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Week of 8 April 2002

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Monday, 8 April 2002

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9:30 - Yesterday I finished building herschel , my new desktop Linux system. This system is named for William and Caroline Herschel, two famous British astronomers of the late 18th and early 19th century. Although herschel looks like a vanilla mini-tower system, it's really a pocket battleship. It's built around an Intel D845BG motherboard with a Pentium 4/2.2G processor. I installed two Crucial 128 MB PC2100 DDR-SDRAM DIMMs. I was going to install 512 MB, but the only 256 MB DDR DIMMs I had were ECC, and I thought I remembered that the D845BG doesn't like ECC. Better safe than sorry, so I installed only 256 MB of non-ECC DDR SDRAM.

The host adapter is an Adaptec 29160. The primary hard drive is an 18 GB Seagate 15K Cheetah. The secondary hard drive is a 180 GB Seagate Barracuda. The tape drive is a Seagate DDS-4. All of those are LVD SCSI. The CD writer is a Plextor 24X. I thought I had a 40X PlexWriter around here, but apparently not. The video adapter is an ATI RADEON 8500DV.

I was looking around for drive coolers for the Cheetah and Barracuda. I found one little PC Power & Cooling muffin fan that sticks to the top of a drive, but that was all I could come up with unless I wanted to disassemble an old server and pull the Bay Cool. But as I was looking at the Antec case, I noticed that the removable 3.5" drive bay had plastic snap fitting for a standard Antec case fan. The case had a standard fan on the back panel near where the CPU sits. Looking at the power supply, I noticed that it had a fan pointing right at the CPU socket area, so I decided to pull the supplemental fan from the back of the case and move it to the drive bay in the front. Here's what it looks like.

That should be enough to cool even a 15K Cheetah and a huge Barracuda.

So, herschel is finished and moved into my office, but I haven't even fired it up yet. I won't, either, until I finish my taxes and get them sent off. But at least I'm now ready to start running a serious Linux desktop.


Tuesday, 9 April 2002

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9:30 - The rich get poorer? Here's something outrageous I read in the newspaper this morning concerning who pays what in income taxes. As of 1999, the latest year for which figures are available, the top 1% paid 36.2% of the $877 billion total income taxes collected from individuals. The top 5% paid 55.5%. The bottom 50% paid only 4.0%. In 1989, the corresponding figures were 25.2%, 43.9%, and 5.8%. Obviously, those with higher incomes are being punished more with each passing year. I don't have the figures for corporate income taxes, which of course are ultimately directly or indirectly paid by individuals, but I suspect that if corporate taxes were included we'd find that the top 25% paid nearly all of the total income taxes.

It's clear to anyone who's read the Constitution that ad valorum taxes are forbidden. I have long argued that a flat tax is the only fair tax, and the only kind that is Constitutionally acceptable. And when I say a flat tax, I don't mean a flat rate, I mean a flat amount. If my fair share is, say, $100, that means that Bill Gates' fair share is also $100. The Constitution permits import duties and per capita taxes. It does not permit taxes based on supposed ability to pay. About a century ago, an attempt was made to amend the Constitution to permit income taxes. That amendment failed, but was improperly made a part of the Constitution. And Americans have been paying ever since.

It seems that the ATI RADEON 8500DV might not be the best choice for my Linux system. I got numerous messages warning me about that, so I'll let this one represent all of them:

-----Original Message-----
From: Holden Aust
Sent: Monday, April 08, 2002 6:47 PM
To: Bob Thompson
Subject: herschel, radeon 8500, red hat, suse 8.0, open office

Hi Bob,

Someone may have already brought this to your attention, but it is quite possible that your Radeon 8500 won't be supported out of the box by Red Hat 7.2.

I think that the Radeon 8500 is supported by the latest XFree86 version 4.20, but I don't think that is the version that ships with Red Hat 7.2, so that could cause problems during your install.

Your best bet might be to use a video card that you know is supported during the initial install (a pre-Radeon ATI or Nvidia TNT or GeForce 2 should work fine with out of the box Red Hat 7.2), get Linux installed, download the binary for XFree86 version 4.2 from Red Hat and install that, then swap video cards and put your Radeon in and rerun the X configuration tool to tell it that you are now using a different video card. There may be better ways to do it, but I think that should work for you.

