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Week of 11 December 2000

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Monday, 11 December 2000

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If you haven't bought your own copy of PC Hardware in a Nutshell, please do. If you order a copy from by clicking this link, we get a commission on the sale. Several readers have written to tell us that they've ordered multiple copies to give as Christmas gifts. We think that's an excellent idea, of course.

Intel and AMD have both cut processor prices, and the price of AMD processors remains well below that of Intel processors running at equivalent speeds. I am at the point now where I am considering recommending AMD processors for everything except the very low-end (where the Celeron has a cost advantage due to the availability of integrated motherboards) and the very high end (where Intel remains the only choice for dual processor systems). A glance at AMD quantity pricing (with some Intel prices in parenthesis) reported in The Register this morning shows why.

AMD Athlon:

1.2GHz - $254
1.1GHz - $223
1.0GHz - $179
950MHz - $161
900MHz - $143
850MHz - $125
800MHz - $110
750MHz - $95 (Intel Pentium III/733 and /750 - $173)
700MHz - $85 (Intel Pentium III/667 and /700 - $153)

AMD Duron:

800MHz - $79 (Intel Celeron/766 - $155)
750MHz - $65
700MHz - $55

I still prefer Intel chipsets to VIA chipsets, but the fact is that I'd be equally comfortable using either an Intel or an AMD processor in one of my main systems. For several good reasons, Intel is likely to remain the choice of those who buy corporate PC fleets, but it appears that AMD has become the better choice for home and SOHO systems, most of which are equipped with better graphics and sound than typical corporate desktops, rendering Intel's advantage in integrated motherboards much less important.

There's been some discussion on J. H. Ricketson's site and John Dominik's site about their privacy concerns with the messageboards. Just to reassure them and anyone else who's concerned, let me say this:

You need have no privacy concerns about using these messageboards.

The main objection seems to be that the boards require registration. The purpose of that is to prevent the boards from being spammed. The only information required to register is a name (any name will do) and a working email address (to which your password is mailed). Note that the email address doesn't have to be your main email address. Any email address that you can receive mail addressed to will do, including one you set up on Yahoo or Hotmail, use only for registering, and then never check again.

Even if you choose to provide your main email address, your privacy is protected. You can specify whether or not to show your email address with your posts. If you choose to do so, a mail-to icon appears with the post. Anyone who clicks that icon creates a new email message to the address you provided. If you choose not to have your email address available, it isn't. People who read your post can still send you a message by clicking the message icon. That invokes a javascript facility that allows the reader to send you a private message, but the sender never sees your email address (nor do you see his).

The messageboards use Javascript because that's the only reasonable way to automate the processes that the board requires to function. The messageboards set cookies, but those cookies are first-party cookies (not ad-tracking third-party cookies), and are used only for the readers' benefit. They do things like automate entering your name/password, tracking the last time you accessed the board to allow you to view only new messages, and so on. 

I fail to see how any of this can reasonably raise any privacy concerns. You have to provide a name and working email address, true, but that name can be false and that email address can be a convenience address. We have many users who register with an obvious alias and a Hotmail or Yahoo email address. If you're concerned about your privacy, you're free to do the same.

Other than that, the privacy risks are no greater than those associated with visiting any web site. We do log IP addresses (as do all web sites), but that information is available only to Greg Lincoln (who hosts the boards) and me. I know I don't pay any attention to it, and I'd bet Greg doesn't either.

Concern with privacy is all well and good. I'm a privacy advocate myself. But crying wolf where no danger exists serves no one.

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Tuesday, 12 December 2000

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The processor for Barbara's new system showed up yesterday. It's an Intel Pentium III/1.0G. We'll probably get started building her system this afternoon, if she's up to it. Barbara has been hampered by a sinus infection recently.

FrontPage screwed me again yesterday. Or I assume it was FrontPage. Perhaps it was NT or Microsoft networking. But, at any rate, Microsoft screwed me. I spent a fair portion of the day updating pages for the web site, working directly in FrontPage on HTML documents. I'd created half a dozen new pages and updated many others. I was about ready to publish the changes when I decided to check one particular page one last time before publishing. I double-clicked that page to open it, and FrontPage displayed an hourglass. It wasn't a very large page, so after a couple of seconds I started getting concerned. After a minute or so, I was very concerned, but I've seen FrontPage "go away" like this in the past. 

When that happened, FrontPage was always updating every document in the web to the current date and time. Very annoying, but something I could live with. This time, after several minutes, the hourglass went away and the page displayed. But it was completely blank. Hoping against hope, I switched to HTML view, but found that the page was completely empty in HTML view as well. Okay, at that point I decided that something had corrupted the page, so I closed FrontPage and went out to look at the files in the directory, using first IE and then Notepad. I was horrified to find that FrontPage (or something) had zeroed out not just that one page, but every page in the web.

