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Week of 20 November 2000

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Monday, 20 November 2000

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I decided to start this week with a simplified page layout. The left-column menu was all well and good, but few people used it much. I hope this version will be cleaner, less confusing, and faster to load. I checked it in Internet Explorer 5.01, Navigator 4.08, and Opera 4.02. All of them seem to work fine, except that the horizontal scores are missing in Navigator and Opera. Oh, well.

And speaking of Opera, it appears that its DNS resolver stub may be defective. Bo Leuf mailed me yesterday to report that he was getting DNS errors when he attempted to access the messageboard, although he'd been able to do so fine last Friday. I passed it off to some local problem on his end. I think it was, but not in the way I expected. 

When I tested the layout of these new pages, I didn't have Opera installed, so I went to their website last night and downloaded the latest version, 4.02. As I was playing around with Opera, I tried clicking on the messageboard link, and was shocked to see a DNS resolution error. I tried again in IE and Nav on my main workstation, with no problem. Thinking that perhaps they'd cached the DNS data and the DNS was in fact down, I decided to try another test. 

I had a Windows 2000 box that I'd just installed. IE had never been run on it, and neither Nav nor Opera was installed. I configured IE on that box, called up my local copy of this page, and tried to hit the messageboard on the remote server. It loaded it normally. So I installed Nav 4.08 and tried it. It also resolved the address and loaded the page normally. So I installed Opera 4.02 and tried it. It generated a DNS error. So it's beginning to look as though the DNS resolver stub in Opera is broken, at least for 4.02.

The Intel Pentium 4 ships today, in versions running at 1.4 GHz ($644) and 1.5 GHz ($819). I can't say much about it because I don't have one yet. I requested samples of the Pentium 4 and the Garibaldi D850GB motherboard on behalf of Pournelle and me, but we left it too long. By the time I asked, Intel was out of press samples. Not that it really makes much difference to me. I'm working on a long-deadline book schedule rather than on a magazine schedule. But I'm surprised that they didn't scrape the barrel to come up with a sample for Pournelle for his Byte column. Oh, well. The 1.4/1.5 GHz versions are ephemeral anyway. Intel will be shipping 1.7 and 2.0 GHz versions early next year. 

By some reports, the Pentium 4/1.4GHz about matches the Pentium III/1GHz in performance, and is badly outperformed by latest Athlons. Other reports have the Pentium 4/1.4GHz outperforming the Athlon/1.2GHz significantly, and the Pentium 4/1.5GHz leaving the Athlon/1.2GHz in the dust. Ultimately, though, none of that matters, because processors sell on the basis of clock speed. A Pentium 4/1.4 is perceived by most buyers to be faster than an Athlon/1.2 regardless of benchmark results. So the fast-clocked Pentium 4's are going to be a real problem for AMD. They can argue all they want that their Athlons are much faster clock-for-clock, but few people will listen.

The Achilles Heel of the Pentium 4 at the moment is its dependence on Rambus RDRAM, which, although it is now much less expensive relative to SDRAM than it was a few months ago, is still quite expensive. Intel is using a two-pronged method to defuse this problem. First, they're crediting $70 per system toward the cost of RDRAM, which will partially offset the cost differential. Second, and this must really irk Intel, they're licensing VIA to produce Pentium 4 chipsets that support DDR SDRAM. Intel has a DDR chipset in the works, but it's unlikely to ship before late next year. So in the interim they have no choice but to work with VIA if they want DDR support for the Pentium 4.

If you haven't joined the messageboard yet, please do. That's where all the email interchanges formerly posted here will now be.

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Tuesday, 21 November 2000

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Thanks to Greg Lincoln, we now have a second messageboard up and running, this one for HardwareGuys.com. It's my intent to use the TTG messageboard for general discussions, and the HardwareGuys.com messageboard for technical discussions. We'll see what happens. Some of things to be aware of:
  • If you joined the TTG messageboard before yesterday evening, you're already a member of the HardwareGuys.com messageboard. Greg simply replicated the data from the TTG messageboard to the new messageboard, including all user data. If you joined one or the other messageboard later than yesterday evening, you'll have to join the second messageboard as a separate step. You can use the same account name and password on the second board, if you wish. If you're not sure whether or not you're already a member one or the other boards, try logging in. If the board rejects your attempt, simply create a new user account on that board.
  • Each messageboard writes its own cookie to your hard drive. These cookies store your account name and password, the last post you read, and so on. If you've already logged in to the TTG messageboard at least once, that cookie has already been written to your hard drive. But you need to login once manually to the new board in order to get the cookie for that board written to your hard drive. Otherwise, you'll be accessing the new board as "guest." Once you log in at least once to both boards, you'll have two cookies, one for each board, and will subsequently be logged in automatically.
  • Greg moved the computer-related forums from the old board to the new board. When you access posts on the board, you'll notice that the link ends in something like "forum=3&topic=2". That means you need to do a refresh on the page that lists posts, or you may end up seeing a cached page for a topic that has nothing to do with what you clicked on. You get the page for what used to be "forum=3&topic=2" instead of whatever currently corresponds to those identifiers.

