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Beta Testing for the Critter beings today

March 03, 2012 14:44

It has been a months long struggle, but the critter is finally ready for beta testing. It will still be 6-8 weeks before everyone is able to play with it, but for a select few interested volunteers, I am allowing access to the critter while the final work is done on sensors and software development. If you are interested in participating, click here.

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No Title

November 29, 2011 20:23

Rearrangement of Equipment I've been working the last several days toward getting equipment ready for Xmas and for some other purposes. First off, I took a 9 year old computer that had been sitting idle for the last several years and repurposed it to operate the Xmas lights once I get the tree set up, which I will do sometime this week. I'm also going to take the Akon box and repurpose it as the main router, which will allow me to use Bastille as another box for automation purposes. The issue has been the computers that have parallel ports, and my chronic lack of them. I've ordered another pci card that HOPEFULLY will have working parallel support at the hardware level, instead of being yet another one that is just a glorified usb controller. It's getting harder and harder to find parallel ports that work properly, so I'm guessing I'm going to have to take the plunge and get into building my own USB devices for future projects. Not really what I want to do, but it'll probably be necessary. I've got a LOT of extra computers running here that don't do much more than provide a single parallel port. Waste indeed.

I've been having Internet issues lately as well, some of which I've traced to the networking hardware in Bastille, which is my router. I know the network card on the internet side is an old 10mbps one. That was never an issue at the time I put this router into service 6 years ago, since my internet connection was an order of magnitude lower than that. Now, the downstream exceeds the rate that the card can handle, and I suspect some of my upstream problems could be related to that fact. I've done some temporary tweaking to the network settings, mostly by dropping all of the traffic shaping settings, but I feel getting a new box in there would make sense. Besides, it's one of the only computers in my cabinet that REQUIRES a keyboard to boot (yes, I know about the BIOS setting for that), and it also won't automatically boot after a power failure. Having the UPS on it has made that crisis a lot more managable for the last few years, but it'd be nice to have an entire network that can handle a power failure, particularly one system as important as the Internet router.

I bought a new LCD monitor during the Black Friday bruhaha and that is now operating off of the last generation XP machine which I still use as a third workstation and do my windows programming on. This has resulted with having yet another CRT monitor sitting on the floor, taking up space, getting in the way. I'll probably take a crack at clearing out some space under one of the tables, likely the one on the east wall, so I can shove them under there. I've got two very large boxes under that table, with a dubious collection of contents. At best, they can probably be relocated to the shed. Or maybe I'll put the monitors out there. Anyway, project for this weekend. I need to get my working space back so I can get my project tables cleared and get working again. I'm going to need it for Critter Stage 2.

Also having reception issues with the cable TV in the house. Since this is a new development, I'm suspecting there's been some tampering with one of the cables in the attic. Reception upstairs has never been all that great, partially because the TVs up there have 4 splitters between them and the cable outside. First splitter breaks the incoming cable between TV and cable modem. The second splitter is reversed, combining the incoming TV signal and the output of the UHF modulator for channel 90. It then feeds into an amplifier which has 4 outputs, only one of which I'm using. This effectively negates ONE of the splitters by boosting the gain by the same amount that a splitter loses. The next splitter is in the living room. The cable goes from there up to the attic where I have a 4-way splitter, one connection to each of the bedrooms.

I realize that splitter nightmare is bad. But, it made some degree of sense at the time. Now, it just seems like a really bad idea, especially since one of the TVs upstairs is digital and the lower quality connection isn't helping matters any. I'm now considering some new possibilities. At the very least, I plan to bypass the splitter in the living room and run a cable directly from the amplifier to the splitter in the attic, as well as reduce the attic splitter from a 4-way to a 2-way. That will hopefully cut down on the signal loss enough to be helpful. Otherwise I might need to run two cables to the attic, one to each of the two TVs up there directly. Locating and fixing the source of the tampering would probably be helpful as well. A bigger problem is how to get the wires up there. The cable line from the office (where the cable comes into the house) follows a path that goes under the house into a very inaccessible area, through the crawlspace to a slightly more accessible area, up through the wall which I have completed drywalling of, through several holes and into a box. I MIGHT be able to pull that cable back through the wall and drag a rope with it, but I doubt it. I DO have an unused network line that I could use to pull a new cable through for the TV in the living room, and I could replace the splitter in the living room with a coupler instead... I'll work on that.

