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Week of 22 April 2002

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Monday, 22 April 2002

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9:00 - Other than cleaning house and doing laundry, Barbara and I both pretty much took the day off yesterday.

I did make the mistake of picking up a book I'd gotten at the library, The Blue Nowhere, by Jeffrey Deaver. Short review:

"What this man doesn't know about computers, the Internet, and hacking would fill a book. Oh, wait. It did."

I should have known better, because last week I'd read another of his books, The Stone Monkey. That book was also hideously bad. What I find inexplicable is that this guy sells a ton of books and has won several awards. If you like to read techno-thrillers, there are any number of authors who do them well. This guy does them very, very badly. Don't waste your time on him.

I finally gave up on that book around 9:00. I'd noticed that TCM was running the 1960 British classic film, Village of the Damned, so I watched that. That film was shot on a $300,000 budget (in 1960 dollars) and makes many recent films shot on gazillion-dollar budgets look terrible. Of course, that film told a story, whereas many recent films are all about special effects to the exclusion of all else.

I'm still playing with Linux and learning quite a bit. Roland Dobbins told me that I didn't need to go through all the stuff I described to get TrueType fonts working under Red Hat 7.2. So I went back and re-installed all the TrueType fonts, first renaming all of them to all lower-case. I then deleted all of the files in /usr/share/truetype and copied over the new font files. When I rebooted the system, I checked that directory. Sure enough, Red Hat 7.2 had recreated the fonts.scale and fonts.dir on its own. When I fired up Mozilla, all of those fonts were visible in Edit -- Preferences -- Appearance -- Fonts. I selected a TrueType font for each of the drop-down lists. Now the only problem is that Mozilla isn't using those fonts, or, if it is, they still look terrible.

Everyone tells me that Mozilla for Linux supports TrueType, so I suppose that must be true. But if so, I can't make it work, and the Mozilla download page did say explicitly that the "RPMS for Red Hat Linux 7.X" (which is what I downloaded) "Does not support TrueType". I'm still running Mozilla 0.9.9 on the Linux box. I see that the download page for the Mozilla 1.0 RC still says that the RPMS version doesn't support TrueType, although the "x86 Talkback Enabled Full Installer" version says nothing about not supporting TrueType. It also suggests downloading the Full Installer version if you're unsure what you need, but I didn't get it because it's in tar.gz form, and I don't know how to install it.

I'll probably go ahead and get the Full Installer version of Mozilla 1.0. I'm sure someone will tell me what I need to do to install it. The good news is that even if I completely trash my Linux box it's no big deal. I have my "real" Linux box still sitting here unused. I'm going to continue playing with the current Linux box until I'm reasonably secure with what I'm doing. Then I'll build my "real" Linux desktop system on the new box. In the interim, the only thing that really matters on the current box is Evolution, which I'm using as my main mail client. And I do back up the data from it frequently to another system. So even if the current Linux box goes down in flames, I haven't really lost much.

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Tuesday, 23 April 2002

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8:52 - I'm about ready to return to using FrontPage to create and maintain web pages. One of the main reasons I changed to using Mozilla Composer was that FrontPage was arbitrarily changing relative links to absolute links. As it turns out, Mozilla Composer does the same thing. Several readers emailed me yesterday to tell me that my Daynotes Journal Home Page had links pointing to my hard drive rather than to the web site. In comparing the current HTML to a backup copy, I found that Mozilla Composer had arbitrarily changed several existing links from prior weeks. I hadn't touched those, so there's no possibility that anything I did caused the change. Mozilla simply decided all on its own to change those relative links to absolute links.

So I fired up Composer and called up that page. Unlike FrontPage, moving the cursor over a link doesn't display the URL for the link, so I had to double-click each link to display its URL. I found several that Composer had changed from relative to absolute, and fixed them by marking the "relative" checkbox in the Link Properties dialog. I then saved the file. Bizarrely, Composer doesn't provide a search function in HTML mode, so I opened the file with Notepad. I found one link that I'd changed in Composer that was still absolute in the HTML code. I fired up Composer again, and checked the link. It claimed it was a relative link. So I changed it back to absolute and then back again to relative and saved the file. I opened it again with Notepad and found that it was still absolute. I finally gave up and edited the HTML in Notepad to make it relative. This is simply unacceptable. Is it really that hard to write an HTML/page editor that doesn't hose absolute versus relative links all by itself?

