Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Amnesia Recovery

(I got my memory back today... Get it? Get it? Sorry. I know. Pretty lame.)

Well, Athena has her memory back. I stuck it in, and it's working, although I still don't know as of writing whether or not the problem will persist (about half the time, the RAM fails startup test). It's the same RAM. Newegg simply tested it and sent it back.

I think the problem might be with the motherboard. There are a few work-arounds if it keeps happening. The easiest and most obvious would be to enable the 'quick' startup test, which doesn't encounter the problem. If I don't have any freezes other than during startup, then that seems like a viable solution. I could also slow the memory speed down in the BIOS, or add another gig in the two empty slots (which would prevent it from utilizing DDR and therefore slow it down). Most likely I'll just use the quick test, since I don't like to sacrifice performance,0 and I haven't had any trouble once it's booted since I flashed the firmware.

I'm kind of glad for the break that the RAM issue caused. It allowed me to accomplish some things and set some priorities right in my schedule.

The other thing I was having problems with was that I couldn't get GNOME to build. It wasn't compiling, and I couldn't figure out what the top error was bacause it scrolls by so fast. redirecting output to a file using ">" didn't work, because the errors weren't going to stdout. Then I remembered my schoolin'. We had a Sun lab at school, and most of our programming projects had to compile on those machines. Turning in an assignment usually required three things: access to a binary from the prof's account (if applicable), a printout of the source code, and a printout of the program output. The best way to prove that your program works is to use the script command to make a file that records everything that gets displayed on the terminal.

So, I found the error, then went to the trusty forums on and found this, which (I hope) is the solution to my problem. With any luck, as soon as she's done crunching code, Athena will (finally) have a graphical environment!

0 Not that I'm hurting for speed. It's the principle of the thing.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

I Dub Thee Athena, Gentoo Goddess of the LAN

So, it's been a whole week, and I seemed to have crawled down a hole and not bothered to tell anyone about it. Well, I promised pictures, and here they are. It took me a while to get them up, because, well, I was messing with my computer. More on that later (quite a bit, I'm afraid).

This happened last Wednesday night.

All Laid Out

This is the "before" picture. This is what I had when I started putting things together. The graphics card is on the left, at 9 o'clock. at 10, there's the motherboard, at 5 is the RAM, the CPU is in the center right, next to the DVD burner, and on the right, of course, is the case, with my free T-shirt. Newegg, in their infinite wisdom, thought that I would be a willingly unpaid human billboard for them. They are, of course, correct. I just have to find the appropriate occasion to wear something bright orange...

So, without further ado:

Motherboard with CPU installed and fan mounted

Sorry, I forgot to take the picture of the motherboard outside of the box, but before the CPU installation, or of the CPU at all for that matter. I was a bit giddy; at least this way I didn't get any drool on the microprocessor.

Tangental story: This way at least I warned you so you can skip the boring parts (or maybe these are the only interesting parts--either way, everything is offered, nothing is guaranteed). On Thursday, I mentioned to RFH over IM at work that I had put the conputer together. He asked me if I had remembered to put the coolant gel between the CPU and its cooling fan. I was shocked, and a bit embarassed, plus, this is not the kind of thing he just lets slide. He was right about something, and would lose no opportunity to lord it over me, and make sure I knew that had it not been for his warning, I would have embarassingly fried a CPU and possibly the motherboard as well, setting me back $300. Following this impeccable logic, I would forever "owe" him for this computer.
But, there is a God, and He is merciful. He does not wish to damn his children to hell, even if they do live with RFH0. The reason it startled me so much when he brougt it up, was that I was quite sure that I had meticulously followed the instructions--oh yes, when Tim knows that he doesn't know what he's doing, he actually reads the instructions. So, when he got home that night, he promptly barged into my room and practically demanded that I disgorge my computer. I was just as eager for a verdict, and so I obliged. Sure enough, I had, in fact, followed the instructions, leaving nothing out. *Whew* /Tangent

Another angle

The Box, with just the DVD burner installed

It looks so neat and clean, but that was not to be.

Motherboard installed

...Motherboard and DVD wired

Quite the tangeld mess, despite my efforts and even though the IDE cables (which are usually ribbon-shaped) are tightly contained in their yellow wrappings. I'm glad I got a SATA hard drive: one fewer IDE cable to get in the way. Although, the SATA coused me a bit of grief. The fact that RFH claimed that it was impossible to boot Linux from an IDE drive didn't make it any easier. He kept insisting that I should install Windows on it to get it up and running (which, for me, would take some of the fun out of it). But that's nothing compared to the floppy drive. SATA boots Linux Kernel 2.6 just fine, by the way.

