Welcome to the QA Tech-Tips blog!

Some see things as they are, and ask "Why?"   I dream things that never were, and ask "Why Not".  
Robert F. Kennedy

“Impossible” is only found in the dictionary of a fool.  
Old Chinese Proverb

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Never Buy Another Hard Drive!
How to Get Replacement Hard Drives for Free

Hard drives are expensive.

Large hard drives are very expensive.

Replacing a failed hard drive is not only expensive, but it's also a pain in the tush.

How would you like to be able to replace a failed hard drive virtually instantly, and not have to pay for future replacements?

Did I just hear everyone scream "YESSSSS!!!!"?

Believe it or not, it's not that difficult.  The magic word here is "warranty".  As in "hard drive warranty".

One of the little known facts about hard drives is that they usually come with rather nice warranty periods - especially if it's a newer drive, or something they're trying to push.  More importantly, typical hard drive warranty periods run from three to five years, depending on the drive.

Unfortunately, most people do not realize that their hard drive might still be under warranty, or they don't even think about hard drive warranties, so they end up needlessly spending a lot of hard-earned cash paying for drive replacements they shouldn't have to pay for.

Since YOU just happen to be one of those clever folks who don't like to pay extra, and are willing to make the hard drive manufacturers stand behind their products, this is how you do it.

Of course, being the clever person you are, YOU already know all about this, right?  Now you can send this to all your friends so they become even MORE impressed with your God-like expertise!

  • First, you should decide on what hard drive size is most commonly used by you.  In my case, I use a lot of two terabyte drives.
  • Go buy one on sale somewhere.  Look in the internet, price match if you can.  This one purchased drive is your "in stock" spare.  Of course you want to do this before a drive fails, but even if you didn't - go get a new version of the drive you need.

    With a little bit of luck, (or forethought), you already have a backup of what you had on the failed, (or failing), drive, so that you can restore to the new, "spare", drive you just purchased or had "in stock".

  • Go to the manufacturers web site and download their disk diagnostic tools disk, which is usually an .ISO image of a CD.  Burn it to CD, pop it in your system, boot it, and then run the diagnostics on your failed drive.  There's a good chance you won't have to run anything more than the "quick test" to uncover the problem.
  • The disk test will give you an error code - write it down somewhere - this is important!
  • Remove the drive from your computer, and either install the new drive that you've cloned from the old one, or go to another computer.  (Or, boot a live Linux disk, and use the web-browser there. :-)  )
  • With the drive out of the machine, go to the manufacturers web site and find the "return" or "warranty" link - it's usually under "Support".
  • Enter the drive's model number and serial number and it should give you the warranty status of your drive.  If it's not older that three or four years - and many aren't - it will tell you that the drive is "in warranty"
  • The site should then give you the option to process a warranty return.  Here is where you will need the error code(s) you copied down before.  You might have to enter the model and serial numbers again.
  • Once it accepts the return, it will ask for your name and postal address to ship the new drive to - and it will probably ask for a credit card.  They do this just in case you don't return the old one.  Normally this is free of charge, or they might ask a nominal fee for shipping an advance-replacement to you.
  • In about a week or so, you get your new drive in the mail, and it usually includes a pre-paid return label for UPS or FedEx.
  • If you've already replaced the failed drive, open the box, remove the new drive, (keep it in the static bag!), and set it aside as a spare.  Otherwise, swap drives.
  • Put the old drive in the static bag, put it back in the box the same way the new one was packaged, seal it up, stick on the label, and send it on it's way.  Make sure you get a receipt for the shipment, just in case it gets lost.

VoilĂ !  A shiny new hard drive - with a full manufacturer's warranty - free!  (Or almost nearly so.)

What say ye?

Jim (JR)

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A Linux After Dinner "Mint"
A First Look at Linux Mint 13

A couple of weeks ago I had a chance to visit the local Micro Center in Cambridge, and while I was there I was able to pick up one of the latest issues of Linux Format magazine.  Issue #162 of Linux Format was their annual "Distribution Grudge Match" issue where they tossed a dozen or so Linux distro's into one of the WWF's "cage match" wrestling cages, sat back, popped a cold brew, and watched the fireworks!

When the dust cleared, (and the bodies were removed), the distribution left standing at the end of it all was Linux Mint.  This was a bit of a shock to me since Mint went head-to-head with some of the heaviest of the heavyweight distributions; defeating distro's like Ubuntu and Fedora who normally send opponents scrambling for cover.  Mint went head-to-head with the best distributions out there, they were all compared based on a whole host of differing criteria, and at the end of it all Mint had really made a name for itself.

As to the "why" of it's victory, I can't do much better than refer you to the statement made by the folks at Linux Format, when they said, (something like), "Linux Mint isn't about new or flashy features, it's about stability and usability."  They went on to say that Linux Mint would often avoid the whizz-bang features of other distributions, concentrating on what they know works and works well.

What really differentiates Mint is the fact that they base their distributions on Ubuntu's "LTS" (Long Term Support), releases instead of whatever flashy new release was just tossed at an unsuspecting public.  Even with that, they carefully pick-and-choose what pieces of the latest LTS release they want to include, skipping anything that they don't believe offers real value to their users.

Another differentiating feature of Mint is their new desktop manager, Cinnamon.  They saw that many Ubuntu users, (including Yours Truly!), were getting heartily tired of the Gnome vs KDE desktop wars, their dissatisfaction with the bizarre desktop that Ubuntu calls "Unity," and Canonical's seeming deaf ear to user suggestions or complaints.

Seeing their disgust, the folks at Mint developed an in-house desktop called Cinnamon.  Cinnamon is a light-weight desktop following the basic Mint premise of eschewing flash and glamor in favor of a stable, working, desktop manager that does everything you need, and nothing you don't.

The distinguishing feature of Mint's implementation of Cinnamon is the absence of "features."  They don't throw IM clients, e-mail clients, and other assorted horse-hooey at you.  They don't clutter your desktop with various kinds of "super-bars", or other unessential cruft and bloat.  It's remarkable in its muted color-scheme as opposed to the garish colors of Ubuntu's Unity desktop.

In fact, the "it just works" design philosophy of the Cinnamon desktop has become so popular that other Linux distributions have begun using, or offering, the Cinnamon desktop with their own releases.

The Linux Mint "Cinnamon" desktop,
notable for it's clean, open appearance and muted color scheme.

Aside from the lack of clutter on the desktop, (the only two icons that appear by default are the "Computer" and "Home" folders), the task bar / system tray at the bottom is the only real tool-bar on Mint's Cinnamon desktop.  This provides a big working surface that is easily configured to your own personal tastes.

The Mint "task bar" has icons for the "Start" menu, (the gear and "menu"), 
Reveal Desktop, (the green box), Mozilla Firebird, 
a Terminal window, and the Nautilus file manager

The Mint "System Tray" has only the few icons needed 
to give you a quick "heads up" on the status of your system.

My only real beef with Mint's task bar is that it's a bit too thin for my taste.  Since I have just started messing with this myself, I may well find a setting that allows me to change it's size.

The initial view of Mint's Cinnamon desktop at first login, 
showing the "Welcome" window and selections.

Normally, I really hate having a pop-up screen shoved into my face, be it at first boot or otherwise.  Strangely enough, Mint's initial dialog isn't really "in-your-face" as it blends in nicely to the rest of the desktop.  Its message is polite and respectful, and the various options offered are actually useful.

Though you have the option to avoid seeing this dialog at start-up, I have found it sufficiently useful that, at least for now, I keep it there for my own reference.

An enlarged view of Mint's "Welcome" window, 
showing a number of useful and interesting links.

