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Carmax and the No-Haggle Revolution

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The last Sunday of April, 2001, Carol and I stopped at a Toyota dealership on the way home from church. We’d been thinking about a new car for some time. Our 1996 Jeep Grand Cherokee was not all that old, but it was a lemon and had become increasingly unreliable. We’d been considering the 4Runner and wanted to test-drive one. So we pulled into the dealer lot, and swung back the big glass door leading into a uniqely American vision of Purgatory. Six hours later, we emerged with a new 4Runner, and a solemn promise to one another that we would never do that again.

We’ve kept that promise.

It wasn’t easy. Carol and I did our homework. We scoured the Web for reviews, asked our mechanic and our nephew Matt, who’s a car hobbyist, and generally kept our ears open. We knew what we needed: A full-size SUV to replace our almost 20-year-old Plymouth Voyager minivan. The Voyager was 2WD, and the winters here in Colorado have been getting colder, grayer, and snowier. Our local government is throwing that classic extortion tantrum of selectively witholding public services until we raise taxes on ourselves, in this case refusing to plow streets in well-off neighborhoods like ours. Voters here do not bully easily, and have given them the finger three times in a row now, which still leaves us the problem of winter driving in a 2WD minivan. Winter this year basically began on November 1, which we took to be a Sign. We needed to trade in the van for something with a tranfer case. We were not going to do it by enduring another six hours of franchise dealership kabuki.

Our first thought was to use the Costco car-buying program. This is a no-haggle arrangement whereby the dealers and Costco agree on a price for each model and option. You ask for the price, and if you want the car, you pay it. That sounded fine to us. We used their Web site and contacted the Costco liaison at the big local Dodge dealer. We told him we wanted a 2014 Dodge Durango with our list of must-have and nice-to-have features. The guy did his best (I think) but didn’t come up with much.

Part of that was the odd list of features we wanted. Some, like a lack of second-row captain’s chairs, clustered in the two lower trim styles. Others, like a power liftgate, clustered in the higher trim styles. The color we wanted (a golden beige they call Pearl) seemed not to exist. The whites and reds did exist, but swam in a sea of black. You can get second-degree burns off a black car in Scottsdale, where we may soon be spending winters. Black was thus a deal-killer. We found a couple of contenders ourselves in the central Dodge inventory listings. The cars were on the far side of Denver. I emailed the listings to the Costco rep at the local Dodge dealer, who then had trouble getting the remote dealership to cooperate.

In the meantime, our nephew Matt suggested that we look at used cars. He’d bought a used Jeep through TrueCar and was delighted with it. I’d heard about CarMax, and had driven past their local retail location a number of times. So Carol and I looked at their inventory online, found a couple of cars that weren’t too far from what we wanted, and figured we’d give their system a try.

CarMax is a car-lot no-haggle system for buying used cars. We emailed a request for a test drive, and one of their reps contacted us and set up an appointment. We went out there and we drove ourselves a Durango. The car was a 2013, and whereas it drove very well, it had 27,000 miles on it and a V8 hemi under the hood. Carol and I wanted a V6 with under 15,000 miles on it. The CarMax rep, Derek Scott, scanned around other CarMax locations and found a couple of possibilities, again, up in the Denver area. He offered to have the best of them brought down to Colorado Springs at no charge so we could try it here.

He did. It took only two days. We drove it, we liked it, he stated a price, appraised the Voyager for a trade-in, and gave us a final number. We arranged financing, then went back the next day to push papers, and finally drove it home. No kabuki. No pressure. Sure, I might have gotten it for a thousand bucks less somewhere else (maybe) after another week or two of enduring the franchise dealership hell-hole. We felt disinclined to put ourselves through that wringer again.

So now we have a 2014 Durango Limited with 12,000 miles on it. We like the tan interior for the same reason we wanted a tan exterior–less heat absorption. The vehicle didn’t have a tow package, but it met all of our other requirements. I can get a real Mopar tow package installed for about $750, which I will when things settle down a little. (Our next assignment: Get new phones and a new carrier. Uggh.)

About CarMax I have nothing but the best to say. Their people were terrific (especially Derek Scott) and showed no impatience with us whatsoever. They brought out a car from another store without charging us for it, and gave us about what I expected for a 19-year-old minivan trade-in. Highly recommended.

