Monday, 4 November 2002
8:50 - Heads-down work this week. I have to finish up the first drafts of the first two chapters of the third edition of PC Hardware in a Nutshell and get them off to my editor. That means I won't have time to post much here. I'll have the first two chapters available for subscribers to download and review soon after I send them off to my editor, who gets the first look.
I really must do something about my data. I use a batch file to replicate changed data to multiple machines frequently over the course of a working day. Each weekend, I do a full data backup to a DDS-3 tape, which supposedly holds 12 GB natively and 24 GB compressed. Here's what I found yesterday afternoon when I came back to my office to pull the completed backup tape.
I had too much data to fit on one tape, by a stinking 52 files (of 84,983 files) and 12 MB (of nearly 16 GB). Arrrghhh. Obviously, I'm getting more like 1.3:1 compression rather than the rated 2:1 compression, but that's not surprising given that much of my data is archived and zipped. I think I'm going to have to start segregating older archive data more deeply and perhaps back it up (archive it, actually) to CD-R or DVD-RAM. I trust tape for backing up when it's being refreshed frequently, but I don't trust tape for pulling an archive copy and sticking it on the shelf. In a year or two or three, when I really need it, the tape may not be readable. The CD-R or DVD-RAM disc will be readable.
I already pull CD-R copies of important stuff periodically, but I don't have any organized method of doing so. I guess I'll need to set up a formal archiving mechanism to make sure that (a) stuff gets organized into the proper directories for archiving, (b) archived stuff actually does get written to CD-R or DVD-RAM, and (c) that I have some means of organizing the optical discs so that I can later find what I need to.
I do have a DDS-4 drive or two around, so I suppose I could start using them for production backup, but that's just a stopgap. The jump from 12/24 GB to 20/40 GB seems large, but being the packrat that I am I'm sure I'd soon exceed the DDS-4 limit. I think the time has come to segregate backup data from archive data.
If you're using Norton Internet Security 2003, you need to read this article. Apparently, under some conditions, NIS 2003 can delete your email permanently. Symantec is working on a fix that they plan to deliver via LiveUpdate later this week, but in the interim if you value your email it might be a good idea to disable NIS and retrieve your mail with a POP client (like Mozilla Mail) that isn't subject to Outlook viruses.
Tuesday, 5 November 2002
8:38 - More bad news on the Fujitsu hard drive problem. According to an article in The Inquirer, it now appears that about 5.9 million Fujitsu hard drives may be affected. The problem seems to be caused by sub-standard components furnished by Cirrus Logic. The irony is that Fujitsu is complaining loudly about being misled by Cirrus Logic, while at the same time trying to avoid telling their own customers the full extent of the problem.
I've said this before, but it bears repeating. If any of your systems have the affected Fujitsu hard drives installed, replace them now, before they fail. The cost of buying and installing new hard drives pales in comparison to the cost of replacing failed drives, particularly if those drives contain data that would be difficult or impossible to recover. You may even be able to get some compensation from Fujitsu or your system vendor, although I wouldn't count on that.
In a similar vein, it appears that millions of Taiwanese motherboards are doomed to die an early death, again because the manufacturers used sub-standard Taiwanese capacitors. American and Japanese component makers warned the motherboard makers of the potential dangers in using cheap Pacific-Rim capacitors, but the temptation to save a few cents (literally) was apparently too much for the Taiwanese board makers to resist. Now, when it's too late, it's become apparent that the sub-standard capacitors are prone to fail catastrophically, blowing out their seals and spurting electrolyte all over the motherboards. So far as I know, the only motherboard maker that's been named is Abit, although there are certainly other motherboard makers affected.
There seems to be a conspiracy of silence on this issue. Given the current economic climate, the last thing manufacturers need is a large-scale recall. They're having trouble selling their products and paying their bills as is. A major recall would simply make the situation worse, both because they'd be faced with the cost of replacing those millions of motherboards and because their own sales would suffer further because the reliability of their products would be called into question.
