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Week of 21 April 2003

Latest Update : Sunday, 27 April 2003 09:09 -0400

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Monday, 21 April 2003

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7:53 - We're in the closing stages of completing the book now. I worked until about 10:00 p.m. last night incorporating changes submitted to me by my editor and technical reviewer. Production on the book starts this morning, and they have the Preface and Chapters 1 through 22 inclusive to get started on. Production involves first copy editing, in which people I call "English Majors" read through the manuscript in detail, fixing any broken English. After that's complete, the manuscript goes to the layout and design folks, who flow the raw manuscript into FrameMaker and apply tags to give the text the familiar Nutshell appearance, add graphics, and so on. Once all that is complete, they'll send me PDF versions of the final chapters. At that point, I can still make small changes, but nothing that affects page breaks (and particularly chapter breaks). Once I've had a chance to proof the final PDFs, the book goes to the printer.

I'm working on Chapter 28, Building a PC, today. Brian Jepson (my editor) and Francisco García Maceda (my tech reviewer) already have my first drafts of Chapters 23 through 27 inclusive. What they don't have is a first draft of Chapter 28, so that has to take priority. The entire book has to be to the production folks by Wednesday, so I have to get Chapter 28 finished early enough to give them some time to review it, and then for me to incorporate their suggestions.

For the next several days, I'll be covered up. Once we get everything finalized and off to production, things slow down a bit. I'll still be fielding queries from the copy editors and production folks right up until the book goes to the printer, but things will be a lot less stressed. I'll probably take a day or so off to relax.

Here's something very disturbing, if true. The author of the article believes that the Opera browser is doing underhanded things. He doesn't present a smoking gun, but what he says is definitely cause for concern. [It turns out not to be true. See this article, in which The Inquirer retracts the story.]

14:23 - Intel has begun shipping the 800 MHz FSB Pentium 4/3.0G again. I just got this from my contact at Intel.

I wanted to let you know that Intel has resumed volume shipments of the 3 GHz Pentium 4 processor with an 800MHz system bus. Intel has provided a software update to its customers that will prevent the anomaly we discussed last week. The anomaly was an issue only seen in a lab environment on a small number of units under stress testing. An end user probably would not see this anomaly in normal everyday use. Regardless, given our commitment to quality, Intel has provided a software update to its customers that will prevent this anomaly from occurring.

The Pentium 4 processor at 3.00 GHz with an 800MHz system bus and the 875P chipset provide an extremely high performance and feature rich combination for desktop PCs and workstations.

Please let me know if you have questions.



Tuesday, 22 April 2003

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7:32 - AMD introduces the Opteron today. I am reminded of one of those old movies where a bunch of guys are sitting around a table playing poker. It's make or break time for one guy, so he shovels all his chips into the pot, tosses in his gold watch, and finally takes off his boot and shakes out his lucky $20 gold piece. All of it goes into the pot. That's the position AMD is in with the Opteron. If they win, they win big. But if they lose, they lose everything.

AMD is literally betting the company on Opteron. They have been hemorrhaging cash for the last couple of years, and the piggy bank is just about empty. AMD needs Opteron to succeed massively, or there won't be an AMD much longer, at least not as an independent company. Opteron is late, very late, and the question is whether it's too late. Opteron should have shipped not long after the original Pentium 4. If that had happened, AMD would have been competing for the last 18 months with a seventh-generation processor against Intel's seventh-generation Pentium 4. Instead, AMD has been forced to position their aging sixth-generation Athlon against the Pentium 4. To nobody's surprise, the Pentium 4 has been winning.

The miracle is that AMD has been able to push their old-technology Athlon core as far as they have. Intel has been content to rest on their laurels. They haven't introduced a faster Pentium 4 since last year. They haven't needed to, because AMD's fastest Athlon is slower than the 3.0 GHz Pentium 4. What must terrify AMD is that Intel may well be able to crank up the performance of the Pentium 4 any time they please. At 3.0 GHz, the Northwood core Pentium 4 is not running at anything near its maximum potential, and Intel has Prescott waiting in the wings.

The early reports on the Opteron are not great. One site did some pretty comprehensive benchmarks on an engineering sample Opteron that was running at only 1.6 GHz. Rumor has it that cranking up the clock speed of the Opteron has been giving AMD fits. The benchmark tests I saw on the Opteron had it performing about the same as a Pentium 4/2.8G, which isn't going to cut it. As the site points out, this is an engineering sample running on a pre-production chipset and using only 32-bit software, so perhaps the true potential performance of the Opteron remains hidden. AMD supporters can only hope so. If 1.6 GHz or even 1.8 GHz is the best AMD can do with the initial Opteron shipments, they may find that Intel turns around and trumps their ace with a much faster Pentium 4. Sure, the Pentium 4 may run only 32-bit software, but that's what matters right now.

