Friday, June 23, 2006

My New PC: Optical Drive

OK, the Optical Drive selection was an afterthought, and so is this post.

I wasn't even sure I was going to go with an optical drive, because I already have a DVD reader in the old PC, and I have an USB Plextor DVD writer. So it's not critical.

I went to Newegg, loaded everything into my shopping cart, and decided at the last second to look through the optical drives. They were cheap enough, that I decided what the hey. I'm eager to send the order in, so I don't want to delay for extensive research.

A quick filter: What drives support LiteScribe technology. I'm not sure I will use LightScribe to burn artwork onto many disks, but I don't have that capability in any of my current machines, so it's a good excuse.

There are a few LiteScribe compatible drives, but the SAMSUNG drive stands out. It has a very good rating, and several of the positive forum entries appear to be by knowledable reviewers. The Newegg price is $37, so what the heck, there needs to be at least one impulse buy in a pc build project, doesn't there?

Tags: , , ,

My New PC: Assembly

As is apparently the norm at Newegg, all of my parts arrived in two big boxes three days after I ordered them. Thanks Newegg!

I opened the box and inventoried everything to make sure it was complete, but I wasn't going to be able to work on anything until the weekend. So, I warned my son to be ready for an all day assembly on Sunday and put everything back in the boxes.

A long week later, it was finally Sunday morning. My son Ashton who is always up early chose this weekend to sleep in. Eager to get started, I finally decided that opening the Sonata II box and prepping the case was acceptable without Ashton, three minutes later that was done, now what... Finally, at 9:30, Ashon came up stairs, and said the magic words: "OK, I'm ready".

I opened the second box (with everything else in it), pulled out the grounding straps, and we were off.

The motherboard went in fine. It took a couple of minutes to line up the motherboard with the right holes in the Sonata II case. This was more difficult than it should have been because there was no map to indicate which holes needed the motherboard offsets for ATX motherboards (as opposed to micro ATX motherboards). Even so, it only took a minute to slide the motherboard in place and note which holes in the case aligned with the screw holes in the motherboard.

We quickly installed the offset anchors and then the motherboard. No problems. the crude instructions for the motherboard said the next step is to install the CPU. So, I started reading the details of CPU installation for an INTEL LGA775 motherboard. It's a very easy process, but it still pays to be comfortable with the instructions before you plug any of these expensive pieces together.

While I was reading this, Ashton had skipped ahead and was reading the Zalamn CPU fan installation instructions. As I pulled the protective cover off the CPU, Ashton uttered the dreaded words: "Uh Oh..." It seems that the Zalamn installs differently than the stock INTEL cooling fan. We need to install a plastic bracket underneath the motherboard.

Oh well, backtracking is expected with this kind of operation.

I slipped the CPU protective cover back on, and we quickly pulled pulled the motherboard back out. Sure enough, the Zalman requires that a plastic collar be instaled and screwed down before the motherboard is installed. This was not a documentation problem, just a consiequence of our switching CPU fans. OK, a couple of minutes later, the CPU FAN mounting bracket is on the motherboard, and the motherboard is back in place.

Now, back to the CPU. I carefully removed the protective cover again. Opened up the CPU socket, aligned the arrows on the cpu with the indicator on the cpu socket and dropped it in place. Cool, that was a lot easier than the last time I did this. It fit perfectly and all I had to do was drop the lever to lock the cpu into place.

OK, now, to mount the CPU fan. First, put the thermal paste on the CPU, and spread a very thin layer. OK, done.

Now the instructions say (paraphrased): place the cooler on top of the cpu and align the locking rocker arm. Firmly press down on the rocking arm and install the screws, alternate tightening the screws to insure even alignment.

OK problem: It isn't possible to hold the rocker in place on both sides. There just isn't enough room on the back side of the CPU socket.

OK, plan B. We removed the CPU fan, and put the backside screw in place and tightened it down about 1/4 of the way. We then very carefully slid the CPU fan mounting plate under the rocker and onto the top of the CPU. Now it became tough. The locking rocker arm is very stiff, but it has to be bent down to roughly where it will be when last screw is in place and is 1/4 of the way tightened. This takes considerable amount of force, and it is still very cramped. Holding the rocker arm in place, while starting the screw is tricky. It took about 5 minutes for the stars to align, but finally, the screw catches, and we are able to thread it far enough to start. Now we are back in line with the instructions, so a minute later, it's thoruoughly tightened down we are all set to go.

Next Step, insert the memory. No problems, it's a DIMM module. Lign up the slots, slide the memory in, press down carefully but firmly and lock the mounting brackets. Cool, 30 seconds, all done.

Now, to connect up the power supply to all of the various motherboard ports. There are a lot of them, and a few are confusing, but taking it slowly, we think we have them all. There are several extra power leads, but this is not a modular power supply, so there should be extras.

