Winter Car Stuff Worth the Money

I think the “hearty New Englander” gene may have skipped a generation with me. Winter is an utterly horrible time to drive. Ice makes driving dangerous. Snow requires you to shovel your car out before you can drive. Salt and sand ensures your car is absolutely filthy all year. And the cold results in gigantic freaking potholes in the road.

My first recommendation is to move somewhere warm. For those of us too foolish to do so, here are a handful of things I’ve found that make driving in the winter slightly less awful. (All links go to Amazon because that’s where I shop, but I have no financial interest in any of these things.)

“Portable Tow Truck” tire traction boards

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This is a pair of plastic polypropylene “boards”, 3′ long and 8″ wide, with spikey nubs on either side. When you get stuck in the snow, you can put these down under your drive wheels for some quick traction. I haven’t needed them on my own car yet, but very shortly after I got them, a coworker couldn’t get out of his spot after a snowstorm. We tried these and he backed right out.

The link is to the product I purchased. There are versions that fold (these take up a good bit of room in your trunk, though you can stand them to the side), and versions that are a bit cheaper, but I haven’t tried either.

Brass Ice Scraper

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For windows only! Brass is a lot more durable than a plastic ice scraper, but still softer than glass so it won’t scratch glass. That makes this brass ice scraper fairly handy for chipping away at a thing layer of ice. (It’s a small handheld scraper, so it’s not well-suited for working on thick ice. For that, see my recommendation on moving much further south.)

Be warned: I’m told that some retail stores have stopped selling these because people use them on plastic side mirrors and they destroy them. Only use these on actual glass windows.

Sno Brum

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I actually have a $20 knock-off version of this, with which I’m perfectly happy. It’s got a soft foam head, so you can don’t have to worry about scratching your car. You can use this to just shovel snow right off your car. Completely clearing my car of snow is perhaps a 2-minute process, tops. Last winter, I rushed out to clean my car because the snow plow was waiting for us to clear out of the lot. I got out after my neighbor had started cleaning their car—much smaller than mine—and finished with time to help do more than half of their car.

Water blade

This doesn’t have a good photo, but it’s basically a 9-12″ “blade” made out of soft silicone.

What they advertise it for is drying off your car when you’re cleaning it. The soft finish makes it safe to use to wipe water off your car, and it’s pretty effective. But I keep this in the front seat of my car and use it many mornings to wipe off the misty dew covering my windows. Not winter-specific, and not useful in the real dead of winter, but great when it’s a little above freezing and your windows are covered in a hard-to-see-through mist in the morning.

The jury’s out: Runflat tires

My new car came with runflat tires. Last week, I hit an enormous pothole and ruptured my tire.

The good: I just kept driving. TPMS told me that the tire pressure was “low” (there was, in fact, a literal hole in my tire) and to proceed cautiously. I drove home, just taking it a little more gently than usual, avoiding the need to stop on the side of a busy road in very windy, 20-degree weather. The tire is designed with heavily reinforced sidewalls that can support the weight of the car, and some sort of bead that’s designed to stay intact even with no pressure.

The bad: Runflats aren’t something you’ll find in every garage, so I had to take it to the dealer, a 25-mile drive. In the rain, when it was mid-30s, so the whole thing was liable to shift over to ice at some point. On a tire that isn’t supposed to exceed 50mph. It was completely fine, but it was pretty scary not knowing. After I got there, they informed me they were out of tires, and I’d have to take a loaner car until they got a spare in the next day. The repair ended up being over $500, and it took two days.

At the time the tire failed, I was absolutely enamored with the runflats. In the end, I have to think it was far more of an ordeal than it should have been. (Note that cars with runflats rarely have a spare time, since it’s “unnecessary.”)

Not tested yet: Jump kit

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The battery in my old car started to lose some of its oomph, and, after seeing one of these used elsewhere, I thought I should buy one to play it safe. I didn’t, but the idea floated around in the back of my head for a long time.

In that old car, I easily went 5+ years without anyone ever asking me for a jump. I’d had my new car for substantially less than 24 hours before I ended up next to someone with a dead battery, who asked for my help.

