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Week of 29 January 2001

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Monday, 29 January 2001

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I heard a rumor that the Super Bowl was on yesterday. I can say with pride that not only do I not know who won, I don't even know which teams played. And what's really amazing is that after doing my morning round of web site visits, including many of the Daynotes Gang, I *still* don't know who won or who played. Well, I do know from reading John Dominik's page that a team called the Vikings apparently wasn't involved.

Oh, no! Barbara just ruined it by telling me that she'd seen the sports page and that Baltimore won 37 to something or other. Let's see, I think field goals count for two points and free throws for one, so that must mean Baltimore scored 18 field goals and a free throw. Or something like that. To more-or-less quote Sherlock Holmes, "Now that I know it, I shall do my best to forget it."

From this article on The Register, it appears that Microsoft's response to their recent DNS disaster has been to outsource their DNS to a company that runs, er, Linux. Well, it's not entirely clear which OS the outsourcing company is running, so perhaps it's not Linux, but it's certainly not Windows. Perhaps even Microsoft is acknowledging what everyone else has said all along. Running Internet infrastructure components like web servers and DNS servers on Microsoft platforms is a sucker bet.

J. H. Ricketson has an interesting post about spy-ware. After running GRC's OptOut last week, which declares his system free of spy-ware, JH ran another utility the other day and found nine instances of spy-ware installed on his system. I downloaded and ran that utility, which declared my system clean. Of course, that assumes that the utility itself is on the up-and-up, and these days there's no telling.

Thanks to several readers who've sent me links to this John Gilmore essay, entitled What's Wrong with Content Protection? I'd actually read it the day it came out, thanks to someone who forwarded me a copy via email. But if you haven't read it it's worth your time to do so. All of this content-protection garbage is at the instigation of the record companies and movie companies, who've had a monopoly for so long standing between content producers and consumers that they think they have a god-given right to take a majority cut of the entertainment pie. 

As I said to Barbara yesterday, the solution to this problem is ultimately a boycott of the products these SOBs produce. It's certainly a good idea to complain loud and long to hardware makers, your congressman, and anyone else who will listen, but the real solution is to hurt these people where it counts, in their wallets.

The way to do that is to boycott their products. Stop going to the movies. Stop buying audio CDs and stop buying or renting DVDs and tapes. If you subscribe to a premium cable TV service like HBO, drop your subscription. If an artist you like has his own web site, buy directly from the artist. Barbara, for example, buys much of her music directly from the web sites of people like Lorena McKennitt. But, you say, many popular recording artists don't have their own web sites or don't sell their music directly. So what? There are many that do, although you may never have heard of them, and many of them are as good or better than the artists hyped by the record companies. 

One suggestion I've heard frequently is make an illegal copy of an audio CD and then send money directly to the artist. Obviously, I can't advocate that because it's illegal. But morally I have no problem with someone who makes a CD-R copy of the latest Tom Petty album and then puts a $5 bill in an envelope and mails it directly to Petty. That's probably five or ten times as much money as he'd make if you bought the CD legally, and I'd much rather pay Tom directly than pay the record companies. If enough people do that, Petty's next album (or the one after that) may be sold directly from his web site, bypassing the record company entirely. Wouldn't that be a shame?

Obviously, doing that is a bit harder with films because it's impractical to send money to everyone involved in the project. But one could still note which films are made by independent production companies and mail the cash or check to them.

It's important to realize that both parts are necessary. Many people participate in the first part, stealing the content, but very few carry through by sending money to the content producer. If everyone simply steals content, there will eventually be no reason for content producers to continue producing it, so theft without reimbursement is simply killing the goose. But paying voluntarily for what you take will help free the content producers from the parasites that feed on them. 

So, the next time you knock off a copy of a friend's audio CD, take the time to track down a mailing address for the artists (a real address, not one that's c/o the record company). Put a $5 or $10 bill in an envelope, and drop it in the mail to them. Or write them a check. Consider adding a short note explaining what you're doing and why. Artists need to know that their fans appreciate them although they despise the record companies. Before long, you'll find a lot of popular artists doing "Internet-only" products. It's starting to happen now, and can only accelerate as time passes. You can help it happen.

