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Week of 8 January 2001

Latest Update: Friday, 05 July 2002 09:16

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Monday, 8 January 2001

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Sorry for the unusually late post. This morning the dogs let us sleep until 8:45, which is incredible. That was due in part I'm sure to the fact that Duncan started vomiting at about 4:00 a.m. so the dogs had a chance to go out in the middle of the night. 

When I finally awoke, I called the city sewer folks, who told me there's nothing they can do about our problem. So I put in a call to the plumber who originally installed the line, asking him to call me back so we can get something scheduled to rip up the driveway and replace the pipe at the cleanout stack. We hope we can get something done this week. 

And we got a letter last Thursday from DMV telling us that we'd not gotten one of our trucks inspected. We went and looked. Sure enough, the inspection expired 10/00. We had too much going on with the sewer problem Friday, so we waited and took the truck out this morning to be inspected.

With everything that's going on, it's already noon and I haven't yet started to do any actual work. These things happen, I guess.

We had a productive day yesterday.  I did many small loads of clothes, with only one or two tiny leaks out of the washer stand pipe. This morning, I need to talk to the city sewer guy about getting a sewer renewal, because the plumber says that having him replace the main drain pipe section won't necessarily fix the problem.

We got the DVD-ROM drive installed in Barbara's system, along with a CD audio cable. That cable didn't work, though. I'm not sure why. It didn't make any difference, though, because Barbara has CD audio anyway. As I was cruising around Windows 2000 trying to assign drive letter V: to the DVD-ROM drive, I noticed that the "enable digital audio" check box was not ticked for her Plextor CD-ROM drive. So I marked that box, and Barbara's CD audio started working properly. 

The Britannica 2001 DVD installed fine, although it insisted on installing a lot of junk like Flash and ActiveX. But that's on the local machine, so that's okay. There are a few minor aggravations with the product. For example, you can select text, but there's no right-click menu to enable copying the text to the clipboard. At first I thought Britannica had done this to prevent people from copying their content, but Ctrl-C works fine, so if this was a security measure it's not hard to get around.

As much as I love printed books, and as much as I love our printed Britannica, I must say that this DVD has a lot going for it. Articles are hyperlinked and there's a context-sensitive area on the left margin that displays related documents as you jump around from one main document to another. I've only played with it for ten minutes or so, but my initial impression is very favorable.

I burned a copy of Linux Mandrake 7.2 yesterday, which I'll eventually install on this Pentium III/600 system. When I started to set up the burn, I realized that I'd not yet installed Nero on my main system, so I downloaded that, went off in search of my serial number, and finally got it installed. I'd already downloaded the Mandrake ISO images, so I fired up Nero and told it to burn a copy. Unfortunately, the blanks that I found first were those Smart & Friendly 4X ones, which I hate. I bought a spindle of 100 of them, and it seems as though that spindle will never die. At any rate, I fired off Nero and only after doing so noticed that it was set to burn the copy to the Plextor PlexWriter 12-10-32A at 12X. Those blanks are only 4X-certified, and they suck even when burning at 4X in the Smart & Friendly burner. So I didn't have much hope for a successful 12X burn. So it turned out. The Plextor and Nero struggled valiantly to do a 12X burn on a garbage disc, but the burn finally blew up about 550 MB in. I was amazed that it got that far. So I backed it down to 4X and burned the disc with no problem. 

I ran my first web access reports of the year this morning. We started the year on Monday, so I shifted my web reports to run Monday through Sunday instead of Saturday through Friday as I used last year. For the first week of the new year, we did about 17,000 page reads from nearly 6,000 distinct IP addresses. As usual, Pournelle did something like three times that, with about 54,000 page reads from more than 13,000 distinct IP addresses. I'm never going to catch him. I don't know why I even hope. Of course, a lot of the activity that used to go on here is now over on the message boards, so perhaps I should count the page reads on those as well.

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Tuesday, 9 January 2001

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Still no return call from the plumber, so I called this morning and left another message. We're being careful about running large amounts of water through the drain, and so far that appears to be working. Still, it'd be nice to be able to do a load of laundry or run the dishwasher without worrying about scheduling it.

My first attempt to install Mandrake 7.2 failed, but through no fault of Mandrake. I'd planned to install Linux on old thor, which was a Windows 98SE test bed system. That machine has an Intel CA810E motherboard, Pentium III/600 processor, 128 MB of Crucial PC100 SDRAM, a 10 GB Maxtor 7,200 RPM IDE hard drive, a Smart & Friendly SAF798 CD writer, and a Connor/Seagate Travan TR-4 tape drive. I'd burned a CD of the Mandrake distribution, and set out last night with high hopes for installing Linux successfully. 

The first hint of a problem was when I restarted the computer and entered BIOS setup to change the boot order of the system to make the IDE CD-ROM drive the first boot device. Setup came up normally, but with the video flashing on and off about once per second. This occurs only while the system is in setup. After it boots, the video is normal. I have no idea what could be causing the problem. At any rate, I decided to proceed, so I changed the boot order to make the IDE CD-ROM drive the first boot device and restarted the system with the Mandrake CD in the drive. The system booted to Windows 98SE from the hard drive.

