Sunday, December 31, 2006

The Last Day of 2006

It's been a long time, so probably nobody'll read this but me, so that explains why this is a bit monologish. I've just ripped three Michael Chapman CDs that I received as a birthday present. Michael's been a pro guitar player for almost forty years now, and familiarity just seems to breed respect. The problem with being a fan of someone like Michael is that, as nobody'll ever admit to having heard of him, you tend to have to do unusual things - like buy all your CDs from the man himself, as no shop or web site ever carries them, and entering the track names on GraceNote and CDDB yourself, as very often you're the first to be ripping the disc !

With 26 albums of his (I just went and counted !) I suppose you could call me a fan. If anyone has a copy of Americana, though, I'd dearly love to buy it. I have Americana II, and have heard some of Americana's tracks, buy want that CD ! Anyhow, I just got "27 06 05", which is a recording of a concert he did on that data at The Greys in Brighton, which is where I grew up.

For Christmas I got something seriously more modern - Smoke and Mirrors from Marillion, the two albums from the Holiday Weekend in 2005 at Butlins, Minehead. I haven't listened to the double CD Mirrors yet, but Smoke (the single CD) is great.

Recently I've been listening to internet radio instead of CDs, and getting a good strong dose of Prog Rock. Groups such as Sylvan, Frost, and Ayreon especially. I think that these three will certainly feature in my CD buying list in the next few months. Remember that Frost is officially no more, so try to get Milliontown before it's sold out. Sylvan's is a German site: there's also a Dutch band Silvan. Finally in this musical adverts spot, take a look at Heather Nova.

So, I've spent a very large quantity of my spare time since August getting my teeth into VB.NET 2005 together with SQL Server 2005. All I can say is that I'm very thankful that I didn't try in January ! The six months have provided a huge amount of information onto the web for people to find. Even so, I've easily spent $500 on books, as it's impossible to predict what you'll need to know in advance. Finally, however, the effort is beginning to pay off. However, it's been painful at times !

After over a year with an AMD-based machine running Windows XP/64 I suppose that I was getting blasé. I had got to the point of believing that MS tools worked ! After all, I had installed the Express editions of VB and SQL Server with no problems. This feeling of security vanished abruptly when I installed Visual Studio 8. I did all the things that the release notes commanded me to do, and didn't do all the things they commanded me not to do, and then looked at what I had. The install had added a new copy of SQL Server Express, which was not what I wanted . In addition, it wasn't running. In fact, I couldn't find any services connected with VS8 at all !

OK I though - time for a reboot (akthough the install hadn't asked for one). The PC never came back !

Not good !

Eventually, through Safe Mode and the rebuilder, I found that the video drivers had been trashed, but somehow in a way that prevented me from re-installing them. Every time I touched the video software either the screen went blank or else the complete PC just stopped dead.

So, I added a small - 40GB IDE - drive to the machine and unplugged the two 200 GB SATA drives. Fine ! I can recreate a new system. Well, for a week or so, and then it crashed again - "cannot find NTOSKRNL.EXE". Well, I could find it, but I couldn't blow it away and replace it, so that drive was moved down a notch and yet another drive introduced and XP/64 installed.

Now things went better - except that it refuses to boot without the distribution disc in the CD drive ! So my original C: is now D: and my original D: is E:. So none of the original installs work and I've spent countless hours in reinstalling software onto a system that, before Visual Studio, was working extremely well.

The moral of the story appears to be to do development on your second-best machine ! Right now this PC has become a second-best machine !

My other birthday/Christmas/New Year present was a shiny new Acer 9300 laptop with a gleaming expanse of 17" of LCD screen. Seriously neat, and I hope to review it here for you in the next little while.

Meantime, however, my better half is calling ... New Year's Eve festivities are calling. Best wishes and a prosperous New Year to you all.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

A Less-than-Perfect Time !

Dulce et decorum est
Numerator pro homo mori.

yeah, well, in the last month - since I was here - I've lost my work computer once (only 2 months after the previous time !), and my XP/64 machine at home twice. I also cannot get into my server at home :( Talk about misery - my email is on a disk I can't load right now, and to get Windows XP/64 to boot I have to start with the CD in the drive. After its started it's ok, but something somewhere in the reinstall didn't work ! Still, my son's happy, listening to Crazy Frog, and we're invited to dinner tonight, which is a relief, as I'd no idea of what to cook !