Fortunately, I had a backup copy of the entire web elsewhere on the network. Unfortunately, I'd skipped my usual practice of making frequent xcopy backups as I worked, so the backup copy predated all of the changes I'd made. I checked the recycle bin on Barbara's system, where the live files reside, but the old versions weren't in there. So I ended up losing what I'd worked on for much of the day. But at least I haven't lost the web itself.

I'm sure I'll get messages asking why I continue to use a product that periodically screws me. I guess the answer is two-fold. First, FrontPage works and works well most of the time. It's the quickest and easiest way I know to get a page created and published. Every six months or so it blows up and costs me a fair amount of time and aggravation, but I continue to accept that as the price I have to pay for being able to do quick and easy updates the other five months and 30 days of that period. If I switched to another product, the learning curve would occupy more time than do the infrequent FrontPage problems. Second, I have several functioning FrontPage webs, and no desire to try to transfer those to another product. If there were an alternative product that I could simply point at my FrontPage webs and tell it to "go get them" I'd consider migrating to that product. But I know of no such product.

And I can't really blame FrontPage. It was my own fault. I know that FrontPage sometimes corrupts its own data, and I should have been doing backups every few minutes as is my normal practice. I should have saved those HTML pages as I created them to a different directory on a different server. I didn't do that for a reason that turns out to be a poor excuse. In order to backup the files, I have to close FrontPage. I had a whole bunch of files open in FrontPage and was toggling among them as I worked. Closing FrontPage would have required closing all the files first and then reopening all of them once the backup was completed. It's ironic. I routinely do frequent xcopy backups, and never have a problem. Every time I fail to do that, it seems I have a catastrophic problem

Ultimately, FrontPage is a dead-end product for me. I'll continue using FrontPage 2000, but I have no plans to upgrade to Office 10. So FrontPage 2000 is the last version I'll ever use. Unfortunately, it seems that Microsoft doesn't bother to release many bug fixes for FrontPage. Instead, they accumulate problem reports and fix some of them in the next release. A cynical person would claim that they do it that way to encourage people to upgrade. Why fix bugs for the current release when you can fix them in the next release to give people a compelling reason to upgrade? But I've had it with that.

I'll eventually migrate to Linux, and until that day I'll just continue to live with FrontPage 2000, warts and all.

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Wednesday, 13 December 2000

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We didn't get around to building Barbara's new system yesterday. I wasn't feeling very well, so we deferred working on it. I was scrounging around for components, and found I had no spare SCSI cards. I thought I had an Adaptec 2930U2 card on the shelf, but as it turned out I'd already installed that in one of the test beds. It's not being used currently, so it's easy enough to pull it, but that does involve tearing down another system. And as long as we're going to have it open, we might as well vacuum and clean it.

Barbara hit the roof last night when the networks broke in for the Supreme Court decision. Her show (the one with Sela Ward which I can never remember the name of--"Then and Now", "Now and Again", "Back and Forth", whatever) had just started, and the network news operation stomped all over it. As I said at the time, all they needed to do was a 15-second break, saying "The Supreme Court decided. Bush won on all three counts." But, no. They had to do their useless "analysis". The Supreme Court effectively ended this mess by reversing the Florida Supreme Court and ordering an end to recounts. But the three network news operations, Gore supporters all, tried to put the best face on things for Gore. Dan Rather on CBS actually tried to make it sound as though the decision was, if not a victory for Gore, at least not a serious loss. Give me a break.

All three broadcast news organizations mentioned that the 5-4 decision would cause a loss of credibility for the Supreme Court. That may be true, but if it's loss of credibility they're worried about, they should be looking at their own operations. No one I know takes the network news organizations seriously any more. They're partisan, arrogant, and completely out of touch with their audience. The morning newspaper (a liberal rag if ever there was one) reported the behavior of customers in a bar with TV sets tuned to the network reports. Everyone listened for 15 seconds, heard that Gore had lost and then proceeded to ignore the TV for the next hour as the network news weenies "analyzed" the decision to death. Get a clue, folks. No one wants your opinions or your analyses. They want the news. Period. Tell us what happened. Don't tell us what to think about it.


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Thursday, 14 December 2000

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Yesterday was disastrous. It all began when we started building Barbara's new system. Before assembling stuff, we use the Olympus digital camera to shoot photos for the book and website. A lot of those were macro shots, and I wanted to verify that the photos were sharp and properly framed before proceeding. So I took the digital camera back to my office, moved the SmartMedia card into the FlashPath adapter, and stuck that into thor, the Win98SE box that has the FlashPath driver installed. I've done that a couple of times a week for a year or more now, with never a problem.

But this time, when I double-clicked the Explorer icon, I got an hourglass for a fraction of second, then nothing. After I tried a couple other things, the system locked up solid. Okay, reboot and try again. Same thing. Explorer won't run, nor will any other program. Using Ctrl-Alt-Del to bring up the task list locks the computer solid. Well, I didn't have time to mess with it any longer, so I decided to transfer the images using kiwi, my main workstation. I used to use kiwi for transfers, but apparently the last time I rebuilt it I neglected to install the FlashPath driver.

