The smell of a melting hard drive…

…is not pleasant.

Fortunately it was a spare external drive that wasn’t in active use. (I think. But I can’t check what was on it any more, can I?) But I’m getting really tired of disk failures now. Off-site on-line back-up is not a luxury, folks. Do it now. There are plenty of options. Mozy is pretty good, simple to use, and not expensive.


I knew I was out of the loop while we were away on holiday, but I didn’t realize I was so far out of the loop that I missed this:

“CUPERTINO, California–April 2, 2007–Apple® today announced that EMI Music’s entire digital catalog of music will be available for purchase DRM-free (without digital rights management) from the iTunes® Store ( worldwide in May. DRM-free tracks from EMI will be offered at higher quality 256 kbps AAC encoding, resulting in audio quality indistinguishable from the original recording, for just $1.29 per song. In addition, iTunes customers will be able to easily upgrade their entire library of all previously purchased EMI content to the higher quality DRM-free versions for just 30 cents a song.”

It’s the logical follow-up to Steve Jobs’ open letter to the music industry from back in February, but I hadn’t expected it to happen quite so soon.

Er, yay!

Now if only Apple would get some video content into the Store for us folks outside the USA, everything would be peachy. See, I’ve just got myself a new 80GB iPod, and I’m suddenly alive to the idea of small, portable video. Which leads to thoughts of converting our DVD collection to H.264 and using iTunes on our Mac Mini as a full-fledged media library, rather than using VLC and distantDVD to play ripped VIDEO_TS folders. And suddenly the whole Apple TV thing makes sense, too. (If only they’d make the video content available, yada yada.)

Man, I feel so behind the times. This is what I get for not keeping up with BoingBoing every day.

(One prediction, though: given that us poor Windows users need Photoshop Elements or Adobe album in order to show their photos via Apple TV, but that we can sync our photos to an iPod with iTunes alone, I don’t think it will be long before iTunes gains some form of photo album capability.)

2006 in review: Computers

I can trace the lineage of my PC, Frankenstein, back to 1995. He was originally built as a Pentium 100 with 8MB of RAM and a 1GB hard disk, and has been upgraded piece by piece ever since. Earlier this year he received one of his largest single upgrades in the form of a shiny new case (Arctic Cooling Silentium T1), new motherboard (Abit AT8, with silent cooling), new CPU (Athlon 64 X2 Dual Core 3800+), new graphics card (Gigabyte Radeon X800 XL with silent cooling), and a chunky new 320GB SATA hard disk. Whenever I make a large change like this I expect to have some teething troubles (driver issues and the like), but nothing quite like this.

Arctic Cooling Silentium T1 caseFirst of all, although the Silentium T1 is a gorgeous case with fantastic quiet cooling features, it is mostly incompatible with the AT8 motherboard. The AT8 has its IDE connectors mounted face out on the edge of the board, rather than facing outwards. Because the T1 is such a snug fit for an ATX-sized motherboard, this means that it’s almost impossible to actually plug in the IDE cables. In order to get the cables to fit I had to remove the primary internal hard drive enclosure (a sleeve of solid aluminium, mounted on heavy-duty rubber bands to dampen vibrations) and shave a few millimeters off the IDE cable connectors with a knife before I could get them to fit. And then I found that after having pried the drive enclosure out of its moorings, I couldn’t strap it back in again.

Secondly, the T1 uses some bizarre plastic brackets for fitting secondary internal drives (DVD drives et al.) and provides no instructions for their use. Through trial and error and judicious use of extreme force, I got the DVD and floppy drives fitted, but I’ve got a strong suspicion that they’re actually just wedged in solidly but at random.

(A floppy drive? In 2006? How quaint. It’s all because Windows XP is blissfully unaware of SATA, and requires drivers to be loaded up from a floppy disk when you install it. Actually, that’s not entirely true. If you have the knowledge and time, you can create a slipstream XP install disk which has them built in. Also, the Abit motherboard provides an “emulated PATA” mode for SATA drives, which fools XP into believing that it’s using an IDE drive, so you don’t need the drivers in the first place, but that somehow feels like cheating.)

In all the years I’ve been building PCs, this was the most frustrating set of components I’ve put together. If you’re thinking about buying a T1 case, I strongly suggest making sure that your motherboard does not have side-mounted connectors.