Anyway, that should be enough for a weekend.

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Progress

November 17, 2011 19:41

Well, the second critter project is finally underway. I've finally broken down and purchased the necessary component that's been stalling the project. While all of the software and circuitry is simple (if not time consuming and tedius) to construct, when designing the drive system, there's usually always one component that simply doesn't exist. The issue at hand is to find a combination of parts that all work together, the parts being the wheel, motor, and encoder. If a suitable motor can't be found, then you'd also need a drive train consisting of several gears to slow down the motor and increase the torque. For an encoder to work, the motor has to have a secondary shaft to attach it to. And to connect the primary motor shaft to the wheel you need a hub. The hub has been the single component that has held me up, since apparently no such object exists that can connect a 6mm motor shaft to a wheel with a 29/32" bore. To solve this problem, I have used Emachineshop to manufacture the part for me. This is a moderately expensive solution, but the best I could come up with. It will also take a month to deliver, but I've got plenty to do in the meantime.

The new critter is going to have more features available than the critter of the past, or the past rc cars. With an encoder on the motors, I'll be able to track odometry. This will be utilized to keep the robot moving in a straight line, control speed, and track the position relative to a known starting position. Since, due to wheel slip and other factors, odometry is error-prone and that error increases with the distance travelled. For that reason, it is necessary to periodically recompute the current position in the house. Several possibilities for this are possible, many of which involve beacons of some sort. However, I will likely implement a SLAM (Simultanious Localization And Mapping) solution using a sweeping sensor array with combined sonar and IR rangefinders. With a known map either computed or previously provided, the robot will be able to determine its position in the house based on the distance to the objects around it, offset by a predicted area due to odometry measurements.

To solve the battery life problem, in addition to being able to swap out batteries, the critter itself will be able to locate and dock with a charging station whenever it becomes idle or low on battery. A more elaborate set of sensors will be utilized to avoid all contact with walls and other objects. I'm still pondering the prospects of adding on a controllable arm that won't interfere with navigation or weight distribution. With work hopefully slowing down over the next few weeks, I hope to get a lot of the preliminary work done on this project before the part arrives to complete it.

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More fun

August 27, 2011 04:21

Well, the week from hell ended with a car wreck. *I* didn't have the wreak, but my insurance is going to get hit for it none the less. Thankfully, that was the end of that jinxed week and things have gotten back to normal since then, so life can go on.

I've recieved both the wheels and the motors to be used on the next version of the critter. Monday most likely I will hit up one of the machine shops around here and see what it's going to cost me to fabricate some wheel hubs. I figure the total time, assuming I have no setbacks, to get the new critter functional will be about 3 weeks. I'm not yet sure if I'm going to try fixing the old one.

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More google issues

August 18, 2011 21:49

Well, I've received no new updates on my cancelled adsense account, so I'm pretty much writing that off. Doing some research on the subject, I have found instances of many people over the years receiving the very same form-letter style reasoning for cancelling their accounts: primarily, invalid clicks. Digging a bit deeper, it seems that the definition of "invalid" is treated pretty loosely. What is most likely happening is that Google has decided (and likely has done so all along) to terminate accounts that are not profitable. Basically, this means, the conversion rate (the percentage of clicks that result in a purchase from an advertiser) is too low.

One way to look at that, of course, is that people are clicking the ads with no intention to ever buy anything. There IS some merit to that argument, since most people who don't want to purchase anything from an online advertisement, tend not to click on ads. In fact, a lot of people just block the ads alltogether. How many people do that? Based on my adsense reports (before getting banned of course ;) and comparing them to my own server logs, it appears that only 1/3 of my visitors ever even SAW the ads, meaning 2/3 of the internet blocks all advertising (or at least blocks google's). Point is, if you're the type to see the ads, AND the type to willingly follow those advertisements, you're probably also the type to buy stuff you find occasionally. If you don't buy stuff after following ads, then you're a freeloader. Not my opinion, mind you, but that's the way Google sees it, as well as the advertisers who are paying for those clicks. They DO have an expectation of those clicks resulting in actual business, and Google is doing their very best to insure that actually happens. Their methods seem a bit sucky from where I'm sitting, but I DO see their point of view on this. I do wish, however, that if this is the case, they make a required coversion rate part of the TOS and allow the publishers the option to have some control over the situation.

