Archive forApril, 2013

Intermittent Part Failure

It’s been a reasonably bad week, but I’m really not wanting to vent about the work-related things that went wrong, so instead I’ll ramble about my computer a bit.

Parts failing intermittently are the worst parts to diagnose.

My own computer has been having issues for quite a while, starting late last year when I went to install a BD-Player and one channel of RAM decided it didn’t want to clear post ever again. I’d been having off and on problems with my secondary HD leading up to that, and when the RAM issue occurred, I decided it had to be RAM related.

Of course, That drive’s issues ended up not being RAM related, and on a glance at my Windows Event Log a few weeks later I found several thousand entries for HDD I/O errors.  A quick swap out later, I lost maybe one or two files which I have a backup of I haven’t gotten around to restoring.

Over the course of owning this system, one thing became increasingly obvious: Something is WRONG with it.   I think I finally pegged it down to something that the Asus Sabertooth line is bad about – dynamic overclocking.  Overclocking is a bit of a goofy thing in general, and I think the term has lost much of its meaning in recent years as manufacturers started building in “overclock tolerances” into their designs to account for user shenanigans.

I am also not a fan of overclocking, as I never really bought into the whole idea of spending on cooling what I could have spent on a faster CPU in the first place.  There’s a huge line of thought (And arguments) about what hardware is actually capable of, but your warranty is for the numbers on the box.   A general rule of thumb is that while your (hardware) may have started it’s production cycle as a more powerful chip, mass production of electronics is not the consistent process we like to think it is.

Years of computer repair have taught me that no two computer parts are exactly identical.  They may look the same, they may act the same, and run the same software…  But the longer you use them, the more each part develops it’s own distinct personality based on it’s differences and the ab/use you give it.  You can treat them like identical machines, but when those chips are built, they’re built with a rather dramatic fault tolerance and each chip tends to have things that work and things that don’t.  Chips that work but fail certain tests get repurposed down to lower powered configurations for use.  So your nVidia GTX Blah-80 may have started life as a nVidia Quadro that failed performance testing.

This fundamentally is the basis behind overclocking – You’re taking a gamble that enough of the higher end features of your given piece of hardware work.  If they don’t, you have a brick.  If they do, you’ve gotten a free upgrade that may or may not be buggier than IE 6.0 in quirks mode.

I generally don’t like taking that bet.  I push my computer to the endurance limit, but not the performance limit.  I don’t play Crysis or games that push graphics cards to their limits.  The two games I’ve put the most time into in the last five years are Minecraft and WoW, and those games use CPU rendering rather than GPU rendering.  The most intense thing I do to my computer- which I stopped recently- is run Google Chrome at all.  (Firefox tends to get a bad rap for how many gigs of RAM it uses to display a 320kb webpage, but Google Chrome is even worse.)

Speaking of Minecraft, that plays into the “Game test” diagnosis:  I stopped playing MC around 1.3.5 all the way until the 1.5 snapshots started coming out.  Up to that point, the only game that had given me issues was WoW with occasional visual artifacts.  (I haven’t even played WoW since January, anyway.)  When I started playing, MC started having issues and I wrote that off as being the snapshot.  When it went live and they were getting worse, I figured it was just me.  A friend talked me into playing Starcraft 2 a month or so ago, and to really prove that your system has something wrong with it, all you really need to do is run a blizzard product.

What do I mean by that?  Basically, Blizzard has their own way of doing things.  They made their first major foray into 3D before anyone else did, and they decided to stick with tradition rather than adopt standardized techniques.  This results in an unusual hybrid of “This is how we’ve always done it” with “Ooh, that’s awesome, let’s try using that too” that gives Blizzard games very intense hardware requirements for what they actually are doing.  In my case,  SC2 would act like my system didn’t have enough resources to run it for the first two games played, then suddenly it would be fine on max settings.

So I had a system that I knew was bad, Behaving erratically when I ran SC2, artifacting in WoW, crashing when I played Minecraft, had burned some parts in the past, and tended to need a reboot around the 1 week of uptime mark.   It also took an excessively lengthy amount of time to boot up by Windows 8 standards.

Something was wrong, but couldn’t peg down what exactly.  Then my RL friends invited me to play FTB with them and I finally was able to provoke a crash on demand.  After a day or two without a reboot, MC would crash on launch.  Thinking it was a mod, I tried vMC with the same result.  Reboot, and it would work for about 8 hours.  Since most of how I play MC is to automate machinery (A habit I picked up from playing better than wolves/better then buildcraft), I shrugged and said “okay, I’ll just leave you open and see if you crash, I don’t have a chunkloader anyway”

Sure enough, MC was fine until I closed it, then I needed to reboot.  So for several days, I just idled in my base, waiting on things like my Basalt cobblestone generator to fill barrels, trying to figure out this crazy mess of mods called feed the beast.

