Wow – Thanks For Responding

Yesterday, I asked for laptop advice (which continues to come in). I appreciate it all. I have not made up my mind yet, so don’t stop.

I do want to address one suggestion – Apple. There are two consistent comments I hear from Apple owners.

  • I love my Mac
  • Why don’t they write this software for my Mac?

I am much more familiar with the Windows world, where I know how most things operate – even ‘under the hood’. Mac’s operating system is based on BSD (a Unix flavor), which I’m not quite as conversant in. So, yes, that lack of deep knowledge is also a problem.

But, again, it’s the easy availability of software that’s my main concern… and the price. A comparable Mac seems to be 40-50% more than its corresponding PC.

Steffie will gladly tell you how much prettier Macs are than PCs. I agree. That isn’t entering into this decision.

I have looked at all the brands you have recommended. Believe it or not, at this time, Dell seems the best value. I have looked at a Dell laptop with Vista home premium (or whatever the second step on their ladder is called), 2Gb RAM, 120 Gb drive, 14.1″ WXGA+ resolution (love them pixels), for under $1,000.

Software or OS tech support, the scourge of PC buyers, is less of a concern for me since I do most of my own IT work. We were very satisfied with Dell when it came to hardware support.

I also appreciate the two of you who wrote to explain the difference between Core Duo and Core 2 Duo (32 vs 64 bit processor). Why don’t the laptop manufacturers reveal this on their configuration tools?

As a guy, by law, I have difficulty committing. Hopefully, tonight or tomorrow I’ll make up my mind and pull the trigger.

My Personal, Personal Video Recorder

Months ago, from the scraps of old computers, I pieced together a Personal Video Recorder or Disk Video Recorder or Digital Video Recorder – I never know which name is right. Take your pick.

That it ran at all was a surprise!

Over time I added extra hard drive space and a new CPU/motherboard combo. Anything that could fit in, and was heavily discounted, flew its way to my house. I was happy to take out a Phillips head screwdriver and do battle. I know my way around the inside of a computer case.

I chose KnoppMyth as my software. Hmmm…. this is going to get a little geeky, but I’ll give it a try.

MythTV is a software package to ‘make’ a DVR. It runs on Linux – the operating system that talks to the hardware in your computer. Linux is an operating system, like Windows XP is an operating system.

Linux is free and freely modifiable. And, it’s free as in, “Here it is.” It’s not free as in, “Here’s a copy of Windows XP I downloaded off the net, along with this serial number.”

So far, so good.

I say Linux, there is really no specific software called Linux.

There is Ubuntu Linux and Fedora Core Linux and Red Hat Linux, etc. Each is slightly different for slightly different reasons. Remember, it’s free. If you wanted to form a group with friends or with your evil twin to make a Linux distribution, more power to you. It’s allowable and encouraged.

KnoppMyth, the DVR software I used, combines a Linux ‘flavor’ (Knoppix Linux) with MythTV. It’s downloaded and then burned onto a disk. It’s the computer equivalent of making a Betty Crocker cake.

I like KnoppMyth, but it has its shortcomings. It isn’t 100% up-to-date and there are a few nagging bugs. Any time I’ve attempted to update or fix something, I’ve broken then entire installation.

Since KnoppMyth doesn’t seem to be a perfect answer, I decided to try to roll my own MythTV installation – combining MythTV with a Linux operating system. That’s how I wasted a good part of Sunday!

My attempt was to add MythTV to Ubuntu&#185 Linux. Makes your head spin? I should have said the same thing and stopped right there.

“How tough could it be,” I said to myself?

All day Helaine reminded me, “Messing with the penguin,” the penguin being our euphemism for Linux, “never ends up being a good experience.”

Before bedtime Sunday night, I had given up on mating Ubuntu and MythTV… but I hadn’t given up on the quest.

Today, while I was at work, my PC was downloading Fedora Core 5 – another Linux flavor. It was a 3+ Gb download! Now, home and in pajamas, I’ve burning it onto five CDs.

