"Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine." -Rick Blaine
Posted at 8:00 am by RobOHara in Main
Yesterday I noticed my main desktop computer was running slow. Although it should be able to handle it, it’s been running rough ever since I upgraded to Windows 10. I searched Google for “Windows 10 performance tips” and one list I found suggested making sure your BIOS firmware was up to date. I’ve never updated the firmware on that machine, so I downloaded the latest one from Acer’s website and double-clicked on it.
The firmware update unpacked, got 75% done flashing my computer’s firmware… and then, Windows 10 blue-screened on me.
My computer is dead.
I tried moving the CMOS jumper to the “erase” position and back. That didn’t work. I tried removing the CMOS battery and letting it sit for 5 minutes. That didn’t work. Then I let it sit for an hour. That didn’t work, either. I tried a few emergency methods to get the machine to boot from USB, floppy, or anything at all… nothing.
Just like that, it’s dead.
95% of my data is stored either on my server or in the cloud, so I haven’t lost much, if anything — and the hard drive still works, so whatever I’m missing can be plucked off at a later date.
With my tail between my legs, I scrolled through computers on Amazon last night and picked out a new one. Amazon Prime says it will be here Monday. I’m really hoping for Saturday…
This is approximately 1/4th of my Star Wars collection. Although my collection is pretty big, some of my favorite pieces are actually quite small, like this one:
In 1998, having just moved back to Oklahoma from Spokane, I threw a big birthday party — a really big birthday party, with kegs of beer and gobs of food and dozens and dozens of people. One of the party attendees walked through my front door, came right up to me, and handed me this tiny Yoda.
“I brought you this Yoda.”
“Where did it come from?”
“I stole it from Walmart.”
And that was that. A bit of digging revealed that this was one of several miniature PVC figures released by Applause in the mid-to-late 90s. Again, like many things in my collection, it’s the story behind it that I enjoy as much as the item itself. It’s a small Yoda, with a big, fun story. Off the top of my head, out of the hundreds and hundreds of Star Wars items in my collection, this may be the only one I know of that was stolen. If Walmart ever contacts me about it, “return him to the store, I will.”
Posted at 6:00 am by RobOHara in Main
Like most of you, I spent several hours this weekend bringing an old dead DOS computer back to life.
(Wait. You guys didn’t do that this weekend, too? Man, you missed OUT!)
I bought this old desktop machine years ago at a thrift store for (I think) five bucks. The last time I used it was to transfer my old Commodore 64 diskettes to D64 disk images using an original X1541 cable. According to this blog entry, that was ten years ago.
Ten years of sitting hasn’t been good for the machine. The hard drive spun up, but spins more loudly than I remembered. Also, the machine wouldn’t pass POST or display any video at all.
I forgot that this was the machine that had the dead on-board floppy drive controller, which explained why that card was installed. There was also a network card still in the machine. Based on its previous task there was no soundcard in the machine, so I dug around out in the garage until I found one.
While I was swapping things in and out, I decided to pull the 5 1/4″ floppy drive (which was also working once I put the FDD controller in) and replaced it with a CD-ROM drive. I’m not 100% set on this decision, and I wish this case had slots for both. Currently I have very little software on 5 1/4″ floppies, and if I do I can copy the data over to a 3 1/2″ floppy using my FC5025 and a USB 3.5″ floppy drive, or simply copy the floppies over to the machine via the network and use the SUBST command to run them. I do have several DOS CD-ROM programs I want to run, so that’s why I went with the CD-ROM drive for now.
After that, I still couldn’t get the machine to fire up. I think what finally fixed it was re-seating the RAM.
Once the computer was up and running, I copied Rogue over to it and played a quick game. Rogue is my “go to” DOS game. It doesn’t have sound and doesn’t require a joystick or a mouse, so it’s a quick one to fire up for testing purposes. The game ran, I played it for a few minutes, and was quickly bashed to death by an Orc on level 8. Stupid Orcs.
The machine dual boots between Windows 98 and DOS.