Anyway, with my hands bandaged up from the cuts and scrapes, the software install should have been easy, right? Well, sort of. XP went on, and the Radeon graphics drivers (normally a pain in the neck) came up without a hitch, and my apps installed smoothly. In moving up from a single core Athlon 2500+ to a dual-core 3800+ CPU I noticed very little speed difference in everyday tasks, but there did seem to be a decent performance increase when running my virtual machines under VPC 2004. But there were a lot of crashes and freeze-ups.

This was not comforting. I am used to XP being rock-solid stable, but I was finding myself rebooting on a regular basis. Reinstalling XP didn’t help, the problem was getting worse, so naturally I turned to the hardware. And that’s when IT HAPPENED. Memory check: OK. Hard disk check: chucka-chucka-chucka… Crap. Scandisk showed bad sector after bad sector, followed by a complete failure to come back to life. Hard disk failure again.

Okay, I could deal with that. After previous data loss terrors, I now have a good nightly backup routine going with Backup4All, and as I hadn’t been placing enormous amounts of trust in the rebuilt Frankenstein anyway, I was confident that I’d be able to recover everything from the external backup drive. Oh, poor naive me.

You see, I had noticed–but not paid much attention to–the external drive’s habit to occasionally disappear from Frank’s drive list, and not to reappear until after I rebooted–so long as it wasn’t switched on at boot time, because then it would stop Frank from booting up at all.

Note to self: pay attention to odd hard drive behaviour, not matter how innocuous it may seem. As it turned out, the external drive was also junk.

Deep breath. Perhaps it was just a faulty drive controller in the disk’s enclosure? I removed the drive and tried mounting it directly on an IDE channel, but no. It was gone, gone, gone. I could get the BIOS to recognize it, but that was as far as it went. Both my primary disk and backup disk had gone down the tubes at exactly the same time. What are the chances?

Skip to the end–by using an Ubuntu live CD and a (veeeerrrrryyyy slllooooowww) copy of HDClone, I managed to recover almost all of my data from the primary disk. All of my MP3s and photos were on the secondary internal drive, which was unaffected. The external drive turned out to be a paperweight.

All’s well that ends well, right? Well, no. The following month, the 400GB external drive attached to my Mac Mini also died. At least all it took down with it was about 150GB of ripped DVDs for which I own the original media. Sigh. At least two of the three drives were still under warranty, and the manufacturers (Maxtor and Hitachi) replaced them quickly and efficiently.

Lessons learned:

  • Sometimes, even doing nightly backups isn’t enough. (Although the odds are pretty good most of the time.) A better strategy would be a mirrored disk (RAID1, or an external disk clone using something like CCC) to allow for continuous operation, combined with an off-site backup for those total panic situations. On-line backup services (such as Carbonite) are very affordable now, and even big (300GB+) external USB hard drives are cheap enough that you can buy a couple of them for a rotating off-site backup schedule.
  • I used to enjoy building my own PC exactly to my own specification, but the effort is now surpassing the pleasure. I hardly play games at all on Frank any more (it’s consoles all the way for me now), and so I don’t need to sweat the best mileage out of every component. So: my next computer is going to be pre-built.

In fact, my next computer is going to be a Mac. The Mac Mini I got in 2005 (the original G4 version) just wasn’t fast enough to take over as my main machine, but it gave me a taste for OS X. (Right now it’s acting as a combined development web server and DVD player.) Now that the whole Mac line-up is running on super-fast Intel Core processors, the performance penalty is gone. And with Parallels as a mature virtualization product for OS X, and VMWare’s Fusion just around the corner, I don’t see any problem with running all my Windows apps inside virtual machines.

I run all of my personal software development projects inside VMs already. At home, most of the time I’m running iTunes, a couple of browsers, a couple of text editors, and a handful of other bits and pieces. If I want to fire up Visual Studio, I spin up a VM. This suits me fine, because it keeps Frank lean and tidy, but it also means there’s no software binding me to Windows as my primary OS. If I have to run VM to do perform a specific task anyway, then I can just as easily do that from OS X as from XP (or Linux, for that matter, if it weren’t for the fact that it’s still ass-ugly).

iMac 24 inchI’m thinking that 2007 might be the year of the Mac. Not sure what flavour, though. MacWorld is just around the corner, and I’m curious to see what it will bring. I don’t think I’d go with another Mini (just a bit too limited). I don’t do much computing on the move, so I’m not sure if a MacBook Pro would be right for me (a plain MacBook again would probably be too limiting). A Mac Pro would be lovely, but may be too much for what I’d use it for. Surprisingly, I find myself musing about the 24″ iMac. I’ve finally come around to the whole dual-monitor setup thing, and I’m starting to find my current 20″ display (a Dell 2007FPW) a bit cramped, so a Mac with a large built-in monitor sounds rather nice…

Virtual worlds

Play MoneyI started reading Julian Dibbell’s “Play Money” blog back in 2003, probably as a result of a pointer from Edge magazine. It was a chronicle of his attempt to make real money from his trading activities in a virtual world–primarily the on-line role-playing game Ultima Online. He had originally set himself the challenge of making more money from trading than from his work as a writer, but he adjusted his goals downwards as the year progressed. He concluded his experiment in April 2004, and in his final month of trading managed to clear just under $4,000 in profit. That’s 4,000 real-world dollars.

