Monday, July 6, 1998 - Jerry Pournelle has been going through hell with FrontPage 98, which is described in excruciating detail on his web site. FrontPage 98 seemed to work well for him at first, but at some point it started to bog down. He's tried everything - expanding RAM from 64MB to 192MB, de-installing and re-installing, etc. etc. Nothing works. It's still too slow to be usable for him. We've exchanged mail back and forth about this topic, and I keep telling him that I'm noticing no lag. Now, the problem has hit here.
This morning, I called up this file to add some material about the computer I'm going to build (see below). The first paragraph I typed with no problem. As I started the second paragraph, the editor started to bog - a small but noticeable delay as I typed each character. At this point, I started wondering if this bogging-down problem is somehow related to file size (or perhaps, overall site size, since FP loads the entire web at once). [Note: When this paragraph was originally written, my Daynotes document was all in one file. I've since broken it into separate weekly files. RBT 7/22/98]
Aha. I started the FP Editor directly (without FP Explorer running) and called up rbtdaynotes.htm (this file). There's no lag. I saved and exited and brought FP back up and ran FP Editor from within FP Explorer and the lag is back. It appears that the problem has to do with the overall size of the web that FP Explorer has to manipulate.
Mid-morning: I have a dentist visit this afternoon, so I can't get in the mood to work on the magazine article. I spent the weekend thinking about what to do about a new main workstation. I plan to use my existing main workstation (sherlock, a Pentium 200 with 64MB running Windows NT4) as my NT5 platform. That means I need a new main workstation. I checked the Gateway and Dell web sites and found that it'll cost $1,500+ for what I consider a minimal system - Pentium II/266 with 128 MB, standard hard drive, 10/100 network card, no monitor, etc.
At that point, I decided to see what I could do with the same amount of money by rolling my own. I haven't built a computer in two or three years. It just wasn't worth it for the amount of money I could save. Better just to order one and get back to doing what I do for a living. Still, since it had been so long since I'd built a system, I decided to check things out. As it turns out, I'm glad I did.
The last time I looked, dual-processor system boards were extremely expensive. When I checked on system boards at www.tccomputers.com and www.motherboards.com, I found that I could get a dual Pentium II system board by Tyan or SuperMicro for $200 or $300. These are brand-name boards, albeit from the Pacific Rim. Years ago, AMI, Micronics, and other US manufacturers made system boards, but the only US manufacturer in evidence on these sites was Intel.
Intel boards aren't cheap - $500+ for a dual Pentium II system board that uses the LX chipset. I wanted a board that uses the BX chipset, which supports the 350/400 MHz Pentium II's and can use the 100 MHz bus rather than just the 66 MHz bus. Intel doesn't make a dual-PII BX board, so far as I can determine. After some searching, I was able to find information about the Micronics Helios motherboard, a dual-PII BX board that NECx sells for about $290 without sound or $315 with embedded PCI sound.
Still, Micronics used to be a good name, but the most recent machine I have with a Micronics system board is a 1991 vintage Gateway 386/33. I decided I'd better do some check, so I mailed Pournelle to ask him about good names in system boards. He confirmed that Micronics is still a good name, and said that PC Power and Cooling recommends Micronics. Good enough for me.
Having settled on PC Power and Cooling for the case and power supply, and on the Micronics Helios system board, I started to choose other components. I thought about installing SCSI, but this system is really just a personal workstation. It has access to large amounts of disk storage and other resources on the network, so I decided to keep things simple.
Here's where I stand right now. I'll fill out the table as I choose individual components. Once I have them all picked out, I'll get them ordered and set aside a day to build, configure, and test the system.
Afternoon: Back from the dentist. As usual after a cleaning, I don't feel like doing much. I think I'll lie around and read something.
Tuesday, July 7, 1998 - back to work on the magazine article. I'm going to try to finish up the first draft of it this morning and spend the afternoon configuring the new system.
Afternoon: Finished the first draft of the magazine article and emailed it to the editor, who's on vacation this week as it turns out. Spent the remainder of the afternoon researching just what components I want to buy for this new box.