Doing that should have been easy enough. I still had the original FlashPath for NT distribution file (I seldom throw anything away), so I ran it on kiwi. Everything appeared to proceed normally. When Setup finished, it prompted me to reboot the system. I did that, only to get a bluescreen error saying that a driver called Sd-something-or-other.sys was missing. I turned off the power and tried again. Same problem. Not Good. So I tried doing an NT repair installation. No joy. Whatever happened well and truly hosed the system. Very Not Good.

So I decided just to punt and reinstall NT. In a moment of foolishness, I decided that as long as I was doing a new installation from bare metal I might as well install Windows 2000 Professional. I used Windows 2000 Setup to blow away the contents of the primary hard drive, an 18 GB Seagate Cheetah, created an 18 GB partition for Windows 2000 and let 'er rip. Installation seemed to complete successfully. As it was finishing, I was horrified when I remembered that the reason I'd not been running Windows 2000 on this system was that I could never get the Windows 2000 drivers for the Matrox Millennium G400 to work. Oh, well, I thought, I'll just download the latest version of those drivers. Maybe they're fixed. So I did that on another machine while Setup finished running on my main system.

Setup completed normally and I rebooted the system. At that point, I was looking at Windows 2000 at 640X480 on a 19" monitor. Not a pretty sight. So I copied the new Matrox G400 drivers over from the other system and fired up Setup. It appeared to complete successfully, and forced a reboot. After logging back in, I right-clicked on the desktop, chose Properties, and started to adjust the settings. Windows 2000 recognized my Hitachi SuperScan Elite 751 monitor as a 752, but that was the only apparent problem. I chose the List all settings button, and picked 1280X1024 resolution at 85 Hz refresh with 32-bit color. Then the little dialog popped up to tell me to click OK if I wanted to keep those settings or otherwise it'd change back to the original settings in 15 seconds, 14, 13, 12, 11, 10 ....

It never got past 10. I clicked OK a couple of times in the interim, but Windows 2000 just kept counting down. At 10 it locked solid. My mouse cursor disappeared and the keyboard was dead. Okay, time for a hard reset. I did that, and the system rebooted normally into 1280X1024 mode. Temporary glitch, I thought. That turned out not to be the case. I started moving the mouse cursor across the screen to run a program, and again the cursor disappeared and the system locked up solid. At this point, I was cursing out the Matrox drivers, but as it turned out it wasn't their fault.

I finally came to my senses, realizing that I'd been foolish to try to install Windows 2000 on a PC that was known not to like it. So I decided to strip down things to bare metal and re-install NT4. As long as I was doing that, I decided to install NT4 Server to replace NT4 Workstation. It wouldn't hurt to have another system as a BDC for my network. So I changed the boot order yet again to tell the system to boot from the ATAPI CD-ROM, stuck in the Windows NT 4 Server CD, and restarted the system. 

The BIOS boot screen told me that the processor temperature was above the warning level, which I have set at 50C. I ignored that for the moment, assuming that all the Windows 2000 work had caused the poor things to heat up. The system booted normally from the NT4 Server CD and I started installing. But halfway through the hardware detection phase, the system hung up solid. 

Obviously, I have a hardware problem, but I had neither the time nor the inclination to address it. So I made an executive decision to stop using kiwi as my main system and swap in something else. That something else turned out to be thoth, a testbed system built around an Antec full-tower case, an Intel SE440BX-2V motherboard, a Pentium III/800 processor, 128 MB of Crucial PC100 SDRAM, a 20 GB Seagate Barracuda ATA II hard drive, and a Plextor 12/10/32A CD writer. It already had Windows 2000 installed on it, although little else. So I fired up the Office 2000 CD and did a kitchen-sink install from it.

And that's how I ended up running Windows 2000 on my main system, something I said I'd never do. But needs must, and thoth was the most suitable system available on short notice. One thing I noticed immediately was the reduced sound level. Kiwi has a large PC Power & Cooling power supply, many supplementary in-case fans, and an external fan that mounts over the power supply to push yet more air. All told, counting drive coolers, there are something like a dozen fans in kiwi. It also has a 10,000 RPM 18 GB Seagate Cheetah hard disk as its primary hard drive, as well as a 50 GB Seagate Barracuda as its secondary hard drive. With all the spinning metal in there, kiwi sounds like a jet taking off. Thoth, on the other hand, is so quiet that the only way I can tell it's running is to look at the LED on the PlexWriter. In fact, it's so quiet that I can hear the Seagate Barracuda ATA II hard drive seeking.

