Archive for March, 2011

Down the Drain

March 31, 2011

As well as the ‘glass ceiling’ defining what girls can and cannot do, there is also the ‘Mud floor’ that tends to have the same effect.

Stereotypes are there to be broken, so when Bella identified that some corners had been cut in the renovation of her new house they had to be tackled.

Suzie digging the trench

I need some prettier wellies.

Yesterday’s task was sorting out the kitchen drain. In order to save time and money the builders had thought it was a good idea to just tee the sink and washing machine outlet into the rainwater downpipe which goes into a very small soakaway. The result of which is a very slow draining sink and error messages on the washing machine saying the outlet is blocked. When ground level is below sea level anyway a soakaway is never going to be very efficient! It needed to go into the main drain.

Bella and Suzie posing while digging a drain

Working Girls

Surveying the site and making a list of what was required did not take long and we went shopping. Bella had a pretty good idea of how much it would all cost, but it all cost double my estimate. Plastic pipe is jolly expensive!

Fortunately there has not been much rain recently and the ground is not waterlogged. We stripped the turf and started to dig the trench making quite a big hole in order to get the core drill in. I am not sure what the man from the hire shop thought of two girls laying a drain when he came to deliver the core drill!

Bella standing by the inspection hole apparently on fire.

Bella was working so hard she almost caught on fire.

Had it been a brick built inspection hole we had to connect to I might not have bothered with the core drill, but for thirty quid it saved an awful lot of work making a 100mm hole through the concrete.

Trench filled with pea shingle

Neat job

It probably would have taken me two days to do it on my own, but with Bella it only took us a few hours and we had it done in time for lunch.

I don’t understand Bella at all. Digging is so much easier in a leather skirt.

Suzie x


The price of a free PC

March 30, 2011

How much does a free PC cost? The answer would appear obvious at first glance, but it may not be quite so clear cut.

As someone who has had pretty good access to supplies of redundant computing equipment over the years I have often been able improve and upgrade with minimal cost and still have a working system.

I started with an 8088 based system in the ’80s which I was given as a tool to do my work at the time, and gradually upgraded it with new system boards, peripherals and drives until eventually I had a nice 100MHz 80486 with a 120MB hard disk and 32MB of RAM running Windows NT with dial up web access and Netscape Navigator 4.

Times change and things move on. I persevered  with the little system still in its XT case but eventually around the turn of the millennium most websites stopped supporting Netscape and I had to bite the bullet and buy a new PC that would run Internet Explorer. It was a time when PC use was expanding and no one was throwing out anything that was capable of running NT. The big issue was memory – you just could not get enough in them.

I bit the bullet. Of course I did not go and buy an off the shelf PC from a shop. I bought the bits I needed from various sources, and even bought a smart new case big enough to fit the optical drive, LS120 drive, floppy disk drive (NT still needed a real floppy as well to load the drivers!) and a pair of 30GB hard disks and a system board with integrated RAID. I had been around long enough to know that PC component failures were in the following order 1. CRT monitor, 2. PSU, 3. Hard Disk. I wanted my PC to keep running.

Old habits die hard and I could not miss an opportunity to obtain a second hand 900MHz AMD Athlon processor and a discarded AGP graphics card to keep the costs down. With 256MB of RAM this PC was going to last forever. I had spent a grand, bear in mind this was back in the days when a grand was a lot of money, and it made me realise what I had achieved over the years by recycling all those unwanted parts.

The new PC ran Windows 2000 and with the enhancement of another 500MB of RAM and a pair of 200GB hard disks lasted for a decade with minimal investment. As Internet Explorer had caused the demise of the old PC, the new cause of failure was Facebook. People were not able to play the games because it was not fast enough to run the flash based applications. The OS was a little out of date and no longer supported with security updates and I could not get a realistic amount of memory in it.

I soldiered on, but my tales of woe did not fall on stony ground.

Second hand black PC“I’ve got something better than that you can have.” There was some rummaging, and out popped a PC in a black tower case. The colour was interesting because all my previous PCs had been beige. That is the way it was!

So I left with my free PC under my arm. OK so it was not quite state of the art, but it met the spec for Windows 7, and the Semperon processor was around three times faster than the old Athlon – what could go wrong.

I knew that the 1GB of RAM would not be quite adequate, so a splashed out fifty quid on 2GB of DDR to fill it up. OK, so £50 for a new PC was not too bad a price to pay. It would not be totally awsome, but it would be a lot better.

The memory arrived, I put it in, now to install the OS. After a fair bit of faffing around it transpired that the DVD drive was not in tip-top condition and would only read CDs. OK I will have to buy a new drive, no big deal.

I can’t install Windows 7 from the DVD but can install Vista, so at least I get an OS installed. Buy a nice new Blue Ray writer (silly not to really) for £85, and the SATA controller card for £30 because you cannot get an IDE Blue Ray drive.

OK so not too bad. My free PC has only cost me £165 so far, and running Vista is perhaps not that bad – apart from it crashing a few times each day.