I wonder, at this point, how long the traditional franchise dealership model would last if it were not protected by state law. I settled for a used car instead of a new car in part because I wanted nothing to do with a dealership. Even when I tried to work with a dealership (via Costco) the other dealerships didn’t seem to want the business. We would have replaced the Voyager years ago if we could have stomached the thought of going new car shopping as the law requires us to do it. I don’t think that the dealers, the manufacturers, nor the government itself have any idea how much that dealership kabuki has lost the industry in new car sales. It’s another example of a brittle business model that will fail badly when it fails, because its proponents can’t get their heads around the way their world is going.

I can’t say much about the car just yet. I’m still trying to program its multitude of options. (The Durango’s 626-page owner’s manual has to be special-ordered in print form and is not shipped with the vehicle.) It’s big, shiny, and so far works perfectly. I guess that’s more than enough for the time being.

Let There Be (Long-Lived) Light!

A recent story on the 113-year old light bulb reminded me that I needed to say something about light bulbs here, as they’ve been a long-running low-level project of mine that’s been so low-level that I keep forgetting to post a report. Money quote: LED bulbs are (finally) ready for prime time. It took awhile, but we’re there. Furthermore, there’s upside in LED technology that should make all things LED-ish even better in five or ten years.

Like a lot of people, I stocked up on incandescents when the Feds outlawed them. I did so because my experience with alternative lightning technologies has been hideous. I was curious about CFLs, and I tried them once they became commonplace. If there are light bulbs in Hell, man, they will be CFLs. Their light quality can only be described as sepulchral. They are never as bright as the package says they are. They don’t reach peak brightness immediately, and sometimes take several minutes to get there. (Good luck trying to pee in the middle of a cold night in a one-CFL powder room.) They have mercury in them (granted, not much) which is released into the environment when they break. Oh, and they remind me of spirochetes or intestinal worms.

Fortunately, they die quickly. I recently replaced a couple that were less than a year old. Some have died in a matter of months. I have incandescents in this house that were installed during construction in 2003 and are still in service. Why some bulbs last so much longer than others has always puzzled me. The Phoebus Cartel was real, and it’s not beyond imagination that keeping the tungsten thin for ostensible cost reasons could cover for deliberately limiting the bulb’s life. Still, this doesn’t explain why I have 11-year-old bulbs in some places, and bulbs that repeatedly die in a couple of months in others.

I have theories. One is that some sockets have center contacts that aren’t quite close enough to the bulb to make a firm connection when the bulb is screwed in. Nothing kills a bulb faster than rattly intermittents in the fixture, especially if thermal expansion and contraction of parts in the fixture cause the intermittents. (This is why bulbs shouldn’t be installed with the power on. The moment when the bulb touches the center contact during screw-in is not one moment, but several.) I have also observed that the bulbs that die quickly tend to be mounted either horizontally or at some odd angle, as in my great room ceiling fixtures that are fifteen feet off the floor. The long-lifers are nearly all mounted vertically, bulb-down. I can see how that might work: The filaments of vertical bulbs experience the same gravity load no matter how far they screw into the fixture. Horizontal or angled bulbs will place their filaments in different gravity load situations depending on the angular position of the bulb in the socket, which in turn depends on the manufacturing details of both the socket and the bulb.

Those atrocious CFLs made me cautious. I bought my first LED bulb only about six months ago, having watched them converge on incandescents in terms of spectral signature for some time. That first one was kind of blue, and it’s now in the pantry ceiling fixture where color doesn’t much matter. We’ve been buying Cree TW (True White) bulbs for a couple of months, and they are so close to 60W incandescents that I’ll be ready to install them in critical places (like the master bathroom over-the-sink fixtures) once the incandescents are gone. The Cree bulbs evidently use neodymium-doped glass to add a notch filter to get the spectral signature closer to incandescents. The sweet spot for color seems to be 2700K, and if you want a swap-in for those evil outlawed cheap light bulbs, 2700K is the number to look for. The lerss expensive Feit LED bulbs are bluer, even at the same Kelvin rating, and serve well in places like the laundry room ceiling.

