Friday, April 30, 2010

Saga of an overheating graphics card

Late March 2010: I'm playing a video game (Awakening, the expansion to Dragon Age: Origins, which is pretty good; not as good as the original, but I didn't really expect it to be). I've been playing for maybe half an hour when my computer crashes. The screen goes blank, and the audio is stuck looping in the fraction of a second it was on when the crash happened. The computer is still on--the power and wireless indicator lights shine blue, and it still seems open to receiving some sort of input signal--my mouse optical sensor still lights up. But I can't do anything with the screen blank.

It's unexpected for sure. I have literally changed nothing about this computer since December, when I added a second DVD-RW drive. This is the first time the computer has as much as frozen or locked up since I installed Windows 7 back in October, but I don't read too much into it. I instead take my own computer advice: "You can solve nine computer problems out of ten by shutting the computer off and turning it back on. You might never know what went wrong or why, but you probably don't need to." It turns on just fine, and within a few minutes I'm back killing darkspawn. Then it crashes again, same behavior as before, except that it only takes ten minutes this time.

Except this time it doesn't turn back on. Now I start to worry: this has all the marks of a fried graphics card, and that's a hundred dollar hassle I don't need. I leave the computer alone for a while, watch some TV, read a book, and eventually work up the courage to turn it on again. It works! Everything seems to be running fine, except that one of the fans is going a little crazy. Turns out it's the graphics card fan.

Computer operates fine outside gaming (except for an overtaxed fan), gaming makes it crash, and it takes a while for whatever problem happened in the first place to go away? Sounds like a heat issue to me. How do you solve a problem like overheating? Hold your moonbeam can of compressed air in your hand, crack the case, and drive some dust from its nest. The CPU, power supply, and GPU fans are all a little dusty, but not enough to cause major problems, same with the motherboard heat sink. The case fan is squeaky clean. Not feeling I'd solved any problems, I turn the computer on again to find out that I haven't. The graphics card fan still runs hot, and ten minutes of Dragon Age makes it crash. I decide to leave the problem alone for a few days--I have more important things to worry about, like a trip to Texas--and I hope it goes away on its own.

Early April 2010: I do a Google search and find CPUID HW Monitor, a nice little free utility that monitors system health diagnostics, like fan RPM, temperature, and even voltages (if you're such a power user that seeing VIN0 at 1.68 V tells you anything at all, more power to you). I install it to confirm that it is in fact a heat problem, and boy is it. My CPU and hard drives are all running between 25 and 40 C, which is exactly where they should be. The GPU? Idling between 80 and 85 C, and peaking at 110 C while gaming before a crash. Granted, graphics cards are supposed--or at least accepted--to tun hotter than the rest of your machine, but when it's putting out enough heat to boil water, that signals a problem.

Easy ways to alleviate a heat problem? Blow out all the dust (check). Make sure the airflow inside the case isn't obstructed (check). Aim a box fan at it (totally infeasible). "Buy a slot fan and aim it at your GPU" sounds like my next step. I do that.

Middle April 2010: My slot fan arrives from Newegg. I quickly realize a major problem: I don't have a free slot open. I'm not going to sacrifice my wireless internet for gaming, that's for sure, but I decided to (temporarily) take the hit and remove my TV tuner card. The new fan screws into place fine, the computer boots up fine, and I check the temperature to see that it's now idling between 65 and 70 C, about a 15 degree reduction from where it was before. More importantly, when I run Dragon Age for a few minutes, the card only reaches 90 C or so, and the computer doesn't crash.

Another major problem arises pretty quickly: this thing is loud. It was probably assembled in some factory in Guangdong Province by a few dudes who have never seen a computer in their lives. After running for a few minutes, it expels this nasty raspy "rahhhh" that sounds a little like Lady Gaga singing the hook section of "Bad Romance". For the time being, I decide that "loud computer that plays games but doesn't record television" is preferable to "quiet computer that crashes if you try to game"... but just barely. I look for an alternate solution.

