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Week of 12 November 2001

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Monday, 12 November 2001

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Veterans Day

Lest we forget


8:54 - If you have Windows XP Home or Pro preinstalled on a computer, you need to read this sad article from Microsoft, entitled "You May Lose Data or Program Settings After Reinstalling, Repairing, or Upgrading Windows XP". The good news is that the data loss occurs only if you reinstall, repair, or upgrade Windows XP. The bad news is that if this bug bites you, your data is gone. Microsoft's only suggestion is that you recover your data from backup. This is a bad one, folks.

Speaking of problems with XP, if you're running XP on a new Pentium III (Tualatin core) notebook, you need to read this Microsoft article, entitled "Power-Management Issues with Windows XP and Intel PIII-M CPU". Apparently, XP power management is defective, and it sucks your battery down to zero in nothing flat. Not to worry, though. It doesn't simply waste the power. It uses that power to overheat your notebook.

Sock and underwear organization, indeed. Life is too short to organize socks and underwear. For that reason, all of my socks are identical, and I don't worry too much about organizing the drawer they live in. When I get dressed, I just grab one white one and two gray ones. If it's dark, I just grab one big one and two small ones. No need to worry about matching socks. The gray socks go with all the shoes I normally wear, which is to say tennis shoes and boots.

sock-undewear-drawer.jpg (49736 bytes)

This is an actual unretouched photograph of my sock and underwear drawer soon after I finished doing the laundry yesterday. Note the clever organization. I keep a package or two of new underwear at the upper right, where they can easily be swapped in for failing units. I actually do have a few pairs of black dress socks, one of which is visible at the lower left. But the important thing is that takes me literally only seconds to reinstall my underwear and socks in the drawer after I bring up the clean laundry.

Barbara asked me to point out that this disorganization scheme is completely my idea, and she had nothing to do with it. But it doesn't bother her, either. It would have bothered a girl I used to date not long after college. I walked in one day to find her ironing my underpants. With spray starch, yet. There must have been an appropriate word, but my vocabulary failed me for once. "Are you deranged?", I asked her. That relationship didn't last long. Starched underpants. Geez.

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Tuesday, 13 November 2001

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8:40 - I must really like the NEC AccuSync AS70, because I went out and bought a second one yesterday. The new one is now sitting on my end table in the den, where it replaces the old 15" MAG that I stuck there for lack of something better to use. After using her new AS70 for a week, Barbara was delighted with it. I'd actually intended to buy her a 17" or 19" Hitachi and a 17" Hitachi 641 for the den system. But the Hitachis are harder to find than the NECs, and this AS70 is a very nice monitor not even considering its relatively low price.

Like Barbara's new NEC AS70, mine came from the factory with the brightness turned up way too far. When I finally got it adjusted to reasonable brightness, the on-screen slider bar was at about 20% of maximum. That's good, because one of the most common failings of inexpensive monitors is inadequate brightness reserve. As a monitor ages, it gets dimmer, and I've seen many new monitors (including name brand ones) that were just barely bright enough at full brightness right out of the box.

I've changed my recommendations on the system guide pages to reflect my choice of the NEC AS70 rather than the Hitachi 641. The Hitachi is still a good monitor, but it's both more expensive and more difficult to find than the NEC.

There was some interesting discussion on the backchannel mailing list yesterday about the airline crash in New York. One of the guys asked me by private mail whether I thought a Stinger might have brought down the airliner. That's an interesting question. 

There are hundreds of Stingers that were shipped to Afghanistan unaccounted for, and as I recall their shelf life is quite long. I've never seen a Stinger fired, but I'd expect that the designers went to some pains to minimize the visual footprint for obvious reasons. During daylight, I suspect a Stinger launch and track wouldn't be obvious to the naked eye, particularly if no one was looking for it.

Which brings up an interesting question. If the NTSB and military authorities determine that the engine that fell of was shredded by external means rather than by a disintegrating turbine, and if they examine the fragments and detect parts of a Stinger warhead, what are they going to do?

