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Week of 25 June 2001

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Monday, 25 June 2001

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Not much got done yesterday. The usual cleaning and laundry, of course, but beyond that we pretty much took the day off.

Barbara and I are thinking about running a Messier Marathon next spring. Messier was a French astronomer who loved searching for comets. Back in the late 18th century, he came up with a list of "faint fuzzy" objects that could easily be mistaken for comets. His intent was to provide a list of things to be avoided, but in fact his objects became a very popular list of things to look at. It's not even certain how many objects are on the list. His original list had 103 objects, but two of those were duplicates. Since his death, several other objects were added which he is supposed to have observed and documented, but not formally added to his list. The total now is 109 or 110, depending on which source one accepts.

Depending on the observer's latitude, there is a short period every year from mid-March to early April when all of the objects may be viewed in one night. The earliest objects, like M77, set not long after the sun and so are very difficult to observe in the evening twilight. The latest objects, like M30, rise not long before the sun, and so are hard to observe in the morning dawn. There are several requirements for being able to see all of the objects in one night, including good horizons, no moon, and no interfering clouds. The idea of doing this "Messier Marathon" probably originated in the late 1960's, but was first mentioned in print in the late 1970's or early 1980's. 

Throughout the 80's and 90's, more and more amateur astronomers started attempting the Messier Marathon, with limited success. For the years 1984 through 2000 inclusive, only four people succeeded in viewing all 110 objects in one night, one in 1984, one in 1998, and two in 1999. But last year, 25 members of one Arizona club succeeded, including one guy who did it primarily with binoculars. Of course, that was Arizona, with perfect horizons, perfect transparency, and no clouds. The chances of succeeding here in North Carolina are vanishingly small, but I think we're going to attempt it anyway. Even if we can't get all the objects, we can at least attempt to get all we can.

And, although the Messier Marathon has always been defined as observing all objects in one night, we may re-define it. If we miss the early objects and get all the rest, we can define the ones we got from 12:00:01 a.m. through dawn as the start, sleep that day, and start with the "early" objects that evening, completing the Marathon in two passes, but within the same day. Actually, if that happens, we'd probably just continue the second night's observation to see if we could log them all in the traditional timeframe.

Actually, we don't even know yet for sure if the Marathon is do-able from our latitude, and there's a great deal of preparation needed. We have to determine the suitability of our current dark-sky sites, and perhaps locate alternative sites and get permission to use them. And, of course, being out all night long at an elevation of 5,000 feet in North Carolina in March is no joke weather-wise. Even if we get everything organized it may be for naught because the weather might not cooperate.

But if we can do it, it would be a worthwhile project. Many amateur astronomers (and most professionals) have never seen all of the Messier objects even in a lifetime of observing, let alone seen them all in one night. And even if we fail, the attempt is worthwhile. So we'll practicing and preparing from now until next spring. Many of the Messiers are visible at any given time of year, so we'll have plenty of time to practice finding them. Perhaps we can get something formally organized with the club. We'll see. At the least, we'll get pretty good at finding Messiers.

Off to work on the book. I have several chapters in progress, and I'd like to get some of them finished and off to my editor this week. Barbara is headed for a Border Collie event in South Carolina Thursday and will be gone through the weekend. She's taking Malcolm with her, so things will be a bit more peaceful here than they otherwise would have been.

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Tuesday, 26 June 2001

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The search for a new name for Malcolm continues. I originally wanted to name him Mungo, which means "My Wolf" in Gaelic. And that's a very appropriate name for Malcolm. He is a wolf, in personality, behavior and appearance. Barbara, on the other hand, in honor of Malcolm's constant verbalizations, wants to rename Malcolm "Bob" as in, I dread to say it, Bob Barker. Arrghhh.

As I was processing web access stats yesterday, I noticed that I was down to 1.36 GB free on theodore, our main file server. Although it seems ridiculous to consider 1.36 GB free to be low on disk space, there it is. If nothing else, it makes defragging the drive a time-consuming process. The reason that theodore was so short of disk space is that it not only stores the directory where our working data resides, but it also stores a copy of the directory where our archived data resides. So I moved the archive directory from theodore to sherlock (Barbara's main system), which had 14 GB free. Theodore now has 7.62 GB free, and is a much happier machine, particularly after being defragged.

