A (mostly) daily journal of the trials, tribulations, and random observations of Robert Bruce Thompson, a writer of computer books.
Monday, September 14, 1998
Yesterday was pretty intense. Got up about 8:00, let the dogs out and read the paper. Made a pot of coffee, sat down in front of the computer around 8:45, and worked pretty much straight through until 5:00 with short breaks to take care of my mother and out the dogs. Popped a family-size frozen lasagna in the oven and continued to work while it baked. Took a total of about 45 minutes off between cooking and eating dinner and walking the dogs, then back to work. Worked straight through until about 10:30, walked the dogs and decided to take the rest of the day off. I did get a lot done, though. The chapter I'm working on is starting to look pretty good to me.
This morning, I'll start more of the same and work straight through the day. With another 12 hours or so of work, this chapter ought to be in decent shape. The deadline is tomorrow, but I always beat deadlines as a matter of pride, so the chapter will have to go to my editor by 23:59 tonight. The lasagna turned out pretty well, and there's enough left for another meal, so I think I'll just reheat it and make some garlic bread for dinner tonight. Back to work on the book...
Late Afternoon: Got the chapter done, for better or worse, and shipped it off to Robert Denn at O'Reilly. Now to get to work on the proposal/TOC for the new book, which I hope to write concurrently with this one. I have a February 28, 1998 deadline on the current book. That's something like 23 weeks from now, or about a week-and-a-half per chapter. I think I can sustain that rate, even with the other book going at the same time, but it won't be easy.
Tuesday, September 15, 1998
Last night, we had left-over lasagna and garlic bread for dinner. I found a lone stick of butter in the downstairs kitchen, so I had popcorn for desert. I worked until about 10:00 last night, and then crapped out. Actually, I wasn't getting much done after 8:00 or so, but I felt obligated to keep trying. Back to work today on the TOC for the new book.
My mother's cleaning lady is going to make a grocery store run for us and bring the stuff tomorrow afternoon. That leaves coming up with a dinner for tonight. I'm thinking peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and scrambled eggs. Fortunately, my mother has a sense of humor. If I'd thought about it, I'd have ordered in a few cases of MREs before Barbara left. I may do that anyway and stick them on the shelf as a hedge against the next time Barbara is gone for a while. I figure if they're good enough for the troops, they should do for my mother and me.
I saw mention on Pournelle's web site of Microsoft Office SR-2 being available for download, so I set one of my spare machines to sucking it down. I connected to the nearest site they listed (Conxion in Washington, DC), but the throughput is still atrocious--about 1K/S at last count. The file is about 26 MB, and I'm up to 8.33 MB as I write this. I've had to kill and restart the process about four times now due to timeouts. Fortunately, IE allows you to resume interrupted FTP downloads automatically without losing what you've already gotten. Microsoft warns that this download may take more than four hours with a 14.4 Kbps modem. The way things look now, it's liable to take 10 or 12 hours with even the fastest modem.
Late evening: Well, after several dropped sessions that I was able to recover from, the first Office SR-2 download died irretrievably 22.8 MB into a 23.0 MB file. I tried CPR, but I couldn't salvage the session and had to restart the download from square one. It's up to 20.8 MB now, with only one session drop so far (at 19.2 MB). If this one works, I'll have downloaded almost 46 MB to get the 23 MB I needed. I won't load SR-2 right away, of course. I've learned by sad experience to let others take the arrows in the back. Microsoft often releases such an update, only to turn around a week or so later and update the update because of all the problems people found. I do have high hopes for this one, however. If it'll just make Word a little more stable, I'll be happy. Well, the download just finished. Perhaps I'll install it on a system I don't care much about.
Wednesday, September 16, 1998
Back to work today on the proposal/TOC for the new book. I hope to get that done and sent to my co-author today or tomorrow for his comments. Then we can get it to O'Reilly and see what they have to say. I'd also wanted to get another chapter done this week on the Nutshell book, but that isn't going to happen. I can at least get a start on it, though.