On to the case ports. USB Ports up first. No problem, the are clearly labeled, so match the cable to the motherboard port and hook them up. Now the SATA ports. No problem, they line up as well, 30 seconds, all done.

Now on to the case LEDs and Power Switch and Reset switch. No problem, the cables are all labeled, and the motherboard is labeld. So hook them up. No wait, these are not keyed cables, they are reversable. How do I know which way to align the text on the cable labels? No help in the doc for either the case or the motherboard.

OK, the last time I assembled a motherboard, the instuctions were to put the text facing out, so that they could be read after installed. So, lets try that. Snap, snap they are all on. These are very tighly packed, so it takes some fiddling to get them all on the right pins and seated properly, but a few minutes later, it looks right to us.

Same thing for the PC Audio connections. Match all of the leads, snap on the cables.

All done with the basic motherboard cabling. On to the Hard Disk. This is easy. Pull out the hard disk quick mounting rails (which have rubber grommets to help keep the hard disk quite). Screw the rails into the drive. slide the drive with the rails back in place. Very easy. I like the fact that the Sonata II mounts the internal drives facing the side of the case, rather than the front of the case. It makes mounting a bit easier.

Same thing for the Optical drive. Pull the rails, mount them on the drive, snap the drive back in place.

Now the cabling. SATA power and SATA connector to the hard disk. Other end of the SATA connector to the SATA port on the motherboard. Standard ATA calble to the motherboard and then to the optical drive. Power to the optical drive. Easy, 5 minutes total, the drives are in and cabled.

OK, now the monitor. Pull the monitor, mouse and keyboard off the old pc, and plug them all in.

Final check, everything in place, all cables out of the way. Check.

It's time to fire it up. Ashton plugged in the power cord and a green light on the motherboard lit up. Check.

I pressed the power button, and... a big fat nothing.

Crap, what could be wrong. Bad components? Could be, but we probably did something wrong.

What could it be? Oh year, remember the case power switch cable that we didn't know which way to mount. What if we reversed it. This one was a pain, its cramped and needs to be mounted with in a bank of pins with empty pins on both sides. A couple of minutes later the cable is reversed and we are ready to try again.

OK, fingers crossed. Press the power button, and it springs to life. the Zalman fan and its embedded LCDs kick on. Hurray!

Wait a second, Crap! The monitor is blank.

What could be wrong. We tried everything, powered up and down, tried a different LCD panel, tried the other graphics port on the VGA card.

Crap, Crap, Crap. Bad card? No, we've probably done something wrong. It's been two hours and its past lunch time now, so we get a sandwich and start reading the motherboard doc again while we eat.

Thirty minutes later HAH!!! There is mention of a +12V motherboard connector that I don't remember. Its a 4 pronged, square connector that is located right next to the CPU and above the PCI-E16 bank. Flashlight please... Sure enough it is not connected and it matches one of the spare cables from the power supply. Cool. Ashton has smaller hands and is more nimble (that teenage boy thing) so he volunteers to hook up the cable. It takes some fiddling, it's really tight between the Zalmann fan and the IO block but after some fiddling, he manges to get it in place.

Fingers crossed, I replug in the power. Motherboard green light is on. Press the power button.


The screen comes to life, the standard bios checks pass and it's up and running.

Total elapsed time about 3.5 hours. Total time wasted by missing the power connector, reversing the power switch cable and not mounting the fan support first: 1.25 hours. All in all, not bad. Good father and son project Ashtron saw that it is complicated but doable, and had to suffer through a few mistakes (some self imposed and some not) but in a relatively short period of time we have built a pc from raw components.

Tags: ,

When Moore's law finally fails, will software get better?

By now, almost everyone has heard of Moore's Law, which is often intepreted to mean that our computers will double in power every 18 months (or 24 months depending on who's intepretation you are using). This "law" has held up for 40 over years and is still gong strong.

Every few years, the scientists who work on the front lines of integrated circuits look forward and see a potential wall that limits how far current integrated chip technologies can take us. So far, those same scientists have been able to adapt new techniqies and new technologies to blaze paths around those walls. From a hardware point of view, and from an consumer electronics point of view, this is the best thing since... well the integrated circuit.

I am not a Microsoft Basher (or apple basher, or google basher or...) and I make my living developing software. But I sometimes wonder if our real world computer experiences wouldn't get a lot better if Moore's law was to fail for a few years.

The ever increasing hardware allows us to mask software bloat. Next years hardware will be 50% faster than this years. So, we can hide bloat that eats up, oh, say 20 or 30% of that increase. Iin a year or two, that 30% loss won't even be noticed.

BUT (yes, this is a big BUT) , to misquote a favorite political truism: a gigahertz worth of bloat here and a gigahertz there and pretty soon it starts to add up to some real horsepower.