I probably looked like an idiot looking around my engine compartment, before I had to tell them, “I, umm, can’t find my battery.” BMW keeps them in the trunk, where a spare tire would normally be, apparently.

Less than a week went by before I was at a gas station with a guy whose car wouldn’t start. Eventually he found someone inside who was able to help him. And then, within a month, it happened two more times. People next to me in gas stations couldn’t start their car. I took it as a sign and bought a jump kit.

I’m yet to get a chance to try it. But if I do, it’ll be a lot easier than trying to maneuver my car into place and hooked up some tangled jumper cables.

The one thing so far that I don’t like is that the clamps are always live. Put a multimeter across it, and there’s about 13V there. I worry I’m going to eventually accidentally put a wet snow brush across the top of this thing in my trunk one day, and very quickly discharge its claimed 1,700 “peak” Amps in a fiery surprise. I wish there were a switch on it, or at least that the metal pads on the clips weren’t exposed.

(There are a lot of cheaper, smaller, less-powerful alternatives. This is hardly the ultra-deluxe version, but I decided against getting a tiny $50 one. If I’m going to spend any money at all on this, I want to be confident it will work. If I skimped and bought one that turned out to be too weak, the whole purchase would be a waste of money.)

Building a Macintosh

At work, I came to be a Mac fan. It’s based on BSD, but adds a much more polished GUI. It’s got a very user-friendly interface, and yet it’s trivial for me to pull up the command line and do “real” things there. So when I decided to build a new desktop, I decided I wanted to build something that would run OS X. Unfortunately, Apple’s hardware is ludicrously expensive, and I was on a budget. The good news is that you can build your own!

It used to be that you had to download a “cracked” version of OS X, which had a bunch of patches applied to make it run on non-Apple hardware. Now, though, the tweaks occur elsewhere — some minor changes to the bootloader, and a couple kernel modules to do the rest. The install process wasn’t too convoluted, and the result was well worth it:

It’s not actually a Xeon, but that’s okay.

Here’s what I used for hardware. I tried to stick to things that were fairly close to the hardware Apple uses, to ensure compatibility:

  • Motherboard: Gigabyte EX58-UD5. NewEgg hasn’t carried it in a long time. I got mine somewhere else. This is one of the few components that you have to be careful about, verifying them with hardware compatibility lists.
  • CPU: Intel i7-930, a quad-core 2.8 GHz processor with plenty of cache.
  • CPU cooler: I’m used to my laptop running hot, so I went overboard and bought a huge Zalman cooler.
  • Graphics: I went for an EVGA-branded GeForce 9800GT, because it’s easy to get working. This and the motherboard are the two main components to watch for OS X compatibility. A fairly simple “enabler” script brought me from crappy VESA display to dual displays at 1920×1080, with 3D acceleration. I was going to skimp on the video card, but Kyle convinced me that I’d regret it. Within a couple weeks of building the system, Steam launched a Macintosh client, so I was in business playing TF2. The card runs great.
  • RAM: 6x 2GB DIMMs. I went for these OCZ sticks. The RAM ended up costing me more than any other component, but I’ve spent pretty much my entire life wishing I had more RAM. It’s really great to have more than enough. I probably would have been okay with 6GB, but in my experience, 4GB is inadequate, and I wanted room to grow.
  • Hard drive: I should have bought an SSD, in hindsight. But I was trying to keep the cost down, and I was used to having inadequate disk space, so I sprung for a 2TB SATA disk. At 5400rpm, it’s a slow performer, but I don’t do anything too disk-intensive. Some day I may pick up an SSD for the OS, applications, and the portion of my home directory that isn’t 75GB of photographs or 10GB of music or 250GB of backups.
  • Bluetooth adapter: this little AZiO adapter fits in one of the myriad USB slots, protruding only a minuscule amount, powering my Bluetooth mouse. I was concerned about Mac support, and the reviews are full of people complaining that it doesn’t work on Windows 7. But it’s plug-and-play on the Mac.
  • Case: I got a nice big, roomy Zalman case. It’s kind of a ludicrous amount of money for a case, but I think it’s well worth it to have a really quality case. Little details, like slide-in rails for the power supply — or the fact that the power supply is the bottom and not the top — plus tons of hot-swap bays on the front — make it a pleasure to work with. The USB ports on the top front are a nice touch, too.