I really like both the design and layout of Mint's default Cinnamon desktop.  Most other desktops, (at least in my opinion), look like something designed for hawk-eyed 20 year old eyes.  Either the color choices are too bizarre, or the control elements are way too small for my own eyesight.

Likewise, Cinnamon's organization of both the desktop and the various window controls is strikingly similar to the Windows desktop, which makes the transition from one to the other a much less painful process.

Mint is one of the easier distributions to install and use.  This makes sense as it is one of the many Ubuntu re-spins out there and the whole Ubuntu heritage was built on usability.

Linux Mint, in the true spirit of Ubuntu's tradition of offering choices, creates several different spins of each distribution, with the Gnome, KDE, or Cinnamon desktops preinstalled.  You want Gnome?  No prob!  You download the "Gnome" version and away you go.  Likewise with KDE or Cinnamon.

Mint 13 includes the usual plethora of applications and other "stuff" that seems to be expected in a desktop system, including things like the Gimp image editor, and Libre Office.

Additionally, their standard distribution comes with all the codecs and viewers that you normally have to go hunting for, and it also includes, pre-installed, Adobe Reader and Flash.  The result of all this effort is a distribution that is ready for prime-time, right out of the box.

Of course, if you are a distribution purist, they also create distribution spins without all the limited rights stuff installed.  It's your choice.

In the same vein, unlike Ubuntu and other clones, all of the useful repositories are pre-selected by default.  This means that you don't have to re-configure the update manager to include the repositories you need.

The other side of all that effort in your behalf is that after you finish the installation, you should go check for updates.  When I checked for updates after my own install, there were something like 450 updates listed.  However the total size for all the updates was less than 500 megs, and they were all done - soup to nuts - in less than a half-hour.

Oh, and while we're on the subject of updates and download speeds. . . . . .

One of the nicest touches I found was an option within the update manager's configuration settings that would test each of the Linux Mint mirror sites, and then offer you the best and fastest mirror site based on where you are.

The bottom line is that Linux Mint 13 is an eminently usable distribution.  If you are used to the way other distributions organize things, there might be just a bit of a learning curve here.  However I don't think this will be much of a problem since things are conveniently placed where you would reasonably expect to find them.

Likewise the open and uncluttered desktop allows you to organize your workspace in whatever way you are most comfortable with.

I think it's worth your time to go take a look.  If you've become annoyed with all the flash-bang cruft in other distributions, I think you will be pleasantly surprised with Linux Mint.  You can go find it here.  (Though be patient, sometimes the site's a bit slow to load. . .)

What say ye?

Jim (JR)

Monday, September 10, 2012

Google Android - Robotics Gone Wrong

Today I am seriously, and officially, PISSED at Google / Adobe and the so-called "Android" operating system.

I have a client, (a Chiropractor), who wants to use a tablet computer to record patient notes as he goes from treatment room to treatment room.  Great idea, right?  What's even better is that his medical app is Web-based - all you need is a browser and an internet connection, and you're in!

I go to Micro Center and shell out Huge Bucks for an Acer IconiaTab tablet for him.  Hi def, the latest and greatest Android O/S. great big screen, etc. etc. etc.  I do the initial setups and then deliver it to the client.

So, after getting his internet connection working - we go to the web service that provides his record keeping.  And wadda ya know, it wants Adobe Flash installed to work with the site.  OK, no biggie.  Many sites want you to install Flash.  So, I go to do it and that's when the fun begins.

First:  Setting up an Android system is a pain.  It is so fubar'd up that it makes Microsoft's nonsense seem like child's play.
  • You cannot even THINK about downloading apps until you sign up for a Google mail account.
  • Then. . . .  You have to sign up for a Google Play account - and by doing so you give Google the right to wander all over your device and collect whatever data they damn well please, personal or otherwise..
  • It is also noteworthy that - as far as I know - there are no third-party sources for Android apps.  Just like Apple, it's so tightly bound to Google that they are the only source of anything for your system.
  • Since you can only get apps from Google Play - and most are payware - you are stuck if you want anything for your system.

The real plum?  Google no longer supports, nor offers, any version of Adobe's Flash player.  Period.  If it weren't for the fact that many content rich sites use Flash, it would not be such a big deal.

It turns out that my client's medical records service requires Flash.  Ergo, the tablet is as useful as Teats on a Boar Hog and he, rightfully so, refused to accept it.  Which leaves me out mucho hundreds of dollars unless I can convince Micro Center to let me return the little beggar.

But it gets even better.  Suppose you want to go to The Weather Channel, or even the National Weather Service's web site to get the weather.  Fuggeddaboutit!  Many of their pages use Flash.

You want to go to You Tube or a whole host of other video sites?  No dice there either.

If you want to do just about anything more complicated than lurk Facebook, take pictures with the built-in camera, play silly Android payware app-games, or doodle - you are totally out of luck.  I would not be surprised if much of Facebook's content requires Flash as well.

To make things even more interesting, the Android system - at least on this tablet - makes using the tablet an exercise in frustration.  The Google / Android people have decided on exactly how they want you to use their system - and if you want something, even slightly, different, you're out of luck.
  • If you have a WiFi network setup using WPA2-PSK, and your passphrase is "kitty", it won't let you connect as it does not approve of your passphrase.
  • You are expected to have multiple Google accounts, like them or not.
  • The available configuration settings are either useless, or nearly impossible to find.
    Go on, try to change the browser's home page.  Go on, I dare you!  Oh, it can be done, but it requires a level of patience that most of us do not have.
  • It is so tightly bound to Google, and things are so proprietary, it's a real pain trying to get anything done.

I have been seriously thinking about getting a tablet for my wife's Real Estate business - but after this, it's not gonna happen.

As you might expect, there has been a mighty wailing and gnashing of teeth all over the Internet about this.

Summary:  If you decide to go out and purchase any Android device, you can count on being out tons of money for something that is a very expensive paper weight / digital picture frame.

And, it's a real pity.

What say ye?

Jim (JR)

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

It's All About The Hardware

A few articles ago, I wrote an article about my visit to the Trenton Computer Festival, and the copy of OpenSUSE that I picked up while I was there.  I also mentioned the numerous vendors selling the Ardunio microcontroller boards and the buckets of drool I left after gazing longingly at them.

At this point you may be wondering what a "hardware" article is doing in a blog aimed primarily at the computer/software QA crowd.

Simple.  While I was there, I also picked up a, (free!), copy of the magazine Nuts and Volts - a worthy successor to the venerable Popular Electronics I enjoyed in my (much) younger days.  Buried deep on page 58 of the March 2012 volume is an article titled "It's All About The Uno32 Hardware".  I gave it a quick glance and it got me thinking. . . . .  You know, it often IS all about the hardware.

Obviously, if you're testing software applications for an embedded device the underlying hardware becomes critically important.  And if you don't know the difference between a 2N2222 transistor and the latest i7 processor, you shouldn't be working there.

But - even in a purely software environment - a knowledge, even a basic one, about the underlying hardware can often be just as important.

A case in point:

My friend Andy works for a company that makes security / access control devices and the software that runs them.  And yes, because the software and the specialized hardware it controls are inextricably intertwined, knowing something about which end of the screwdriver to use is obviously important.

However, there was one case where a recent release of their access control software would fail in mysterious and subtle ways - especially when certain controller functions were used.  So, he wrote up the bug report and sent the software back to the dev team for the fix.  Except that they could not reproduce it.  HE could, every stinkin' time, but they could not.  And yes, we in the Software QA community know all about how some obscure software module on the developers computer can mask software bugs.

They came and looked at it failing on his machine and left scratching their heads.  Especially as this part of the software had been tested before - and passed - and as far as they knew no changes had been made anywhere near that particular part of the code.  So they took it apart, line by line, even doing a clean install on another computer, and they could not reproduce it.

