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Week of 16 December 2002

Latest Update : Sunday, 22 December 2002 09:05 -0500

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Monday, 16 December 2002

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8:23 - I'm still working heads-down on chapters, and will be through the end of the year. I have a 12/31 deadline for 50% completion of the initial draft of the manuscript for the third edition of PC Hardware in a Nutshell, which means I have to have 15 or so chapters submitted in first-draft form by then. This is a harder revision than it might otherwise have been, because I'm dropping coverage of Windows NT4 issues and increasing coverage of Linux issues.

Sometimes that's merely a question of pointing readers to good Linux Web resources on particular topics, but other times I actually have to mess around with Linux and particular hardware devices, which is time-consuming. The real problem with writing about Linux from a hardware perspective is that there is no "Linux" per se. The first problem is that there are a lot of different distributions. I pretty much punted on that one, and decided to cover only Red Hat Linux 8.x, with a note early in the book that things may differ with other distributions. That also addresses the problem of which window manager to use, in the sense that I have RH8 loaded at defaults with both Gnome and KDE installed. I'm trying to maintain an even hand there so that, for example, when I talk about formatting a floppy disk with kfloppy I also mention gfloppy, at least in passing.

But I always have a nagging worry that I'm writing about something that's specific to RH but that's completely different with other distributions, such as the RH issue with CD-ROM drives and DMA that I'm writing about now. I always depend on my tech reviewers to catch mistakes, suggest additions, and so on, but for this edition I'm going to have to get some tech reviewers that know Linux inside-out from a hardware perspective and are willing to help make sure I don't look like a complete idiot.


Tuesday, 17 December 2002

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8:51 - I'm still plugging away on the tape drive and CD chapters, updating and adding Linux coverage. As a Linux newbie, I keep running into questions like, "How do I determine whether Linux is configured to use DMA on this ATA channel?" or "How do I enable DMA on this ATA channel under Linux? or "If I enable DMA on this ATA channel for this tape drive, does that break the Linux driver?"

Those are bad enough, but even if I figure out the answer under Red Hat 8.0, I then have a nagging suspicion that what I've discovered and am writing about is specific to Red Hat. Or is it? This isn't easy. I'm spending an incredible amount of time reading documents and playing with hardware to verify things that for Windows I already know.

Thanks to everyone who's offered to help. I think what I may do is set up a private back-channel mailing list that I can fire off queries to. That way, if someone doesn't know the answer or where to point me, someone else will. It'll also save a lot of duplicated effort. One of my goals for the new edition is to cover Linux. Not in the sense of making the book a Linux tome, or of covering Linux to the exclusion of Windows, but in the sense of making the book useful for someone who is a newbie to Linux and needs to get a tape drive taping or a CD burner burning or a sound card sounding. This is very much a learn-while-doing effort. As med students say, "watch one, do one, teach one."

9:00 - I frequently get literate, well-reasoned messages from readers who take exception to one thing or another that I've written.

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: R U STUPID
Date: Tue, 17 Dec 2002 08:54:01 -0500
From: Andrew Luciere <andrew11803@hotmail.com>
To: <webmaster@HardwareGuys.com>

AMD RUNS FASTER!! I have used shitty pentiums they suck. AND DDR RAM is faster Double Data Rate the DATA is transfered AT DOUBLE the SPEED than regular ram Hence Double Data Rate.





Wednesday, 18 December 2002

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9:30 - Barbara and I spent the evening at the Brian Center. They had a Christmas party for the residents, with everything including Santa delivering gifts. I am still covered up, with little to say other than about what I'm working on. More later, maybe.



Thursday, 19 December 2002

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8:40 - Barbara came home yesterday afternoon feeling ill. She went to bed complaining of nausea and stomach pain. It is so unusual for Barbara to be ill that I was very concerned. In the 19 years we've been married, I remember her being sick enough to stay in bed only a couple of times. In the 20 years she worked for the library system, I think she took fewer than half a dozen sick days total. I was very concerned, particularly about the stomach pain. I asked her if she needed to go to the emergency room, and she refused. She was concerned about appendicitis, but the pain wasn't in the lower right quadrant. I thought she should go to the emergency room anyway, but she didn't think that was necessary.

She wasn't able to face eating, so I gave her soup and tea and Coke. I tried blocking the dogs from the bedroom, but they simply lay outside the door and whined, so I ended up letting them into the bedroom. Barbara slept fitfully much of yesterday afternoon, evening, and last night. This morning she woke up early and went out to get the paper. I woke up shortly thereafter, hearing her and the dogs moving around. Barbara said she was feeling a lot better this morning, although not 100%, and she insisted on going to work. I thought that was a bad idea, but Barbara hates being in bed sick so much that perhaps getting out will actually be better for her.