I have an actually-legally-purchased copy of OS X. I used the digital_dreamer install scripts, which required having an already-functioning Mac. Luckily I had a Mac laptop. I connected the hard drive via USB (about the thousandth time that I realized my USB-to-IDE/SATA adapter was a great purchase) and formatted it properly, did a retail install of OS X to the drive, and then ran a script to patch in the requisite drivers. Then I plunked the drive into my new machine, booted it up, downloaded the latest OS updates, and ran a couple things like the “enabler” scripts for my Ethernet cards and the graphics. Now it runs superbly well; the only thing I lack is a sleep mode. I think that’s easy to fix, actually, but I haven’t bothered yet.

For fun, a few photos of the build.

This kind of amused me. The processor came in a huge package. In the course of removing the heatsink, this little silver square fell out. The little silver square, of course, is the processor:

Here’s the motherboard fitted with the processor and the default heatsink:

But I didn’t trust that fan. Here it is with the Zalman cooler installed. (Yes, the protective plastic is still on. This was a dry fit, before everything was mounted. Yes, I remembered to remove it when I installed it for real.)

Quite a bit larger. Good thing I got a roomy case.

I’ve been quite happy with the setup, and I’d highly recommend it.

Another Week, Another Monitor Post

Great deals abound this week!

  • 19″ Acer (1440×900 — not great), $89.98 at Staples. If you go through FatWallet and another site I’ve never heard of, you can get a little more taken off, but it looks to involve buying a coupon.
  • 22″ Acer (X223Wbd, 1680×1050), $139.99 at Staples, online-only. Don’t think I’ve seen a deal that good in a while. It’s online-only, but with free shipping.
  • 21.5″ Acer (H213H, 1920×1080: full 1080p!), $169.99 with free shipping at NewEgg.
  • 22″ Hanns-G (HI-221DPB, 1680×1050), $139.99 with free shipping at NewEgg. Same price as the Acer at Staples, but maybe not as reputable a brand.

Deal Roundup

My post this week will probably reflect a clear bias towards good deals on LCDs, since I’m itching to pick up another one. There are some other good ones in here, too, though:

  • Dell S2409W 24″ LCD, 1920×1080, for $199. (via FatWallet)
  • HP W2338H 23.3″ LCD, 1920×1080, $220 minus $50 = $170 after coupon, at Staples. (via FatWallet with coupon code)
  • Acer Aspire One netbook, $299.99 but there’s a $75 off coupon for purchases over $300. 1GB RAM, 160GB disk, 8.9″ LCD at 1024×600, WiFi, webcam, WinXP. Need to spend a penny more to get the deal. (via FatWallet) Possible free printer with purchase, too?
  • White Asus EEE, refurbished, 1.6 GHz Atom, 4GB SSD, 1GB RAM, 8.9″ LCD, Linux – $169.99.
  • Dell S2009W 20″ LCD, for someone looking for a more modest monitor, $109. 1600×900 (via FatWallet)
  • 6GB RAM + 5-disk hot-swappable SATA RAID enclosure, a bizarre combo, but only $220, a huge discount, at NewEgg. (via FatWallet)
  • Samsung 2343BWX 23″ LCD with ridiculous document.write(neg_specification_newline(‘2048 x 1152’));2048 x 1152 resolution, $220 at NewEgg.
  • Acer X223Wbd, 22″ 1680×1050 LCD, $150 at NewEgg.
  • Acer H213H bmid, 21.5″ 1920×1080 LCD, $180 at NewEgg.
  • WD 1TB SATA “Green” disk (internal), $90 at NewEgg.
  • Choice of one of two 1TB external disks, $99.99 at NewEgg.
  • 1.5TB Barracuda, $130 at NewEgg, but beware the comments of it not working well in arrays.