Wednesday, July 8, 1998 - Well, I finished researching components, and found out more than I'll ever need to know. I talked to PC Power and Cooling yesterday, and decided to upgrade the power supply to the Turbo Cool 300 ATX. According to them, a dual processor system with 128MB or 256MB of RAM, several drives, etc. requires more 5V current than the 235 watt unit can comfortably provide. One of the secrets to a stable and long-lasting system is to run its power supply well below its rated capacity, so the extra money for the TC300 is worth it.
I also did some more research on the motherboard. I was wrong earlier. Intel does make a dual 440BX motherboard (the N440BX), but its really intended for servers. It has integrated SCSI, Fast Ethernet, and Cirrus-based video (but no audio). Im not a fan of system boards with this level of integration. I prefer to pick my own components. Ill get the Micronics with integrated audio, simply because audio is a minor component for me. The Micronics does come with Windows NT audio drivers.
As far as the processors, it appears that Intel may be phasing out the PII/233. Most places I looked carried the 266 as their low-end PII. It's interesting to compare bang-for-the-buck ratios. Assuming the PII/233 as a baseline, the PII/266 is about 14% faster (theoretically, probably not that much in practice) and costs about 24% more. It's been my experience that differences of less than 25% or so are difficult to detect while sitting at the keyboard, so spending an extra $90 or so to get two PII/266's doesn't make much sense. Installing the next step up, the PII/300, would bump the cost of the system by about $250, and would only yield about a 29% theoretical speed improvement. That money would be better spent on more RAM.
Speaking of RAM, I've left that line item pretty much open, because I'm not yet sure whether I'll buy PC100 RAM or not. The 440BX system board is capable of using the PII/350 and PII/400 processors, which run on a 100 MHz bus and require the PC100 RAM. The PII/233 - 300 processors run on the slower 66 MHz bus, and can use less expensive RAM. According to the Helios manual, you can install the PC100 RAM for use with 66 MHz processors, so the question becomes whether it's worth paying more now for PC100 RAM that can be used if I decide to upgrade to 100 MHz bus processors later on. I'll leave that decision for the moment when I actually buy the RAM. Chances are that I will never replace the processors in this system, so paying more for needlessly fast RAM may be a waste of money. Still, if the PC100 RAM is only marginally more expensive, I'll go for it to keep my options open.
Here's where the configuration stands now. All components have been verified for compatibility, although I haven't done any real heavy price shopping yet.
Just out of curiosity, I went over to the Gateway and Dell web pages. A Gateway single-processor PII/266 runs about $1,700 (I haven't calculated shipping at all, but it should be less ordering these components individually than Gateway or Dell charges for shipping a system). That's with an inferior case and power supply to what I've configured, a single-processor system board, one PII/266 rather than two PII/233's, the same amount of memory, a smaller hard disk, OEM rather than boxed retail versions of the video and network card, a cheaper keyboard, and lesser speakers. Of course, Gateway has to send Microsoft some money for the copies of Windows 98 and Office, which I haven't purchased (and don't need). With minor component variations, the Dell configuration and price are almost identical to Gateway.
On a pure dollar/hour basis, I could probably do better buying a packaged system from Dell or Gateway than building my own, but I'm tired of treating these things like appliances. It's time I got some more direct experience at the component level. It's been too long...
Errands this afternoon. Tomorrow, I start ordering pieces.
Thursday, July 9, 1998 - among other things, I got most of the stuff for the new system on order today. I ordered the case and power supply from PC Power and Cooling. At first glance it may seem dumb to spend a couple hundred bucks on a case and power supply when you can get a perfectly reasonable case with power supply for fifty bucks or so. It's worth spending the extra money, though.
I depend on my equipment, and I've had no end of trouble with cheap cases and power supplies. The cases are sometimes physically dangerous to work with. Inadequate deburring and razor sharp edges are not only a hazard to the person working with them; they may cut or short out cables and wires.
Same thing with the power supply itself. I have an electronics background, and I've compared a PC Power & Cooling power supply with a cheap power supply with the lids off. There's no comparison. Even a layman can tell just by looking at the size and number of the components which is well constructed and which is made as cheaply as possible. I'm surprised that some of the cheap ones can get UL approval. I've had one power supply fail catastrophically, and I don't want that to happen again when it's connected to two or three thousand dollars worth of motherboard, processors, memory, drives, etc. The PC Power & Cooling stuff is worth the minimal extra cost.
