Sunday, October 02, 2005

Northern Utah Transportation Problems, or The Davis County Blind Spot

Today, I passed a stretch of road where the I-15 carpool lane is being extended further into Utah County. It is planned to reach University Parkway in Orem. I think that this is a good thing, since there is a lot of traffic along that route, including a great deal of commuting. At the same time, I noticed that the current carpool lane stretches from exactly downtown Salt Lake through the south end of the valley. It is as though nobody commutes to or from the north.

This is merely a symptom of a larger blindness that many people have to Davis County. For years, I would hear detailed traffic reports all the way to Provo whether or not anything was happening, but anything short of freeway closure in Davis County failed to register in the traffic reports (they’ve improved since then, by the way). People who work in Salt Lake City won’t bat an eye about living in Cedar Hills or Saratoga Springs (both areas of rapid housing development in the nearly inaccessible east and west sides respectively of the north end of Utah County), but won’t even consider places like Clinton and Syracuse that are much more accessible and much closer to Downtown SLC.

The blindness extends to public works policy makers. That is why the highway system and public transit both favor southbound traffic, and tend to ignore or actively prevent development of the lands to the north. This is manifest in two areas: the Legacy Highway and express bus routes.

The Legacy Highway is a planned north-south expressway that is supposed to run parallel to I-15 from Salt Lake City to Farmington and eventually to Ogden. This is critical because I-15 is the only major thoroughfare between Salt Lake and Ogden. If something happens to I-15, there are surface streets that could be taken, but none of them can come close to carrying the traffic load that I-15 carries. Northbound traffic from SLC would be effectively cut off. The Legacy route has been planned for some time, but development has been held back for two reasons, both environmental.

The first is that the route will pass through the marshes of the Great Salt Lake. This is undeniably true, and does present a real concern for the highway. In fact, during some wet periods (such as the early to mid eighties), the lake has expanded nearly to I-15 in some places, and parts of the Legacy route would certainly be in the lake. The Farmington Bay Bird Refuge is an important breeding ground for many bird species.

I reject this as a valid reason to block the Legacy Highway for two reasons. The first is that there is a lot of similar areas along the lake that could be used instead, such as in the Willard Bay area. The second is that the Legacy Highway would not likely significantly increase pollution in these wetland areas. Currently, all the traffic that would drive the Legacy Highway travels in I-15, just a few miles to the east. The prevailing winds along the route blow from the east, so any air pollution from traffic is already being blown into the wetland regions near where Legacy would run.

The second, and in many ways related argument against the Legacy Highway is that it will encourage urban sprawl. This relates to people building homes and business in the wetlands (which, due to lake level fluctuations would be a bad idea anyway), as well as to concerns about development swallowing up all the land everywhere. Urban sprawl, in the second sense, can be a huge issue in many places because there are no constraints to keep the development from continuing indefinitely. For example, Phoenix has spread to cover a huge area almost uniformly.

In Utah, there are natural constraints on urban sprawl. Population can only spread out so far to the west before they hit the lake, and so far to the east before it becomes infeasible to build on the mountains. In Davis County especially, this region is remarkably narrow. More to the point, development is already spreading farther and farther out to the east and to the west, whether or not the road infrastructure is in place. While there may be some truth to the “If you build it, they will come” argument, the reality is that whether or not we build new roads, people are coming to develop more and more in Davis County. Urban sprawl, in this sense, is happening anyway, so blocking the development of the Legacy highway does nothing to prevent it from happening. It just postpones the inevitable need to expand the roadways, leading to greater transportation crises later.

In terms of wetland development, it is possible to have a road passing through an area where development is not allowed. Already many roads pass through relatively sensitive areas, but the cars are confined to the road and nothing is built along them. The appropriate authorities can just zone the areas around the highway to make sure that a few critical services (gas stations) are available at appropriate intervals, and otherwise limit commercial and residential development along the route.

Ultimately, the battle against Legacy is a knee jerk reaction by environmentalists and meddling mayors (Rocky Anderson). The more I think about it, the more I think that Rocky is just trying (unsuccessfully) to discourage development in Davis County, so that more can be kept closer to Salt Lake City (even though Bountiful is only a few miles away from downtown). Anyway, I’d just like to say, “Mind your own city and stay out of our county’s business.”

Davis County also doesn’t have much in the way of public transit. This is probably because people don’t use it, which in turn is because there isn’t adequate public transit. It’s kind of circular that way. I’ve had some lengthy discussions about this with some people who have lived in places with great public transit systems, and who believe that the same thing can be done everywhere. The problem here is that they’re a long ways away from that in Davis County.

Right now, there are two kinds of routes in Davis County. The regular routes pass through some of the arterial and collector roads of the county, making regular stops along the way. To travel from most places in the county to downtown Salt Lake City takes well over an hour, with numerous stops along the way. This is hardly a satisfactory substitute for driving, even if it costs a little bit less.

There are also express routes that make a few stops at parking lots near freeway exits and otherwise take I-15 into downtown. These routes can get you into town in just a little bit longer than driving would take, but they cost twice as much to take. A regular monthly adult bus pass is $47, which is less than the monthly commuting costs for most people in Davis County, but an express pass is $95, which is more than what most people would spend, even now that gas prices have exploded.

So far, this seems fine. After all, they get to work in half the time, and the routes would primarily be used by business commuters, who can be expected to pay more than Joe Sixpack who wants to get to the library. The problem is one of north-south inequity. For Salt Lake Valley commuters who live the same distances away from downtown SLC as the Davis County commuters, they have their own express routes in the form of the light rail system TRAX. TRAX costs the same to ride as a regular bus route, and transfers can even be made between busses and TRAX for no charge.

So, people to the south have a convenient way of getting into town, which is faster and more direct than what is available to the people to the north. While it may or may not be cost effective to run a light rail line into Davis County, it is not cost effective to make things more difficult for express commuters. The express routes have less stopping and therefore less gas consumption spent accelerating (except for when they are caught in freeway gridlock, which is a different issue, tied to the Legacy Highway problems addressed earlier), and therefore should cost less to run than the regular routes.

Bearing in mind that all public transportation in this state is subsidized, we should ask what we should be subsidizing, and for how much. It makes little sense to subsidize business travelers on the relatively expensive TRAX system down to a regular bus fare, but to charge twice as much to the passengers on the operationally least expensive routes.

As long as they put these kinds of logistical and economic barriers in the way of the potential riders in Davis County and all lands north, there will be a dearth of actual riders, and public transit will continue to fail to accomplish anything useful in these areas. If there are cost effective routes into town that cost enough less than driving, then people will start using them. Once enough people are using them, then they can introduce collector routes that can bring people from the neighborhoods of Davis County to collection points (currently Park & Ride lots), and public transit can actually start making a difference in the area.

If that can happen, then maybe some of the load on I-15 can be reduced, and if Legacy can be built, then there may be enough options for travelers into town so that the region can grow comfortably. That way, we can build it as they come.

Monday, August 08, 2005

PVR Build Log #06 (Final Log)

OK, how does this posting thing work again? It's been almost a month.

As you read above, this will be the last PVR Build Log post. The system is done, or at least as done as any system of mine can be. There will be tweaks and adjustments, but I really like where it's at, and I'm happy.

So here are the details that I forgot to include in that last post, and whatever else I think of. It's the final wrap-up, so pay attention.

First; Windows. I'm really glad that I gave MythTV a try, and I'm really glad that I finally gave up on making this a Linux-based box. Home theatre PCs, in my humble opinion, are still screaming for Windows simply because it's SOOOO much easier to set up in the first place, and then use.

And OMG, Linux, can you say "Driver problems," or "WTF Dependencies?" Because I can, as I shake my tiny fist at you. Linux geeks are a bunch of damned masochists. There simply is no other explanation. They don't have the social skills to get some sweet girl to put on leather and whip them, so their computing experiences have to hurt instead. Your secret is out, Linux geeks. Good thing for you, no one reads this blog.

