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Daynotes Journal

Week of 1/11/99

Friday, July 05, 2002 08:18

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, January 11, 1999

This week is the first Daynotes page that uses the new format suggested by Bo Leuf. Actually, it shouldn't look any different than the old format, but it should load quicker. Bo suggested that, rather than use one big two-column by seven-row table to contain the week's entries, I should use seven separate two-column by one-row tables, one for each day. The old way, the entire page/table had to load and render before you saw anything but a blank page. The new way, the tables near the top of the page can load and render while the tables for the later days are still loading in the background. So, Monday should be visible while the remaining days are still downloading. In theory, anyway. I understand that not all browsers will work that way.

And I've also gone back to including the time this page was last modified, as well as the date. Apparently, browsers vary (depending on the browser itself and its settings) as to what occurs when you do a refresh. Some browsers do not clear the text from the page unless that text has actually been updated. Internet Explorer 4.01 works this way for me. Others clear the existing text even if that text has not been updated. Navigator 4.05 works that way for me. Some readers tell me that they use the behavior of this refresh redraw to tell if I've updated the page or not since the last time they loaded it. I normally update this page only once a day, usually around 9:00 EST, but I do sometimes update it half a dozen times or more during a day. Since the refresh redraw behavior is not a reliable indication of new material when using some browsers, I'll go ahead and include a timestamp, which will change only if the page has been updated.

And that brings up the subject of time zones. When I first started creating pages with timestamps, I set properties for the FrontPage timestamp bot that should have caused it to display the time zone along with the time. I live in Eastern Time, but my web provider is Pacific time. If I updated and published a page at, say, 9:00 a.m. my time, that page when published should have displayed the 6:00 a.m. local time at the server. I could have lived with that discrepancy. What I couldn't live with was that attempting to use the timezone display caused various problems, including pages not displaying properly and my local copy of FrontPage crashing. So you'll just have to take into account that the time that shows on this page is really Pacific time rather than my time.

* * * * *

I read six or eight novels and mysteries last week, and did come up with a Book of the Week. Actually, a Series of the Week. But before I talk about that, I wanted to mention another book by a big-name author that I found disappointing. Dean Koontz's latest, Seize the Night, a sequel to Fear Nothing, is the big disappointment this week. The protagonist of both books is Chris Snow, who suffers from the rare genetic disorder xeroderma pigmentosum. XP sufferers must avoid any but very low intensity light, such as moonlight or candlelight, so Snow wanders the night in Moonlight Bay, a superficially normal little town with a monstrous underlying evil that originates at the recently closed Fort Wyvern military base.

This book will undoubtedly sell in huge numbers--it sits at #15 on Amazon.com as I write this--but it's not Koontz's best work. Koontz at his best--works like Dark Rivers of the Heart--writes in a combination of the thriller/horror/science fiction genres with a libertarian slant. In these newer books, he's departed into the fantasy realm. Although he's often used genetic engineering gone wrong and evil government employees running rampant as plot devices in the past, in these books they become deus ex machina. Nothing is too incredible or impossible to be attributed to one or the other. A genetically engineered smart dog is one thing. He's used this plot device frequently before, and it holds up as a marginally credible future possibility given the current state of genetic engineering. But the demons, monsters, changelings, and shape-changers he builds the plots of these latest books around are simply fantasy, and not good fantasy at that. Check this one out at the library before you decide to buy it for your collection.

The Book of the Week, is Bruce Alexander's Sir John Fielding series of historical mystery novels. These books are set in mid 18th century London, where Sir John Fielding (a historical figure) has assumed the magistracy formerly held by his late brother, Henry Fielding, the author of Tom Jones, a milestone in the history of the English novel. Sir John is blind, and is aided in his inquiries by Jeremy Proctor, a teenage boy that Sir John has rescued from the streets and made a member of his household. The setting and dialog are authentic, the plots are well crafted, and the books are a delight to read. With this series, Alexander does for Georgian London what Anne Perry does for mid- and late-Victorian London in her William Monk and Thomas Pitt series, respectively. There are currently five books in the Sir John Fielding series. From first to latest, they are:

I read the middle three this week, in no particular order. Although each book stands well on its own, you'd be better advised to read them in sequence. Highly recommended.

Now back to work on the book...

Late Morning: The hard drive in freya/mandy (my 486 clone Linux/Win95 test bed system) has started making nasty whirring noises sporadically. The drive is a Western Digital 1GB Caviar unit that's perhaps two years old. I can't say I'm particularly surprised, because the drive has been exhibiting some bad symptoms for several months now. Although I use the system infrequently enough that it'd make sense to keep it powered down except when I need to use it, I keep it powered up. I do this because it sometimes fails to boot to the hard disk, although the hard disk has been running reliably once I get past the boot problem. Sounds like the old "stiction" problem that was relatively common back in the ST506/412 days.

That system sits on my credenza (actually a $30 folding church table from Office Depot), along with an old Gateway 386 NetWare 3.12 server, a scanner, and a JVC CD player. I think what I'll do is convert that table to my lab bench--move the CD player to my main desk, relocate the scanner to Barbara's office, and store the NetWare server in the closet where old PCs go to die. That'll give me a flat surface accessible from both front and back that I can use as a lab bench for building and testing PCs and components.

Come to think of it, I may install one of these Maxtor DiamondMax Plus 2500 10 GB drives in that old 486, just to see how well (or how badly) an old BIOS supports a drive larger than 8.4 GB.

Early Afternoon: The mail arrived, and with it a box from Edward R. Hamilton Bookseller. If you're a reader and you don't know about this company, you should. They sell a huge selection of remaindered books at anything up to 90% off list price, as well as a limited number of current titles, typically at 20% to 30% off list price. I just got nine hardback books for about fifty bucks, including shipping. The web site doesn't have all the titles that appear in the paper catalog (or vice versa), but I don't have time nowadays to page through their newspaper-size catalog looking for books that are sorted only into general categories. The web site makes it easy to search by author or title.

They're old fashioned in a lot of ways, which is why it surprised me when they opened their web site a year or two ago. They don't accept credit cards. You print out or hand write your order form and snail-mail it to them with a check for the amount due for the books you've chosen plus $3 for shipping. A week or so later, your books show up via snail-mail. If any of the books you've ordered is no longer available, they send you a refund check for the difference. Barbara and I have been buying from them for probably 15 years or more now, and have never had a problem. Highly recommended.

