Archive for April, 2006

The Dead PC

Posted in Campfire Stories, Hard Stuff on April 30th, 2006

One of our PCs died last week. What a chore. The machine was about three years old and there were no warning signs. The machine is at a desk in the bedroom and while I was watching TV one evening I heard it stop. I tried restarting; it whirred for a bit and then shut down. Uh-oh. Pulling the machine out I’m thinking “oh, it’s just a power supply.”

It’s never the power supply 

I have a bunch of really nice power supplies in their boxes from all the previous occasions I thought it was the power supply. My experience in over 20 years of “modern” PC ownership: it’s never the power supply. Not to say power supply failures don’t happen, it’s just that they don’t happen to me (yet). My experience has been: if the machine dies, it’s dead. There’s no fixing it. Pull the hard drives out and move on.

Ok, I heard a bunch of people say to themselves “wait, you could troubleshoot it and have it working in a few weeks after a few dozen trips to Fry’s and Radio Shack for some simple parts. An oscilloscope would show you …” Right. Look, $699 buys a lot of machine these days. $699 is much cheaper than several weeks of my “spare” time lost to chasing a problem (that the CPU really did fry because the heat sink was too full of dust).

What really fails? 

For me the devil has been miscellaneous “motherboard/CPU issues” (three times, counting this failure), and disk failure (once). I typically have 4-5 machines in use in the house at any one time. Over 20 years x 4.5 machines = 90 machine-years of PC use so with only four failures I think I’ve had very few problems. The one disk issue gave me lots of warning: it was an NT 4.0 system and the system log started showing disk errors. I was able to get everything off onto a new drive so I’ve never lost data (so far). I still have emails stored from 1990 (I’m not sure that’s a good thing).

What works?

Running machines all the time 24×7 is definitely better than turning them on and off once a day. I have a domain controller that is a Pentium Celeron 300 MHz built ten years ago. It’s had three drive upgrades but still runs fine.

Distribute critical data. I almost never make backups. There. I said it. Yeah yeah yeah, I know you’re supposed to make backups. EVERYONE knows you’re supposed to make backups.

At least I’m honest enough to admit I generally do not make backups. Anyone else who says they are continuously backed up is simply a liar.

Who has time to row fifty (or one hundred) CDs through the CD burner? It’s not that I have not tried. I backed up a 20-meg hard drive onto 3.5″ floppies once (remember 3.5 floppies?). I bought a tape drive once. Two hundred fifty whole Megabytes a tape. Modern hard drive capacity growth devours any backup strategy I can think of. Modern hard drives are also your fastest cheapest back up medium (see Raid 1 below).

Source Code Control: I use Source Safe for a lot of my data backup. I copy stuff to my laptop. I copy stuff to my work computer.

Raid 1 your disks: I buy SATA Raid 1 on all my new desktops. An extra $80 for a 200 Gig backup drive? That’s a no-brainer. Why bother with Raid 1 if I seemingly do not believe in backups? While I have never lost any critical data I DO mind how long it takes to rebuild a machine and get all my critical applications and tools re-installed.

Vacuum once in awhile: I now buy those cool cases with windows in the side and lights inside so it’s visually really offensive when it’s all full of dust inside.

Do we watch TV anymore?

Posted in Campfire Stories on April 2nd, 2006

One of my coworkers works remote from somewhere that’s, well, remote. A recent thunderstorm blew down his antenna and from three fuzzy stations he’s now down to one channel. And it’s not PBS.

He emailed us all at work and asked about satellite options and what kinds of things we watch on TV. Making a list I realized, I do not watch much TV.

When we were in grad school in Bloomington, IN, if you did not have cable you could only get the local college-hosted PBS station and frankly, between that and video tapes we were happy with it.

At my house these days we have something like 100 channels on cable (but none of the Movie channels like HBO — call me cheap) but I have noticed that we only watch a very few of those. Listing them out we watch (by network):

1.  ** FX
2.  ** TNT
3.  ** AMC
4.  ** BRAVO
5.  *  PBS
6.  *  CNN/Headline News (two channels but I think of them as one)
7.  *  HIST (History)
8.  one of the local news shows for 45 minutes in morning (CBS)
9.  A&E
10. DSC     (Discovery)
11. TWC     (Weather Channel)

** = watch these most – lots of movies.
* = watch more than some other channels.
No * = I watch occasionally.


I could live with just the ** and the * channels. If I could ONLY have the 12 channels on the list I would almost never notice since this is really a two-sigma list (better than 99%) of what we watch.

Interestingly, 12 channels fits in the classic TV band: channels 2-13.

Other than the local news, I never watch any of the classic networks (ABC, CBS, NBC). I’m right at the cusp of the Baby Boomer Generation (the young end, thank you!). The networks are dead.

I never watch ANY serial shows (“series”). Ok, I’m lying, I watch series that are on HBO when they come out on DVD. Series on the networks are double dead.

Of course, my wife and I have our Netflix habit running at a steady 4 movies a week. For scale, those movies make up fully 80% of the time we spend watching TV. We also tend to multi-thread when watching broadcast channels but single-thread when watching a DVD. Movies still Rock – but not at the theater.

When did this happen? When I was growing up we watched network TV and we went to the movies every other weekend.

I’m looking at the listing in the local TV Guide and I see that if we subscribed to everything, there are 851 channels available. 

Guess somebody’s watching.