Friday, May 29, 2009

Windows 7 Update

I'm still dual booting my desktop, (and no that doesn't mean I have to kick it twice to make it work), with XP and Windows 7. As I stated in an earlier post, the main disappointment with Windows 7 is the version of Virtual PC that allows installing older operating systems such as Windows 2000, only works if the computer supports Hardware Virtualization. Sadly, my desktop does not. As an alternative, Sun's VirtualBox works quite well despite some quirks.

For a start, setting up file sharing in VirtualBox is not that intuitive, but I finally got it to work. Second, setting up an Internet connection within VirtualBox is a royal pain. I have yet to get it to work. I would like to, since I want to see if I can also set up XP. This requires an Internet link for activation, otherwise it'll timeout after 30 days.

I have a version of Virtual PC that works in Vista set up on my laptop and it works nicely. I especially like the drag and drop feature for file sharing between the Windows 2000 installation and Vista. I haven't bothered with the Internet set up for Windows 2000 since I have no need for it.

I sent an inquiry to a Windows 7 forum asking if there will be a version of Virtual PC that does not require Hardware Virtualization. Unfortunately the answer is no. Strike one against Microsoft and what is by far their best operating system.

So why bother with all this fuss? I do have some older games and software that will not run in Windows 7. These are 16 bit programs desiged for Windows 98 and ... gasp!!!! DOS. So far they'll run, albiet somewhat slowly in the case of my still favorite word processor, PFS Works, in the VirtualBox Windows 2000 combination. I did get a kick that a free DOS emulator, DOSBox, not only installed flawlessly in Windows 7, (and mind you, this is the hifaluting 64 bit version), but a couple of ancient DOS games work perfectly in DOSBox.

Still a couple of issues... first there isn't a 64 bit version of Zone Alarm yet. I have no idea how well the built in Win 7 firewall works, but I'll feel better when Zone Alarm is upgraded. Second, web browers. Firefox 3 is unfortunately flaky in any version. I've run into problems with web pages not loading completely. Opera seems better overall, and the 64 bit version of Firefox, the still ominously named Minefield, is ok although it doesn't support Flash yet. I've fiddled a bit with Internet Explorer 8 and it's.... Internet Explorer. It's ok in a pinch.

But overall, Win 7 is looking good. Even the Aero interface that brought Vista to its knees on my laptop runs quickly and smoothly. There may be hope for Microsoft afterall, though the Hardware Virtualization issue is still bothersome.

Not Even Tin Plated

About a year and a half ago, I told a friend California was on the verge of imploding. The mortgage crisis was heating up, the state was broke and getting deeper into debt, (and unlike the federal government, the state cannot remain in debt at the start of the fiscal year), the infrastructure was falling apart, (highways had more potholes than the moon has craters), and the public education system had fallen from one of the best in country to one of the worst.

I hate it when I'm right about these things.

The cuts being proposed to balance the budget are draconian at best. Most state parks will be closed, public education will be cut drastically, already several school districts have cut out their music programs and are considering dropping their sports programs. Assistance to the disabled will be reduced considerably. State employees are facing 14% pay cuts, thus emphasizing the servant part of civil service. Meanwhile cities are laying off firefighters and police because they can no longer afford to pay all of them. The state is rapidly turning into a third world country.

Meanwhile many are in a state of denial. The state Air Resources Control Board recently announced a program to reduce greenhouse gases that if implemented would destroy what's left of the state's economy. The cities of San Jose and San Francisco trumpeted the spending of millions for charging stations for plug in hybrids, ignoring the little fact that these cars are very expensive and rare.

There is a lot of blame to spread around, but basically the state overspent for years while tax revenue couldn't keep up. Prop 13 from 30 years ago guaranteed property taxes would one day be inadequate because the tax rate was set artificially low. Meanwhile the hyperinflated housing market could not be sustained, resulting in massive foreclosures as people who fell for criminally low introductory interest rates fell behind on payments when those rates adjusted upwards.

As an aside, I believe the only mortgage that should be offered is 30 year fixed rate. If you can afford it, go for it, if not, rent.

So the day of financial reckoning has finally come. It's sad seeing the state that was my home for 45 years collapse like this, and I feel for family and friends who are still there.

However, my decision to move to Texas is becoming more and more one of the best decisions of my life.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Moving Trees

When our new house was built, part of the landscaping included a pair of live oak trees in front. Nice looking trees, and in time would provide well needed shade. One little problem, one of the trees is alive, the other isn't. Something about no growth and then no leaves is a bit of a giveaway. I called the builders, who said they could get us a replacement at cost, like four hundred dollars. That's a bit much, so my wife and I decided to do the replacement ourselves.

