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Week of 3 February 2003

Latest Update : Sunday, 09 February 2003 10:21 -0500

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Monday, 3 February 2003

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10:20 - Last week was probably my worst week ever for posting, although my average page reads stayed at something like 3,500 per day. I guess people are in the habit of visiting, even when they know there won't be much new here. I'll try to do better this week, but I can't promise. My 50% completion deadline was 12/31/02, and I'm still not quite to 50% complete. I was trying very hard to get to 50% by 1/31, but didn't make it. My editor is nice about missing deadlines. He knows I'm working. But I still need to get to 50% completion, if only to get the next advance payment.

This from Roy Harvey:

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Leaking Capacitors Muck up Motherboards
Date: Sun, 02 Feb 2003 08:30:20 -0500
From: Roy Harvey
To: Robert Bruce Thompson


I think you have mentioned this issue before, but here is a recent item from a reputable sounding source.



Indeed. This is a problem that can only become worse. A lot of people have defective motherboards and aren't aware that they're sitting on a time bomb. As far as I know, only ABIT and IBM have commented publicly on the problem, but there certainly must be other affected brands. At this point, I'd be concerned about any motherboard made in Taiwan during the period in question.



Tuesday, 4 February 2003

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10:22 - So much for USB Plug-'N-Play under Windows 2000. I have a scanner attached to my main desktop system. A month or two ago, I unplugged the power to it. I did that because it was the best way to keep the scanner bulb from burning all the time. There's a memory resident utility that comes with the scanner, and it supposedly offers lamp control. Unfortunately, it doesn't work very well. In theory, it should turn the scanner off after five minutes of idle time. In practice, the only sure way to turn the lamp off was to fire up the utility, click "Lamp Control" and turn off the lamp manually. Also, I use the scanner very infrequently, and the utility just sits there sucking up 21 MB of RAM. So I decided the easiest solution was just to unplug the power cable from the back of the scanner and plug it back in when I needed to scan something.

Yesterday I needed to make a copy of an invoice, so I plugged the scanner back in. I was expecting Windows to pop up a window to tell me there was now a scanner available, but it did no such thing. I then fired up the copy utility, but it didn't see the scanner. So I fired up the memory-resident utility and then tried running the copy utility again. At that point, I had a cunning plan. The scanner was already powered up, so I figured I'd just disconnect the USB cable and then reconnect it. Surely that would force the system to recognize that the scanner was connected. So I unplugged the USB cable, waited a few seconds, and plugged it back in. My monitor immediately went black and display the "no signal" warning. I then watched my Windows 2000 system go through a reboot. So much for USB connectivity.

I'd forgotten that it was Black History Month. As I was leaving the nursing home this morning, waiting for the elevator, I started reading a poster that listed great Black Americans. There were people like Martin Luther King, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, and Jesse Jackson. In other words, populist politicians, lawyers, and preachers. Not great men by any yardstick I recognize, and in fact some of them I wouldn't even consider good men.

There were two people on there that surprised me, though. First, Marva Collins, who by her example demolished the arguments of professional "educators" by her own success in educating poor kids highlighted the failure of the public schools to do the job they're there for. Marva Collins is a pretty well-known person, so I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised to see her on the poster. But the presence of the second person really surprised me, because almost no one has heard of him. His name was Percy Julian, and he was an inspired synthetic organic chemist. Unlike most of the people on the poster, Julian did things that mattered.

For example, he was the first to synthesize steroids, including hydrocortisone, which are used in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis and other diseases. Until Dr. Julian did that, steroids were extracted from natural sources, and the entire world supply was probably measured in grams. Only millionaires could afford steroid treatments. Dr. Julian's synthesis meant that synthetic steroids could be produced, cheaply and in large quantities. What he did was of more benefit to more people than the cumulative accomplishments of everyone else on that poster. Percy Julian was a truly great man, head and shoulders above everyone else on that list, and yet his name is almost unknown. I was pleased to see him on that poster. At least he is getting some of the recognition he deserves.