Here is a brief sampling of things that Windows is doing or allowing and that Linux wouldn't:
  1. Optical audio from my onboard sound card to my Harman Kardon receiver.
  2. Native support for my multimedia keyboard (some of the distros recognized and used the Gyration keyboard ok, but none of them knew what to do with the multimedia buttons).
  3. Windows boot time: ~45 seconds. Fedora Core 3 boot time: Well over 2 minutes.
  4. DeepFreeze. Not available for Linux.
  5. Disable power button from OS. My kids like to press buttons. Now the power button will turn the machine on, but it won't turn it off.
A note on DeepFreeze. It made this list because it's a big deal to me for the following reason: I don't want to accidentally kill all the work I've done on this machine. Knowing now what I know about Linux, not having something like DeepFreeze, to completely disable the changing of the OS drive, is a deal breaker. What a truly cool product. I, for one, welcome our alien overlords.And Faronics could make a killing if they ported DF to other platforms.

I've been unfreezing the PVR about once a week and letting AVG update. There is literally no housekeeping to be done on C: as long as DeepFreeze is running. While the system was unfrozen today, I did a registry scan for invalid entries. An average scan on a clean system will turn up fifty or so. I got one invalid entry, and I'm pretty sure it was just from the few minutes that I'd already had the system unfrozen.

I wanted an elegant screen saver, so I headed on over to Really Slick. This guy programs these as a hobby. You've probably seen his popular SkyRocket screen saver, which puts on a graphics card-killing fireworks show. As I said before, the vid card in this system isn't a fast one, and SkyRocket is too showy for this application anyway. So I used a different Really Slick one called Euphoria (OpenGL). It turns the 19" LCD into a very beautiful 21st century lava lamp, and it takes very little CPU.

So that's about it. It just works. It now does everything I want it to, except run the picture through a projector, which I can't afford yet. Oh, but I will. So finally, I'll give a complete list of the installed software on my PVR. It's what I consider to be an ideal list.
  • Windows XP Professional, Service Pack 2
  • Other non-stupid Windows updates (I'm choosy about updates)
  • SageTV
  • Nero 6 Ultra Edition
  • SlySoft AnyDVD
  • Elaborate Bytes CloneDVD 2
  • ATI Remote Wonder
  • AVG 7 Free Edition
  • Faronics DeepFreeze
  • Half-Life 1, with updates and High-Def pack
  • Hauppauge WinTV2000 (Just for drivers, I don't use the application)
  • Java 2 Runtime Environment (Required for SageTV, preferred for Firefox)
  • Microsoft .NET Framework, v1.1
  • K-Lite Mega Codec Pack (with Media Player Classic)
  • Motocross Madness 2
  • Mozilla Firefox
  • PowerDVD 5 (Yes, I know there's a newer version)
  • Microsoft TweakUI for XP
  • Farstone VirtualDrive Pro 8
  • WinAmp 5.x
  • WAWI (WinAmp Web Interface - it allows me to control WinAmp from any PC in the house)
  • WinTidy (Remembers desktop icon and window settings)
  • RegCleaner
  • ReallySlick Screen Savers
  • Windows Blue Curve Wallpaper
  • SNES Super Nintendo Emulator
That's it! My desktop has about five times as much crap installed. But not this system. I want it to stay clean and shiny.

So the PVR records more TV than I'll ever watch. I go through and delete TV shows that have built up all the time, even though SageTV would do that for me, if I let it. But I rule with an iron fist.


Wednesday, July 13, 2005

PVR Build Log #05 (Holy crap, it works!)

Huh. Who knew it could be that easy? Certainly not me.

I can see now that I'm going to miss gads of details (my list is at home, I'm at work), so consider this the broad strokes version.

First, you read that right, the machine really does work. And it was easy (for me, probably not so easy for your grandma). And Windows is handling everything just fine.

First, I bought SageTV, and that was an excellent decision. SageTV is a lovely package. It supports unlimited tuners...did you catch that? UNLIMITED TUNERS. There are guys on SageTV's user forums who are running four Hauppauge PVR-500's at two tuners each, equals eight tuners total.

I'm pretty sure that these are the same guys who seed all of those TV show torrents. Yeah, recording eight shows simultaneously and having fat pipes makes that sort of thing possible.

And that reminds me...SageTV records in plain vanilla MPEG-2. Doncha love that? XP MCE puts video files in some Windows locked-up format, and MythTV defaults to XviD garbage. But SageTV? MPEG-2. DO YOU KNOW WHAT THAT MEANS?

Sorry for the all caps. It means that I can simply share my recording drive with the rest of the network and anyone can watch my recorded shows. Neat, right? You know it is.

My Hauppauge PVR-500 MCE card arrived yesterday. I'm now running triple tuners. Haven't really used them yet, but I've noticed that with my current preferences, the PVR is recording something like 8 hours of TV a day for me. It's a little worrying, because when will I ever watch all this crap? That's not the point. The crap is mine. MINE!

I spent last night setting up my ATI Remote Wonder that came with my vid card, but that I've never used before. It's an RF remote, so I figure it could be really cool. ATI's software support sucks (as usual), so it took a while to track down a DLL that the install program kept losing. Once I found that and put it in the right place, that remote fired right up.

And I'm totally sold on the Remote Wonder. The remote control has full mouse control, keyboard control, program launching, shortcuts, macros, you name it. Mine. Crystal will get the Hauppauge IR remote to use once I get it set up. And the Hauppauge remote is my next project.
I'm getting really close to where I want to be with this system. It has disc burning software, the proper network access rights, it's sharing what I want shared, it has Remote Desktop running now, and I'm just about ready to freeze the sucker.

I bought a copy of Faronics DeepFreeze for the PVR for $30. Oh yes, this will be good.

More later.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

PVR Build Log #04 (Shiny, Happy Windows)

And the title says it all. I'm a nicer person to be around now that I'm not mucking about with Linux anymore.

And it really, really felt good to let the Linux geeks, and particularly OALUG, have it in my last post. Really good. It's been ten days since I posted there for help, and there still isn't a single reply. (Actually there's one, and it's me clarifying my question.) From time to time I get emails from interested parties about Weber Entrepreneurs Association. I generally answer them within an hour or two. I care. My cause is important to me. And...what's that? I'm on a soap box? Sorry.

Let me bring you up to speed.

Stephanie at ProVantage promised an RMA for the tuner card later that afternoon. The RMA never came. There go your brownie points, Steph.

In the mean time, I began research in earnest about SageTV. One of the users on SageTV's forum said that he had a PVR-250 tuner card that didn't work, and he simply put it in a different PCI slot, and it suddenly worked.

I hadn't yet boxed up my PVR-250, because my promised RMA hadn't arrived yet, and I wasn't sure if they wanted a note in the box with the returned item (sometimes they want that). It was just sitting there, so on a whim, I took out the card and popped it back into the box, but in a different PCI slot than before. I then loaded the drivers for it, and installed the trial version of SageTV. I was wrong about the SageTV setup process. It doesn't take 45 seconds. It's more like a minute and fifteen. Sorry.

SageTV fired up, and lo and behold, I had TV and sound to go along with it. And a program guide. And full recording capabilities. And lots of other cool options. The point is it worked. OMG, OMG, OMG. Nice picture, too.

The Windows XP install at the time was more of a testbed than anything else, so I re-installed XP Pro and started over. Here were the basic steps:
  1. Kill the Linux MBR with the GRUB bootloader. Not really necessary, as the new Windows install will overwrite it, but it feels good anyway. (Do this with the FIXMBR command in Recovery Console by booting to the Windows install disc.)
  2. Kill all Linux partitions. The hard drive is now exclusively NTFS. It's about time, too.
  3. Make one huge partition for video storage.
  4. Make one small partition (~10GB) for virtual CDs. Remember? This will be a gaming system, too.
  5. Make one smaller partition (~8GB) for hidden OS images. Just in case. This is habit now, and it's saved me hours and hours of work innumerable times.
  6. Perform the actual Windows install. I can't believe this part used to intimidate me. Enter, F8 (agree to the EULA), Enter (on the chosen partition), Esc (if there's a previous Windows install you're installing over), Quick format to NTFS, Enter, F (you're sure you want to format), Enter. Wait for Windows to do its thing. Nothing to it.
  7. Enter key, choose Time Zone, blah, blah.
  8. Important: Machine name, Admin name, Workgroup name. Windows finishes installing itself.
  9. First boot. Leave that install CD in the drive. Pull up the Add/Remove Windows Components dialogue, uninstall the following Windows bloat: MSN Explorer, MSN Messenger, Outlook Express, other such cruft. This stuff won't go away without the install disc. How moronic.
  10. Reset resolution. 1280 x 1020 is fine if the 19" LCD is two feet in front of your face, but for this application, 1024 x 768 is much more appropriate.
  11. While in display settings, find a different desktop image than that stupid green hill. The hill might be bearable if it weren't the desktop on five billion other Windows boxes.
  12. And while we're still in display settings, let's change the color scheme to silver. Blue desktop (the one called "Crystal"), silver window frames. Perfect for a media box. (Who says geeks can't have a sense of style?)
  13. Windows Update. The one thing IE is good for. That's good for, not good at. Reboot. Windows Update again. Reboot. Windows Update again. Reboot. Windows Update again.
  14. Install audio drivers, refuse to reboot. Install NIC drivers, refuse to reboot. Install chipset drivers, refuse to reboot. Install video drivers. Reboot. Takes a lot less time this way.
Whew. Are we there yet?...Hey. That whole process just took about 45 minutes. The same thing in Linux would have taken a couple of days and several doses of valium. Have a little respect.