As far as performance, my rule of thumb holds true. Kiwi has dual Pentium III/550 processors and 256 MB of RAM. Thoth has one Pentium III/800 and 128 MB. Thoth "feels" a bit faster than kiwi when I'm doing only one thing (like right now, running FrontPage). But as soon as I get several windows open, the lack of the second processor becomes obvious as the foreground task begins bogging down. That's probably a combination of the single processor and only 128 MB. The next time I open the case, I'll probably add another 128 MB.

This has been a hell of a week for me. FrontPage trashes most of a day's work. One of my secondary systems dies for no apparent reason. My primary system dies a few minutes later. Barbara's new main system still isn't built. And I have yet to start my holiday shopping.

I wrote the preceding material late yesterday afternoon on thoth, my new main system. I'm writing this late last evening on my Compaq Armada E500 notebook, using the Intel 2011 Wireless link. My initial impressions of thoth are that it is a fast system, but not as fast as what I'm used to. Microsoft people talk about "eating [their] own dog food", by which they mean living with their own products. That's a good concept, and so I decided to continue using thoth as my main system, at least for a while.

As nice as dual processors and SCSI are, the simple truth is that the vast majority of systems out there have neither. If I had been in any doubt about the benefit of either, working with thoth for a short while eliminated those doubts. Here are some simple truths:

Two slower processors beats one faster one. No contest here. Kiwi has two Pentium III/550 processors. Thoth has one Pentium III/800. An 800 MHz processor is about 45% faster than a 550 MHz processor. That percentage difference is about what it takes for most people to "feel" a significant difference between systems. A difference of less than 25% or 30% is about the minimum that most people will notice unless they're using two systems side-by-side. A 45% difference is enough, for me at least, to make a system seem slightly faster. Not hugely so, but noticeably so. And that's exactly what I experienced when I started using the 800 MHz processor. 

But, and this is a big but, that's true only when comparing apples to apples--a dual-processor machine to another DP machine, or a single processor machine to another SP machine. Dual processors make a huge difference under realistic working conditions, at least under my personal realistic working conditions. I frequently have a lot of windows open, a lot of services running, and a lot of stuff going on in the background. Under those conditions, having dual processors pays off in spades. As I've noted in the past, with dual processors, the system just doesn't bog down under load. 

I think one of the biggest mistakes Intel has made is in not bringing to market a stable, inexpensive dual processor motherboard targeted at individual users. Rather than focus their marketing effort on trying to convince a relatively small number of people to buy one fast, high-margin Pentium III processor each, they should be focusing their efforts on convincing a lot of people to buy two mid-range Pentium III processors each.

(before anyone comments about memory, yes kiwi has 256 MB and thoth only 128 MB. But during the tests I always had free physical memory available, so the relative RAM sizes are not an issue, or at most a very minor one.)

A SCSI hard disk outperforms an ATA hard disk. People constantly tell me that I'm behind the times. "Yes, it's true that SCSI hard drives used to outperform ATA hard drives," they tell me, "but nowadays the new-generation IDE hard drives are so good that they match or beat SCSI performance." Wrong. 

The IDE hard drive in thoth is a 7200 RPM Seagate Barracuda ATA II. It's still a current model, although it will soon be superceded by the follow-on Barracuda ATA III. It'd be easy to argue all day about which of the current-generation IDE hard drives is best. The Barracuda, the IBM 75GXP, and the Maxtor DiamondMax Plus are all excellent drives, and I wouldn't hesitate to use any of them. Performance-wise they're all comparable. And they're all a step behind current SCSI drives. 

Readers with sharp eyes may say that I'm being unfair to IDE. After all, thoth is built on an Intel SE440BX2-V motherboard, which supports only UDMA/33. The Barracuda ATA II is a UDMA/66 drive, and the follow-on Barracuda ATA III is a UDMA/100 model. But repeated tests we've run show very little real-world difference between UDMA/33 and the faster variants. Current generation hard drives are just barely capable of saturating UDMA/33, and that only when running the fastest drives under ideal conditions.

In stepping down from a 10,000 RPM U2W SCSI drive (the Seagate Cheetah) to a 7,200 RPM ATA drive, I noticed a big difference in performance. My first thought was that Windows 2000 had chosen PIO mode rather than DMA mode (Microsoft doesn't trust DMA). I checked that and found that the system was running UDMA. Just to verify that something wasn't horribly wrong, I ran several benchmarks on the Barracuda ATA II. The results were normal, which is to say comparable with those I'd run in the past and those published on other web sites. The Barracuda II was performing exactly as expected, comparably to other 7200 RPM ATA drives.

But, boy is it slow compared to the Cheetah. The difference is noticeable in routine operations. Large programs take noticeably longer to load, and any time the system hits the disk the performance lags relative to the SCSI system.

