Monday, 26 May 2003
Tuesday, 27 May 2003
16:00 - We are back from visiting Brian and Marcia Bilbrey in Bowie, Maryland. It rained pretty much the entire time we were there, which was fine with me. Brian and I didn't leave the house except for one trip to a restaurant for dinner and another to Best Buy and the grocery store. Marcia and Barbara did go out several times. Three of the four dogs were good. Malcolm, alas, was the exception. The only thing he actually destroyed was the sliding screen door out to the patio, which he managed to go through while it was closed. I told Malcolm he'd be paying off that damage for years. No more Snappies for him until it's paid off.
We enjoyed ourselves a lot. Brian and Marcia cooked wonderful meals, and Barbara and I both had a chance to relax, the first in a long time. Of course, if I were Brian and Marcia, I wouldn't want us to come back, or at least not with Malcolm the Demon.
Brian and I mostly lounged around reading or playing on the computer. The last time we went up, I didn't take my notebook. This time I did, and hooked it into Brian's wireless network. I downloaded my mail with Mozilla, and made the mistake of setting up Outlook 2000 to POP Barbara's mail. I entirely forgot that there was no AV software running on the notebook. By the time I thought about it, Barbara had already downloaded her mail, so I figured the notebook was probably a virus pesthole by then.
I did what I should have done at first. I downloaded and installed SpyBot Search & Destroy, WebWasher, and a 30-day trial copy of PC Cillin. Surprisingly enough, the AV software found no viruses/Trojans/worms, and SpyBot S&D found only the stuff I'd have expected to find on a base installation with IE.
My mail was surprisingly light while we were gone, probably due to the holiday weekend. From Thursday afternoon until this afternoon, five days, I received a total of only 1,821 messages to my main accounts on rocket. Of those 1,821 messages, 582 were spam, or 32.0%. Of the 582 spams, SpamAssassin caught 563, or 96.7%. Brian tells me that he and Greg installed an updated SpamAssassin recently, and it seems to have boosted the success rate noticeably.
By default, SpamAssassin considers any message with a score of 5.0 or higher spam, which it calls an aggressive setting. I use 4.0, which makes my filtering more aggressive still, but back when I was still checking I was getting very, very few false positives.
Even though Barbara drove the entire distance both ways, I'm exhausted. Riding for seven hours tires me as much as driving for seven hours. I've gotten a load of laundry running, and have a few computerish things to do this afternoon. Barbara is out cutting the grass. It didn't look that bad to me, but she likes to keep it cut low this time of year. Later on we'll pick up a pizza and take it over to have dinner with my mother.
Tonight, we'll probably just relax and read. Barbara actually out-read me while we were up in Bowie. I made it through only three books in five days, which is about a quarter to a third of what I'd have expected. Barbara made it through a book a day. We watched a couple of DVD movies while we were there. One was a Star Trek movie, which was pretty bad. The other was a Harry Potter movie, which wasn't bad at all.
I'm thinking I'll probably set up a computer to take the place of our VCRs, or at least one of them. I should be able to set up a system that will capture whatever channel we want for the times we specify, compress that bit stream, and store it to hard disk. I can then write it to DVD+R or +RW (depending on whether we want to keep it). IIRC, DVD-quality video takes only 4.7 GB give-or-take per two hours stored, so even a 120 GB hard drive gives me 24+ hours of storage. Plextor is sending me a ConvertX Digital Video Converter once they become available late next month, so that'll be something else to play with.
Yet more evidence that DVD+R/RW has won the writable DVD format war. Brian and I wandered around the computer section at Best Buy. The price of name-brand (e.g., Verbatim and TDK) DVD+R discs is now at about $2.00 each, which is actually about the same as name-brand CD-R blanks on a cents-per-megabyte basis. We saw everything from five-packs for $10 to 50-packs for $100. If I'd wanted to buy 100 TDK DVD+R discs, I could have gotten them for $187. Similarly, name-brand DVD+RW discs were $3.40 each, regardless of quantity. A five-pack was $17, a 10-pack was $34, and a 25-pack was $85. All of these prices are bulk, of course. The ones with jewel cases were much more expensive.