TO DO list for later this week:
– Configure networking (both in DOS and Windows 98)
– Tweak config.sys/autoexec.bat (free up RAM)
– Track down soundcard drivers
– Install USB card; get USB working in DOS (for software transfers)
– Install modem?
Posted at 10:00 am by RobOHara in Main
I got hired at Best Buy based on the computer knowledge I already had. The store I applied to only had two computer tech positions, and both were filled. Instead I worked in the computer and software departments for several months until one of the two techs quit. I moved into the repair booth the next day.
My job in the tech booth was to do whatever customers asked me to do. We had a posted list of services we offered like hardware installation and virus removal, and for $50/hour, we would do just about anything they asked.
Today when we connect USB devices to our computers, “things just work.” Occasionally we may have to provide drivers, but more often than not, our computers just figure out what’s going on and take care of things for us. This was not the case in 1995. In 1995, people purchased modems and took them home and spent a day or two struggling with DMA and IRQ settings and jumpers and COM ports and an entire spaghetti mess of commands and drivers and installation files before throwing in the towel, throwing the whole mess in their car, and bringing it all back to Best Buy for people like me to fix.
Customers at the booth were split evenly between men and women. Men usually came in seeking help with hardware installation. Women usually needed help installing software. Almost daily, women would come up to the booth with their giant desktop PC inside a shopping cart and a game that they bought for their kid that they couldn’t get to run. After paying $50 for a new PC game, they would pay Best Buy $29.95 to install it for them. Think about that.
(For what it’s worth, women most frequently dropped off their computers and would then go shopping, while men would stand at the booth the entire time “picking our brains.”)
Without getting into the nitty-gritty details, computers back then running DOS had 640k of conventional memory to work with. Every driver you loaded into memory came out of that 640k chunk, so your CD-ROM driver might use 20k, a mouse driver might use another 10k, and so on. It wasn’t uncommon to end up with somewhere around 550k of free conventional memory after loading all your drivers. Most of the games provided the amount of free conventional RAM it required to install and run — a number that (a) almost no customer ever knew, and (b) few customers had the knowledge to change. Putting a sticker on the side of California Games informing customers that the game required 565kb of conventional RAM meant nothing to anyone, until they got it home and discovered it wouldn’t run.
There were a lot of different ways to free up space within that 640k block of memory. You had upper memory, extended memory, memory managers, and all kinds of tricks that sometimes worked together, but more often than not caused conflicts. Some games wouldn’t work without expanded memory and others wouldn’t work with it. In regards of “ease of use” for average customers, it was a pretty awful time. By loading drivers “high” you could move some of them into an additional 384k block of reserved memory, but that was all you had to work it.
And so, every day, people brought their computers into Best Buy with a defeated look on their face, asking me to install games for them. They would drop their computer off in the booth and go shopping while I worked on installing the game for them. (I would also typically make a copy of the game for myself, but that’s a story for another time.)
Modifying the configuration on people’s computers was very tedious and time consuming. Microsoft had a command called MEMMAKER that was supposed to automate the process, but more often than not it just made matters worse. Sometimes MEMMAKER would get one game to work and break others they already had installed. I spent a lot of time manually shuffling people’s drivers around in memory and performing all sorts of tricks in order to make their games work.
And then I discovered Multimedia Cloaking, from Helix.
Even if your old DOS computer had 4, 8, or a whopping 16 megs of RAM, by default, all of your drivers resided in that little 640k block of conventional memory (and 384k of upper memory), which wasn’t a lot of room. There was no way to load your drivers into extended memory (all that other RAM you paid for!), but that’s exactly what Helix’s Multimedia Cloaking did.
You can read the technical details on Wikipedia if you want, but here’s the takeaway. Instead of taking up 20k of that precious 640k for your CD-ROM drivers, Helix was able to load a 1k driver into conventional RAM and put another driver up into extended memory, where there was lots of free space. The small driver communicated with the larger driver, and DOS was none the wiser. Helix’s Multimedia Cloaking replaced three commonly used drivers that took up a lot of conventional memory (CD-ROM, mouse, and smart drive), which freed up a lot of conventional memory — enough to make most games run.
