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October 2004 - Posts

Product activation horror
I got a shiny new CPU and motherboard this week, which required that I reinstall Windows to get it to boot (and by reinstall I mean "repair"). All was going well until I had to reactivate Windows. It wouldn't let me logon until I did so. The problem was, of course, that it couldn't connect to the Internet because the new network drivers weren't installed.

I had to call. For reasons I don't understand, the automated process failed, so I had to wait for a human. I waited 20 minutes. Unbelievable.

I don't have a problem with product activation, and as someone that owns a little IP, I understand Microsoft wants to protect its products. However, when the design of the product activation creates major inconveniences, it's broken. There has to be a better way.
Posted: Oct 15 2004, 11:43 AM by Jeff | with 3 comment(s)
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Hardware upgrade bliss
Against my better judgment and my business income, I bought an Nvidia 6800GT video card last week. At $400, it's more or less their top-of-the-line card right now (save for one higher that gets only slightly better performance). In my history of buying 3D cards, going back to the amazing Rendition cards that threatened 3Dfx at the time, I've generally only bought cards when they came down to the $150-200 level. This time I was planning on the $300 model, which had less memory. Then CompUSA had the sign there about getting Doom 3 for free with it, and Stephanie told me, "Just buy it."

Of course, I theorized that I might be CPU bound with a two-year-old Athlon 2000+, and this was more or less the case. So after great success with a mobile Athlon in my HTPC, I decided to buy one for me.

This thing is so easy to overclock that it's like getting twice the chip for half the price. I'm pushing the 2600+ (spec'd for 2 GHz) to 2.4 GHz without a problem. From the benchmarks I've seen, this puts the performance about on par with a P4 3.2 GHz, only the P4 sells for more than twice as much.

I also have to give great props to the Thermaltake Silent Boost heatsink/fan (along with Ceramique thermal compound). Even though I'm overclocking, it runs really quiet and idles around 45 degrees C. My old CPU idled at 49! Now if I can just get the other five case fans (plus the power supply, motherboard chipset and graphics fans) to be a little more quiet!

I'm thrilled to be getting 45 fps in Doom 3 at 1280x1024, with all options on 4x anti-aliasing. Believe the hype... it's beautiful and scary. This is the most interesting shooter visually since Half-Life.

I also have a preview build of RollerCoaster Tycoon 3 that Atari was good enough to send me for review on CoasterBuzz. It runs reasonably well at high resolution, maxing at 100 fps on an empty screen, but it does get bogged down into the 30's with busy maps. I suspect there are a lot of tweaks that were made for the gold release, seeing as how this build appears a month older that the released demo. They really polished up the UI!

This is a great season for games, probably the best ever. Stephanie has a list longer than mine. While I'm geeked up for RCT3 and Halo 2, she's playing Sims 2 and Leisure Suit Larry, and looks forward to Bloodrayne 2 and others.
Posted: Oct 13 2004, 11:09 AM by Jeff | with 1 comment(s)
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The challenge of teaching ASP.NET
I think about how people learn ASP.NET. I think about it a lot lately, because I'm trying to step away from my book and ask myself if my approach will cause light bulbs to appear over the heads of developers trying to learn the platform. There isn't much time for change at this point, but I still think about it.

In reading a lot of books over the last couple of years, I've started to notice a pattern. Most ASP.NET books are written with the assumption that the reader has a formal education in computer science or at the very least extensive experience with some other platform. My experience out in the world, including my own, is that few Web developers have that heritage. It would appear that most got into the field as a totally new career choice, probably within the last five years. The difference in experience might be subtle after many years of work, but I do think it merits a harder look at the approach used to reach these two audiences.

I'm not suggesting everything should be a For Dummies book, but I think even many beginning books either jump right in without providing context ("you do this because...") or they start talking about too much too soon ("ASP.NET page requests are handled by an HttpHandler...").

