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Week of 23 September 2002

Latest Update : Tuesday, 26 November 2002 12:29 -0500

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Monday, 23 September 2002

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10:07 - I took the weekend off, which I'll probably be doing more often. Among other things, I fixed the sofa in the den, which had started creaking when I moved my weight around on it. Our den furniture is from the late lamented This End Up, which fits our casual lifestyle. The frames are yellow pine, which although technically a soft wood is in fact one of the hardest woods I've ever dealt with. About on a par with oak.

At any rate, the creaking was driving Barbara nuts, especially in the evening when she'd gone to bed and I was still out in the den reading. So I pulled out my more-power drill and a box of 1 5/8" drywall screws. Those things are comparable to duct tape in general usefulness. I drove about a dozen of the things in to secure the boards upon which the cushions rest. They'd been secured with power-driven staples, some of which had started to work loose, so I was hopeful that the drywall screws would solve the problem.

With drywall screws, it's usually not necessary to drill pilot holes. I tried doing without pilot holes for the first several screws. I did get them all the way in, but it was difficult. So I pulled out a small drill bit and drilled pilot holes for the rest, which helped a lot. The screws did solve the problem. Those boards aren't going anywhere now, and the sofa frame is no longer creaking.

I got several responses to my tirade about acetaminophen, including several from physicians, pharmacologists, and other knowledgeable people. Most agreed with me, but a couple didn't. I'll let the following message represent the contrarian view:

I think your web page is doing people a dis-service. While what you state is true, acetaminophen in does exceeding the recommended maximum (4000 mg / 24 hours, or 8 Extra Strength tabs) can cause permanent liver damage, you should consider your recommended alternative.

I've seen many more patients with bleeding ulcers from aspirin or ibuprofen than I've seen with liver damage from acetaminophen.

What's the TI for aspirin? Check it out before you suggest using acetaminophen is insane. Also note the differences in toxicity between using a single large ingestion and an chronic ingestion of a moderate overdose.

From the American Family Physician's Monograph on the Rational Use of OTC Medications:

  • Gastrointestinal bleeding, the most serious adverse effect of aspirin and NSAIDs, can occur with low-dose aspirin and with OTC doses of NSAIDs.
  • The question of whether standard doses of acetaminophen combined with alcohol can cause liver damage has been a recent controversy; however, a new prospective study indicates that heavy drinkers can safely consume up to 4 grams per day of acetaminophen. In light of the risk of GI bleeding when alcohol is combined with NSAIDs or aspirin, it is probably reasonable for alcohol-using patients to take acetaminophen--but it is important that they not exceed the maximal daily dose.

I appreciate your points of view on computer hardware, astronomy, border collies, and even individual freedoms, but you need to be a little careful with that power to sway people. In this case, I think you've over-blown the dangers of one product, and minimized the dangers of others.


Bob Taylor (, M.D.)

That's why I was very careful to point out that I was speaking as a lay person, albeit one who has taken care to read fairly deeply on the topic. Obviously, there are situations where aspirin is contraindicated and acetaminophen may be a better choice. What I was objecting to was the marketing of acetaminophen as a general-purpose OTC pain reliever that supposedly substitutes for aspirin. Acetaminophen is so widely used, often in large amounts, in various OTC medications that it's quite possible to exceed the recommended dose without intending to do so. More than 100 people a year in the US unintentionally commit suicide with acetaminophen, and 50,000 are treated for acetaminophen overdoses, the vast majority of which are likely unintentional. What are the corresponding figures for aspirin? Certainly the occasional moron attempts suicide with aspirin, and children sometimes eat a bottle of aspirin, but I suspect unintentional aspirin overdoses are quite rare.

As to the TI for aspirin, at levels at which acetaminophen causes severe hepatotoxicity, aspirin causes nausea, tinnitus, or at worst hyperventilation. Acetaminophen toxicity is a lot "sneakier", which probably explains the huge number of emergency room visits for acetaminophen poisoning. As to interaction with alcohol, you make a good point. In fact, there is some evidence that alcohol actually reduces hepatotoxicity from high acetaminophen doses.