Late Afternoon: UPS just showed up with a box from O'Reilly. When I opened it, I found two copies of a foreign language edition of Windows NT Server 4.0 for NetWare Administrators, although it wasn't immediately clear to me which language they were in. From looking at the cover it was obvious that it was some sort of Eastern European language, but it wasn't clear which of those it might be. After opening the book, I could at least rule out Russian, because the characters were Western rather than Cyrillic, although they were Western with some oddities. Barbara (the former librarian) checked the title page and found Warsaw, 1998. This is the first time I've ever seen any book written in Polish, let alone one of my own. It's kind of fascinating to look at a page, know approximately what I'd written there, and still have no idea what that page says. If they'd sent me the German edition, I'd at least have some hope of reading it at least in part.

 


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Tuesday, January 12, 1999

Barbara's group health insurance from her former job expires on 31 January. When she attended her exit interview at the end of the year, the Personnel folks told her that she could continue it under COBRA, for a mere $500 per month or so. They said that if she wanted to continue it beyond 1/31/99, she had to have a check to them by 1/20. We'd applied to Blue Cross / Blue Shield for their individual Blue Advantage program back in mid-December. Apparently, it typically takes 35 days to go through the application process, medical underwriting, and so on. The guy there told me when I submitted the application to give him a call soon after the 1st of the year to verify that things were progressing.

So I called him early this month to follow-up. He told me at the time that they were always swamped at the first of the year, and that they always brought in temporary help to clear the backlog. I mentioned the 1/20 deadline to him then, and he told me that there was a 99% chance that the application would be through underwriting and approved by then. He suggested that I follow-up yesterday, so I set my calendar to remind me.

When I talked to the Blue Cross/Blue Shield guy yesterday, he told me that the application hadn't even been assigned to an underwriter yet, and that there was "no chance" that it would be processed before 1/20. I told him that I really didn't want to pay $500 to extend coverage under COBRA for another month if I could avoid doing so. He told me that what I chose to do was up to me, but that there was no way I could expect them to finish processing our application before the end of the month.

So I called the Forsyth County Personnel department this afternoon. As it turns out, our insurance does lapse 1/31 if we don't get a check to them by 1/20, but that's not a problem. We can simply allow the insurance to lapse. Then, if one of us ends up hospitalized or whatever, we can retroactively activate that insurance simply by paying the back premium due. This can be done at any time up until 60 days following the date that the coverage lapsed. So it appears that we can simply allow the existing policy to lapse. Blue Cross should certainly have approved or disapproved our application well before then. Even if they refuse to accept us, which I don't think will happen, that 60 days should give us time to go to another insurance company.

I hate dealing with stuff like this. It's like getting into a card game that you've never played before, don't know the rules to, and will be playing with others that play it full time for a living. As someone said, the game is fixed, you can't win, but it's the only game in town...

* * * * *

And my O'Reilly & Associates business cards showed up last night via UPS. Actually, UPS dropped them at a neighbor's house, and he dropped them here. It's really nice to work with people who remember the small stuff for you. I had one example of that from O'Reilly earlier in the day when the Polish edition showed up. I'd asked my editor some time ago if they could send me copies of foreign editions of my books as they came out. My editor was a bit surprised. Apparently, most authors don't want still more comp copies in languages they don't speak. But I just wanted to see what they looked like. I'd completely forgotten that request until the Polish copies showed up, but O'Reilly hadn't.

The business card thing started when Jerry Pournelle suggested I should start going to Comdex, which I've avoided like the proverbial plague. He said it was a great place to make contacts with hardware vendors. The problem with sweet-talking hardware vendors out of evaluation units is establishing your credibility. In one sense, that's not a problem. I can point to my existing books on Amazon.com, or on the O'Reilly web site for that matter. But it's still easier to establish your bona fides with hardware vendors if you have something a little more impressive than a free-lancer's business card to hand them. A month or so back, I asked my O'Reilly editor if I could get some O'Reilly business cards, and then promptly forgot the whole matter. Today, they showed up.

The one pasted to the box had an owl on it. When I pulled one out from the front of the box, it had a fish on it. I didn't realize until I flipped through the box that there's an assortment of animals. I can give people a koala or a camel, among others. Perhaps I can match the animal I hand out to the person I'm giving the card to. At any rate, O'Reilly are very nice people to work with. It's been my experience that people who work to get the small things right usually get the big things right as well.

* * * * *

And I got my credenza cleaned off and ready to be a lab bench. My NetWare 3.12 server, theodore, an old Gateway 386 system with a monochrome monitor, is now sitting on the floor of my office. Other than for infrequent cleanings, upgrades, and similar brief periods of down time, that's the first time it's been disconnected since I bought it in February of 1991. Almost 8 years without a break. Not bad. But I no longer need a NetWare server to be running routinely, so away it goes... 


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Wednesday, January 13, 1999

My mother went in for oral surgery yesterday. At age 80, she's finally going to get dentures. She has to go back the first of next month to have some more teeth removed, and then she has to wait toothless for a couple of months or so for her jaw to shrink back to its eventual final size before they can fit the dentures. Barbara took her to the dentist after lunch yesterday. When they returned a couple of hours later, we got her settled in with ice and gauze pads. She'll be having ice cream, applesauce and similar things to eat for quite a while. Our bedroom is at the far end of the house, so I slept on the sofa in the den last night in case she needed help during the night. I woke up at every small sound, so I didn't get much sleep.

* * * * *

And I really must do something about the hard disk in mandy/freya. I was sitting here working away when I heard what I thought was tires squealing from someone clamping on the brakes in a panic stop. I fully expected to hear the loud crash-bang-tinkle that usually follows such a noise. As it turned out, there were no cars involved. It was that hard disk. A hard disk that sounds like an incipient car wreck can't be long for this world.

It's a Western Digital Caviar, so I can't say I'm surprised. I've had more problems with the Western Digital hard drives over the years than with any others I've used. Granted, this is a very small sample size, so I'm sure that no statistically valid general conclusions can be drawn from my personal experience. Many people swear by the WD Caviars--I know people who won't buy anything else--but I've just not had much luck with them. At one point (I've since discarded most of them), I had a collection of dead Caviars in a range of sizes including 85, 200, 340, 730, 850 MB, etc. Now, I go through a lot of drives compared to most people, but that's still an extraordinary number of dead drives.

