My last day at Initech

OK, so I didn’t work for Initech. I couldn’t resist the Office Space reference. But as of 4:08PM CST yesterday, I am unemployed. Fortunately this time it’s only until 8:00AM CST on Monday.

I pretty much intended to just go in, clean out my desk, work as much as possible like I would any other day, and stay until someone came and told me it was time to leave.

But of course it wasn’t quite that simple.I did a lot of mundane stuff that morning, mostly because I’d been putting it off as long as possible. I signed in and took care of a couple of things. I answered a couple of questions (verbally) about some really old Microsoft patches and whether they were deployed. They were.

Around noon, I sent out a farewell e-mail message. A lot of people respond to those, as it turns out, so I’m glad I didn’t wait until later to send it. One of my managers wrote back and said, "We always knew if Dave was taking care of something, it would be done right and we didn’t have to worry about it."

That was nice to read. In this job, I tried to be as unassuming as possible. I think when your job is primarily security, the less notice you get, the better job you’re doing. One might think that a security guy who catches a hacker is a hero, but I think if you catch a hacker, that means you failed. The hacker should just bounce off the security measures you put up, and never get in in the first place.

Those Microsoft questions prompted more e-mail from me, a sort of final "state of the network" address if you will. Some questions will come up after I’m gone, and some of them could very well be in a year or two. Hopefully when that time comes, someone will remember that memo.

The morning came and went, as did part of the afternoon, before I knew what I was supposed to do to outprocess.

At 3 PM my boss called. I packed up my stuff one last time and met him in the parking lot. I handed over two of my badges, and he drove me to another building so I could turn in my laptop. I answered a question from a high-ranking manager about SecureCRT. He thanked me and assured me there were no hard feelings. A better opportunity came along and I took it. He said it’s happened to everyone.

From there I had to make one more trip to another office, in the next town over, to sign some papers and turn in the last of my ID badges.

The HR representative apologized for a couple of snags that happened in outprocessing. I shrugged. "At least I didn’t get a mysterious meeting request with only one other invitee, then walk in the door and find out I didn’t have a job anymore," I said. She gave an absolutely horrified look. "Happened to me a few years ago," I said.

It was pretty much the opposite of that Office Space scene. No being escorted out of the building. No suspicion. The funny thing was, until about 3 PM, I was nearly alone in the office. Most of my other coworkers hit the 40-hour mark early in the day, so they split around noon.

It wasn’t quite a matter of deleting my own accounts and then turning out the lights and locking the door behind myself, but it was the next closest thing.

It’s good to be trusted.

So on a crisp Friday afternoon in October, I hopped in my car, rolled the window down a little, and pulled onto I-64. Monday would come soon enough, but in this case, it would be a lot more than just the start of a new work week.

401(K) Paperwork

So I’m filling out 401(K) paperwork. I don’t like everything I see, but can live with it. I guess it’s what I don’t like that’s important. Or why I don’t like some things I see, that is.

Then again, some people may be wondering why I’m even investing at all.I wish I had a nickel for every time I heard someone say, "I’m going to reduce my 401(K) contributions because I’m not getting anything for them right now."

It’s when the market isn’t giving anything back that you want to be buying. Eventually it’s going to bounce back. Nobody knows when, or how high. This is a simplistic way of looking at it, but right now stocks cost about 2/3 what they cost a couple of years ago. There is no historical precedent for stock prices staying where they are now forever. Eventually they’re going to come back.

So we might as well enjoy being able to buy stock at 1997 prices while it lasts, then enjoy the big gains even more, when they eventually come.

The biggest quick gains are probably behind us, given that the Dow rallied about 50% already earlier this year. Fortunately, I was making 401(K) contributions at the time, so I got in on some of that action.

So the first question is when to invest. The answer is, continuously. Trying to time the market is a fun game, but you’ll be right just as often as you’re wrong–if you’re lucky. The problem with most investors is trying to be smarter than the market. The reality is that somewhere in the neighborhood of 90% of people who try to outsmart the market end up underperforming the market over the long term.

So if you’re willing to settle for average returns, you’ll automatically be in the 90th percentile. That’s not a bad place to be.

