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Week of 8 September 2003

Latest Update : Friday, 12 September 2003 12:08 -0400

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Monday, 8 September 2003

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11:56 - We did end up going to Pilot Mountain Saturday night for the public observation. The turnout was quite small, probably around 300 public attendees, but we did have a chance to talk with quite a few interested people. The small turnout was probably a result of the heavy cloud cover, although one lady told us not long after we got there around 16:45 that the local television news had said the event occurred Friday night rather than Saturday night. If that's true, it certainly didn't help things either.

Although there were heavy clouds, Luna and Mars periodically peeked through them all evening, and we were able to show people both objects. The seeing (atmospheric stability) was reasonably good. Major Martian surface markings like Syrtus Major and Hellas were clearly visible. We had a dozen or so scopes set up, which was plenty for the number of people who showed up. If the skies had been clear and we'd gotten 1,000 to 3,000 attendees (as we thought was quite realistic), we'd have been very short of scopes.

In addition to clouds, we also had fairly chilly temperatures. After sunset, most of the people who'd been wearing short-sleeve shirts and shorts ended up putting on sweats, jackets, and long pants. I was walking around wrapped in a blanket later in the evening, and I wasn't the only one. It was only the astronomers who came so equipped, of course. We know how cold it can get, even in the summer. The public attendees were not prepared for the chilly temperatures.

I've talked about it for a long time, but I think it's finally time to build an AV server for the den. What prompted this was our attempt last night to record the Mystery! episode on PBS. I'd set up the VCR earlier, and Barbara had put a tape in. When 9:00 p.m. (actually, 8:59) rolled around, the VCR started to tape, made a strangled noise, and spat out the tape Barbara had given it. Barbara rushed over to pull the bad tape and stick another one in. I turned off the timed-record and then turned it back on when she'd replaced the tape. Alas, 8:59 had passed, so the stupid VCR was going to wait until next week to record (I'd programmed it to record 8:59 until 10:30 every Sunday so that we could record the later episodes in the series). I managed to get the VCR recording before the show actually started, but the tape Barbara had put in was squeaking. I stopped recording, and she ejected that tape, peeled the cellophane from a new one, and put in the third tape of the evening. I started it recording again, and it was still squeaking. At this point, I'm not sure if the VCR itself is the problem or if we have a batch of squeaky tapes.

Barbara suggested swapping out that VCR for the one in the downstairs area. I suppose I could do that. We have three functioning VCRs in the house right now--den, downstairs area, and bedroom. I also have a stack of dead VCRs in my office. Barbara says they're junk, but I believe that advances in consumer electronics medical science may eventually allow me to revive them.

At any rate, we'll never buy another VCR. It's a dead technology. The only reason it still exists is that it can record. But PVR and recordable DVD counters that advantage decisively. So I'm going to build myself a Linux-based PVR. At first I was planning to install a recordable DVD drive in it, but I think I may not do that. Instead, I'll connect the Linux PVR box in the den to our home network. The Linux PVR box will have 120 GB to 240 GB of hard disk space, which should allow us to record a lot of stuff. Anything we want to keep, I can copy across the network and burn to DVD.

The last time I looked at OSS PVR software, it was coming along nicely, but not quite "there yet". I suspect it's actually usable at this point. I'm not in a huge hurry. VHS is fine for now, and we do have three working VCRs. But I'll be making the transition to a Linux-based home-made PVR over the next year or so.

That brings up the question of what to do about the VHS tapes in our library. That should be easy enough to address. Plextor is supposed to be sending me a sample of their ConvertX digital video converter, once they get a couple of small bugs worked out. I should be able to use that to convert our existing VHS tapes to CD or DVD.