There’s a website which describes the process of mating Fedora with the very latest MythTV version. It looks easy, though it’s 29 printed pages (honest).

I could have gone back to KnoppMyth, but that was too easy. I want the feeling of accomplishment that is only earned following feelings of frustration and angst.

I’ll report back after the installation is finished, or the penguin and I have settled our score for good.

&#185 – Ubuntu seems to be the Linux distribution garnering the most favor right now. Forgetting MythTV for a second, Ubuntu was easily installed and came fully stocked with the programs most folks need on a daily basis.

As opposed to earlier Linux distributions, Ubuntu found and installed drivers for my sound and video cards without asking. It found its IP address for web surfing. It worked right out of the box.

I would recommend Ubuntu for any non-gamer who uses their computer for web surfing, IM chatting, word processing, email and other ‘normal’ web pursuits.

Right now at least, Ubuntu and the other Linux distributions are virtually virus and spyware free and they nearly never crash!

Blogger’s note: I worked on this project until 4:00 AM. Tuesday morning, I picked it up for a while, but it’s not done yet. Amazingly, after all my original downloading, most of the install time has been spent downloading newer files to replace the ones I got yesterday.

When I was providing input, it was copying intensely dense computer code from a web page to a ‘terminal’ window. I’d hit enter and the screen would look like hieroglyphs were flashing by until I had to ‘feed the beast’ again.

Hopefully I can complete the task later tonight.

How Is My DVR doing?

I really wasn’t going to write about this, but a posting’s just gone up on Digg and I figured I’d better update. The Digg story referred to this article on building a homebrew DVR using SageTV software.

Paying $80 for software – that’s so not me.

I have chosen to use KnoppMyth, a Linux distribution based on Knoppix Linux and MythTV. For the un-geeky, “Linux distribution” refers to the operating system software that speaks directly to my computer’s chips. Windows XP is an example of an operating system.

What makes Linux so interesting as an operating system is, it’s free and it’s mainly supported by its own community of users.

MythTV is the actual suite of programs (also free) which turn my computer into a DVR.

What KnoppMyth does is make them play nicely together. Once you stick the KnoppMyth disk into your CD drive, most (not all) of the work has been done.

OK – enough of the technical stuff. How does it work and what have I discovered?

I’m pretty impressed with the quality. I haven’t played much with changing the capture parameters, but the way it’s set up now, recorded shows don’t look any different from what I’d expect to see on a TV screen.

The computer is currently in Steffie’s playroom. I thought it would stay there, but moving the video as packets across my network isn’t quite as simple as I thought. It will probably move into my office, on a shelf under the TV. I’ll unplug the computer monitor and move the video directly into a TV set.

Being able to program the DVR over the Internet is amazing – very powerful. More than once I have scheduled a recording while I was away from home.

Internet programming might be a problem over the long run because Comcast changes my home IP address from time-to-time. Imagine going to work in the morning and having all your stuff moved to a secret location while you’re away.

Also on the list of impressive features is the use of a MySQL database to hold the programming information. Enter a name, title, subject – nearly anything, and the DVR will let you know when something that matches will air. If there’s a conflict, it will even figure out another time to record! That’s very cool.

I recorded a program and wanted it on a DVD. No sweat. MythTV does all the grunt work of setting that up.

The computer I’m using is from the 90s. Its hard drive is large enough to hold 30 hours of high quality video. That should be enough.

One of the advantages of this free software is my ability to play around with it and modify it. I’ve done a little. I plan on doing more.

At some point, this homebuilt DVR will make me cry. All my computer projects do at one time or another. I try and keep it all in perspective, but stuff you throw together on a kitchen table or the floor of a spare room just isn’t the same as what you buy at Circuit City or Best Buy.

I’m not sure whether that’s good or bad.

The Good And Bad Of Open Source

If you’ve been following the trials and tribulations of my homebuilt DVR, you’ve been listening to the good and bad of open source software.

To quote Richard Nixon, I am not a thief.

