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Daynotes Journal

Week of 18 February 2002

Latest Update: Friday, 10 May 2002 12:56


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Monday, 18 February 2002

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9:01 - I pretty much took the weekend off. I'd intended to tear down our 10" scope again and re-install the metal plate I'd removed, but Barbara was feeling pretty beat, her Winston-Cup race was about to start, and I didn't feel like doing it by myself. So I just stretched out on the bed and read for a while and then took a nap. As it turned out, Barbara slept through about the first half of the Daytona 500, with the dogs curled up around her. So we had a restful day.

Back to work on the USB chapter, so there's unlikely to be much posted here other than short updates.


Tuesday, 19 February 2002

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8:35 - I worked all day on the USB chapter. Our friend Robin came over for dinner. Barbara grilled steaks and boiled red potatoes in their jackets. We chatted for a while, but Robin had also had a long day, so she left by 9:00 or so. Barbara is off this morning to run errands and then has an 11:30 appointment at the dentist to have a filling replaced. Ice cream for dinner, I guess.

Back to work on the USB chapter.



Wednesday, 20 February 2002

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8:54 - I worked all day on the USB chapter. I'll work all day on it again. Astronomy club meeting tonight.

I sent a mailing to subscribers yesterday and got the following bounces:

*** jcowden at dellcity dot com
Error connecting to primary server ''.550 <jcowden at dellcity dot com>... User unknown

*** jhl2 at alltel dot net
550 Invalid recipient: <jhl2 at alltel dot net>

If one of those is you, please send me your current email address so I can update my records.

Basilio Alferow sends me this link to an InfoWorld article, with the subject line "One more reason to avoid HP (as if we needed more)". Indeed.

There may soon be a comet that is visible naked-eye. See this link. Predicting the brightness of comets is a risky business. I'll never forget Kahoutek, which some predicted would be so bright as to be visible during the day. Kahoutek was a nice comet, but it never got bright enough to be spectacular even at night, let alone during the day. This one looks as though it may be a pretty good comet, but only time will tell.


Thursday, 21 February 2002

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9:02 - I worked all day again on the USB chapter, and I'm nowhere near finished with it. Around 16:30, Barbara and I took off to do errands. We visited the library, went out for an early dinner, visited another library, and finally showed up at SciWorks about 19:00 for the astronomy club meeting. That didn't start until 19:30, but Luna was occulting Saturn at 19:08, and we wanted to be set up in the parking lot to see it. Even though it was cloudy with occasional rain, we set up our 3.5" refractor in the hope the clouds would clear enough for us to see the occultation. Luna kept peeking out from behind the clouds, but we didn't manage to see the actual occultation. 

Saturn was being occulted by the unilluminated portion of Luna, and the haze was so bad that we couldn't discriminate that from the background sky. We could see Saturn floating in gray haziness about where we knew the Lunar limb was, but it was impossible to tell exactly how close Saturn was to being occulted. Ultimately, it didn't matter, as heavy clouds covered Luna just before the occultation occurred.

We then went in to the meeting, which lasted about fifteen minutes. Then everyone headed for the lobby, where Jeff Poplin had set up his new 20" Obsession telescope. We admired that for quite a while, and then headed for the parking lot, hoping that the clouds would have cleared enough by 20:35 that we could see Saturn reappear from behind Luna. Alas, that wasn't to be. We were completely socked in. So we headed back in to SciWorks and visited their new ISS/Space Shuttle exhibit. We all went for rides in the simulator, and looked at all the full-scale mockups of stuff like the Shuttle cockpit, ISS science labs, and so on. Some tried running the docking simulator, but no one managed to dock successfully. Great fun. I wish I'd taken my camera but I didn't think about it.

People still think I'm kidding about washing keyboards, floppy drives, CD-ROM drives etc. in the dishwasher. I've been doing it for more than 20 years now, but apparently some people just can't get their minds around the idea. Fred Langa has finally gotten the idea, so perhaps those of you who won't believe me will believe him. The only thing I'd add is that particularly for sensitive stuff like CD-ROM drives, I'd drench the part in distilled water before drying to prevent water spotting.

This from a reader who shall remain anonymous for obvious reasons. The subject line reads "One more reason to avoid HP... and Compaq".

At my company (600 desktops) we have much the same issue with the OS as the article reported.

But we're a Compaq shop.

The problem isn't entirely with Compaq or HP, though, it's the Microsoft licensing. Or it's entirely the OEM's fault if you take the stance that in order to save $n.99 on their licensing cost, they screw any customers that want the CD.

Compaq provides a restore CD, which basically does an fdisk, format, then unpack their custom build of the OS. You can buy a replacement restore CD, and they only work for a given line of hardware.