Thursday, September 17, 1998
Got a fair amount done yesterday on the proposal/TOC for the new book. I also spent quite a bit of time searching vendor web sites and then calling and emailing the vendors to request eval units. It never ceases to amaze me that vendors who pay millions of dollars a year to run double-truck ads in PC Magazine and similar places sometime balk at sending out an eval unit.
It's a matter of control, of course. They're scared to death that you might say something bad about them in print. Most authors have more sense than that. I might say, for example, that the Matrox video card worked better for me than the Number Nine, or that I find Internet Explorer easier to use and faster than Navigator, but I'm not going to trash the competing products. Nearly all hardware and software today is of amazingly good quality. We may compare hardware benchmarks or natter on at length about the latest bug in a popular software product, but the truth is it's all pretty good stuff. It doesn't matter much whether you put a Seagate or Western Digital IDE drive in your computer or whether you use Outlook or Eudora to handle your mail. They're all Good Enough.
Speaking of benchmarks, I don't follow sports at all but this Sosa/McGwire thing has been hard to avoid. It was on the front page of the paper this morning. When Maris hit 61, I seem to remember that they put an asterisk next to his record because he'd done so in 162 games rather than 154 as Ruth did. I've always thought that kind of missed the point.
When Maris hit 61 home runs, that feat was notable simply because it "broke" Ruth's record. Maris was a somewhat better hitter of home runs than his contemporary competition, but not extraordinarily so. Ruth hit 60 home runs in an era when that was an incredibly large number of home runs for an entire team to hit in a season, let alone for one person. I don't remember the exact numbers, but I seem to recall that Ruth's 60 home runs put him ahead of any other team's cumulative total that year and that the guy in second place that year hit something like 12. The exact numbers don't matter. The point is that these things should be judged on their relative merits rather than on absolute numbers.
The same goes for Hank Aaron's 714 career home runs. Although he was a great home run hitter, and although he holds the absolute numeric record, he was in no sense Ruth's equal in hitting balls over the fence. In truth, he wasn't even second to Ruth. I think that honor goes to a man whose name few people remember. Willie Stargell spent his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates, most of it playing in Forbes Field.
Forbes Field, later replaced by Three Rivers stadium, was gigantic. I can't remember the exact dimensions, but I believe it was 485 to left and right field, and 515 down the power alleys. You could literally drop most modern stadiums, stands and all, into the confines of Forbes Field and have grass left over around all the edges. Sosa's 342 foot shot that made the front page this morning would have been a short fly ball in Forbes Field, literally. I remember sitting in those stands as a child and watching Stargell hit long fly outs that would have been home runs in any other major league stadium of that time, or indeed of any time. Had Stargell spent his playing days in anything nearly as small as a modern stadium, he'd have probably hit more than 100 home runs in a good year, and would probably have ended his career with something between 1,000 and 1,500 total.
It's indicative of Stargell's power that he holds the tape-measure record for longest home run in nearly every stadium he ever played in, and usually by a significant margin. He hit balls to places that no man before or since has hit them. He regularly hit balls 500, 600, and 700 feet. His all-time longest (according to Bob Prince, formerly the Pirate's announcer) was something over 50 miles, although that story may be apocryphal. He hit that ball over the wall at Forbes Field. It landed on the fly in the bed of a passing truck. When that truck arrived in New Castle, Pennsylvania, the driver opened the tailgate and the ball rolled out onto the ground.
Stargell batted cleanup, and anchored one of the most extraordinary batting lineups of all time. At one point in the early 70's, the Pirates regularly took the field with all 9 players hitting better than .300. One of their pitchers, Ken Brett, was also a superb hitter, both for average and for power. He was, I believe, the brother of George Brett of the Kansas City Royals, so perhaps batting talent is genetic.