Software installed: AnyDVD, CloneDVD2 (oh yes, this system will copy DVDs), AVG, Firefox, K-Lite Mega Codec Pack, PowerDVD, WinAmp, RegCleaner, Nero 6, Farstone Virtual Drive, Half-Life, MCM2, WinTidy.

Only one reboot for all of that. What, do you think I'm made of reboots? Update AVG (six times...why can't AVG just do all the updating it needs to do in one go?), Update CloneDVD, Update AnyDVD, Update Firefox, Update Half-Life. Curiously, nothing breaks. Must be doing something wrong.

Run RegCleaner. Remove 721 invalid registry entries. WTF? 721 invalid entries? This install isn't even 90 minutes old! I know that the registry is a big step up from the config settings messes that Win95 and Win98 were, but when there are over 700 invalid registry entries in a new install with just a few little apps installed, something is wrong with the way Windows is running the registry. Yes, I know that Nero is really messy in the registry, but Nero accounts for probably 75 of the above 721. Roughly 10%. This is not a problem with Nero.

Yeah, Windows is easy to install. And it's a good thing, too, because if you want to keep Windows clean, you'll learn to re-install it every six months or so. Come to think of it, my desktop is getting ripe...

Back to the PVR work. Give the PVR an account on Dentserver so that I can start getting some real work done. The PVR user account didn't have a password so that it would auto logon at startup, but the server doesn't allow accounts without passwords. Give the PVR account a user password. Use the arcane "control userpasswords2" command to make the PVR auto logon even though the account has a password now.

Pull game Virtual CD images from the server. Pull shortcuts to music playlists from the server for WinAmp. Map network drives to make media stored on the server easy to play on this machine.

Arrange icons on the desktop in a coherent fashion, run WinTidy and create a profile of the desktop settings. This way, if a program (Half-Life, MCM2, video driver) resets the icon positions, I can tell WinTidy to put them back. Very handy.

Lots of progress. This is a good place to image the machine in case something goes wrong in the next few steps. Normally I'd use my super-secret SDB (Super Duper Booter) disc to boot to Ghost and image the drive from there, but as I sadly learned with Dentserver a while back, Ghost doesn't like SATA drives. If a SATA drive is detected at all by Ghost, Ghost will simply hang while starting up. Disabling the SATA drive from the BIOS does not fix it. It doesn't matter whether the SATA drive has any partitions or data on it. The only way to get Ghost to run is to physically unplug either the power or the data cable to the SATA drive and then reboot.

Well, the only hard drive in this system is a SATA hard drive, and a big one at that. Ghost simply isn't going to cut it. This is why I built my BartPE disc. It's essentially a Windows Live CD, with utilities pre-installed on it so that once you boot to it, you can actually get some work done.

I even put Ghost 9 on the BartPE disc, just in case it might be useful at some point. No dice. Ghost 9 is crap. The files are there on the disc, and I can run some parts of Ghost (Image Explorer, PQE Boot, Disc Editor), but I'll be damned if I can get Ghost to do any actual drive imaging. I'm not as fond of Ghost as I used to be. Hey Symantec? If you want me to ever buy another copy of Ghost (and I've bought three versions so far), then you'll make it functional again. Acronis is eating your lunch here.

And coincidentally, Acronis TrueImage is precisely what I use to image OS drives now, simply because it works. And then I use Acronis Disk Director to re-hide the backup drive. It's a little kludgy, but it works, and the Acronis apps don't bitch about my SATA drive.

I haven't had an opportunity to use my new BartPE disc on Dentserver yet. I'm kind of looking forward to it.

So that's as far as I am with the PVR. I bought a SageTV license, and during the purchase I was offered a price break on SageTV Client Version. This allows any other computer on your network to stream TV from your SageTV computer in real time with all of the features that would be available to you if you were sitting in front of the main box. But you need a client license for every computer you put it on, and a license is $30, in addition to the original $80 for the main SageTV license.

The price break was $5. I figured that $25 was a pretty good deal for being able to make Crystal's laptop another fully-functional TV, so I put it in the cart.

When it was time to check out, I noticed that the checkout page had a coupon code field. I love coupon code fields, and so should you, because usually a coupon code field means that a little creative Googling can save you bucks. I Googled around for about ten minutes and tried about six expired codes before I got one that worked...10% off my entire purchase.

SageTV: $80
SageTV Client: $30
Client Price Break: $-5
Coupon Code: $-11

Total: $94.41

I kept it under $100. I'm happy. By the way, apparently Hauppauge and SageTV have a partnership, and part of that arrangement is a coupon code at SageTV that doesn't expire. If you're in a position to use it, the code is: HAUPP. It's only valid on software licenses, so don't try buying a software/hardware bundle and using the code. Mkay?

So I'm keeping the PVR-250, because it works. And when the PVR-500 arrives, I'll keep it too, if it works. That means triple tuners. One to watch and two to record. This is gonna be cool.

There is still more to do on this box. That'll be the next update.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

PVR Build Log #03 (Trials and Tribulations)

Sorry it's been so long...I've worked really hard on the PVR, and I had holidays to worry about. Oh, and a LAN party. I guess I should post about that over at Phisch.

As you know (if you read parts 1 and 2), the hardware build for the PVR went swimmingly. I started with quality parts and did a clean, elegant build.

The software situation, well, not so much. Let's rehash:
  1. Fedora Core 4: I was wrong about FC4 not supporting SATA out of the box. It does. The install DVD actually has a bug that requires you to enter gibberish once and press "Enter" before it will install, or it will have a kernel panic. No, I am not making this up.This foiled me the first time, and then the second time I took the time to research it and found out about the bug. To be honest, I'm not sure if this is better or worse than not supporting SATA, but it is certainly stupid all the same. More on that later.
  2. Mandrake: I then tried (unsuccessfully) to get working ISOs of Mandriva. They hide the ISOs to try to get you to pay for support first, and that's not ok with me. Next!
  3. SUSE 9.2: This was my first experience with SUSE, and to put it simply, I was impressed and then some. These guys have polish like I've never before seen in a Linux distro. I desperately wanted to stick with SUSE (pronounced Soos-Uh), but I couldn't find a good step-by-step MythTV tutorial for SUSE, so I couldn't make it work.
  4. Ubuntu Full: Not the live CD, and not the single CD install, but the full 2.2 GB Ubuntu installer. Where SUSE is polished, Ubuntu has simplicity in spades. You get a plain, coffee-colored desktop, one net browser (FireFox), one file manager, and so on. Not a lot of choices, but it's simple and it works well. And like SUSE, Ubuntu found my unusual mouse and keyboard and used them fine without even asking about them. I left Ubuntu for the same reason I left SUSE; I couldn't find a comprehensive tutorial for it.
  5. Fedora Core 3: I finally ended up with FC3 because this fine tutorial is entirely based on it. The install DVD image was a little hard to find, because since the release of FC4, most mirrors have chosen to host that instead (even didn't have it). So I had to find a mirror that was a little behind the FC4 wave and was still hosting FC3 images, and then I had to use IE to make the download, as downloads over ~1GB make FireFox barf. And Star Downloader. And everything else I tried, except for BitTorrent (and remember, there wasn't a torrent for FC3) and Internet Exploder. Ech.
I'm reasonably certain that the above trial-by-fire would have shaken off damned near any beginner. I don't want to hear you Linux guys talking about how easy it is to get an image and make it do anything Windows does these days anymore, because it isn't. It just isn't. Finding the right distro was hell. Getting package dependencies to work is hell. Making sure that updates (which are harder than in Windows themselves) don't kill the work you've already done is hell. Learning BASH when you left DOS years ago is hell. Combing Google for answers when you have 20 stupid trivial problems, all of which are show-stoppers, for the command-line fix for each one, where the authors of such fixes assume that you know a lot more than you really do IS HELL.

