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Week of -1 January 2003

Latest Update : Sunday, 05 January 2003 12:16 -0500

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Monday, -1 January 2003

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Happy New Year! 

8:44 - I'm celebrating a bit early, because I insist that a week begins on Monday and has seven days.

I was going to write a long article about what happened last year and what I hope will happen this year, but I simply don't have the time or energy to write it. Last year was not a good one for us on many fronts. My mother's fall in July, the continuing collapse of the tech sector (including computer books), and so on. Still, we survived, if only barely, and we're determined to make this year better than 2002.

I'd hoped by now to be fully converted from Windows to Linux, but that was not to be. The problem was not with Linux itself, which is now more than good enough for servers and desktops. The problem was with applications, and more specifically Office 2000 compatibility. OpenOffice.org 1.x is almost good enough for my needs, but not quite. I'm looking forward to the next release, which I suspect will be sufficient.

On the plus side of the ledger, I'm now running two production Linux systems, my Internet gateway box and my secondary office system. I've also transitioned fully away from Microsoft Outlook and Internet Explorer to Mozilla Mail and browser. I wish the Mozilla Calendar project would ship a finished product, but other than that I'm pretty content with Mozilla. I still use FrontPage, simply because there's no equivalent product, and Word because the remaining niggling incompatibilities between Word and OOo are enough to make me stick with Word for now.

At year end I always look at what Barbara and I are running. It's about time to make a change to Barbara's main system, which is only a 1.0 GHz Pentium III, and to my den system, which is a Pentium III/750. The replacements are a significant step up for both of us. Barbara's new system will be an Intel D845GEBV2 motherboard with a fast Northwood-core Pentium 4, 512 MB of Crucial PC2700 DDR memory, a 120 GB Seagate Barracuda ATA V hard drive, and a Plextor PlexCombo 20/10/40-12A. My new den system will be an AMD 2600+ processor running on an ASUS A7N8X motherboard with 512 MB of PC3200 DDR memory, a 120 GB Seagate Barracuda ATA V, and a Plextor PlexWriter 48-24-48A CD writer.

I'm still thinking about OS. This time next year, I might well choose Linux. But this year it'll be Windows. I have twenty Windows XP Home/Pro licenses lying here, but I think I'll stick with my original plan, which was to use Windows 2000 and Office 2000 until it was feasible to migrate to Linux. I may migrate Barbara to Mozilla for browsing and email, although she'll still need Outlook 2000 as her PIM. She needs that only to sync with her PDA, and once Mozilla Calendar is final I will probably migrate her over to that.

Alas there is still no alternative to FrontPage. I've used Mozilla's HTML editor, and I could live with it. What I can't live with is the absence of site-management features in Mozilla. For example, yesterday I updated the bottom border to include 2003 in the copyright notice. With FrontPage, I needed only change the bottom border on one page and save it. The save took several minutes, because FrontPage examined every page in the web and updated the copyright notice. With Mozilla, I would have had to open, edit, and save literally hundreds of pages manually to make the same change.

Oh, well. I'm not Microsoft-free by any means, but I am using a lot more OSS at the beginning of this year than I was at the beginning of last. And that's progress.

15:26 - I'm working on updating the CD writers chapter right now, and looking into CD writing with Linux. Unless I'm missing something, the premier Linux CD burning application is X-CD-Roast, which is really a front-end for cdrecord, mkisofs, and a couple of other "building block" utilities. I've been playing around a bit with X-CD-Roast, and I've visited the home page. I've also looked at the command-line options for cdrecord. Again unless I'm missing something, CD writing under Linux is truly primitive. Are there full-feature Linux CD burning applications I don't know about, say something equivalent to Nero Burning ROM? If you know something I should know, please tell me about it over on the messageboard.



Tuesday, 0 January 2003

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8:44 - Today is devoted to end-of-year/beginning-of-year stuff, such as pulling an archive DDS-3 tape, archiving old mail, etc. We'll probably also get a start on building new systems for Barbara and me.



