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Week of 15 January 2001

Latest Update: Friday, 05 July 2002 09:16
 

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 Monday, 15 January 2001

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I'm still getting used to running web access reports on Monday morning rather than Saturday morning. As usual, Pournelle is kicking my butt in terms of popularity. We did an average of about 2,500 page reads/day here, and he averages three times that. We had visitors from about 6,000 distinct IP addresses, and he did more than twice that. And my totals include Barbara's pages as well as my own. I'm never going to catch him, so I don't know why I even worry about it.

Speaking of Barbara's page, she has some photos up of our yard being dug up. I took most of the photos, but I'm so tired of the whole drain problem that I didn't even feel like putting them up here. She's off to the gym this morning. I have to clear some high priority stuff off my desk, including making the estimated tax payments and getting some corrections to O'Reilly before they start the second printing of PC Hardware in a Nutshell

There were actually amazingly few errors in the book. Mostly typos and similar stuff. Rather bizarrely, nearly all the typos that are in the printed version were correct in the original manuscript. The most serious example of that is that some of the photos and captions in the final chapter, which illustrates building a PC, somehow ended up being mixed up.

I see that I'm being ridiculed by Chris Ward-Johnson, a man whose own house has a gaping hole in the roof and who, incidentally, has no respect for copyright law, having without permission reproduced a copyrighted photo from this site on his own site. That's shocking, I think, particularly since this man makes his own living as a content provider, and has complained at length about such copyright violators as Napster.

I actually thought at first that he'd engaged only in deep-linking rather than an absolute copyright violation, because I noticed that when I put my cursor on that picture IE displayed a URL beginning with my site, which I assumed was a direct link to the picture itself. At that point, a cunning plan came immediately to mind. I'd rename that original image on my site and correct the link on my own page. Then I'd locate a large naked boob photo somewhere on the Internet (not a copyrighted one, of course), download it to my site, rename it to the same filename this egregious copyright violator was pointing to, and sit back to enjoy the results as Chris's page would now be displaying the Page 3 girl (or whatever).

As I was searching the Internet for an appropriate freely-distributable picture, I heard Barbara start laughing back in her office. When I walked back there, I found her looking at Chris's current post. She clicked on the small stolen picture, and it brought up my web page rather than a larger version of the image. So much for my cunning plan.

Well, I'd better get back to it. My to-do list is overflowing, as usual, and I really need to get at least a couple of items finished and off that list.

I always check my web page on the server after I publish. When I just did that, I noticed that the "Monday" header section was missing. Very strange. I don't think I deleted it, but I guess I must have. That'd be too strange a bug even for FrontPage 2000.

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Tuesday, 16 January 2001

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Very bad news this morning. Tom Syroid, who is a founding member of the Daynotes webring, was playing with his infant son Landon last night when an accident occurred. The full story is on Tom's journal page, starting with the 19:30 entry for yesterday and continuing with this morning's post, but to make a long story short, Landon's leg is badly broken. He'll be in the hospital for a couple of weeks, and then in a body cast for months. Tom is going through hell right now. Not only is his infant son badly hurt, but he feels responsible for the accident even though he's aware intellectually that he's not at fault.

I'm sure Tom and Leah would appreciate an email (tom@syroidmanor.com and leah@syroidmanor.com) or a card. The mailing address is: 

Tom & Leah Syroid
211 Hedley Street
Saskatoon, SK S7N 1Z9
Canada

I don't usually edit posts, but in this case I have done that. After talking with Brian Bilbrey, who has spoken with Tom, I've learned that the Syroid's finances are fine, and that they appreciate the thought originally expressed here but don't need money. In Canada, I learned, children are basically covered for 99% of medical expenses, so the only additional expenses will be incidental ones. Obviously, my first thought was that they'd have huge deductibles and so on to deal with, but thankfully that appears not to be the case.