More than once, Ken Brett would have been in the running for the NL batting title, had he only had enough at-bats. Brett's hitting abilities sometimes resulted in something theretofore almost unheard of--an opposing pitcher intentionally walking the pitcher to get to the top of the order! Brett not only sustained a .300+ average, but was a home-run threat as well. This sometimes resulted in something even more unheard of--bringing in a pitcher as a pinch hitter. I remember once watching Brett come in to pinch hit. He promptly drove the first pitch out of the park. That must have been truly demoralizing for the opposing pitcher.
At any rate, it's back to work for me...
Late evening: got quite a lot done today. I finished a first cut at the proposal/TOC for the new book and sent it along to my co-author. He sent back an interim draft to show me where he was heading, and it looks pretty good. We hope to have something good enough to turn in by the first part of next week.
I'm still waiting for a call back from my friend Robin. She's supposed to come over and help me build this new box around the old kerby case, but she wasn't sure about her schedule. We'll do it tomorrow, Saturday or Sunday. Once that's done, I'll have to dig out the real-mode CD-ROM driver for the CD in old kerby. I need it so that I can boot a DOS floppy with that driver and access the CD-ROM drive, so that I can install Windows 95, so that I can install Windows 98. Geez. What I may do instead is install Windows NT Workstation 4.0, use it to create a 2 GB C: drive for Windows 98 and allocate the rest to Windows NT. Then, I can use Windows NT to access the CD-ROM drive. I hate these things.
Well, a moth just landed on some papers sitting balanced on top of one of my monitors. I smacked the moth, the papers flipped, and an avalanche resulted, which knocked things all over the place. I guess I'd better get this mess straightened out.
Friday, September 18, 1998
I have a bunch of different things I could work on today, but I'm not sure which to do. I'd like to get this new box built, because I really need a Win98 system, but I promised Robin I'd wait until she could come over to watch and help. I think I'll get to work on another chapter instead.
Late evening: I got a couple thousand words written on the book today, along with some detail outlining of various chapters. As usual, while writing one chapter, I got ideas about another, so I did some jumping around. It used to be I'd work exclusively on one chapter at a time. When I had a thought that belonged in another chapter, I'd jot it down on a sticky note or something, and usually lose it. Now, I create placeholder documents for each chapter, which makes it easy to capture random thoughts, if only as sentence fragments.
Barbara called this evening from somewhere in Nova Scotia. She sounded happy, and I didn't mention that my mother and I are barely subsisting on my culinary talents, such as they are. Tonight, we had hot dogs and cheese puffs for dinner. I thought that I'd mastered doing hot dogs in the microwave--just cook 'em on high for a minute or so. When they started to twist and split, they were done. Tonight, I got the clever idea of poking holes in them with a fork so they wouldn't explode. That worked, but I think I got them a little too done. MREs next time, for sure.
My three year old Border Collie, Duncan, almost got another squirrel tonight. The damn things sit up in the trees and chitter away at Duncan the whole time he's outside, so I can't blame him for wanting a rodent-free yard. This one made a miscalculation that almost had fatal results. The squirrel was in the yard when we came out the door, and it scampered up the tree trunk to the first fork. Its mistake was in pausing to turn around and chitter at Duncan. I'm sure the squirrel was surprised to find that Duncan was on his way up the tree right behind him. Duncan made a grab for its tail, the squirrel lept backwards off the tree and made it to another tree with Duncan in close pursuit.
Duncan was on the end of a 33 foot (10 metre) extensible roller leash, and the whole time I was trying to prevent him from either pulling me off my feet, hanging himself, or knocking down our ten year old Border Collie, Kerry, who has hip displasia. I'm about 6'4" and 240 lbs. (call it 1.9 metres and 110 kilos), so you wouldn't think a little 65 lb. (30 kilo) dog could drag me, but he can. Must be that four-paw drive.
I just read the preceding paragraph. Amazing the habits you get into writing technical material.
Saturday, September 19, 1998
I'm starting to wear down a bit. I'm used to working seven days a week, but it's usually not all day every day. In the eight days that Barbara has been gone, I've only read three books, where in the normal course of things I read about one a day. Last night, I read Clouds of Witness, a Lord Peter Wimsey mystery by Dorothy L. Sayers. She is a superb writer, and the Lord Peter Wimsey novels are qualitatively (although not quantitatively) the equal of Christie's Poirot novels.