We deploy our workstations with Ghost, and we have simply bought single corporate editions of all the desktop software, and as such we are taking liberties with the Microsoft licensing that rational minds wouldn't argue with, but the waste-of-resources Microsoft lawyers would.

Despite this, we have several times been inflicted with pain as we get a Compaq laptop or desktop that needs to be re-imaged and we find that it was the verdamt Prosignia line or the Armada laptops. We've bought many, many laptops from Compaq and have been burnt many many times; their performance is weak and they're fragile. We're switching to IBM laptops.

One of the problems we've found with the Compaq is that they typically post all the drivers you need on their website, but with the laptops, sometimes the only driver that exists is on the Restore CD, e.g. I just wasted an afternoon trying to get the right Lucent WinModem driver and had to settle for one that works great as a modem but is silent. When dialing fails with no audible feedback, it's an insurmountable object for a traveling non-tech user.

Interesting. My own experience with Compaq notebooks is better, as is that of most of my readers who have written me about it. I think as far as notebooks it's often a grass-is-greener thing. If you consider Compaq, Dell, IBM, and Toshiba as the primary notebook vendors, I've had people tell me that any one of them is the best thing they've ever used and that all the others are terrible. I'm quite happy with my Compaq Armada E500, and don't consider its performance weak. Nor does it seem fragile. I've hauled it around pretty casually, including in a rucksack up to our astronomy club observing site. It's taken quite a licking and keeps on ticking.

12:50 - Some responses to my mailing to subscribers this morning:

-----Original Message-----
From: Clark E. Myers
Sent: Thursday, February 21, 2002 10:44 AM
To: Robert Bruce Thompson
Subject: older story was controversy on whose database should be used for play list information -RE: Windows Media Player privacy violations

Microsoft's server has traditionally been an inferior database missing hits on less popular material. Probably a market failure that there is no widely advertised alternative database with privacy guarantees, of course there always the possibility of manual entry from the jewel box label. Be nice if people would/could start mirroring old MS patches so there could be old MS distros and independent support.

chat says: The files are stored in C:\Documents and Settings\All Users\Application Data\Microsoft\Media Index\wmplibrary_v_0_12.db also saw a file wmplibrary_v_0_12.lrd that had hostname in it, and a file called WMPImage_AlbumArtLarge.

bugtraq also discusses

Notice again how little on Register these days is original, this is an AP story as well as a ./ discussion. Wonder if Dr. Keyboard ever got all his money owed from the Register?

More to the point, how does AMD compare with Intel on unique CPU identifiers? Any pointer in the book on this?

I've always used public CCDB servers, and don't watch DVDs, so it doesn't affect me. I was aware of the issue before, but this was the first time that I'd seen any confirmation that Microsoft was actually accumulating the data and linking it to cookies.

As far as I know, AMD processors do not incorporate a Processor Serial Number, but I can't see where that's much of an issue anyway. I was concerned about it when the news broke about Intel incorporating a PSN in their processors, but as far as I am concerned because one can now turn off the PSN in BIOS and because they are shipped with PSN disabled it has become a non-issue. In particular, your system is already uniquely identified by the MAC (hardware) address of its Ethernet card, so even if the PSN were enabled it simply provides a second unique identifier. In terms of privacy risks, I think PSN is way down the list, and certainly behind such things as IP address logging, cookies, web bugs, and so on.

-----Original Message-----
From: Paul Robichaux
Sent: Thursday, February 21, 2002 10:51 AM
To: Robert Bruce Thompson
Subject: Re: Windows Media Player privacy violations and counterfeit 3Com network cards

This doesn't strike me as anything to get too exercised about, for two reasons.

First, most media players (including WinAmp, Apple's iTunes, and the Real* line) have the capability to fetch title and track information for audio CDs. This is widely perceived as a useful convenience, even though at a minimum it results in a link between your IP address and a CD title. The fact that WMP does this for DVDs doesn't seem egregious in that context, although I must say that most DVDs probably already have their own chapter/title info encoded.

As for the WMP GUID issue, this was pretty thoroughly discussed in the press a couple of months ago. The current version of WMP allows you to opt out via a checkbox that says something like "don't uniquely identify me". When checked, WMP will still provide a GUID on demand, but it makes up a new GUID each time. ISTR that there's a patch to make the current-but-one version do the same thing, but I might be making that up.

I don't use WMP, but I'm sure you're right. I'm not sure, though, that I trust that checkbox to do what people would expect it to do.

-----Original Message-----
From: Paul E. Robichaux
Sent: Thursday, February 21, 2002 12:44 PM
To: Robert Bruce Thompson
Subject: RE: Windows Media Player privacy violations and counterfeit 3Comnetwork cards

I wouldn't either; Richard Smith, the guy who originally broke the story, is the one who announced that the GUID generated when the checkbox is on is randomly generated. He doesn't have any particular love for MS, but he doesn't hate 'em either-- he'll attack or defend anyone purely based on his evaluation of the privacy valence of their code. I trust him to accurately report facts, mostly because he has in the past.