You didn’t have to understand any of this to use the product. All you had to do was buy the program (probably $50), install it, and Helix would replace all your default drivers with its own updated ones, reconfigure your autoexec.bat and config.sys files, and you would be good to go. Instantly you would free up another 30-40k of conventional memory. It was a miracle program.
What I discovered was while I was spending all of my time in the tech booth struggling to manually edit people’s configuration files, the other computer tech was simply installing Helix software on customer’s computers. He had found the software over in our software department and had brought it to the booth and begun installing it on customer’s computers. It worked, and so he did it again, and again, and again.
If you brought your computer to our Best Buy location in the mid-90s needing help with getting a game to run, chances are you left with a working game and a pirated copy of Helix’s Multimedia Cloaking software.
I always remember this story when I read news articles or hear about companies doing “something” unethical. Often it is the actions of one single employee that get applied to the entire company. Had the two of us been caught or if someone had complained, I’m sure the story would have been “Best Buy installing pirated software on customer computers,” when in reality Best Buy had no knowledge of what we were up to.
Posted at 12:00 pm by RobOHara in Main
I got my first record player when I was five or six years old, a little white unit that looked like it came from the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey. While I owned a few records of my own (we’re talking the Star Wars picture disc and Alvin and the Chipmunks’ Christmas album), most of what I listened to was pilfered from my parents’ record collection: Blondie, Led Zeppelin, and Jimi Hendrix albums. For my 8th birthday I got a boombox with a cassette deck and spent a few years acquiring music in both formats. The last vinyl albums I recall buying were the soundtracks to Beat Street and Breakin’, both released in 1984. By seventh grade (1985), I was exclusively buying cassettes. That’s the same year I got my first “all-in-one” integrated stereo system, complete with a record player, two cassette decks, and a radio tuner.
My dad purchased a Sony Discman in 1989 and my buddy Jeff got a CD-playing boombox for Christmas in 1990. Before I had my own CD player I would buy CDs and listen to them on their players. The first CDs I purchased were Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me by The Cure, Violent Femmes’ self-titled debut album, and a radio promo CD full of anti-littering/pro-recycling blurbs from celebrities, which made my list of the five worst CDs I own. Sometime in 1991 I got my own dual CD/cassette boombox. Even then, I continued buying cassettes. I definitely recall owning both Pearl Jam’s 10 and Nirvana’s Nevermind (both released in 1991) on cassette.
I’ve told this story before, but at some point I acquired a big padded cassette carrier that held a whopping 60 cassettes (30 on each side). That thing was filled with 60 of my favorite albums, with one side filled with heavy metal albums and the other side full of rap and alternative tapes. I kept that carrier in my car at all times, and in 1992, someone busted out my window and stole it. Instead of replacing old cassettes with new cassettes, that’s when I started buying CDs.
With a vengeance.
In 1993 Jeff built me a slipshod set of shelves for my CDs. The makeshift box had three sets of shelves, each one holding approximately 50 CDs. My goal at that time was to own 150 CDs, mostly because the shelves wobbled less when each one was full.
By 1998, I had close to a thousand.
Regular readers know that I have attachment issues to “things,” and CDs are things. Not all, but I can recall where and when I purchased many of the CDs I own. I waited in line in Weatherford to buy Pantera’s Vulgar Display of Power the day it came out. I bought Cypress Hill’s first album from the used pile at Rainbow Records. I picked up the first Presidents of the United States disc the day before I went on my first work trip for the FAA, and listened to it the entire time.
I don’t have a single memory attached to any of the mp3s I’ve downloaded.
In 2007 I began ripping every one of my CDs to MP3. I’ve talked about this project before. It took me several years. After ripping them all, the goal was to sell them. I couldn’t do it. They made it as far as the garage, where they sit today in large 30-gallon tubs. Four of them.