These messageboards are already both entertaining and useful, and will become more so as additional people join and more posts accumulate. So please join, and get in there and start posting.

Here is Malcolm's editorial comment on the property tax bill for Barbara's truck. I should note that the bill was in an envelope on Barbara's end table, and was mixed among many other envelopes. Malcolm picked this one out in particular, and I suspect it was no accident.

malcolm-tax-bill.jpg (51739 bytes)

So I'm wondering what will happen when Barbara calls the tax office and tells them that her dog ate her property tax bill.

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Wednesday, 22 November 2000

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We were supposed to have a low of 13F (-11C) last night. I don't know if we got down that low overnight, but it's 17F (-8C) outside at the moment. I know that's not particularly cold compared to what some of my more Northern readers experience this time of year, but around here that's cold, particularly for November. We probably  matched or exceeded the record low for this date last night. Of course, the weather around here is so variable that we sometimes have very cold weather one week and highs in the 70's (say about 24C) the following week. Barbara tells me that there's precipitation in the forecast for this weekend, so if the cold weather persists we may end up having an early ice storm. 

We're prepared for that--gas logs, firewood, generator, food, etc.--and we both work at home, so winter storms don't ordinarily present any problem for us. The dogs have mixed feelings about them, though. They love to go out and cavort in snow, except Kerry, who's always hated getting snow stuck between his toes. He comes in from the snow and spends half an hour chewing between his toes and looking at us like it's our fault. 

But ice storms are a different matter. Even four-paw drive doesn't always help then. The last time we had a big ice storm, Duncan was walking around out front sniffing bushes without result. Apparently, the ice covers up the scents that should be there. He finally found a likely bush and lifted his leg to mark it. His other back foot slipped on the ice and he went down on his side. Embarrassing dog moment.

Speaking of the dogs, I talked to Malcolm about the envelope and tax bill he shredded. As it turned out, he was mortified to learn that it was the tax bill only for Barbara's Trooper. He knows, you see, that Forsyth County also has a tax on dogs. While he was flipping through the mail looking for things addressed to him, he happened to notice the envelope from the tax office. Not realizing that the tax office sends separate bills for vehicles and dogs, he assumed that it was his tax bill, and so he shredded it.

Preparations for Thanksgiving continue apace. Barbara says I have to get the extraneous stuff (computer, revolver, etc.) off the kitchen table because she plans to serve dinner there this year. Ordinarily we use the dining room table (or both), but this year it'll be only the three of us and her parents so she decided to just use the kitchen table.

PC Hardware in a Nutshell appears to be doing well. It's spending most of its time in the Amazon ranking range of 1,500 to 3,000, with occasional dips to 5,000 or 6,000 and occasional spikes into the 700 or 800 range. That's pretty good for a new title, and jumping around in the rankings with a gradual upward trend is pretty typical of a new Nutshell book. I remember when Syroid and Leuf's Outlook 2000 in a Nutshell shipped back in May, it spent most of its time in the 3,000 to 8,000 range for two or three months before setting down in the low 1,XXX range. On that basis, we're hoping that PCHIAN will eventually achieve equilibrium in the sub-1,000 range. That's a lot to hope for, and we may not make it, but we're keeping our fingers crossed.

What is interesting is the effect that PCHIAN seems to be having on the 12th edition of Scott Mueller's Upgrading and Repairing PCs. Before PCHIAN shipped, URP sat pretty consistently in the 400 to 900 range. Since PCHIAN shipped, URP is spending most of its time in the 4,000 to 9,000 range. So it's pretty clear that we're taking sales from URP. Nearly every time I check, PCHIAN is doing better in the Amazon rankings than URP is. But I want to do more than that. I want to bury URP.