I still haven't heard from Robin, and I need to get that Win98 machine built. I think I'll do it tomorrow, Robin or no Robin. This evening, I'm heading over to our friends, the Tuckers, for their daughter Katie's birthday party. Steve's ISDN line is in and working, so I'll also get a chance to play with it and look at his 3Com ISDN router.
Sunday, September 20, 1998Went over to our friends, Steve and Suzy Tucker’s house last night for dinner and their daughter Katie's 11th birthday party. Got there about 4:00, so as to maximize the time we'd have available for playing with the computers. My brother came over from Raleigh for a short visit. He took care of dinner for my mother and himself, and walked the dogs before he left at 8:00. That made things a lot easier for me, because I didn't have to drive back and forth to let out the dogs, usw.
Steve's ISDN line had just been installed a couple of days ago, and I expected that we’d have quite a bit to do to get his 3Com ISDN router working, share the link with his network, and so forth. I was surprised to find that we didn’t—everything just worked.
One problem was that he needed to change ISPs. His current ISP, IBM, charges outrageously for ISDN access, so Steve started checking alternatives. He ended up with GTE, which offers flat-rate ISDN Internet services. The only problem Steve was having with GTE was getting mail to work, both inbound and outbound. We did quite a bit of testing and finally concluded that the GTE mail servers are apparently seriously underpowered. We finally did get mail to start getting through, but the headers were showing delays of as much as five hours at GTE. That’s not acceptable.
As we were messing with the mail problem, we talked about bringing up a Linux box. Steve is running WinGate right now, but wants a Linux box as a proxy server. We also talked about configuring Linux to automatically dial his ISP, suck down mail addressed to him and his family, and then distribute it to local mailboxes where it can be popped individually by each user.
Steve has a DEC Starion Pentium 75 box that he bought cheap at auction (the computer and a 20" monitor for $100 total). The DEC has 8MB of soldered RAM and an 850 MB drive. We decided it would make a pretty decent Linux box if we added a bit more RAM. The DEC motherboard has two vacant 72-pin SIMM sockets, but Steve was fresh out of 72-pin memory.
I told Steve that I was getting ready to tear down old kerby, which has 96 MB of 72-pin memory, and that he was welcome to salvage that RAM. I have only a couple of boxes left in the house that use 72-pin SIMMs. Everything else uses DIMMs. My LaserJet takes SIMMs, and I suppose I could load it up with 64 MB of RAM, but that seems a waste.
Katie decided on Pizza Hut pizza for dinner, so Steve and I headed to my house to pick up my Red Hat Linux and pull some RAM on the way to pick up the pizza. There was a message on the answering machine from Robin, saying she couldn't make it over to help with the old kerby upgrade. I'll probably be doing that today.
As usual, Steve and I were concentrating on different things. Steve was thinking about getting his DEC box working, and I was busy playing with his new Sony Mavica MD-7 digital camera. Steve decided that 40MB would be plenty for Linux, so he pulled two 16 MB SIMMs out of kerby while I shot pictures with the Sony. Here’s one Steve shot of me at my desk. I don't know what I'm looking so unhappy about, other than that I've always hated to be photographed. The Sony Mavica saves images in native JPEG format to its internal floppy disk. This image is exactly as it came from the camera, without any massaging. I just copied it straight from the floppy into my web folder and created the hyperlink.
At any rate, we got the memory pulled, wrapped it in static-safe Kleenex, and headed for Pizza Hut. As usual, Steve got a deal. We’d ordered three pizzas, which came to about $25. They put the wrong toppings on one (we didn’t really care), and gave Steve $15 worth of coupons for free pizzas to make up for their error, bringing our cost down to $10. Steve had previously bought a discount card for $10 that was supposed to give you a certain number of special deals, and was supposed to be punched each time it was used. They forgot to punch it, further reducing the cost. We figure we ended up with three pizzas for about $7 total.