Late April 2010: My new toy arrives, a contraption touted as a "0 dB fanless cooling system" that mounts on the graphics card. It's designed to act like a fancy heat sink: a conductive material (here, copper) contacts the hottest part of the card and conduct the heat to a series of intricate fins that can dissipate the heat effectively because of their large surface area. (Quick, someone calculate the Prandtl and Nusselt numbers!) I take out my graphics card to attach this cooling system and quickly realize a major problem (this is becoming a theme here): this thing is never, ever going to fit in my case. In my mind, "mount on" the graphics card suggests it would be, oh, smaller than the graphics card. Not so.

Dejected, I put the GPU back in the case, and serendipitously forget to put Guangdong Fan in. Immediately, I notice that the GPU fan isn't working nearly as hard as it was before. I boot up HW Monitor with cautious optimism and see... 64 C? I start up Dragon Age with optimism even more cautious and see... 86 C? As little sense as it makes, I'm left with a computer that can once again play games and record TV and not crash, a five-dollar paperweight, and a twenty-five dollar paperweight. My only guess is that some long-forgotten piece of dust in the GPU air channels was jarred when I took it out of the case or put it back in.

Morals of the story: first, in an arena with sound ratings and power draws and conductances, sometimes the most important spec of all is good old physical size. Second, computers do whatever they want, and far be it from us to do anything about it.

Currently listening: "Sacrae Symphony No. 12", Giovanni Gabrieli

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Lost Speculations and Observations: April 2010 Edition

As there's no new Lost this week, I'm happy to provide all you fans with some Lost-themed entertainment... and reading my post won't even take an hour. You might be done in time to tune in to the "Ab Aeterno" rerun and watch the "cork" analogy again!

The biggest question that season 6 has raised is the question of the flash-sideways. Not "what are the flash sideways?" per se; that was easy enough to answer as early as "LA X". They're fragments of another reality, one in which Jughead's explosion sank the Island and ultimately allowed Oceanic 815 to land safely in Los Angeles. No, the bigger question has always been "so what?" Why do we care, what's the significance, how does all this matter? The past four episodes have finally started to put those pieces in place. As soon as Widmore revealed his "package" to Jin, the flash-sideways has slowly started to make sense. (And really, Charles Widmore, are you trying to intimidate Jin or pick him up at Blake's in Midtown?)

The biggest reveal so far (regarding the flash-sideways, at least) is that the flash-sideways reality is very much... real. It's not a hypothetical, "what-if" exercise in character contrast that I figured it might have been back in February. Instead, experiences from the Island timeline can surface as "memories" in the flash-sideways, and at least if you're Desmond, experiences from the flash-sideways can translate back to knowledge on the Island.

Let's talk a little more about Desmond. Over the objections of several fellow fans, I've echoed Eloise ever since "316" and insisted that the Island isn't done with Desmond yet. Apparently Charles Widmore agreed, kidnapping our favorite Scotsman and bringing him to the Island to conduct some electromagnetic experiments on him. The result of all that was Desmond getting torn away from Penny yet again... and reuniting with Penny, his constant, in a different universe. It's no coincidence that Desmond's constant, the love of his life, and the force that brought him to understand the simultaneity of the two realities are all the same person.

As moving as Desmond-Penny scenes always are, Penny was not the only important person to trigger Desmond's epiphany. Charlie and Daniel, in welcomed cameo appearances, provide important stimuli to Desmond as well. Notice that they both died in the original timeline. Who was responsible for Daniel's own revelation? Charlotte, who died in the original timeline. And then when Hurley starts to "remember" the Island? It's Libby that jogs his "memory", Libby, who died in the original timeline. There's some connection here, as if death in one world opens you more to remembering it in another world, but what that connection is we don't yet know. Another natural question to ask here is what happens if you die in the flash-sideways but you're alive on the Island? Do you start to "remember" the flash-sideways on the Island?

A little speculation: if Charlotte sparked Faraday into "remembering" the Island, and Libby did the same for Hurley, then how about Sayid "remembers" the Island when he meets Shannon in the flash-sideways, and Sawyer when he meets Juliet? It would fit both the established pattern of recalling the Island, and the motif of bringing back old dead characters for season 6 cameos.

That, of course is a matter for the third act of season 6. If "Sundown" closed the curtain on the first act by wrapping up the Temple storyline, then "The Last Recruit" opened act 3 by moving everyone into their right place. It's one of those necessary-evil sorts of episodes where nothing dramatic is happening, so it's naturally going to be open to criticism from fans (and mid-season multi-centrics do seem to be disproportionately weak; see "Namaste")... but I thought all the positioning was sort of cool.