I’ve just started replacing those angled 65W ceiling floods in our great room vault with 650-lumen Duracell Procell BR30s. They’re just a hair brighter, and at 3000K a hair whiter, than the generic incandescent floods we’ve used for ten years now. Replacing angled bulbs fifteen feet off the floor with a sucker pole is a royal nuisance, so even though the Duracells are $20 each, they use a fraction of the power and supposedly live forever.

Supposedly.

The clock’s ticking. I’m skeptical. Yes, Phoebus was real. But in the meantime, you really can get 65 watts’ worth of instant-on light with 10 watts’ worth of electricity, in a color that doesn’t resemble a zombie’s complexion. If any of them die on me, you’ll definitely hear about it.

Elves ‘n’ Dwarves

I just finished walking to Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,which is the third or fourth time I’ve seen it. I have some grumbles: The damned thing came to 181 minutes long; did we really need atolkienic rock giants starting a rumble with dwarves clinging to their pants legs? On the other hand, it was visually startling and lots of fun, and I give Jackson points for working in some of the appendices’ material, especially Radagast and Dol Guldur. Sure, Goblin Town was over the top, as was the Goblin King (“That’ll do it”) and the whole Goblin Town episode reminded me of a side-scroller video game.

All that said, what I really like about the film is its depiction of the dwarves. We didn’t see much of them in Jackson’s LOTR trilogy, beyond Gimli and stacks of decayed corpses in Moria. From his own text, Tolkien clearly didn’t like the dwarves much, both explicitly and implicitly. I figured that out over 40 years ago, once the Silmarillion was published. Unlike elves and men, the dwarves were tinkered together after work hours by Aulë, the Valar demigod of tinkering. Aulë was out of his depth there, so Eru (God) fixed their bugs and archived them until the elves got out of beta and were RTMed.

That’s a pattern in Tolkien’s universe: Aulë’s guys were always digging stuff up and doing stuff with it, causing lots of trouble in the process. Fëanor made the Silmarils, and before you know it, we’d lost half a continent and the rest of the First Age. The dwarves in Moria dug too deep and struck Balrog; the dwarves in Erebor unearthed the Arkenstone, which made Thrain go nuts and hoard so much gold that Smaug sniffed it half a world away.

Oh–and Sauron (disguised as as a sort of evil Santa Claus) gave the clueless dwarf kings Seven Rings of Power. Worst. Idea. Evah.

Ok. They were nerds. You got a problem with that? By contrast, the Elves just sort of sat around inside their own collective auras, eating salad and nostalgia-tripping. The elven makers like Fëanor and Celebrimbor all came to bad ends, leaving behind the elven New Agers, who made a three-Age career of doing nothing in particular while feeling like on the whole, they’d rather be in Philadel…er, Valinor.

Screw that. I’m with the dwarves. They had an angular sort of art design that I envy (see any footage set within Erebor) and a capella groups long before the invention of barbershops. (See this for a bone-chilling cover.) We haven’t seen them in the films yet, but Weta concepts indicate that dwarf women are hot, irrespective of their long sideburns. And only a celebrity dwarf could tell you why mattocks rock.

Metal is fun, and craftiness is next to demigodliness, especially with Aulë as your demigod. The dwarves are basically Tolkien’s steampunkers, and if they didn’t have airships it was solely because they didn’t like heights. Sure, they were maybe a little slow on the uptake at times. Playing with minerals requires an intuitive grip on chemistry, and out of chemistry (given metal plating for motivation) comes electricity, as the Babylonians showed us. After three Ages, the dwarves still didn’t have AA batteries? Sheesh.

Still, they did real damned fine with iron, bronze, gold, and mithril. Makes you wonder what they could have done with ytterbium. Eä, the Final Frontier? Fifth Age, fersure!

Ask the Man Who Has One. Or Seventeen.

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Computers suck. Ask the man who has one. Or seventeen.

You haven’t seen much from me lately because I began the XP rampdown a little too late to be calm and systematic about it. It wasn’t evolution, nor upgrading. It was demolition. I will probably be tinkering with the rubble for a good long while, but the explosions have for the most part occurred where and how I intended them.

