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 28, 1998

Back to the grind. Barbara just left to go to work. I'm sure she'll feel a bit strange being back at work after being gone for three weeks. Her desk will probably be messier than mine, for once.

Got mail from Pournelle this morning. The draft proposal/outline I'd sent him had Word's revision marks turned on, which he hates. Thinking back to the first time I ran into revisions, I can understand. They are hateful, until you get used to using them, when you suddenly realize they're one of the best collaborative features in Word. Until you do get used to them, however, it's pretty disconcerting to delete something and have it remain visible, albeit with a strikethrough font. I'm flexible, though, so if he really hates 'em, we won't use 'em.

Back to work on the book. I have three chapters going concurrently now, and may add a fourth. In the past, I've always worked on just one new chapter at a time, although I often had other chapters active in revision. This is the first time I've tried working in parallel instead of serial, so it'll be interesting to see how it works out. At any rate, back to it...

From the "boy can I call it, or what?" department comes the following: Microsoft has removed the Office SR-2 patch from their download site, citing the fact that they have "confirmed certain situations in which the SR-2 patch will fail to install properly." If you downloaded the original SR-2 patch and have not yet installed it, I'd suggest that you wait for the updated version, which Microsoft says they will post at some indefinite later date. If you've installed it successfully, Microsoft says that "there is no cause for concern or action." Given what I've heard from people, I'm not sure that that's entirely the case, but there doesn't seem to be a good alternative to doing nothing for those who've already installed SR-2.

Just this morning I fired up NT Task Manager on my main workstation to check something. I noticed that the System Idle process had a cumulative total of about 439+ hours--or nearly 3 weeks. That made me think about people who claim that Windows NT is unstable. Three weeks without a reboot is pretty good, depending on your viewpoint. If you're a Win9x user, it's incredibly good. If you're a Unix user, it's nothing special--Unix boxes sometimes run for months between reboots. 

At any rate, after saying that silent prayer of thanks for NT's relative stability, a little while ago I double-clicked the Internet Explorer icon on my desktop. An hourglass appeared, which is never a good sign on a Pentium II/300 when you're simply starting a program. After a few seconds, I right-clicked in the Task Bar to choose Task Manager, but nothing happened. I then did a Ctrl-Alt-Del to bring up the Windows NT Security dialog, and chose Task Manager from there. It never did come up. The system was well and truly locked. I had to press the reset button.

I guess in the long-term scheme of things, one forced reboot every three weeks isn't too bad. Win9x users would kill for that kind of stability. Still, it'd be nice if NT was about an order of magnitude more stable--something like Unix. On the other hand, they may not be as far apart as they seem. Windows NT runs with reasonable reliability on just about any hardware you can cobble together. The folks who boast of months-long sessions without a reboot in Unix are usually running on standard, known hardware for which their version of Unix was specifically written. It's not really fair to compare the stability of Windows NT running on a random collection of Intel-based PC parts with, say, Sun-OS using all Sun drivers and running on an all-Sun box. If Microsoft were supplying the computer, I'm sure that NT would be considerably more stable also.

Still, one can hope...

FedEx just showed up with a box of stuff from PowerQuest Corporation. These folks are best known for Partition Magic, a product that's saved me countless hours of extra work over the years. In the bad old days before Partition Magic, if you needed to change the partitioning on a hard disk, the only alternative was to back everything up, blow away the old partitions, create and format the new partitions, and then restore. In addition to taking hours, this process was fraught with peril. On at least one occasion, I was unable to restore the backup tape I'd done immediately before starting the repartitionining, even though that tape had passed a verify flawlessly.

With Partition Magic, you can repartition on the fly. It takes much less time, and I think it's safer than the old backup-and-restore method, strange though that may sound. In fact, although PowerQuest recommends that you backup before repartitioning, I have enough confidence in Partition Magic that I almost never bother to backup before repartitioning on my own systems. I still do so on client systems, for obvious reasons. I can just see explaining to the judge why I didn't bother to do a backup before trashing my client's disk. Yeah, right.

PowerQuest also sent me copies of several of their other utilities. DriveCopy is a cheap and easy way to copy the contents of one hard disk to another, for example when you're installing a new hard drive and want it to the be the boot drive. DriveImage is a cloning product that competes with Symantec's Ghost. DriveImage allows you to create an image of a master disk and then replicate that image to multiple hard disks--just the thing when you need to set up 100 identical workstations. It even has a SID editor, which allows you to get around the problem of Windows NT's unique SIDs. I'm looking forward to trying this product. If it's anything like as good as Partition Magic, I'll be recommending it to my corporate clients. Two other PowerQuest products that were in the box are new to me. ServerMagic is the NetWare equivalent of Partition Magic and EasyRestore is a system recovery utility. I'll be wringing these programs out as well.

