Basic setup in progress

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.


Extremist web design

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webcam.jpgI can see why big companies have a hard time getting traction with new systems. Today I had amusing conversations with two web design opinions at opposite ends of our organization, both doing web development: one wants to build an all-Flash version of our marketing web site, and the other wants to remove all graphic files from our intranet and have only text.

My stuff tends to walk the line between the two extremes: I use ornamental graphics, very light in size, to break up text. I’ve never used a Flash menu, never use animated gifs, and I don’t think I even use image swaps anymore. If anything, I’d say I’m fairly conservative when it comes to graphics. None of my sites have ever used canned clip art or stock photos (I’m not involved with our marketing site), although the upcoming iteration of our customer site will have some cartoonish icons to break up the menus.

This personal site is a good example: sure, I use ornamental graphics at the top, but the whole site is navigable with images turned off. Heck, I even validate my HTML, and I’m usually pretty close to standard, if not completely standard. (The blog pages are an exception, because they’re generated by MovableType, which tends to do some wild stuff.)I guarantee you that I’m the only developer in the company who even knows what validating HTML means. There’s a couple of other people who understand the concept, but they’re not web developers.

The funniest part is that both of the people who delivered the above opinions consider ME an extremist for different reasons.


Microsoft’s “secure” ecommerce solution

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mshowto.gifThis morning’s MSDN Flash email almost made me spit coffee through my nose. Ordinarily you have to take this stuff with a grain of salt, because it’s written to sell more Microsoft products, but this one takes the cake. Here’s the snippet:

“How to Process E-mail Orders Using Outlook and Access:
Learn how the authors accepted orders placed for their company’s software through an online ordering system – and how they process those orders automatically by using some Microsoft Access code that links to Microsoft Outlook. Learn More

Okay, lemme get this straight: you take the world’s most insecure, virus-susceptible email client, combine it with the crummiest database platform I’ve ever worked with, and you build an e-commerce solution out of it? It would be one thing to integrate it into a help desk solution, maybe, but to rely on it to process your revenue? You can just picture the conversation one morning as they show up for work: “Hey, Bob! We got a million orders last night! We’re rich! Rich, I tell you! IPO city! Oh, wait – never mind, it looks like we were hit by an email virus.”

Even funnier, imagine if you deployed this solution, and your competitors knew you used it. They could easily send thousands of spoofed emails with fake orders, tying up your resources and making you lose your shirt with incorrect shipments and productions.


9/11, two years later

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About two years ago, on the morning of September 11 2001, I was working from home as a computer programmer. A friend of mine in our Dallas office emailed me asking what was going on, that they couldn’t get to any news web sites. I turned on my favorite news channel, MSNBC, and watched the horror unfold.

I had a video card in my computer that received TV and could capture pictures, so I spent the morning emailing screen shots to the people in a few different offices that didn’t have access to television. I kept feeding news to my friends as things got worse and worse, from the towers burning, then other crashes in PA and the Pentagon, and the towers falling.

It never occurred to me to turn the VCR on and start recording, and even months later, I don’t remember wishing I had a copy of the coverage. Around a year ago, I started looking for a taped copy of the MSNBC coverage. Being a frequent Ebay buyer, I was disappointed to find that they kept stopping auctions with taped TV feeds due to copyright violations. I would have been more than happy to pay MSNBC or NBC for the tapes, but inquiries led me to a brick wall.

At the moment, I’m sitting in the bedroom watching 9/11 tv coverage that I bought on DVD from Terry Hoknes, a tape trader in Canada. I’m linking to him because I’m sure I’m not the only one looking for things like this. Terry shipped promptly and the DVD is absolutely great: one DVD with TV coverage from MSNBC, CBS, and NBC. Two grateful and somber thumbs up.


Bernard Pivot Questionnaire

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I’m never going to make it to the show Inside the Actors Studio, but the questionnaire they ask each guest amuses me. I’d love to sit in the chair across from James Lipton, but since the odds aren’t looking good:

What’s your favorite word?
Solution. (I like words with multiple meanings, and I’ve always wanted to name my first sailboat Solution for its different meanings.)

What’s your least favorite word?
Broke. (Another multi-dimensional word.)

What turns you on?
Silk.