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Wednesday, 17 January 2001

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Tom Syroid has posted an update about Landon's condition (see the 22:00 entry). Tom and Leah are exhausted and stressed-out, of course, but the important thing is that Landon is doing well overall. There's not a heck of a lot we can do to help, but with Brian Bilbrey leading the way, the members of the Daynotes Gang, our wives, and some of our readers are doing what they can to relieve at least some of the minor burdens from the Syroids so that they can concentrate on the important stuff. The crunch period will last for the next couple weeks, while Landon remains in the hospital. After that, he'll be returning home, although he will have to wear a body cast covering his hips and both legs for an indefinite time, but probably for several months. The woman are looking into the best way to get Landon some toys and other distractions to keep him occupied during his recuperation.

So, amongst all the other tasks I need to get done, I put renewing Barbara's domains (fritchman.com, fritchman.net, and fritchman.org) at the top of the list. The domain registrar we use, Joker.com, sent Barbara three emails back in December telling her that the domains expired in late February and that as of 4 January there'd be a "Renew" link on their web site. She forwarded those emails to me as soon as she got them, and because of their December date, they ended up being archived when I cleaned up my Outlook files. But I did remember them, and I wanted to take care of the renewal before I forgot about them.

So I go to the Joker.com web site and click on the Renew link, expecting to be prompted to enter the domain names I want to renew, from whence I'd be spirited to a secure server where I could provide my credit card information. But, no. Instead I see a screen prompting for my account name and password. What, they're worried that some random person might send them money for our domains? So I spent a few minutes looking through my archives for a message or file that contains that account information. No joy, so I click on the "forgotten password" link and they promise to email me the password. So I wait and wait, checking Barbara's inbox frequently, but the message never shows up there. Finally, figuring that they're just backed up and it might take a while for them to send the password, I return to my desk, where I find a message from Joker.com waiting in my inbox. Everything else goes to Barbara, but they send me the password. Very strange. I'm sure it's the result of me providing my address as another contact.

At this point, I have the password, so before doing anything else, I immediately open my secure master password spreadsheet and enter all the pertinent data. Once that's done, I go back over to Joker.com, intending to renew all three domains for at least a year and possibly several years. Decisions, decisions. Joker.com is in Europe, so they'll charge my credit card in Euros. Everything depends on how strong the Euro is against the dollar in future. We have an incoming administration that's friendlier to business than has been the case for the last eight years, a congress that's liable to end up deadlocked (which is a good thing), so I proceed on the assumption that the dollar will gain in strength against the Euro for the next few years. That means I can pay in advance now with relatively expensive Euros or wait a year and see what happens. My guess is that the dollar will buy more Euros a year from now, and the price of domain registrations isn't likely to be increasing in absolute terms, so I decide to renew for one year only.

But when I attempt to renew, Joker.com tells me that there are no renewals pending, noting parenthetically that it displays only renewals due in the next four weeks. Ours are due 27 February, so apparently I'm not allowed to renew them yet. Geez.

Believe it or not, the city crew showed up this morning to install our new sewer connection. We had resigned ourselves to waiting possibly several weeks, but the guy with the city sewer department really did a good job of getting us assigned priority status. We should have fully functional drains sometime later today.

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Thursday, 18 January 2001

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We have a working sewer line again. Last Friday, both our plumber and the city sewer guy recommended that, rather than tear out the concrete apron at the end of our driveway to replace the existing sewer line, we buy a new sewer connection. So we headed down to city hall Friday afternoon and bought a new sewer connection. It cost $925, and is flat rate. That is, they charge the same amount no matter how much work is involved. At the time, both the plumber and the city guy explained the advantages and drawbacks of both courses of action. Tearing up our concrete apron and replacing the existing drain would have fixed the problem immediately, but would have been very costly, both for the work involved then and for the replacement of the ripped-up portions of the driveway. Also, we'd have had a driveway entrance that was raw dirt (mud, more likely) until such time as the weather improved to the point where they could repour the concrete. 

Conversely, buying a new sewer connection would likely be the cheaper method, but how long it would take to get that done was unknown. Friday, the city guy told us that, although he'd do everything possible to expedite the new connection, they were currently running four to six weeks. That meant we'd have to live with slow (and possibly plugged) drains for the next month or more. As our plumber said, at $100 a pop for having the rooter folks come out, the cost of augering out the existing drain pending replacement could quickly offset the cost benefits of the new connection.

