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October, 2009:

SX270 vs. SX280

SX270SX280Comparison500Wide.jpgI’ve had a few days to play with the Dell SX280 Ultra Small Form Factor (USFF) PC that I bought on eBay for $90 some time back. It’s worth describing here, in case you’re looking for such a very small machine. The one I got was a 2.8 GHz Pentium 4/512 MB/40 GB system with XP Pro installed. It came with a USB keyboard and optical mouse. Both the mouse and the keyboard look brand new; the PC itself has obviously been used, but it’s quite clean and has no stickum blotches on it anywhere. I’d say a pretty good deal for $90.

SX280Interior500Wide.jpgThe SX280 field strips very easily. The photo above shows what you’ll see under the side panel, with the bright blue plastic fan shroud removed.

Here are some points of difference, between the Dell SX270 and SX280 USFF machines:

  • The SX280 is slightly larger (see photo above) and two pounds heavier. The SX270 weighs 7 pounds 5 ounces, and the SX280 9 pounds 4 ounces.
  • The SX280 uses 3.5″ SATA hard drives. The SX270 uses 2.5″ ATA hard drives. 3.5″ drives are cheaper, so that’s a plus.
  • The SX280 hard drive is very easy to remove. You pull the power and SATA connectors and it lifts up in a tray. The SX270 internal drive uses a more fragile ATA ribbon cable and connector system.
  • The removable drive bay is a different spec. Removable drives are not interchangeable between the two systems.
  • The SX270 has a reasonable internal speaker. Not hi-fi, but if you’re not listening to music it does fine for system notification sounds. The SX280 has no internal speaker at all.
  • The SX270 has PS/2 connectors on the back panel for mouse and keyboard. The SX280 lacks PS/2 connectors. You need to use USB peripherals, or get a PS/2-USB adapter.
  • The SX280 has 7 USB ports. The SX270 has 6. Remember that on the SX280, at least one of those must be devoted to keyboard and mouse.
  • Both systems have two internal slots for memory, but the sticks are not interchangeable between SX270s and SX280s.
  • Both systems have DVI video outputs only. (There’s an SX260 model, which is largely identical to the SX270, only with a VGA video connector.)
  • As best I can tell, neither the SX270 nor the SX280 can be tweaked to add video modes like 1600 X 900. This was a big disappointment, since the SX280’s Intel 910GL Express chipset was supposed to allow custom resolutions, but so far, utilities like PowerStrip can’t make it work. Oddly, Linux can do 1600 X 900, but there’s a custom driver for Linux. Intel’s standard driver seems peculiarly limited. (Some think it’s a BIOS limitation; me, I’m not sure, unless Linux ignores BIOS settings.)
  • Both systems have Gigabit Ethernet ports, plus DB9 serial and DB25 parallel ports.
  • Both systems use external power bricks. The SX280’s is about 25% larger and runs a little hotter.

Given that the SX270 and SX280 can both be had in 3.2 GHz versions, the SX280 is a minor win, especially without the ability to tweak the graphics drivers for 16:9 widescreen modes. SATA drives and a newer Intel chipset is about all the SX280 has going for it, and if you can deal with the less vast and slightly more expensive hard drives, the SX270 is smaller and currently cheaper. The SX280 is going to the church office, and I think I’ll be sticking with the SX270 for other uses.

More Icy Adventures


Maybe this weather is a fluke, and as one who’s read The Little Ice Age more than once, I certainly hope that it’s a fluke, but it would be no more than a fluke save for one inconvenient truth: Carol had to be on a plane to Chicago this morning at 8:30 AM. In normal October weather, we would simply have set the clock radio for 4:30 AM and gone down the hill early. After yesterday’s lesson in automotive ice skating, we changed plans.

I figured that by 4:00 yesterday afternoon, enough cars would have gone down Broadmoor Bluffs to melt the black ice, so we reserved a room for Carol at the Homewood Suites on Powers and set out. People were being very careful after seeing news reports of Interstate crowd-scene crackups, and I was right: We felt no ice on the trip down, nor any on the roads eastward toward the Colorado Springs airport. Normal caution was sufficient, and the usual nutcases either stayed at home or were already in a ditch somewhere.