Of course, a lot of people buy every new edition of URP, more as a matter of habit than anything else. Many of them probably don't even know that PCHIAN exists. One guy--I don't recognize his name as one of my readers but he may very well be--posted a very nice one-star review of URP, recommending that people get PCHIAN instead. That has probably helped PCHIAN quite a bit, if only by making prospective URP buyers aware that PCHIAN exists. 

If you feel the same way, please don't hesitate to post an Amazon review saying so. Posting a five-star review of PCHIAN almost certainly helps its sales, but posting a one-star review of URP with a pointer to PCHIAN probably helps even more. But please don't do that as a favor to me. Post such reviews only if you really believe what you're saying.

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Thursday, 23 November 2000

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Today is Thanksgiving, so I probably won't get much done. Barbara's parents are coming for dinner. Barbara's mother always wants to watch organized team sports (football, I think, or is baseball not yet over?) on television, so I'll avoid the den. I haven't watched a game on television in the last 30 years, so I don't even know the names of the teams.

The dogs injured Barbara yesterday, but it was by accident. We were taking them out the front door, and Barbara accidentally connected the leash to Duncan rather than Malcolm. I do that sometimes too. In the dimness of the foyer with a circling pack of excited dogs, it's easy to get the wrong one connected. At any rate, we opened the door and Malcolm whooshed away across the street to visit the little dog who lives in the fenced yard across the street and a couple of houses down from ours. Barbara loosed Duncan to go after Malcolm and we walked across the street to reclaim the dogs. We walked up the driveway where they'd gone, but by that time Malcolm and Duncan had gone behind one of the houses. Barbara was back toward the rear of the house calling them. I was at the end of the driveway, having gone back into our house to get another leash and some dog treats with which to lure Malcolm. 

When she called them, they came on the dead run. Border Collies are fast. Not quite as fast as greyhounds, but nearly so. They were running side by side, so close together that they almost seemed to be in harness. Duncan was responding to Barbara's call, and Malcolm was herding Duncan. They blew past Barbara and I turned to make sure there was no traffic coming down the street, afraid that they'd run out into the street without slowing. When I turned back toward Barbara, she was lying on the driveway. They'd apparently made contact with her on their way past and knocked her down.

The neighbor who owns the small dog that Malcolm went to visit was out in his driveway, so the two of us went over to Barbara to see if she'd been seriously hurt. She hadn't, but she'd twisted her ankle and had the breath knocked out of her when she fell. We let her lie there for a while to recover and then helped her back to our house. I wanted to go get my mom's wheelchair and roll her back, but she refused. We got her back in the house, on the sofa, with her leg raised and ice on it. She'd been wearing heavy sweat pants and a parka, which together helped protect her when she fell. She ended up with a scraped knee and a twisted ankle, but it could have been a lot worse. Being hit by two dogs who cumulatively weigh more than 120 pounds and were moving at probably 25 to 30 miles per hour is no joke. Fortunately, they just brushed her on the way past. If they'd collided squarely, both Barbara and the dogs might have been seriously injured.

The remainder of the day was relatively quiet, with all three dogs sticking close to Barbara's nest on the sofa. They understand when someone is hurt or ill and tend to stick close to that person. Barbara has a picture of them all together on her page. I'm beginning to think that Malcolm may be a "nurse dog" (see James Herriott's story about Judy the Nurse Dog). Some Border Collies have an extraordinary sense of duty to injured charges, and I think Malcolm is showing signs of that. Once he grows up and calms down a bit, Barbara may see about having him certified as a therapy animal. If she does that, Malcolm will be allowed to visit nursing homes and similar places where pets are forbidden. Many of the people who live in such homes greatly miss having a pet of their own, and look forward to visits by certified therapy animals.

 

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Friday, 24 November 2000

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I have discovered why the Brits nearly conquered the world in the 18th and 19th centuries. Their secret must have been English Breakfast Tea. Barbara got some of that in round tea bags some time ago. There's no string on the bag and they're ideal for using in the coffee maker. The instructions say to use one bag per cup. Now, this is a 10- or 12-cup coffee maker, and that seemed a bit extreme to me, so I'd been using three bags per pot. 