Building a Better Camera

Thinking about a $22,000 lens got me thinking about “real” cameras a bit more. And it occurred to me that Canon is in kind of a weird spot right now.

Their flagship camera has always been the EOS-1. With digital it was the 1D, which was followed by a 1Ds. The s designates that it’s meant for studio work, with a higher resolution but lower framerate. After a while Canon replaced them with the “Mark II” edition of the 1D and 1Ds, and a few years (?) ago, the Mark III edition.

The Mark IIIs were well received. The 1D Mark III supported up to ISO6400 if unlocked, allowing great low-light performance. The 1Ds Mark III is what really got people drooling, though, with a 21-megapixel resolution. I think it was around 10 megapixels that people started saying that resolution wars should really be considered over. 21 megapixels, in the eyes of many, bests medium-format cameras. People shoot for two-page magazine spreads and billboards with lower resolutions.

The awkward sitution comes from the Canon 5D Mark II. The 5D is still a very high-end line, but it’s meant to be second fiddle to the 1D. But the 5D Mark II boasts 21 megapixels, the same as their flagship 1Ds Mark III. It records 1080p video. And what really wins me over is that it gives Nikon’s D3 a run for its money: ISO6400 out of the box, and you can enable “High ISO” support for ISO 12,800 and 25,600, allowing photos to be taken in absurdly low light. It sells for $2,700, less than half of the $7,000 1Ds Mark III.

So it’s high time for a Mark IV series. I haven’t even seen rumors about it yet, which tend to start long before the camera’s released. But here are some of the things I’d really like to see Canon release in a Mark IV edition:

  • Higher ISO support with lower noise. I’m not sure many people even imagined ISO6400 in the days of film (though it looks like there may have been such a thing, though it certainly wasn’t sold in Walmart), but the trend has been started. ISO12,800 and ISO25,600 are kind of experimental modes that remain very noisy (grainy). When I’m in the market for a new digital SLR in a few years, I hope it’s got a noise-free ISO25,600, or higher. Consider that increasing sensitivity just twice more would bring “ISO 100K.” Canon and Nikon, it’s a race. You heard it here first. I want the 1D Mark IV to put Canon in the lead, and Nikon to come out with a D4 to try to one-up them, with the end result being a camera that can take photos in dimly-lit rooms without five-figure lenses.
  • Get rid of the mechanical shutter. Sample the sensor for the necessary duration. It seems there are design challenges in eliminating the shutter, but it’s really a vestigial organ on a digital camera. This removes a common spot of mechanical failure, and paves the road to higher shutter speeds. I don’t think any camera (possibly excluding ultra-expensive scientific gear) can exceed 1/8000th of a second shutter speeds right now. Accidentally shoot outside at f/1.8 and ISO1600 on a sunny day and tell me it’s not a limit. (Yes, yes, why would you want to do that? Because I needed the shallow depth of field and forgot my camera was cranked to ISO1600. The real question is: why couldn’t the camera handle it?)
  • RAM is cheap. Like $10 for a 1GB DIMM. I doubt cameras have DDR2 DIMMs, but why can I only take a couple shots in rapid succession before I have to wait for the camera to write things out to the card? On the flagship model, give us a crazy-huge buffer.
  • For the love of God, give us an LCD that we can see when we’re working outside. And while you’re at it, spend the money on a great LCD. Look at an iPhone screen for a while, in fact, and see what 150 dpi looks like.

If I Made Computers

I think you could say with relative accuracy that there are three main bottlenecks in a computer: CPU, memory, and disk. There are some outliers that people might try to pile in: video card performance, or network throughput if you’re tweaking interrupts on your 10GigE card. But the basic three are pretty universal.

To cut to the chase: I hit disk bottlenecks sometimes, CPU bottlenecks almost never, and RAM bottlenecks all the time. And sometimes high load that looks to be on the CPU is really just I/O wait cycles. But RAM is special: if you have enough RAM, disk throughput becomes less important. At least, redundant disk I/O, which seems to account for a lot of it.