Right now the family is slowly moving into hibernation mode. The inside of my nice german bettdecke is being pulled out this weekend and replaced with the double-thick one. It's a really neat "extra-breit" model from my favourite shop in Germany - Möbel-Mann. I got all my furniture there back in the 80s when I lived in Darmstadt, and dragged the wife in last November. She was almost converted into a shopper by the place, as it's three or four floors of quality you just don't get to see in America these days. I came away with my bettdecke, which it what I really wanted, but not a new bed. I saw the one I wanted, but the shipping cost to the USA was about three times the cost of the bed itself !

Anyhow, last night we went out Wii-hunting. This, for the uninitiated, is a form of a window-shopping-style sport where one searches for a product that hasn't yet been released. Last week one could have been PS3-hunting, but we decided not to after several people got shot or beaten up. Not cool at all. Nintendo lines seemed lots less tense, partly because the machines will be cheaper, and partly because the supply should be greater. When asked, the Offspring indicates that he'd like a Gamecube (his cousin has one), but that a Wii would definitely be the best of all possible toys. Like the geek that I am, I've been trying to steer him towards Lego Mindspring, but I think at 91/2 he's a little youngish yet. Maybe for his birthday - then I can program the thing too !

Something else I've been getting into in the last few days (while also fighting a cold) is an internet prog rock station called The Dividing Line. It broadcasts through a WinAmp format and is definitely recommended. Finally, I'd meant to point any who hadn't seen it yet to Google's TV channel, "Current". This does a very large amount of Viewer Created Content (VC2) in very short segments. Lots of these are really great, and, even if you don't like on, you only have to endure it for a few minutes before another one comes along. Rather like what mothers used t tell their daughters about boyfriends, really !

Have fun, everyone. Hopefully I'll be back sooner next time.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Another week over and .... boom!

No posts last weekend as I packed the wife and offspring off to visit her brother & niece in New York (state, not city) and was able to do quiet, restful things like visiting the local farmers' market for bread and other goodies (much better than eating the supermarket sliced!).

Saw the season opener of "Wire in the Blood" last night on BBC America. I don't know how old these are from England (a year, perhaps) but they're definitely one of the best thrillers around right now, on a par with a good Sherlock Holmes. Certainly not kiddies stuff, though.

So the Chinese now are asking for sanctions against the North Koreans. Ask yourselves: what earthly effect will sanctions have on a country that is willing to let its citizens die in order to have self-sufficiency ? Sanctions worked in Rhodesia, but took how long ? 10 years ? Likewise in South Africa ! How long do you think North Korea, which has no legitimate trade anyway, will survive without trade ? I suppose one could blocade the ports and seal the two borders, but that would only starve the workforce, not impact the leadership. Not that the people aren't starving anyway ... Perhaps massive deliveries of food directly to the people might help. hmm.

To end, a valedictory exhortation: eat more walnuts

Thursday, October 05, 2006

A 64-bit Future ?

Last year our friends at Microsoft released a 64-bit version of Windows XP in order that those of use with Itanium PCs (not many, I suspect !) and those of us with 64-bit AMD chips (most of AMD's current customers.

This version of Windows XP was based upon Windows Server 2003 SP1 as that was the latest version of Microsoft Windows during the operating system's development, but takes Windows XP as its name. It is designed to use the expanded 64-bit memory address space provided by the AMD64 architecture; Intel refers to its implementation of the technology as EM64T. So much for the technical details, how has it fared ?

I installed it about a year ago on a new AMD Athlon-64 3200+ machine with no problems and I've lived with it ever since. Yes, I have a copy of VMWare's software hosting a virtual Windows 2000 sitting on it awaiting problems, but I've had very few. I use quite a few programs and do a bit of development on it too, so I should be a good test for it, I thought as I started out.

My heart started to sink when I tried to install Corel's Ventura Publisher 8, and it failed with the (now familiar) message that the executable was fine, but not for this cpu. Bad message, that, as I'd seen exactly that cpu running 32-bit Windows XP run the same program flawlessly just two weeks before. Still, after asking around on the Ventura UseNet, I realised that it was the install program and not VP that was the problem, and that was soon fixed. Not so the next problem, which was with VP's fonts - they wouldn't scale properly. I really needed the facilities that VP had offered me, so I bought a copy of Serif Software's PagePlus, installed it, and got on with my work. No blame really on Corel - I was using software designed for Windows 9x and NT on a radically different OS.