Okay. I ran setup again, and removed the hard drive as a boot device, leaving the CD-ROM as the first boot device and the floppy drive as the second. When I restarted the system, it told me there wasn't a bootable floppy in the drive. Okay, disable the FDD as a boot device and try again. Same message. Obviously, my BIOS supports booting from CD, but either my CD-ROM drive isn't El Torito compliant or the CD simply isn't bootable. Ordinarily, I'd just have installed a second CD-ROM drive in the system and tried booting from it. But given the video weirdity, I think I may just rebuild the system before I try installing Linux again.

There were reports of some bugs in the early 3.X releases of the SETI client, and I wonder if they've all been worked out. I had the 2.X client set to run all the time, and found that it was very good at getting out of the way when a foreground task needed the processor. Other than the 16 MB memory requirement, the footprint of the 2.X client was essentially nil. I never had any system slowdowns attributable to running it. But since I've installed the 3.X client, I've been noticing sporadic system slowdowns. 

I'll be creating a new mail message with Outlook, for example, and the text I type appears jerkily on the screen. If I type a phrase, the first several letters appear on screen as I type them, but the remainder may appear only after a two or three second pause. Same thing in IE and Word. I'll click on the vertical bar to jump down a screen. Sometimes the jump is instantaneous. Other times, there's a two second pause before it happens. Or I'll be working on this page with FrontPage 2000, and find that scrolling has suddenly become molasses-like. When I exit the SETI client, those problems seem to go away. 

There's no longer any choice about which SETI client to use, because SETI no longer accepts 2.X results. So I'm going to do some more playing around with all this. I may end up configuring the 3.X client to run only when the machine is idle.

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Wednesday, 10 January 2001

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Today will be a busy day. I talked to the plumber who replaced our main drain line about six or seven years ago. He's completely backed up, and wouldn't be able to get to our job for at least a month. So I talked to our current plumber, whom Barbara has known since she was a little girl. He told me his advice was to call Forsyth Rooter Service (not the same rooter people we've already had out three times) and have them come out. He's going to meet them here. Best case, they'll fix the problem. Worst case, they'll at least allow him to localize the problem, which'll minimize the digging and labor. One way or another, we need to get this fixed.

Barbara is off to run errands and play golf with her father, so she'll be gone most of the day. I hope that by the time she returns we have a working main drain, or at least that I can tell her what the problem is and when it's going to be repaired.

Chris Ward-Johnson, AKA Dr. Keyboard, posted an excellent journal entry yesterday about Microsoft, Apple, and Linux. Of course, there are probably Libyan hit teams headed for Chris's home in the South of France right now, paid for by Apple- and Linux-bigots, but that's just the danger one accepts when one prints the truth about Apple and Linux. I do think Chris was perhaps a bit harsh in his comments about Linux, but he nailed the Apple situation exactly.

To me, the best course of action is clear. I'll continue to use Microsoft products--Windows NT/2000 and Office 2000--because I need them to get my work done and because they happen to be the best tools for the job. For now. But I've opted out of the Microsoft hamster-wheel upgrade cycle for good. I won't upgrade to Whistler for my production systems, although I'll have to install it on test-bed systems to support my book writing. I won't upgrade from Office 2000 despite whatever temptations Microsoft might throw my way. I consider it intolerable that most of those inducements to upgrade to Microsoft's latest and greatest operating systems and applications will likely consist of simple bug fixes and support for newly-introduced hardware.

I don't need new features. What I need is for what I already have to work properly. Which it does now, mostly. The aggravations that remain, such as FrontPage's broken support for publishing via a proxy server, have relatively easy workarounds, so I can live with them. And I'll continue to live with them until Linux becomes a viable alternative desktop operating system by my own personal definition. I see massive progress in that direction happening now. See, for example, Tom Syroid's comments about Linux Mandrake 7.2. The OS itself appears to be maturing sufficiently that it will soon become viable as a mainstream desktop OS.

By "soon" I mean within the next year or two, and by "viable" I mean usable by ordinary people who have no interest in which OS their computers are running. We're not quite there yet. We're at the point where anyone who is willing to invest a little time and effort can use Linux as his primary desktop OS. Many of my Internet friends already do so. But in doing so they accept the burden of being limited to using mostly third-rate applications. Certainly there are Linux applications which are the complete equal (or even superior) of anything running on Windows. But, despite the aggravations we all experience with Internet Explorer, no one can seriously argue that Netscape Navigator is anything near as good as IE. Or that there is any office suite available on Linux that comes close to matching Microsoft Office.

Until Linux mainstream applications catch up, if they ever do, making the transition to Linux will be bittersweet for most of us. There are periodic rumors that Microsoft will port Office to Linux. At first glance, that seems ridiculous, since Office is a major factor--some might argue the major factor--that has assured Windows' continuing dominance on the desktop. I have myself said that Microsoft would be cutting its own throat if they port Office to Linux. But Microsoft is not a monolith. Certainly there is strong steering from the top, but the individual divisions are responsible for their own bottom lines, and if it makes sense to port Office to Linux to gain incremental sales, there will be a strong economic incentive for doing so. If anything ever comes of the breakup, which I doubt, an independent applications division would certainly have to consider seriously porting their crown jewels to what is becoming a viable alternative desktop OS.