A year or so ago I started buying Seagates instead, and I haven't had any problems with any of them yet. But the reason I started buying Western Digitals in the first place was because of the bad experiences I'd had with Seagates back before IDE drives became common. At one point, I had a big stack of dead Seagates--ST225s, ST238Rs, ST4096s, etc. Back then, drives failed much more often than they do now. I kept a stack of dead drives because the failed units were about equally likely to have had bad electronics or a bad HDA. Periodically, I'd play mix and match, tearing the drives apart and using the electronics from one and the HDA from another to assemble one working drive. It's amazing now to remember the lengths I'd go to then to salvage a 20 or 80 MB disk drive. Back then, that was an important amount of disk space. Now, I have something close to 100,000 MB of disk storage in my house. Things change.

And I was wrong about not having used a Maxtor drive since the 40/80 MB IDE days. In fact, I have a Maxtor 120 MB IDE drive running in my voicemail/automated attendant PC. It's an old 386SX/16 system with 2 MB RAM that my friend Steve Tucker gave me years ago. It's been running pretty much continuously for the last six or eight years with no problems whatsoever. I'd forgotten completely about that one.

 


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Thursday, January 14, 1999

The bill from InterNIC for my domain name arrived yesterday. As usual, I'll pay it, but it's one of those annual aggravations. Not like doing my taxes, and for $35 it's not worth expending too much anger on. But still, if the U.S. government wanted to stop providing subsidized "free" domain name services, you'd think they could have done better than transfer their power to one private company, granting it monopoly rights without the traditional constraints that government puts on other fiat monopolies. What particularly aggravates me is that I paid my bill last year less than a week before they reduced the price from $50/year to $35/year, and I marked it as being paid under protest. You'd think they could at least have extended the term from 12 months to 15 or 16 months. But no. I paid $50 for 12 months, while someone who paid one week later paid only $35 for the same 12 months. What's really aggravating is that if I'd waited and paid the bill late, they would have accepted $35. Bastards.

* * * * *

And this from Joseph Minotti:

Hello Robert, how are you? I visited your site & enjoyed it. I have a question, if you don't mind.

I'm interested in making my own booklets-8 1/2 x11 folded in half (chapbooks) I have Microsoft Word 97 & someone told me to use that instead of buying expensive software. They said go to page setup, click Landscape, then make 2 columns.

I did that, but what happens is when you fold the paper in the shape of a booklet after I print is the words are on the front & back. There must be a way that I can type my words on the inside, you know, just like when you read a book.

Can you give me any suggestions, am I better off buying software? Hope you can help? Thank you for your time.

I don't have any direct experience with this, but there are two problems you need to resolve. First, obviously, is that you need to print on both sides of the paper. If you don't have a duplex printer, this is easy enough to accomplish simply by running the sheet through twice. The real problem is getting the pages printed in the proper places. For example, if you want to use two 8.5X11 sheets folded to 8.5X5.5 to make an eight page booklet, you need to print the pages, left to right, in the order 8+1 on page one, side one; 2+7 on page 1, side two; 6+3 on page two, side one; and 4+5 on page two, side two.

Although you can obviously print landscape with two columns and using manual page placement, there are any number of free and shareware products that do the layout for you. I'd suggest that you hit www.shareware.com and search for "booklet". I found numerous products, one of which should do the job you need to do. I'll also post this on the web site in case anyone has any advice for you.

* * * * *

And this from Robin Gould:

Is there any info on your site about installing sound cards under Windows NT? I have an (admittedly cheap) motherboard with built-in sound, and the drivers are giving me fits trying to install them. I keep getting an "unexpected error" message. P.S. I don't expect a detailed answer, and if you would rather steer me towards books on the subject or a website I'd still be very grateful for your help.

Yes, installing sound under Windows NT can be a pain, particularly for embedded sound cards. The best way to proceed depends a lot on what type of motherboard you have. I'd take the following general steps:

  1. If you haven't done so already, check the motherboard web site for updated sound drivers.
  2. If there is no web site or it doesn't have any later sound drivers, check the sound card manufacturer's web site for generic drivers. There may be several drivers available, and you may well try all of them only to find that none work.
  3. As a last resort, find out which chipset and BIOS your motherboard uses and try to find another make of motherboard that uses the same chipset, a similar (preferably identical) BIOS, and the same embedded sound. You can check www.motherboard.com, www.motherboards.com (different sites), and the individual motherboard manufacturer web sites to locate a similar board. Download any recent drivers you find for similar motherboards and try them. They probably won't work, because minor differences are enough to cause real problems. For example, a friend of mine just bought an Intel Seattle SE440BX motherboard from the Ebay auction site. But rather than being a pure Intel product, it was a Seattle with a BIOS that Micron had made minor tweaks to. To make a long story short, the sound drivers from the Intel site didn't work. He downloaded the sound drivers from Micron, and they worked fine.

If none of that works, which it probably won't, the best bet is to disable the embedded sound card and install a real sound card. You can pick up a genuine Creative Labs SoundBlaster 64 for fifty bucks or so, which would solve your problem quickly. Good luck.

* * * * *

And this from Robert Morgan:

I was never able to make Wingate work with just one network card. Even though the second machine gets an ip address from my service provider's DCHP server, I could never ping between the first and second machine.

So when the fan in the power supply of my Win98 machine died, I caved in, bought an ATX motherboard with two more pci slots, and put in a second network card. Now everything works.

I remembered a couple weeks ago on Jerry's mail page a letter about Sygate (www.sygate.com). I don't need a proxy server at home, so I tried Sygate, which implements network address translation and a mini-DHCP server. Pricing is $49 for three users, with a trial version available which limits your clients to 75 megs of downloads before requiring registration. So far, so good.

Did you ever get any mail about your readers' experiences with wireless networking?

Yes, I remember that item about Sygate. At the time, I meant to look into it, but the press of other things has prevented me from doing so. As you probably know, but others may not, WinGate is a proxy server, while Sygate is a Network Address Translator (NAT). I wasn't aware until I saw that message that anyone was shipping a software NAT intended for use by individuals and small businesses. NATs have some real advantages over proxy servers when it comes to ease of configuration and simplicity of use, but they also have some drawbacks, particularly those related to mapping multiple private IP addresses to a single public IP address and resulting TCP port conflict issues. There are ways to get around that, however, and I suspect that Sygate uses them.

