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Week of 9 July 2001

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Monday, 9 July 2001

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Barbara will be back from Atlanta late this afternoon or this evening, and we'll all be glad to see her arrive. The dogs have been a pain in the butt, particularly Malcolm, who's been whining more or less constantly since Barbara left. Last night, I finally fell asleep to his whining at 1:00 a.m. This morning, I awoke to his whining at 5:57 a.m. It is fortunate that I am a man of great forbearance, or Barbara would arrive home to find Malcolm dead and stuffed.

I was correct in my presumption that the UMAX 3400U scanner would work fine once I installed it on a system with something other than an accursed VIA chipset. Last night, I decided to sacrifice my Mandrake 7.2 workstation, which has an Intel CA810E motherboard and Pentium III/600 processor. I fired up Windows 2000 Professional and let it do its thing, ending up with a vanilla Windows 2000 fresh install. This morning, I shutdown the Duron Windows 2000 system, pulled all the cables from both systems, and swapped the CA810E system in for the Duron.

I then installed Adobe Acrobat Reader 5.0 on the new system, knowing from the abortive attempt to install the scanning software on the Duron box that the install procedure would try to install Acrobat Reader three separate times--version 3.0 first followed by two installations of 4.0. The first instance of the AR install, I had the opportunity to refuse to install AR 3.0, which I did. The second instance of the AR install, I had the opportunity to refuse to install AR 4.0, which I did. The third instance gave me no choice: it automatically installed AR 4.0. So now I have a system with both AR 4.0 and AR 5.0 installed. Oh, well.

Once the software was installed, I shutdown the system and connected the scanner. When I restarted the system, the scanner was recognized immediately, although I did have to tell the system that it was okay to accept an unsigned driver. I'm not sure why UMAX couldn't sign the driver. The Microsoft warning dialog is likely to scare newbies who attempt to install this scanner. With everything installed, I fired up Adobe PhotoDeluxe Home Edition and scanned a photograph. It worked fine, although I must say I think the software is pretty poor. Among other things, it saves by default to the useless .PDD format rather than something reasonable like JPEG. I may be able to change the default, but I haven't taken the time to try.

I also spotted some "Advanced" buttons, so it may be I'll be able to reconfigure the interface to something intended for an adult. Right now, Adobe PhotoDeluxe Home Edition looks like something intended for a child to use. But it does talk to the scanner and allow me to scan images, and that's what I really care about. I was fully prepared to strip that system down yet again and install Windows 98SE, but it appears that won't be necessary.

But there's an object lesson here. Intel chipsets aren't perfect by any means, but they're the closest thing to it in the real world. Over the years, I've come to despise VIA chipsets for their poor compatibility, slow performance, and general hinkiness. I can't begin to count the number of times over the years that one or another hardware component has refused to work properly in a system with a VIA chipset, but worked without problems in a system with an Intel chipset. That's true of VIA chipsets for both AMD and Intel processors.

I like the AMD Athlon and Duron processors well enough. It's a shame they're hampered by VIA chipsets. And the real pity is that VIA makes the best chipsets for AMD processors other than AMD itself. AMD designs and produces chipsets, but they apparently regard them more as technology demonstrators than as real products. If I were AMD, I'd focus my resources on becoming a major chipset producer. AMD could offer a real alternative to Intel chipsets. From my experience, it's pretty clear than VIA, SiS, and ALi can't.

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Tuesday, 10 July 2001

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Has anyone else noticed that AnandTech appears to be dying? A year ago, I visited AnandTech about once a week, just to see what the speed freaks were up to. Nowadays, I seldom visit AnandTech more than once a month. There's just nothing there worth reading. A year or so ago, AnandTech was publishing substantive articles very frequently, sometimes two or three in one day. Looking at the site yesterday, I noticed that they'd done only two real articles since June 20th--a Pentium 4 review dated 2 July, and an MSI StarForce 822 video card review in which they split the OEM and retail-boxed versions into two separate reviews, dated 21 June and 27 June. Other than their weekly CPU/RAM price guide stuff, which don't really count as articles, that's it. A total of two articles in almost three weeks, or not much more than 10% of what I'd have expected to see there a year ago.