Unfortunately, I have no idea which motherboard makers are affected and which are "safe". It's possible that even premium manufacturers like Intel are affected, although my guess is that the likelihood of any particular motherboard being affected maps closely to its price. Manufacturers that tried to save a few cents here and a few cents there are more likely to have sourced local Taiwanese capacitors than are manufacturers who maintained high build quality and sold their products for correspondingly higher prices. I'm trying to find out which specific manufacturers and motherboard models are affected, but as you might expect that information is very hard to come by.
In one sense, it's easy to blame the manufacturers for these problems. After all, they knew or should have known that these less expensive components were more likely to fail, right? Not really. Just as we're at the mercy of the manufacturers and can only assume that they're using the proper components, they in turn are at the mercy of their suppliers, and can only assume that the components those suppliers are providing meet specifications. Certainly the manufacturers can do some testing, but these problems have been of the sort that testing is unlikely to uncover. It's not a matter of these components failing immediately. They fail after extended use, which is difficult to test for.
Unfortunately, the problem trickles down. The capacitor manufacturers are unlikely to do more than replace the faulty components they supplied, which leaves the motherboard manufacturers holding the bag for the replacement cost of all those millions of motherboards. In turn, the motherboard makers will do their best to avoid incurring the huge costs of recalling affected motherboards. Not just the cost of the motherboards themselves, but the cost of actually replacing those motherboards in millions of systems scattered all over the world. The problem trickles down further to the OEMs and system builders, none of whom want to incur the costs of visiting each affected system and replacing the motherboard.
Who has used these defective motherboards? Dell? HP? Compaq? Gateway? We don't know. We may never know. Ultimately, the problem will trickle down to us, the poor dumb users. One day our motherboard fails. We call our system vendor. If we're lucky, the system is still under warranty and the system vendor replaces it. If we're unlucky, the system is no longer under warranty, and we pay all the costs ourselves, no doubt writing it off as just another routine component failure. That's the way the motherboard makers and system manufacturers want to keep it. Replacing failed systems in onesies and twosies. The alternative is too horrible to contemplate.
9:23 - There's more information about the capacitor problem here, but I still can't find a list of affected manufacturers and motherboard models.
11:27 - Barbara and I decided to go to vote about 10:00 a.m., on the theory that our polling place wouldn't be busy at that time. The first sign we were wrong was when we pulled into the parking lot, which was just about full. I've never seen it that full, even during presidential elections at prime voting time. We finally parked way off in Siberia and walked to the polling place.
There was a line nearly out to the door. That seemed very strange for that time of day. As the line progressed, we finally got to where we could see the actually voting booths and the table where they mark you off as you get your ballot. The problem became clear. It was taking them forever to verify each person's identity and issue the ballot. At one point, all six of the voting booths were vacant for about five minutes. That's outrageous. Ordinarily, the voting booths are the bottleneck, and here all six of them were standing unused.
As we got nearer the head of the line, the problem became clear. The woman they had looking up people's names and checking them off was totally incompetent. She had an alphabetized computer print-out of registered voters, and was having problems locating the "T" tab when we announced our name. Here's a hint, woman. The "T" tab is between the "S" tab and the "U" tab. Jesus. I am not making this up, and I am not exaggerating. It took her forever to find people's names. The guy in front of us helped her find his name, and he was reading the list upside down.
This situation really annoyed me until I thought about the upside. Anything that discourages people from voting is a Good Thing. The kind of person who would give up because of the delay is exactly the kind of person we don't want voting. We really need to make it harder to qualify to vote, not easier. We need a poll tax, an intelligence test, and other measures designed to minimize the number of uncommitted, stupid voters. We need to disqualify anyone who is paid by the government, whether via welfare or a government job. We need to disqualify people who don't pay property taxes from voting in local elections. We need to get the percentage of the adult population who votes down to 10% or less. Five percent would be better still, and something close to 1% would be ideal.
Anything that reduces the number of voters is a Good Thing. Everyone seems to encourage people to get out and vote. I do the opposite. I do my best to encourage people not to vote. The kind of people who are easily discouraged shouldn't be voting anyway. And the incompetent bitch at the polling place was certainly doing her part, albeit unintentionally, to discourage casual voters. I say "bitch" advisedly. Barbara tells me that she's the woman who threatened to sue because Barbara was out in the front yard playing ball with Malcolm, and Malcolm trotted over to see her as she walked past on the street. Barbara called her a stupid bitch to her face. I wouldn't have been that polite.