I used to recommend Opera, but I don't any more. Barbara still uses it, but I've found Mozilla to be more than good enough for my needs, and Mozilla doesn't have most of the rendering oddities that Opera seems prone to. There's a firestorm going on in the Opera community right now. Many users are upset because Opera 7 does not have the full SDI/MDI functionality that Opera 6 did. And now it seems that Opera has some serious security holes. This from Richard Micko:

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: FYI. Opera Vulnerabilities
Date: Tue, 4 Feb 2003 09:09:46 -0500
From: Richard Micko
To: 'Robert Bruce Thompson'


Based on your recommendation of opera in the past, perhaps your subscribers would need/want to be warned of this.

I'm sure Microsoft will be happy it's not them...

These came through bugtraq, which you may already subscribe to.

I was unable to read the advisories. When I clicked on the embedded link, I got only a 32X32 pixel transparent GIF. When I went to the http://security.greymagic.com home page, I was able to read the main article (entitled Phantom of the Opera and dated 4 February), but all five of the links in that article produced the same blank page as the link you sent me. Perhaps it has something to do with my ad-blocking software.



Wednesday, 5 February 2003

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10:28 - You have to love the weather around here. Yesterday was sunny, with a high around 70° F (21° C). Tomorrow and Friday, the forecast is for "light wintry mix", whatever that may be when it's at home.

There's much jubilation among OSS advocates at Microsoft's announcement that OSS is a threat to their business model and that they may be forced to reduce prices on their software to compete successfully. This is a lot less significant than people are making it out to be. In essence, it's a forward-looking statement, designed to satisfy the SEC. In other words, it's a worst-case scenario, intended purely for CYA. If Microsoft's stock price drops because of OSS competition, Microsoft needs to be able to point to a previously-published public statement and say "we told you so". Corporations make statements like this all the time. If there's even a small chance of something bad happening, like losing a lawsuit or a new competitor entering the market, they put out a forward-looking statement about it. That statement doesn't mean they really expect whatever they're warning about to happen, just that they're acknowledging that it might.

Opera has patched the gaping security holes in Opera 7, and they've done so with OSS-like speed. They released Opera 7.01 yesterday, just one day after the security holes were made public. If you're running Opera 7, do yourself a favor and download the patch now.

Here's an interesting article about convective water cooling. A lot of people nowadays want quiet PCs, and this article shows a jury-rigged system that cools the CPU without a compressor or pump. In theory, it should be easy enough to extend this convective cooling system to cool hard drives, and even the power supply. It should be possible to build such a system as an entirely sealed unit, which not only eliminates fan noise and greatly reduces drive noise, but also eliminates the dust problem. By eliminating the need for fans and air flow, you also make it possible to install heavy insulation within the case to absorb drive noise, which could result in a PC that uses high-performance components but is almost completely silent. Who knows? Someday, PCs may come with coils on the back, just like a refrigerator.

10:58 - I've gotten several emails from people asking when I think the US will attack Iraq. I don't have access to any classified information about troop deployments and so on, but based on what's been publicly reported I'll go out on a limb and predict that hostilities will commence sometime during the last week of February or the first week of March, with the weekend of 28 February being most likely for the ground invasion to begin.

I say that because if I were the US planners I'd want to take advantage of the new moon that weekend. US and allied forces are well equipped with night-vision and thermal imaging equipment and all-weather warplanes, and are not hampered by the lack of moonlight. Far from it. The darkness gives them the advantage, because Iraqi forces have very little such equipment. If I were scheduling the time for the ground forces to cross the starting line, I'd choose astronomical twilight the night of the new moon to give my ground forces the best chance to roll over the Iraqi defenses before they knew what hit them. I'd start the air campaign a week or so prior to that date, because a waning moon doesn't offer much real advantage to air-defense installations. So, if I had to pick a date, I'd say the air campaign will start on 22 February and the ground campaign at 19:20 local time on 1 March. How's that for specific? It'll be interesting to see how close I come.