The reason I say that DVD+R/RW has won is that most of the writable DVD media section at Best Buy was devoted to DVD+R/RW. I didn't count, but I'd estimate that there were a total of 40 SKUs of DVD+R/RW media, and perhaps half a dozen DVD-R/RW SKUs. If there's one thing it's safe to assume about Best Buy, it's that they manage their shelf space with incredible care. They put what sells on the shelves. If something isn't on the shelves, it means it isn't selling. The only advantage DVD-R/RW had over DVD+R/RW was lower media cost, and that is fast disappearing.
If you want to buy a dual-media drive for safety's sake, fine, but I think DVD-R/RW is a dying technology. The first real evidence I had of that was when Plextor decided to ship a DVD+R/RW-only drive. I have enough respect for Plextor to believe that that in itself was a strong indication that -R/RW was doomed. But the other shoe dropped when Pioneer announced a hybrid DVD±R/RW drive. Pioneer was the originator of -R/RW, so it speaks volumes that they are now jumping on the +R/RW bandwagon. A hybrid drive is still the safest bet, but I'm sure enough that DVD+R/RW will win that I'd rather save the cost difference and put it toward discs.
I can't face my mail at the moment. There's lot's there, including a bunch of responses to my journal entry about Linux stability. I'll try to get some of those posted tomorrow.
Wednesday, 28 May 2003
11:07 - Lots of mail has accumulated over the last several days, much of it regarding my comments on Linux stability. Here's a selection.
Well, not exactly nobody. I've gotten many emails reporting exactly the same problems, as do several posts over on the messageboard. For example, Greg Lincoln (a Linux guru in anyone's book) says:
And I am completely prepared to believe that, especially after discussing it in some detail with Brian Bilbrey over the weekend. I remember the to-do when Microsoft moved NT Server video drivers from user mode (where they should be) to kernel mode (for better performance). Their reason, of course, was that NT Server and NT Workstation were actually the same OS. They needed better video performance for desktop applications, so rather than fork the code into a server version with video in user mode and a workstation version with video in kernel mode, they just moved the drivers to kernel mode and had done with it. I thought that was a big mistake at the time, and I think it's a mistake for Linux to do the same.
Of course, one has a choice with Linux, which I didn't realize. Brian tells me that DRI can be disabled by editing the XFree86 configuration file. There may even be a GUI way to accomplish that. (The idea of editing the XFree86 configuration file manually scares me). But what I find surprising is that DRI is enabled by default. Why? If I understand Brian correctly, it has nothing to do with 2D performance. I would guess that 3D performance is a non-issue for something like 100% of Linux servers and most Linux desktop systems, so why enable something that has little benefit to most users and makes the OS more crash-prone?
Thanks. I've never believed in the "bug count" method, for more reasons than are stated in the article. I get warning emails from RHN at least daily, and sometimes more than one a day. That doesn't mean RH Linux is badly flawed. Many of those notices are for bundled software that shouldn't be counted against the OS itself. Many others are trivially minor or pertain to OS services that few people have loaded. For the Linux bug count to be equivalent to the Windows bug count, one would have to count the bugs generated by thousands of third-party Windows programs, video and other device drivers supplied by third parties, and so on. My own feeling is that modern versions of Windows (say, NT 4 SP6a and later) and recent Linux releases are about equal in terms of stability and security in an absolute sense, if each is patched and configured properly and if each had equal market share.
Linux hasn't experienced anything like Code Red or the plague of email worms/Trojans/viruses, certainly, but none of those are directly attributable to Windows itself. Linux has a tiny desktop market share compared to Windows, and Linux is much more "secure by default", both of which are responsible for the much higher frequency of problems with Microsoft systems. In my opinion, the one thing Microsoft can be blamed for is issuing patches that do more than just patch a problem. When I download a patch for RH Linux, I'm comfortable that that patch does only what it's claimed to do. When I download a patch or service pack for Windows, I'm always concerned that Microsoft is sneaking in DRM functions or changing the license agreement to my detriment. Accordingly, I patch my Linux systems without a second thought, but I think long and hard before applying a Microsoft patch.
That's certainly one viewpoint, and I know it's shared by many. Again, I wasn't referring to Linux as a server OS, but as a desktop OS. I don't doubt that Linux is immensely stable as a server OS, although people who should know tell me that Linux is still considered by many to be much less robust as a server OS than some other alternatives such as commercial Unices and BSD. I don't hold an opinion on that, as I have no experience with any of them.
