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Week of 12 February 2001

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Monday, 12 February 2001

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Well, for once the weather forecasters were right, more or less. We woke up this morning to snow on the ground, although it didn't get cold enough for the snow to stick to the streets, driveways, and other paved areas. It's about 32F (0C) as I write this, and likely to warm up as the day goes on, so our "winter storm emergency" looks likely to pass without causing many problems. Even the local schools, which ordinarily cancel classes when snow is even predicted, are operating on a two hour delay. So much for the great winter storm of 2001.

Chris and Wendy Ward-Johnson (AKA Dr. Keyboard and Mrs. Keyboard) are back from vacation and have their web sites back up again. They were forced to take the sites down while they were away because Wendy was receiving telephone death threats from a deranged woman who was convinced that Wendy had stolen her husband. All that seems to be resolved now, thank goodness. Wendy called Barbara last weekend. At first, Barbara mistook Wendy for our friend Alison Smith who, like Wendy, is from Northern England. That was the first time Barbara and I had actually spoken with Chris and Wendy. For some reason their British accents came as a surprise, I guess because their accents are much less apparent in their emails to me.

My agent and O'Reilly are still in the process of getting the contract finalized for the next edition of PC/Nutshell, but that doesn't mean I'm not working on it already. I don't have much choice. There's so much work involved that we'll be lucky to have the next edition out this calendar year as it is. And of course I have many other irons in the fire. Some of which I'd better get back to working on.

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Tuesday, 13 February 2001

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Most of the snow is gone, melted away by the intermittent cold drizzle that fell most of yesterday. Highs are to be in the mid-40s (~7C) today, with the 70s returning by the weekend. The dogs enjoyed the snow, although Malcolm's pleasure was tempered by his having to be on a leash. As Barbara says, it'll be a while before we trust Malcolm off-leash again.

It all started Sunday when we had all three dogs off-leash out in the front yard. We were playing toss the tennis ball. That's the game where I throw the tennis ball as far as I can, the dogs chase it, and then come back without the tennis ball. They then watch me while I walk over to retrieve the tennis ball and throw it for them again. I get lots of exercise, and they enjoy watching me fetch. If the pleasure of that pales, they'll get the ball, carry it to the nearest driveway, and drop it, watching it roll down into the backyard and waiting for me to retrieve it from there.

At any rate, as we were playing ball with the guys, the teenage punk who lives diagonally across the street brought their dog out on leash and started walking it down the street. All three of our dogs ran over to see that dog, who visits our yard frequently. They are particularly enamored of this bitch because she is not neutered and her owners, incredibly, have always allowed her to roam free while she is in heat, with predictable results. We managed to get Kerry and Duncan under control and back into the house, but Malcolm was frolicking along beside the bitch as her owner walked her down the street. We didn't bother to call out to him to ask him to stand still for a moment because we knew it'd be pointless. As Barbara said, he probably decided to walk his dog only after he noticed we were playing with ours loose in our front yard.

So off Malcolm went with me in slow pursuit. I didn't bother running after him, first because I avoid running at all costs, but second because he'd just have run away from me and there's no hope of me catching a Border Collie who doesn't want to be caught. I kept trying to lure Malcolm with a treat, which usually works. This time, though, he'd let me get within a few feet of him and then he'd take off and run a few yards farther away from me. We soon passed the punk and his dog, and the catch-me-if-you-can continued for several more blocks. I finally abandoned the pursuit and returned to the house, meeting Barbara in the street about half way home. I told her we needed to get rid of Malcolm. If there's one thing I can't abide, it's a disobedient dog, and particularly one that makes the dog equivalent of "nyah, nyah" sounds each time he trots away from me.

We returned home and, with memories of Duncan as a pup fresh in my mind, I got out my 4X4 and drove off in search of Malcolm. I cruised around the neighborhood checking out the likely spots, and finally found Malcolm only half a block from home, frolicking along with some people who were out for a walk with their children, who were riding bikes. One thing I will say for Malcolm is that he sticks close to home. When Duncan was Malcolm's age and got loose, he'd disappear over the horizon. But, just as had always been the case with Duncan, the chance to go for a ride was too tempting for Malcolm to pass up. I opened the back door of my truck, he jumped in, and we drove home. He knew he was in trouble, but he had a big pup grin on his face regardless. I didn't have the heart to yell at him, but it'll be a long while before we let him off-leash again.