Do you see where I'm going with this, Linux guys? This stuff needs to be easier. Follow SUSE's lead and improve on it. So anyway...

Oh, here's a tip. If you decide to dive into Linux, make sure you really take the dive and download the DVD ISOs instead of the CD ISOs, because it's well worth the trouble. First, you only have to download one image and burn one disc. But it's so much more than that! Some Linux distros want the install discs inserted a lot to pull packages from when you install software. When you have multiple install discs, this is a real pain. A single DVD is much less hairy. Ditto for the media check that some distros do before installing. Also, I archive my software in a large CD book. It's really nice to archive just one DVD for a full distro instead of five CDs. Sometimes the DVD images are a little harder to find, but they're well worth the trouble.

Ok. Let's rewind a little. SUSE wasn't working. It was beautiful and easy to use, but I couldn't find instructions tailored to SUSE for a MythTV install. So I reluctantly left SUSE for Fedora Core 4.

I had already read quite a bit of the above-linked tutorial, and I figured that since it was based on FC3, then FC4 should work mostly the same. I Googled my assumed SATA problem and discovered that FC4 does in fact support SATA. Hmm. I tried installing again; just to make sure I wasn't crazy. No dice. I then resorted to typing the exact wording of the kernel panic error message into Google with quotes. You know what? There are a lot of things that cause kernel panics. I read Google for four to five hours before stumbling upon the answer mentioned above...with some Intel motherboards (and very rarely, AMD boards too), you have to give the install prompt gibberish instead of an install command. The install prompt of course throws up an error, and then the normal install command will work. That's simple enough. If you're an idiot.

After that, FC4 installed fine. FC4 is nice. It uses the KDE desktop, which suits me far better than Gnome does. It seems to me that KDE is like a Windows desktop, while Gnome is more like a Mac desktop. So it's probably just a familiarity thing.

The problem with FC4 is that it's new. New and buggy. And not at all like FC3. The tutorial didn't work. I'd try running a BASH command copied from the tutorial, and BASH would barf. So I'd read my Linux books and find a way to work around the error. This got harder and harder, and progressively more time consuming, until I simply couldn't progress any further.

When you talk to a Linux nut about how hard things are with Linux, his argument is that it's ok because the Linux community is so supportive. All you have to do is make a post with your problem clearly stated at any Linux forum, and you'll have five hundred tech heads lining up to help. Let's debunk that, shall we?

There's a local association called the Ogden Area Linux Users Group, or OALUG. Not an elegant name, but perhaps that's appropriate. About a year ago, Leon and I attended an OALUG meeting at the WSU Ogden campus. It was a cold day, and they opened the doors to the building late, so that tainted the experience early on.

They finally let us into the building, and the meeting commenced in a classroom. They chattered about kernel updates and gave SCO a fairly good bashing (which is fine by me), and then talked about whatever members chose to bring up. During the meeting, there was a fellow behind me who was a WSU employee, and he provided the single warm, friendly greeting and conversation that I had at that meeting, despite the fact that I spent much of the time pointing out that it was my first time at such a meeting, and I'd like to know more about Linux, and the Linux community. Frankly, it was pretty much like I would imagine an Asperger's Anonymous meeting would go.

At the end of the meeting, they laid out some Linux-related books on a table that a publishing company had given the association, and said that anyone who wanted one or two could have them. I saw one that interested me and was reaching for it, when one of the OALUG members grabbed it right out from under me, boldly stating that he had seen me going for it, and then raced over and made a grab because he had just decided that he wanted it. Fine. Asshole.

So the meeting didn't go well. I did walk away with a book, which I committed to read and write a review for, and have done neither. And I won't be doing so, not only because I don't have the time, but also because of the hatred in my black, black heart.

Anyway, I decided to turn to the ever willing and helpful Linux community for assistance, and went to OALUG's website. Once there, I registered (even though it isn't mandatory for posting) and then posted about my problem. Why don't you have a look at the page? Really, click the link--I'll wait. Do you see all those helpful replies? Yeah, me neither.

I posted that eight days ago now, and all I hear is crickets chirping. Some community. I'm sorry...I know that I'm being pretty scathing here, but it's just because I love the idea of open-source so dearly, and I genuinely feel that these guys are pissing on their own cause. Seriously, guys. Grow some social skills.

Fedora Core 4 didn't work and it looked like it wasn't going to unless I wanted to spend a few weeks learning how to recompile kernels and other such nonsense. No. I went back to the tutorial to find out which distro it was meant for, and went immediately away to find an FC3 ISO.

By this time, I had learned an awful lot about working with a command line in BASH, and I was really getting proficient at moving around and getting things done in Fedora. FC3 install fine, there was no gibberish bug, and the tutorial, while not perfect, was very useful indeed. There were times when I had to deviate from the tutorial because the steps that it suggested didn't work, but I suspect that this is because updates have broken parts of it. I neatly sidestepped these problems for the most part, and only got really hung up once or twice.

There were a couple of things that the tutorial didn't cover, though, and they've been a concern all along. I want more than just a PVR. I want a fully networked box that can share its recordings with the rest of the house, and I want it to record to an NTFS partition on the hard drive so that when I boot to Windows, Windows can see the partition as well as Linux.

I made it through a certain step in the tutorial at about 2:20 am one night, decided to update the machine before bed, finished the update, shut it down, and hit the sack at about three. I was to tackle the NTFS and network problems the next day.

Flash to the next day, wherein FC3 fails to boot. You guessed it; the update the night before borked Linux, and borked it good. The machine would start up and initialize almost everything, but then the graphical environment would simply fail to load. I could Ctrl-Alt-F4 out of the broken graphical environment to a command line, but I'm not that good at the command line yet, and it was no help.

I'm convinced that it takes computers to build computers. Without another PC running and ready to Google its little heart out, I'd never make progress on a project like this. In about an hour, I had found other users with the same problem, and a workaround. I had to edit a config file. Not so hard, right? Not if you're in a graphical environment with root priveleges. But no graphics for me.

Fine, I said. That's what Knoppix is for. I booted to Knoppix, browsed to the necessary file, and...I couldn't edit it. I wasn't root. And Knoppix doesn't have a root password, you have to elevate yourself from a command line using the SUDO command and then give yourself a root password. But the command didn't work for me.

Fine, I said. That's what Ubuntu Live is for. I booted to Ubuntu, and had the same problem: No root, and no root password in the distro. Is there a workaround? You bet! See above. It didn't work in Ubuntu, either.

Fine, I said. that's what SimplyMepis is for. I booted SimplyMepis and was presented with a logon screen. Wha? The other two didn't have logon screens. I entered "root" as my user name, and "root" as my password, and I was suddenly root. Whew. After editing the necessary file and rebooting, FC3 worked fine again.

That's what I get for updating before bed. My fault.

Now the NTFS problem. Google was quick about this one, and mounting the NTFS drive was a relative breeze, taking only about 3 hours to get it to automatically mount with every boot. But then, no matter what I tried, I couldn't write to the NTFS partitions. Not as user, not as root, not when I stood on one leg and looked at it cross-eyed. I could see the files, execute them (not like you think, though), browse them, but I couldn't even create a new folder.

More research showed that many others have had the same problem, and it's just that way. You can mount an NTFS drive in Fedora, but you can't write to it. So stop asking.

I did find an outdated project that allowed reading and writing of NTFS drives, but it hadn't had development in more than a year, and it would require recompiling my kernel. No.

I re-formatted the drive as Ext3, got it to mount (you'd think that Linux would mount a new native file system automatically, but no), and moved on.

On to what? Networking, of course, and more specifically Samba. I knew the network card was working fine, because the Fedora box was online. I browsed web pages and updated the system (bad idea) from the internet. So I tried to browse my own network.

BARF! You have to start the service "Lisa" for Samba to work! Lisa was running. I checked. I rebooted. Same thing. I restarted Lisa over and over, but I still couldn't even begin to see my LAN. This was unexpected and very discouraging. Samba had worked without a hiccup in SUSE. I'd browse to DENTSERVER and it would pop up a logon box and off I'd go. But this was a problem.