But the real killer is performance under load. I have a canned batch file, databack.bat, which uses xcopy to copy files from theodore (Barbara's current main system and also the main network file store) down to the local drive. With the SCSI system, I'd fire off that batch file and go on doing whatever I'd been doing. The batch file ran in the background with no noticeable effect on disk operations. I recreated that batch file on thoth yesterday and ran it to copy everything down from theodore. While it was running, I fired up FreeCell from the local disk. It took forever to load--two or three times as long as normal (normal for thoth, that is). So I fired up Word. At first, I thought the system had locked up because it took so long for Word to load from the local drive. When you're running under load, the advantages of SCSI become abundantly clear.

Please don't take anything I've said to mean that I think the Intel Pentium III/800 is a bad processor or the Seagate Barracuda ATA II is a bad hard disk. That's not what I'm saying. Both are excellent products. If they weren't, I wouldn't be using them, and I certainly wouldn't be using them in my main system. But there are advantages to using dual processors and SCSI hard drives, and all the wishful thinking in the world doesn't change that. Workstations (in the original sense of high-performance scientific/engineering computers built for individual users) use multiple processors and SCSI hard drives. If a single fast processor and a high-end ATA hard drive would get the job done, you can believe that that's what they'd use.

Both of those technologies used to be out of reach for most individual users simply on the basis of cost. That's no longer the case. Fast Pentium III processors are now available for less than $200 each. Good quality dual motherboards aren't all that much more expensive than single processor motherboards of similar quality. Good SCSI adapters still aren't cheap, but you can get a decent one to support a hard drive and perhaps another peripheral or two for between $100 and $150 if you shop around. You can also pick up a Seagate Cheetah surprisingly inexpensively, particularly if you don't need huge capacity. A 4.5 GB Cheetah, for example, can be had for less than $150, and a 9 GB model for less than $250.

This morning the newspaper says that George Bush is finally admitted by everyone that matters to be the president-elect. Barbara was upset the other night when the network news department gratuitously usurped the 10:00 p.m. hour for their useless analyses of the Supreme Court decision, in the process tromping all over her Sela Ward program (Now and Later, Before and After, something like that--I can never remember the name, but Sela Ward certainly is beautiful). One of my readers posted a message on the messageboard saying that the Canadian network had had the good sense to break in for a 15-second announcement and then return to the program. I made the mistake of telling Barbara about that, which only enraged her further. Fortunately, another reader mailed her to tell her that the program would be shown later this week on Lifetime or one of those other cable networks, so she'll get to see it.

At any rate, Barbara was muttering darkly yesterday about how the networks better not tromp all over Left Wing, another of her favorite shows, which runs at 9:00 p.m. on Wednesdays. She went off yesterday afternoon to pick up her parents, who were returning from a bus tour, and have dinner with them. When she got back, I mentioned that Bush was to speak on national television. Barbara immediately assumed the worst--a 9:00 p.m. speech--but I assured her that Bush wasn't due to speak until 10:00 p.m. She was relieved until I mentioned that Gore was also scheduled to speak, presumably before Bush. That got her angry again. "Enough is enough," she cried, and I don't blame her.

So we set up the VCR to tape Left Wing, just on the chance that it'd be shown, but not really expecting anything. A few minutes before 9:00 p.m. Barbara turned on the television to NBC, which was supposed to be showing some stupid new show--Mr. Ed or something. Instead, it was showing a re-run of Left Wing, which was followed by an announcement that next week would be an "all new" episode (rather than the presumably partially-used episode previously scheduled). We watched the first 15 seconds or so of Gore's concession speech and then turned off the television.

I must say that I was disappointed by Gore's concession. I was hoping for a more traditional concession. You know, the kind where Gore would be sitting alone in a room and someone comes in and places a revolver loaded with one round on the table beside him. After what he's put the country through, that's the very least he should have done. Drenching himself in gasoline and then lighting a match would have been better, but that was perhaps too much to hope for.

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Friday, 15 December 2000

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I'm still trying to recover from all the problems that were caused by two machines failing. A lot of the problems that remain are minor ones. I click on a Zip file and find that I haven't installed WinZIP yet, or I click on an image and it comes up in a Microsoft program instead of IrfanView. Or I attempt to download the raw web log data for Pournelle's and my web sites, and find that FTP Voyager is pointed to a drive on kiwi that's no longer on-line. Or I prepare to install a program that I downloaded long ago, and then remember that it's on the 50 GB Barracuda that's still sitting in kiwi and therefore unavailable. So I have to go find the program again, perhaps register with the site (or enter my account information, which I don't remember and is of course on the Barracuda.) All sorts of minor aggravations, but nothing major at this point.

Except Outlook mail. My main personal store resides on theodore (the server), so that's no problem. But all of the configuration data is local, which means I now have a plain vanilla Outlook installation. All of my rules are gone. I found something like 50 new mail messages in my inbox this morning, so I spent half an hour or so recreating the most important rules--those that move mailing list traffic to specific folders and so on. Why oh why can't Microsoft store configuration information with the personal store, or at least as a separate configuration file that could be moved or pointed to just like the pst file? It is, as best I can determine, impossible to migrate Outlook from one machine to another without reconstructing everything one has done to customize the program.

