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At Tritech, many things have changed since even just one month ago.  Here’s a spiffy list of such things.  By the way, my new favorite word is “terse.”  The magic of the word “terse” is that practically all of its synonyms not as terse as “terse.”  It’s a self-fulfilling definition!  ^_^  So, what’s been going on during my silence, you ask?  Read on!

  • My Sylvania G has an unusual issue with the custom Linux installs I’ve done on it where the keyboard and mouse touchpad stop working.  This didn’t happen while I had Windows XP on it whatsoever, nor the custom gOS that came with the computer, so I’m fairly sure it has something to do with a more generic (read: not G-specific) Linux distro running on the VIA CX700M2/C7-M platform.  I doubt it’s the hardware itself because of this.  The headphone jack worked on XP, but not on my custom Linux, which apparently is caused by an incorrect HD Audio pin mapping in the HD Audio drivers in the stock Linux kernel.  I’m not too concerned about it, though, since I haven’t needed to use it much at all lately.
  • I’m still working on the custom Tritech Service System.  It’s grown from a very humble project to simply give us basic remote access to a machine in a clean operating environment to a much more useful general service system.  Big secret: it’s a Linux-based project.  The entire “distro” is essentially built from scratch, however, and uses such classic tools as busybox to minimize space usage.  What really sets TSS apart from the Linux solutions we’re using now such as KNOPPIX (CD) and Slax (USB drive) is the fact that the entire system runs out of an initramfs, eliminating the need to find the rest of the system after booting has started.  This presents some extremely tough limitations, but solves the biggest problems I’ve run into with Linux live CD and Linux live USB distributions.  Sometimes the rest of the system can’t be located at boot-time, which on KNOPPIX in specific “crashes” to a “very minimal shell” in which you can essentially do nothing at all.  When a CD drive is old, dirty, or otherwise impaired, you can have these failures as well as major problems when the KNOPPIX cloop driver chokes on every little scratch in the disc surface.  Slax sucks because it constantly spews out OOPSes in the kernel log when you don’t use a “fresh mode” to boot, and since it doesn’t come with any of the specific tools we need (and the only way to properly add them is to make a squashfs thing I don’t feel like dealing with) it’s a huge pain in the rectum.  Enter the Tritech Service System: completely customized for our own exact needs, reliant only on the bootloader working as expected and not locking a CD drive or USB flash drive in the process, and EXTREMELY FAST to work with.  Plus I made a cool green-on-black splash screen to go with it.  The fact that it easily installs on any Windows XP machine as a boot menu option seals the deal.  NO OTHER COMPUTER SERVICE COMPANY HAS THIS POWERFUL TOOL.  Granted, any sufficiently skilled Linux nut could do what I’ve done, but most Linux nuts would rather deal with KNOPPIX forever than go to the trouble of making their own custom distro from scratch.  The lack of Linux-knowledgeable techs out there makes it impractical for a large company to even bother with.  Now all of you that thought my claim of being the only company that is capable of doing this was audacious can understand exactly why I can make that claim and support it.  We’re not to the point that I’m willing to release it to the public yet, but it’s been so much better than KNOPPIX or Slax on every system I can boot it on that I’ve fast-tracked my development on it and I’m making it a very high priority on my list of things to do.  Stay tuned.
  • We cleaned up the shop.  I’m not kidding: we REALLY CLEANED UP THE SHOP, big time.  One unfortunate problem with computer geeks is a complete lack of organization, particularly with a shop as busy as mine usually is.  We didn’t have many customers at all over the past week, so I took full advantage of the opportunity to give the place a brutal cleaning.  We’ve moved all the security camera equipment, run permanent wires that we’ve been using temps for for months now, purchased lots of additional storage bins and shelving and made excessive use of all of it, organized and better proceduralized the process of shuffling customer equipment in and out and keeping said equipment organized and together, tossed out an insane number of disintegrating cardboard boxes we REALLY didn’t need, built a central working “kiosk” at the front of the shop where we can print invoices and perform other administrative tasks (where previously all of this work was done on our own individual workstations in the back of the shop), optimized the table configuration for better access to existing power and network cables, completely cleared off the bird’s nest of wires that had formed on the front tables due to lots of working and no time to clean up after it, and a ton of other minor things I don’t even want to think about right now.
  • I mowed the lawn at my house.  Like an idiot, I did so at 4 PM instead of waiting until it started to get cooler in the evening.  Boy, push mowers SUCK.
  • Yes, the last item was comic relief.  So is this one.
  • I recently managed to use Linux to fully change XP HALs, rendering all of my disparate XP “clean system images” obsolete.  I’m actually looking at ways to get chntpw/reged to be easily scripted.  They’re the most useful and most underdeveloped Windows tools on Linux that I know of, and a reged that is inherently script-friendly (without using expect) would be a boon to the Tritech Service System, as well as frustrated sysadmins in general around the world.  With a fully scriptable reged/chntpw, I can write a simple package for TSS that replaces HALs on images without any additional effort, making life much easier for my technicians (and myself) in the long run!
  • We also created a custom HAL.INF file that opens up access to all the XP HALs from XP itself.  Reverting to “Standard PC” pre-imaging and then using this file in the images to allow changing to, say, “ACPI Multiprocessor PC” would be much easier than having six images per XP type (home retail/OEM, pro retail/OEM, MCE OEM) and would save TONS of disk space on the poor old server.
  • I’m also writing a custom Web-based Tritech administration system using PHP and MySQL (well duh), which will let me throw a bunch of crap out of my filing cabinet and go nearly paperless.  Invoice creation will also be much easier, because invoices, work orders, and inventory usage share huge amounts of information between them already, so invoice creation would essentially be a two-click thing for most jobs.
  • We raised our prices.  Let’s face it: we charge by the half-hour already, and $80 per hour is outrageously cheap for access to my skills and the skills of the technicians I contract work to and teach my ways to.  We may need to go up again, and I’d love some feedback on that.  I feel that we should because we’re selling a level of quality that Siler City, Pittsboro, Goldston, and all the other towns in Chatham County can’t get within an hour’s driving distance, but of course I fear pricing myself out of business at the same time.  Given the economic climate right now, I’m not keen on going up too fast, but we could use some capital SOON.  Plus, that pesky $65,000 in small business loans is still hanging over my head, sucking up essentially all of the “profits” and converting them to expenses.  The rest is used to buy what we need to keep serving customers in the future.  Even if we charged $100 per hour, our competitors’ bench fees and rates put them at or above that price tag on almost every job, and unfortunately Chatham County’s pre-existing computer service shops apparently have the worst customer service and/or technical skill you can imagine, considering we hear horrible anecdotes from multiple customers on a DAILY BASIS about who we’re supposedly “competiing with.”  I’d hardly call them competition at this point; we’ve had two separate laptops come in that I personally serviced where Siler City’s established computer shop I won’t name had charged $100 or more to look at each and came back with the answer that “it’s unfixable, you need to buy a new laptop.”  In both cases, I fixed the problem in less than five minutes.  One was a loose LCD data cable behind the laptop screen, the other was a RAM stick either making bad contact or the SODIMM socket going out (I moved the stick from one socket to the other.)  I’m so upset when these things happen, and I know I shouldn’t be, but I feel that these things tarnish the reputation of the industry as a whole and bring customers to my door wondering if I’m going to screw them over before they’ve even met anyone on my staff.  I digress a bit, though; should I raise prices from $40 per half hour to $50 per half hour?  What do you think?
  • We now have four technicians that come here to get jobs regularly, and all of them are awesome at what they do.  They really care about my customers, and that’s what I like!

