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Week of 26 November 2001

Latest Update: Friday, 05 July 2002 09:16
 

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Monday, 26 November 2001

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9:00 - Has anyone else recently started getting large numbers of spams from Hotdeals and Savebig? I've gotten hundreds of them over the last couple weeks. This morning, I had something like 30 of them in my Inbox. Something needs to be done about these people, preferably something fatal. Annoying someone isn't a criminal offense, nor should it be, but creating a business model based on routinely annoying millions of people needs to be sanctioned.

Not that anything is likely to happen. The government isn't doing much about the problem, and that's all to the good. The last thing we need is more laws or the government deciding what we can and can't send via email. Service providers aren't doing much about the problem, either. In fact, many of them are in bed with the spammers. 

The only way anything will be done is if someone tries something that's never been done before. I'm thinking a contract assassin business run on the PBS model. Someone needs to create a 501C3 non-profit corporation, spamkillers.org, and solicit voluntary contributions that would go towards paying contract assassins to hunt down and kill spammers. I'd happily kick in $5 or $10 a year towards such a worthy goal, as I'm sure would many others.

Of course, such an organization would be self-limiting. After a hundred or a thousand spammers had been executed and their photographs posted on the spamkillers.org web site, other spammers would reconsider the survivability of what they were doing. Spammers are by definition stupid, but no one is that stupid.

Barbara is off all day doing various errands. I sent off the updated Memory chapter to my editor last night, and I'm jumping back into the Processors chapter this morning. I'll have that finished and off to my editor by Friday, come hell or high water. Once I get that finished, I start the Death March to crank out some new chapters for the new edition. I actually have most of those already drafted, so it's a matter of rewriting and expanding them.

Once I get everything completed, there'll still be tech review and final rewrite to deal with, but that'll be a downhill slide.

Barbara is leaving Friday morning to attend a Border Collie trial and won't be back until Sunday evening. That means she'll miss the Saturn occultation, which occurs locally at about 7:30 p.m. Friday. Weather permitting, I'll be up at Bullington to view that. I could do it from our front yard, but there'll be a group up there, so I'll head up for the socializing if nothing else. Luna will be at about 0.998 illumination, so I won't be doing much deep sky stuff, but Saturn and Jupiter will both be up and worth viewing. I tried to convince Barbara to take the grab-and-go scope with her so that she could view the occultation from her motel parking lot, but she said her truck would be so full of stuff that she didn't want to have to deal with a scope and mount. She will take her binocular at least.

11:30 - Here's an interesting test of your email security. Thanks to Bob Walder for posting the URL on the Daynoters' backchannel mailing list. Once you provide your name and email address, the site sends you a confirmation email to ensure that you really want to do the test. Once you confirm that you do, the site sends you four email messages that are infected with various virus mechanisms. The payload causes a text file to be written to disk and appear on your desktop.

I ran the test with NAV disabled, and none of the four messages were able to do anything when I opened them and/or their attachments. I guess I have Outlook and IE pretty well locked up, even without the belt-and-suspenders NAV. Which goes to prove what I've been saying all along. The problem with Outlook and IE isn't that they're inherently insecure. It's that their default settings are insecure. If you do what I've done--locking IE down tight, disabling scripting entirely, deleting the scripting executables, setting Outlook to use the Restricted Zone settings, and so on--you probably won't be hit by a virus even if you're not running AV software.

Conversely, even if you are running AV software, and even if you update the virus signatures regularly, it's foolish to keep Outlook and IE in their default states. New viruses arise and can do damage before Symantec, McAfee and the other AV vendors update their products and signatures to reflect those new viruses. If you're running your system unlocked and depending on AV software to protect you, you're likely to get burned sooner or later. If I had a choice of doing only one or only the other, I'd choose having my system locked down and not running AV software. Fortunately, I'm not forced to make that choice, so I do both.

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Tuesday, 27 November 2001

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9:39 - When is a billion dollars not a billion dollars? Why, when you're talking about what Microsoft is to donate to poor American schools as a part of a settlement. Much has been made of the fact that Microsoft is donating their own software, with the value calculated at retail price. This is doubly disingenuous, of course. The marginal cost to Microsoft of a so-called $500 software package is the the couple dollars it costs to produce the CD, pamphlet (I won't call it a manual), and box. So that immediately reduces one billion dollars to a few million dollars, which is chump change for Microsoft. Then, of course, there's the small matter that Microsoft donating Microsoft software simply perpetuates the situation that this settlement is supposed to remedy--Microsoft's dominance of the market.