The software I’m using has been built for the common good and released under licenses that allow fairly free use. That includes the operating system, Linux, the DVR’s framework, MythTV and all the utilities I use, including an excellent program called ffmpeg.

Ffmpeg is like a Swiss Army Knife for video files. It allows the movement of these files into different formats. That’s valuable under a variety of circumstances, including mine.

In order to watch what I’ve recorded online from anywhere (and that’s my goal) I need to be able to convert the DVR’s nuv files to Flash compatible flv files. Ffmpeg should do that, and in a way which can be automated.

I’m bringing up ffmpeg, because it’s a sign of what’s good and bad about open source.

Part of the good is its free availability. That allows ‘hackers’ like me to play around in a sophisticated area of computing with readily available tools. There are all sort of additional programs built around ffmpeg. It’s like seed corn.

Part of the bad, is how these programs are supported – in other words, what happens if you get stuck? There’s no company behind it, so no company to call!

Ffmpeg depends on community based support, which runs through a mailing list. If you understand the program, you’re encouraged to share your knowledge.

When I began to have trouble, I signed up for the list, posted my question and waited… and waited… and waited.

Someone saw my question, took mercy on me, asked me to provide some error outputs and then… nothing. I sat and waited some more.

As I posted again, looking for help, members of the community responded, but they also complained about how I was posting and the fact that I was using the most current version of ffmpeg on their website – an old version.

At some points more of the conversation was about procedure than problem solving!

I jumped through hoops, doing whatever anyone asked, to try and get things working. No matter what I did though, ffmpeg failed me in the exact same way.

I was willing to put up with this stuff, though I was getting perturbed. I wonder how many others would have just bailed?

If open source is to be ‘ready for prime time,’ the spotty response to cries for help needs to be made a little more friendly. I was made to feel like a jerk or idiot or both. That’s not good. And believe me, I understand I have just bitten the hand that feeds me.

OK – so I’ve vented about what’s wrong with open source. But, there is a silver lining to this story and something that’s very right with open source.

I believe my problem was caused by a bug in the software, or maybe a part that was just never fully implemented. One of the developers saw my cries and modified the program to accommodate my needs!

Would Microsoft do that for me? I doubt it.

Tonight, when I get home, I’ll load another version of ffmpeg that should solve my problem – and will be available in the future for others like me.

Companies like Microsoft worry about open source. Why would anyone buy Windows or Office if they could get the same functionality for free?

Right now the big difference is support. It might not always be that way. It is today.

Damn You Penguin!

I’ve been fooling around with a homebuilt DVR – a MythTV box. It’s very cool and I’ve discussed it ad nauseum over the past few days.

It is based on Linux (aka – the Penguin), a free operating system. Most likely, the computer you’re using now is running some flavor of Windows. That too is an operating system.

Anyway, I love this little DVR. There are amazing tricks it can do that my current cable company DVR can’t. But, there’s one thing it doesn’t do – and that’s about to drive me nuts.

I want this thing to stream video to me anywhere I am, over the Internet. Every bit of that functionality is set, but one. I can’t convert the video files it produces to something usable in the outside world.

I consider myself pretty savvy, but this is the first time I’ve ever seen a “nuv” video file. I should be able to convert it to and flv file (Flash video)… well, should and can are two entirely different things.

I spent much of last night… and the night before, sitting in front of the computer, trying to coax this conversion.

I have posted on bulletin boards and mailing lists – even sent email to strangers I thought might help. Nothing!

So, the Penguin and I are currently on the outs. If he doesn’t make me happy soon, I’ll pour water on him. That’ll show him who’s boss… because currently, it’s not me.

Geeky Me

I have built my last few PCs. I’m about to build my next.

Actually, it’s more of a rebuild, replacing the older guts of one system with new innards. It’s very exciting… it is. Oh c’mon, humor me… please.

I’m not sure she asked in so many words, but Helaine wanted to know why I needed another computer? After all, I have 4 desktop machines and a few laptops. There are more carcasses and parts scattered in the attic and in a cabinet in my office. Most of the working machines are older, discards from friends and family.

