Tag Archives: unreview

The $30.00 Windows XP Computer.

Based on Jeff Duntemann’s suggestion about the SX270 I went on eBay and bought both an SX270 and an SX280. I bid and got the 270 for $30.00, however, the vendor required a shipping fee of $30.00 for UPS ground which I think is a bit of a ripoff. Still, $60.00 isn’t bad (potentially) for a working more-or-less modern computer. For those who have more time than money, who want to try this route, here are a few additional tips.

1. All eBay Dell SX270s are not equal. Many are stripped of their hard drives. This is presumably for security reasons. If yours does have a drive, it will probably have been wiped, so it will need an operating system.

2. Many of the SX270s have what is called a COA sticker included. Sometimes this is simply described as “COA included”. This gives you a Windows license key. You still need to be able to install a copy of Windows, so you need to have a CD lying around, and typically this needs to be a single user copy. (I tried installing using the media from our site license. This wouldn’t accept the COA as it the one on the sticker wasn’t a “volume license” number. I also tried using an old Microsoft Action Pack version of the Windows media and this didn’t want to accept the number either. All this nonwithstanding the fact that I *do* have a legitimate Windows XP COA number to input during the installation process. The best solution proved to be a Dell Windows XP “operating system reinstallation disk” of which I have several lying around from previous new Dell machine purchases.

3. Both the SX270 ad SX280 have power bricks, similar or larger to those that you find on inexpensive ink jet printers and laptops. These are by no means generic and you need to be sure you have the right one to fit the machine. The eBay listing may or may not include the power brick….if it doesn’t you’ll be out another $10-$30.00. I was unlucky, but managed to get a Buy-it-Now brick for $10.00 (plus shipping of, I think $6.00). So, my $30.00 computer now costs $73.00.

4. My machine arrived in reasonably good shape; but was dusty. The CD drive wouldn’t read a CD correctly. I bought a CD cleaner disk from Amazon, and that seemed to fix the reading problem; but if it hadn’t the PITA factor would have gone up considerably as I’d have to replace the CD drive.

5. Once Windows was installed, I downloaded the network drivers from the Dell site, using another machine… and installed these on the SX270.

Then there is the inevitable faffing about trying to find video drivers for the unit. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a utility that would contain all of the drivers necessary, and that would install them in one batch file? Anyway, according to the discussion on the Dell web site, drivers should be installed in the following order:

  1. System driver file…either desktop or laptop. (I never found this for the SX270)
  2. Chipset (motherboard driver) requires a reboot.
  3. Video driver. requires a reboot.
  4. Network driver (already got that, otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to download directly to the SX270)
  5. Audio drivers.

When Windows was first installed, the machine wouldn’t produce any screen resolution higher than 600×480. Once the video driver was installed, it went to 1600×1200 automatically. Pretty dramatic.

Looking at the specifications on the Dell site, it says that this machine is actually an SX270N. I’m not sure what the difference is between an N and a non-N.

The fan is noisy. Too noisy. Like the wind in Wuthering Heights. The fan noise diminished when I placed the unit on end, with the vent holes in the top. I’ll also attempt to peel off a label that the bonehead vendor stuck on the top thereby covering about 20% of the ventilation holes….maybe that will improve the air circulation and keep the machine cooler.

Rosetta Stone Language Learning Software

You’ve probably seen the silly ads in those upscale magazines… “she was an Italian supermodel, he was a farm boy from Omaha”… or something similar. Very weird ad campaign, perhaps, but the consensus among many foreign language educators, and teachers of English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) is that Rosetta Stone is a powerful program for teaching a second (third, fourth… ) language.

One of my clients, a provider of literacy and workforce development education has been happily using the standalone version of Rosetta Stone for some years. A couple years ago they somehow got talked into buying a network version which requires installation on a network server, and some hours of configuration and installation. This was probably not a good choice for them; they don’t really have the wherewithal or the need for this. After several weeks of phone calls and eMails attempting to exchange the licenses for single-user copies, we gave up and are now attempting to install the network version. (To be fair, their exchange policy states that there is a 180 day period after purchase in which to return their products…and we’re actually attempting this project 18 months or more after they purchased the program).