“We want the old PC back. It’s no good. Why did you waste all that money on it.”

“It was free…”

At this point things are not looking good. Well, I have got the new optical drive, lets try upgrading to Windows 7. Perhaps that will be more stable than Vista.

It wasn’t of course. Lots of fiddling to remove everything that was not essential to the running of the PC (sound card, AGP graphics card). Flash up the firmware, play with conservative BIOS settings. Still no good. Removing the graphics card reduced crashing to once per day, but it was still crashing. Still referred to as Satan.

By now the donor of the ‘free’ PC was no doubt feeling a little guilty. “Well, I have got this core 2 Duo processor and 2GB memory…”

Will it work I think to myself.  I did not want to be in Ground-hog day. I was sort of there already. Accepting the new parts would result in more expenditure. I would have to buy a new system board.

I had no choice. I had to succeed. I am an IT professional. People pay me a lot of money to make things work. I can do it. I will succeed.

System board and new PCI-e graphics card arrive for a mere £75. Running total is now £235.

“They had new PCs on special offer for about that. We could have had a proper one…”

I did not dare mention the Blue ray writer that the ‘proper one’ would not have had.

I build the new PC, and success. PC runs like a dream. All of the ills and trauma are forgotten and everyone is happy. Happy Aquarium runs like a dream and everyone can now feed their virtual fish without tearing their hair out.

What became of the original free PC? Well you might ask. I put the bits in another case, installed Fedora on it and used it as my Linux test PC. Crashing once a day would not be an issue, and I was getting two PCs now for the price of one. One interesting observation of course – it does not crash running Linux!

Glossary (in order of appearance!)

8088 – Microprocessor made by Intel and used in the first IBM PCs. It is a 16-bit processor similar to the 8086 but with an 8-bit external bus to keep the cost down and to keep the PC simple.

IBM – International Business Machines, the company that made the PC very popular worldwide.

PC – Personal Computer. A small computer with just enough processing power for and intended to be used by one person and not shared by many as most computers were at one time.

MHz – MegaHertz, the number of millions of things that a processor can do in a second.

80486 – 32-bit processor made by Intel and based on (and backwards compatible with) its earlier 8086 processor with an integrated numerical co-processor to speed up arithmetic operations and the ability to work with much more memory.

MB – Megabyte, 1048576 bytes (a little over a million, hence mega). A byte is enough storage to typically hold one character or a number from 0 to 255.

Windows – A popular operating system family produced by Microsoft.

Operating System – The software that runs on a PC when you first switch it on which allows you to run your applications.

NT – The first version of Windows that did not sit on top of another operating system and was stand alone. Very much based on OS/2 that Microsoft had produced for IBM. The NT stood for New Technology since it was very different underneath to the previous versions of Windows although it looked the same and was very similar to use.

OS/2 – A completely new operating system intended to replace DOS on personal computers which did not gain much popularity outside of business which made good use of the improvements that had been made to PCs since IBM introduced the first ones.

DOS – Disk Operating System, the original operating system produced by Microsoft for the IBM PC.

RAM – Random Access Memory, the memory which holds data and programs only while the computer is turned on.

Netscape Navigator – The first popular web browser that has become eclipsed by Internet Explorer.

XT  – The first version of the IBM PC to come with a hard disk. It had a distinctive case style that was much copied by other manufacturers.

LS120 – A floppy disk drive that works with disks that hold 120MB of data rather than the usual 1.44MB.

System board – The main circuit board within a PC that contains the processor and has connectors to plug in other devices.

RAID – Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks. A method of using a group of hard disks to store data in such a way that failure of one disk will not result in any loss of data.

CRT Monitor – Monitor with a cathode ray tube and curved screen like televisions used to have.

PSU – Power Supply Unit, the part of a computer that takes mains voltage and converts it to the lower voltages required inside the computer.

AMD Athlon – Microprocessor made by AMD to be broadly compatible with Intel processors but a little faster and cheaper.

AGP Graphics card – Newer type of monitor adapter which plugs into a special AGP slot in the system board and is much faster than the previous type that just plugs into and ordinary slot.

Facebook – A popular social networking website.

Semperon – An AMD processor more advanced than the Athlon.

DDR –  Double Data Rate memory, a type of RAM.

DVD – Digital Video Disk, optical disk originally intended for video but used widely to store data.

Blue Ray – Optical disk with more storage than DVD.

IDE – Integrated Drive Electronics, an interface type used for hard disks and optical drives to connect them to the system board.

SATA – A newer and faster interface than IDE to connect drives to the system board.

Firmware – Software that is held within the hardware to control it, nowadays it tends to be held within flash erasable memory chips which can be updated by a process called flashing when any software errors need to be corrected.

Fedora – A version of Linux produced by Red Hat, who’s logo is a red fedora hat.

LINUX – An operating system originally produced by Linus Torvalds which is maintained by the open source community.

Open source – Software which is produced where the source code is published freely for anyone to use.