What kind of control could they have? First off, if *I* knew, prior to this, that a certain conversion rate were required, I would intentionally restrict which pages the ads displayed on, vs placing them on every page of the site. For instance, the main page had an ad on it, and it had the highest number of clicks and made the most money of any other page on my site. HOWEVER, the actual clickthrough rate was very low and so was the actual earning rate. Something like 5 cents for every thousand views, which is about in line whith what impression based banner ads pay, whether you click on them or not. The back pages, however, were much more profitable. The relay howto page, for instance, earned about $25 a year by itself, and even though the total clicks on that page over the course of a year were in the hundreds instead of the hundreds of thousands, the clickthrough rate on that page was MUCH higher, earning something like $35 CPM. Not all of the pages faired as well, but most of the well designed, well written pages earned at least $5 a year. Those back pages, however, referenced specific products, or at least provided insight into certain product families. For instance, the relay page would display ads for various relay kits and other similar products, and I have no doubt that someone who was interested enough in relay interfacing to find that page, was probably also interested in purchasing a related product, sufficiently enough so to justify what I was making off of that page. I'm sure IT was profitable to advertisers.

The front page probably wasn't as much. I don't have a lot of text on the main page, and although the ads seemed at least somewhat relevant, it's entirely possible that any clicks I DID get from that page were the result not of interested potential customers, but instead people that click on every single link on the page, despite what it says or what it's supposed to do. In all fairness, that WAS somewhat my intention with the placement and display of the ad. So in that case, it might have been my fault, although there was nothing that specifically prohibited this, and tailoring ads so they blended in with the site was actually encouraged. Still if I were attempting to restrict clicks that had a low conversion rate, I would not have placed ANY adsense ads on the front page.

Secondly, I would also likely restrict showing ads based on the referrer. I would think that people who show up here from various entertainment sites, like stumbleupon, would be less likely to purchase advertised products than would someone who arrived here specifically looking for something. For instance, the relay page gets a significant number of hits directly from a google search, mostly people looking for information on how to control relays from the computer. They're the ones actually INTERESTED in those types of products and would be most likely to purchase something after clicking on an ad. People visiting from one of those "hey look, this is cool!" sites probably aren't likely going to develop a sudden interest in connecting their own lamps to the internet, so why even show them the ads?

It would also be nice for google to provide publishers with a site's or page's conversion rate, as well as provide more demographics as to who's actually clicking on the ads, and who's ultimately buying something. A page that generates ad revenue but doesn't generate conversions is hurting the advertiser (even if it's helping the publisher short term). However, the publisher knowing that low performing pages are going to result in future penalties might choose to drop ads from those pages. Moreover, if I can determine that people visiting from certain sites, or from certain geographical areas are more or less likely to purchase advertised products, I could tailor ad delivery based on that information. In fact, I'm quite sure google tracks that information already and quite likely factors that into the money they pay out per click, which boggles the mind over why they wouldn't just reduce or eliminate payouts on clicks from lower performing demographics. Instead, it would appear that they simply punish the publisher for not providing high performance even though they don't have the data to adequately achieve that.

Of course, advertising is Google's bread and butter, and their main interest will always be their bottom line. A strong second is to take care of their advertisers, since that's where their money is coming from. An adsense user, especially one that isn't performing well, is pretty low on the list of priorities. There's also the publisher's point of view to consider. If Google was a lot more forthcoming about performance issues and publishers spent a lot more time focusing on achieving high ad performance instead of doing what they should be doing (creating great content and making the internet a richer place), publishers would eventually reach a point at which it would be more cost beneficial to pursue their own income, either directly selling their own advertising, or pursuing other forms of merchandising. The point of adsense is that it lets publishers do their thing without having to fuss greatly with advertising.