Step one was get a new tree. Friday my neighbor across the street was planning to do some plant shopping so he invited me along. He has a truck, which makes things easier of course. We checked Walmart, and their trees were scraggly at best. So the next stop was the Houston Garden Center. Wonderful place, tons of trees and plants, and best of all, everything was half off. The temptation was to buy a whole forest, but I tempered my ambitions.

I found a nice live oak, about nine feet tall, which we wrestled into the truck, then took home. In the meantime, my wife had dug up the old tree, which was now lying forlornly on its side. Any woman who can uproot a tree has my respect, though when she's out of earshot I'll try to impress anyone who'll listen that I actually ripped the old tree out of the ground with my bare hands. I did contribute by sawing the old trunk off, then dragging the woody carcass to the empty field next to the house. There it can decompose and renew the cycle of life.

Next stage was dragging the root ball out of the ground. This was saturated with water, (one of the factors that killed the old tree is there is a layer of impermeable clay under the topsoil that traps water, in effect drowning the roots), and it weighed one hundred thirty seven tons, give or take an ounce. After seriously considering high explosives or a small thermonuclear device to get this thing out of the ground, I gave it one more mighty heave and it came loose. It was then rolled to the field to give it's all the continuing cycle of life. Though at this point I was hardly waxing poetic, I was just glad to get the damn thing out of the ground.

Time to call it a day. Then Saturday afternoon, with the temperature pushing ninety and the humidity climbing, we decided on the next logical step... get several bags of topsoil and mulch and plant the new tree. I quickly decided the toughest people in the world are anyone who works outside in Houston's hot weather. Step one was digging up as much clay as we could. Clay is another substance that increases in weight by a factor of ten when you need to move it from one place to another. One of my wife's horses, the Percheron especially, would have come in handy pulling the overflowing wheelbarrow the clay was tossed into to the empty lot so I could dump the clay out. Said Percheron has been happy as a clam being a pasture ornament her entire life. So if I even suggested putting her to work you would have seen a horse rolling on the ground in laughter.

Thus I ended up pulling and cussing the wheelbarrow to the field to dump the clay.

Next step was planting the new tree, then surrounding it with plenty of topsoil and mulch. Naturally the topsoil had packed on quite a few pounds from the time it was loaded into the car to the time it was unloaded. Ditto with the mulch. The tree itself had grown seventy five feet overnight meaning it was also heftier. But when all was said and done, the new tree was in place, except....

.... It was swaying a bit too much in the breeze as we had forgotten to stake it down. So another trip to Walmart to get some stakes and rope. The stakes were pretty tall, but had pointy ends which helped drive them into the ground. But not enough to stay. I got the ladder out to pound them deeper in the ground. In the meantime of course, the stakes had grown to three hundred feet tall so I had to shimmy up each stake, then pound mightily with a mallet to drive them deep enough in the ground to stay put. At that point tying the tree to the stakes was fairly easy, though my wife must have been tempted to lasso then hogtie me at that point.


My next project will be expanding the flower bed out back. This is lined with enough building stones to create a respectable castle, most of which I already moved into place for the existing flower bed. For some reason I keep hearing the Chain Gang song in my head.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Nano nano

One of the more intriguing, and mysterious technologies is nano technology. At its most basic, this is the design of microscopic machines that can perform specific tasks. For example, these tiny critters could be lurking beneath a layer of paint on a car door. The door gets dinged, and the nano beasts go into action, releasing bits of composite materials to fill the ding and then fill in the scratch with new paint. Pretty spiffy, unless there was a screw up at the factory and your "hey look at me" bright red BMW starts sporting neon pink splotches. Though if intentional that would be a neat way to get back at an obnoxious BMW owner, which is all of them.

Taking this a step farther, it's not beyond the realm of possibility to design nano technology so you can change the shape and function of your car. Just think of the fun you could have with an iPod type of device that remotely controls your car's shape:

Big Ass Truck - Mandatory in Texas, Colorado, and Wyoming. Absolutely ridiculous in San Francisco, though if you are driving in form one the fore mentioned states, you would have the option of morphing your Big Ass Truck into a Prius.

The Prius option is also handy when you're not actually hauling something in the truck, like lumber, top soil, rustled cattle, or bratty children you pray will fall out when you hit a pot hole. You would also want the Prius when gas hits $100 a gallon. But when gas is relatively cheap, you have other options, such as:

Ferrari - Perfect for impressing your neighbors, (except in Texas where if it ain't a big ass truck or Dodge Charger it doesn't count), or for that mid life crisis. The Ferrari option is also handy for a parent of a teenager who wants to borrow the car to impress his girlfriend. Kid pulls up to the girl's house in the Ferrari, revving the engine of course to show he's not only cool, but he has class. Kid dashes to the door, his girlfriend swoons when she sees the ride that's taking them to Burger King, they passionately embrace, then turn around to see... Dad had set a timer to turn the Ferrari into a station wagon. Totally uncool. Girl dumps the kid, kid is devastated, dad chortles with glee.