Wednesday, 1 January 2003

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9:36 - Barbara and I had a quiet evening reading our books and playing with the dogs. The dogs had a bit of a rough time, just as they do on July 4th, because of the fireworks. Malcolm's New Year's resolution were to stop pestering me constantly to play ball and to stop growling and showing his fangs at the least provocation, both of which he'd broken by 9:00 this morning.

I also spent the evening doing archive copies of our data to CD and tape. I did that in the den, and the den system has an older Plextor CD writer that runs only 12X. That wasn't a factor, though, because I was using 4X blanks from The Spindle That Will Not Die. I have 24X, 40X, and 48X Plextor CD writers here, but there are things to be said for writing CDs slowly. At 4X, it takes 15 to 20 minutes to write a CD and more time to verify the contents of the newly-burned CD against the source. That meant I could start the copy going, read my book while it was going on, and be alerted to its completion by the CD tray popping out.

After I finished archiving the most important data to CDs, I ran an archive tape using the old Tecmar DDS-3 tape drive in the den system. The backup and verify finished sometime in the middle of the night. Being a belt-and-suspenders-and-suspenders kind of guy, I'll probably write the archive out to DVD-RAM today.

My mother has a horrible cold, which I was hoping to avoid. Alas, as I was sitting there last night archiving data, my throat started to feel scratchy. This morning, it was worse. Barbara gave me some cold pills and aspirins, and I'm drinking hot sweet tea this morning in the hopes I can stave off the cold. I had planned to build systems today, but I don't think I'm feeling up to it. This weekend, perhaps.

Roland Dobbins takes issue with my characterization of writing CDs under Linux as "primitive," but I see no reason to change my opinion. Mr. Dobbins says, rightly I'm sure, that anyone willing to invest the time and effort necessary can accomplish any CD burning task under Linux that can be done under Windows. I don't dispute that, but it misses the point.  What it is possible for Mr. Dobbins to do, or indeed for any intelligent person willing to invest the time and effort necessary to learn the intricacies of Linux, isn't really pertinent. What counts is how easy Linux and Linux applications make it for someone to accomplish a given task when all that person cares about is getting his work done.

Mr. Dobbins is very smart, very skilled, and very experienced with Linux. He is, in fact, an expert. He's also a good guy, always willing to help, and a true proponent of Linux.  But, drawing an analogy, Roland has a rotary-wing pilot's license, and I have only a normal driver's license. I'm driving around in an old junker, and am interested in upgrading to a better car. Roland, meanwhile, is singing the praises of helicopters.

I don't doubt that the view from a helicopter is better, or that it can get me where I want to go faster and easier. But I don't want to invest the time and effort necessary to get a rotary-wing pilot's license. I just want to continue using my regular old driver's license, but in a better car. I want to be able to sit down in the new car, and have all the controls and instruments in more or less the same locations that I'm used to. I want to be able to turn the key, put the new car in gear, and drive off. I don't want to have to build the engine from parts, or to assemble the new car before I use it.

I want the new car to work pretty much like the old car, but better. I don't want to understand the technical details of the new car, any more than I understood the technical details of the old car. I want the new car to use the same type of gasoline as the old car, and I want the brake and accelerator pedals to be in similar locations. When I turn the steering wheel of the new car to the left, I expect the car to turn left, not right.

Right now, although I have hopes for the new car, I'm sticking with the old car, because the new car isn't quite "there yet." The old car lets me get my work done in the ways I'm used to working, and that's not quite true yet for the new car. Fortunately, there are a lot of very smart people working on the new car. Many of them are working on the engine and other mechanicals, but more than a few are working on the ergonomics. So, although I've decided that the 2003 model of the new car isn't quite good enough to make me give up my old car, I have hopes for the 2004 model. But I won't give up my old car until the new model is as robust and easy to use as the old car. And I'll expect to be able to sit down in that new car, start it up, and drive away without learning much about it.