So, buy when you have money. Don’t worry about whether the market is up or down on payday when your contributions get deducted from your paycheck. Some days it’ll be up, some days it’ll be down, but you’re in the game. You’ll be right more often than you would be if you were trying to time things.

The second half to getting average returns is choosing what to invest in.

Most mutual funds are run by managers who are trying to outsmart the market. Some of them can give very good results in the near term. But they can just as easily lose your shirt for you.

Index funds mimic the market. Index funds invest in precisely the same companies that appear in the major market indexes, so they do whatever you hear on the news. As such, they need no managers, so none of your investment goes towards paying managers. That saves you money. And there’s a 90% chance those managers wouldn’t outperform your index fund anyway.

I invested my money in four funds: an index fund that tracks the S&P 500, a second fund that tracks the other 4,500 or so stocks that aren’t big enough to be in the S&P 500, an international fund, and a bond fund.

My best performer? The fund with the 4,500 pipsqueak companies. But next year it could be completely different.

The international fund is there to give me some aggressiveness. For most of my lifetime, the biggest growth has been happening outside of the United States, and that gives me a chance to benefit from it. Some years I’ll get big returns from it. Some years I’ll lose my shirt.

The bond fund is there for balance. Bonds are boring. They usually give slightly better returns than parking your money in CDs in the bank. The idea is that in years when stocks are down, having some money in bonds ensures you’ll get some growth. How much to put in bonds depends on how conservative or aggressive you want to be. The younger you are, the less you should park in bonds.

The next trick is to rebalance the portfolio. It’s only something you should do once or twice a year. But the idea is that you should decide how you want your investment to be allocated. 25% S&P 500, 25% other 4500, 25% international and 25% bonds may not be the ideal mix but it keeps things simple for this example. They’re not all going to perform equally. If you rebalance them, then you’ll end up naturally buying low and selling high. This builds in profit and keeps your portfolio from becoming too conservative or too aggressive.

This is a good thing, because our natural tendency with stocks and other investments is to buy high and sell low.

Rebalancing means you can benefit from volatility in the market. You’ll never be able to predict which is going to be your best investment and which will be your worst, but if you’re rebalancing, it doesn’t matter.

Follow this strategy and you aren’t guaranteed to double your money in roughly 7 years, but the odds are very much in your favor. You may even do it a little bit faster.

My dad had a very different philosophy. He tried to outperform the market, and took pride on the years that he did. But there were two problems with that. He spent hours every night watching investment shows and reading investment newspapers. It was like having a second job. Even Warren Buffett says you’re better off spending your time doing things that increase your earning power, so that you have more to invest, rather than trying to eke out a slightly higher return on investment.

The second problem is that he didn’t outperform the market every year. I don’t know all of the details and nobody does, but Dad had at least a couple of catastrophic losses in the years just before he died. I don’t know all of the details because it would be inappropriate–I was 17 years old when one of the losses happened. What I do know is that Dad wouldn’t let me invest in whatever he was investing in. That tells me he really knew better.

Settle for average, and you won’t make dumb decisions when you really know better.

I made my dumb decision in my 20s. A friend of Dad’s introduced me to a money manager soon after Dad died. At first the guy looked like a wizard. I sent him pretty much every spare dime I had for the first three years of my career. It wasn’t much, because I wasn’t making much, but the guy doubled my money in less than three years. I was convinced I would be a millionaire by 35.

The bottom fell out sometime in 2000. I didn’t lose it all, but I lost enough. Unfortunately, along the way he parked what was left in something that tied it up until age 59, and the returns don’t keep up with inflation. Swell.

The state of Missouri took away his license.

So I’m done trying to get better-than-average returns.

So what is it that I don’t like about my new company’s 401(K)? The investment options are more limited, and my pipsqueak 4500 fund isn’t one of the choices.

So I just do the best I can, mixing it up between the S&P 500, a bond fund, and an international fund. They’re paying me more than my former employer did, so Warren Buffett would approve.

