either, and laptops are a lot more expensive than light bulbs.

Most people buy APC units, but Belkin offers a unit that costs a little less and offers a lot more protection. Expect to pay anywhere from $7-$20. It’s money well spent–you’re protecting a delicate machine that costs several times that.

When looking at a surge protector, more joules (the equivalent of one amp traveling through one ohm of resistance for one second) is better. And if you use the modem in the laptop, don’t forget to plug it into the modem outlet in the surge protector, since surges coming through the phone line can damage the laptop and, in my experience at least, are more likely to do harm.

What day is it again?

Passing a few minutes before a movie started tonight, my girlfriend and I went into a nearby store to look around. And what did we find?

Christmas stuff.

Am I smoking crack, or is it still August?I probably shouldn’t encourage them, but I bought some stuff. Many of those collectible holiday village sets happen to be sized about right for O scale Lionel trains. Those that aren’t are usually sized about right for HO scale. I doubt it’s an accident. Around 100 years ago, J. Lionel Cowen convinced everyone that a train belonged around the Christmas tree. These days, ceramic villages and figures are more popular than the trains, and the big brands are every bit as overpriced as anything Lionel or MTH have made in the past decade, but they’re still sized so they’ll look right if a Lionel train escapes from the attic and ventures into the neighborhood. New traditions have a better chance of usurping older traditions if they fit in with them first.

These weren’t Lemax or Department 56. They were cheap knockoffs. This particular series of knockoffs pairs up O scale-sized figures with HO scale-sized buildings. Not my thang. I’m anything but a scale bigot but half-sized buildings get on my nerves.

But I bought a few figures. They came four to a package for a dollar. You’re lucky to pay less than $4 per figure at a hobby shop. For my four bucks, I got 16 figures.

Yes, the figures are dressed in heavy coats and there’s snow on the bases they stand on. So I won’t have them on the train layout at the same time as my open-top convertible 1:43-scale cars. But the availability of the figures makes it just as cheap and easy to make winter scenes, just like the 50-cent Homies figures make it cheap and easy to make summertime scenes.

Useless trivia answer: If you’ve ever wondered where 1:43 scale toy cars come from, they come from trains as well. The British decided that O scale should be 1:43, and Hornby decided it would be nice to be able to sell cars with which boys could populate their cities. The cars became popular toys in their own right, and the 1:43 scale was copied by other companies, so 1:43 scale cars lived on long after Hornby stopped selling O scale trains.

End useless trivia.

Where was I? Oh yeah. Useless Christmas merchandising in August. I decided I wanted 16 vaguely O scale figures in winter dress more than I wanted $4.24.

But I passed on the wreaths and the holly. I can’t think of any good use for those in my basement.

Setting the MTU automatically in Debian

I run this website off a server running on an ADSL line in a spare bedroom of my home. That causes some weird issues from time to time, like the time I had to figure outĀ setting the MTU automatically in Debian.

Why Debian?

My server of choice is Debian, because it’s Linux which makes it fast, reliable, and cheap, and Debian makes it pretty easy to install only what you want and need, so I can have a server OS that’s only using 125 megabytes of disk space, leaving most of my drive available for content. I like having space for content.

This will work in Debian-derived systems like Ubuntu and Linux Mint too.

PPPoE issues

Now, the downside of modern DSL: Southwestern Bell, like most ISPs these days, uses PPPoE. So not only can your IP address change with no notice whatsoever, you also have the hassles of PPPoE. With the default settings, some unknown but noticeably large percentage of web users won’t be able to access a web server running on a DSL connection using PPPoE.

The reason is MTU and fragmentation.Yes, you remember MTU if you used Windows 9x back in the bad old days of dialup. Tweakers would play around with the MTU settings in hopes of squeezing just a little more performance out of their 56K modems, and they would swear that one utility did a better job than any others, or that this MTU setting was optimal and the conventional wisdom of 576 stank… Remember those flamewars?

Well, with broadband, theoretically the right setting to use is 1500. Trouble is, PPPoE steals some of that packet space, and the result is something worse than slow speeds. In some scenarios, you completely vanish.