Later, I told myself. MythTV still isn't set up. MythTV was coming along nicely, though. When it came to configuring my TV tuner card, I couldn't manage to get a picture. I found a guy online who had the same problems in Linux, but his card worked from Windows. He tweaked some configuration settings after finishing the MythTV install and it worked fine. I hadn't tried Windows yet, but I vowed to later and moved on.

I configured MySQL and set up the Myth Database. I got an account at Zap2It, for downloading TV listings automatically. I ran MythTVSetup, where I actually saw the blue MythTV user interface. This all happened miraculously in the span of about two hours.

The MythTV interface looks friendly, but it is not. It's probably not so bad when you have it configured to talk to a remote control rather than a keyboard, but you have to set it up with a keyboard because you have to type in settings, and it is seriously keyboard unfriendly.

I guessed at a few of the settings, and decided it was time to test if my tuner card worked in Windows. Reboot.

I ran the Hauppauge software in Windows. The card didn't work. It knew what channels I was supposed to receive, but it would only display a black screen. Hauppauge's support faq page says that this is a problem with using a video card that doesn't support the overlay function. The Radeon 7000 that's in the system does support overlay, and since it's not functioning in both Windows and Linux, I'm betting that the tuner card is defective.

The girl at ProVantage was a dream to work with, and she promised an RMA without giving me any trouble at all. I've bought from ProVantage several times before. Their prices have always been reasonable to excellent, and now I know that their support is good. I'll be buying from them more often.

I found that ProVantage has the Hauppauge PVR-500 MCE for only $8 more than the PVR-250 I had bought, so I ordered the 500 right away. The 500 is like the 250, only with slightly better graphics quality, dual TV tuners instead of single, dual hardware MPEG 2 encoders instead of single, and an added FM tuner built in. That's pretty impressive for an $8 upgrade.

The 250 came with an IR remote that I'll have to send back with it, and the 500 doesn't include a remote, but I have an RF remote from my ATI 9800 Pro AIW that I'm not using, and it will do fine. And it's a better remote anyway.

So here's where I'm at. Linux is just too hard. I've learned a lot in the last three weeks. And I mean, a lot. I've learned that Linux is very powerful, and yet very frail. Bruce Perens, an open-source advocate and Debian proponent, famously said:
"Well, let's just say, 'if your VCR is still blinking 12:00, you don't
want Linux.'"
And that's certainly true. And maybe even if it isn't blinking 12:00. I wanted Linux to replace my VCR, and I just don't think I can see it through. Frankly, this project has kicked my butt. I can take some butt kicking--I'm used to a certain degree of it, but I've really taken a beating, and I've had precious little reward from the process.

As much as I hate throwing in the towel, I've got certain tasks that I want this system to perform, and I'm not willing to sacrifice them just so that I can say that I run Linux on my PVR instead of Windows. Windows doesn't barf when I try to network it. Windows will let me read, write, and even share my NTFS drive.

And SageTV's users are saying a lot of very nice things about SageTV. I suppose a rather substantial bribe could get me considering the Linux option again. It's not too late...I haven't formatted the Fedora partitions yet. But I'm going to.

I gave Linux an honest, hardcore effort. More effort than I'd give most other projects. I've really worked hard on this one, and part of me doesn't want to let all that work go. Oh well.

There will be further updates. I've given up on Linux, but not the whole project.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

PVR Build Log #02 (Refinements and Clarifications)

Wow. I came home from some errands yesterday to UPS-delivered hardware. I had Leon along, and I figured it would be fun to install the motherboard into the case, even if that's all we could do for the moment.

Oh, I forgot in the last post. Another part I had on hand to use in the PVR is my Gyration wireless keyboard and mouse set. With a 30 foot range, they're perfect for operating a PVR system from the couch or across the room.

I bought that Intel motherboard refurbished, and it came without an I/O backplate. That's a problem. It's possible to install a motherboard without the backplate, and it will work, but it's a bad idea for a couple of reasons.
  1. Static electricity. The main purpose of the backplate is to provide a grounding surface in close proximity to all of the various ports sticking through it. If you string a headphone cable (just supposin') back there that's carrying a serious static charge, then if you're lucky, you'll fumble around a bit and accidentally touch that backplate with the end of the jack before plugging it in. This will discharge the static to the PC chassis, saving your motherboard from having to deal with the potentially deadly surge.
  2. Fumbling mishaps. Your motherboard is sensitive. The backplate protects you from your own clumsiness by making sure that you don't accidentally poke a connector into the case and short out something sensitive. And believe me, with surface mount components all over your board, there are plenty of opportunities for this sort of mishap.
  3. Finally, this may seem more mundane than the above two answers, but it's almost as important: Having gaping holes in your case really screws up air flow and dust management. Don't shrug; this is important. Your computer hates dust, because it builds up on components, insulating them, which means that they can't shed heat anymore. The heat builds up and the next thing you know, you've let the smoke out of a chip. This is how aging electronics die. It's not the age; it's the dust and heat.
Incidentally, the above discussion of heat problems is also why all of the chips in computers these days are soldered down or, in the case of your processor, clamped down. They used to be secured in cute little brackets that held them in place by friction. But the heating/cooling cycles caused by powering on and off the system, and even just working the system hard and then giving it a break, caused the chips to work their way out of the brackets. It was dubbed "chip creep" at the time, and it was a major headache.

Anyway, I had the backplate that came with the case, and two more kicking around in my spare parts drawer, all of which were roughly the same, and none of which matched up to the motherboard's ample selection of ports and connectors. Time to break out the dremel.

I removed the factory backplate from the case (since I was going to have to anyway) and held it up to the motherboard to see where they did and didn't match. I found that with a little tweaking, all I had to do is get rid of the audio ports area and it would fit the board well enough.

I stepped outside with the backplate and the dremel once for the bulk cutting, and twice more for strategic sanding and ended up with a workable backplate. It isn't perfect, but it's far better than nothing.

I got about three screws into the motherboard, and the doorbell rang. It was FedEx with the rest of my parts! Now we could really build the whole thing.

Leon and I began stuffing the case. I meant to take photographs of the process, but once I get started building a machine, I don't stop until it's done. So I didn't take photos. Sorry. But it's just as well, because the inside isn't quite as neat as I'd like...It's a lot harder to build neatly inside a small case. Don't get me wrong, cables are not all over in there. It's just not something I'd put a case window on.

We assembled the system except for the hard drive, because the 320GB drive was for the server. The drive intended for the PVR was still in my desktop and I had files to move. But on closer inspection, I found that the new drive is SATA, and not PATA like I had thought. The drive it's meant to replace in the server is PATA and the SATA ports in DENTSERVER are already full.

So I ended up installing the new 320GB drive in the PVR anyway. That little box is full of some pretty cool parts.

Time for software. The system POSTed fine on the very first power on. Additionally, the HD and Power LEDs lit correctly on the first try, and my power LED switch works perfectly. That's a pretty bright blue LED, and I'm sure the switch will prove handy.

For the initial few boots, I used a BartPE disc that I recently created. It's a live CD that boots to Windows XP Pro without touching the hard drive, and it also has Acronis Disk Director 9, Acronis True Image, Norton Ghost 9, Nero 6, and a number of other handy utilities (all of which I have legal licenses for) installed on it. This makes tasks like backing up a borked OS and cloning hard drives much easier. BartPE is cool stuff, by the way. Check out the link above for BartPE's main site.

OS Follies

I originally intended to install RedHat Fedora Core 4 as the base Linux OS on the PVR. Fedora Core 4 is brand new--it was released on 13 June 2005--and it doesn't support SATA drives. RedHat folks...Hello? Are you at home? No SATA support? WTF?

Running the install disc simply resulted in a system hang shortly after the install searched in vain for a hard drive to mount.

I really want a full-featured Linux OS on this system, so one of the simplicity-centric distros won't do. That rules out SimplyMepis, Knoppix, and Ubuntu. I looked for a new Mandrake (make that Mandriva) set of ISOs, but it appears that Mandriva really wants money before the web site will give a download link. (By the way, I installed Ubuntu while I was waiting for Fedora ISOs to download, just to see if I could. Ubuntu worked perfectly. That's a hell of an OS.)

