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Week of 14 August 2006

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Monday, 14 August 2006
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08:15 -One week left until the to-production deadline on the new book. Today, I'm making a second pass through the chapters, incorporating comments from our technical reviewers. That'll probably take a couple of days, which leaves the rest of the week for any final cleanup, rewriting the Preface, and so on. So I won't be posting much here until I'm finished with the book.

Our friends Mary and Paul came over for pizza last night. We spent the evening out on the deck. The weather was pleasant, and we enjoyed just sitting around relaxing and talking. Except, of course, when a branch plummeted 25 feet or so from the large tree that overhangs the deck. We had the deck chairs arranged in a conversation circle, and the branch fell right in the middle of it, fortunately missing everyone. It was large enough that it could have done some real damage if it had hit one of us.

Things are never boring around here. We invite friends over for dinner and our tree tries to assassinate them.

I had to burn a bunch of data to DVDs on Saturday, so I decided to see what difference recording speed made to disc quality. I used Verbatim 16X DVD+R (MCC004) discs for all tests. The discs were burned on my primary desktop system, running Linux and K3b, with a Plextor PX-740A burner. They were scanned on another system with Plextools V2.32a in a Plextor PX-716A burner. The data sets were not identical, but close enough to get a reasonably good idea of burn quality. All of the data sets were about 4 GB, and so nearly filled a DVD+R disc.

Writing the 16X discs at 16X, I got excellent burn quality, as shown in the first graph. (Note that these are scaled to 100 maximum errors, rather than the 500 that I used a month or two ago when I was testing some inferior discs.) The burn quality declines slightly toward the end of the burn, but this is still an excellent disc. The parentheses at the end of the graph label enclose the average/maximum/total PI Errors.

Verbatim 16X DVD+R (MCC004) disc written at 16X (PIE 1.53/22/27,294)

It's often said that for best burn quality you should burn at less than the maximum rated speed of the discs. The next graph shows the results of scanning a 16X disc written at 12X. The burn quality this time is superb, very close to perfect. There are a third as many PI Errors in the 12X burn as in the 16X burn. (Even 27,294 PIEs is a great burn, but a third of that is better still.)

Verbatim 16X DVD+R (MCC004) disc written at 12X (PIE 0.54/8/9,070)

Dropping the burn speed to 8X shows a very small improvement in burn quality. (There are only 8240 PIEs versus 9070, but the 8X burn was only 3.9 GB versus 4.2 GB for the 12X burn, so PIEs aren't directly comparable.) For all intents and purposes, these discs are nearly equal in burn quality, so it seems pointless to burn at 8X rather than 12X.

Verbatim 16X DVD+R (MCC004) disc written at 8X (PIE 0.52/8/8,240)

The 8X burn was the best so far, so I decided to try a 4X burn. The next graph shows the results of scanning the disc burned at 4X. This is actually a pretty good scan, a lot better than you'd ever get with most disc brands, but the first GB still looks pretty ugly. PIEs peak at 59 Max, which is only 21% of the 280 Max generally considered acceptable, but this disc was bad enough that I discarded it and reburned the data at 12X.

Verbatim 16X DVD+R (MCC004) disc written at 4X (PIE 4.32/59/73,892)

Just for giggles, I decided to try burning a 16X disc at 2.4X, which is the slowest speed supported by the Plextor PX-740A burner. The results of the scan, shown in the next graph, are truly hideous. There aren't any POEs or POFs, which means the disc may be readable, but, at more than 9 million, the number of PIEs is about three orders of magnitude greater than we consider desirable. Even expanding the scale from 100 to 500 isn't enough to show all of the PIEs on a disc burned at 2.4X.

Verbatim 16X DVD+R (MCC004) disc written at 2.4X (PIE 517.7/763/9,227,442)

The moral is, don't assume that a slower burn speed is always better. Test with your own drive and your own discs.


Tuesday, 15 August 2006
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09:44 - The updated chapters of Building the Perfect PC/2E are now posted on the subscribers' page. These versions incorporate comments made by our technical reviewers, Brian Bilbrey, Jim Cooley, and Ron Morse. Except for one chapter, they don't yet incorporate comments by our editor at O'Reilly, Brian Jepson. We still have to update the Preface, but other than that it's ready to go to production once we get Brian Jepson's comments incorporated.