I suspect the crash in banner ad revenue has hurt AnandTech very badly. Norton Internet Security strips out all banner ads for me, so I never see them, but I'd guess AnandTech is running a lot of unsponsored page views. I suspect they run many unpaid banner ads just to make it less obvious what's going on. Tom's Hardware may be doing the same, although its article count hasn't dropped like Anand's. To add insult to injury, PC Magazine, with all its resources (including big-name authors), has started a competing site called ExtremeTech. I haven't spent much time on that site, but it appears to be trying to out-Anand Anand. That can't be good for Anand. An advertiser faced with the choice of spending his banner ad budget on Anand or on PC Magazine is going to choose PC Magazine every time.

Anand floated a trial balloon a month or so back via a poll that asked if people would be willing to pay to access content. A large majority said they liked things fine the way they are, with only a few percent expressing willingness to pay.

I forgot to mention that the screensaver on my main system is now working again, almost certainly because I uninstalled HP's PrecisionScan Pro and then stripped out every file and every registry reference to it. After I finished cleaning up and rebooted, the screensaver started working normally, as did power-saving mode. It's pretty obvious that the HP scanner drivers muck with the system at a very low level. I'm glad they're gone, although I have a sneaking suspicion that I missed something that remains lurking somewhere deep in my registry.

Let's see. There's a quote I'm trying to remember. "I do these stupid things because I'm stupid." No that's not it. "I do these stupid things because these things are stupid." No, that's not it, either. "I do these stupid things because I have to." Almost, but not quite.

I got the scanner working, more or less. It sometimes loses its mind and requires a system restart to clear the problem, but it does always work. The software is rather annoying. Apparently, Adobe equates "home user" with "simple-minded". There are choices for "expert mode" but those do nothing to streamline the interface, which looks like something you'd design for a child of 9. Also, there's a very annoying box that pops up every time I run the program to tell me that it may not run correctly under the current operating system, which is Windows 2000. Very annoying, for a product that's alleged to be Windows 2000 compatible. There's an option to clear the checkbox, but I haven't checked it. I like being annoyed by that message each time.

Since the scanner was (almost) working properly, I decided to install the Epson inkjet printer. And, mirabile dictu, it also works. Since I've got both scanner and printer pretty much working, I've decided to strip the system down to bare metal and start over. This time, I'll install Windows 98SE, which is what this stuff was actually designed to work with. And I just noticed that I no longer have a Windows 98SE system near my desk. I need one for screen shots and so on for the book, so it makes sense to strip down and start over.

So I booted a Win98SE startup disk, fdisked the entire drive, created a full-size FAT32 partion, and formatted with the /s option. When I fired up Win98SE Setup, it told me that it was intended for computers without an operating system whereas this system already had an OS installed. You'd think it'd be smart enough to recognize itself, but no. Worse still, when I restarted the system with the Win98SE Setup Boot Disk in the drive, I found I had no mouse. Apparently, Setup either doesn't like the Microsoft red-light mouse or it doesn't like a mouse seen through a Belkin KVM switch. Oh, well. I can use Alt-letter and Tab with the best of them.

"I do these stupid things so you don't have to." I knew I'd get it eventually.