As I get more involved in the community I see myself getting like this, and I have to slow myself down. I don't know if I'll write another book, but I do expect that I'll be involved with some level of face-to-face teaching from time to time. I think it's critical that authors and publishers make sure that we still serve this market, because clearly it's huge (judging by the questions asked in various forums). It's critical to the developing market that is coming with the Express tools as well.
Posted: Oct 11 2004, 09:39 PM by Jeff | with 1 comment(s)
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BeyondTV: This is great software
Snapstream released BeyondTV v3.5 last week, and I immediately loaded it to my HTPC. It isn't that often that I get real excited about software I'm not involved with, but this, my friends, is great software.

The previous version was pretty good overall, and works great with the MPEG capture/tuner card I got with it. The new version just feels a little more polished in terms of UI and features. The "smart skip" that finds commercials and allows you to blow passed them with one click on the remote is awesome (I have the Firefly remote, which they also make). They have an affordable package that includes BTV, the capture card and the remote. They also have cable kits to control DirecTV receivers.

The .Net connection: The Web-based admin is ASP.NET based and can be modified.

I was skeptical that I could build a PC that really just worked, using nothing but the remote. Aside from ITunes, it basically does work with the remote, and that's all I need. All DVR and DVD functionality is accessed via the remote in a manner that's as simple as using a satellite TV tuner. It has really changed how we watch TV, and I'm curious to see how this phenomemon forces broadcast television to evolve. Bandwidth for true on-demand video isn't there yet, and broadcast isn't going to shrivel up and die overnight (well, radio might, since it sucks anyway).

I love good software. I wish there was more of it.
Posted: Oct 10 2004, 10:54 PM by Jeff | with no comments
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Author perk
I guess now that it's listed on Amazon, everyone knows that my book is being published by Addison-Wesley. I got a nice little surprise on my last call with the publisher when they offered to send me some of their current books. That's a nice little perk!

It's a little intimidating too, because most of these other authors are far more clever than I am. It's tough company. These guys have been code monkeys for a long time, whereas I've been doing this (well, professionally anyway) for only about six years. I'm not so worried that I don't know what I'm doing as much as I'm worried that I'm not effectively translating what I know and can present in front of people to something that works on paper.

I was thinking about drawing up a proposal for another book, one that combined a narrative of "growing up" as a programmer and the evolution of some piece of software, perhaps my forum app. The last part of the book might flesh out the design decisions and patterns of the app. I don't know how interesting it would be or if anyone would buy it, but I imagine there are a lot of people out there that would think, "If this guy can do it, so can I!" Empowering other people while exposing your own vulnerabilities is very much a feel-good experience. Since I don't have a CS degree, I'd at least be putting my journalism degree to good use!
Posted: Oct 07 2004, 04:58 PM by Jeff | with no comments
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Video card benchmarks are useless
In the dissatisfaction with my current rig's 3D performance, I'm starting to strongly believe that the CPU is the bottleneck. I think this because the difference in frame rates doesn't change much from one resolution to the next. I have an older Athlon 2000+ (1.66 GHz) and a GeForce FX 5600 card.

So I've been researching the parts out there right now. The problem is this: The hardware sites benchmark this stuff with high-end CPU's. Sorry, but even if I upgrade my CPU and motherboard (an inexpensive thing to do these days), I'm not going to buy an Athlon 64 3800.

Right now it looks like I can upgrade my CPU and motherboard to something like a mobile Athlon XP 2600+ (over-clocked lots) for around $150. I don't know what kind of impact that will have on my existing video card, but I'm guessing it won't be great. Video card upgrades, those that aren't little incremental upgrades, pretty much rest with the Nvidia 6800's ($300) and the 6800 Ultra's ($400). I'm not really that geeked to spend that much.
Posted: Oct 07 2004, 04:47 PM by Jeff | with no comments
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ASP.NET vulnerability: I'm disappointed
By now you've heard about the alleged vulnerability in forms auth-protected folders. I'm ridiculously disappointed that this wasn't caught years ago because it's not entirely unlike the worm vulnerabilities of 2001 in terms of messing with the URL to get to naughty stuff.

In all fairness, I can't duplicate the exploit that someone sent me, but apparently someone can or it wouldn't have Microsoft's fullest attention.