Before I get into that, take a look at the photo above. I use the Dell SK-8135 keyboard everywhere I don’t need one of my precious Northgates, and I destroyed one a couple of weeks ago by literally dropping a computer on it. (I don’t know if the SX270 got hurt. It’s now in somebody’s recycle pile, and will not trouble this world again.) That left me with no spares, so I ordered a couple of used ones from a surplus house. Both arrived the other day…with logins and passwords taped to their undersides. Heartbleed? We don’t need no steeking Heartbleed…

So we return to the XP crater. The smoke is clearing. Both of Carol’s machines are now used but spotless Optiplex 780s running Win7. My GX620 USFF upgraded to Win7 without a whole lot of argument. My quadcore now has a newer and much larger SSD, plus a new card reader and four new USB ports on the front panel. My new Dell e6400 laptop was a Win7 slab from the outset. I got rid of four SX270s, plus a couple of old Pentium 3 mini-towers that followed me home years ago and refused to leave. I was about to recycle my dead 2001 Thinkpad X21, then plugged it in, scratched my chin, shoved the hard disk solidly into its slot, and boom! Windows 2000 said hi to me for the first time since early 2005. The X21 remains my favorite laptop of all time. Still not sure what to do about that.

There were driver problems, not that that came as a complete surprise. Both my HP 5370C flatbed scanner and my OpticBook flatbed edge scanner came with drivers that refused to install. (Interestingly, my even older HP PhotoSmart S20 slide scanner installed without any grumbling.) HP’s 5370C driver was an abomination even when it was new. The 5370C is a freaking scanner, for cripe’s sake. Why does it need twenty-five assorted DLLs, OCXs, and other dubious squidlies in order to function? Well, I’m in the thick of scanning a lot of paper records for offsite storage, and I needed that scanner bad. What I ended up doing turned out to be a bit of a wonder: I bought the Pro version of VueScan. It rankled me a little at first to have to spend $80 to reclaim a scanner I paid for twelve years ago. That said, what VueScan gave me was marvelous: A common UI for every scanner in the house. (VueScan supports the S20 as well.) The product is well worth the money. It comes with a reasonably literate 111-page user guide, and there’s a book about it too. The book’s on order, and so far I’ve been able to find my way around by (gasp) reading the manual, with less head-banging than I expected. The list of scanners supported by VueScan is boggling. If I ever need to get another scanner, I won’t have to screw with psychotic vendor drivers, nor learn any needlessly different vendor UIs.

Win a program, lose a program. I have a little utility called Jasc Image Commander that’s been with me since the midlate 90s. All I use it for is to crop, resize, rotate, and adjust color on pictures for Contra. Alas, Win7 will have no part of it. Bummer. I installed FastStone and IrfanView and am trying to decide which to keep. Both are more complex than I need, but I’ve used them both before and the jump won’t be too traumatic. So far, IrfanView has the edge.

Win7 itself wasn’t that big a deal. I still have a couple of head-scratchers on the list. The e6400 simply will not join my homegroup. I’ll come back to that once I study up a little on homegroups. I have a weird impression that Win7 is dropping keystrokes on me when I type quickly–and as most of my friends are aware, I type very quickly. This may in part be due to the PS/2-USB keyboard converter that allows me to use a 1991 Northgate on a machine without a PS/2 keyboard connector. Don’t know. Will continue to research it.

I may put XP in a VM in case I need it for something. I’m also keeping one XP-based SX270, not for the sake of XP but because it’s the only machine in the house that can read floppies and Zip disks. Who still has floppies and Zip disks? I do. And they wander in sometimes carrying interesting things.

Still, for the most part, it’s done. Sure, I should have begun sooner. Yeah, I’ll miss XP a little. I won’t miss the boxloads of old hardware that the switchover finally motivated me to dump. And boy, am I looking forward to moving on to more entertaining projects than this!

Dude, Where’s (the Rest of) My Thumb Drive?

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My new knobless car stereo worked beautifully…except that it couldn’t keep time. The LCD clock display was erratic from the beginning. For the first day or two it was gaining five minutes per day. Then the whole thing reset to January 1 at midnight. I set it again to the current date and time. It ran fast for a couple more days. Then it reset itself again. Nothing was done to the car in that time frame, so it wasn’t that the battery was disconnected from the stereo.