For the first time since I ran Windows 98, I was back to daily reboots.  That lasted about a week and a half before MC started abruptly crashing whenever Thaumcraft would do an aura node update.  At least I think it’s thaumcraft doing it, the only clue I had was a day or so ago when I crafted my first thaumcraft wand and discovered that the only corner of my base that I can regenerate Vis in is the same corner that causes the random mystery lag preceding an MC crash.

Then on a reboot, I got an nVidia Control panel error letting me know it had driver issues.

Some hardware tests that had gone without errors before now turned up that, sure enough, the other two sticks of RAM went bad, as well.  They still work, but are very unstable for anything other than basic web browsing.

Now for one last piece of info that perhaps I could have opened with, this is the second set of RAM this mobo’s gone through.  Having arrived back at RAM, I started reviewing why I might have been having issues…  and it seems this one is completely my fault for not reading fine print:  While this mobo says it wants 1600 mhz DDR3, It actually only runs at 1333 with an AI overclock to 1600.   Running actual 1600 mhz DDR3 ram in it resulted in some rather strange automatic timing adjustments, and it overclocked past that, even though I had manually corrected the timings when I first installed the RAM.

I’m quite amazed I got the life out of it I did, considering how badly I mismatched the memory.  Rather than try to doctor the system any further, I decided to just do a full upgrade.  I’m moving to a third gen i7, and a different board without as many “overclocker” features while still giving direct access to adjust timings and clock speeds if I need to correct a bad automatic detection.  I’m hopeful I won’t have to, given that I’ve matched the memory out to non-OC speeds as opposed to the theoretical top OC.

I’ve also decided to try the SSD plunge.  I’ll be running an SSD for my OS w/ a striped data drive array, possibly upgrading to Raid 5 later on.  I actually purchased 3 drives in anticipation of using raid 5 right out of the door, but I need to check to see if the motherboard’s on-board RAID is Soft-raid or actual hardware raid.  I suspect it’s soft-raid, and soft-raid 5 arrays apparently suffer terrible write performance.

If it is soft-raid, I’ll need to buy a hardware raid controller as an expansion later on.  Sata 6gb/s Hardware raid controllers are quite a bit more expensive than I’d like, so I’m hoping they come down in price a little bit.

With any luck and no shipping delays the hardware will arrive tuesday.

In other news, I got down to the local pet store to find that the 55 gallon tank re-stock last week arrived cracked, so I have to wait until it gets restocked.  Ah well.  Resupply is a mere setback.

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Hydroponics? Go Fish.

Whee… late again.  I need to start writing these a few days in advance w/ delayed publish.

My family finally made it out the door a week ago on their 5 month RV vacation, leaving me to house-sit by myself!  This caused a whole bunch of work to fall on my head.  It was stressful, but it has borne fruit in an odd way that’s relevant to what I wanted to ramble about this week!

One of those strange childhood dreams I’ve always had has been to get a Hydroponic garden going.  Some of my earliest childhood memories are of a tiny backyard garden my mom had prior to a comical incident involving my dad, some anti-weed fertilizer meant for the grass, and, well, that was it for fresh winter carrots.  Before we got around to replanting it, the Military sent us somewhere else and the new house had a yard so small there wasn’t a point to gardening in it.  Not long after arrival, one day in the library I noticed a book on hydroponics that had been left out.  The science was mostly above my 6 year old brain, but I got the basics and for some reason the idea of growing a plant in large gravel seemed cool, and I missed the fresh veggies/fruit.

My interest drove my mother nuts – I’d go out in the back yard, scoop up a random weed, plant it in an applesauce container and put it in a lego greenhouse.  She’d find it while cleaning and throw it out.  The next time I had applesauce for lunch, I’d do it again.  This cycle repeated for a few months, until I discovered the Deluxe Paint 3 animation how-to VHS tape and spent the next few years creating horrible stick figure animations, painstakingly copying NES game sprites by hand, and imagining a mode 7 RPG, since I’d just discovered DraQue and FF1.

Ah, memories.

Of course, as I grew up, my understanding of what was required matured.  The more I learned, the more my thoughts shifted around to “That would be fun… but…  that’s a lot of work and plant nutrients are expensive…”  It also didn’t help that my family has tons of crap and didn’t want to devote the space to a hydroponic farm, and we have no back yard to speak of, so no greenhouse is likely.

A few years ago, one of my friends introduced me to Aquaponics.  Where Hydroponics exists as a system you have to keep adding external elements to, Aquaponics exists mostly as an artificial ecosystem.  It accomplishes this by mixing Aquaculture (farming fish in water tanks) into the mix, using fish excrement as fertilizer.  The fish excrete ammonia, probiotics in the system convert it into a form useful to the plants, and a cyclical pump system pumps the nutrient rich water into the grow bed slowly over the course of a few hours.

Once the grow bed fills up with a target volume of water, it rapidly drains back into the fish tank.  This rapid cycling has the effect of letting the plants serve as a natural filter, so the water going back into the fish tank is essentially clean water.  At that point, you just need to feed your fish.  As I understand it with what I know right now, you can usually accomplish this by planting some duckweed in your fish tank, but you might have to eventually bring in some external fish food every now and then.