And that leads me to my next issue, since that's the boat I'm in now. Without adsense, I'm going to need to pursue other revenue sources. CPM based advertising is relatively worthless for a site like mine. Keep in mind, I'm not just trying to cover the costs of the site itself, I would like to be able to have it earn enough to work on it or related activies full time. This means I'm probably going to have to sell actual products. That will require some degree of financial risk, as well as maintaining high cashflow requirements. There will also be more overhead, not only with money, but also with time. Still, it will ultimately be more beneficial to go that way. Adsense is great for what it is, but it's much to easy to get complacent. It's much too easy to sit back and presume that you can make a job out of writing page after page about topics you're not interested in, yet make them sound interesting to the rest of the world, and hope that you can earn enough ad revenue by doing so. I've done some of this already, but it's tedious and boring, and I'd be looking at cranking out 10,000 pages of content just to earn enough with adsense to justify leaving a decent job. My best estimate to accomplish that would require both Gertie and I to spend 40 hours a week each, in addition to my regular job, writing articles and webpages specifically crafted to generate high ad revenue, and maintain that rate for about 3 years, while earning minimum wage for the effort. After that 3 year period, adsense revenue from all of those pages would earn sufficient cash to cover all expenses, pay for our medical insurance, etc. On one hand, it would be a nice position to be in. But on the other hand, that's a lot of really boring work to accomplish it, and we would always be at the whim of Google. Encountering this situation then would REALLY hack me off. Such is the dilemma with putting all of your eggs in one basket. Thankfully, I was taught that lesson before I invested a lot of time in it. And since I find my current job, pushing boxes around a warehouse, more exciting than the prospect of writing 10 research pages a day forever....

Anyway, we're now on the path toward developing products to sell. Some will be merchandise we purchase and resell through the site, or possibly through ebay or amazon. Others will be products that I will develop and sell, such as high-end toys and other electronic gadgets and interfaces. We'll also pursue options for subscription based services related to this site. I realize that nobody would want to pay to access DMI as it is, but I have some ideas for additional features and activies that people might be willing to spend a small amount of money to participate in.

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Well THIS week has sucked

August 17, 2011 08:36

First I find out that my adsense account has been terminated. Then I learn my appeal has been denied, although they still won't tell me why it got cancelled. The critter broke. And now my chair has broken. I'm sore and tired and I still have another day of work this week. Hopefully things will start turning around here soon.

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Well, so much for THAT

August 13, 2011 07:41

You might have noticed that there are no more ads on the site. That is, assuming you noticed them in the first place. For the last several years I've had google adsense ads on my page as a way to hopefully pay for at least SOME of the expenses of the site. I have at times dreamed of writing an enormous number of documents and living off of the ad revenue resulting from those pages. My attemps to do so have not been entirely in vain,and over the last few years I have shown great progress in developing content rich pages, the kind that advertisers love, since they help promote products that they're trying to sell. Links from those pages have a better than decent chance in resulting in sales. This is a good thing for everyone.

Unless... of course, people click on ads for the wrong reasons. What might be the wrong reasons, you ask? Well, there are three possibilities. The first would be outright clickfraud. That would be me, or people working on my behalf, clicking the ads on my site to boost the revenue I receive from those clicks. The second possibility would be a well intentioned, yet moronic, visitor to the site who did likewise, thinking that his efforts would somehow help me financially. The third possibility is that someone with a malicious bent did the same thing, knowing what the outcome might be. And what is that outcome? Why it would be the termination of my adsense account and my permanent ban from adsense in the future for not only THIS site, but ANY site which I own.

Yeah. What a bummer.

See, here's the problem. Fradulent clicks hurt everyone. They hurt the advertiser, because there was no chance that click would result in a sale, yet he had to pay for it just the same. It hurts google, since advertisers won't be willing to pay as much for advertising since the ROI is less. And they hurt the publishers, because the diluted clicks are worth less. Of course, this was clearly not MY fault. I didn't encourage this in any way. In fact, I don't discuss the ads at all. Up until now I've said not a peep about it, as Google's TOS requires. If someone did send a bunch of invalid clicks to my site, they clearly did so without my consent or desire. Trust me, they did me no favors.

So was it a malicious action? Probably not. See, Google has their fingers in a lot of different pies. And they no doubt track EVERYTHING. Everytime you visit a page with a google ad, you can bet that google knows about it. They know you were on that page, and they know what other pages you look at as well. Ignoring all of the privacy issues, this is actually quite helpful. They can use that information to determine ads which you would be more likely to click on based on your own personal interests. They can even match up your search history and POSSIBLY even your gmail content to feed you the most relevant ads. Does that sound a bit scary? Well, maybe. But hey, at least the ads you see will be something that might interest you. The important thing here is, they would be able to tell the difference between someone who just recently showed up and tried to clickbomb me, vs someone who's clearly been a regular on the site for a while, then suddenly starts clicking on all of the ads... and then not following through on any of them.