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Wednesday, 14 February 2001

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As usual, Tom's Hardware misses the point. The article, entitled "Tuning instead of disposing: PCs with Socket 5" starts with the bizarre assumption that a years-old Socket 5 Pentium/75 system is worth upgrading. Dr. Pabst ends up spending $230 on an AMD processor, a PowerLeap Socket 5 to Socket 7 adapter, and a 32 MB EDO SIMM. Apparently, Tom is unfamiliar with the phrase "throwing good money after bad". What he ends up with is a system that is only marginally faster than the original Pentium/75, which is to say pathetically slow.

What could he have done better with the same money? How about discarding the old motherboard, processor and memory? He could buy an decent quality inexpensive modern Socket 370 AT form factor motherboard (say a Giga-Byte GA-6VA7+) for perhaps $85. A Celeron to fit it for another $85. And a 128 MB PC133 SDRAM DIMM with the $60 he had left. What he'd end up with would be (with the exception of the video, disk drives and other peripherals) the core of a modern PC, with speed nearly indistinguishable from a new mainstream system. It would also have stuff like USB ports and a modern BIOS.

I've seen plenty of moronic upgrades like this made by people who didn't know any better, but to have someone like Tom Pabst actually put such a project on his web site flabbergasts me.

I've been harping for years now about the deficiencies of advertising as a revenue model for web sites, and I've been happy to see more and more confirmations that what I've said all along is indeed true. The latest of those is the Letter from the Editor this week on Byte.com. Reading between the lines, it's pretty obvious that even Byte.com is struggling to make ends meet on advertising revenue alone. A lot of people are now saying that we're seeing the shakeout in ad-supported web sites. They're wrong. What we're seeing right now is just the cracks beginning to appear on the face of the dam. I expect that within the next six months to a year, we'll see a complete collapse in ad-supported web sites, to the extent that not one in ten will survive and even those that do will be struggling to meet payrolls.

I don't expect Byte.com to be one of the survivors, either. Byte.com is a pale shadow of what Byte Magazine once was. The main thing Byte.com has going for it right now--some would say the only thing--is Jerry Pournelle's Chaos Manor column. That column was the main draw of the paper Byte, and remains the main draw of the electronic version. But Pournelle, as important as he was and is to the success of Byte, cannot carry Byte by himself. What's missing from Byte.com is the depth of coverage that typified the printed version and the incisive commentary on a broad range of technologies. 

Pournelle has frequently written about the differences between writing for Byte.com now versus writing for Byte Magazine back when it flourished as a paper publication. Then, he had a support staff--technical editors, people to do research and fact checking for him, people to deal with manufacturers, and so on. Now, he has me and a few other friends who do a quick "sanity check" on his column before he submits it. The miracle is that Pournelle continues to turn out good, interesting columns while operating under that handicap.

In combat units, the military tries to optimize teeth-to-tail ratio. When that ratio shifts too much toward tail--logistics and other support functions--one ends up with a well-supported unit that has limited combat power because it simply has too few teeth. So the temptation is always to maximize teeth by handing rifles to the cooks and company clerks and putting them in the line. But that doesn't work well, either, because although such a unit has immense firepower in the short term, it has no stamina. If a combat unit is to continue functioning for the long run, soldiers must be fed and their injuries treated. Ammunition, fuel, and other consumables must be resupplied, and so on. All of those are services provided by the tail. The old saying is that amateurs worry about tactics and professionals worry about logistics, which is just another way of saying that ultimately tail is just as important as teeth.

And Byte.com as it is constituted now is essentially all teeth and no tail. That was really their only option given the current climate. With the limited funds available from advertising, Byte.com had no choice but to concentrate those funds on teeth--Pournelle's column and other content. Without that, there's no reason for readers to visit the Byte.com site. But this teeth-centric approach has the same drawbacks here that it does in military operations. Nothing backing up the guys in the front line. And without that backup, Byte has no option but to continue producing only a superficial facsimile of the product it produced in its glory days.

But buying tail takes money, and advertising revenue simply won't suffice. I doubt that it would have been sufficient even in the days when advertisers were throwing boatloads of money at banner ads, and in the current Spartan web advertising climate there's simply no way that ad revenue can sustain an ongoing operation at the level Byte.com needs to survive, let alone to thrive. In the absence of a micro-money infrastructure, I suspect that Byte.com will have no alternative but to begin charging readers a subscription to access its content. Whether or not they can make a go of that is the question. I suspect they can't, but I'd love to be proven wrong.