I don't recall having Windows 2000 bluescreen ever unless it was attributable to something like faulty hardware, bad power, or an unstable device driver. I've had applications crash under Windows 2000, certainly, but never the OS itself.
I am not favorably inclined toward Mandrake. I ended up running it because Brian Bilbrey set up my router/firewall when he was visiting last Thanksgiving. We tried installing RH 8.0 and couldn't get it to work. We tried some others, including (IIRC) Debian and SuSE. None of them installed properly on that old Duron box. Brian finally pulled out a Mandrake 9.0 disc, and it installed properly. Believe me, I wish RH 8.0 had worked, because I've pretty much standardized on RH for better or worse.
Finally, John Bartley sends a useful set of links to security resources:
11:29 - Reading this New York Times article (registration required, yada, yada) about the Air Force decommissioning the A-10 Warthog reminded me of our drive back from Bowie, Maryland yesterday. Virginia has signs posted, "Speed Limit Enforced by Aircraft". As we were tooling down a 4-lane road in Virginia, driving about the speed limit, a car passed us going a good 20 MPH faster than we were. A moment after that happened, we passed another of those signs. I told Barbara that I had this mental image of an A-10 Warthog rolling in on a strafing pass, riddling that speeder with 30mm depleted uranium rounds. Now that would be enforcing the speed limit by aircraft.
Novell weighs in against SCO's claims of infringement by Linux. Although it is phrased professionally and politely, this letter from Jack L. Messman, the Chairman, President and CEO of Novell, to Darl McBride, the President and CEO of The SCO Group, states Novell's displeasure with SCO's actions in no uncertain terms. It seems that SCO has no friends other than Microsoft, which makes me wonder whether the speculations that SCO is simply a stalking horse for Microsoft's campaign against Linux are correct. As Cicero said, "Qui bono?" (Well, actually, I think it was Ravilla being quoted by Cicero.) The only one that benefits from all this is Microsoft, as far as I can see.
Spam check: I received 211 emails overnight, of which 67 were spam, or 31.8%. Of those 67 spams, SpamAssassin caught 64, or 95.5%.
11:08 - I still have a bunch of computer components sitting on the kitchen table. Barbara has been remarkably patient about this state of affairs, perhaps because it's her new system sitting there. I need to get the system built in the next couple of days and then burn it in for a while. I also want to do some benchmarking on the 865 board before I set the system up for Barbara. It's an indication of how far Linux has come that I seriously considered installing Linux on Barbara's new system. Upon reflection, though, that is a bad idea. I'll keep Barbara on Windows until I have run Linux as my primary OS for quite some time. Given that I haven't started doing that yet, Barbara may not be running Linux until this new system has been replaced by yet another new system.
I also considered Windows XP Pro momentarily, but I can't think of a thing XP buys her that Windows 2000 doesn't. The one thing I do want to do is convert her email from Outlook 2000. I was going to set her up on Mozilla Mail, but she demands spell-check functionality in her mail client. One alternative would be the current beta of Mozilla Thunderbird, which does have spell-checking, but I really don't want to use a beta release on Barbara's system, no matter how good that beta software might be. I seem to recall that there's a spell-checker add-on for Mozilla, so perhaps I'll look into that.
Right now, Barbara uses Opera and Mozilla, reserving IE for emergencies. I'll probably leave her with that setup for browsing. For an office suite, I'll install Microsoft Office 2000, which is what she's been using. I'll probably set up Outlook 2000 in PIM-only mode. I need to remember to ask Barbara to come up with a name for her new system.
Spam check: I received 283 emails overnight, of which 87 were spam, or 30.7%. Of those 87 spams, SpamAssassin caught 84, or 96.6%.
12:51 - C|NET posted an interesting article about Microsoft's decision to cut the price of Office. My take on this is that Office is overpriced by an order of magnitude or more, as is Windows. Neither of those products offers reasonable value for money at anything like their current pricing level, and the only thing that prevents them from self-destructing is the vendor lock-in issue. In my opinion, Windows might reasonably sell for about the price of a hardback book, as might Office. That Microsoft is able to continue charging monopoly prices for these software products is attributable to their installed base, format incompatibilities, and bundling deals.
