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Week of 5 May 2003

Latest Update : Sunday, 11 May 2003 08:46 -0400

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Monday, 5 May 2003

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11:08 - I'm burning the Red Hat Linux 9 ISOs to disc as I write this. From the reviews I've read, RHL 9 is actually more like RHL 8.1, but the mostly minor enhancements make it seem worthwhile to use RHL 9 rather than RHL 8 on my new file server.

I do wonder about the churning of version numbers, though. It seems to me that Red Hat must be doing this to make it impractical to use their inexpensive (or free) versions to run production systems in a corporate environment. That's fine with me. Corporations should be willing to pay for the software, and to encourage that Red Hat is giving them things they want with the pay-for versions, like longer support periods. For those of us who use RH Linux in a home or SOHO environment, it's little hardship to keep the older versions patched.

Based on advice from Roland, Brian, Greg, and other Linux experts, I've abandoned my plan to do a minimal server install. To avoid dependency hell, they recommend doing a kitchen-sink install and simply disabling any services that aren't required. This system has a 120 GB hard drive in it, so software bloat shouldn't be an issue.

Arrrghhh. As I was writing the last paragraph, Nero finished burning Disc 2 and ejected it. I labeled Disc 3 and stuck it in the drive. I then chose "Burn Image" from the Nero menu, and (finally) noticed that I'd burned Discs 1 and 2 from the ISOs in the psyche directory (that's Red Hat 8). Oh, well. I now have 2/3 of a spare set of RHL 8 discs.

I suppose I'd better go start reading up on how to configure Samba. I also need to come up with a name for the new box. I'm thinking heinlein.



Tuesday, 6 May 2003

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12:07 - My day is not starting out well. I went over to visit my mother this morning. She was upset because they've been waking her every two hours during the night to turn her and clean and dry her. She can't get back to sleep afterward, so she just lies there in the dark. I asked Tammy, the head nurse, to come in and explain the options to mom. They'll allow her to sign a release if she doesn't want to be awakened every two hours, but the problem is that they need to do that or her skin is going to break down, which would be a nightmare. We finally compromised on having them do it every four hours at night, which amounts to mom being awakened only once during the night shift. Apparently, that's not good enough for mom. She got upset with me, because she says she was expecting family support but all I ever do is side with the staff instead of her. I explained that this wasn't an adversarial situation, and that they were trying their best to help her, but she doesn't see it that way. I spoke to Tammy privately afterward, and she said that mom is refusing a couple of medications that would help with several of her problems, including getting back to sleep after they wake her in the middle of the night. I went back in to ask mom to take the medications, at least for a couple of weeks, but she refused. At that point she started crying and talking about how she was completely alone because I always sided with the nursing home staff. I left then because there didn't seem to be any point to staying.

I got home to find my new Linux system locked up tight. Last night, I'd logged on to the Red Hat Up2Date service to download and install updates. There were a lot of them, nearly 150 MB worth of compressed downloads. That surprised me, given how recently Red Hat 9 was released. But I told the application to get and install all the updates. When I last checked last night, it was in the process of installing the updated kernel sources, with a lot left to install. When I went to bed, the screen saver had kicked in. This morning, the screen saver was frozen, and keyboard or mouse input did nothing to unfreeze it.

I tried using putty to log in from my Windows box, but it wouldn't connect. So I tried pinging the new Linux box, and it wasn't even responding to pings. Talk about being locked up tight. So I pressed the reset switch. Grub came up with a choice of kernels, so I chose the updated kernel and told it to fsck the drive. The system came up apparently normally. When I re-ran Up2Date, it showed quite a few packages still in need of updating. Rather than download the updates again, it used the RPMs that it had already downloaded. The update process completed normally, except that the kerberos server update refuses to install because of an incompatibility with a kerberos development package that's already installed. Oh, well.