And I have no tape drive on my personal system at this point. Outlook keeps popping up a reminder to "backup Kiwi to DDS tape Week 1", but that's not possible. I suppose I should install some kind of tape drive in thoth (my new main workstation) but thoth is all IDE. As long as we're tearing down thor (a Win98SE testbed) to steal its Adaptec 2930U2 SCSI adapter for Barbara's new system, I suppose I'll also pull the OnStream DI30 tape drive from it. That'll give me a 15/30 GB IDE tape drive to stick in thoth.

I've started referring to Kerry as the "hall leopard". Like a leopard, Kerry now waits for his prey to come to him. He'll lie patiently for hours in the hall, waiting for prey he can drop on. He's not very fast these days, but he still has a good set of fangs and a really vicious-sounding snarl. When Malcolm is bored, he sometimes teases the hall leopard. He'll lie just out of reach and then stretch forward to the point where he's literally in Kerry's face. Then Kerry lets out his vicious hall-leopard snarl and lunges at Malcolm, who withdraws in the nick of time to avoid being chomped. Here's Malcolm in position to tease the hall leopard.

hall-leopard.jpg (27428 bytes)

Originally, Malcolm only did this when Kerry had something he wanted--a toy Kerry was hogging or part of a dog treat or an ice cube that Kerry hadn't finished eating. Now, though, I swear that Malcolm does it for fun. One of these days, Malcolm will misjudge and we'll hear the loud snarling and fighting noises that signify a furball in the hall.

Well, Barbara is taking Malcolm to the vet this morning for his regular checkup and various shots, and I'd better get to work.


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Saturday, 16 December 2000

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We finally got Barbara's new system built yesterday. We named it sherlock, and it's one very fast system. It uses an Intel D815BN motherboard, a Pentium III/1.0G processor, 128 MB of Kingston PC133 SDRAM, an Adaptec 2930U2 SCSI adapter, and an 18 GB Seagate Barracuda U2W SCSI hard drive. The motherboard has embedded video, sound, and LAN adapters, which certainly makes it easy to build a system. For now, sherlock just has an IDE CD-ROM drive.

We've not yet decided on a final configuration. We may boost memory to 256 MB, depending on how the system performs under Windows 2000 with only 128 MB. Barbara's personal system will now be just that, rather than serving double duty as both client and server as her current system does. We've not installed a tape drive, which is fine with Barbara. She prefers to have her system backed up as a part of the overall network backup anyway. But I'm uncomfortable with a system that has no means of local backup, so I'll probably install an IDE Plextor PlexWriter CD burner, which will at least allow her to backup her local registry and configuration files to a CD-R or CD-RW disc.

Once we get the configuration finalized, I'll temporarily move sherlock to my office for testing and benchmarking. I definitely want to find out how the Intel 815 chipset compares to the 815E, and also how the embedded video benchmarks with and without a GPA (Graphics Performance Accelerator) installed in the AGP slot. The GPA is basically a $20 card that fits the AGP slot and contains 4 MB of additional video memory. But with competent AGP video cards available for $50 and "value" barn burners like the GeForce2/MX available for about $100, it'll be interesting to see how embedded video compares on a bang-for-the-buck basis.

I'm very pleased with the D815BN motherboard, and I hope that Intel decides to make it available in retail-boxed form. I was also pleasantly surprised by the Pentium III/1.0G processor. I expected it to run hot, but that seems not to be the case. The processor arrived bundled with a large heat sink and fan. With those installed, the heat sink is barely warm to the touch even after the system has been running for some time. We wanted to build Barbara a fast, stable system that would serve her needs for at least the next year or 18 months, and it seems that we've achieved that goal.

3dfx, one of the pioneers of modern 3D graphics accelerators, is no more. Two or three years ago, the popular 3dfx Voodoo line of 3D cards was the product to beat, but a combination of poor marketing decisions, an inability to develop new chipsets that were competitive in performance with nVIDIA products, and delays in delivering even those non-competitive products signed the death warrant for 3dfx. For the last year or more, the story of 3dfx has been much too little and much too late. This has been a simply incredible reversal of fortunes. Not all that long ago, 3dfx owned the high-performance 3D chipset market, and nVIDIA was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Now nVIDIA is overwhelmingly dominant in the high-performance 3D chipset segment, and has bought out its formerly robust competitor.

As weak as 3dfx has been lately, I still regret their departure from the market. Very few real players remain standing in that segment. Matrox has pretty much abandoned the high-performance 3D accelerator market. Their Millennium G400 series were competitive cards when they first shipped, but are no longer. The follow-on G450 is a good business card, but not one that any gamer would seriously consider using. We keep hearing rumors of the G800, but so far we have very little hard data about it. The ATI Radeon is a competent 3D card, which can give nVIDIA products a run for the money. So, in practical terms, we now have a two-horse race.

