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Daynotes Journal

Week of 3/29/99

Sunday, April 4, 1999 10:57

A (mostly) daily journal of the trials, tribulations, and random observations of Robert Bruce Thompson, a writer of computer books.


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Monday, March 29, 1999


WARNING

If you receive an email message with an attached Word document, DO NOT open that document, even if the message appears to come from someone you know and trust. A new, extremely virulent macro virus called Melissa is making the rounds. You can read more about it at CNN or ZDNET.   Messages that contain the virus currently have the subject line, "Subject: Important Message From <the name of the person who relayed the virus>" and the message body "Here is that document you asked for ... don't show it to anyone else ;-)."  However, there is nothing to prevent someone from modifying the macro virus to use a different subject line and message body, and minor variants on the virus have already been seen.


If you didn't read the updates last weekend, check back to last week. I posted quite a lot of interesting new stuff Saturday and Sunday.

* * * * *

I'm a little slow getting started this morning. I usually keep a lot of balls in the air, but once in a while it starts to get to me. I have one chapter I'm just finishing up, an appendix Barbara just finished that needs checked, another chapter I'm outlining and drafting, another chapter that Barbara is researching and outlining that I need to look at, and two chapters that Jerry sent me last night to look over, one of which I'm going to have to add a significant amount of material to.

Then there's a stack of eval stuff I need to get to, vendors from whom I've requested but not yet received eval units from to follow up with, this web site to keep up, my new hardwareguys.com web site to be built, and so on. I need to do my taxes. I really didn't need to lose a day to Melissa. Updates here are likely to be shorter for the next month or so. I'm going to have to cut down on the time I spend each day answering mail and updating this site, or I'm going to be buried. So if you send me mail and my reply is short or slow in coming, my apologies in advance. As Pournelle says, I'm dancing as fast as I can. And it's only me.

* * * * *

This from Frank McPherson:

Yup. I went into the office yesterday. Our company uses Exchange/Outlook for our mail system and our email administrators sent a warning message out at about 4:55 PM Friday. I doubt many people saw it before the left Friday but hopefully they will and we won't be hurt too bad. We actually had something similar to this happen a couple of weeks ago. It wasn't a trojan Word macro that caused the problem, but just a large chain letter that encourage people to send it on. People kept selecting "Reply to All" which kept increasing the number of messages back and with all the mail flying around inboxes started filling up to the point where people couldn't get any mail. Our admins had to start filtering out messages > 100K to stop the mail "storm." The problem was actually like an ethernet packet storm.

Five years ago I was doing a lot of Word template and macro development. At the time I was telling people that the WordBasic language that came with Word (then version 2) was very powerful and had the potential of causing problems. I bet that right now macro "viruses" in either Word or Excel are the top virus-related incidents in companies. It is the price paid for having such a powerful programming lanuage built into a product. And, it gets worse with VBA and things like Outlook. At home I use Outlook Express and I think there is something to be said about simplicity.

BTW, I am reading your TCP/IP book right now. I am studying to take the TCP/IP exam and have been using it as a study aid to supplement the class that I am taking and so far I have found it to be very useful.

Frank McPherson, MCP
Microsoft MVP - Windows CE
frank@fmcpherson.com
www.fmcpherson.com
Windows CE Knowledge Center: http://start.at/know_ce

Yep, I found myself yesterday thinking how nice it would be if I could simply turn off some of the enhanced features like WordBasic. I don't use them, and all they really are for me is a dangerous backdoor for stuff like Melissa. Thanks for the kind words about the book.

* * * * *

This from Dave Farquhar [farquhar@freewwweb.com]:

Great, now I know what I'll be doing when I get to work Monday morning... It certainly wasn't what we had planned.

There are several big problems with Word macro viruses. The first is, as you say, they're incredibly easy to write. I remember in my early high school days, I knew some people who messed around writing virus-like programs in BASIC. They worked, but in 1990 a virus written in BASIC wouldn't get far. But WordBASIC is INCREDIBLY similar to every other BASIC language Microsoft ever wrote. I found some of the tricks I used to use to speed up programs written in C-64 BASIC even work to speed up Word macros. Anyone who's willing to mess around for a couple of days can write a WordBASIC program.

So, an existing macro virus can very, very quickly be modified to do something more dangerous. Since Microsoft provided hooks in the WordBASIC language to key Windows system functions (and whoever thought of that brilliant idea needs to be keelhauled as well -- why should a Word macro be able to manipulate any file that's foreign to the Word environment?), I can think of all sorts of unspeakable things someone could do with a Word macro. We're talking adding a single line of code to an existing virus, in most cases.

The second problem is that WordBASIC, being an interpreted language, doesn't necessarily choke on code with errors in it. So if two macro viruses collide, there's a chance that the hybrid will still function. A deadlier strain of Melissa that's not even written by a human being could emerge within a few days.