Here is one of the most utterly clueless indictments of Open Source Software I've ever seen. It just hit slashdot and NewsForge Friday, but it has apparently been floating around for two months now. The author is completely confused about "OSS" versus "Free Software" versus "freeware", and parrots Microsoft's complaint about the GPL being "viral", which is just another way of saying that the GPL doesn't allow Microsoft and other commercial software companies to use GPL'd software in their products and then resell them under a more restrictive license. The author has obviously swallowed Microsoft propaganda hook, line and sinker, as evidenced by his statement:

"Writing aps without incorporating some operating system code is difficult, and those who want to engraft proprietary aps onto Linux are taking a legal risk."

Huh? Give me a break. At the same time he makes this outrageous statement, he also says that Linux is short of applications while Windows has a plethora of apps available. If it's "difficult" to write applications without "incorporating some operating system code", how pray tell have all these Windows app developers managed to write their applications without access to Windows operating system source code? Or perhaps he thinks that merely making calls to binary libraries is a viral infection threat. Duh.


Tuesday, 24 September 2002

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8:59 - Microsoft screws me once again. I was working on a chapter for the third edition yesterday, using my main office system. That runs Windows 2000 and has both Office 2000 and OpenOffice.org installed on it. I have a shortcut on my desktop that opens a copy of Windows Explorer in my O'Reilly data directory on the server. I opened that, browsed to the directory that contains the chapter file I was working on, and double-clicked the doc file to open it. This system is set up to open .doc files with Word 2000 by default, because O'Reilly provides an author template that works under Word 2000 but not under OpenOffice.org. (Why is that, I wonder? One would think that O'Reilly, as a major proponent of OSS, would have a template for OOo.)

Word 2000 opened the document, as expected. I made some edits to the text, and then highlighted some material that I'm removing from the chapter and relocating to the web site. When I right-clicked and chose cut, I expected Word to remove the highlighted text from the document and place it in the clipboard. Instead, I got an hourglass and the highlighted text remained visible. After staring at the screen for a few seconds, I fired up Task Manager, which told me Word was not responding. Okay, l thought, perhaps it's taking a while because there's an image or two in the highlighted text. I waited a while longer, but Word was still not responding. Finally, after a couple of minutes, I used Task Manager to kill Word. I deleted the temp file from the directory, fired up Word again, and again tried to cut the text in question. Again, Word hung.

So I again killed Word with Task Manager, closed everything, and deleted the temp file. Time to try it with OpenOffice.org. I right clicked the document name and chose Open With. OOo was not an option, which was the first indication that something was seriously hosed. I chose Open With -> Other and picked OOo from the list. When I clicked OK, Windows opened the document with ... Word 2000. Obviously, something had corrupted the associations. So I closed the document, fired up OOo manually and opened the document. Everything displayed normally. I cut/copied the text in question and saved the document. I re-opened the document in OOo and was able to view it normally. I then opened it in Word 2000, which displayed a scrambled screen and after a few seconds popped up a dialog telling me that the program was not responding.

At that point, I thought something was corrupt in that particular file, so I tried opening some other document files with Word 2000. All of those behaved strangely as well, so it was obvious that the problem was with Word 2000 rather than the documents, all of which opened normally with OOo. I'd done all of the usual stuff, including a couple of reboots, to make sure everything was normal. Obviously, something was wrong with Word 2000.

On the off chance that I had a virus or adware screwing with my system, I used AdAware to do a system scan. It found nothing. I then fired up Norton AntiVirus, updated the virus sigs, and told it to do a complete system scan. By that time it was getting late, so I just let the scan run overnight. This morning, when I came into my office, I was surprised to see an alert up on the screen. NAV had found two instances of Klez on my system. That threw me momentarily, until I realized that NAV had found them in my Mozilla Mail directory. NAV is set up to strip viruses automatically from the incoming mail stream when I'm using Outlook, but I've been using Mozilla Mail for a month or more now, and it's immune to Outlook viruses. I see them in my inbox or trash folder, of course, but there's nothing they can do when I'm using Mozilla Mail as my mail client. I deleted them anyway from NAV quarantine, of course, but that was a false alarm.