It was just a lemon. So I invoked the 30-day warranty and took it back.

Yesterday I had them swap it out for a Sony XAV-601BT. I’m watching its clock (and everything else) but so far it’s glitch-free. Oh–and it has a volume control knob! It can do hands-free Bluetooth phone wrangling, and a lot of other stuff I haven’t figured out yet. But in addition to all that, it has a USB port on the front panel. That means I can plug a thumb drive right into the stereo itself, and not into a wire dangling off the back of it.

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Of course, having bent more than one thumb drive by careless use, I wanted to be sure that a casual hand-wave wouldn’t destroy a drive with every damned MP3 I own on it. So I bought me a thumb drive unlike any other: The 16GB SanDisk Cruzer Fit. Once you plug it into something, the part that sticks out isn’t quite 1/4″ long.

Dude! Where’s the rest of my thumb drive? But no, that’s all there is. It’s just a bump on the stereo front panel.

The stereo is still on probation, of course, but I’m thinking this one is a keeper. More as it (hopefully doesn’t) happen.

Measuring Raspberry Pi USB Power Draw

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Most of the problems that turn up while configuring Raspberry Pi systems cook down to inadequate power. The infamous stuttering keyboard problem vanished immediately here when I put the RPi on a stiffer 5V supply. When I bought a second RPi for a programming system, I incorporated a powered hub capable of sourcing 500 ma from each port, and in doing so strangled the power problem in its crib.

Problem solved, but I still wondered: How much juice do these things actually need? How stiff is the 5V supply? I’m a bench tech, and not being able to do actual measurements made me nuts. So I sniffed around a bought a test instrument for measuring voltage and current at a USB port under load. It’s the Smartronix USB Power Monitor, model ST034TT05-01-001. I bought it from CyberGuys; $49.95.

It works like any current meter: You connect it between a USB port and a USB device. It simultaneously measures the voltage on the port and the current through the device. There’s a full-size Type A jack on the right side of the box for connecting the load, and a full-size AB cable plugging into a B jack on the left side of the box, which plugs into a Type A port.

Works like a charm. I did the measurements below in about ten minutes:

Raspberry Pi board running Raspbian, w/o Wi-Fi 50-73 ma
Dell 0C8639 wired USB mouse 5-17 ma
Dell SK8135 wired USB keyboard 53-56 ma
AirLink AWLL5088 Wireless N Ultra Mini USB Wi-Fi 32-80 ma
SanDisk Cruzer Mini thumb drive, 256 MB 27-30 ma
SanDisk Cruzer Micro Skin thumb drive, 256 MB 75-89 ma
San Disk Cruzer Mini thumb drive, 512 MB 7-11 ma
KingMax Super Stick thumb drive, 512 MB 35-62 ma
SanDisk Cruzer Mini 1 GB thumb drive, 1 GB 5-11 ma
SanDisk Cruzer Micro Skin thumb drive, 4 GB 75-91 ma
SanDisk Cruzer Micro Skin thumb drive, 8 GB 43-70 ma

In the readings above, the two numbers are the range across which I saw current run. In most cases, the first number is when the device is idle, the second is when it’s busy. All measurements were taken from the same USB port, one of the four ports on the Rosewill powered hub. All devices tested are USB 2.0, because the meter itself is not listed as capable of testing USB 3 devices.

I have several of most of the thumb drives, and identical models were almost alike in their power behavior. This made me wonder how the Cruzer Minis managed to use so little power while doing the same task that all the other drives did. In this case, the task was copying a 109 MB file (the Lazarus 1.0.6 installer) from the PC to the thumb drive. One would think that smaller drives would draw less current, but not so.

Probably the biggest eyebrow-raiser was how rubbery the 5V USB rail is on my quadcore. An 8GB Cruzer Micro Skin thumb drive pulled the port down from 4.99 v to 4.91 v while drawing 90 ma. The same drive pulled the Rosewill hub supply down by only .02 v , from 5.17 v to 5.15 v while drawing 70 ma. (Current draw in thumb drives is not the same on the RPi as it is on Windows.)

My only gripe about the meter is that “peak” mode displays the highest values for voltage and current, when voltage and current generally move in opposite directions as load increases. So a downward movement in voltage isn’t registered in peak mode.