Rosetta Stone is available in several different configurations, including an online subscription which can be used via a web browser. Either this or single user copies would have been ideal. Instead, what they were sold appears to be the Rosetta Stone Enterprise version which includes a management server which tracks student progress.

One ironic twist is that this network edition includes the open source MySQL database and the Apache web server. Yet the Rosetta Stone server requires a Windows machine to run. So, instead of the server running under Linux, you have to have some kind of Windows box to host the server applications. The server installer then installs MySQL and Apache for Windows running as services and also installs Ruby. The server requires a static IP.

This was not something we wanted on our organization administration file server which is a a Windows 2003 Server. Hence the Dell T105 mentioned previously, running Windows XP.

Once the server applications are installed, you install the languages. In our case we have three levels of English, each on a its own CD. There is an installation program which prompts for the language CDs, and then gives you the option to activate them.

Activation is rather like activating Windows over the internet. For each language/level you’ve purchased, you can have one student running the program at a time. The license keys are similar to windows…. four groups of six letters and numbers. If you have already activated a language license elsewhere, then activation will fail…you have to go back to the computer on which you originally performed the activation, and “remove a language”. How this would be resolved if a hard drive had crashed or the computer was otherwise unavailable, I’m not sure.

The Rosetta Stone Manager is the management interface that allows managers to create user accounts for Rosetta Stone. This program is installed separatly from the server and is available in a Windows or a Mac version. The Mac version appeared to work OK, even on Snow Leopard.

Before going further, I called Rosetta Stone Tech support to inquire about updates. I figured that since the software was 2 years old, they probably had updated it within that time and there were no obvious links in the screens to obtain updates. Oh, yes… they would send new disks, and I need to do a complete reinstall. (Sigh), another three hours out the window. As Jerry Pournelle says….”we do these things so you don’t have to”.

After preparing the server. and adding myself as a user, I then attempted to install the workstation version of the software onto my Vista machine. This runs an Installshield installation. It worked great on an XP box. I was able to log in to the account that I set up in the Rosetta Stone server, and run the program. Seemed to work fine in a Vista session on my Mac with Parallels.

There is also a native Mac installer; this seemed unusual as I don’t recall ANY Mac software, no matter how complex, which actually requires an installation process on the Mac other than copying the application file to the Apps folder. This installer, “powered by Vise X” so far seems to be doing a search of all my hard drives. Once it does the search however, it then installs over 2000 files (!) including a Flash Player and a ton of JPG and Gif graphics files. Still, the application came up fine.

So, we’ve now got Rosetta Stone running on a Mac machine, a Vista virtual machine within Parallels on the Mac, and on an XP machine. I’m feeling confident enough to bring the server in tomorrow for a trial run.

Time Management Tools

  • Print out a checklist

    Printable CheckList is a good spot to print out a daily task list. It has been free and ad-free for many months, but I see recently they display Google ads at the bottom. But it is still free, and is great way to focus yourself on the next couple of hours.

  • Get off the Internet

    The program Macfreedom will disable your internet connection for up to eight hours. It can be configured to still allow access to the local area network (like your printers and file shares), while denying access to the wider world.

  • Track your time

    Harvest. You can print beautiful time sheets and reports, track multiple projects and tasks, and hourly billable time.

OK, now I really, really have to get back to work.

Freedom to Connect — Manifesto

I’m beginning to figure out that Freedom To Connect is a conference of people who espouse the following principals (with reservations by some).

1. Just as we first served homes with copper wire for electricity, and then copper wire for telephone service, we are now at an historical juncture where we should serve homes with fiber optic cable. It will actually cost less than either of the first two, because the poles and infrastructure are already in place for putting fiber into homes. Applications that would be supported by fiber include (but are by no means limited) to:

  • The Smart Grid, or “infotricity” a two-way connection between the power company and home appliances, water heater, air conditioners, and furnace that would automatically smooth demand for electric power throughout the day. This would result in a projected saving of 25% of the current base power load and eliminate the need for new coal and nuclear power plants.
  • “Triple Play”, cable TV, telephone and high-speed internet service.
  • Telemedicine, Telehealth and Distance Learning applications via two-way interactive multipoint videoconferencing
  • Security monitoring
  • Tele-Presence — viewing a neighbor or relative (located next door or across the globe) in their home to share photos, stories, grandchildren, whatever.
  • etc. ad. infinitum.