I know many of you are reading this and thinking of Microsoft, and that is fair, Microsoft Windows and Office have more than their fair share of bloat. The the problem doesn't end there.

Software in highly competitive markets live and die by features.

Performance is important, but only in a relative sense, how does my performance line up with my competition? If our code bases are equally bloated, then performance drops out of the evaluation critieria and it's back to front lines where features and perceptions win or lose the day.

If we couldn't rely on newer, faster, cheaper hardware to hide the bloat, we would have to go back and do things right. The feature wars would slow down, and software would once again begin to differentiate by concentrating on different features for different kinds of users. Software companies could get out of the escalating arms race where every competitor's newest feature has to be countered yesterday.

Damn the Bloat! Full speed ahead... That is the attitude that is forced upon most engineers in the software industry. I think almost all software engineers would love to step back and be allowed to design software that really helps our end users, rather than constantly scrambling to counter our competition's latest moves.

Don't read this the wrong way. In general, today's software is a much better experience than the software of a decade or two ago. But, it's far short of what it could be. Far short of what we should be able to do with all the computer horsepower at our disposal.

Tags: , , , ,

Message from the Colorblind: Captchas are evil

Albeit a necessary evil.

Captchas, are those funky graphics that pop up and ask you to key in the text contained in the picture. the purpose of Captchas is to prevent spam by making sure that a human being is doing the typing. the Captchas are intentionally made so that OCR software will have a hard time reading the text, but the normal human eye can easily read them.

That's the problem, there are more than a few of us out here who don't have normal eyes. Some captchas rely on low degrees of contrast between the text foreground colors and the picture background colors. These sort of captchas can be impossible for me to read. They make me feel like I did when I was kid at the eye doctor, and they showed me those funny color blind tests with the dots arranged in circles. There may have been a number in those dots, but I sure couldn't see them. And some CAPTCHAs may have text in them but the chance of me reading the text correctly is pretty low.

Captchas are necessary, but don't use them unless you need them. There have been more than one occassion when I've made 4 or 5 attempts to get past the captcha to make a post, and decided it just isn't worth it.

Tags: , , , ,

Thursday, June 22, 2006

My New PC: Overclocking the Lazy Way

Now that the assembly is finished, and the hardware is working (and windows is installed and running... no need to go into those details)... What about overclocking.

I pulled out the ASUS motherboard manual and skip to the chapter on the BIOS settings for Overclocking.

This is pretty cool. It's a relatively low end motherboard, but it has a couple of very interesting features. It has an AI NOS overclocking mode that sets a maximum overclocking threshold. In NOS mode, the motherboard determines when the CPU is busy and isntantly boosts the clock rate. This allows the CPU to remain power and heat efficient when it is not being heavily used, but kick in the afterburners when it needs to.

That sounds really cool, but looking in the actual BIOS settings the threshold is limited to 5%, 10% or 15%. OK, that's good, but I wouldn't mind a bit more.

Next section. Standard AI mode overclocking. OK, here we go. AI Mode overclocking allows me to set a specific percentage to overclock and it automatically adjusts the CPU, FSB and memory timings. The settings in the BIOS are similar to AI NOS mode, except that it also had a 20% option. That's it, that is the option I read about on the Newegg forum for a "free" 20%. I click on the 20% button, save my settings and restart.

Poof, it comes up, and now the machine reports that the CPU is 3.19 GHZ instead of 2.667. Cool, it really was a click of a button to get a 20% overclock. The memory is also reporting 20% faster.

OK, can I do bette? To the next section of the manual... Yes, I can do better, but it may require a lot of tweaking with FSB settings, Memory latency settings... This is already the fastest machine I've worked with, and I'm just not going to spend that kind of time on it.

I know I'm being lazy, but 20% is pretty good, and I have't needed to push the voltage. I decided to take my winnings off the table and call it a day.

Now, it has been a week since the machine was built and it has been rock solid. We have run Oblivion in shifts for several hours in a row, and it hasn't blinked.

We are all very pleased with the result. It's very fast, completely stable and pretty quiet. I've not yet spent much time monitoring ingternal temparatures. But the ANTEX power supply has a second fan that kicks on when temperatures start to rise, and it almost never kicks on, so we are doing ok. When I have some down time, I'll do something a bit more scientific, but for now I'm off to play Oblivion.

Tags: , ,

My New PC: Memory

Memory was another tough call. And I went back and forth on this several times. My selected mother board supports DDR2 PC5300 memory but there are a lot of options, and memory can be the detmermining factor in the ability to overlock a pc.