Other than that, it works as described and answered a whole lot of questions about what sorts of things I can reasonably expect to connect to a Raspberry Pi’s built-in USB ports. Actually, I now recommend using the powered hub for everything, given the RPi’s touchiness about power. It makes the RPi system bulkier and snakier, but a whale of a lot more reliable.

And as for the Smartronix USB power meter, let’s say solidly (if not quite highly) recommended.

The Pibow Case and Vesa Mount for Raspberry Pi

Last week I bought a Toshiba 23L1350U 1080p TV set as a display for the Raspberry Pi. It’s a terrific TV set, as TV sets go, and a reasonable monitor. I had to do some hunting around the configuration menus with the remote to get it out of TV mode and into PC mode, and then reduced the brightness until it didn’t make my eyes want to fall out and roll under my desk.

With that accomplished, boy, it’s a sweet display for the Raspberry Pi. The effective resolution is 1920 X 1080, which is a lot of pixels to push around for something not quite the size of a business card and running at a bare 700 MHz. It runs Scribus, Lazarus, and AbiWord tolerably well. In fact, the MagPi magazine is laid out with Scribus on an RPi, which makes this old magazine geek boggle.

Like a lot of people, I just let the RPi board lie in the thick of its nest of cables for awhile. I then cobbled a mount out of scrap aluminum for an old SX270 all-in-one stand, and that works pretty well on the matching 2004-era Dell 17″ 4:3 monitor. That’s now my spare RPi system. I bought a second board for the Toshiba and wanted a case to put it in, to get it off the desk and out of the way.

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The Toshiba provides an ideal place to put the case: on the 100mm VESA mount at the back of the TV. The Pibow people sell these slick transparent cases consisting of seven layers of CNC-cut plexi, stacked, with vent-perfed front and back panels. The board fits snugly in the void left in the slabs by cutting. The plexi layers are not glued or fastened to one another in any way, which makes assembly tricky. Four long nylon bolts hold the assembly together. Tip: Don’t get the layers out of order, as they are not numbered.

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Pibow sells a VESA mount as a separate item. It’s simply a different rear panel, with four ears drilled for both 75mm and 100mm VESA templates. Bolted to the VESA inserts, it’s up and out of the way and reduces cable clutter radically. I’m wondering how warm the board will get inside the case, but as I’m not overclocking the board (yet) I suspect it’ll be fine.

I’m going to use Adafruit’s nano-Wi-Fi adapter for networking on this unit. It hasn’t come yet, and I’ll report on how easily it goes in and how it works in future entries.

Review: Wreck-It Ralph

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A month or so ago, one of my TGO beta testers sent me an email: “Jeff, you must see this movie. And not because it’s fun. ‘Nuff said.” Personal issues kept me from renting it until the other night.

Now I understand.

The fantasy premise of Wreck-It Ralph is brilliant: In a video arcade full of coin-op console machines, the characters in the video games all live secret lives when the arcade closes and the lights go out. Each video game console is a separate universe, connected with all the others through a network that operates over the power lines. Game characters can visit other games via the network, and hang out with the characters there. Cross-game friendships are not only possible, but common. Picture going out for drinks with QBert and Sonic the Hedgehog. (Both make cameos in the film.)

Wreck-It Ralph is the Bad Guy in a game starring Fix-It Felix. Ralph wrecks a building from the top down by beating on things with his ginormous fists, and the game players try to stay ahead by steering Felix and his magic golden hammer, which fixes everything it touches. Felix rescues the inhabitants of his building, and when he gets ahead of Ralph’s mayhem, is rewarded with pies and, ultimately, golden medals. It’s a classic (and I assume fictional) game in the late 80s Donkey Kong style, with Ralph shaped and sized a great deal like Donkey Kong himself.

Ralph is bummed. Everybody loves Felix, who gets pies and medals and sleeps in a penthouse in his building. Ralph, by contrast, lives in the nearby garbage dump and gets no recognition for his hard work, beyond getting thrown off the top of the building when the player completes the level. Ralph attends a weekly support group for video game bad guys, including a zombie, Satan, and one of the Pac Man ghosts. (There are several others that may be real, though not being a gamer I didn’t recognize them.) He wants recognition, and goes off looking for other games that might conceivably grant him a medal for his contributions.