Like celebrities who are famous for being famous, Windows continues to dominate the desktop because it dominates the desktop. Office continues to dominate the office suite market because of its close ties to Windows and because Microsoft makes Office file formats and macro compatibility a constantly moving target. In isolation--if compatibility with the huge installed base were not an issue--Windows at its current price would hemorrhage market share to Linux. Late versions of Windows are a better desktop operating system for most users than is Linux, but that difference would support only a small price premium in a free market.
In a free market, would people willingly pay $25 for Windows XP rather than using Linux for free? Most of them probably would. But most would not willingly pay the current asking price. The same is true of OpenOffice.org versus Microsoft Office. MS Office is a better office suite, hands-down. If I had the choice of paying $25 for Microsoft Office versus using OOo for free, there's no question I'd pay the $25. But MS Office isn't enough better to justify paying $200, $400, or more. The only reasons it survives are niggling issues of file format compatibility and macro compatibility, all of which are carefully managed by Microsoft.
Ultimately, I think this is what will happen. Microsoft will be downsized involuntarily. Instead of being a multi-billion dollar corporate behemoth with obscenely high profit margins, they'll become a profitable medium-size corporation. They'll sell 10 million or 20 million copies a year of their operating systems and applications suites. They'll end up having "only" a billion dollars of annual revenue, which is as it should be. Unless, of course, their campaign of evil succeeds in making OSS illegal, locking us all up with DRM, and so on. Whether they can succeed in doing that is up to all of us.
It's going to take a few years for all of this to wash out, but it is going to happen. I'm betting on OSS as the eventual winner, although you can count on Microsoft going down kicking and screaming. Like SCO, they'll attempt to take a lot of other people with them.
11:43 - Barbara has trip pictures posted on her page (mostly dogs, of course).
Barbara and I are going to start working on the Astronomical League's Caldwell Club and Herschel 400 Club lists. Unlike the Messier Objects, which are mostly bright and easy to find, the Caldwells and particularly the Herschels are often dim and located in the middle of nowhere, which makes them very hard to find. I posted a question yesterday to one of the astronomy mailing lists I subscribe to, asking about advice for which chart(s) are best for pursuing the Herschel 400 (and the even harder Herschel II list).
The consensus seemed to be that Sky Atlas 2000.0 doesn't go deep enough. That is, it doesn't map stars dim enough to allow us to find some of the H400 objects. SA 2000.0 is a mag 8.5 catalog, which means the dimmest stars on the main maps are magnitude 8.5. The alternatives aren't great, either. My first thought was to buy Uranometria 2000.0, which comes as three rather expensive volumes. Uranometria is a mag 9.75 catalog. That is acceptable for the Herschel 400, but may not be deep enough for the Herschel II list and some of the other more advanced lists. Also, our observing buddy Paul Jones already has Uranometria, and he's considering replacing it with something deeper and less physically awkward for his own pursuit of the Herschel 400 and Herschel II lists. The Millennium Star Atlas is a mag 11 catalog, which is deep enough for anything we might conceivably do, but it is (a) out of print, and (b) a $250 hardback book. Ugh.
Several people recommended that we just keep using what we're using now, which is the program Cartes du Ciel running on my notebook computer. I have downloaded catalogs which map stars down to mag 18. Each five magnitudes is a difference of 100 times in brightness, and the limited naked eye magnitude is generally considered to be between 5.0 and 6.0. Our 10" scope can get down to about magnitude 14.5, so CdC has maps that show stars we can't even see. CdC, like any computerized planetarium program, allows setting the dimmest visible stars. That means I can customize the display to show, for example, only stars that are visible in the finderscope. CdC also allows choosing which subset of objects to show, zooming and unzooming the field width, and so on. In short, it's much more flexible than a printed chart.
The only downside to CdC is that it requires a computer. More than once, at the end of an observing session I've literally had to use a towel to dry off my notebook computer, which was dripping wet with dew. I can probably solve that problem by making a little enclosure from a cardboard box. Also, battery life is an issue, and much more of one than you might think. A battery that gives three hours of life at normal room temperature may die after only a few minutes in the sub-freezing temperatures we sometimes observe in. I'm thinking I may be able to solve that problem by taking along a UPS. It will also be affected by cold weather, but if I take a large enough UPS it should still be able to power the notebook for reasonable periods.
