Silence of the Ram(s)

I love my little auxiliary computer. It’s the one that runs Mandrake Linux and sits next to my main (though less powerful) Windows XP machine.

It started life as a Pentium II 300, but thanks to a ridiculous mail order sale, it is now an Athlon XP 2400+. Of course changing the motherboard demanded a new power supply… and it really needed more memory… and there was this CDRW that was only $10 after rebate. You get the idea.

I’ve got Mandrake running nicely… well, nearly nicely. I might reinstall it, again. Anyway, I’ve got it running. And I do use the machine. But there is a continuing, nagging problem. When I turn it on, it’s like standing next to a 747 as the engines get run up!

I know what the problem is. Buying the motherboard, CPU and fan on a ‘deal’ meant the components were low end. For the internal CPU cooling fan, that meant very noisy.

I had heard about Zalman cooling solutions and how they were often nearly silent. I decided to try one. I think it’s interesting that Zalman sounds like an Eastern European name – since it’s a Korean company.

I read a lot and settled on the CNPS3100-Plus. It is a two stage cooler, with a pure copper heatsink shaped like a flower, and a fan. The fan, which isn’t mounted directly atop the heatsink as most are, comes with a “noiseless fan connector.” That’s a clever way of saying a cable with resistor to drop the fan’s voltage and speed.

I went to Google’s price comparison search engine and found the best deal. “Froogle” is a good idea, but is often confused when many items are listed together. It took me a while to find the right item and price. I ordered two. One for the auxiliary and one for the main computer.

For the past week, these two hermetically sealed “Quiet CPU Cooler” kits have sat in my office. Tonight, I finally installed the first.

I removed the original heatsink, a fan attached to a honeycomb of copper. Because it was held by tension, I used a screwdriver to stretch it a little more and pull it off the CPU socket’s pins. The kit came with a tube of thermal grease, which I spread over the area where the CPU and heatsink would touch. Then I replaced the original fan and heatsink with the copper flower. I hung the new fan from the screws that hold PCI cards on the motherboard.

When I fired the computer up the first time, it swung right into action. But, when I went to close the case and try again, the computer let out with a steady tone and shut itself down.

Modern motherboards monitor the fan that cools the CPU. Maybe this one was judging the slower fan as not sufficient? I readjusted the BIOS settings so it wouldn’t monitor the fan anymore. The computer booted right up.

Amazingly, most of the racket the PC had been producing was no longer there! There was still noise from the power supply fan and the new CPU fan – but it was worlds away from the racket I had heard before. I was able to heard the chatter of the disk drives as they accessed data. Earlier, that noise was masked.

Later tonight, or maybe tomorrow, I’ll install the second cooler on my main computer. So far, I’m very impressed by what I haven’t heard.

More Penguin Grief

I have now reloaded Mandrake Community Linux onto the second PC. It has been named – all computers have a name – Bullwinkle. This one I’m typing on will become Rocky. Later there will be a Boris, Natasha, Peabody… you get the idea.

The installation went easily (after all these installs, I should know how it’s done). Unfortunately, after the CD’s were on the computer a new ‘evil’ reared its ugly head.

The Mandrake people had decided to change the directory structure of their mirrors (mirrors are other computers that carry files in exactly the same way as the mater server). This killed all the hard coded directions to specific files!

I had been working for a few days trying to install video drivers. Now, files that were crucial to the process were unavailable. I kept going back to Google and the Mandrake site and then finally, I found a glint of hope. It wasn’t the exact answer, but enough of a hint that I was able to find the files and move them into my machine.

Are they correct? I’m not sure. The method I used was ad libbed and a little unorthodox.

Meanwhile, an hour and 15 minutes ago I started the process of preparing the new video driver. For that entire time I have been watching text and random characters fly across the screen on Bullwinkle. There’s an admonition from the developer that this step would take a long time. That was an understatement.

Hopefully over the next few days I’ll get this puppy humming. Hopefully.