The one thing that concerns me about applications availability on Linux is my perception that Linux is fragmenting. If, say, Intuit can port Quicken to a single Linux version and have that version usable on any flavor of desktop Linux, that's one thing. But if Quicken has to create separate versions for Mandrake, Caldera, and Red Hat, even if those version differences are something as trivial as compile-time includes, that's something else entirely. What we need is a single version of Quicken for Linux that can be packaged and put on the shelves at Best Buy. Until that happens--not just for Quicken but for, say, the top 100 applications--Linux will have a struggle to become a viable mainstream desktop OS.

There's also some plumbing missing in Linux. When Microsoft introduced Windows NT Server, they were realistic enough to recognize that Novell NetWare was the overwhelmingly dominant PC NOS, and that as the new kid on the block they'd have to play nice with NetWare. So they did. They did everything possible to let Windows NT co-exist peacefully with NetWare. Their goal, of course, was to have NT replace NetWare eventually, but in the interim they recognized that no one was about to make an overnight change to a whole new set of protocols, client software, and so on. By taking that approach, Microsoft was massively successful in replacing NetWare. In just a few years, NT went from having 0.000% of the seats to selling more new seats than NetWare.

Linux has to take the same approach if it is to succeed as a mainstream desktop OS. It has to recognize that the world runs mostly NT and NetWare file and print servers and to make sure that accessing resources on those servers is as easy with a Linux client as with a Windows client. If and when that happens, you can expect to see Linux being deployed widely on new clients in corporate networks. When it does happen, it won't have anything to do with the relative costs of Windows and Linux. The cost of a client OS is a trivially small part of the cost of building and maintaining a corporate network.  It'll have to do with resistance to Microsoft's increasingly draconian licensing terms and other screw-the-customer behavior and the perception that installing Linux clients has many upsides and no downsides. But for that perception to be built, Linux has to play nice as a client for NT and NetWare servers.

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Thursday, 11 January 2001

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Thanks to Brian Bilbrey for the pointer to this article on the Baen web site. If you're at all interested in piracy of intellectual property, copyright issues, copy protection on content, and a lot of other things I've been talking about lately, this article is well worth your time to read.

Between plumber and drain auger company visits, talking to the utility locator service people, and so on, I finally got Linux-Mandrake 7.2 installed yesterday morning. And it works, kind of. That is, it fires up and displays a desktop with lots of pretty icons. I can run configuration programs and other stuff locally. I can't log on to my Windows NT Server box (or any of the other shared Windows resources), nor can I get out to the Internet through my WinGate box. The latter is probably just a configuration issue, although I did configure Navigator properly, or so I thought. In playing with the box for a few minutes, the first thing that struck me was the number of things that appeared to be different from Windows just for the sake of being different.

For example, while I was installing the OS, the first head-scratcher came while I was configuring networking. Mandrake gave me the choice of entering an IP address and netmask manually or getting the IP configuration parameters from a DHCP server. Fine. I understood that choice and all the implications. What I didn't understand was what Mandrake was showing me or how to change it to what I wanted it to be. The IP address and subnet mask boxes were blank. Below them was a place to select or deselect using a DHCP server. But I couldn't tell if the boxes above were blank because using a DHCP server was enabled by default or if there were no defaults in that screen. In other words, I couldn't tell whether or not DHCP was enabled by looking at the screen. 

I clicked the DHCP item and it changed visually, but was it now on or off? I couldn't tell. So I entered an IP address and netmask in the boxes above and then clicked the DHCP area again. The addresses I'd entered remained on screen. So I clicked the DHCP area yet again. The IP address and netmask I'd entered still remained in the box. I was hoping that one or the other choice for DHCP would clear or grey-out the manual entries I'd made, but neither setting did that. What in the name of Great Gorp is wrong with using Microsoft-style check boxes and option buttons? At least those make it clear what is selected, whether or not one is familiar with Microsoft conventions. The same is not true of the brain-damaged method Mandrake uses.

So I wasted five minutes or so trying to figure out how to make Mandrake do what I wanted it to do before just giving up and clicking Next. I am not a TCP/IP novice. Hell, I've written a book about TCP/IP for O'Reilly. So if I, knowing exactly what needs to be done, cannot configure a simple thing like IP address in Mandrake, what chance does an ordinary Windows user have?

Here's another example of a gratuitous change that should never have been made. When I called up a window to see if I could change the video settings, I noticed that rather than the standard Windows convention of the three boxes in the upper right corner with familiar icons, Mandrake had three boxes, but with different icons. The minimize and maximize icons were pretty self-explanatory, although it would have been better had they looked exactly like the corresponding Microsoft icon, but the Close "X" icon was something else entirely. The third icon was an empty circle, which I assumed meant "Close". Nope. That's not what it does. (I haven't figured out what it does yet, because I haven't tried). 

The Close icon is, ironically, a big "X" just like the Microsoft icon, but is located on the top left of the window, where no Microsoft user is going to think to look for it. Putting it there was an incredibly dumb move. Not just from a familiarity standpoint, either. From a usability standpoint, why separate functionally related icons? Put them all on the top right of the window (or the bottom left, for that matter) but put them all together. Top right would be better, because there are 100,000,000 Windows users just itching to convert to Linux (even if they don't realize it yet).