I remember reading a paper over a year ago from an IBM virus researcher about this phenomenon. Unfortunately, I don't know the URL, and since IBM sold its anti-virus division to Symantec, it's probably not online anymore. Maybe I should be glad some of the employees where I work refuse to switch from WordPerfect to Word... Their chances of spreading the virus are pretty minimal.

Thanks for the heads-up. I hope some of the other IS/IT types like me who are out there happened to hear about it. I get the feeling a lot of us will be trying to get into work an hour or so early tomorrow morning...

As you say, what makes this danger so hideous is how easy it is to create something dangerous. I haven't programmed seriously for twenty years or more, and I have never written any WordBasic code, but after looking at the Melissa macro, I suspect it wouldn't take me more than a couple of hours to modify it into something truly frightening.

* * * * *

This from Neil Sherin [nsherin@mindless.com]:

I've just received this URL about Melissa - hope it is helpful or interesting. Keep up the great work on your enjoyable websites. The URL is:

http://www.anchordesk.com/a/adt0329ba/3233.

Also another one on how to kill it:

http://www.anchordesk.com/a/adt0329sr/3234.

Thanks.

 


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Tuesday, March 30, 1999

In what may be one of the dumbest marketing moves I've seen recently, the on-line bookstore Computer Literacy has changed its name from www.computerliteracy.com (or www.clbooks.com) to www.fatbrain.com. I am not making this up. Their new slogan is "Because great minds think a lot." I'm not sure what that has to do with fat, but there it is.

* * * * *

The billing hassles with pair Networks may be over. I finally got a response from their billing department last Friday, saying that they'd issue a credit for $40.87 immediately. I fired back a reply asking them to send me the transaction number right away. In the mean time, Barbara needed to pay our credit card bill on Sunday, so I told her to go ahead and pay the full amount including the overcharge. Yesterday, I received a message from the pair Networks billing department saying that the credit had been issued, but they didn't have a transaction number. We'll see.

* * * * *

This from Chuck Waggoner [waggoner@gis.net]:

In all the hubbub of Melissa, I hope you saw [The Register article] about IE5 allowing your local clipboard contents to be sent back to the server. It can be disabled, but is not shipped that way.

I did see that, thanks. But I'll post it for those who didn't. Reading it motivated me to go in and set tighter security settings for IE5. I went a bit too far, as I found out shortly afterward when I typed some text into a search box on a web site, hit enter, and got a message that IE settings prevented it from sending data to the web site. But I now have persistent cookies, scripting, Java, ActiveX, etc. all disabled.

* * * * *

This from Gary M. Berg [Gary_Berg@ibm.net]:

I had a couple of questions on IE5.0:

1) Did the final version solve the problem you had of choosing something from Favorites opening in the first IE5 windows instead of the current one?

2) About how much larger is an equivalent IE5 installation than the IE4.01SP1 version? Is it going to grow a whole lot, or not much at all?

Unfortunately, the release version of IE5 does nothing at all to fix the focus problem when accessing a URL from Favorites. Everything still works exactly as I described it earlier. As far as the relative sizes of IE4 and IE5, I'm not sure. I did a minimal install, and the setup program told me I'd selected about 10 MB. I'm assuming that referred to 10 MB of compressed installation files to be downloaded, but I don't know for sure. I tried looking in \Program Files\Plus to find out, hoping that IE4 and IE5 would be in separate folders, but that turns out not to be the case. Also, I know there are a ton of dll's that get copied to the WINNT folder and its subfolders, so I can't say for sure how big either product is. Perhaps another reader will know.

* * * * *

The Register has posted an article stating that the embedded Microsoft GUID is being used to trace the author of the Melissa virus. At first glance, this may appear to argue that that embedded GUID can be a Good Thing. But I'm not so sure. Melissa showed up last Friday, and was probably written last week. There was certainly enough publicity about the embedded Microsoft GUID that the person who wrote Melissa was almost certainly aware of that issue. That raises the question, did the Melissa author simply use a sector editor to insert someone else's GUID in the Melissa document? If I had written Melissa, I probably would have done that as well. If you're going to do something that you know is going to have the cops after you, setting a false trail is not a bad idea.

 


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Wednesday, March 31, 1999

ZDNet published several articles yesterday that give more details about how the alleged author of the Melissa virus was located. I still believe that there's a good chance this person is being framed, but if not he richly deserves whatever is done to him. Right now, they're talking about a $350,000 fine and 5 to 10 years in prison. That seems wholly inadequate to me. The punishment should fit not just the crime but the damages that result from that crime. If this person is guilty, he was responsible for probably millions of lost man-hours world-wide, and direct and indirect costs in the millions of dollars. It seems to me that at the very least he should be sentenced to several consecutive life sentences without possibility of parole. Better yet, he should be beheaded and his head posted on a pike to serve as a warning to others who think that writing viruses is an acceptable activity.