The final conteders were to buy a high end gamer specific memory say a CORSAIR Ballistix ($159 for 1 GB at Newegg) or to buy 2 GBs of good ram from a second tier supplier. I changed my mind on this several times. CORSAIR Ballistix is a safe bet for overclocking, it gets good press all over the forums. But for some of the current games, 1 GB can be a bit tight. Going to 2 GB of Corsair is possible, but that I would really rather pocket the difference in the anticipation of a near term desire for a monitor upgrade.

I was still undecided on the day I was going to place the order at Newegg. The final choices were the 1 GB of CORSAIR for $159, or 2 GB of Patriot memory (great specs, but not very widely covered). At the last second, I tripped across a forum entry on Newegg where someone had bought the exact same motherboard, and the exact same Patriot memory and overclocked the system from 2.67 to 3.6 without any voltage increases and with complete stability.

OK, the stars are aligning, I'll throw the dice and go with the patriot memory.

Final Price: 2 GB Patriot PC 5300 timing 4-4-4-12... (Newegg price 178.99 with a $35 rebate)

Tags: , , ,

My New PC: The Video Card

I was expecting the choice of graphics card to be one of the hardest to make. I had narrowed the search to the NVIDIA line when I selected my motherboard. But there are still a lot of manufacturers and models to choose from.

Just when I was starting my research, I came across this article at Tom's Hardware: the Gigabyte 7600 with SilentPipe II.

This article answered all of my questions. A side goal of my PC build is to finally eliminate the noisiest pc in our house. Low noise, good value and good performance are the key selling points of this card, making it line up exactly with my wish list. The fact that the fanless system handles cooling better than most of it's noisey piers make it a no-brainer for me.

Choice made, Graphics Card: Gigabyte Silent-Pipe II 7600 GT ( at Newegg)

Tags: , , ,

My New PC: Case Cooling

Cooling is another big choice area that can be intermingled with all of the other components. For extreme overclocking, the only really good choice is one of the Water Cooling units. If you stick with Air cooling there are still a myriad of choices.

My current plans are simple. I don't have immediate SLI plans (and don't have the power supply to do it right now anyway). I'm going simple on the addins with a single hard drive, and probably a single optical drive. I plan to overlock, but to stay well below the point where the heat output from the cpus will spike.

At about this point, this CPU Cooler aticle at Tom's Hardware caught my eye. I was leaning towards the Zalaman anyway, so this new input rating the Zalman CNPS9500 as the hands down winner made it easy.

Choice Made CPU Cooler will be the good old fashioned, quiet but very effective Zalamn CNPS9500 (Newegg $ 62.99).

Tags: , ,

My New PC: The Hard Disk

The hard drive was a pretty easy choice for me.

A quick survey of high end gamer machines shows that they are typical going with several drives, arranged in RAID arrays. While I see the performance benefits of RAID, I'm not interested in the complexity or added expense of a RAID.

SATA 3.0Gb is a given in a new machine. so, my viable choices are:
  1. Standard SATA Drive
  2. A pair of WD Raptor 150s
  3. SATA with Perpendicular recording

The popular configuration in the $4000+ "killer rigs" is a pair of Raptors backed by a large SATA drive. That's great if you have $800-1000 in your pc budget for the hard drives alone. Its not realistic in my budget, and it is definitely not a good value for a normal system.

The advantage of the Raptors is that they spin at 10,000 RPM instead of the norm of 7,200RPM for standard desktop drives. That means the mechanical parts are all operating 30% faster. It DOES NOT mean that you will see a 30% increase in hard drive performance, because data cacheing strategies come into play. A 10K drive is 30% faster every time the data actually has to be read from the platter, but the net effect is considerably less than 30% improvement in throughput for normal activity.

The SATA Perpendicular drives store the data in a denser format, allowing more bytes to be packed into a given area on the platter. The ones that are currently available all spin at 7,200 RPMS (or less for notebook drives). Since the storage density is roughly 30% higher than on a non-Perpendicular drive, the transfer rate for information is roughly 30% faster from the platter. The spin rate in larger part determines how long it takes for the drive head to move to the data, so it will be slower at finding data than a Raptor but roughly on par with the Raptor at reading or writing the data. Again, the caching strategies come into play, but it is safe to say that a perpindicular drive should be on average a bit slower than a Raptor, and a bit faster than a standard SATA drive.

Now that this background research is out of the way, what about price. And how much data? I only plan on acquiring 1 drive for now, and my data needs are not huge. So, I've decided to shoot for one drive in the 250-400 GB range. That will meet all of my needs for now and for the next year, and leave plenty of room in the SONATA II's 9 drive bays for future expansion. It will, also minimize the load I'll be placing on the 450W power supply and reduce the head in the case by a bit.

The RAPTORS only come in 74 and 150GB sizes, so I would need 2 of those at a minimum. Note that two physicial drives will outperform 1 physical drive anyway, so that isn't the end of the world. Two Raptor 150s currently run $479 (after a $40 rebate) at NewEgg.