I am not optimistic about the future of the Opteron in particular and AMD in general. I hope I'm wrong. I like having AMD as a competitive lever against Intel. But those who want AMD to succeed had better hope that these early reports are wrong. If they're right, AMD is headed for the toilet.

9:28 - I've been reading the Opteron reviews, which are mixed. Running 64-bit Linux, the Opteron does well against the Xeon. Running 32-bit Windows XP, the Opteron basically gets stomped by the Xeon, and even by the Pentium 4/2.8 in most benchmarks. That doesn't bode well for the expected September launch of the Athlon 64, unless AMD can ramp clock speeds up dramatically between now and then. Yields are also apparently quite low--Tom's Hardware estimates 30%--and that's on 200mm wafers versus Intel's much higher yields on 300mm wafers. The upshot of that is that AMD may not be able to produce their new processor in volume at a reasonable cost. I don't know enough of the dynamics of the situation to say for sure, but I'd guess AMD isn't very happy with the situation and Intel is relieved. I could be wrong. I certainly have been before. But the way it looks to me right now, the question is whether the Opteron launch is merely very bad news for AMD or a complete disaster. We'll know in the next few months.



Wednesday, 23 April 2003

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8:40 - The book is finished and off to production, where they'll massage it, edit my English, lay it out, run final proofs for my approval, and then send it to the printers. How long until it gets to the bookstores? Your guess is as good as mine. For the second edition, I reached 100% completion in February and the book hit the stores at the end of June or early July. Of course, I was making final changes to the produced version as late as late May. I'm hoping this one will go a bit faster. If everything goes right, it could be in the bookstores in July. And I fully expect to be making final corrections/changes/adds until 30 days or so before the book hits the stores.

I want to thank my O'Reilly editors, Robert Denn and Brian Jepson, for the many helpful suggestions and corrections they made. I also want to thank my technical reviewer, Francisco García Maceda, for all of the work he did in catching and correcting mistakes and suggesting changes. In particular, Brian and Francisco did yeoman work over the last couple of weeks, including over the holiday weekend, to get the book ready to go to production. Without their hard work, I'd have missed this production slot, and the book might have been delayed significantly.

I think you'll find the third edition worth reading. The page count will probably grow a bit, although not as dramatically as the jump between the first and second editions. Some of the material is largely unchanged, but much of it was entirely re-written. As always, it's a struggle to write timely material, but I think we've done a pretty good job of bringing the book up to date. As soon as the new edition becomes available for pre-orders, I'll let everyone know here.

My next priority, of course, is to line up a new project. Back during the boom years, I never had to worry about cash flow. If I needed money, I could always pitch another book, on-line tutorial, whitepaper, or whatever. Things are tougher now. Publishers are very cautious about signing new projects in this poor economy, and the high-tech sector has been particularly badly impacted. I need to decide whether I want to do another computer book, ever, versus shifting my attentions to some other endeavor. My agent suggested a project at the end of last year that Tim O'Reilly seemed to be excited about. I told them at the time that I needed to get this new edition of PC Hardware in a Nutshell done first, so that project may or may not still be viable. I also have a couple of other ideas on the back burner. We'll see what comes of them.

I also have systems to build, web sites to update, and so on. But before I jump into all of this, I think I'll take a day or so off.



Thursday, 24 April 2003

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11:49 - Barbara and I heard from our friends Brian and Marcia Bilbrey last night that their dog Sally had had a stroke. Until that moment, I didn't realize that dogs could have strokes, although I suppose it makes sense that they can. As mammals, they're subject to most of the same conditions that people are. Our Kerry, who is 15 years old (about 100 in people years), is now almost completely deaf, going blind, and has severe arthritis and heart problems. Amazingly enough, Kerry still enjoys life. He loves to go for walks and sniff around to see who's been there (his sniffer still works, thank goodness). He does his best to play ball and otherwise participate in dog activities around the house, and is always waiting at his food bowl when dinner time rolls around.

Sally isn't as old as Kerry, but she's definitely an older dog. She's very laid-back. When the Bilbreys visited us, Brian and I took Sally over to the nursing home to visit my mother. Brian put Sally up on my mother's bed, and Sally just lay there reveling in the attention. So did my mother, who doesn't often have a chance to pet a dog nowadays. If we tried putting one of our dogs up on the bed, I don't even want to think about what might happen. Malcolm hurts me sometimes. He has a nasty habit of coming up in my lap and then, when he decides to jump down, putting both of his rear paws in my crotch and pushing off. Duncan is a bit more polite, but he is a 70-pound dog, so we haven't tried putting him up on the bed with mom.