So I resorted to a slightly older install set that I already have of Mandrake 9.1. I got as far as localizing the keyboard (to American English), and the install program would not recognize my USB mouse, no matter what I tried. This was Mandriva's second chance. On to the next distro. (
And I won't be linking to Mandriva. You can Google it if you care that much.)

And let me mention here that I'm not happy with where Linux distribution is going. All of the big names in Linux (except Fedora) want me to buy a support license before they hand over the damned ISOs.
This is not ok. I'm your potential customer, and you're pissing me off. I may buy support for a Linux OS at some point in the future, but I will not buy from a company that hides the free OS from me until I pay them. Never.

Thank goodness for, the online clearinghouse for Torrents of darned near any distro you could hope for. I selected five or so for download and went to bed.

Our new 7MB downstream connection has already proven extremely handy; I had all the torrents I had selected when I woke up five hours later, except for
both of the Mandriva distros I had selected. That's right; I gave Mandriva a third and fourth chance. You blew it, guys. You can't even seed a torrent right. It'll be a long time before I try Mandriva again.

Of the many times I've installed Linux at home, none of those installs have been SUSE Linux. I keep hearing good things about SUSE, but I've never tried it. This morning I burned the single DVD ISO (~3GB) for the SUSE install and popped it into the PVR.

Nice! SUSE's installer is graphical and elegant, and worked out how to properly use my USB keyboard and mouse without any interaction from me at all. They just worked, as they should. Unfortunately, I didn't have time to finish the install process because I had to go to work and open the lab. When I get home, I'm going to start the SUSE install from scratch again, just to see how pretty.

And now that I've thought about it for a while, I think I'm going to dual-boot this system with Windows XP. It occurred to me that it would be nice to have this machine available for Half-Life and MCM2, and any emulators that might be Linux Impaired. So I'll have to install XP before I run the SUSE disc again.

I sure hope that SUSE continues to impress me.

Monday, June 20, 2005

PVR Build Log #01 (Parts List)

I'm building a PVR. I've had Tivo envy for too long, and I'm tired of missing shows that I like when I could really do something about it if I tried.

So I'm going to try now.

I've thought for a long time now that I'd probably build a Windows Media Center PC. I'm a small OEM, so buying parts and an OEM copy of Media Center legally is no problem for me. But I really hate the idea of Microsoft having the power to bomb functionality out of my PVR with future updates. And I think this is well within the realm of possibility; DirecTV and Tivo have already had this happen.

I'm not all hung up on the price of Media Center. $130 isn't bad for what you get, and as long as I could be certain that it would stay at least as good as what I bought, I'd buy it. But no. Microsoft is courting Hollywood and is not to be trusted.

So I'm building a MythTV. This is essentially PVR software running on top of a Linux foundation.

This is a daunting task for me, because it involves Linux in such a way that if I don't use Linux correctly, I won't get what I want. I've installed Linux on my own machines maybe eight or nine times and monkeyed around with it. But I've never actually put Linux to work on something I cared about. Yet.

So I want to document the whole process here. First, because this is going to be a lot of work, and I'd like to be able to track what I've done. Second, I want anyone who's curious to be able to stop by and copy what I've done. If this is intimidating for me, it will be scary for others too, and it really helps to have a walk through.

Finally, and most importantly, I want to document this because I've long been screaming about the PC industry's cluelessness when it comes to craftsmanship. A computer really can and should be a work of art, particularly on the inside.

Grace, form and neatness all matter very much on the inside of a PC case. The process of choosing parts should take time. The builder should visualize how everything will fit together long before the odds and ends that will be PC guts are ever ordered. Future upgrades should be accommodated for. Air flow should be a point of attention. Quality parts should be seen as a critical safeguard against failure.

So while I'm on it, let's start with parts:

  • Motherboard - Intel D865PERL-E - 800 Mhz FSB, Onboard Gigabit, AGP 8x, USB 2.0 x8, Firewire x3, DDR 400 x4, SATA 150, PATA 133, 6 Channel Audio with Optical Out, PCI x5. This is a great multimedia board. I've had it on hand waiting for Leon for six months or so now. It's starting to age, and Leon will probably want to put more graphics muscle into his new system than an AGP interface will allow. So I'm going to use this board, and when the time comes, we'll get him something with PCI-E.
  • Vid Card - Radeon 7000 64 MB TV Out - Not a video card that has big rippling muscles, but this is a pretty simple application, and it will have plenty of power to display TV Video, DVDs, and whatever else Linux will throw at it. We're not talking millions of polygons here, and there will be almost zero on-card math to be done. This is Jeff's old vid card. I asked him for it when he bought my Radeon 9200 Pro 128 DDR from me, and he kindly agreed to give it to me.
  • DVD Burner - Lite-On LDW-411S - This is an 8x single layer burner that I used for a while. It started behaving strangely, so I pulled it and later reloaded Windows. So I'm not sure if the drive actually has problems or if it was that Windows install. I guess I'll find out. It doesn't really matter if it is bad; this system doesn't need an optical drive except for installing the OS initially. I'll be doing all the burning on my main desktop instead.
  • Floppy - Samsung Black Floppy Drive - I've had this on hand ever since I pulled it from my main desktop, and I'm still debating whether to put it in the PVR or not. My machines have been floppyless for about two years now, and I can't say that I've regretted it. At all. If anything, floppies were a pain in the butt, and I'm glad to be rid of them. Still, it's black, and I'm not using it for anything else, and I do like to lean toward functionality. I'm torn. If there's a space crunch in the box, the floppy will be the first to go.
  • Mod Switch - I've noticed that sometimes it's nice to have those shiny blue LEDs on your case shining, and sometimes they're just annoying. Antec expects you to either give them power (via a Molex cable) or don't, and if you change your mind, you'll have to open up the case and change it manually. This is one of the few things that I really have found fault with Antec on. So I've taken regular PCI slot covers, cut a square hole in them with my dremel, and glued in old power supply switches with epoxy. I then wire the switch up to the LEDs in a very simple On/Off configuration. This is nice, because if I'm sick of the lights, I can just flip the switch on the back of the machine. If I want them back, the same process applies. It's an elegant solution to Antec's rare lack of elegance.

The above parts and a few various cables are the grand total of parts already on hand. Everything else must be bought. I've bought parts, and what I've bought will have to do because Crystal has taken away my credit card. Smart girl.

Parts purchased:

  • Case - Antec Overture Version II Quiet Media Case (Piano Black) with 450 Watt Antec SmartPower power supply - (That "Version II" part is important. It's had a major redesign and runs cooler than the first. I could have bought a V.1 much cheaper, but it wasn't worth it.) The case was the hardest part to buy for this system. I struggled and struggled with it. Would a new Dell PC be ok? No. The desktops are too big, and the SFF's require half-height cards. Would a Shuttle shoebox do? Maybe, but only if I was ok with the system running hot and buying a special motherboard small enough for the case. Then I finally thought to look at what my long-time favorite case maker, Antec, had to offer. I very nearly bought a Minuet, but it had some serious shortcomings, such as a diminutive 200W power supply and the requirement for Mini-ATX everything. But then I stumbled upon the Overture; sleek, quiet, small, and it fits a Full-ATX board. It's tight, but it fits. Sold. I love Antec. They understand artistry.
  • RAM - Kingston KVR400x64C3A 512 MB Single Stick - This was just the cheapest stick of DDR 400 512MB I could find. Most MythTV sites recommend 256MB, but I've made it policy not to build with less than 512MB for over 1.5 years now.
  • Hard Drive - WD Caviar SE 7200 RPM 8MB Buffer, 320GB - This drive won't actually go in the will replace one of the 120GB drives in my server. That 120GB drive will go in my desktop, and the 160GB SATA drive that's currently in my desktop will go in the PVR. That will boost my server to 940GB (250+250+320+120). I can't wait to replace that other 120 and break 1TB.
  • Media Card Reader - Transcend Internal Multi-Card Reader - I'm a little concerned about this, because it's got a high probability of being junk. And that's why a few days later, I bought...
  • Media Card Reader - PCUSA 12 in 1 USB 2.0 Internal Card Reader - A slightly better deal on what looks to be a slightly better product. One of these will almost certainly end up in my desktop. It could use an SD slot.
  • TV Tuner Card - Hauppage WinTV PVR-250 - All of the MythTV sites I've read stress how much nicer it is to have hardware MPEG 2 encoding on your TV card than to have your processor do all that work. So I made sure to get a card with hardware MPEG 2, and one that's highly rated by the MythTV community. This is the highest-specced card that isn't still having driver problems in Linux. I wanted to buy two so that I can watch one channel and record another...or record two at a time...but that will have to wait a bit. Besides, I want my next card to be HDTV ready.
  • Processor - Celeron D 315 533 FSB, 2.26 Ghz - I got a hell of a deal on this chip...$60. I was planning on putting something like a P4 1.8 Ghz in there, but the P4s are damned expensive, and this processor is way more than this system needs. If I use hardware encoding on all cards, I could probably record five simultaneous streams with this processor, board, and SATA hard drive. It boggles the mind. Anyway, I'm still not clear on whether this CPU includes a heat sink and fan, but if it doesn't, I've got them on hand. No problem.
  • Display - Balance CM2019 19" LCD - I wasn't willing to go with less than a 19" LCD, so I figured I'd have to make a substantial sacrifice in quality and features. I was wrong. I spotted this monitor at WalMart for $300. It's 19", has VGA and DVI, and an impressive 10ms response time. It's an off-brand, but if it walks like it talks, I don't care. I tested it out for a bit tonight, and so far I'm impressed.
So that's the parts list so far (you can see what was bought where by the links above).