We checked her in about 4:45, and I hung out with her awhile, but then about 5:30 we noticed that it had begun sleeting again after a five-hour respite. So after a few goodbye kisses she shooed me home. Alas, I had waited a little too long. There was plenty of water on the streets already, and with new sleet and failing light added to the mix, things started to freeze and get ugly again. There was a minutes-old serious injury accident at Powers and Proby, and as the police waved us carefully past the scene, I saw a mashed-up Jeep Liberty lying on its roof, with the fire department trying to cut some poor guy out of it, and a nondescript minivan with one whole side caved in and two people on stretchers with paramedics bending over them. One’s leg was exposed, and it was bloody.

We were being careful, but there’s only so much you can do. As they taught us in driver’s ed 42 years ago, bridges freeze first. Academy Boulevard at its southeast corner is more Interstate than boulevard, and it has numerous bridges. At the bridge over the BNSF tracks I felt the 4Runner start to slither, but fortunately there wasn’t the usual crowd sharing the road. I saw the sedan in front of me swing a little to one side, but then he cleared the bridge and recovered. I coasted the rest of the way to solid asphalt, heart in my throat, and kept going. I felt some slippage again on the bridge over 115, but the city had put down some sand and nobody had any serious trouble. That was not true elsewhere in the city.

The sleet continued long after I went to bed. I got up to potty Dash at 2 ayem and it was still coming down, by then more snow than sleet. The light fixture on our back deck bore what looked like a half-inch coating of solid ice. At 7 this morning morning it was still overcast, but nothing was coming down. However, the driveway is now a sheet of ice, and when Carol called me from the airport a little while ago to say she was about to board, she made my intuition imperative: I was to keep my butt inside the house today until we had at least two hours of sunshine to melt things out a little. No argument there.

Currently (at 8:45 AM) there’s no indication of the clouds breaking up. The newly-golden leaves of the scrub oaks in back are coated with ice, and we lost some branches. I am clearly not going to church this morning. I pity the poor squirrels: I can see pieces of pine cone stuck in the ice out on the deck, but they’ll need jackhammers to free them up. Hurry sunshine!

Black Ice!

I feel like a swallowed a boom box. Carol and I had signed up to work at our church’s craft fair today, with me coordinating the used books table, and although it was 27 degrees outside with a heavy frost, we set out about 8:30 AM. Stanwell was not especially slippery, but once we got onto Broadmoor Bluffs, I knew in seconds that I was up against black ice. We got less than a block downhill when the grade increased (and must be close to 10% in spots) and our wheels no longer held the road. Even in 4WD and going no more than 10 MPH, the 4Runner spun 180, narrowly missing a mailbox and stopping just short of slamming into the curb. We just sat there for a few minutes, until we saw a 4WD Beamer backing up Broadmoor Bluffs from further down. (There was nowhere for him to turn around.) He rolled down his window, and told us not to go any further: There were several cars stuck on the steepest part of the road, and although he hadn’t gotten close, it looked like there had been some vehicle-vehicle contact.

So we called the rector and gave him our regrets, at least until the sun comes out, as it is showing absolutely no inclination to do. We crept back up Broadmoor Bluffs, and after we got home (without further incident) just sat on the couch for awhile, hearts pounding.

I ducked out on the front porch just now for a quick look, and see freezing drizzle descending. The sidewalks are now skating rinks. And our little roads are not the worst of it. This is the gnarliest driving weather we’ve ever seen in the six years we’ve lived here. The mountain views are nice, but yikes! Getting here–or getting out–can be a challenge.

Fall? Fall? QTH Fall?

We set a cold record for this date last night, after several days of sleet and snow. Tonight it may get down to 18 degrees here and set another record. This morning we heard that there is now 15″ of snow in North Platte, Nebraska, a favorite town on our well-trodden route from here to Chicago.

