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Week of 25 March 2002

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Monday, 25 March 2002

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9:00 - Thoth died sometime during the night. When I came into my office this morning, I found thoth with pilot lights on but a blank screen. I assumed that it had just locked up, per the usual, but when I power reset it, thoth failed to boot.

Those boot problems have been getting more frequent lately. Yesterday, as I was doing laundry, I started my normal full weekly backup.  This time, instead of doing it on the Tecmar DDS-3 tape drive on thoth, I ran it on the Seagate DDS-3 tape drive in messier, my new main system. I went downstairs to put the white load in the dryer and the dark load in the washer. When I came back upstairs, I noticed that messier had already started doing the verify pass. Now, I know that Seagate tape drives are fast, but that was ridiculous.

At the time, thoth had a web page displayed in Mozilla and looked perfectly normal. When I moved the mouse, however, it was apparent that thoth had locked up yet again. Microsoft Backup, running on messier , had been backing up thoth when thoth locked up. So it just skipped that volume and went on to the next one.

The way we're set up, all of our working data is on the server, theodore . Running a backup of theodore introduces two problems: first, it's much slower to backup data across the network than from a local volume. Second, if someone has a file open on theodore, it doesn't get backed up. That means, for example, that we can't check our mail during a backup of theodore because if we happen to have the Outlook PST file open when the backup program tries to back it up, it'll get skipped.

To address that problem, as well as to increase data redundancy, I keep a copy of the full data directory from theodore on thoth, using an xcopy batch file periodically to copy all new or changed files from theodore to thoth. I run that batch file immediately before doing a tape backup, and then backup all of thoth, thereby backing up the backup data directory rather than the working data directory. Thoth also holds the primary copy of our archive data directory, which contains all of our old data. That all worked fine as long as we were using the tape drive on thoth to do the backup (and as long as thoth wasn't locking up).

But in addition to the problem of thoth locking up, the time needed to backup thoth remotely from messier was going to be a problem. I decided that since messier is soon to become my primary system, it made sense to copy the databack directory (the backup copy of our main working data) and the data directory (our archive data) from thoth to messier and then just backup messier. So I rebooted thoth and left it sitting at a login prompt, hoping that if the GUI wasn't running thoth would be less likely to hang up during the long copy process.

It took quite a while to copy 13 GB of archive data and 3 GB of working data from thoth to messier, even over a 100BaseT connection, but the copy completed successfully. That done, I went ahead and did the full weekly backup on messier. That completed normally, and at about 6 GB/hour for backing up data from a local volume, versus about half that for backing up a remote volume across the network. I'm very glad I decided to install that DDS-3 tape drive in messier the other day.

After the backup completed, I started thinking about what to do with thoth and messier. Because messier is to become my new main system, I was about to stick in the Office 2000 CD and do a full install of Office 2000. Then I got to wondering if I really wanted to do that. Perhaps I should just install Mozilla, Opera, OpenOffice, and so on, and leave the Office 2000 CD on the shelf. I decided to think about that overnight, but I'm still not sure what I'm going to do. I had planned to leave thoth as a secondary system, which would give me access to Microsoft applications if I needed them, but with thoth now dead, that's no longer an option. Of course, I have my den system (which I'm writing this on) and it has the full Office 2000 suite installed. So perhaps I will see how well I can get along without Microsoft Office installed.

Once I post this up to the server, I'm going to head for my office and disconnect thoth. I'll set it aside until I have time to tear it down and rebuild it. At that point, it will become a Linux server. My Linux workstation, herschel, is still sitting in shrink-wrapped boxes in the dining room. Once I get some of the items cleared from my to-do list, herschel becomes a higher priority.