So, what was the problem?  Andy later discovered that there was a failure, a very subtle failure to be sure but a failure nonetheless, in the computer's power supply that was apparently aggravated by certain particular sequences of software which apparently activated certain pieces of hardware on the motherboard, triggering the failure.  Replacing the power supply "fixed" the software bug.

In my own software QA experiences, I have often triggered critical bugs just by monkeying around with the network connections and how they're wired to the various network devices they're connected to.  I have also found "bugs" caused by an inadvertent wiring error in a pre-made network cable - such as a particular network pair being wired backwards at one end.  I have also had the pleasure of leaving the office of a senior developer - or a manager - with their jaw hanging down after a simple piece of hardware "magic" solved a problem that had been perplexing them for days.

The bottom line?  Even in a purely software environment, it can be "all about the hardware", and knowing enough about it to think outside the box can be vitally important.

What say ye?

Jim (JR)

Monday, June 4, 2012

How to Change the Windows XP Distribution Channel type on Installable Media

Recently I ran into a quandary with a customer's computer - and after a couple of weeks of head-banging, I finally figured out a solution to the problem.

A customer gave me a Dell Dimension 2850 computer he wanted resurrected, and after thoroughly sanitizing the machine I discovered that it's Windows XP Home installation had been seriously damaged.

I tried - for two mortal weeks! - to resurrect the installation.  No good.

I tried cloning an installation from a sister machine.  No good.

I tried to create a set of "Dell System Recovery Disks" to reinstall from scratch - No good, as the System Recovery CD's I created Blue-Screened right at the beginning of the install.  (And yes, I tried creating the CD's more than once, with different media, using a different burner. . . .)

Since Dell doesn't support XP, (of any flavor), anymore, it would be impossible, if not hideously expensive, to get a set of real, working, recovery disks for that box.

I tried using my TechNet copy of Windows XP Home to do a repair install - No good, it wanted a product key, and it would not accept the OEM key from the Certificate Of Authenticity stuck to the side of the box.

What I needed was a Windows XP Home install CD - OEM version, and this kind of CD is nowhere to be found - unless you happen to be an OEM installer or just happen to have a copy laying around from an old XP System Builder's package.  Which, by the way, I did not have.

What I DID have was a Windows XP Home install disk - and activation key - downloaded from my trusty TechNet account's download repository.  And that's good.  However, the TechNet version - and key - is a "Retail Box" version with a "retail" key to match it.  Which is bad, at least for this problem.

After two weeks of banging my head against that ever present, and oh so familiar, brick wall - I had come to a standstill.

There were several options readily apparent to me at this point:
  • Punt.
    Just tell the client that he was SOL - Stinkin'-out-of-luck.
    Unfortunately my reputation as a miracle worker and computer wizard was on the line, so that option was not acceptable.
  • Get, and install, a legitimate copy of Windows XP Home.
    I tried.  I really tried, but Windows XP, (of any flavor), is "out of print" no matter where one looks.  That being the case, a legit new install is out of the question.
  • Get a legit version of Windows 7 and install that.
    Since this was a blazingly fast Pentium 4 box with a whopping 512 megs of memory, a Windows 7 install would have been as slow as molasses in February.  It should be "intuitively obvious" that this solution was just a tiny bit less than optimal as well.
  • Find a skumware site on the Web and download a (ahem!) "official" version of the Windows XP Home install CD.
    Because it is a lead-pipe-cinch that a whole plethora of skumware, vileware, root-kits and other such nasties would come pre-installed as well - not to mention a whole host of ethical reasons - this was not a viable option either.
  • Install my TechNet copy and key, and convert the installation so that it would accept the OEM key after the fact.
    There are some really interesting instructions on the Internet that explain precisely how to do this by editing Registry keys, removing/modifying installation files, etc.  When I tried that, I discovered that I had magically turned my "Retail" XP install into a quivering lump that would neither activate, (It even went so far as to refuse to launch the activation utility!), nor allow me to browse the Web.
  • Install my TechNet copy, use my TechNet supplied key, deliver it to the customer like that, and keep my big mouth shut.
    Since I value my TechNet membership, and would like to continue as a member in good standing, this choice was not particularly high on my list of available options.
  • Somehow or other, take what I have and magically transform it into what I need.
    This is also fraught with all kinds of prickly and technical licensing issues, so I really hesitated to try it.  Unfortunately, all else had failed so - rather than give out my TechNet key - I figured this was worth a try.

NOTE:  If you read the fine-print in Microsoft's rather voluminous license, particularly as it applies to OEM installs, the only legitimate OEM reinstall is to:
  • Reinstall to the exact same hardware, (i.e. on the exact same physical box that it was shipped on),
  • Using the exact same OS type and kind,
  • With the exact same programs, features, add-ins, bloatware, "free trial offers", etc., as was originally installed in the "fresh-from-the-factory" condition.  Including all the "Preparing your computer for first use" horse-hooey.
Of course, this assumes you actually have the True And Authorized re-installation media - which is the whole problem!

Having said all that, here's how to change a sow's ear into a cow's ear.

The big difference between the various distribution channel versions of XP lies in one tiny file, setup.inf, which is located in the i386 directory of the disk.  So, if we can somehow change that one little file, we can convert a disk of one channel type into another.  (i.e. "Retail" into "OEM")

You will need:
  • A legitimate copy of the Windows version you want to convert. (i.e. From TechNet, et. al.)  You do NOT want to use disks obtained from dubious sources for more reasons than three.
  • A system with a legitimate COA of the same version as your install media, except that it is likely to be an OEM COA instead of a retail COA.
    Note:  These instructions are not intended to allow you to install whatever you darn well please, wherever you darn well please.  These instructions are to allow you to reinstall the same version of Windows XP on a box that has a blown install, the recovery media being unavailable for one reason or another.
  • Software that will allow you to extract the contents of a CD or ISO, including the boot information.
  • Software that will allow you to re-create a bootable CD/ISO from a bunch of files and the boot files.
  • A text editor.
  • Luck.

Here's how I did it:

The installation media I used for the conversion was a plain-vanilla, English version, Windows XP Home with SP-3 preinstalled, ISO that I had downloaded from TechNet.
  1. Using your CD/ISO expansion software, rip the entire contents of the Win XP (retail) CD to a newly created folder somewhere.
  2. Using the same software, rip the boot files to a folder somewhere else.
  3. Within the rip folder, go to the i386 directory and find the file "setup.inf" and open it with a text editor like Notepad.
  4. Find the part labeled "Pid", followed by an eight digit (?) number.
  5. Replace the last three digits with the letters "OEM" - obviously without the quotation marks, but you already knew that, right? - and save the file.
  6. Using the disk burning tool, recreate the CD by dragging all the ripped files and folders to the root of the new compilation.
  7. Replace the burner software's default media label with the label from the original CD.
    In my case, using ISO Buster to rip the CD, the rip's folder name is the same as the CD's disk label.
    Copy that and replace the default disk label with the one you copied.
  8. Mark the disk as "bootable" and provide the boot image file you copied from the original disk.
  9. Burn and verify.
Voila!  You now have an installable Windows XP OEM edition CD.

One further note:
In order to use this CD, you have to do a "bare metal" install, completely overwriting any previous retail installs you may have tried to do.  Trying to overwrite a retail install with an OEM install by performing a "repair install" won't work.  Ask me.  Go ahead, I dare you.  Ask me how I figured out THAT little gem.

Hopefully this will help drag your butt out of the same bind I was in, but without the weeks of head-banging.

What say ye?

Jim (JR)

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Punish My PC!