I just read Microsoft 'Athens' built on strategy for new PC golden age, a possibly significant article in the Seattle Times. Some people apparently think Microsoft and HP are going after Apple with this. I think Microsoft is going after desktop Linux. Apple has tiny market share, and it's decreasing. Linux has tiny market share on the desktop, but it's increasing. Microsoft apparently thinks that the way to nip desktop Linux in the bud is to link their software inextricably with the PC hardware. The last thing we need is for our PCs to become sealed black boxes, but that is the intent of this initiative. I don't want anyone but me controlling my PC, not the RIAA, not the MPAA, and certainly not Microsoft. An operating system is supposed to manage the PC under the direction of the user. The last thing any of us needs is an operating system that dictates to us what we can and cannot do with our own PCs. This initiative is another step in the wrong direction. I hope it fails miserably.



Wednesday, 7 May 2003

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11:51 - There was a Mercury transit this morning, which is to say the disk of the planet Mercury was between us and the sun. That's a relatively rare event. If I recall correctly, it happens about six times per century. We were not well placed to see the transit, and so didn't even bother to try. At sunrise this morning, the transit was almost complete. Mercury would have moved off the sun's disk a few minutes after sunrise. At that point, the sun is so low in the sky that we'd have been looking through so much atmosphere that the sight wouldn't have been particularly impressive. Also, it's been so cloudy lately that we figured we'd be clouded out anyway. Our friend Paul Jones was planning to head for the Outer Banks of North Carolina to view the transit, but he decided to bag it based on the weather forecasts. The further east you get, the higher the sun is. Those in Europe and Africa had a good view of the transit, but that long drive to the Outer Banks would have gained Paul only a couple degrees of elevation.

Barbara made a long visit to mom yesterday afternoon, and told mom bluntly what the situation is. She said that mom took it well, although she was crying at one point. Barbara also spoke to the nurse about getting Xanax prescribed for mom. She'd been taking Xanax infrequently when she was living with us, and it seems to help her. She seldom took more than one or two Xanax pills a week, and only when she was upset or nervous. The nurse told Barbara that it shouldn't be any problem to get Xanax for mom. As Barbara says, it'll be a psychological help as much as anything. Also, I was reading recently that Xanax, Valium, and other tranquilizers have an anomalous effect in elderly people, much as Ritalin does on hyperactive children. It's counterintuitive to prescribe Ritalin, which has amphetamine-like effects in adults, to a child who is hyperactive. It's similarly counter-intuitive to prescribe tranquilizers to elderly people, but in some cases at least tranquilizers have the effect in elderly people of improving their mood and their mental acuity. We'll see what happens.

One of the annoying things about Linux is that it can make smart people feel stupid. I spent several hours yesterday unsuccessfully attempting what should have been a simple task. I wanted to use Samba to allow Windows 2000 clients to access a share on the Linux system. Configuring that on a Linux system should be a matter of a few mouse clicks. And at first it appeared that it would be. I used the Red Hat Samba configuration utility to configure the Samba server, add a user, and so on. After restarting Samba, I fired up Network Neighborhood on my Windows 2000 box, expanded the ttgnet domain branch, and there was heinlein (the Linux system) listed as a member of the ttgnet domain. Unfortunately, when I clicked on heinlein, Windows returned a "network path not found" message.

I spent the next few hours reading every piece of documentation I could find, editing smb.conf manually, and restarting Samba over and over. I tried every combination of settings for encryption, case, and so on. I can get heinlein to show up in Network Neighborhood, but I simply can't access the share from a Windows 2000 box, no matter what I do. I've been delving down into the minutiae of Samba, so far with no joy. At one point, I thought that the Windows domain name, ttgnet, was the problem, because earlier versions of Samba had a bug that prevented it from using domain names with an even number of characters. That was supposedly fixed, though, and I'm running the current version of Samba. Unless that bug somehow resurfaced, that can't be the problem. Then I recalled vaguely something about a Windows 2000 service pack that broke something to do with Samba. That can't be the problem, either, because I have the same problem with the original Windows 2000, W2K with SP1 installed, and W2K with SP2 installed.

This is particularly frustrating because I've configured Samba previously to allow Windows 2000 clients to access it. What I could do once, I should have been able to do a second time. But apparently not. The Samba HOWTO on tldp should have told me everything I needed to know, but following it step-by-step doesn't work. I think what I'm going to do when I encounter a problem is document it over on the messageboard. If you have any comments or suggestions, please post them there rather than sending them to me as private mail. That way, we'll end up with an organized set of topics with detailed help for particular tasks.