Another option, Prius to drive through town saving lots of gas and making a statement, "I'm saving energy, creating almost no pollution, at least until the batteries have to be replaced and I'm out at least eight thousand big ones for new ones while trying to find a place to take the highly toxic old batteries." However, upon seeing the freeway onramp and traffic being close up and personal in every direction to the horizon, you press a button while muttering, "Screw the environment crap and Al Gore can stuff it."

Presto! You are now driving an M-1 Abrams tank. If it was good enough to kick Saddam Hussein's rear, it's good enough for say Houston rush hour traffic. Just be sure you spent the extra to get the functioning 120 millimeter gun, and the ammo of course, since you can be sure anyone else on the road with the means has already done so. Also be sure after returning home to change it back to the Prius, especially before parking in the garage or you'll have a whole of of explaining to do.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Microsoft Almost Gets It Right

I've used Microsoft Windows in its many iterations since the early 90's, and for the most part found it tolerable, with the exception of Millennium, which ranks with the Titanic and Hindenburg as one of the great technology disasters of the century. I'm a self admitted geek who enjoys tinkering with hardware and software, sometimes with nightmarish consequences, but details. I found Windows XP to be the best of Microsoft's operating systems, as it was more stable, (stable being a relative term), more flexible and easier to customize than its predecessors.

My laptop came with Vista preinstalled, and it took a lot of tweaks to get it to run the way I wanted. It also has some issues with stability and odd quirks like timing out my internet connection if I don't do something like click on a weblink every 15 minutes, though that could also be HP's way of saying their tech support in Bangalore is lonely and they want me to call.

So I was curious but not terribly excited when Windows 7 was announced. Curiosity got me to download a beta version. I installed it in Virtual PC on my desktop, (another Microsoft product, and a freebie, that allows one to set up a virtual computer inside an existing operating system. It actually works quite well). It looked nice and didn't have any horrendous compatibility problems with my most important software.

Then last week a new beta, or to be accurate, release candidate, was available for download. This time I went for the 64 bit version, to finally take advantage of the 64 bit cpu AMD so proudly released several years ago. I also set my desktop up for dual boot, and fortunately I have two hard drives so Windows 7 and XP could have their own homes.

To be honest, I'm rather impressed. The computer certainly runs faster in Windows 7, there have been no issues with stability, and my existing software runs either at the same pace as in XP or in some cases, such as my ancient version of Office, runs faster. The only disappointment is it will not run older 16 bit programs, such as some of my games, or my ancient but still favorite word processor, PFS Works. However, I successfully installed Sun's VirtualBox, another virtual computer program, then installed Windows 2000, which will run my old programs.

So why VirtualBox instead of Virtual PC? Well, the existing version of Virtual PC doesn't run in Windows 7. However, there is a new beta version that does. And it includes Windows XP so older programs can run. So why am I not using it? I can't on my desktop. Unfortunately, the new Virtual PC requires a bios setting for Hardware Virtualization. I built my desktop before that was available. So to take full advantage of Windows 7 when it's released commercially, I'll need a new motherboard that has Hardware Virtualization. This will also mean a new cpu since my existing one won't work with a new motherboard. Neither will the memory, or much of anything else. So I'll be looking at building a new computer.

And afterwards, the hope will be it'll all be worth it.

Friday, May 1, 2009

As Long As My In-Laws Weren't Involved

The British have a reputation for being staid with enough oddity thrown in to keep things interesting. And to save my skin, I will refrain from making any comments about my English born and raised wife. Anyway, once in a while an enticing event will take place, such as this one from the other day:

Queen Elizabeth II was at home at Windsor Castle, the sentries who guard her were on duty, and the large park surrounding the magnificent building was full of tourists on a Sunday afternoon. So it didn't take long for people to realize that something was out of order when an inebriated couple arrived from a nearby restaurant and began having sex on a grass bank outside the castle, according to witnesses.

"One window from the guardroom opened up and when a soldier saw what was going on he told his mates — and lots of windows opened up," witness Mark Robinson told The Sun newspaper.

"The couple did not care who was looking and just kept going as if they were in their own bedroom."

Japanese tourists filmed the couple, who only stopped when police officers arrived on the scene, witnesses said.

Thames Valley Police said the man and woman were arrested and given a written warning about outraging public decency.

The queen was in the castle at the time, but her office declined Friday to comment about what had happened.

Two things to keep an eye on, Youtube of course, and a statement from the Queen, "Please don't tell me any of my offspring were involved." As for the couple making whoopie, it looks like not only did they "Do carry on," but they actually did.