I'm not that familiar with installing current versions of Red Hat, since the last version I installed was 6.1, so you might want to check with Red Hat's tech support and/or Red Hat users to be sure.

I've been using SuSE since about SuSE version 5.1. I've tried other distributions, but I keep coming back to SuSE because I've had the best luck and the least trouble with SuSE. Also I think its a better value than any other distribution I'm familiar with. SuSE is coming out with a major new revision, version 8.0 on April 22nd, which will have the latest versions of KDE (3.0) and XFree86 (4.20). You might want to contact SuSE at their office in Oakland, California and get them to send you a copy when it is released - I think you'd like it (I think Tom Syroid has a contact at SuSE). SuSE is also available directly from and from CompUseless and BestBuy, although it will probably take them a week or two after the release before they have it.

With Red Hat, be sure to install KDE as well as Gnome so you can have access to Konqueror and all the great KDE software.

Good luck with herschel. Linux can be frustrating at times, but unlike some other OSes that you and I know, most problems DO have solutions and the more familiar you get with it, the more you'll like it. We'll look forward to hearing your adventures.

                            --- Holden

p.s. Check out Open Office from (the Open Source version of Star Office). When you do the install, login as root, open a shell prompt, unpack the file (you can use Konqueror to do that or use tar from the shell prompt), then type "./startup /net" and install the Open Office install files to /usr/bin/openoffice . Then login as user bob (or whatever your user is), change directories to the /usr/bin/openoffice/programs and try to run swriter or scalc. Open Office will then tell you that it is not installed for you and will offer you the opportunity to do a workstation install. This proceedure is documented at the Open Office web site.

Thanks. Several other people have warned me about lack of support for the RADEON 8500 in Linux.

I may end up swapping machines, using my current Windows box for Linux and vice versa.

I'm making some progress in getting the web site updated to where I want it to be when the new edition hits the book stores. I'm going to continue working on that today. As of tomorrow morning, I start on taxes and continue working on those until they're finished. That means there probably won't be much if anything posted here until late this week, or perhaps the first of next week.


Wednesday, 10 April 2002

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9:20 - I removed Norton Internet Security and Norton AntiVirus from my den system last night. I use that system periodically throughout the evening to check email and browse web pages. Everything was working normally after dinner. Later in the evening, I fired up Mozilla to check something on the web. When I clicked on a link to a remote site, Mozilla just sat there doing nothing. At first I thought the web site was simply not responding, but I checked a second and then a third site with the same results. At that point I figured the Internet connection was down, so I fired up Outlook. It downloaded several new emails, so obviously the Internet connection wasn't the problem.

So I fired up Opera and found it was also unable to connect to any remote site. Same thing for IE. Obviously, Norton Internet Security was hosed. When I disabled NIS, the problem disappeared. So I fired up the NIS management utility and started looking around. I ended up drilling down to some pretty low-level settings, and still couldn't find anything out of whack. So I ran the configuration wizard, hoping that it would reset whatever had been screwed up. No joy. I still couldn't get to any web sites.

The truth is that my system is pretty well secured anyway, sitting as it does behind the WinGate proxy server running on meepmeep , my Internet gateway box. Some months ago, one of my friends offered to check my security using a high-end commercial product. He concluded that meepmeep was "amazingly secure for a Windows system", which I took to mean that I was pretty well secured against intruders.

At that point I decided that I really didn't need to be running NIS at all. It's been an interesting experiment, but all NIS really does for me is block ads on web sites. So I uninstalled NIS, which wasn't as easy as it should be. At one point, the uninstaller told me it was unable to stop a service and suggested that my privs weren't high enough. I was logged on with admin privs, so I'm not sure how much more it wanted. The uninstall from the NIS menu aborted, as did my attempt to uninstall from Control Panel. So I restarted the system in Safe Mode and ran uninstall again, this time on both NIS and NAV. That time it succeeded, although it left my drive and registry cluttered with Norton stuff. I went in manually with regedit and removed all references in the registry to Norton and Symantec. Then I ran RegClean a couple times to clean things up. Then I used Search to find all Norton/Symantec/NAV folders and files and deleted those as well.