There are some great videos and resources for Aquaponics online, it has quite a few evangelists who are excited for it’s ability to grow food in a small footprint.  Take this video, for example:   (edit: Can’t seem to embed this.  Hmm.)

A note – This person is using Koi because he lives in Australia, which prohibits the import of White Tilapia.  Quite a few proponents will advocate White Tilapia, which are quite resilient in addition to their ability to grow and breed rapidly.  These traits are ideal in farmed fish, but they’re also quite the pest if they escape a farm and get into a local river, as they can completely displace/obliterate a native fish population.

After years of telling me “we don’t have enough space”, “It’s too expensive” and such, my family finally decided my argument about healthy food’s cost was a good one.

And then this week, a windfall came in, one of my customers mentioned that one of the local pet stores has a sale on fish tanks right now.  So, I hope to get by one tomorrow to get a good sized tank purchased for getting started on a system.

My plan for my own system right now is to start simple.  Work with a single fishtank, a small growbed, get the waterflow working right, get some goldfish, seed, and maybe some pre-started plants to get things rolling.  To start with, I’m going to work with Lettuce given that I’ve seen some really impressive lettuce farms and it has a short growing time in hydroponics systems.  From there I’ll branch out into carrots and broccoli, learn how to grow set up a bed big enough for potatos, and eventually, my ultimate goal, is to get a Grapevine.  I love fresh grapes.  I live in a desert that imports grapes from California and they’re about to go bad by the time they get here. 🙁

For right now, I will be happy with Lettuce.  Eventually, once I learn how to prepare and cook fish, I will probably start a Tilapia fishery.  At some point, if really successful, I might even see if I can import some Ayu fingerlings.  I have no idea if that’s even possible.

Anyway, I think I’ve rambled enough!  Off to do some remote support work before my friends bring their MC server back up.  I just discovered mining turtles run on Lua.  This could be very, very bad for server lag.


The April Fool(ishness!)

Well, last weekend was a bit of a mess for me, and it took me a while to get my mood out of the gutter for how bad I felt.  Truth be told, I’m still kind of muddled, but I’m no longer in so much pain that I can’t think about other stuff.

Before I pulled a muscle last weekend, I had intended to talk about Aquaponics… but right now I’m inspired to just kind of review everything, and seeing as how some of it is pure foolishness, it’s appropriate that this post will be dated April 1st.  (One of those days I’ve never really liked, but there’s always some great jokes out of big companies, like this year’s Google nose, Blizzard’s “Every race is getting warhounds” announcement, Windows Blue… oh wait, Windows Blue wasn’t an april fool.)

For me, my April foolishness is mostly in thinking I’m about to get a vacation.  Realistically speaking, I’m not getting a vacation so much as time to myself: My family is leaving on a 5 month road trip in a few days, leaving me home to house-sit.   I’m not actually getting a vacation…   I have tons of work to do…I keep telling myself that.  I’m not quite sure it’s getting through.  *laugh*

I also am surprised to find that something I was sure of last year is actually wrong.  Last year I said that NaNoWriMo (national novel writing month) only happens once a year.  I had been getting E-mails for something called “Camp NaNoWriMo” for quite a while and for some silly reason had just assumed it was a novel writing seminar in a camp format without actually reading the E-mails.  I took a glance at one out of curiosity only to realize it was another NaNoWriMo event with a campground skin on the website.  They’re holding one this month and another in July, in addition to the primary event.

I want to take another crack at it, and had been trying to work to get my schedule cleared up so that I’d have plenty of downtime the first few days of the month to choose what I was going to write about and get started, but the more work I think I’ve finished, the bigger the snowball of remaining work really is.  Even if I somehow got rid of every last computer support task by the end of the week, I’d still have a game project, a software app, and housework to keep me busy.

Still, as foolish as it is, I might just try to write something.  I really need the practice at story crafting.  For as much as I feel my skills have improved with my last few writing efforts, it’s still only a drop in the bucket of where I need them to be.  My efforts to improve my writing have helped my critical analysis of stories, but the main gain has been in gaining a loose grip on how to plan a story’s pace so that I don’t have to guess if a section will be fast or slow as I write it.  No matter what I do with the writing, I’m not signing up for the april event, but I will probably sign up for July’s.

My programming goals are kind of a sad point.  The software app actually has quite a bit of of promise, more than any of the games I want to make.  It’s been on my list of things to do for a year, and I was given good reason to focus my code time on it last month instead of the game.  But, evidently I know more about making games than I do making information handling apps.  I plan to focus on the engine again while devoting a single day per week to the app and the learning it requires.  That way I hope to learn what I need to to make the app happen while I make the game a reality.

Honestly, the biggest April fool’s day gag, is actually that it’s already April.  it feels as if it should still be the 16th or so of march.

I’ll cut it off here, next weekend I’ll try to cover Aquaponics, unless something else comes up.

Edit: Oh how brilliant: