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August, 2018:

The End of Owgust

My father had a saying. (Actually, he had a lot of sayings, most of which you’ve long since heard.) This one I’m pretty sure he got from his mother, my grandmother, whom I heard use it a number of times: “The end of Owgust.” (If it came from Sade Prendergast Duntemann, it could well be an Irish thing; I don’t know.) It just means we’re coming to the end of something generally good, like summer vacation, which in truth used to last until the end of Owgust, but now often ends barely after Owgust even begins.

Here in Arizona, the end of Owgust is seen by many as a feature rather than a bug, since by a lot of Arizona people’s reckonings, Owgust begins in May and lasts until mid-September. By Labor day, most people would like to see nightly lows in the 70s again, so we can open our windows at night.

Carol and I tend to get a little tired of our four-month long Owgust as the end approaches, and we were planning to drive up to Colorado to spend some time with friends and see what air in the 60 degree range feels like again.

Not this year.

Our poor QBit was diagnosed with lymphoma a couple of months ago, and we can see his steady decline. We don’t know how long we’ll have him, but it’s unlikely to be more than another month or two. We didn’t want to subject him to an 850-mile road trip, so we stayed home and spent more time in the pool. Lymphoma was what took out our very first bichon, the famous Mr. Byte, in 1995, and is evidently the commonest cancer in dogs. We gave Mr. Byte doggie chemo, but it only bought us a few additional months with him, and made him pretty sick at times. We’re not going to do that again.

So if I’ve been a little short on manic enthusiasm lately, that’s most of the problem.

Other things are going pretty well. Little by little I’ve been getting used to the nasal pillows mask for my APAP machine, which is reporting AHI values generally less than 1, and here and there actually 0. I’m using the great free program Sleepyhead, which displays graphs of your AHI, whatever events it had to handle, mask pressure and leaks, and much more. If you use a recording C/A/BiPAP machine with a compatible SD card format, check it out. It’s told me a number of interesting things, like the fact that events cluster at the end of the night for some reason, and that I record more events when I sleep on my left side than on my right. Highly recommended.

I had some time to play around with my dirt-cheap HP dc7900 Ultra-Slim PC, and liked it so much I ordered another one. The first one was cheap at $37 (I had to provide a hard drive and Win7) but when I went out and looked again on eBay, I found a complete system, including a 64-bit dc7900 with a hard drive and Windows 7, plus power supply, keyboard, mouse, monitor stand, and a 19″ HP flat-panel monitor. The price? $65. For the woiks. Ok, I had to pay another $25 shipping, but that means I got a complete system dropped on my porch for $90. (Stock photo above, but that’s exactly how it looks, granted that the cables aren’t shown.)

dc7900 speaker 300 wide.jpgThe HP monitor stand is nice, certainly nicer than Dell’s. The dc7900 did not come with an internal speaker, but given the size of the speaker (my first machine has one) I doubt it’s good for much more than beeps. And if I ever want one, I can get a NOS unit on eBay for $5. (The Dell speakers for their USFF lines had built-in audio amps and much better fidelity.)

The system will replace an older Dell machine that Carol has been using for some time, with a slower processor and a maddeningly intermittent front panel that prevents her from plugging thumb drives into the front of the box. The machines are roughly the same size, but the Dell electronics have been twitchy, and the combo monitor stand horrendous. The old machine has external speakers, so the HP’s near-microscopic squeakplate won’t be an issue. The HP is newer, and the Dell cost me three times as much when I bought it five years ago.

Overall, a huge win!

Finally, seeing listings on eBay for sales lots of literally hundreds of used “cube machines” like the dc7900, I’ve begun to wonder if it’s the end of Owgust for the ordinary, non-gamer desktop PC industry. You don’t need a lot of crunch power for word processing, spreadsheets, local databases, or (most of) the Web. Even with only 4GB installed, I streamed a whole movie on the first dc7900 without a glitch. So these machines are perfectly usable for ordinary people doing ordinary computer-y things. You can spend $500+ for a desktop box at Best Buy…or you can get the whole damned system from eBay for $90, delivered. They’re not new. But they’re clean, small, and rugged. Parts are available on eBay, from the crappy little microspeaker up to whole motherboards–though at these prices, I consider the machines disposable and won’t be replacing any misbehaving mobos.