The SATA 300 Perpendicular drives are just coming to market, so the only one in my preferred size range is the Seagate 320. This drive currently goes for $109.99 at NewEgg...

Well, given a budget for this PC, that makes the choice pretty clear. The Raptors might buy me a measurable performance differnce of 10%, but they would raise the price of the hard drive component by 450%. Not good value.

Choice made, Seagate 320 Perpendicular.

Tags: , ,

My New PC: The Motherboard

While it is a key piece of the puzzle, a lot of factors go into the motherboard selection. And in the end you have to make an educated leap of faith.

I'm new to overclocking, but I know my way around the components and am a quick study. I don't want to spend my life learning about the nitty gritty details of overlcocking or endlessy tweaking. Overclocking is strictly a learning experience and a way to squeeze a bit more value into my pc budget. These statements may seam irrelevent to the conversation, but they are actually important factors in making the motherboard choice.

From this position, I can derive the following guidelines for my motherboard selection:
  1. Established Motherboard maker that has a track record in the overclocking arena
  2. A Motherboard which clearly states it's support for the Intel 805 CPU
  3. Support from formums that real people have made this combination work
  4. A reasonable price point
Another key choice that has to be made is around graphics. Specifically do you want to have the option to support Dual Graphics cards (NVidia SLI or ATI Crossfire). I personally have had good luck with the NVidia graphics lines and have had more driver issues with systems based on ATI. So, I prefer NVidia. NVidia's SLI is also a bit cheaper to implement. On the SLI front, I want the option to go SLI, but will not do so for the foreseeable future. As long as the price is right, this will give me another route in the future to economically stretch my PC for another year or two.

These factors all lead me to NewEgg's product search facility to start to narrow the choices. After some reading, I decide that Asus, Abit, and Gigabyte make motherboards that I would be intersted in, but the prices and reviews vary widely. Asus seems to be getting good play in most of the forums, and they offer several intersting choices. Finally, buried in the middle of the NewEgg forum I find that someone else has successfully married the Intel 805 with fairly inexpensive Asus P5ND2-SLI ($88.99 at NewEgg). Furthermore, this person was also a novice overclocker and had been able to easily overlock the 805 by 20%.

The other choices from Asus were considerably mkore expensive and added features that I don't need. So, Choice made: Motherboard is the ASUS P5ND2=SLI. There were several good alternatives here, but I had to choose one.

Tags: , ,

My New PC: The Case and Power Supply

The case decision was one of the toughest calls to make. My normal tendancy would be to go high end for the case and the power supply. Both the case and the power supply generally have a longer usable life span than many other components. So generally, you can think of the extra cost for these components being amortized over 2 or 2.5 PCs.

With that in mind, I spent a lot of time digging into reviews. There were many attractive cases, but I was leaning towards the Antec P180 and an OCZ's GameXStream 700W power supply. The combo is very pricey, coming in a bit over $300. That's too high for a one time mid tier+ PC build. Spread over 3 PC's it would be much more reasonable.

The low end alternative I was most attracted to was
the Antec Sonata II and it's integrated 450W power supply available at Newegg for $89.99...

In the end, this decision came down to timing. Under normal circumstances, I would have bitten the bullet and gone with the high end option. But right now, my guess is that the ATX format motherboards are going to be replaced with the newer BTX format over the next few years. BTX is a slightly larger format so it won't fit into a standard ATX designed case. BTX is pretty rare right now, but it's main point of sale is that it is built around a zoned format that designed to facilitate cooling. With the ever increasing heat problems, BTX could take off, if it lives up to it's better cooling promises.

There are only a few BTX cases or combined ATX/BTX cases out, and I'm not willing to take on the risk of a 1st generation case at the current premium prices.

So, I decided to go with the Sonata II package and pocket the price difference. The Sonanta case is pretty mainstream, but it is solid, well designed and thoroughly tested. The combo is cheap enough that I can afford to upgrade the powersupply downstream, if I decide to go with SLI graphics. For now, I only plan to keep the addons limited, so the 450W power supply will be sufficient. I don't expect to add a second graphnics card for at least 12 months, and by then, the price of an SLI capable power supply will have dropped significantly, and the price of my graphics card will also have dropped. If the Sonata II could be purchased with the Antec 550W power supply, I would go for that without a doubt.

With BTX on the horizon, the high end case and power supply option don't look like good bets.

Choice made, Sonata II. By the way, the Sonata II is a very attractive case. It would have been nice to have a removable motherboard tray. But I'm not going to be in the case tweaking with the guts very often, and it may have added 5 or 10 minutes to the three hour hardware assembly process.

Tags: , , ,

My New PC: The CPU

The CPU choice was really the first choice I made, and it was the driving factor to convince me to build my own rather than buy a pre-built system.