And, no, I never heard a single word from any of my readers about wireless networking.

 


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Friday, January 15, 1999

Still hard at work on the chapter. Barbara is helping me now. She's working on stuff that's time-consuming for me to do. Right now, for example, she's tracking down details on various Socket 7 chipsets. There's a surprising amount of misinformation, conflicting information, and just plain missing information about stuff like this, but it's important.

* * * * *

And the following from Dave Farquhar:

I read with interest the query about sound cards under Windows NT. I've had better luck with Creative's PCI sound cards (the ones based on Ensoniq chips) than I have had with their ISA cards. So a Sound Blaster PCI 64 will be more likely to get up and running quickly than an ISA SB64.

The Creative ISA cards will work with enough determination, but sometimes you have to jump through a lot of hoops. The Ensoniq-based cards like the PCI64 and the AudioPCI tend to run right away. Since NT tends to make pretty generic use of sound cards, it seems to make sense not to pay the big bucks for a really fancy card. By the time NT's finally able to use its advanced features, there's likely to be something far better for less.

I've also had pretty good luck with the low-end Diamond PCI sound cards under NT (when the vendor shipped the right drivers, that is). I don't know if the Diamond S70 and S90 cards are still available, but the S70 worked well in a couple of NT boxes I built a few months ago.

At work we recently acquired a batch of Micron computers that used a Yamaha chipset on the motherboard, and those machines installed quickly. (We tend to blow away the factory pre-load and install the first system from scratch, then clone the remaining systems with a standard configuration using Norton Ghost.)

It would be nice if vendors (or Microsoft -- it's hard to figure out who's to blame) would get on the ball and get the good sound cards running under NT. NT's better stability and increased performance would be a boon for multimedia development if it had comparable multimedia abilities to its siblings...

I hope this helps some of the folks struggling with NT sound out there.

Good points, all. And your mention of ISA sound cards brings up something I should have mentioned originally. Windows NT doesn't recognize ISA PnP cards by default. In order to have Windows NT recognize them and load the drivers, you have to run the file Pnpisa.inf, located on the distribution CD. Doing that loads the Pnpisa driver, after which NT will detect the sound card and install the proper drivers. But unless you install Pnpisa, you can go nuts trying to figure out why NT won't recognize the card or load the drivers for it. I described this process in Juggling Windows NT Servers, which I should also have pointed to in my original response.

* * * * *

And this from Anthony Guido:

Very nice site. I'm telling all my friends about it. I hope you can help me with a problem. I needed to buy a bigger hard drive to replace my 1.6 GB drive. You said good things about the Maxtor drives so I went out and bought a 10 GB one. I installed it but I can only get it to see 8 GB. What am I doing wrong? Thanks in advance if you can help.

Thanks for the kind words. I hope all my readers tell their friends about this site.

As far as your problem, you're not doing anything wrong. It sounds like you've run up against the 8.4 GB limitation caused by system BIOSs that don't support extended Int13 functions. Basically, all but the most recent BIOSs are limited to 16,383 cylinders, 16 heads, and 63 sectors per track. Using standard 512-byte sectors, that translates to a maximum hard drive size of about 8.4 GB.

The major BIOS manufacturers fixed this problem by adding support for extended Int13 functions, but only recently. AMI BIOSs dated later than 1/1/98 have the fixes, as do Award BIOSs dated 11/97 or later, and Phoenix BIOSs that are Version 4, Revision 6 or later (all Phoenix BIOSs are Version 4, it's the Revision level that's important). Note that these dates and versions reflect the earliest times that the BIOS vendors patched their core code. Some versions of these fixed BIOSs implemented by computer and motherboard manufacturers may not have the fixes in place, even though the BIOS date or version indicates that they should.

The best solution to your problem is to update your BIOS. The fact that it recognizes 8 GB indicates that you probably have a reasonably recent machine, so you'll be able to update the BIOS just by downloading and applying a flash BIOS update. Make sure that you get exactly the right BIOS update for you computer. Get it from the computer manufacturer's web site, and follow all instructions EXACTLY.

Using the wrong flash BIOS update file or not following the proper procedures can render your system unbootable and unable to even recognize the floppy drive. The procedures vary by system, but basically you'll probably download the BIOS update file, copy it to a floppy disk, temporarily set a jumper on the motherboard to enable the flash update, boot with the flash update floppy, and then set the jumper back where it was. When you reboot, the system should recognize the full capacity of your hard disk.

If you are uncomfortable updating your BIOS (and it is dangerous to do so unless you make sure to get everything exactly right before you start), or if you can't locate a BIOS update for your computer, there is an alternative. Maxtor provides MaxBlast software, which is a driver that allows a system with an older BIOS to use large drives. You'll need to set a jumper on the drive itself, and follow all of the instructions. Good luck.

 


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Saturday, January 16, 1999

My service provider has been having horrendous network problems the last couple of days, and as a result mail has not been getting to me reliably. The problems are supposedly fixed now, but I suspect many messages have been lost completely. I know that some test messages I sent to myself and other ttgnet.com accounts still have not showed up here, so I suspect that quite a bit of reader mail is also lost in the ether. I always respond to mail, if only sometimes with a one word acknowledgement. So if you've sent me mail and haven't gotten any reply, please send it again.

And that brings up the subject of the kinds of mail I'm getting. In an average week, I may get between fifty and one hundred messages requesting help or advice of one sort or another. In the last couple of days (and this when I'm getting hardly any mail at all), I've gotten requests for help with everything from setting up NT domain controllers to resolving obscure TCP/IP network problems to choosing a video card for a game system to recommending a screenwriting package.

Some of these are of general interest, and so I post them here with a detailed response. Others are not of general interest, but I can answer them off the top of my head, or at worst by spending a couple minutes looking something up. Those I answer privately. Sometimes a request involves a lot of work, but I take the time to find the information simply because it's something that I really should know anyhow.

But some of the messages amount to thinly veiled requests by businesses for free consulting, asking me to resolve problems specific to a particular environment or to recommend products based on a detailed list of requirements. There's not much I can do about requests of this nature. Surely no one can reasonably expect me to donate hours of my time to solve their business computing problems. And yet, that's apparently what some people do expect. Those people get a return message thanking them for inquiring about my consulting services, and explaining that I charge $250 per hour with a four hour minimum, and that I require an applied retainer to be paid in advance. Most of them suddenly decide that getting the answers to their questions really wasn't all that important.