Theodore is also the PDC for our Windows NT domain. I've considered upgrading that box, but I think I'll leave it as is for now. As I've said more than once in these pages, the next server I install will be a Linux box running SAMBA for SMB services. There won't be space for that in the book. I'll instead document it fully on the subscribers only page.

So I've started a new section on the Subscribers Only page, this one devoted to The SAMBA Project. That section will document, step-by-step, in words and photographs, building and configuring a Linux/SAMBA replacement for theodore, our current main file server. I have so much else on my plate right now that this project may take a while to complete, but complete it I will. If you're not a subscriber and want to become one, click here.

To keep things simple, I think I'll make my first Linux/SAMBA server an ATA box. Time enough to worry about SCSI later, and an ATA box should be fine for a SOHO server. I'm accumulating a pile of stuff for it now. To start with, an Antec SX-1030 SOHO server case with a 300W power supply. For the motherboard, an Intel D815E Easton, which is about as stable a Pentium III/Celeron motherboard as you can find. The embedded video, audio, and LAN are more than Good Enough for a server. A file/print server shouldn't need a lot of CPU horsepower, so I'm thinking I'll use one of the Celeron/800 processors I have lying around, along with a 128 MB stick of Crucial PC133 SDRAM. I think I have a Seagate Barracuda ATA II or III drive on the shelf, which should do fine. As far as optical, I can't think that a DVD-ROM drive would be much use--there's next to no software coming on DVD yet--so I'll probably just stick an older ATAPI CD-ROM drive in.

Of course, I already have a perfectly good Linux box sitting under my desk. It's running Mandrake 7.2 with KDE right now, but perhaps I'll play around with it a bit before I actually build a dedicated server. The existing box is a Pentium II/300 with 128 MB, which would at least provide a starting point for playing around with distributions and so on.

I see that Amazon.com has increased its prices again. PC Hardware in a Nutshell, like the other better-selling O'Reilly books, is now discounted only 10%. Mid-list O'Reilly titles seem to be selling at only a 5% discount, and slower-selling ones at no discount at all. So much for Amazon. High prices and abusive policies. What more could a customer want? I don't understand why anyone would buy from Amazon. I certainly won't. 

B&N is selling PC Hardware in a Nutshell at 20% off. But if you really want a deal, buy it from Fatbrain.com, which is selling PC Hardware in a Nutshell for 40% off. You can buy it from them for only $17.97. Note that although they're showing the pub date as 3/99, that's incorrect. That was the 0th edition, which never made print. The first edition came out at the end of last year and is the one they're selling. If you want to order a copy click on this link, which gets it to you at the cheap price and also pays me a small kickback.

Our new grab-and-go telescope is due to arrive today. Given what always happens when new astronomy equipment shows up, I didn't really need to check the weather forecast. But I did anyway. The Weather Channel says we can expect 40 days and 40 nights of rain. Hmmm.

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Wednesday, 27 June 2001

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I worked hard yesterday, but there's not much to write about. I spent most of the day working on a couple of chapters. 

UPS showed up about lunchtime with one small box containing filters, but no telescope. A second UPS truck showed up later in the afternoon, and that one had the scope. We immediately unboxed it, of course. It took a half hour or so to assemble. According to Orion's web site, the scope weighs 30.8 pounds complete, but I'm wondering if that includes the counterweight. According to UPS, the scope box weighed 40 pounds, and there can't be more than a couple pounds of cardboard box and Styrofoam packing. At any rate, we got the scope assembled without incident.

The skies were clear, but unfortunately the Sun (a major source of light pollution) was still up. After dinner, it was partly cloudy, about 5/10, so we thought we might actually get to see something if we set up in the yard. I called Bonnie Richardson, who got a new scope herself last week, and invited her over. She showed up about 8:00, and the clouds started moving in. By the time it was dark enough to see anything, the clouds were 9/10 or 10/10 and there was lightning in the vicinity. So we sat around and talked until about 10:00, when Bonnie decided to pack it up and head home. About two minutes after she drove off, the moon appeared from behind the clouds. I rushed in to grab the scope, hauled it out into the front yard, and set it up. By that time, though, the moon was just heading back into the clouds. Oh, well. We did at least get a quick look. The forecast for tonight is clear, so we may make it up to Bullington.