I hope there's a fix soon, like tomorrow.
Posted: Oct 06 2004, 02:05 PM by Jeff | with 5 comment(s)
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Getting the hardware tweak monkey bug
Quite by accident, I bought for my HTPC what apparently is the CPU over-clocker's favorite board for AMD processors, A-Bit's NF7-S. My criteria for buying the board was just that it had an optical audio output to hook up to my Sony receiver for DVD's. With it I bought a mobile Athlon XP 2400+ because a lot of users reported it running cooler than normal Athlons. It also happens to be unlocked, so you can clock it as you wish. This good accident was matched with another good accident, in buying a really good cooler for the thing.

The last good accident was that I unintentionally clocked it at 2.0 GHz, though it's spec'd for 1.8 GHz. So for $77, I'm getting roughly Intel P4 2.6 GHz performance for about $70 less, and I don't even need that performance for playing iTunes, DVD's and Beyond TV shows.

So now I'm getting all geeked up about this over-clocking stuff, and the crazy cooling schemes people use to make these things sing. Seriously, they spend so much on the cooling gear that they could've just bought the faster CPU to begin with, but I guess that's not the point.

So now I'm tempted to upgrade my office computer, mostly to make the forthcoming RCT3 run at ridiculously high frame rates. Right now I have an old Athlon 2000+ and a not-that-old Nvidia 5600 video card. Simply buying a faster video card may not give me the boost I need if I'm bound by the CPU, so I'm not sure what I'll do. I'd love to get an Athlon 64, but they're still kinda pricey and who knows when 64-bit Windows XP will finally go retail.

Have I mentioned that I'm doing everything but work lately? :)
Posted: Oct 06 2004, 12:37 AM by Jeff | with no comments
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More HTML and text parsing woes
I mentioned last week how I absolutely hate regular expressions, and that rewriting the POP Forums text parsing engine is going to be the death of me (especially to get it to work with FreeTextBox, "forum code" and various mixtures of IE and Mozilla-generated HTML).

I've managed to come up with an OK algorithm that makes sure tags are closed, and do not overlap. If they do overlap, they're properly nested. The challenge is getting block elements right, namely <p> and <blockquote>, to make sure that they appear as they should. So far, I'm sucking at that part pretty bad.

Somewhere just out of reach of my brain, I know I have a fresh solution that will cure cancer, but sitting in front of the two monitors for hours on end is starting to take its toll in terms of me maintaining an attention span. That and I'm supposed to be finishing the book revisions.

I have to keep reminding myself that these are good problems to have. I didn't have to get up early, drive in rush hour or answer to The Man today.
Posted: Oct 05 2004, 02:36 PM by Jeff | with no comments
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SQL Problem solved, it wasn't weird, but the responses were
It's always crazy when you post a question to your blog or a forum when you get everything but what you expected as responses. This happened with my SQL "problem" last night.

First the good news. There was no problem. If you look at the sproc I had, I was sorting correctly when I populated the cursor, but not in the join at the end. Whoops! Can't believe no one caught that.

Anyway, one person came in and said you couldn't sort by a bit field. That obviously wasn't true because I was clearly doing it before. When someone called him on it, he said it wasn't ANSI standard and you should avoid it. Should we avoid using the CLR in SQL 2005 too? It's not ANSI standard. Sometimes I just don't understand how people respond.

Another respondant said using a cursor was a bad idea in his experience, but didn't offer an alternative. The article I linked to makes a pretty strong case for using a cursor to page data. In fact, I searched far and wide on the Web and Usenet to find some kind of quantitative reasoning for this approach, and it's the only one I found. Hey, I'm easily influenced, especially in areas for which I have no significant expertise (like SQL). Show me something better and I'll switch to that. In running this sproc against 30,000 forum topics, it's pretty fast. If I apply a little caching to it, I suspect it will be even faster.

Regardless of the outcome, I love to see people get out there and debate stuff like this. A disadvantage of working alone as your own business is that you otherwise don't have another set of eyeballs to question your work.
Posted: Oct 05 2004, 09:42 AM by Jeff | with 3 comment(s)
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