Graphics Card & Floppy

Speaking of which, the floppy drive doesn't work. Or didn't. Well, I suppose it still doesn't work, but that won't hurt anything at the dump. I bought this one at the surplus store for four dollars. It had been gutted from some other computer, but it looked clean, and was only manufactured 4 years ago. A trip to the local computer store and $12 solved that problem. I could have gotten a white one for $8, but I want her to look pretty.

Oh, and speaking of 'her,' I renamed my computer (as you may have guessed from the title of this post). When I finally got the OS installed and it was time to enter a name I thought it more appropriate and also more original, given that she's an Athlon64 system, and Athena being the name of a goddess. Plus, it's far easier/more fun to endearingly/fondly/protectively/admiringly refer to a 'she' than an 'it.' This being a relatively powerful system running optimized code, the name also does justice to her sleekness: power and elegant prowess. Well, she will be elegant when I've got everything installed correctly. But I wouldn't have it any other way. If I wanted her to soar right out of the box(es) I would have used a stage 3, or just gone to Best Buy and picked out a Media Center PC (*yawn*).

Naked goddess

Back, guts.

The hard drive was, of course, the last item to arrive, which means I had to wait to do anything except mess with the BIOS settings. It was sitting at the FedEx office, or out for delivery (normally the Leasing Office at my complex accepts non-USPS parcels, but they seemed to have been out when the deliveries came on Thursday and Friday). The FedEx office, as it turns out, is two blocks from my worksite. Had I known that, I might have dropped by on my way home Thursday, but as it was, I picked it up Saturday afternoon after Bible study.

Trying to install Gentoo...

They seem to play nice together

Covers on

Covers, back

Compiling, futilly

...aaaaand CRAAASH!1

At least this freeze looks pretty

"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned."
"Go on..."
"I have broken the first commandment."
"You kill somebody?"
"No, Father! That is not the first commandment."
"Of course not! In what way have you broken the first commandment?"

--or something like that.

And now we come to yet another reason that 'athena' is the perfect name for my computer. It's my own little ironic way of reminding myself where my priorities should be. This Sunday was daylight savings, where we "Spring forward," so I lost an hour of sleep. Actually, I lost quite a bit more than that. I went out to play poker with some friends. $5 buy-in, lost my shirt2, and at least I didn't lose everything and then buy back in twice, like somebody I know. Anyway, when I lost, Caleb and I went to go see Sarah, who, for the record, is not a crazy old lady, although she is an old lady. I got home at like 3:00, and since tuxbox (as it was still then called) had finished its compilation job, I set off the next command that should keep it busy for the next few hours, set my alarm so that I could be at church by 11:00, and went to bed. I got up on time. I was fully aware of the time change. I was a bit tired, but I had plenty of time. I just wasted it. I was 15 minutes late.

I thought I would be able to boot into the operating system off of the hard drive. Just once, what could it hurt? Well, it turned out there was a slight problem. It wouldn't boot again. I had only actually gotten it to successfully boot once after numerous tries. It kept freezing up, and I wasn't sure what the problem was: faulty RAM, motherboard, bad graphics card. It turns out, the LORD had retroactively smitten my motherboard with a bad BIOS (the software that runs on the motherboard). On top of that, the memory was also bad, as it failed the startup test about half the time. Shutting off the power at the power strip for half a minute seems to help the RAM to pass, but that doesn't always work.

Anyway, the BIOS was, at this point, my biggest worry. I went to MSI's website on my laptop and got the utility to flash the BIOS, which I wrote to a bootable floppy, and stuck it into tuxbox. I set the BIOS to boot from the Floppy, and viola: nothing. It booted from the CD, which was the 2nd boot device. Drat. On my roommate's advice, I made a DOS bootable floppy. Same [non]effect. So, I figured God didn't want me to boot that day lest I forget having begged His forgiveness, and gave up for the night. On Monday after work, I bought the $12 black floppy drive and flashed the BIOS. Presto! It worked perfectly. Well, about 90% perfectly. It still froze up on boot occasionally because of the RAM.

Despite the RAM issue, I was able to get the operating system installed, and spent a few evenings this week emerging and configuring various utilities.

Actual compiling (I had moved from my room to the living room, where I hooked up both the monitor and my projector, which isn't as glorious in this shot, bacause there are lights shining on it and the screen is mostly dark blue and black.)