So we decided to go for the new connection, which is what both the plumber and city guy said they'd do if it were their home. We got down to city hall late Friday afternoon, and by the time I got the permit it was nearly 5:00 p.m. and too late to call the city department that actually does the work to get things scheduled. Monday was Martin Luther King day, so all city offices were closed. I called the city first thing Tuesday morning to schedule the installation. The lady there said she'd put a rush on it, so we were hopeful we might have to hold out only for a week or two.

Imagine our surprise yesterday morning, then, when heavy equipment started pulling up out front. These guys worked all day long, from about 8:30 a.m. until about 6:00 p.m., without so much as a lunch break. The main sewer line happened to be on the far side of the street from us, so they had to dig a trench. But first they had to use a humongous diamond-blade concrete saw first to cut through the street surface under the asphalt. Barbara has pictures of the whole project up on her page.

It's nice to be able to flush or take a shower or run the dishwasher or run a load of clothes without worrying about the sewer backing up. Since this problem started, I've been taking "submarine showers". Wet down, turn the water down to a bare trickle, soap up, and then turn on the water for about 30 seconds to rinse off. We've been doing about twenty tiny loads of laundry a week, and trying to co-ordinate stuff like running the dishwasher and flushing toilets--"wait, dear, you just took a shower. That means you can't flush the toilet for at least half an hour, so you'll just have to wait." That gets old real fast, and it's nice to be past it.

When does 24 hours equal a month? Why, when you order from Amazon, of course. For the latest in Amazonian outrages, see this Ed Foster Infoworld column. Apparently, when Amazon says, "usually ships in 24 hours" they're not promising anything at all. The item you order with the reasonable expectation that it will ship within 24 hours may in fact take a month or more to ship. And Amazon won't tell you that when you're ordering. Even worse, they charge your credit card when you place the order rather than when it ships. And, incredibly, once you place the order they won't let you cancel it! How long you have to wait for the product is a matter of no concern to Amazon. They've got your money, and they're not going to give it back. I've complained long and loud about Amazon.com in the past, so this is just the latest example. But I'll say it again. I don't do business with Amazon.com, and you shouldn't either. A company whose business practices are this shoddy richly deserves to die.

Speaking of on-line booksellers, like all authors I keep an eye on the sales ranking of my books. Any author who denies doing that is either a liar or doesn't have Internet access. The Amazon rankings are generally considered to be meaningless, but the Barnes & Noble rankings are a different story. The B&N ranks are cumulative ranks based on rolling six-month cumulative sales totals for both their on-line operation and their brick-and-mortar stores. So I was quite pleased when I checked the B&N rank of PC Hardware in a Nutshell last night.

As far as PC hardware titles, PCHIAN is in second place, behind the 12th edition of Scott Mueller's Upgrading and Repairing PCs. That's actually better than it sounds, though, because these are cumulative six-month rankings and URP has about 4.5 months of sales in during that period whereas PCHIAN has only about 3 months' sales counting toward the cumulative rank. I also did a search for all books at B&N by keyword "microcomputer". They list 5,138 titles, and PCHIAN is sitting at #12 on that list. And most of those ranked above PCHIAN had been available for the full six-month cycle, so it appears that PCHIAN is really doing better than #12 overall. So then I did a search for "nutshell" and found that PCHIAN is at #10, after eliminating one non-O'Reilly book with "nutshell" in its title. Incidentally, Outlook 2000 in a Nutshell, by Tom Syroid and Bo Leuf, also appears to be doing well. It sits at #14.

So, although we still don't have any official sales figures from O'Reilly, and probably won't for a while longer, there is at least cause to be optimistic.

The more I work with Windows 2000 Professional, the less I like it. One thing I value highly in an operating system is predictability. If I do something the same way I've done it in the past, the result should be the same. I'm sorry to say that that appears not to be the case with Windows 2000 Professional. It seems to do things all on its own, and I find that very aggravating. For example, my screensaver has stopped working. It worked yesterday, and I haven't done anything in the interim to cause any change. But the screen saver simply doesn't kick in any more. It's enabled. I even tried disabling it and then re-enabling it with no improvement. So I tried switching to a different screensaver, again with no effect. The screensaver has simply stopped working, on its own and for no apparent reason.

