Day Notes

A (mostly) daily journal of the trials, tribulations, and random observations of Robert Bruce Thompson, a writer of computer books.

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Monday, November 2, 1998

Hmmm. Came in this morning, sat down at my desk, and found that Windows NT was locked up tight on kerby, my main workstation. The mouse cursor would move, but that's about it. I auto-hide the Task Bar, and that refuses to pop up. I pressed Ctrl-Alt-Del, planning to use Task Manager to find out what was going on, and the Windows NT Security dialog wouldn't pop up. This is pretty odd. The system was fine when I went to bed last night, and it hasn't been doing anything in the meantime.

This happens to me periodically with Windows NT--lockups for no apparent reason. Usually, it happens while I'm actually working on the machine. I'll be typing along in Word or whatever, and suddenly the system just stops responding. The cursor always remains movable, although if I keep trying to do things it will ultimately lock up too. Eventually, I get to the point where NT will respond to Ctrl-Alt-Del by clearing the screen and showing the blank green screen. At that point, the only solution is a hard reboot.

This has happened on different machines, and only happens once every month or two. It doesn't seem to be associated with the load on the machine, the number of windows open, or anything else I can see. Perhaps it's due to cosmic rays boinking my RAM or something.

At any rate, I'm always able to reboot successfully, so I'd best get back to work on the project. I think it was Kipling who said, "the cowards never started and the weaklings died along the way..." I'm no coward, but I am beginning to wonder if I'm a weakling. Back to work...

Tuesday, November 3, 1998

More of the same yesterday, working on the project. My co-author and I each finished our first section and sent it to the other to fill in the gaps. We're finally getting a little bit of rain, after more than a month without much. The dogs seem to enjoy running around in it. Today is Election Day, and there are lots of Libertarians on the ballot, so I guess I'll head out to vote this morning. Then it's back to work on the project.

I mentioned last week that Golden Bow Systems had sent me a copy of their VoptNT disk defragger for Windows NT. Although I haven't had time to do an in-depth review, I did have a chance to load it up yesterday while I was waiting for something to download. I put it on hathor, the new box that dual-boots Windows NT and Windows 98.

VoptNT has a much plainer interface than Diskeeper (or the Norton defragger), and offers many fewer options. But it is fast. So fast, in fact, that at first I thought it hadn't done anything when I ran it. When I fired it up and clicked on defrag, I walked out to the kitchen to get a cup of coffee. When I came back, probably within a minute, the defrag pass was complete. VoptNT didn't "compress" the files--move them together to eliminate the gaps of free space on the disk--but it did defrag them. More on this product once I have a chance to give it a real work out.

FedEx showed up yesterday with a package from Microsoft. When I opened it, I found a CD with Windows NT Service Pack 4 on it. I haven't installed it yet, given some of the problems that Jerry Pournelle and others have reported. I can't afford to waste a day right now putting my system to rights. I'll probably install it on hathor. If something bad happens there, I can live with it.

Wednesday, November 4, 1998

More of the same yesterday, but we're starting to make some progress on the project. I reinstalled MT5 Server last night on hathor, which is now known as bastet. Granted, there's a lot of debugging code and other stuff in the beta that slows things down, but a Pentium/133 with 64 MB of RAM looks like it just won't be fast enough for MT5. I suspect a PII-300 and 128 MB will be a realistic minimum for that platform.

Watched a little bit of the election return stuff on TV last night. Why is it that a candidate can run incredibly negative ads, accusing his opponent of everything but child molesting and devil worshipping, and then turn around and give a polite concession speech? Just once, I'd like to see the losing candidate stand up and say what he really thinks.

Back to work on the project, after I spend a little while helping Barbara clean house.

Lunchtime: Well, the built-in critical need detectors around here seem to be working overtime. The first catastrophe became evident when I sat down to start work on the project. The material I'd spent yesterday afternoon writing was gone. I'd had it stored on the MT5 box, which was running a pre-Beta 2 version of MT5. I tried to upgrade that box last night to MT5 B2, but the upgrade failed. I then tried to do a reinstall without reformatting the MTFS volume, but that failed as well. I couldn't get to the volume at all, so I ended up doing a fresh install from boot floppies, and formatting the old MTFS5 volume. I got MT5 Beta 2 reinstalled, but the stuff I'd been working on all afternoon was stored on the volume that I formatted. It hadn't had a chance to be backed up yet, of course. So, I sat down and started to recreate what I'd lost.

