Day Notes

A (mostly) daily journal of the trials, tribulations, and random observations of Robert Bruce Thompson, a writer of computer books.

 

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Monday, September 21, 1998

Well, I finally got around to doing An Upgrade for Old Kerby last night. I didn't really feel like doing it last night; I felt instead like lying around reading some English mysteries from the unread stack. But I need a Windows 98 box for the book I'm working on, and it wasn't going to get built unless I built it, so the choice was clear. I worked on it until about 1:00 a.m. this morning (knowing the dogs would awaken me at 7:00), but I got the job done.

Barbara is due back late Wednesday night, and I can't wait. Whoever observed that women have a civilizing effect on men was right. More than once during the last couple weeks, I've felt like going out to loot and pillage--preferably someplace with good food. At any rate, back to work on the book...


I've decided to start experimenting with posting reader mail occasionally. I'll keep them anonymous unless you specifically tell me otherwise, and I'll clean up any typos. I may also edit and/or format for brevity or to remove personal asides.

I'm still getting nastygrams about my comments on the Microsoft "monopoly" issue, but most of them are too strongly worded to post here, even with judicious Bowdlerization. Apparently, saying anything even mildly favorable about Microsoft draws fire, kind of like saying anything even mildly disfavorable about Apple.

Here are a couple letters that just came in:

From a reader 9/20/98, in response to some stuff I'd written about Intel-based workstations versus "real" workstations:

As Intel processors have finally reached performance (overall, not necessarily FP) parity with mid-range RISC boxes, the argument has devolved to one over configuration. My latest machine, used for mechanical CAD/CAE, is as follows.

SuperMicro P6DBU dual PII 450 MB; 512 MB ECC PC100 SDRAM in 256 MB DIMMs, upgradable to 1 GB; Built-in dual channel U2W & Ultra SCSI via Adaptec 7890 chipset; 9 GB, 10k RPM 5.2ms U2W Seagate Cheetah HD; 32X Toshiba SCSI CD-ROM; HP 4GB SCSI tape; Elsa XXL video supporting 32-bit color @ 1280 x 1024 - 100 Hz; Viewsonic PT 813 21" (20") monitor; and, of course, NT 4.01

I use this machine to run Pro/Engineer and supporting applications. Our customer on the current project, who uses a lot of SGI machines ($$$), was shocked by the machine's performance. They are submitting purchase requests to acquire seven like it as a pilot project.

This machine was purchased from a small, specialty assembler in Massachusetts, SAG Electronics. Their niche is workstations, servers and RAID sub-systems. SAG uses only top-quality components and seems to put a little more into it than the screwdriver shops here in the San Diego area. Total price of the above, without monitor and tape and inclusive of next-day shipping, was $6,700. I consider this quite reasonable and is about equal to my best effort at piecing together an identical system. A comparable RISC machine, while cheaper than previous years, would still be at least double the price. If I do have problems with it, I can get replacement parts just about anywhere.

It is equivalent to the old argument about Corvette vs. Ferrari in America. The new Corvette is $50k, will do 170 mph and handle as well as a non-professional can use. It can be fixed at any Chevy dealer in the US. A new Ferrari is faster by 30-40 mph, will handle better, costs $240k and can only be repaired at great expense by an elite few. In the case of workstation or sports car, the question is: "Is the price/performance justifiable." In my view, no to both.

You make excellent points, and I agree entirely. What you have is a workstation, no matter what the Unix folks want to think. You're also right about the Corvette/Ferrari issue. In fact, twenty years ago I almost bought a Lamborghini Espada from a friend of mine. He'd bought it badly dented for about $5K, put another $15K into it, and was willing to sell it to me for $10K just to get rid of it. I thought seriously about buying it--I was 25 then, and it was great for picking up girls--but then I found out that it took spark plugs that had to be custom-made at $25 each, that they took 6 months from order to arrival, and that all twelve (I think) plugs needed to be replaced about every 3,000 miles. Everything else was similar. The oil filter was $40! I decided that I could afford to buy it, but I couldn't afford to feed it. Same deal on the Intel versus workstation issue. I can see paying the bucks for a "real" workstation when it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight, but otherwise I think you get about 99% of the bang for about 25% of the buck by going with the Intel.

From another reader, 9/20/98, concerning the forthcoming Windows NT TCP/IP Network Administration.