Improving DSL speed

I found some DSL speed tips. They work. If you have DSL, you should read them and do the same.I went from speeds all over the map to a fairly consistent 600 kbps just running a new CAT5 line for DSL. Replacing the cheap, flat, old-fashioned phone cord running from my modem to the phone jack and the other cheapie in my patch panel with UTP phone cords boosted me another 30-50 kbps. That extra boost varies, but it’s something, and I’m glad to be consistently above 600 kbps now.

Finding UTP phone cords is a challenge. Supposedly Lowe’s has them but I can’t verify that. I had one that I wasn’t using for some insane reason. I found another one at a garage sale, obviously from a DSL installation kit. I don’t remember what I paid for it, only that it was a lot less than it’s worth to me. Digging through boxes of random cables at garage sales can pay dividends.

The easiest way to get them is probably to make your own from scrap lengths of CAT5/5e/6 cable. Just crimp RJ11 modular plugs onto the ends instead of RJ45. Radio Shack sells a package of 10 plugs for $6. Overpriced, but convenient. There’s always a Radio Shack nearby.

Belkin sells a special shielded twisted pair modem cable as an “Internet cable,” for around $20. I’m sure it’s a very good cable, but it’s not worth 20 bucks.

When looking at a store, as a general rule, flat cables are always bad, but a round cable stands a chance of being good.

If you have a fairly new house, chances are your phone wiring is pretty good, in which case the most important thing is getting a good phone cord. If you have a house built in the ’60s like me, with phone wire run after the fact by a weekend handyman who either didn’t know or didn’t care how to avoid interference on the wires, that’s another story. If there’s 30 feet of bad wire between the telco and the modem, the quality of that last 6 feet of wire doesn’t make much difference.

While you’re at it, you might as well replace all your phone cords with these higher-quality models. Your voice calls will be clearer, and it eliminates the possibility of those cables introducing interference into the line. That interference shouldn’t reach the modem, but “shouldn’t” is no guarantee.

How to make a really nice $500 computer

Steve Jobs: “We don’t
know how to make a $500 computer that’s not a piece of junk.”

Steve Jobs is either lying or lazy. I’m guessing he just doesn’t want to play in that space. Of course, you probably
already knew that.

Here’s how to make a really, really nice $500 computer. All prices are
from Newegg.Intel Atom 330 motherboard/CPU combo: $82
Kingston or Crucial 2 GB DIMM: $20
OCZ Vertex 30 GB SSD: $129
2.5″-3.5″ HDD adapter: $19
Lite-on 22X SATA DVD burner: $23
Foxconn MicroATX case with 300W power supply: $40
Windows XP Home OEM $90

So there you have it. $403 before shipping. You still need a keyboard
and mouse, but there should be enough after shipping to get something,
assuming you don’t already have one. While this system won’t burn the
house down, the dual-core Atoms are surprisingly quick and more than
adequate unless you’re heavily into gaming or media production. But if
you’re into those things you aren’t in the market for a $500 computer

The Intel board is unglamorous but very dependable. It also draws very
little power and runs very quietly. It’s great for word processing and
e-mail, adequate for multimedia, and it’ll play non-3D games just
fine. Other companies are making Atom boards, but I’d stick with Intel this time. ECS doesn’t have a history of producing top-quality boards, and I’ve never heard of the outfit making the other Atom boards Newegg sells. Plus, I think the non-Intel boards have Atom 230 (single-core) CPUs in them. It’s worth paying the extra $15-$20 to get that second core.

The SSD will make this computer outperform many more expensive
computers. But more importantly, it won’t crash. Anyone who’s gotten an
untimely phone call from a relative wondering why the computer won’t
start up and where all those digital pictures went will appreciate that.
A conventional hard drive would cost as little as $40 and gives more
space, but 30 gigs will last a while with a casual user. And the lack of
disk crashes is probably worth the extra money. Between the SSD and the
Intel board, the system will be very quiet, which is probably worth
something. In this era of PCs that sound like wind tunnels, you don’t
really appreciate whisper-quiet PCs until you have one.

The memory probably isn’t totally critical, but when you can get Kingston or Crucial for 20 bucks, it makes sense to do it. They’ve both been around forever and have a long history of making quality memory. There’s no reason to put anything other than a 2-gig stick in this board’s single DIMM slot. The system will take 2 gigs, and 2 gigs is cheap.

