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Week of 19 March 2001

Latest Update: Friday, 05 July 2002 09:16
 

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Monday, 19 March 2001

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Hmm. I just ran web access stats for my own sites and Pournelle's. My stats last week were down noticeably, from about 17,000 or 18,000 page reads normally to less than 15,000 last week. I was concerned until I looked at Pournelle's stats and found that he's off about 15% as well. Perhaps everyone was just too busy last week to read web pages?

The Register reports that the movie industry will now find itself in the ridiculous position of trying to suppress a number. This is a very special number. It's a prime number which embeds the necessary instructions for decoding the CSS encryption used to encode DVD movies.

My troubles with wireless access continue. It started as an occasional glitch. I'd fire up Outlook on my notebook and get an error message saying that it couldn't open the pst file on the network volume. I could cure that by waiting a moment and then opening Outlook again, so I passed it off to the system not yet being fully awake when I first attempted to open the file. After a week or so of having that problem sporadically, worse problems started. Every time I closed the lid to put the system to sleep, I'd find that network connectivity was gone the next time I opened the lid and woke the system up. At that point, simply ejecting and re-inserting the 802.11b adapter card would restore connectivity for the duration of that session. Then that method stopped working, and I'd have to reboot the system, at which point I'd have network connectivity again for the duration of the session. Yesterday, rebooting stopped working. I now have no network connectivity from my notebook at all.

I have tried everything. No settings have changed, either those specific to 802.11b or the general settings of the notebook. Power management is just where it was before. I've realigned the antennae on the Access Point. I've uninstalled and reinstalled the drivers for the 802.11b card. I've uninstalled and reinstalled the card itself. I've installed a different 802.11b card. All I get is an "out of range" message on the notebook. If I carry the notebook into my office and set it down a few inches from the Access Point, I still get the "out of range" signal, which I think is unlikely.

There are obviously a lot of possibilities here. I could have a defective Access Point, but I don't think so. My prime suspect here is Windows Rot. The notebook runs Windows 2000, and despite the good things many people have to say about it, I simply don't trust it. I think it's buggy and not ready for prime time. It does too many bizarre things all by itself, such as killing the screensaver with no apparent way to turn it back on. And this problem has all the fingerprints of a Windows Weirdity. This Compaq Armada E500 notebook is sold with the option of Windows 2000 or Windows NT 4, so obviously Compaq has NT4 drivers available. I think I may visit their site and download all the NT4 stuff I can find for the E500 and try formatting the hard drive and bringing it back up as an NT4 system. 

Or, as I said to Barbara yesterday evening, perhaps it's time to take a more radical step and bring it up as a Linux notebook. The problem is, I have no idea how to do that. Oh, I have no doubt I could stick a Mandrake 7.2 CD in there and get Linux installed, but as far as finding Linux drivers and so on, I'd have no idea where to start. Perhaps it's time I find out. If anyone is successfully using Linux on an E500, I'd love to hear from you on the messageboard.

I have half a dozen chapters in progress for PC/Nutshell at the moment, and I'd like to get at least two of them finished and to my editor this week, so things may be a bit sparse here.

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Tuesday, 20 March 2001

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As it turns out, Barbara hates her pre-paid wireless phone because it's such a pain in the butt to use. It doesn't have its own phone number, so anyone who wants to call her has to dial an 800 number and then enter a 5-digit PIN to ring her phone. That's bad enough, but it's also a pain to place an outgoing call. Instead of just dialing the number and pressing Send, she has to dial the number, press a menu key, wait for the phone to beep, press the key again, wait for it to prompt her to enter the number she wants to dial, press the key again, and finally the call goes through.

That meant she hardly ever used the phone. When she tried to use it the other day, she got some long announcement about a new service being available, and never was able to complete her call. So I tried it yesterday, and got the same announcement. So I went over to the AT&T Wireless web page and found that they have two new services. One is called AT&T Prepaid Advantage service and the other is called Free2Go Wireless service. I couldn't figure out what the difference was, and I needed to call the customer support number anyway to get Barbara's phone working again. I suspected that her time had expired, and as it turned out, I was right.