This morning I asked Barbara if I should make a pot of EBT for us to share. She said she'd pass because I made it too strong and she ended up shaky from all the caffeine. So I tried making it this time with only two bags for the pot. It still tastes fine. Better, in fact, than it does made with three bags. A lot less bitter. If the Brits make this stuff to the strength that's apparently proper, it's no wonder they spent a couple of centuries sailing off to all ends of the earth, conquering countries and slaughtering the natives. If I made and drank a pot with ten of those bags, I'd probably do the same thing. I'm surprised it's not a controlled substance.

Tom Syroid posted his first impressions of Netscape Navigator 6. About what I expected, actually. Too little, too late. Netscape has been entirely clueless for something like three years now, and what Tom has to say about their latest flagship browser pretty much confirms that nothing has changed. I mean, no context menu to enable copying/pasting a URL from the address line? Give me a break.

FedEx just showed up with a box from Intel. It contains an Intel PRO/Wireless networking kit--one Intel PRO/Wireless 2011 LAN Access Point and a couple of Intel PRO/Wireless 2011 LAN PC Card adapters. These are standards-compliant IEEE 802.11b 2.4 GHz 11 Mb/s wireless networking components. The LAN Access Point allows bridging a wireless network to a wired network, so I know what I'll be doing this weekend. This technology may be overkill for what I want to do--wandering around the house with my Compaq Armada notebook untethered--but after reading the literature I conclude that it may be ideal for wireless networking in a business environment. 

What's shipping now allows you to connect notebook computers to your main network, which is a very useful function in itself. But what's really intriguing is a product that Intel isn't shipping yet. They plan to release a PCI version of the 2011 wireless LAN adapter, intended for use in desktop systems. I'm supposed to be getting one of those as soon as they're available. So why would anyone use a relatively expensive 11 Mb/s wireless LAN adapter in a desktop system rather than an inexpensive 100 Mb/s Ethernet card?

Anyone who, like me, has run a lot of network cable can answer that one. In many environments it is difficult or impossible to run network cabling. Particularly in old buildings, asbestos is frequently an issue, and there are offices where it's just about impossible to "get there from here." Some historical buildings are listed, and what you are permitted to do to run cable is strictly limited. In situations like these, wireless may be the only practical solution. Also, even in ordinary environments, running cable isn't cheap. When installed by qualified network cabling installers, a single cable run may cost anything from $100 to several times that, depending on the length and difficulty of installation and the prevailing labor costs in that area. If you need to bridge your network between two adjacent buildings, you may need to go through hoops to obtain the necessary approvals and to meet code, including excavating a trench and burying a cable. I've encountered situations where running a simple cable between two buildings only fifty feet apart required heavy construction equipment and ended up costing $10,000 or more. So, although the wireless network adapter itself may cost considerably more than an ordinary adapter, the total cost of making the link may be much lower with wireless. I'll be keeping a close eye on this technology.

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Saturday, 25 November 2000

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Well, I installed the Intel PRO/Wireless 2011 Access Point and connected it to my network. I also installed the PC Card adapter in my Compaq Armada notebook. The good news is that the link between the notebook and the Access Point works fine. The bad news is that I can't talk to anything. Why? Because I have no idea what the IP address of the Access Point is.

The manual says there are three ways to configure the Access Point: via serial null-modem cable; via its built-in web server; or via telnet. The manual helpfully notes that the two latter methods require you to know the IP address of the Access Point. Duh. There's no default IP address or MAC address listed on the Access Point itself or any of the packing materials. I searched the printed and on-line documents without finding so much as a hint as to how to find the default IP address of the Access Point. Finally, I located a FAQ (in PDF form) on the Intel web site that explains the process. I'm supposed to locate the 12-digit hex string on a sticky label on the bottom of the access point, take the final 6 digits of that label, group them by twos, and convert the hex to decimal. Those three decimal digits are the final three octets of the IP address. The first octet is always 10. Or so the FAQ says. 

Fine. The only problem is that there *is* no sticky label on the bottom of the Access Point, or anywhere else I could find. There is a large printed product label on it, and it does have a 12-digit hex string, but that's listed as the Serial Number of the unit. Okay, fine. It's reasonable that they'd use that, although it'd have been nice if they'd just said to use the serial number instead of having me looking for a sticky label. The last six digits of the serial number are 04 B1 03. So I convert that to the IP address 10.4.177.3, confident that I will now be able to point my web browser to that IP address and program the Access Point. No dice.

In reading further, I find that there are apparently different modes that the AP can be set to, and one of those allows only using the serial port. So it appears that I may have an AP set in this mode. Now, this is embarrassing for someone who writes PC hardware books for a living, but I don't have a null modem cable. Well, I *have* a null modem cable, probably several of them come to that, but I have no earthly idea where they are. For that matter, I have all the stuff I'd need to *make* a null modem cable, but again I'm clueless about where may be.