But according to an article in The Inquirer, the situation is even worse than it appears. The news articles said that part of the billion dollar settlement comprised Microsoft donating computers to poor schools. The schools would pay only $50 per computer, which sounds like a deal. Like most people, I assumed that the donated equipment would be low-end current model systems. Not so, according to The Inquirer. The PCs that Microsoft is so graciously donating to poor schools include, believe it or not, old 486 and Pentium systems that can't even run current software. Hell, many of them probably aren't even Y2K-compliant. The value of many of those systems is less than the $50 each that Microsoft is charging for them. Some deal.

So, if this is true, it appears that the sum total of the one billion dollar penalty against Microsoft is that Microsoft will clear some software inventory from their warehouses and "donate" some old PCs that have no real value. That's disgusting. It seems to me that if this settlement is to have any real value, at the least the materials donated should be valued at the lower of cost or market value. Better still, Microsoft should donate actual cash rather than products. That one billion dollars could be donated as a million $1,000 coupons, which could be redeemed by any computer reseller and subsequently reimbursed by Microsoft. 

If, that is, there's any reason to limit their use to computer purchases. I suspect there are many poor school districts who could find a better use for the money than purchasing PCs. Even a few of those coupons could go a long way in a lot of poor school districts towards things like buying new books for children, repairing buildings, adding air conditioning, and so on. For that matter, why limit it to schools? By and large, schools are relatively well funded when compared with public libraries. Perhaps it would be better to donate $1,000,000 each to one thousand public library systems, with the proviso that the money be used exclusively for expanding collections and replacing dated materials. That benefits everyone--school children and the rest of us.

That's about it for me this week. I'll be heads-down working on the Augean Stables of the Processors chapter. I have to get it done by the end of this week, and there's a lot remaining to be done. Updates, if any, will be short shrift for the rest of this week.

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Wednesday, 28 November 2001

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8:29 - Someone commented on the messageboard yesterday that they'd seen no evidence that Microsoft intended to dump used PCs on schools, and that that was an unsubstantiated story based on a newspaper article without any confirmation. Well, our newspaper this morning had a big story on the Business page with quotes from Steve Jobs of Apple and various Microsoft sources. All of them were talking about Microsoft's plan to supply "refurbished" PCs to schools, so it looks like the article I mentioned in The Inquirer was substantially correct.

The original articles on this topic commented that Microsoft supplying PCs to schools would be a windfall for Dell, Gateway, and other high-volume OEMs. But it now appears that it won't be any kind of windfall for them, because Microsoft is planning to dump old PCs on these schools rather than buying new ones for them. It's possible that some of those machines may actually be useful--Celeron and Pentium II/III systems--but my guess is that the majority will be the obsolete 486 and Pentium systems mentioned by The Inquirer. 

I'll say it again. If Microsoft owes a billion dollars to settle this suit, make it a real billion dollars. A billion dollars in cash. If Microsoft wants Microsoft software to count as a part of the settlement, that's fine, but only to the extent that the schools want Microsoft software. And, if they do, the value of that software should be counted at a reasonable cost, say $4 per copy, rather than an inflated retail price (or even a discounted OEM price). But I still think it'd be preferable to have Microsoft cough up $1,000,000 cash money to each of 1,000 public libraries.

I was working heads-down all day yesterday on the Processors chapter, and will do so again today. And tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. I spoke to my editor yesterday and asked him if, as usual, first thing Monday morning was the same thing to him as last thing Friday afternoon. He said it was, so if I still have work left to do by Friday afternoon I'll continue to tweak the chapter over the weekend. Deciding what to leave in and what to leave out is a Herculean task.

By Friday evening I'll be ready for a break. I hope the weather will cooperate for the Saturn occultation, but it's beginning to look as though it won't. Oh, well. 

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Thursday, 29 November 2001

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9:27 - Heads-down work on the book all day yesterday. The same again today. And tomorrow. Barbara is leaving tomorrow morning for a Border Collie trial that lasts through Sunday, so neither of us will be updating our journals this weekend.