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Thursday, 15 February 2001

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I just ran across an obnoxious business practice yesterday that I'd never heard of before, although I'm sure many of my readers are familiar with it. It's called Minimum Advertised Price (MAP), and it's basically just what it says. A manufacturer decides what is the lowest price it will allow its authorized dealers to advertise for a product and any dealer who violates that policy by advertising a lower price is punished. 

The dealer is allowed to sell the product for less than MAP, mind you, they're just not allowed to advertise it for less than MAP. If they do, the manufacturer doesn't pay them co-op advertising money, and co-op ad reimbursements can make up a significant part of the total bottom line for many resellers. In other words, having co-op funds withheld can mean the difference between turning a profit and showing a loss. Obviously, the threat of withholding co-op funds is a huge club that manufacturers hold over the heads of their resellers. 

And note that MAP doesn't only apply to advertising that is paid in part by co-op funds. It applies to all advertising done by a reseller, including advertising paid for entirely by the reseller. MAP is also in effect for prices shown on a retailer's web site, although some manufacturers are "generous" enough to allow reseller web sites that require an individual username/password for access to show the actual selling prices.

The manufacturers are treading a fine line here with the FTC. The courts ruled many years ago that manufacturers weren't allowed to set minimum selling prices for their products, so manufacturers now use this nasty little circumvention. In theory, that skirts the law, because resellers are still free to charge whatever they wish for the product. In practice, MAP programs act in restraint of trade and to the detriment of consumers because consumers cannot easily find the actual selling price of a product, let alone compare actual selling prices among various resellers.

This all started when I was thinking about what accessories I wanted to buy for our new telescope. I definitely want a Barlow lens. Barlow lenses come in various powers--1.5X, 2X, 2.5X, 5X, etc.--which modify the characteristics of oculars (eyepieces). So rather than buying many oculars, one can buy half as many oculars and one Barlow lens, which can be used with any of the oculars, in effect doubling the number of eyepieces (and therefore magnifications) available.

When I was involved in astronomy 30+ years ago, Barlow lenses had a horrible reputation because they were not very good optically. That's no longer the case. It's possible now to buy multi-element, apochromatic, fully multicoated Barlows that not only do not degrade the optical performance of decent oculars, but in fact can improve it in many respects. But, as with most things, there are cheap/poor Barlows and expensive/good Barlows available. Buying a $25 Barlow would be a mistake, so I'd about decided to buy a high-end Barlow. By all accounts, the Tele Vue Powermate is one of the best Barlows available, and I decided that one of the 2.5X Powermate units was the way to go.

So I went off in search of places that carried the Tele Vue Powermate 2.5X unit. I found a lot of places that carry them, but I was puzzled to find that every reseller I found was advertising the price for that unit as $168. Those resellers ranged from the premium places that I'd expect to charge higher prices to the New York camera stores, which I'd expect to be selling the product at rock-bottom prices. But every damned one of them was selling that Powermate for $168.

It wasn't until I found a mention of MAP on the Astronomics web page (a premium reseller) that I figured out what was going on. Obviously, the MAP for the 2.5X Powermate is $168. Just as obviously, any number of resellers would be willing to sell it to me for less, probably much less, but finding out which ones would do so and how much they'd charge is impossible, thanks to Tele Vue's MAP policy.

So, what to do? Well, any manufacturer that takes such a consumer-hostile approach to doing business deserves to fail, so I'll do what I can to help drive Tele Vue into bankruptcy by publicizing their obnoxious policy and by refusing to buy any of their products. That means they lose the sale of that Powermate to me, as well as the likely sale of several of their (very expensive) oculars and at some point possibly one of their (extremely expensive) refractors. 

That's a drop in the bucket, certainly. By losing me as a customer, they've probably only lost a few hundred dollars off their bottom line. After all, my failing to buy a $300 ocular from them costs them maybe $100 in profit max. Even if I might have eventually bought five or six oculars from them, we're still talking only a few hundred dollars in lost profits. But one does what one can, and the only other thing I can do is encourage people who read this to avoid buying Tele Vue products as well.

And, incidentally, I found while I was searching the web for "Minimum Advertised Price" that Apple is another offender. Yet another good reason not to buy an Apple computer, as though any more reasons were needed. Interestingly, Best Buy ignores MAP for Apple products, which leads me to believe that Best Buy gets co-op funds from Apple regardless. After all, Apple has a hard enough time keeping resellers, so if Apple tried to enforce MAP on Best Buy but Best Buy simply told Apple to go micturate up a rope, what is Apple going to do?