Caldera dropped a bombshell announcement yesterday. They're going to charge per-seat for their OpenLinux Workstation product. Predictably, screams of outrage emanated from /. and elsewhere. The software-should-be-free (as in beer) camp are offended that anyone would charge per-seat for Linux. But what Caldera is charging for, of course, isn't Linux per se, but the value-added enhancements they've made to their Linux-based product. 

And I think that's a Good Thing in concept, although I do think Caldera jumped the gun. If Linux is to succeed as a viable alternative to Microsoft operating systems, there has to be a revenue stream behind it. But in introducing per-seat licensing now, I think Caldera is charging for something that just isn't good enough. In a year or two, perhaps Linux will be good enough to compete on a level playing field with Windows as a desktop OS. Right now, it isn't. And before anyone sends me flames, I'm not saying that Linux isn't a good OS, merely that it is not yet a practical desktop OS for the masses. Once it is, there will be time to introduce per-seat licensing. But I think Caldera just shot itself in the foot.

 

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Thursday, 28 June 2001

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Barbara is off to an out-of-town meeting this afternoon, and won't be back until Saturday. She's staying with her friend Fletch Barker in South Carolina, and is taking Malcolm with her. Fletch will keep Malcolm while Barbara is at her meeting. The rest of us will be surviving on frozen TV dinners. Poor Duncan.

I've used the term "overmounted" and "undermounted" several times with respect to telescopes, and a couple of people have asked what exactly that means. A picture is worth a thousand words, so click here to see a grossly undermounted scope and click here to see a grossly overmounted scope. In contrast, the small refractor we just bought is mounted about right. I don't like it when people deep-link to photos on my sites, so I'll point out that the respective page links are here and here

UPS showed up last night with a couple of boxes. One was from Orion and contained Barbara's new 7X50 binoculars. The other was from Pocono Mountain Optics, and contained a Telrad finder and a copy of Harvard Pennington's The Year-Round Messier Marathon Field Guide. I think we're now pretty well equipped if we decide to attempt the Messier Marathon next March. We'll need to do a lot of practicing before then, though.

The Register reports that Microsoft is backing off on SmartTags. And not a moment too soon, as far as I'm concerned.

I started reading IBM and the Holocaust last night. I'm about 200 pages into it, and I think I'll do something I seldom do--stop reading a book before I finish it. This book is simply a hatchet job on IBM and Watson. The author, Edwin Black, demonizes IBM and Watson for selling Hollerith punch card equipment to Nazi Germany from 1933 on. According to Black, no one before him had ever noticed that the Nazis could not have compiled lists of Jews and others to be exterminated without the active cooperation of IBM in supplying Hollerith equipment. Well, duh. Of course the Nazis used Hollerith equipment. There weren't any computers then, and governments all over the world were using Hollerith equipment. That the Nazis perverted the intended use of that equipment is no more worthy of comment than that they perverted the use of telephones or typewriters or locomotives and cattle cars.

Black makes much of the fact that Watson visited Germany frequently in the years preceding WWII, but what of it? Germany was an important market, and Watson was by no means alone. Many US-based corporations were attempting to expand their German markets at the time. Black also implies that Watson was a Nazi sympathizer, but presents no evidence for that. If Watson admired Hitler and the Nazi government during the early and mid 1930's, again he was by no means alone. In the years from 1933 until Krystallnacht in late 1938, many business and government leaders from around the world admired the Nazi regime because it was perceived to be getting Germany back on its feet and to be a strong bulwark against Communism. 

With Krystallnacht, that support started evaporating rapidly. In fact, Black quotes a letter that Watson wrote to Hitler after Krystallnacht, deploring the course the Nazis were taking and warning Hitler that such behavior was completely unacceptable. But Black passes this off, again without presenting any evidence, as a ruse by Watson. According to Black, Watson was, wink-wink-nudge-nudge, simply covering his own ass, never intended the letter to be read by Hitler, and really didn't care if the Nazis murdered Jews.

This is truly a disgusting book, the more so because many people will accept the author's unfounded conclusions without questioning his assumptions.