I Killed the Penguin

Last night, I was looking at this computer, somewhat satisfied in how I had configured it. It was working pretty well – though I still haven’t finished optimizing the video system.

I had read about Gimp 2.0, a new version of an old PhotoShop-like program, and decided to try it out. Often with Linux there are specific packages put together to suit individual distributions – for instance Mandrake Community 10 on this PC. But, there’s no package for me, yet.

I was about to quit my pursuit when I read this on the Gimp site:

If you cannot find a pre-compiled package of GIMP 2.0 for your system, you can build and install the GIMP from the source code. This is not that hard, so don’t be afraid and give it a try.

Who wrote that? Where is he? How can I break his neck?

I attempted to install package after package, each failing in its own individual way, but pointing to a pre-existing condition that could be corrected which would fix everything. And, of course, each time I fixed one thing, it revealed another.

Finally, it got to the point where a certain installation of one system was holding up the entire show. I would mention what that system is, but I am too embarrassed to mention it in front of the Linux aware. Let’s just say I thought it would be a good idea to uninstall it and then immediately reinstall it to fix the problem.


Without thinking I had gutted my system. Some of it worked, but most did not – including the easy ability to recover the missing pieces. I was distressed.

I went to bed and told Helaine I had a fight with the penguin… and though he won, I had mortally wounded him.

This morning, I totally reinstalled Mandrake Community 10. In the meantime, some of my ability to update and correct this installation has been removed as Mandrake changed their directory structure in midstream!

I am older and wiser and wary of the penguin.

More And More Linux Frustration

This is a rant born of frustration. I guess I’m looking for some sort of community consensus – not how I should solve my problem, but how the Open Source community should attack a real problem of usability.

In my heart of hearts, I so want to love Linux. But now, after months of trying, I’m wondering if I’m not ready for Linux, and more importantly, if Linux isn’t ready for me.

Some quick background. I took my last computer course in 1968 (that’s no typo). To my friends, I am tech support. My wife has watched me guide others through menu after menu, all while in bed, with my eyes closed. The computer I’m typing on was assembled by me from parts I specified. The one next to it has just received a motherboard/cpu transplant on my kitchen table.

I am not a technophobe. Still, Linux frustrates me in nearly every possible way.

Over the last week, since rebuilding my auxiliary computer, I have loaded and reloaded and reloaded again. My estimate is a dozen loads of 5 or 6 different flavors of Linux. Each of them similar. Each of them different.

I’m starting to get worried Comcast will flag me for overly taxing their system with all the iso’s I’ve scarfed up.

On some distributions my audio card is recognized. On others it’s not, or is only after some minor tweaking. On one (and I wish I could remember which one) my TV card plays. On others, it’s cryptic error messages – messages which make Microsoft’s error messages seem kind and gentle. On one distribution, the box for the TV is blank, but the rest of the screen is full of noise, which seems to be the disjointed TV video.

The only way to get the printer to work (it’s attached to an onboard print server on my router) is by first making believe it’s attached directly to this computer and then editing the file. Clever.

None of the Linux variants I’ve used knew what to do with the video system on my motherboard – though it’s far from esoteric. I am stuck with a generic VESA driver, which means my system is running slower than it should.

I have tried to fix all of these problems, but let me use the video problem as my example. Doing a Google search for the video chip (KM400 from Via) and Linux leads to some interesting suggestions. There are some that seem to be translated to English from Chinese, but not well enough that anyone speaking English could follow. Others originate in German, then English, and again something is lost in translation. Steps are missing or just hinted at. No two suggested remedies are exactly the same.

As I look through the Usenet responses, it’s tough not to pick up smart ass disdain from many of the cognoscenti! And, I expect to get some of that here.

One of the things that’s touted as a strength of Linux, and weakness of Windows, seems to be the opposite. Windows lives in a standard world. My Linux box does not. Will the Debian driver work in my Mandrake distribtution? Maybe, though probably not.