We headed back to the Tuckers’ house, scarfed down the pizza, had the birthday party, ate the cake, and then headed downstairs to Steve’s computer center. The SIMMs went into the DEC box with no problem, and it showed 40 MB when we rebooted it. At that point, we started talking about whether we really wanted to install Linux. We could have installed it, but neither one of us is a Unix guru. We’d have needed John Mikol to get the local mail server configured, and he wasn’t there. With Steve’s new ISDN, new ISP, and so forth, we figured it'd be tempting fate to change yet one more thing.
So, we decided to bring the DEC box up as a Win98 machine. It was already running Windows 95. We’re both optimists, so we figured it’d be an easy upgrade. We inserted the Win98 CD, stood back, and watched it go. Surprisingly enough, it was an easy upgrade. After a bunch of file copying and several automatic reboots, the DEC was running Win98 without any effort on our part.
At that point, it was getting close to midnight, so I figured I’d better head home and out the dogs. Steve was nice enough to offer to let me borrow the Sony Mavica digital camera for some playing around, so I’ll have more on that later.
Mid-afternoon: I told Pournelle I'd write a short essay on the Mavica that he could post on his web site. I've spent the morning playing around with the Mavica, shooting some test shots, and writing the essay. I'll make sure everything works properly here and then ship off the essay to Pournelle.
Well, I got the stuff up on my web page, and am getting ready to ship the essay off to Pournelle. Here it is 2:45 p.m. and I've burnt the day playing around. I still have to get old kerby rebuilt with the new Pentium II system board and get Win98 installed on it. We'll see. Sandwiches for dinner tonight, I think...
Dinner time: I spent the remainder of the afternoon getting some routine things done, e.g. finishing the laundry. I was out of socks. That reminds me of a suite-mate of mine in college, back in 1972. Our dorm rooms had a stack of 7 built-in drawers. Fred did his laundry about once every month or two, if we were lucky.
When he came back with a freshly laundered batch of underwear, he put it in the top drawer. He changed underwear each day, and put the old pair in the next drawer down. When he was out of clean ones in the top drawer, he'd start cycling through those in the second drawer, placing them in the third drawer after wearing them for the second time. When they eventually all got to the bottom drawer, he'd figure it was time to do laundry again.
Fred always wondered why he could never get anywhere with women. Some of us tried to explain it to him gently, but he never caught on. A very nice young woman named Dianne Cochrane tried to rectify matters. She short-circuited his scheme one time by snagging all his underwear and taking it over to the laundry room to wash it. When he found out what she'd done, he yelled at her for messing up his rotation, and she decided she could do better elsewhere. I'm not making any of this up. I wish I were.
At any rate, I spent a half hour or so late this afternoon tearing the old motherboard out of old kerby and otherwise making it ready for the upgrade. It appears that the EPoX Pentium II motherboard will fit fine, although it has an old AT-style keyboard connector and a PS/2 mouse connector, while old kerby's peripherals are both PS/2. I know I have a PS/2-to-AT keyboard adapter cable around here somewhere. I buy things like this periodically, stick them on the shelf, and then can't find them when I need them. If worse comes to horrible, I'm sure I have an actual AT keyboard in the closet, although it'll probably cause an avalanche when I pull it out.
Come 5:30, my mother wanted dinner, so I made what she asked for - a Swiss cheese on rye sandwich with cheese puffs and a chocolate eclair. I claim that this is a three-course meal (four, counting the cup of tea I also made her), but she scoffs. Speaking of dinner, I'd better go make myself a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich or something before I forget to eat. Since I only eat one meal a day, forgetting to eat it might have serious consequences.
I'm going to spend the evening either (a) rebuilding old kerby as a Pentium II and installing Windows 98, or (b) lying around reading English mysteries. I'm not sure which yet. If the former, I'll put up a narrative tomorrow to explain what happened. The latter is starting to sound attractive, though.
Updated: 05 July 2002 08:09
Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 by Robert Bruce Thompson. All Rights Reserved.