Like Kerry, Sally still enjoys participating. I'm sure the stroke will affect her, but from what Brian says the vet is reasonably optimistic about her chances for recovery. We're all keeping our fingers crossed.

I'm cleaning up and archiving stuff this morning. When I'm writing, I accumulate an incredible amount of data. Much of that is a result of my pack-rat habits. For example, I frequently save dated versions of chapters if I'm making significant edits. Some chapters are quite large--the largest currently is 15 MB, but 3 and 4 MB chapters are common--so that adds up quickly. When I see a web page that looks useful, I save a copy of it to the relevant chapter folder. Same thing with PDFs of component manuals, standards documents, Intel Specification Updates, etc. etc. Alas, my pack-rat habits aren't matched by my organization skills, so I frequently end up with multiple copies of large files in several locations. By the time I'm through with a book, I might have literally thousands of files occupying gigabytes of disk space.

That's okay if they're in an archive folder, but while I'm working on the book they're in my main working data folders. I frequently do quick xcopy backups during my work day, and as the size and number of files increases, so does the time needed to do a "quick" xcopy backup. So, now that the third edition of PC Hardware in a Nutshell is in its final stages, I'm starting to clear the decks for the next project, whatever that might be.

Being a belt-and-suspenders kind of guy (at least when it comes to protecting data), I'll write my archives to multiple media. DVD+R is a good starting point, but I'll also write to CD-R. That's a pain in the butt because it'll require many CDs, but it's worth it for redundancy. I'm paranoid when it comes to being able to retrieve older data, although I seldom need to. I mean, if I had my archive only on DVD+R, what would happen if I desperately needed to retrieve some old data and every DVD drive in the house failed simultaneously? Not likely, but It could happen. Those bastards at the RIAA and MPAA might have sneaked a backdoor timebomb into the firmware of every DVD drive ever made. On, say, 15 November 2003, those drives could be set to self-destruct. Yeah, I know. But I told you I'm paranoid when it comes to protecting data.

So I'll back up to DVD+R, CD-R, and DDS tape. I'll also keep the data on hard disk, because that's the easiest way to guarantee it'll be accessible when I need it. Hard drives have higher unrecoverable bit error rates than the best backup/archive media, but hard drives have the inestimable advantage of allowing data to be migrated automatically and seamlessly to new media. I still have files on my hard drive that originated back in the days when the IBM XT was a fast machine. Each time I upgrade to a new system or new mass storage, my old data comes along automatically. Ten years from now, my hard drives (or whatever has replaced them by then) will have the data on them that I'm working with today. If a particular elderly file ends up being corrupted, that's okay, because I almost certainly have another copy of it on another hard drive. We now have more than a terabyte of hard disk spinning in our home, which means there's lots and lots of available disk space to replicate stuff for redundancy.

Speaking of accumulating data, after using Mozilla for many months I've found that it lacks two features that I really wish it had. First, it doesn't do a very good job of cutting and pasting tables. With Internet Explorer, I can find a web site that has a table full of useful information, highlight that table within IE, copy it and paste it into Word. The table is pasted as a table. With Mozilla, I can copy the table, but all that ends up being pasted into Word is the raw, unformatted data. Not very useful.

The second thing I really miss is IE's Save-As-MHT feature. When I'm looking at a web page, I often would like to save a local copy of that page. IE allows me to do that. It stores all of the HTML text and figures in a single compressed file. Mozilla doesn't allow that. It's a feature they should add. They also need to add off-line browsing support like that provided by IE--"Go get all these linked pages and store a local copy". Ideally, Mozilla should combine the two features, and should allow interactive selection of which linked pages are to be downloaded, compressed, and archived. There should be a "create new archive" button, which I could toggle on, then visit the pages I wanted added to that archive and click another "Add to archive" button. When I'd finished selecting pages, I should have a "Build archive" button that allowed me with one click to tell Mozilla to go get those pages and images and assemble them into a single archive file. When I open that archive file with Mozilla, I should have the option to have Mozilla automatically check the on-line version of the pages in the archive against the archived versions, and update the stored versions if I indicated that I wanted that done. Mozilla should then offer me the opportunity to save the updated archive under the same name or a new name.

I've been reading more and more articles about so-called "piracy" or "theft" of music, movies, and so on. One of things that really annoys me is that the RIAA and MPAA have nearly succeeded in re-defining some emotionally-laden words that do not apply to what they are complaining about.