So I was playing around and decided to change monitor types. Setup had selected a generic monitor capable of displaying 1024X768 at 70 Hz.  The monitor I'm actually using is the one that's shared by the Belkin OmniCube with three other systems. It's an old 17" Gateway Vivitron 17, which displays 1024X768 at 75 Hz. That's what those other three systems are set to use, and that's what I wanted Linux to use. When I got to the monitor selection applet, I found Gateway listed, but no listing for the Vivitron 17. Okay, that would not have been a problem if there'd been somewhere to tell Linux to use 1024X768 with 24-bit color at 75 Hz. If there was, I didn't see it. I did go in and change color depth from the default 4 billion colors to 24-bit color, and was shocked to see that Linux/KDE forced me to shutdown and re-login to make the change. I expected it to do so on the fly, as Windows 2000 would have done.

I should hasten to add that, despite what I've written above, I'm very impressed with Mandrake 7.2. If it weren't for the dearth of first-rate applications available for Linux, I'd make the change now. Linux-Mandrake 7.2 looks different from Windows, certainly, and a lot of those differences are gratuitous, but despite that Linux-Mandrake 7.2 also looks like a real desktop OS. The system I'm running it on has a Pentium III/600 processor, 128 MB of RAM, a 10 GB hard drive, a Travan TR-4 tape drive, and a CD writer. All of that should be enough to provide a fair platform for Mandrake 7.2 as a desktop OS. The box sits under my desk, and is connected to the Belkin OmniCube KVM switch with my other secondary systems, so I'm not going to forget to use it.

But I'm going to need lots of help to get up and running. I can't figure out how to do what should be simple things, like mapping a drive to a shared NT volume elsewhere on my network. My readers are always generous with their time and advice, so I'm sure that I'll get all the help I need to solve the problems I run into. But that's not really enough. At the end of that process, I'll know how to configure and use Linux, but there'll be many other would-be Linux converts who won't have benefited from all that advice. You know the old saying, "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you really piss off his wife." 

So I'm reinstituting the Linux Chronicles page, but this time as a forum over on the messageboard. The questions I have and the problems I run into will probably be the same ones that other novice Linux users encounter, so keeping questions and responses and problems and solutions organized and accessible should help a lot of other people. I've left that forum open, in the sense that any registered user can start a new thread. So if you're also taking your first baby steps with Linux, feel free to post your questions there as well. We all might learn something, and as the posts accumulate we'll create a body of information that will be very valuable for anyone who later follows our path. Also, I want to keep things distribution-agnostic, so if you're using Caldera or Red Hat or whatever rather than Mandrake, don't hesitate to post.

This should be an exciting journey. Perhaps "journey" is the wrong word, because a journey normally has both a start and an end. This is definitely the start for me, but I don't expect it to end. 

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Friday, 12 January 2001

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We were awakened just before 6:00 a.m. by an ominous trickling sound. Kerry apparently couldn't hold it. In fairness to him, he had come over and snouted me in the face a few minutes before, but I didn't understand what he wanted. Happily, we have hardwood floors, which makes cleaning up a simple matter of using paper towels and a spray bottle of dilute ammonia we keep handy. So I was awake at 6:00 a.m. this morning, which I hate. We gave the dogs a quick out, locking the barn door after the horse was stolen, and then Barbara went back to bed. I was wide awake, so I just read the paper and visited a few web sites.

Our main drain is to be repaired today. The plumber called yesterday evening to say he'd scheduled the backhoe to visit around noon. That works out well, because the utility placement service's 48-hour deadline expires at 11:57 a.m. today. When the plumber was out day before yesterday, the last thing he said before leaving was that I should call "Carolina One-Call" to notify them that we'd be digging so they could send someone out to mark the locations of the various buried services--electricity, natural gas, telephone, cable television, water, and so on. He said they had 48 hours to do it, so I asked what'd happen if he got a backhoe here before 48 hours had expired. He said to tell them that it was an emergency because we were without a functioning sewer. 

I called Carolina One-Call as soon as he left, and the lady told me that they'd have someone out that afternoon or the following morning. At noon yesterday, I called them again and they said they'd either have someone out that afternoon or someone would call me to confirm that there were no main lines to worry about. Late yesterday afternoon, I got a call from another woman at Carolina One-Call to tell me that their service had only a 48-hour guarantee, so it'd be done before 11:57 a.m. on the 12th. I mentioned the shorter timeframe that the first lady had promised because this was an emergency, but this woman didn't seem to care. When I mentioned it to our plumber he said it was their problem. After 48 hours' notice has expired, if the plumber digs up a buried line, Carolina One-Call has to pay the damages. So that's all right, then.

The plumber assures me that by the time they leave today we'll have fully functioning drains. They'll fill the hole in the driveway with dirt and gravel, but that'll serve until the weather is better and we can get it patched. But we will have working drains, and that's what counts. This sniffing around in the yard looking for somewhere to go has been very hard on me.

No Linux stuff today. I'll have too much else going on to pay proper attention to it.

I found out by accident last night that the Britannica DVD loads and runs across the network. I was sitting in the den working on the Compaq Armada E500 notebook system, which connects to my network via the Intel 2011 Wireless LAN. The DVD-ROM drive on Barbara's system, where Britannica is installed, is drive V:. On a whim, I decided to look at the contents of that disc. Rather than actually get up and walk back to Barbara's office, I decided to map drive V: on the Armada to \\sherlock\v$, the administrative share for the DVD-ROM drive. That worked as expected. But while I was looking at directory listings on the DVD, I noticed Setup.exe. What the heck? I double clicked that program and, sure enough, Britannica started installing to the Armada. And it runs just fine. About as fast, in fact, as it runs locally on Barbara's machine. Ain't technology wonderful?