I ordered the middle group of stuff from Insight. I've been buying from them since their Hard Drives International days. I remember buying Seagate ST-225 20 MB and ST-251 40 MB hard disks from them, so it's been at least 10 or 12 years. In all that time, they've never done anything to make me regret doing business with them. The few times they've screwed up, they made it right every time. They don't always have the absolute lowest prices, but they can usually match prices quoted by other reputable companies.
I'll pick up the rest of the stuff locally. No one seems to have the Matrox board in stock, which I suppose is a good sign. CSO (my local warehouse place) can sell me one for a few bucks more than the mail order places can't sell me one for. At any rate, here's where things stand now. The case and power supply won't arrive until the end of next week, so I'll put all this on the back burner until then.
I think what I may do is move the three hard disks that are currently in sherlock to the new computer, and put the new hard disk in the machine that is currently sherlock. That'll make the new box sherlock, and I can use the machine formerly known as sherlock as my new NT5 box. Many people think you can't do this with NT because the registry on the existing hard drive won't match with the new hardware. Not so. I've done it before successfully, and I think it'll work just fine this time.
Here's why. Early in the NT boot process, Ntdetect.com runs to determine the current hardware configuration. The configuration it discovers is written to the registry, updating the stored hardware configuration to reflect the actual existing hardware configuration. Now, this obviously doesn't fix things like incorrect or missing drivers, but that's not really much of a problem. The drives will be the same physical drives that are now in sherlock, and I've made sure to use the same or similar components for other functions - both machines have Matrox Millennium video cards, 3C905 network cards, etc. The thing will probably boot just fine. If not, worst case, I'll have to run NT4 Setup in repair mode and re-apply Service Pack 3.
Friday, July 10, 1998 - I've started invoking FrontPage Editor in standalone mode, rather than starting it from FrontPage Explorer. In standalone mode, FP Editor runs fine for me. It's very responsive and has no noticeable lags when scrolling, entering text, or backspacing. When run from within FP Explorer, it bogs down seriously. Pournelle couldn't get FP Editor to run in standalone mode, so I mailed him again last night to explain how to do it. He replied this morning that he was able to run FP Editor standalone, and sees some speed improvement, but not nearly to the extent that I did.
Once or twice a year, Winston-Salem has "large item pickup day" for stuff that the sanitation department won't otherwise haul away - dead refrigerators, 20 year old TV's, and so forth. They used to announce the areas to be covered each week on the community cable TV channel, but there were so many scavengers out that the garbage trucks could barely get through. Now, they announce it by sending mail a week or so in advance to each address where large items will be picked up the following week.
We were scheduled for this week. As usual, the scavengers found out about it, and were out in force. What's surprising is that a lot of them are driving late-model, $30,000 pickups and SUV's. I saw one guy the other day picking out stuff from a pile of trash and putting it in the trunk of his $90,000 Mercedes-Benz. You'd think that people who could afford these vehicles would have better things to do with their time than fishing through other people's discards, but apparently not. The upshot is that all week I've had to listen to my dogs barking every few minutes at people picking over the neighborhood trash piles. Thank god the garbage trucks finally showed up to haul the stuff away. Now maybe I can get some work done.
Afternoon: Spent the remainder of the morning working on an outline for a novel. It may come to nothing, but I have to give it a shot. I keep telling myself I'm nuts. A competent computer book author can make a decent living by writing full-time. Writing fiction, it's feast or famine - usually famine. The top 1% or so of fiction writers make a very nice living. Those at the very top can really rake it in. Witness the reported $24 million advance that Patricia Cornwell received for two books. However, the chances of joining that stratospheric group are about the same as that of winning $24 million in the lottery. Most fiction writers slave long hours for little or no return. Still, most computer book authors I know - including some that earn well into 6 figures - want to write fiction.
Worse yet, selling a fiction book to a publisher (particularly for new authors) requires writing the whole thing on spec. With computer books, deals are usually signed on the basis of a short proposal and outline. Not so with fiction, or so I've been told. Publishers want to see the whole thing first. The days of selling on the basis of an outline and three or four sample chapters are pretty much gone. You can't really blame the publishers, either. Apparently, a lot of people start writing a novel, but very few actually finish one.