2. The notion that wireless technology is somehow a substitute for FTTH should be disabused. It is a necessary and desirable supplement, but not a replacement for FTTH.

3. Many believe wireless is actually twice as expensive to install and manage rather than fiber for the following reasons:
a. Wireless towers and transmitters still must be served by a fiber connection. (“backhaul”)
b. Wireless requires substantial density to provide effective coverage.
c. Wireless is subject to interference, (leaves, weather, etc).
d. Wireless technology is volatile and becomes obsolete quickly.

4. There are many definitions of “under-served” populations. However, DSL technology with something like 320KB up and 1.5 megabits down does NOT constitute “broadband” in any meaningful sense, nonwithstanding that it is an improvement over dialup.

5. A working definition of broadband would be, at a minimum symmetrical speeds of, say, 20 megabits, (both directions), at the equivalent of $60.00 per month or less.

6. Under lobbying pressure (corruption? payoffs?) no less than 15 states in the U.S. have actually passed laws that prohibit municipalities or citizen groups from creating and forming their own broadband utilities. Examples cited in our meeting this week (Lafayette LA, and Glagsgow KN), described debilitating litigation initiated by incumbent phone and cable companies to shut down efforts to provide muni wireless and fiber networks. After the dust settled, the incumbents reduced their rates by three quarters when they had to compete with the municipality. So, unfortunately, incumbents must be seen as the enemy, until proven otherwise.


Personally, I think this has parallels with other current battles.

  • We can’t have single payer healthcare because it would hurt the insurance companies.
  • We can’t have high-speed broadband, because it would hurt the incumbent cable and telephone companies.
  • We can’t have realistic fuel-economy standards because it will hurt the car companies.
  • We can’t get loans, because the banks won’t lend any of their multi-million dollar bailout money.
  • We can’t have affordable higher education, because it would hurt the educational institutions (and the athletic programs).
  • We can’t find out who is responsible for the policies of torture and rendition, because it would “damage” our government’s credibility and reputation.

Oh well. Might as well go back to watching television.

Freedom to Connect – Day 1

Free to Connect (F2C) is being held at the American Film Institute’s Silver theater in Silver Spring Maryland, a suburb of Washington DC It is an exemplary demonstration of how to hold a no-frills conference… skeleton (but highly competent) conference crew, judicious outsourcing of food and reception, in a compact venue which offers lots of opportunities to meet the other attendees and presenters. The presentations are being streamed on the web, and there is an interactive Campfire chat which is projected next to the PowerPoint slides and which can be monitored by the speakers so that questions can be taken from outside the conference. As might be expected, the interactive chat is a mixture of serious comments and snark. Its a little disconcerting to type and see your comment projected full screen twenty seconds later.

About 250 participants. We were invited to bring our wireless laptops, and looking at the audience during my own presentation it seemed that well over 70% of the audience machines were Macs. We used my own Macbook for my presentation and the colleagues in our session; two were PowerPoint presentations that we ran in Keynote after listened to catcalls as Parallels tried to boot up Vista. Balance seems to be a mixture of Dells, IBM/Lenovo and a few netbooks. Acer Aspire, etc.

David Weinberger is live-blogging.

Session 2: Net politics and other applications
Ellen Miller, Sunlight Foundation,
Nathaniel James, Media and Democracy Coalition,
Larry Keyes, Telehealth via Broadband, and
Eva Sollberger, Stuck in Vermont Video Blog

4th set of presentations. Chris Savage is a lawyer, had a really interesting talk about the death of the Chicago School and how right now there is a unique opportunity to retool regulation to make it more consumer friendly.

Derek Slater – Google policy analyst. Talking about “Measurement Lab” an open platform for researchers to make measurements of internet bandwidth and for consumers to figure out what their internet speed is. There is so much we don’t know how the internet is performing. Could we fund some servers at the University that would host the Measurement Lab applications?

John Peha – FCC chief technologist. Mythology of Rural Broadband
1 in 3 households do not have access to wired broadband at any price.
Broadband has positive benefits for communities who have it, even for members of those communities who don’t subscribe.

Unserved communities don’t gain from broadband, and broadband installed elsewhere can actually degrade things in unserved communities.