The computer that should be my main squeeze has become unusable. It was unstable (hey, who isn’t). As of last night, I can’t even get it to boot. My backup machine isn’t exactly poky, but it’s way behind the times.

OK – There’s really no reason. I can’t say I need a new computer. This is like Jay Leno having a garage full of classic cars and cycles or my daughter’s collection of shoes and bags.

The faster processor will make a significant difference when I work on photos or edit video. Both are tasks I do a lot.

Actually, it’s faster processors – plural. I am buying a new AMD dual core CPU.

If you’re glazing over now, I’m not sure this entry will get any better.

In order to use the CPU, I’ll need a new motherboard. And the new chip and motherboard will need a new cooling system. Computer chips get really hot and if left to their own devices would quickly go poof.

There’s been lots of research reading about various motherboards, CPUs and chipsets. How much memory? What kind of memory? There’s lots to think about.

Here’s the rundown:

Motherboard: 110642 – Asus A8N-VM CSM GeForce 6150 Video/Audio/IEEE1394/Gigabit LAN/USB2

Processor: 120364 – AMD Athlon 64 X2 3800+ Dual-Core 512K cache/core

Heatsink Fan: 130099 – Zalman CNPS7000B-AlCu Silent CPU Cooling

Memory: 140895 – DDR (400) 3200 – 1 GB (2 pcs 512) OCZ Value

Warranty: 800125 – Standard Tech Support, 6 Month

Nero 7 Promotion: 210614 – Nero 7 Ultra Edition Retail Box FREE!

When the box comes, the surgery will take place on the kitchen table. There are no instructions, but putting together computers is relatively simple – really. The whole job shouldn’t take more than a half hour, though it will probably take closer to three hours.

With Microsoft’s new Vista operating system a year away, plus more and more enforcement of digital rights management, this might be the last time I’ll be able to build my own machine and expect it to perform with mainstream applications. That’s sad.

I’ll let you know how the build works out, because surely, though my heart is set on this new system, it will break my heart.

Another Computer Repair

I went to dinner by myself last night. Helaine and Steffie are away. At work all the usual suspects were otherwise engaged. I headed to the Greek Olive.

After my omelet, I schmoozed a little with Tony, the owner. Somehow we got to talking about computers and he showed me an old laptop he had which he had been told was incapable of going on the Internet.

Sheesh! This is such a big crock. The amount of money spent on new hardware for little purpose amazes me. Usually it’s a machine that has slowed down. The owner figures it’s worn out. It doesn’t work that way.

There’s no doubt, in today’s environment this machine is slow. But, for Internet surfing and reading email, it’s fine. Well, it’s nearly fine. It needs about $20 in additional memory. I’ll get to that in a minute.

To me, seeing an unused computer is like having a puppy follow me home. I am unable to help myself.

The first thing I normally do is look for the computer online to see if anyone else has any advice which will make my job easier. A label on the cover says “Viva Book Hand Technologies.” That was worthless. Nothing showed up on Google.

Imagine how obscure a laptop must be to not even show on Google! After all, this is Google, where even typos can bring thousands of hits.

The bottom panel of the laptop had a little more info, including the FCC ID number. That wasn’t much help, but it was some. The manufacturer, long since gone, was located in Taiwan. The laptop had been sold under a few names including ILUFA and Chaplet as the M175.

It has an AMD K6 processor running at 300 mHz. There is 32 mb of RAM. That’s very little (which is why I’ll order Tony some more). The hard drive is 3 GB. That’s tiny, but only if this machine is going to be loaded with programs. As a barebones mail and web machine, 3 GB will suffice.

I copied the license information down and reloaded the operating system from scratch. Then I went to Microsoft and ran all the updates.

Though the laptop is the computing equivalent of one of my Dell laptops, it was very sluggish. I ‘borrowed’ a 64 MB memory stick and threw it in. Still sluggish.

When I scrolled the screen it was painfully slow. Text rippled from top to bottom instead of smooth motion. That is a warning sign that the video driver is no good. I went to the Device Manager in the Control Panel and, sure enough, a generic video driver was being used and a warning was posted.

