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March, 2014:


This entry will be a hodgepodge, or as they say in some circles, a “hotch potch.” (I think it’s a Britishism; Colin Wilson used that spelling many times.) Stuff has been piling up in the Contra file. Carol and I have been slighting housework for these past six months, she laid up after surgery on both feet, and me writing what has doubtless been the most difficult half-a-book I’ve ever written. We’ve been cleaning up, putting away, and generally getting back to real life. Real life never tasted so delicious.

One reason is rum horchata. I’m not one for hard liquor, mostly, and generally drink wine. (Beer tastes far too bitter to me.) But Rumchata got me in a second. It’s a dessert cordial no stronger than wine, with the result that you can actually taste the other ingredients, like vanilla, cream, and cinnamon. Highly recommended.

People ask me periodically what I’ve been reading. After soaking my behind in computer science for the past six or eight months, I’ve been studiously avoiding technology books. That said, I do endorse Degunking Windows 7 by my former co-author Joli Ballew. I actually used it to learn some of the Win7 details that weren’t obvious from beating my head on the OS. I wish it were a Coriolis book, but alas, it’s not. That doesn’t mean it’s not terrific.

True to my random inborn curiosity about everything except sports and opera, I’ve developed an interest in the chalk figures of southern England. The next time we get over there (soon, I hope, though probably not until summer 2015) we’re going to catch the Long Man of Wilmington, the White Horse of Uffington, and that very well hung (40 feet!) Cerne Giant. Other chalk figures exist, many of them horses. Some can be seen from Google Earth. A reasonable and cheap intro is Lost Gods of Albion by Paul Newman. The book’s been remaindered, and you can get a new hardcover for $3. I wouldn’t pay full price for it, but it was worth the hour and change it took to read. My primary complaint? It needs more pictures of chalk figures, duhh.

Quick aside: While researching kite aerial photography with my found-in-the-bushes GoPro Hero2 sports camera, I came upon an impressive video of the White Horse of Westbury taken from a double bow kite (rokkaku). I have the cam, and loads of kites. All I need now is a chalk figure. (I suspect I could coerce my nieces into drawing one for me.)

Far more interesting than Lost Gods of Albion was Gogmagog by Thomas Lethbridge. I lucked into a copy of the 1957 hardcover fairly cheap, but availability is spotty and you may have to do some sniffing around. If you’re willing to believe him, Lethbridge did an interesting thing back in the 1950s: He took a 19th century report that a chalk giant existed on a hillside in Wandlebury (near Cambridge) and went looking for it. His technique was dogged but straightforward: For months on end, he wandered around the hillside with a half-inch metal bar ground to a point, shoving it into the ground and recording how far it went in before it struck hard chalk. His reasoning was that the outlines of a chalk figure would be dug into the chalk, and thus farther down than undisturbed chalk. In time he had literally tens of thousands of data points, and used them to assemble a startling image of two gods, a goddess, a chariot, and a peculiar horse of the same sort as the Uffington White Horse.

Not everybody was convinced. Even though Lethbridge was a trained archaeologist, his critics claimed that he was a victim of pareidolia, and simply seeing the patterns he wanted to see in his thousands of hillside holes. The real problem was that Lethbridge was a pendulum dowser, and a vocal one: He published several books on the subject, which make a lot of claims that aren’t easily corroborated. Lethbridge claims that most people can dowse, and hey, it’s an experiment that I could make, if I decided it was worth the time. (It probably isn’t.)

The third book in my recent readings is The Physical Phenomena of Mysticism by Herbert Thurston, a Jesuit priest who spent a good part of his life collecting reports of peculiarly Catholic weirdnesses (stigmata, levitation, inedia, odor of sanctity, etc.) and presenting them in a manner similar to that of Charles Fort, if better written. Most of the articles were originally published in obscure theology journals, but were collected in 1952 in a volume that I’ve never seen for less than $100. Last year it was finally reprinted by White Crow Books and can be had for $18. I’m not sure what one can say about reports of people who have not eaten for forty years. Mysticism is a weird business, but physics is physics. The book is entertaining, and it’s given me some ideas for stories, particularly since I have a spiritually butt-kicking psychic little old Polish lady as a major chartacter in Old Catholics. (Vampires are just so 2007.)

If three books doesn’t seem like much, consider my habit of going back to books I’ve read and liked, and flipping through them to see what notations I’ve made in the margins. We all make them; when was the last time you deliberately went back to read and reconsider them? I’ve been dipping into Gary Taubes’ Good Calories, Bad Calories, Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, Colin Wilson’s A Criminal History of Mankind, and Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist, and arguing with my own marginal notes. One can learn things arguing with oneself, and I’ve been known to change my mind based on things I scribbled in other people’s book’s ten or twelve years ago. (Before that I was too young to have anything like informed opinions.)

