Last week I decided to try building a virtual machine to run Windows XP. I figured I’d install XP, install all the recent patches, then make a snapshot of the virtual disk. Then I’d have a clean XP install that I could use to run various apps as needed. Several years back I purchased a copy of VMWare for this purpose, and it worked great. This time around I figured I’d try QEMU, an alternative emulator that’s free. Now, I’ll prefix this by saying that my host machine (a Debian Linux box) is somewhat underpowered to run an XP guest OS. It’s a 700mhz PIII with 512 megs of RAM. It works, and it’s usable, but it’s quite comically slow. In particular, I’d estimate that the installation process took about 12 hours (this was spread out over several days of occasional attention, so I don’t have an exact figure). The basic XP install goes something like:

  1. Install XP from CD.
  2. Install Service Pack 2.
  3. Download and install recent updates from Microsoft to bring the installation completely up to date.

And that’s essentially what I did. The process was marked by long periods of waiting and wondering if it was hung, followed by entering some info in a dialog box, follow by more long periods of waiting and wondering if it was hung, etc. etc. etc. I ran into a couple of known QEMU/XP issues:

  • After the initial install, the reboot hangs on the “Windows XP” splash screen with the message “Please Wait”. Resetting the machine at this point seems to get it moving along again.
  • After initially logging in as “Administrator”, I got a dialog box that said “A problem is preventing windows from accurately checking the license for this computer. Error Code: 0x800703e6.”. Following some advice on the qemu-devel mailing list, I booted into safe mode and installed Service Pack 2, and that fixed this problem.

After that, there was lots more waiting while it downloaded updates, installed IE7, etc. etc. etc., but it eventually finished and left me with a working system. How much use I get out of it remains to be seen, but at least all the effort wasn’t for naught. Recommendation: if you’re going to do this, use a beefier machine than I did 🙂 Also, I highly recommend building and using the kqemu kernel accelerator module. For me, this sped things up from “super mind-numbingly comically slow” to just “comically slow.” And the final tip: If you think it’s hung, go to the host OS and check for activity on the virtual disk image. I lived by this during the install.

And in other news… it’s tax time again! And, this year I’ve decided that I’m tired of getting refunds. Even a “nominal” refund (say $100-$200) is still an interest-free loan to Uncle Sam. So it occurred to me, why don’t I just estimate our 2007 taxes and adjust my withholding appropriately so that I end up owing a nominal amount, instead of getting a nominal refund. Then, with each paycheck, I’ll set the extra amount aside in an interest-bearing account. When next year’s tax season rolls around, I’ll pay the amount owed, and the remainder becomes my “refund”. Seems like a no-brainer, and I wonder why I didn’t come up with this sooner. The complicated part, of course, is estimating our 2007 taxes and avoiding the whole underpayment/penalty/interest thing. But I’m going to give it a go.

Bye-bye Taxcut, hello TaxACT

Don’t look now, but it’s Tax Season again. This is usually the time of year I start looking for the best deal on H&R Block’s TaxCut product, which I’ve been using for several years. Truth be told, I’ve always been pretty happy with TaxCut. I usually pay between $15 and $25 for the “Deluxe” product (or whatever they’re calling it in the given year) which in the past has included “free” federal e-file and one “free” State (after rebates of course). However, this year it appears that Block is no longer offering the free e-file, so that prompted me to look around for a better deal.

To me, there are three important things to consider when choosing a tax preparation product:

  • Convenience. I’m sure I could use the old paper-and-pencil method, maybe with the help of a spreadsheet or two. But truth be told, that’s not really an option for me at this point of my life. It’s just too tedious and time-consuming. Tax preparation software is well worth a (nominal) price in terms of time and headache saved.
  • Accuracy. Obviously, the software isn’t worth anything to me if it doesn’t accurately complete the return.
  • Cost. The cheaper, the better.

Anyhow, I think I’ve found what I’m looking for: TaxACT online for Federal, and Maryland’s free (and excellent) iFile system for State. TaxACT will supposedly complete and e-file my Federal return for free, so combined with iFile, my total outlay this year will be a grand total of…. $0! And no rebates to bother with, either. Time will tell how well this works, but it sure seems ideal, so I’m hoping it works out. Stay tuned.

Late Christmas Present

Got a late Christmas present yesterday from an unlikely source: my employer’s 401(k) provider. Well, it actually came in early October, but I didn’t notice it until the other day when I checked my quarterly statement. Now, the plan has always had a decent selection of investment choices, but there have always been a bunch of things that bother me about it…

  1. The plan has a board of trustees that determine the investment choices, and the board has a habit of eliminating various mutual funds (replacing them with others) after relatively short periods of underperforming.
  2. The investment options are mainly regular, non-proprietary mutual funds with ticker symbols, etc. However, the provider, being an insurance company, feels the need to treat the funds as annuity investments, and tracks them using its own ‘unit’ system rather than using the funds’ actual NAVs.
  3. The fees are higher than they should be (although the provider passes on some mutual fund management fee reductions it negotiates, and these offset the provider’s fees somewhat, though not nearly enough).
  4. The quarterly statements have never made sense. The number of ‘units’ owned never adds up to the sum of ‘units’ purchased with each deferral to the plan. This, to me, has always been the biggest problem with the plan. It makes it impossible for me to (properly) track my account with my financial software, and leaves me wondering what’s actually going on behind the scenes.

Anyhow, in early October the provider quietly took a huge step in the right direction by abandoning its unit scheme and switching to a share-based valuation system using the funds’ actual NAVs. All of a sudden, the statements make complete sense, and I can track my account day-to-day because the fund NAVs are available online.

I still think the fees are too high, but I have to say I’m much happier with the plan now.

Card Reader

So, for the past year or so I’ve been using my Palm Tungsten E2, with 1-gig SD card and headphones, as a portable mp3 player, because it’s there, and it works. It’s actually kind of cool — I can play games, read e-books, etc. on the Palm while listening to music. It’s quite the thing if you want to completely tune out everything around you. Yeah, the Palm-as-mp3-player thing leaves a bit to be desired — the bundled player software (RealPlayer) sucks, and there’s a constant background hiss reminiscent of my old 1980s Sony cassette walkman. Quite nostalgic, but this is 2007 — but like I said, it works.

Up till recently I used a software package called Softick Card Export II to copy music to the SD card on the Palm. It’s a nifty package that makes the Palm emulate a USB mass storage device (one wonders why the Palm doesn’t do this out of the box, but I digress). And it works, but it’s e-x-c-r-u-c-i-a-t-i-n-g-l-y slow. It takes, like, 20 minutes to copy a couple of CDs worth of 192kbps mp3s to the card. You have to wait forever for the initial copy to happen, then wait forever again for the data to “sync” to the card, so you can remove it safely. I grudgingly dealt with this for a year or so, because I figured that’s just how it was with these things. Then this past Christmas, the wife got a dedicated flash-based mp3 player. And while playing around with it, I couldn’t help but notice that file transfers to it were light-years faster than transfers to my Palm through Card Export. And I began to think, well, maybe it’s the Palm and the software-based USB storage emulation slowing things down for me. So, I went to Best Buy and paid $15 (a buck less than what I paid for Card Export, BTW) for a USB SD card reader/writer. And indeed, it’s absolutely light-years faster than Card Export.

When I initially bought Card Export, I figured a card reader might be a little faster, but I had no idea it would be this many orders of magnitude faster. Live and learn I guess. I’m not knocking Card Export here, as it definitely has its niche, but it looks like the card reader is the way to go for larger transfers.