11:48 - I just sent the following message to Pournelle's back-channel mailing list (forgetting to change the subject, as usual), and it occurred to me that it was also worth posting here:

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Re: Ripping
Date: Wed, 05 Feb 2003 11:41:23 -0500
From: Robert Bruce Thompson
To: Jerry Pournelle
CC: Daniel E. Spisak, Eric Pobirs, Alexander Pournelle, David Em, Ernest Lilley

A couple months ago, Eric pooh-poohed my comments about nVIDIA finding itself in the same position as 3dfx, but that's looking to be more and more likely.

Their GeForce FX, which hasn't even shipped yet, at best equals the RADEON 9700 Pro, and is going to have to sell for a much higher price. The GeForce FX has been described, even by nVIDIA lovers, as sounding like a vacuum cleaner. It needs a monstrous fan on the chipset itself and a big heatsink on the other side of the board to cool the memory. The FX requires a ridiculous amount of power, and sucks up an additional PCI slot. Even at the same price, it would not be very attractive compared to the RADEON 9700 Pro, which has been shipping for months.

And now it appears that nVIDIA may have already cancelled the GeForce FX. nVIDIA isn't even denying reports that they're going to produce just 100,000 of the NV30 chipset, enough to last through May. It looks to me as though the GeForce FX has been killed before it's even born.

Piling on troubles for nVIDIA, it looks like ATI may be shipping their next flagship card even earlier than expected, possibly by the end of this month.

It looks to me as though nVIDIA is in really, really bad trouble with their video card line, and it's not just at the high-end. The ATI RADEON 9500 Pro and 9000 Pro are giving them fits as well. It seems to me that nVIDIA bet the farm on the die shrink, while ATI gambled on staying with the same fab size and won. If nVIDIA doesn't do something quickly, I really do think they may end up just like 3dfx.




Thursday, 6 February 2003

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10:34 - Yet another critical IE vulnerability. Here's the message I sent earlier this morning to subscribers.

Microsoft has announced yet another "have your way with me" security flaw in Internet Explorer. According to Microsoft, the vulnerability affects versions 5.01 through 6.0. It may also affect earlier versions, but Microsoft says those are unsupported, so it ain't telling.

All you need do to be affected by the vulnerability is visit a malicious web page. Although Microsoft doesn't mention it, presumably the same exploit could be invoked from HTML mail.

Note that you don't actually have to be browsing with IE to be affected by the vulnerability. For example, although I use Mozilla as my default browser, I can be affected by the vulnerability because I run Windows 2000 and therefore have IE on my system. Microsoft says:

"This vulnerability affects computers that have Microsoft® Internet Explorer installed. (You do not have to be using Internet Explorer as your Web browser to be affected by this issue.)"

You can full details on the vulnerability and the patch for it at:




This is a critical vulnerability for all versions of IE, so it seems that there's no alternative to downloading and installing the patch. Except, that is, migrating to Linux, which is beginning to look better and better to me.

It seems that Western Digital plans to ship a 10,000 RPM SATA hard drive next week. It had to happen eventually, but I'm surprised that Seagate wasn't the first to do so, given their experience with their SCSI Cheetah line. I've no idea what the price of the WD drive will be, but it's 180 GB, SATA, and has an 8 MB buffer. It should be a screamer, in every sense of the word. I suspect it's going to be a very loud drive, and if you decide to install one I'd recommend that you also install a drive cooler, preferably something like the PC Power & Cooling Bay-Cool rather than a simple fan.

I've not been enamored of WD drives for the last several years. They're big and fast, but I had such poor experiences with reliability with earlier WD models that I've been loath to consider them. I may take a look at their 10K model, though.