Take "theft" for example, or "stealing". Both of those words denote actions that deprive an owner of his property. If you come to my house and steal my car, that is theft. It is theft because you have my car and I don't. By definition, if you "steal" something from me, I no longer have it in my possession. If you come to my house and steal a copy of my book, that is theft. On the other hand, if you download a copy of my book from the Internet, you haven't stolen anything. You have infringed my copyright, which is also illegal, but is in no sense "theft." You now have a copy of my book that you haven't paid for, certainly, but you didn't "steal" it from me. You infringed my copyright, which is an entirely different matter.

Then there's "piracy", which the RIAA and MPAA have entirely re-defined. The original definition was "robbery with violence on the high seas", or something closely resembling such an act. Piracy occurs today. In many parts of the world, owners of sea-going vessels must arm themselves for protection against modern-day pirates. In olden days, pirates swarmed aboard with cutlasses. Nowadays, they're more likely to be carrying Uzis. But the result is the same. The pirates slaughter the owners and crew of the vessel, toss them overboard, and make off with the cargo and/or the vessel, which is often destined for drug-running. Piracy is a violent crime, encompassing armed robbery and murder. Knocking off a copy of a CD or DVD for a friend, or even knocking off a million copies and offering them for sale, is not piracy in any sense.

What disturbs me is that the MPAA and RIAA have just about succeeded in redefining these words. Even articles that argue against the MPAA and RIAA casually use such terms as "theft" and "piracy" to refer to simple, non-violent copyright infringement. It's pretty clear why the RIAA and MPAA have made such efforts to re-define these words. Anyone other than thieves and pirates is against theft and piracy, and nearly all of us instinctively accept that such actions are wrong. But no one other than the MPAA, RIAA, and some artists and writers regards copyright infringement as something to get excited about. We instinctively understand the concept of Fair Use, and most of us act accordingly.

As an author, I don't worry much about my material being posted on the web. Sure, some people will download it and I won't make any money from them. But they probably wouldn't have bought the book anyway. Most authors I know feel the same way, or would if they thought it through. Most would be upset at commercial copyright infringement, and that's understandable. But casual copying is something that artists, musicians, and authors have resigned themselves to. Is there anyone among us, including authors and other creators, who hasn't knocked off a copy of a CD for a friend (or accepted a copied CD from a friend), or copied a program disk or a chapter from a copyrighted book? I doubt it. Does that mean we're all thieves or pirates or even copyright infringers? Of course not. It means we all instinctively understand the concept of Fair Use. The MPAA and RIAA hate that, but they'd better get used to it. History shows that laws that attempt to restrict behavior that is considered normal by a large percentage of the population are doomed to fail. People obey their own "free-market morals". That's why driving 55 in a 55 zone is likely to get you rear-ended. And that's why the MPAA and RIAA will ultimately fail in their efforts to convince us all that we're thieves and pirates.



Friday, 25 April 2003

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10:20 - Barbara met my mother at the doctor's office yesterday afternoon. Mom wanted a second opinion on her legs. What she was hoping to hear, of course, was that her legs were just fine and that she could come home to stay with Barbara and me. What the doctor told her was that she could sit in her lift chair and her wheelchair, but she could never again put any weight on her legs.

She seemed to take it pretty well yesterday, but when I was over this morning she started talking about coming home and getting home health care aides to come in and care for her. I explained to her yet again that she required 24-hour care, but I can't make her understand that. She thinks because at the nursing home there's not someone standing right next to her 24 hours a day that means that she doesn't need 24-hour care. I told her bluntly that she's not going to be able to come home to live, ever. She started crying, and talking about how she'd have to find somewhere else to live, and how it was a matter of Barbara and me not wanting to have her at home.

There's some truth in that remark, of course. Barbara and I don't want to become caregivers 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, which is what would have to happen. It was difficult enough when mom was able to get from her lift chair to her potty chair by herself. It would be impossible now that she can't. Ultimately, the truth is that Barbara's and my wishes are immaterial. Even if we were willing to do take care of mom at home, we simply can't handle it. For example, mom is upset that the aides come into her room every two hours all night to clean her and turn her, but that's necessary to prevent skin breakdown. I didn't bother to mention to mom that there's no way Barbara and I could do that every two hours twenty-four hours a day, because mom would simply have said that we could leave her undisturbed all night every night. I simply told her that we couldn't take care of her at home, and that she might as well forget about it because there is nothing she or we can do to change that.

Before I left, I spoke to Tammy, the charge nurse, to let her know what was going on. She wasn't surprised. She's seen the same thing happen many times, as old people have their last hopes dashed. It's terrible. I wish I could make it better, but I can't.