Thanks for the prompt (and unexpected) reply. I'll be looking forward to the book. Have since spent entirely too much time in front of the CRT going thru your site. In its own way, it's comparable to what Pournelle is doing with interesting and useful content (and structure...). Ever thought of writing science fiction?

The various Win NT/Microsoft_aps related problems are dismaying. I'm about to make a run at the MCSE and your experiences tend to confirm my tentative opinion of Microsoft's stuff as full of serious idiosyncrasies hidden in a black box architecture.

Case insensitive file names and volumes accessed by drive letters assigned by the OS have looked like a bad decision for a while now, but that's what you get when you start out by virtually stealing the rights to the clone of an existing OS.

Keep up the good work!

Thanks for the kind words. If you think you spend too much time reading it, imagine how I feel about how much time I spend writing it! It's good to know that some people are reading what I post. The site is very new, but hopefully will develop some traffic. As far as writing SF, I actually have considered it. Perhaps next year ...

Yes, NT is definitely not for folks who want to get under the hood. On the other hand, there's a place for land yachts, just like there's a place for the manual-everything MGB. I don't dislike NT nearly as much as some people do. It's reasonably stable, if not to the level of Unix, and it's certainly easier to configure, manage and use. Of course, it's really an early version still, despite the 4.0 number. If NT 3.1 was actually 1.0, that makes 3.5/3.51 version 1.5, and this 2.0. Win16 didn't really become usable until V 3.0/3.1, and I suspect that NT 3.0 (5.0) will be much the same. If they can ever get it out the door.

Conversely, from a reader, 9/21/98, who appears not to like me for some reason. I've removed some of the really strong language, but it otherwise appears exactly as I received it:

What makes you think anyone gives a f**k about what you think. Your concieted to write all this s**t that nobodies goig to read. You're web site sucks. Get a life.

Well, apparently he read it. It's nice to know that even marginally literate people are able to use the web. Sadly, I won't be able to read his response to this, if any, because I've added him to my kill file.

 


There has been little rain in Winston-Salem for the last several months. I'm not much on yard work, so Barbara arranged for her sister to stop over while she was gone to water the more fragile plants and bushes. Frances stopped over Saturday to water, and pointed out that two of Barbara's bushes were not doing well. They have yellow and brown leaves all over them and look droopy. Not a good sign. If Barbara comes back to find them dead, I'll be in big trouble.

So, I went out this morning to water. Better late than never, I guess. At least I can honestly claim I tried. It's a nice cool, cloudy day, and I figured this'd be a good time because  the water wouldn't just evaporate in the hot sun. I set up the sprinkler in the middle of the front walk, set it for a 10' X 60' pattern and let it get to work. After half an hour or so, I went out and moved it to the middle of one side of the front of the house and reset it for 20' X 30'. Half an hour later, I moved it to the other side of the front of the house and let it rip.

A few minutes ago, I looked out the front door. My first thought was, "Damn, that sprinkler puts out more water than I thought." It was pouring rain, of course. I heard a loud watery-sounding noise and looked over to the downspout on one side of the house. Water was fountaining up at the joint where the curved bottom part joins the straight-down portion. I took the five foot long plastic pipe thing of the end of the downspout, and it was choked with leaves, as was the lower portion of the spout. I banged on that a bit, and it promptly fell off, drenching me with water, leaves, and probably pieces of drowned squirrel, for all I know. This homeowner thing is better some times than others.

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Tuesday, September 22, 1998

We ended up getting about an inch of rain, which'll help. The grass was getting pretty brown, and the ground was actually developing crevices. We're supposed to get some more today. Fortunately, Winston-Salem has the whole Yadkin River as a water supply, so lack of rain is not as serious a problem as it might otherwise be. Greensboro, about 30 miles to our east, depends on a reservoir, and so frequently has restrictions on watering lawns and washing cars during droughts like this. We never have such restrictions.

Barbara is due back tomorrow night, so I did a walk-through of the house this morning, noting things I'll need to do before she gets home. Things look about as you'd expect them to, although I've kept the kitchen reasonably clean. Tomorrow afternoon, I'll spend a couple hours getting things cleaned up and straightened out. Today, it's work on the book. Still more reader mail:

From a reader, 9/22/98, concerning the content of this web site.

I really like your web site. You have a lot of interesting stuff but a lot of the pages don't have anything but an under construction icon on them. Are you going to finish them?