I still haven't gotten Gnome to build. Not sure what's causing it. I can only see the bottom of the compilation output, and it's not much good. Since I'm not in a graphical environment, I can't just scroll up, and if I pipe the output to a file, it only redirects stdout, while stderr prints to the screen. Still, I haven't tried that hard to solve that problem just yet. I managed to get the nVidia drivers installed (at least the 64-bit versions: it complains when it tries to install the 32-bit drivers because the libraries (that it just installed in 64-bit) are already there--the readmy said something about a manual setting for the 32-bit driver direcrtories that almost everyone wansn't supposed to mess with--maybe I'm special) and installed Xorg and Samba, as well as various other utilities.

Right now my RAM is sitting in a box on my desk. I'm going to send it back to Newegg and hopefully they'll send me some DIMMs that work all of the time. Meanwhile I'll be out a computer, hence the fact that I suddenly have time to blog:)

Not that I've been totally ignoring the other aspects of my life. I do tend to absorb myself in whatever I'm doing3. This friday I went to a housewarming for one of the guys on my volleyball team. It was a really great time and I got to meet a lot of enjoyable people.

0 'Roommate From Hell' --yes, I know, not very complimentary. But so, so very appropriate. I should make a note that he offered to loan me 512KB of functional RAM from his box until I got some that worked, but my BIOS wouldn't even show up with his DIMM in. He didn't even do it so I would be grateful either. Just being nice, it seemed.

1 The screen isn't all blank. There's that one little line, plus a blue streak,

2 No, not my orange Newegg shirt, my figurative one. Sorry to have gotten your hopes up.

3 Typically one thing at a time, like reading a book for five hours at a sitting. I can't even chat properly and surf the Internet at the same time. Maybe you've noticed:) I think the worst is when I'm blogging and someone IMs me. I either have to drop one thing and do the other, or do both poorly (or very slowly). Reminds me of a quote I read: Better, Faster, Cheaper: Pick two.

Friday, April 01, 2005

A More Detailed Rundown

Last Friday night, I stayed up until 3:30AM at, picking out the individual parts for my computer. I finally went to bed, but when I got up in the morning--and got dressed, and ate, etc., so by then it was afternoon seeing as I had slept in--I finished my selection and submitted the order. All week I've been waiting for the pieces to arrive. Most of it got here Wednesday, and hopefully it'll all be here by Friday. What follows is an account of what I ordered and why.

The first piece I selected was the microporcessor. I chose the AMD Athlon 64 3200 Socket 939 ($), for reasons discussed in the last post, that I don't want to repeat myslef too much. I wanted a system that would be sleek and powerful. Gentoo has an AMD64 version of its distro, and with Gentoo, everything is compiled on my machine, specifically for my processor, configured exactly how I want it to take full advantage of my system's hardware and software configuration. Or at least, so I've heard. So far, all I've done is read the online documentation, but believe me, it sounds awesome. I also wanted to challenge myself to get to know my way around a Linux system better.

Second, I chose a motherboard. I picked the DFI LANPARTY UT nF4 Ultra-D. I had to decide at this point whether or not I wanted to get something with SLI capability for my graphics card(s); I decided against it, because I really don't think I'm going to need that kind og graphics power, and I don't intend on using this with more than two displays simultaniously. I'm not much of a gamer, at least not on computers (that's what consoles are for), and I don't plan on ever booting Windows on this box (I hear you can get PC games to run under Linux, but I don't plan on trying). Besides, I plan on buying a decent enough video card that if I did want to game, I could, it just wouldn't be the best system on the planet. That's OK. I'm not optimizing this system for gaming. This motherboard has the nice benefit of being built for power-users, with excellent sound, USB, Firewire and Ethernet ports, and some nifty features like wake-on-LAN/mouse click/key press. It also has plenty of tools to make overclocking safe and easy. It has 5 configurable BIOS profiles that can be set at boot-time by pressing whichever key you chose to represent that profile. So I can overclock one day, and use Cool 'N Quiet the next. Nifty.

The next logical choice (because the decision is coupled to the motherboard, and so therefore I was shopping for both simultaniously) is the video card. I picked the MSI nVidia 6200TC-TD64E. This card has 64 MB of on-board video memory, but it can expand that using system RAM on demand up to 256MB. In addition, it has a VGA and a DVI (allowing for 2 monitors) plus an S-Video interface for HDTV out. This card does not support SLI, but then neither does my motherboard, so really I don't care, except that it makes it cheaper.