He soon finds one: Hero’s Duty, which is a sort of supercharged Doom or Quake. The other characters are shaped just like him, so he mugs a character for his armor and goes off to fight deadly cyberbugs that are in reality viruses that can infect any video game. The commander of the platoon is the sleek and improbably proportioned Calhoun, a butt-kicking cannon-packing woman warrior with a tragic backstory: Her fiancee was eaten by one of the bugs. Ralph earns a medal (he’s great at trashing bugs) but accidentally releases one of the bugs into another game universe, a kart race targeted at preteen girls where everything (including the karts) is made of candy.

Ralph goes hunting for the bug, and eventually redeems himself by helping snotty little kart driver girl Vanellope. Vanellope contains corrupt code, and “glitches” every so often, flashing into a silhouette of ones and zeroes. Ralph and Felix and Calhoun team up to fight the cyberbugs and repair Vanellope’s damaged code and memory. The plot is a good deal more complex and interesting than that, but I don’t want to spoil it too much. There’s a rogue game character in disguise, a short but intriguing visit “behind the graphics” to the game’s code (which looks like a vast 3-D structure chart) and so many gamer references that I’m sure I got maybe 25% at best. For ongoing tension you have a Diet Coke-filled volcano plugged with thousands upon thousands of…Mentos. Yikes.

I don’t consider Wreck-It Ralph brilliant in the sense that Shrek and How to Train Your Dragon are brilliant, but it’s lots of fun and well worth a night’s rental, especially if you have tweens. (Toddlers may find some parts of it a little too scary.) What my TGO beta-tester was talking about were the parallels to the virtual universe I created in TGO and populated with AI characters created to do various jobs, with homes and private lives outside their virtual workplaces. I even have a cannon-packing warrior woman who is an executive assistant by day, and later discovers a first-person shooter game built into her kernel in which she is one of the game skins.

In TGO, one of my AIs fails to do his job well enough to satisfy his creators, and is ordered to go place himself in archival storage. On his way to his own slot, he passes the doors to storage slots containing other failed AIs:

Other names on other doors didn’t ring a bell. Maria, Randall, Tanner, Judith, all archived before his time. Here and there was a name he did recognize: William, who had been training to work in tech support and had joined him several times for doughnuts and coffee. Bones, a Class Four animated skeleton who worked the crowds in a panel at a large amusement park, and off company time enjoyed reciting Victorian poetry. Robert had heard him perform Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar” in a Tooniverse coffee shop one evening and found it very moving. Alas, Bones frightened children so much that his product was pulled from the market.

Like Ralph, Robert redeems himself by defending his friends, and by simply going back to what he was created to be. (Robert’s ending isn’t as happy as Ralph’s–hey, this is a Disney movie–but the parallels were striking.)

None of this worries me. I didn’t invent the notion of AIs operating in a virtual world, and neither did Disney. (Granting that they were early in the field, with Tron.) If anything, I felt validated. I first raised the question in 1981: If we create an AI capable of introspection, can the AI suffer? And is the suffering real? I didn’t originate that issue either, but it’s haunted me for decades. I explore it within a humorous framework in TGO, just as Disney does in Wreck-It Ralph. That may be one reason I enjoyed the movie as much as I did.

Recommended, for gonzo imagination, gorgeous animation, and attention to detail. Many wonderful small touches, and enough pee-your-pants laughs to carry you past the setpieces and the boring parts. (We spend a little too much time in the candy universe.) The voice acting was not stellar, with the exception of Firefly‘s Alan Tudyk channeling Ed Wynn’s evil twin. The score is almost nonexistent, though Owl City’s “When Can I See You Again?” is catchy, and completely wasted running over the credits. But enough carping. Rent it, call in your gang to watch it with you, and have fun.

Just remember to hit the bathroom before the Oreo cookies show up. ‘Nuff said.