The difference between the two new services, believe it or not, is that one comes with a Nokia phone and the other comes with a Motorola. That's the only difference, so I found it truly bizarre that they presented it as two different services. Here I am trying to figure out what the differences are, and it turns out there are none if you already have a phone.

So, at any rate, the nice lady at AT&T Wireless told me that Barbara's account had indeed expired and that she would reactivate it using the 60 minute bonus card that came with the phone. That'll take a couple of days, however. And the lady suggested that Barbara keep the existing service until she uses most of that 60 minutes because once she converts to the new service her account will be zeroed out and she'll need to buy new time. The upside of the new service is that there are now two choices of plans, local and national. The only real difference is that the local plan minutes cost only about half as much as the national plan minutes and that the local plan charges $0.85/minute for roaming calls outside the local service area. And they define the local calling area pretty liberally.

Under Barbara's current plan, she could buy cards denominated in minutes rather than dollars. A 30-minute card cost $25, or about $0.83 per minute. They also had 60- and 120-minute cards with lower per-minute costs. The new cards are denominated in dollars rather than minutes, and how many minutes you get for your dollars depends on whether you sign up for the local plan or the national plan. A new $25 card, for example, buys you about 71 minutes on the local plan or about 38 minutes if you're on the national plan. So if Barbara signs up for the local plan, she'll get more than twice the calling time per dollar that she had under the old plan. The only drawback is that unused time expires in 90 days under the new plans versus six months under the older one.

But the real benefit to the new plan is that they've simplified things down to the level of a standard cell phone. After she signs on for the new plan, Barbara's phone will now have a regular phone number rather than the 800-number and PIN formerly needed to call her, and she'll be able to make an outgoing call just by dialing the number and pressing Send. Apparently, Barbara is not the only person that found the complications of the older pre-paid method hateful.

The other thing, which I should have thought of before, it that the chances my mother would be able to dial the 800 number and enter the PIN correctly in an emergency are somewhere between small and non-existent. So we'll get converted over to the new service soon. Now the only problem is getting it done, because that requires a visit to to an AT&T Phone Center or an Authorized Dealer. We used to have a Phone Center half a mile from here, but they closed it. Apparently, the nearest one is now in Greensboro, which is a 75 mile round trip. When I dial the phone numbers for the two Authorized Dealers closest to us, the phone company intercept tells me that their phones have been disconnected. So we may end up having to take a drive to get this done. Oh, well, at least we'll have 60 minutes on the phone for now, which doesn't expire until September, so there's no urgent need to get it done.

Killed another one. Barbara and I have a standing joke that my picking a company or product to endorse dooms that company. It happened with Aureal, a producer of audio chipsets. It's happened with a couple of other companies. And now, the latest. The Register reports that OnStream, the makers of inexpensive high-capacity tape drives that we recommended has gone into Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which is to say liquidation. I'm starting to think I should start charging companies kickbacks in return for not recommending their products. Only kidding.

If you don't already have an OnStream drive and you're considering buying a tape drive, OnStream would be a good brand to avoid. And if you've already purchased an OnStream tape drive, now would be a good time to stock up on tapes while they're still available. I have an OnStream DI-30 and a SC-50 unit, along with half a dozen or so tapes for each and a cleaning tape, so I'm in good shape for now. I'll continue using them for the time being, but with the idea that the first sign of trouble means I pull the drive and buy something to replace it.

Conversely, if you're already committed to OnStream, now might be a good time to pick up a spare drive and some tapes. I expect the drives and tapes will be going at firesale prices soon, if they're not already. We've not had any problems exchanging tapes between different OnStream drives, so if you already have a large investment in OnStream tapes, buying a spare drive might be inexpensive insurance.