Setting the MTU

The way to make my website reappear is to issue the command ifconfig eth0 mtu 1472. The exact number doesn’t seem to matter much. It appears for me that 1472 is the maximum I can use. (It can vary from ISP to ISP, in case you’re wondering.)

Excellent. Problem solved.

Not so fast. Problem solved until my server reboots. Linux doesn’t need to reboot, right? Right you are. But here in St. Louis, the power likes to hiccup a lot, especially in the summertime. My server is on a UPS, but every once in a while, in the middle of the night, there must be a long enough power failure that my UPS dies, because every once in a while I fall off the ‘net again.

To set the default MTU permanently–that is, to change it automatically on bootup–one normally would change the ifup script or the rc.startup script. Except Debian doesn’t have either of those.

My kludgy solution: cron. Log in as root, issue the command crontab -e, and add the following line:

*/2 * * * * ifconfig eth0 mtu 1472

With this in place, only seconds will elapse between the time my power comes back on for good and I reappear on the ‘net. I can live with that.

More Debian tricks

If you change your network card or motherboard, you don’t have to reinstall Debian but you may lose eth0. Here’s how to get eth0 back. And here’s how to get a list of the installed packages in Debian.

Why is there a stigma about meeting people online?

Steve DeLassus just made a funny observation to me. He said when he talks about me, sometimes people consider meeting and communicating with people online as somehow abnormal. And they tell him via e-mail.
My coworker, Murel, has told me several times that when he was my age, the last place he would want to say he met someone was in a bar. Without making any moral judgments, I would rate the likelihood of me meeting someone in a bar and finding the right stuff for a serious, long-term relationship as very low. There are numerous qualities and values on my must-have list that you’re just not very likely to find in that kind of environment. And most of the things on my can’t-stand list that are very easy to find there.

But what’s the stigma about meeting people online? Steve DeLassus and I met on a bulletin board back in 1989 or 1990. We both had Commodores and modems, and it was summertime and we had time on our hands. The closest thing we had to the Internet in our homes those days was CompuServe. People who didn’t want to pay for CompuServe dialed into BBSs instead. I have one other friend from that timeframe that I talk to at all, and that’s about once a year. But Steve’s been one of my best friends for a very long time.

I met Dan Bowman online. I fired off a rant to Jerry Pournelle about alternative operating systems, and–these were the days when one could post an e-mail address on a Web site without fear of having 250 spam messages in your inbox the next day–Dan replied to me. And we quickly found some common ground. Dan noticed that at the time I was working for a Lutheran organization, and his dad was Lutheran. The result was, once again, a lasting and very valuable friendship.

It’s true that online you can pretend to be othing that you’re not, but it’s hard. Eventually the truth comes out. Some people are fooled for a long time, but every relationship I’ve made online that later fell apart, whether it was of romantic nature or strictly friendship, had one thing in common: My initial impression of the person was slightly wrong.

Funny. When I think of relationships that started in the physical world that fell apart, the same thing is true.

Now, some people are better at talking and listening than they are at reading. As a journalist, I had to be able to look at available information and take educated guesses about what was missing. No, not so I could print those along with the facts, but so I could go and find the rest of the story. As a computer tech, I’m constantly faced with solving problems for which there is little information. I can tell a lot about a person by their writing style and by the questions they ask me. Talking on the phone and later meeting in person tells me some more, but for me, that’s the optimal order.

And it’s easier for me to open up in writing than it is to just talk. It’s easier for me to be real and transparent and honest with someone I barely know when I’m not watching their expression or hearing their voice. Once I’m comfortable with the person, we can talk, but it’s pretty obvious when I get into an uncomfortable situation, and my discomfort can tend to overshadow anything that I might say. Plus, in writing, it matters a lot less how long it takes me to find the right words to say what I’m thinking.

For someone who’s a better listener than reader, the optimal order may be different. That doesn’t make this new way of doing things any less valid.

Can I ever buy a record again?

I read something today that tells an awful lot about the record industry, and it’s not a pretty picture.
Usually when I write a Wikipedia entry, it’s because something popped up on my watchlist, I read it, and found a reference to something that hadn’t been written yet. Today, a link to Doug Hopkins showed up, so I wrote it. It would be a nice break from writing journalism history, which I’m more qualified to write about, but pop culture is more fun.

