March 2006


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Archive for March, 2006

Death of a dinosaur

Posted in Geekery, Work on March 28th, 2006

Today I signed the Death Warrant for our last legacy system: the West-side shop’s Point-of-Sale machine.

This is the last machine in the shop running Win98. The cash drawer for that shop is electronic, and the only way to open it was to use the POS software it came with, which only runs on Win98. Seemed to me to be a stupid reason to keep a legacy system around, so I went down to the Shack and came back with a small bag of parts.

How the software works is pretty simple, and I could probably have found something on the net to duplicate the function on a WinXP box – all it does is route power to a serial connection. This would require a few hours of digging and configuring and testing though, time my cheapskate boss is unlikely to want to pay me for. Modding the drawer to use a switch and external power supply took me all of a half-hour.

For a moment I thought I was going to have to run an extension cable from inside a computer to make the solenoid fire – it takes 12V instead of the usual 5V. It turns out we just happened to have some 12VDC transformers with Molex plugs lying around though (we use them for showing off case lighting systems). So, a quick mod to the design involving the end of a Molex four-pin Y cable, and now I have a stand-alone cash drawer with an Evil-Genius-type Big Red Button.

What does all of this mean? It means that tax day is coming up, and everyone who hasn’t already spent their return on computer stuff is getting ready to pay the taxes they owe. This means our phones are eerily quiet, and I have time to do the little things I have been meaning to get to for the last couple of months. Of course, this won’t last – El Cheapo is going to start stipulating mandatory time off any minute now.

Hey Greyduck – maybe we should build a dual-resume and bill ourselves as a team gig…

A productive day -or- Wow! I got shit done!

Posted in Life on March 26th, 2006

Things accomplished:
Two loads of laundry
A load of dishes put away
A load of dishes washed
Cleaned my garage table
Cleaned the inside of my car
Filled the paper recycling bin
Filled the plastics recycling bin
Swept kitchen
Spot-mopped kitchen floor
Changed the litter box

And somehow, I also managed to find the time to locate, install and hand-configure a SuperKaramba sensor theme for the Linux install. Hand-configured, because there is apparently no easy way to automate the configuration. Installed because, well, I like to know what’s going on in there.

Now, when I say hand-configure, I mean it. This included commenting out the portions of the program I wasn’t going to be using, assigning the variables for the portions I was going to be using, and then hacking the display dynamics to get everything to line up again – including Gimp-ing the background images. (Gimp is the Linux equivalent of Photoshop, for you Windows users.)

Not bad for a guy who isn’t a programmer, if I do say so myself :)

On the downside of this, I’m now feeling a bit cross-eyed from poking through all the code. Too many lines of tiny type…

Review:SuSE 10 AMD64 Edition

Posted in Geekery on March 25th, 2006

Well, I finally got off my backside and installed Linux on the new build. I started with Kubuntu’s AMD64 version, but it kept setting my clock to UTC and screwing everything up. No idea why, it just did. Wasn’t something I really wanted to mess with, since I had just done the install and had no real reason to sort it all out.

So, back to the ftp and got a copy of the SuSE 10.0 AMD64 version. There’s nothing really new for me here, since I was running the 32-bit version before the hardware upgrade. The install did go noticeably faster on the SATA drive, and I’m sure having 2GB of RAM to play with helped the speed issue. So, how does it run?

Not much faster than it used to. And I’m not really surprised.

See, Linux is written to use the hardware more efficiently already, so you won’t see as pronounced a speed increase as you do in the Windows world. Sure, the larger programs such as OpenOffice do launch more quickly, but not by much – the jump from 1 to 2 Gigs of RAM isn’t that pronounced when you’re only using 25 Megs of it to begin with. And it’s not like the software I use is all that processor-intensive. So far, the biggest stress test I have put it through is running Scorched3D at 1280×1024 resolution with highest graphics settings – and I can happily report that the Linux drivers for my nVidia card work flawlessly, without any nasty configuration headaches.

A big hint hint to the folks over at ATI here.

Other nice surprises included SuSE correctly identifying and configuring the on-board sound chip, and letting me configure it for 6-channel audio. Okay, it isn’t actual surround-sound (it is currently duplicating front channel to rear), but I don’t play any games or movies in Linux that use surround sound. Again, not feeling the need to go that last step when it isn’t necessary.

Another thing that sets SuSE apart from the other distributions is YAST, by far the coolest configuration tool I have seen for Linux. I wish (K)Ubuntu would borrow it. Using YAST, I was able to browse through the software selections available, and found apt-get was included on the DVD image. A couple clicks later, it was installed.

Once that is done, it’s a simple matter of getting into a terminal and entering apt-get update and apt-get install synaptic. Voila! You now have the Debian apt-get package management tool and a pretty GUI to use it. The default repositories list may be a little sparse, but a quick Google search fixes that. Using Synaptic, press the button for “mark all upgrades” and choose “Default” after you apply the changes – this should go through and fix your crippled multimedia players.