I try to be pragmatic about my choices of CPU and look for good value for the level of machine I'm trying to acquire. The last two times I've been in the PC market, AMD was the value point of choice. This time around, though INTEL is the move and shaker. They 805 Core is priced very attractively ($111.90 at Newegg as I write this). It doesn't have all the features of the Extemem Edition chips, but it is DUAL Core and is one of the easiest chips to overclock. It also has a lot of headroom for overclocking (see article).

It is not without it's flaws, INTEL has disabled some of the fine tuning features for overclocking, and it can run hot, especially if you begin increasing the voltage.

While I want to overclock to get better value out of my expenditures, I am not going to push the technology to its limits. So, for this system, the combination of low price, large overclocking headroom (with plenty of internet stories of successful overclocking) and dual cores make this a great value cpu.

AMD has some attractive chips but for a change INTEL is my value leader. So, choice made.

My philosophy on PCS is to make all of my decisions in a tight time frame and then move. It's very easy to get caught up in the spiral of new things that are coming and never move. On the flip side, I try not to overinvest in my PC's because next months model will be significantly faster.

More Component briefs to come....

Tags: , ,

Opposites Should Attract at Work...

I've been thinking a bit more about the Dale Wolf's article on Marketing by Vision or by Research.

Actually, the article started me thinking more about my relationship with Dale. In previous assignments, Dale and I have worked very closely together, but right now, we are on separate tracks so we occassionally run into each other, but not on a regular basis.

Dale and I have very different styles of working, but we both have the ability to step back from our preferred style in order to work together. Occassionally when I need an outside opinion, I give Dale a call and ask him to act as a sounding board / brain storming partner. And occassionally Dale does the same.

Why? We don't naturally work the same way. Dale is very much a marketing geek, and I'm very much a technologist (subliminal positioning was intentional).

So, When our projects get stuck, why do we call each other. After some thought, I think the answer is that we are opposites, but have established a trust relationship.

My style is research focused, but I try to keep a tight rein on the amount of research. When research is no longer moving forward efficiently, I switch over to creative approaches to make leaps forward, before starting on the next wave of research. This style tends towards steady progress towards the goal, with measurable process and few, relatively brief periods of stagnation.

Dale's style is a just the opposite. He lives for the creative part of the process, and uses research as a background for his creative work. Research is not aimed at providing specific progress towards the goal, but rather is general background material that fules his creative fires. This style results in long periods of no obserable progress followed by large leaps forward (well hopefully forward). It also results in a need to perform massive amounts of research, and makes it difficult to focus research because the bit that provides the creative spark can come from almost anywhere.

Both of these styles end up with 70-80% of the time spent in research, but the purpose and nature of the research is very different. Dale may in fact spend more time on research than I do, even though he would classify himself as in the Creative category.

Enough introspective analysis. Why do we call each other? I think that the answer is that the two styles of research are representative of two differnt styles of thinking. When I really get stuck, to misquote Monty Python "I need something really different" and for me, the answer is often Dale. Dale may not be able to help, but he almost always gets me outside the box I'm stuck in.

I suspect Dale's reasons are often the opposite. He can get stuck needing that creative leap, and so overwhlemed with background informatoin that he can't pull it together. Adding a more structured viewpoint (my own tendancy) may not lead anywhere direclty, but it can narrow the focus and add direction making the creative leap more likely.

The morale of this long story? If you are in a leadership position, cultivate relationships with people whose thinking style and approach to problems is the opposite of yours. It may be uncomfortable, especially at first, but later on that relationship may provide the missing ingredient in your project at the most critical time.

Tags: ,

Finding a Left handed mouse

Yes, not only am I color blind, I am also left handed.

10 years ago being left handed and working on a computer was no big deal. Unfortunately for us lefties, things changed for the worse via the ergonomics wave that swept through computing.

At first ergonomics was a great thing for computer mice. Mice were redesigned to make them fit in the hand better. The first wave, typified by some of Microsoft's early mice were tweaked to make the more comfortable for either hand. They were slightly right handed, but they fit my left hand a little better than the hand neutral mouse, so I didn't mind.

As the ergonomics wave intensified, mice were further differentiated for hand, and good high quality righty only and lefty only mice came about. This was a bit inconvenient for me, since my wife is a righty and I am a lefty, but for brief periods of time, both of us can work with opposite handed mice, so it was still an improvement.

Unfortunately, as the ergonmics wave crested and then plateaued a bit, things turned ugly for us lefties. Most mice manufacturers kept their decidely right handed mouse designs and dropped the lefty versions (or stores stopped carrying them, I'm not sure which).

As a result, I now dread the thought of needing to replace a mouse.