All of this is enough to make me question why I continue to use Microsoft Word at all. I don't like it. I've never liked it. I used WordPerfect for DOS from version 3 through version 5.2. When WordPerfect shipped their Windows version, I started using that. I used WordPerfect for a decade or more, from the early/mid 80's through the mid-90's. Although I've had Microsoft Word on my hard drive since Microsoft started bundling Office, it wasn't until I started writing computer books back in 1995 that I ever used Word. Que had standardized on Word, so that's what I used. Perhaps I should stop using Word and go back to WordPerfect. I wonder how good WordPerfect's import/export functions for Word documents are.

* * * * *

The law is an ass. This morning's paper tells me that a Marlboro smoker in Oregon has been awarded more than $80 million in damages. A million or so of that was actual damages, and the remainder punitive damages. What irks me is that the court decided that the cigarette company and the smoker were equally at fault. So if they share responsibility equally, why was the smoker awarded $80 million? Actually, a better question is, if both were equally at fault, why was the smoker awarded even the $1 million in actual damages let alone the $80 million in punitive damages?

* * * * *

This from Frank Love [falove@home.com]:

I am running Win95 on a Tiger Direct 686 PR200+ sytem with 96MB of RAM and an 11.5GB Maxtor hard drive (I've upgraded both the RAM and the hard drive since I bought the system about two years ago.) Since I just recently signed up for cable internet access with @Home, I decided to do a full download and install of IE5. The loader file to start the rest of the download was almost 500K. The actual full download was 17.5MBystes! I believe it said that a full installation would take 25Meg. I didn't take notes so I can't say for sure how much disc space it took, but I remember watching in awed amazement as that 17.5 Mbytes downloaded in less than five minutes! If you can possibly get cable service, it's well worth what it cost me: $50 installation and $39.95 per month. The installation was $100 off but even at $150 it was half the $300 installation and $59.95 per month the phone company quoted me for DSL service!

I've been visiting your site for about 6 weeks now and have fallen into a pattern of checking your site every two or three days. Found your site through Jerry Pournelles' site. I suspect you have at least doubled your readership from his mentions of you on his site. I do find your site easier to follow, primarily because you keep your writing and reader mail together in one column.

It amazes me that either of you have time enough to do what you do, but I'm not about to question the benefits. I've learned quite a bit just from reading your "ramblings".

Concerning your comment about why you haven't upgraded to a faster proccesor: I figure at least 75% of what I do with my machine is I/O bound and my processor's clock rate is only 150MHz. Going to 450 or 500 MHz would just decrease that remaining 25% by at most a factor of 3 1/3rd meaning that then 92or 93% of what I do would be I/O bound. Unless someone is doing large scale simulations or bleeding edge graphics the average user has no more use for a 450 or 500Mhz clocked processor than a turtle needs wings! It really irritates me when I see every improvement in clock rate hailed as the "fastest PC ever". What they don't say is how little practical benefit the average use will derive from those "improved" models! I think it's a crying shame that the magazine industry has become so hypnotised by covering the "latest and greatest" giswidgets that the question of practical benefits gets lost in the background. If the whole focus is on performance, the waste of actual user's time in updating, backing up, running system checks, solving software conflicts and generally doing all the grunt work it takes to keep a PC healthy and working gets lost in the shuffle.

Rant Warning! Soapbox Ahead!

People need PC's and software that just works out of the box, no excuses, no waffling warranties, no calls to tech support, no spontaneous crashes, no driver conflicts and who in the hell at Microsoft decided it would be a good idea to stick all the application settings into one big file that EVERY vendor would HAVE to change just to get their software to run under Windows 95! The time and money wasted by that one boneheaded decision HAS to be measured in the millions of dollars per day! Yet they have the cast-iron gall to sell this travesty of operating system design as "user-friendly"!!!

I've spent at least $200 over the last two years on utility software just to keep me from going bonkers over little problems like I mentioned in the first, entirely too long, sentence of the preceding paragraph! This, on a personal system that I use at home for my own amusement! I pity the small business owner that bought into any of this user friendly crap! I keep expecting some smart lawyer to announce a class action lawsuit against Microsoft for false advertising and breach of implied warranty and it would serve them right! Revenge! How sweet to see the mighty fallen under the bludgeon of the Law, that other "operating system" that requires an extensive (and expensive) education to learn how use...

Rant over!

(The preceding rant has been brought to you free of charge, courtesy of personal frustration and outrage. Bad design, the thief of time that keeps on taking.)

But I digress, I enjoy your site and hope you keep writing about your troubles and travails so that I can continue to benefit from your experiences.

Welcome to the site, and thanks for the kind words. As far as my Internet connection, I'd upgrade to either a cable modem or ADSL if either of them could be had here. Unfortunately, they can't, although that may change sometime this year. And you're right about processor speeds. It's all a marketing game. The truth is that one of the current breed of sub-$100 processors--whether it be an Intel Celeron, an AMD K6-2, or one of their competitors--is perfectly adequate for the vast majority of users. And I also agree that stability is an important issue that often gets lost in the rush. That's why I run NT. It's not perfect, but when you consider its mix of stability, ability to run mainstream applications, etc., it's by far the best product available.