Of course, google provies NO information on this to me. I don't know who did it, I don't know if it was a lot of people, I don't know their intent, and I don't even know for sure if there WERE any fraudlent clicks. This could have been nothing more than a recent uptick in clicks due to a recent uptick in popularity. This isn't information I'm allowed to have, even as a memeber in good standing (which I no longer am). I'm just going to assume, if it was malicious, Google would figure that out and just discount the clicks. Instead, it probably looked like it was orchestrated from within. And that's really sad.

I've got a pending appeal on this right now. This news entry probably won't help that any, but I'm already making contingency plans anyway. For now, assuming this was just the actions of a misguided soul, let me lay out a few things for everyone. If you want to compensate a website owner, do one or more of the following: donate money, donate equipment, participate in the social aspects of the site, purchase merchandise, buy a membership, etc. Do NOT just click on random ads thinking that will help. It absolutely won't under any circumstances. And it can very well hurt more than you know. The ONLY time you should click on an ad is if you are genuinely interested in the product or service that the ad is offering. That doesn't mean you have to buy something. Nobody expects a 100% conversion rate. Just be sure your interest is in good faith.

Thankfully, I have not spent much time developing pages that weren't useful to the site anyway, and this will have the unintented, but potentially useful side effect of kickstarting other projects which I've let languish. I've got several developments which have been on hold mostly because I've been worried about the up-front expense. No longer. I'm going to blow some cash and get some of these things started. I'll be building several toys and/or appliances that tech junkies will find interesting. It might be a failure, but I'm tired of messing around.

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Projects for the next week

July 31, 2011 17:17

At the risk of becoming too overworked, I've got a lot of things I'd like to accomplish this week. I've made tremendous strides at getting things working again, although there's still a long way to go. This last week we got two huge projects finished, although neither one is directly attributable to the site. We cleaned out an old storage building that we've had for many years and moved the contents somewhere closer so we can go through it and clean it out easier. We also got a good part of the house cleaned so we can get to the rest of it, as well as give the critter somewhere to roam.

Over the next week, I have a few tweaks I'd like to make to the site. I'd like to have it notify all online users whenever certain cams come online, mainly the critter and car cams. I'd also like to get locking working properly, which leads to the next semi-major project, which is to get the lampmaster program updated to use DMICMS which is the only remaining server program that doesn't. I'm also looking at the cheap wireless doorbell I've got here and I'm going to try and see if I can't interface with it, and that will mean I need to also mount a camera somewhere looking at the porch so we can get a view of that, as well as recordings of the doorbell activity.

We shall see.

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Critter is operational again!

July 23, 2011 16:07

I have restored the Critter to its original operational state. Mainly, I removed the two casters and reattached the second pair of motors/wheels so it's back to a 4 wheel monstrosity that can't spin very well. But at least it works. Now, I still have two issues to resolve. First off, it's still set up to use a non-encrypted wifi, and my access point has a passkey. This means that I'll need to figure out how to configure it to use an encrypted connection, and actually set it up to do so. Since getting it wrong would mean I would be unable to access the onboard computer, I'll need to partially break it down and hook it up via the serial port so I can mess with the wireless configuration without losing my access to it. The second issue is that the house is currently a mess and my wife doesn't want it driving around looking at the mess. The mess will also present unnecessary obstacles, so I fully agree with that assessment, even if it's for slightly different reasons.

As for the mess, it's the result of several unrelated projects. First off, Gertie's been on a coupon stockpile binge lately, so we have a LOT of excess grocery merchandise. That's great and all, but storage is an issue. I have built a 4 1/2 foot wide, 8 ft tall storage cabinet for that very purpose. We were originally going to set it up in the kitchen, but the second refridgerator is now stationed where the cabinet would have to go, and while we entertained the notion of setting the fridge in front of the back door, it would require building a semi-elaborate dolly to set the fridge on so we could actually move it in case we needed access to the back door. Eventually we decided to instead set it up in the dining room in the recessed part of the wall where I had originally planned to build some type of built in hutch. I'll need to make a couple of minor modifications to the cabinet before it will fit in there... it's like 3/4" too tall to fit under the header, so I need to saw off 3 1/2 inches of the top piece at the back. Not ENTIRELY sure how I'm going to handle that yet, but I'll manage. We have to drag it outside to stain it anyway, so that won't be a big deal. I also have to made the drawers for it. It'll be somewhat timeconsuming and tedious, but not a big deal. Once that is fully assumbled and in place, it will clear up a lot of room, since currently the two parts of it are taking up most of the dining room.