I installed Belarc adviser, an excellent program that scans and reports on your hardware and software. It could identify the video system. Then I looked at what was being reported to Windows. Just some gibberish and coded data that I couldn’t uncode.

If the manufacturer were still alive… or if this had been a popular model, I’d be able to go to school based on other people’s queries. There was nothing.

I went to Drivershq, loaded up their Driver Detective and hoped for the best. Bingo! The video system was an old Chips and Technologies device. C&T doesn’t exist anymore, but their drivers live on.

Before long I had the drivers going and the screen responding pretty quickly. Make no mistake. This is not a speedy machine. It’s an ‘it will do’ machine.

Right now, I’m finishing up by installing Flash, Java, Adobe Reader and a few other things Tony will need. Then I’ll go back and ‘strip’ the operating system, turning off programs and services he doesn’t really need which only serve to make a system like this more slovenly than it needs to be.

This will never be a P4 3.8 gHz machine – but it doesn’t need to be. On the Information Superhighway it’s a 1996 Chevy Cavalier – and most of the time that’s plenty.

Who Will Support This Tech Supporter?

When it comes to computers, I provide tech support for my family and friends. I enjoy it. I’m pretty good with it. The secret here is, most computer problems are fairly easy to solve and involve the computer user shooting himself in the foot.

Sorry – it’s true. They’re mostly self inflicted.

But what do I do… who do I turn to when I have problems? Mostly it’s my friends Peter and Kevin. The funny part is they often lean on me too! Sometimes just a different perspective is valuable.

Unfortunately, I have a problem on my main PC and I don’t think either of them can help me. The problem isn’t in knowing how to troubleshoot this PC. The problem is the sheer volume of possibilities that will have to be searched.

A month or so ago I started getting spontaneous shutdowns of the Windows XP operating system and, what computer geeks call, BSOD or Blue Screen of Death.

No matter what glitch or bug or error you get, there is nothing more sinister than a BSOD. By the time it is on your screen the operating system has stopped… well, it’s stopped operating.

There are a few cryptic clues like a reference to a specific error which is often associated with the computer’s software drivers. Great – there must be hundreds, maybe thousands of those. And each time the BSOD occurs the screen points in a slightly different direction.

I wanted to take a screen shot to post here, but once you get a BSOD your computer is pretty much dead in the water.

Luckily, this isn’t the only problem of late. Note the error message on the left. I have tried searching ever source I know… and come up blank. There’s nothing I’ve changed recently which should have caused this USB error. I’m guessing it’s related to my scanner and it very well might be related to the BSOD problem.

Please, don’t feel sorry for me. I collect computers like Steffie collects shoes. There are backups available (though I still don’t back up my data – another weakness of mine) and I have used them in critical situations, like taking tests for school. A computer crash there might be incredibly costly.

So, why am I writing this? Well, my friend Steve (who has received his fair share of tech support) was wondering why it wasn’t here. I had originally decided to wait until I solved it before writing about it – but that might never happen.

Windows XP Service Pack 2

Over the last year or two, the Windows operating system has started to resemble the South Bronx in the early 80s. Yes, it’s intrinsicly valuable, but it’s also become dangerous. The young and innocent must be protected from predators.

Over the weekend, Microsoft slowly rolled out a massive service pack for Windows XP – the latest version of its operating system. Since I have a bunch of machines to update at home, I downloaded the 225mb version and then passed it across my network to all the machines.

The size of the download will certainly keep people with dial-up accounts from getting the pack. It will probably intimidate many broadband users as well. That’s a massive file to download.

I’m taking few chances, so it was installed on my spare machine first. I figure there’s nothing mission critical on this machine so I can survive should the machine be unhappy with what I did.

Microsoft actually expects to see some troubles, though I have seen few specifics. Since it closes holes in certain ports with its new firewall, it’s sure to break programs that communicate in a non-standard way – even if they’re doing so for a perfectly legitimate purpose.

