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Week of 29 July 2002

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Monday, 29 July 2002

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9:05 - I really like Red Hat Linux 7.3. It's fast, stable, and has reasonably up-to-date versions of most of the included packages. The one thing I don't like about it is RPM. If you're a Windows user who's complained about DLL Hell, you ain't seen nuthin until you get into Linux dependencies. I'm a complete newbie Linux user, so bear that in mind, but it seems to me that situations in which "you can't get there from here" are common when installing (or attempting to install) applications under Linux, and it's all because of Dependency Hell. I may be mistaken, but it appears to me that it's possible to have circular dependencies, in which you can't have A because B is not yet installed, and you can't have B because A is not yet installed. Jesus.

Now, it may be that I'm simply ignorant and that in truth RPM is the best thing since sliced pizza, but it seems to me that the RPM concept is fundamentally flawed, at least as Red Hat has implemented it. Perhaps I'm just simple-minded, but it seems to me if I download a particular package in RPM form for, say, Red Hat 7.3, that RPM should install it on Red Hat 7.3 without further ado. If there's a library or something the package needs that's not installed by default with RH 7.3, RPM should prompt me to insert the RH 7.3 CD and pull that library off the CD. If the library isn't on the RH 7.3 CD, the RPM package should know where that package can be found and should go get it for me. If there's an older version of the library that needs to be replaced, RPM should do that and resolve all the dependencies automatically. Essentially, RPM should work like a Microsoft setup.exe file. Either include what's needed or go get it for me. I should be able to run the RPM, and a few minutes later have an installed package ready to run.

Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way, not by a long shot. Instead, a typical attempt to install an RPM package results in a mess of unresolved dependencies. Attempting to force an installation usually breaks something else and leaves the new package non-functional. Bypassing RPM by logging on as root and installing manually causes RPM to lose its mind because it doesn't know what's been installed outside the aegis of RPM. In short, RPM sucks.

So the other night when I read that Mandrake's version of RPM resolves dependencies automatically, I decided that it might be worth trying Mandrake. When I got to their site, I found that Mandrake 9 is in beta. There were a lot of nice things listed for Mandrake 9, including the latest versions of KDE and so on, but I decided to stick with the latest release version. So I downloaded the two Mandrake 8.2 ISOs. I plan to burn them to CD later this week and try a Mandrake installation. I'm sure it'll have annoyances of its own, but if their version of RPM in fact resolves dependencies it'll all be worth it.

 

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Tuesday, 30 July 2002

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9:15 - I really must do something to make more money. Last year was disastrous for computer book sales. I talked to my agent yesterday, and he says that 2002 book sales will probably be down as much as 20% relative even to the disastrous 2001. The high-tech bloodbath has had far reaching effects, with things falling like a row of dominos. One of those dominos has been computer book sales.

Many authors have given up writing computer books entirely, and others will certainly follow. Computer book publishers are retrenching, cutting the number of titles they publish and offering lower advances and royalty rates on those titles they do publish. A lot of titles have been canceled, and if an author is lucky enough to sign a new book it's likely to be on less favorable terms than he might have gotten a year or two ago. As you might expect, O'Reilly is hurting less than many publishers, but they're hurting all the same.

So I need to decide what to do.

 

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Wednesday, 31 July 2002

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11:40 - I downloaded Service Pack 3 for Windows 2000 this morning, although I haven't installed it on any machines yet. I may not, either, because I'm always distrustful of Microsoft SPs. Who knows what's in there? Product Activation? DRM additions? It could be anything. I'll probably wait at least a couple of weeks before I install it on any machine I care about, just to see what people have to say about it. Actually, SP3 isn't available officially yet for download, although you can download it here, at least for now.

Speaking of Microsoft, today is the deadline for companies to sign up for Licensing 6, which not many of them are doing. I've seen various estimates of the percentage of companies who've signed on to this extortionate plan, but most estimates are around 33%. That means that two out of three Microsoft customers have opted out of Licensing 6, although some of those have chosen to extend other plans. That means a huge short-term windfall for Microsoft, but in the long run they're eating their seed corn.

Of those companies that chose not to sign up for Licensing 6, some will simply continue to use their existing Microsoft software for several years and then pay full price for their next upgrade. Many, though, will be lost to Microsoft entirely. More than a few of those companies will regard Windows 2000 and Office 2000 as stop-gap solutions, good for the next couple or three years. In the interim, they'll be developing and implementing migration strategies to get their companies running Linux desktops with OpenOffice, Evolution, and other OSS applications. Those applications are good enough now, and will continue to improve over the next couple of years. Microsoft is expecting those companies that didn't opt for Licensing 6 to buy full-price upgrades down the road. They may be surprised by just how many companies decide OSS is a better option.

 

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Thursday, 1 August 2002

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9:23 - I still haven't installed W2K SP3, although others have done so and reported no problems. I did notice the following verbiage in the license agreement, which makes me nervous:

  • The OS Product or OS Components contain components that enable and facilitate the use of certain Internet-based services. You acknowledge and agree that Microsoft may automatically check the version of the OS Product and/or its components that you are utilizing and may provide upgrades or fixes to the OS Product that will be automatically downloaded to your computer.