When I originally began converting my CDs I did them in 128k, considered today to be a relatively low bitrate. Halfway through the project I switched to 192k. If I were starting today I would either use 320k or simply rip them to FLAC (no pun intended), a lossless format that maintains the complete audio integrity of the original. When I downloaded my first mp3s, space was a premium; today, one-terabyte drives are the norm, if not small. Then again, isn’t that always the way?
My kids have no concept of “an album” — their world revolves around radio hits and single mp3s. My kids have never owned a real CD, but know how to find (and I can only assume, download) songs from YouTube.
Excluding devices integrated into our computers, we own two CD boomboxes — both are tiny, covered in dust, and sitting out in the garage. We own at least three or four Blu-tooth speakers that can play music when connected to an iAnything. I own the only cassette deck in the house, a dual Kenwood component deck connected to my computer for converting cassette tapes to mp3s. All three of our cars have CD players in them. I’ve never checked to see if either of the ones in my truck or my car even work.
Posted at 8:00 am by RobOHara in Main, Writing
Professor Chester, the instructor of my novel writing class this semester, suggested we keep a journal documenting our experience. I decided to set up another WordPress site over write.RobOHara.com for this purpose.
If you’re interested in keeping tabs on how my first novel is going, you’ll find updates there. I also set up a mailing list for the site, so that you will be notified via email each time I post a new entry. Whoever is on either of my mailing lists (that one or the one here) will receive a free electronic copy of my novel at the end of the semester.
Posted at 8:00 am by RobOHara in Main
RobOHara.com has finally moved to the cloud.
I set up my first website back in 1995, using a local hosting company (TheShop.net). When I moved to Spokane in 1996, I moved to NextDim.com and set up home there. (My NextDim.com URL was mentioned in this interview with the Spokesman Review back in 1997.) In 2001 I set up a web server at my house and registered the free URL forwarder welcome.to/TheOHaras, which was the genesis of this site. In 2004 I registered RobOHara.com, and the rest was history.
Back then, it didn’t make sense to pay someone else to host my websites when I could do it at home for free. Today, it doesn’t make sense not to. My buddy Sean turned me on to HostGator last year, and for $10/month I can host an unlimited number of websites with unlimited bandwidth and unlimited storage. Last fall I moved SpriteCastle.com, Review-o-matic.com, and LoveThyShelf.com over to HostGator, and based on how things have been going, I have now moved RobOHara.com there too. That also includes podcast.RobOHara.com (the home of You Don’t Know Flack and write.RobOHara.com, my new writing journal.
One thing I forgot is that while Windows isn’t case sensitive, Linux is. Because of that, lots and lots of links to pictures and pages on RobOHara.com are currently broken. If you find broken links, please send me a message and let me know where you were and what the link was to. I’m fixing them as quickly as I find them but I fear it could be literally years before I find and fix them all.
It has been a long time (over a decade and a half) since I trusted someone else with hosting my website. Over the years I have created backup jobs, rotated out hard drives, installed a battery backup, and put lots of time and effort into keeping this website online. It feels a little strange to relinquish that control, but I think I’m in good hands. Plus, giving up the technical side of things will allow me to spend more time writing.
Depending on your level of Star Wars knowledge, you may be baffled by today’s choice. The Draconian Marauder, of course, is not from Star Wars at all. It’s from Buck Rogers.
While Kenner’s line of Star Wars action figures didn’t invent the 3 3/4″ scale, it quickly and definitively solidified it as a standard. Within just a few years of the original Star Wars line, figures for The Black Hole, Clash of the Titans, Lone Ranger, Flash Gordon, Dungeons and Dragons, CHiPs, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lord of the Rings, M*A*S*H, G.I. Joe, and a whole slew of others, including Buck Rogers (and of course the original Fisher Price Adventure People, which pre-date Kenner’s figures). Many of these toy lines also had play sets and vehicles (including spaceships), and since they were all the same size, they were all interchangeable. This allowed wounded Wookies to visit the M*A*S*H unit, Han and Leia to take a vacation in my Adventure People van, and occasionally, bad guys to fly around in the Draconian Marauder.