What turns you off?
Work. When I’m working, I just want to think about work, nothing else. Sounds like a canned interview question, but seriously, I get grumpy if my work gets interrupted by personal stuff.

What sound or noise do you love?
Waves crashing on the shore.

What sound or noise do you hate?
My neighbor playing a stereo.

What is your favorite curse word?
C*cks*cker. Erika and I use it all the time – sometimes in public by accident – because it’s so offensive that it’s hilarious.

What profession other than yours would you like to attempt?
Race car driver. Not an oval course, though, but a road course like Formula 1. People don’t realize how much work it is, how intense, and how much concentration is required.

What profession would you not like to attempt?
Salesman. Those poor guys. Commission sucks.

If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?
The beignets are over there, and I’m going to pretend you were in the back pew from the ages 16 through 29, kiddo.


When to kill a web site

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webcam1.jpg
I run a free class reunion site. It’s a lot like Classmates, except it’s free and there’s no ads. I originally wrote it for my 10th reunion for high school, and being the wild and crazy programmer that I am, I designed it to be hugely scalable from the beginning. Anybody can sign up any school, any number of reunions per school, etc. I never thought I’d compete with Classmates, but I figured a few schools might adopt it and sign up. I just put it up online, let Google find it, and figured I’d reevaluate it after a year.

The domain-expiration email just came in, and it’ll cost me around $15 to renew it for another year. The domain gets around 200 page views per month and a few people have registered, but nobody’s using it for their primary class reunion planning site. I feel like it’s time to put up or shut up: either I put 40-60 hours into this thing to make it more robust, or I let the domain expire.

In comparison, this site (BrentOzar.com) usually gets more hits in a day than the reunion site gets in a month. I’d rather put the 40 hours into this site and add a good turtle forum or something like that. The vast majority of my viewers come to view the turtle section, which strikes me as ironic since I no longer have turtles! (We’ll probably get a box turtle when we move into the new house, though.)

So it’s time for the reunion site to say goodbye. I hate abandoning work – I’ve built a few sites over the years and then abandoned them when I didn’t have the time to make them great. The lesson, I guess, is to do few things and do them very well. People don’t come to the internet for applications: they come for information. The reunion was an application that took me maybe a month to build, whereas the turtle info pages took maybe two hours.

Would I produce sites & pages differently if the visitor numbers didn’t matter? Yes, definitely. When I sit down at the computer to build pages in my spare time, it’s either driven by giving something back to the public, or expressing something. (This blog is all about expressing what’s going on – I doubt anybody reads this closely. And if you’ve gotten this far, go surf somewhere more fun.)


New pair of shoes

SQL Server
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shoes.jpgWoohoo! I got new shoes. Repeated watchings of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy convinced me that I needed to start putting some class into my wardrobe. First on the agenda: a couple pairs of new shoes. Yesterday, Erika and I went down to DSW, a big shoe store on Westheimer, and examined their mens’ department. Out of it all, I only found a couple pairs that were decent, and they didn’t have any left in my size.

We decided to head back to the Galleria and give Kenneth Cole a shot. I don’t know much about men’s shoes, other than how to tell the qualities of different shoe leathers, but I’d always liked Kenneth Cole watches, so it seemed like a good idea. Sure enough, they had a handful of pairs that I’d have been quite content to go home with. We narrowed it down to a formal black pair and a more casual brown suede pair, and I picked the suede pair. It’s the most I’ve ever spent on shoes ($115), but they’re gorgeous, and I love them. I had no idea it was possible to love shoes, but I love these shoes, and already it makes me want to buy nicer clothes.

The magical new shoes even offset the fact that I lost the Windows installation on my desktop again. That’s the second time in a week. This instance appears to have resulted from me trying to use a Dell Perc 2/DC raid card in my Optiplex desktop running Windows XP, which is way, way, way unsupported. I swear, I’ve learned my lesson: from here on out, I’m never building another desktop machine by hand again. The money you save isn’t worth the time you lose. Buy a decent desktop from a manufacturer, use supported hardware, and things work peachy keen.

I can see why people love Macs: after all, they seem more reliable because the hardware and software are all controlled by the same people. The majority of system problems I have under Windows is driver-related: cheap software that undermines good hardware and a good operating system.