Amazon is at it again, this time selling placements on their search engine. They aren't the first to engage in this shoddy practice--some dedicated search engines have been doing it for a year or more--but Amazon is the first web retailer I know of who's done this. When Amazon was caught selling book placements a year or so ago, making it seem as though books which the publishers had paid to place were instead those Amazon was giving an unbiased recommendation to, Amazon was quick to back off and label those paid placements as such. 

This time, it's the search engine they're selling placements for. For example, if you search Amazon for "PC hardware", the search engine won't necessarily display the best-selling PC hardware book at the top of the list, or the one with the most favorable reader comments, or the one that's most recently published, or the one that's in stock. Instead, it'll display the PC hardware book whose publisher has bid the most to be at the top of the list. The Amazon description of this "service" and some third-party reports suggest that the effect of buying placements is reflected only in the "sponsored results" list, but that's by no means clear to me. Amazon used to present search lists with a default sort order of "Best-selling" but have now changed to "Most available", whatever that means. It seems to me that "available" is binary. The book is either in stock or it isn't. If it isn't, chances are its availability is "2 to 3 days", which is how long it takes to get the book from the publisher or a distributor. So does "Most available" take paid placements into account? Who knows?

I find all this unutterably disgusting. Amazon has made it clear that their customers' interests take a far-distant second place to Amazon's own interests. Amazon clearly regards its customers as what con-men call "marks"--gullible people whose only reason for being is to be relieved of their money. And, as all con-men know, if you handle a mark properly, you can come back to prune him again and again. Enough of this. I don't do business with Amazon, and I suggest that you not do business with them either.

10:50: Well, the backhoe is here and we're waiting for the plumber. This has been a gigantic mess throughout. When the plumber was here Wednesday, right before he left he told me to call the utility locator service to come out and mark the various lines. He mentioned they would respond within 48 hours, and I asked him if that meant he'd have to wait to schedule the backhoe. He said to tell the utility locator folks it was an emergency. So I called them, at 11:57 a.m. Wednesday by their records, and told them what the plumber told me. The lady said there'd be someone out that afternoon or the following morning. When no one had showed up by noon yesterday, I called again. The lady said that someone from the utility locator service would call back soon. Late yesterday afternoon, I got a call back and the woman who called said they had 48 hours to respond and that they'd have it done by 11:57 a.m. today.

Then, at dinner time yesterday, the plumber called and said he'd gotten the backhoe scheduled for noon today. Fine, I told him, because the 48 hours expires at 11:57 a.m. At this point, it looked like everything was working out. Then, at 8:15 a.m. today, the plumber called to say the backhoe guy was running ahead of schedule, was on the way here, and that they'd be digging within an hour. I told him that the utility locator folks hadn't been out yet and he said to call them and tell them what was going on. 

The lady said not to dig until the lines had been marked, which could occur as late as 11:57 a.m. I explained that I'd dealt in good faith with them, and didn't want to pay for the excavation equipment to sit here for almost 4 hours unused. She said to bump it up to a supervisor, which I did. As I was talking to her, the flatbed carrying the backhoe pulled up out front, so I told her they were here now. She said she'd get it done as quickly as possible, so I thanked her and walked out front to tell the backhoe guy what was going on. When I did, I noticed that there were now orange and yellow lines painted on the yard, which had apparently been put there while I was doing all this stuff on the phone. They sure weren't there when I took the dogs out a while earlier.

So I ran back inside and called the utility locator supervisor again and told her that I now had yellow and orange lines in my yard, which are apparently for natural gas and telephone. Once she verified that our power and cable TV were overhead drops, which they are, she said that was that and it was okay to start digging. By now the plumber had arrived, turned off the water and gotten started digging. I have a bunch of pictures to choose from, so I'll probably post some tomorrow.

They reached the junction between the main drain line we installed six or seven years ago and the city-supplied tail pipe that links our drain to the city cleanout stack. That's right on the edge of the driveway, so all they'd dug at that point was dirt, piling it on one of Barbara's flowerbeds. When they uncovered the pipe junction, which was where we'd hoped the problem was, the plumber said it was in pretty good shape. It was offset by a half inch or so (1 cm), which he said would form a lip that could catch toilet paper and so on, but that wasn't enough to explain the problems we're having. So he decided to cut out a 3 foot or so (1 m) segment and shine a light in towards the city stack. He just told me that the problem is in the city-supplied 5-foot tailpipe that joins to the stack, and they've called the city out to look at it. I'm afraid this means we're going to have to tear up the concrete pad that runs from the curb about 3 feet in to the driveway, where the driveway becomes blacktop.

So we're waiting for the guy from the city to show up to see if the city will take responsibility, which we obviously hope they will. Barbara tells me she's finished her page, so I'd better get this published.

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Saturday, 13 January 2001

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Yesterday was the day from hell. It started when the dogs woke us before 6:00 a.m., which meant I was whacked for the rest of the day. Some of the day I documented above. The city guy finally showed up. They got the camera truck out and sent the camera in from our side once the plumber had cut out a three foot section of the drain from about five feet on our side of the city stack. The problem is definitely in the 5-foot tailpipe that joins our line to the city stack and is, unfortunately, under the driveway. What apparently happened is that when we had the driveway replaced in 1997, one of the trucks hauling off the broken old concrete drove over the unprotected stack, forcing it down into the ground and fracturing the cast-iron tail pipe. Wonderful.