11:38 - This is simply hateful. I downloaded the patch mentioned above and attempted to apply it. A window popped up to inform me that the patch required IE 5.5 SP2, which I had decided not to install, primarily because of EULA issues. But this security flaw is critical, and I didn't really have much choice. So, with Microsoft's gun to my head, I visited the Microsoft site to download IE 5.5 SP2. I located the download page, which helpfully told me:

Windows 2000 Users: Internet Explorer Setup for Windows 2000 does not allow you to customize the installation or use any advanced options in the Setup program. This behavior occurs because of the new Windows File Protection (WFP) feature in Windows 2000. For more information about this issue, read Microsoft KB Article Q257249.

That was bad enough, but then I got to the page where I could actually download the update. That page told me that the SP2 download was 17 MB. I clicked on the link and Mozilla downloaded the file almost instantly. When I read the text on that page, I found out why. Microsoft wouldn't let me download the actual file. No, they'd let me download only the 500 KB stub installer. But, again, I didn't have any choice if I wanted to patch Microsoft's latest screw-up, so I downloaded it and ran it.

The stub installer gave me absolutely no choices, other than to accept or not accept the EULA. Some choice. So I fired up the stub installer, which proceeded to download 8.5 MB worth of patches, including scripting support, which I most definitely didn't want. After it finished downloading, it installed the updates and then rebooted the system without so much as a by-your-leave. Could they get any more obnoxious?

Once the system rebooted, I installed the patch file that was the whole reason for this waste of time. That file at least prompted me before it rebooted my system. So now I have an invulnerable IE installation, at least until tomorrow or next week, when the next critical flaw shows up. Oh, yeah. Did I mention that installing their goddamned patch trashed my system? Obviously, I couldn't have been serious about wanting to use Mozilla Mail, so the update helpfully deleted the Mozilla Mail icon from my desktop and substituted an icon for Outlook Express on the task bar. It also managed to change some file associations and did who knows what else to my system configuration.

This time, I have really, REALLY, REALLY, REALLY had it with Microsoft. This was the camel-back-breaking straw. They can take their buggy, overpriced software, their obnoxious EULAs, and the DRM crap that they're trying to foist on all of us, and shove it up their collective asses. I've simply had it. Yes, Windows 2000 is a better desktop operating system than Linux. Windows 2000 has usability advantages out the wazoo. And Microsoft Office is a better desktop suite than OpenOffice.org, and Outlook is a better mail client than Evolution or Mozilla Mail, and FrontPage is a better HTML editor and site management tool than anything available for Linux. I don't care.

All of this time, I've avoided migrating to Linux because I would be voluntarily trading superior tools for inferior ones. That no longer matters. The Linux applications I've used aren't as good as Microsoft applications, but they're Good Enough, and getting better all the time. I can live with them, and that's all that really matters. I am so pissed at Microsoft that I almost did a foolish thing just now. I almost popped the Red Hat 8.0 distribution CDs into the drive of my main desktop system, planning to blow away all the MS software on my hard drive and start from scratch. I can't afford to do that at the moment, as satisfying as it would be, at least momentarily. I'm on deadline, and I need to get work done. The only way I know how to do it is with Microsoft software. But that's going to change. Count on it.

The first place it'll change is on my den system, or actually on its replacement. I have an old Pentium III/750 in there now, but I have the parts to build a replacement system, and that's just what I'm going to do. That new system will run Red Hat 8.0. I use my den system a lot, so having Linux on it will force me to learn what I need to know to start using Linux as my primary desktop operating system. It'll take me a while to make the changeover, but I will do it, and then Microsoft can kiss my ass.



Friday, 7 February 2003

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16:40 - Here's an interesting column from the Washington Times. The author asks the question, "Do you — flesh and blood you — want to go into space?"

His answer is affirmative. Mine is not just, "Yes", but "Hell, yes." Even in the wake of the Columbia disaster, if a Shuttle launch were scheduled for tomorrow morning and I were offered a place on it, I'd drive all night to get there, and climb right on-board, even if I noticed there were some questionable looking tiles. My guess is that 90% or more of my readers would make the same choice.