And speaking of utility software, I have two other products sitting here waiting for me to have a spare moment.

  • DisplayMate video diagnostic software from Sonera Technologies is one of those products that just does one thing, but does it as well as it can be done. More so than any other PC component, monitors can vary significantly between individual examples of a particular model. There is less variability with the more expensive brand-name monitors, but it is there nonetheless. Depending on the luck of the draw, you can buy an inexpensive no-name monitor end up with a really great monitor (although it is unlikely). Conversely, you can buy a high-dollar NEC or Nokia and end up with a complete dog (also unlikely). The point is, individual monitors vary. I wouldn't think of buying an expensive monitor without using DisplayMate first to check it.

Same thing with deciding which video card and monitor combination to run. You can pair a really good name-brand video card with a really good name-brand monitor and end up with a mediocre picture. I wouldn't have believed this until I saw it myself. I won't mention brand names, except to say that they were Matrox, Number Nine, NEC, and Nanao. When one of the monitors was coupled to one of the video cards, the image was subpar. Nothing we could do could get that image looking as good as it should have looked given the high-dollar hardware it was running on. Same thing with the other combination. Great video card with a great monitor = not-so-great picture. The solution, as it turned out, was simple. We swapped monitors. Video card #1 running with monitor #1 yielded a mediocre picture, as did #2 with #2. When we ran video card #1 with monitor #2 and vice versa, both yielded top notch pictures. This is the kind of thing that DisplayMate will help you uncover.

  • CheckIt from Touchstone Software is a general-purpose diagnostics utility suite intended to help a technician or knowledgeable user discover and correct PC hardware problems. It used to be that many PCs were shipped with a copy of CheckIt (or the similar QAPlus) but that's a lot less common nowadays. They expect people to depend on the bundled Windows "diagostics" utilities. These are fine, as far as the go, but the problem is they don't go very far. Windows (and particularly Windows NT) does everything possible to isolate users and Windows applications from the hardware--not a good thing for a hardware diagnostic program to have to put up with. I'll be using CheckIt to burn in a new system in the next week or so, and will report my experiences.

Tuesday, September 29, 1998

On the Kipling Triumph/Disaster front, I noticed yesterday that Windows NT TCP/IP Network Administration was doing very well on the rankings. It started the day at 18,000+, but by 19:00 EDT had climbed to 1,045, and by 21:30 to 832. That's pretty good for a book that hasn't even been published yet. Actually, that's damn good even for a book that's in print already. Of course, the book did something similar a week or so ago, peaking at 2,022 and then dropping off to nearly 20,000. I guess a few people must have pre-ordered the book yesterday or something. When I checked this morning, it had slipped by a little to 1,040.

I was getting tired of writing yesterday afternoon, so I decided to add some of the hardware that was still sitting on the shelf to the Pentium II box. I powered the system down, and added the Creative AWE-64 ISA sound card and the LinkSys 10/100 PCI Ethernet card. When I restarted Windows 98, it went through its regular detection routine, and found both new cards. The sound card installed without further ado, but Windows 98 didn't have drivers for the LinkSys, so I had to feed it floppies.

Everything seemed to have been successful, but when I did the final restart on the system, it came up with the video off-center. I'm not sure why this is. When I first installed Win98, the video was also off-center, but as soon as I told it that I had a Mag 1595 monitor attached, it automatically set the parameters correctly for that monitor and the image came up properly centered. I'm not sure how installing a sound card and network card can kill the video synch, but that's what appears to have happened. More later, once I figure out what's going on.

Windows NT TCP/IP Network Administration started at 8:00 this morning at 1,040 in the rankings. It had climbed to 755 by the 10:00 a.m. update, but dropped to 940 with the 11:00 update. I feel like a parent urging his child on in a competitive event, but this way lies madness. The blips in the rankings from hour to hour are meaningless. About all it's possible to say is that the book appears to be doing pretty well, and should sell well once it actually hits the bookstores. For that, I'm grateful. No more wasting time checking the ranking-of-the-hour. Well, once in a while, perhaps.