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Friday, 29 June 2001

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[Note: Our Roadrunner connection was down from Thursday afternoon until Saturday morning, so Friday and Saturday entries are being posted retrospectively. RBT]

I hate Hewlett-Packard. I've made some really poor hardware choices over the years, but the HP 6200C scanner has to be the worst. When I bought it, it allegedly supported Windows 9X under SCSI or USB, NT 4.0 under SCSI, and was supposed to have USB and SCSI drivers shipping for Windows 2000 Real Soon Now. That was in the fall of 1999, and HP has yet to ship usable drivers for Windows 2000 under USB. Barbara really wants to be able to use her scanner on her Windows 2000 system. The problem is that USB simply doesn't work and her SCSI card has only an LVD external connector.

In order to get any use out of this thing, I'm going to have to connect it to a compatible Windows 2000 SCSI system or a Windows 98SE SCSI or USB system. The problem is that it doesn't work under Windows 98 USB. It worked once on one Windows 98 USB system, and I foolishly assumed that that meant it would work on any Windows 98 USB system. Not so. I never did get it working properly on any Windows 98 USB system after that first one, which was unfortunately torn down and used for parts before I realized the truth of the matter.

My Roadrunner Internet connection failed just before 2:00 yesterday afternoon. I didn't even bother to call them, because their so-called "help" is helpless. They never know what the problem is or when it will be fixed. All they want to do is have me go through a bunch of useless local reconfiguration and testing when it's perfectly obvious to anyone who knows anything that the problem is on their end. Because there was no point in trying to work on the chapter without an Internet connection, I decided to see what I could do about getting the scanner working. Big mistake.

I actually still have a working installation of the scanner software on theodore, Barbara's old system, which lives under my desk. So the first plan was to move the scanner into my office and reconnect it to theodore. That way, we'd at least have a working scanner, although not in Barbara's office. Well, that required an external 50HD cable, which I couldn't find to save my life. So, in a moment of insanity, I decided to try connecting the scanner to thoth, my main Windows 2000 system, using USB. A few hours later, I had my Windows 2000 system working again, with all of the HP software finally removed and the registry cleaned up. What a hideous mess.

In the mean time, I'd finally found an external HD50 SCSI cable, but it was only about 3 feet long--not long enough to connect the scanner to theodore. Not being one to give up easily, I decided I might as well install a SCSI card in thoth, because the 6200C allegedly works properly under Windows 2000 with SCSI. I installed an Adaptec 2930. As long as I had the case open, I decided to swap out the OnStream DI-30 tape drive I'd installed last week and swap in the Tecmar DDS-3 tape drive from my old main box. I reconnected everything, put the cover back on the case, and fired thoth up. Success, or so it appeared at first. The Adaptec ROM splash screen showed the Tecmar tape drive and the HP 6200C scanner as connected devices.

I then spent several more hours installing and uninstalling software, trying to get the 6200C scanner recognized. It would kind of work, in the sense that the scanner light lit up and the mechanism moved occasionally, but I never did get the HP scanning software to admit that there was a scanner connected to the system. Around 10:00 p.m, I finally disconnected the scanner, whose light refused to go out, and decided to try doing a tape backup. Windows 2000 Backup recognized the drive, but when I attempted to do a backup it refused to recognize that there was a tape in the drive. The version of Arcada/Seagate/Veritas BackupExec I have works only under Windows 98 and NT 4, so I had no other software to try. By this time, it was close to midnight, so I decided to pack it in for the day.

After about 10 hours work, I was worse off than when I started. My worthless, piece-of-crap HP 6200C scanner still isn't working. I removed a functioning tape drive from thoth and replaced it with one that Windows 2000 refuses to backup to. And with all the installing, uninstalling, and reinstalling that I did to thoth, my Windows 2000 installation on my main system is probably teetering on the edge. I really hate Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard. As far as I'm concerned, HP stole the $400 I paid them for that scanner.

And here I sit this morning. I was thinking about scrubbing my main system's hard disk down to bare metal and installing NT4, which is probably what I should have done originally. I can't do that now, though, because I don't have a working Internet connection. I finally called Roadrunner tech support this morning, and ended up connected to a woman who clearly didn't speak English as a first language. As usual, the "help" was useless. She admitted right at the start that they were having problems in the area, but then insisted that I go through a bunch of stuff to test my configuration. That was pretty futile, given that their DHCP server isn't responding to DHCP requests. I went along with her for a while, but it was obvious there wasn't any help available from the help desk. All I wanted to know was how long it would be until they fixed their DHCP problems, and she had no idea when that might be.