I can't imagine that they'll announce that fact publicly, because no one would board an airliner ever again. OTOH, with the number of people involved in an aircraft crash investigation, is this something they could really keep the lid on? My guess is that they'll spirit away the stuff for testing under very strict security, so if it was in fact a Stinger we may never know.

And I'm still very suspicious that this occurred on Veterans Day. I wouldn't get on an airliner now for love or money. If it was terrorist action, it'll probably happen again. If they sneaked one Stinger into the US, they could certainly have sneaked more than one in. If I were the terrorists and I'd shot down this latest airliner, I'd wait a while to let people's fears simmer. Then I'd bring down another one, perhaps on Thanksgiving Day. Or maybe I'd go for a double or triple event next time, just to make sure that no one could question that it was a terrorist action.

If there are Stingers out there in hostile hands, we've got real problems. Problems enough that the airline industry may be out of business soon. What are they going to do? You can't fly civilian airliners in a battlefield environment.

Whether or not the crash was the result of terrorist action, we'll probably never know. The government cannot afford to let the airline industry collapse, and so they'd willingly risk more such events rather than admit the truth if it turns out that this crash was caused by terrorist action. If this crash was caused by a Stinger, the government can't very well admit that while also convincingly promising that no more Stingers are in terrorist hands. Who'd believe them? 

One possible response I've not heard suggested is that, after declaring war, the US expel all foreign nationals from countries hostile to the US. There are still thousands upon thousands of Iraqi, Irani, Afghani, and Libyan nationals residing in the US, each of whom is a potential agent of terrorism. The US could expel all of them, regardless of their visa status. If they have US citizenship, fine, they're entitled to stay. But if they don't, green card not withstanding, they can be deported. 

Announce publicly that those who are here, legally or illegally, have one week to depart voluntarily. After that grace period expires, any who remain are presumed to be agents of hostile foreign countries, and will be dealt with accordingly. Then post a $10,000 reward payable to any US citizen who turns in a hostile enemy alien. Collect those enemy aliens in holding facilities, and then put them up in batches before firing squads. If nothing else, doing this would drastically reduce the number of people who need to be watched.

Include those countries that are not our friends, if not overtly hostile. All Pakistani and Saudi Arabian nationals should also be expelled, for example. The US seems to be very forgiving in terms of who we'll consider friendly. I've actually heard moronic commentators describe the Afghani Northern Alliance as "friends of the US." Friends, hell. They're no more our friends than are the Taliban. They're out of power and want to be in power. They'll take whatever we give them and use us to do their work for them. But they're not our friends. Once they're in power, they'll likely be as bad as the Taliban. No more is Pakistan our friend. They're one of the main problems, in fact.

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Wednesday, 14 November 2001

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8:40 - Comdex this year is dead, which isn't surprising with 9/11 on top of the bloodbath in the high-tech industry. Still, I've been reading some of the reports from people who are attending it. I came across the following statement on AnandTech:

It's not much of a surprise that Intel's 845 chipset does indeed support DDR SDRAM, and it won't be much longer before we see the solution used in motherboards. Although we won't be able to provide you with benchmarks for another few weeks, we have been talking to motherboard manufacturers about their thoughts on the chipset. Most of them agree that it not only outperforms VIA's P4X266 but also SiS' 645 chipset, even when paired with DDR333 SDRAM. As you'll remember from our i845 Motherboard Roundup, the chipset does support both DDR200 and DDR266 SDRAM. Although motherboards based on the solution will undoubtedly be more expensive than their P4X266 or SiS 645 based counterparts, most motherboard manufacturers agree that the stability and quality of the platforms is vastly superior to what they've seen with the 3rd party chipsets.

I found that an interesting statement from Anand, who's a VIA/Athlon kind of guy.