I remember that the Draconians were the bad guys in Buck Rogers, but that’s about it. I don’t remember who flew this ship, or anything else about it, really. It looks like a bad guy’s version of an X-Wing fighter, and that’s what I used it for. When Luke would hop in his X-Wing and take off across the galaxy, I’d cram a bad guy inside this thing and send it off after him.
Like Star Wars toys, this ship had a cockpit that opened so that a figure could sit inside. Unlike Kenner’s line of toys, this ship (and many other non-Kenner playsets) seemed to be more fragile. I’m lucky that my ship still has all the major pieces (including the landing gear and rockets) attached. Most of the ones you see these days do not.
I’ve owned this ship since I was a kid, but I don’t remember who bought it for me — probably a well-meaning friend or relative who thought “he probably has everything related to Star Wars, so let’s get him something else.” I didn’t mind at all, and a few of these non-canon ships made their way into my pretend Star Wars playtime.
Posted at 7:00 am by RobOHara in Main
Yesterday I mentioned the concept of “pretend profits vs. true profits.” These are terms I made up to describe the discrepancy between how much money I thought I was making selling books vs. how little money I ended up making. (In reality, what we’re talking about is “net. vs. gross” income, but I like these terms better.)
When I first began selling copies of Commodork, Lulu.com (the company that printed my copies) ran a sale. By ordering 30 copies, I could get the price of each one down to $5. I sell paperback copies of my books for $15. That price gave me a profit of $10 per book.
A pretend profit, that is.
The very first place I sold paperback copies of Commodork was at 2006’s Oklahoma Video Game Expo in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I took all thirty copies of Commodork with me to Tulsa, and between friends and family, I sold about ten of them. Wahoo! At ten dollars profit per copy, that was a hundred bucks profit!
Of course, what I hadn’t figured in was any of my expenses. For starters, I drove my Chevy Avalance to and from the show. That’s approximately 220 miles, round trip. According to my notes gas was $2.75 a gallon that summer, so the drive itself cost me $40 in gas — plus I rented a hotel room, which cost me $80. That $100 sure went quick! In addition to those expenses I had a banner printed, bought a bunch of candy, a purchased a few items for a drawing. So sure, in pretend profits, I made $100. In true profits, I didn’t even break even.
The following month, I drove to Chicago and attended the Emergency Chicago Commodore Convention (ECCC) and sold books there, too. I sold another ten books! Another $100 in pretend profits! Let’s not count the $300 in gas, among other expenses.
My hardest lesson in this came when I began selling my eBooks through Amazon. At that time, Amazon kept 35% of the profits on any book that sold for $2.99 or more, and a whopping 70% for any book that sold for less than that. I originally priced my eBooks at $0.99 each. For each one I sold, Amazon kept 70 cents before sending the remaining 30 cents to PayPal. Unfortunately for me, PayPal had a 35 cent handling fee plus 3.5%. That meant they were going to charge me a total of 36 cents to transfer me my 30 cents in profit, which meant for each book sold I was going to lose six cents. Fortunately Amazon has a safeguard in place to prevent this from happening; instead, they only sent me my money after I sold two books. Each time I sold two books for a total of $2 (combined), Amazon kept $1.40, PayPal got $0.38, and I got $0.37. For the record, this is why I raised the price of my books to $2.99 — to specifically escape from this issue.
If you’re selling books (or anything for that matter) as a fun hobby, then “pretend profits” are fine. If you’re looking to make a living doing something, you may need to take a closer look at the “true profits.”
Posted at 7:00 am by RobOHara in Main
A customer of mine recently informed me that he found pirated copies of my books illegally available for download on a major torrent website. I’ve run across those same links before myself, usually while searching Google for reviews of my books.
Today’s reality is, people will pirate anything and everything available digitally. And if it’s not available digitally — say, an older book available only in print or an album that was released only on vinyl — they will convert it to a digital format so that they can pirate it. That’s reality. Whether you apply no DRM (digital copy protection) at all to your product, allow whoever distributes your product (Amazon, iTunes) to apply a modicum of DRM to your product, or you implement a level of copy protection so thick and convoluted that it affects even your paying customers (Ubisoft, Sony), people will pirate your stuff.