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Tuesday, 30 January 2001

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I got a rather strange email yesterday with a 32 KB file attachment and a subject line that cried out "virus!" My copy of Outlook is locked up pretty tight against such things, but I decided that since it'd been some months since I ran a virus scan on my system I'd better do so. Chris Ward-Johnson (AKA Dr. Keyboard) thinks very highly of the InoculateIT virus checker, which is available in a free Personal Edition. I downloaded that, installed it, and ran it on my main system. InoculateIT found only two viruses on my system. One is a Word document in a ZIP file that Que sent me back years ago when I was writing for them. I knew about that one and kept it mainly for historical interest. The other virus was a copy of WordMacro/Colors:BN in a Word document template file contained in a "fully monty" CD backup that a friend had sent me and I'd recently copied up to my hard drive for safekeeping. I did notify him about that one, but there's no danger of either of the viruses running on my system.

I suppose I'll run InoculateIT on my other systems just for the heck of it, but I've never had any virus problems to speak of. I think the virus problem has been hyped all out of proportion by the antivirus companies, and I think people who routinely run a virus checker in background mode on their systems are making a big mistake. Such background virus scanning software has probably cost more time and aggravation than any virus. So I recommend that people do not routinely run such virus checkers, instead doing a manual check periodically or whenever something strange happens.

The morning paper says that PBS Mystery! is doomed, and will probably disappear in 2002. The author of that article thinks very highly of the Prime Suspect series, which in our opinion was one of the poorer series that Mystery! ran. He damns several of the really good series with faint praise, calling Jeremy Brett's superb Sherlock Holmes, Leo McKern's Horace Rumpole, and Roy Marsden's Adam Dalgliesh "middle-brow". He thinks John Thaw's Inspector Morse was a cut above those three, but he doesn't even mention David Suchet's Poirot or Derek Jacobi's Cadfael. Perhaps he watched only the very late Holmes episodes. Until near the end, the episodes hewed very closely to Doyle's original text, and were superb. The very late episodes were butchered by the screenwriters and were made when Brett was almost literally on his deathbed and barely able to stand. But that certainly doesn't explain the author's lack of taste otherwise.

So Mystery! is destined for the dustbin. What a pity.

Screwed by FrontPage again. Barbara got email this morning from a reader who pointed out that the link to one of her Fritchman genealogy pages, HansAdam.html, was broken. The file was there, but as hansadam.html (all lower case). We maintain our web sites with FrontPage, which treats case cavalierly, and publish them to our server at pair Networks, which runs BSD and is therefore of course case-sensitive. According to Microsoft, "Windows NT is not case-sensitive but preserves case". Yeah, right.

So I went in to fix the link. The problem was that the reader hadn't specified which page the broken link was on. So I ran a FrontPage report of broken links. Silly me. FrontPage didn't find the broken link, because as far as it's concerned the filenames HansAdam.html and hansadam.html are identical. So I used the brute force method. I used FrontPage to change the filename on disk from "hansadam.html" to "xhansadam.html". That forced an update of the links on all pages that pointed to that file. I then changed the filename "xhansadam.html" back to "hansadam.html" which forced another update, this time to the correct all lower-case file name. Geez.

Every week or two I get email from one or another reader complaining that I've ignored his question on one of the messageboards. That may be for one of three reasons: 

  • I didn't see the post. I try to keep a close eye on the boards, but there are times when one slips by me.
  • I didn't know the answer to the question, so I didn't respond, hoping that another reader would know and post the answer.
  • I knew the answer to the question but an accurate response would have required me to write a long answer, and I simply didn't have time to do that.

Also, please don't send me private messages using the message facility of the messageboards. The only indicator that I have a message waiting is a small icon that I usually fail to see, and which is cleared every time I mark all messages read. By the time I notice the icon or remember to check for private messages, two weeks or more may have passed. If you want to get my attention, go ahead and post your comments to the message board.