During free moments this week, I'll be working on a draft proposal for a new book project, which I hope may actually turn out to be a series of books, one that would keep us occupied for the next several years, if not indefinitely. (And, no, it's not Astrology Hacks or Intelligent Design in a Nutshell, both of which some people have suggested. You know who you are...)

Understandably, Barbara is loathe to go near the yellow jacket nest in our back yard. After Mary and Paul left Sunday evening, I went down and sprayed most of a can of Hotshot on the small hole under the edge of the landscape timber where the yellow jackets had built their nest.

I was shocked when I went out early yesterday morning to examine the area. The hole was much, much larger than it had been, and there were fragments of honeycomb scattered around the area, some as much as a meter away from the hole. I saw only one yellow jacket flying around in the vincinity of the nest. I kept checking back throughout the morning, and never saw another yellow jacket. In late morning, I took out the can of Hotshot and sprayed the remaining third or so that was left directly down into the hole and onto the nest, which was visible in the enlarged hole. I also sprayed a bit on the fragments of honeycomb lying around the hole.

As far as I can tell, the nest is dead, but I'm not taking any chance. Today, I may accidentally spill a liter of gasoline down the hole.

Meanwhile, the dogs aren't having much outside time. I didn't want to take them down into the backyard, just in case the yellow jackets were still around. And I can't take them for a walk on the street because it's being repaved and I don't want to risk the dogs getting tar on their paws. They city crew had scarified the street about ten days ago, and yesterday the paver finally showed up. They laid down and rolled a layer of what looks like tarmacadam, gravel bound with a little tar. (There's little enough tar that a vehicle driving down the street raises a large cloud of dust.) But that layer is only in the center of the street, and doesn't come all the way to the edges. They're out there now preparing to put down a finish layer, or so I assume.

When I was in college, I worked summers for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. We did a fair amount of paving, and I don't remember doing anything like what they're doing on our street. We used to scarify the old pavement and then put down one 2" to 4" layer of hotmix and roll it. We used tar-and-chip, but only on the shoulders, not on the roadway proper. I don't know if what they're doing now is an improved method or just a cheaper method. The latter, I suspect, given the price of oil.


Wednesday, 16 August 2006
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09:40 - I was right about the paving. I spoke to the guy running the roller. They indeed put down only a 1" skim coat of hotmix atop the base they'd laid previously. With the price of oil, I suspect the city can't afford to repave using a full thickness of hotmix, so they're depending on a thin top coat to seal the underlayment. Of course, that means the new surface will degrade faster and they'll probably end up having to repave in ten years or so.

I'm out of things to do on the new edition of Building the Perfect PC until I get back the final pass from my editor. I'm doing fill-in and catch-up stuff today, working on administrative stuff I deferred, getting a proposal for a new book roughed out, and so on. I also need to do some physical cleanup. The kitchen and dining room are packed with PCs and components that I need to get organized and moved out.

Most of the new systems are actually in pieces, which may seem odd, but is just an artifact of writing the book and shooting (and re-shooting) images. The Gaming system, for example, is missing its video adapter, which I grabbed to install in my main office system when its video card started acting up. That system (an Athlon 64 X2 4200+ in an Antec P150 case) is destined to be Barbara's new main office system, once I have time to get it rebuilt, get Xandros 4 installed on it, and get her data migrated over from her old system. The Budget system is sitting on my desk, where it's been my only Windows system since we built it. The SFF and Mainstream systems are sitting on my second desk, not doing much of anything at the moment. The SOHO server is sitting in the dining room, and the Media Center system is still on the kitchen table.

As usual after completing a book, we have an embarrassment of riches. As time allows, we'll replace our current systems with the new models. Then we'll clean up the old systems, install K/Ubuntu Linux on them, and give them to people who need them. It's been a while since I gave any systems to Senior Services, and I suspect they'd welcome some reasonably current replacements for some of their old stuff.