Wednesday, 6 November 2002
9:21 - It looks like the Republicans cleaned up, both locally and nationally. I suppose that's good news of a sort, although I'd much prefer the Libertarians had won. But the Republicans at least pay lip service to low taxes and small government whereas the Democrats don't even pretend to. As the old saying had it, Republicans will never steal as much as Democrats will give away. Not that that makes any differences. Americans have, as usual, voted for more of the same.
They've also voted, at least by implication, for Imperial America and for war on Iraq. When I talked to Jerry Pournelle the other day the conversation drifted, as usual, to the coming American Empire. Jerry and I both regret this trend, but we differ in that Jerry thinks the Republic is salvageable, whereas I think it's gone forever. Given our druthers, either of us would choose to return to the days of Republic, but I think we've gone too far down the slippery slope to empire to be able to make our way back. Washington DC is the new Rome, and nothing we can do or say is going to change that.
One thing upon which we do agree is that if it is to be empire, at least let it be competent empire. There are many disadvantages to empire, not least of which is the loss of personal freedoms, but there are advantages too, at least as the average person sees it. The present course of the US is giving us all the disadvantages of empire and none of the advantages. If we are doomed to suffer the disadvantages of empire, let us at least enjoy the benefits as well.
One of the major benefits of empire is or should be economic. If we are to wage imperial war, the goal should be to benefit US citizens economically. Those benefits can be direct, as would be occupying the Middle East oilfields and pumping them dry. They can also be indirect, as would be using our power to enforce trade in the directions that benefit US citizens, i.e. importing raw materials at low prices from colonies and exporting finished goods to captive markets at high prices. That worked for the British Empire during the 18th and 19th centuries, and it would work for the US in the 21st century.
Will it happen? I don't know, but it won't surprise me if it does. The economic arguments are simply too compelling. The first signs are appearing now. The US is making it clear that it regards the UN as nothing more than a rubber-stamp, which is as it should be. The US is discussing how Iraq will be managed after it is conquered. Nothing is certain yet, but I'd be surprised if we didn't enforce some sort of viceroy/proconsul arrangement. From there, it's a small step to control the sale of Iraqi oil, selling it at market prices on the world market to recoup the costs of conquering and occupying Iraq, and selling it at greatly reduced prices to US consumers. It's not a much bigger step to then invade and conquer Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the other Middle East oil producers, thereby cornering the majority of known oil reserves. With most of the world's oil reserves under the direct control of the US, of allies like Great Britain, and of future client states like Russia, the US has a stranglehold on petroleum, and therefore on the world's economy.
As the economic benefits of such a course become clearer, I'd expect the US Empire to extend its reach world-wide, with the ultimate goal of taking everything we want cheaply while selling what we produce dearly to captive markets. Many Americans will ridicule this speculation on the basis that the US doesn't do that kind of thing. It simply doesn't conform to our self-image. But many non-Americans see the US without rose-colored glasses, and fear that exactly this will happen. As for me, I think I'll practice shouting "Ave!" to prepare to be a Citizen of Empire.
13:08 - Eric Raymond has posted what he calls Halloween VII, a leaked Microsoft document that analyzes Linux and Open Source from the Microsoft perspective. As usual, ESR has annotated the document with his own highlighting and commentary. It's well worth a read, if only to gain insight into how Microsoft perceives OSS in general and Linux in particular.
Thursday, 7 November 2002
11:18 - My network collapsed this morning. I started to check my mail on the den system, and Mozilla Mail timed out. At first I thought there was a problem on my mail server or with my connectivity. I fired up Mozilla and hit Jerry Pournelle's site, which is on the same physical server as mine. That timed out, so I tried hitting CNN, which also timed out. So I went into my office and checked the cable modem. It was lit up properly, so I fired up Mozilla on my main workstation. Mozilla couldn't even find my start page, which is an HTML file on the local file server. I looked at the Intel hub. It was lit up normally, although the data lights were solid instead of flickering occasionally. I powered it down and back up, but the network problem persisted. I wasn't even able to access mapped network drives. Very strange.