Comment: Government should write the rules so that it easier to do the right thing than the wrong thing.

Technology neutrality is something to aim at.

The people who are comfortable with technology are the non-engineers they just use what works.

Comment: Technology neutrality is a false mantra.

Amy Wohl — “recovering Chicago School economist.” When govt. attempts to fix mistakes by the market there is a lag.

The conference takes place on Monday and Tuesday. I arrived Saturday afternoon at Reagan airport and took the Metro to Silver Spring. Sunday, I ran around the mall. The Holocaust museum was jammed with school groups. I didn’t quite know what to expect, I rather thought it would be like going to a cathedral in Europe, but it was more like the science museum. To get to the regular part of the exhibits you have to get a ticket and you are assigned a time. Because of the crowds mine wasn’t until two hours later. I spent 90 minutes on the lower level looking at an exhibit of Nazi propaganda, and after that, I was done. Why people bring small children to this museum is beyond me.

I also went to the Native American museum, (outstanding kayaks) and the National Gallery. The Smithsonian museums are truly a national treasure..and they are all free.

Tom Friedman at the Freedom to Connect Conference

I’m at the Freedom to Connect conference, Thomas Friedman gives a keynote speech drawn from his latest book Hot Flat and Crowded. Notes:

Khakis, white shirt, tie. Looks shorter and younger than I expected. 🙂
Turns out he lives in Bethesda, so it is just a quick ride on the Metro.
Based on his book Hot, Flat and Crowded.

Looks at the running chat — “What the f*ck is that?”

Takes off shoes.
Someone immediately posts a photo on the interactive chat.

Motivation to write the book was that “we lost the groove of our country”.

New unit of measure — the Americum == 300 million people living like Americans

First Law of Petro Politics:

Price of oil has an inverse proportion to the pace of freedom.

Moderated a panel between Al Gore and Bono.

According to the World Bank, 1.6 billion or 1/4 of all humanity have no access to electricity.

Loosing a species every 20 minutes. We are experiencing the biggest loss of biodiversity.

An incredible list of opportunities masquerading as a series of disasters.
Solution to the problems of climate change, poverty, (and everything else) is abundant cheap reliable energy.

The country which dominates energy technology will be the leader going forward. This country has to be the U.S.

You’ll know it is a revolution when somebody gets hurt.

American golfers get 41 miles per gallon, based on the number of miles walked per year (900) and the average amount of alcohol consumed. (22 gallons) (LK: does this statistic factor in the lower efficiency of ethanol?)

The difference between technology and commodity.
Wind, nuclear solar, etc. are technologies == the more used the price goes down.
Fossil-fuels are commodities. == the more used, the price goes up.

Change the leaders, not the light bulbs.

When we leave Iraq it will be the biggest transfer of air conditioners known to mankind.

BANANA = build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything

Smart grid –> Smart home –> appliances automatically day trade electricity — stores power in electric car battery.

The future is here it is just not widely distributed yet.

I love being a reporter. It is a noble craft.

Conference: Freedom To Connect

Another plug for the Freedom To Connect conference to be held in Washington DC March 30th and 31. To crib from the home page.

F2C 2009 will tell the story of:

  • on-line, network-enabled industry and culture, new jobs and sustainable growth
  • Burlington VT, where muni fiber enables business, artistic endeavor, and new telemedicine
  • how Lafayette LA’s community came together as it built its muni fiber network
  • the twin cities of Cedar Falls and Waterloo, Iowa, where one twin has a muni net, and the other doesn’t
  • how municipal CIOs are planning for Seattle, Portland and San Francisco municipal fiber networks
  • city nets, wired and wireless, that didn’t work — what went wrong and what that teaches
  • what Obama’s infrastructure and economic recovery plans mean for tomorrow’s network

Mac Conversion: A progress report and some backsliding

The Spousal Unit always wonders why I upgrade my computer and operating system as frequently as I do. The fact is I think the world has enjoyed a pretty long run with Windows XP, wasn’t it out in 2001? She doesn’t sympathize with my explanation that sometimes I just get to the point that I’m tired of solving old problems, and I would just as soon solve new ones.