Here are the costs:

Provantage: $203.41
Zipzoomfly: $343.32
WalMart: $318.14
PCMicroStore: $ 18.00

Total: $882.87.

And that doesn't include the parts already on hand. No wonder she took my card away. Even I've got sticker shock.

I'm thinking the next post will be about MythTV and choosing a distro. We'll see.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

On Multiple Monitors (And Other Ramblings)

So regarding multiple monitors. I bought my first PC that was my very own to ruin if I chose back in 1999 when Crystal and I were newly marrieds. And actually, it was our very own to ruin, but it's a fine distinction.

I knew some basic PC terminology and a little computer theory at the time, but not much else. The sorely-lacking Compaq that I had bought at Staples was a stern teacher, and I was a tenacious student.

Along with the sorely lamented Compaq PC (The very one, in fact, that has been spoken of in demonic terms in the early life of this blog. I'm pretty sure Eric still has the poor thing.), we bought a 19" CRT monitor. LCD monitors were only just barely a consumer product at the time, and you'd pay something like $650 for a muddy, ghosting 15" model. Buying an LCD simply wasn't an option.

The Compaq taught me many important lessons. This is an important note, but I want to get to multiple monitors so I'll be brief. Here are some of the lessons I was roughly handed down from a PC that was born garbage:

  1. Completely wiping the hard drive and restoring the OS image is not the only way to fix a computer, no matter what the $5/hr Compaq techs tell you.
  2. Just because no one understands what you want (like dual audio cards) doesn't mean it's not possible. You'll just have to work out how on your own.
  3. The copy of Windows that you get from Compaq is not the same copy of Windows that comes from a real live Windows install disc.
  4. Properly building a computer and putting the right parts together is art. Compaq knows nothing of art.
  5. Almost all computer problems (>95%) are the fault of the person at the keyboard. If a reboot doesn't fix it and it isn't a hardware failure (which is probably your fault as well), you've screwed it up good.
About a year after buying the Compaq, I felt experienced enough and stupidly daring enough to talk my wife into letting me buy parts and build my own PC. I sold the Compaq to Eric, bought parts at an OEM parts place that is now dead to me, and brashly started turning screws and plugging in cables.

Miraculously, my first self-built PC worked, and all since have worked also, with varying degrees of strife. It would be nice if I had it in my nature to give up from time to time. But I fight and fight until it works. And that's how my brother-in-law burned me a while back. I love him. It's in the past. But if I had given up at the appropriate time, oh, how much happier I would have been. Not his fault.

Shortly after I built this PC, my big 19" CRT monitor simply didn't turn on one day. The PC seemed to be booting, but had nothing to show for it. Or the mechanism by which it was trying to show wasn't working. I troubleshot down to the monitor itself and called the manufacturer for an RMA. It was going to take three weeks to get my monitor back.

I had recently learned about dual monitor setups, and I had seen them in use in movies. I saw an opportunity to learn more about it. I had an extra PCI video card sitting around and no monitor. Smells like opportunity.

"Crystal, I need to use the computer but I won't have a monitor for three weeks. If we buy a new monitor now, then I'll be able to use the computer until the old one comes back, and then I can learn about multiple monitor setups and if I build you your own computer, then we'll already have a monitor for it and ...."

My wife is so cool. She lets me try stupid things and they usually turn out pretty good.

So we went back to Staples (yes, I did learn, eventually...I haven't shopped there for a long time now) and bought another monitor. In fact, the exact same monitor. When the old one came back, I was to have dual, identical, 19" CRTs. In 2000, that was a helluva lot of desktop.

It was a good thing that we bought the new monitor, because the old one went back to the depot twice more without working, and I didn't get to use it for something like two months rather than three weeks. In fact, I haven't seen it since. The manager of the depot felt so badly for screwing up my monitor twice instead of fixing it once that she sent me a brand-new flat screen version of the same model.

This is how I ended up with two nearly identical monitors after having been through monitor hell and got a free upgrade. But it wasn't really free. I had to pay about $40 (each time) to ship the old monitor to California three times. Shipping a 19" CRT monitor is a lot like shipping a really fragile boulder in a flimsy box. It should be avoided if at all possible.

Once I had two working monitors, it took a little experimentation to get things working just right, and then some more experimentation to find a setup that I liked. But boy, did I like it.

It's hard for me not to feel confined on a single monitor system. I've experimented with different configurations in the years since, and once I even configured quintuple monitors, just to see if I could. Turns out I could, but it was a devilish mess. I really didn't want to use five monitors. It's way more trouble than it's worth. Maybe with LCDs though...

Then in late 2003, the University of Utah released this study, and here as a news blurb. It's about PC users with multiple displays being a lot more productive, accurate, charming, and better looking than other computer users. Or something like that.

Now for productivity theory. I manage a lot of user files on my computer. Thousands, in fact. I do so much file management that opening Windows Explorer is essentially a part of me logging on to the PC. Explorer auto launches on all of my own computers.

So imagine that you're sitting in front of my computer at home. There are now two identical 17" LCD monitors. Nice, right? They're Princeton Senergy LCDs with 16ms response times, narrow bezels (charcoal grey), and swiveling/angling base stands. They sit side-by-side, bezels touching, so that they really look like one horizontally long LCD monitor with a 1" split of plastic right in the middle.

First, your brain quickly learns to ignore the separation between the monitors. Windows moves applications seamlessly between the displays and it really becomes second nature to look and mouse between the two displays.

Windows requires that one of the monitors is the primary monitor. It gets preferential treatment from the processor, which shouldn't really matter because you're probably using a vid card with a pretty hefty GPU that will automatically split the work between the two very efficiently. The primary monitor gets the Start button and task bar, which will not extend to other monitors, no matter how much you try. Some applications will refuse to run on any but the primary monitor...mostly games.

Windows likes to put the primary monitor on the left and the secondary on the right, but the opposite works best for me. All you have to do is click and drag the monitors around in the settings panel to arrange where they appear.

This is where Explorer comes in. I set up the left-hand monitor (secondary) for moving things around, and the right-hand monitor for primary work. The left-hand monitor has two Explorer windows automatically open on it at boot. One is in the upper left-hand corner, and the other is in the lower right-hand corner. They're just large enough that the corners meet in the middle of the monitor and overlap a bit. Windows Task Manager opens at boot and lives in the upper right-hand corner of the display.

That's all on the left-hand, secondary monitor. The right-hand monitor gets Word, FireFox, Excel, WinAmp, and so forth. These don't open at boot...I pull them up as needed. But I do have one Explorer window open on this monitor, so that's three total Explorer windows open at any given time.

The Explorer windows on the secondary monitor usually show local folders, and the one on the primary monitor usually displays my personal folder on the server. They don't always have to be set up that way, but that's the default, and it's nice to know which window points where when I need to move files around.

It is because of multiple monitors that I am so very efficient at my computer. I don't like mousing down to the task bar or Alt+Tabbing whenever I need to see a particular app. It should be showing and ready to work at any given time, right in front of me.

There are times, though, that I willingly give up a monitor. Well, not really. When I remotely manage my server, I open the Remote Desktop window on the secondary display. So it's like I'm sitting in front of two PCs, my desktop and my server, and they share a keyboard and mouse. This alone is extremely handy.