So I powered down all the systems, figuring that would solve the problem. It did, kind of. All the mapped network drives started working again, but when I tried to retrieve my mail I got a time-out. I fired up Mozilla again, and it timed out on several different sites. Finally, I looked down and noticed that my cable modem was showing no signal. At that point, I decided to give up for a while and go over to visit my mother. When I returned, the cable modem was back up and everything was working normally again.
At this point, I'm not sure what happened. Having the cable modem down certainly explains the Internet connectivity problems, but not the local problems. Roadrunner does very well on maintaining IP connectivity most of the time, but I long ago gave up trying to use their mail servers, both POP and SMTP. Unfortunately, I depend on them for DHCP and DNS as well. Those servers are a lot more stable than their mail servers, but they're still not great. It may be that my link going down was purely coincidental, but I'm inclined to think that it had something to do with my local connectivity problems as well. How, I'm not sure, but I think I may bring up a local DNS server and assign static IP addresses to all my systems, including meepmeep, which is my gateway to Roadrunner. Doing that may annoy Roadrunner, but at least I'll have a usable IP address when their DHCP server borks. Unless, of course, it manages to re-assign the IP address I'm using to someone else, which it shouldn't do.
At any rate, I'm running way behind at the moment. I have my usual workload, a new book proposal I'm working on, and I promised Pournelle a sanity check on his new column, which is due today. So I'd best get to work on all that.
Yesterday was a visit to the dentist for cleaning, which I survived. Tonight we'll be out with the scopes observing.
Friday, 8 November 2002
8:42 - We went out observing last night, for the first time in a couple of months.
The good thing about observing this time of year is that it gets dark early. We arrived at Bullington about 5:30 p.m., just after sunset, set up the scope to cool down, and then had our sandwiches for dinner. Bonnie Richardson was already there, setting up her scope to do some astrophotography. We settled in to await full darkness, which wasn't long in coming. By about 6:45 p.m., it was as dark as it ever gets at Bullington. Paul, Tom, and Steve showed up not too long after, so we had a good group up there, particularly for a weekday night.
The bad thing about observing this time of year is that it's cool. Last night it was around 40F (4C). That doesn't cold, but believe me when you're sitting out under the stars under a 0-degree Kelvin sky it seems a lot colder than when you're walking around during the day under a 5,500-degree Kelvin sky. Heat radiates from warm bodies to cold ones, and when you're out under the night sky you're the warm body that's doing the radiating.
The rule of thumb among amateur astronomers is that one should dress as though the temperature is 30F colder than actual (after taking windchill into account). That is, with last night's 40F temperatures and no wind, wise amateur astronomers dressed for 10F temperatures.I was wearing full long undies, padded jeans, hunting boots, a sweater, an LL Bean chamois shirt, a parka, scarf, watch cap, and gloves. Once the weather starts to get really cold, I'll add a sweatsuit (or two) to that ensemble. During really cold weather we all waddle around like a bunch of overstuffed penguins.
Having had no opportunity to observe for the last two months, we were all out of practice. People were having trouble getting their equipment set up, batteries were found to be dead, accessories couldn't be located, and so on. Barbara had forgotten to do her usual pre-session planning, so it took her a while to get in the swing of finding and observing objects. Once she did, though, she was able to bag quite a few objects, including several she needs for her Binocular Messier certificate. I ran off a quick dozen or so Messier Objects with my binocular, although I had most or all of them logged previously.
About 8:15, Saturn came up over Pilot Mountain, and all of us waited anxiously for it to get high enough to look at. For most of us, this was our first view of Saturn for the year. Then, just before 9:00 p.m., I spotted Bellatrix peeking over the horizon. When Bellatrix rises, the rest of Orion isn't far behind. Sure enough, just after 9:00 p.m. I spotted Betelgeuse and Rigel just coming up, with Mintaka, Alnilam, and Alnitak (the three stars of Orion's belt) appearing one after the other as they rose in a vertical line of three 2nd magnitude stars. Orion was still down in the muck, but by 9:30 I was able to see the Sword of Orion (which contains M42, the Great Orion Nebula) naked eye.