Have you cobbled together a system that you are going to use for something critical / important?
Have you just built The World's Most Beastly System?
Do you have a system that MUST run, 24/7, come Hell or High Water?

Or, maybe, you just want to see if your system has The Right Stuff.

What you need is a PC Benchmark Program.

There are a lot of benchmarks out there - and if you don't believe me just go to any well stocked magazine rack somewhere and snoop three or four PC magazines.  You will find as many benchmarks as there are editors - each claiming that THEIR benchmark is the sine-qua-non of benchmarks.

Each of these benchmarks exists to target a particular aspect of your computer - be it raw processing power, graphics rendering and speed, the motherboard, or whatever.

But, just maybe, all you need to know is if Your Machine Can Hack It.

Here are two interesting little beasties - and I mean little as these utilities have a very small footprint.  And I also mean BEASTIES, as these will torture your system to the point where it will confess to setting the Reichstag fire, if not plotting the downfall of Rome itself.

The first is PRIME95 - specifically designed to try and find Mersenne prime numbers.  Specifically it seeks to find Very Large Mersenne prime numbers.  As in 12 million decimal-places - or more.

So, why should you care, and how is this going to help?

First - should you decide to join the fine folks at GIMPS, and should you be so extremely lucky as to actually FIND one of the beasties, (since the dawn of mathematics, only 47 have been found so far), there is not only glory to be had, there are also CA$H PRIZE$.  As in moola, Benjamins, coin, or just plain cash money.  (This is also a great way to flesh out a Mathematics dissertation.)

NB:  It should be noted that there is also a poster for sale there at the GIMPS site, about the size of a 4x8 piece of plywood, that contains every last digit of this immense number in Living Color.  Likewise it should be noted that they sell - as a companion product to the poster - a high-power Jeweler's Loupe so that you can actually SEE the digits!  (They are indeed that tiny.)

Secondly - even TRYING to find one of those "little" twelve-bazillion decimal-place beasties requires all the computing power your poor little PC has to muster.

Not only does your CPU take a beating - every single core of it - but each and every FPU, (Floating Point Math Unit - built into each CPU core), gets the workout of it's life.  The result is usually a CPU chip that gets hot enough to smell.  Not to mention you will get to hear your processor's heat-sink fan wind up to its maximum speed for the first time in history.

While making your CPU cry "Uncle!" by beating it senseless, working with twelve-bazillion-digit numbers requires a LOT of data-shuffling back and forth into RAM.  Ergo, your main memory gets the beating of it's life too.  Not to mention your motherboard's Memory Management Unit, northbridge chip, southbridge chip, sandybridge, windy-bridge, suspension-bridge, and any other kind of bridge chip you may have.

The result of putting your machine on the Rack is this:  If there is anything in your system that's not up to snuff - or is even considering the vaguely distant possibility of departing from the Straight And Narrow Path - this will flush the partridges out of the bush in short order.

The next fine fellow in the Spanish Inquisition isn't even a torture test.  It's just a cute little utility that stands around, thermometer in one hand and digital voltmeter in the other, telling you how loudly your PC is cursing you.

It's called HW Monitor, and the fine folks at CPUID, (who also make the excellent CPU-Z program), provide it free of charge.

It provides a nice window showing all your system voltages, fan speeds, MoBo and CPU temperatures, etc.  Running this with Prime95 is a good idea.  This way you will know if the smell coming from your PC is just hot aluminum, or the smell of melting silicon as your $700 CPU breathes it's last.

The bottom line is this - if you have a PC, Mac, Linux box, or whatever you need to test - these are a couple of free tools you can download to do it.

What say ye?

Jim (JR)

Sunday, April 29, 2012

You Can't Get There From Here! (Part 2)
Issues with the new AHCI interface

In a previous article, I talked about the advantages of the new AHCI interface.  It's fast and it supports a whole host of useful features.  Things like the ability to dismount and remove/swap a drive, as well as a lot of the newer features that have been built into modern hard drives.

Especially the "dismount and remove" feature - which makes swapping a SATA/eSATA drive as simple as swapping a USB thumb-drive.  If you are like me and you have multiple external SATA drive docks that you use to plug in a hard drive, use it for something as if it were a GIGANTIC USB thumb drive, and then remove it; AHCI is an absolute necessity.

Given your choice, AHCI is indeed the way to go.

However, there is a "dark side" to The Force:  A lot of software that needs to talk directly to the drives won't work with the new AHCI interface protocol.  The classic symptom of this incompatibility is that the software cannot find the hard drives or optical media devices on your system.

For example, my long-time-favorite CD/DVD/etc. burner software - CDBurner XP - has significant issues with the AHCI interface.  Likewise other CD burning software, True Burner is a good example, won't work with AHCI.

If you have hard-drive imaging software that is more than a couple of years old, it's pretty much a lead-pipe-cinch that it won't work with AHCI either.

If you have some older rescue disks laying around, such as BartPE disks, or even older versions of Linux - like the earlier versions of Knoppix - they have trouble with the AHCI interface protocol as well.

"Why is this so?" you may ask.  And yes, that is a very good question.

The answer is this:

As hard drive interfaces have evolved in the past; from the custom and non-standard embedded interfaces used in ancient computers, to the Western Digital interface for MFM and RLL drives used in computers only slightly less ancient, to the venerable IDE / EIDE / Ultra ATA interface used for so long, to the new SATA/eSATA interface - each major advance in the drive controller interface has obsoleted - and orphaned - the previous protocols and standards.

The AHCI interface - developed by Intel during the Itanium days - was designed to provide a whole host of useful, and needed, features to the hard drive community.  When SATA came around, the SATA standards leveraged the capabilities of the AHCI interface protocol - and the hard drive manufacturers jumped on the bandwagon and made sure that their drives would support these new standards.

The rock in the road here is that the design for the IDE/ATA interface never imagined any of these capabilities - drive swapping for example - because these features were just not possible with the older ATA. (PATA), drives.

However!  (# 1)

Most of the software available at that time - including operating systems - did not support the AHCI interface protocol.  So, the computer motherboard and BIOS manufacturers worked around this issue by providing a choice:  You can set the computer's motherboard to use the older - and more "compatible" IDE protocol, or the newer AHCI protocol.  As a result, the IDE protocol has stayed around, a relic of days-gone-by.

However!  (# 2)

Newer motherboards - and especially newer laptops - have decided to do away with the, (relatively), old and crufty IDE interface choice - leaving room in the BIOS for more interesting features.

As you have probably already noticed, the intersection of "However #1" and "However #2" results in things just not working - or working in bizarre ways.

To make matters even more interesting - you cannot just switch from one interface protocol to the other willy-nilly.  Doing so on a Windows based machine is the fast track to a machine that won't boot. (See this Microsoft site for an explanation why, and the registry hack needed to fix it.)

There are two big take-aways from all of this:
  • Software that relies on direct, low-level access to a drive may not work in the AHCI mode.
    So, if a software title you've used for years and years suddenly decides to stop working, or stop working on a new machine, check the AHCI mode setting in your BIOS.

  • When you find something like this, do not hesitate to ask the author(s) of this software product to update their software's drivers to support AHCI.

What say ye?

Jim (JR)

Monday, April 2, 2012

QA Engineer Downtime
 FlightGear 2.6

Just in case you were wondering what Software QA people do when they're not testing code. . . .  They go home and test code!

Today's topic is about yet another program you may want to "test" - FlightGear.  FlightGear is an Open Source flight simulation package that has been under active development since the mid to late '90's.  You can download it for free, and it has terrain and detail maps for (as far as I can tell) the entire globe.

One of the things I've been passionate about since - well - I can't remember back that far, has been airplanes and flying.  A Pilot's license, (and an airplane to go with it), has been a dream of mine for ages.