Barbara made me a new teddy bear while she was in Atlanta. Apparently, one chooses the skin one wants and then packs it up with stuffing. Barbara also put a felt heart inside before the bear was sown up. Barbara said it was my bear, so I got to name him. I said my first thought was that he was an astro-bear, and we should name him Orion. Barbara said that was her first thought as well. But then we got to thinking that, being a bear, it'd be better to name him for the constellation Ursa Major (Large Bear). Barbara doesn't want a bear named Ursa, though, so she's going to call him Major. Like Barbara, my mother likes stuffed bears, so I took a picture of her meeting Major.

lenore-major.jpg (46718 bytes)

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Wednesday, 11 July 2001

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Every once in a great while, I actually read one of the spams I receive, just for the entertainment value. I got one yesterday offering to sell me 12 million fresh email addresses, and I decided to read it. There was one interesting piece of information in it. If you've ever wondered what kind of response rate spammers get, this message hints at it. Buried in the message were some "testimonials", no doubt bogus. One of them said something like, "I used your list to mail only 100,000 messages and got 55 orders for my product!" We can assume from that that a response rate of 55/100,000 is extraordinarily high, more than any spammer could hope for. We can also assume that the author of the spam made up this testimonial and greatly exaggerated the response rate, perhaps by a factor of ten. If that's true, a spammer could actually expect a response rate of perhaps 5 per 100,000, or 0.005%. Or, in other words, a spammer is willing to annoy and inconvenience 99,995 people in exchange for getting 5 orders.

There won't be any real solution to spam unless and until it costs spammers money to send each message.

The mouse problem cleared up part way through the Win98SE install, and I got the box up and running Win98SE without any problems. The UMAX scanner and Epson inkjet printer each connect to a root hub port, and both are working fine. The Epson inkjet also worked fine under Windows 2000, but it's pretty apparent that the UMAX scanner is really intended for use under Win9X, even though it claims Windows 2000 compatibility. The scan quality of the UMAX is mediocre, but perfectly adequate for what I'll use it for, which is scanning hardcopy for use on the web.

I don't much like Win9X, but I will admit that it has its uses.

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Thursday, 12 July 2001

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Barbara sends me the following picture with the subject line, What your dog does when you're not home.

Today I begin some heads-down writing, so there won't be much posted here for a while. 

 

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Friday, 13 July 2001

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Hard though this may be to believe, Microsoft says there's a serious flaw in an ActiveX control in Outlook. They recommend disabling ActiveX in IE in at least the Internet zone. Duh. I've been recommending disabling ActiveX in all zones for years now. This latest problem allows anyone to "Run code of attacker's choice via either web page or HTML e-mail". See Microsoft Security Bulletin MS01-038 for details on this latest security hole.

There was an interesting problem the other day on one of the mailing lists I subscribe to. The first hint was a message from a guy saying that USA.net was no longer offering free email accounts, so please use his alternative address, which he gave. I thought that was an odd message to post to the mailing list under an existing subject line, but figured he'd just forgotten to change the subject. Then another copy showed up, and then another. Soon it became obvious that he'd set up an auto-reply message on his old account and forgotten to unsubscribe from that mailing list and at least one other related one. Some of the less experienced people on the list posted messages to the list complaining about the auto-reply, which of course replied to those messages as well. Not to mention replying to its own replies. I soon had more than one hundred copies of the same message, and Outlook was bringing up a new batch of them every time it retrieved my mail.

I sent a high-priority email to the new address of the guy who was causing the problem, but he apparently wasn't sitting at his computer. I tried contacting both moderators by private email, but they apparently weren't sitting at their computers. Finally, in desperation, I forged an unsubscribe email message from this guy's address and sent it to the mailing list server. About a minute after I sent that, one of the moderators sent a message to the list to say that he'd killed the account.

The moral here is that if you ever set up an auto-reply message, make sure it's not for an address that you use for a mailing list.

Back to work on the book. And we have a Friday 13th party tonight. I'm not much of a party person, but at least there probably won't be any paraskevidekatriaphobics there (nor triskaidekaphobics, either).