I asked the local squirrels what they thought of all this. The squirrels pointed to the well-chewed pine cones all over the sidewalk and scattered across my back deck and said, “Long, cold, and early–cantcha read the signs?” Carol and I have never seen so many gnawed-on pine cones lying around; QBit has brought a few into the house to stash for later. (So much for Evo dog food.)

Summer ended early here, and fall lasted about two weeks. I’m going to try and wake our snow blower from hibernation tomorrow, as we may need it sooner than we thought. Our garage is insulated, and I’m going to try and sort out my fire alarm conflict in the next couple of weeks (before it gets too damned cold to work up in the attic) so that I can start using my attic dipole this winter. Cold nights mean good, quiet propagation on the low bands, even when there aren’t any sunspots. That done, I’m gonna QSO party like it’s 1974, because when I go outside, that’s sure as hell what it feels like.

We’re going to rent Ice Age and Ice Age II to appease the Climate Gods: Hey guys, we’re sorry for claiming that we’re controlling you now. Some of us know better. And…Tennessee would be that way…

Odd Lots

  • If like me you stand amazed at the precision of the English language (which is distinct from the precision of the people who use it, which is all over the map) do visit Obsolete Word of the Day. Many of the citations are old slang and many words do double duty: A slype is slang for a man who talks much about seducing women but lacks the courage to do so. Its formal use is architectural: the connection (often a covered but not enclosed passage) between the chapterhouse and the rest of a church complex. Much more there; you can sink hours on this one. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
  • Here’s a gatherum of peculiar or downright gross sodas from around the world. Yogurt-flavored Pepsi, anyone? Or (urrrp) Placenta? Alas, Inca Kola is not mentioned, though it should be. (Thanks to Bob Calverley, via George Ewing.)
  • The title on this article is wrong (or perhaps some people understand the term “hyperdrive” differently than I do) but it describes a new twist on an interesting and mostly forgotten 1924 speculation of mathematician David Hilbert: that a stream of particles moving at greater than half the speed of light could accelerate a nearby stationary object without subjecting that object to inertial forces. That wouldn’t be a true hyperdrive, but a genuine inertialess drive would almost seem like one if we limit the frame of reference to the starship. (I.e., we could go from here to sunlike star Zeta Tucanae in a week or so from our perspective, though 28 years from the universe’s perspective.) This is mighty exotic physics, and if there’s anything to it, we may learn more once Felber’s hypothesis is tested using the LHC, or perhaps the Tevatron.
  • I saw a trailer on what may be an interesting new film comedy: The Boat That Rocked , which had been originally (and I think more appropriately) titled Pirate Radio. It’s about the 1960’s offshore radio pirates operating just outside the UK’s territorial waters, something that’s always fascinated me. I’ve been taking notes on a novel I call (or called, sigh) Pirate Radio, exploring the notion of untraceable Internet broadcasting through large-scale powerline networking, and that research brought the old UK high seas radio pirates to mind. Probably won’t write the novel, but it’s been a good excuse to read up on things I haven’t looked at since I read them in Popular Electronics in the 1960s.
  • Don’t miss the Steampunk Genre Fiction Generator. Stumbling through it with no malice (or anything else) aforethought, I came up with: “In a leather-clad Aztec empire, a young farm boy with dreams stumbles across a talking fish, which spurs him into conflict with murderous robots with the help of a cherubic girl with pigtails and spunk and her discomfort in formal wear, culminating in convoluted nonsense that squanders the reader’s goodwill.” Somebody else write it and I’ll pay a quarter for that!
  • The ice melt across Antarctica during this past Antarctic summer (2008-2009) was the lowest ever recorded in the satellite era. I’d worry a little less about rising oceans swallowing New York City, as much as I sometimes find myself wishing for them to do so.
  • I used to wonder how corn mazes are made (and still do, for older mazes) but if you’re doing one today, you’re basically going to need a lawnmower and a GPS receiver, and a way to overlay a drawing onto a GPS-enabled map display. Oh, and a large field of corn that you’re willing to seriously mess with.