Does my 2.6 Kernel need different care and feeding than a 2.4? Seems like it. But, I don’t really know what a kernel is, much less why 2.4 and 2.6 eat different food.

My motherboard came with all the Windows drivers I’d need – none for Linux.

Will I have to compile a package? Can I? How do I do it?

I want this to work, yet I feel Linux is fighting me. The Linux community seems anxious for this to work… and at the same time it’s scared that their baby will go mainstream… afraid that someone will do to Linux what they perceive AOL did to the Internet!

I’m not going to give up. But, I am getting very frustrated – very. I can’t believe I am alone.

More Linux Indecision

My Linux computer is a non-critical device. There’s nothing on it I really need. Maybe some day, but not now.

That has given me the luxury to change distributions (the individual flavors of Linux) in much the same way Cher changes costumes during a performance. I would guess, by now, I’ve loaded and reloaded a dozen Linux configurations.

Mostly, I’ve moved back and forth between different versions of Mandrake and Red Hat. Last night I tried “Whiteboxlinux,” which is really Red Hat’s latest Enterprise edition, liberated from any of Red Hat’s licensing. In the world of open source, this is fine and legal.

I am starting to develop an affinity for Mandrake. Their methods of configuration are much more thorough and easily used than anyone else’s I’ve tried. That’s a big deal.

Do I know who I will stick with? No. Do I worry I’ve downloaded so much data that Comcast will come to me and ask me to cool it? Yes.

The one insurmountable problem I still face is getting Linux to load a drive for my particular video configuration. My motherboard has an integrated Via Unichrome KM-400 setup, which is esoteric enough that ‘generic’ drivers go in. The correct drivers would speed my system greatly. If I only knew how?

The chip maker, Via, has a site with instructions. Following those took me perilously close to crashing the whole thing.

The Penguin Strikes Back

I have been happily buzzing along with Red Hat 9 Linux on my ‘auxiliary’ computer. Everything works well, and I was pretty pleased… until earlier this evening:

Dear Red Hat Linux user,

We are approaching the published end of life date for errata support

for our final Red Hat Linux distribution. We’d like to remind you of

this date and the options available to you for migrating your Red Hat

Linux implementations: Red Hat Enterprise Linux and the Fedora Project.

Red Hat Linux 9 distribution will reach its end-of-life for errata

maintenance on April 30, 2004. This means that as of May 1, 2004

we will not be producing new security, bugfix, or enhancement updates

for this product.

There are a variety of options available for migration. Red Hat

offers Red Hat Enterprise Linux as well as the new Fedora Project.

Our Red Hat Linux Migration Resource Center can help you find the Red

Hat solution best suited for your needs:

The errata support policy, as well as our current errata and

advisories, are available from:

–the Red Hat Network Team


Now I’ll have to choose again. I don’t want to be running a ‘dead’ distribution, because any security holes will remain just that… and that’s not acceptable.

I’m leaning toward Mandrake 10 Community, but am looking for any advice I can get. It’s very confusing. I think it’s time to reevaluate the ease of Linux use. This will be fodder for an entry in a few days.

The Penguin And Me

I am in love with the concept of Linux. It’s possible, at the very same time, I’m not in love with Linux itself. I have spent the last 2 days loading at least 10 different configurations of Linux onto the new ‘old computer.’

First, an explanation. Every time I mention Linux I see eyes glaze over. What is it? Why is it there?

Linux is an operating system. It is based on Unix, a wonderful operating system which (I think) was devised at Bell Labs a long, long time ago.

An operating system is what stands between you and your computer. It knows how to wake the computer when you apply power and it provides a handy set of commands and protocols to speak to the computer.

Like French, Spanish and English – each operating system can tell your computer meaningful things, but using different words. And, each operating system understands different words.

Programs meant to run on Windows do not run on Linux (this is a simplification, but the exceptions are really out of the norm right now). Obviously, the opposite is true as well.

So, why run Linux, when everyone else is running Windows?