With NIS and NAV finally eradicated, I rebooted the system. Everything worked normally. More to the point, everything worked much faster. All that NIS and NAV stuff running in the background really slows things down noticeably. With them gone, web pages pop up on screen twice as fast, and my mail downloads in about half the usual time.

With NIS gone, one drawback immediately became apparent. The first web page I visited was cluttered with banner ads and pop-ups. I felt like I was browsing in the middle of Times Square. That was easy enough to fix, though. I went over to the WebWasher site and downloaded the latest version. After installing it, I was back to ad-free browsing. What a difference. Instead of Times Square, it now felt like I was browsing on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Which reminds me of something that annoys me about Mozilla. I was over on their site the other day and happened across a document that mentioned ad-blocking. Apparently, the Mozilla developers recognize that users would like to have ad-blocking functionality built in to Mozilla, but they refuse to add that feature because they don't approve of blocking ads. That seems to me a pretty high-handed approach. In effect they're telling users that they can't have a feature they want because the developers (or, more precisely, Mozilla management) thinks users should be forced to look at ads. I wonder to what extent that position is due to the corporation that sponsors Mozilla.

I also wonder why ad-blocking isn't a standard feature of Opera. I understand why it isn't included in IE. Microsoft, after all, is in bed with the music industry, the movie industry, the on-line advertising industry, and in fact anyone else whose interests are opposed to those of users. So I never expect to see ad-blocking functionality built into IE. But it sure seems an obvious function for independent browsers to support.

Speaking of Opera, I think I'm going to remove it from my systems. I really like the product, but it has one flaw that makes it nearly unusable for me.  On many sites, the vertical scroll bar simply doesn't work in Opera. I'm sure that Opera would argue that those sites have broken code, but that's not the point. When I display a web page that occupies more than one screen vertically, I need to be able to scroll down to read the rest of the page. Frequently, that's not possible in Opera, which makes it useless to me. Those sites display properly in IE and Mozilla.

I don't use IE unless I'm forced to, so for Windows systems I'm now using Mozilla as my default browser. The only really annoying bugs I've encountered in Mozilla are:
  • It sometimes stops accepting keyboard input. That's apparently a known bug, and presumably will be fixed in the 1.0 release. Worst case, I can exit Mozilla, fire it up again, and it usually starts accepting keyboard input again.
  • It sometimes doesn't render complex broken HTML readably. When that happens, I simply fire up Opera or IE.
  • I cannot figure out how to disable Flash. I've checked Preferences and I've even gone looking for a Flash dll to delete. If anyone knows how to kill Flash in Mozilla 0.9.9, please let me know.
  • It sometimes starts very slowly, even when Quick Launch is resident. That problem may have been related to NIS/NAV, because others report no such problems.
At any rate, I'm now using Mozilla as my primary browser, and expect to continue doing so. I'm also using Mozilla Composer to create web pages, although I have found one interesting thing. If I create a compliant page in Mozilla Composer and subsequently edit it in FrontPage Editor, the resulting HTML remains standards-compliant as long as I don't insert any Microsoft-specific stuff with FrontPage. That's very good news, because the FrontPage Editor is head and shoulders above the Composer Editor when it comes to editing web pages.

Enough of this. I have to get to work on my taxes.


Thursday, 11 April 2002

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9:40 - I lied. FrontPage does in fact munge clean HTML, but apparently only under some circumstances. When I tried it before, I created a simple HTML page with Mozilla Composer. That verified for HTML 4.01 compliance. I then called that page up in FrontPage 2000, added a few lines of text, and saved it. The page still verified as HTML 4.01 compliant.

But when I tried it yesterday with a real page, one with tables and such, FrontPage munged the page in several areas. When I used the W3C validator, it reported numerous errors. Looking at the source, I realized that not only was FrontPage 2000 insisting on writing back some header lines to report itself as the HTML editor, but it was screwing with various HTML tags down in the body text. So, enough of that. It would have been nice to be able to use FrontPage as a simple HTML editor. It really is a lot more convenient and functional than Mozilla editor. But it munges the HTML code, and I'm not willing to put up with that.

Free at last! I'm no longer using Outlook 2000, at least on my main system. When I deleted a spam message yesterday, Outlook went to an hourglass for at least 30 seconds. Given how Outlook has munged my data in the past, that really worried me. After the long time-out it did eventually start behaving normally again, and this time it didn't appear to have damaged my data, but staring for 30 seconds at an hourglass decided me. I was simply going to move to something else, anything else, as long as it had basic email functionality and saved its data in some standard format.

