Building a workbench

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Workshop.jpgI built a workbench using a kit from Simpson Strong-Tie this weekend, and I’m quite proud of it. Simpson’s directions were easy to follow, and I built the work bench in a few hours of pleasant labor. It’s solid, it doesn’t wobble, and I can’t say enough good things about their self-drilling Strong Drive screws. Those things are great – very quick, very strong.

I modified their plans to build a 6′ long version instead of a 4′ one, because I wanted it to span the width of our one-car garage less my two garbage cans. I wish they’d have supplied the dimensions necessary for the optional 6′ and 8′ versions. After some careful calculations, I figured out the optimal cuts to build a 6′ workbench with only 6 2×4’s, but I bet most people wouldn’t be so careful.

Now I’ve got my tools displayed up on the pegboard (not visible in this photo, taken before I put up all the pegboard hooks) and I can park the injured Volvo in the garage. We’ve got three cars at the moment while we wait on the Geico crew to do an estimate on the damage.

I’m loving this woodworking thing. After building virtual stuff all week, it’s entirely pleasant to build structural things that you can actually put your hands on.

Forgot to mention – I was wrong about the VPN

A couple of days ago, I thought I’d managed to get the pptp vpn client working under Linux. No luck. The next morning, I found out that it would let ping packets pass through, but wouldn’t the Watchguard firewall at our office wouldn’t send back any other packets. Great. Lovely.

Day 6? 7? Who cares, Linux doesn’t work yet

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birdfeeder.jpgSo I’m several days into working on my VPN connection, and I just flat out gave up last night. I’m doign my work inside a VMware window, which lets me run Windows XP inside of Linux. I have my easy VPN connection in the Windows session – it takes just a few mouse clicks to set up – and I can take my time getting things like VPN and multiple displays running under Linux.

The most frustrating part is the finger-pointing: when you ask for help, it’s like talking to a level 1 tech support person at AOL. People seem to actively look for reasons why your stuff would’t work. I started with a $200 NVidia dual head video card I already owned, but several distros crashed during installation, and people kept telling me how bad NVidia drivers were, so I figured I should replace it. I asked around, nobody had any serious opinions but people agreed that a single dual head card is more stable than a pair of cards, so I grabbed a $100 ATI dual-head card. All of the distros successfully detected it, but none activated the second head. So I manually shuffle around through text files making manual changes per various faqs, since there’s no one definitive correct faq. The closest I came was a Xinerama howto, and it got me close enough to activate the second display, but it’s just a simple clone of the first one. The howto doesn’t mention anything about cloning versus spanning.

So then people started pointing fingers at the card: they say well, maybe a single card won’t actually work – your best bet is probably two cards. Wha?

This will be the fourth trip I’ve made to Fry’s trying to get a working machine for Linux. Every time, people say my hardware is the problem, or I’m using the wrong distro, or I must be dumb. Or maybe it’s all three. Who knows. Who cares. I’ve got birds and squirrels.

Must….get….sleep….

I started working on getting PPTP VPN working at 5:30 this morning. I was determined to be able to VPN into our office Watchguard Firebox from my Linux desktop, because I can’t get work done without it. I struggled and struggled, and finally got it via an obscure command line switch. Pptp wasn’t returning an error, but the first solution under http://pptpclient.sourceforge.net/howto-diagnosis.phtml#running_pppd_after_connection troubleshooting tips turned out to be right. I added the nopcomp switch, and bam, I’m in business.

Tomorrow, it’s back to my regularly scheduled development. I’ve already got the Java SDK, NetBeans, and the basics going. It’d be nice to have Outlook running under Wine, but I’m not going to get greedy. Yet.

Holy moly, I made a workbench

workbench.jpgThis afternoon I took a few hours out of the Linux install mess to build a workbench. I’d purchased a $250 miter saw a few weeks ago in an attempt to put crown molding in the house, but the saw was sitting on the garage floor. Working on my hands and knees isn’t my idea of fun – no, really – and so I decided to give the miter saw a little throne.