I can understand why some non-astronomers think we're all insane. As one guy said to me last winter, "Let me get this straight. You plan to drive up to the mountains in February, go out at sundown, sit in the dark in a field all night at sub-freezing temperatures not even counting the wind chill, and look at tiny, faint gray smudges that aren't even visible unless you use averted vision?" Yep. That's what we do for fun.
Spam check: I received 267 emails overnight, of which 71 were spam, or 26.6%. Of those 71 spams, SpamAssassin caught 70, or 98.6%.
9:00 - Rain, rain, and more rain. We were hoping to be able to observe last night, but we were clouded out. Tonight looks possible, barely, but we won't make a decision until just before time to leave. There's a good chance we'll end up just staying in town and observing from the driveway.
Part of the problem is that Barbara and I both prefer observing DSOs (deep-sky objects), which are commonly called "faint fuzzies". Amateur DSO observing is a relatively recent phenomenon. Back in the 1960's, when I first got started observing, almost no amateurs did much DSO observing. Back then, most amateurs were interested in Lunar, planetary, and double-star observing.
There's much to be said for that, not least that it's not as demanding in terms of observing conditions. For DSO observing, we need a clear night with no moon, far from city lights. For Lunar/planetary/double-star observing, none of that matters. You can observe those objects from downtown New York City in a heavy haze with a full moon. In fact, hazy nights are often better, because with haze often comes atmospheric stability.
We'll definitely be doing a lot of Lunar/planetary/double-star observing over the coming months, particularly with the Mars apparition this summer. But it sure would be nice to get some clear nights on new-moon weekends. Spying on the neighbors is all well and good. When we look at Luna, we're seeing light that reflected from it about a second earlier. When we look at the planets, we're seeing light that reflected from them a few minutes earlier. When we look at double stars, we're usually seeing light they emitted a few years to a few tens of years earlier. Really close neighbors, in other words.
But when we look at galaxies and other DSOs, we're spying on very distant objects. For example, when we look at the magnificent Orion Nebula, the light we're seeing started its trip about the time the Roman Empire fell. When we look at some distant globular clusters, we're seeing light that departed them when our remote ancestors were co-existing with Neanderthal Man. But it's the galaxies that are truly unimaginably far away. When we look at galaxies that are members of the local group, like M31 (the Andromeda galaxy) and M33 (the Triangulum Pinwheel galaxy), the photons impinging on our eyes left those island universes between 2 and 3 million years ago, before recognizable humans walked the planet. And those are the nearby galaxies. When we observe more distant ones, we're looking at photons that have been in transit for 50 or 100 million years. Dinosaurs walked the planet then, and the most advanced mammals were small furry things that didn't appear to have much of a future.
I suppose I'll build Barbara's new system this weekend. I still haven't decided which software to install.
9:48 - I was a measure of our desperation that we decided to go out observing last night. The tornado watch had just ended, and the only tornado warning was for an area to our south and east. They were forecasting strong storms in the early evening, but hinted that the skies might be clearing a bit in the late evening. So we decided to head over to the home of our friends Paul Jones and Mary Chervenak to set up the scopes in their driveway. Steve Childers and Bonnie Richardson also showed up.
The winds were gusting up to 20 or 25 MPH, enough that we were concerned about our lawn chairs blowing away. Cloudiness throughout the evening varied from about 4/10 to 9/10, sometimes within a few minutes. The seeing was terrible, maybe 2/10. Seeing is a measure of atmospheric stability, and when it's very windy the seeing is nearly always terrible. In addition, we were right under the jet stream, which also makes seeing terrible. Transparency wasn't too bad in the gaps among the clouds, perhaps 6/10 or 7/10 at the best of times.
Despite the rotten conditions, we all managed to bag quite a few objects, including some relatively dim DSOs. Barbara is working on her Urban Observing certificate from Astronomical League. She's already logged most of the objects on that list, but she's done so from reasonably dark-sky sites. The Urban Observing club requires getting those objects from an urban location, which is defined as one from which the Milky Way is not visible. Last night, Barbara managed to bag several galaxies on the list, including M81, M82, M104, and M94. I mostly played around, visiting familiar objects including several Messier Objects. What I really wanted to work on was the Herschel 400 list, which was completely out of the question. It's difficult enough from a dark-sky site under good observing conditions.
Our session was both fun and frustrating. With the recent weather patterns, most of us are beginning to think we'll never have a chance again to observe. This has been the worst spring for observing in recent memory. I hope the summer is better.
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