The rest of the parts are nothing special. Lite-on makes reasonably good
optical drives and has been for some time now, but if something else happens to be on sale for under $20,
or something else happens to be available with free shipping, that’s fine. You
won’t lose anything by using it. Foxconn cases look reasonably
professional without costing a lot of money, and their power supplies
are decent enough. An Atom board with an SSD won’t tax any power supply very hard anyway. You can buy a
cheaper case if you want, but be sure to read the reviews. Some cheap
cases are made of really light-gauge metal and are prone to cut you.
I’ve never had that problem with Foxconns.

The other trick with cases is to watch shipping prices. For whatever
reason, Newegg charges more to ship some cases than others, so it could
very well be worth your while to look at cases that cost $5-$10 more.
Shipping could actually make them cheaper.

You can get the proper mini-ITX case for boards like this, but you’ll pay more for it. Unless you need the really small form factor, it makes sense to just use a cheap and common micro-ATX case. The bonus is that you get some expansion space if you want to add another optical drive, card readers for your digital camera memory, or stuff like that.

And XP Home is XP Home. Vista may run on this system with 2 GB of RAM
and an SSD, but seriously, does Vista do anything that XP doesn’t?
Especially Vista Home vs. XP Home? I’ll stick with the old reliable. I
happen to know from experience that XP Home runs very nicely on a system
with 2 GB of RAM and an SSD.

This particular system will perform nicely, will be extremely reliable
(it wouldn’t surprise me if it still functioned perfectly fine 5 or 10
years from now), and depending on the case, can be easy on the eyes. And
if you want to get swanky, you can skip the cheap case, get an $80
Lian-Li and a separate sale power supply, and have a great-looking PC
while still staying south of $600.

Any way you do it, this system will cost more than a $399 mass-market PC. But I think it’s more than worth the $50-$70 premium.

Since nobody’s talking yet about the Coco Crisp trade, I will

Today the Royals traded a relief pitcher to the Boston Red Sox for center fielder Coco Crisp.

Crisp is a bit overrated, as most Boston players are, but I have to say I like this trade on several levels.For one, Crisp may or may not be a gold glove-caliber outfielder, but the Royals of recent years have had poor defense. The great Royals teams were built on George Brett’s bat, good defense, good pitching, and speed.

Crisp and David DeJesus give the Royals the best outfield defense they’ve had since the days when Johnny Damon and Carlos Beltran patrolled the outfield. (Yes, the Royals had those two at the same time. Yes, they were good then. No, the Royals weren’t, because they didn’t have any pitching.)

But beyond that, Crisp can hit around .270 and steal 20 bases. It’s been years since they’ve had anyone who could do that. Crisp may even pop 15 home runs, which would be welcome, but not necessary. Maybe outside the limelight of Boston, he’s the guy who hit .300 with 15 home runs in Cleveland. But even the guy who hit .264 in 2006 to Boston’s disappointment is much better than their other options.

The knock on Crisp is that he doesn’t draw a lot of walks, but his on base percentage is close to league average. League-average is a huge improvement for the Royals, so there’s no reason not to take that.

The Royals traded a quality relief pitcher to get him, but relief pitchers are fickle. Some have long careers, some have one good year and then turn into batting practice pitchers. Ramon Ramirez looks like he should be a good one, but he’s only had one good year, so he’s not a known quantity.

But Ramirez is replaceable. The Royals have a pretty good track record of scouting and developing relief pitchers. They also have a pretty good track record of trading them at the right time. Meanwhile, they’re terrible at developing outfielders. Chances are the Royals can find a suitable replacement for Ramon Ramirez; there’s nobody in the pipeline who could outplay Crisp. So from that perspective, it makes sense.

Crisp isn’t Carlos Beltran, but arguably he’s a more valuable player than Johnny Damon would be at this stage in his career. His presence in the lineup means the Royals score more runs, and maybe with him stirring stuff up on the bases, he makes some of his teammates better hitters, which leads to even more runs.

Honestly, when I heard about this trade I was surprised. I didn’t think the Royals could get someone like Crisp this cheaply.