I always find it amazing that many business people who understand that lawyers charge $150 to $250 per hour are invariably shocked to find that computer networking experts have similar hourly rates. I talked to one guy about a project that would have taken me a day or two to complete. I told him that it would cost him something near $3,000 to $4,000 for my services. He told me that he could hire a kid from the local community college to do the work for $15 per hour, and offered to pay me $25 per hour. I happened to hear later that the project had failed miserably after several months of false starts and restarts. The guy ended up spending more money, wasting months, and still didn't have a working project.

So, if your message is of a personal or hobbyist nature, please don't hesitate to send it. At worst, I'll respond privately to say that I don't know enough to help you, and at best I may have something useful to tell you. And if you're seriously looking for consulting services and are willing to pay the market price, please don't hesitate to mail me about your needs. If I can't help you, I may know someone who can. But if you're looking for free consulting, please don't waste your time or mine.

* * * * *

And the following from Gary M. Berg:

I'm considering moving around the hard drive on my current home Win95 system. Home-built system with an Asus TX-97E motherboard, P200MMX, 64Mb of RAM. I'm getting tired on Win95 crashes which my wife keeps running into, and was trying to decide how to migrate to NT4 as a more stable platform for her.

Obviously, a new system is the "easiest" approach, but I only bought the P200 15 months ago and it's completely adequate for what she wants to do.

I currently have one large FAT32 partition on a WD 6.4Gb drive. I used the SUBST command to create "pseudo" drives D: and E:; D: is data and E: is mostly old DOS apps which I originally set up running off of E: and it's easier to leave them there - too many batch files, too little time <g>.

What I'd like to do is to gradually migrate myself from my current Win95 installation to WinNT. Being able to continue to use the old Win95 installation until I have time to get everything installed and working under NT4, over a period of several weeks.

What I'm considering doing is:

a) Shrink the size of that one FAT32 partition so that it's about 2.5Gb using PM 3.04.

b) Create a real D: and E: partitions in an extended partition. Make them FAT16.

c) Copy the files from the "fake" D&E to the real ones and dump the SUBST commands. This should give me a system which is actually partitioned. NT couldn't read the FAT32 C: drive, but could read D: and E:.

d) I'm not too sure on this - go buy an 8Gb or more EIDE drive and put it in as master and leave the old 6.4Gb drive as slave. I'd like to go bigger but I wonder if my current bios can deal with a drive larger than 8Gb. I might be able to update the bios for a bigger drive (advantage of an Asus motherboard). Currently space is not an issue, so it might make sense to go cheaper on the new drive anyway.

e) Unfortunately, the NT boot manager would be unable to see the FAT32 Win95 partition for an NT multi-boot, so install the Partition Magic boot manager on the new drive.

f) Install NT4 to the new drive in a 2Gb NTFS partition. Attack it with SP4, etc. Remember that Drive Image is my friend and save often<g>.

g) Create partitions on the new drive for D: and E:. Use the disk management utility in NT to put the D: someplace out of the way (letting the earlier D: show through), but leave the new E: in place and use it to install all of the stuff like Office 97 and such. The normal data on my current "E:" is very static, so I think I can just do a one-time copy and then leave it. This should mean that under NT I'll have an NTFS C:, FAT16 D: from drive 2, and an NTFS E: for programs and such. Under Win95, the partitions from the original drive should be there for C: and E:, and the FAT16 D: from drive 2 will still show through. I might be able to avoid creating the real E: on the original drive depending on whether or not I'll have space on the real D: to temporarily copy it to get it to the NTFS stuff.

If I use BM to transfer control to the Win95 partition on the old drive running as slave (drive 2), will it boot correctly?

I currently have my LPT1 and LPT2 sharing an interrupt (or else LPT2 has none). Can that work with NT4?

Drivers look to be OK; it looks like all of my devices have NT drivers.

The end goal is to get this machine running under NT4, SP4 for everything. Once I got all of the apps installed under NT4 I'd switch the system to boot NT4 by default instead of Win95. All of the documents would transfer invisibly, and we should have a more stable system.

I sent Gary mail to verify that he had a tape drive available to do a complete backup, and he responded:

Yes, I have a tape drive. But I'd rather do a gradual migration as I suggested, over the course of a couple of weeks. And keep the convention that D: is data, for example.

To which I replied:

Okay, I've been this route before, and here's what I'd recommend:

1. Do a complete backup of your drive. Come to think of it, do two. I'm not sure how much of your 6 GB drive is currently used, but I'll assume you have enough free space to do the following.

2. Use Partition Magic 3.x to repartition the drive as you described, but rather than just creating two new partitions, create just one extended partition, but create three logical volumes in that extended partition. The first two will be the D: and E: volumes you want, and the third one will hold Windows NT. I'd make it at least 500 MB if you have the space, but 200 MB would do in a pinch.

3. Format D: and E: as FAT16, and move the stuff that's currently SUBST'd to the actual D: and E: volumes. Test to make sure that everything works as expected, and then make still another backup on a new tape, this one of just C:. Make a Startup Disk that contains your CD-ROM drivers, and boot with that Startup Disk to make sure you can access the hard drive and the CD with it. Also make sure that diskette has format and fdisk on it.

4. You really want the first partition on the first drive to be FAT16. I can't remember if PM 3.x will convert a FAT32 volume to FAT16. If so, use it to convert C: to FAT16, or else upgrade to PM4, which does do FAT32 to FAT16 conversions. Otherwise, boot the Startup floppy and use it to reformat C: as FAT16 and then reinstall Windows and your backup software and restore your backup of C:. At this point, you have three volumes on the first drive, C:, D:, and E:, all FAT16, and one unformatted segment of free space.

5. Boot the Windows NT startup floppy 1 and install Windows NT. When it gets to the point where it asks you where to install it, point it to the free space you left on the extended partition. You can tell it to format that space either FAT or NTFS. It doesn't matter which, although NTFS will give you better security and performance. But no matter which you choose, it won't affect your C:, D: and E: drive letter assignments. And installing NT on a system that already has a FAT16 Win95 installation that NT can see on C: will automatically install dual-boot support.