I bought a Macbook back in November. I was just coming off a bad experience with Microsoft Windows Vista. Partly I needed a new laptop…my Dell Inspiron keyboard was terrible, even after two replacements. So even thought the Inspiron is as great laptop, it was essentially useless for actual work, like word-processing. It was also heavy, but considering it could be a replacement for a desktop machine, I was willing to live with the weight.

So, an update on the Macbook, and my (non)-conversion to all things Mac.
The hardware is terrific. Even thought Apple upgraded the processor speed and hard drive capacity shortly after I bought mine, both have been more than adequate. What is really nice is that the weight is about half of the Inspiron. I can keep this machine in a LL Bean Sportsman Briefcase, along with the essential accessories and a leather-bound pad for note-taking. It has an excellent and usable keyboard. It has a track pad which mimics a single-button mouse. This is still a pain for us two-button mouse users, but it something you can live with if you want to go naked, or you can buy a Microsoft two-button notebook mouse to carry in the briefcase.

The Macbook plays nicely with external non-Apple peripherals. When you aren’t traveling, you can plug it into one of those Dell 19″ monitors from Staplesand work at 1440×900 resolution. If put the notebook to sleep, and then attach the external mouse, keyboard and monitor, you can restart it with the lid closed. Not as convenient as a docking station, which might be something to try next.

I’ve got the Macbook printing to an HP OfficeJet Pro K5400 ink-jet printer. Two of these printers have been working reliably and well for the past eighteen months under what I would call light duty. The printer has a USB interface. If you need to plug this in with a USB keyboard and USB mouse, then you need an external USB hub. I note that the docking station advertises five USB connections, which is another reason to consider it. Right now I’m using $14.95 keyboard from Logitech as the external keyboard. It is a little scary to realize that this dirt-cheap keyboard is superior to that of the Dell laptop keyboard.

Having all this paraphernalia connected to the Macbook detracts considerably from its sleek and smooth look. The Macbook is considerably more attractive running alone on a battery, connected wireless to the unseen network cloud. I’ve gotten well over three hours on the battery when running wirelessly which is fine. With the wireless connection enabled, the machine will sniff out the strongest local network connection and walk you through the connection process. If you have done this once already, the connection will be automatic the next time. It works fine on the university’s VPN with the addition of the Cisco VPN client which requires manually logging on.

Mac heads rave about the Mac software and operating system. I think the OS is fine. I don’t care really for the “Finder”, but that is partly because I haven’t really transitioned comfortably from the Windows “Explorer”. But I really like that fact that the OS on the Macbook is the same as the OS on all other Macs, and that it is available in one version only. It is an operating system instead of a demanding lifestyle. Apple doesn’t try to bludgeon its competition or its customers with its operating system. Really, can you imagine the Apple OS getting the same kind of treatment and publicity that Vista has gotten in the past two years? Upgrades and patches are a fraction of what comes out for Windows every week.

As for the backsliding, well, I installed Vista using the Parallels software. I did this strictly so that I could run OneNote, the one essential Microsoft program that doesn’t seem to have a Mac equivalent. Except for the onerous secondary startup process of booting Vista within Parallels and then starting OneNote, this seems to work fine. In fact, the Macbook would really make an ideal Windows laptop.

Other Mac Software

Safari is much maligned in the blogosphere, and it has crashed several times. I installed Firefox as an antidote, but it crashed even more, so I’m sticking with Safari on the Mac side of the house at the moment. IMail doesn’t really compete with Outlook, and I’ve had trouble trying to duplicate the series of folders that I have in Outlook with rules that automatically move new messages into specific folders. The calendar and address book have separate interfaces, and I guess I prefer how Outlook integrates all these into a single (albeit bloated) application.

Bottom Line

The bottom line is that I’m really attached to this notebook. It is a fine combination of price and functionality with a sleek and comfortable design. I’m not sure if I would recommend it for an office, but for an individual’s private machine it is ideal. With the addition of some inexpensive peripherals, it doubles nicely as a desktop machine as well.

My Dimming Vista

With all the controversy on Microsoft Vista, here is my contribution to the pile.