Not only is Linux free, that is immediately evident. But Linux represents a different way of doing business. In its simplest form, anyone who uses the basic building blocks and adds to them for their own purposes, contributes those additions to all other users. Even without charging for the software, there’s a reasonable business in charging for technical expertise.

Most web servers are run on Linux. Many scientific applications run on Linux too. Google is either running on Linux or something closely related (I can’t remember at the moment).

My hope is to run Linux alongside my Windows machine and use it for utility purposes, including developing new pages for my website, and weather analysis using GrADS.

The problem is, in a somewhat anarchistic community, the various Linux flavors aren’t always compatible with one and another. Not only that, Linux is nowhere near as good as Windows in recognizing the hardware within your computer. So, it is hit and miss as to whether any particular Linux distribution will be able to do anything that another distribution can.

I started with Fedora Core 2. It is the latest rendition of what is the desktop successor to Red Hat Linux. Then Mandrake 10 Community. Later Fedora Core 1. Each time I configured my machine a slightly different way, loading some programs and excluding others.

None of the Linux variants could see and understand the video controller for my computer. I am running video, but not at the speeds I should be getting. Some of them saw my audio card – well, all of them saw it. They just didn’t see it in a way that would make it work. In some flavors of Linux I was easily able to switch to a working audio solution; though I know about the solution only through a lucky find while looking for something else.

All of things things would be fairly painless in Windows.

As I type this, I am loading Red Hat 9. It is an older distribution, one that Red Hat itself doesn’t support any more. There seems to be a lot of software that I want to run which is already packaged for this particular variant. I’m in the final stages, which means over 300 MB of fixes and updates, all of which were downloaded through my cable modem.

Sometime later tonight I will be finished. Hopefully, RH9 will be the answer to my prayers. Otherwise, it’s back to the drawing board and more installs.

One more thing. Here in the Fox household, Linux is referred to as “The Penguin.” That nickname is based on Tux, the Linux mascot, who is a penguin, of course.

Building a New PC – Almost

Why would anyone want three PCs at home? I’m not talking about the machines shared with my family. These are my computers. Granted, two of them are discards; computers deemed too slow by others.

I have done most of what I could to optimize these older machines. They’re loaded with memory and unnecessary processes are shut down. You still can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear, but you can get a lot closer than most people expect.

The laptop, a Pentium II 300 MHz model, is my road machine. It’s got a wireless card and is often downstairs in the family room (especially if I’m watching TV and playing poker). It is sometimes sluggish, but never enough to be a bother.

The second desktop is also a P-II 300. Well, it was until a few days ago.

I wondered if it would be possible to bring this machine into the 21st century without spending much cash. TigerDirect was having a sale where the net cost (after rebates) of a motherboard, fast processor chip with fan, and memory was only $99.99. I decided to give it a try.

It took about three days for UPS to deliver my package. Looking in the box, everything was there, in its original packaging. So far, so good.

Fearing the 256MB RAM stick that came with the kit wasn’t enough, I went to Staples and bought another 256MB. It was $30, after rebate, bringing me to $130.

What is missing in a deal like this is a great deal of documentation. There were no instructions with either the CPU chip (an AMD XP 2400) or the fan. There was a sticky label on the chip’s packaging saying, in essence, “you break it, too bad.”

Instructions don’t seem like a big deal, but mounting the fan isn’t totally intuitive and a thermal compound paste (included) has to be applied between the fan and chip.

My first step was unplugging the old motherboard, unscrewing and removing it from the case. No problem. It came out really easily.

Since the computer industry standardized motherboard sizes, my new ATX board should fit exactly where the old board sat. It did. A new plate fit between the case and motherboard, allowing the external plugs for video, audio, mouse and keyboard to be accessible. So far, so good.

Each individual peripheral, like a disk drive, has to be wired for both data and power. It sounds tougher than it is. There are distinctly sized plugs for each operation. It’s tough to go wrong, though it is possible if you’re not looking, to put some plugs in backwards.