After the download, installation took about 25 minutes. It didn’t ask for my help, other than clicking off on the EULA.

As far as I can tell the installation was a success. I immediately noticed my wireless network, which needed me to manually start it on every reboot, was now finding its own way to operation. I’m not using Internet Explorer or Outlook Express on that machines, and I know that’s where a lot of the security enhancements were aimed.

There are two things which trouble me. First, this service pack doesn’t address problems for people running Windows 98, a perfectly fine and usable operating system. We have two machines at home (Steffie’s desktop and my laptop) which are running Windows 98. Neither machine has the firepower to switch to XP. They will continue to be susceptible to all the same attacks that brought this service pack on in the first place.

My second problem concerns whether Microsoft will allow this patch to be used on systems with bootleg copies of XP. It would seem obvious that they shouldn’t support those who steal from them, except for the fact that many of the ills this service pack stops are passed along to legitimate users. So, no inoculation for them means they may make my computers sick in the long run.

It is certainly a quandary for Microsoft. I don’t know what I’d do if it were me. However, if viruses and spam from zombie machines continues because of Microsoft’s policies, I’ll be ticked.

Tough Choice for Microsoft

I’m sitting at one of my Microsoft powered computers at the moment. Since I built this puppy from individual components, I actually have a full CD version of Windows XP Home – something that seldom comes with computers anymore.

It used to be, prior to Windows XP, that Microsoft’s operating systems were easy to steal. There must be millions of Windows 98 machines running on an operating system that was borrowed from a friend.

Starting with XP, Microsoft made this much more difficult. Now computers need to be activated before the operating system will become permanently enabled. Windows XP versions that come with specific hardware often will not run on other hardware. And, Microsoft has found many of the bogus serial numbers used to activate XP and now deactivates those systems if they try and use Windows Update. Still, if what I’ve read is correct, much of Asia and the Third World’s computers are run on bootlegged copies of Windows XP.

There lies the problem.

I never would have thought of this myself and have to thank Slashdot for pointing it out.

With all the security flaws and weaknesses of Windows XP, should Microsoft continue to deny software upgrades to illegally obtained and installed versions of their software? Surely, if Microsoft allows anyone to keep XP up-to-date, there will be less incentive to buy the disk. On the other hand, by denying these patches, is Microsoft creating an environment where more and more bad code will infect the Internet… which affects legal owners like me!

I’m not sure what advice I’d give to Microsoft. Are they liable for the unpatched versions of their original code? Do they have any obligation to me, a paying customer, when it comes to bootleg copies of their software?

This won’t be the last we’ll hear of this. It’s a very provocative question to ask in an industry that’s anything but simple.

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.

What I’ve Been Up To At Work

The past few weeks have been spent getting ready to use some new equipment at work. Our very dependable, SGI based, Liveline Genesis system has been replaced by Weather Central’s :Live.

Actually, replaced is not a good word, because :Live is really an add-on which extends the system. We’re still producing some graphics in Genesis but it now it doesn’t go on-the-air.

The SGI system we were using has to be at least 10 years old. These systems run slow by today’s standards. Our hard drive was only 4 GB! From time-to-time I had to go in an mercilessly blow out perfectly fine work created by the other guys in the weather department because we just didn’t have enough room.

Computers and homes are very similar in that you can never have too much closet space. And, of course, the hard disk is the closet of computing.

The problems with the SGI system were legion. It never handled the look of fonts correctly. Its interface, developed in he dark ages of computing, was anti-intuitive and often different in different parts of the system. It took long amounts of time to render animated segments, like a satellite loop or fly through, before they could be shown on TV.

On the other hand, it was nearly bulletproof. The system hardly ever crashed or locked up.

Because the SGI system was based on the Irix operating system, from time-to-time you’d have to delve into the **ix environment to attack a problem. It is a bit scary to do, because it is so foreign to most computer users. Over the years, as I have become more conversant in Linux, another **ix language, Irix has become more understandable.