If you're a subscriber and you didn't get email from me Monday, please let me know. My message to the following addresses bounced:

  • hattwl at home dot com
  • mgarvey at pcmac dot com
  • smunro at nonprofitmaine dot org
  • vkimball at shore dot net
  • wdtroup at zdnetonebox dot com
  • boss at geekworld dot ca
  • cheesman at star dot ca

Barbara and I will be preparing this week for the Leonid Meteor Storm this weekend. Tomorrow, Michelle Kennedy from WXII interviews me about the storm for a segment they'll air Friday to encourage viewers to get out and see the storm. I don't have any special standing in the astronomy club, but she likes my voice. We'll head up to Bullington late Saturday evening, do some general observing, and then settle in to watch the storm. It should be heavy from about 0300 until 0700, with the absolute peak at 0508. There should be quite a few people up at Bullington, including Michelle.

I know that 5 o'clock in the morning is a horrifying time to be awake and watching the sky, but it should be worth it. Most predictions say this will be the most impressive meteor storm in 35 years. I expect to see hundreds of meteors per hour at a minimum, and it's possible the rate will be in the thousands per hour, particularly around 0500. The forecast peak times are sometimes off by an hour or two either way, so we plan to be watching by 0300 at the latest. If you possibly can, get out and watch this event. It should put any fireworks display you've ever seen to shame. To determine if the show will be visible from where you live, check Sky and Telescope magazine, Astronomy magazine, or one of the other sources they list.

Now, if only the weather cooperates.

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Thursday, 15 November 2001

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8:40 - I worked on chapters all day yesterday, so there's not much interesting to report. Same again today, except Michelle Kennedy from WXII is going to call me sometime today to let me know when to come out to SciWorks. She's going to interview me about the Leonid meteor storm due this weekend.

We did go out to the library and dinner last night. Barbara keeps meaning to buy one of those long-handled window cleaner/squeegee things they have in gas stations, but every time she's at Wal*Mart she forgets to buy one. We decided to stop on the way home from dinner at an auto parts store and buy one, along with some clear red tape to mask the interior courtesy lights on AstroTruck. We found the tape, which is used to repair cracked brake lights, but two auto parts places were out of stock on the squeegees. Apparently, there's been a run on them for some reason.

There won't be much here tomorrow or this weekend. I have a lot of other things to do. Chapters to finish up, a meteor storm to prepare for, etc.

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Friday, 16 November 2001

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8:40 - I had other plans for last night, but instead I ended up spending hours trying to track down a virus problem. I got a disturbing email last night from one of my subscribers. Here it is, with identifying information removed:

-----Original Message-----
From: [subscriber's wife's account]
Sent: Thursday, November 15, 2001 5:42 PM
To: thompson@ttgnet.com
Subject: emergency - you have a virus

Robert, 

This is really [subscriber name].

Your E-mail about my not receiving your e-mail, gave me the Distributed Com virus.

My firewall caught it when it attempted to infect my network and crashed outlook.

Not fast enough. My outlook is infected and I can't use my own e-mail server, but at least earthlink has some protections built in now.

DO NOT REPLY TO THIS MESSAGE. All I need is my wife annoyed at me.

I will be busy reformating and reinstalling.

[subscriber name] 
Who would bill at his consulting rate, but you couldn't afford me.

Of course, I was horrified and immediately dropped everything to figure out what was going on. My first thought was that this couldn't possibly be true. All my systems are scanned automatically early each morning, and I update my virus sigs every day or two. My own systems are locked up tight, with the WSH executables deleted, the file associations for VBS changed to "execute" scripts with Notepad, all scripting disabled in IE, and so on. Even if I received an Outlook macro/scripting virus that somehow wasn't caught by NAV, it shouldn't be able to do anything at all, let alone propagate.

I checked the web sites of several antivirus software companies, and could find no reference to a "distributed.com" virus. But I was concerned enough by the message that I immediately shut down all my systems, updated their virus signatures, and did a complete re-scan on all systems and volumes on my network. Norton AV with the latest virus sigs (dated 14 November) found no viruses on my systems. 