Lunchtime: I'm not getting any mail. At first I thought it was just a slow day, but after sending some messages to people whose mail servers always honor return receipt requests and not getting return receipts from them, I began to suspect something wasn't right. I have mail addressed to most mail accounts set up to autoforward from BigBiz (who hosts to my dialup account. I sent mail to myself at my address and it never showed up. I sent mail directly to my dialup account name and it showed up quickly. It appears that the mail servers at are hosed. This happened once before, a month or two back, and they fixed it quickly. They'd had a system crash and somehow the mailer daemon never got restarted. I suspect the same thing is happening here. It even happened at about the same time--12:18 a.m. my time.

Wednesday, September 30, 1998

Barbara shot about eight rolls of film on her Canadian trip. She was taking them in to be processed a couple rolls at a time just in case the lab screwed up. When she brought the first couple of rolls home, I noticed that there was a $5 upgrade option to have the photos scanned onto a Kodak Picture Disk. That sounded like it might be worthwhile to avoid having to scan all these photos, so I asked her to go ahead and have a picture disk made so that we could see if it was worthwhile.

It is, at least if you want to put pictures up on the web. You get back a 1.44 MB floppy diskette that has each image as a standard JPEG file, scanned at 600X400 at 24-bit color resolution (16.7M colors). They're perfect for putting up on a web page. The diskette also contains rather pathetic image viewer software, which I didn't waste much time with.

One thing I did find confusing, though. I'd assumed that the lab was doing the scans directly from the negatives, but the docs refer to "5X7" and "8X10" images, so it appears that they're actually scanning the images from the printed picture. That seems a waste. Of course, the last thing in the world that Kodak wants is for people to stop having photos printed on their paper, so I guess doing it that way makes a strange kind of sense for them.

I'll probably buy a digital camera before too much longer, but until then this is a good way to get photographs ready to go up on the web.

Thursday, October 1, 1998

Yesterday was, to steal a phrase, devoured by locusts. Barbara spent the morning cleaning house, which makes it difficult for me to work. My mother had a doctor's appointment right after lunch, and by the time we got back from that I was feeling pretty rocky. I can't seem to shake this cold. I did manage to get several hundred words written, which is pretty good in the circumstances. The NT/TCP book had dropped in the rankings to 2,800+ the last time I looked, but is back up to 1,325 this morning.

I talked to my friend Robin Weiner last night about coming over to help finish up old kerby. We set up tentative plans to do so next Tuesday, which means I have to get the cable run back to Barbara's office this weekend. That shouldn't be any problem. Robin's Win98 box is acting strangely. Every time she turns it off and then back on, it insists on re-installing the drivers for her US Robotics 56K modem. Once that's done, the modem works fine, but it's a bit disconcerting to have to reinstall each time the system is turned on.

Barbara brought home an autobiography of Grace Slick last night. Although I despise nearly everything she stands for politically, I've always liked her personally. It'll be interesting to read her autobiography. I finished Stephen King's latest, Bag of Bones, last night. That's the first of his I'd ever read. It was pretty good, although horror is not my favorite genre. I also got started on Anne Perry's latest in the Inspector Monk series, which is up to her usual high standards.

Back to work on the book.

Friday, October 2, 1998

Got quite a bit done on the book yesterday. Also heard back from my agent, David Rogelberg, about the draft proposal for the new book that Jerry Pournelle and I plan to co-author. David suggested a few changes and additions, which I'll be incorporating today. Then, it's back to Pournelle for a final look and to David to go to work on.

Finished Anne Perry's A Breach of Promise last night. She writes two series of Victorian mysteries. The Inspector Monk series, of which this is a member, is set in the late 1850's, just following the Crimean War. The Inspector Pitt series is set in the 1890's. If you like mysteries, both series are well worth reading, and should be read in the order they were written.

Saturday, October 3, 1998

Ended up working straight through yesterday and forgetting to do my standard weekly backup. Got a few final changes made to the proposal for the new book and shipped it off to Pournelle and Rogelberg for them to review before we submit it. Then started working on the current book, and got a fair amount done on it.

Barbara left early this morning to meet her father and head for the Vantage Senior PGA Tour event. She used to be a volunteer for it, but gave that up several years ago. Now she's just a specatator.

I'm headed over to the Tucker's house this afternoon. Steve is out of town this weekend, and Suzy is volunteering at a church supper. So I get to babysit all afternoon. Barbara will show up at dinner time with the food, and Suzy should be back early- to mid-evening. I'm glad the kids are old enough that I won't actually have to do anything. Katie is 11 now, so I'll put her in charge of decisions and just supervise. I also need to remember to pick up that box of Cat 5 cable to wire Barbara's office with.