Thanks for the kind words. Yes, I do plan to fill out these pages when I have the time to do so, but for now they're just placeholders. Running a web site is a new experience for me, and it's turning out to take much more time than I thought. For now, just keeping this Day Notes journal updated takes all the time I have available, and more. I'll try to get to one or two other pages every weekend or so over the next couple of months, although even that is pushing it.

Although I wouldn't go so far as to say the web site is a hobby, it does have to take a backseat to the paying work. I have two books in progress right now, and not much time available to work on the site. The reason these stub pages are visible is that I tend to have an idea for something I want to include and then create a placeholder page for it. FrontPage 98 does not (so far as I know) have any way to mark such pages "invisible." So, think of these "under-construction" pages as a glimpse at my plans for the future of the site and a promise of things to come...


Kipling got it right: "If you can meet with triumph and disaster, and treat both these imposters just the same..." Yesterday afternoon I checked the Amazon.com sales rank for Windows NT TCP/IP Network Administration. Although it hasn't hit print yet, Amazon.com takes advance orders for books and assigns them ranks based on their sales numbers. NT/TCP was sitting at 2,066, which is very good for any book, and extraordinary for a book that is not yet actually out.  I immediately mailed my editor and co-author to tell them the good news.

In early evening, it had slipped to 2,600+, but before I went to bed, it had climbed back to 2,022. This morning, I got a read-receipt from my editor, so I ran over to Amazon.com to check the current ranking. Of course it had slipped--all the way down to 21,076. That's still a very respectable number even for a book that's actually available, but it's not the number I wanted my editor to see.


A reader emailed me to suggest that I embed internal links to allow jumping directly to each day's material. That makes sense. Some of these weekly documents get pretty long. FrontPage 98 calls these internal links bookmarks. I've put in bookmarks for each day, along with links to jump directly to the Day Notes home page and last week's Day Notes page. I'll carry it over to each future Day Notes page, although I'm not going to take the time to go back to modify the earlier pages.

And from another reader on 9/22/98.

Geez, Bob-- are the day notes pages GIFs? Just failed at a cut and paste for this email.

Also looked for and failed to find an email address that says it's to you--yeah, yeah, I know--you are the webmaster, but that's an easy to trip over embedded assumption. How about putting _your_ email "mailto:" at the top _and_ bottom of every page? Some of these pages will be loooooong.

You do want the feedback, right? (Well, most of it , anyway....)

Well, only the page banner and nav buttons are .gifs, although I can see why one might think these Day Notes pages have heavy graphics, given the size of some of them. It's not a technical problem. My web server runs on a high-end Sun box, and connects to the Internet via multiple redundant T3s. It's only two hops from Mae West. It may be due to the bloated code that I hear FrontPage generates, but there's not much I can do about that. I don't know HTML, have neither the time nor the desire to learn it, and so it'll be FrontPage or nothing, I'm afraid.

I don't know any way to make these pages transfer faster other than to write smaller pages, which I don't want to do, either. FrontPage has a status bar at the bottom that lists the estimated download time for the page you're editing. Right now, it says 37 seconds, but most of that's due to the banner and nav buttons. Perhaps I should get rid of those elements. I'm not sure how helpful they are. As an experiment, I just went out and created a new page. It has just the page banner and nav buttons, but no text, and FrontPage estimates 20 seconds to download it. Perhaps I should get rid of the graphic elements. I'll think about it.

Regarding the email address, I'd thought about doing as you suggest, but a friend who is an experienced webmaster suggested that I stick with just the "webmaster" address. His reasoning was that most autobots that grab addresses for spammers are set to ignore "webmaster" accounts, but would grab my real account name and deluge me with spam. I don't know how true that is, but it seems reasonable, and I've gotten hardly any spam addressed to my webmaster account.

As far as the feedback, I appreciate all of it. Well, most of it. That letter a couple of days ago was beyond the pale.

 

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Wednesday, September 23, 1998

Barbara is due back late tonight, thank god. I'd better get the house cleaned up some before she arrives.

I spent a fair amount of time yesterday afternoon on the phone and emailing vendors to request evaluation product for the new book. Most of them are delighted to have their products considered. A few have policies that only allow evals to be kept for a short period, after which they must be returned or paid for. I talked to one such vendor, who was willing to provide an eval for at most 60 days.