The upside to using FrontPage is that it's about ten times easier to use and much more functional than Mozilla Composer. The upside to using Composer is that it generates standards-compliant HTML (barring the fact that it sometimes alters the intent of the HTML) and that it runs on Linux. I actually considered using Amaya, but I just can't stomach that. So I suppose I'll just keep using Mozilla Composer and hope for the best. I'd have thought that OpenOffice or one of the other Linux office suites would have included a usable WYSIWYG HTML editor, but apparently not.

Speaking of Linux, I'm beginning to wonder if I made a good choice of distribution in picking Red Hat 7.2. This RPM stuff is really starting to bother me. I'll have more up on the Linux Chronicles page later today, including a lot of mail.

13:02 - I have bagged Mozilla and am back to using FrontPage 2000. I dislike FrontPage, but not as much as I dislike Mozilla Composer. So now my pages are no longer HTML 4.01 compliant, not that that's any big deal. I've removed the HTML 4.01 logo.

I've also powered down my Linux box for the time being, because I need to get some work done. I've devoted a great deal of time over the last ten days to trying to make Linux work for me, and I conclude that it's not quite here yet, at least for me. I don't doubt that many people find Linux usable as a desktop OS, and it may even be superior to Windows for some people. I conclude that that's not the case for me, at least not yet.

I'm at the point now where I hate all of my software. I hate Windows and Windows applications, and I hate Linux and Linux applications. I'd almost consider going out and buying a Mac, but I'm sure I'd hate that too. So now I find myself in the unfortunate position of using what I hate least. For now, that turns out to be Windows 2000 and Office 2000.

Several people have pointed out that I've been using beta applications on Linux. Fine, but where are the finished applications? It seems that everything about Linux except perhaps the OS itself is in beta. Even the so-called finished applications like Evolution look like beta apps to me. I mean, what do you call software that still has severe bugs in the copy/paste function? That seems pretty fundamental to me.

As I've been saying for a long time, I'm not going to join the Microsoft XP upgrade merry-go-round. Windows 2000 and Office 2000 are good enough to get the job done, most of the time, and I've always said that I would stick with them until Linux was good enough for me to use. After several days' effort with Linux, I've concluded that Linux isn't there yet, for me. Again, this is not a criticism of Linux itself, but simply an observation that in my own opinion it's not sufficiently developed for my needs. Perhaps it will be in another year or so, by which time Linux applications may also have had time to mature sufficiently.

My original motivation for diving into Linux was to give me something to write about. As I've since learned, Linux books and books about Linux applications simply aren't selling, so that eliminates that reason for me to transition to Linux. What I need right now is an OS and applications that stay out of my way while I get work done. Windows and Windows apps certainly aren't ideal from that standpoint, but they're better than the Linux alternatives. Or so it seems to me.

So, it's back to work for me. I'll look at Linux again in a year or so, perhaps when Red Hat ships version 9 or 10. I hope by that time I'll be able to order commercial packaged software for Linux as well. I want to thank everyone who has taken the time to help me in this effort. I know many people will be disappointed that I've bagged Linux for now, but I've devoted about as much time and effort to it as I can spare. I need to get back to working on stuff that'll pay the bills.

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Wednesday, 24 April 2002

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11:33 - I'm back from the dentist, where I had my regular 6-month cleaning. I've been using one of those battery-powered electric toothbrushes the last six months, and it appears to be worth using. Much less scraping this time. Usually, when I get back from a cleaning, I have a headache for the rest of the day. This time, no headache.

I posted the following over on the Daynotes Journal Messageboard:

Based on a week or ten days' worth of playing around with it, my conclusion is that Linux, while a good server OS, still has a ways to go to be a viable desktop OS for most people.

I could live with Linux as a desktop OS right now if I had to. But I don't see any reason to. Windows 2000 is a superior desktop OS for me in every respect, including convenience, ease of use, application support, etc.

I agree with Greg that Linux desktop apps are maturing, but I don't think they're quite to the point where I'm ready to depend on them. Functionality is generally very good. Feature sets, while typically much smaller than corresponding Windows apps, are generally adequate for most people.

Where Linux desktop apps really fall down, in my opinion, is in compatibility with Windows apps. Take Evolution, which is positioned as a replacement for Outlook. It cannot import Outlook data! What kind of replacement app can't import the data from the app it's intended to replace?