I just finished W. E. B. Griffin's latest in his Brotherhood of War series, Special Ops. Not as good as most of his others, I think. Still, Griffin amazes me with the amount of text he churns out, particularly since he uses a typewriter. Although Griffin doesn't make a great many technical blunders, some of those he does make are pretty funny. For example, although this book is set in 1965, he has one of his characters putting about $10 worth of gasoline into her Jaguar sports car. When I read that, I started laughing and Barbara looked over at me. I told her "1965 -- filling Jaguar with gasoline -- $10 worth!" and she still didn't get it.

When I started driving in 1969, gasoline had actually increased a bit in price over the preceding few years. But even then, I paid something like 18.9 cents a gallon for regular, and when there was a price war gasoline often dropped to 17.9, 16.9, or even 15.9 cents a gallon. My friend, who had a Corvette, paid 21.9 cents a gallon for Sunoco 260 premium. So, in 1965, to have spent $10 filling up, this woman must have put 50 or 60 gallons (call it 200 litres) of gasoline into that Jaguar.

The reason I started laughing was that I thought back to when my friend David Silvis (who's now an ER doc) was working in a gas station. This was back in the days when full-serve was common. A VW bug pulled up to the pumps and David went out to fill the guy's tank. The filler cap on a VW bug was in the front luggage compartment (what would have been the engine compartment in most cars), so David lifted the hood, removed the gas cap, and started the pump running. While the tank was filling, David washed the guy's windows and so on. When he came back to the front of the car, the pump was still running, and David was horrified to see that the automatic shutoff had malfunctioned and there was quite a bit of gasoline sloshing around in the front compartment. 

David immediately shut the pump off, of course, and was trying to figure out how to tell the guy what had happened. But the guy was in a hurry to get on his way and wouldn't give David time to explain. He just wanted to know how much he owed for the gasoline, so David told him what the pump read. The guy said something like, "Wow. I must have really been running on empty. That's the most it's ever taken", paid David, and drove away. David stood there watching until the guy was out of sight, probably expecting to see a large mushroom cloud.

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Wednesday, 31 January 2001

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Hmm. I'm told that the difficulty of grinding, polishing, and figuring a mirror increases as the cube of its radius. That is, a 12" mirror has twice the radius of a 6" mirror, and is therefore eight times harder to complete. Some people tell me that the folks who claim the cube are optimists, and that it's actually the fourth power. That'd make a 12" mirror sixteen times harder to complete than a 6" mirror. Even worse, the 24" mirror I eventually hope to build will be something between 64 and 256 times harder to complete than a 6" mirror. Gulp.

Interesting stuff in the paper this morning:

Amazon lays of 1,300 employees and has a fourth-quarter loss of a half billion dollars. Good. Couldn't happen to a more deserving company. The business plan Amazon is using used to be a joke, but no longer. Their business plan is to lose money on every sale but make it up in volume. So far, they've lost a cumulative total of something like three billion dollars. Is this any way to run a business?

Forsyth County may soon join the ranks of those using automated cameras to photograph and fine traffic violators. This is horrifying in at least two respects. First, it's not the government itself that will be doing this. They will contract out to the highest bidder, who will install the cameras and collect the fines. The city and the private contractor split the fines about half-and-half. Give me a break. Second, what about some pretty important legal concepts like chain of custody for evidence (there is none) and innocent until proven guilty? If your car is spotted running a red light, you are legally obligated to pay the fine. But what if it wasn't you driving? Well, you have to prove that you're innocent. We've moved to a new legal concept here: guilty until proven innocent. Tom Jefferson is spinning in his grave.