11:32 - After screwing around with things for a while, I finally ended up installing Office 2000. OpenOffice looks like it has a lot of promise, but I need the real Word 2000 to work with documents that I exchange with my publisher. Also, as much as I hate it, Outlook 2000 is the best solution for me for mail, at least at the moment. I suspect that'll change once I get a Linux workstation up and running. I did install Mozilla 0.9.9 and am using it both as my default browser and as my HTML editor. Otherwise, I'm keeping things pretty simple. I've installed WinZip and Irfanview, and will install Norton Internet Security/AV in a few minutes. Other than that, I'll just install applications as I find I need them.

The new system is fast, as you might expect given that it's a Pentium 4/1.7G (versus a Pentium III/750 on the old system). Having 512 MB of RAM probably helps as well. Everything just pops up onto the screen now. One minor problem is that I didn't install a floppy drive in this system. The only thing I really need that for is transferring images from the digital camera, but I have a USB SmartMedia reader around here somewhere. I'd better dig that out.

If you haven't done anything about the CBDPTA yet, please, please do so now. Visit this EFF page first, and then make your feelings known to your representatives. Don't put it off, and don't assume that so many people will be expressing their outrage that you don't need to bother adding your voice. We all of us need to contact our representatives and let them know how we feel about this. This is a battle we can lose, folks. In fact, at this point if I were betting on the outcome I'd say we are going to lose it. But we're certainly going to lose it unless everyone does his part. This means you.

We need hundreds of thousands of emails, snailmails, faxes, and telephone calls arriving in the offices of senators and representatives. Millions would be better. We need to let the people behind this outrageous proposed legislation know that they've kicked over a hornets' nest, and that if they allow this measure to become law they're going to get stung. If that doesn't happen, this bill is going to sail through, and we're all going to pay the price. Don't let that happen. Please. Contact your senators and representive and let them know that you are unalterably opposed to this or any similar legislation. Please. Do it now. Right now. Stop reading this page, go to the EFF page I linked to above, and make your feelings known.


Tuesday, 26 March 2002

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8:37 - Barbara is off to volunteer at SciWorks this morning. This afternoon, she's taking Duncan and Malcolm out to visit a lady who's volunteered to foster for Carolina Border Collie Rescue. I'll be working at the computer all day, as usual. I have some stuff I must get done before the new edition of PC Hardware in a Nutshell hits the bookstores. My to-do list seems to get bigger every day, with two items added for each one completed.


Wednesday, 27 March 2002

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8:50 - Barbara is off to play golf with her father this morning. They haven't been able to play much lately, between bad weather and her father being ill. I'll continue work on the website. I've been busy updating component recommendations. You can see what I've done here . The rest of them should be finished and posted today. Once I finish those, I have to update the recommended system configurations and re-do all the work I'd done in FrontPage to translate material that was cut from the new edition of PC Hardware in a Nutshell into web pages. Then I'll do a final pass through the web site to recreate all of the old pages and eliminate the FrontPage garbage from the HTML. At that point, the web site will be finished, other than making periodic updates and adding new material from time to time. I'll do a quick refresh of the major pages immediately before the new edition hits the bookstores, of course. Then it'll be off to work on the next project.


Thursday, 28 March 2002

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9:19 - How ironic. I got a call from Brian Bilbrey yesterday to tell me that Codeweavers had released Crossover Office , a product that allows Microsoft Office to run under WINE emulation on Linux. Then I got a couple emails from Roland Dobbins with links to articles on Crossover Office. Both of them were thinking, no doubt, of my earlier comments that I'd convert to Linux in a heartbeat if I could run Microsoft Office on Linux. Well, now I can.

The irony is that I no longer care. In the past two weeks, Microsoft Outlook has munged my mail data and Microsoft FrontPage has trashed a day's worth of work. I've already abandoned FrontPage, and I will soon abandon Outlook. I no longer care about running Microsoft Office under Linux. I want to start running standards-compliant software--a web page editor that writes standard HTML, a mail client that stores its data in an industry-standard format, and so on.