It seems that Microsoft is determined to claim ownership (or at least control) of our PCs, and I don't like that one little bit. Whether or not SP3 contains any hidden nasties, by applying it you are agreeing that Microsoft can later automatically download and install any nasty they want without your permission or even your knowledge. What Microsoft considers an "upgrade" or a "fix" may be something that I'd consider taking an inexcusable liberty with my machine. So be aware that if you install SP3 you can't complain later if Microsoft automatically "upgrades" your system to include product activation, DRM, or some other nasty. Linux is starting to look better and better.

Heads-down work on a couple projects starts today, so the posts here will be sporadic and short.

11:47 - Thanks to all of my readers who emailed me to report that the popular OpenSSH application has been Trojaned. For complete details, see this page. It seems prudent to be cautious about downloads from openbsd.org for the time being.

 

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Friday, 2 August 2002

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9:17 - Barbara has photographs from her Canadian Rockies trip posted.

Today they're moving my mother from her current room to another room just vacated by a lady who's going home. The nursing home is arranged interestingly. Everything--nurses station, elevator, kitchens, dining room, etc.--is at one end of a long corridor. My mother's current room is at the other. The new room is down at the end where all the action is. I suppose the downside to that is more noise, but there are many upsides, including being among the first to get her meals rather than being last, when the food has cooled a lot.

I've been trying to get a phone line ordered for mom, to no avail. I spent more than an hour on the phone yesterday in four or five separate calls. As soon as I drill down through the voice menus to the point where I can order new service or a move, I get a recorded announcement that says "call volumes are extremely heavy" and warns that I'll be on hold for a long time. This has been going on for more than a week. Time of day or day of week doesn't seem to matter. Like most companies, BellSouth is doing poorly, and I suspect that they've laid off many of their call center people.

It'd be bad enough if I just had to sit there listening to their music-on-hold, which is classical. But they insist on interspersing obnoxious ads for text messaging and other stuff that I have no interest in listening to, let alone buying. In the last week, I've probably spent two or three hours on hold, and I've yet to get through to a human. This is getting old.

The nursing home staff is going to call us before they move mom, so that we can help move her and her stuff to the new room. I think she's going to like it there.

10:21 - I've been using OpenOffice.org since 1.0 shipped, and I upgraded to 1.0.1 as soon as it was available. Based on my experience with it, I'd estimate that it's a drop-in replacement for Microsoft Office for about 99% of MS Office users, at least for those who do most of their work in Word and Excel. I don't know about PowerPoint, because I don't use it.

Certainly, there are some things the MS suite does better or more conveniently, but the same is true of OOo. For example, I just got an email from someone at O'Reilly telling me that they plan to put the new edition of PC Hardware in a Nutshell on their Safari e-book service. In preparing it for the web, they found a lot of broken links in the book text. Many of those broken links are to pages that I'd intended long ago to have up on the HardwareGuys.com web site, but haven't gotten around to getting posted yet.

There are two reasons for that. First, obviously, I got next to no work done during July, with Barbara gone and my mother hospitalized. But there's another reason. Most of the text I intended to post is material that was cut from the book for page-count reasons. That material was written and formatted in Word 2000. I spent hours trying to convert that material from Word 2000 format to HTML with at least most of the formatting intact. In one sense, that would have been easy to do. I could simply highlight the material in Word, copy it to the clipboard, and paste it into FrontPage. The formatting carried over essentially intact, and the HTML page looked pretty much like the original Word page. The only fly in the ointment was that that HTML page was huge. And I mean huge. For example, converting a table that ran four or five pages in Word to HTML resulted in an HTML page of more than 3 MB!

Looking at the HTML code showed why. One cell in a table might have a three-digit number in it. Instead of converting that to three bytes of HTML, the conversion process converted it to three bytes of HTML for the text itself, surrounded by a kilobyte or more of HTML formatting code, and I am not exaggerating. I could have lived with that had it been there only once, but the Word->FrontPage conversion process put that same kilobyte of HTML formatting code in every single cell of the table. Stupid doesn't begin to describe it. I tried every filter I could think of to clean up that HTML mess, and none of them worked properly.

When I got that email, I knew I had to do something to get those pages up on the HardwareGuys.com web site, even if that something was simply doing a copy-and-paste with the resulting 3 MB page sizes. Then a cunning plan came to me. What would happen if I opened the original Word document in OpenOffice.org Writer, copied the text, and pasted it to FrontPage? The short answer is that it works almost perfectly, with only very minor formatting glitches. The HTML page in FrontPage looks properly formatted, and when I switched to HTML view I found clean, beautiful HTML code, with none of the gubbage that pasting from Word added to the HTML.

