Monday, August 3, 1998

Well, Monday starts out on the usual bad note. I called Micronics tech support first thing this morning (7:00 a.m. their time) to find out what was going on with this Helios system board. The tech support guy was arrogant and obnoxious. He was too busy interrupting and listening to himself talk to listen to what my problem was. I managed to convey the problem in small chunks between his interruptions, whereupon he had the temerity to accuse me of "changing the story." Well, guy, if you'd shut up and listen, you might have gotten it right in the first place. And on my dime, yet.

To make a long story short, I will never buy a Micronics product again, and I will recommend to all of my clients and friends that they likewise avoid Micronics. Their tech support dork concedes that the product was defective out of the box. A decent company would have cross-shipped me a new replacement board and sent a pickup tag so that I could return the original board at their expense. Micronics - get this - wants me to ship them the defective board at my own expense, whereupon they will attempt to repair it and return it to me. No promises about how long this will take. If they can't repair it, they say that they'll ship a replacement board, which may be a used board that they've somehow repaired. They won't promise a new board under any circumstances. All of this in response to a new board that was defective out of the box.

And, oh, by the way, I also found another little problem. This weekend, I went over to CSO and traded out my original non-PC100 RAM for PC100 RAM, thinking that the original RAM might not be fast enough. I ended up paying more than $102 each for two 64MB PC100 DIMM's, versus the $120 that the original 128MB DIMM cost me. Now, the obnoxious tech support guy tells me that PC100 DIMMs aren't supported by the Helios when using 66MHz FSB processors like my two Pentium II/300's. I pointed out to him that the manual said the Helios could use PC100 DIMMs with either 66MHz or 100MHz FSB processors. He said that was wrong, and that they really should fix that in the manual. Jesus. Looks like I'll have to trade back the PC100 DIMMs for the original 128MB DIMM. I'm sure I'll get screwed on price yet again. I've had it with Micronics. Never again.

I tried calling my salesman at Insight, who sold me the board. He's apparently not in today, so I emailed him with the details of the problem and asked him to make it go away. I've always had good experiences with Insight. At this point, though, I'm on a short fuze. I've already wasted so much time and money on this thing that no matter what happens I can't win. I want to walk away from this at no additional cost to myself. I'll go buy two Intel system boards and use these processors to build two PII/300 systems. If necessary, I'll put this Micronics piece of junk on the shelf and let it rot until someone sends me a pickup tag. I don't often call my credit card company to request a charge-back, but I will if I have to this time.

With all of the aggravation over the Micronics system board, I still managed to get quite a bit written on the chapter today. It'll be ready in polished form by the time the publisher returns from vacation.

Tuesday, August 4, 1998

Things are starting to look up. I got a nice email from the publisher this morning, and it looks like the book is a go. A few minutes later, I got a call from Bryan Pleman, my salesman at Insight. He'd just gotten back from vacation, and comes into work at 6:00 a.m. his time. As usual, Insight comes through. He's sending an RMA and pickup tag to take the Micronics system board back. There are some companies whose business practices have earned them my undying gratitude. They understand that when a customer has a problem, it's really their problem, and they do everything they can to make the problem go away. I'll always buy from them when possible. L. L. Bean for the stuff they carry, Crutchfield for audio and video equipment, and Insight for computer stuff.

Well, Insight turns out not to be quite as good as I'd thought. They're willing to credit me full cost on the returned product, but they won't send a pickup tag. I have to pay the return shipping myself. That's aggravating, but not nearly so much so as Micronics' behavior. Bryan says he'll make it up to me the next time I'm buying stuff. We'll see. At any rate, I tore down the PC, boxed up the board and the pieces that came with it, and it's ready to go.

I spent some time on the phone with my agent, Dave Rogelberg, today. He suggests that I register a domain name for the new book I'm working on. I did a search, tried many reasonable combinations, and came up with a couple of good possibilities. I'll see what my wife thinks tonight and then go ahead and register it.

Wednesday, August 5, 1998

Took today off to get a bunch of miscellaneous errands run and tasks done. Among other things, got the Micronics system board sent back to Insight.