I decided that before I got started it'd make sense to go down and make breakfast for my mother. She doesn't usually wake up until 10:00 or so, and it was getting on toward that time. I made the mistake of flushing the downstairs toilet, which fountained dirty water all over the bathroom. That upset me, but I figured that the sump pump had just gotten hung up again. Sometimes, toilet paper or whatever keeps the switch from starting the pump, and so water backs up. I went out into the unfinished portion of the basement and jiggled the pipe connected to the pump. Sure enough, it started pumping, and I started to head back to my mom's apartment area to mop up the bathroom floor. Before I got there, I heard a loud gurgling noise and turned around to watch sewage spewing out from the standpipe where the washing machine drains. All over the washer and dryer, all over the ceiling and walls and floor, all over everything.

After Barbara got me calmed down--I was walking around shouting, "I don't have time for this"--we called the plumber. He agreed with us that it sounded like the problem was in the main drain, and suggested we call the RotoRooter people. We mentioned that we had just had the main drain replaced five or eight years ago, so it didn't seem likely that the new pipe would be clogged with roots already. He said that the problem might be at the street connection and suggested we call the city. Barbara did so, and they claimed they hadn't been doing anything anywhere near us.

Fortunately, before we called out the RotoRooter folks, Barbara suggested that we try flushing the upstairs toilets several times. They were full of clean water and, worst case, if it came spewing out it'd help rinse off the sewage from the washing machine and so on. After I flushed every toilet two or three times, we still hadn't seen any more backflow, so apparently the problem was a temporary clog that'd had time to resolve itself while Barbara was talking to the plumber and the city.

Barbara was due to leave for work--she works noon until 9:00 p.m. today--but the bathroom and basement floors were still covered with sewage. Between the two of us, we got the bathroom mopped out and sterilized with bleach and Lysol and the whole affected area of the basement hosed down, mopped up, and sprayed with bleach and Lysol. By this time, it was nearly noon, I hadn't gotten a thing done yet today, and I was still badly in need of a shower.

In case you're wondering why I'm wasting time writing this, it's because I need to calm down and refocus before I can do anything productive on my project--kind of like doing stretching exercises before you start running. Barbara says, and she's right, that the whole house can't come to a stop just because I have a project and am under the gun. What she doesn't understand, what no one who doesn't write understands, is that it's not just the interruption itself that causes the problem. When I'm in writing mode, my thoughts are organized and I'm mentally juggling lots of stuff. I have ideas for things I want to do 15 minutes or two hours from then. Everything is tied together in my mind. When I'm interrupted, even briefly, that whole house of cards collapses and needs to be rebuilt. A 15 minute interruption can literally cost me a couple hours by the time I get back up to speed. So, I'm writing this now just to get the problems out of my mind and get back into structured writing mode.

Unlike most writers, I don't yell very often, and I never throw things. It's true that I have a .45 automatic on my desk to deal with really persistent annoyances, but I haven't actually shot at anyone for a long time. When the mailman, FedEx or whoever shows up, I usually walk out to the street to meet them and engage in a brief friendly chat. They all probably think I'm a pretty nice guy. When dinner is ready, Barbara just tells me so, and I go and eat just like a normal person. I understand from talking with some writers' spouses that they consider it safer to use a long stick to slide a dinner tray into the writer's office. I do the laundry and the dishes, and otherwise help around the house as much or more than a typical man (although I don't do yard work). In short, I'm probably on the high end sociability-wise for a writer, although that still makes me a hermit compared to the general population. So, if I yell when sewage spews on the floor, that doesn't mean I'm being a prima donna.

Okay, I think I'm calmed down enough. It's back to work for me...