I spent some time yesterday afternoon downloading the latest versions of everything from the OnStream website, having learned from sad experience that although the website may survive a bit longer, those files will eventually become hard or impossible to get. If you have an OnStream drive, I suggest you download all the files you might need while the website is still working. If you need tech support, you may be out of luck. The main toll-free number answers with a recorded message saying that the company has ceased operations, and dialing the tech support and general office numbers simply gives a fast busy signal. The company apparently ceased operations on Friday, and I'd guess only a skeleton staff, if that, remains.

The problems of having an orphaned tape drive are particularly worrisome. If a hard drive maker goes belly-up, it's really no big deal for most users. The orphaned hard disk continues working, and, if it fails, at worst the drive won't be repaired or replaced under warranty. But chances are the hard drive will continue working until it's too small or too slow to be useful any longer.

A tape drive, however, requires feeding, and if tapes are no longer available the drive eventually becomes useless as the existing tapes wear out. Fortunately, the OnStream ADR drives run their tapes at very low speeds, which minimizes wear on both the tapes and the heads. 

Then there's always the issue of what to do if the drive itself fails. If a hard disk fails, you presumably have the contents backed up to tape. But if the tape drive fails, best case you no longer have a way to back up your data until you replace it. Worst case, you're attempting a restore when the tape drive fails, and that means you're in trouble. You may have the data on tape, but if the drive fails you might just as well not have backed up at all. Unless, of course, you can find a used replacement drive on Ebay or somewhere.

Here's something odd. I decided yesterday to transfer some funds from my PayPal account to my bank account. PayPal offers two options. They'll cut a check and mail it to me, which takes a week or so. Okay, that makes sense. But the second option is what really puzzles me. They offer to transfer funds electronically to my bank account, but they say that from the time they do the transfer it will take perhaps four days for the transferred funds to show up in my account. Why would that be? It seems to me that an electronic transfer should be credited and appear in milliseconds rather than days. Can the bank seriously doubt that PayPal is good for the amount of the transfer, or is it that the bank is taking advantage of the float, keeping my money in their own account and drawing interest on it for several days before coughing it up? If so, that seems obnoxious to me.

Big article in the paper this morning. North Carolina is considering revising its marriage laws. Currently, with minor exceptions, only civil ceremonies and marriages performed by Protestant clergy are valid. Roman Catholic, Jewish, Hindu, Islam, and American Indian ceremonies are not recognized by the state, so it will no doubt come as a shock to those who married in such ceremonies to learn they have been never been legally married and that their children are illegitimate. And, in fact, these unmarried couples are criminals, because sex outside marriage is illegal in North Carolina. So our idiot lawmakers are going to see what they can do to fix the problem. They're also considering raising the minimum age at which a girl can marry to 14. It's currently 12. I am not making this up.

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Wednesday, 21 March 2001

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I spent most of yesterday writing and taking illustration photos. This book writing stuff is hard work.

And here's yet another example of the oddity of Windows 2000. One day two or three weeks ago, the copy of Internet Explorer on my main desktop system stopped working for Dr. Keyboard's messageboard. That is to say, I could still view the messageboard, but for some reason IE had taken a dislike to it and refused to allow that site to write a cookie to my hard disk. Because that cookie is used to track last access time, which messages I'd read, and so on, it was next to impossible to use that site from my main desktop system. Taking the path of least resistance, I just started using my notebook to view that site. That was fine, if a bit inconvenient, until my notebook (which also runs Windows 2000) decided to stop working with the 802.11b wireless networking card. At that point, I had no convenient way to view the site.

So yesterday I decided to experiment a bit. The first thing I did was remove Dr. Keyboard's messageboard from my "Trusted sites" zone and add it to my "Local intranet" zone, the security settings for which are basically "have your way with me." Everything worked fine. The site was able to write a cookie, and I was able to use the site normally. Okay, that made it obvious that something was screwed up with the security settings for the "Trusted sites" zone. So I went in and examined them one-by-one. I found the problem quickly. The Scripting -> Active Scripting entry was set to disable. I enabled that setting, moved the site back to the "Trusted sites" zone, and everything worked normally.