On the Island, we have Ben, Richard, and Miles traipsing through the jungle on Mission Blow Up the Ajira Plane; Locke, Jack, Desmond, and Sayid are hanging out (mostly against their wills) at Camp Locke; and Sun, Jin, Kate, Sawyer, Hurley, Claire, and Frank are not finding Camp Widmore too hospitable either. In the flash-sideways, Creepy Desmond, Sane Claire, and Ilana (though I'd imagine her appearance in the flash-sideways is more Faraday-style cameo than necessary condition of reconciling the two timelines) are at the law offices; Sawyer, Miles, Kate, and Sayid are at the police station, some freer than others; and Sun, Jin, Jake, Locke, and Ben are at the hospital. Hurley is unaccounted for here, but I imagine he'll find a reason to head to St. Sebastian soon enough.

It all has the distinct air of battle lines being drawn, and I think "battle lines are drawn" is as fine a theme and summary as any for act 2 of season 6. That makes act 3 the final battle, and "The Last Recruit" fired the first shots of that battle with Zoe's bombardment of Locke's beach.

Before we get ahead of ourselves speculating about the rest of act 3--the last five hours of Lost ever!--there were two important revelations from the two most recent episodes. The "whispers" reveal didn't strike me as the most brilliant thing Lost has ever done. It's not even that I didn't buy it. We've been accepting for five seasons now that it's possible for the Island to force you to stick around if it's not "finished" with you yet; why not force the spirits of dead people to stick around in the same case? No, it was more that the reveal was clumsy. Hurley's "oh, I think I know what the whispers are!" came from pretty much out of nowhere--its sudden insertion into "Everybody Loves Hugo" didn't help it as an episode, and I don't really see the greater significance of those dead spirits in the storyline or mythology of the setting.

The next reveal went down much better. Jack asks the Man in Black if he was impersonating Christian, and the answer is a simple "yes." One of the oldest mysteries from the show, dating from episode 4, has finally been put to rest. (Oh, some fans will continue to speculate about it, never being satisfied with a direct answer, but the rest of us should be content.) The character of the Man in Black is fitting for this stage of the narrative, even becoming a symbol of it. Instead of getting fleeting smoke, we're finally getting something concrete, though we may not like what we hear.

I can't help but think that we're not going to like a lot of what we see, either. A lot more than Locke's beach and Ilana are going to explode in the next five episodes. Who's safe, and who's doomed? My take is that your chances of survival increase proportionately to your time on the show. Obviously it's not a perfect correlation--Miles has lasted way longer than I thought he would have, and it still surprises me when I remember that real John Locke has been dead for over a season now--but it looks generally true, especially if Ilana is any indication. My take:

Characters who have a good chance of living:

Jack has always enjoyed a sort of "first among equals" status, the closest thing to a "main character" that you'd see from an ensemble cast. I've said before, and I still believe, that Jack is going to be the "winning" candidate, the man destined (or doomed, if you prefer) to replace Jacob as guardian of the Island. Whether Jack is still alive at the end of the series is a completely different question... I can easily see the Island requiring him to sacrifice his life for its protection.

Kate has been the most consistent female character in a setting where female characters' job prospects are about as strong as those of a Whig politician circa 1856. (For the sake of comparison, Kate and Sun are the only two female characters to have been main cast every season; compare that to Jack, Sawyer, Jin, Locke, Hurley, and Sayid on the male side.) If any female character sticks around, it's going to be Kate, and at least one has to to keep the finale from being a total sausage-fest.

You absolutely, positively cannot kill Hurley. He's got the season 1 thing going for him, the candidate thing, and the comic relief thing, all of which help his chances considerably. But the thing that guarantees Hurley's survival is his role as the everyman. Where Jack rushed to the leadership position he always wished he could assume back in St. Sebastian, Sawyer became the Leader of the Opposition just to provide a check on Jack's power, and Kate got caught up between them; where Locke started pontificating about fate and destiny; where Sayid consistently toed the line between redemption and falling back into his dark past; Hurley has been just a normal guy. Sure, a normal guy who is enormously rich and who talks to dead people, but one that doesn't assign any special significance to either of those things. He's always been the one character who can step back and look at the situation without any assumptions, as if he still wanted it to make sense with the non-Island world that he knew. That analysis has been invaluable trying to make sense of the series, and it will be equally as important trying to digest the finale.