6. Once you get NT installed, you can gradually re-install your applications, pointing them to the same location where they currently reside. For example, if you have Office 97 currently installed for Windows 95 in C:\Program Files\Office, you can reinstall it under Windows NT and tell it to install to that same directory. That way, essentially all the installation procedure does is update the Windows NT registry with the necessary entries to support Office 97 under NT. But you don't use the extra disk space that would be needed for a second actual installation.

7. When you're ready to dump Win95, just delete it from C:. Don't format the drive, however, or you'll also kill the NT boot files. Also, note that NT's terminology is bass-ackwards. They call the partition that NT actually boots from (C:) the system partition, and the partition where the NT operating files reside the boot partition.

8. If you still want to add the hard drive for more disk space, install it as the master on your secondary ATA interface and use NT Disk Administrator to create one big primary partition on it and format the whole thing as one NTFS volume. Since your system already supports a 6.4 GB drive, you shouldn't have any problems with a drive up to 8.4 GB. If the system is 15 months old, however, it's almost certain that the BIOS won't support drives larger than 8.4 GB. You need to install a flash BIOS update that has support for extended Int13 if you want to use anything larger than 8.4 GB.

A couple of other issues you mentioned:

a. Win95 needs to reside on the first physical drive on the system, i.e. the one jumpered as master on the primary ATA interface. You also need to have the NT system partition on that drive (the one NT boots from, and that contains NTLDR), but the boot partition (the one that contains \WinNT) can be anywhere.

b. As far as interrupts, NT does unfortunately require that each LPT port be assigned its own IRQ.

Good luck.

* * * * *

Lunch time: A lot of mail has started to come in. I was going to put off posting it until tomorrow, but I think I'll get it out of the way now and take tomorrow off. First off, the following response to my rant about free consulting, this from someone who wishes to remain anonymous:

Four grand for two days work? That's disgusting. I have a college degree and worked hard all my life and have never made that much in a month. If you charge two grand a day that means you make half a million bucks a year. That's too much.

Who put you in charge of deciding how much I'm worth? As it happens, I think that what some people are paid is ridiculous, but that's called the market. If tall guys who can barely read but play a children's game very well can be paid multi-million dollar annual salaries, that's because people are willing to pay enough to watch them play to make those salaries worth paying.

But the truth is that computer consultants don't make anywhere near the annual salary you've calculated. In the first place, there's a big difference between hours worked and hours you can bill. It's not uncommon to work two or three times the number of hours for a client that you can actually bill to that client. In the second place, just staying current on the technologies occupies a lot of time that can't be billed to clients. In the third place, business development and marketing activities, taking care of one's own business, and other non-billable activities take a substantial chunk of time. In the fourth place, many consultants charge different rates according to the nature of the services. For example, I might charge a large corporation $250/hr for designing an internetwork, a small business $125/hr or $150/hr for installing and configuring a Windows NT network, and a favorite non-profit or charity $0/hr for a few hours of help they desperately need.

Most self-employed consultants I know actually bill something between 500 and 1,000 hours per year after false starts, write-downs, and write-offs, and by no means all of that is at their highest rate. At typical billing rates, that means they're grossing somewhere between $60,000 and $175,000 annually. From that, everything must be paid for.

A self-employed consultant has to pay for health insurance and other benefits, the employer portion of social security, and all the other things that an employee gets as a part of the deal. A typical employee who grosses $100,000 annually actually costs his employer somewhere around $130,000 to $140,000 in direct payroll costs, plus the costs of providing office space, utilities, supplies, equipment, books and subscriptions, Internet services, etc. The consultant has to pay for all of this himself.

The upshot is that most independent consulants I know charge $125 to $250 per hour and end up with a paycheck equivalent between $40,000 and $125,000 per year. Decent money, certainly, but nothing like what you believe, and probably not as much as they would make, given their skills, if they took a full-time conventional job.

* * * * *

But Rick Boatright says:

Yep, "I can get it done by a college kid for $100"

Fine, go find one. I'm 45, I have a staff, a house payment, internet connectivity charges on the order of $100 / mo, I need expensive computers, my kids are going to college, and etc.

I charge $120 / hr, 4 hour minimum, but I'm in Kansas and am not a published author, and those are pretty fair market rates. Stick by your guns.

Exactly. And what invariably happens is that the job doesn't get done on time, if at all. If it gets done, it doesn't get done right. And the client usually ends up wasting a lot of money doing the wrong things and buying the wrong equipment. I've had people come back to me after such butchered projects and plead with me to take over on my original terms. I nearly always refuse nowadays to come in and clean up the mess. I used to take on such rescue efforts, but I quickly learned that what usually happens is that they don't understand sunk costs and expect me to make things work the way they want them to work by using the wrong equipment they'd bought or whatever. It's just not worth the hassle. 

* * * * *

And how could I not publish the following message from Al Palmer? It's about the first book I ever contributed to, Upgrading and Repairing Networks, and has my comments embedded with the text:

My name is Al Palmer. I am an Electronics Instructor at a technical school in W. Hartford, CT and I presently teach Electronics, Computer Technology and Networking. The above-mentioned book that you co-authored is one of my favorite...no, it is my favorite reference manual. I think that it is very comprehensive and at the same time user-friendly. Well Done!

Thanks for the kind words. But I really didn't have a lot to do with that book. Apparently what happened was that the person who was originally supposed to write the chapter on RAID didn't turn in anything usable. The editor called me in a panic because they were getting read to go to press and he desperately needed a RAID chapter right away. I wrote the chapter in three days. Even so, they were running so late that it ended up as Appendix C rather than as a chapter in the body of the text. There wasn't much time for editing, so what you see there is basically what I wrote, unchanged. That Appendix is the only thing I had to do with that book.

My reason for writing to you at this time is to formally pay recognition to a fountain of knowledge, one that I may in the future drink from. At this time I would like to seek your advice on a personal matter. I am 34 years old and have been in the field of Electronics for over fifteen years. I am an accomplished Electronics Technician. I have been teaching Electronics for over ten years but only started teaching computer repairs two years ago.