I was over on the Ximian Evolution site, thinking seriously about not checking my email again until I'd had time to install Linux and bring up Evolution, when I noticed a document that talked about importing data from other mail clients. Under Outlook, it said that Evolution didn't understand Outlook files (which seems strange given that it's supposed to be a replacement for Outlook) but that it was possible to use another application to import Outlook data and save it in a standard form that Evolution could read. One of the products they suggested was--drumroll--Mozilla Mail.

I didn't realize that Mozilla Mail could import Outlook 2000 data directly, but I decided to give it a try. It took me only a couple of minutes to configure Mozilla Mail and tell it to import my Outlook address books. It found those and imported them (although I have no idea where it put them.) The next step was to import the mail itself. Surprisingly, that took only a few minutes for many thousands of messages. And, mirabile dictu, Mozilla Mail appears to have imported all of my Outlook 2000 messages intact. No errors at all that I could find.

The client itself is not particularly fully-featured, but it has the essentials. Most important, it stores data in a standard form, so if I later decide to move to Evolution or another mail client I'll be able to import my data easily. For the time being, I've told Mozilla Mail to leave messages on the server. That's because I also need to run a mail client on my den system, and I'm not sure how to make Mozilla run on both machines and access the same data. There are a few things I'd like to know about Mozilla Mail:
  • How do I change the default mailbox location? Right now, it's in %SystemRoot%\Documents and Settings\thompson\Application Data\Mozilla\Profiles\default\<secret foldername>\Mail. I'd like it to be in f:\usr\thompson\mail or something similar. I can't find anywhere in Mozilla to change the location for the mail files. There is a text box in Mozilla's email configuration that includes that path, and it allows the data in that box to be changed, but it isn't clear exactly how to relocate the mailbox information. There are numerous instances of this and similar paths in prefs.js, but it warns not to change those.
  • How do I change the default behavior of marking as read a message that's been previewed?
  • How do I install/configure Mozilla Mail on my den system so that it will use the same mail data as Mozilla Mail running on my main system in my office? I'd like to relocate my mailbox information to the server and then simply point the den system to that directory. Is that possible?
As things stand now, I've set all my mail clients--Outlook on both my main system and den system and Mozilla on my main system--to leave mail on the server. That gets to be a pain in the butt, so I'd like to change that as soon as possible to have whichever instance of Mozilla Mail I'm using download my mail to a shared mail directory on the local file server and then delete the mail from the mail server. Any suggestions? If so, please post them on the messageboard .


Friday, 12 April 2002

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8:40 - Not a good day day yesterday. Taxes, of course, but it went downhill from there. Barbara had a meeting of her library Friends group yesterday afternoon. About 5:30 yesterday afternoon, Barbara's father called to say that their next-door neighbor, Ann Sloan, was not expected to live through the night. She has been fighting cancer for a long time and had chosen to die at home rather than spending her last days in the hospital or hospice.

Ann is a lot more than a next-door neighbor to Barbara. Barbara thinks of her as a second mother. When Barbara was a little girl, her mother spent a lot of time in and out of hospitals. Ann took care of Barbara and her sister as though they were her own children, so Barbara grew up with two moms. Although we knew that Ann would eventually lose her last battle, that phone call still came as a surprise. Barbara had thought that Ann was stable, so this rapid downturn was unexpected.

I called the library and asked them to pull Barbara out of her meeting. I gave her the message, and she asked me to call her father to tell him that she was leaving immediately and would get over there as soon as she could. I told Barbara not to worry about anything here, and just to go and stay as long as she needed to stay. I was expecting Barbara to stay at her parents' house overnight. I knew she would be very upset and didn't want her driving home in that state. Barbara ended up staying over there through late evening, and coming home about 11:15.

She called her father this morning and learned that Ann is still holding on. Ann's son, Cam, is a Winston-Salem police officer. As of yesterday afternoon, he was up in New York City doing forensic work at the World Trade Center crime scene. He managed to get a flight back to Winston-Salem late last night, and was due in about the time Barbara arrived back home. Barbara thought that Ann was hanging on to see him one last time.