So the plumber gave us a choice. He could fix the problem immediately by ripping out the concrete driveway pad and replacing the pile all the way to the stack. But what he and the city guy recommended was instead buying a new sewer connection and having a new stack installed several feet over in the yard. When the city guy was getting ready to leave, he gave me the number to call about getting  a new sewer connection. He said that I should ask how much the new connection would be versus getting a "sewer renewal" instead. When I called, the guy at Engineering told me that a new connection was $925 and a renewal was free. So I got on the phone back to the original city guy, who was out of contact. I ended up talking to his boss, who said they wouldn't do a renewal because the problem was a few inches on our side of the stack. Literally. The original city guy told us before he left that if the problem had been literally three inches closer to the stack that they would have done everything for free. So I wasn't sure why he mentioned the renewal, anyway, but as it turned out we can't get a free renewal. Of course. That's always our luck.

By the time we finally found out we were going to have to buy a new sewer connection, it was 4:00 p.m. The city offices close at 5:00 p.m. and are closed Monday for MLK day. And, of course, we couldn't get things started over the phone. We actually had to drive downtown and apply for the permit for the new connection. We did that, and Barbara sat parked outside while I went in to get the renewal. They'd told us to go to City Hall South. I hadn't been downtown in five years, and it'd been quite a while since Barbara had been down there also. She dropped me outside City Hall.  I walked up to the door and saw the sign that said that all city offices had been moved to City Hall South, which was fortunately only a block away. So I walked the block and found the Water & Sewer offices.

And what an interesting juxtaposition of technology they have in their new offices. I sat down with a woman who worked in a modern cubicle, with a Compaq flat-screen monitor on her desk. But she used that exactly once to look something up. Otherwise, it was old technology all the way. She filled out a form by hand using a goose quill pen. Well, not really, but it might as well have been. She then turned to her typewriter (!) and typed everything out on another form, pausing to eject and reinsert the form and type more information on the back of it. She then rolled a permit into her typewriter and filled that out. She has all this wonderful, up-to-date, expensive new technology on her desk, and here she is doing 95% of her job with pen and typewriter. From a couple of quick questions I asked her, it would seem that all she uses that flat-screen monitor for is to look up things in a database hosted on the city mainframe. Geez.

At any rate, by the time I got all the T's dotted and I's crossed, it was about 4:50 p.m. I still had to pay the $925, so I got to stand in line to do that. Once I'd paid, I left the offices clutching my new permit and walked back up to where Barbara was parked. By then it was too late to call the division of the sewer department that actually schedules installations, so we'll have to wait until Tuesday morning to do that. At least everyone concerned has promised to do everything possible to expedite the new installation. We may get it within a week or two after we schedule it, although most new installations are running four weeks. So we get to live with our slow running drains until the new connection is installed.

Our plumber installed a temporary cleanout where they made the cut in the yard, so if we do have a backup I may be able to go out there and run a snake down it myself. The pipe is about about six feet down (the cut they made looked exactly like a grave) and it's about another six feet or so to the city stack. So I should be able to get a snake the 12 feet to the problem area if it becomes necessary. That's better than paying the rooter company $100 each time they come out. We have no idea what we'll be charged for what the plumber did yesterday, but he and his assistant were out here for about 4 hours, as was the backhoe, so it ain't gonna be cheap.

With everything going on yesterday, I ran into another aggravation. My mom got a call from one of her friends, and shouted that her cordless phone had died in mid-word. So I went and got that cordless and my own cordless, ran downstairs, put the dead cordless on its charger, removed the phone line from that charged, connected the phone line to the charger/base for my cordless phone (I have a second base upstairs), put my cordless into that second base to let it sync with the new base, and then ran upstairs to give my cordless to my mother. Ugh.

There's no telephone jack in my mother's room, so we've been depending on the cordless phones. Now that it looks as though it'll be a while before we move, it makes sense to give her a permanent solution. I'd already drilled a hole in the floor to route cable to her television, so today Barbara and I will run some Cat 3 cable through that hole to the basement, route it over to my telephone system, and punch it down to the distribution block, and cross-connect it to her extension on the switch. Or maybe I'll just punch the station run directly to the extension block and leave it hanging.

What I should really do is cut the sheetrock in the wall behind her lift chair, use my six-foot bellhanger bit to drill down through the floor inside the wall, install an old-work box and jack in the wall, and then route the cable over to the phone system and connect everything properly. But doing that would involve moving furniture around and inconveniencing mom for quite a while while I do all the work and clean everything up. The Q&D method will work just as well and give her a functioning hard-wired phone, so that's what we'll do.