HammerZone.com has a great tutorial on building a workbench that’s easy and inexpensive. For the top and shelf, I sawed up a leftover Ikea table we had lying around, and it turned out to be the perfect size. My workbench was smaller than the one pictured in the tutorial – I scaled it down to about 21″ by 25″, more of a workstand, just for the saw. I wanted something portable since the saw couldn’t just st in the back of our one-car garage – I wouldn’t have enough room to saw anything longer than about six feet. The directions in the tutorial are perfect, and produce a great result.

Next weekend, I’d like to build a similar workbench but stretching the width of the garage, so that I’ve got a place to put my growing tool collection.

I think I’ve found a new hobby. I like woodworking – especially simple stuff like this, things I can do in a couple of hours including the trip to the nearby Lowe’s or Home Depot.

Still installing Linux apps

It’s Sunday morning, and I’ve already been plugging away at this for more than two hours. My only goal this morning was to get VMware up and running. Sounds simple – it’s literally a two minute process under Windows. You run the installer, and you’re done. Should be straightforward, right? After all, this is a pretty expensive application – it ain’t OpenOffice, and if OpenOffice can manage a simple install, then this should, right?

Wrong. At the moment, the installation program is telling me: “The path “/usr/src/linux/include” is a kernel header file directory, but it does not contain the file “linux/version.h” as expected. This can happen if the kernel has never been built, or if you have invoked the “make mrproper” command in your kernel directory. In any case, you may want to rebuild your kernel.”

Yeah, right. I may just wanna spend my Sunday morning doing that. Then again, Mr. VMware, I may ***NOT***, because I shelled out $90 to Xandros so that I wouldn’t have to bother with stuff like that, and your installation program should be able to get by. After all, I’ve already had to go download the source code, lay it out in a way that VMware prefers (because it didn’t recognize a lot of the directory names), and go back and forth with the install program.

When they say Linux isn’t ready for the desktop, this is the kind of thing they’re talking about. And come to think of it, “they” includes ME. I’m not giving up, though: I still get the feeling the payoff is coming. Three or four years from now, I’ll be glad I did this, because the OS will be mainstream, and I’ll have the same ground-up knowledge that I gained by walking Windows from the DOS/Win3 days til now.

Basic setup in progress

I’m back at home after a week in Dallas, and I’m in the process of setting up my basic development tools under Linux. At first I thought it’d be easy, but it quickly became so overwhelming that I’ve had to create a text file with all of my to-doos.

The first line in the text file, “VPN connection to work,” is turning into a mess. We have a PPTP VPN at work using hardware firewalls. Xandros, based on the Debian distribution of Linux, doesn’t ship with support for the particular type of VPN encryption we use, MPPE128. If I want to VPN into the office, I have a few options, none of them particularly enjoyable. I can recompile the kernel with MPPE support (thereby losing Xandros’ proprietary enhancements), pick a different flavor of Linux with MPPE support, take a stab at IPsec VPN, or get my SMC Barricade firewall to act as a PPTP VPN client. I’ve struggled with the last one before, and I just spent another twenty minutes on it without any luck.

I’m lovin’ Linux

Day two, and everything’s cool so far. I’m in the process of tracking down applications to replace the ones I’m used to. For the last few years, I’ve used Nero to burn CD’s and more recently, DVD’s – but it’s a Windows program, so now I have to find the best equivalent in Linux. Sites like Freshmeat are great places to search for Linux applications, but the key word there is search. Lots of searching. If Freshmeat added user reviews like CNet’s Download.com, then it’d be easier to see a program’s weak spots at a glance. A program might have a hundred user reviews on Download.com, but I just read the negatives and look for serious problems that would affect my own use. With Freshmeat, I’m forced to hunt around through each program’s site looking at the features, the wish list, the bugs, etc., trying to gauge how far down the development road a program is. Freshmeat’s Vitality and Popularity statistics are a good start, but not accurate enough.

And so I’ve got a lot of apps to replace: my webcam, my FTP client, my CVS client, and so on. Nothing too tough, just a matter of research.