But I also use a real KVM switch so that I can put another PC next to my own and work on it without leaving my desk or hefting over more hardware. This makes patching a new Windows install only just bearable. That and the update files already waiting on the server. Downloading Service Pack 2 every time I work on a different PC would truly be, as they say, a bitch.

In short, my desktop is ultra-versatile and it's because of dual monitors. Actually, I didn't get into this before now, but my desktop is running TV-Out via S-Vid to my Harman Kardon receiver, which then routes the signal to my TV. So make that triple monitors.

But you should start dual and work up. Really, just doing that much is complex enough.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Those Zany Vortigaunts

Vortigaunts are interesting critters. In Half-Life 1, you're required to kill gads of necklace-wearing vortigaunts in order to save the world. All the while, there's a rumor going around that those aren't necklaces, they're control devices. The rumor goes that vortigaunts aren't bad guys, they're just being controlled by bad guys.
Then you play Half-Life 2. Vortigaunts are nice now. They almost seem to suck up to you. One even zaps you, just like in the old days, but this time it charges your HEV suit instead of killing you. That's a pretty big difference! Oh, and no necklaces. Coincidence? Could be.
One thing that I've really enjoyed about the Half-Life series is that the developers don't care if you cheat. Not in single player, anyway. If you cheat online, then you're going to get kicked off of the online servers for five years, but cheating alone is ok. I think this is a healthy attitude.
I enjoy cheating (after I've played the game a couple of times without cheating) because it allows me to explore and try new things. I like being able to walk right up to an airborne hunter-chopper and fire 42 consecutive RPGs at it, bringing it down in a flaming heap of junk metal. I like popping the Civil Protection guards in the train station at the beginning of the game with my nine millimeter, just because they're ugly and short-tempered. Walking through walls is nice. It's a handy trick when you just want to get through a given area quickly. It's also nice to get face-to-face with characters that you usually only get to see from a distance, like Ravenholm's Father Grigori.
Speaking of Grigori, a shotgun in Half-Life 2 is extremely useful long before he gets around to giving you one. And speaking of weapons, where are my det packs? Det packs are very handy indeed. And a gluon gun sure would be useful.
Anyway, in my cheating, I've found a vortigaunt in Black Mesa East who has plenty to say about the relationship between Gordon and the vortigaunts. You have to walk through a chain link fence to get to him. I found later that there's a vortigaunt at the end of the canals level who you don't have to cheat to get to (I did anyway), and who says the same things. He also makes some noises as you're approaching him to let you know to keep walking through the radioactive goo that makes him hard to get to. He says:
"Hurrrmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. Durrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. Churrrrrrrrrrr---Koff! Hack! Wheeze!"
Then once you get face-to-face with him and start talking, he says the same things as the Black Mesa East Vortigaunt.
Now as far as the vortigaunt's voice, Valve coughed up a really talented voice actor. If you can imagine Yoda plus James Earl Jones minus Kermit the Frog, you've just about got the vortigaunt's voice. His voice is deep, gravelly, emotional, and he stretches out words for intensity. So when he says "Your bright face obscures your darker mask!" it sounds like this: "Your (higher) bright face (normal) obscures your (low and slow) darrrrker masssssk!"
Listed below are all the responses I could get out of these two vortigaunts. I had game captions turned on while I played to help with transcribing, but sometimes the vortigaunt doesn't say the captions exactly, and I've favored what's actually said rather than what's written on the screen. Here they are:
We remember the Freeman. We are coterminous.
There is no distance between us. No false veils of time or space may intervene.
We see you still in Black Mesa. Clearly we see you still in the Nihilanth's chamber.
We bear witness to the bright eternity of the Nihilanth's demise. You leap, you fall, we see you flash between the barriers.
For a brief time you joined us. You are one between the worlds. (Captions say "beyond the worlds.")
Communion of the vortessence, and that other: a deeper mystery. No deeper than the void itself.
We cannot forget those whose cords you cut. Forgiveness is not ours to bestow.
Unity of purpose, the shattering of common shackles, a single road we tread.
Your song we sing and shall sing for eternity. No matter the consequences of this struggle.
You have brought us grief and jubilation beyond measure.
We are there still, in observance of your final stroke.
While our own lay scattered at your feet, you severed the vortal cord that bound the Nihilanth to life, and to us.
That sharp spur of hope has not dulled to this day. For once the lesser master lay defeated, we knew the greater must also fall in time.
With you besides us, a talisman of victory, the day of freedom draws nigh. (Captions say "beside.")
Your bright face obscures your darker mask.
We call you sib, although your mind and meaning are a mystery to us.
Far distant eyes look out through yours.
Something secret steers us both. We shall not name it.
We have endured these chafing bonds for eons, yet a single moment of further servitude seem intolerable.
How often have we slipped our yoke, only to find it choking us again.
Let this war end in either total victory or our extinction. No further compromise shall we allow.
We take our stand beside you here upon this miserable rock. (Funny enunciation in "miserable rock.")
The way ahead is dark for the moment.
What seems to you a sacrifice is merely to us an oscillation. We do not fear the interval of darkness.
We are a tapestry woven of vortessence. It is the same for you if only you would see it.
How many are there in you? Whose hopes and dreams do you encompass?
Could you but see the eyes inside your own, the minds in your mind, you would see how much we share.
We are you, Freeman, and you are us.
We shall prevail.
This is more than anyone can bear, but we will persevere.
Our finest poet describes it thus: "Gallum Bagga Lilla Ba!" (Captions are considerably different. Took a few tries to get the vortigaunt's version right.)
We have survived worse across the ages.
Where to now? And to what end?
We have lost all dear to us.
Our cause seems hopeless.
Our life is worthless unless spent on freedom.

I'm told that if you sit and talk to the vortigaunt who puts the gun on the water skipper, he'll say most of these, too.
When you've played through Black Mesa East for a while to the point where the scanners invade the junkyard, some interesting things happen. First, when you follow Alyx back into the compound, she will run ahead of you and rocks will fall in the way of you getting to her. She'll tell Dog to let you into Ravenholm.
If you walk through the rubble toward Alyx, you'll find yourself in a laboratory room. Alyx has disappeared. Dr. Vance* is there, looking toward an instrument panel. He won't move or talk. There are three vortigaunts standing near him, looking at a closed door. Every twenty seconds or so, a Combine soldier teleports into the room just in front of the door. He generally gets off three or four shots before the three vortigaunts zap him dead. The bodies of dead Combine soldiers collect in front of the door. If you wait long enough, the collected efforts of all of the dead Combine soldiers will kill one of the vortigaunts. If you wait even longer, all three vortigaunts will die this way. When the last one dies, a new vortigaunt will teleport into the very back of the room at the same time a new Combine soldier does and immediately begin zapping any soldiers present.
The teleporting soldiers never look or shoot at Dr. Vance. They also never move from the spot where they teleported in. The vortigaunts that are teleported in do move around to get a better shot at the Combine troops.
The vortigaunts say things as they kill the combine soldiers that they don't say when they're not fighting. They also say things when they're trying to kill Combine troops and when Gordon gets in the way. Here are those phrases:
Give over your essence.
We live to serve.
Undeserving of consciousness. (I like this one. I think I'll use it.)
This is regrettable.
To the void with you.
We claim you.
All in one and one in all.
Return to the void.
Allow me.
That one shall trouble us no more.
This should keep the Freeman safe.
That is all for now.
Ware, Freeman! Done.
The Freeman must beware! That is all we can spare.
For the Freeman!
Return to the all in one!
Warning to the Freeman. Done.
The Freeman is in our way.
We have dreamed of this moment.
Pass on!
Its energy empowers us.

One more note. If, when Dog is waiting for you to take the entrance to Ravenholm, you instead walk through the walls back into the junkyard, you'll find two interesting things. First, there's a lone headcrab. He's right in the middle of the open area, so it's not clear where he came from, but it sort of makes you suspect that Alyx overestimated the threat when she dragged you out of there. Surely she can handle a headcrab? She sure looks fit enough.
Second, if you look around, you'll find a playground carousel mounted to one of the spinning gadgets that you find so often in Ravenholm with blades on them. If you duck beneath the carousel part, you can throw the lever and start it spinning. I played with it for a while, and I couldn't manage to stay on it for more than a half second or so.

* Thanks to Jeff for the correction.