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Week of 5 July 2010


Latest Update: Sunday, 11 July 2010 10:47 -0400

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Monday, 5 July 2010
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08:41 - We finished up the media center system yesterday. It's now sitting in the den next to the TV. I was going to disconnect the DVD player, but our HDTV has so many inputs that I decided just to leave the DVD player connected and use it rather than the media center system for watching Netflix DVDs.

We installed an old D-Link 802.11g card in the media center system. Eventually, I plan to run an Ethernet cable to the TV area, but that may be a while. It's on an outside wall, so routing the cable is going to be a pain in the butt. I may just run it along the baseboard to the attic door and then down into the basement and back up into my office, where the router lives. For the time being, we can get along with Wi-Fi.

The D-Link card can do channel bonding for a 108 mb/s nominal transfer rate at the expense of being anti-social as far as our neighbors Wi-Fi setups are concerned. The media center system is only 30 or 40 feet from our WAP, so I can probably tweak things to get close to the nominal 108 mb/s without crashing the neighbors' Wi-Fi. Eventually, we'll probably upgrade to 802.11n, which may make things better.

We'll start on the extreme system today. That's the last of the six project systems, and the one that's destined to be my new main office system. Incredibly, given its age, my current main office system will still be the second-fastest system in the house, at almost half the speed of the new extreme system and about half again the speed of the new mainstream system and twice the speed of Barbara's current main office system. So, after the book is put to bed, we'll strip down my current main system and put it in a new case with a new power supply and fans and convert it to Barbara's new main system.


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Tuesday, 6 July 2010
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10:57 - We got started on the extreme system yesterday. We'll do more images tonight and probably finish the build tomorrow night.

One thing I've never been able to figure out. The manual for the DF-85, like just about every case manual I've ever seen, tells the reader to install the motherboard before installing drives. For cases that come without a power supply installed, the manuals often suggest installing the motherboard first. Probably 20 years ago, having more than once come close to dropping a hard drive or power supply on an installed motherboard, I started installing and securing all the heavy stuff first, when at all possible. Similarly, many motherboard manuals suggest installing the motherboard in the case before installing the processor and memory. Geez. Once again, I came very close to cracking a motherboard before I decided to install the processor and memory with the motherboard lying flat on a firm surface.

When I was installing the Antec CP-850 power supply in the extreme system yesterday, Veronica Mars' characterization of Cornish hens as "small, dense turkeys" came to mind. Although the CP-850 is anything but small--it uses the proprietary, oversized Antec CPX form factor--it's certainly dense. Dropping it on an installed motherboard wouldn't do it any damage. The power supply, that is. The motherboard would be a basket case.


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Wednesday, 7 July 2010
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08:21 - We didn't work on the extreme system last night. I spent yesterday working on the write-up for the media center system, which we finished several days ago. I realized as I was doing that that I was losing track of things I'd wanted to remember to write about, so I decided to hold off continuing the extreme system build.

One of the bad things about getting older is failing memory. Now, at age 57, my memory is merely extraordinarily good. When I was very young, I had eidetic memory. I lost that quickly, but when I was in college I could still effortlessly memorize entire books (such as my Morrison & Boyd organic chemistry textbook) simply by reading them. Literally memorize them, to the extent that if you asked me what was in, say, the third paragraph of page 869, I could visualize it and repeat it verbatim. I never took a single note in any class, from kindergarten all the way through graduate school. Into my 30's and even 40's, I never used an address book, paper or computerized, because once I used it I never forgot an address or telephone number.

I took all that for granted, and never developed the habits, such as taking notes or writing down addresses, that other people use to supplement their memories. So now I'm screwed. Well, I have modified my behavior to the extent that I'll sometimes think to record a phone number in my contacts list or jot down a note in a manuscript chapter to remind me of something I wanted to write about, but it's all very hit-or-miss. I confess that when I'm reading Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan saga, I'm very envious of Simon Illyan's biometric eidetic memory implant. I want one of those.


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Thursday, 8 July 2010
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09:29 - We took a break last night from building and shooting images. I spent most of the evening messing with the media center system. I started by running BIOS Setup and enabling AHCI, which as it turned out was the beginning of a long saga. I then booted the system from the Ubuntu 10.04 CD. Installation got to 60% complete and the system locked up. Hmmm. So I turned off AHCI and restarted the installation. Once again, the system locked up tight partway through.

I'd been using the same Ubuntu 10.04 CD that I used to install on the budget system for Barbara's sister, and it had just been lying there unprotected on top of my den system for a week or more, so I thought perhaps the CD was defective. So I burned and verified another Ubuntu 10.04 CD and restarted the installation. Once again, it locked up. Bad optical drive? Okay, I disconnected the LITE-ON optical drive and connected a Sony Optiarc DVD writer. This time, the installation got past the 60% mark, but hung again. Obviously the problem wasn't the optical drive.

So I burned an Ubuntu 9.10 CD and restarted the installation yet again. This time, the installation completed normally and I had a working Ubuntu 9.10 installation. So I ran Software Update, which mentioned that a version upgrade was available. I told it to upgrade the system to Ubuntu 10.04, and waited while it cranked away, calculating changes and downloading packages. Everything seemed to be proceeding normally until it got to the installing new packages phase, at which point it crashed with a fatal error. Okay, obviously there was something this system didn't like about Ubuntu 10.04.

So I started the Ubuntu 9.10 installation again. It completed normally, and I told it to go get the software patches available for 9.10. It downloaded 214 MB of fixes, applied all of them, and rebooted. At that point, it seemed that I had a fully functional and fully patched version of Ubuntu 9.10 running, so I started playing around with the system. A few minutes later, it locked up. I restarted the system, popped a console window, and typed dmesg | tail. That showed me a long string of error messages related to the Atheros wireless driver.