We played around for a bit longer, looking at Saturn, Orion, and other stuff, but by 10:00 p.m. people had started thinking about packing up. Paul left about 10:00, and the rest of us were packed up and ready to head home by 10:30. Not bad. We were up there for five hours, and still got home just after 11:00. All in all, not a bad first session after being away from observing for so long. This is the time of year when observing conditions are usually the best, so I'm sure we'll be out frequently over the coming few months.
During those sessions, we'll be preparing to do our first Messier Marathon next year. We'll do a practice run late in February and we'll make a second attempt late in March. That'll take place up on the Blue Ridge Parkway, with the Marathon sessions running from dusk until dawn. Being up all night in February and March at 5,000 feet elevation on the Blue Ridge Parkway will bring new meaning to the word "cold".
9:12 - I just sent the following warning to my subscribers. If you are a subscriber and didn't receive this message by email, please let me know.
Saturday, 9 November 2002
10:35 - Yesterday was my mother's 84th birthday. Barbara and I told her we'd pick up dinner for all of us at a restaurant and bring it over to eat at the nursing home, but mom said she'd prefer a home-cooked meal. Her choice, believe it or not, was toasted-cheese sandwiches and French fries. So around 5:00 p.m. Barbara made a bunch of toasted cheese sandwiches and French fries, and we packed them up and headed over to the nursing home, also taking the cake that Barbara had picked up at the grocery store. Mom had come down with a cold earlier yesterday, but she enjoyed her sandwich, fries, and cake. Barbara cut most of the remaining cake in small pieces and left it there for the staff.
I'd met with Lea (the Director of Nursing) and Terri (the facility Director) earlier yesterday to discuss some issues. One of the very aggravating on-going issues for mom has been the staff's insistence in turning out the overhead light when they put mom's roommate to bed. The rooms have the standard dual-fluorescent fixtures above each bed, with one tube aimed downward and the other upward. The downward-pointing portion of the light is controlled locally by a pull-chain. The upward-pointing portion of the light is controlled by a wall-switch. The problem is that the upward-pointing lights for both patients are on a single switch, so they're both turned on or off together.
Mrs. Rattery, mom's roommate, just turned 95 years old, and is pretty much out of it. When the staff puts Mrs. Rattery to bed, they invariably flip the wall-switch to turn off the upward-pointing lights. The trouble is, that may happen anytime from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m., and once they turn off the upward-pointing lights my mother can no longer see well enough to read, work her crossword puzzles, color her pictures, and so on.
When I brought this up with Lea and Terri yesterday, they misunderstood me completely. They thought I was insisting that Mrs. Rattery's upward-pointing light be kept on as long as mom wanted it. I thought they were insisting that mom's upward-pointing light be turned off when Mrs. Rattery was put to bed. In fact, it was a complete misunderstanding. Lea and Terri both thought the room lights were like standard hospital lights--pull the chain once to turn on just the downward-pointing light; pull the chain a second time to turn on both lights; pull the chain a third time to turn on just the upward-pointing light; and pull the chain a fourth time to turn both lights off.
They were shocked when I explained that the chain controlled only the downward-pointing section of the lights, and that the wall switch controlled both upward-pointing sections together. Neither of them had any idea they were wired that way. They both thought that there was something broken in mom's room. I explained that it had been the same way in the room mom was originally in, and presumably in all of their other rooms as well. They couldn't believe it.
Mom herself came up with a workable suggestion. She asked why they couldn't just remove the top tube in Mrs. Rattery's light, since she's not capable of turning the light on or off anyway and the only time they use it is when they're putting her to bed or getting her up, for which the downward-pointing manually-switched portion is adequate. Lea and Terri said they'd have to check because removing the top tube might be a violation of some sort. I suggested that if that was the case, they might be able simply to replace the top tube in Mrs. Rattery's light with a burned-out tube.
They said they'd talk to the facilities guy about getting the situation resolved. I told them I didn't really care how they did it, as long as they ensured that mom could use both portions of her light when she needed them. The easiest solution might be for them to replace the light itself with one that works as a normal hospital light is intended to.