The Royals have traded two of their best middle relievers for bats now, but I’m more confident in their ability to locate replacements for those two pitchers than I am in their ability to locate an everyday second baseman somewhere in the system. Quality relief pitchers are a lot more useful when they have leads to protect.

What to the rich do with their money?

Charlie brought up the question of what the rich do with their money in response to the theory of trickle-down economics. This seems timely, as one of my coworkers and I talked trickle-down just yesterday.The theory is often maligned, and usually by people who don’t understand it very well. But frankly its proponents don’t always understand it either.

The classic justification is that if you tax the rich less, they’ll use that savings to buy things like boats and luxury cars, creating jobs for people who build and sell things like boats and luxury cars, and for the suppliers of those companies. And the argument is that this economic activity spreads the wealth better than the government taxing and redistributing wealth, due to government overhead.

At least that’s the simple, back-of-a-napkin explanation you’re likely to hear from a conservative activist when you ask the question. It’s the one I’ve always heard.

The theory is more complicated than that. For most of the 20th century, the fabulously rich were taxed at extremely high rates–70 or even 90 percent. The economist Arthur Laffer argued that if one taxed the rich at a lower rate, then tax revenue would actually increase–the reason being that someone who had the ability to make $10 million probably also had the ability to make more than that, but would probably be more willing to try to make more if the government weren’t taking 90% of the spoils.

Ronald Reagan lowered that upper tax rate to 50%. And sure enough, revenue went up, because 50% of $20 million is more than 90% of $10 million. So both the entrepreneur and the government won.

But contrary to what the modern Republican party seems to think, Laffer didn’t argue that the less you taxed, the more revenue would increase. Tax revenue is a more like a bell curve–tax at 0%, and revenue will be $0. Likewise, take 100%, and revenue will be $0, because nobody will work (or they’ll hide it if they do). The question is what percentage puts tax revenue at the top of the bell curve. I believe that history says it’s somewhere around 38%. Ironically, it was a Democrat who demonstrated that rate. (Hint: it wasn’t Jimmy Carter.)

And when Democrats malign trickle-down economics, they ignore one important fact: When Reagan cut taxes, revenue did rise–a lot. And when Bush I cut them further, it rose even more. The problem was that spending in Washington outpaced revenue growth during the 1980s and most of the 1990s. In the waning years of Clinton’s presidency, revenue finally caught up with spending, and for two years in a row there was actually a small surplus.

And in all fairness to Bush II, that’s been the biggest problem with his economic policy the past 8 years. Revenue went down slightly when he cut the highest tax bracket. But the bigger problem is that Washington spending increased beyond Reagan levels. Had spending stayed in check, we might still be talking about small deficits and occasional surpluses. Instead, he kept taxes low while signing budgets that made Clinton look like a fiscal conservative.

But that’s enough about trickle-down economics. Let’s talk about the rich.

A little over three years ago, I was walking out to my car after work when a couple of well-dressed men approached me and asked for a jump start. I pulled my Honda up to their rental luxury car, we hooked up the cables, got the car started, and they went on their way.

I now believe one of the men that day was the man who soon became the CEO of that company. I won’t name him or the company. Perhaps he was interviewing for the job that day. Not long afterward, he got the job, and as a result of one of his earliest decisions, I lost mine.

So I did a favor for a guy who made $4.81 million last year, and the thanks I got was unemployment.

The soak-the-rich attitude comes from stories like that. When we think of the rich, we think of CEOs who take over large, failing companies, get rid of lots of people, bring in their people, and in the end the companies don’t really get much better, but in the meantime they pocket a few million dollars every year. And when they lose their jobs, they get a golden parachute of a few million more.

But the majority of the rich aren’t like that. They’re more like the owner of the next company I worked for. It was a small consulting company, but it was smaller when he bought it. He bought it during a dark time in its history, brought in some good people, and together they worked hard to make the company profitable again.

In 2006, not long after I met him, he sold the company to a much larger competitor and turned a nice profit for himself. They only retained him for a short time, but he’s not hurting for money. Shrewdly, he didn’t sell them the building, so the company is still paying him rent every month.

Nobody knows what his future plans are, but some people who know him better than I do believe he’ll start another company at some point.