Read Lindsey Davis's The Course of Honor last night. Ms. Davis is best known for her series of historical mysteries set in Rome during Vespasian's reign. Her protagonist, Marcus Didius Falco, is kind of an Imperial Roman version of James Rockford from the Rockford Files. This latest book is not a member of that series. It opens during the declining years of Tiberius, when Vespasian is a young soldier and meets the slave girl Caenis, with whom he will have a relationship spanning 40 years. This book is more historical romance than historical mystery, but is enjoyable just the same. Like many authors, Ms. Davis seems rather too willing to take Suetonius at face value concerning Tiberius and his supposed debaucheries, but the historical ambiance of the book is otherwise entirely satisfying.

Just got the backup started, and now it's time to go do the laundry.

Sunday, October 4, 1998

Went over to the Tucker's house mid-afternoon yesterday to watch the kids while Suzy went to a church supper she was working. Katie just turned 11 and Andrew is 6. They'd all just gotten back from Andrew's testing for his  Senior Red Belt in Tae Kwon Do. That's the last step before he gets his Black Belt. I can't be the only person who finds the idea of a six year old with a Black Belt somewhat disconcerting. Back long ago when I studied Shotokan, it took years to arrive at Shodan, the first dan Black Belt. Hell, I spent the first few months just doing scut work and learning how to fall properly. Apparently, things proceed more quickly nowadays.

I kept an eye on the kids from mid-afternoon until Barbara arrived with dinner. She'd been at the Vantage Senior PGA golf tournament with her dad. Keeping an eye on them is not very difficult now. Katie is growing into a young woman, and runs things pretty well on her own.

While the kids were cleaning up the basement play room, I was back in Steve's office burning my first ever CD-R. Yeah, I know that's a pretty common technology nowadays, but I'd just never gotten around to using one. When the first CD-R drives shipped years ago, my friend John Mikol had a hell of a time getting good CDs burnt. He was always complaining about how many $10 blanks he was turning into coasters, and I guess that had an impact on me. Nowadays, the blanks are closer to $1 apiece, and with only moderate care you aren't liable to waste many.

At any rate, it went well (although it took a surprisingly long time to write the CD), and the CD was readable afterwards in another drive. Pournelle tells me I should have one of these things so that I can back up all my stuff and store it off site. I suppose he's right, and I should look into getting one.

The following mail was waiting when Barbara and I got home. This is pretty representative of the letters I receive about my books. My response follows. I'm not sure what the guy means by "20mbit Ethernet" unless he's running full-duplex Ethernet. That was a kind of false-start in the search for higher speed networking. 100BaseT got too cheap too fast, and FD Ethernet is obsolete.

Bought your book on networking NT 4.0. Did not find anything on Win95, (I'm really working with Win98), domain access. I have a simple 20mbit Ethernet in my house. I have followed every conceivable avenue to join this Win98 machine to the domain and cannot do it, (I'm a developer, guess it figures). Anyhow, any suggested reading for my dilemma?

P.S. The idea for my in-home ethernet is to work on a simple DCOM based asychronous messaging system without having to use MSMQ Server on the client.

I'm not sure which book you mean (I've written several). As far as "joining" a Win98 machine to the domain, I'm not sure exactly what you mean. The only machines that "join" a domain are those that participate in domain security, i.e. Windows NT Server and Windows NT Workstation machines. Windows 9x machines don't participate in domain security, and cannot join the domain. If you're referring simply to allowing a Win9x machine to function as a client on a Windows NT domain, simply right-click Network Neighborhood, choose Properties, click the Identification tab, and enter the existing domain name in the Workgroup field.

I read Zero Option by P. T. Deutermann last night. It's kind of a techno-thriller with the "techno" part chopped out and replaced by some Steven King/X Files stuff. Deutermann is a Clancy wannabe whose stuff doesn't make it (quantitatively or qualitatively) to Clancy's level. Still, it's worth reading if there's no new Clancy at hand. I started reading Deutermann on the recommendation of Suzy Tucker's brother, Sam Mollenkopf, who used to be an electronics wonk on an Aegis boat that Deutermann commanded.

Windows NT TCP/IP Network Administration has dropped into the 5,000 range in the rankings--still pretty good.


Coming Soon (I hope)


Updated: 05 July 2002 08:05

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