Thursday, 2 January 2003

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8:34 - I wasn't feeling very well at bed-time last night, so I decided to stay out and sleep on the sofa so I wouldn't bother Barbara. I turned out the light about 11:00, but I couldn't get comfortable, so I turned the light back on and read for a while. I turned out the lights and tried again, but still couldn't get comfortable. I ended up borrowing the throw rugs from the hall bathroom and using them as padding for the hardwood floor in the den. I stretched out there, and finally got to sleep, although it must have been 3:00 in the morning before I was finally able to sleep. So this morning I'm not feeling very well and short on sleep besides. Oh, well.

11:19 - This from Mark Huth, posted with his permission:


-------- Original Message --------
Subject: auto analogy and linux
Date: Wed, 1 Jan 2003 23:41:24 -0800
From: Mark Huth
To: thompson@ttgnet.com

Amen, brother.

About a year ago, I bitched that I hated the fonts running under KDE on linux. I tried to follow the mini how-to on font changes, but gave up after several evenings of work. Alas, I made the mistake of complaining in public about how damn hard changing the fonts were ( I think Jerry posted it on his site). Roland and a bunch of others lambasted me (in private) about my unwillingness to learn how. Now I'd consider a several day investment in changing fonts to be both a huge waste of time and effort and demonstrates my willingness to learn how. I'm using a tool, not reforming my life. I snarled about it for weeks and turned off my Red Hat box for months.

I'm back using Linux again and after spending 5 evenings getting SpamAssassin working (largely because you had nice things to say about it), I got it to work! Of note, I'm running a commercial spamfilter program on my client box...it catches every single spam that SpamAssassin does....and many more, lower false positive rate and it adds spam filters automatically. It cost me $20 bucks and someone else updates the filters for me. (spam inspector at http://www.giantcompany.com/). I installed SpamAssassin as an exercise and because a few friends and relatives run off my mail server.

For fun, I decided to try to set up a spamfilter virus scanner email relay server for work. We'd stick this behind our firewall and in front of our mail server. I'm now in evening 9...I've got the system configured, I'm struggling through POSTFIX, it is almost configured, SpamAssassin is configured, virus scanner not done, amavisd isn't up yet, and I'm slowly learning. My system administrator is humoring me, but suggests that the effort is a waste of my time. He wants to buy a commercial system to do it. His comments....well, the software is free, but the effort sure isn't free...nor is the time spent to maintain the system. He suggests spending a few thousand bucks and letting someone else expend the effort. I'm gonna let him do it, natch. I'd trust Roland to do it and my sysadmin...who is a AIX wizard...could clearly do it, but doesn't feel the rewards justify the effort. A very good commercial system costs 3-5k/year. Roland could probably build a linux based system like the one I've described above and install it on our network in 3-5 hours...but how much would he need to maintain it every day and update it for a year? He needs to install the new version of SpamAssassin when it comes out, needs to keep POSTFIX up to date, needs to upgrade amavisd-new, etc. The commercial systems handle all of that behind the scenes. Is that worth 3k a year? I'd argue that the 3 thousand is well spent.

The point...the kind of effort that this kind of thing takes is easy for Roland, but in my world...we spend money on preconfigured systems, because, in my view, it is cheaper. My car may not be as good as Rolands car, and may not be as cheap, but I don't have to build it myself. If I'm careful, my car works nearly as well as Rolands and I suspect that, in real world terms, my car is cheaper than Rolands. Finally, if I did build it myself, I'm not confident that I'd drive the damn thing on the highway anyway.

I suspect linux is going to get there, but the getting is sure seems slow.

Mark Huth
It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly American criminal class except Congress. twain

Sorry if I misled you about SpamAssassin. I'm not actually running it. Rather, Brian Bilbrey and Greg Lincoln installed it on rocket, the box that hosts my servers. I was saying nice things about it purely from the client standpoint.