Although I did find it a little strange that Lea and Terri weren't aware of how the lights work, it turns out that I wasn't either. All this time, I'd though that the two switches by the door had been intended to control the upward-pointing sections of the two patient lights individually and that the electrician simply hadn't wired them properly. Mom pointed out that the second switch, which I'd thought wasn't connected to anything, in fact controls a small grill-covered night-light near the bathroom. I checked it, and sure enough that's exactly what it does. So it turns out that the problem is poor facility design and no one being aware of the implications. I hope they'll get this all sorted out soon.
Sunday, 10 November 2002
8:50 - Yesterday about lunchtime Jerry Pournelle called. About five minutes into the call, Barbara came into my office and asked me if I could call Jerry back in a few minutes. "Sure," I said, "what's the problem?" Barbara said she needed my help loading her yard vacuum into the truck to take it back to Sears.
She bought this yard vacuum at Sears last spring, after doing some research about which model to choose. It looks pretty much like a lawnmower, but instead of cutting grass it's designed to vacuum up leaves, chop them into tiny bits, and store them in a bag. She ran the yard vacuum exactly once last spring, just to make sure it worked. It was quite hard to start then, but I passed that off to the fact that the engine was new and not broken in.
But when Barbara brought it out this fall to do some serious leaf-sucking, she found out that it was very hard to start cold and nearly impossible to start warm. She took it off to the Sears repair center. I assumed when she did that that she might be able to wait while they looked at it and come home with a working yard vacuum. No dice. They sent it off for repair, which took something like three weeks. When Barbara picked it up, there was a note on it that they'd re-built the engine and it worked fine.
Rebuilt the engine? After perhaps a total of one hour of use? That seemed a bit strange, but I thought perhaps they were overstating what they'd done. When Barbara fired up the yard vacuum, it started okay, although it was still a lot harder to get running than I would have expected. And, once it was warm, it was impossible to restart. That's particularly important, because this machine has a "moron interlock" that requires turning the engine off to empty the bag. So it basically turned out that Barbara's new machine, with only a couple hours' use on it, was good for one or two bags before she had to give up and let it cool completely down.
She told me when she looked in my door that she was going to take back her yard vacuum and demand a new one. I helped her load it into her truck. She put on her Fearsome Predator face and headed for the mall wearing war paint and carrying her tomahawk. I pitied any sales clerk who might give her a hard time. She returned an hour or so later with a new boxed lawn vacuum, and said that Sears had been wonderful.
The guy asked her if she wanted a refund or a replacement. She took the replacement. He told her that they'd dropped the price of the unit from $499 to $399 since she'd gotten hers. Rather than go through the paperwork to return the old one, get a refund, and buy the new one, she asked him if he'd throw in the two-year on-site maintenance agreement that she saw on offer. That includes a yearly on-site visit to clean and tune the machine, so she took them up on it. Barbara is now happy, and I'm relieved.
Brian Bilbrey sends the following:
So I clicked on the link, which displayed the first few paragraphs of the article, followed by a notice that there were two ways to read the rest. I could either subscribe to Salon.com, which I didn't want to do to read one article (this is where micro-money would be wonderful; I'd have happily paid a dime or whatever to read the article) or I could watch a Mercedes-Benz demonstration and then view the article for free. Interesting idea.
So I clicked on the link to watch the Mercedes-Benz demonstration. That brought up a page with an M-B logo at the top left, a "click here to get the plugin" notice at the middle left, a colorful abstract pattern at the middle right, and at the bottom a note that this was page 1 of 4 and a live link that said "exit early", which didn't seem useful. The URL for that page was http://cache.ultramercial.com/beta/C1/page1.html, so my next step seemed obvious. I replaced "page1" with "page2" and clicked refresh, seeing a similar page. I went on to view "page3", which looked much the same, and then "page4", which had an "Enter Salon Premium" link at the bottom. I clicked that, and viewed the entire Buffy article. As far as I'm concerned, I viewed all four pages, so I did my bit. I can't help it if they're stupid enough to use Flash.
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