If any character deserves his happy ending, it's Desmond. Lost and "happy ending" are not really things you put in the same sentence a lot, but the Desmond-Penny relationship has been one of the most emotionally rewarding aspects of Lost and one that we've been cheering for since the second season. Desmond has been through so much and yet remained so loyal to Penny that when all is said and done, it wouldn't seem right if he were apart from her.

I can see either Jin or Sun living, but probably not both. The last string of episodes is going to be full of tragedy, and I think this one is going to hurt.

Sawyer might stick around. He has "candidate" and "season 1 character" and "historical ties to Jack" going for him, but I'm not sure what else he brings to the table. I see Jack a lot easier than Sawyer in an endgame showdown against the Man in Black.

There's a good chance that Sayid will live long enough for his redemption to happen. When Hurley made the analogy to Anakin Skywalker, he didn't even know how accurate it was. Powerful warrior shows great potential but also an affinity for the dark side, tragedy befalls the woman he loves, he is reborn as a servant of the dark and does some terrible things. But even through all that, Anakin retains his humanity enough to overthrow the Emperor at the end of the Star Wars trilogy. Maybe Sayid will be the one to defeat the Man in Black.

Characters who have a less good chance of living:

Ben and Richard were the subjects of the two best episodes so far this season, and I think that hurts their chances of staying alive. Both of their stories concluded intelligently, resonantly, and logically, both characters have been "de-mythologized" like I talked about last month, and both have come full circle in terms of explaining their greatest mysteries. They represented themselves as the most important servants of Jacob--and perhaps that was true, for a while. But now that Jacob is down to five candidates, Jacob is finished with both--and consequently the Island is finished with both. I can't help but assume that Ben's worry about what will happen to him once the Island is done with him (after it clearly showed it was done with Ilana) was foreshadowing more than it was idle speculation.

I've grown to love both Miles and Frank, and they're the only contenders to Sawyer's long-held title of "most hilariously sarcastic character", but it seems to me that they're both a little late to the party. If some people die, it would make a lot less sense for Miles and Frank to be the ones left standing than for Sawyer and Hurley--and some people are going to die. Frank has a narrative use as a pilot, and maybe Miles has a narrative use as someone who can commune with the dead, but we're rapidly approaching a point in the story where having a narrative use is no longer good enough--you need a mythological purpose as well.

Absolutely no chance that Widmore lives. Despite not being a candidate, and not really having been involved with Island leadership for twenty-five years, he's sticking his nose in where it doesn't belong and proclaiming himself savior of the Island--without Jacob's approval. There's still a chance that Widmore will die a hero, saving himself to protect one of the candidates, or something like that--but the only question is how will he die, not will he.

In the second-most heartbreaking moment of the next five hours, I think it's likely that Claire will die. She's getting turned around, to be sure--Kate has picked up Ilana's torch of providing respite and acceptance for people who feel like they've been cast out. We can expect that turnaround to continue just long enough for Claire to achieve redemption. I can see her sacrificing herself to protect Jack (now that the brother-sister thing is out on the table), or maybe Claire's unrelated death at the hands of the Man in Black will be Jack's ultimate emotional catalyst to accept the mantle of candidate.

One final theory on the role, purpose and nature of the Island, and it relates to the Dark Tower series by Stephen King. In those books--a major influence on Lost--the eponymous Tower is the linchpin of all reality, and the only physical constant among all possible worlds. It can only be entered through one specific world--Roland's native All-World--but a manifestation or representation of it exists in all worlds. Then, the reality where 815 crashed on the Island (that is, the "main" timeline from seasons 1-5) in is the only one where it's possible to interact with the Island, although a manifestation of the Island is present in every conceivable universe (such as the sunken Island in the flash-sideways). The 815 survivors' realization of this (and probably a pilgrimage to that sunken Island) is going to be critical to reconciling the two realities.