That raises the question of what to do with the other components I now have sitting here. I think I'll bag the idea of building a dual  processor box. Instead, I'll pick up an Intel Seattle PII system board, and use it to build a single processor new box. Then, I'll buy another Intel Seattle and use it and the other PII processor I bought to upgrade this Gateway 486/66 system into something useful. The Seattle docs say specifically that it can use PC100 RAM with either a 66MHz or 100MHz FSB processor, so I think I'll just keep the two faster 64MB DIMMs, and put one in each Seattle system. 64MB is enough for NT4 to start with, and I can always bump that to 128MB later on if necessary.

That leaves me with 96 MB of 72-pin RAM that I don't have anywhere to put, so perhaps I'll also buy an inexpensive Pentium system board with a bunch of SIMM sockets and use it to upgrade one of the other 486's around here. My Linux box is running a 486 DX/2-80 with 32MB. I suspect that taking it up to a Pentium 200/MMX with 64MB or more would make it an adequate box for running Linux seriously, perhaps with Corel WordPerfect. I'll keep the Matrox Millennium PCI I bought for a swapper and install it in that box.

Thursday, August 6, 1998

Time to make a CSO run, I think. What started out as a simple project to build one computer is starting to balloon into a pretty expensive project to build one PC and upgrade several others. The truth is, the only reason I really wanted a dual processor box was to have it around for writing NT books. That's a pretty minor issue, and a single PII/300 is more than fast enough for anything I need to do around here, so it makes sense to spread the wealth to other systems. I think I'll start slowly, though, with just one Intel Seattle. I'll see what happens with that, and then work into upgrading the other boxes.

Back from CSO. I picked up an Intel Seattle 440BX system board. An hour after I got home, it was in the case and running fine, and that includes installing NT4. The PII/300 is very fast. I'm not giving up much by using a single processor board instead of the dual-processor board. I'm going to stick with Intel system boards from now on. They're a bit more expensive (in the case of the dual-processor board, quite a bit more), but they work every time. I'm going to just power the thing down for now. This weekend, after I do a full network backup, I'll start moving hard drives around to make the new box my main workstation.

Well, I changed my mind. I pulled the 4.3 GB Seagate IDE drive out of the old Gateway 486/66 tower box and installed NT fresh on it in the new box. The new box is now kerby and it's remarkably fast. Compared to sherlock (a Pentium 200 with 64MB), I figured that the new box should run 50% faster based on clock speed, plus a little bit for the PII versus Pentium architecture. Having twice as much memory can't hurt, either. Overall, I was counting on the new box being about twice as fast as sherlock. It's at least that, and it seems like more, although I don't have everything installed yet.

I spent the remainder of the afternoon finishing up building the new box, connecting it to the network, and installing applications. Everything is going smoothly, with one minor gripe. The fan in this PC Power and Cooling Turbo Cool ATX 300 power supply is louder than I expected it to be. Not surprising, considering the huge volume of air it's putting out, but I may have to move this box under the desk or something.

I did have one bad moment while installing NT. I'd installed the 3Com 3C905B 10/100 Ethernet card. When I installed NT, I picked the 3C905 driver. NT told me that there was no network card installed. Given the way things are going, I was afraid the card was defective, but when I used the driver CD that came with the card everything installed fine.

At any rate, I now have the new box up. I also have a PII/300 processor sitting here with nowhere to go. I'd thought about upgrading the old kerby by swapping in a new PII system board for the old Gateway 486/66 board, but this system is an AT rather than an ATX. I'm sure someone makes baby AT PII system boards, but I really wanted to stick with Intel. I'll have to think on this one...

Friday, August 7, 1998

Got Internet Explorer 4 and Navigator 4.05 installed on the new box this morning. That raised the problem of how to connect them to the Internet. I used to have a full-time, routed Internet connection, but I got rid of it some time ago and now use dial-up just like most other people. It's hard to justify the cost of a full-time routed connection nowadays. My web site is hosted on a commercial service provider, and all I really need is dial-up for checking mail, browsing the web, updating my web site, etc. The only thing I really miss is having a local mail server.