 


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Thursday, April 1, 1999

Congratulations to my friends Bo Leuf and Tom Syroid, who've just had their book proposal accepted by O'Reilly and Associates. Outlook 2000 in a Nutshell will be their first book, but not, I'm sure, their last. Way to go, guys.

* * * * *

For several months now, my contacts at a very large microprocessor manufacturer have been dropping hints about a revolutionary new CPU. It now appears that the mask for this new CPU is complete and it has been allocated fab space, which means we can expect to see it on the market within the next few months.

What's different about this CPU is that it uses trinary (Base-3) logic rather than binary. Each trinary digit ("trit") can represent three states rather than just two. Whereas traditional CPUs use two voltages to represent a bit that may be set to 0/1, on/off, or yes/no, the trinary CPU uses three voltages (plus, minus, and zero) to   represent a Base-3 trit that may be set to yes/no/maybe. I'm told that this has dramatic implications for such "fuzzy logic" applications as chaos theory calculations, fractals, speech recognition, and decision support. For such applications, trinary logic is extremely fast, although its performance lags relative to binary for traditional applications. Presumably, this means that the trinary chip will be restricted to special-purpose devices.

There are also implications for storage density. Trits are grouped by threes into "tribbles," and tribbles are grouped by threes into "trytes." In only three trits, a tribble can represent 27 states, a useful number for text processing. A 9-trit tryte, only 12.5% larger than an 8-bit byte, can represent 19,683 states, versus only 256 states that a byte can assume.

And, for now at least, that's all I know about the trinary CPU. I'll provide more details as they're made available to me.

* * * * *

I noticed something about search engines yesterday that's not obvious unless one runs a web site. They differ greatly in how current they are. I started using AltaVista the day it debuted. It was so much better than Lycos, the dominant search engine at the time, that there wasn't really any comparison. But somewhere along the line, AltaVista lost focus. I still use it, and it still contains a huge number of indexed pages, but the results I get from it are less on-point than those from some of the more recent search engines.

Soon after Northern Light came on line, I started using it in preference to AltaVista. It typically returned fewer results, but those results were much closer matches to my search strings. I was pretty pleased with Northern Light until recently. When I first brought up my web site, Northern Light indexed the whole site the same day I submitted the URL, although the results did not appear in its index for a couple of weeks. Still, that beat the hell out of AltaVista, which to this day only has something less than a third of my pages indexed, this despite repeated re-submissions of my URL for more than a year.

When I relocated my web site, the troubles with Northern Light began. I'd already noticed that my site hadn't been indexed since the end of 1998, despite the fact that I'd resubmitted my URL every couple of weeks since then. When I relocated my site, I took that opportunity to restructure the content. I had something like 200 files in the root directory, so I created a rational set of subdirectories and moved the files into them. I knew that would break the search engines, but I figured I could just resubmit the URL and they'd notice that things had been moved around.

It didn't work that way. Both AltaVista and Northern Light still have the old document locations, and nothing I do seems to force an update. I even emailed NorthernLight support and explained the problem a couple of weeks ago. They promised they'd force an update manually. It hasn't shown up in their index, and it doesn't look likely to. I keep an eye on my web stats, and as far as I can see their spider isn't even bothering to load my pages. At that, they're better than AltaVista, who didn't even bother to reply to my email.

And that brings me to the search engine that works. HotBot. Just out of curiosity, I went over there and did a search for all web pages that contained my URL. HotBot returned about 150 pages, the oldest of which was dated 3/16/99 and the latest 3/23/99. The moral of all this, I suppose, is that if you want a search engine that produces complete, up-to-date results, use HotBot.

* * * * *

This from Dave Farquhar [farquhar@lcms.org]:

Just wanted to let you know that I've been talking with Robert Denn [my editor at O'Reilly -- RBT] and pitching book ideas his direction -- I figure if I have a journalism degree I might as well use it for something, right? -- and I should be receiving a contract in the next couple of days.

The working title (today at least) is Windows 95 and 98 performance tuning. It's an area where I have considerable experience, and with Circuit City and Office Depot selling poor-performing Win98-based consumer PCs by the truckload, there's a large potential audience.

I remember the first time I read your advice, "If you want to be an author, just do it," I thought it was easier said than done. But you were right -- I guess I just needed to watch someone do just that before I was willing to try it for myself.

Thanks, and keep up the good work. I wish you continued luck with the hardware book -- I'm looking forward to reviewing the next chapter in the series.

Dave Farquhar
Microcomputer Analyst, Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod
farquhar@lcms.org

Views expressed in this document are my own and, unless stated otherwise, in no way represent the opinion of my employer.

Congratulations. Do you mind if I publish this with my comments appended? I think it might serve to inspire others.

To which Dave replied:

Go ahead -- if someone else tries it, and we get some more quality computer books out of it, that's great. The market's definitely flooded, but not with much stuff that's really usable.