A 28-year old teacher at a local school is in jail today, charged with having sex with a student, aged 17. The facts are not in question. Both parties admit to the activity, and both say that it was fully consensual. In North Carolina, a 17-year-old is rightly presumed competent to consent, and until two years ago no crime would have been committed under these circumstances. This man is now charged with a felony and can expect to be imprisoned for about four years per count, all because of a special law passed a couple of years ago that made it a felony for a teacher to have sex with a student. This man won't have many defenders, but I'm one of them. What a man, 28, and a woman, 17, choose to do privately is their own business, and certainly not a matter for the law. Should he have been fired? Yes, certainly. Implicit (if indeed not explicit) in his contract was his agreement not to diddle the students. Should he go to prison as a sex offender? Absolutely not.

Barbara forwarded me the URL for this site, which describes how to make a proper English cup of tea. That's kind of how I do it, but with some simplifications as follows: (a) fill Braun coffee maker with 10 cups water, (b) rip off the paper covers and string from three Twinings Earl Grey tea bags, (c) toss tea bag portion only into basket of coffee maker, (d) turn on coffee maker and wait until it stops burbling, (e) remove pot from maker, add sugar, and drink tea. I know all my Brit friends are shuddering as they read this, but it's just another example of my tendency to keep food preparation as simple as possible so that I can concentrate on important things. See also my recipes for an appetizer and for a main course.

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Thursday, 1 February 2001

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Working on chapter outlines and so on for the new edition. Otherwise, not much interesting going on.

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Friday, 2 February 2001

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My friend Jim Wilson came over yesterday to look at our detaching gutters. He was a contractor for many years before his emphasis shifted mostly to his blacksmithing business. I was pleased to learn that it wasn't just my native cowardice that made me decide not to attempt to repair the gutter myself. Jim took a look at it and said he wouldn't risk it either. He suggested contacting a guttering company, which has the scaffolding and so on required to do the job safely.

Well, here's a surprise. According to Intel, the 815E chipset does not support dual processors. I've checked several of the technical documents, including the 815E design guide, and they make no mention of support for dual processors. So I was surprised to say the least when I saw this article on Tom's Hardware, which describes their testing of a dual-CPU 815E-based motherboard. I mailed one of my contacts in Intel's motherboard department, but he's on vacation. I can only conclude that the 815E does in fact support dual processors, but not officially.

Thanks to everyone who emailed me to say that my TTG message board had been defaced. The perpetrator of this foul deed is Greg Lincoln, upon whose system the message board runs, and who has a strange sense of humor.

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Saturday, 3 February 2001

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Barbara was horrified when she opened our natural gas bill yesterday. It was for about $450, which was about three times the amount it had been the previous month. For us, that's only an annoyance. But what must bills that high mean for elderly people on fixed incomes? Many of them must now be faced with the choice of staying warm or eating. And what must it be like in parts of the country that are much colder than North Carolina? Fortunately, the cold weather has moderated somewhat around here, so next month's bill should be more reasonable, assuming the warmer weather persists.

I really must do something about getting a local SMTP server up and running. Barbara sent me mail yesterday at 10:22 a.m. It arrived at 5:08 p.m., having been stuck all that time in Roadrunner's SMTP server. Overall, I've been pleased with Roadrunner. With minor exceptions, they've kept IP connectivity up for the entire six months or so that we've been using their service. There've been a few outages, but they've been of short duration, anything from a few minutes to a couple of hours. But their SMTP and POP servers (and, to a lesser extent, their DNS servers) have had some major problems during that time. The POP server problems don't have much impact on us, because our major POP accounts are on the server at pair Networks. The only reason I'm even aware of the POP server outages is that we have secondary accounts on Roadrunner servers. So when their POP servers go down for eight hours or two days, it's only a minor inconvenience. But I do need to get a local SMTP server running here. If I also run a local DNS server, the only thing we'd be using Roadrunner for is IP connectivity, which they seem pretty good at providing.