Thursday, 17 August 2006
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08:53 - With only 750 GB of disk space, my main office system was beginning to feel a little cramped. I can't believe I just wrote a sentence with the phrase "only 750 GB of disk space". Well, it's true. As I work more with camcorder video at about 4 minutes per GB, what I consider "enough disk space" has increased by an order of magnitude. Just one 60-minute MiniDV tape requires nearly 15 GB of disk space.

So I decided to turn my main mini-tower system into a pocket battleship. I pulled the 250 GB drive, which is too small to deserve a drive bay, and installed two 750 GB drives. With the 500 GB system drive, that gives me 2 TB of disk space, which should hold me for a while. Also, since I had the cover open, I figured I might as well boost the memory from 2 GB to 4 GB. With a Pentium D 940 dual-core processor and an nVIDIA 6800 Ultra video adapter, this system now has enough horsepower, graphics, memory, and disk space to do the job for some time to come.

I did run into one head-scratcher, though. After I installed the first drive and used fdisk to create a primary partition on it, I used Ubuntu's Disks Manager to format and enable the drive. Everything appeared to work properly, and the new drive showed up in the Nautilus File Manager. The only problem was that I couldn't write to it because the device /dev/sdb and the partition /dev/sdb1 were owned by root.

Okay, no problem, I thought. I fired up a console session and used sudo chown to take ownership of the partition. I then went back to Disks Manager, which still listed root as the owner. Hmmm. I exited Disks Manager and restarted it. It still listed the owner as root. I rebooted the system, and fired up Disks Manager again. It still showed root as the owner. Hmmmm. Thinking that somehow the ownership had been reset to root, I fired up a console again and checked at the command line, which listed thompson as owner. Double Hmmmm.

To make a long story short, it appears that Nautilus in general and Disks Manager in particular keeps its own set of permissions, unrelated to the real system permissions. The solution was easy, once I figured it out. Clicking the Browse button in Disks Manager displays a Nautilus File Manager directory listing of the device as root. At that point, I just right-clicked, chose Properties, clicked the Permissions tab, and changed the permissions to 777.

I write all this here so that I can find it again next time. Obviously, I must have gone through this procedure when I installed the 250 GB drive. I vaguely remember going through hoops that time as well. I obviously figured it out the first time, but I had to figure it out again this time. Next time, maybe I'll search these pages and save myself some aggravation. At any rate, I got both 750 GB drives installed and accessible and the 250 GB drive removed. (Ubuntu reports capacities in binary gibibytes, versus the decimal gigabytes used by disk makers, so the 750 GB drives are reported as 698.64 GiB, the 500 GB drive as 465.76 GiB, and the 250 GB drive as 233.76 GiB.)

Backing up isn't the problem it might seem at first glance. Most of the data on this system is already backed up, either on the original MiniDV tape or on optical discs. The system files and general working data sets are backed up as they always have been, to other network volumes, writable DVDs, and external hard drives.

I really need to upgrade our network, though. We're running 100BaseT, even though nearly all the PCs on the network have gigabit adapters. The switch is a 100BaseT model, but that would be easy enough to replace. The real problem is the cabling, which is all Cat5 with even some Cat3 (100BaseT works fine on Cat3 over short runs). I think what I'll do is upgrade my office to Cat6e throughout, and not worry about the runs to the den, Barbara's office, and elsewhere. 100BaseT is fine for those systems, as long as I can run gigabit within my office.

The speed of 100BaseT, or lack thereof, has become obvious as I've started transferring larger files. At 100% efficiency, 100BaseT would transfer 12.5 MB/s. Real world, because of overhead and collisions, it does more like 8 MB/sec, which means it takes 8 to 10 minutes to transfer a 4 GB file. 1000BaseT would boost those transfer rates dramatically, although probably not by an order of magnitude. Still, for the relatively small cost of a 1000BaseT switch and a few Cat6e drop cables, it's a worthwhile upgrade.

11:20 - Another nail in the coffin of Microsoft. Microsoft will of course claim that having 24 Indiana high schools with 22,000 students switch from Windows to Linux is insignificant, and that the loss of 22,000 desktops to Linux is a drop in the bucket. They're whistling past the graveyard. As the article points out, Indiana has about a million students, each of whom will apparently have a dedicated desktop system. Paying Microsoft $100 per desktop per year amounts to $100 million per year, versus about $5 million per year for Linux and OSS. (And even that is much more than Indiana really needs to spend on OSS.)