I'm writing the Windows 95 book I always wanted/needed, but since no one else ever wrote it, I'm doing it. That approach works for me, so maybe it will work for someone else.

Something tells me that others may try it. I hope they do. You're the fourth of my readers who is negotiating or has signed a book contract with O'Reilly. I should probably charge O'Reilly some kind of commission for helping them find new authors.

I'd encourage any of my other readers who thinks he might like to write a computer book to stop thinking about it and just do it. Not that everything is easy. Far from it. The hours are long and the work is hard. O'Reilly is the best computer book publisher out there, and the one you want to write for, but they do have very high standards. Writing a book good enough to have O'Reilly on the cover is no easy task. Nothing worthwhile is ever easy.

* * * * *

I'm probably the last one to notice, but when I went over to check how Windows NT TCP/IP Network Administration was doing in the Amazon.com rankings (it's doing very well, mid-hundreds to very low thousands), I noticed that Amazon is now competing with the E-bay auction site. I thought it was interesting that the the auction items they presented were closely related to the subject of the book. Here are a couple of the groups they showed for my book:

  • 3Com Etherlink III PCMCIA LAN PC Card 3C859D-COMBO
  • SMC, LinkSys, & MaxTech 5-Port Mini Hubs
  • Timeplex Mutiplexers (Quanty 4)

and

  • DCA IRMA 3270 Network Card & Software
  • Hewlett Packard D3337A NetServer LS 5/100 with Array Controller
  • RadioLan ISA CardLINK

I was impressed by how closely they match the items they present with the book's subject matter. But then I went over to look at a competing title (Siyan's Windows NT TCP/IP), and found the following items:

  • Adorable Plump Beaver Stuffed Toy Animal
  • New/Unopened - Babar the Elephant Plush Toy
  • New/Unopened - Dilbert Plush Toy - 14 inches tall

and

  • Pocket Surprise - Out of this World
  • Adorable Plump Beaver Stuffed Toy Animal
  • New/Unopened - Babar the Elephant Plush Toy

I figured that must be some bizarre error, so I went over and looked at Tom's Hardware Guide. Here are some groups from it:

  • Rocket Rider
  • Flatso Bunny
  • Hanging Fish!

and

  • M&M Posable Plush Toys - Red Medium
  • Tiny Tossems - Jungle Assortment # 1
  • TWINX

So it appears that my book is the exception in having items that relate at all closely to its subject matter. I wonder how long it will be before Beanie Babies or something start showing up on my page.

* * * * *

Oh, yeah. In the interests of full disclosure, I should admit that I made up the stuff about the trinary processor. I've never done anything like that before. Must be the date.

 


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Friday, April 2, 1999

Hmm. The vaunted connectivity of pair Networks seems to have shot craps this morning. The first sign of a problem was that I didn't have any new mail waiting. The first thing in the morning, on my way to the kitchen to fire up the coffee pot, I stop by my office and start Outlook. That fires up the Internet connection and retrieves my mail. When I came back into the office, I had no new mail. Usually, I have a dozen or two new mail messages from overnight.

I then fired up my ftp client to download the web statistics that pair puts on my server at about 12:01 every morning. The ftp client timed out. I then started to visit the web sites I hit every morning. I was able to get to all of them normally, except that I couldn't get to any of them that are hosted by pair Networks, including Tom's Hardware and pair Networks itself. Hmm. I fired up tracert and tried tracing the routes to my own server, pair Networks, etc. No joy. So much for pair Network's supposed redundant connections. I have no idea when I'll be able to post this. The only way I have to notify pair Networks of the problem is via email to urgent@pair.com, but that's not going to work. I suppose they already know about the problem anyway.

At least I did finally hear from their billing department earlier this week. They claim that they've issued a credit to my charge card, and couldn't figure out why I was so upset. I asked them how they'd feel if someone overcharged their credit card by $40 and then ignored repeated messages for three weeks.

* * * * *

I kept doing a refresh on www.pair.com every few minutes, and it came up about 10:15. As soon as that happened, I immediately POPped my mail and found a response from pair tech support waiting in my mailbox. They said that their traffic was normal and they weren't experiencing any problems. They also requested copies of the tracert results I'd gotten earlier today, which of course I hadn't kept. The tracerts from both ISPs I dialed into showed that the trace was dying at the final AlterNet host before reaching pair, so it appears that AlterNet was having some kind of problem.

* * * * *

I'm doing a network backup to my Seagate Travan TR-4 tape drive as I write this. Which brings up an issue that's been niggling me for quite some time. Travan TR-4 stores 4 GB natively, although TR-4 drives are always sold as 8 GB, assuming 2:1 compression. In fact, I typically get about 1.5:1 compression, which means that this drive can store about 6 GB. That's adequate for what I really need to back up, but inadequate to do a true full network backup.