So now I'm left with a Word 2000 installation that has apparently killed itself. If there's one thing I won't put up with, it's an application that munges my data. Word 2000 is more convenient than OOo for working on O'Reilly chapters, if only because the O'Reilly author template works with Word and not with OOo. But all of the chapters I'm working on already have all the styles I need embedded in them, so I can simply choose the necessary style from the pick list. That's not as convenient as having a menu bar to select from, but I can live with it. At least OOo doesn't munge my data. I'm going to re-install OOo over top of the existing installation and hope that it corrects the file association problem as it re-installs.

9:52 - More news on the Fujitsu hard drive fiasco here. Although Fujitsu claims only 2% to 3% of the drives in question are defective, some large-scale users and system builders are reporting failure rates an order of magnitude higher. If you have one of the affected Fujitsu hard drives made between September 2000 and mid-2001, it'd be an excellent idea to make frequent backups. If I had such a drive, I'd replace it immediately even if it were not covered by warranty. The small cost of a replacement IDE hard drive pales in comparison to the cost and hassle of replacing a failed drive and recovering or reconstructing data.

12:47 - Oh, this is just bloody wonderful. I'm trying to revise chapters from PC Hardware in a Nutshell, 2E to for the third edition. Those chapters are in Word 2000 format. I have two programs that can open those documents. Word 2000 opens them and then promptly generates a GPF. OpenOffice.org Writer opens them and works almost perfectly. The "almost" is the problem. I've just encountered my first compatibility problem with OOo, and it's a showstopper. One of O'Reilly's styles is called "Sidebar". That's for stuff that's pulled out of the general text flow and boxed on its own at the top of a new page. The problem is that OOo displays the Sidebar title and a graphics box, but refuses to display the Sidebar contents, let alone allow me to edit them. It looks like this:

oraframe.jpg (87530 bytes)

I've played around in OOo for half an hour now, trying to figure out how to make it display the Sidebar contents, and nothing I do allows me to view that text. So I'm screwed at this point. Word 2000 opens the document but immediately GPFs, and OOo won't let me view or edit the material. I know it's there, because it's in the printed copy of the book. This is pathetic.

I suppose the easy answer would be to open the document in Word 2000 on a system that doesn't GPF, copy/paste the material to a Notepad document, and then copy/paste it into OOo. Assuming that will work. I guess that's what I'll try next. God, I hate software.



Wednesday, 25 September 2002

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9:56 - After some further messing around yesterday trying to get either OOo Writer or Word 2000 to use my documents, I finally decided to reinstall Word 2000, preferably via a repair installation. My first indication that something was seriously borked was when I put the Office 2000 Premium CD in the drive. After the drive spun up, I heard the Microsoft greeting notes but Office Setup didn't fire up. I then opened My Computer, right-clicked on Autoplay, and listened to the Microsoft greeting notes once again. Again, Office Setup didn't start. So I double-clicked on the CD drive, again listened to the same greeting notes, and again Office Setup didn't start.

I finally right-clicked, chose Explore, got a directory listing of the CD, and clicked Setup.exe. Finally, Setup ran. At that point, I chose to do a repair installation. Setup informed me that it was doing the repair installation and the progress bar spent five or eight minutes gradually inching towards complete. Alas, when it had gotten about a third of the way through, the following message popped up.

I thought that was odd, so I rebooted the system and started over. Once again, I got this warning dialog. Eventually I gave up and cancelled the repair installation. Being stubborn, I decided to see if I could apply SR-1 to my existing installation. I ran that and extracted the files to my junk directory. When I clicked on Setup.exe, the installer helpfully informed me that I already had SR-1 installed. Oh, well. Once again, Microsoft software has broken itself. I don't have any viruses. I haven't done anything to break the software. It did work and now it doesn't. This is just hateful.