For the last week or so, I've been using Mozilla Composer for maintaining this web page. I'm in the process of converting the web site to W3C-compliant HMTL, again using Mozilla. Mozilla isn't the best tool out there. It's buggy and quirky. But it does have the unquestionable advantage of producing standard HTML. And I would be very, very surprised if Mozilla Composer ever decided to deleted every file in a directory as FrontPage did.

So what I decided to do was use two main systems. The one I'm writing this on is my Windows 2000 box. The one that's still sitting in pieces in the dining room is my Linux box. Once I get past rewriting, updating, and expanding the site (and doing my taxes), I'll build that Linux box. It'll sit under my desk and be attached to a monitor and keyboard sitting on my desk. I will have two primary systems, one running Windows and one Linux. At first, I may spend 80% of my time on the Windows box and 20% on the Linux box. Over time, that ratio will reverse. Eventually, the Windows box will be used only at the infrequent times when I absolutely need to run a Windows application. As time passes, I have no doubt that that will happen less and less frequently.

Speaking of irony, MS-NBC reports that AOL has reversed an executive decision that required all 82,000 AOL/Time-Warner employees to use AOL email for internal communications. Among the problems that AOL/Time-Warner employees complained about for months were that the email software crashed frequently, that it didn't support sending large attachments, that they were often summarily disconnected, that if they attempted to send a message to multiple recipients the AOL mail software decided they were spammers, and that many messages were simply lost in the AOL ether.

An apologist for AOL said that AOL email was designed for consumer use, not business use. That's okay, then. I guess their position is that consumers shouldn't object when any of those things happen. So now AOL/Time-Warner is in the humiliating position of depending on other ISPs to provide their mail service. That's the moral equivalent of Microsoft deciding that Windows Server is inadequate and using UNIX on large Microsoft corporate servers. Oh, wait. That's already happened, hasn't it?

We headed up to Bullington last night to do some observing, even though Luna was nearly full. The sky was lit so brightly by Luna that it was impossible to bag many DSOs, but we did get a few. We also saw Comet Ikeya-Zhang. It was down in the muck, but we were able to see a distinct tail in binoculars. Oddly, the comet was more impressive in binoculars than in the scope, where it showed as just a fuzzy ball with no tail.

We'd met our friend Bonnie Richardson up there, expecting relatively comfortable weather. The Weather Channel forecast called for temperatures in the mid- to low 50's and relatively calm. Instead, the temperature had dropped to about 40 by 8:00 p.m. and there was a stiff breeze. That dropped the wind chill to below freezing, not to mention blowing books, maps, and even scopes around. Bonnie had to leave by 9:30 to pick up her sister at work, so we decided to pack it in as well.


Friday, 29 March 2002

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8:30 - Mozilla 0.9.9 has some pretty odd bugs in it. Bugs that I'd have thought were so fundamental that they'd have been exterminated long ago. Many of them have to do with text-entry boxes and right-click context-sensitive menus. For example, when I bring up the Mozilla browser, it sometimes won't accept characters in the URL box. That is, I click on the URL box and type "" and my typing doesn't show up in the box. It's not that the browser is hung. I can click on a link on the page being displayed, and it goes to that page as expected. It's just that the browser won't accept typing. That doesn't happen all the time, but it does happen maybe one time in ten that I start the browser. This happens on different systems, which otherwise work fine, so it's definitely Mozilla.

Also, for some reason, Mozilla often doesn't display a cursor. For example, I'll visit Google and click in the search box, where I intend to start typing a search string. No cursor. It accepts my typing normally, but there's no way to tell where I am in the text box, which makes it hard to modify the string later. Mozilla also still has some severe rendering problems. For example, when I visit PC Magazine, the left-hand column (where choice like "Opinions" are listed) is often blank. The box itself is there, but no contents are visible. The links themselves are there, because I can see the cursor change as I move it around in the box, and if I click blindly I go to another page.