I'm working right now on a chapter that covers tape drives, and I'd about decided to recommend Travan for general usage. Newer Travan drives are available in NS8 (4GB/8GB) models and NS20 (10GB/20GB) models, one of which should be suitable for most PCs and small networks. But I came across a competing technology from OnStream that appears to have some compelling advantages over Travan.

OnStream manufactures two tape drives. The first model stores 15GB/30GB and is available in IDE, parallel port, and SCSI-2 interfaces. The second model stores 25GB/50GB, and is available in SCSI-2 only. The 15GB/30GB drives are comparable to Travan NS20 in performance and cost, but store 50% more data. The 15GB/30GB IDE model, for example, backs up 3.6 GB/hour natively (1 MB/s) and costs $250 to $300 on the street, although that does not include a tape cartridge. The 15GB/30GB tape cartridges run about $35 each on the street, a little more than Travan TR-4 cartridges, and somewhat less than Travan TR-5 (NS20) cartridges.

I see only two potential disadvantages to the OnStream product:

  • The platform support is relatively limited, although they are making efforts to expand that support, including plans to support Linux. Fortunately, the drives include a copy of OnStream Echo backup software, which works under Windows 95/98 and Windows NT 4.0, has several intriguing capabilities, and appears to be an adequate backup solution.
  • Single-source products always make me nervous. A number of superior technologies have been brought to market by smaller companies who ultimately found themselves unable to compete with larger entrenched competitors. But I don't think that's likely to happen here. The ADR technology upon which the OnStream drives are based was originally developed by Philips Electronics, and appears to be well placed to compete with Travan.

At any rate, this technology intrigues me enough that I requested an evaluation unit and some tapes. If it works as well as I expect it to, OnStream may well be the first serious competitor to Travan in the mainstream desktop tape backup market.

* * * * *

Mid-afternoon: Several days ago, I re-read James Burke's The Day the Universe Changed. While my system was backing up today, I decided to cruise on over to Amazon.com and check to see what other of his books were still available. And that brings up something that I find disturbing. I've not written about it in the past (or I don't think I have), but I've noticed it from time to time and it really bothers me.

Amazon.com was offering a 1997 paperback reprint edition of Burke's The Pinball Effect: How Renaissance Water Gardens Made the Carburetor Possible and Other Journeys Through Knowledge. They showed the list price as $15, and were selling it for $12 after their 20% discount. I went over to HamiltonBook.com, one of my favorite remaindered book sources, and found the original hardback for $5.95. Okay, they're different books, so I have no problem with Amazon charging the normal price for the current in-print version of the book, although one would have to be an idiot to buy the paperback re-print for $12 instead of the original hardback for half that.

But what really disturbed me was checking out some of the other books that are readily available from HamiltonBook.com at remainder prices and comparing them with Amazon.com. Apparently, Amazon.com (and they're not the only offender) continues to sell books at the normal price long after they've been remaindered. I first noticed this last fall, when Que remaindered one of my books. That book continued to be offered on Amazon.com at the original price (showing 24 hour delivery) for two or three months after it had been remaindered. HamiltonBook.com was selling it the whole time for $9.95 rather than the $30+ that Amazon was asking.

Obviously, there's nothing dishonest in what Amazon is doing, but I consider it a questionable business practice at the very least. I'd be very upset if I paid the normal discounted price for a book and later found that it had already been remaindered when I bought it. In the normal course of things, Amazon probably pays roughly $20 for a book that lists at $40. They discount it by 20% to 30%, leaving themselves $8 to $12 of gross margin on that book. But once that title is remaindered, they probably pay $3 or less per copy. If they still sell it at 20% to 30% off list price, they're cleaning up. I think that stinks.

* * * * *

This from Bo Leuf [bo@leuf.net]:

"The tracerts from both ISPs I dialed into showed that the trace was dying at the final AlterNet host before reaching pair, so it appears that AlterNet was having some kind of problem."

Some time ago I was doing tracert to various places in my research on good hosts, and later monitoring my own sites. When general traffic levels went up, Alternet nodes started going above 1000 ms and timing out. From where I sit, most routings to US sites seem to pass through between 3 and 6 AlterNet nodes located throught the US, and most showed problematic behaviour at one time or another.

I'm sure you're right, although I've never experienced this sort of problem before. pair Networks tech support tells me that they weren't experiencing any problems, and I believe them. What I don't understand is why my traffic to pair wasn't routed around the blockage at AlterNet. I mean, we're talking a major backbone segment here. I can understand why there might be problems for a few minutes, but my link to pair was cut for hours. I'd think AlterNet would have routed around the problem much faster than they did.

 


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Saturday, April 3, 1999

This weekend is devoted to doing my taxes, so I won't have much time to add stuff here. As happens every year at this time, people call for tax simplification and a flat tax. But they don't go far enough. When they talk about a "flat tax", what they really mean is a fixed percentage. If we must have taxes, which I do not concede, then surely the only fair way to do it is by charging a flat amount, or a per capita tax. Amount of income or ability to pay should not be a factor. If I go to the store to buy a loaf of bread or to a car dealer to buy a new car, it costs the same regardless of my income or ability to pay. (At least it does if you ignore food stamps and other obnoxious government give-aways. Can car-stamps be far behind?) My vote counts the same as the vote of someone who makes ten times my income or of someone who makes one tenth of my income. We should pay the same taxes, if any.