For lack of anything better to do, I think I'll scrub down the Mandrake box under my desk and bring it up as a Windows 98SE box. Perhaps then I can run a USB cable over to it and see if I can get this scanner to work. It worked on one Windows 98SE box once, so it may work again. I really, really hate HP.

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Saturday, 30 June 2001

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I finally called Roadrunner tech support yesterday morning. The woman I spoke with obviously didn't speak English as a first language. I told her from the start that the problem was their DHCP server wasn't leasing an IP address to my system, but she insisted on having me go through her level-1 diagnostics tests--power resetting the cable modem, etc. I told her that I'd already done all that literally five minutes before I'd called, but she insisted, so I did it. She said that they had "issues" in my area, and the only thing I could do was wait and try later. 

So I went back to messing with the HP 6200C scanner. I tried connecting it via SCSI instead of USB. No joy. I installed the HP scanner software-from-Hell on four more systems, killing every one of them. I mean, we're not talking about just routinely bad software here. We're talking about software that's so bad that it causes Windows 2000 to crash to a black-screen hard reset. I've never seen anything like it before. After I installed the software, and without having it running, I'd be working along in IE or Word in Windows 2000 when suddenly the screen would turn black and the BIOS boot screen would appear. Just the drivers are enough to kill my systems. 

And uninstalling doesn't work, no sir. Attempting to run the uninstall procedure from Control Panel --> Add/Remove Programs crashes, generating a Dr. Watson log. Even running uninstall.exe directly does the same thing, So I went in and deleted the directory manually, and then used Search to locate every file that had been changed in the last 24 hours. I deleted everything remotely related to the HP scanning software. I deleted the entire HP tree in the registry. I ran RegClean (yes, I know one isn't supposed to use it with Windows 2000, but it was the only thing I had. My Internet connection was down, remember). My main system now appears to be stable, but I don't trust it.

I finally gave up, surrounded by dead systems and with no Internet connection. Barbara had mentioned something about cleaning up the work table behind my desk, so I decided I might as well do that. I removed piles of stuff (including four systems), vacuumed, dusted, and re-routed cables. When I was all done, I was down from nine to five systems surrounding me. The only system left behind me is that Duron mini-tower. Above it is the HP-6200C-scanner-from-Hell. Since I'd moved the scanner over to that table, I decided I might as well try connecting it to the Duron system, so I plugged in a USB cable and installed the software. Killed that system, too.

clean-credenza.jpg (27902 bytes)

Enough of the 6200C. I didn't need any more aggravation. So this morning I called RR support again. This time I got a guy who seemed competent. He concluded that I needed to speak to third-tier support, which I did. The third-tier guy was competent. It took him all of 15 seconds to fix the problem. What enraged me was that the problem wasn't a dead DHCP server as I'd thought. He said the DHCP server was just fine. The problem was that someone had misconfigured my particular connection, which was what it took him 15 seconds to fix. Arrghhh. I went 24 hours without service because someone was too incompetent to do more than run through their checklist.

And I haven't given up on the 6200C. HP allegedly has updated drivers for it. But they don't post them on their web site, as they do for other products. One has to call a toll number and pay them to ship a CD. What a rip-off. I'll never buy or recommend any HP product ever again. HP has gone from being one of the best computer companies to one of the worst. In my opinion, anyone who buys computer or networking equipment from HP is making a foolish choice.

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Sunday, 1 July 2001

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Orion Telescope and Binocular Center has a reputation for great customer service, but I've been very upset with them for the last week or so. But they have renewed my confidence in them.

It all started back on June 16th. I'd decided to order one of their SkyView Deluxe 90mm refractors as a grab-and-go scope. That was a Saturday. I placed the order, and learned that the motor drive was out of stock and would ship in late June. Fine. The saleswoman mentioned that they had their filter sets on sale for $33, and I told her to go ahead and toss in a set. She told me that the items wouldn't be processed until Monday, which was fine.