Of course, with 20/400 vision (uncorrected), corrected vision that requires lenses whose thickness is measured in centimeters - even with "High-E" plastic - and is good enough to let me drive, but not much else. . . .  the chances of passing the medical to get said Pilot's license is slim to zero, to say the least!

So, I have to assuage my frustrated dreams with flight simulation programs - the de facto standard being Microsoft's Flight Simulator in all it's versions.

Microsoft's Flight Simulator - all the way up to the latest version which is Flight Simulator "X" - is a truly worthy program for those who enjoy the exhilaration of flight.  It's fairly simple, you install the software, plug in your joystick/yoke and rudder pedals, (if you are lucky enough to have a set), hop in the virtual plane, and start flying!

Using the default "as installed" settings, your plane is refueled, your trusty valet-cum-ground engineer has already done the pre-flight checks, the engine is started and all warmed up, so all you have to do is release the brakes, advance the throttle a bit, and you're soon in the air.  And, unless you tell it to be extra picky, you always start on a day that has wonderful weather, a few scattered clouds, no wind to speak of, and inexhaustible fuel.

Microsoft's slogan for most of their Flight Simulator packages is something like it being "As Real As It Gets!"  Needless to say, flying in MS Flight Sim is - almost - trivially easy.  With a little practice and patience you can even get back on the ground in one piece!

Which left me wondering. . . .  Is flying an airplane REALLY that easy?

Answer:  No.

Microsoft Flight Simulator is - above all - a "game".  A very sophisticated game nonetheless, but still a game.  You can advance the "reality" settings from the default of "fantasy" to "somewhat realistic" - but it's still a game. Microsoft goes to great lengths not to frustrate those people who planked down $60+ for this beast, and they do so at the expense of realism.

On the other hand, FlightGear is most definitely NOT a "game" by any stretch of the imagination.  The stated design goal, (make that read "long-term design goal"), is to make a sim that is accurate enough to be FAA certified.  And they mean it.

Once you load and start the sim - and if you are at all smart about your selection of which plane to fly - you are somewhere outside of San Francisco in a seldom used municipal airport dedicated to small planes, sitting in a Cessna 172.  Said Cessna being one of the "easier" planes to fly.

And unlike Microsoft's Flight Simulator, there is no trusty valet to set things up for you.  YOU have to do the work.  You have to do the pre-flight.  You have to file the flight-plan, and yes YOU are expected to actually fly the airplane.

The program launches, you're sitting in "the Left-Hand Seat", (Pilot In Command), and there is no noise whatsoever.  Not even crickets.

Thinking that the sound support is still a little squiffy, I proceed to release the parking brake and advance the throttle.  Nothing.  I can see the controls move but nothing happens.  I try several other things, and still nothing is happening.  Is the game frozen?  Is it "paused"?  I decide to take another look at the "quick start" guide to see what I am doing wrong.

Guess what!  The absence of sound is deliberate - the engine is not running yet.

So, you look up the "engine start" check-list, (yes, there are check-lists for everything, just like in a real airplane), and proceed to do the drill:  Check and set the magnetos, set throttle and mixture controls, verify proper control action by looking at the wings, elevators, and tail.  And!  Especially if you have "random stuff happening" set, you do actually have to make sure that there isn't some clod near the airplane when you start the prop spinning.

So you flip the magneto switch to "start" and you hear the engine crank.  And crank.  And crank.  And crank.

Seriously, the first time I tried to start that beast I did not simulate starting the engine, but I did simulate running the battery down.

Reset simulation.

OK, lets look at that checklist again.  Hmm.  Looks OK to me.  So back to the manual!  It turns out that in order to get a REAL Cessna 172 started, you have to put both the mixture and throttle controls in certain very specific positions.  And it takes a few tries to get the hang of it.  Eventually. . . . you learn how to start the plane without killing the battery.

Ready for takeoff!  Release the brakes, advance the throttle and down the runway you go!  You pull back on the stick and. . . .  nothing.  You're about three feet in the air, wheels bouncing around as you swish this way and that way all over the grassy countryside surrounding the airport.  And yes, those odd looking structures up ahead, (that you are about fifteen seconds from crashing into), are high tension electric wire towers.

Eventually you come to a stop, assuming you avoid the high-tension towers, and wonder what went wrong.

Reset simulation, (for the upteenth time), and it's back to the manual!

In real life, (and in FlightGear), you have to be much more careful about trying to take off.  You need to have the correct amount of flaps set.  You have to have enough engine speed, (check the throttle and mixture again!), and you have to manage to get to your airplane's realistically rated "rotation velocity" before you can get off the ground.  Again, as in real life, you have to get it right.  "Almost" right isn't going to cut it.

And so on.

Now, I don't want you to think they have just tossed you to the wolves.  There are a lot of excellent tutorials about all kinds of things, from actually getting the plane to start, to flying a REAL IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) departure and approach, all the way to learning how to do everything the right way from the beginning.

The key words here being "the right way".  As far as I can tell, (based on the short time I spent with it, as well as reading the documentation), this piece of software strives for absolute, uncompromising, realism.  Though they do make apologies for certain inaccuracies.  Things like "Helicopter blades do not shatter if you have the tips exceed the speed of sound", or "we don't have access to real ground or air-traffic-control simulations yet".

However most of it is right on the money - from the yucky weather outside all the way to the positioning of the moon and constellations.  All of this stuff is derived - whenever possible - from real NOAA or GeoSAT weather, Naval Observatory data - even the precession of your inertial gyro is modeled down to the hairs on a flea.  And yes, you have to reset the Inertial system periodically.  Just like in real life.  And when doing your approach in lousy weather, you have to do your "procedure turns" and listen for the nav-aid beacons, just like in real life.

So, what does this have to do with QA, besides seeming to cater to the masochistic streak that every software QA Engineer has to have?

Though very realistic - in the ways that it can be realistic - there is still much room for improvement.  Testing, of both the stable releases as well as the development builds is an important contribution.  Even helping to clean up the documentation is welcomed with open arms.

It's also interesting - especially if you want to see what a REAL simulation is like!

Go check it out!  http://www.flightgear.org

What say ye?

Jim (JR)

Friday, March 16, 2012

A First Look at openSUSE 12.01
Stay Away - Stay Far Far Away

Just this last week my friend Pat, his girlfriend and I went to the Trenton Computer Fair where there was some really interesting stuff to see.  The embedded micro-controllers were especially interesting and - even a week later - I am still drooling over what I saw there.

One of the tables was hosted by a couple of guys from openSUSE who were handing out free CD's of their - New and Improved! - 12.10 distribution.  (You know, SUSE.  Like GICO.  They both have green lizards as mascots.)

It was wonderful!  Balloons!  Confetti!  A Heavenly Choir!  Promises of the Wonderfully Open Vistas of Open Source Computing!  All it needed was the presence of Richard Stallman of FSF/GNU fame to make it a Truly Religious Experience.

I was particularly interested in the new release of openSUSE since the SUSE reps mentioned that much work had been done to move the current release firmly into the 21st Century.  So, I'm thinking - hey!  It's free, why not!  So, I grabbed a couple, planning to give one to my friend Pat.

One of the SUSE reps asked me if I had tried openSUSE before, and if I had - what did I think of it.  I told them yes, I had tried earlier versions; and on my rankings of things I like to do, I rated it just below the flu and just above intestinal diarrhea.

Now, don't get me wrong.  I'm not saying that these earlier versions were hideously abysmal, but any distribution in the late '90's or early 2000's that required a boot floppy to launch, even after installation, was not high on my list of bleeding-edge distributions.  Or even functionally usable distributions for that matter.  And judged by that standard of excellence - requiring a boot floppy to start - the rest of the distribution did not disappoint either.  These earlier distributions were crufty and their install a BEAR with a capitol GROWL!