If my local cable company ever gets around to delivering Internet access via cable, I'll sign up for it in a heart beat if they'll provide a static IP address or two. That'd let me return to having a full time connection, hosting my web site locally, having a local mail server, etc. Until that happens, I'll just keep using the dial-up account. Actually, I have two dial-up accounts, because I can't afford to be without Internet access when one of them isn't working. At any rate, I don't want to have a dial-up account for each computer, or to have the rats' nest of wiring and modems that it'd take to provide each box with dedicated dial-up access.

I need to share one dial-up connection among several computers. In practical terms, that means I need a proxy server. By installing proxy server on one computer that has a dial-up Internet connection, I can provide other workstations on the network with shared access to that Internet connection. When a proxy client needs to access the Internet, it does so through the proxy server. If the proxy server already has an active connection to the ISP, the client just uses that one. If the proxy server isn't dialed in when the client needs to access something, the server places the call. The client has to wait a little while for the connection to be made, but no longer than if the client dialed the ISP locally.

The proxy server software I've settled on is WinGate from Deerfield Communications Company. It just flat works. You can download a free 2-user version from the WinGate web site. I just configured IE and Navigator on the new box to access the WinGate server running on sherlock, and everything works perfectly, as usual. If you want to share a dial-up Internet connection, look no further than WinGate.

One other minor problem I've had with moving everything around has to do with monitor size. Sherlock is the machine I use for email, updating the web site, etc. Sherlock was using the Dell 17" monitor that came with it. I switched this monitor to the new box, and the only monitor I had available to use on sherlock was a Mag 15". Although it doesn't sound like much difference, downgrading from a 17" monitor to a 15" one is like wearing underwear that's about two sizes too small. I had to drop the resolution from 1024X768 to 800X600 to be able to read the text, and therein lies the problem. I'm so used to 1024X768 that 800X600 just doesn't give me enough screen real estate. The main Outlook screen is now full of scroll bars. I'll probably migrate Outlook over to the new box, but I think setting it up to use WinGate is a bit more complicated than setting up the web browsers to do the same.

I bought a Microsoft ergonomic keyboard for the new machine. This keyboard looks like a standard keyboard that melted. The right and left halves of the alpha keys are separated into two groups, with a substantial space to the right of the F5, 6, T, G, and B keys. The space bar spans the gap.

Although I touch type at more than 100 words per minute, this new keyboard shows me that I've been doing something wrong all these years, and it has to do with the number 6 key on the top row. For 25 years now, I've been hitting that key with my right index finger. On the new keyboard, the 6 key is in the left group of keys, so I'll have to get used to hitting it with my left index finger.

I'm either going to love or hate this new keyboard, but I'm not sure yet which it'll be. The only thing I can say at this point is that is sure is different. One thing that does concern me is what will happen when I get used to the ergonomic keyboard and then have to type on a regular one. When Barbara saw the new keyboard, she said that she'd be happy to use it. I may take her up on that at some point.

The process of making my new box my main workstation involves moving or reinstalling a lot of programs, including Outlook. While doing that, I found out some interesting stuff:

1. Although this new computer doesn't have a modem, I was able to set up Outlook easily to use the WinGate proxy server running on sherlock (the machine that used to be my main workstation). You just enter the name or IP address of the WinGate server in the fields for POP3 and SMTP server name in Outlook, and then enter your account name in the form <real_account_name>#<mail_server_name>. You enter the password as you normally do. You also have to setup the WinGate server to provide SMTP and POP3 proxy services, but that takes literally 2 minutes. I haven't figured out how to use FrontPage via proxy yet, but I'm sure that's doable as well.

2. As you may recall, when I was messing around with Jerry Pournelle's mailing list problem, I managed somehow to trash my personal address book. All of the entries were still there, but they were no longer sorted in any order I could figure out. Apparently, that problem was specific to the copy of Outlook rather than to the contents of the .PAB file. On this fresh installation of Outlook, I went to Services and added the PAB service, pointing to the existing .PAB file. All of my PAB entries came up sorted properly.

3. My conclusion is many of the weird problems I have experienced in Outlook are peculiar to the specific program instance itself, rather than to the data file. It appears that one can fix a hinky OL98 installation simply by uninstalling OL98 and then reinstalling it to point to the existing data files. Unfortunately, it also appears that configuration options are stored with the program instance itself, because I had to go through and completely reconfigure the new installation.