Indiana plans to expand the program to 80 schools this, year, presumably with about 80,000 students. Eventually, no doubt, that program will extend to all students throughout the state, as well as to other states, many of which are already running classroom Linux in pilot programs. Linux also runs on millions of business and personal desktop systems already, and its momentum is unstoppable. There used to be trade journal articles every year announcing that the next year would be "The Year of the Linux Desktop". I have news for them. The Linux Desktop has arrived. They just haven't noticed.

Linux continues to chip away at Microsoft's competitive advantages. With each passing month, Linux looks better and better, and Windows looks worse and worse. Major manufacturers are beginning to realize that Linux is a force to be reckoned with, and incorporating Linux in their strategies. (Witness Intel's decision earlier this week to open-source their graphics drivers.) Credible alternatives to Exchange Server are beginning to appear, and Office, the keystone of Microsoft's monopoly, faces serious competition from OpenOffice.org and the Open Document formats. Vista and Office 2007 will be stillborn as far as corporations are concerned. If Microsoft continues on its present course, it's doomed. Not next year, nor even in five years, perhaps, but ten years from now the computing landscape will look dramatically different than it does now, with Microsoft at best a minor player.


Friday, 18 August 2006
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08:47 - It looks like things are on track for the new edition of Building the Perfect PC to go to production next week. I'll probably do one final pass to incorporate any comments I get from my editor, but after that the book is pretty much out of our hands. It'll go through the usual copy editing and layout/design phases. We'll probably get the copy edited manuscript before the production folks flow the text and images into final form. At that point, we'll get PDF galley proofs and make a one- or two-day blast through them to make any final tweaks. Then O'Reilly produces the final camera-ready copy, and it's off to the printers. Some time around late November or early December, it'll show up in the bookstores.

By about that time, we hope to have finished the astronomy book we put on hold to get this book finished. The astronomy book should end up in the bookstores as a spring title. In December/January, we hope to start work on the book that I'm drafting a proposal for right now. As Jerry Pournelle often says, it's a great life if you don't weaken.


Saturday, 19 August 2006
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11:10 - Barbara carries her MuVo MP3 player to the gym. A couple weeks ago, she told me she'd like me to refill it with some new music. I'd have done that, except back when my main system died I'd forgotten to transfer the limited MP3 collection I'd ripped to the new drive, so I had nothing to give her.

Yesterday, I decided to get serious and start re-ripping her CD collection. She has hundreds of audio CDs, so I wanted to make the right choices from the beginning. Her MuVo supports MP3 and WMA formats. She doesn't really care about sound quality for her portable player, so I decided that for maximum compatibility with her current player and anything she gets in the future I'd use MP3 format. At 128 Kb/s, MP3 quality is noticeably inferior to the original music, at least on classical music with decent headphones. I figured that 160 Kb/s would be about right. I didn't mess with VBR because frankly I wasn't sure if her MuVo supported it, and 160 Kb/s files sound good enough to both of us.

Under Xandros 3, my choices for ripping, encoding, and managing CDs were quite limited. I really wanted to use KAudioCreator, but that wasn't available in the Xandros 3 repositories, and I couldn't get the Debian version working properly. With Ubuntu, it was very straightforward. I installed KAudioCreator, stuck in a CD, chose LAME as the encoder (it was already set by default the way I wanted it; 160 Kb/s and so on) and started ripping. KAudioCreator looks up the disc in FreeDB, rips it to .WAV files, encodes the .WAV files to 160 Kb/s MP3's, and spits out the disc. It organizes the tracks in the MP3 directory with the artist/group name as the first level subdirectory and creates subdirectories for each album. Ripping, encoding, and organizing Barbara's music collection is literally a matter of feeding a new disc into the drive every time it spits one out.

For managing music on her PC, she'll use amaroK, or more precisely the Xandros-modified version of amaroK that comes with Xandros 4. The standard version of amaroK is very slick; the Xandros-modified version even more so. Once we get Barbara's new system built and Xandros 4 installed on it, she'll be able to transfer music to her MuVo herself.


Sunday, 20 August 2006
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