Now, the problem here is that I never disabled that setting. I'm the only one who uses my system, so the only possibility is that Windows 2000 or IE changed that setting itself. I'm 100% certain that I didn't do it and then forget about because of how the problem manifested originally. One day, I viewed Dr. Keyboard's messageboard normally, departed the site, continued with my work in Word, Outlook, and so on, and then returned to the site later. When I tried to use the site on that second visit, everything was broken. I hadn't made any changes to IE in the interim, nor had I installed or reconfigured any software. It worked one time and failed the next. Kind of like the way Windows 2000 decided to kill my screensaver.

I know a lot of people really like Windows 2000, but as far as I'm concerned it's just another dot-oh release from Microsoft. Conventional wisdom has always been that one can't trust a Microsoft OS until at least SP2 or SP3, and I think that holds true for Windows 2000. It's flaky.

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Thursday, 22 March 2001

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I'm running on about three or four hours of sleep this morning, so please excuse me if I'm less than my usual sparkling and cheerful self. Barbara is out spreading fertilizer on her lawn, and is then heading to her parents' house to do the same there. She suggests I take a nap. I wonder what the chances are that I'd be able to nap with the dogs here. Probably not good.

Last evening, we went out to dinner and then to the monthly meeting of the Forsyth Astronomical Society. It's an interesting group. One of the members, Jeff Thompson, is a columnist for the local paper. He'd bought a satellite dish at Radio Shack based on the demo they had running, which included the NASA channel. As it turned out, the NASA channel wasn't available on the plan they were selling, so Jeff raised hell. He learned purely by accident that the NASA channel is available on his dish if he simply reorients the dish to the satellite that carries that channel. It's not encrypted, and as it turns out that channel is freely available to anyone who has a dish and simply points it at the correct satellite. The content-provider confirmed that even though the signal is carried on their equipment it's perfectly legal to view that channel without paying their monthly service charges, although they don't publicize that for obvious reasons.

So, Jeff got to thinking about deploying the NASA channel throughout our school system. The schools are already wired for video, and simply adding an inexpensive dish would allow them to receive the NASA channel. I've never seen it, but according to Jeff it carries a wide range of professionally produced science programs on many subjects. NASA backs that up with lesson plans, student handouts, and other materials designed to aid science teachers. All of it is free upon request, and none of our schools are using it. Apparently, no schools in North Carolina are using it, and relatively few schools elsewhere. So Jeff has been meeting with the school board, the superintendent, and other officials, all of whom are apparently excited about adding this resource.

Originally, Jeff offered to have his company donate the hardware to all elementary schools in the county, but it now appears that the school system wants to deploy this at every school. So Jeff is soliciting volunteers from among the FAS membership to help the schools install and configure the hardware, present programs, and so on. On balance, I think it's a great idea. We've already paid for all this through our taxes, so it seems stupid to let it go to waste. Granted, many NASA videos are really thinly-disguised propaganda pieces, but I suspect the ongoing program content is pretty much pure science. It'll be interesting to see how it goes.

It's true that the general public is pathetically ignorant about astronomy. Some of the messages I read on the various astronomy mailing lists I subscribe to would be funny if the situations they describe weren't so potentially dangerous. One guy was carrying his Dobsonian telescope down a country road. Someone spotted him and phoned the police to report that someone was making off with their water heater. Another woman reports that the first time she set up her Dobsonian telescope in her front yard, her neighbors thought she was setting up a rocket launcher. And then there was the poor guy who set up his refractor on a tripod in a public park and was surprised when the police and SWAT team showed up. Apparently, several people had called 911 on their cell phones to report that there was a madman in the park setting up a machine gun.