I'd say that a $10 annual per capita tax should be more than sufficient. That'd yield something like $3 billion per year to the federal government, which is much more than they really need or deserve, although a tiny percentage of what they get now. They could make up any shortfall required to pay social security and similar items by auctioning federal property. They do, after all, own nearly all of some western states. Just selling Nevada and Alaska to private investors would more than pay off their existing committments.

The responsibility for defense could be placed back in the hands of the States, where it belongs. Parenthetically, someone whose name escapes me once observed that while we had a Department of War we never lost a war, but that since we've had a Department of Defense we've never won one.

* * * * *

Looking at my web stats this morning, I saw something that really pisses me off. Something called "ExtractorPro" had retrieved more than 150 pages. My first thought (and hope) was that it was a search engine spider that I hadn't heard of before, but that turns out not to be the case. I searched HotBot for ExtractorPro, and found out that it's a spammers' tool that scans web sites and extracts email addresses from them. If only they could put spammers away for 40 years and fine them $480,000. Or behead them.

Fear of something like this was what originally motivated me to print reader mail without addresses. But I got so many requests from people who wanted to respond directly to posted mail that I decided to go ahead and start posting email addresses with the mail. Now it appears that that decision may cause you to get more spam in your inbox, and I apologize for that.

Which brings up something that's always annoyed me about FrontPage. When I enter an email address in FP Editor, it inserts it as plain text rather than as a link. If I put the cursor immediately following that address and press the space bar or enter key, FP Editor converts that plain text to a link. But it does so unintelligently. Many of the messages I receive include the return address in the form Real-Name [account@domain.com].

Pressing the space bar after that phony address converted the text to a live link. But although FP Editor is smart enough to understand that the ending square bracket is not part of the address, it's too stupid to realize that the beginning square bracket is also not part of the address. What I've been doing is editing the hyperlink to remove the extraneous bracket. At first, I thought that perhaps I should just not do that, leaving the first bracket in the address as a means to confuse the address-sucking programs.

But I don't think that'd help. I suspect they parse the plain text and make their own decisions about how to convert that text to email addresses. And I suspect that those programs do a better job of converting the text than FrontPage Editor does. Even worse, leaving the extra bracket in would cause no end of problems with people clicking on the link and sending email to non-existent addresses.

So what should I do? I don't have the time to provide a manual address lookup service for people who want to respond to mail posted by other readers. As always, I continue to honor requests from people who ask that their addresses not be posted, but I get very few such requests.

At least spam appears to be dying off. I don't know about everyone else, but I'm getting about a tenth the number of spam messages that I did a year or two ago. Part of that decrease, no doubt, is due to anti-spam measures taken by ISPs and others. But I think a lot of the decrease is due simply to would-be spammers beginning to understand that spam is not a very cost-effective way of doing business. Certainly, it costs very little to send a million spam messages. But if you get only a dozen responses to those million messages, even the cost of buying the mailing list starts to become a major issue. And almost no one responds to spam nowadays. Perhaps the problem is self-limiting.

* * * * *

This from Bruce Denman [bdenman@ftc-i.net]:

It is Friday night 11pm something. Cannot get to your site. Tracert gets to dca1.alternet.net (146.188.163.158) and times out. Let it go the full 30 hops and still no dice. I have included screen shot (attached jpg) of tracert in dos box if you need to stick something in somebodys face.

Assume you will get this sometime. sigh.

Bruce
bdenman@ftc-i.net
http://web.infoave.net/~bdenman

ps: weather is nice; tomorrow gonna have to mow weeds and clean out pool. Unfortunately UPS man brought pool chemicals today. Ugh. Bad timing. Now I have no excuse. <g>

Thanks for the screen shot. That's pretty much what I was seeing yesterday morning, but I thought they'd cleared the problem as of about 10:15 a.m. I've already informed pair Networks about what's going on. Not that there's a whole lot they can do about it, other than complain to AlterNet.

* * * * *

This from Frank McPherson [frank@fmcpherson.com]:

I think you posted something on your web site to the affect that the "authorities" ought to hunt down the person responsible for Melissa. They may have:

Frank McPherson, MCP
Microsoft MVP - Windows CE
www.fmcpherson.com
Windows CE Knowledge Center:
http://start.at/know_ce

Yes, it even hit the front page of the Winston-Salem Journal this morning. Now they're saying he could go to jail for a maximum of 40 years, which seems reasonable (if a little light) and be charged a $480,000 fine. I still think my idea of beheading him and posting his head on a pike would do more to discourage similar activities. If he's guilty, of course. And I think that may be impossible to prove.