Every time I have a problem, and work with one of Weather Central’s tech support people, I wonder how they do this with computerphobes? Often we can skip the first 5 or 6 steps. Imagine trying to describe this obtuse text oriented operating system over the phone!

The new :Live system allows us to show animations with no rendering time (though files still have to load from the hard drive to memory, which does take some time). It also integrates multiple layers of animation and still images, which makes it much more flexible. The most interesting part is the ability to stand in front of my green chroma key wall and use my finger as a mouse, drawing or placing objects on the TV screen in real time (or :Live, I suppose).

Right out of the box, it looked much sharper, cleaner and modern than what we had been doing. Simple things, like forecast pages, now run with animated backgrounds. Maps and icons look crisp. The satellite imagery is a little blockier and pixelated than what we were using, especially when viewed at a regional or tighter level.

Because the commands to create each graphic element are programmed in quasi plain text, I have started to write some new ‘scenes’ to suit our needs.

The downside is, this is a Windows based system – Windows 2000 to be exact. It has crashed more than once. So far, not while on-the-air, but awfully close. It also seems to have memory leak problems, not a surprise in a Windows environment. That means, if you run a sequence through, to check it out, you may be pushing the car closer to the edge of the cliff with each mouse click.

I already see some changes I’d like added to the system, which is probably a blessing and curse to those who designed it. I will help them make it better, but probably at the cost of being a pain in the ass.

At the same time we added :Live, we’ve also begun running our own, locally produced, high resolution, computer forecast model. I’ll get into that later.

The End of the Hobby Era In Computing?

The lead story on Extreme Tech is all about building a computer. Build It: A Speedy PC For $800

I’m certainly not adverse to building a computer. The PC this is being typed on was assembled right here on my office floor from parts I specified. It does everything I designed it to do (though it has incredibly noisy fans to remove its internal heat, and I wish I would have designed that out). And, as a bonus, it actually worked when I plugged it in!

The question is why build… and even if you want to, how much longer will that be possible?

My computer was built to edit video. To that end, I threw in the ATI All-In-Wonder 8500DV video card (on which the DV “Firewire” connection never did work) and a Soyo motherboard with built-in RAID (two disk drives act as one for the faster service necessary for video). The on-board audio conflicts with the video card, meaning I then had to go get another audio card.

It was a great learning experience, but today you can buy machines off the shelf that do the same thing. And, increases in processor speed cover a variety of sins. So a machine not totally optimized for video will still do fine because everything else is so much faster and the disk drives are so much larger.

As I was passing by Home Shopping Network earlier today, they were selling a Gateway PC (I am not a fan of any particular brand. All major computer manufactures are just putting together other people’s parts.) with 17″ monitor and printer for under $1200. The CPU on their machine is better than twice as fast as mine! If you’re interested, here are the specs.

It’s tough to build when a speedy machine, pre-assembled, sells for a price like that.

For hobbyists, like me, there will always be the allure of building the ‘perfect’ screaming machine. But, I suspect within the next few years that won’t be possible either.

I remember in high school, a friend of mine bough a Model “A” Ford and restored it to running condition by hand. What he couldn’t get, he modified. Now, there’s hardly anything on a car you can fix or modify on your own.

Computers are going in that same direction. There are a number of reasons, but the most significant seems to be intellectual property rights. My computer is capable of copying DVDs… even copy protected DVDs. I can do all sorts of other things that upsets other rights holders too!

Just as printer manufacturers have added chips to try and thwart aftermarket ink cartridge manufacturers, PCs will be ‘smarter’ (really more restrictive) in what they let you do. The quaint concept of ‘fair use’ will go out the window, because manufacturers now understand how easily their hard work is ripped off.

Will future versions of Windows be built so it only works with ‘trusted’ hardware and software that can be more closely controlled? My opinion is, yes. Sure, a computer could be run on Linux or some yet-to-be-designed operating system, but that would deprive you of much of what’s available today.

I’m not sure where the ‘sweet spot’ is, balancing the rights of those who produce with the rights of those who use. I suspect that PC’s wouldn’t be where they are today… capable of doing what they do… if the restrictions to come had existed earlier.