I am A+ Certified and is presently in the process of persuing my MCSE. At the school that I presently teach we provide training in installing and maintaining both Win NT and Netware 4.0. It is my intent to one day be a consultant , one such as yourself ( may be one day work with you). My questions to you are these :

1. Which certification (NT or Netware) do you think wold be more rewarding to pursue?

Well, conventional wisdom is that the MCSE is hot right now, and I suppose that's true. But there are a lot of NetWare sites out there. Also, certification isn't quite the guarantee it used to be. Back when I first started with NetWare, having a CNE was almost a guarantee that you'd earn 25% to 50% more than someone who didn't. Nowadays, there are probably more than 100,000 CNEs out there, so it's less a guarantee than just a ticket that you need to get punched. Same thing, to a lesser but growing extent, with the MCSE. A few years ago, there were only a few thousand MCSEs, but now I believe there are something like 70,000. So, yes, either one is a useful credential to have, but neither is much of a guarantee of anything. If I were you, I'd get whichever certification matches the NOS you prefer working with. You'll find a lot of work for either. But the MCSE is definitely what people want to see right now.

2. How can I develop my self to my fullest potential, by remaining in teaching or going back in industry?

I'd say that's too personal a choice to listen to anyone else's advice about. That said, if I were you, I think I'd stick with teaching for now and gradually develop a consulting practice on the side. Much network consulting work is done evenings and weekends (when people aren't using the network) anyway, so you may be able to fit in quite a bit of work around your day job. You may well be able to use your teaching contacts to help you develop your consulting practice.

3. What are some of the real benefits of being a network consultant?

Again, that's very personal. For me, the primary benefit is being my own boss, setting my own hours, working only with people I choose to work with, and other issues related to personal freedom. It's also nice to build something yourself and then stand back and watch it work.

4. From a financial stand point, as a consultant is it "today we eat chicken tommorow we eat feathers"?

Well, it's certainly likely to be that way when you're getting started. Before I more or less gave up doing consulting work in favor of writing books, I had weeks when I made $10,000 and months when I made $500. Once you've established a practice, things tend to even out a bit more, but you'll always want to have a decent buffer in the bank to cover slow periods. Also, a lot depends on the market situation where you live, how you price your services, and how much competition you have.

5 It is frigid here in CT, what is it like in NC?

At the moment, it's 54F and sunny.

* * * * *

And the following from Gary M. Berg:

So basically what you've suggested is to install NT on the F: drive (ignoring NT's technical terminology) and then install programs into C:\Program Files as needed. Hmm, I guess that still preserves my D: and E: structure pretty well. I've heard comments about an occasional problem installing an application on top of itself if the app requires slightly different code for different operating systems. Ultimately I might convert C: to NTFS too if I'm ready to give up Win95.

Yes. Of course, when you eventually decide to blow away Win95 on C:, you'll probably want to keep your Program Files folder intact. I've never had any problems "re-installing" apps pointing to the same installation folder, but I don't do it all that much. And, yes, you could eventually convert C: to NTFS, which would also reclaim a lot of FAT16 slack space.

I suppose another way to create F: is to add a new drive up front. I assume you suggested adding the second drive on the second EIDE channel because that should improve performance some? In my previous system I had two drives both on the main EIDE channel and it worked OK. It was a 486/33, so who knows how speed compared <g>?

Correct. As you probably know, but some may not, the two devices attached to one ATA channel do not operate completely independently. For example, if you have two hard drives attached to your primary ATA interface, you can write to only one of those hard drives at a time. A similar but subtly different issue is that of independent device timing. Older IDE hard drives and ATAPI CD-ROM drives operating on older ATA interfaces must operate at the same speed. That meant that installing a CD-ROM on the same cable as an IDE hard drive killed the performance of the hard drive, which had to operate at CD-ROM throughput speeds. Starting with the Triton II chipset, all Intel chipsets and most third-party chipsets have supported independent device time, which eliminates that problem.

>> Win95 needs to reside on the first physical drive on the system, i.e. the one jumpered as master on the primary ATA interface. <<

So even though I had thought about installing NT on the primary drive, the Win95 requirement will prevent me from moving my current drive to slave, even if I use a boot manager to control it? I recognize that whatever partition is first booted would have to be on the master drive.

I suspect that that's true, although I've never tried using Windows 95 on anything other than the first hard disk in the system.

I'm not sure I totally trust my current drive (6.4Gb WD), as about 2 times in the 15 months I've had it it has failed to spin up properly. So an alternative process would be to use Drive Image to duplicate my old drive onto the new HD and then start this whole process.

Hmm. Well, if that's the case, you definitely should be thinking about installing a new hard disk. But surely a 6.4 GB drive must be new enough that it's still under warranty, right? If so, I think I'd buy a new drive, move my stuff to it, use the WDDIAG utility to zero out the old drive and then return it for a replacement.

>> As far as interrupts, NT does unfortunately require that each LPT port be assigned its own IRQ. <<

I thought that requirement was dropped; I know it was required originally, but I thought that later releases didn't require it. That's going to cause me trouble, given my current IRQ usage:

0-2 - System

3 - COM2 (Modem)

4 - COM1 (PalmPilot Cradle)

5 - SoundBlaster AWE 64

6 - Floppy

7 - Parallel Port (s)

8 - RTC

9 - Adaptec 2940U

10 - 3COM NIC

11 - Matrox Millennium video card

12 - PS/2 mouse

13 - NDP

14 - EIDE (Hard drive)

15 - EIDE (2 CD-ROMs)

You may be right about the interrupt requirement, but I'd be surprised if that was the case. DOS can print without interrupts because it's a single-tasking OS. When the application wants to print, it simply opens the port and starts shipping data to it. With Windows NT, that port sits underneath the Hardware Abstraction Layer (HAL), which isolates the NT kernel from the hardware. But I'm speculating, because again this is something I've never tried to do. If you try it, let me know what happens.

Given that I have an HP 4L on one parallel port and a Umax 610P scanner with HP722C on the second parallel port, port squeezing is going to be tough. The only thought I can come up with is some sort of network printing box (like the Intel print boxes) which could capture the HP 4L output. And that would be a $150-$200 added expense, I'd guess.

I suppose I might be able to scrounge up an old machine at work and install NT on it just to serve out the HP 4L - I've had a Compaq 486 DX-2/50 sitting in the corner of my office at work doing that sort of thing. An Ethernet port sharing box would probably be a better choice.

Using another box would certainly be one solution, and I don't know why it'd have to run NT. Why not just install Win95 on it and set it up with a shared printer?

Sometimes it seems like it'd be easier to just build a whole new machine <sigh>. But the IRQ jam would still make for trouble.