Here's yet another reason to avoid Windows XP (and Windows Me). Microsoft appears to be in bed with the record companies, which is no surprise. I have no use for an operating system that tells my sound card which sound files it can play and which it can't. The nerve of us users. Thinking we should be able to play an "unsecured" sound file on a computer that we've bought and paid for.

The answer here, folks, is "Just Say No". Just Say No to Whistler/XP. Just Say No to Office 10/XP. Keep using what you have now and simply don't upgrade. If you buy a system that comes with Windows Me or Windows XP and you decide to format the drive and install Windows 98SE or Windows 2000, I won't tell anyone. When I read about what Microsoft is doing with their new and forthcoming products, I keep thinking of how I recapture Malcolm when he makes a break for it. I lure him over with a puppy treat and then get him on leash while he's distracted by the treat. Well, the new features in XP are the puppy treat, and I'll be damned if I'll let Microsoft get their leash on me.

The simple fact is that Windows NT 4 and Windows 2000 are Good Enough. So is Office 2000, and IE 5.01. I don't need anything more to get my work done, and you almost certainly don't either. So I'm sticking with Windows NT 4, Windows 98SE, Windows 2000, Office 2000, and IE 5.01. They're the last Microsoft products I'll ever use, other than on test-bed systems to support my book writing. But Microsoft isn't going to lure me into acting against my own best interests by waving some candy in my face.

I'll continue to use these older Microsoft products until Linux on the desktop is a workable alternative for me. That may take a year. Fine. That may take two years. Fine. That may take three years. Fine. Whatever it takes, I can live with it. But after my next upgrade to my production systems, they won't be running Microsoft software.

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Friday, 16 February 2001

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Here's a very important article from The Register. It's entitled Welcome to .NET - how MS plans to dominate digital music sales. Although, as the title indicates, the article focuses on music, in reality the types of mechanisms they're talking about will ultimately apply to all forms of digital content. The operating system will determine what you can do with your data. It's similar conceptually to the copy-protected hard drives we've talked about recently, but implemented in the operating system rather than in hardware. Something must be done to stop this unholy alliance of Microsoft, the music industry, and the movie industry or before long we'll need their permission to use the bathroom.

The answer, as I keep saying, is Just Say No. Don't upgrade to a more recent version of any Microsoft product than you're already running. Ever. Win98SE is the latest version of Windows 9X that's "safe" and Windows 2000 is the latest version of NT that's safe (and I have my doubts about it). Don't upgrade to the latest versions of IE, Windows Media Player, or Office. Be very cautious about applying service packs, and always keep the old stuff available so you can back out if you need to. Don't upgrade, period. Downgrade if you need to.

If some particular software won't run under the earlier version of the OS, or requires a later version of IE, or whatever, that's probably a good sign that you don't want to use that software anyway. If a new hardware product requires a later version of the OS, don't buy that hardware product unless and until the maker provides drivers for the earlier version of the OS. If some form of digital content requires that you use a later version of the OS, or restricts your Fair Use rights, don't buy that content.

I won't even buy DVD-Video discs, mostly because I have no interest in watching any of the crap that's published on them, but also because I've opted out of the protection mechanism they use. I won't buy any form of protected audio disc, either.  If it's not available in unprotected form, I don't need it. Current CD-DA (audio) discs are fine, as are most DVD-ROM data discs.

Fortunately for all of us, Linux is an increasingly viable alternative, and one I intend to use and support. I've had it with Microsoft.

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Saturday, 17 February 2001

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After several days of rain and cloudy skies, the weather has cleared up today, just in time for the public viewing session being put on tonight by the Forsyth Astronomical Society. Of course, with the clearing has also come falling temperatures. Our temperatures lately have been as high as the mid-70s (~24C), but tonight is supposed to be in the mid-20s (-5C). Standard advice to would-be astronomers is to dress for temperatures 20 to 30 degrees lower than forecast, not because the weatherman might be wrong, but because sitting outside under dark skies whose temperature approaches absolute zero simply sucks heat out of you.