In the past year, I had to buy two new mice. One for the office and one for home. I visted every major computer store in Cincinnati and tried every mouse on their display racks, and finally found two that worked:

1) Office -- high volume, general purpose: Kensington Pilot mouse. This is a fairly no frills two button mouse with a scroll wheel, but it is a throw back design that is not handed. It is quite comfortable in either hand, and works like a champ. It is not a high res mouse, and would be far from ideal as a gamer mouse. But it works very well as a left handed mouse. They have cordless varieties, but they didn't have the same feel in my left hand, so I'm happy that I stuck with the corderd variety. A bonus feature of the Pilot mouse driver software is that it has a the ability to tell you if you have been working on the compter for a user defined interval. I need to get up and stretch my back regularly, or pay the consequences later. This feature is great, because I can tell it to alert me if I've spent 30 minutes in a row without taking a break. If I'm heads down in code, I can sit for hours without realizing it, this little feature can be a real back saver.

2) Home Lower volume, high intensity use -- Gamer -- Razer Diamondback Plasma: When I started looking for a mouse for the home, I wanted more gamer features than I needed at the office. So the choices are pretty limited. The Current raves are for the Logitech mice, but they are decidely right handed only, so they were immediately off the list. I tried a few different varities, but ended up with a Razer Diamondback Plasma. It is slightly right handed but like the first wave of ergnoomic mice, works well for lefties. It plays great, and has adjustable sensitivity making it appopriate for working at home, or tearing up the Daedra in Oblivion. I tried a few other models in the Razer line, but the Diamondback had a better feel than the others.

I'm very happy with both of these choices, and would highly recommend either to the left handed user. They are not interchangeable, so if you are looking for a good mouse for work and are left handed, try the Kensington, if you like to play games occassionally and need the extra speed of a gaming mouse, try the Razer Diamondback.

Tags: , , ,

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Gardening: Cedar Chips = Organic Insect Control

Completely off my normal topic line. But a useful gardening trick.

I am an avid gardener. My wife and I plant a large garden and we typically preserve a couple of hundred quarts of veggies each summer.

Our garden is not strictly organic, but we always try to use organic methods first, and fall back to stronger non-organic methods as a last resort.

One of the toughest problems we had was keeping the insects from destroying the leaves on our green beans. The leaves would be devistated within days of the plants sprouting. I hated to do it, but we ended up dusting the green beans several times a year with chemical insect repellants.

Last year I was at the Tractor Supply Store getting some compressed wood chips that we use as an organic mulch, when I spied a similar bag of Cedar Chips that were labeled as odor control dog bedding.

the light bulb went off in my head. What would happen if I put some cedar chips in the normal wood chips that I was putting around the green beans.

The result was miraculous. A couple of hand fulls of cedar chips spread over one of our raised beds caused the insects to leave the bean plants completely alone.

Having insect problems in your garden? Make a trip to your nearest pet food or animal care supply store and give this a try.

Tags: , ,

What sound does a Roomba make when it goes splat?

I'm, not sure how I feel about this yet, but it is interesting: Extremetech Article

I can just picture the Roombas playing frogger in real traffic. Wonder what sound a roomba makes when it loses?

Tags: ,

Stardock: A Must for the Colorblind

I'm partially colorblind, and a few months ago, I became really sick of the standard Windows XP themes, that all are either really annoying, or use colors that I have trouble seeing.

About 6 months ago, I decided to look for a solution. I started with the standard windows XP theme sites. During the search, I managed to trip across: Stardock ... It took a while sorting through the hundreds of available themes, but finally I found Cha-Ninja. It works great for my particular version of color blind (I can't distinguish between blues and purples or between greens and browns) and I happen to like the aesthetics as well.

So, all of you who happen to be colorblind, or partially colorblind. Take a look at Stardock. Even their free packages can make windows a much friendlier place for the color challenged. I've purchased their full suite and have no intention of ever giving it up.

Tags: , , , ,

Strategic marketing by Vision or by Research

Dale Wolf is one of my colleagues. While he is from the dark side of marketing, I've enjoyed working with him several times in the past. His blog on Contextual Marketing is an interesting read and well worth keeping an eye on, even if you are not in marketing.

One of his most interesting posts is on marketing by Vision versus marketing by Research. These terms are overloaded and not the ones I would use for the concepts Dale is driving at, but the concepts behind his post are worth a few minutes of thought. Take a look at Dale's post and my comments at:

Tags: , ,

My New PC: The Parts list

Here is the parts list that I ended up with (prices are actual purchase prices from Newegg):
  1. CPU -- CPU INTEL 805 2.66G -- $119
  2. Motherboard -- MB ASUS P5ND2-SLI NF4SLI -- $89.99
  3. Case and Power Supply -- CASE ANTEC SONATAII B -- $99.99
  4. Memory -- MEM 1Gx2PATRIOT DDR2 PC-5300 -- $178.99 (before $35 rebate)
  5. CPU Fan --ZALMAN CNPS 9500 LED -- $63.99
  6. Video Card --- GigaByte 7600 GT with Silent Pipe II -- $178.99
  7. Hard Drive -- Seagate SATA II 320GB Perpendicular -- $ $114.99
  8. DVD Burner -- SAMSUNG SH-S162L With LiteScribe -- $39.99

Total price for hardware: 884.94 + 41.16 shipping (less $35 rebate).