First photo upload

dove.jpgMoving right along – I have a bunch of tools set up, and figured I’d take a chance on the digital camera. Plugged in my USB flash card reader, and sat there like a dummy waiting for Xandros to do something. Uhhh, news flash, Brent, Linux doesn’t quite have the automated tools available in Windows XP, where the operating system instantly recognizes that you plugged in a card from a camera. XP is so gracious about this sort of thing, immediately offering to save the photos for you in your My Documents folder and delete them from the flash card.

After it set in that I’m on my own here, I went into File Manager, and sure enough, a few new removable drives showed up. Not bad, but there was no visual indication as to which drives had media – you had to click on each of them until you figured out which one had the card in it. Still, progress. I edited this picture with The GIMP and presto, we’ve got images.

I’ve gone through several other applications and had a similar level of success: the high polish I’m used to with Windows XP isn’t there, but the basics are in place. For example, I’ve got the Citrix client installed, but when I hit our Citrix web site, it says my client isn’t installed, and Mozilla doesn’t seem to know how to handle the ICA files. I’ve tried telling it to use the Citrix client manually, but the client errors out. I know I’m close, but there’s something missing. I haven’t bothered Googling for a solution yet.

Overall, I’d say that Xandros 2.0 is like the early days of Windows NT4: it works, but it’s not exactly intuitive yet, and it’s going to be a few years before you’d hand the CD to a novice and tell them to have a go at it. You can tell it’s a quantum leap forward under the hood, though, and it’s just a matter of time before the chrome is bolted on. In the meantime, user interfaces aren’t consistent from application to application, and most of the time, when I’ve got a question, the answer isn’t apparent from the documentation or the application.

I’m starving. Time to take a break.

I’m in Linux!

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I’m typing this from Mozilla (as usual) via Xandros 2.0 (nowhere near usual.) After giving up on third-party video cards and making do with the onboard integrated Intel video, the installation went smoothly. I’ve done the security upgrades and basic application upgrades, and things seem to be going well so far. Much to my surprise, my ATI TV tuner card works flawlessly – I’m watching Dream Car Garage in a window. Plus, I’ve got Kompete set up with my instant messaging accounts.

Now on to the tougher stuff. By the end of the day, I want to have VPN, Citrix, and Crossover Office set up so that I can use Dreamweaver. Wish me luck.

The black, powered-down IBM flat panel next to me is aggravating me, though.

Still installing Linux

The second Xandros installation, using an ATI Radeon 9200SE, looked promising, but didn’t handle the flat panels correctly. It said it saw a Dell 1901FP (correct, hooked into the digital video port) but it rendered on the IBM T541 (hooked into the analog port). Said there weren’t two monitors.

So then I tried downloading all of the updates from Xandros Network, figuring maybe there was a newer X driver or a new X version even. There was – X 4.3 – so I gave that a shot. This is inside the Xandros Network utility, mind you, and it automatically installs all dependencies, so I figure it must be okay. Wrong. Upon the next reboot, the display simply disappeared and the keyboard froze.

I did more research in the Xandros forums, and whaddya know – they support all ATI cards EXCEPT the SE series. Seems there’s a problem with that particular model. Oh. Okay. I gave up in frustration – not with Linux, but with dual head video cards. I’ll go return the ATI to Fry’s this afternoon, and in the meantime I’m just installing using the onboard Intel video card. It’s crummy, it won’t have 3D acceleration, and I will be limited to one flat panel instead of two, but I’m figuring out that installing Linux involves a lot of hardware compromises.

I’m not upset with that: Windows NT4 was like that. Either your stuff was on the Hardware Qualification List, or it wasn’t, and it was black-and-white. If it wasn’t specifically listed on the HQL, it probably wasn’t going to come close to working. This is the same thing. While NT4 required a lot of compromise (and a lot of new gear to buy), it was worth it in terms of improved stability over Windows 95. I’m figuring this will be a similar upgrade.