It's not as if it can't be done, either. Evolution suggests using Mozilla Mail to import messages. I did that, and Mozilla imported all my mail just fine, replicating the Outlook folder structure. Then I was faced with getting that mail into Evolution. It could grab the mail from Mozilla, but not the folder structure. So I had to manually recreate the folder structure in Evolution, and then import from Mozilla folder by folder. That's simply unacceptable.

What's even more unacceptable is that Evolution has no mechanism to import Outlook Contacts. They suggest, believe it or not, emailing your contacts to yourself. That might have been acceptable if I could simply batch mail them and then have Evolution pull Contact records out of that message. But I had to email the contacts *one by one* and then import them *one by one* into Evolution. Even doing that, the Contact data was full of garbage. That's simply not a usable solution.

Evolution is also very weak feature-wise. For example, I subscribe to some mailing lists, which I filter to a folders for each list and don't always have time to read. In Outlook, I can simply right-click and folder and choose Mark All Read. In Evolution, I have to select that folder and then go up to the menu bar, click Edit and then choose Mark All Read. That may seem trivial, but it's extra work that makes Evolution a lot less convenient to use. That's just one example of dozens of things I encountered that make Evolution a lot cruder than Outlook.

The real drawback to Linux as a desktop OS is the lack of all the little programs that I need. For example, Cartes du Ciel, which I use frequently, is not available for Linux. Nor can I run the Encyclopedia Britannica, which I use frequently to look things up. Those are just two examples, but there are many more.

What all this really means is that if I choose to run Linux as a desktop OS I'm choosing to limit myself to a generally inferior bunch of applications that don't cover all my needs. I'm absolutely going to have to run a Windows desktop system in addition to the Linux desktop system, so what's the point of running the Linux desktop system?

I think what I'm going to do is wait another year and see how things have developed as far as using Linux as a desktop OS. Assuming that Linux and Linux apps have matured by then, I may again make the effort to convert to a Linux desktop. I'll run VMWare on that Linux desktop and use it to run any Windows apps that I still need.

Note that all of my objections to Linux at this point have to do with using it as a desktop OS. I wouldn't hesitate to run Linux as a server OS, and in fact I think I'd prefer using it to using Windows. The Pentium III/750 box that I was experimenting with as a Linux desktop is going to end up becoming my first Linux server.

This article on The Register describes a new security vulnerability in IE6. As usual, the solution is to disable scripting. Anyone who uses IE with scripting enabled is just asking for it. Of course, even disabling scripting doesn't close all the holes.

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Thursday, 25 April 2002

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8:53 - The five naked-eye planets--Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn--are lining up over the next couple of weeks. You'll be able to view them in the west soon after sunset. The astrologers and other nutcases are making a lot of this alignment, of course, but in fact it's nothing but a rare visual show. The next time an alignment this good will be visible is in 2020. It's worth getting out to see this, and it's worth taking the kids. Although you'd need a telescope to see any detail in the planets, if you have a binocular it's worth taking along. Even just naked-eye the planetary alignment is something special.

You need a good western horizon to see Mercury. That's because Mercury, orbiting close to Sol, is never far away from it. That means that when Sol sets, Mercury is never far behind it, and so is low on the western horizon. Conversely, when Mercury rises, Sol is never far behind. Mercury spends so much of its time so close to Sol that many astronomers have never seen it. Right now, Mercury is separated quite a bit from Sol, so now is a great time to see it.

Here's what the planetary line-up looks like tonight about half an hour after sunset.

planets-1.png (28837 bytes)

The numbers next to the star and planet names indicate their current magnitude. A lower number means a brighter object, so magnitude 0 is brighter than magnitude 1, which in turn is brighter than magnitude 2. Very bright objects have negative magnitudes. Sirius at mag -1.5 is the brightest star. Jupiter, at mag -2.0, is dimmer than it was a month or two ago, but still extremely bright. Venus, at mag -3.9 is the brightest thing in the sky other than Sol and Luna. Generally speaking, on a clear night, objects down to mag 2 will be easily visible even under the most severely light-polluted skies. In dark sky conditions, it may be possible to see objects as dim as mag 5.5 or 6.0 (assuming very dark, clear skies and young eyes). That means that all of the objects on this chart should be visible no matter where you are, assuming that you have a clear horizon.