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Sunday, 4 February 2001

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The price of natural gas isn't quite as bad as I thought. As it turns out, they made a billing error. Barbara called Piedmont Natural Gas yesterday to complain about our $450 gas bill for last month. Our preceding month's bill had been for $112, and both Barbara's parents and sister had gotten bills about 5/8 higher this month than last. That should have put our gas bill at about $182, which is probably reasonable given the cold weather and the increased price of natural gas. The woman at PNG had Barbara go out and read the meter and give her the numbers. She's going to generate a replacement bill for us. According to her, the guy must've misread the meter.

Now, maybe it's just because I'm a computer guy, but it seems to me that it'd be reasonable for PNG's mainframe to do a little range checking while it's running bills. After all, they have a history on each house (30 years in our case) and they know more or less what the effects of weather should be on gas consumption. So when their mainframe starts to generate our bill at $450, how hard would it be to flag that as a probable error based on historical usage, the present price of gas, and the present weather conditions? I mean, they already put the heating degree days on the bill, so most of the work is already done. And it would probably prevent some deaths from heart failure among elderly people who unsuspectingly open such mistaken bills.

What they should have done was sent out a guy to re-read the meter, or at the least phoned us to ask if we'd installed a Bessemer Converter or something. Anyway, thanks to Barbara we should be getting a revised bill.

The collapse of banner ads as a revenue source for web sites is resulting in webmasters taking some desperate actions. I happened to notice yesterday on Ars Technica that they're developing new guidelines for the use of their forums. One of those guidelines, flagged as one of two "very important things", says that one of the conditions of using the forum is that you agree

"To not use any tools or methods to prevent the proper and full display of advertisements on the OpenForum (with the exception of completely text-based browsers)." 

In the discussion of the new rules, Caesar, one of the webmasters notes that,

"As far as I am concerned, using ad blockers is immoral, and is tantamount to stealing." 

That seemed to me to be a pretty radical interpretation, so I mailed him, saying, 

"So I guess when you tape something on your VCR you never fast-forward through the commercials, huh?" 

To which he responded, 

"Hmm, remind me again, are television ads paid on a per-view basis, like 'net ads? Is there a 1:1 relationship between actual viewers and the revenue brought in from an ad? 

Sorry, if you don't like the rules, just don't participate. 

Oh, and to answer your question, no."

Which misses the point entirely in every respect, legally, ethically, and practically. One-to-one correspondence has nothing to do with the issue. Ars Technica provides content for free viewing by all comers in the hope that people who view that content will also view the ads embedded in that content. A commercial television network provides content for free viewing by all comers in the hope that people who view that content will also view the ads embedded in that content. It is no more stealing to use an ad blocker when viewing a web site than it is stealing to record a program on your VCR and fast-forward through the commercials while viewing that program. 

The real problem, of course, is that banner ads simply don't work very well. Advertisers are realizing that money spent on banner ads is money wasted. The number of web sites attempting to cash in on banner ad revenue ballooned while at the same time the revenue pie began shrinking. Click-through rates have dropped to a level that's fast approaching zero. That has resulted in a vicious circle of decreasing ad rates and fewer available paid placements. Most sites that depend on banner ads to support them are doomed to fail. It's happening already on the game sites, and you can expect to see the blood bath extend to other types of advertising-supported sites as well.

The ultimate answer isn't trying to force people to view banner ads. The answer is to get content consumers to pay content providers directly. Alas, nearly five years after DEC announced MilliCent, we still have no micromoney mechanism in place, a state of affairs for which I largely blame Microsoft. If we did have a workable micro-money mechanism available, high-quality web sites like Ars Technica wouldn't be forced to scrounge for pennies from web advertisers.  Ars has thousands, probably tens of thousands, of readers who would be happy to pay a penny or a dime per page, or a few bucks a month, or whatever. But until we have such a mechanism available, Ars and web sites like it will be forced to depend on the increasingly undependable web advertisers. That's a shame.

I asked Caesar to comment on what I'd written. He replied, "FYI, the stipulation about not using ad blockers has been in the User Agreement for quite some time. It's not part of the new updates." He also noted that he disagreed with my opinion, but had no other corrections of a factual nature.

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