Opera 6.0 is shipping. I haven't downloaded it yet, but from the press guide it sounds as though they've added many worthwhile features. There's a free upgrade from Opera 5.x, but I'm not sure if my 5.x init keys work with 6.0, so I've emailed my contact there to ask her. I may not have time to look at the new version for a couple of weeks, but I definitely plan to do so.

Speaking of upgrades of worthy software, the new version of Pegasus Mail is now shipping. I'm going to stick with Outlook 2000 for now, but it's nice to know that the new version of Pegasus is available if I need it.

Hmmm. Things may work out for the Saturn occultation after all. Here's the Clear Sky Clock for Bullington as of 0855 today. The occultation occurs about 1930 tomorrow, and it appears that the weather may cooperate. The top line of colored blocks predicts cloudiness, with white being clouds and darker blues corresponding to clearer weather. According to this, we should have completely clear skies by 1800 tomorrow. The bottom row of blocks predicts transparency, which is the water vapor load from 0 feet to the top of the atmosphere. By 1800, we should have average transparency, which actually isn't that bad.

Unfortunately, at our location Saturn will be elevated only about 19 degrees when the occultation occurs, which leaves it down in the muck. Still, Saturn is bright enough--and the full moon certainly is bright enough--that we should be able to see the show clearly. Of course, the forecast could change. The Clear Sky Clock is remarkably accurate in short term predictions--over the next few hours or so. It's also better a day out than anything else I've seen. But a day-and-a-half out is pushing it.

If you have a scope you should make an effort to get it out and watch the Saturn occultation. It's a pretty rare event. I think the next one is in 2008. Sky & Telescope magazine has a map of where the occultation is visible. Note that the December 1 date refers to Universal Time. The occultation occurs in the early evening of November 30 local time in the Eastern and Central US.

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Friday, 30 November 2001

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9:23 - More work today on Processors, the chapter that will not die. I was hoping to have it complete by this afternoon, but it doesn't look like I'll manage to do that. For my editor, first thing Monday morning is the same as last thing Friday afternoon, so I'll spend some time this weekend polishing the chapter.

Barbara is leaving this morning for her Border Collie trial, and won't be back until late Sunday evening. I've decided not to go up to Bullington tonight to watch the Saturn occultation. The weather forecast is for clouds all day today, followed by clearing around 1800. That's close enough to the occultation that a drive to Bullington might be wasted if the clouds stick around a bit longer than predicted. I decided just to set up my refractor in the front yard.

For many of those infected, the worst aspect of the recent Nimda worm was the fact that it sent what should have remained private documents to random email addresses gleaned from the infected system. Numerous stories made the rounds of law firms unintentionally transferring client documents, personnel departments transferring private salary information, and so on. Nimda embarrassed a lot of people, and probably got more than a few fired.

Now, with its usual embrace-and-extend thinking, Microsoft has apparently created a variant of Nimda and distributed it to millions of people who use Microsoft Office XP software. But Microsoft's version is not based on Nimda code and is not a worm. It's much better than that. It's built into the Microsoft software itself. It's called Office XP Error Reporting, and you can read all about it here. Basically, if you're working on a sensitive document when Office XP crashes, Microsoft's bug reporting kicks in by automatically generating a report and sending it to Microsoft. The problem is, that report may contain some or all of the document you were working on. 

Of course, this is really nothing to worry about. It's not as if your document may be sent to some random email address. It's going directly to Microsoft, and we all know how trustworthy they are.

 

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Saturday, 1 December 2001

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9:08 - I did manage to see the Saturn occultation last night. The Clear Sky Clock was calling for clouds and haze, so I decided it wasn't worth driving up to Pilot Mountain. Instead, I set up my 3.5" refractor in the front yard. The Clear Sky Clock was right. There was significant cloudiness and haziness. But Luna was in a small gap in the clouds at about 19:34 local time when the occultation occurred. I got to see the whole thing, although seeing was so bad that the boiling off the Lunar limb made Saturn shimmy.

I viewed the occultation through what I'll charitably call heavy haze, although light cloud is more like it. Saturn, despite its magnitude was entirely invisible to the naked eye even while it was a degree or more separated from Luna. Luna itself was causing a brilliant light bloom at least 7 or 8 degrees in diameter. I used the 7mm Siebert eyepiece in my 90mm f/11.1 refractor for about 140X, which was probably a little more than the seeing actually supported. I could see Saturn as a ball with a ring structure, but Cassini's Division was invisible. I did see the whole thing, though. That's the first Saturn occultation I've ever seen. The process took about 75 seconds from the time the leading edge of Saturn's rings touched Luna to the time the trailing edge of Saturn's rings disappeared behind Luna. A very impressive sight.