Still, I don't think there's much chance that nVIDIA will rest on its laurels. Intel's embedded video initiative has really put traditional graphics cards vendors under the gun. The simple truth is that embedded video is Good Enough for about 95% of users about 95% of the time. For a typical corporate/SOHO system, there's no need for anything better than embedded video. Even for home multimedia systems, embedded video is often sufficient. That leaves the traditional graphics cards vendors with a rapidly shrinking market comprising only people who play intensive 3D games and those who buy systems built on AMD processors. And even that market will shrink as embedded video continues to improve and integrated chipsets like the VIA KM133/266 become available for AMD-based systems. The long-term outlook for graphics cards vendors is not good.

It's rather ironic. A few years ago, there was mainstream 2D video which nearly everyone used and then there was the small niche market for high-performance 3D video. The old-line mainstream video vendors like ATI and Matrox missed the boat when the phenomenon of mainstream 3D video for gaming began to become apparent. That allowed upstarts like 3dfx and nVIDIA to establish a foothold in that market, and the efforts of ATI and Matrox to dislodge them were largely unsuccessful. 3D video moved rapidly from being a niche product to being a mainstream product, leaving ATI and Matrox wondering what happened. Now we're on the point of another cusp, when mainstream video (albeit competent embedded 3D mainstream video) will again become the overwhelming choice of consumers, returning high-performance 3D video vendors to niche status.

Once embedded video gets to the point where it provides 60 or 90 frames per second in Quake--and that day will arrive sooner than most people think--there won't be a lot of demand for standalone 3D accelerators. nVIDIA will become a niche product line or, more likely, will be selling most of their chipsets as embedded components. And that's not all bad. Building a PC around an integrated motherboard has many advantages, including lower cost, higher reliability, fewer compatibility problems, and so on.

And now I'd better get to work. I'm helping Barbara re-design her diary page for the new year. I also have web stats to run for Pournelle's and my sites, which isn't going to be easy given that the month's and year's historical data resides on the 50 GB Barracuda in kiwi, which isn't running at the moment. I need to rebuild kiwi as an NT4 domain controller (and I'll bet that my brief installation of Windows 2000 on it converted that 50 GB drive from NTFS-4 format to NTFS-5 format. ARRGGHH). So perhaps I'll temporarily pull the 50 GB Barracuda from kiwi, stick it in sherlock, and pull all the data off it. And that leaves thor, the Win98SE test bed which started acting strangely the other day. I guess year-end is a good time to be rationalizing the systems around here, but I'm feeling like the proverbial one-armed paper hanger.

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Sunday, 17 December 2000

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Brian Bilbrey mails me to say that he wasn't familiar with the phrase "busier than a one-armed paper hanger." His boss used it a couple of days ago, and had to explain it to him. Then I used it yesterday, so Brian thinks it's all a communist plot. His confusion was more understandable, though, once he told me that they don't have wallpaper in California.

I'm feeling entirely whacked. I have a bad cold. I didn't get much done yesterday, because I'd gotten only about four hours' sleep the night before. Lack of sleep combined with feeling rotten from a cold just made it hard to get much done. Then Barbara pointed out that we had a flood in the basement. She was doing a load of laundry, and the washer leaked. Well, it's the same age as our old dryer, so I thought perhaps we'd made a mistake in not replacing both at the same time. But, just to make sure, I told her to go ahead and run the second load, but this time to watch what happened. As it turned out, the washer wasn't leaking at all. It was working normally, but when it pumped out the used water, the standpipe into which it pumps the water overflowed.

The standpipe is at one end of a four-foot long construct of PVC, which enters the main drain at the other end. We've had problems with it before. My mother's area downstairs is below grade, and so requires an ejector pump to pump out waste water from the basement bathroom and kitchen. That pump accumulates waste in a holding tank. When the float reaches a certain level, the pump turns on and pumps the contents of the tank up and over to the main drain. That pipe terminates at the main drain, very near to where the washer standpipe enters. Apparently, the ejector pump pushes water through the pipe so fast that the main drain can't accept it, and that waste water was backing up through the standpipe and all over the washer, dryer, and basement floor. 

So we had our plumber come out and install a check valve to prevent backflow. Apparently, that check valve has become clogged. I tried yesterday to run a sink snake through the pipe, but there are too many s-bends to get it through. So I came up with a cunning plan. I figured that we needed some pressure. The water being pumped from the washer, you see, is not under any pressure when it reaches the standpipe. I figured that if we could put some water under pressure through that pipe it might eject the clog. So Barbara connected the garden hose outdoors and we dragged the business end of the hose into the basement. I held the hose inside the standpipe and wrapped a rag around the top to seal it. When I told Barbara to let 'er rip, the water flowed properly through the standpipe and check valve. But when I eased off the pressure on the rag even a bit, the water started fountaining out of the standpipe again. Curses. Another cunning plan foiled.