Barbara and I decided Sunday also to order an inexpensive 7X50 binocular as a knock-around set for Barbara to keep in the truck. I visited the Orion web site and noticed that they had their Scenix 7X50's on sale for $64.95, discounted from $77.50. I called Orion Monday morning to order a set, and to see if they could be added to the current order, which hadn't shipped yet. The saleswoman I spoke with said that was no problem and rang up the order. But she said the binocular would be $77.50. I told her that I was looking at the web page as we spoke and that they had a sale on them for $64.95. She told me that her item number was 09332 and asked if I was looking at the same item number. I told her that the sale item number was 31053. She looked that up and told me that indeed that was a special sale item number and that she'd enter the order at the $64.95 price. She said this would be on the same order number as the other stuff, so I verified that they'd only charge me the 5% shipping on the incremental amount.

I got an email shipment confirmation message at 9:41 p.m. local time Monday, telling me that the telescope and filters had shipped. At 9:42 p.m. Tuesday, I got another email confirmation that the binocular had shipped, but they'd billed them under the 09332 item number for $77.50, and they'd charged me more shipping than the 5% they were supposed to. I immediately called Orion and spoke to still another woman in customer service. She checked the web page, which still had the sale price up, and told me that she'd credit me for the overcharge. I asked her if they'd send a confirming email and she said they couldn't do that at the moment because it was too late in the day but that she'd make sure one went out before lunchtime my time the next day. That email never came, but I'd already wasted enough time on this, so I decided just to be mad at Orion until I had a spare moment to call them up and scream.

When my Internet service finally came back up yesterday morning, I had hundreds of new emails, including two from Orion. The first, dated 6/28, told me that my motor drive had shipped, and the second, dated 6/29, announced free shipping on any orders more than $50. Of course, that annoyed me. If I'd waited a few days to order, the problem probably wouldn't have happened, and I'd have gotten free shipping as well.

So I called Orion customer service, where I spoke with a very nice woman named Lydia. I mentioned the free shipping thing first, and she said that was no problem. They honor the free shipping offer for anything they shipped within the preceding 30 days. She verified the problem with the binocular pricing, and told me that she was entering a credit for the price of the binocular and full credit for the shipping charges. I asked her to confirm all that by email, which she did within a few minutes of our conversation. As it turned out, they'd already credited me for the binocular overcharge anyway. They just hadn't bothered to confirm to me that they had.

Like any vendor, Orion doesn't always get it right the first time. They don't always get it right even the second time. But they do get it right eventually. It is perhaps a sad commentary that that makes Orion unusual among mail order vendors, but the simple fact is that they are. Getting a billing error corrected by most vendors is a real exercise in futility, and I have had to resort to threatening a chargeback or even actually requesting one more than once before I got the vendor's attention. Orion isn't perfect, but it's obvious that they do try to be.

So I'll keep ordering stuff from Orion when they have what I want. They're often not the cheapest source. For example, I ordered one of their Ultrascop`ic 30mm eyepieces for $120 fully aware that I could have gotten the nearly identical Celestron Ultima 30mm any number of places for $100. But Orion seems to care about their customers, and that's worth paying extra for in my book.

Oh, and I have had a chance to try the Scenix binocular briefly, and I was very surprised at how good they are, particularly for the price. They aren't Zeiss or Leica or Nikon, but they're an order of magnitude cheaper, and the Zeiss/Leica/Nikon units sure aren't ten times better. The Scenix binocular is a bit soft at the edges compared to the best Japanese and German optics, but the difference is pretty minor. And I'm not nearly as nervous about dropping a $65 binocular as I would be with an expensive binocular. I may order another Scenix binocular for myself.

The HP 6200C saga continues. Several people have emailed me to say that they have their 6200C scanners working fine under Windows 2000 with USB, and I believe them. HP says the 6200C doesn't work under W2K with USB, but I'd believe Bill Clinton before HP. Several people have also offered to email me later drivers for the 6200C, an offer that I gratefully accepted.

Also, Barbara found the original 6200C distribution CD this morning. I'd searched high and low for it. She walked into my office, pointed at a CD organizer on top of one of the bookcases, and asked "What about in there?" I snickered before replying, "It can't be in there", thinking that I hadn't put anything in that organizer yet. But it was. Urk.

I am much like a squirrel. I decide to store something somewhere that I'll be able to find it when I want it. So I bury it in a logical place and then forget where I buried it. No oak trees have sprouted in my office yet, but that's just a matter of time. So we have decided, Barbara being a librarian, that I will henceforth give all valuable stuff to her and she will keep track of it. That may even work. Of course, she'll have to institute some sort of check-in/check-out system, with overdue fines, or I'm liable to get something from her and lose it.

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