They're actually starting the event this afternoon, when people who've just bought a telescope can bring it along to get help in setting it up, collimating it, and so on. We don't have our new telescope yet, so we'll give that part of the session a pass, not that I expect to have any trouble setting up and collimating our scope. After dusk, they'll start showing newbies the impressive sights--Luna, planets, and so on. Barbara and I are attending mainly to meet the people involved. Malcolm wants to go along, too, but that's not going to happen. All we need is Malcolm roaring around in the dark, knocking over telescopes and herding any children present into a tight little cluster.

Then, next Wednesday, the FAS monthly meeting occurs. It's held at the Nature Science Center, which isn't far from us, so we'll probably go out for our usual library visit and dinner out, followed by the meeting. (Note to would-be burglars: we leave all three dogs at home, and I give my mother a riot gun and an assault rifle with six spare 30-round magazines. You really don't want to visit our home while we're gone.) The FAS has something like 40 to 50 active members, so we're looking forward to meeting some potential new friends there.

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Sunday, 18 February 2001

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I've mentioned in the past that Malcolm has a thing about brushes. He steals them and chews off the handles. Doesn't matter what kind of brush--paintbrush, hairbrush, kitchen brush. As long as it's fuzzy on one end and has a plastic or wooden handle on the other, Malcolm steals it and chews off the handle. Below is a selection of our brushes after Malcolm has gotten to them. And these are ones with only minor damage. Some of them, he's started at the handle end and chewed all the way up to the bristles. 

malcolm-brush-handles.jpg (63767 bytes)

Well, when I say that Malcolm steals and eats any brush, that's not literally true. He only steals and eats brushes that belong to us. He leaves the dog grooming brushes pristine, as shown below.

malcolm-brush-handles-2.jpg (60811 bytes)

This cannot be a coincidence.

We had a good time at the Forsyth Astronomy Society public viewing last night. We left home about 5:15 p.m. to drive up to Pilot Mountain, which is about 20 miles north of here. Sunset was at about 6:00 p.m. by which time we were settled in. Pilot Mountain, for those of you who have ever seen The Andy Griffith Show, is what they called Mount Pilot. It's the closest location with reasonably dark skies, but light pollution is making serious inroads even there.

Barbara took this picture of me standing next to a 16" (41 cm) f/4.5 Dobsonian telescope, which is owned by Steve Wilson, the current president of FAS. To give you an idea of scale, I'm about 6'4" (193 cm) tall. By standing on tippy-toes, I can just barely reach the eyepiece when the scope is near zenith, but anyone shorter than me needs the stepladder visible at front right.

rbt-Dob16.jpg (59172 bytes)

Although the skies were clear, the temperature dropped below freezing. Probably quite a bit below, because it was in the middle 20's (-5C) at home, and we were at least a couple thousand feet (500 m) up the mountain. There was a fairly stiff breeze most of the time, which probably dropped the wind chill to below 0 (-18C). Everyone was bundled up in layered clothes (I added some sweat pants after this photo was taken) and waddling around like penguins. Except one guy whom I spotted wandering around in short sleeves. And I thought I was a Northern Boy.

Barbara was thrilled at the views through the 16" scope. To be honest, I was afraid she'd be disappointed by the tiny monochrome views even a large amateur scope provides on any object outside the solar system. A lot of the visitors were probably expecting to see Hubble-like views of huge objects in glowing color, but that's simply not possible. What makes up for it all, though, is that one is actually looking at the object instead of looking at a picture of it.

Barbara got to see quite a few objects, including Venus, Saturn, and Jupiter. Her favorite, of course, was Saturn. For some reason, most women prefer Saturn to Jupiter, and most men prefer Jupiter to Saturn. I think that pop-fiction book of a few years back was misnamed. Women are from Saturn and Men are from Jupiter. Barbara also got to see several deep space objects, including the Orion Nebula. Overall, she was extremely pleased with the experience.

The 16" scope outguns the 10" f/5 Dobsonian we bought by about 2.5:1 in light-gathering ability, or about one full magnitude. Still, a 10" scope is big enough to do some serious work, and it's small enough to be easily transported and set up. In fact, we'll probably keep it in the garage on some sort of wheeled platform so that we can simply roll it out to cool down when a good night's viewing appears to be in prospect. And, on cold nights like last night, it'll be nice to have the house to retreat to to warm up periodically. The only real downside of back yard viewing is going to be light pollution, but we'll see how that goes. It probably won't be too bad near zenith, which the trees in our back yard will restrict us to anyway. Our scope should be arriving in a week or so.

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