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Sunday, 14 January 2001

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Okay, here are some photos of the phone system and cabling. I have to say up front that I'm deeply ashamed of my own phone panel. For some reason, I cut corners when I'm doing my own stuff. I never do that when I'm working on other people's stuff, but I generally take the lazy, sloppy approach to my own. I don't know why that is. It would seem that I'd be even more careful with my own stuff than with others' but that's never the way it works out. Actually, the photo below shows a panel that's a lot cleaner than it otherwise would have been. My friend John Mikol saw the original version (with station cables hanging loose and punched down directly to their destinations rather than to an intermediate station cable block) and clutched his chest in horror. One day, he and Steve Tucker, another friend of mine, came over and neatified it for me.

phone1.jpg (59608 bytes)

The large light box at the upper right is the Panasonic phone system controller (which I usually just call the "switch"). It's an analog 308, which is to say it supports three telephone lines, numbered CO1 through CO3, and eight extensions, numbered 11 through 18. Some of those extensions support multiple telephones. For example, Extension 18 is Barbara's. It connects to the phone in her office, the phone on her end table in the den, and her cordless phone. So when someone dials Extension 18 (or the automated attendant transfers a call intended for Barbara to Extension 18), she can answer it wherever she happens to be.

The vertical column of surface mount jacks immediately to the left of the switch are simply there for easy of interfacing the switch (which uses standard modular jacks for both CO lines and extensions). A standard base cord runs from each CO line and station port on the switch to one of these modular jacks. From there, standard 4-pair UTP cable links the ports to the column of two 66 punchdown blocks to the left. Those blocks terminate the station cable runs in the house and are cross connected to the ports (that's a spool of cross-connect wire partially visible to the southeast of the switch). I could (and probably should) have put up a second column of 66 blocks to terminate the ports and then cross-connected the station cable blocks to the port blocks, but it was just easier to do it this way.

On the lower plywood panel, the block on the upper left is a supplemental station block. The box with all the power plugs in it at bottom center is a Panamax AC and CO line surge protector, with surface-mount jacks on one side of it delivering CO from the phone company and those on the other side distributing it to the switch and elsewhere on our side of the surge protection. The small box at the center right of the lower plywood panel is a Command Communications RD-4000 distinctive ring detector. Actually, I should unplug it, because we killed the CO line that it serviced. We had one regular phone number plus a second distinctive-ring number for fax. The RD-4000 routed the first output from that CO to CO3 on the switch and the fax output to a station cable that ran into my office.

Hard to believe we're down to only two phone lines. At the height of things, when I was running a multi-line BBS (pre-Internet, or actually pre-Internet boom), we had a maximum of seven telephone lines running in here. Come to think of it, it might have been nine lines. I remember when I ordered the last couple of lines to be installed the order-taker lady said something about us having a lot of phone lines for a residence. I asked her if we had the all-time record on residential lines for BellSouth and she said we weren't even close. Apparently, we could have had ten times that number of lines and still not had the record. Apparently someone was either running a serious multi-line BBS or a bookmaking operation from his home.

phone2.jpg (56072 bytes)

Always use an existing hole when you can. Otherwise you never know what you'll drill your way into or through. Ask my friend John Mikol, who drilled a hole all the way through from the interior of his house to the outside and then told his wife I did it. We'd already drilled this hole when we moved my mother upstairs. The guest room, which is now her room, had neither a cable TV jack nor a phone jack. I installed the cable TV jack because the only alternatives would have involved looping cable over doorways and would have looked hideous. I didn't install a phone jack at the time because we thought her move upstairs would be temporary. As it turns out, we like having her up here. It's a lot easier than running up and down the stairs. There are a few disadvantages (like having to listen to the Lawrence Welk show or Who Wants to be a Millionaire at high volume) but on balance it's better for us. 

Since we already had the hole, I had Barbara feed the phone cable down from upstairs whilst I pulled it through, looping it over all the pipes and other obstructions. Once that was done, I connected it at the phone backboard (leaving plenty of slack looped around the cable spools on the backboard) and then pulled it back taut, stapling it onto the joists as I went. I cheated on the cross-connecting, though...

phone3.jpg (43055 bytes)

I no longer have a butt-set, toner, or inductive amp, which makes tracing cables and cross-connecting them difficult. My friend Steve Tucker has his own butt-set, toner, and inductive amp, but the last time I borrowed them from him I kept them something like six months and then when he asked for them back I told him I'd already returned them. I was getting even with our friend John Mikol borrowing my 6-foot bellhanger bit, keeping it for two or three years, and then claiming he'd returned it to me. Eventually, John found and returned the bit, and I found and returned Steve's stuff, so that's all right then. But it does mean that Steve gets to borrow something from John, keep it for a year and then claim he already returned it. At any rate, I was too ashamed to go borrow them again to do the job right. I'm sure Steve would have let me borrow them again, but he'd probably have demanded my driver's license or eyeglasses as collateral, and rightly so.

Since I couldn't tone things out, the easiest way to proceed was to connect the new station cable directly into the surface-mount jack that routes Extension 12 (my mother's extension) from the switch to the station punchdown blocks. So I popped the lid on that jack and tied the new station cable right into it. At least I neatly pigtailed the three spare pairs from the cable, which is more effort than I usually go to with my own stuff.

Once all the connections were made downstairs, I came up to my mother's room (we always call it her "office" for some reason), pulled out a good 15 feet of cable (enough to get from the corner where the cable emerges, run along one wall and to the mid-point of the wall behind her lift chair) and connected a surface mount jack to the end. I was going to staple the station cable neatly around the baseboard, but Barbara said not to bother! She's right, really. Sometime when we're doing a deep clean of that room I'll pull that cable back down through the floor, put an old-work box in the wall behind her lift-chair and terminate things properly.