To some extent I'm shielded from the self-breaking aspects of Microsoft software as an unintentional by-product of the fact that I change systems much more often than most people do. I'm seldom using an installation of Windows or Office that's more than a few months old, so Windows-rot doesn't have the opportunity to undermine my systems as it does those of most users. But in this case, it's pretty clear that I have a severe case of Windows-rot. It's not just Word 2000. The problem with associations and various other weird stuff tells me that Windows itself is seriously borked.

As of this morning, the problem is solved, kind of. See my response below.

Not long after my post yesterday, I got the following email:

Mr. Thompson,

A colleague of mine pointed to your web page where you describe a serious OpenOffice.org Writer problem. I'd like to help you get it resolved.

Would it be possible for you to mail me the offending portion of the document, so I could have a stab at at?

-Josh Berkus
Volunteer Project Lead
OpenOffice.org Marketing

After some more experimentation, I don't think it's a problem with OOo Writer. I think it's a problem with Windows 2000 and/or Word 2000 that coincidentally manifested in OOo Writer. I've been having severe problems with Windows 2000 and Word 2000, and I think it's safe to say that the blame lies there.

Briefly, the situation is as follows:

1. I write books for O'Reilly & Associates, using Word 2000, for which they have an author template. That template includes various styles, and provides a menu for applying styles that functions in Word 2000 but not OOo Writer.

2. I am currently working on the next edition of a book. I copied the chapter files from the current edition to a new folder for the new edition. I opened those files with Word 2000 and made minor changes (second edition to third in the footer, some chapter renumbering, etc.). I planned to do the major editing with OOo Writer.

3. I opened one of those files with OOo Writer and did some heavy editing on it. Everything appeared normal until I got to a section with an O'Reilly style defined as "Sidebar". There are actually two Sidebar styles, one for the heading and one for the body text of the sidebar. The heading appeared normally in OOo Writer, but the body text was missing entirely. All that showed below the sidebar was a couple of graphics frames (shown in http://www.ttgnet.com/images/oraframe.jpg). I tried everything I could think of in OOo Writer to make the sidebar text visible, but nothing worked. When I tried opening that document in Word 2000, it GPF'd a couple seconds after opening and displaying the first page.

4. At some point, I'm not sure how, I ended up with the document saved in native OOo format, but with a .doc extension. When I tried opening that with Word, I obviously got garbage on the screen. When I opened that document with OOo Writer, it appeared normally except for the missing sidebar contents.

5. I tried Save-As and told OOo Writer to save in Word 2000 format. I was then able to open the document with either OOo Writer or Word 2000, and the sidebar text now shows up normally. I haven't examined the document closely to see if there are any other anomalies, but I suspect not. The only oddity is that the document size has increased dramatically. The original Word 2000 document, before OOo Writer touched it, was 670 KB. The document in native OOo Writer format with a .doc extension (showing the weird sidebar problem) is 535 KB. The current version of the document (after saving as Word 2000 format from the OOo format) is 6,365 KB. There are some embedded images in the document, so I suspect the huge size of the current version is caused by those images being stored in expanded form in the document. I'll be happy to mail or ftp any or all of these to you if they'd be helpful.

Based on all of this, I conclude that Word 2000 munged its own document, and that using OOo Writer to save the document natively and then Save-As Word 2000 format somehow fixed the problem.

Incidentally, to change the subject entirely, there is one minor thing about OOo Writer that annoys me. I frequently collaborate with Jerry Pournelle, and we use Word 2000's Insert-Comment feature to annotate documents. In Word 2000, I can highlight a word or phrase, choose Insert - Comment, and type my comment. The highlighted material is shown with a yellow background and putting the cursor on that area displays the comment.