Okay I lied. The first thing I chose was actually the keyboard. I knew I would be ordering a computer, and I knew I wanted to use it with my digital projector, so the logical thing to do would be to sit on the couch with the keyboard in your lap. An ex-roommate of mine, Matt, had a little IR keyboard with a joystick in one corner and two mouse buttons in the other. It was the perfect size to fit in your lap to type or hold in your hands like a giant PSP to browse around. It didn't take long on google to find the Lite-on SK-7551 Wireless Infared Keyboard, which was absolutely perfect. Combined with the wake-on-key press/mouse click, this can be used to turn on and operate the computer from across the room, which is just what I need for MythTV, which I plan on setting up once I get my system going (and an HDTV tuner).

For system memory, I got the Corsair Value Select (Dual Pack) 184 Pin 512MBx2 DDR PC-3200 (for a total of 1024MB). Corsair is nice, because I've heard good things about their RAM and they come with a lifetime warranty, so if they turn out to be crap and fry, at least I can get more crappy RAM. I was tempted to get 2 1-Gig sticks, but they're a bit expensive, and I don't really think I'll need it that much. I could get more 512MB sticks (a total of 4), but then I couldn't run it dual channel.

I was going to pick up a DVD burner ar Fry's, but then I did a search for DVD+-RW +Dual-Layer burners, and they were cheaper at Newegg, plus no tax in Washington, so I went with the Lite-On 16X DVD Dual Drive. I already have a DL burner, but that one's for my laptop, and it would get jealous if I took its toys away to give to the new computer. I still love my laptop just the same as before, It's not a matter of loving one child computer more than the other; I love them each in a unique way for who they are.

I plan on using this system as a media server, and even to record HDTV shows, so I needed to get a big hard drive. In the past, all my hard drives have been IDE, but as I was looking at drives, I kept seeing this thing called Serial ATA or SATA. When I asked RFH (who knows a bit more about compouter hardware than I do (or maybe than I did at the outset of this adventure), he winced and said in his perpetual matter-of-fact announcer voice that I should probably stick with IDE, because I wouldn't be able to boot from SATA. Long story short, in RFH vs. several Google searches on the subject, Google wins. Not once did I find someone on a forum complaining that they'd gotten a SATA drive and couldn't boot from it. There were on the contrary several statements to the effect that "E-IDE vs. SATA" is a total toss-up, but SATA wins over becasue IDE has bulky cables that block airflow inside your box. SATA is a newer technology, and it's smaller and sleeker; both bus technologies can accommodate fast data rates. SATA has some nifty features such as RAID, which offers data redundancy, but that's mostly for servers. So anyway, I stepped out on the limb and got the Seagate 7200.8 250GB 7200RPM SATA NCQ Hard Drive. I bought Seagate because I already have a (160GB) Seagate drive and so far it's working out great. 250GB should be enough for the time being, I can always get another one if I need more space. In the very unlikely event that RFH was right and my system won't boot, I'll just stick the boot partition on my other aforementioned Seagate drive (which is IDE, and sitting in an external case hooked up to my laptop) and put all the OS-related partitions on that drive, while reserving the 250GB for user data. I might even end up buying another drive for that purpose anyway.

Now that I have all these parts picked out, I need a place to put them all. Picking a case was difficult, becasue I wanted it to look cool, but not flashy. I wanted it to be powerful and featureful, but not too expensive. In the end, I chose the JustPC Silver/DarkGray ATX Mid Tower Case With 450W PSU. I decided against having a transparent window on the side where you could see the innards (even though with a DFI motherboard if I dropped a black light in there everything would glow!) because This system will be used in the dark in conjunction with a projector, and any extra light might get annoying, no matter how cool it looked (although if it's black light and reflections, it won't be nearly as much of a problem as the blue LED on the actual projector that I had to all-but obscure with electrical tape). The case I bought has a temperature indicator, a side fan and air duct for the CPU fan to draw straight from the outside air. It has front microphone & headphone jacks, fron USB ports, nifty little covers for the drive bays that work like upside-down garage doors.

So there you have it. That's what I bought. The whole thing cost $838.96 (including shipping--there was no tax as the orders were all out of state). Newegg even threw in a free bright orange T-shirt so that I can use my body as a medium for thier advertisements. That's okay; I've turned into a total fanboy already. Look at this post. Half the links are to their site.

That's all for now, folks.

Next up: pictures of the assembly process!