Once we connected a standard phone and verified that everything was working, I went downstairs (which was the only place that station 12 originally terminated) and disconnected the cordless phone base. That cordless phone is actually Barbara's and she's been very good about letting my mother use it for the time she's been living upstairs. But Barbara needed her phone back, so I reconnected the base upstairs to extension 18 (Barbara's), resynched it, and handed her the phone. Ta-da.

I also spent some time yesterday getting my Outlook pst files cleaned up. I started with my main (current) pst file, and some archives. One held everything from when I started using Outlook 97 at it's release in January of 1997 through 31 December, 1998. Another held everything from 1 January 1999 through 20 May 2000. Finally, I had a third archive that held everything from 21 May 2000 through the material added the last time I archived. I finally decided that I really didn't need to keep a huge amount of back data in Outlook, so I archived everything prior to 1/1/2000 out of my main file. I then archived everything in the most recent archive file to the one dated 20 May 2000. That now gives me four pst files, one that holds all 1997 and 1998 data, another that holds all 1999 and 2000 data, a third (currently empty) archive file (to which I'll archive data from my main pst this year), and finally, my main pst file. The 1997/98 archive is about 200 MB. The 1999/2000 archive is about 400 MB. But either of them opens and reads fine, even across the network, so that's no problem. And my main pst file is now down to about 6 MB, which is an order of magnitude smaller than it's ever been. I must say that it's not all that much faster opening than it was. Back when my main file was between 100 and 200 MB, it took something like a second or two to open. Now it takes maybe half that.

There's an interesting article over on The Register about the problems Delphi is having with Windows 2000 Advanced Server. After numerous stability problems, they've decided to downgrade their servers to Windows NT 4 Server. 

On the question of Windows 2000, my take at this point is that Windows 2000 Professional is a decent client OS. I'm running it on several systems now, including sherlock (Barbara's main system), thoth (my main system), and drake (my Compaq Armada E500 notebook). Although I don't consider it a compelling upgrade from Windows NT 4 Workstation, except for notebooks, Windows 2000 Professional is about as good a choice as NT4 for clients now. 

If you're buying a new desktop or notebook system, it probably makes sense to get it with Windows 2000 rather than NT4. But it seldom makes sense to upgrade existing NT4 systems to Windows 2000, if only because doing so means you're likely to encounter non-existent drivers for older hardware. From my point of view, the major advantage of Windows 2000 is support for USB and the major disadvantage is that drivers, while much more readily available than when W2K shipped a year ago, are still thin on the ground for many popular devices.

Windows 2000 Server and Advanced Server are a different story, though. Nearly a year after they shipped, there is still a dearth of certified applications, there are few people truly competent to configure and maintain it (particularly when it comes to developing a rational AD structure), and drivers for server-oriented components like high-end network cards are often buggy and provide low performance. Many corporations are taking the same approach we do around here: keep running Windows NT 4 on existing client systems; run Windows 2000 Professional on new client systems; but keep the servers running Windows NT 4 Server.

I long ago declared Windows 2000 Server a failed operating system, and I see no reason to change my mind. It's interesting that Microsoft, which one would expect to be trumpeting "wins" for Windows 2000 Server, has been pretty silent. One of the early wins they talked a lot about was IBM, which subsequently issued a corporate-wide memo forbidding anyone from installing Windows 2000 because DHCP bugs were threatening the stability of their entire corporate network. I suspect that the reason Microsoft isn't trumpeting any big wins for Windows 2000 Server is that there aren't any to speak of. Corporations appear to be ignoring Windows 2000 Server in droves.

Although I'm sure Microsoft would deny it, my belief is that Windows 2000 has been a disaster for them. Just as when Novell left the door ajar with NetWare 4.0, Microsoft kicked it in with Windows NT Server, my guess is that Linux will do the same thing to Windows Server. Linux is making great inroads in server-space. At first, most corporate Linux servers were simply Internet servers, leaving the file and print sharing duties to NetWare and Windows NT. Now, more and more, corporations are starting to deploy Linux as a general-purpose server platform. It's cheap, fast, stable, and does everything most small- and medium-size businesses need a server to do. Granted, Linux doesn't have all the bells and whistles that NT or NetWare does. Yet. But it's getting there fast, and with support from companies like IBM, who are contributing the code for their journaling file system, it won't be long before Linux matches NT and NetWare feature-for-feature in server-space. That has to have Microsoft worried to death. It certainly doesn't bode well for the server flavors of Windows 2000.

I'd better get to work. Barbara is going over to her parents' house this morning to help them with some stuff. She's going to bring back her dad's sewer snake. Our plumber installed a new temporary cleanout stack in the front yard. We have no idea how long it'll be until they install our new connection--it could be a week or it could be four weeks--and in the interim we're just as subject to backups as we were before. But we know the problem is right at the city stack, and the new cleanout is only a few feet from it. From the top of the new stack, it's perhaps six feet down to the main drain line and then six feet over to the problem area. So if we get a backup now, we can try running the snake ourselves instead of paying the rooter folks $100 to come out and clear it.

I also need to write checks today for estimated federal and state income taxes. Grrrrr. And I really must do some work on the web site. I'd intended to update it every few days, but I just haven't had time to do much with it lately. And it does deserve some attention.

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