The manual for the Soyo motherboard was well illustrated and easily led me to the right sockets on the board for all these cables. I did have to call AMD to try and figure out how to set an on-board jumper. I was on and off the phone in two minutes.

AMD, if you’re listening, I’m impressed.

It took a bit over an hour on the kitchen table before I was ready to plug it in. I lugged the case upstairs and plugged it into my KVM switch. KVM stands for keyboard, video, mouse. All it means is I can run two computers from one set of devices. Hitting the scroll lock key twice toggles my keyboard, mouse and monitor from one machine to the other. It’s pretty simple, saves space and lots of money.

The system started to power up, but the normal beep as it’s getting ready to go was replaced by a continuous tone for a few seconds and then… silence. The machine shut itself down.

Uh oh. I took a look at everything under the hood. Something had to be wrong. I didn’t see anything out of place. So, I went to Soyo’s website and searched out my problem.

Someone had described a similar outcome for another motherboard. It hinged on the safety circuitry not sensing the cooling fan on the computer chip. Sure enough, my fan was plugged into the wrong socket.

Though the fan was spinning, keeping things cool, the motherboard’s circuitry though it was just an extra fan, not the one necessary to keep the chip operating. I moved the plug and bingo, it booted.

I spent the next few hours going through a bunch of different operating systems, trying to decide what I wanted. I loaded Windows XP and two different flavors of Linux.

Since I was aiming to keep the cost down, I went with Linux. Specifically, it’s “Mandrake Linux 10 Community,” a close-to-production release. It’s free! I actually downloaded the installation disks the night before and burned them onto Cd’s. Unless you play games or run some very specific applications, Linux is fine. There are browsers, email programs, graphic design software, etc. Most of it them are free.

I find it a little more difficult to get answers to Linux questions, because I know fewer people who run it than Windows. But, I am constantly ‘mitchering’ with my machine, and that brings up situations most users wouldn’t get into.

I went to bed a happy man. My machine was humming along. This ugly duckling was now the fastest machine in the house. Life was good. And then, I woke up.

Hitting the power button brought nothing. No noise, no lights, nothing.

I had built this system in an old case with an older, weaker power supply. I can’t be sure, but my best estimation is the power supply was stressed with this new configuration. As it cooled, it broke down. A digital multimeter across the power pins showed no voltage anywhere.

My goal here was to keep costs down. Now, with the extra RAM, I was already $30 over my original cost. I could have spent $60 at CompUSA or Circuit City to get a new supply, but decided to log onto eBay and see what was available.

For $20, including shipping, I bought a 420 watt supply to replace the 230 watt model I’ve surely fried. It’s coming from California, so I’ll be without this machine for most of – maybe all – of the next week. My $100 machine is now $150.

Still, if the power supply is the problem, and if it boots up right away, this will be a great investment. For $150, a computer someone wanted to throw away, will be a screamer. And, I did it myself. It’s no big deal.

Some Things Never Change

Every week I have a quiz in both of my Mississippi State University classes. Every third week, it’s a quiz and a test based on my homework.

The idea is, you do the homework every week as you watch the lecture and read the textbook. Yeah, right.

This precedent was set in the first grade back in 1956. I was cruising along in Miss Thompson’s class at P.S. 201. Even then I realized something catastrophic might happen. Maybe a meteor? Possibly the plague or dengue fever. Who can tell? Why do your work early? You might get off the hook – and it would all be in vain.

Last night I got home from work around midnight, washed up, had 2 cookies too many and went to my office. There was plenty of time to do the work, so I fired up the laptop and played a little poker while I answered emails and poked around on the desktop machine.

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this, but normally there are three PC’s in my office. Two are really dogs – old machines with limited resources that used to live elsewhere and were discarded by others for hotter models. The laptop and my homebuilt machine run Windows XP, the second desktop machine runs Mandrake Linux. Sometimes I’m on all three at once.