Antistatic SATA Drive Boxes

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Well, one out of two ain’t bad: I didn’t get a headcold on our trip back from Chicago, but I did pick up an eye infection. (Carol got it too; such things are highly communicable. As the old Brel/Shuman song goes, “We will kiss with our eyes…”) I’m not going to be doing much reading or computing today (nor perhaps tomorrow) but the antibiotics we got at urgent care are on the job and I hope to return to ordinary life on Monday. One quick entry in the meantime and I’m going to go put a cold rag on my face again.

In the huge bin of held mail we picked up today was a box containing something I ordered before we left: A trio of antistatic plastic boxes sized precisely to hold a 3.5″ SATA hard drive. The idea is to use the SATA slots on the top of my new tower case quad core to handle backup. Take a drive out of its box, drop it in the slot on top of the case, do backups, then yank it and put it back in its box. SATA is faster than USB, and the SATA electrical interface is hot-swappable. It’s a natural.

The fit is just snug enough so that the drive will not spill out of the box accidentally while I’m handling it. There is a little block of conductive foam on the lid to keep the drive from rattling around when the lid is closed. The latch is firm but doesn’t take a pliers to open. (Ok, I do have strong thumbs.) I bought three boxes in three colors for $9.24, from Amazon. It’s interesting to me that although the three boxes appear to be physically identical, the three colors are sold at different prices–even when they come from the same dealer. The boxes looked like they might have held a MM paperback, but not quite. I’m sure I’ll find other uses for them as time goes on; I’m good that way.

Highly recommended.

Review: The Thermaltake V9 SATA Toaster Case

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After I fried my 2009-era Antec quad core tower machine, I had my favorite local box shop put me together a new quad core, this time in an interesting case: the Thermaltake V9 BlacX. Like virtually all cases you buy on the parts market these days, it’s a gamer case, complete with lots of fans and the obligatory plexi window on the side so (I presume) your friends can admire your junk. The fans are there to cool ranks of screaming graphics cards. If you’re using integrated graphics, as I am, you can probably turn most of them off. With just the front panel fan going, the inside of the case here runs at 75-77 degrees F (I measured it with a Radio Shack probe digital thermometer) which is hardly molten death.

I bought the V9 for a very particular reason: It has a double SATA toaster dock built right into the top panel. I’ve been using an Ineo USB toaster dock for some time, and like it a great deal. As with any gadget of its class, it needs its own wall wart, and there’s the inevitable data cable. The notion of having a toaster dock like that right on the machine means that I can lose a wall wart and a data cable from the ratsnest. The V9 case provides two.

The Gigabyte mobo I’m using has six SATA ports. Four of them are SATA 2.0 ports, capable of data transfer rates up to 3 Gbps, and two are SATA 3.0 ports, which can go as fast as 6 Gbps. (The choke point is most likely the drives you’re using, not the ports themselves.) The two 6 Gbs ports go to the internal drives. Two of the 3 Gbps ports go to the twin toaster docks on the top panel. Another 3 Gbps port goes to the optical drive. That still leaves me with a spare SATA 2.0 port, and the V9 even leaves me an empty bay in the front panel if I ever want to put a second sled slot in it.

Each of the two docks are almost identical to the Ineo dock, in that they can accept either 2.5″ SATA laptop drives or standard 3.5″ SATA drives. The dock ports do not use USB connectivity, as I initially suspected. There is no electrical or logical difference between drives plugged into the top dock ports and drives mounted internally and connected to SATA ports of similar speed.

SATA drives are hot-swappable, which means that yanking them out of a SATA connector with power on will not physically damage them. However, the OS needs to manage removability, and I haven’t poked at that aspect yet. From what I’ve read, there is a TreatAsInternalPort registry key governing whether a given SATA channel is removable or not. I believe that making a SATA port removable cuts down its throughput some. (Further research may be needed.) For the moment I’m happy to plug drives into the dock while powered down. When XP boots up, it sees them as though they were internal drives, which (electrically) they are. I’ll play around with the removability bit as time allows.

The case is too new to judge, really. I have a quiet Antec power supply in it, and the front fan makes barely a whisper. It has all the external ports I need. Key here isn’t functionality so much as survival in daily use. The Antec 900’s USB ports started to die after only a year or so in service. Check with me again after the V9 has lived for three or four years in my new downstairs office with the Wimhurst carpeting. USB ports may be the least of my worries.

So far: highly recommended.