In fact, this kind of money isn’t even unusual these days: Second Life now boasts its first millionaire (with a few caveats). The more interesting matter is how it is possible to make money in a virtual world at all. If you’re not plugged into the buzz surrounding them, it’s easy to see Second Life as an overgrown chat room, and World of Warcraft and its ilk as mere hack-and-slash fantasy games. Sure, the people who run the worlds can make money by charging monthly subscriptions, but how do the participants do it?

In simple terms, people are willing to pay to acquire goods they don’t have enough time (or skills) to build themselves. It’s just that in the case of virtual worlds, the goods have no physical substance. But that doesn’t make them any less real to the people who use them day in, day out in these electronic communities.

With his Play Money book, Julian Dibbell provides the background behind the blog. It’s uncomfortable reading in places. His game time and trading become an obsession, and although he says that they weren’t the cause of it, they certainly weren’t helping out when his marriage started to break up. But as well as the personal aspects, he also digs deeper into the economics of virtual worlds, and the sometimes cut-throat businesses that are growing up to service the demands of their inhabitants.

I have to admit to being endlessly fascinated by this, and the issues that flow from it. For example, there are figures that suggest that the average inhabitant of Second Life consumes roughly much power as a Brazilian. These numbers are heavily debated, but the fact is that a virtual person has a carbon footprint–a measurable effect–in the real world. And of course, as soon as real money starts to flow, the tax man is not far behind.

Beyond these immediate implications, there are also some enormous long-term issues to consider. Some of these worlds have millions of inhabitants. The people there are building houses, forming communities, participating in great deeds, and creating distinct cultures. What happens when the next big thing comes along, and people start to jump ship? What happens to the remnants of these civilizations? Is it important from a cultural and anthropological perspective to preserve what we can of these worlds?

World of WarcraftThe biggest online worlds may seem well-developed compared to their predecessors, but they are in still in their infancy with regard to user interaction and freedom of action. Despite being larger than any MMORPG before it, it is likely that World of Warcraft will have its number one spot taken from it by something bigger and better. But it’s possible that it, or one of the many others out there will stay ahead of the fickle curve of consumer demand, and will grow and evolve over the course of years and even decades.

And this is really interesting. Virtual worlds aren’t going away, and they are only going to get bigger and more populous. Business are opening offices in Second Life. If you catch the right world, and make the right investments (my guess would be virtual real estate), you may find yourself owning a tremendously valuable piece of some future metropolis.

I have created an avatar in Second Life, but I haven’t done much with him. I have a copy of WoW sitting on my desk, but I haven’t signed up for an account yet. Self-knowledge tells me that I could quite easily spend an unhealthy amount of time in these worlds, and right now I’m finding little enough time in my life for sleep as it is. But I also know that I immensely enjoy the total immersion of a good RPG, and despite the poor experience I had with Everquest a few years ago, I can see myself dipping my toes in the water again fairly soon. The possibilities are just too intriguing to ignore.

Absorbing the “Second Best” blog

At the end of last year, I created a new blog called “The Second Best Swordsman In Caribastos”. The title is a reference to a quote from the book Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold. I had intended to post techie content to that blog, and to keep my main blog here for more personal and irrelevant stuff. Anyone who was interested in the techie stuff could subscribe to the feed over there, and ignore everything else I post here.

The problem is that that’s a false distinction for me. I am fundamentally a techie geek, and my personal life is intricately interwoven with technology, coding, and the web. Having to figure out which of the two blogs a potential entry should go in has on several occasions frozen me into such complete indecision that I ended up not writing anything at all. That’s just not good.

So from now on, the other blog is dead, and its content (what little of it there was) has been absorbed here. There are redirects in place, so any links to the old pages won’t break. At some point in the future I might set up tag-specific feeds here to allow a more filtered view of my brain, but for the moment the you’re just going to have to live with whatever randomness I decide to spout. (Hey, at least I’m not posting cat pictures.)