Thursday, November 5, 1998

Got a fair amount yesterday after things calmed down. I'm back at it this morning, with the usual unpredictable interruptions. My older Border Collie, Kerry, started screeching this morning. He was lying in the library, and sounded like he was in terrible pain. He has hip displasia, which is much like rheumatoid arthritis. After looking him over, we weren't sure if he had really been in pain or had simply been frightened because he couldn't get up. We were getting ready to haul him to the vet, with visions of having to have him put down, but decided to try helping him up first. Once we did, he was able to walk around normally, and now seems to be past the problem. Barbara gave him a Prednisone to go with the Joint Care and aspirin she'd already given him. We're hoping that he was just lying wrong on that leg and that he'll be okay.

Then the power failed. UPSs were screeching all over the place. By the time I got back to Barbara's office to shut down thoth, the battery had run out on that UPS. It's an old APC BackUPS 600, and the battery needs replaced. Yet one more thing to do. Back to work on the project.

Friday, November 6, 1998

I got my part of another section finished late last night and sent off to my co-author. The march continues. In between everything else, I realized that I now have no way to back up my network. The tape drive is installed in the Gateway Pentium/133 box which currently runs Windows 98 as anubis and MT5 Server Beta 2 as bastet. The trouble is, nothing I do makes Windows 98 recognize that the tape drive even exists. The Add New Hardware wizard doesn't detect it as either a Prug-'N-Pray device or as a non-PNP device. Seagate refuses to supply drivers for the tape drive, and claims that Win98 should recognize it directly. There's nowhere to specify tape devices to be added. There is a "tape controller" section, but that has old legacy dedicated tape controllers from the days that most tape drives ran off the floppy controller.

So, it looked like my only choice was to use the backup application built into MT5. I fired it up and was pleasantly surprised. It recognized my tape drive automatically. The application itself is pretty decent. The backup applet in NT4 is a trimmed-down version of Arcada BackupExec. It's missing compression, scheduling, the ability to save backup job sets, and a lot of other features necessary for a backup program to be truly usable. The MT5 version looks like a somewhat trimmed down version of the latest release of the Seagate BackupExec Single Server edition. It has compression, scheduling, the ability to save backup job sets, and all the other stuff that's missing from the NT4 version.

I used it to do a test backup yesterday afternoon while I was writing. I was concerned when I first fired it up, because it seemed to be running as slow as molasses on a cold day. That's probably due to the fact that I have MT5 running on a Pentium/133 with 64MB, which appears to be insufficient for MT5 Server. At any rate, I made my selections and fired up the backup. With Seagate BackupExec 6.1x on NT4, I'm used to getting backup performance of about 35 - 38 MB/min on local drives and 20 - 25 MB/min on network drives. At first, the MT5 backup applet appeared to be keeping up with this level of throughput.

I kind of lost track, however, and the reason I did is kind of odd. The MT5 backup applet has displays for elapsed time and estimated time remaining. Now, I've used products before that had counters like that, and one expects the elapsed time counter to be a simple clock and the estimated time remaining counter to bounce around depending on how well the application is doing at the moment. In this case, however, the elapsed time counter was all over the place. I happened to look at it when it was approaching one hour, and it turned over from 59 minutes, 59 seconds to one hour and forty minutes. Later in the process, I watched it jump from an hour and something to 9 hours and some odd minutes. This is the elapsed time counter, mind you. I began to feel like I was in some kind of time warp.

At any rate, the backup pass completed in a couple of hours. That's not great for backing up 3.5 GB of data, but it's not horrible compared to my usual of about 1.5 hours. The verify pass was worse, though. Running Seagate Backup Exec 6.1x under NT4, the verify pass usually goes much faster than the backup pass--perhaps half an hour or 45 minutes. This time, the verify pass took about the same amount of time as the backup pass--two hours.

With the backup and compare finally done, I decided to check it. I deleted a file and folder from the trash directory on sherlock and then setup the MT5 backup program to restore them. It successfully located and restored the file and directory, and then promptly generated a GPF. I checked the restored version of the file and folder, and they were fine, so whatever caused the GPF didn't scramble any data. I guess I'll use this software to do my backup, although it makes me a little nervous.

Kerry seems to be doing better, so perhaps it was just a flare-up. Back to work on the project...