After polite laughs all around at my tactful description of the merits of the earlier versions of openSUSE, they suggested that I try their newest one.  For one thing, it no longer required a boot floppy.  Miracle of miracles, it would actually boot from the hard drive!  Additionally, the 12.10 release was even a, (gasp!), live CD!!  (Oooh!  I bet the early versions of Knoppix are just burning with jealousy. . .)  They were brimming with pride at the technological advancements in this, their newest release.

All sarcasm aside, I did want to see what they had actually done, I grabbed a couple of CD's and proceeded to try to install it on one of the machines I had.

The installation CD itself is a "flippy" disk with the 32 bit version on one side and the 64 bit version on the other.  Now I don't know if that saves them money - but it is convenient in a way - you don't need two disks.

However, the religious aura began to fade when I noticed that, not only was the CD housed in a rough cardboard sleeve with no liner, (Can you say "scratches"?), the "32 bit" and "64 bit" designations on the flippy disk were both upside down and backwards.

"Ahh!  Mere trivia!"  I thought, so I proceeded with the installation.

The first thing you notice is that the install is reminiscent of an early Red-Hat or Fedora install.  Which, in a way, makes sense as openSUSE is yet another RH/Fedora clone.  Unfortunately, the one thing sadly lacking in the installation process is any kind of serious usability testing.

Now I will admit that, maybe, the ease and simplicity of a typical Ubuntu install has me spoiled; but I think that by now - in 2012 - any distribution's installation should be more polished than this one was.  Though it had a GUI of sorts, there was a strong deja-vu kind of flash-back to the times when I tried to install text based Red Hat 5.n releases.

"It's all about choices!" - and there are choices aplenty in this distribution.  Which is good.  Unfortunately there is very little help to guide the person installing the distribution as to which choice they might want to choose, and why they might wish to choose it.  Which is bad.  Even a seasoned installer is calmly guided into choices that - if not watched carefully - will end up doing things to the system that Shouldn't Happen to a Dog.

In a sense it reminds me of a line I read in a Sci-Fi novel a while ago:  "It's like handling a live grenade; you have to REALLY PAY ATTENTION."  And they're not kidding!!

OpenSUSE's Kindergarten Report Card:
Listens and Follows Instructions - "F"
Plays Well With Others - "F"

Case in point:
OpenSUSE appears to be totally oblivious to the presence of any other operating systems installed with the exception of Windows.  "Oooh!  You have Ubuntu, Slackware, Minix, or even Tiny Core installed?  Hah!  You don't need those stinkin' wannabees now - you have openSUSE!"  And it goes to great lengths to take over the entirety of your hard disk - exclusive of Windows - and doesn't tell you if it sees anything else there.  If you're not paying attention during the partitioning phase, say syonara! to your carefully crafted disk partitions.

If you are careful, (or lucky), and notice that openSUSE is about to clobber everything else on your disk, you can select "manual partitioning" to force it to do what you want.  Sort-of.

OpenSUSE wants to create a bunch of "LVM" - logical volume manager partition sets - like it or not - and getting it to change it's mind is like pulling teeth.

The instructions down at the bottom of the manual partitioning page tell you to "select the partition you want to change."  So you select one and click "change".  It pops up a dialog telling you that the partition you selected is part of a managed logical volume and cannot be changed because of this.

So, wanting to get rid of the managed logical volume itself, you select it and click "change".  Zzzzzt!  You get a dialog telling you that the managed logical volume contains managed partitions so you cannot change it.

Are you noticing a pattern here?

After trying several things and rapidly becoming convinced that, just possibly, what needs to be changed is the distribution itself - you stumble on the fact that you need to select the sub-sub-sub item within the managed logical volume for it to allow you to, finally, make the changes you desire.  Not that this is at all obvious, mind you.

After - gleefully! - deleting every #&*%@&ing!!! managed partition, AND the managed logical volume itself, you can then - try - to partition the disk some other way.

OpenSUSE's tenacity is absolutely amazing!  It goes to great lengths to insist that you create managed logical volumes; like them, want them, need them, or not.

Now, I am sure that there are real advantages to having managed logical volume sets, whatever those advantages might be.  And I am equally sure that they are the Wave of the Future.  However my installation is comparatively simple and a single primary partition is all I need.  And I'd really appreciate the distribution respecting my choice to do as I will.  Even the choice to make horribly destructive mistakes - after being duly warned of my potential stupidity - if that is what I choose to do.

Eventually. . . .  I convinced openSUSE to make the ONE STINKIN' PRIMARY PARTITION I wanted, format it as EXT4, mount it as root, and use the existing swap partition as it's swap space.

Frankly, I don't remember what I did to get to that point.  Black magic?  Blood sacrifice?  Hefty bribes?  I don't remember and I am convinced that this may well be a case of selective amnesia.

On with the show!  Finally satisfied, (actually scared silly that it will ignore my carefully laid plans), I proceed to install the distribution.

With regard to the installation - I will give it credit for one thing. . . . .

Unlike both Windows and Ubuntu, openSUSE avoids the professional dogmatism and hoopla telling you how wonderful this operating system is, and how lucky you will be having installed it.  There could be a couple of reasons for this:  Maybe, just maybe, they finally got something in the UI right - or, as is likely - they really didn't have that much to crow about.

The installation is done and you reboot into your shiny new operating system, eager to see what the openSUSE 12.10 release is like.

When the desktop finally appears you are indeed struck by the Wonderfully Open Vistas of Open Source Computing.  Minimalist?  This takes sparse to a whole new level!  Not only is there eff-all on the desktop, there's darn little else on the peripheries to guide you either.

The two things you DO notice are the "favorites bar" on the left hand side - think "Macintosh's Dock" - and a series of boxes on the right hand side that are supposed to represent the various flippable desktops you can select.  It's not a bad idea, but the visual cues make you think that those boxes are placeholders for something or other.

Another gripe is that the Favorites Bar is BIG.  It takes up a vertical swath on the left-hand side that is easily 10 to 15% of the screen width - if not more.

The Macintosh experience is driven further by the fact that finding something to use - or do - is a pain if it's not located on the Dock - oops!  I meant "favorites bar"!  The only big difference between the favorites bar and the Dock - besides it being positioned on the left, which the Mac can do if you want - is the fact that the icons located there don't bounce when you select them.

After searching and finding something you want - like a terminal - you need to save it to the favorites bar if you plan to use it more than once or twice a year.  (Or, alternatively, you can try to remember where it's hidden.)

Like Ubuntu, it does tell you if there are "restricted" drivers for your hardware.  Unlike Ubuntu, it doesn't make them easy to install.  After you locate the installer for these restricted drivers (!!) you are given a list of the drivers available - but you can only select and install one at a time.

So, you end up going through a process like this:
  • Find the installer.  (If it's not on the Dock.)
  • Update the installer
  • Pick and install a restricted driver.
  • Reboot.
  • Jump back to step 1 until you either run out of drivers to install, or patience with all this horse-hooey.

Some of the other utilities are also models of intuitive usability.

One good example is the package installer.  It's called Yast, (an incredibly intuitive name in itself), and it has an icon that looks like either an anteater or aardvark with a schnoz to match.  Maybe you are supposed to get the idea of "vacuuming up" the various packages off the floor?  Or maybe the available packages rate right up there with termites or other insect vermin?  Dunno.  They didn't tell me.

Fair is fair.  I haven't used a RH/Fedora distribution in several years so it is possible that the desktop paradigm has become foreign to me.  And it is also true that within the realm of Open Source, anyone can take whatever distribution they want, bend it in all kinds of different ways, and nobody can say "Boo!"