What interests me, though, is that almost everything is RAM starved in my opinion. My laptop has 2GB and I get near the limit fairly often. I’m thinking of trying to take it to 4GB. The jury’s out on whether or not it’ll see more than 3GB, and others complain that 3GB causes you to lose out a bit on speed.

But here’s the thing. I maintain things like a MySQL server with 32GB RAM. It’s not RAM-bound per se: we could switch to a machine with 1GB RAM and MySQL would still run fine. The memory is overwhelmingly configured for various forms of cache. But it’s not enough: there’s still a steady stream of disk activity, and a non-negligible number of queries that have to write temporary tables to disk.

RAM is cheap. It’d cost me about $50 to buy 4GB of RAM for my laptop. The reason RAM stops being cheap is that most motherboards don’t give you enough room. Both of my laptops can only take two DIMMS, which means I need dual 2GB sticks. They’re both based on older 32-bit chipsets, so I can’t exceed 4GB, but if I wanted to, I’d need dual 4GB sticks, and those are expensive. Even on decent servers, it’s hard to find many that give you more than 8 slots, making 32GB hard to exceed.

So what I’d really like to see someone bring to market is a 1U box with as many memory slots as it’s physically possible to fit in. 1U is still tall enough to have standard DIMMs standing up, and most of them are extremely deep. I bet you could fit 256 slots in. Then throw in a compact power supply, a standard LGA775 slot (allowing a quad-core chip), a good Gigabit NIC or four, and an optional FibreChannel card. No hard drives. Maybe a 4GB CompactFlash card if you really want it to have its own storage. Oh, and make sure the motherboard is pretty versatile in terms of RAM requirements and FSB. Oh, and don’t force me to go with ECC. If this were a single database server, it might be worth buying top-notch ECC RAM. But if this were just for caching things, I don’t care. Cache isn’t meant to be permanent, so an error is no big deal.

256 slots, and you could fill it with ultra-cheap 1GB DDR2 DIMMs. (Heck, at work, we have a bag of “useless” 1GB sticks that we pulled out.) You can get ’em for $10 a pop, meaning 256GB RAM would cost about $2,560. I suspect the system would command a high premium, but really, it’s just $2,560 worth of RAM and a $200 processor. A 2GB DIMM is about twice as much ($20/stick), but $5,000 for half a terabyte of RAM isn’t bad. Though 4GB DIMMs are still considerably more: they’re hard to find for under $100.

I think this would be a slam-dunk product. memcache is pretty popular, and it’s increasingly being used in previously unheard of roles, like a level 2 cache for MySQL. There are also a lot of machines that just need gobs of RAM, whether they’re database servers, virtual machine hosts, or application servers. And tell me a file server (sitting in front of a FibreChannel array) with 256GB RAM for caches and buffers wouldn’t be amazing.

So, someone, hurry up and make the thing. The key is to keep it fairly cheap. Cheaper than buying 4GB DIMMs, at least.


Kingston (who I never knew made CF cards) has a 4GB CompactFlash card for $24 at NewEgg. At 8MB writes and 10MB reads, it’s hardly blazing, but if you don’t do any high-volume activity, it’s not a bad deal.

Actually, if you’re not looking for speed or name brands…

They seem better-suited for a ultra-low-power PC than a camera, of course: no one needs a 32GB CF card, and the type of people that would ‘need’ one are the type of people that couldn’t put up with anything but the highest throughput available.

A New Take on RAM and Swap?

A really random thought just popped into my head…

UNIX systems have their “swap” partition, a disk partition where unused stuff in RAM is “swapped out” to disk to make room for newer stuff in RAM. Of course, no hard drive is as fast as RAM, so you obviously want lots of RAM so you never touch swap. Windows has the same concept but calls it a paging file.