Plus, I figure after I migrate my sites to Java and plain HTML, I’ll take the P4-3ghz machine that’s currently my server, and do a from-scratch Xandros install on there with an approved video card. This system will just be a temporary learning system.

Still installing…third time (with Xandros) is a charm, I’m hoping.

STILL installing

It’s noon, and I’m on the second install of Xandros. The first install hung when booting – the NVidia logo came up and wham, no workie. I had a very nice Geforce2 FX video card that could handle both of my flat panels, but everybody tells me NVidia drivers in Linux are horrid, so off to Frys I went to buy a new ATI card. I’m expensing this.

Everything else in the Xandros install seemed to go okay – it found my onboard gigabit network card correctly, which was a relief.

Still installing Linux

My office is littered with installation cd’s burned from LinuxISO.org. I’m about twenty-four hours and three Linux distributions into this, and all of them have had flaws big enough for me to start over with another distro.

I tried Mandrake first, and looking back, it was the best. Mandrake detected both the NVidia GeForce FX video card and the Intel network card, seemed to detect everything else on my system as well, but I just couldn’t figure out how to get multiple monitor support to work. I’ve got a pair of flat panels, and I can’t live without those. I followed directions on a couple of web sites on editing the X config files only to completely hose my X configuration. Unfortunately, Mandrake boots straight into X by default, and if your X configuration is broken, you can’t access anything. There’s no “safe mode” choice upon bootup – there’s a “failsafe”, but it doesn’t allow you to edit configuration files, so what’s the point of that?

Frustrated, I bombed that installation and moved on. Debian couldn’t detect my Intel network card or my video card. Fedora couldn’t get the video card to work. I came to the decision that I should start with training wheels, so I looked into Windows-friendly distributions. Lycoris hasn’t been updated in a year and a half, and Lindows doesn’t offer an online download. Xandros seemed like the best alternative, since for $90 they include a version of CrossoverOffice that will run Photoshop and Dreamweaver, two of my favorite applications.

I justified the $90 for Xandros this way: I’ve spent at least ten hours in front of this computer in the last day just trying to get Linux running. If Xandros saves me five hours, it’s more than paid for itself. So now Xandros is downloading, another hour to go. Guess I’ll start reading the manual.

That’s it, I’m switching to Linux

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This morning, I lost four hours of work time due to Active Directory flakiness. Thank goodness I have three machines here, so at no time was any of my work in jeopardy, but I decided enough is enough.

First off, I’m going to stop hosting stuff at my house, and I’m going to be done with it this weekend. I’ve got about a dozen domains hosted at the house at the moment, and I’m going to cull that down and rewrite the remaining ones in JSP (instead of ASP/ASPX) by Monday, April 5. If I have to push, pull, and crunch, I’m getting out of the ASP business altogether. Our company’s switching to Java anyway, so I gotta learn it, and this’ll facilitate my education. I started learning .NET when we thought we were going there, and doing my personal site in it helped me learn.

After that, I’ll be switching my machines over to Linux. The only thing I can’t run easily under WINE is MSSQL Enterprise Manager, and I can just run that over remote desktop on a machine at work anyway.

Got icons from JinWicked

Icon1.jpgJinWicked drew me a set of icons to use in online forums, and I’m really tickled with the way they turned out. The one shown here is my favorite, because it captures the way my eyes close when I smile. I gotta rescan them at a higher quality and chop ’em up in Photoshop this week. Having these makes me want to start leaving more comments on web forums so that I can show off my icons. Muhahaha.

My first flat panel

lcd.jpgI’ve resisted splurging on a flat panel because the cost is usually at least double what a similarly sized CRT monitor goes for. Today I took the plunge because I found an internet guy who was selling a new IBM T541 15″ LCD dirt cheap. I couldn’t pass it up, and I’m thrilled with the purchase already. I’ve been running multiple monitor systems for a while, and this is now the 2nd monitor on my main desktop.