Similarly, I hate the new Mutating Menus, so I turned them off immediately when I installed Windows 2000 Professional. That was the first thing I did when the system started in Windows 2000 for the first time. For a while, they stayed disabled, but then one day Windows 2000 enabled them all on its own. So I disabled them again. For a few days, they stayed disabled, but they came back again. So I've disabled them for a third time. We'll see what happens.

Same thing with drive mappings. I have several network volumes mapped from thoth, my main workstation. Those that are mapped to a named share that corresponds to an actual drive volume (e.g. I have F: mapped to \\theodore\theodore_c) remain stable. Those mapped to an administrative share that corresponds to an actual drive volume (e.g. I have G: mapped to \\meepmeep\c$) also remain stable. But those that are mapped to a named share that corresponds to a folder on a shared volume (e.g. I have O: mapped to \\theodore\theodore_c\usr\thompson\ora) sometimes disappear for no reason.

Overall the problems I'm having with Windows 2000 are infrequent enough that they remain an aggravation rather than a showstopper, but I sure wish that Windows 2000 would stop doing things on its own initiative. I wish I could beat it about the head and shoulders, crying "No, no, you stupid operating system. When I tell you to do it this way, I really mean it. Stop changing things on the assumption that you know better than I how I want to work. Slap, slap, slap ..."

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Friday, 19 January 2001

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I've removed the SETI 3.03 client from my main system, again. I'm not 100% certain that the SETI client is the problem causing sporadic slowdowns, but it seems the most likely culprit. The SETI 2.04 client occupied 100% of the CPU (or nearly so) the entire time it ran, but it was very good at getting out of the way when a user process needed the CPU. It appears that SETI 3.03 isn't quite as, er, nice. 

I first noticed these random slowdowns soon after I installed the SETI 3.03 client. I'd be in Outlook and move a message to another folder and the move would take 10 seconds or so instead of occurring instantly. Or I'd double-click an email message to open it, and have to wait 10 or 15 seconds before it opened. Similar slowdowns occurred in Word and other applications. So I'd uninstall the SETI 3.03 client and try running without it for a day or two. No slowdowns. I'd re-install it and the slowdowns would start occurring again. I'd remove it again. No slowdowns. Put it back, and the slowdowns would reappear.

Yesterday I brought up Task Manager, displayed the Processes tab, and clicked on the CPU column header to sort by CPU utilization. Then, with SETI active and taking about 99% of the CPU, I fired off a process that I knew would hit the CPU big-time. When I tried doing that a few months ago with the SETI 2.04 client, the client instantly dropped from 99%+ CPU utilization to 0%, handing off the processor to the current task. When I did it yesterday, the SETI 3.03 client kept hogging the CPU for several seconds before yielding it. That could (and almost certainly does) account for the random slowdowns I've been experiencing. So the question is, does SETI know about this bug, if indeed it is a bug rather than designed-in behavior? If the latter, there's no excuse for it.

I also wonder if the SETI client is responsible for some of the other weirdities I reported yesterday, particularly the screensaver problem.

I think what offends me most about spam is that I don't like stupid people. I do my best to avoid them. I don't want to listen to them. That's why I watch very little television, for example. Spammers are by definition stupid, and they forcibly intrude their stupidity into my life. Spammers, being stupid, don't realize that spam never works. Even if a really bright spammer--a moron, say--eventually realizes that spam isn't working for him and gives up spamming, there is unfortunately a never-ending supply of other stupid people to take his place.

I think one good solution to spam is the one Agatha Christie proposed in Murder on the Orient Express. Imagine the police showing up at a murder scene. Dead on the floor is a spammer, with ten knives still embedded in his corpse. What are the cops going to do? Where will they start? There are literally millions of people scattered throughout the world who had a motive to kill this spammer, and the cops can't investigate all of them. And why would they bother, even if they could? The victim was, after all, only a spammer.