We missed the astronomy club meeting last night, but it was just the Christmas party so missing it was no big deal. I also decided to stay with Barbara instead of going over to visit my mother, so mom got only one visit yesterday. Speaking of which, I'd better head over there now.

9:18 - I just sent the following warning to subscribers.

Microsoft has announced yet another critical vulnerability. This one affects only Windows XP (all versions). Anyone who is running XP needs to be aware of this problem and apply the patch as soon as possible.

Microsoft says:

"An attacker could seek to exploit this vulnerability by creating an .MP3 or .WMA file that contained a corrupt custom attribute and then host it on a website, on a network share, or send it via an HTML email. If a user were to hover his or her mouse pointer over the icon for the file (either on a web page or on the local disk), or open the shared folder where the file was stored, the vulnerable code would be invoked. An HTML email could cause the vulnerable code to be invoked when a user opened or previewed the email. A successful attack could have the effect of either causing the Windows Shell to fail, or causing an attacker's code to run on the user's computer in the security context of the user."

More information is available at <http://www.microsoft.com/security/security_bulletins/ms02-072.asp>

I'm getting bounces for Mike Eckenwiler at amigo.net because the account name is unknown.



Friday, 20 December 2002

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8:21 - I've been exchanging email with Tim O'Reilly concerning his announcement last spring that O'Reilly & Associates would support the Founders' Copyright. The Founders' Copyright is a return to what the Founding Fathers intended for copyright protection, a 14-year term renewable for another 14 years. The Founders' Copyright is a response to the ridiculous extension of copyright terms foisted upon all of us by the movie and music industries. An author who agrees to have his work published under the Founders' Copyright signs an irrevocable agreement that that work will be put into the public domain after the period intended by the Founding Fathers. I've told Tim to sign me up. You can read more about the Founders' Copyright at  creativecommons.org.

11:55 - I found my pocket knife. It's a Victorinox Soldier Swiss Army Knife, which is to say it's the actual model of knife carried by Swiss soldiers. I missed it yesterday, and found it this morning in the bedroom, where it had fallen out of the pocket of my jeans.

I've carried a knife every day without exception for the last 26 years. Sometimes it was a folding knife, sometimes a Swiss Army Knife, and sometimes a Bowen Belt Knife. But I always had a knife handy, although I'm not obsessive about it. For example, it didn't bother me that I didn't have it with me yesterday. But with such minor exceptions, I do have a knife with me all the time. I guess that means I can't fly aboard a commercial airliner now, because they wouldn't let me keep it.

It all started in the summer of 1976. Karen Taylor, the girl I was living with at the time, enjoyed sailing. She borrowed a 14-foot Sunfish from a friend, and we took it to the lake one weekend. I'd never done anything more than ride on a sailboat before, but Karen assured me that she was an experienced skipper and needed me to crew for her. I told her I had no idea what to do, but she said not to worry about it. I soon learned that I was expected to use my weight by leaning to one side, out over the side of the boat, as Karen turned. Doing that, I had to hold on to keep from falling overboard.

To make a long story short, Karen capsized the boat in shallow water and stuck the mast into the lake bed. (She later told me that it had been her fault, and not caused by anything I'd done wrong.) I found myself underwater and tangled in the rigging. Fortunately, I'd taken a deep breath before I went under. When I first went under, I wasn't too worried. I'm a strong swimmer and figured I'd just surface and make sure Karen was okay. But during the capsize, I ended up with the rigging twisted around me pretty badly in several places.

A patrol boat saw the accident, and the officers immediately headed for us at high speed. Unfortunately, they were not close when it happened, so it took them a while to get there. In the meantime, I was under water, struggling to get free of the rigging. I finally did so, and came to the surface just as the patrol boat arrived. They pulled me out first, although I was more concerned about Karen, who was screaming the whole time. They got her aboard the patrol boat soon after, and she kept apologizing over and over, saying she thought she'd killed me. One of the officers told me later that they'd seen me go under and that I'd been under for almost two minutes. I never realized I could hold my breath for that long.

I remember thinking as I struggled to get free of the rigging that I was pissed at myself for not having a knife. Even before then I'd usually had a knife handy, but that day I didn't. Nowadays I always do.


Saturday, 21 December 2002

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9:04 - From what I'm reading, it appears that Linux Mandrake is likely to fold soon. Mandrake posted an appeal for donations on their site yesterday, citing "a big short-term cash issue." It seems that Mandrake needs $4 million to dig their way out of a hole that is largely of their own making. A couple of years ago, Mandrake made a business decision to shift away from their Linux roots in favor of becoming an "e-learning company", whatever that is. In doing that they dug themselves a hole, and now they're hoping that their loyal users will bail them out.