Brian Bilbrey wrote about a home truth the other day. In part, he said:

Right now, except for top authors, the pay for book writing ... um ... sucks. So who's going to do it? Do you want competence in your books (or entertainment, or information or whatever)? Or do you want it written quickly. You see, to make a minimal living at today's advance rates, I'd have to write 5 or 6 books a year.

He was basing that on the lower advances being paid nowadays, except to established authors. And even for established authors, advances have gotten smaller. For my first book, back in 1995, I signed on for an advance of $8,000, as I recall. Nowadays, a first-time author would be very lucky to get even that much. I've heard of authors being offered $5,000 or less for a book, and not a small one either. That's simply ridiculous. In effect, it puts all of the risk on the author without commensurate return on that risk. Royalty rates are also lower nowadays. I've heard of offers as low as 6% on net. That means a $40 list price book that sells to distributors for $20 actually earns the author $1.20 per copy sold. After the advance is recouped, of course.

A typical computer book might sell 5,000 copies, so that means the author might, if he's lucky, earn another $1,000 or so in royalties beyond the $5,000 advance. Of course, you just about have to have an agent if you don't want to sign your life away, so that $6,000 turns into $5,100 net. In order to earn an ongoing $30,000 per year at those rates, an author would have to write, as Brian says, five or six books a year. Say one every couple of months.

Fortunately, my advances have been higher than that, as have my royalty rates and sales numbers. I can't remember the last book I did that didn't "earn out" (recoup its advance) or nearly so on the first quarter's royalty statement. But even at that, I'm not earning anywhere near what I could be or should be.

So the question becomes, should I continue beating my head against the wall? And I think the answer to that is that I shouldn't. The computer book market as a whole tanked last year. When I talked to my agent on the phone yesterday, he compared it to an airliner nosediving toward the ground. It's gotten a bit better lately, but not a lot. As he said, the airliner has leveled off now, but it's clipping the treetops. People just aren't buying many computer books.

It's becoming a vicious spiral. As sales volume drops, it becomes harder and harder tor authors to justify spending much time on a book. As authors spend less time on books, the quality of the books drops, which in turn further reduces sales figures. Many computer book authors have stopped writing, or at least stopped writing computer books. Of those that remain, many are rushing toward the perceived hot areas, security being one of them. So we end up with a slew of me-too books saturating a segment. Linux is dead. No one is making any money writing Linux books, either about the OS or applications.

My agent suggested that I consider doing some white papers. The money is decent. The problem is the client. I don't want to write white papers for Microsoft. I actually tried doing that once, a few years ago. Microsoft wanted a white paper to point out the advantages of Windows versus NetWare. As I recall, they were looking for a 30- to 45-page document and were paying $30,000. I eventually abandoned that project, the only time I've ever done so. Several factors led me to walk away from that project, but one of the big ones was that although the goal of the white paper had been presented to me as an objective, even-handed treatment of the comparative advantages and disadvantages of Microsoft versus Novell, that turned out not to be the case. My name was going to be on that document, and I wasn't about to sell my name for $30,000. I may be a whore, but I'm not a cheap whore.

So I don't think I want to write white papers for Microsoft. I'm not at all sure I want to write computer related stuff at all. Oh, I'll keep updating PC Hardware in a Nutshell as long as O'Reilly is willing to stick with it. I hope to do an annual update for years to come. But I don't think I'm going to pursue any new computer book deals.

Maybe I should pursue a life of crime. I remember when I was growing up a lot of boys read Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. They all wanted to be Sherlock Holmes. Me, I wanted to be Moriarty.


Saturday, 13 April 2002

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9:05 - Ann died yesterday afternoon. Barbara is crushed.

Today I finish the taxes. Tomorrow I take it easy. Monday, things start to change around here.


Sunday, 14 April 2002

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9:15 - The taxes are done and in the mail.

Thanks to everyone who emailed us to express their condolences. We'll be attending the funeral tomorrow. Barbara's sister is getting married this coming Saturday, and everyone wishes that Ann could have lived long enough to attend the wedding. Ann would have liked to see Frances get married.

Life goes on, of course. I'm off to do laundry. Once I get that started, I'm going to put thoth , my former main system, on the kitchen table and clean it up. That system is destined to become a Linux server in the very near future.


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