 

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Saturday, 14 July 2001

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The party went fine last night. It was at the home of Priscilla Ivester, a member of the astronomy club. I'm usually not much of a social butterfly, but at least the group at this party was of the sort I'm comfortable with. Some were biochemists from where Priscilla works and the rest were from the astronomy club. I pretty much stayed in the room where the astronomy folks congregated. Barbara went back and forth between the astronomy room and the biochemistry room. There were cats galore. I asked Priscilla how many she had, and she had to estimate. Something around 25, she said. She both adopts strays and manufactures her own line of purebreds that she shows. I didn't see any mice at all.

We're head up to Bullington to observe this evening. Tonight is to be the best night of the summer for astronomical observing. Clear skies, low humidity, stable atmosphere, and temperatures at near record lows. Moonrise isn't until 0122, so we'll have dark skies until then. I'd like to try to knock off twenty-five or thirty Messier objects tonight with the 10" Dob, as well as try some double stars and other stuff with the refractor. Any serious work with the refractor will have to wait until I get a Telrad installed on it. The existing finder scope is pathetic. Optically, it's fine, but the mount makes it nearly impossible to align, and once aligned it loses alignment after even a slight bump.

We may be out very late tonight, so tomorrow's post may be late or missing...

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Sunday, 15 July 2001

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Late night last night. We got home from Bullington around 2:00.

Bonnie Richardson, our usual observing companion, had been at the beach all week. I left a message on her answering machine, but Barbara thought she'd probably not get home in time to come up, or if she did she might be too tired to make the trip. We called Duke and Marcia Johnson to see if they were interested. Marcia answered and said they were just getting ready to call us. So we headed up to Bullington around sunset, expecting that it'd be just us and the Johnsons. When we got up there, Jeff Poplin was already there and setting up his 4" refractor. Not long after we arrived, Steve Wilson and David Morgan showed up with Steve's 16" Dob. Then Wayne and Chris Ketner arrived with the club 12.5" Dob. Then Bonnie showed up with her new short-tube 80. Then Duke and Marcia with their 6" Shiefspiegler. Ultimately, we had lots of people and lots of scopes.

The weather was supposed to be perfect. It wasn't, but it was pretty good. Unfortunately, the southern horizon was kind of mucky, which made it hard to locate the many Messier objects in Sagittarius that we'd planned to log. But the skies nearer zenith were good, and we did log many Messiers, including (for the first time) M51, the Whirlpool Galaxy. I'd had M51 in the field of view many times before, but it never showed up as anything more than a faint gray blur. Last night it was magnificent. Both components (NGC 5194 and NGC 5195) were distinct, and we were even able to make out dust lanes with averted vision. All of this in our 10". I'd about given up hope of ever seeing M51 in the 10" as anything other than a slight gray blur, but last night proved me wrong.

I was also impressed by just how little the 10" gave up relative to Steve's 16". In theory, the 16" has nearly twice the light gathering power (16^2 versus 10^2) and that should be very obvious at the eyepiece. In practice, objects weren't all that much dimmer in the 10" than in the 16". Part of that I attribute to the fact that I was using the Harry Siebert eyepieces in the 10". Those eyepieces are very nice. Inexpensive, sharp, wide fields of view, and relatively few elements, which contributes to bright images.

In addition to a bunch of Messiers and other DSO's, we bagged an interesting collection of stuff. An Iridium flare, numerous satellites, many meteors, and a comet, which was my first since the disappointing Kahoutek more than 25 years ago. We saw Comet C/2001 A2 (LINEAR), which is in Pegasus. LINEAR was an easy binocular object, and a couple of the people there said that for them it was just barely a naked-eye object. In our 10" Dob and the larger scopes, it was magnificent. I was expecting a typical comet-like comet. That is, a bright star-like head and a grayish coma. Instead, what we saw looked more like a star cluster.