The text on this LCD is far, far crisper than my 19″ NEC AccuSync 95F CRT. It’s much easier to read, easier on my eyes, and a joy to use. So much so, in fact, that I’m contemplating moving my NEC monitor over to the side and using this smaller flat panel as my main monitor, despite the IBM’s low 1024×768 resolution. (I run my main monitor at 1280×1024 – it makes a huge difference in usability.)

I had promised myself I’d use my tax refund to pay off my credit cards, but now I’m thinking I see another flat panel in my future. My near future. Heh.

Playing chess against my Thera

The coolest thing so far about my Audiovox Thera PocketPC phone isn’t the integration with Microsoft Outlook, the speakerphone quality, or the form factor. (Definitely not the form factor – this thing’s pretty bulky.) No, the coolest thing is that it runs so many Windows CE applications, like Microsoft Chess. I love playing chess, especially against computers because I can go through a game rather quickly while waiting for something else. I find myself playing chess while standing in grocery store lines, while sitting in car washes, and even while my desktop computer boots up.

The computer spanks me, despite being set at just level 1 out of 10, so I see a long future relationship with this little fella. I can’t give it up until I beat it, at least at level 1, and I don’t see that happening soon. Maybe I should make that my New Year’s resolution: to beat my handheld computer at chess.

And if you’re listening, Microsoft, next time throw in a level zero. Us mere mortals like to experience the thrill of victory every now and then.

Getting a new cell phone

thera-phone.jpgMy Sprint phone from work can’t seem to get any coverage at the new house, so I sent it back and ordered a new Audiovox Thera from Verizon. I’m a big fan of Verizon: I’ve had an account with them since around 2001, their coverage can’t be beat, and their customer service deserves kudos.

Anyway, I picked up the Thera because it’s darned cheap for a Pocket PC phone. It’s being gradually discontinued, and replaced with new $500-$600 models. I don’t know about you, but I ain’t spending that kind of money on a phone, even if it’s a combination phone and PDA. A Thera is around $100 with a 2-year agreement, which is entirely do-able.

The Thera has one serious drawback: it has an internal battery that can’t be easily popped out and swapped, and that battery’s life is around 3-4 hours of talk time. That’s not an issue for me, because most of the time, I use my cell phone in close proximity to electricity, whether it’s an outlet or a car charger. I just wanted the Thera because it’s got real Outlook on there, so I can do serious work on the road. I hate responding to emails on normal phones, whereas the Thera has a nice big screen and handwriting recognition. It’ll get delivered early next week, and I’ll promptly take it on a road trip to Dallas, so it’ll get baptism by fire.

I’m up in DC at the moment visiting Mom and Phil for Thanksgiving. I’ve got my digital camera, but I forgot to bring the little reader for it, so I can’t post my photos yet. Well, also I haven’t taken any yet. Minor thing there.

Starting Java training

webcam.jpgWe’re doing a migration to Java at work, so I’m getting started on some Sun training material this morning. I’m hoping to be done with the initial training by next Wednesday, when I go on vacation to close on the house and move in.

Finding the right training material is such a challenge. The particular intro CD we got from Sun is targeted at people who haven’t been part of a development lifecycle, haven’t interpreted client specs, and haven’t done a design. This intro CD tries to be all things to an awful lot of people, and ends up doing a surprisingly good job. You’re not forced into a linear stream of navigation (chapters 1-2-3-etc) and there’s optional helpful demos scattered throughout.

It’s still pretty dry, though. Gonna be a long week.

Marketing slogans for girlfriends

casead.jpgWhen I saw this ad slogan for a computer case company, my first thought was that it was run by a couple of my ex-girlfriends. Then I looked closer and saw the word “stable” and realized it couldn’t possibly be them.

Anyway, if you’re into computer cases, Tom’s Hardware ran a great summary of the Computex show in Taiwan, showing pictures of some of the soon-to-be-available cases. Neat stuff, especially the Hornet. I blew about $100 on a custom case for my home server a while back, and it just sits in the closet. I’ve since decided I’d rather not see computers at all, and I’d rather hide them away in cabinets and closets.

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