Because the media center system is against an outer wall where it'll be difficult to run an Ethernet cable, I decided to install a Wi-Fi card as a temporary fix. I pulled an old D-Link card out of the parts closet and popped it into the media center system, figuring that'd give me connectivity until we got around to pulling a cable. At this point, it appears the Atheros driver for that card is causing the instability, so I'll just pull that card for now and see if things settle down.


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Friday, 9 July 2010
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09:16 - Work proceeds apace on the extreme system. We'll shoot some more images this evening and probably finish it tomorrow.

As I was shooting images last night, I realized that I haven't actually built a PC for years. Barbara builds them. I just shoot images of her doing it. I always wondered why Amazon.com shows Barbara as the sole author. Now I know.



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Saturday, 10 July 2010
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10:42 - Four years ago, I complained that James Burke's The Day the Universe Changed was available on DVD only in the form of a $750 set targeted at schools. Yesterday, I happened to search Netflix for James Burke, and learned that Neflix now has The Day the Universe Changed available for rental, as well as Connections 1, 2 and 3. None of these are perfect, by any means. In particular, some of the "connections" are really stretching matters, and in some cases the science is out of date. But all four of these series are worth watching, and all four are worth showing to your kids.

I installed Windows 7 Ultimate on the media-center system last night. As always, I was surprised by how primitive Windows looks next to Linux. When a Linux installation finishes, the system nearly always restarts with all hardware recognized and running optimally, the display set at optimum resolution, and so on. When the Windows 7 Ultimate installation completed and the system rebooted, it came up in 640X480 video. The display (an older Viewsonic VG2021M) wasn't recognized. The integrated Intel video adapter wasn't recognized as anything but a vanilla VGA adapter. The integrated Intel network adapter wasn't recognized. In fact, just about nothing was recognized except the hard drives, optical drive, keyboard, and mouse.

I was able to change the video resolution to 1280X1024, which helped, but that was about it. With no network adapter, I couldn't get drivers for the other hardware other than by downloading them on another system and burning a disc.

Put it this way. If you set up two bare systems, sat someone with no computer experience at all down in front of them with a Linux installation CD and a Windows installation CD, and told them to install the two operating systems and then choose one, there's no doubt in my mind that about 9,999 out of 10,000 people would choose Linux. Windows survives solely because of its installed base and a few must-have applications.

IBM hates Microsoft, and has since the OS/2 debacle. I'm surprised that IBM hasn't gone for Microsoft's jugular. They could do so easily. There are arguably only three things that keep Microsoft the corporate standard: Outlook/Exchange Server, Office, and Photoshop. IBM has the resources to produce compelling alternatives to the first two. Photoshop, they can just buy. For a pretty minimal investment (at least in IBM terms), IBM could knock the props out from under Windows/Office and do itself a lot of good at the same time.

I talked with one of our neighbors when Barbara and I walked Malcolm yesterday. He mentioned that he's about had it with Windows. He had one system so badly trashed by malware and viruses that he ended up discarding it and buying a new one. That was less than a year ago, and his new system is now infested. He said he was about ready to buy a Mac, if only for its near immunity to such garbage. I told him that, although there was some OS X malware out there, OS X was orders of magnitude more secure than Windows. I also offered to burn him a live CD of Ubuntu or Linux Mint.

The only problem with Linux, as far as I could determine, was that his kids buy music from iTunes. I've never used an iPod, but I understand the Apple iTunes software is available only for Windows and OS X. Of course, I assume the kids are buying tracks without DRM, so presumably they could transfer those to a Linux box and just start buying non-DRM'd MP3's from Amazon or wherever. If anyone knows the ins and outs of iTunes/iPod on Linux, please tell me about it in the forums.



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Sunday, 11 July 2010
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10:47 - Thanks to several readers who pointed out that the Apple iTunes software for Windows runs fine under WINE. That sounds like a solution.

When we first fired up the appliance system, nothing happened. The green power LED on the motherboard lit, but pressing the power button did nothing. So last night I carried it into the den, set it up on top of the media-center system, and connected the keyboard, mouse, and display. When I connected power, the green power LED on the motherboard again lit, but the system refused to start. A quick check of the cables turned up the problem. The 24-pin main ATX power cable wasn't fully seated. Pressing that down firmly solved the problem. I installed Ubuntu 10.04, and the system is now humming away.

The Intel D510MO motherboard and the Atom processor are passively cooled. The only fan in the system is one case fan on the right side, which draws air over the processor, chipset, and memory. By default, that fan is set to run on high, which produces a whine that's audible from across the room. Fortunately, it can be set to medium, which is barely audible from a couple of feet away, or low, which is inaudible unless you put your ear right next to the system.

I have the set to medium right now, which should be quiet enough once I put the system in its final position (to the left of and behind the display), but I'll also try it on low. I suspect low will suffice, as the TDP for the motherboard and processor is something like 13W. Even with the memory and hard drive, the low fan setting should keep the system cool enough.


Performance-wise, the system is about what I expected. It's noticeably slower than the Core2 Duo system that's partially visible at the lower right corner of the image, but it's more than fast enough for what I need to do with it, which is mainly browsing the web, checking web mail, and so on. Size-wise, it's about the size of a large, thick reference book, so it'll fit easily and unobtrusively behind the display. Sitting on top of that corner table, it'll also need much less frequent cleaning. The mini-tower system on the floor just sucks in dog hair, but this one should remain reasonably hair-free.


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