A lot of desktops are being replaced by laptops, which is really where the action is these days, as well as the high prices manufacturers prefer to get. If you’re going to stick with a boring desktop PC, you might as well get one used for 75% (or more) off retail. I’ve got a big hulking custom Core I5-2400 quad, which I’ve used since 2012, and it’s still more than fast enough for my needs. Furthermore, it’s in a Thermaltake V9 Blacx case with SATA sockets on the top panel for backup drives. Damned useful. I could get a faster mobo for it, but…why?

This all reminds me of a Contra entry I posted back in 2009, about how with cars (and silverware) lasting a lot longer than in years past, we need to manufacture fewer cars and less silverware to avoid saturating the market. The same goes for PCs. As each wave of compact cubicle machines comes off depreciation and heads for eBay, the price of a perfectly usable desktop machine goes down. Even if the $65 deal I got last week was unusual, it won’t be for long. Keep your eyes open.

Cheap Machines: The HP/Compaq dc7900

Front View On Steampunk Table - 500 Wide.jpg

Back in the early oughts, I saw my first ultra-small form factor (USFF) PCs at our doctor’s office. The machines were Dell Optiplex SX270s, and they were little marvels: Quiet, fast, easy to field-strip and very reliable. (There was a certain widespread problem with bad electrolytic capacitors in that era, and I ran into a couple of SX270s and Samsung monitors containing said bad caps.) They were P4s running XP, and Carol used one successfully as her main machine for a number of years. We donated several to our church’s office, which was pretty full and rather tight, space-wise. Nobody had any trouble with them. Even in 2007, they could be had for $200 or less, depending on what they had in them in terms of RAM and HD.

The SX270s were 2001-era machines, and I’ve long since gotten rid of them. I had a couple of slightly later models, including the SX280 and GX620. I took the 620 to the Taos Toolbox SF workshop in the summer of 2011, along with my steampunk computer table and my Aethernet Concentrator, as Jim Strickland dubbed it. It mounted behind the monitor, and while that made it a little tricky to plug in thumb drives, it made very good use of what small space the table offered.

The steampunk computer table is still in my office, and if I ever go to another live-in workshop again, I’ll take it with me. The GX620 ran Win7 badly, and has been gone for several years now. I need a newer machine to go on the table. Notice I didn’t say a “new” machine. In fact, I was a little curious as to how cheap a machine I could get on eBay that would do the job (office apps) and mount to the dual arm monitor stand that I have clamped to the table. That meant a machine with VESA holes, ideally. Such exist; I had seen them years ago.

It didn’t take long to find such a machine: The HP/Compaq dc7900 USFF. At 10″ X 10″ X 2.75″ it’s a little smaller than the SX270. And the price, hokey smoke! I bought one for $37. Now, that didn’t include a hard drive, but I have a box full of empty SATA hard drives. It came with a DVD-RW drive (and LightScribe, at that, heh) 4GB RAM, and an outboard 135W power supply. The CPU is a 2.5 GHz dual-core Pentium E5200.

Cropped Front View dc7900 - 500 Wide.jpg

I installed Win7 on it, and boom! It just worked. It identified the Dell E228WFP monitor I had attached to the monitor stand and adjusted its resolution to match. I installed enough software to test it but no more than that; like I said, I don’t need it right now and it was mostly a research project and a bit of a stunt, to see how much machine I could buy online for how little money.

Below is a side view of the setup. I used four M4-10 screws to mount it to the monitor stand (VESA is a metric standard) and twisted the arm around until the dc7900 was level with the top edge of the monitor.

Side View - 500 Wide.jpg

Internally, the machine is uncrowded, with two small and almost silent fans to pull air past the CPU heatsink and out of the machine generally. It has eight USB ports, plus both PS/2 keyboard and mouse DIN connectors.

Interior Closeup - 500 wide.jpg

The hard drive is mounted underneath the optical drive, but both come out very quickly without any screwdriver involvement. The hard drive is screwed into a little spring-loaded caddy that snaps into place and mates the SATA connectors firmly, with a little constant spring pressure to keep the drive from walking out of electrical connection.

I’ve only been messing with it for a few days, but so far it’s been trouble-free and able to do anything I could throw at it. No, it’s not as fast as my quadcore. I won’t be doing any gaming or video editing on it. Word processing and email don’t take a lot of cycles. Web browsers are wildcards in that regard, but so far it’s been able to render YouTube videos without any stutter or artifacts.