But what if your disk was as fast as RAM? I remain fascinated by OCZ’s new 64GB SSD, which has an almost-zero seek time, and throughput rivaling the best of hard drives. (Though I’m yet to read any actual reviews, as it seems to have still not quite shipped.) I suspect that, given factors like the direct bus between your CPU and RAM, and all the work on boosting RAM “speeds,” a solid-state disk wouldn’t literally be as fast as RAM. But I also think that the difference between having more RAM and “swapping out” to SSD would be somewhat negligible.

I think it’d be interesting to test the extent of this… Plunk an SSD (one with high throughput!) into a system, and run it on as little memory as you can. (Though I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anything less than 256MB DIMMs these days, and even those might be hard to find? I wonder if Linux has a facility for deliberately overlooking a quantity of its RAM?) And with that set up, go crazy with stuff to ensure that you’re using several gigs of “memory.”

We can sit around all day and measure bus speeds and Mbps throughput and latency and seek time, but I think the only meaningful measure would be to try this and see how it feels. I have a hunch that it wouldn’t be that big of a slowdown (compared to RAM), but that the biggest problem would be ensuring your SSD was on a separate controller/ bus/ channel, so you didn’t obliterate your hard drive performance. While it’s easy to get an affordable system with a couple gigs of RAM now, RAM remains expensive if you need a decent amount of it. Buying a system with 64GB of RAM would still be extraordinarily expensive, but with a 64GB SSD for under $300, you could imitate it fairly well.


I’d posted before about my interest in picking up a low-capacity SSD card for my laptop, to drastically speed up disk access. (This actually has nothing to do with my recent posts about slow hard drives…)

Newegg seems to have a 64 GB SSD, 2.5″ SATA disk for $240 after rebate. Interestingly, from the specs, it seems as if not only are the seek times nill (on account of being solid-state), but the throughput exceeds that of your average hard disk. It won’t be released for four days, however. (Found via FatWallet, which also links to a review here.)

For those who aren’t major geeks, SSD is short for “solid-state disk.” Your ordinary hard drive is a bunch of spinning platters, whereas solid-state is the technology you see in a USB thumb drive or the like: no moving parts. The major benefit of SSDs thus far has been seek time: with a normal hard disk, the disk has to find the right spot on the disk and read it. Seek times average 8-10ms on most normal drives, but that adds up quickly with fragmentation or concurrent I/O. With an SSD, there are no moving parts, so “seek time” is pretty much non-existent: files are ready instantly. Early SSDs seemed to not be capable of moving as much data (in terms of MB/sec), though, meaing that SSDs were great for lots of small “random” access, but not so hot for handling big, contiguous files. Now, it’s looking as if OCZ has made SSDs kick butt over normal hard drives, and somehow offered the product at a fraction of what it normally costs. (This 64GB SSD is more normally-priced, to give you an idea of why they haven’t caught on so quickly.)

Incidentally, today I came across deals on two different notebooks for about $700, both of which have 4GB RAM, but 1280×800-pixel screens. The RAM is incredible, as are most of the other specs (though it’s 5400RPM drives), but I think you can do much better on the resolution.

Big Iron

I keep coming across things like this eBay listing. Sun Enterprise 4500, 12 SPARC processors (400 MHz, 4MB cache) and 12 GB of RAM. This one looks to have a couple Gigabit fiber NICs, too. (Although it’s fiber, so you’d need a pricier switch to use it on a “normal” copper home LAN.)

Even if you foolishly assume that a 400 MHz SPARC is no better than a 400 MHz Celeron, with 12 processors, this is still a net of 4.8 GHz. With a dozen processors, this is clearly best for something that’s very multi-threaded.

Of course, there’s one problem: these machines use SCSI disks. SCSI’s great and all, but it’s expensive, and you can be sure that, if this machine even comes with hard drives (none are listed?), they’re 9GB. So pick up one of these. What’s that you say? Oh, it’s ATA and won’t work with SCSI? No problem!

Nowhere that I see does Sun mention whether Solaris 10 / OpenSolaris will run on older hardware, but I assume it will. Some Linux distros also excel at running on platforms like SPARC.

Now the real question: how much electricity does this thing use?