For example, I’ve gone back to calling it “global warming.” Climate is always changing, and the assumption that we know all the forces propelling those changes is just wrong–and in tribalist hands, willfully dishonest. Carbon dioxide has exactly one climate trick in its bag: It warms the atmosphere. That’s it. If the discussion is about carbon dioxide, it’s about global warming. Why climate changes is still so poorly understood (and so polluted by political hatred) that we may be decades before we even know what the major forcings are. In the meantime, I want predictions. If your model gives you climate data out fifty years, it will give you data out five. Publish those predictions. And if they prove wrong, be one of those people who really do #*%^*ing love science and admit it. Being wrong is how science works. Being political is how science dies.

I have a long-delayed electronics project back on the bench: Lee Hart’s CDP1802 Membership Card. I started it last summer, and set it aside when the Raspberry Pi gig turned up. It’s basically a COSMAC Elf in an Altoids tin. I had an Elf almost forty years ago. I programmed it in binary because that’s all there was in 1976. And y’know? I can still do it: F8 FF A2. F8 47 A5…

Some things really are eternal.

More on the Dell Optiplex 780

Not a great deal of time today, but I realized I left out an important fact about the Dell 780, and presumably the other USFF machines in the same case like the 980: The all-in-one mount is not VESA compatible, and will only take Dell monitors. The all-in-one mounts for the two earlier USFF case styles (SX270 and SX280) took any 10cm VESA monitor. The flipside is true, too: More recent Dell monitors are not VESA compatible, and use the same proprietary tab-and-button mount as the 780-family all-in-one mount. Be careful when you’re assembling a refurb system. Not everything from Dell fits everthing else from Dell.

That said, if you’re going to use a Dell LCD monitor, Dell has a very nice amplified speaker bar that clips securely to the bottom edge of the monitor. It’s the AS501, and you can get NOS units from eBay for $15 shipped. All of the Dell UltraSharp monitors that I have here provide a 5V barrel jack on the back of the monitor to power the AS501. Very good fidelity, and certainly sufficient volume for puttering around your office or workshop. The 780 contains a tiny internal speaker, roughly equivalent to the one in the SX280, but it’s not good for much beyond notification sounds.

Disabling the Intel Boot Agent Admin Password on the Dell Optiplex 780

780 and SX270 350Wide.jpgI’m replacing my venerable Dell SX270s and SX280s with much newer Optiplex 780 USFFs running Windows 7. I have two here now and at some point will buy a third. They’re smaller than even the SX270 and almost dead silent. Not bad for a Core 2 Duo with 4 GB RAM. The machines date back to 2009 and are recently coming off 5-year depreciation schedules, so you’re now able to snag one for $200 or less.

As with the SX270s and SX280s (and in fact with most of Dell’s ultra-small form factor machines) the 780 is a cube farm box, not suitable for gaming or video editing but completely suitable for nearly all office work. The machine was designed for central management, and in both of the machines I’ve acquired, the Intel Boot Agent has first shot in the boot order, attempting a PXE boot through the 100BASE-T port. Boot Agent eventually gives up, but while it’s waiting for DHCP to pass down an operating system (these IP addresses don’t burn worth a cent!) the machine just sits there, adding at least thirty seconds to your boot time.

So I F2’d my way into Setup…only to find myself locked out by an admin password. I tried a few obvious ones, then looked online for some indication how to reset the password, to no avail. I downloaded the Dell tech doc, which sent me looking for a jumper that my machine doesn’t have. I then sent off a message to the eBay seller I bought it from with a polite complaint. Fortunately, the seller (who’s sold many of these things and doubtless hears this question a lot) told me to pull the blue jumper from a header marked “Clear Password” on the mobo near the fan. I opened it up, pulled the blue jumper off the header, and shazayum: No setup password. Once I got in, I pushed Intel Boot Agent way down to the bottom of the boot order. The machine now boots into Windows in seconds.

Bezel Tab Locator.png

If you’ve got a 780 in hand and want to nuke the setup password and get Boot Agent out of your way, here are some tips once you’ve removed the top panel:

  1. The plastic front-panel bezel has to come off first. There are three plastic tabs locking it in place. (See photo above.) Two are flat and easy to see. You pull those gently upward, while pressing the third and less obvious tab gently to the left. The bezel will pivot forward and down, and then off.
  2. There is a wire handle on the disk drive subassembly. Pull up and the whole business will left into your hands.
  3. Three SATA cables connect the disk subassembly to the mobo. You can pull them all and remove the subassembly completely, or you can remove the blue cable and rotate the subassembly 90 degrees to get it out of the way.
  4. Look for a blue jumper block near the fan, clearlly marked “Clear Password.” (See photo below.) Yank it with a needle-nose; your fingers probably won’t be able to get a purchase on it. I have a drawer for such things, but if you feel you may need to set a Setup password on it again someday, put it back on one (not both!) of the header pins.
  5. Reconnect the SATA cable, drop the disk drive subassembly back where it came from, and then put the front panel bezel back. Hook the two little feet at the bottom into their corresponding slots, then pivot the bezel upward until the three plastic tabs lock back into place.
  6. Button it up, connect it back to the peripherals, and boot it. The splash screen says “Press F12 for boot options” but that’s not useful. Press F2 repeatedly while it’s booting, until the Setup screen appears. From there it’s like any BIOS setup program, and you can set the boot order in the usual way.