Yes, it probably would be easier. And it's pretty cheap nowadays, with good system boards under $100, memory and drives cheap, and 333 MHz Celeron-A's also south of the $100 line.

* * * * *

And more from Rick Boatright about consulting::

Perhaps I could send you a copy of my "Incomplete Job completion contract" The first paragraph, which the customer must sign _that paragraph_ as understood is:

Client understands that all effort expended to date on this project must be view as "sunk costs" and as lost. That TBC can make no guarantees to utilize hardware, software, or procedures that have been put in place in the project to date. Client further understands that they have requested that this project be "bumped" to the top of TBC's priority queue, and that this requires displacing existing customers, and that there will be a billing surcharge for suchprioritization of 100%.

Signed _______________- Dated_________

and then it goes on with our usual terms of service...

Yep. That indeed might make it all worthwhile.

* * * * *

And now I really must get back to work on my book. I notice that the FrontPage download time indicator for this page is now showing 65 seconds. I try to limit myself to 60 second download times, which I've already exceeded for this week. There may be a short update tomorrow, but probably not much.

 


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Sunday, January 17, 1999

I am going to take today off, but a couple of interesting messages were waiting in my inbox this morning, so here they are.

* * * * *

This from Michael Baker:

I've been enjoying your daily journal for several months now. Great site! Keep it up!

I just setup NT Workstation on one of my systems. This is my first experience with Windows NT. I have ordered a couple of NT books (one of them being your Windows NT TCP/IP Network Administration). They haven't arrived yet and I have a couple of questions.

I have a small network consisting of 2 win98 machines, a NT box, and an ancient 486 that dual boots win95 and linux. I have set up NETBIOS and TCP/IP, and can log into the NT machine over the network. In messing around with NT's networking settings, I see references to a domain. What is a NT domain, and can I set one up using NT Workstation? Also, would you recommend installing service pack 4? I have heard that there are problems with it. Thanks for your time.

Thanks for the kind words. An NT domain (which has no relationship to an Internet domain) is one of two ways that a Windows NT network can be organized, the other being a workgroup. The main difference is how security operates. In a domain, which is defined by the presence of a Primary Domain Controller (PDC) running on a Windows NT Server machine, security is centralized. The PDC maintains the master directory database, against which all logins to the domain are authenticated. Once a domain user logs in to the domain and is authenticated, that user has access to all shared resources on the domain for which his account is authorized. In a workgroup, there is no central security database. Each NT machine (Server or Workstation) maintains its own local directory database, and each machine authenticates logins for users who want to access shared resources on that local machine. So, in order to create a Windows NT domain, you must have at least one machine running Windows NT Server.

As far as SP4, I've been running it on one of my Windows NT Server boxes since it first shipped, and haven't had any problems. My others are still running SP3, but I'll probably install SP4 on them the next time I get a spare moment. There are some post-SP4 hotfixes available on the Microsoft FTP server, which I'll probably check as well before I do that. Good luck.

* * * * *

And more on consulting rates from Tom Syroid:

An excellent, well-crafted rant on the benefits and costs of the consulting business. Kudos.

When I was consulting full-time a few years back, my advertised rate was $65/hr. The rate I worked at for individuals varied from $10 -$25/hr. I often did work free for organizations I thought needed it, but couldn't honestly afford it. Also, your insights into hidden costs for self-training etc. was bang on the money, or lack thereof so to speak <g>

Keep up the quality penmanship -- it's what keeps me coming back every day.

Ah, the adventures of computing..

Thanks. Your $65/hr rate sounds a bit low, even for a few years ago. Of course, supply and demand has a lot to do with what hourly rate is sustainable in a given market. But I think one of the biggest mistakes that new consultants make is underpricing their services. Many of them fall prey to the old illusion of charging a lower rate and making it up on volume. But it just doesn't work that way. So long as you're on your own, you have to figure in the time and costs required to sustain the business. No matter how low your rates are, you're unlikely to be able to bill more than 1,000 hours per year, 1,200 tops. On that basis, my rule of thumb has always been that you can figure out roughly what your gross paycheck equivalent earnings will be by dividing your hourly billing rate by two and then multiplying by 1,000.

The situation changes if you have staff because you can distribute the overhead of maintaining the business, getting new business, etc. over several people. If you have two or three consultants and several PC technicians, for example, you might reasonably charge $65/hr for a PC technicians time, because you can keep that technician busy for 2,000 billable hours a year, or close to it. But if you're all by yourself, billing less than $100/hr or so is just a slow route to financial suicide.

* * * * *

And Tom Syroid responds:

You're right, of course. But I was working in an economically depressed small town and I did fall prey to the mentality that if I charged what would be considered a "realistic" price, I would grow my business in leaps and bounds and then be able to charge higher rates when I had a respecting client base. Wrong, of course, but easy an easy thinking-trap to fall into when you're starting out.

BTW: You're one of the few "busy" authors I know who takes the time to answer each and every mail you get. I don't think most readers have a clue what kind of energy and commitment this takes, so on behalf of the unheard-of-ones, I recognize your efforts.

Yep. As I said, the market has a lot to do with what kind of hourly rates are sustainable, and there's no doubt that it's tougher to charge reasonable rates in a depressed area than in one that's booming. But if you do what you do well and if there's a demand for it, you can develop a client base if you work at it.

And a lot depends on the types of businesses in your area. Generally speaking, very small businesses aren't good candidates for consulting services. They simply can't or won't pay the market rate. But businesses a bit larger than small are a good market. They need the help and can't afford to employ the kind of people that they need to get the things done that they need to do. A lot of consultants make a good living by being the "part-time MIS department" for such businesses. But that's a tough row to hoe, because you have to be a generalist, able to give good advice on everything from choosing PCs to setting up networks to bringing up a web site to linking branch offices. It also helps if you're multi-lingual in NT, NetWare, and UNIX. But it's a good niche if you can do all that.

As far as answering mail, I do try to reply to everything I receive, although that's getting harder. At this point, everyone gets a reply, although it may be one sentence or even one word. But this site is starting to get increased traffic, and I have no doubt that the day will come when I can't reply individually to each message. I don't look forward to that day.

 



Coming Soon (I hope)

Here are some things that are currently on my to-do list. I may start some of them this coming month. It may be a while before I start on some of the others, either because I don't yet have everything I need, because interdependencies make it necessary to do other things first, or simply because other work takes priority. But I'll get to all of them eventually.

 

 

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