Then I decided to burn some CDs of music that I had ripped from LP. Blaze Audio's software works fine on XP/64, by the way, and is great for recording a whole side of a disc and then chopping it back up into tracks. Normally I used to use Nero 6 Ultra Edition with Windows 2000 and XP/32, but it has proven rather unstable with XP/64. In fact, it's the only program that has managed to totally bomb the system back beyond a BSOD to the point where the only thing to do is to power it down and up again with the hardware power switch ! If I have just rebooted anyway (not a frequent occurrence) then using Nero 6 seems ok; using it after playing with things for weeks isn't such a good idea. I'll be trying out Nero 7 soon.

Finally, with this litany of problems, Apple's iTunes 6 has proven a little fallible. Once (but only once!) it managed to crash itself in a very weird way. It stopped producing music and it's screen image froze. I killed the iTunes processes supporting it, but that area of the screen was locked by the program so that other programs could leave "droppings" on it, but I just couldn't get rid of it. A reboot was required :( iTunes has also had problems seeing my CD/DVD burners, claiming that they are just readers (one is a BenQ internal and the other an HP external, on either FireWire or USB).

Now for the good bits. Reliability has been a great improvement. I skipped the entire Windows 9x series, on the principle that I was already suffering several hundred known bugs in Windows 3.1 and didn't need a few hundred new and unknown ones! I went straight to Windows NT and found that I could expect a BSOD or a required reboot about once a fortnight. Much better than twice daily! Windows 2000 extended that to about monthly, although none of my machines ever actually go that far as I'm always installing and upgrading. Windows XP/32 hasn't improved much over Windows 2000 for me, for just those reasons. However, my copy of XP/64 has been rebooted involuntarily three times because of Nero in 14 months and about 6 more times while I have added software. Personally, I think that this is getting very good; Vista has a very high bar to exceed.

One thing in passing: when I started out with it only one company (www.avast.com) made a complete range of anti-virus software that included 64-bit versions, so that's what I'm using, and I'll recommend it. It's easy to use and, to all appearances, very effective. I've deliberately imported infected files onto my system and it has found them all. Note, though, that I'm not in the testing business - I'm just a consumer.

Some more mixed news is that while Microsoft has included a lot of hardware drivers and some companies, like Brother and Konica-Minolta, have gone to some trouble to produce 64-bit drivers, others have studiously ignored this market. The most conspicuous of these is HP. In the 90s HP moved towards using a common PDL for all its printers, with one version for inkjets and another for laserjets. This meant that, so far as the user was concerned, if you didn't have the right driver for your new HP you could always get by with something like a LaserJet Series II driver. You wouldn't be able to get it to do anything more than the old Series II, but at least you could use it.

These days, however, HP driver sets weigh in at about 50MB and are very OS-specific. They also seem to be abandoning old printers, so that the release of a new version of Windows will mean sales of a lot of new printers, as there'll be a lot of orphaned HPs around. Personally I consider the other brands to be of equal quality to HP,so I've left the HP fold already.

There are always nice surprises, though. Like getting my Wacom Serial/keyboard Graphire Mk 1 to work. I just plugged it in to try it with the virtual Windows 2000 and it kind of worked. Later, after a reboot, I was moving it before unplugging it and realised that the mouse was moving too! I call that a gift :) Audiotrak's Maya EX is a USB audio I/O device. For output it powers my Monsoon speakers but on input I can plug my Thorens turntable into it and record vinyl. This was a 32-bit beast too - it has 32-bit drivers - but works without any drivers at all with XP/64.

How cool is that !

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The Beginning !

"Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end; then stop. "

It seems that the current ownership of The Daily Telegraph newspaper have decided that the end has arrived for much of the coverage to which they have previously aspired, and are now stopping by firing the writers. Interesting move for a business that sells written articles.

As a result, there'll be a certain fallout of high-quality journalism available: I'd recommend going to Salut! for Colin Randall, for example. Sarah Hague's St Bloggie de Riviere is also seriously good reading.

Mike

PS Thank you, Lewis Carroll, for the inspiration. I'll try to start each blog with a good quote.