The only real problem I have with this setup is that I have the NT fax service running on sherlock, and I can't figure out any way to make the copy of Outlook running on the new machine check for new faxes. I think I'll solve that just by setting up the fax service to print incoming faxes. I don't get that many junk faxes anyway.

Saturday, August 8, 1998

The usual Saturday morning tasks - doing laundry and so forth. I did find out one interesting thing while doing my standard full network backup yesterday afternoon and evening. I backup to a Seagate TapeStor Travan TR-4 tape drive that's installed in thoth, my wife's machine. It's located in Barbara's office, at the other end of about 75 feet of 10Base2 thinnet Ethernet cable. I keep meaning to replace this cable with some Cat5 UTP so that Barbara can join the 100BaseT network in my office, but I've never gotten around to doing it.

At any rate, the backup throughput speeds are interesting. According to the tape drive specs, it does 30 MB/min natively, and up to 60 MB/min with compression. On local drives, when using Windows NT Backup (no compression), the drive actually runs better than spec - something like 32 MB/min. Using Seagate Backup Exec with compression turned on, it does about 35 to 40 MB/min on local drives, but only 18 to 25 MB/min on drives across the network.

I'd always assumed that this reduced throughput was due to network throughput constraints. Although 10 Mbps Ethernet has a theoretical throughput of about 1.25 MB/sec or 75 MB/min, I figured that collisions and other inefficiencies were reducing that. As it turns out, it may have been due to either the computers being backed up being too slow to keep up, to Windows NT inefficiencies, or to a combination of those.

Seagate Backup Exec backs up the boxes alphabetically, and kerby (the new PII/300 box) was the first to be backed up. When I started the backup yesterday afternoon, I was surprised to see kerby being backed up across the network at about 35 MB/min. When the backup got to the volumes on sherlock (the Dell 200 MHz Pentium MMX), the throughput dropped back to the 22 to 25 MB/min range. Although it surprises me, apparently a 200 MHz Pentium box isn't fast enough, at least under Windows NT, to send data as fast as the tape drive can write it.

We're off to our friends the Tuckers for dinner tonight. Steve is an executive with R. J. Reynolds Sports Marketing Enterprises. He ran the NASCAR Winston Cup program until he was promoted a couple of years ago. We met back in 1991 when Steve decided to bring up a bulletin board system, and have spent what seems like most of our Saturday nights together since then. Although Steve doesn't work with computers as a career, he has a strong hobbyist interest in them. He has a parts room that rivals that of most computer stores.

Steve's up in Watkins Glen for the Winston Cup race this weekend, so we won't get a chance to play with his new toys tonight. He got a digital camera and a CD-RW drive for his birthday that I was looking forward to playing with. He's also got a 9 GB differential SCSI drive that he's apparently determined to install. Maybe next weekend.

As usual, Suzy brought back shopping bags full of paperbacks that she grabbed while visiting her dad in Florida earlier this summer. She always goes down for the Daytona race. This year, the race was postponed due to the fires, which got to within a half mile of her dad's house. Apparently, she managed to snag a bunch of books before they were evacuated. Barbara and Suzy will spend the evening catching up and sharing a bottle of wine while I pillage Suzy's book bags for stuff I haven't read yet and then stretch out in the sun room to read one or two of the best ones. Life is good...

Sunday, August 9, 1998

Hah. Came back with a dozen or so paperbacks I hadn't read. That'll hold me for a week or so. One of them was the latest Connelly. You've gotta like a series whose main character is a detective named Hieronymous Bosch. I think I'll spend the rest of today munching two or three of these paperbacks.

I also had a chance to play with Steve's new digital camera a bit, and it's pretty nice. It's a Sony Mavica. It stores images as standard .JPEG files on regular 1.44MB floppy disks, about 20 or so per diskette. The images look pretty good, and they're easy to transfer - just copy them right off the floppy. The only drawback I can see is that it's limited to 640X480 resolution. Although no one is going to mistake its images for Kodachromes, they look pretty decent at drugstore-print size and they don't completely fall apart even when printed 8X10.


Updated: 31 May 2002 14:21

Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 by Robert Bruce Thompson. All Rights Reserved.