Saturday, November 7, 1998

[Note: Because Microsoft now has material up all over their web site about Windows NT 5, I guess I can stop the stupid "MT5" subterfuge and talk about "NT5". I was trying to kind of honor the NDA, which no one else seems to be paying any attention to, so I guess I'll drop it as well. Of course, they've now renamed it from Windows NT to Windows 2000, but that's another story. RBT]

With no other convenient option, I decided to do my real network backup yesterday using the NT5 backup application. I started my first backup attempt about noon yesterday. There was a total of about 4.2 GB on several volumes to be backed up. The first thing I learned was that the compression option apparently isn't implemented in this beta release, or if it is, it doesn't compress very well. After more than three hours, the backup got just past 4 GB and prompted me to insert another tape. This on a Travan TR-4 drive that stores 4 GB natively and 8 GB with compression.

I didn't want to use another tape, so I killed the backup. As long as I was going to start again from scratch, I decided to see what I could do about improving the speed. I went in and stopped a bunch of services running on the NT5 box--I'd installed basically every option available--and told it to boost performance of the foreground application at the expense of background network services. I then went out and deleted some stuff I could do without and zipped up a bunch of other stuff on the volumes that were to be backed up. By this time it was 3:30, and I restarted the backup. This time, it took almost exactly 2 hours to back up about 3.2 GB and two more hours to do the verify pass.

And I got the following mail from Mike Morris, who'd read my article on Extending the UTP Ethernet on Pournelle's site. Mr. Morris wrote a very detailed message, which I've edited for length, but two of his points in particular deserve to be made.

I was looking at your write-ups at the Jerry Pournelle web site and I wish I could write as well...

One in particular - is excellent. The only thing I'd add is a paragraph on new construction. I tell clients that networks have gone through three kinds of media and is on the 4th (thicknet, thinnet, cat3 and cat 5) and who knows what is down the road... I suggest a plastic box with a flex conduit stub down through the floor (if there is a basement or a crawl space) or up into the attic (if not).

This allows anything to be run in the future. A friend of mine in Arizona took this to heart and added a box to every wall of every room of his new house - over 30 in all. He has since used three for stereo speakers, two for AC power (the living room couch blocked one, a bookcase in a bedroom blocked another), and several for network drops.

I've been installing networks for years - since the Corvus Omninet was current - and with the wide audience you have, I thought that you _might_ like a few comments... It's your article, so take this or leave it...

> you don't need the box to meet code if all you're installing is low-voltage signal cables (like network cables).

_IN MOST AREAS_. I was told about one bastard of a fire inspector in Indiana who required metal boxes.

Thanks for the kind words and the suggestions. You're right about stubbing out conduit in new construction, and I've done so for a couple of friends when they were building houses. The usual problem with this, however, is that you have a choice of either paying outrageous add-on costs to have it done for you, or you end up working all night to get it done yourself before the sheetrock guys are due to show up. Still, it's a good idea.

As far as your observations on metal boxes, I'm not surprised. Most communities just adopt the NEC as written, but there are always exceptions. Then again, there are always inspectors who try to force you to do things their way whether code requires it or not. I probably should have mentioned this, along with a short paragraph on firestopping the holes you drill, but I knocked that article out in an hour or two without doing any preliminary outline or anything. I'm surprised I didn't miss more than I did.

I'll probably put up your letter in annotated form with the article on my web site and send it to Pournelle in case he wants to do the same. That'll have to wait for me to have some time available, however, as I'm on a death-march project at the moment.

Incidentally, you write very well. Perhaps you should send Pournelle an article on something.

As to the mention of "firestopping," when you drill a hole in a floor or other horizontal divider between floors, you should always after running the wires backfill it with material designed to keep fire from spreading between floors. This is required by code in commercial buildings, but is seldom done in residential wiring.

Enough of this. I need to get back to work on the project.

Sunday, November 9, 1998

Worked all day yesterday on the project, so there's not much new to report. I wanted to make it through an entire section, but didn't quite make it. I'll finish that section up today and return it to my co-author for final polish before he submits it as a first draft. Based on how it's going, my guess is that we'll be immersed in this project through the remainder of this month. Longer than we'd hoped, but not unreasonable for the amount of work involved.

Today is my mother's 80th birthday, so we'll be celebrating that.


Coming Soon (I hope)


Updated: 05 July 2002 08:04

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