Saturday, 26 April 2003

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9:11 - Many years ago, I read a book entitled Why Johnny Can't Read. Apparently, Johnny can't write, either. I just finished reading a CNN article that describes the inability of average high school students to write competently. According to that article, 80% of students have mastered writing basics in grades four, eight, and twelve, but only a quarter are deemed "proficient" and only 1% "advanced." Of course, it's possible to set the goal posts arbitrarily, so I suspect that by any reasonable definition the truth is that perhaps 25% have basic writing skills, 1% are truly "proficient", and some miniscule fraction are really "advanced."

I do know that good writing skills are becoming less common every year. I get a lot of email, and I can frequently judge the approximate ages of my correspondents by their writing skills. Civility aside (although that, too, is declining each year), if I get a message that begins, "Are you stupid?", I suspect that it comes from an older reader. On the other hand, a message that begins, "R U stoopid" is almost certainly from a product of our modern, degraded educational system. That's not universally true, of course. I receive marginally literate emails from people who are obviously of my generation, just as I receive well-written emails from younger readers. But the trend is clear.

I suppose that as a writer I might thank our current education system for failing to produce potential competitors. Alas, modern schools teach reading as poorly as they teach writing, so one must wonder whether the schools are producing any significant number of new readers. If this continues, it may eventually come down to the last, lonely author writing material that only a tiny group of people can read.

Most of you who read this page probably cannot conceive of the true divide in this country between readers and non-readers. Although it is indisputably true, most literate people probably have a hard time believing that a significant fraction of the American population has never read an entire book. Not one. These people are born, live, and die without ever reading anything substantial. Some are technically literate, in the sense that they are capable of reading, but they choose not to read. Many of those who do not read are denizens of the inner city, of course, but many are not. I have visited middle-class homes in which both spouses are professionals with college degrees (and sometimes graduate degrees), and found that literally the only reading material in the house was a copy of Sports Illustrated or TV Guide lying on the coffee table. Having the ability to read is meaningless if one doesn't read.

The decline in reading and literacy can almost certainly be attributed almost solely to television and movies. Before television and movies existed, nearly everyone read, even the poorest and least educated. If I could wave a magic wand, I'd wipe out television and movies. The world would be a far better place without them.



Sunday, 27 April 2003

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 9:09 - This is starting to get annoying. I got this message Friday from PayPal.

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Important Information About Your PayPal Account
Date: Fri, 25 Apr 2003 07:31:59 -0700
From: service@paypal.com
To: pay at ttgnet dot com

Dear Robert Thompson,

You have not yet read and agreed to the new version of PayPal's User Agreement.

You have 112 days left to agree to the PayPal User Agreement. If you choose not to agree to the PayPal User Agreement within 112 days, your PayPal account access will be limited, and you will no longer be able to send or receive money.


It's annoying for two reasons. First, because I don't have time to compare the old and new agreements to find out how they're planning to screw me. The body of the message goes on to explain the reasons for the changes to the agreement. To my surprise, all of the reasons they list are for my Own Good. For example, PayPay says, "We decided to update our arbitration clause in order to clarify your dispute resolution alternatives." I guess "clarifying" is a Good Thing, although it wouldn't surprise me to find that the new verbiage shifts those "dispute resolution alternatives" in PayPal's favor. I've often wished there were a web site that did comparisons on newer versions of shrink-wrap and click-wrap agreements and pointed out where the landmines were.

Even more annoying is that PayPal apparently intends to send this message every day from now until I either agree to the changes or the deadline passes. I got a second copy of this message yesterday. Apparently, PayPal's math isn't too good, because that message also told me I had 112 days left. Then I got another this morning, but this one says I have only 111 days left.

I'm off to do laundry, visit my mother, back up my data, and complete my other normal Sunday morning tasks. There's also an Antec SX-1030 case sitting on the kitchen table that Barbara just vacuumed out. It has what appears to be an Intel 815-series motherboard and Pentium III processor in it. I'm going to pull the motherboard to make way for a Pentium 4 motherboard. There's an original 300W Antec power supply in there. I'm not sure if I'll use it or not. It's not an ATX12V unit, but I do have a PC Power & Cooling adapter that plugs into a drive power cable and has an ATX12V connector on the other end.

I may give it a shot with that power supply, because the system I'm building isn't all that power hungry. A Pentium 4/2.53G processor on an 845GE motherboard (with embedded video), 512 MB of Crucial PC2700 memory, a Seagate Barracuda ATA V hard drive, and a Plextor DVD-ROM/CD-RW drive doesn't put that much load on the power supply. If the 300W power supply isn't sufficient, I'll drop in a 400W+ PC Power & Cooling unit.



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