Sounds reasonable to me. I don't have any particular love or hate for Microsoft, either, although I do my best to point out when they do something obnoxious. Their recent actions have, as far as I'm concerned, made them a poor choice. I'll continue using their older products until I can transition to Linux, but it's pretty clear that Microsoft is not going somewhere I want to go, today or any other day.

And I guess that's enough on that topic...



Friday, 22 February 2002

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9:22 - Barbara is off this morning to see her father. They played golf yesterday, and Barbara had told me she'd be very late because she planned to have lunch with her father and then help him put out fertilizer on his yard. I was surprised to see her arrive home at 1:30, which is earlier than usual. She told me that her dad hadn't felt well when they finished playing golf, so they decided not to do the yard work.

This morning, Barbara's sister called and I answered the phone. She sounded upset. I overheard parts of the conversation, including Barbara mentioning chest pains. I was afraid that Barbara's father was having a heart attack, but as it turns out it's probably a lot less serious than that. He was running a temperature of 102 last night. Barbara's mother, who doesn't drive, called Barbara's sister at 7:00 this morning. Her father didn't want to go to the hospital, so they took him to the doctor.

Barbara is headed over there now to sit with him today and perhaps this evening. It sounds to me as though he may have the flu, which is starting to spread in North Carolina now. Barbara is still concerned, because her father will be 80 in July, and the flu is no small matter at his age. I'm concerned, too, both for her father and my mother, who just turned 83. Both have had flu shots, but I'm not sure how much good those do.

Well, Barbara just heard from her sister again. Their father has pneumonia, which is never good, but is particularly bad for someone his age. I suppose they'll be able to cure him quickly with antibiotics. We'll keep our fingers crossed.

11:02 - This may be the first significant chink in the armor of Microsoft's stranglehold on the bundled OS market. Wal*Mart is now selling PCs without software. True, they're probably not very good PCs--Wal*Mart doesn't give much in the way of specifications--but I suspect they're going to sell them by the millions, assuming that they migrate them off their web site and into their stores.

Microsoft no doubt is livid. They've tried hard to push the idea that selling a PC without a Microsoft operating system installed should be illegal, or nearly so. And now the biggest company in the world has started doing just that. Let Microsoft try to club Wal*Mart over the head. They'll find they're dealing with someone bigger than they are, and just as ruthless. 

In theory, the buyers are supposed to install Linux or an older version of Windows from a machine that they've scrapped, or buy a separate retail copy of Windows. Of course, what Microsoft thinks is going to happen is that a lot of newbies are going to buy these things, carry them home, and call their techie friend or their daughter-in-law or the kid next door to come make it work for them. And what Microsoft thinks is going to go on that machine is an unlicensed copy of Windows 9X or Windows 2000, not to mention Office 2000 and probably some other unlicensed stuff.

I don't have a lot of sympathy for Microsoft. They've now sold Windows 95 several times over to the same users. Someone who licensed Windows 95 should have received Windows 98, Windows 98SE, and Windows 98Me--perhaps minus new features like Internet Connection Sharing--as service pack upgrades, free for the download. They're all the same operating system. Instead, Microsoft charged people $90 or so for most of those upgrades. So if someone has a legal copy of Windows 95 running on an old Pentium and decides to trash that system and install Windows 98SE on a new Wal*Mart system, I'm not going to complain. Same thing if someone has a legitimate copy of Windows NT4 and installs an unlicensed copy of Windows 2000 on his new system.

Obviously, I don't have to worry about this stuff, because Microsoft gives me site licenses for or multiple copies of their software just for the asking. Just as obviously, as an author I have respect for intellectual property. But when Microsoft arbitrarily defines an update as a new version, I can understand why people balk. For example, Windows NT 4.0 was originally called the SUR (Shell Update Release) and was numbered as Windows NT 3.6. Then some bright guy in marketing decided that they could charge a lot more for a major new release than a point update. So Windows NT 3.6 turned into Windows NT 4.0, and NT users paid a lot more for that upgrade.

It would be less objectionable if Microsoft continued to support older versions with critical patches, drivers for newer hardware, etc. But they don't. Instead, they use the security and privacy flaws in those older versions to force expensive upgrades, and they use their license to enforce unconscionable restrictions on using the software that people have already paid for. So perhaps these Wal*Mart systems will be the first trickle in what may become a flood. I hope so.


Saturday, 23 February 2002

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10:00 - Barbara's father is doing a lot better. He has bacterial pneumonia, and the antibiotic they gave him yesterday seems to be knocking it out. Before antibiotics, pneumonia was usually a death sentence for someone 80 years old. As Barbara watched the Olympics last night, I heard one of the announcers speak of a group of medal winners as "heroes". Give me a break. They were playing a children's game, racing sleds down a hill. Nothing more, and nothing heroic about it.