Computers Are Basically Free

CheapSX270.jpgI keep the tired old PCs at our church running, and I’ve decided that the church office needs something new. Or at any rate, something newer, and more compact. The church office is smaller than most bedrooms I’ve had, and yet includes two desks at which people work, plus file cabinets and many other things. Small is better.

So I’ve been sniffing around for a month or so. As I’ve mentioned here many times, I like the tiny Dell SX270, but it doesn’t support video modes suitable for the widescreen displays that have basically driven 4:3s off the market. Video is done by the mobo chipset, and there is no expansion slot into which a better graphics adapter could be plugged. I bought a newer Dell 2.8 GHz SX280 last week at auction on eBay, and I got a system minus monitor for $90. Mouse, keyboard, power supply (which is a wall brick) and reinstall disk, all for $90. Boy.

And that’s a much nicer machine than the older SX270s. I checked recently completed auctions this morning, and see that a similar SX270 combo (everything but a display) went for the staggering sum of $69.50 last week, after furious last-minute bidding. (The photo above is of that system.) The PC sold at that price is exactly what I have at our condo outside Chicago: A 3.2 GHz Pentium 4 with 1 GB of RAM and a 40 GB hard drive. I’ve been meaning to drop another RAM stick into it but so far, I haven’t seen the system gag on anything I’ve been doing, suggesting that for the time being it has all the RAM it needs.

The Dell ultra-small form factor (USFF) systems like the SX270 and SX280 are pointedly not gamer machines, but most people aren’t gamers. The USFFs do static graphics superbly (Photoshop, InDesign) and play conventional videos without stuttering. I haven’t tested HD video, but DVD video and the videos I take with my Canon camera of the dogs running around play just fine. Spare parts are abundant and cheap on eBay, and anybody who’s ever built a system won’t have trouble swapping things out. The SX280 has better graphics than the SX270 (the chipset for integrated graphics is the Intel 915G Express) and uses the SATA interface for its 2.5″ internal drive. Both have gigabit Ethernet and 6 USB 2.0 ports. The adjustable-speed fans are normally silent, rising to whisper-level only when the machine is doing something intense. The SX270 (and possibly the SX280; don’t know yet) doesn’t require XP activation when you change a hard drive; they’re BIOS-locked to a specific Dell OEM reinstallation disk–which you can get for $20 on eBay, and generally comes with the used machines.

And you can get them now for under $100.

The tech world these days is about specialty devices like smartphones and ebook readers; generic Intel computers are a glut on the market, and basically free. As Joli Ballew and I learned while researching Degunking Windows five years ago, many people send systems to the recycler for being “slow” when the real problem is Windows registry clog and spyware. Do a fresh Windows install (or just be careful not to crap up the system to begin with) and those old machines still glow in the dark. The best way to keep older computers out of our landfills is to keep using them. Saying “that box won’t run Vista” is a little like saying “that petri dish won’t grow a staph infection.” Unless you need a staph sample for research, that doesn’t strike me as much of a problem.

Get The Cunning Blood for 10% Off

In honor of the debut of the TV series FlashForward (based on a novel by Robert J. Sawyer) ISFiC Press is having a sale until November 10:

  • Buy Sawyer’s collection Relativity and any one other ISFiC Press book direct from the publisher, and deduct 10% from your order total (before sales tax and shipping);
  • Buy Relativity and either two or three other ISFiC Press books, and deduct 25% from your order total (before sales tax and shipping);
  • Buy Relativity and four or more other ISFiC Press books, and deduct 40% from your order total (before sales tax and shipping).

ISFiC Press is, of course, the publisher of my novel The Cunning Blood , and here’s your chance to pick it up at a discount.

About FlashForward I can’t tell you much, since I don’t watch TV, but the concept is intriguing: Everyone on Earth blacks out for 137 seconds, and experiences a kind of timeslip, each seeing visions of his or her own future. The blackout itself causes mayhem on a grand scale (though I wonder if it would be as grand as the premise suggests) and government agents begin searching for Suspect Zero, who was caught on tape awake during the blackout and might, therefore, have had something to do with it.