As far as the make-buy decision, I agree. With respect to CD burning, for example, on Windows I can buy a $50 product like Nero Burning ROM, which then does everything I need to do. The other night, for example, I set up Nero with only a few mouse clicks to do the following:

1. Automatically detect the maximum speed of the burner.

2. Check the inserted blank to determine its maximum certified speed and set the burning speed accordingly.

3. Burn a copy of a specified directory to CD.

4. Do a binary compare of the source files to the destination files.

5. Shut down the system after the process completed.

Now I'm sure that a true Linux expert could accomplish most or all of that with cdrecord and the other building-block utilities that Linux provides, but the fact is that on Windows a $50 package allows anyone to do that with almost zero effort, even if they've never used the software before.

What I've been trying to convey to Roland Dobbins and others is that what is technically possible to do with Linux matters less *to people like me* than what the software makes easily possible for someone who doesn't care about the underlying technology but simply wants to complete a particular task. With Nero under Windows, the task I described above could be done quickly by someone who had never used Nero or indeed had never burned a CD. That's simply not true for Linux, and until it is desktop Linux will remain the province of true experts and places like call centers that use Linux as a dedicated appliance.




Friday, 3 January 2003

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8:30 - I spent most of yesterday feeling rotten. We had the Winston-Salem Astronomical League meeting at our house last night. I wasn't expecting much of a turn-out given the proximity to the holiday, and it ended up just being five of us. In addition to Barbara and me, Steve Childers, his son Sean, and Robert Graham showed up. We did some planning for our February Messier Marathon. Weather permitting, I think it'll be a great session.

I didn't get much work done yesterday. When I'm not feeling well, it's difficult to concentrate on writing. Today, I'm working on the CD writers chapter. I need to work with and write about Mount Rainier technology. If you're not familiar with it, you should become so before you buy your next CD writer. Basically, Mt. Ranier is an enhanced form of packet writing, which allows you to treat a Mt. Rainier-capable CD-RW drive (called a CD-MRW drive) as a gigantic floppy drive. You can kind of do that now, of course, with software like Ahead InCD or Roxio DirectCD, but there are problems with the existing technology.

One big problem is the time needed to format a CD-RW disc as UDF. That takes several minutes even in a 24X CD-RW drive, and can take an hour or more in older CD-RW drives. Mt. Rainier formats on the fly. When you stick an unformatted disc into a Mt. Rainier drive, it immediately begins formatting in the background, and the disc is usable within a minute, even though the format isn't complete. You can write data to the partially-formatted disc. You can even eject the partially formatted disc and read it elsewhere. When you again insert it in the CD-MRW drive, the formatting continues in the background.

Compatibility is another issue with standard packet writing. Many operating systems and applications don't understand UDF natively, which means that in order to read a packet-written disc on a system with only a standard CD-ROM drive you need to install a UDF reader application. Some packet-writing applications get around that by essentially putting the UDF data inside an ISO-9660 envelope, but there are downsides to that as well. Mt. Rainier produces a disc that can be read by any standard drive.

Mt. Rainier also implements many other improvements, including fast eject times, improved defect mapping, and the use of 2K blocks (rather than the 64K blocks used by current packet-writing applications). The only problems with Mt. Rainier are that for full functionality it requires native OS support and that only the latest CD-RW drives are Mt. Rainier compatible. The OS support is on the way. I expect Microsoft to add full Mt. Rainier support to Windows XP in a service pack. If the past is any indication, Linux may gain Mt. Rainier support before Windows. At one point a year or so ago it looked as though Linux might never have Mt. Rainier support because of patent issues, but that situation was apparently resolved in favor of Linux.

The only remaining stumbling block is hardware support. Unless your current CD writer is very new, it probably doesn't have Mt. Rainier support. Plextor, for example, added Mt. Rainier recording mode only as recently as their 48-24-48 models. A few other manufacturers' latest models have also been shipping with Mt. Rainier support for the last few months, but many drives currently in the channel do not support Mt. Rainier. If you have a recent drive that doesn't support Mt. Rainier, it's worth checking the maker's web site for a firmware update. It's possible, although unlikely, that a particular drive has Mt. Rainier support that simply wasn't enabled by the firmware that shipped with it.

Otherwise, keep your eyes open the next time you're shopping for a CD-RW drive. You definitely want CD-MRW support for the future, although it's not a major issue for now.