Is it any wonder that things are falling apart, when society holds up overpaid sports figures and actors as heroes to children? Not one person in a hundred can name the men who discovered and developed penicillin, which has saved millions of lives, or name the men who developed a vaccine against polio, which has eliminated that crippling plague. People like Alexander Fleming, Ernst Chain and Howard Florey are forgotten. Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin are perhaps better remembered, but only because the vaccines they developed bear their names. And many of the forgotten medical researchers were heroes in the true sense of the word. They risked their lives developing medicines that benefit us all. Dr. Salk, for example, tested his vaccine on himself, his wife, and his children.

So, the next time someone describes a sports figure or an actor or a politician as a hero, think about it. Those people have done nothing important. Reserve your admiration for those who do important things--the scientists, the engineers, the inventors, the writers, the firemen and cops, the power company linemen who climb poles in the middle of a storm to restore power, the doctors and nurses who risk their own lives to treat people with hideously dangerous viruses, and so on. Those who do important things that benefit us all, and who are seldom recognized for what they contribute.

There's a public observation at Pilot Mountain State Park tonight, sponsored by the Forsyth Astronomical Society and SciWorks. For once, the weather is supposed to be perfect. Clear skies, temperatures in the 40s, and no wind. Luna is up tonight, which is a Bad Thing for those of us who like to observe faint fuzzies, but it's a Good Thing for a public observation, because Luna is the most impressive object in a telescope. Saturn and Jupiter are also high, and both of them are very popular objects for public viewings. We should have a very good turnout tonight, both among club members and among the general public. I expect anything from 150 to perhaps 300 people will attend. Barbara and I will get up there well before sunset so that we can reserve a place and get set up before the crowd arrives.

We're just going to set up our 3.5" refractor tonight. There's not much point to setting up the 10" Dob, because Luna will be bright enough to wash out most of the deep sky stuff we might otherwise look at. The refractor will serve well for the stuff that visitors will want to look at. Most of the club members won't have their "good stuff" set up. There's too much chance of an accident at a public observation. There'll be kids running loose, and no one wants to risk having one of their expensive scopes knocked over. 

Same thing with stuff like eyepieces. No one uses their $300 eyepieces at public observations, because they don't want kids putting fingerprints (and noseprints) on them, or women smearing mascara on the eye lens. So most club members will use only inexpensive eyepieces, usually one low-power and one higher-power, perhaps a couple of $40 Ploessls. We'll probably take a 25mm Ploessl, which yields 40X in our refractor, and the 7mm Siebert, which yields about 143X.

Sadly, another consideration is the risk of theft. With a couple of hundred strangers wandering around in the dark, there's always the chance that an expensive piece of equipment will disappear, so most club members set up only the minimum equipment necessary and keep a close eye on things. 


Sunday, 24 February 2002

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9:53 - The public observation last night did not go well. The forecasts made by the local TV weather folks, the National Weather Service, the Weather Channel, and the Clear Sky Clock said it'd be completely clear, dead calm, and fairly warm. They were absolutely right, except for the 80% cloud cover, stiff breeze, and freezing temperature. 

Then there was the small matter of the notice in the newspaper. It mentioned that there was going to be a public observation last night, sponsored by the Forsyth Astronomical Society and SciWorks. What it neglected to mention was that the public observation was being held at Pilot Mountain State Park. I'm still wondering how many people showed up at SciWorks expecting to look at the stars. It also didn't help that the local TV station apparently didn't mention the event on-air.

The upshot was that we had 20 or so FAS club members there, but very few public visitors. This time last year, there were probably 200 or 300 visitors, Barbara and I among them. This year, I doubt we got more than maybe 50 all evening. Oh, well. We run them about once a quarter, and at least the weather should be warmer next time.

Nor was that all that went wrong. There's more about this over on Barbara's page, including some images. Our teeny little dweeb scope certainly looked completely outgunned, sitting as it was between 12.5", 16", and 20" scopes. My cunning plan was to have the smallest scope there. Everyone wants to look through the big scopes. If there'd been a large public turnout, there might have been lines of literally 25 or 50 people waiting to get a look through the big guns. With our little 3.5" refractor, we would have been like the Maytag Repairman, because no one would spare much more than a glance for our scope. That way, we could spend the evening observing.

Actually, as it turned out, our scope had one advantage for some visitors. Most of the interesting stuff was up near zenith. That means the scopes needed to be pointed nearly straight up. With the big scopes, that means the eyepiece is seven or eight feet off the ground. But when our little refractor is pointed near zenith, the eyepiece is more like two or three feet off the ground. There were a few little kids there, and they could just wander over and find an eyepiece right at a comfortable height for them. 

Time to go do the laundry.



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