Continue reading “The End of the Hobby Era In Computing?”

The Geek In Me Speaks

Here’s a major surprise – I love computers. I find them fascinating and am always tempted to learn what I can and expand the envelope, if possible.

It’s possible this goes back to my first experience with computers, in high school in 1967. Somehow, we had two computers at school. Actually, we had one – an IBM 360 (I think) which was booted by flipping switches in the proper order and ‘fed’ with punch cards or paper tape.

What seemed like our second computer was a Model 34 Teletype, somehow connected by phone line to a computer at a local college. I played Wumpus, Golf and Horse Racing. Everything came out as printed text on that very slow teletypewriter.

In 1978 I got a Radio Shack TRS-80. Later, I got a Commodore 64 and then a series of PCs, culminating in the homebuilt Athlon XP 1600+ machine I’m composing this on.

I like being on the ‘bleeding’ edge, so I’ve kept an old computer handy and loaded Linux as the operating system. Depending on whom you believe, Linux will soon roust Windows as the operating system of choice, sending Bill Gates and the Evil Empire to the poorhouse… or it is an ill conceived idea promulgated by geeks who can’t really see who the final user will be (I saw Walter Mossberg say this yesterday on CNBC) and don’t care to design in ease of use.

I want the first choice to be true but I’m scared it’s the second. That’s not a totally fatal situation, but it certainly means Linux isn’t quite ready for prime time.

My latest install attempts (and they’re ongoing as I type this) will bear this out.

With a new, five year old, laptop (Dell D300XT), an extra hard drive for it and a great deal of curiosity, I set out to make the laptop run Linux. Since this is an extra hard drive, I should be able to swap drives and go back and forth from Windows to Linux without one affecting the other.

Since Red Hat has decided to get out of the consumer desktop end of Linux, I decided to try a new distribution. As I understand it, all Linux versions share certain core components but differ in the other programs that come in the distribution. Suse seemed like a good idea. I had read about it. It has its fans… why not?

The recommended way to install Suse seems to be by installing a small subset of Linux (in my case burning a CD-R) and then using FTP (file transfer protocol) to pluck everything else directly off a server and right onto my hard drive.

If there are detailed… or even sparse… instructions for doing this, I couldn’t find them! The Suse installer started asking questions I had no answer for within the first few seconds of the install. There was no help button to press; nowhere to go. Using Google I was able to get some answers, but every time I’d solve one problem, another would spring up in its place.

Next I went to Debian; another respected distribution. They had a few network install suggestions, but all led to boot disks that were wrong or unavailable.

Finally, I went to Red Hat’s ‘cousin’ Fedora. There’s some sort of incestuous relationship here. I’m not sure what it is, but I think in some way Fedora is part of Red Hat.

I began the installation from 3 CD’s I had downloaded overnight a few days ago. A Linux distribution, even from a cable modem, requires hours and hours of downloading and then burning of bootable ISO CD’s.

Fedora seemed to understand what my system was all about (though it looked like the installation was taking place at 800×600 resolution on my 1024×768 laptop screen). It asked what kind of system I wanted loaded and when I chose ‘desktop’, the loading began.

I’m not sure how long it was… probably around an hour… when Fedora just stopped. A screen, telling me there were four minutes left, stared at me. No motion from the hard drive. No motion from the CD. Nada.

After a while I got tired of waiting and rebooted the system. What I had was nothing. The system wouldn’t boot. Linux wasn’t installed. I have just started the process again.

Maybe I didn’t have enough patience. Maybe the computer was doing some sort of Klingon Mind Meld and didn’t want to be disturbed? How should I know?

Even if this installation is fully successful, my job won’t be done. I’ll need to figure out how to enable my wireless network card, a printer hooked to my router and configure all sorts of computing minutiae, like email parameters.

Right now, it looks like the install will continue long after I’ve gone to bed. Maybe this will give the machine a chance to decide it wants to work this time.