Just to make sure, I checked my mail server log files looking for anything out of the ordinary. The message sizes were appropriate, and nothing went out except pure text and HTML. I sent test messages from each of my computers to my own account and several others to accounts on domains under my control, and checked those messages manually on the server. All that was there was what you'd expect, message headers and the message themselves. No attachments of any sort. 

I conclude that whatever bit my reader was either already resident on his computer or was somehow attached after-the-fact on his mail server. Wherever it came from, and whatever it is, it almost certainly didn't come from me.

After burning several hours on this, I was unable to find anything wrong with any of my systems. Has anyone heard of a virus named "distributed.com"? 

Speaking of security vulnerabilities, Bob Walder reports on the backchannel list that there is a JavaScript flaw in Opera. It doesn't sound all that serious, but I've enabled the workaround suggested by Opera.

I was interviewed by Michelle Kennedy for Channel 12 News yesterday, as scheduled. I asked her if she wanted detailed responses to her questions or sound bites. She wanted sound bites, so that's what I gave her. They did a special short segment on the Leonid storm that was actually pretty good. Michelle narrated off-camera and used brief video clips of meteor activity and so on, interspersed with her questions and my brief on-camera responses. I hope a lot of the people who see the segment will take the trouble to get out to view the Leonids Sunday morning. It should be the show of the century. The moon is down, the weather is to be clear, and we should see hundreds to thousands of meteors per hour. There's another storm next year, but the moon will be too bright for good viewing. The next time a storm will occur under such ideal conditions is 2099.

I'd invited Michelle up to Bullington as our guest for the storm. She was planning to get up early and show up there around 5:00 a.m. I convinced her yesterday to make a night of it. I told her that the predictions aren't always precise. The predicted peak is 0508, but it could be as much as a couple hours either way. If it is, I hope it's earlier rather than later, as it will start getting too bright before 0700. Also, although the current forecast is for clear skies, there is the possibility that clouds will move in. If that happens at Bullington, we'll end up having a caravan in the middle of the night as we all head for the Blue Ridge Parkway (assuming it's clear there). So she's going to head up to Bullington after work late Saturday night and stay through dawn Sunday morning. She may also bring a cameraman and the gear she needs to do an on-site report.

The storm should be visible over the Southeastern half of the US, with an even more intense storm following about 8 hours later that's visible from Japan, Australia, and other locations in the Western Pacific. If you're not sure whether it's visible in your area, check the details in Sky & Telescope magazine, Astronomy magazine, or the Leonid Storm site. If it is visible in your area, make the effort to get out and see it. You probably won't see another sky show like it in your lifetime.

Hmmm. I've just noticed that my posts occurred at 8:54 a.m. on Monday and then at 8:40 a.m. for every other day of the week so far. It isn't a matter of me forgetting to update the time stamp on the daily entries. I've actually posted these entries at 8:40 a.m. for the last several days running. I guess I'm too predictable.

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Saturday, 17 November 2001

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10:11 - Hmmm. Last night, the Clear Sky Clock was predicting very good conditions for the Leonid meteor storm early Sunday morning. I checked the Clear Sky Clock again this morning, and it's now predicting that we'll have very good conditions until about 6:00 a.m., when heavy clouds will move in. This ain't good. The predicted peak of the storm is 0508, but it can vary an hour or two either direction. 

At this point, my thinking is that we'll go to Bullington and keep a close eye out for clouds. If we see clouds approaching, we can pack up and head for The Lump up on the Parkway, which is where most of the club members will be anyway. That's an hour or more away from where we'll be, so we'll have to make the call well before the peak. I'm hoping the peak will occur an hour or so early, say 0400, which would make things easier. If it's later than predicted, not only may clouds interfere, but the sky will begin lightening. The beginning of astronomical twilight is at 0532, and sunrise is at 0702.

I'll spend some time today checking out the equipment, collimating the Dob, packing up gear, and so on. No post tomorrow. We'll be completely whacked after staying up all night looking at meteors.

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Sunday, 18 November 2001

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