14:07 - Problem solved. When I installed RHL 9 on heinlein, I accepted the default "Medium Security", which seemed reasonable. Messageboard user cmlake pointed out that he'd had similar problems with his firewall configured to High Security. So I went in and changed security settings to "No Firewall". As soon as I did that I was able to access the share on heinlein from my Windows 2000 boxes with no problems.



Thursday, 8 May 2003

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11:26 - Mom is doing much better. My brother drove over from Raleigh for an early Mothers' Day visit last night, and it always cheers her up when he visits. Barbara's idea of getting Xanax prescribed for mom almost didn't fly. When I spoke to Tammy, the head nurse, yesterday, she said that she'd asked the doctor to prescribe it, but the doctor refused. I told Tammy that I wasn't a big fan of drugs, but that in this case I thought Barbara and my mother were right. Mom had been taking Xanax while she lived at home. She used it to help her sleep when she was upset or anxious. She never took Xanax more than three or four times a month, and I told Tammy that I really thought Xanax was worth a try to help mom live through being awakened multiple times each night to be washed and turned. Tammy said the doctor was still there, and that she'd go talk to her again.

After waiting several minutes on hold, I finally spoke to the doctor. She said that Xanax was a horrible drug for old people, and that she really, really didn't want to prescribe it. I persisted. The doctor finally said that if mom would agree to speak to the psychologist that she would prescribe Xanax for a limited time. I told her that was a deal.

Mom dislikes and mistrusts this doctor, and keeps saying she wants to go back to her original doctor. Barbara also dislikes and mistrusts her. My own opinion is that she is abrasive and brusque, but she seems competent. But ultimately it's not my opinion that counts. Mom wants a different doctor, and I think she's entitled to choose one she likes. I told mom yesterday I'd see what I could do. I spoke to Tammy and asked her what we needed to do. Tammy referred me to Bobette, whom I just spoke to. According to Bobette, there's no problem with mom visiting her preferred doctor, although legally he is not permitted to be her primary care physician of record. Or at least not unless he were willing to become state certified, commit to visiting the nursing home regularly, and agree to be on 24-hour call. He's an internist, so clearly that's not going to happen, but from what Bobette said he will be able to function as her primary care physician in practical terms. He can examine her, treat her, and prescribe for her. In theory, all of his actions are subject to approval by the nursing home doctor, although Bobette said it's very unlikely that she would override the other doctor's actions unless they were outrageous.

Barbara has quite a bit up on her page today about our plans for tonight. Three award-winning, best-selling mystery authors--Rhys Bowen,  Donna Andrews, and Lyn Hamilton--are coming to town to do a signing at the local branch library, and Barbara is in charge of organizing things. We'll pick them up at their hotel, take them out to dinner, and deliver them to the library. Barbara has assigned me to sit at Rhys's table to keep her company and I guess to protect her if an over-enthusiastic fan starts harassing her or something. I'm sure Barbara will have photos posted tomorrow.


Friday, 9 May 2003

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10:16 - We had a good time with the authors last night, although Barbara did have a scare yesterday afternoon. The authors were to arrive at their hotel mid-afternoon. Barbara called me on her cell phone about lunch time to say that she was at the hotel to deliver a fruit basket and the hotel staff had never heard of any of the authors. At that point, Barbara thought she'd gotten her wires crossed and was at the wrong hotel. She called me and explained what was happening. I said, "You do know that Rhys Bowen is a pen name, right?" Urk. Barbara asked me what Rhys's real name was, and I told her I had no idea.

But I was sitting at my PC, so I fired up whois and checked the registration information on rhysbowen.com. The registrant was listed as Rhys Bowen, but there was another woman's name as administrative contact. I knew that Rhys had written many children's books under her real name, so I went over to Amazon.com, plugged the admin contact name into the author search field, and got something like 127 hits. Obviously, that was her real name. So I gave Barbara Rhys's real name, address, and phone number to see if the hotel could match any of them. Rhys had registered under her husband's name, but the hotel turned up the match immediately.