Password Jumper Closeup 500Wide copy.png

That’s all you need to do, assuming there aren’t other Setup items you need to address.

Some other odd notes on the 780:

  • The Dell all-in-one mount for the 780 and its successors is hideous, compared to the SX270’s or the still better SX280’s. The 780 fits into a sleeve that then mounts to the stand. The fit is tight. You’re better off just leaving it on the desk. It won’t take up much room.
  • There is a PCIE Mini-Card slot on the mobo for a laptop-style Wi-Fi client adapter. I’ve got CAT5E in the walls and don’t need it, which is good, because I have yet to see the adapter itself for sale on eBay, and the tech doc says nothing about installing it. There is an external antenna that mounts on the rear panel and connects to the adapter with a coax cable. I’m guessing that without the antenna, the steel box will keep the adapter from connecting.
  • The 780’s video output connector is a DisplayPort, so if your monitor is DVI or HDMI, you’ll need an adapter cable. (Display Port is basically HDMI with additional DRM.)

So far I like it, though I’m still configuring and installing software. If anything interesting turns up in the future, you’ll read about it here.

Odd Lots

Pinging Jeff…

Pong, everybody. Relax. I’m still here. And I’m very glad to say that I’m probably 1200 words from the end of my current book project. If it weren’t for some home repairs and carpet cleaning I’d be done by now, and I expect to be done by EOD Friday. The publisher is still reluctant to say much about the book, for reasons I still don’t understand. I’m puzzled, but in publishing as in so many other realms, those who write the checks make the rules.

Much to do after the last word rattles out of the keyboard. Getting rid of XP is high on the list, given our April 8 deadline. This afternoon I ordered a refurbed Win7 laptop, a Dell e6400. How could such an old laptop be useful to me? Easy: I don’t do much on laptops. It’s a travel computer, for Web, email, and some light word processing–like writing Contra entries on the road. It cost me $240 postpaid, as they used to say. I’ve had very good luck with used Dell machines in the last ten years. Every machine in the house but my quadcore is a Dell refurb. I already have two Win7 Dell 780 USFFs for upstairs, and installed Win7 on my lab machine over a year ago. That leaves the laptop and the quad, basically, and if I didn’t need to use the quad to finish this book, the quad would be running Win7 by now as well.

The SX270s are now all bookends. They make very nice bookends.

Oh, and the computer junk pile is getting impressive.

The list of things to do Post Book is long. We need to replace our driveway slab, which is descending into rubble. Ditto the garage slab, the replacement of which will require putting my lathe, big drill press, tooling, and metal stock in storage somewhere. There’s a lesson here: Soil compaction matters. We spent thirty grand mudjacking the lower level, recarpeting, and repainting. Settling soil pulled our gas meter down so far the pipe cracked and damned near blew us over the top of Cheyenne Mountain. I made a number of mistakes having this house built, and I will never make those mistakes again.

Then there’s 3D. I drew 81 figures by hand for this book project, all of them in Visio. (I actually drew 83, but two of them won’t be used.) I’m very good at Visio. However, Visio is inextricably a 2D CAD program, and every time I’ve tried to use it for 3D, it makes me nuts. I took a lot of drafting and engineering graphics when I was in school and know how to do it. (Sure, it was with a T-square. Ya gotta problem widdat?) I need to be able to draw things in 3D. I downloaded the free version of Sketchup after Google bought it in 2006, but was too busy back then to spend much time with it. I see that Google sold it a year or two ago, and the new owners are positioning it as an architectural CAD system. That’s fine, since I know from earlier tests that Sketchup can do telescope parts, and if it can also design me an observatory, I’m good with that. I need somewhere to put an observatory, obviously, but that’s a separate challenge. So learning Sketchup is another priority.

Fiction, too. I’m going to try finishing Old Catholics. If that doesn’t work, I’ll start The Everything Machine, complete with a 3D scale drawing of a thingmaker, courtesy Sketchup. (I tried that in Visio years ago. Uggh.)

I will also be doing some intensive research on Oscar Wilde, for reasons that only a few people in my inner circle understand.

As I always say, Boredom is a choice. I may be tired, but I am not bored. And in a few days, I suspect I will no longer be tired. Bring it on!