One of the most aggravating bugs is the defective (or entirely missing) right-click copy/paste functionality. I was working on web pages with Composer yesterday, and this is a real problem. I was trying to insert links to other pages. I'd copied those links by various methods--highlighting the entire URL in the browser URL box and right-click copying or Ctrl-C copying, choosing "Copy Link Address" from the preceding page, etc.--and then attempted to paste that URL into the link creation dialog in Composer. Sometimes the link would paste successfully. Other times, what got pasted was material that I'd previously copied. In other words, the immediately preceding "copy" operation didn't take, and instead of the URL I expected to be pasting in, I'd end up pasting in some random text from the previous copy operation.

And speaking of pasting in, Composer is lacking some really obvious convenience options. For example, when I bring up the create link dialog, there's no right-click menu. Instead of just right-clicking in the URL box and choosing paste, one has to click in the URL box and then use Ctrl-V to do the paste manually. There are similar aggravations elsewhere in Composer. For example, I needed to change several tables to increase cell padding from 0 pixels to 2 pixels. When I brought up the dialog for each table, there was a box for cell padding, but the only way to change the value was to click in the box and delete the old value and then manually enter 2. How hard would it have been to add a spinner to those boxes so that I could just increment or decrement the value wtih a mouse click?

In short, the Mozilla browser and Composer are buggy and clumsy to use. But I'll keep using them. At least I don't have to worry about Composer deciding to wipe out every file in a directory like FrontPage did. And Composer does generate standards-compliant HTML.

Back to work on the web sites for me...


Saturday, 30 March 2002

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10:28 - Barbara is off to Charlotte for the day to run the Carolina Border Collie Rescue table at a dog event. I'll be working on web pages, as usual. The is still a mess--broken links all over the place, missing pages, pages that duplicate other pages because I just used them as placeholders, etc. I'm gradually getting all that worked out.

Be careful if you get a domain renewal notice from VeriSign. I got one the other day for Barbara's domain. I spotted it as bogus immediately, because I haven't registered a domain with InterNIC/Network Solutions/VeriSign since alternatives became available. So I knew that wasn't registered with VeriSign.

It'd be hard to tell that just by looking at the document they sent me, however. Nearly anyone who received that document would assume that it was a renewal invoice, which is pretty clearly just what VeriSign intended. In fact, it is a domain transfer request, which VeriSign did their best to camouflage as an invoice. Many people will assume that the word "transfer" on the front of this document refers to money being transferred. Few will realize that the "transfer" referred to is the transfer of the domain itself. I probably would not have realized if I hadn't known for a fact that I don't do business with VeriSign. I wonder how many people will unintentionally transfer their domains to VeriSign by filling out this document in the belief that they're simply renewing their domain names. Here are scans of the front and back:

A warning in large red letters should appear at the top of this document--THIS IS NOT AN INVOICE . I think VeriSign should face criminal charges over this little scam. What they've done is exactly analogous to those companies that send out "invoices" for copier supplies or whatever without making clear that it is an order form rather than an invoice. VeriSign is counting on people mistaking an order form for an invoice, and that in my opinion constitutes fraud.

12:05 - I finally got the images fixed. Thanks to everyone who called my attention to the problem. Unfortunately, Mozilla Composer is about as bad as FrontPage when it comes to changing relative links to absolute links. If I copy an image (like the separator) that's a relative link and then post it, Mozilla Composer changes it unilaterally to an absolute link. I hate this.


Sunday, 31 March 2002

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9:00 - Tomorrow is the first of April, which means I need to start thinking about doing my taxes. As much as I despise Intuit as a company, every year I buy TurboTax, so I suppose I'll do the same this year. Every year, I'm tempted just to do my taxes manually, which I used to do. One of these years, I probably will.

One thing about this time of year is that my mood is predictable. I'll be in a foul mood from April 1st through April 22nd. I hate having my money stolen from me. I almost wish I were religious and believed in Hell. If such a place existed, there would be a special place reserved there for the IRS and legislators. Bastards.

Oh, well. I suppose I'd better go get the laundry done and then work on web pages some more.


Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Robert Bruce Thompson. All Rights Reserved.