One weird thing that did crop up had to do with my IMAP email boxes. For some reason, when I tried to open an email from one of these accounts, the system started hammering my Data drive mercilessly, to the tune of 100% CPU usage – it almost locked up the system. I had to reset those email addresses to a standard POP setting until I can find the problem. Weird.

Just for grins and giggles, I’ll see if there is an easy way to benchmark the box and post the scores here for you. I still say, if you want to run Linux, SuSE ain’t a bad way to go. The install is very user-friendly and it comes with just about anything you want. What it doesn’t come with can be found pretty simply, now that they have included apt-get as a means of package management.

So, go forth and download a copy for yourself. And like they say at SuSE, “Have a lot of fun!”

Tiered Internet – or how can we screw everyone more?

Posted in Life on March 23rd, 2006

So, it looks like the CEO’s of several major Telcos were sitting around one day, wondering how best to squeeze every last cent out of the world when they came up with a great idea: “Hey, we’re already charging our customers 3 times what their service should cost, but I know how to make even more money – we’ll charge the content providers to deliver their data!”

Today, the FCC backed the idea. No surprise there – the gutless twerp Bush put in charge of the FCC has his nose so thoroughly up Big Biz’s sphincter that he won’t be able to see daylight unless BB leans it’s head back to let some up it’s nostrils. This is, after all, the same guy who let AT&T put itself back together – years after the FCC took it apart in the first place.

What’s next? Brown charging the shipper and the ship-to? Better yet, will Wal-Mart start charging the manufacturers for shelf space?

Dear FCC – do you remember when DARPA created the first network, and what they did it for? To ensure communications integrity. A nationwide network that could not be brought to its knees by foreign attack. Sure, it spread to the whole world, and has become a huge medium – better for all of us. Don’t let it be turned into a bunch of privatized networks. Everyone will lose. Bring back the Common Carrier rules as they were written.

Outrage and slacking

Posted in Life on March 22nd, 2006

Yes, I am a slacker for not having written anything lately. Kind of in a rut, I suppose – just more of the same on my end. My boss is a flake, my job is still the same, and the kids are healthy and happy. Ratboy is becoming a bit of a ghost around here since he got a job, but he is looking better for it, and I know he’s enjoying having money he earned himself in his pocket.

There is, however, much outrage over what happened to the Roomie. There is some satisfaction in knowing that the place is going to have serious problems finding someone to fill those web-footed shoes, but it isn’t enough by any means. The only thing I can hope for on that front is for Greyduck’s actual boss (who was not involved in the procedings) to have a big enough pair to write him a glowing letter of recommendation – hopefully nefore he sits down and figures out how truly screwed the department is.


How to upgrade to Windows XP

Posted in Geekery on March 12th, 2006

Ok, I would have hoped that there would be less of a need for this particular article, considering what year it is, but a discussion with da Roomie this weekend has proved that this is not all self-evident. I will write this in hopes that others will not be forced into the same problems he has faced today.

So, if you’re sitting there looking at your Win98 or Win2K machine and thinking, “Ok, none of the new games I want or even my new copy of Norton antivirus will work on 98, it’s time to bite the bullet.” Here’s what you will need:

Processor: At least an Athlon XP1700+ or Pentium 4 at 1.7GHz. Yes, you can run it on the later model PIII’s, but it will never be fast. If your computer is that old, you really will be happier building a new box from scratch.

RAM: Forget what Bill says, you want at least 512MB of RAM. If you buy more, remember that single-sided RAM and double-sided sticks do not play together. You’re better off just replacing whatever you have instead of trying to get something compatable with the old.

Hard Drive: Unless the one you have is less than 2 years old, get a new one. Before you buy anything over 120GB, make sure your motherboard will let you use all of it. Some will require a BIOS update before it will see over that 120GB mark.

Power Supply: Again, unless you have replaced it recently, get a new one, of at least 350W. Electronic parts have a finite lifespan, and power bricks can take other things with them when they die. Make sure the new one has the proper connector for your motherboard; this will most likely be a 20-pin molex.

A copy of XP: Here’s the tricky part. If you still have your Win98, ME or Win2K disk, you can save some money and buy the Upgrade Edition. If not, when you buy all the other stuff you need, ask for an OEM copy of Windows XP. This is the version they sell to system builders. It’s the same as a retail box, only there is no box, it’s cheaper, and they have to sell you at least some sort of hardware at the same time. A new hard drive counts.

A Live CD of some sort: There are a bunch of Live CD’s out there that can be downloaded, or that come with techie mags at the bookstore. These will usually be Linux-based (I recommend Knoppix) and will have some diagnostic tools for you to use if something goes wrong.