The more I got to thinking about it, the more I worry about committing to returning eval units. My standard boilerplate request letter says, "Please note that, due to the on-going nature of this project, I will be unable to return any products that you supply for evaluation." The original motivation for including that verbiage was not so much because I want to keep all these eval products as that I need to have them long-term because book writing goes in fits and starts and is iterative. I may need to return months later to something, and don't want to have the product I was writing about gone when that happens.

I have a bunch of stuff coming in now, and that's going to turn into a flood as the book progresses. If I start making exceptions to this "no-return policy" of mine, I think I'll be digging myself a hole. Trying to keep up with what's due back when, finding the box, getting it re-boxed, sending it back, etc. would be a major hassle. Not to mention trying to get the product back again if I needed it on the technical review pass or whatever.

I understand that some companies must get tired of giving away evals and never seeing them again. However, the reality is that no author can afford to order and pay for all this stuff, and if one company isn't willing to provide long-term or permanent evals gratis, there are any number of other companies that will be glad to do so. Personally, I think it's a very cheap way to get the word out about their products, at least compared to running ads in PC Magazine or whatever.

It's also a much more credible way to promote the product. When the company pays to run an ad, everyone knows that that ad is paid for and presents an inherently biased viewpoint of the product. But when an author endorses the product in a book or article, that carries a lot more weight with readers, who correctly perceive that the author is presenting his own unbiased opinion.

Although the point is sometimes raised, there's no conflict of interest or undue influence, either. Because most companies are happy to provide evals to authors, doing so doesn't buy them any special consideration. No author is going to be swayed by a free copy of some email package or a free video card. It's just too easy to get free samples of the competing products.


I got email this morning from Robert Denn, my editor at O'Reilly, to tell me that Microsoft is (finally) getting around to releasing the long-promised Service Pack 4 for Windows NT, supposedly by mid-October or so. Windows NT TCP/IP Network Administration is now set in concrete, and attempting to update it for SP4 would delay the book by several months. No book about Microsoft software would ever see print if one crash-halted every time Microsoft released updates, so we added added an SP4 Issues page to the main page for the book. For now, it's just a stub. After we get a chance to work with SP4, there may or may not be significant updates to the material in the printed book.

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Thursday, September 24, 1998

Barbara is back! She got in about 7:30 yesterday evening. Steak tonight. Happy days are here again. She's been telling me about her Canadian tour, and it sounds like she had a great time. I told her to write up her notes and put them up on her web page, with pictures. She shot eight rolls. Too bad she didn't have a digital camera. Barbara brought me back two CDs with Scottish music and a historical map of Scotland. She brought my mother a scarf in the Thompson Modern tartan.


And yet more reader mail, this from last night, 9/23/98.

You shouldn't steal Jerry Pournelle's words. The other day he said something on his web site about "jacking up the radiator and running a new car under it" and now I see that you used almost the same words in your computer upgrade article.

Um, actually, I think he stole it from me. That's okay, though, because I've stolen plenty of expressions from him, I'm sure. All writers are also lovers of words, and a particularly apt expression, elegant alliteration, or pungent turn of phrase is going to get recycled--sometimes in the full realization that it's not original and other times in the sincere belief that it is. We all do it, and we all have it done to us, and none of us minds either way. I wouldn't even be sure who'd got it from whom, except that I remember the first time I ever heard it used, twenty years ago or more. The author was Rick Fines, an automotive writer, and he was talking about a literal radiator cap. He in turn had probably stolen it from Henry Ford or something...


And speaking of Pournelle, it appears that he's let the cat out of the bag, saying on his web site, "It now appears that Robert Bruce Thompson and I will be doing a book on "good enough hardware." Stay tuned. Thompson is the author of several O'Reilly books. I have never seen a bad O'Reilly book, which is interesting."

And he's right. I've never seen a bad O'Reilly book, either. I'm sure they've done a few that didn't sell as well as they'd hoped, but they've never done a bad book. I was honored when Jerry asked me if I'd be interested in doing a book together. We've come up with a book idea that we think has great potential, and we're working on the proposal/outline now. It's still early days, so more on this later.

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Friday, September 25, 1998

Yesterday was Barbara's first full day back, and I didn't get all that much done. Looking at the tartan scarf she bought for my mother got me to thinking about tartans in general, so I decided to search the net for more information. Those of Scots ancestry may find it interesting to check out the Tartans of Scotland home page. One thing I didn't realize is that Thompson is the Anglicized version of the Scots MacTavish. Perhaps if I one day write fiction, I'll do so under the pen name Angus MacTavish.