I played an $11 ‘sit and go’ no limit Hold’em tournament at Pokerstars. The cards were awful. I held on as long as I could, but only came in 4th – meaning I lost the $11.

It was around 1:30 AM when I started my school work. This semester I am taking Synoptic Meteorology and Satellite Meteorology.

The first quiz went very quickly. The first test slower. By the time I finished, everything, it was 6:20 AM – a terrible miscalculation.

Because these get graded at noon each Wednesday, I already know how I did – which was fine. That’s not the point.

Why do I continue to procrastinate? What is it within me (and it’s been inherited by my daughter) that wants to put everything off until the last minute? It’s not like it wasn’t going to be done. Doing it – doing it well – was a given.

I’ll probably never learn my lesson. I just want to learn my reasoning.

The Geek In Me Speaks – VI

Here’s the status as I get ready for bed. Mandrake Linux is up and running. The laptop has no sound. There is neither Java or Flash with the browser. The wireless LAN is perfect, though I have no idea where I administer it from. I haven’t tried a wired NIC card yet. Printing over the network to my laser printer works.

I have lost both my taskbar and icons. The icons were part of a bug that I may have fixed. I followed info on Mandrake’s knowledge base. I have no idea why the taskbar disappeared, but not having it makes it difficult to do anything… including reboot. Once I did that, the taskbar was back.

I have installed OpenOffice, Gaim and Mozilla – none of which seemed to come with the distribution natively.

I hope this isn’t too boring.

The Geek In Me Speaks V

Mandrake now up and running – but what a pain. Three aborted installs. Luckily, on the third try, Mandrake knew enough to pick up where it left off.

It is weird what does and doesn’t show up as installed. I don’t see OpenOffice. Mozilla needed to be installed from the disk. And, very little shows up on the pop-out menus.

At the moment, this seems to be running faster than Red Hat. How can that be?

The Geek In Me Speaks – IV

Overnight, I downloaded the Mandrake Linux distribution. It was around 1gb!

Today, when I went to burn the three ISO files onto CD-R’s, I noticed two were bigger than the CD-R capacity of 700 mb. That couldn’t be? So, I burned away and made five coasters before realizing something was dreadfully wrong.

I posted on Usenet, looking for a solution, and was told I was doing something wrong. After resetting a number of the parameters I’ve never needed to touch in Nero (my CD burning software) and telling the program it was OK to overburn, or put more that the stated capacity on a disk, the ISO’s took.

Now, to install them on the laptop.

I booted from the CD, saw the first screens and then… failure. Mandrake’s installation program told me it wasn’t seeing my CDROM player. Of course it saw the player to get this far, otherwise it wouldn’t know to tell me it couldn’t see it now.

In a situation like this, you’re on your own. So, I went to the Mandrake site, and started searching for my model of laptop. Sure enough, there was a string of messages with the same exact problem and a fix!

Just add a switch with the boot that said ide=nodma (I believe this means the drives don’t use direct memory access, meaning they’re older/slower). But, how does one add a switch? I tried a few different tacts until it finally took.

As far as I can tell, Mandrake is installing. I know it was clueless to my Robanton wireless networking card. I sort of expected that. Supposedly, it will sense other cards as they’re plugged in and install them on the fly, automatically. Sure – whatever.

I am persevering because I’m pigheaded. What I’m experiencing is totally unacceptable if Linux is to become mainstream.

The Geek In Me Speaks – III

Got RedHat 9.0 working on the laptop. It runs like a pig! Contrary to what Linux zealots say, this configuration needs more horsepower than Windows 98 on the same machine.

I was able to get the wired network card working, but not the wireless. Configuring the printer was fairly simple after looking at instructions by the router manufacturer that were intended to get things installed with XP.

While I sleep, I am downloading Mandrake 9.2. From their website, this looks like a promising distribution. But, of course, the proof is in the using.

A very nice blog reader offered my Lindows. I’ve read some very good things about Lindows, but for now, I’ll remain a purist with Linux.