The moral here is that if you ever need to convert a Word 2000 document to HTML, don't use Word 2000 to open the document. Use OOo Writer to copy the text and paste it into your HTML document. The other moral is that you should consider downloading OOo and making it your default office suite. I keep Office 2000 on my systems just in case someone sends me a Microsoft-formatted document that requires some of the functions present in Office that aren't available in OpenOffice. But there aren't many of those, and I find OOo to be a worthy replacement for Office. The nice thing about OOo is that if enough people adopt it as their default office suite, that'll go far toward eliminating the de facto Microsoft monopoly that results from their proprietary file formats. Nowadays, if I send you a file attachment, chances are that it'll be in the standards-compliant OpenOffice format rather than in a proprietary Microsoft format. I hope that millions of other people will also start using OOo formats as their default.

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Saturday, 3 August 2002

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9:08 - We got my mother moved to her new room yesterday. They'd cleaned out the new room Thursday afternoon, so Barbara and I asked yesterday morning if it was okay to move mom's stuff down there. We hauled her TV, CD player, and all the rest of her stuff down there yesterday morning. Yesterday afternoon, they called to say they were moving her, so we headed over to see her. She seems to be settling in nicely. She's now on the "busy" end of the hall, near the nurses station, elevator, dining room, kitchen, etc., so there'll be a lot more people stopping in to see her a lot more often. Also, she's said that her breakfast has been cold every morning, which isn't surprising given that she was in the last room at the far end of the hall. Now she's directly across from the dining room and kitchen, so she'll be first to get her meals rather than last.

We were planning to head up to Bullington last night to do some observing, but the forecast went to hell. The forecast for tonight was looking a lot better as of last night, but as of this morning it looks pretty bad as well. If it improves, we may head up, but otherwise we'll probably just stay home and relax.

And of course I still have to fix all the broken URLs in PC Hardware in a Nutshell before O'Reilly finishes converting it for on-line access via their Safari service. They want to bring it up live on Monday, which doesn't leave me much time.

 

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Sunday, 4 August 2002

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9:19 - Poor Brian and Marcia Bilbrey. They're making a cross-country move, from the San Francisco Bay Area to the Washington, DC area, driving both their personal vehicles. Something like 3,000 miles in five days of intense driving. Right around Lincoln, Nebraska, their Chevy Blazer 4X4 developed problems. Fortunately, when they discovered the problem they were in a large town rather than 100 miles from nowhere (which is an easy place to find yourself when you're on the Great Plains).

I have this persistent image of Brian pulling his .45 Colt Peacemaker from the holster, putting a bullet through the engine block of his Blazer, picking up his saddle, and starting to walk. Instead, they took the truck to a dealership and left it, renting a car to drive to Maryland. After they arrive at their new digs and get the moving truck unloaded, Brian is going to drive the rental car back to Lincoln, Nebraska to pick up the Blazer and drive it back to Maryland. Readers from the US and Canada will appreciate what that means. For those of you in Europe, just imagine a round-trip of something like 5,000 kilometers. I think if it'd been me I'd have sold the damn truck to the dealership on the spot.

We tried to get some observing in last night, but it didn't work out very well. All of the forecasts said that the Pilot Mountain site would have pretty bad conditions, no clouds but terrible haze. So we stuck closer to home. Steve Childers, one of our newer club members, lives about 5 minutes from our home. There's a soccer field in his development that is surrounded by trees (which cut off local light pollution) and has clear horizons in all directions above about 25 degrees. We decided to give that a try, so Barbara and I drove over there and met Steve. Bonnie Richardson also showed up, as did Paul Jones. We got set up around 9:00 p.m. and waited for it get dark enough to view. Alas, it was too hazy to do any serious observing. Still, the site definitely has potential for nights when we don't feel like driving half an hour to get to Pilot Mountain or more than an hour to get up the Blue Ridge Parkway. Speaking of which, if the weather is good next weekend (it's a new moon), we may all head up for the Parkway.

I'm still working on getting all the links live for HardwareGuys.com so that when O'Reilly brings up PC Hardware in a Nutshell tomorrow on their Safari e-book service, everything will work as it's supposed to. So I'd better get back to doing laundry. I'll head over after that to visit my mother and then get back to work.

12:36 - Marcia Bilbrey called this morning on her cell phone from just outside Chicago and asked us to let everyone know that they're doing fine. Sally is unhappy about riding in the car for so long and in particular about being shifted to the rental car with its different smell. They will stop overnight in Marion, Pennsylvania, from which it's only few hours' drive to their new home. They still haven't decided what to do about their Blazer. Instead of driving the rental car all the way back to Nebraska, Brian may turn it in in Maryland and fly out to Nebraska to pick up their 4X4.

But Marcia seems cheerful, and from what we could hear of Brian's yelling in the background it sounds like he's okay as well. Once Brian and Marcia have a chance to settle in, Barbara and I will go up for a visit over a long weekend. Presumably they'll also be coming down to see us for a long weekend sometime soon. I won't say exactly when, because with my mother no longer here the house will be empty (except for George, the guard rattlesnake). 

It is odd how these days many of my good friends are people I've never met.

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