We haven't had a visit from the police yet, but we do set up in our front yard, so it wouldn't surprise me if the cops eventually do show up. I will admit that our 10" Dobsonian does resemble some sort of military hardware, although I'd have thought it looks more like a mortar than a rocket launcher. So, if the cops show up with guns drawn, we'll raise our hands and then invite them to look through the eyepiece. The nice thing about that, of course, is that after one or two such false alarms they won't be likely to respond to a later report of someone setting up a rocket launcher in our front yard. That means I really can set up a Patriot battery next December, just in time to lie in wait for Santa and his sleigh.

And the latest in Windows 2000 oddities. When we got home from the Forsyth Astronomical Society meeting last night, I noticed a flickering in my office. I found the monitor on my main system displaying a monitor-generated error message, something like "Illegal scan frequency", with the Windows desktop distorted and flickering behind it. Moving the mouse displayed the desktop normally, so I just let it go for then, figuring that perhaps it'd blank normally. No such luck. When I got up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, it was flickering away again, so I turned off the monitor. I really hate Windows 2000. It is possessed by demons.

I've been thinking a good bit about how to incorporate coverage of Linux in the next edition of PC Hardware in a Nutshell, and whether it's even possible to do so. Yesterday, as I was answering an email from a reader who was suggesting I do that, my editor called. He wanted to know if I could incorporate Linux coverage in the next edition. I told him that I'd been wracking my brain for quite some time about just that question, but I didn't see any way to do it. I'm hoping that I'm wrong and that you, my readers, can tell me where I've erred.

The problem is this. With Windows, I can say, "go here, click this, set that" and that's all there is to it. Windows is standardized. With very minor exceptions, everything is always in the same place. Telling someone how to install a specific video card in Windows (or even how to install a video card in general terms) is straightforward. That's not the case in Linux, because there really is no such thing as Linux. In practical terms, there are many Linuxes. (yes, I know that the GUI I'm looking at right now is the GUI, not Linux itself, but it amounts to the same thing in practical terms).

If I write instructions for the guy running Linux Mandrake 7.2 with KDE, those aren't much help to the guy who's running Red Hat 6.1 at the command line or the guy running some other distribution with Gnome. There are many distributions, each available in many different versions, all of which are being used by some people. There are many different interfaces, again in different versions. Hell, even the configuration files themselves may be in different directories under different distributions.  Even if I "standardized" on a particular distribution (which would draw more flame mail than I want to get) there are still nasty little issues like dependencies and library versions that lie in wait to trip the unwary and the ignorant.

So what can I do? Is there anything I can do? I don't think so, but I'd love to find out I'm wrong.

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Friday, 23 March 2001

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You've probably heard about this by now, but just in case...

According to the reports, there are a couple of VeriSign Certificates out there that purport to be from Microsoft, but aren't. They aren't fake certificates because VeriSign actually issued them. The problem is that VeriSign issued them to someone who claimed to be employed by Microsoft but wasn't. At this point, no one knows who has control of those certificates. 

That wasn't supposed to be able to happen, and to my way of thinking means that no one should ever trust a VeriSign certificate again. It should have been impossible for anyone to obtain a certificate under false pretenses. The fact that it clearly wasn't impossible casts doubt on the validity of every other certificate that has been issued or will be issued by VeriSign. The whole basis of their business was that they were trustworthy, and this error makes clear that they are not. 

Some may think I'm being unduly harsh on VeriSign, but I don't think so. The basis of their business was that in asking us to trust them they implicitly promised that they wouldn't make a mistake like this. Certificate authorities make a big deal about their security--core certificate servers that aren't connected to the outside world, not permitting one unsupervised person to access information, bunkers surrounded by barbed wire with armed guards and armored steel doors, and so on. All of that is useless, of course, if they don't verify the identity of someone before issuing a certificate. And that appears to be just what happened here.

Now, I suppose it's possible that VeriSign is blameless in all this. It may be that the ball was dropped at Microsoft's end. But Microsoft says not, and I've seen no rebuttal from VeriSign, so I must suppose that VeriSign is in fact guilty of this lapse. So I've taken what Microsoft calls the "drastic" step of removing VeriSign as a trusted certificate authority. You can find instructions on how to do this here. Of course, these instructions assume that you only want to remove VeriSign temporarily, so they describe how to export the certificate so you can later import it. I have no intention of trusting VeriSign again, so I simply removed them without exporting them first. No need to, since I won't be importing them later.