Doug Hopkins isn’t a household name, but if you’ve listened to popular music for the past decade, you’ve heard his songs. He was the songwriting talent behind the Gin Blossoms, an alt-rock band from Arizona that rocketed onto the landscape in 1993 and then faded fast.

There isn’t much information out there about Hopkins now, but it’s a typical garage band story: Hopkins founded a band in 1987, the lineup shuffled a bit, they spent a few years writing songs, recorded a one-off album that they sold themselves that contained early versions of what would become all their major hits, then they got discovered, and in 1990 they signed a big-time record deal. They recorded an EP that went nowhere, then recorded a full-length debut, only there was a problem. Hopkins, for whatever reason, couldn’t handle the pressure. He was a self-destructive type anyway, prone to depression and alcoholism and had first attempted suicide way back in 1983. He’d get nervous so he’d drink, then he’d go into the studio and flub up his guitar parts so he’d drink some more to feel better, and then he’d go in the next day and be even worse. Supposedly most of the guitar work on the songs that made the Gin Blossoms famous was actually Jesse Valenzuela, who was normally the rhythm guitarist, and little of Hopkins’ playing actually appeared on the album.

Eventually it got to a point where the band was wondering if they still had a record deal, and Hopkins became the catch. If Hopkins was in the band, they didn’t. If he was out, they did. So in April 1992 they put Hopkins on a plane back to Arizona and had someone back there tell him he was fired. They hired one of their groupies to play lead guitar, paid him half of the salary due to Hopkins ($760 a month–Hopkins got half and his replacement got half), and went on tour to support their album.

A year later, “Hey Jealousy” was being played on every modern rock station in the country, and by summertime, it would be on MTV and on the mainstream rock stations as well. I remember I couldn’t go anywhere in 1993 and not hear that song. Not that I’m complaining.

The deposed Hopkins wrote a few new songs and formed a new band, then another, but he was bitter. His friends were getting famous off his songs and downplaying his role in their creation, while he played small-time bars in and around Phoenix. He wrote a few pop songs for other people to try to make ends meet. But in late 1993, he started to self-destruct. In November, his girlfriend left. One Friday in early December, he went into a detox center for an evaluation, and on his way home, he stopped at a pawn shop and bought a gun. His sister came over that night and found the phone book open to gun shop ads. When she said goodbye to him for the last time, she knew it was the last time.

You probably can guess the rest. One of his new bandmates found him at 1:15 Sunday morning in his apartment.

The guy was obviously self-destructive, and everyone who knew him knew it and tried to get him help, and, having had my own struggles with depression, I know you can’t be helped until you want help. His band members knew it–when you listen to the lyrics, the the Gin Blossoms songs on New Miserable Experience that weren’t written by Hopkins seem like they were written about him–and his family members knew it.

But on top of that, he had to deal with the question of how you pay your bills. At least when I struggled with depression, I didn’t have anyone hounding me for money I didn’t have. I was pulling in a couple thousand a month before taxes–not huge money, but enough to live on. This guy was making $380 a month, plus whatever he could manage to get from songwriting gigs and playing bars.

After his death, Hopkins’ lawyer guessed that his future songwriting royalties would be worth at least $500,000. Not bad for a two-hit wonder, and who knows how much staying power he was anticipating. (The two hits the Gin Blossoms would have after NME weren’t written by Hopkins.)

So Hopkins had a solid financial future ahead of him and anyone could see it. But he died with $498 in his pocket. He had no money in the bank.

There’s a word for that. Exploitation. Hopkins’ depression made for some good songs and some good money, but not for him.

And I’m supposed to run out and buy a bunch of records? When this is how the people who make them get treated? I don’t think so.

Drowning my sorrows in cholesterol and punk

I can wait a long, long time
Before I hear another love song.
— Sisters of Mercy

It was a clear and muggy Thursday night, and I had a bad case of the blues. So I did what I usually do–I laid down until it went away. An hour and a half later, it was worse. So I got in my car and drove, intending to drown my sorrows.
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