OOo Writer works pretty much the same way, but with one annoying difference. If I highlight text and choose Insert-Note, OOo deletes the highlighted text. Unless I'm missing something, the only way to insert a note with OOo is at the cursor point. Word's ability to highlight a word or phrase to comment on is very useful because it puts the comment in context. Conversely, with OOo Writer, I have to describe in the Note itself exactly what I'm referring to. Giving OOo Writer the ability to highlight a section to which a Note refers would be very helpful for those of us who collaborate on documents.

I want to emphasize that I think OOo is a wonderful product, and I'm now using it (and recommending it) as my default office suite. In particular, I'm trying to get Jerry and my other friends to begin using the OOo native format by default to combat Microsoft's de facto monopoly on document formats. I hope that enough of us will do this to force Microsoft to support reading and writing OOo format in the next release of Office.



Thursday, 26 September 2002

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9:24 - Richard Stallman is at it again, this time with an updated GNU/Linux FAQ that explains why those of us who refer to Linux as "Linux" rather than "GNU/Linux" are deluded, anti-freedom, and confused about what comprises an operating system. The operating system running on the PC beside me is Linux, no matter what Mr. Stallman thinks. True, it's running GNU utilities, but utilities do not an operating system make, no matter what Mr. Stallman thinks. The kernel is the operating system. If it happens to run a GNU compiler or a GNU shell, well that's just fine. It could instead be running a compiler or a shell supplied by someone other than GNU, and it would still be Linux. I've never heard anyone say he's running KDE/Linux or Gnome/Linux, so why should anyone say he's running GNU/Linux?

Mr. Stallman says that the GNU project has been operating for almost 20 years and is responsible for what he calls the GNU operating system. The trouble is, I've never seen a GNU operating system run. What Mr. Stallman refers to as the "GNU operating system" is in fact lacking one teeny, tiny piece. In all of those 20 years of development, the GNU project somehow overlooked the necessity for supplying a kernel with their "operating system". Claiming to have created an operating system that has no kernel is like claiming to have created a human that has no brain or a computer that has no CPU. Or perhaps they do have a kernel now. If so, I've never hurd of it.

I'm very tired of listening to Mr. Stallman beg for credit for creating the GNU utilities, and castigate those whose opinion of his importance is less lofty than his own. Mr. Stallman and the GNU project have developed utilities, not an operating system. Would the Linux operating system exist if the GNU project hadn't built those utilities? Probably not, but that doesn't change the fact that the GNU tools are just that. Tools, not an operating system. If Mr. Stallman wants the GNU software to be called an operating system, he'd better start shipping a GNU kernel with it. Otherwise, you'll never hear me refer to the "GNU operating system". In fact, I may start calling the GNU software the "Stallman Utilities".

GNU stands for "GNU's Not Unix", which is undoubtedly true. In fact, GNU's not an operating system at all.

Speaking of Linux, I need to have a Linux box for screenshots for the new edition of PC Hardware in a Nutshell. I decided yesterday to build a testbed/screenshot box with a chassis/carrier system so that I can swap hard drives (and thus operating systems) quickly.

I installed a DataExpress ATA chassis in the Antec SX-630 case, which turned out to be a bad decision. I love the Antec cases, and the DataExpress has worked well for me in the past. The problem with the combination is that the Antec case uses snap-in rails that secure to the DataExpress chassis and then slide into slots in the Antec case. That doesn't work very well, because when there's no drive carrier in the chassis, the two sides of the front of the chassis flex inward, making the gap too small to insert the carrier. That wouldn't be a problem if the chassis were screwed directly to the case, but the rails simply don't offer it enough support.

So I think I'll rebuild that system as a pure Linux box. It has a Pentium 4/2.0G with 256 MB of PC2100 DDR-SDRAM, which certainly should be adequate for a Linux desktop system. Now my problem is that I'm fresh out of 7,200 RPM ATA drives. I have some 5,400 RPM Seagate U-series drives, which would have been fine for a testbed/screenshot box, but I'm not sure I want to use one of them on my real desktop Linux system.

I'm in no great hurry to get the system reconfigured, because it will run Red Hat 8.0. That's due to be released Monday, but I'm sure it'll be a few days after that before I'm able to download the ISOs.