Thanks to everyone who responded, both on the messageboard and via private mail, to my questions about how (or whether) to cover Linux. The consensus seems to be that it'd be a mistake for me to attempt to cover Linux, other than perhaps as a short appendix. 

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Saturday, 24 March 2001

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Barbara and I packed up the telescope and a bunch of other stuff last night and headed for one of the Forsyth Astronomy Club viewing sites, this one only a half hour or so from our home. Following the detailed instructions provided in the membership kit, we drove through farming country with many turns until we arrived at the road leading to the site, which we at first mistook for someone's driveway. The instructions mentioned that there was a large concrete pad in a field, and there was in fact such a pad, so we assumed we'd arrived at the correct location. We got there about sundown and sat and waited. And waited.

We were expecting at least a few other people to show up, but as of half an hour or so after sunset no one had. At that point, we were wondering if we'd been sent on a snipe hunt. I had visions of some annoyed farmer with a shotgun showing up to chase us off, but no one bothered us. Finally, Barbara suggested we go ahead and unload the telescope, which we set up on the ground right behind our Trooper. The skies weren't truly dark--I could probably have read newspaper headlines by the sky glow--but they were a lot better than what we have at home. We spent some time looking at Jupiter, Saturn, the Pleiades, the Great Orion Nebula, and so on. Finally, about 8:00 or so, another car came cruising up the dirt road to the site. That turned out to be Priscilla, who's an officer of FAC.

Priscilla had only binoculars with her. Her telescope, unfortunately, is hors de combat. But Priscilla knows the skies well, and she spent considerable time pointing out various features to Barbara and me. After a couple of hours, Priscilla said she needed to get home. Mom and the dogs had been home alone for about four and a half hours by that point, so we decided we'd better head home as well. We arrived home at 10:30 to frenzied greeting barks, both from the dogs and mom.

And speaking of the dogs, Barbara took Duncan to the vet yesterday for his regular checkup. The details are on her page.

Micron has announced that they're departing the PC business. So now the "Big Three" of direct PC sales has become the "Big Two", leaving only Dell and Gateway as major players. Micron plans to concentrate on, of all things, providing web hosting services. I never much cared for Micron PCs, although Micron's Crucial Technology subsidiary manufactures world class memory. But it's sad to see such a major player leaving the PC business.

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Sunday, 25 March 2001

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Please excuse the short posts the last couple of days. I haven't been feeling particularly well. When I started feeling unwell Friday morning, Barbara and I both thought it was caused by my habit of consuming large amounts of caffeine without food accompanying it. Eating lunch did seem to help some, and although I wasn't at my best for going out telescoping Friday night, I was feeling well enough, and I'm glad I did. Yesterday, I wasn't feeling well at all, and didn't get much done. Barbara says there's some kind of virus going around, so perhaps that's what I had. I do feel somewhat better today. Well enough, at any rate, to do the laundry and other Sunday chores.

Barbara is right about the caffeine. Back in my younger days, caffeine seemed to have no effect on me. I could drink literally a full pot of strong coffee immediately before bedtime and still fall asleep instantly and sleep all night. Nowadays, I can still usually get away with guzzling a couple liters of Coke and a pot or two of regular coffee during the day. But I don't normally eat breakfast or lunch, and sometimes that amount of caffeine on an empty stomach makes me feel a bit unsettled. That seems to be happening more frequently lately. Barbara has already started buying unleaded coffee and tea for me, and I may have to resort (gasp!) to drinking caffeine-free Coke. Which does taste different, no matter what Coca-Cola says to the contrary. Growing older is hell.

And I'd better get to work. I want to have another updated chapter submitted to O'Reilly by tomorrow, and at least one more (preferably two) by the end of the week.

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