That diagonal line from upper left to lower right is called the ecliptic. It's basically an imaginary line that defines the orbital plane of solar system objects, including Terra, Luna, and the planets. All of them, with the exception of Pluto, orbit in roughly the same plane. Pluto has both a very eccentric orbit, which makes it the most distant planet during only part of its orbit, and one that is inclined relative to the ecliptic, which means it wanders into parts of the sky where you don't expect to see a planet. As you can see, the five visible planets (no one ever counts Terra as a visible planet, for some reason) are all quite close to the ecliptic, as is Sol.

In addition to the planets, some of the brightest stars in the sky are visible in the west right now. Rigel (Rye-jul) and Betelgeuse (yes, nearly all astronomers pronounce it "beetle-juice" despite the efforts of revisionists to make it "bett'-ul-zhoose") anchor the constellation Orion. The bright unlabeled star to the lower right of Betelgeuse is Bellatrix (pronounced as it's spelled), which translates as "the female warrior". Over on the left are Sirius (serious), the brightest star in the sky and the so-called "Dog Star", and Procyon (proh-sigh'-on), which is also quite bright. At the upper right is mighty Capella (kah-pell'-uh), the brightest star in the constellation Auriga (or-rye'-guh), the Charioteer. Near the cluster of planets is Aldebaran (al-deb'-uh-ron), the brightest star in Taurus, the Bull.

Over the next couple of weeks as the planets continue to move, their orientation relative to each other changes. Here's what they look like about half an hour after sunset on 4 May:

planets-2.png (29135 bytes)

You'll seldom see such a collection of bright objects in a small part of the sky. If you have a telescope or know someone who does, it's worth getting it out to look at the planets in some detail. Even a small department-store refractor will show quite a bit of detail in Saturn and Jupiter. Mars is now too far away to show much detail, and Mercury and Venus never do show any detail other than phases, but it's worth the effort to see them. If you don't have a scope, contact your local astronomy club or science center. Chances are they'll be doing a public observation, probably the weekend of the 4th.

And now I need to get back to work.

10:50 - I see in the morning paper that AOL/Time-Warner managed to lose $54 billion last quarter. That's billion-with-a-b. They lost fifty-four-thousand-million dollars in one quarter, which is more than the gross national product of a lot of countries. Analysts were quick to point out that those were extraordinary results that were the result of accounting changes that required writing off goodwill and other one-time charges, and that in the absence of those charges AOL/Time-Warner actually made a profit.

What I found truly incredible is that AOL/Time-Warner stock rose on the news. What are these people thinking? "Well, it's true that AOL/Time-Warner lost $54 billion-with-a-b last quarter, but that's only a one-time accounting adjustment, so I guess I'll go out and buy some AOL/Time-Warner stock." Duh. In effect, that loss means that AOL/Time-Warner had assets valued at $54 billion that have now been written off. That's something like $200 for every man, woman, and child in the US. Or, looking at it another way, nearly $10 for every person on the planet.

The dot-com crash will in retrospect turn out to have greater impact than the Tulip Mania of the 17th century and the Mississippi and South Sea Bubbles of the 18th century. I can see that this Enron thing is going to cause a real domino effect. We may all wake up one morning and realize that no one has any money left.

 

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Friday, 26 April 2002

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9:20 - There's an interesting article on The Register this morning about data wiping software not working. This is mostly an issue for corporate IT departments that are selling or donating excess kit and want to make sure that no confidential information remains on the hard drive of PCs that are going out the door. In the past, I've dealt with situations like that, but I don't use data wiping software. Instead, I do what I recommend others do. Use the pseudo low-level format utility available from the hard drive manufacturer to zero out the contents of the hard drive. Then, if the machine is being sold or donated with software, re-install the operating system and applications from the original CDs.

Some might argue that this method is insufficiently secure, because it is technically possible to recover data from a hard drive that has been "low-level" formatted in such a manner. That may be true, but in practical terms the only organizations capable of doing so are those on a par with the National Security Agency. Even the best commercial data recovery companies if faced with a drive that has been low-level formatted are unlikely to be able to recover data from that drive. That level of security is adequate for any commercial data, and zeroing out a drive is a simple way to ensure that the data on it is effectively beyond recovery.