Read books like The Millionaire Next Door, and you’ll find the majority of millionaires are unassuming people who park their Ford Crown Victorias in front of ranch-style houses every night. They’re often self-employed, and usually made their first million by saving a lot and investing in themselves.

I have little respect for the first CEO I talked about, because he has his job mostly because he looks and acts the part. He dresses well, looks like a movie star, and when he talks, he can convince you he cares. But let’s talk qualifications. During his first year on the job, his company’s shares were worth about $1.20 apiece. Now they’re worth 42 cents per share and the company is $1 billion deeper in debt. That’s not all his fault, but it’s hard to argue that he’s done much to turn the company around, and it’s even harder to argue that those results are worth $4.81 million a year. I would think they could outsource his job to India and get comparable results for $100,000 a year and bank the savings.

At least they’d save more than they saved by outsourcing people like me.

I have a lot of respect for my other former employer, because he took a bad situation and turned it around, and he got the job because he bought a company with his own money. He invested his time, energy, and money in it, and besides making himself wealthier, he also created jobs–about 200 of them at his company’s peak–including one for a 31-year-old newlywed who was down on his luck and had worked for two other employers that same year.

The problem with trying to use tax policy to soak people like the first guy I mentioned is that it’s very difficult to do without also hurting the second one I mentioned. And if tax policy hurts him, he might as well just stay retired and play golf or whatever he enjoys doing, rather than starting a new company and making some new jobs for people.

And frankly I’m not sure what we gain when we make people like the first guy pay. I guess we feel better for a while. But the main thing we do is motivate him to hire the very best accountants and lawyers to find and exploit every loophole they can. So he still keeps most of his money, the government gets less than it projected, and the masses are blissfully ignorant, thinking they got some fat cat to finally give up his fair share, whatever that means, but they never see any tangible benefit.

Outlandish CEO pay and incestuous boards of directors loaded with conflicts of interest that perpetuate these outlandish compensation packages really are a separate issue, and the tax code isn’t the appropriate place to try to fix it.

But back to that tax code, and the second guy–the one worth worrying about. For what it’s worth, neither of the two major presidential candidates is likely to do anything that would singlehandedly persuade the second guy to stay retired. A return to Reagan’s or Carter’s income tax levels might, but neither candidate is proposing something like that. The difference between the two is much narrower than either of them want the rest of us to think, and their political rhetoric reflects that.

On transitioning from high school to college

I took a phone call tonight from my old college fraternity. I’ve been trying to be nicer when they call asking for money. The organization and I see eye-to-eye on virtually nothing, but the poor pledges who have to make these phone calls every year have no control over any of that.

We actually ended up having a nice conversation about the transition from college to high school.I can’t say it’s something I’ve ever talked about, but the transition was a bit rough for me in some ways. I wasn’t valedictorian, but I generally took harder classes than many of the people who outpaced me in GPA. In some of my classes I was more like a teacher’s assistant than a student, because I knew the subject matter better than the teachers did, and they would readily admit it.

Frequently I was the smartest guy in the room, and I liked it that way.

In college, I was never the best at anything. I told him one of my classmates is now the beat writer covering the Cardinals for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. That’s the caliber of person I found myself competing against.

It was hard to settle for being good, or very good, when I’d spent the previous 12 years being elite.

Yet, it wasn’t until I got over my ego that I actually managed to even be good. Considering my course load, my first-semester 2.8 GPA wasn’t all that bad, but it was a lot closer to average than I’d ever been. I never dropped below 3.0 the rest of the way, but I never approached my high school numbers.

I guess it was good preparation for adult life. There’ve been times when I was the smartest guy in the room again. But it doesn’t happen very often at work. But at work, the guys who are smarter than me who also have bigger egos than me also aren’t all that happy.

Give me a choice between being content and being the star, and I’ll take contentment every time.

I only talked to the 18-year-old pledge for about five minutes, so I didn’t go into this kind of depth. I don’t think he wanted to hear that kind of a lecture from a stranger 15 years older than him.

There are lots of other questions I would have liked to ask him, but I know the answers to all of those are the same as they were in 1993, and I can’t change any of that for him. I don’t know if that brief conversation that resulted from me asking how his studies were going helped him. But maybe it did. Or at least I didn’t make him feel any worse.