I was heartbroken the first time I found a link to a pirated copy of my book, mostly because at the time I had just started selling electronic copies of my book for 99 cents on Amazon. I estimate that I spent 200 hours writing, editing, and producing Commodork. After ten years of sales, my “pretend” profits are approaching minimum wage, while my “true” profits are closer to breaking even… almost. (Tomorrow morning I’ll talk about pretend profits vs. true profits.)
Instead of worrying that somebody might possibly pirate your work and simply accepting the fact that they certainly will (because they certainly will), you can start to move forward. To make this simpler for me to deal with, I created a grid containing four possible scenarios. Let’s start with my two favorite groups:
PEOPLE WHO BUY MY BOOKS: Yay! You guys are the best! You are the ones that persuade me to keep writing! Whether you head about my book on one of my podcasts, someone recommended it to you, or you simply found it through Google, you took a chance on me and risked three dollars on me. Often times, these people email me and tell me that they liked the book, and sometimes these people email me and share their own similar experiences with computers. Sometimes it takes me a day or two, but I email every one of these people back. Some of these people, I’ve been emailing for years. I really try to give people their three bucks worth.
And then we have:
PEOPLE WHO ILLEGALLY DOWNLOAD MY BOOKS, READ THEM, AND THEN PAY ME FOR THEM: Also, yay! You guys are just as good as the first group as far as I am concerned! You guys downloaded the book, read it, said to yourself “Hey, I enjoyed that, that was worth a few bucks!” and then PayPaled me some money. We all know there are a lot of horrible self-published (and for that matter, published) books out there. I don’t blame you for adopting the “try before you buy” model. But you guys did the right thing! You tried, and then you buyed (er, bought) the book. Thank you!
Occasionally people in the above group will say to me, “I know three dollars isn’t much,” and they’re right. Three dollars will get you 60% of a large coffee at Starbucks or half of a Taco Bell combo. It’s not about the amount, per se — it’s about the fact that you read the book, you liked the book, and you bought the book. Again, you guys keep me going.
Next up are:
PEOPLE WHO ILLEGALLY DOWNLOAD MY BOOKS BUT DON’T READ THEM: Who cares? If they’re not reading books then chances are these people never will be my customers anyway. If you’ve read Commodork, you know that I spent way too many years of my youth uploading and downloading pirated Commodore 64 games. The fact is, I never would have bought 99% of those games. In the past I’ve downloaded music and movies that I’ve never watched or listened to. It’s all a waste of time, but I get it — pirated media is the currency used by torrent websites. There are people uploading and downloading my book all the time who will never read a page of it. You can’t worry about these people. If anything, I think of these people as advertisers for my products. Hopefully someone in the “try before you buy” group will download one of these torrents, actually read my book, and become a fan!
PEOPLE WHO ILLEGALLY DOWNLOAD MY BOOKS, READ THEM, AND DON’T PAY: While you can’t let things like this keep you from sleeping, I’ll admit, this was the group of people that gave me the most heartburn in the beginning. I’ve had a few people, two or three maybe over the past decade, send me emails bragging about how they downloaded pirated copies of my books and then expect me to engage them in conversation. You know how actions speak louder than words? These people are saying to me, “I stole your book and read it. I didn’t think it was worth three bucks, but I would like to talk to about how much I enjoyed it and also tell you a bunch of stories about my past and continue to converse with you.” If you’re going to steal someone’s hard work then do it, but don’t rub it in a guy’s face.
The takeaway here is that some people buy my books and then read them and some people read my books and then buy them. I love both of those groups. Thank you guys for continuing to support me. When I am writing, you are the people I am writing for. We’re all in this together!
Then we have the people who download my books but don’t read them. Eh.
Finally, we have the people who download my books, read them, don’t pay for them, and occasionally, feel the need to tell me about it. Poop on those people.