I'd always worried about the alternative--using wiping software like Norton WipeInfo--because there were simply too many things to take on trust and too many opportunities for error. I remember years ago when a corporation was donating some old IBM PC ATs and two of us were working on cleaning them up and getting the old data off the drives. Those systems almost went out with the data still on them because the other guy thought I'd wiped them and I thought he'd wiped them. Fortunately, we discovered in time that neither of us had wiped them, but it was a near thing. Since then, I've always used a low-level format to wipe the drives, and there's never been any question of data being recovered from them.

Of course, if you have data that you really don't want anyone to be able to recover, the answer is to low-level format the drive and then disassemble it. Use a strong magnet to bulk erase each platter surface, score the surfaces with a glass cutter or other sharp object, and then use a sledge hammer to mash the platters into a twisted mess (or smash them to smithereens if the platters are glass). After that process, not even the NSA can recover the data.

 

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Saturday, 27 April 2002

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8:07 - Arrrghhh. The NEC AccuSync 70 monitor on my den system went south yesterday. At least I think it's the monitor causing the problem. I was using the system yesterday morning and it was working normally. When I came back out to the den a couple hours later, I moved the mouse to unblank the screen and fired up Outlook. The contrast of the display was extremely low, and there were gray bands extending the full width of the screen from any area on the left that was displaying text. I powered the monitor off and on. Same thing. I rebooted the system. Same thing.

At this point, I'm reasonably sure that the monitor is dying, but I will swap it out today to see if the problem stays with the system or moves with the monitor. I checked the NEC warranty page just in case. They will cross-ship a replacement "refurbished but like new" monitor. I'll have to give them a credit card number, and then I have 21 days to get the monitor back to them before they charge my card. They don't charge for shipping the replacement, but I have to pay to ship back the defective one.

I'm hoping that it's the video card that's at fault, because I hate shipping monitors back and forth. But I suspect it's the monitor itself.

Barbara is off to a Border Collie Rescue event for the day. I'll be working, as usual.

13:40 - It turns out that it wasn't the monitor. I moved the NEC AccuSync 70 into my office and connected it to my KVM box that I use with my secondary systems, and it works fine. The image is perfect. No hint of any contrast problems or shadowing. So obviously it's the den computer's video card that's the problem. It may be time to replace that system. It's only a Duron/750 or /800. It has a slow video card (something like an nVIDIA Vanta), a 5,400 RPM IDE drive, no CD burner, and only 128 MB of PC133 SDRAM.

Also, it only has a 10BaseT Ethernet card in it. I didn't have any Cat 5 or better cable handy when I made the cable run to the den, so I used Cat 3. It's very good Cat 3, however, and my guess is that at only 50 feet (15 metres) or so in length, it'll probably run 100BaseT with no problem. Whether or not I replace the den system, I need to clean it out for sure. It's probably been sitting there for a year without a cleaning, so it's undoubtedly jam-packed with dog hair and other crud.

I was thinking about replacing it with the Pentium 4 SCSI system I have sitting here not being used at the moment, but a 15K Cheetah and a 180 GB Barracuda are probably going to make a bit too much noise for the den. Perhaps I'll migrate my current Pentium 4 Windows system in there and start using the P4/SCSI system as my main system in the office.

Boy, am I relieved that I don't need to ship the monitor back. I hate shipping monitors. I'll admit that I was surprised when I thought the NEC was having problems so young. Obviously, any brand of monitor can die young, but NEC models typically don't. And, in this case, didn't.

So now I need to decide what to do about my den system.

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Sunday, 28 April 2002

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9:07 - I pulled ursa, the den system, out from under my end table yesterday afternoon, and found that the back panel was indeed filthy. Given how relatively clean the back panel looked on thoth when I opened it up a couple weeks ago, and how filthy thoth turned out to be inside, I shudder to think what ursa must look like inside.

ursa-dirty.jpg (62690 bytes)

With three dogs shedding and gas heat leaving a residue on things, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. Barbara does her best to vacuum things thoroughly every week, but ursa sits in an inaccessible position, with only the front bezel peeking out from under my end table, and no access from the rear. I think I'm going to have to institute a regular cleaning program. Every time we change Daylight Saving Time, we'll change the smoke detector batteries and clean out all the systems.

Speaking of cleaning, it's time to clean house and do laundry.

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