15:06 - Here're the first headers from a spam that I almost deleted before I came up with a cunning plan:

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Increase your penis 3 inches in 22 days
Date: Sun, 05 Jan 2003 01:53:50 -0700

Let's see. That's a foot in 88 days, 10 feet in 880 days, or 20 feet in 1,760 days, or just under five years. The toilet in the hall bathroom is just about 20 feet from my office chair. That means if I start taking this stuff now, by late 2007 I'd be able to use the bathroom without leaving my office. Hmmmm. Tripping over it might be a problem, though.

Tomorrow night is supposed to be clear, so we'll probably go out observing. The dogs and George will guard the house. George, for those of you who haven't been reading my journal long, is a full-grown Eastern Diamondback rattlesnake, complete with fangs. We leave the dogs to guard the upstairs part of the house, and George to guard the downstairs. Usually, George lives in a large terrarium, but when we're away we let him slither around to his heart's content.

For some reason, people think I'm kidding about George. One of our friends was visiting one time, and went downstairs to get something. Things played out something like this:

Me: Watch out for George.
Her: Who is George?
Me: George is my 7-foot pet rattlesnake.
Her: Yeah, right.

<piercing shriek and slamming door>

Me: Yeah, well he does that.
Her: I thought it was stuffed.
Me. Stuff George? Surely you jest.
Her: But it's defanged, right?
Me: Nope. George has all his teeth, and his poison sacks.

Poor George. George isn't particularly mean, as rattlesnakes go, but he definitely doesn't like strangers, so he probably coiled up when he saw her. Fortunately, rattlesnakes are deaf, or she'd have scared him to death. And he hadn't even rattled at her.



Saturday, 4 January 2003

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9:32 - Well, the forecast isn't looking as good as it did yesterday, but we'll still head out tonight to observe. We'll have a housesitter. I'll have to remember to tell the housesitter about George.



Sunday, 5 January 2003

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12:16 - We had a good trip up to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Only four of us went up: Steve Childers and his son Sean, Barbara, and me. Steve stopped over at our house yesterday morning with his daughter Kristin, who is a senior in high school and was to house-sit for us. We introduced Kristin to the dogs, gave her a house key, got packed up, and headed out about 2:00 p.m. We arrived at the cabin around 3:00 p.m. 

The skies were clear, but It was cold and very windy. One of the purposes of the trip was to map the horizon from the observing area in front of the cabin. Steve's scope is set up with altitude and azimuth circles, so we got the scope leveled and started work. The first problem was that we didn't have a good bearing for the starting point. We'd intended to use Luna, but it was invisible in the glare of the sun. The second problem was the wind. It was so strong that it was rocking our 4X4 as it was just sitting in the field. We ended up waiting until sunset, locating Luna for our reference azimuth, and using our truck as a wind screen. We'd planned to take altitude bearings every 5 of azimuth, but we ended up settling for every 10.

After we finished that, we headed back indoors to the fireplace to get warm. We had chili, salad, chips, and cookies for dinner, and then headed back out to observe. Barbara and I decided not to bother unpacking our scopes. Instead, the four of us just used Steve's scope, which we screened from the wind using our truck. The temperature, with wind chill, was 0 F (-18 C) or lower, so we went indoors frequently to warm ourselves by the fire. Later in the evening, the wind dropped off quite a bit, but so did the temperature. Our final session was from 10:00 p.m. until 11:00 p.m. or so, by which time clouds had started moving in. By 11:00, the cloud cover was about 8/10, and there wasn't much left to look at, so we packed it in for the night.

Earlier in the evening, the clouds were about 0/10, but the seeing (atmospheric stability) was quite bad, as we expected given the surface winds. The transparency was mediocre according to the Clear Sky Clock, and I thought that was a reasonable characterization. In effect, this was a mediocre night at the cabin, but the skies were still as good as Bullington at its best. M31, the Andromeda Galaxy, was a naked-eye object, for example, and the Milky Way was crisp. This will be an excellent site for future sessions.





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