How to organize your thoughts and notes

I know a lot of people keep notebooks pertaining to their hobbies. Any time they find something good on a discussion forum or elsewhere, they made a copy, print it out, punch holes in it, and put it in the notebook. Some people even put their own notes, from experience or discussions, in there.

These notebooks are a good way to learn a lot and retain it–you may forget some things over the years, but reading through the notebook again will refresh your memory.

There’s just one problem with notebooks–finding the information buried within.Notebooks are, after all, reference works, not something intended to be read cover to cover. The key to a good reference work, though, is a good table of contents and index.

Who wants to spend the time putting that together? But that’s the perfect use of the piece of software I discussed yesterday.

Just install LyX, learn how to insert a table of contents and index, learn how to flag something for inclusion in the index, and then, as you find things, copy and paste them into your “virtual notebook.” As you add things to it, you can print new copies of your notebook, and your notebook will have page headings and page numbers and a table of contents and an index so you can find stuff quickly. Keep your working copy for adding new stuff in LyX, but output a PDF from Lyx that you can read on your computer(s), and print a copy that you can keep in the basement where you’re actually going to use a paper copy.

The better you organize it, the better it’ll work, but even that isn’t strictly necessary since you can flip to either the front or the back to find stuff.

I can’t think of a hobby that this wouldn’t help. I don’t believe that information overload is so much a problem of too much information as it is a problem of not being able to sort through the information available to find the bit that you really need.

Where’s this software been all my life?

Playing around with LyX

In what little free time I’ve had the past few days (we have a project that has us in the midst of a death march at work), I’ve been messing around with LyX, a typesetting program for Windows, Unix, and most other operating sytems. I remember messing with it about six years ago, when there wasn’t much else resembling a word processor available for Linux, but this time, I’m more impressed with what I see.LyX is a front-end for a typesetting system called TeX. TeX was developed by the legendary computer scientist Don Knuth when he was dissatisfied with the appearance of his galley proofs for the second edition of The Art of Computer Programming. Knuth had an eye for fine typography, and because hand-set type was increasingly being replaced by machines, he looked for a way to make a computer play by the same set of rules that experienced typesetters have used for the past 500 years.

I had my first exposure to TeX when I was working on a business analysis project with Charlie Sebold. There was a department Charlie and I both did a lot of work for, and supporting these 8 users had ballooned into a full-time job in itself. We had an expensive contractor billing an average of 45 hours a week to the department alone over the course of a year, and when I replaced him, I wasn’t able to knock that down much below 40. We believed there was something wrong with a department of 8 users spending $200,000 a year in computer support. Come to think of it, that may have something to do with why I don’t work there anymore, but I digress. Charlie and I embarked on a project to figure out what we could do to cut those costs. I don’t remember anymore how the writing duties got split up, but Charlie typeset the report in TeX. I remember him being surprised to hear that I didn’t know much about TeX, especially since I had written a book for O’Reilly at that point, and if you look at the early O’Reilly books, they look like they were produced by TeX on the default settings.

Well, intentionally or unintentionally, using TeX for the report was a stroke of brilliance, because the most influential people in the department were design snobs, and TeX produces better-looking output than anything PageMaker could ever do. The text is beautifully justified, with no rivers through it, and the kerning is always set just right, and it will even use ligatures when appropriate. Basically, it does all of the hallmarks of elegant design that they taught me in journalism school–stuff that takes hours to do by hand–and it does it in minutes.

So when Charlie handed that report out at the first meeting, he got us a whole bunch of instant credibility.

What I like about LyX is that it removes the markup stage from TeX. You apply an appropriate document style–book, letter, article, report, or whatever–and you mark lines as whatever they happen to be–standard paragraphs, headings, chapter titles, document titles, author, or whatever–and it handles all of the layout and everything else for you. It’ll even generate the table of contents for you. And if you want an index, just flag words as you write or edit, and it can generate an index.