So, despite my opinions of the openSUSE distribution, it is their distro - and they can do with it whatever they darn well please.  Like it or not.

In my opinion the current openSUSE distribution is, most definitely, NOT for the uninitiated.  And even if you are a Seasoned Veteran - with the Battle Scars to prove it - you might just want to think two or three times before messing with the 12.10 distribution of openSUSE.

What say ye?

Jim (JR)

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Monetize Your Site - NOT!!

One of the many features here on Blogger.com, (my blog host), is to "monetize" my blogs.  What this means is that I can elect to add advertising to this site - and I get paid a few kopeks for every click-through on an advertisement.

And, at first blush, that sounds like a good idea.  I write a blog, it gets followers, (as this one is doing - thanks!), and I make money.

When I started this blog I gave that serious thought, after all EVERYBODY can use a little extra cash now and then, right?

My decision:  No.  I refused to allow advertisements on this site - or any of my blogs for that matter.

So, if it is such a good idea, why did I decide not to, 'eh?

First of all, this site is not about the money.  I consider this site, and the attention it has gathered, a privilege - and I believe that I have a responsibility to those who choose to follow this blog.

I have learned much, and have gone far "On The Shoulders of Giants", as it were.  I have been blessed with the opportunity to learn from some of the very best sources of information - both in person and on various web-sites.  And it's all been free.  Since I have been privileged to learn from the best in the business, I feel a serious obligation to pass along - also for free - what information I can share.

Second, I HATE sites that have more adds than content.  Trying to find some critically important piece of information is hard enough as it is - so why should I have to wade through a sea of advertisements several feet thick, just to find the information I need.

Third, I want to make this site the best it can be.  Sure, there are times when I am more a "wise-guy" than wise,  and there are times when I "tweak-your-beak" with some of my odd-ball humor, but that's all a part of the game.  This stuff is frustrating enough as it is, so if I can make you laugh while delivering the content you need, so much the better.

The bottom line is this:
I believe those who follow this blog are here for the Steak, not the sizzle, so I leave all the distractions out.

So shall it be written, so shall it be done!

Jim (JR)

Friday, January 27, 2012

Networking on the Cheap

As everyone knows, we're all on a budget.  Most of our money trees have withered, and getting replacements hasn't been easy.

However, we still have things to do.  Sometimes we need to set up test environments or other things - yet both personal and corporate budgets stand in our way.

Here some tricks I have found, (and use!), that help me do the networking tasks I need without breaking the bank.

  • Make your own cables:

    This may seem like one of those "DOH!" statements, but you'd be surprised at how many of us don't have the tools, or parts, to make network cables ourselves.  Sure, a box of Cat 5e or Cat 6 cable isn't cheap, and the tools to crimp the ends on aren't free either - but after you have made five or so cables, the box and tools have already paid for themselves.

    Another nice feature:  You can make the cables any size you need, shorter or longer, without being stuck with the stock sizes.  And!  If one of your store-bought cables breaks, you can fix it, good-as-new, without having to buy another one.

  • Make your own labels.  Another "Doh!", but this is not so obvious sometimes.

    What I do is take a page of Avery address labels - the three across by ten down type - and use them for wiring labels.  If I need a big label, I use the entire address label, folding it around the cable so it leaves a big tab.  Smaller labels can be made by cutting the address labels in half.

    Prior to actually attaching the label to the wire in question I label the ends using a thin sharpie, or other thin, but dark, pen.

    They are easy to see, they stay stuck in place, and they're easy to remove when you need to re-label something.

  • Use Velcro "plant tie" tape as cable ties.

    This is a thin green fabric tape that has Velcro on both sides so that the bottom of one piece sticks to the top of another.  This plant tie tape can be had at virtually ANY store with a "garden" department, like Home Depot, Lowes, WalMart, etc.  A roll of this stuff usually goes for right around $4 or $5.
  • Go to the drugstore, and buy a box of "Alcohol Prep Swabs".

    These are the little square alcohol soaked pieces the doctor uses to wipe your arm before giving you a shot.  They come pre-packaged in little foil wrappers, are soaked in alcohol, and make great little wipes for cleaning gunk off of things - like cables, keyboards, or other stuff that accumulates crud.  They are dirt-cheap and are handy as you-know-where.

    NOTE:  Do NOT use these wipes for cleaning off things like your monitor screen, your cell-phone or smart-phone, your eBook, etc., as it will fog - and ruin - the plastic covering the display.

  • Scrounge the "Referb" section of local computer stores.

    I love to lurk the "Refurbished" section on Micro Center's web-site, as they often have really outrageous deals, depending on what you need.  I have bought a number of "refurbished" computers from them, often for pennies on the dollar, and I have never been disappointed.

  • Find a computer, or amateur radio fair.

    Though they are getting increasingly scarce, they still exist.

    I have made a habit of visiting the Trenton Computer Festival for the last few years, and I have scored really expensive pieces of equipment for almost nothing.

    A couple of years ago, I scored a Dell PowerEdge 2850 rack mounted server with fancy RAID, onboard monitoring, and so on - for right around $100.  (eBay has them for several thousand apiece.)  Last year, I could have scored an even more modern HP rack mounted server for right around the same price.

  • Go "Dumpster-Diving".

    Sometimes the company you work for decides to throw out stuff they don't need anymore.  If you can get the trunk of your car between them and the dumpster, you can score really fantastic stuff for free!

    Likewise, especially in this economy, other companies go belly-up.  If you are paying attention, you might find an excellent opportunity to grab stuff that they're throwing away.

    I've picked up some great stuff that way - two 24-port 10/100 managed switches, computers, hard drives, hardware, and even a 19" wide 7' tall aluminum rack for my stuff - with shelves! - by being in the right place at the right time.

The point I am trying to make here is this:  If you are inventive and pay attention, you can build up a pretty impressive QA / Networking lab for pennies.

What say ye?

Jim (JR)

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The "Hackintosh" Mac Clone

Here's an odd-ball one for you.

It seems everywhere you turn around, there is someone, or something, talking about the Mac.

Of course, at Mondo bucks per piece if you decide to go out and buy a Mac, buying a Mac "just for the %$#@ of it" is not a reasonable proposition.

Or, perhaps you want to do some preliminary testing on a Mac, because your product is supposed to support the Mac platform as well - yet you don't want to spend the time fussing with unfamiliar, (and expensive!), hardware just to find out that the latest Dev. release isn't worth the powder to blow it to Hell.

The solution is to build a Mac clone using a PC.

I will warn you, this is NOT a trivial undertaking.  You will have to look at the data and decide for yourself if you want to invest the time and effort required to build a Mac clone, or if you should just bite the bullet and buy the darn Mac outright.

Fair warning:
Assuming you actually go out and purchase a legitimate copy of the actual software to create a Mac Clone, creating the Mac Clone, (though not a copyright violation), is still technically a violation of Apple's EULA - which says you cannot install Apple software on anything but Apple supplied hardware.

By the same token, slipstreaming a Windows installation with the latest Service Packs is also "technically" a violation of the Windows EULA.  However everyone does that all the time - and there are even Microsoft sites that explain how to do it. . .  So this is something you will have to decide for yourself.

Also note:  I've never done this myself.  I am just passing along some interesting information that I found while on the web wandering around.  As a result, Your Mileage May Vary.  And don't forget backups before you do anything weird like this on your machine.

Now that we have that little blurb out of the way. . . .

It IS possible to build a Mac clone.  The reason is that - though the Mac software is very tightly bound to the Apple hardware, the hardware actually used is not unlike the hardware on a PC.