Barbara and I drove over to their hotel about 5:00 p.m., picked them up and took them to dinner at a nice little restaurant in Reynolda Village. We spent nearly two hours having dinner. Most people think that when authors get together, we talk about writing. What we really talk about is advances, royalty rates, sales volume, agents, publishers, and editors. Somehow, we got onto the topic of television. I told the three of them that they'd think I was kidding but the only TV show I watched regularly was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. As it turns out, Donna Andrews is a huge Buffy fan, as are numerous other mystery writers. Apparently, there's a backchannel mailing list where numerous mystery authors discuss mainly Buffy. I won't mention any names, but if you read mysteries you'd certainly recognize more than a few of them.

Just before 7:00 p.m., we headed for the library, which isn't normally open on Thursday evening, but had been opened especially for this event. Barbara had done all the groundwork, promotion, press releases, and so on, but was terrified that no one would show up. I'd mentioned that to the three authors early in the evening, and they all said that could happen, but not to worry about it. At some signings, there are people backed up out the doors, and at others the authors feel like the Maytag repairman. Barbara was hoping for the former, but fearing the latter. As it turned out, we had 25 or 30 people show up. Many fewer than Barbara had hoped for, but not completely embarrassing.

Rhys, Lyn, and Donna each gave a brief talk, followed by a question-and-answer session, and then finally by the signing. That's Rhys Bowen on the left, Donna Andrews front and center, and Lyn Hamilton on the right, just before the event started.

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Around 10:00 p.m., we drove Rhys, Donna, and Lyn back to their hotel. Despite the small turnout, we all had a good evening. It's interesting how common perception differs from reality. A lot of people think that big-name authors are prima donnas who insist on limousines, penthouse accommodations, their own brand of single-malt scotch, and so on. Nothing could be further from the truth. I know quite a few big-name authors, and every one of them is a friendly, down-to-earth person. All of them recognize that the fans are their customers, and all of them go out of the way to make the fans happy.

They're all troopers, too. They go on the road for signing tours for weeks on end. I don't doubt that many of them wake up some mornings and can't remember what city they're in. They answer the same questions over and over, and smile as they do it. They tour even when they're ill, because the show must go on. When we met Donna at the hotel yesterday, she was coughing constantly and had severe laryngitis. Despite her cough and laryngitis, Donna stood up and gave her talk loudly enough to be heard from the back of the room. Donna took care to point out that she was the one coughing, and she was from Reston, Virginia, whereas Lyn Hamilton, who is from Toronto, was completely healthy. No joke, that. With the SARS scare, a lot of people who knew that one of the authors was from Toronto and one was coughing might have worried that they were one and the same.

I'd warned Rhys, Lyn, and Donna earlier that, although the hotel they were staying at was a nice place, they really didn't want to be outside in that area at night. Sure enough, as we were getting out of the car at the hotel, we were accosted by an aggressive panhandler. Barbara shepherded the authors into the hotel while I had a chat with the guy. Fortunately, he backed down fast and walked away. I followed them in. We chatted for a few minutes, did the mandatory hugs-all-around thing, and then Lyn, Rhys, and Donna headed for their rooms, no doubt exhausted. It was an enjoyable evening.

12:13 - Here are a couple of important articles from The Register:

DRM is your fluffy friend - Ballmer stakes out MS' turf
Gates justifies stronger chains for hardware makers

All of this smacks of the unholy collusion between Microsoft and the copyright nazis. The copyright nazis want a direct connection to your wallet. Microsoft wants that too, of course, but they want more. They want absolute control of your PC, and they desperately want to kill Open Source Software in general and Linux in particular. In conjunction with horrible laws like the DMCA, I'm afraid initiatives like this are going to give Microsoft exactly what they want. Not this year, maybe, and perhaps not even next year. But soon.

That's why I keep harping on Linux for the desktop. I get a lot of messages telling me that I'm missing the point, that Linux is already ready for the desktop. As proof, these readers tell me that they're already using Linux on their desktops, have been for years, and are able to do anything they can do with Windows and more. If you're not willing to put up with the learning curve of Linux, they say, you should just use Windows or Mac OS X. Many seem offended when I suggest that Linux needs to go a lot further to lure Windows users. We don't care about Windows users, they say. The implication is that Linux has gone 10% of the way towards Windows, and that's more than enough. Even many reasonable Linux advocates think that meeting Windows users half-way is good enough.