It also handles the most frustrating aspect of writing that I faced when I was writing my book back in 1999. A good book shouldn’t spent a lot of time repeating itself, so there’ll be times when you’ll refer the reader to a specific chapter, or even a specific page. The problem is, these things change. I not only re-ordered the chapters about halfway through the writing process, I actually took a couple of chapters, combined the like topics, and turned them into two completely differently titled chapters. Finding my cross-references and keeping them straight was such a pain that I really didn’t do it all that much. With LyX, cross-references are easy. You just label a section, and insert a cross-reference to the label, and it inserts the page number and the name of the section for you. You can put a cross-reference on every page and not slow down a bit.

Now that I’ve spent a few hours with it, I heartily recommend LyX. In college I found I got better grades when I turned in papers using fonts other than Times and Arial, and the output from LyX adds a whole new degree of elegance to it. Succeeding in college is as much about playing the game as it is anything else, and LyX gives you that slight edge.

And, as you might suspect, I’ve been playing with LyX for a reason. I’m writing again. Over the course of the past year, I’ve prepared a 133-page manuscript (that’s single-spaced Times with no pretty pictures or formatting, so it’s more than it sounds). I’m in the process of editing and typesetting it now. It’s highly specialized, so I’ll be self-publishing it, rather than using a publisher. I’ll be happy if it sells 1,000 copies and thrilled if it sells 10,000, and no publisher is willing to touch a book anymore if they think a book will only sell 10,000 copies. If it sells 1,000 copies, it will have been worth my while to write. Modern print-on-demand technology makes that a much safer risk than it was in 1999, when I wrote and published my first book.

And while there are times when the help of a traditional publisher definitely makes a better book, I think this is a case where I can create a better product working on my own.

I’ll keep you posted.

We\’ll have to wait longer for PCI RAMdisks

In case nobody noticed, it’s August. July came and went, and there’s no Gigabyte I-RAM on the market yet.

But there are a few benchmarks out there, and Anandtech has an article that, once you get past the usual rambling and over-the-top introduction, has some useful insights.I was going to say the first problem is the somewhat disappointing speed, but actually, there are two bigger problems:

Availability. Now they’re saying it’ll be out sometime in August. And they’re initially only going to make 1,000 of them.

Price. The original $50 MSRP is out the window; now this thing is going to cost $150.

Can anything else be wrong? Unfortunately, yes. The speed is a bit disappointing. The SATA interface is the bottleneck. The very newest hard drives can come close to saturating the SATA interface for short periods of time, so the RAMdisk doesn’t outperform it by much. If this drive were using an interface with more bandwidth, there wouldn’t be as much problem, but squeezing more bandwidth out of the 33 MHz PCI bus is tough. We’re at the point now where the PCI bus is a much bigger bottleneck than the ISA bus was in 1994. The theoretical limit of the PCI bus is 132 megabytes per second, which isn’t much higher than the sustained throughput of 100 megabytes per second that the I-RAM delivers.

The combination of PCI Express and a faster disk protocol has the potential to resolve this issue, but at the expense of limiting the device’s market even further.

I’m disappointed by the review in a couple of regards, though. First, they compare the I-RAM to the fastest SATA drive available at the time of the review. That’s not necessarily what every would-be purchaser would be using. I believe that an I-RAM used to replace (or in conjunction with) a drive that’s a couple of years old would be a mind-blowing upgrade.

Second, they don’t take fragmentation into account. Enthusiasts are more likely to defragment their hard drives twice a day than everyone else, so fragmentation may not be an issue for them. But my wife, mother, and mother-in-law don’t know what fragmentation is. Well, maybe my wife does because she’s probably overheard me talk about it. The thing about the I-RAM is that it makes seek times irrelevant, so it’s never going to slow down due to fragmentation. Translation: For people who have lives, this thing could be phenomenal.

The review complained constantly about the drive’s capacity. So I’m disappointed that they didn’t test the drive with NTFS compression enabled. While data compression is still taboo, and it increases CPU usage, when you’re out of room it’s your only choice. While its effectiveness is unpredictable, it’s fairly safe to bet compression will get you another gigabyte or two of usable space on a 4-gig model. But just as importantly, under some circumstances, compression can actually increase performance. I want to know if increasing the amount of data you’re flowing over the saturated bus makes up for the increased CPU usage.

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