That’s about it for now.  I have a repair job I’m working on that I must return to, so I have to wrap this post up.  A construction company owner and long-time client of mine got a HORRIBLE virus infection, and I have gone very far out of my way to personally see to it that he’s back up by 8 AM tomorrow (Monday) morning.  His system went down completely on Friday.  If you’re a client or potential client of my business, I want you to know that just like I’m doing for his business, I will bend over backwards and do whatever I must to make sure you’re taken care of.  I’ll post more anecdotes about how I do this later.  That’s all, folks.  Happy computing!

UPDATE: I found a solution.

I changed my Sylvania G (original, non-Meso) netbook to Windows XP/Linux dual-boot to test some software I’m working on, and discovered that while Windows XP certainly does boot and run in general on the G, some kind of system timer or timing loop is severely out of whack!  I wanted to use my little G as a portable gaming machine from the Windows XP install, and to my horror, ZSNES couldn’t decide what speed it wanted to run!  Now, I’ve never had a single issue with ZSNES on any computer I’ve ever tried it on, even preferring the Windows port of it over the Linux native one, and not once has a problem existed with ZSNES that I couldn’t find an easy fix for, until now.

I’ve been researching the matter and gathering evidence, and I may have a potential answer to the problem.  Linux requires activation of the VIA C7 Enhanced PowerSaver module e_powersaver to clock the VIA C7 CPU properly between 400 and 1200 MHz; apparently the default speed of the CPU is only 600 MHz instead of 1200 MHz, because Linux installs without e_powersaver and Windows XP report a ~600 MHz processor where a 1.2 GHz one exists.  Here’s the extremely weird part, though: if I check the System control panel shortly after bootup and read the clock speed, sometimes it registers a clock speed of 198 MHz (about 200 MHz) which isn’t even one of the ACPI P-states for the VIA C7-M 1.2 processor.

I’ve unlocked the Windows HAL options (I’ll post how to do that at another time) and switched between ACPI Multiprocessor PC (the default for the image I used) and ACPI Uniprocessor PC and MPS Uniprocessor PC, all of which use the local APIC for IRQ routing but the MPS variant of which doesn’t theoretically touch ACPI.  Nothing seems to have helped.  I have two working theories as to what’s going on here, and how it might be fixed:

  1. A calibration loop in Windows a la BogoMIPS in Linux is being screwed up by the VIA C7, or
  2. The VIA C7’s PowerSaver feature is ignored or incorrectly used by Windows (via generic ACPI P-states) and it’s throwing off some kind of timer that ZSNES relies on for proper emulation of the 65816 CPU and SPC audio processor.

So far, I haven’t found a solution to this problem, and Sylvania’s site is extremely unhelpful, with only Windows drivers and a new version of gOS, but no BIOS updates or further information.  I’m looking into the technical stuff on the VIA c7 now, and it looks like the solution (assuming Windows isn’t doing something sinister) lies in clever manipulation of the C7 model-specific registers (MSRs) that control the processor’s power state.  If ZSNES is mis-calibrating some kind of tight internal timing loop because of some kind of CPU clocking issue, then tweaking the MSRs may be the solution to the problem.  Unfortunately, I’m no Windows developer, so I’m not certain how I should approach the problem.  I don’t think it’s isolated to ZSNES either, but I don’t recall what I saw that justifies that belief.  In any case, I’m working on it.  It’s just one of many pesky projects I’m hitting my head against at the moment.  We’re still working on that remote access software package; in fact, someone found our site and called us, and I had to sort of turn her away.  It’s all a bit behind schedule, and there’s not really much I can do to make things proceed any more quickly.  Stay tuned…

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