Secondly, I brought a lot of my dad's old stuff over recently, mainly to clear out his office at my Mom's. Lots of boxes of miscellanious things that need to be sorted through, some thrown out, some stored elsewhere, and some of it put into use. I've also got several tower computers still sitting around here that need to have something done with them. A couple of them can be put into service once I replace the motherboards. I've got CPUs, and ram for those boards, but the boards themselves were crappy ECS brands. If I can assemble a couple of them, I'll have two fairly nice linux boxes which I can then use to phase out some of the older ones.

Third, I have a large number of bookcases, many of them already in use, that are scattered around the living/dining rooms. I'm going to move the fireplace to the center of the room and set up bookcase/cabinets on either side of it. I've still got a couple bookcases that need to be set up and once they're against the wall instead of out in the middle of the room and/or the hallway, I'll have a lot more room available. Once all of that is done, I'll be able to get the critter roaming around again and also set up some of the other cams again too.

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No Title

July 23, 2011 02:20

Marquee is working!

This was no small project either. The sign itself is fine. However, when I returned from our road trip earlier this month, I discovered that computer was off. After trying to reboot it a few times, I hooked up a keyboard and monitor and found out that apparently the bios had decided to choke on itself while we were away, the end result being that the computer refused to boot. Ok, no big deal I thought. This problem has a very simple solution. Remove hard drive from old computer, insert hard drive in a differnet computer, boot and carry on my merry way. Well, at first it seemed to be working. The operating system was booting up, got to the point where it was checking the disk partitions, and then decided to choke too. Ok. The HD must have gotten corrupted in the whole process. Not very common, but not unheard of either. So I rig up myself a rescue disk so I can at least try to mount the drive under a working system to copy off the programs on it. Since that computer ran the sign and that's pretty much all it did, I just wanted to grab the code for the sign program and then I would reinstall the operating system. Well, I couldn't even mount it. It would appear the linux partition was completely hosed.

Very well. No big deal. I have a recent copy of the source. All I had done since then was a few minor tweaks that I could reproduce in a matter of minutes. Now that I was looking at a complete system reinstall ANYWAY, I figured I wouldn't bother scavenging my vixen box (even though it's not currently in use), and would instead bring back into service one of the 6 unused but (I thought) operable computers. One of them was the old spaz machine. I was pretty sure I had copied all of the old files off of it prior to shutting it down several years ago, but I was never absolutely positive about it, so I kinda kept it sitting around in what I thought was an operable state. It would appear that I had scavenged a video card and network card from it at some point, but after some further scavenging, I was able to get it booting. I was not, however, able to find a network card that worked on it. I KNOW I had one working in it before, but which one is quite the mystery. And it wasn't a simple matter to plug in another network card. Keep in mind, this computer was running slackware 3.6. It was released in 1998 and I upgraded the main DMI server from another box running 3.4 that same year. It flawlessly ran the site off of that box well into 2004, before I finally moved the site to a hosted server. It's necessity waned since then, and so I hadn't booted it in several years. Not until now. The point is, I wasn't using loadable modules back then, all drivers (including network drivers) were compiled straight into the kernel, and therefore I needed a compatible card. I was pondering the best way to deal with the current situation. Either I could find an old NE2000 network card, of which I knew I had at least one old ISA card somewhere, and as a practical use, I always compiled that driver into the old system, or I could recompile the kernel with a driver for one of the cards I had sitting around, assuming I could find a working card that was supported back then. While I was pondering this, the drive started knocking, solving many issues all at once. That computer wasn't going to work, that drive was dead, and I needed to seek out another one.