I'm in the Thompson sept of Clan Campbell, and found several beautiful tartans that I'm entitled to wear. I'm using one of them, Thompson Hunting (TS2093), as my wallpaper now. The hunting tartans were just that--Scots camouflage--and have very subdued colors. Many tartans come in several variants, all based on the standard tartan. While the hunting variants use muted colors, the dress variants use brighter colors. Some tartans even have mourning variants.

I also found that it's quite possible to purchase a full authentic kit of traditional Scots dress in one's own tartan, although doing so is not inexpensive--600 to 700 pounds. Just the thing for that formal occasion. Apparently, most tailors make at least some effort to make sure that one is entitled to wear the tartan one is ordering. Although I find it incredible--kind of like using someone else's name or coat of arms on one's personal letterhead--some people apparently order tartans based purely on how they look.

Installing the Thompson Hunting tartan as my wallpaper made it a little hard to view the icon labels on my desktop. In the process of getting that fixed, I learned something about how Outlook and other Microsoft applications use desktop settings, as follows:

Outlook 98 Tip

If you run Outlook 98 at high resolution, the default font sizes it uses for the Outlook Shortcut Bar and the Folder List may be too small to read easily, particularly if you have middle-aged eyes like mine. Because these panes are actually folder views, the font associated with icon labels is also used for them. You can choose a more readable font face and size by using the Display Properties dialog to change the font settings for icon labels.

To do so, right click an empty area of your desktop and choose Properties to display the Display Properties dialog. Click the Appearance tab and use the Item drop-down list to select the item Icon. Then use the Font and Size drop-down lists to choose a more visible combination of font and size.

This setting also controls the font face and size used in many other products, including the Internet Explorer Toolbars and the folder and file lists in FrontPage 98.

UPS showed up last evening with eval copies of SONERA Technologies DisplayMate and Touchstone Software Corporation CheckIt 98. DisplayMate is a comprehensive video analysis and diagnostics tool, and CheckIt 98 is a complete hardware diagnostics utility. I'll have much more to say about each of them later.

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Saturday, September 26, 1998

Not much to report this morning. I've come down with a terrible cold and don't feel much like doing anything. I was feeling so rotten yesterday afternoon that I didn't get around to doing my normal weekly network backup, so that's on tap for this morning, along with doing laundry. I had planned to finish setting up the new Pentium box today, but I'm not sure I'll get around to doing that. Perhaps tomorrow. I still need to run the cable for the UTP network back to Barbara's office as well, and I have a stack of eval stuff here that I need to get to.


Well, I got the backup done, although Backup Exec gave me a media error after it had almost completed the verify pass. I'm not too confident in this Travan TR-4 technology. I get occasional file compare errors just about every time I read it. Of course, I'm using 3M/Imation tapes, and I've never had much luck with 3M magnetic media.

While the backup was running, I decided to get some work done on the new box. First up was to copy the Win98 CD up to the hard disk so that I can work from there instead of leaving the CD in the drive. I used Explorer to create the folder c:\install\microsoft\windows 98 and then used Shift-click to select the entire contents of the root folder of the Win98 CD in drive D:. The dialog displayed a "preparing to copy message for a minute or so and then started copying files. Part way through the copy, it blew up to a blue screen.

I'd been playing Freecell, and Windows 9x is notoriously bad at concurrent operations, particularly those involving disk access. I figured maybe playing Freecell while the copy was going on had caused the problem, so I rebooted and tried again, this time from a DOS box. Same thing happened, although at a different point in the copy. I'm beginning to think all those bad things I read about Windows 98 may have some basis.

So I decided to install Windows NT Workstation and use it to copy the CD to drive C: When I put my Windows NT Workstation Boot Diskette 1 in the drive and restarted, I got a boot error. Bad floppy, apparently, which happens surprisingly often with Windows NT distribution floppies. It's easy enough to create a new set of boot floppies from the WinNT CD, but I figured that today is not the day to work on it. I'm feeling pretty bad, nothing is going right, and I'm liable to really screw something up. Best to write off the day and just get started on it tomorrow or whenever.

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Sunday, September 27, 1998

Yuck. I hate colds. I can't take cold medicines because they make me feel completely out of it. I spent last night on the couch so that Barbara would be able to get some sleep. I hope this is over with by tomorrow. I can't afford to lose yet another day.

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Coming Soon (I hope)

 

Updated: 05 July 2002 08:04

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