I don't see that happening. I think this is a case of Mandrake going to the well once too often, and it appears to me that many of their loyal supporters are no longer as loyal as they once were. Their "Club call" last March generated some cash flow, but it also turned into a PR nightmare, as many Club members subsequently felt cheated when Mandrake announced that StarOffice would be available only to some Club members. That left a bad taste in many people's mouths, and I think Mandrake is going to be surprised at just how much good will they burned with that fiasco. Reading the feedback on slashdot, it appears that a lot of people are likely to ignore Mandrake's appeal.

Frankly, I'm not sure why anyone would support Mandrake. Originally, Mandrake was generally acknowledged as the best "desktop distribution", but those days are in the past. I've looked at Mandrake 9.0 and Red Hat 8.0, and I can't see any real advantage to Mandrake for mainstream desktop use. If it's a "beginner" Linux desktop you're after, Lycoris and other distributions seem much more focused on that than does Mandrake. In short, I can't see any way that Mandrake differentiates itself from the crowd.

The question then becomes whether supporting Mandrake is a good use of one's funds. I think it is not, and a lot of people appear to agree. Emmett Plant, CEO of the Xiph.org Foundation (the makers of Ogg Vorbis), makes an excellent point about the millions of dollars that Mandrake has burned. He goes on to say:

"Meanwhile, we're a non-profit company that produces the absolute best-of-class general-purpose audio compression codec in the world, proprietary or otherwise. We've been through recessions and poor economic times before; Hopefully we'll live through this one, too. Everybody and their brother has a Linux distribution; Why don't you support the smaller projects that actually make a difference?"

And I think he's right. Sending $4 million to Mandrake is dumping that money down a rathole. That $4 million would be much better spent supporting projects like Ogg Vorbis. If Mandrake goes belly-up, they have only themselves to blame.

More on the Microsoft security hole I mentioned yesterday:

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Thursday's M$ security bulletin 02-072 does not go far enough
Date: Fri, 20 Dec 2002 14:38:08 -0800 (PST)
From: John Bartley
To: thompson@ttgnet.com


Found while reading my Palm on the bus this morning that yesterday's Windows XP-only security problem Microsoft Security Bulletin MS02-072 affects any version of Windows, not just XP, if the PC has Winamp on it. Since Winamp is part of Netscape's distribution, many users _are_ vulnerable.

Fortunately, a fix is available free: http://www.winamp.com/news.jhtml;?articleid=9680


John E. Bartley, III - K7AAY telcom admin, Portland OR, USA - Views mine.
http://palmwireless.cjb.net Wireless FAQ for PalmOS(R)
This post is quad-ROT13 encrypted. Reading it violates the DMCA.
winter into spring, brightly anticipated, like Habeas SWE™




Sunday, 22 December 2002

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9:05 - Barbara and I thought about heading over to the soccer field near our house to observe last night, but Barbara is not yet fully recovered from the bug she had earlier in the week and I wasn't feeling great myself. We ended up sitting around reading all evening, which was nice.

Today I'm doing some preliminary preparation for the Messier Marathon practice session we have planned for late February. The Messier Marathon is an attempt to view all 110 Messier Objects from dusk one evening until the following dawn. It's only possible to do that during one period a year, near the new moon in March or early April. We're doing a practice session in February to get the bugs worked out before our real Messier Marathon next March. Although all 110 objects won't be possible during our February practice session, it will help us prepare for the real Messier Marathon in March. None of us have ever done a Messier Marathon before, so we hope to use the practice session to get the bugs worked out.

Paul Jones and I are the most experienced observers in the Winston-Salem Astronomical League, so we decided to get together to do some preliminary planning to help things go as smoothly as possible. It's important to develop a schedule and sequence--which objects to observe in what order--to make the most of our observing time. It's very easy to get behind. Some objects set during the evening but rise again later. Other objects once set are gone for good, so it's important to know which objects need to be logged first. Also, we have a problem with the northern horizon at our site, which means we'll have to modify the sequence to take that into account. Once we have a workable sequence/schedule and have a chance to try it in February, we'll be in a much better position to develop a good sequence/schedule for the March Marathon (the best sequence/schedule differs from month to month).

We also have logistics to think about. Preparing for an all-night session in February at high-elevation on the Blue Ridge Parkway is non-trivial. We need to be able to feed people, keep them warm, and so on. We also have equipment issues to worry about, including such things as 2-hour notebook batteries only providing 15 minutes of power at the temperatures we'll be working in and equipment that will literally ice up as we're using it. Fortunately, we'll be working from the cabin, which gives us a warm refuge.

Barbara and I are having dinner with Paul and Mary tomorrow evening. After dinner, Paul and I will sit down at the kitchen table and rough out a schedule and sequence. Once we have that done, checked, and double-checked, we'll start enhancing it with stuff that'll help less-experienced observers, such as recommendations for instrument to use (binoculars, telescope at low power, telescope at high power) and so on. We want to make this session fun for anyone, from novice to expert. Well, as fun as staying up all night outdoors in February at high elevation can be.



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