I had another tower here that was a box I had replaced on a job a while back. Apparently, ECS is NOT a good brand for motherboards, and the system had a habit of crashing every few days for no apparently good reason. I still had the box sitting here in perfectly working order (ignoring the crashing issue) and I figured at least I could USE it.. rebooting a couple times a week wouldn't be the end of the world; I was doing that already. I discovered, to my great dismay, that there was no parallel port on that computer. And I don't mean there just wasn't an integrated port for it, no, there was no parallel port available anywhere on the motherboard. I had purchased a couple of different pci parallel port cards for just such an emergency, but one is just a usb parallel port in disguise (and the drivers recognize it as such), and the other just plain doesn't seem to work at all (and I'm not sure what the deal is there). And no, I can't use usb parallel ports since my control over the paralell port is very low level, and the drivers for the usb based parallel ports operate at the character driver level. They're designed to be used with printers and nothing else.

Fine. Can't use that one. So I drag out my Akon box. I named it that because I dragged that computer to Akon last year so I could have a computer in the room. That was more of a pain than it was worth, so I just suffered with the laptop this year. I occasionally use it as a third workstation when the girls are occupying mine, however, I figured that happend rarely enough that I could do without if I had to. So I drag it out, check the back, and...... no parallel port. ARGH!!!

Fine. It's a compaq and it has SATA ports. I have anohter slightly older compaq that has a parallel port but does NOT have SATA ports. That computer, however, is currently in use, mostly for disk storage. With SATA drives. Ok. I know you're confused now, so I'll explain. 2 Christmases ago there was a sale on 1.5TB drives. However, it was a SATA drive, and I wasn't entirely sure that I had any linux boxes that had SATA ports, so I opted to also grab a SATA pci card just in case. Turns out my hunch was correct, I did not (at that time) have any available linux boxes with a SATA port, and so I couldn't use the drive natively, but I COULD use the card with the drive. And it worked. So now I figure I could just take that drive out of that box, put it in the other one, and it should just boot right up.

WRONG!!!!!

That didn't work. I have no idea why it didn't work. It just didn't work. I even tried disabling all onboard SATA and IDE connectors and brought over the PCI card and tried it that way too. Still wouldn't work. However, moving it back to the other computer worked JUST GREAT. I have no idea why. What I DO know is that I had probably better test mounting that drive on another system to be sure that I can even access it properly should that need ever come to pass. But I digress.

I had another box here, from whence it came, I don't know, but since a sticker on the front says it was designed for windows 98, and I had already partially gutted it, I decided attempting to use it wouldn't be worth my time.

So I finally tore into the vixen box again, put in the corrupted HD and tried again for a CENTOS installation. No dice, I'm getting I/O errors. So I start hunting for harddrives of sufficient size that I can use. Although I'm almost positive I had a nearly endless supply of older IDE drives in the 10+ gig range, this apparently is not so. I tried a couple of older drives but neither one of them would act properly in the system. I finally ended up with the old nova drive. Nova was the original box I originally repurposed to operate the sign, and the one who's bios had crashed. I installed a fresh OS on it at that time, but I kept the old drive in there so I could access the files on it. Well, right now, it's looking like the only HD I've got that I can actually USE that I don't need to keep around for some other reason. Great.

So I set up PXE on one of the linux boxes so I can boot the linux rescue disk and copy the entire HD over the network so I could reformat the drive. Yes, I could have used a boot disk, but trust me, at this point, if I didn't do it the horribly complicated way, it just wouldn't have made any sense. So I copy everything off, install CENTOS on that drive. do it AGAIN because it won't boot as quickly as I'd like and I suspect it never reinstalled the MBR. Anyway, THAT time it booted, got it up and running, plugged in the sign, gathered up all of the software needed for it.. spent a few minutes tweaking the code to get it working correctly again, ran it.... and.... it works!!!

Sorta.

That's when I see the sign is a glitchy mess. It looks like my first experiments with trying to build the sign, a history of woe you can read about on that howto page if you're so inclined. I spent a couple hours tweaking it some more, thinking that maybe I just have a timing issue. Nope. No matter what I do, it's still glitchy. In frustration, I give up on it, until today. Well, yesterday now, but who's counting. I realize that the computer that controls the lamps through the parallel port will work fine even with a glitchy parallel port, since I'm not trying to turn THOSE on and off 10000 times a second like the lights on the sign are. So I just swap the two computers, swap the programs, set everything up, turn everything on....

AND IT ALL WORKS BEAUTIFULLY!!!!!

About damn time. Now I can start messing with the critter.

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