Currently listening: "Fourside" from from Mother 2 - Giygas' Counterattack

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Salsa Connoisseur: Santa Barbara Habanero Lime

I hadn't had a good habanero salsa in a while, so I made finding one a priority when I bought groceries last week. A lot of people only associate habaneros with hotness--and they are hot--but there is a specific flavor to these chilis besides just "hot". There's a fruity tang to them, an almost citrusy flavor, that makes lime a natural complement to habaneros in salsa.

Texture: not bad. A little chunky for my tastes, but still more fluid than solid. Tiny bits of habanero and other vegetables are just fine, but larger diced onions could have stood to be chopped a lot more finely.

Heat: not nearly as hot as I expected (or was hoping for, with "habanero" in the name). The jar describes the salsa as "medium +", which is something it seems like every salsa would like to be known as--"medium +" or "5 out of 8" or "chili-chili-chili-half a chili out of five chili outlines" all suggest the salsa is hot enough to be noticed but not hot enough to burn your mouth. (It's like trumpet makers who all insist that their bores are "medium-large".) Of course, we can't all be slightly above average. This salsa isn't really close--maybe "mild +" or a generous "medium -".

Flavor: Good Lord, Santa Barbara Salsa Company, why are there carrots in my salsa? It's a bizarre choice of ingredient. And you know how when they're in cake, you can't really taste them? Not exactly the case with the salsa--they're very noticeable. Aside from that, the flavor is very good, a citrusy tang that balances the heat (negligible though it may be) of the salsa.

Available at Safeway; a 12-oz jar costs $3.89 (32 cents per ounce). This salsa would be a good choice if you want the flavor of habaneros in your salsa but not their overwhelming heat. It's not a salsa for traditionalists, but if you can look past the carrot oddity, the flavor is interesting and worth tasting.

Currently listening: Sonata 19, Giovanni Gabrieli (via my awesome "Let's Pretend It's 1600" station on Pandora)

Friday, April 16, 2010

Black Prairie: Feast of the Hunters' Moon

The curious thing about the Decemberists is that they don't often know what era they're writing music in. Sure, they have some songs that are clearly contemporary ("16 Military Wives"). But they seem more comfortable setting their songs in Moorish North Africa ("The Infanta"), Arthurian Britain (the whole of The Hazards of Love), medieval Japan ("The Crane Wife"), or World War I Europe ("The Legionnaire's Lament", "The Soldiering Life").

So it should come as little surprise that Black Prairie's debut album, Feast of the Hunters' Moon would rather exist in 19th-century Kentucky than 21st-century Portland. It's tempting to call Black Prairie a "Decemberists side project"--after all, it consists of more than half of the Decemberists--but it quickly becomes apparent that Black Prairie is a musical beast all its own. Decemberists Jenny Conlee (accordion), Nate Query (bass), and Chris Funk (let's be honest, what doesn't Chris Funk play?) join Jon Neufeld (guitar) and Annalisa Tornfelt (violin and vocals) to create a pastiche of Americana closer to the folk of Among the Oak & Ash than the indie pop you might expect.

Probably the most impressive thing about Feast of the Hunters' Moon is the incredible breadth of musical genres and styles it spans. The strongest influence is bluegrass, but zydeco, steel guitar string band, country, and even klezmer are right at home on the album. The original conception of Black Prairie was as an instrumental band, so it's no surprise that 9 or 10 of the 13 tracks are purely instrumental, creative explorations of what the band's unique combination of instruments can do.

It's ironic, then, that the vocal tracks are among the best on the album. Annalisa Tornfelt is not a singer by trade, and it shows, but her vocals lend an organic timelessness to the songs where they appear. "Single Mistake" stands out as fragile, sincere emotion. Probably the best track on the album is "Red Rocking Chair", which is a haunting interpretation of an old folk song.

Black Prairie's music probably won't see any radio play outside of the occasional college airwaves. (That said, think about Feast of the Hunters' Moon as the soundtrack for the hypothetical Damon Lindelof-Carlton Cuse adaptation of The Gunslinger from the Dark Tower and tell me it wouldn't be fantastic.) That's all the more reason for you to track it down on your own.

Currently listening: "Ich Will", Rammstein