"Some ghosts are so quiet you would hardly know they were there." -Bernie Mcgill, The Butterfly Cabinet
Posted at 10:00 pm by RobOHara in Main
A couple of years ago, I fully intended to shut down Review-O-Matic.com. I went as far as to export all 500 reviews from over there, and import them over here in an attempt to “consolidate web stuff.” In retrospect, I never should have done it. It’s two completely different types of content and styles of writing. More isn’t always better, if it’s not a good fit. Also, many of those reviews were written hastily, and do not reflect the quality or style of my current writing.
I just finished making sure all of my reviews that were posted here (at RobOHara.com were over there, and then deleted them from here. I left the master “Review” category in WordPress with about 10 reviews in it. Everything else is back online over at Review-O-Matic. Someday when I have time (ha ha) I may go through and clean up all the grammatical errors in those reviews. But not tonight.
If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, you’ll still see notifications when I post new reviews (which isn’t too often these days). There’s an RSS Feed over there too, in case you’re in to that sort of thing.
Occasionally I’ll go off on a tangent and start collecting some random sub-collection of Star Wars “things.” Such was the case in the late 1990s, when I began collecting Star Wars masks and helmets.
Like most kids, my early Star Wars Halloween costumes consisted of cheap or homemade (or both) costumes combined with plastic masks from the store. I think the year I went as Chewbacca was the only time I ever went as a “good guy” — most of them time, I preferred the Empire. I remember loving this Stormtrooper costume my mom put together for me to death.
Around the time I was in third grade, an uncle of mine gifted me a plastic Darth Vader helmet. It was the kind that came apart in two pieces — one that covered the front half of your face and the helmet part that covered the top and back of your head. The top was held on by a strip of Velcro. Other than the fact that someone had poked out the eye lenses before I got it, the mask was in pretty good shape. I wore it around the house from time to time with sunglasses on under the helmet to hide my eyes. I had a stand for it and eventually I found a couple of rubber eyeballs that I stuffed into its eye sockets. They bulged out and made Vader look like he had been eternally kicked in the nads.
In the late 90s I began purchasing Don Post masks, the cheap ones. Over the span of a few months I had a Biker Scout, Boba Fett, and this Stormtrooper helmet. When The Phantom Menace was released in 1999, I began buying latex masks to go with the helmets. I filled empty three-liter bottles up with water and hung the masks and helmets on top of them. By 2002, this is what my collection looked like:
These masks and helmets looked good out of the box, but weren’t designed to last long (or for rough play). The kids dropped and broke the Biker Scout and Pod Racing helmets. I stored all of the latex masks in my closet on summer and every one of them melted together, looking like the last scene from The Fly. Of all the masks in that picture, the only ones I have left are my Boba Fett helmet, the C-3P0 one (which, despite it’s claims of “one size fits all,” doesn’t), and two Stormtrooper masks, both of which have pretty large cracks in them.
And for some reason, one of them has the eye lenses poked out. Full circle.
Posted at 2:20 pm by RobOHara in Main
I was so upset with myself for destroying my last computer that I forgot one of my own cardinal rules — I like it when hardware dies. When old hardware dies, we replace it with newer, faster hardware!
In keeping with tradition, Vader’s replacement was also given a Star Wars name. All my workstations are named after characters, all my servers are named after planets, and all my laptops are named after ships (because they fly around). Traditionally I would have given this machine a new name, but I’m so used to referring to this machine as Vader (and have a lot of scripts referencing it by name as well) that I decided to name this one Vader as well. After all, Vader was “more machine than man” and was ostensibly rebuilt many times throughout his lifetime — so too is Vader, and now Vader 2.0.
For all you techies, Vader 2.0 is a Lenovo TS140 ThinkServer. I got the i7 3.9 GHz quad-core processor, 32 gigs of RAM, a 128gb SSD C: drive and a 3TB D: drive. It came with a DVD-ROM drive, which I swapped out with the DVD-RW drive from Vader 1.0. I’ve got a few kinks to work out (my old monitors support HDMI/DVI/VGA while Vader 2.0 came with dual DisplayPorts), but for the most part, we’re up and running.
99% of my data is stored either on my server or in the cloud, so I didn’t lose any data. I spent several hours last night and a couple more this morning reinstalling software. For almost everything I was able to install software on the new machine and copy over any latent settings from the old hard drive (which is connected up via a SATA toaster), but one program in particular was giving me fits. CoreFTP stores all of your FTP sites, accounts and settings in the registry, so copying over the configuration files from the old hard drive to the new one doesn’t get any of my old settings. Worse, I don’t think I have all of those settings written down anywhere!
[WARNING: We’re about to get “techy”]
I spent some time searching Google for a way to read the old machines registry and it took me a while to stumble upon the right phrasing. Technically what I was trying to do was read an offline registry hive, and once I figured out that phrasing, finding a solution was relatively simple. There are a few programs out there that will read registry files from a USB-connected hard drive that is not booted. The first one I found, “Registry Tool,” costs $34.95. I was desperate, but not that desperate. The next one I found, MiTeC’s Windows Registry Recovery, was free. As my dad would say, “free is better.”
Again, it took me some guesswork to figure out just how to do what it was I wanted to do, which was export my previous CoreFTP settings and get them into my new machine. (For the record, if you Google “transfer CoreFTP settings from one machine to another,” every single hit tells you to use CoreFTP’s export/import feature, something I couldn’t do since the old machine is dead.) Once I found the registry key containing the CoreFTP settings (in NTUser.dat under your old account’s profile, in case you’re looking…) I was able to export that key, manually edit the exported .reg file with the new SID account on Vader 2.0, and get my old sites and accounts imported.
(I told you this was a techy one.)
Everything else for the most part has been a breeze. By the end of today I expect to have everything I need reinstalled, just in time to edit a new episode of Sprite Castle tonight and get back to working on my novel tomorrow morning.
Long live Vader 2.0!
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.