It's not good enough. It misses the point entirely. Linux needs Windows users. It needs a lot of them, and it needs them soon. The unstated assumption is that Linux users will always be able to run Linux, so what happens to Windows and Windows users doesn't really matter. But that assumption is dangerous. My question to Linux users is this: five years from now, what will you be running Linux on? Industry-standard X86 hardware? Maybe not, because by then the industry-standard may be locked up inextricably with Windows. Just because you can run Linux on any Pentium 4 system now doesn't mean you'll be able to run Linux on a Pentium 6 system then.

Right now, Windows is well on its way to winning by default. With something like 95% of desktop systems running Windows, desktop Linux is in danger of being snuffed out. Corporate desktop buyers don't much care about Linux on their desktops, nor do home buyers. They'll keep buying systems with bundled Windows installed on them. One morning, we may wake up and realize too late that all of our new systems are useless for running Linux because they're locked up so tight with DRM hardware and firmware that Linux just won't run on them. Or, if it will, it's next to useless anyway because most of the world is playing in a DRM sandbox that Linux users are banned from.

The only solution I can see is for Linux to become a mainstream desktop operating system. Having 1% or 2% of the market isn't going to cut it. Desktop Linux needs to grow and grow fast. There has to be a large group of vocal users shouting down all the DRM nasties as they're implemented. Windows users aren't going to do it. They're not even going to notice the gossamer threads accumulating. Soon enough, nearly everyone will accept that that which is not forbidden is required and that which is not required is forbidden. Linux is our best hope to prevent that from happening. But for Linux to do that, it must have lots of users. And for Linux to have lots of users, it has to lure Windows users. Not by meeting them 10% of the way from Linux to Windows, or even half the way. By meeting them 90% of the way.

Linux experts who disdain dumb Windows users and clueless newbies are ultimately cutting their own throats.



Saturday, 10 May 2003

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12:05 - I am getting too old for this. We have maple trees in the front yard. Every spring, they release tens of thousands of their seeds, which have the actual seed on one end and a small wing attached to it. When they fall, they spin down like tiny helicopters. They started falling about three weeks ago, and we were waiting for the fall to finish before I went up and blew out the gutters. All of the seeds had fallen by a week or so ago, but the weather hadn't been very good. It's not safe to be up walking around on a wet roof, not to mention that it's miserable blowing out wet gutters.

So yesterday Barbara announced that it hadn't rained for a few days so it was  time to blow out the gutters. The trouble was, it was 90 F (32 C) in the shade, and there isn't much shade on the roof. On the roof in the sun, it was between 125 F (52 C) and 150 F (66 C). Oh, and did I mention that the relative humidity yesterday was nearly 100%? I kept thinking that this was not a good place to be for a guy who is less than a month shy of his 32nd (hexadecimal) birthday. But I figured it'd only take me a few minutes to blow out the gutters with the gasoline-powered blower.

Wrong. The problem was that those seeds had been in the gutters for anything up to three weeks, with frequent rain to keep them watered. Many of them had started to sprout, and the first ones down had rotted, providing a nice "soil" for the later ones to grow in. Even the tornadic wind produced by the gasoline blower couldn't loosen the network of roots and shoots that had grown up in the gutters. So I had to walk along using the snout of the blower to loosen up the mess before I could blow it out.

To make matters worse, I was sweating so badly that I think I was losing weight at about a pound a minute. My jeans wanted to slide down my legs, and I actually found myself stepping on the cuffs. That ain't good when you're looking at a two-story drop onto a paved driveway. But, hitching my pants up frequently, I managed to get the front and back gutters blown out. When I finished, Barbara was standing at the end of the driveway talking to our next-door neighbor, so I found a small shaded area and just sat there to rest. It was literally about 50 F (28 C) cooler in the shade than it had been in the sun. I wouldn't have believed that 90 F at 100% RH could seem cool, but it did.