 


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Sunday, April 4, 1999

Arrrrghhhh. FrontPage 98 has screwed me again. This morning, as usual, I fired up FrontPage to update the current Daynotes page. As usual, it displayed the root directory. I clicked the \rbt folder, then \daynotes, then the Modified Date column header to sort the current page to the top of the display. No joy. I then noticed that every single file had a date time stamp of 4/4/99 at 9:45 a.m. Checking the files in other folders showed the same thing. It was about 10:00 when I did this, and this was the first time I'd opened FrontPage today. So I asked Barbara if she'd been working in FrontPage. She said that she had, about 15 minutes earlier, but that all she'd done was fixed two typos on one of her pages and saved it.

That didn't sound like it could have caused the problem, but all I really wanted to do was fix the problem. Two problems, actually. First, the changed date/time stamps meant that when I published every single file would have to be published, all 1000+ and 10MB of them. I wanted to avoid that, but the second problem is even more important. I use the auto timestamp feature in FrontPage, and this change meant that every single file would now be showing a 4/4/99 timestamp. Ugh.

I frequently use an xcopy batch file to back up my working data from the server drive where it resides to a drive on another server, so I had a recent backup of the local copy of my web site. I did an xcopy restore to put yesterday's versions of the files back in the main working directory. So far, so good. All the timestamps were back where they should be.

Then I fired up FrontPage 98 to make today's changes. The first sign that all was not right was that the web took at least a full minute to load rather than the usual 10 or 15 seconds. When it finally came up, all the files had timestamps showing the current date/time. The only thing I can figure is that the change in daylight savings time caused this problem to occur. FrontPage insists on updating the timestamps, and I can't find anything that prevents it from doing so. I finally just gave in to the inevitable and ran a recalc on the links to make sure everything was internally consistent. So I guess my only option is to republish the entire site and have the timestamps at the top of the pages all show today's date. Geez.

* * * * *

This from someone who, for obvious reasons, wants to remain anonymous:

you rich people disgust me. trying to get out of paying your fair share. we have to take care of poor people and paying taxes is the way to do it. why dont you just shut up and pay your share.

You disgust me as well, although I don't consider myself rich by any means. If you want to support poor people with your own money voluntarily, please do so. Just don't force me at gunpoint to give up my money to support your perverted ideas. As despicable as a robber may be, he at least does his own dirty work. You and people like you advocate theft by proxy, which makes a self-employed robber look noble by comparison.

Anyone with eyes can see that Communism doesn't work in practice. Anyone with a brain understands that it is evil in concept as well. One common short-form definition of Communism is "from each according to his abilities and to each according to his needs." If the graduated income tax is not "from each according to his abilities," and the welfare state isn't "to each according to his needs," I don't know what is.

And why is it that such socialist nonsense is often spouted by people who don't know enough to capitalize the first words in their sentences, end interrogatory sentences with a question mark, or use apostrophes in contractions? I did, at least, correct your spelling errors.

And that's all I have to say to you or any other blind, brainless person on this subject. I need to do my taxes and I don't have time for this garbage.

* * * * *

This from Bruce Denman [bdenman@ftc-i.net]:

I just saw a reference to this: "Microsoft quietly releases a new version of IE 5."

See http://www.infinisource.com/new-ie5.html for more information.

Have verified my version is "old"; not sure what significance any of this means however.

bruce
bdenman@ftc-i.net
http://web.infoave.net/~bdenman

ps: glad to see pair and alternet got their stuff together again; you were "dead" most of yesterday again (afternoon/evening anyway).

I saw that article, but like you am not sure what the fixes are in the "new" version. I don't have time to mess with getting it right now, but I'll probably download it eventually. As far as AlterNet, I've not had any problems since those I reported a couple of days ago, but pair has posted information about connectivity problems they're having with UUNet. I've lost track of who owns who in the backbone business nowadays, and I don't even know if UUNet and AlterNet are the same company or competitors.

* * * * *

This from Bo Leuf [bo@leuf.net]:

Hmm, I noted your remark about the email address extractor that hit your pages. That could be the explanation for a marked increase in junk email the past two days directed to my com identity. I was kind of wondering about it, since much of it seems themed to computer and tech subjects.

A thought... Give spammers and virus creators this choice: spam/attack the "current enemies of the state" or "join the ground war in xxx" (replace with current hotspot of the week).

Sorry about that. Your alternative sentencing idea, though, is something worth considering. I notice in this morning's paper that the guy they accused of creating Melissa has pretty much admitted that he did it, but claims that he didn't mean to hurt anyone. Yeah, right.

I think the result of this public manhunt will have the unintended effect of helping the creators of viruses avoid being caught. For example, although I'd mentioned it in passing in the past, most people in this country were not aware that the telephone company keeps detailed records of local calls. Now that everyone knows that, virus creators will be unlikely to deliver the initial copy via their own dial up connection.

 

 

Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 by Robert Bruce Thompson. All Rights Reserved.