Four weeks ago I was going to write a post entitled something like Despite Almost Universal Opprobrium, Windows Vista Works Just Fine for Me or something similar. Sure, I had spent a lot of time futzing with the betas almost two years ago. By the time I installed the first RTM version in November of 2006 with bad results I decided to give up for awhile. But recent first experience of a production copy seemed to belie all of bad press and complaints that I heard from the pundocracy. Examples:

1. Friend buys inexpensive Acer laptop. Comes with Vista Home. Works flawlessly with everything we could throw at it.
2. I installed a copy of Vista Business on my MacBook in a virtual machine provided by Parallels. Works fine, so far. Even with only 512K allotted for the virtual machine.
3. Additional Windows Vista Business licenses installed on our Mini-ITX boxes seemed to work pretty well. There were occasional crashes, but no detectable or replicable pattern.

Then we installed Enterprise on our boxes through a site license and all hell broke loose. What I can’t figure out is how much of a difference there is between Enterprise and Business and Home, other than things that are left out. Perhaps it is the footprint? (We’re running only in 1 meg of RAM).

So after spending, no kidding, over a hundred hours on this, we’ve decided to go back to XP. And there everything is solid as a rock again.

We have said it before, and we’ll say it again. In a production situation, i.e. your network, use the available time to upgrade everyone to Windows XP service pack 2. Microsoft may not make XP available forever, although it keeps pushing out the end-of-life phase for XP as Vista fails to gain traction.

More specifically, our main problem is a driver crash or incompatibility between our application, and a hardware driver on both Vista Business and Vista Enterprise.

However, I may get shot for saying this, but I prefer the Vista look and feel (even without Aero Glass over the Macintosh OSX’s “east-European-behind-the-iron-curtain” look. And Vista is a vast improvement over the XP cartoon look.

Stuff That Works November 2007

Looking at the Enthusiasm Score from a year ago, I’m amazed how unchanged most ideas are. So in this year’s edition, I’ll take a different approach rather than trying to score things incrementally

  • Stuff That Really Works
  • Stuff That Works with Minor Problems
  • Stuff That Works with Major Reservations
  • Stuff That Doesn’t Work

Stuff that Really Works

The following technology items that I take for granted on a daily basis, that never seem to require troubleshooting. It is a short list.

  • My landline. Verizon, with MCI long distance
  • Verizon pre-paid cell phone plan.
  • My ISP and web host:intermedia.net
  • The FireFox web browser
  • Microsoft Office 2003 – the file formats and interface changes of Office 2007 haven’t been internalized by either me or colleagues with which I exchange Word or Excel documents.
  • Microsoft OneNote 2007 – Solid as a rock.
  • SightSpeed desktop videoconferencing

Stuff That Works With Minor Problems

  • HP Procurve 2xxx Network Switch. Ended up replacing a couple of these because of a fan failure. The process was relatively painless, with excellent support from HP, and free warranty replacement.
  • Microsoft Windows 2003 Small Business Server. I installed on a repurposed Dell Optiplex workstation, and the combination has worked almost flawlessly for over two years. And yet, the SBS is more than most small shops need…eventually I can see a replacement with a straight Windows Server with added SharePoint, leaving aside things like Fax, and Exchange.
  • On workstations, Microsoft Windows XP Professional with Service Pack 2. This is starting to get more difficult to find. Upgrade any workstations now, or you’ll have to cope with Windows Vista.
  • WiFi. As long as you keep expectations reasonable, and remain aware of the security implications, WiFi is great.
  • BaseCamp web-based project manager.

Stuff That Works with Major Reservations

These are things that we’re using, but we are still looking, or items that are not yet ready for prime time.

  • VoIP – I had hoped to be a lot farther along with VoIP, both on a casual occasional basis using applications like Skype and Gizmo, and with a PBX solution such as Trixbox or Asterisk. To date there has been unreliable connection quality when using Internet VoIP connections. Like some other aspects of life, when it is good is very good, but when it is bad it is unworkable. Are expectations unreasonable here?
  • Windows Vista
  • The Mac OS X and Linux. The reason these are on the list is that indeed they work, but they don’t necessarily play easily with Windows, particularly when it comes to printing and sharing files. The problems here aren’t insurmountable, but they require more than a casual engagement and technical expertise. I think this is a reasonable major reservation…and it remains the reason to insist on a single operating platfom for your IT infrastructure. It should be easier than this.

Stuff That Doesn’t Work

In general, I can just point to John Dvorak and the Cranky Geeks for endless tales of chaos and disfunction.