An hour or so later, I was back out in the front yard to watch the deoccultation (is that a word?). By that time, Luna was about 15 degrees higher and in a relatively clear patch, with much less haze than was present at occultation. I used my 30mm Ultrascopic eyepiece (33X), with which I was able to notice Saturn's ring structure begin to emerge from behind Luna at about 20:31 local time. As soon as I was certain that it was in fact Saturn emerging, I immediately switched to the 4.9mm Siebert eyepiece, with which I watched the show at about 204X. I was hoping to be able to see Saturn's moon Titan emerge, but it was lost in the glare of Luna at 100% illumination. Even hampered by that I might have been able to see Titan had it not been for the persistent haze that scattered Luna's brilliant light. Even Saturn, at magnitude -0.4 had trouble punching through that light, so seeing Titan was pretty much hopeless.

Although Saturn occultations are pretty rare events, it happens that there's another one coming up this month, on December 28th. The bad news is that it occurs in the small hours of the morning. From here, it occurs about 0356 local time. The good news is that, although Luna is nearly full, it will be the unilluminated edge of Luna that occults Saturn. That means that we may also be able to watch Saturn's moons being occulted.

The chapter that won't die is still kicking, although I'm nearing completion on it. I spent some time yesterday cutting it down to size. It currently sits at about 90 pages. That's 90 pages in Word, with 1" margins all around. I'm not sure how many book pages that translates to, but it's many more than 90. Oh, well. I think Mueller's PC book has something like 150 pages in the Processors chapter, so I'm not being entirely excessive. Today I have to finish updating stuff on the Celeron, Pentium 4, and so on, and then check/update a bunch of tables. I may get it done today, but I suspect not. I'll probably still be thrashing away at it tomorrow evening. But I will have it in shape to submit to my editor Monday morning.

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Sunday, 2 December 2001

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8:41 - Today is Barbara's twenty-twenty-seventh birthday. She's still away at her Border Collie trial, so perhaps I'll open her presents for her.

I worked heads-down yesterday on the-chapter-that-will-not-die. I worked from 7:30 a.m. until 10:30 p.m. with only short breaks for bathroom, food, and taking care of mom and the dogs. I'm afraid I yelled at all them when they interrupted me for trivial reasons, though.

Writers are famous for being crabby when they're interrupted. That's not because we're nasty people, but because of what we're doing when we're interrupted. No one who is not a writer truly understands that a 10-second interruption can cost literally an hour's work. When you're writing, you can't always simply jump back into what you were doing and take up where you left off. Before the interruption, there were all sorts of things in your mind. In my case, I'll have a bunch of things I haven't yet written but that are forming regimented ranks in my mind. Or I'll have thoughts related to what I've just written, which I plan to record elsewhere. Or writing one thing makes me think of something else I need to change elsewhere. One has to finish writing the current thought before jumping somewhere else--to do otherwise leads to madness--so one learns to keep a bunch of stuff balanced in one's mind. It's the mental equivalent of one of those old movies where a waiter is carrying a tray with a high, teetering pile of dishes. When someone interrupts a writer, even momentarily, that teetering pile often crashes to the floor.

Years ago, I could routinely write 15 hours a day for days on end and still be productive. Nowadays, I can do that once in a great while, but I find it hard to do much more than eight or ten hours a day of serious work on a routine basis. I can sit at my keyboard for much longer than that, but I don't end up with much more work product than if I'd knocked off after eight or ten hours. But yesterday and today will be exceptions. I'll force myself, although I'll pay the price tomorrow and probably Tuesday. Today, I'll take a shower and get a couple loads of laundry done during breaks. I'll take care of mom and the dogs. But otherwise I'll work straight through until I'm finished or I collapse. I will get this chapter ready to ship off to my editor by tonight.

I'm letting other stuff go. I'm responding briefly on the messageboards, but I haven't bothered to respond to any email except the most important stuff. Just cleaning out my inbox tomorrow is going to take a while. It'll probably be short shrift for the rest of the month. Even after I send this chapter in, I have some new stuff to write for the next edition. By New Year's Day I'll be ready to collapse entirely.

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