My credentials as a published author of computer books won't help much, either. I'll have to write the entire book and then somehow sell it to a publisher who already has a gigantic slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts. That's assuming that the publisher will even accept a manuscript "over the transom". Many accept only agented submissions. If I somehow miraculously overcome that hurdle and get a publisher to agree to publish my novel, then I can go looking for an agent. Few good fiction agents are interested in representing new authors, and you can't really blame them, either. Apparently, the trick is to get a publisher to agree to publish your book, and then take the package to an agent, who will negotiate the deal (and, presumably, future deals) for you.
I finally decided I had to do something about Internet Explorer 4.01. I run both IE4 and Navigator 4.05, and I much prefer IE4. Navigator feels much slower than IE, chokes on content much more often than IE, and crashes much more frequently. However, IE has some annoying problems of its own. I've always added my favorite sites to the Links bar so that they'll be quickly available. As the number of sites I hit frequently has grown, I finally decided two or three months ago to use the links bar to hold sub-folders rather than individual URL's for sites. This works pretty well, with one exception. IE gives you the choice of representing each item in a subfolder with either a large or small icon. The small icon works well for me, and the large icon is pretty much useless. I can't even guess why the large icon is an option. The problem is that IE4 keeps switching back and forth between large and small icons. I can never tell which will appear for a particular sub-folder, and it varies even within one session.
After searching the Web and TechNet fruitlessly for a bug report on this, I finally decided that perhaps it would be fixed in the next release. Every few weeks, I've hit the Microsoft IE page to look for an update. This morning, I noticed that IE 4.01 with SP1 was available for download, so I grabbed it. The version I had installed was 4.72.2106.8. After installing the upgrade, I'm now at 4.72.3110.8. I fired up the new IE with high hopes, but it still does the same thing.
The other problem I've been having with IE is that it locks up every time I change settings using View - Internet Options. Even just clearing out the temp file locks IE solid. Bringing up Task Manager shows it as "Not Responding". If I then kill the task and restart IE, everything is fine - the files are cleared, the option is changed, whatever. Still, it's rather disconcerting to have the product hang every time I make a change to its configuration. The upgrade didn't fix this problem, either. Perhaps I need to de-install and then re-install it, but I hesitate to do that.
Well, I decided to bite the bullet and de-install/re-install IE4. The de-installation went fine, although it did give me pause when it mentioned that de-installing IE4 would disable Outlook 98 until IE4 was re-installed. I didn't mind that, if the situation was as stated, but I didn't want to risk losing OL98, which is my main mail package at the moment. At any rate, I went ahead and did the de-install. When I ran the setup program from the IE4 install directory, it refused to run, saying that it needed to download more files from the Internet. Apparently, the 6+ MB of IE4 SP1 files that I'd just downloaded weren't enough. Sure enough, I let it go ahead, and it sucked down another 6.5+ MB of IE4 CAB files. The whole process went smoothly, other than the usual ridiculous number of reboots that NT requires to de-install or re-install software.
When IE4 came back up (still with the same 4.72.3110.8 version number), I'd hoped that the problems would be solved. After all, it cleared out the registry and removed all settings as a part of the de-install. No joy. It still hangs when I try to use View - Internet Options, and it still arbitrarily toggles between large and small icons. Worse yet, it blew away the customized folders I had on the Links bar. Fortunately, I had most of them duplicated in Netscape, and installing IE4 found and imported those. Why is everything always harder than it needs to be?
I was pleasantly surprised, however, to find that de-installing IE4 re-installed IE 3.02. I tried out IE 3.02 before re-installing IE4, and it seemed to work fine. This is very different from the situation while IE4 was in beta. Then, installing IE4 made it very difficult to revert to IE3. I'd go back to IE3 in a heartbeat now, if OL98 didn't require IE4. Unfortunately, IE3 and IE4 can't co-exist.
Saturday, July 11, 1998 - This Day Notes file was getting entirely too large to have as a single document. FrontPage was estimating that the document would require more than a minute and a half to be downloaded to a browser. I needed to do something, so I've split it into individual weekly files.Sunday, July 12, 1998 no computer- or writing-related stuff today. Spent the day mostly reading, and doing a few miscellaneous things around the house. One of the fluorescent arrays in the downstairs kitchen is misbehaving, and it doesnt appear to be the tubes themselves causing the problem. I guess this means a trip to Home Depot.
Updated: 31 May 2002 14:22
Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 by Robert Bruce Thompson. All Rights Reserved.