But about The Cunning Blood I can tell you a lot: It’s a hard SF future action/adventure, featuring a prison planet where electrical devices don’t work, due to the presence of a pervasive bacterium-sized nanomachine that homes in on the magnetic fields around electrical conductors and literally chews the conductors until the circuit fails. Hell’s inmates do all right in spite of not having electricity, as there are a lot of different ways to build a technological civilization, and even a few ways to get around those pesky nanobugs. (Think wires made of liquid mercury flowing through hoses.) But the bugs on Hell are kid stuff compared to what’s lurking in the bloodstreams of selected individuals on Earth: highly intelligent distributed nanocomputers, supposedly under the complete control of the secret societies of engineers that created them–except for The Sangruse Device, which has a slightly different concept of “control.”

I’m guessing that my long-time readers have already heard most of this, but if you’re new here, the novel has reviewed well and might be worth a look. Here’s a sample chapter. And another sample chapter, which I just carved out of the novel to post for the first time. (It will make more sense if you read the older sample first.) If you like action, ideas, and cultures completely unlike our own, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Rant: Chicago’s Escape from Hell

I didn’t have time to say much the other day about my hometown’s narrow escape from Olympian Hell, and a few days’ wait has allowed me to spot some reasonable analysis by other people, especially Andrew Zimbalist, who I’m sure is often called a Sports Benefits Denier. I was a little surprised that our president would fly over there to lobby for his hometown–it seems a bad use of his time when health insurance reform is sinking out of sight–but that’s the sort of thing that presidents do, and I for one won’t hold it against him.

The nature of the ongoing spend-tax-money-on-sports argument is very nicely summarized over on Slate, in this piece by Brad Flora. It’s the same thing we hear again and again when billionaire sports team owners extort publicly financed stadiums from cities by threatening to move the team to a more gullible venue. The strategy virtually always works, though one wonders how or why.

Such deals never make financial sense for the cities and their taxpayers. It’s a strange ballet of spreadsheets vs. hypnotism: The policy wonks (I’m not sure they’re nerds as I define the term) come up with studies and hard numbers to debunk the Civic Pride and Benefits myths, while the jocks simply repeat statements of tribal emotion over and over until the electorate’s eyes glaze over and caves. It’s the same deal with the Olympics, and perhaps worse. Cities are expected to cough up billions of dollars to host an event lasting a few scant weeks, including the construction of substantial stadiums and athlete housing and lord knows what else, and then figure out how to make the facilities useful after the Games are over and everybody disperses to the four winds.

How can this ever make sense? It took Montreal thirty years to pay off the billions it cost to have the Games there in 1976. Few Olympic facilities get much use after the Games. Past Olympic facilities in some cities are crumbling wrecks behind barbed wire fences or already torn down in whole or in part and dumped in landfills. (That was actually Chicago’s plan from the outset.) The vast sums of money required are virtually always steered into politically friendly hands, and sheesh, guys, this is Chicago we’re talking about! (The sport they play best over there is racketball.) The crush of outsiders makes residents flee to the countryside, and in places where an ongoing tourist economy already exists, tourism falls to nothing before the Games and often remains depressed for years afterwards.

All for a mutated megatourney that has gone 180 from its original purpose: to transcend nationalism and glorify the efforts of individual athletes. Instead, we now have a global festival of flag-flavored tribalistic poo-flinging that takes huge advantage of the dazzling young athletes, who work basically for free while insiders and organizers pocket whatever money comes in.

I know, I know, I always come out against sports, heh. Guilty, and unrepentant. Still, not a single person I know in Chicago (and I know lots) came out for the Games, and if anybody was defending them before, I suspect they’re being very quiet now.

My view is pretty simple: The Olympics have long been too big an event to bounce around the world as though they were a spelling bee. They need to go back to Greece and stay there forever. What we used to spend on building whole cities every four years to host the Games, we should now parcel out as prize money to the athletes, so that they can at least get a college education against the (strong) possibility that there isn’t much money in professional biathalon once the last echoes of Leo Arnaud’s “Bugler’s Dream” fade to silence.