So I called the plumber and explained the situation. He agreed that the check valve was the likely culprit. He also mentioned that nearly all check valves have provision for access to clean out clogs. I told him that I was almost certain this one didn't, but that I'd check again and call him back if it did. Otherwise, he's to show up here Monday morning. And I have a pointed question to put to him: "Why, if nearly all check valves make provision for cleaning, would you have installed one that doesn't?"

This is starting to get embarrassing. Last night, meepmeep locked up again, requiring a hard reset. And then it did it again less than ten minutes later. So here I am, a writer of books about PC hardware, with a bunch of PCs that are misbehaving. Barbara's current main system is doing some weird things, but those problems are almost certainly due to the well-known phenomenon of Windows-rot. So we start building a new main system for her. While we're doing that, thor (the Win98SE machine that lives under my desk) starts behaving very oddly, refusing to run programs. Again, that sounds more like Windows-rot than a hardware problem, but even so. Then kiwi, my own main system, crashes, and that almost certainly is the result of a hardware problem, probably from overheating. Then meepmeep starts crashing, and that once again is almost certainly a hardware problem, probably a bad power supply. But then meepmeep is built on a no-name Pacific Rim case and power supply, so I can't say I'm surprised.

So here's what I'm going to do:

  • Turn kiwi into a Windows NT 4 Server machine. Strip down kiwi, removing the 18 GB Seagate Cheetah 10,000 RPM SCSI drive, the Plextor 8-2-20 SCSI CD writer, the Plextor UltraPlex 40X SCSI CD-ROM drive, and the Hitachi ATAPI DVD-ROM drive. Also remove 128 MB of the 256 MB currently installed. Leave the 50 GB Seagate Barracuda 7,200 RPM SCSI drive and the Tecmar 3900 DDS-3 tape drive installed. Install an ATAPI CD-ROM drive. Dual Pentium III/550 processors, the Adaptec 2940U2W SCSI host adapter, and the Matrox Millennium G400 video card are all overkill for this system, but it's easiest to leave them where they are, so I will. Install Windows NT Server 4.0 and SP6a. If it turns out that my abortive attempt to install Windows 2000 Professional on this system in fact converted the filesystem on the 50 GB Barracuda from NTFS-4 to NTFS-5, I'll temporarily move the Barracuda to Barbara's new Windows 2000 system long enough to get all the data on that drive moved over to another network drive before I reformat it for NTFS-4. Once kiwi is configured as an NT4S BDC, we'll connect it to the network and promote it to PDC, taking over for theodore, Barbara's current main system.
  • Finish configuring sherlock (Barbara's new machine). Install the Plextor PlexWriter 8-2-20 CD writer and the Plextor UltraPlex Wide 40X CD-ROM drive in sherlock. The Adaptec 2930U2 SCSI adapter in that machine can handle these two optical drives as well as the 18 GB Seagate Barracuda LVD hard drive without any problems. Install Windows 2000 Professional.
  • Refurbish and rebuild theodore as the Internet gateway machine. Theodore already has Windows NT 4 Server installed, and will be demoted to a BDC once we bring up kiwi as the PDC. Then all I need to do is transfer over the cable-modem Ethernet card from meepmeep, install WinGate, and configure everything. Come to think of it, I'd better check and record the current configurations of everything--hardware and software--before meepmeep finally dies. A Pentium III/450 and 128 MB seems overkill for the Internet gateway machine, but that's the easiest way to handle things without an insane amount of juggling. I considered just buying one of the inexpensive cable-modem routers like the LinkSys BEFSR11 EtherFast 1-Port Cable/DSL Router, which Onvia is selling for $90 after a $10 rebate. But I didn't want to get into the mess that's likely to result if Time-Warner "married" the MAC address of the current Ethernet card to the cable modem, as I suspect they did. Also, there are a surprising number of times when it's necessary to use the machine that is directly connected to the Internet rather than a system that connects through the proxy. I can't ping or do a traceroute except from the directly-connected machine, for example, and the program I run to do DNS lookups for web statistics won't operate through a proxy. So it makes sense to have a fairly competent system as the Internet gateway. 

Barbara is cleaning house as I write this. Ordinarily, I'd be doing laundry, but that's not possible unless I want to flood the basement with each load. We're going to just stay in today and try to recover. Barbara has had a sinus infection which is still nagging her. We won't be going out much today. Our weather is really strange. Yesterday, rain and temperatures approaching 50F (10C). Last night, a thunderstorm. This morning, it's supposed to snow. And later today we're expecting a rapid drop in temperature, high winds, and a wind chill of 10F (-12C) or thereabouts. Not a good day to be outside.

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