If you need a physically small machine for ordinary office work, I recommend it. And hey, for $37 plus a junkbox SATA HDD and an OEM copy of Win7, I’d say it’s hard to beat.

Odd Lots

Blogging Vs. Social Media

Wow. I think I broke another record for not posting on Contra. My last entry was July 7, which brings us to five weeks now. People aren’t asking me if I’m dead (like they used to) because most of them see me on Facebook and Twitter. So yeah: I’m not dead. I’ve just been elsewhere.

And that’s an interesting issue, especially now, at 66, when I have a far more limited supply of personal energy than I did ten or even five years ago. This being summer doesn’t help: My office is the warmest room in the house, and I simply don’t function as well with an ambient temp in the 80s. Mornings are my best times largely because they’re the coolest. Mornings are also when I work on my commercial writing projects, like Dreamhealer and FreePascal From Square One. Fiction is hard. Dreamhealer in particular has been rough, and there are times when I regret having started it at all. But 55,000 words is too much to just toss in the trunk. It will be finished. I only wish I had finished it a year ago, which was my original if excessively ambitious plan.

The key question is this: To what extent is Contra a bad use of my time?

Or, more to the point, my (limited) energy?

I don’t look at my logs much anymore, because I know what they’ll show: Script kiddies endlessly trying to brute-force their way into my instance of WordPress, plus fifteen or twenty visitors a day, and a few odd bits that I’ve never entirely understood. I suspect posting less often than I once did cuts the numbers down, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen more than a few hundred visitors a day, even when I was posting almost daily, unless I posted something that went viral, like my Sad Puppies summary or my analysis of EasyBits Go.

So why have I stopped posting here on Contra? This: I get more attention when I post on Facebook or Twitter. And attention is what it takes to sell indie books. Posting a promo tweet about one of my books almost always generates a sale or two. Posting something about one of my books on Contra rarely does. I’m guessing that Contra is a saturated market: My diehard fans have probably already bought everything I’m offering. It would help if I could crank out three novels a year, but if that were possible it would have happened a long time ago.

Blogs have lost a lot of the magic they had fifteen years ago. The magic went straight to Facebook, in large part because Facebook has machinery to help people find you if you want to be found. (Or even if you don’t want to be found.) If you’re a writer, especially an indie writer like me, being found is the hardest single part of the game. The blogs that continue to thrive fall into two categories: Political blogs, which satisfy our insatiable need for tribal reassurance, and single-topic blogs with fairly narrow and reasonably popular topics. The sort of general-interest blog that was my 20-year vision for Contra still exists, but is written largely by people who are already well-known for other reasons.

Another issue is that politics has infected virtually every topic you could name, including many that interest me, like nutrition, climate, genetics, education, and health insurance. It’s almost impossible to write about those topics without attracting comment harpies, or more general tribal hatred than I care to deal with. I was astonished at the anger I evoked by cautioning people to calm down after the 2016 election, lest their rampaging hatred ruin their health or literally kill them. This remains an issue: Once you’ve given yourself permission to hate, hatred is delicious, and few people can overcome that deepest of all primal hungers.

My overall goal is to write articles that won’t piss off potential readers of my fiction, and the range of appropriate topics for that kind of writing grows narrower over time as the filth that is politics seeps into damned near everything.

All that said, I’ll try and post here a little more often. I’m considering redesigning Contra (or paying someone to redesign it) so that it becomes a more general directory to everything I have online. I’ll post shorter blog entries more often, and long-form essays not as blog entries but as standalone articles listed in a sidebar. I may have to cross-post short entries on Facebook for those who don’t read Contra. Given its limitations, Twitter will remain a sort of Odd Lots repository, along with links to longer works. (I will collect my Twitter Odd Lots and post them on Contra from time to time.)

I’ve done tolerably well as an indie author since I posted the ebook edition of The Cunning Blood in July 2015. I intend to write indie fiction for the rest of my life, and solving the problem of discovery is a huge part of the challenge. I dislike Facebook and Twitter, for the sake of their ideological bias and privacy failures, but actual experiments have shown that they work. The experiments will continue. If I learn something useful, you’ll find it here–and other places too. A usable author platform requires more than one leg to be stable.