Better, of course, would be a change in the laws to make spammers outlaws in the original wolfshead sense of the word. An outlaw is, literally, outside the protection of the law. Anyone who encounters him can legally kill him, and no crime has been committed if he does so. In fact, the state could pay a bounty on spammers, as they used to do with crows when I was a boy. Bring in, say, the right hand of a spammer (or both his ears), and the state would pay you $100 or whatever. One could make a pretty good living at this, because there is certainly no shortage of spammers.

But we'd have to be careful about how we defined spam. I don't think that all unsolicited commercial email counts as spam. For example, I periodically get UCE from a guy who sells "estate pipes" (the kind you smoke, not the kind we just had installed for our sewer). Estate pipes are used pipes, usually older models, which are sold at a much lower price than current production models. So instead of buying a $500 or $1,000 current-production Dunhill pipe, I might buy a $150 used model that's 20 or 50 years old. (They're sterilized and refurbished, so it's not as disgusting as it sounds). Not only are they less expensive, but they're often better pipes. As a matter of fact, as I write these words, I'm smoking a 1969-model Dunhill that I bought used for $125 from another reseller.

Now, I'd never heard of this guy who's sending me UCE, so he apparently got my name from one of the pipe mailing lists or from another company that deals in pipes and from whom I'd bought in the past. But I don't mind getting UCE from him, because what he's selling is something that I might very well be interested in buying. And you can be sure that he's not sending his message to millions of people who have no interest in pipes. If I send him a remove request, I'm sure he'd actually just remove me from his mailing list, rather than using the remove request simply to verify that the address he'd used was a working address that he could sell to others. So this guy is using UCE intelligently, and I don't think that any reasonable person could call him a spammer.

Barbara wanted to use UCE to promote her research for authors business, but told me she was concerned that recipients would consider it spam. I told her the same thing. If you send UCE to a small, targeted list of recipients, you're not spamming. Spamming is sending a ridiculous "offer" to thousands or millions of people on a list you've purchased or compiled. With mailings like that, maybe 0.01% of the recipients even read the message, and maybe 0.01% of those will actually respond.

But emailing to a targeted list is a different story. So Barbara is sending ten personal messages a day to specific authors, simply to make them aware of the service she offers. She's probably getting a 100% read-rate, or something close to it, and about a 10% to 20% response rate. She was thrilled the other day, for example, when she received a nice email response from Piers Anthony. For some reason, people are always surprised when an author turns out to be a normal human being rather than some god-like inaccessible entity. I'm not sure why that is.

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Saturday, 20 January 2001

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Thanks to everyone who commented, publicly or privately, on my experiment yesterday with tongue-enabled web navigation, i.e. "lick here to read or post responses to this week's journal entries". Most of those who responded simply observed that it didn't seem to work, but one guy did say he got a thrill when he tried it. He needs to get a life.

I haven't been following the California electric power situation very closely, because it's been obvious for some time what was going to happen. Now that it has happened, the government and newspapers are complaining shrilly about the results, predictable as they were to anyone with even a room temperature IQ, calling this a "failure of deregulation". This isn't a failure of deregulation, of course. It's a failure of regulation.

California power companies are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and have instituted rolling blackouts, which can only become worse. Why? Because the price at which they must sell electricity is capped by regulation, but the cost at which they must buy it is unrestricted. So the state has now told the power companies that they are not permitted to shut off the power and must continue to sell it for less than they are paying for it. The fact that the power companies don't have enough power to meet demand and have no prospect of obtaining more using their (non-existent) credit counts for nothing in the government's eyes.

There's an easy short-term solution here. Simply remove the price caps and allow the power companies to charge back their customers retroactively to recoup the losses they've sustained due to government regulations forcing them to sell power below cost. All of a sudden, there'd be no shortage of power and no more blackouts. As for the longer term, get the hell out of the power companies' way and allow them to build and operate as many additional nuclear plants as they see the need for.

Both of those will be difficult politically, of course, especially the latter. California is chock-full of whacko environmentalists and know-nothing anti-nuclear activists, almost none of whom even know the difference between a neutron and a neutrino, but all of whom think they're entitled to an opinion.