Suzie x


March 11, 2011

I have a real enthusiasm for Linux, the freedom, the open source, and the zero cost. There is so much that commends Linux to be used, to be loved and to be acclaimed.

Linux penguin logo

Linux Penguin

When I was given a PC the other day with a 2GHz processor which happens to be faster than all my existing PCs, and initial assessment proved it to be unsuitable to directly replace anything I currently had (it was not a laptop and did not have hardware RAID), I thought that it might actually be a bit more useful if I put Linux on it.

The processor should be fast enough (I have run Red Hat on a pentium 90 before) and 2GB of memory should be handy too. So, not being one to change unless it was necessary I downloaded the latest Fedora KDE ISO and had a go.

Fedora core 14 logoUnfortunately the reality of using Linux is that it is not quite as straightforward as it should be. The basic install is all very straightforward, once I had found a hard disk that had not been previously used in a RAID array to use as the boot disk. The setup program felt the need to identify the former RAID disks as software RAID disks and could not find them to boot on.

A 6GB disk should have been big enough, but Druid did not think so. It insisted on telling me it was not big enough and that I should replace it with one bigger than 2GB – no useful message as to why, no option to look at how it was trying to partition it, no option to edit its suggested partioning – just the option of doing my own partitioning from scratch – with no meaningful information provided as to what partitions were required.

Ok, so I had a guess. 5GB should be enough for the OS, 500MB for swap, and leave the rest to play with later. Should not be too hard to make adjustments later, Disk Druid looks like a handy utility that should be easy to use, that is if it is available – which it is not of course. It is an install time only utility. A couple of hours research on a Windows PC managed to turn up how to configure the swap partition manually.

The rest of the install plods along nicely, and there I have it, a nice Fedora 14 PC for free.

I try a few things out and find out the sound is not working. Change the BIOS setting from AUTO to ENABLED and it springs to life, not too much of a problem.

Using the built in utilities and applications is fine. They appear to work OK and do what they are supposed to. I can even do a bit of web browsing on Konquerer. That is handy because now I can get on the internet and download some useful applications.

Previous attempts at working with Linux had been rather stifled because all the instructions for doing anything expected that you had an online connection to the internet, not just the ability to download elsewhere, burn to a CD and install from that. The coming of ADSL has been jolly handy.

I say all the instructions, but for some reason, and this appears to be peculiar to Linux, any attempt at doing anything other than very basic things are always met with the statement “If you need to ask how to do this you are too stupid to be doing it” or words to that effect. This is mainly found around trying to install drivers or something that needs you to recompile the core. Very frustrating and not really in the spirit of open source. Why should an IT professional be too stupid to understand how to recompile the core?

So, I fancy using Firefox as my browser. Konquerer might be OK, but I know how to use Firefox. Go to the Firefox website, download it, click on the downloaded file, and we are away. Firefox installs and runs, all the familiar stuff – excellent. Close Firefox.Firefox

Next day, switch on Linux PC, log in, fine. I would like to do some browsing. Konquerer is there in the start menu, but where is Firefox? It isn’t there. It is not exactly rocket science to add a shortcut I wouldn’t have thought, but still, this is Linux – not for ordinary people.

A quick search in Dolphin and there is Firefox. Hmmm. Perhaps I can make a link to it myself. What runs it, ah, this shell script seems to do it. Click the shell script and Firefox fires up. Excellent.

Drag the shell script to the desktop, choose make link. Click the link and see the shell script open for editing. Not quite what I was expecting and not very useful. Ah well, at least I can launch Firefox now if I need it by finding it in Dolphin. Konquerer will probably be OK most of the time.

Ahh. Google Chrome is available for Linux too. Why not give that a try. Shock Horror, it installs and puts a shortcut in next to Konquerer. So it can be done.

I am on a roll now. here I come. this surely will install OK. It has a big organisation behind it so will be designed for easy install.

No. That would be silly. People might use it. I download the archive, and unzip it. Lots of RPMs to install now. None of them are signed so I have to give root authentication twice for each one. An hour later with the forty or so individual packages installed, it is time to try it.

I will try it one day when I find out what you are supposed to run to use it! No shortcuts in the applications menu (or none that I can find anyway).

As an open source developer myself, who always strives to the highest standard of documentation to ensure that what I produce is fully usable, and usable by anyone, I am appalled at what is produced for Linux. I am sure that the underlying code is pretty good, but there does not appear to be very much testing of either the product or the documentation. Google appear to know what they are doing but that is about as far as it goes.

OK, so I don’t like what I see.

“Do something about it yourself then!” I hear chorused.

err, no. I do my own development for the open source community, and it is a community. We all do our own bit and the result is there for all to use. I do not expect everyone who uses my code to contribute code as well. Not everyone can code but everyone can contribute to society That is good enough for me.

Open source is not about second rate, is not about being ‘Geeky’, it is about contributing to society for the greater good. Professionalism has the same place in the open source community as elsewhere and there is no reason that Linux can not become first rate, but it has to be taken seriously, especially by the developers.

Suzie x