We started packing up about 1:30, when someone shouted that he had the Andromeda galaxy in the 16". Andromeda is a member of the Local Group of galaxies and is the closest major galaxy to our own galaxy (the Milky Way). Most people think of astronomical objects as being hard to see because they're so small, and that's true for many of them. But not for Andromeda. The problem there is exactly the converse. Andromeda is hard to see because it's so large. The full extent of Andromeda covers 3 degrees of sky, which is to say about six times the size of the full moon. Getting it all in the field of view is impossible for anything other than a short-tube, wide-field scope with a low-power, wide-angle eyepiece. In a normal scope, one has to bump the tube back and forth to take it all in.

Barbara was shocked yesterday afternoon when I suggested making a trip to Wal-Mart. She knows that I really dislike going anywhere where there are large numbers of people, and Wal-Mart on a Saturday afternoon certainly qualifies. What I was looking for was an emergency CB radio to keep in AstroTruck. As it turned out, there were plenty of people at Bullington last night, but when I proposed the trip to Bullington, it looked as though we might be up there by ourselves. Bullington is out of cell-phone range, and I wanted to have some means of communication for an emergency. For example, if we were packing up at 1:30 or 2:00 in the morning and found that the truck wouldn't start, I wouldn't want to have to walk to the nearest home and wake the people up to use the phone. 

I didn't find any appropriate CB radios at Wal-Mart, but I did see a bunch of FRS radios--the little Motorola TalkAbouts and so on. The prices on those things have really come down. Even the expensive ones are only $50 or $60 each now, and basic units are incredibly cheap. I ended up picking up a pair of BellSouth-branded units. They were packaged as a pair and cost $29, or $14.50 each. They're good for short-range communication, up to a couple miles in open areas and perhaps a tenth that in built-up areas. I told Barbara she could clip one on her belt when she was out in the yard and if I needed her I wouldn't have to come looking for her.

We also made another stop on the way up to Bullington, this time for an emergency tobacco supply. I've been ordering bulk tobacco from Cornell & Diehl for close to ten years now. I always order five pounds at a time, packaged as individual pound bags, and I always reorder when I open the last pound bag. It usually takes only a few days for my tobacco to arrive. This time, I kept waiting but it didn't show up. I finally called Craig Tarler last Wednesday to tell him it hadn't arrived. He was very glad I called, because he'd somehow written down "Hopkins" rather than "Thompson" on the order, and had had no idea where to ship my order. He assured me that my tobacco would show up by Friday, but alas it did not. So I'm watching the last of my final pound gradually going up in smoke. Craig usually ships via US Mail, so I'd hoped it'd come with the mail on Friday. It didn't. Then I thought perhaps he'd shipped it UPS, but UPS didn't show up. Then I hoped that he had shipped it US Mail, because US Mail delivers on Saturday and UPS does not. But when the mail came yesterday there was no tobacco.

The situation was becoming desperate. I now had the last of my final pound in my tobacco pouch, and no prospect of more until at least Monday. Clearly something needed to be done. By yesterday evening, all the real tobacco stores were closed, so the only choice seemed to be to buy some drugstore tobacco. Arrghhh. So we stopped at a drugstore on the way up to Bullington, and I stood at the counter looking at their selection. Most of it I ruled out immediately. It was polluted with various junk like cherry flavor or chocolate or whiskey. Yuck.

The Brits have the right idea about pipe tobacco. They consider added flavors to be adulterants and forbid them. The so-called English tobaccos are pure tobacco, with the different flavors resulting simply from blending different tobacco varieties. I smoke nothing but English tobaccos, as do most serious pipe smokers. If I want chocolate, I'll eat a brownie. But it appeared that English tobaccos weren't an option at the drugstore. Or, if they were, it wasn't evident from the descriptions on the packages. I finally noticed one tobacco that didn't mention any flavorings. It's called Prince Albert, and I hoped that perhaps that meant it was of an English type. I had my choice of buying 1.5 ounces in a box for $1.50 or a 12 ounce can for $8.00 or so. I opted for the small box, hoping that I'd never have to open it. But at least I did learn that Price Albert still comes in a can.

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