I used to make and work with serial cables all the time, but who's used a serial cable in the last five years or more other than to connect a modem? Or perhaps a Palm cradle, but then those come attached to the cradle. The days of using a plethora of differently-pinned serial cables are, thank goodness, far in the past for most people. I really wish Intel had included a cheap, short serial cable in the box. Even a $2 two-foot ribbon cable would have sufficed.

I suppose I should start digging around to see if I can find a serial cable that'll work. Or perhaps I'll come across a patch box or something that'll let me temporarily build something that'll work. But this is sure a lot harder than it should have been.

In fairness to Intel, this is an eval unit, which means that another reviewer may have had it first and left it in an odd state. Stuff like that frequently happens with eval product, which is why I'm extremely careful to return eval products in the same state that they were supplied to me, including even stuff like the warranty card. But many other reviewers aren't that courteous. My guess is that someone who bought an AP as new boxed product wouldn't have this problem. But it's still aggravating.

I ran web stats this morning, as I do every Saturday morning for my own sites and Pournelle's. No surprises there. This site continues to generate between 2,000 and 2,500 page reads/day, HardwareGuys.com still sits at around 500 to 600 page reads/day (it hasn't really hit its stride yet), and Pournelle's site did something like 7,000 page reads/day. My page reads are a bit lower than normal, but I'm on the really low side of normal for number of visitors. This week, it was about 4,900 unique IP addresses. The normal range is 5,000 to 8,000. But then, this is a holiday week in the US, and things are always slow on such weeks. Pournelle's stats are down noticeably this week, but then he hasn't updated his pages very much for the last couple of weeks, so that's to be expected.

This morning, I also ran stats for the messageboards, which were pretty interesting. There aren't any "page reads" per se, because everything is generated on the fly as CGI output. Over the 8.6 days that the messageboards have been in operation, we got about 88,000 hits, or just over 10,000 hits/day. Of those a lot are image files. Considering only CGI hits (=pages), we got just under 19,000, or about 2,000/day. These came from about 1,000 distinct IP addresses, so the messageboards are definitely being used, although not yet as heavily as we'd like.

 

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Sunday, 26 November 2000

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The Prime Directive for Monitors: Never buy a cheap monitor or one bundled with a system. They don't last. The latest evidence of that here is the Gateway Vivitron 17 I got with a Gateway system about three years ago. Until a month or so ago, it was connected to Barbara's main system. It is now connected to one of my Belkin KVM switches where it serves my Internet gateway machine and my secondary system. As I sit here, the screen is blanked but periodically flashes red. That monitor is dying, and I can't say I'm surprised. On average, OEM monitors simply don't last long. 

I remember years ago when I was about to order a bunch of Gateway systems without monitors I was surprised by how little Gateway was willing to credit us for the monitor. In retrospect, it's clear that the reason the credit was so small was that the monitors were very cheap ones. Margins are very small in the monitor business, so an inexpensive monitor is invariably also a cheap monitor. It wouldn't surprise me if I learned that these things are intentionally designed to have a service life barely longer than the system warranty. A good monitor, conversely, will likely outlive two systems, and possibly three.

But my impression is that even good monitors are no longer as good as they once were. One person I know has a 15" NEC MultiSync--originally bought more than a dozen years ago with an XT class system--that's still going strong. It has subsequently been used on a 386 system, a Pentium system, and now a Celeron system. It's small and doesn't support high resolutions or refresh rates, but she's still happy with it. A good monitor you buy today will likely have a service life of "only" five to seven years, which is two to three times what you can expect from a bundled monitor or a cheap monitor you buy separately. Stick with Hitachi (my personal preference), Sony, or NEC/Mitsubishi and you won't go far wrong. You'll pay a bit more but trust me, it's worth it.

And before anyone tells me about their Sony monitor that failed early or their no-name monitor that's run perfectly for 15 years, recognize that what I'm talking about is the average rather than specific examples. Yes, some good brand-name monitors fail early, but on average they're likely to last much longer than lesser monitors. And, yes, some cheap monitors last forever, but again on average they're going to die young. Same thing with display quality. You may occasionally get a dog of a name-brand monitor, but not often, and you may occasionally get a superb no-name monitor. But not often.

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