Drivers for all your hardware: A hard copy, not just a file on your old hard drive. Take the time at the beginning to download the XP versions of any peripheral drivers you can. At the very least, make sure you have XP drivers for your modem or network card. Some older modems DO NOT have WinXP drivers – check for these first! **Special Note**: Roxio EZ CD Creator v3.5 will not work with XP, and will damage your system if you install it. Take a minute to check software compatability for all your stuff.

Now, here’s what you do with all this… Read the rest of this entry »

Hey, what the…

Posted in Geekery on March 9th, 2006

I saw that Grau at Frizzen Sparks had posted how he got several thousand spam comments today, so I thought I’d see how I was doing – only a couple hundred over the past couple days, but not so bad.

The one thing that has bothered me about Spam Karma is that even if a comment isn’t listed on the post, it would show up in the “Recent Comments” area in the right menu until it was purged. The thing I noticed tonight is that they have figured out how to hack WP’s comment listings.

Normally, a comment would say “commenter’s name on post title” – well, the spammers somehow figured out how to change the post title listing for their comment. I looked at that list and saw comments austensibly listed on posts I had never written! The fuckers!

So, as one more “bite me” to the spammers, I have removed the “recent comments” listing.

Not that they will ever notice…

…I.R.S. taketh away…

Posted in Life, Politics on March 8th, 2006

…then gives it back, and takes it again.

I got a note from the Oregon Dept. of Revenue a while back saying they were going to take money from my Fed return to repay back Oregon taxes – no surprise, I expected it. Sure enough, they nipped $401 and change. Cool, I don’t have to write any more checks to them.

Then I get a note on Friday that they were going to nip another $405 and change from my state return.


Monday, I figured out how the state gets away with all of their “miscalculations” – they take the phone connected to their 1-800 number off the hook during tax time. Either that, or they have pissed off about a million people, because I tried calling them over 15 times in two days, and never got anything but a busy signal between 8am and 6pm.

Today, I figured out what happened when I checked my mail. There is apparently some stupid rule someplace that says they can nick your Fed return, but if they later discover that you would still get a state refund, they give the original money back then nick the money from your state return. I got a check for the original $401+.

Some of you may have noticed the difference in the amounts. That would be the additional month of interest, since I technically had not paid those taxes, since they attached the Federal money unnecessarily.

Yeah, that’s what I said.

Pros, Cons and Amateurs

Posted in Geekery on March 7th, 2006

Online shopping:
Pro: Usually the lowest price; the ability to get exactly what you want, not what they have on the shelf.
Cons: Having your shipment delayed due to “inclement weather”. (It was coming from SoCal – what kind of weather were they having? A sprinkle?) Having to then fight your way through the shipper’s phone menu on Friday just to find out there is no Saturday pickup. The soonest a re-deliver can be attempted is Monday, and they might not leave it on the porch despite my instructions.

Well, after all that, I got the fan controller for Hyperion today. I remember when I first saw these things, and thought to myself, “Fan speed control? If I slow these things down any, this thing is going Chernobyl on me!” Yes, Rodimus Prime ran just a wee bit hot. With that lousy case it was housed in, I had the CPU fan, an exhaust fan, an exhaust blower below the GPU and an intake fan just for good measure. Of course, it didn’t help that these were all only 60mm. Damn thing sounded like a Cessna.

Hyperion, on the other paw, came with an enormous tri-speed fan in the back, and then I put my beautiful Zalman cooler on the CPU. Those two 120mm fans (plus the ones in the power unit) keep the system at 42/34C (107/92F processor/case) at idle at their lowest spin. Under full load, though, things heat up a bit and I have to crank up the revs on those two fans. No problem, right? Wrong. The CPU is ok, because the rheostat had a long enough cable on it to reach to the top of the case. The tri-speed, though, has a 4-inch cable – it doesn’t even make it outside the case, so adjusting that fan means opening the hatch.

Seemed kinda silly.

So, I just got done installing the front panel fan controller. I went with a Zalman model, both to make sure I had a compatable speed control for the CPU fan, and because it has 4 speed control knobs as well as two three-position switches to route +5V and +12V DC for other devices. (Ok, I have no use for these, but they’re cool *lol*) After the requisite monkeying with cable-end adapters, I am happy to report that I can now adjust all my fans with neat little aluminum knobs instead of having to bend over the back of my desk one-handed to dig out that control switch.

This is good, because I have to finish the Dr. Who-to-DVD project and re-burn two of the discs from the first batch. It seems that somehow the second episode on two of those discs lost sync on the audio by almost a full minute, making them unwatchable. (This would be the amateur part of the entry.) I can’t be certain, but the two bad burns are likely from me getting bored of watching it cook DVDs and launching a web browser. So, next time I’ll bring a book instead.