I will go through the component decision criteria and my satisfaction / results in separate posts.

On paper, this is a good solid system, and I'm content with the various tradeoffs.

Tags: ,

Home Coffee Roaster - durability

I've posted some of my experience with the durability of home Coffee roasters in a friends blog.

The posts are long, so take a look here.


Tuesday, June 20, 2006

My New PC: To Build or Buy?

To Build of Course.

I've had the bug to upgrade my home PC for the past several months. To be honest, it is since the game Oblivion was published. My PCs were all old, and were mid range when I bought them several years ago.

The best of the lot could only run Oblivion at the lowest resolution and with all graphics settings turned off. Oblivion is still a great game, but every time I heard rave's about the Oblivion graphics engine, I was tempted a bit more.

I spent many hours pouring over the new Computer Shopper ads and looking with envy at Dell's every new announcement of an XPS 600 or the new XPS 700 killer gaming rigs. But I couldn't bring myself to spend $2500 - 4000 for a killer rig. And, I couldn't find a midrange system that made the right compromises, so I kept putting it off.

A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled on the article:

which talks about overclocking a $130 Pentium 805 Dual core processor from the 2.67 base speed all the way up to 4.1 GHZ.

While I've never tried overclocking a PC before, I decided to give it a try. To make it more interesting, I convinced my 16 year old son to get involved, and made this a father son project.

I'm not going to go for the extremes that the article goes for, but I am going to try overclocking it a bit and see if I can't turn this into a very solid mainstream pc that can handle Oblivion.

Warning: Spoiler Coming...

I'll publish a few more articles on the intermediate process, but on this Sunday (Father's day here in the US) my son and I put together our first PC. It was up and running in about 3 hours and is doing very well. And it was a success as the weak point in my system for Oblivion is now my 3 year old LCD panel, not the base PC. (Ah well, now I can move on to monitor envy).

We've moved from playing Oblivion with all graphics turned to the lowest settings at a resolution of 640X480 to all graphics settings enhancements turned to high and a resolution of 1280X 1024 and it still plays better. And, Oblivion's graphics are as awesome as the raves claimed even on a 3 year old LCD Panel.

The hardware without mouse, monitor and keyboard cost me a total of $900. Performance is dramatically better than anything that I have access to at work, and it cost a lot less than some of those machines.

Tags: , ,

Develop Tools for the End Users not for problems

I guess it falls somewhere under teaching an old dog new tricks. But, my current project has forced me to re-evaluate some of the tactical decisions we have made in previous projects.

A bit of background: We are currently working on development of a software system to help fix some of the process problems in hospitals. And believe me, hospitals are target rich environments for process improvement.

The unique twist here is that we have to allow non-technical hospital employees to build and maintain fairly complex process rules. This forced us to start thinking of the tool from the real end users capabilities and work backwards to the actual system. The net effect is that the system is modeled after every day, commonly understood abstraction that help to minimize training. We have been very diligent at eliminating complexity where it was not needed, and especially at avoiding anything that even smelled of "programming".

I know this sounds like a common sense thing to do, but it doesn't normally happen that way, at least not around here. In the past, our approach would have been to build a tool to match the problem first, and then back in to administrative capabilities and training necessary to allow our customers to do their jobs. The result was almost always heavily dependant on the idea that our target audiences would want to solve the problem badly enough to "stretch themselves" a bit to learn how to manage the new system. While this was sometimes true, in retrospect, it limited our customer audience to those few who were willing to do so. The rest of our prospects would tune us out, when our sales pitch started to look complicated.

This time around, the target administrators were so different; we had to keep the end user in mind every step of the way. To accomplish this, we tried to picture nurses using each new feature before it was put into the tool set. We don't know if nurses will actually be maintaining these rules, but we have designed the system so that nurses could maintain them with minimal to no training.

While it is still early days, the result of this approach to the problem is very promising. The software module in question is not a hurdle, and in fact nurses attending some of our presentations have specifically said: "I could do that!".

Also, the clean, simple abstraction we followed, has allowed us to pick up this new software and plug it into an existing, well established Call Center technology that our company also sells.

Lesson Learned: In the future, I will try to design all of my systems with the end user foremost in my mind and will strive to eliminate any complexity that that audience would not already be prepared to deal with. I know that will not always be possible, but it should be the rule, not the exception.

Tags: ,