They use NVIDIA or ATI video hardware, just like the PC.
They use optical media drives - CD / DVD / DVD-DL / Blu-Ray - just like the PC's use.
They use Intel processors - that use architectures "just like" the PC's have.  (That is, unless you have an ancient OS-X release for the Power PC, and that doesn't count anyway.)
The sound hardware is, (often), very similar to - or exactly the same as - that used by a PC.

A USB mouse is a USB mouse is a USB mouse.  Likewise for the keyboard.  If you REALLY want to immerse yourself into the "Mac" experience, you can go out and buy "Gen-u-ine" Mac mice and keyboards that have all the special Mac keys with the four-leaf clovers on them.

So, what's the difference?

The folks at Apple maintain very tight control over the design and manufacture of their machines - ergo, the hardware environment is absolutely stable - at least as far as the operating system is concerned.

Because of this they can know exactly what to expect, and exactly what the range of variability is, when they design the software.  As opposed to the PC crowd where the O/S has to have forty-zillion drivers on hand to handle the wide variation in possible hardware configurations.

And because of THAT little factoid, Apple can absolutely guarantee that their software will install - and run - on their hardware with an absolute minimum of tweaking - if any at all.

The other side of this is that PC hardware is not tightly bound to the Apple's software - and because of this it's just not possible to wave a magic wand and turn your PC into a Mac.  There are many hoops you have to jump through to do this task - and the folks at Apple hope and believe that most everyone is too lazy to make this effort - and they will choose to just spend the bucks needed to buy the genuine article.

Now that all of this has been said, let's get down to the dirty work.

Unfortunately, I cannot give you a "blow-by-blow" detailed spec on how to do it, as everyone's PC is potentially different.  What I CAN, and will do is give you guidance along the path and provide links to web sites that get into the Gory Details.

The first thing you will need to do is assess your hardware; and the best place to start is at some of the "Hardware Compatibility Lists" out there.  The OSX-86 Project Website has a pretty impressive list.  Though it's for the 10.6.5 version, you should be able to get pretty close with the list as it is.  At Ahsantasneem's "BLOG OUT LOUD" site they have a pretty comprehensive list of hardware - listed by version - along with links to various "gotcha's" like the EFT, and DSDT file - which you will need.

I did a dogpile search on "apple hardware compatibility list" and I received a bunch of interesting "hits" on that topic.  You may want to check it out.

Once you have verified that your hardware is compatible, (and that you can get drivers for this stuff!), you can proceed to either build up a system from scratch, or begin the installation process on your existing hrdware.  A good tutorial for that process can be found on the "makeuseof" web site.  It details all the things you need to know about configuring the motherboard you have selected, including BIOS settings, hardware gotcha's, and stuff like that.  Tonymac's web site also has good information - links to useful utilities - and a few caveats that the first site missed.  Tonymac mentions that you should not install with more than four gigs of memory in place.  The first site didn't mention that, so maybe YMMV?  I dunno.

One other caveat is that the normal, "plain vanilla" PC cannot boot from a Mac installation disk because the disk formats are totally different.  Instead of using the ISO9660, (et. al.) format, they use the "HPFS" format, which a PC cannot read on startup.  The solution to that problem is to use tonymac's "'startup wedge" software application, iBoot.  You boot this application, and it allows you to insert the Mac-formatted CD/DVD and continue the boot process from there.  (This site requires registration to download stuff. . . .)

After that, following the instructions on the makeuseof web site, you actually begin the installation.

Further down, after the installation is complete, you will, almost certainly, want to make use of the program "Multibeast", (also available on tonymac's site), to do some of the internal tweaks you need to do.

There are other things you have to do - one important one is the "DSDT" file, which describes to the OS how to use the hardware you have.  Very Important!  Both of the tutorials have site links for DSDT files, and there is another great site with a good tutorial on how to find, edit, and re-compile a custom DSDT file for your specific hardware.

Update:  "C" left a very interesting reply to this article, (see below), and mentioned his own blog:

I popped on over to his site - it is excellent! - and he pulls together information and advice, both from his personal experiences and the advice from other Pillars Of Wisdom on this topic.

If you are seriously thinking of making a "Hackintosh" system, I would consider his site an absolute MUST READ on this topic. 

I have never built one of these myself, though I plan to, and I scrounged up a copy of Snow Leopard for just that reason.

One thing all the sites say, over and over and over again, is to use an entirely separate hard drive for this installation, as it needs to be formatted as an HPFS volume with a GUID partition table.  You can dedicate a specific machine to being a "Mac", or you can use a second - blank - hard drive for the Mac installation.

Once that's all done, you can worry about setting up a multi-boot environment and any other stuff you might want to play with..

It would be interesting to know how you make out, if you try this.

What say ye?

Jim (JR)

Friday, January 20, 2012

Are we being Soft SOPA'd?

Friends and followers,

I, normally, deliberately exclude political commentary and opinions here, as I feel that the usual crop of political Horse Hooey isn't relevant to the nature or mission of this blog.

Today, I feel compelled to make an exception to that rule.

The reason for this exception is the SOPA and PIPA acts presently making their way through Congress, as I feel that these bills represent an absolutely intolerable infringement on the very few personal liberties we still enjoy as Americans.

Both, or either one, of these bills would allow government and business leaders to arbitrarily block or limit access to a web site or domain if they claim, rightly or wrongly, that it, (allegedly), "hosts copyrighted content".

Though I also oppose on-line piracy and wanton copyright violation - the broad nature of these bills would allow various entities, (like the infamous RIAA), to shut down web sites for even the fair use of copyrighted works.

Wikipedia periodically includes copyrighted images or materials - in a much lower resolution - when used to illustrate or expand on a legitimate article.  A good example of this is the article entitled "Someday At Christmas" where a low resolution image of the album cover is used to expand upon and illustrate the article in question.  Though clearly a "fair use" under current copyright law, the RIAA and BMI could easily use that, under the provisions of the SOPA and PIP bills, to blank out all of Wikipedia.  Or close down their funding sources, which amounts to the same thing.

One of my own blog articles uses the cover of the August 30th, 2010 issue of Time Magazine in the exact same way, and for exactly the same fair-use purpose.  And my entire blog - if not all of Blogger.com - could be shut down for exactly the same reasons.

Before anyone cries "FOUL!", claiming that my fears are exaggerated and blown totally out of proportion, let me say that my opinion is not based on the rants-and-raves of those web-pundits, those bottom-feeders, who thrive and grow on muckrake journalism.

Instead, I have carefully researched both of these bills, read them in their entirety - cover to cover - thought both long and carefully about what they say, and how what they say can be used, and I have to admit being left with a chill running up and down my spine.

A chill that was only equaled by the first film of the legendary Why We Fight series of films published during WWII.  In it, the Fascist nature and policies of the German and Italian governments is laid bare for all to see.  This chill was caused by the uncanny resemblance of these two Fascist governments to the United States Government of today.  Please follow that link to a YouTube posting of that entire first film.  Watch it well, and fear.

In my own humble opinion, these bills represent Fascist Governance at it's absolute worst, and it would irretrievably damage the free flow of ideas and information that both the Internet, and this fine country of ours, is built upon.  The only thing missing, in my opinion, is a leader with a small mustache, screaming "Sieg Heil!"

This article is, very likely, the all-time record holder for the number of hyperlinks in a single article on my blog. This is deliberate. I want to illustrate, in a way that is easily readable and understandable, the reasons for my opposition to these bills.

I encourage you to follow each of the hyperlinks, view the content, and decide for yourself.

Hopefully, you will join me in opposition to these bills by using this Wikipedia link to contact your Congressmen and Senators.

Please?  The future of the Internet, and possibly even our entire country, may well depend on this.

What say ye?

Jim (JR)