After I'd rested for a few minutes, Barbara came over to hold the extension ladder while I descended. It apparently wasn't locked tight, because when I stepped on the rung that portion of the ladder slid down several inches, causing me to bang my shin against the ladder. Barbara wants to put in gutter guards, which I've never been a big fan of. But I may think about doing that.

Here's a picture of Barbara's new system, currently in progress.

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That's an Antec Sonata case. It's designed to be a quiet case, and Antec has pursued that goal with such features as a 120mm (4.7") supplemental fan and rubber shock-mounting in the drive bays. Despite its small size, this case boasts nine drive bays, three 5.25" and two 3.5" external bays, and four 3.5" internal bays. It also has such niceties as tool-free panel removal, a washable air filter, and front-mounted USB/FireWire/Audio ports with a flip-down cover.

The Antec Sonata also comes with an excellent TruePower 380 Watt power supply. The Antec TruePower-series power supplies are a major step up from their standard supplies. They are very tightly regulated and very well built. You can read more about TruePower power supplies here. If it's any indication, every system I've built for Barbara for the last ten years has used a PC Power & Cooling power supply. Pournelle and I frequently joke about the risk of becoming dead meat if we mess up our wives' systems, and this is the first time I've risked anything other than a PC Cool power supply for Barbara's primary system. That should tell you something.

I've seen the Antec Sonata with TruePower 380 power supply listed on PriceGrabber.com for not much more than $100, including shipping. That's a heck of a deal for an excellent case with an excellent power supply.

Tonight is the Forsyth Astronomical Society's public observation at Pilot Mountain State Park. The weather forecast is reasonable for what we'll be doing. Luna is about 67% illuminated, which means it's impossible to see the faint fuzzies that are our normal prey. But the public isn't impressed by faint fuzzies anyway. They want to see the planets and Luna. Saturn sets early tonight, but Jupiter and Luna are both well-placed, and the forecast haze won't interfere with viewing either of them.

So a bunch of us will be up at Pilot Mountain tonight to show the sights to the public. Since it's to be about 80 F (27 C) at sunset, dropping to about 70 F (21 C) by midnight, there may be quite a crowd up there. We always hope to get at least one or two of the public attendees interested enough to follow up by attending an FAS meeting. This time, we should be able to get dozens to attend the next FAS meeting, because it's next Thursday immediately before the Lunar eclipse.


Sunday, 11 May 2003

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8:46 - We did end up going up to Pilot Mountain last night for the public observation, although we almost didn't. Yesterday morning, the forecast looked reasonable. By early afternoon, the forecast had degraded a bit, but it still looked as though we'd have a reasonable chance of seeing some stuff. Later in the afternoon, the forecast had improved to the point that Weather Underground was calling for "Mostly Clear". Then, just before dinner time, I turned on the Weather Channel and learned that we were under a Tornado Watch until 9:00 p.m. I checked back with the Weather Underground, whose forecast had gone from "Mostly Clear" to "Mostly Cloudy", with a note that there was a Tornado Watch in effect and a warning that early evening would see "Thunderstorms, some severe, with large hail, damaging winds, dangerous lightning, and scattered tornados." Geez.

It sounded like the top of Pilot Mountain was the last place we'd want a large group of people to gather, particularly since there's no shelter anywhere nearby other than a concrete block restroom. At that point, Barbara and I had decided not to go up, but one of our friends said he planned to check again about 6:30 to see if the storms had passed. When I talked to him, he said the radar was looking decent, so we decided to go up. I figured that if it's possible to cram 15 people into a Volkswagen Beetle we could probably cram 100 or 150 people into that concrete block restroom building if necessary.

As it turned out, we had scattered clouds, but Jupiter and Luna were visible most of the time. There were a dozen or so club members present, and Barbara tells me we probably had 100 or so public visitors. On balance, it was a successful evening. Many of the visitors will probably come to our next meeting this coming Thursday. We're holding it at the SciWorks nature-science museum in Winston-Salem. Weather permitting, we'll set up in the parking lot after the meeting to show public visitors the Lunar eclipse.

Well, I'd best get to the laundry and other Sunday tasks. Today is Mothers' Day. Barbara is heading over to have dinner with her parents. I'm going to pick up dinner and head over to the nursing home to have dinner with mom.



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