Friday, 27 September 2002

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10:48 - Slow start this morning. I finally woke up just after 8:00 a.m. and let the dogs out. Barbara, unusually for her, stayed in bed a while longer. I have a bunch of stuff to get done today, but nothing much to write about here.

I think I'll tear down the new box once again and convert it from a removable-drive system to a simple ATA box that will run Red Hat 8.0. I'll probably install RH 7.3 on it just to make sure everything is working properly, but I'll blow that installation away next week when Red Hat 8.0 ships. I may also clean up my office a bit, if not today then this weekend. It's getting hard to move around in here, and the risk of avalanche is always present.

This weekend is booked with projects, so I probably won't have much time to post.



Saturday, 28 September 2002

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9:26 - The new box sits here awaiting the release of Red Hat 8.0. I pulled the DataExpress hard drive chassis/carrier, and installed the 40 GB Seagate U-series hard drive normally. The system boots, and I did a partial test install of Red Hat 7.3 just to make sure everything was operating normally. I know I have some 7,200 RPM hard drives around here, but I can't find any. The 5,400 RPM drive will do for now. In addition to that drive, the system has an Intel D845BG motherboard, a 2.0 GHz Northwood Pentium 4 processor, 256 MB of Crucial PC2100 DDR-SDRAM memory, an ATI RADEON 8500DV video adapter, and a Plextor 24/10/40A CD writer, all in an Antec SX630 case. It should be a pretty good Linux desktop system.

After a couple weeks of rain and cloudy skies, it looks like tonight ought to be a pretty decent night for observing. Luna is at 57% illumination, but it doesn't rise until 23:28. Nautical twilight is at 20:08 and astronomical twilight at 20:38, so we'll have more than three hours of decent observing before Luna ruins visibility of deep-sky objects. Barbara is on the verge of completing the requirements for her Messier Certificate from the Astronomical League, and not much further from completing the requirements for the Binocular Messier Certificate. She should complete at least the first and possibly both tonight.

The Forsyth Astronomical Society observatory is now in place at Bullington. It's a donated building that club members relocated there and set up a couple weekends ago. It's a 10X10 foot wooden building with a roll-off roof, and will be the permanent home for the club's 11" SCT. Barbara and I probably won't use the observatory much, other than for shelter from cold winds during the winter, but it does have the advantage of blocking some streetlights a quarter mile or so away that have been an ongoing annoyance at the Bullington site.

Tonight will be our first night out with the observatory in place, so it'll be interesting to see how much it helps.



Sunday, 29 September 2002

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9:02 - Congratulations to Barbara, who is the first member of Winston-Salem Astronomical League who has officially completed the requirements for one of the AL Observing Clubs. Last night, Barbara logged M92 and M30, which gave her the 70 Messier Objects required for membership in the Messier Club.

When Barbara started this quest about six months ago, she had little experience in locating deep-sky objects, and found doing so difficult and frustrating. During the past six months, she has learned to use the Telrad, optical finder, star charts, books, and computer to track down objects, which is a significant achievement. Many amateur astronomers with years of experience have not logged that many Messier objects, so Barbara's success as a relative newbie is all the more impressive.

Next on her list is to complete the requirements for the Binocular Messier Club, which requires 50 objects be logged using only binoculars. Of the 110 Messier Objects, the Astronomical League ranks 42 as "Easy", 18 as "Tougher", and 16 as "Challenge". The remaining objects are considered impossible with standard binoculars, although at least one guy using giant binoculars has succeeded in logging all 110 Messier Objects during a Messier Marathon a couple of years ago.

Barbara will also be working on logging the remaining 40 objects in the Messier Catalog, after completing which she'll receive another certificate for having logged all 110 objects. And her next step is to begin observing the Caldwell Objects, most of which are dimmer and more difficult to locate than the Messiers.

Once again, congratulations to Barbara for her achievement.



Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 by Robert Bruce Thompson. All Rights Reserved.