So I set up a poll over on the messageboard. Please vote as to whether you'd take the chance on flying that big bomb up into space, knowing that the STS itself may be flawed and there's a reasonably high chance that you'd be incinerated during the return.

The article talks about courage, but I'm not sure courage has anything to do with it. Everyone has to die sometime, and I suspect that I am like most people in that I would prefer to die doing something interesting to just growing old and feeble in bed. What does courage have to do with it, when one is offered the chance to do something that very few humans have ever done and to see and experience things that very few humans have ever seen or experienced? Getting there is so important that I can't believe anyone would hesitate for a moment to worry about getting back. So what do you think?


Saturday, 8 February 2003

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Sunday, 9 February 2003

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10:21 - I'm pretty much taking the weekend off.

We headed up to Pilot Mountain yesterday afternoon for the public observation that was jointly sponsored by the Forsyth Astronomical Society and SciWorks. There were half a dozen club members up there, and something like 50 or 60 public attendees. Luna was about 50% illuminated, which made trying to find all but the brightest deep-space objects pretty frustrating, so we just pointed the scope at Jupiter, Saturn, Luna, and the Great Nebula in Orion. Of course, those are the objects that impress the public the most.

Jeff Poplin was there with his 20" Obsession scope, which as always was incredible. I kid him about not wanting to look through it because I can't afford to buy one, but the truth is that I don't want one. It's nice to be able to look through it when we happen to be around when he has it set up, but I really don't want to own a scope that big. I may someday build a 15" or 16" truss Dob, but 20" is just bigger than I'd want to deal with.

Barbara took the opportunity to add to her bag of Messier Objects. There are 110 total Messier Objects, but she needed only 70 of those to get her certificate from the Astronomical League. She's been adding others since, though, and is now up near 80. Last night, she added M79 (a globular cluster in Lepus), M97 (a planetary nebula in Ursa Major), and M108 (a galaxy in Ursa Major). I was surprised that M108 showed up at all, given that even M97 was pretty washed out by the moonlight. M97 is the Owl Nebula, a pretty small (3.4 X 3.3 arcminute), pretty dim (visual magnitude given as 9.9 to 11.0, surface brightness 12.1) planetary nebula. M108 is harder still, at 8.6 X 2.4 arcminutes and sb 13.1. Still, Barbara definitely had both of them, which given the moon light shows that our optics have pretty decent contrast. Jeff was nice enough to tell Barbara that under the current conditions even M97 was a dim, low-contrast object in his 20" scope, so I was proud of her for finding it in our 10".

Sometimes I wonder if these public observations accomplish anything. I suppose they do, because it's a numbers game. If 500 members of the public show up at public observations, perhaps one or two of them will start attending meetings and join FAS. A conversion rate of 0.2% to 0.4% isn't large, but we run these things four times a year and probably get a cumulative 1,000 public visitors. If there's something exciting, like a major comet, we'll get many more visitors. The net result is that we probably get five or ten new members a year from the public observations, and that's enough to keep our membership stable or grow it a bit.

We did verify a useful piece of information last night. It was chilly if not really cold, with temperatures on the mountain ranging from probably 30º F (-1º C) early to perhaps 24º F (-4º C) later in the evening. That's not really cold in absolute terms, but believe me one feels the cold much more when one is sitting observing under a sky that's at nearly absolute zero. Heat radiates from warm objects (i.e., us) to cold (i.e., that absolute zero sky).

We were out there about 4.5 hours, with no warm refuge, and we stood it just fine. At the end of the month, we're headed up to the mountains for a weekend-long observing session at a lodge on the Blue Ridge Parkway. We plan to do a practice session for the Messier Marathon, which means we'll be observing all night, from dusk to dawn. Assuming the temperatures are similar to those last night (and that there's no wind, please), we should be able to complete the session without freezing our little nuggers off. We've scheduled/sequenced the observation to allow us a break indoors to warm up every hour or two. We even have a two-hour nap figured into the schedule. Unless the temperatures are a lot lower than those last night, we should be able to complete the session in reasonable comfort.



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