The good news is that the Syroids are doing much better. They now have a rental car, which eases logistics considerably, and Landon is doing better than expected. Tom and Leah are still run off their feet, of course, but it looks like things are going to work out. There's still a long haul ahead of them. Landon will be in the hospital for another week or so, and then will have to wear a body cast for some months, but a year from now this will all be just a bad memory. We're all thinking about them.

 

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Sunday, 21 January 2001

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There was a movie listing last night that pretty much summed up how I feel about books versus movies. The movie was The Fountainhead, which was (loosely) based on the book of the same name by Ayn Rand. The book, of course, is a classic work of literature. It's about good versus evil, competence versus mediocrity, and honor versus expedience. It is the story of Howard Rourke, a character based on Rand's friend, architect Richard Neutra (and not, as is often assumed, Frank Lloyd Wright). The movie listing, in its entirety, was "An architect's buildings are altered to save money." Which pretty much sums up the difference between books and movies.

One of the wonderful things about the Web is the interesting things you stumble across while looking for other things. I found one of those interesting things last night. I have very little spare time now, and what time I do have I usually spend reading. I love working, and I doubt I'll ever retire. But the day may come when I back off work a bit and do some things I've always wanted to do. One of those is to build a good largish telescope, or, more likely, several telescopes.

I knew that Edmund Scientific had morphed years ago from company that supplied parts and equipment to hard-core amateur scientists to a company that sells mostly overpriced commercialized junk. When I was a teenager, Edmund's catalog was a treasure chest of stuff to drool over--military surplus stuff like aerial camera optics, all sorts of relays and other electrical/electronic components, diffraction gratings, etc. etc. Nowadays, it's mostly a junk catalog, chock full of trashy pacific rim garbage. One of the things they used to sell was telescope kits. And by that, I mean real kits. Mirror blanks, grit, tubes, spiders--all the stuff you needed to make your own telescope from raw materials. They don't do that any more, or at least if they do I couldn't find that kind of stuff in their catalog. Now they sell junky tiny refractors like you might find at Best Buy.

Nobody actually makes things any more, or so it seems. When I was a teenager, amateur radio operators made their own stuff. If you needed a transmitter or a receiver or an amplifier or an antenna, you went out and bought tubes and wire and capacitors and resistors and coils, and you built it yourself. Come to that, there was a good chance you actually made coils and some of the other components yourself. Nowadays, hams mostly buy off-the-shelf components. So I guess I expected the same to be true of telescope making. Fortunately, that turns out not to be the case. There's still a strong interest in home-built telescopes and a lot of very active amateurs who still build their own telescopes.

For now, I'm so busy that all I can do is think about doing it at some future time. But I am thinking about it. I was surprised to find just how inexpensive it can be to build a serious telescope. Kits comprising a pyrex mirror blank, plate glass tool, pitch, and assorted grits are reasonably priced. Even better, diamond-generated mirror blanks are available. That means that the mirror and tool are already ground to a spherical curve of whatever focal length you specify, which eliminates the scut work of rough grinding. All I'd need do would be the finish work of polishing and parabolizing, which is the critical part of making a superb mirror.

My initial inclination was to build a largish scope as my first project--something in the 20" to 24" range. But I've about decided that that's probably biting off more than I should attempt for an initial project. To give you an idea of how long it's been since I last ground a mirror, I kept seeing references last night to a "Dobsonian" mount, and I had no idea what that was. And, mirabile dictu, one no longer uses rouge for polishing.

So, all things considered, it probably makes sense to start with a medium scope, say something in the 10" to 14" range. I'm debating focal length, but I think I'm inclined to go with f/4.5 to f/5. That would keep things reasonably easy, as well as keeping the tube short enough to fit in one of our Troopers. And a 10" to 14" RFT is nothing to sneeze at. Or perhaps I should start smaller still, say an 8" f/8, which'd be a decent small planetary scope, quick and inexpensive to build. We'd outgrow that one pretty quickly, though. I suppose we could regard it as a starter project and give it to some deserving kid once we'd built a larger one.

I mentioned the idea to Barbara, who loves to build things, and she thinks it's an excellent idea.

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