13:16 - One element of Microsoft's DRM (Digital Restrictions Management) suite is called RMS (Richard M. Stallman Restrictions Management Services Rights Management Services, how Orwellian...). My moles at Microsoft tell me that Microsoft programmers are working hard on an email DRM feature that combines the functions of encryption, a white list and an ACL. This new feature will apparently be named ESR (Eric S. Raymond Email Security Registry). I feel slighted. --RBT



Tuesday, 9 September 2003

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10:50 - I've gotten quite a few messages from people interested in a home-built PVR, many of whom have considered buying a Tivo or similar device, but don't want to pay monthly or lifetime fees for program data. I think I'm going to put together something with the goal of making it inexpensive, quiet, and small. And fully functional, of course.

It's ironic, because I watch less TV than probably 99.999% of the American public. We turn on the Weather Channel or the news. Barbara watches some golf and auto racing. I watch an occasional movie or PBS show. But that's about it. I'd estimate that I actually watch TV (as opposed to having it on while I'm reading or doing something else) an average of perhaps an hour a week, if that. I don't think Barbara and I have watched a single movie or television program since the final Buffy episode some months ago. So it seems odd to go to much trouble to build a recorder, but I'm more interested in the building than the using. It's also a nice Linux project.



Wednesday, 10 September 2003

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10:12 - Barbara and I have been married 20 years today. Hard to believe, but true. Twenty years have passed very quickly.

I suspect our parents were worried at the time, because we decided to get married very soon after we met, and in fact our wedding was only about six months after our first date. Our parents probably thought I was pregnant. They were also probably thinking about that old saw, "Marry in haste, repent in leisure," but here we are twenty years later.

There've been changes over that time, of course. Our parents were about 60 when we married. My parents are now both gone, and Barbara's are 80 or thereabouts. Dogs have come and gone, as have jobs. But Barbara and I are pretty much unchanged. Oh, my hair and beard have gone from red (think Alyson Hannigan in Buffy the Vampire Slayer red) to the point where my hair is sandy/blondish/reddish and my beard gray. Barbara, though, looks pretty much the same as the day we married. Not even any gray hairs I've noticed.

I knew the day we married that I'd made a good choice, and nothing in the last twenty years has ever made me question that choice. I also knew that I'd tricked Barbara into thinking she'd made a good choice. She probably had that "What have I gotten myself into?" moment soon after we married. Most women do. When we find a girl we want to marry, we guys can keep up the facade long enough to get her to the altar, but our true nature soon shows itself. Fortunately, most women are very good at making the best of things.

Looking back after twenty years, I sure wouldn't have done anything differently.


Thursday, 11 September 2003

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9:11 - Two years ago today, Islam attacked the United States. So far, we have done almost nothing to respond to that attack, other than eliminate a great many rights of Americans at home and pursue half-hearted wars against Afghanistan and Iraq in which we did everything possible to minimize enemy casualties and destruction of enemy property. Saudi Arabia still exists. Iran still exists. Syria still exists. Other radical Muslim countries still exist. Why?

Is it just me, or has Microsoft progressed from ridiculous to a new level for which there is not even a name? Microsoft is now releasing patches to patch patches that patched patches. I guess that old joke about Microsoft not getting it right until version 3.0 also applies to patches.

I remember when I was about ten one of my friends had a flat tire on his bicycle. We walked our bikes down to the local gas station, and the guy there helped us remove the wheel and tire so that we could patch the inner tube. When we got the inner tube out, the guy looked at it and said, "Son, what you have there is more patch than inner tube. I think you're going to need a new one."

Has Microsoft gotten to this point? Is their product more patches than operating system? And do we need a new one? Operating system, that is.

I am getting very weary of the critical-Microsoft-security-hole-of-the-week. I'm not very vulnerable, of course. My firewall is locked up pretty tightly, we don't allow people to connect their notebooks to our internal network, and neither Barbara nor I opens unexpected mail attachments. Still, each time one of these critical flaws surfaces, I have to stop what I'm doing and waste a lot of time trying to figure out what's going on and what, if anything, I need to do about it. 

Multiply that by millions of users and admins, and Microsoft's TCO is a complete joke. I have never had a problem with my Linux boxes. I simply tell them to update themselves once in a while, and it's done. No worries, no cost, and no time eaten. Maintaining Microsoft software has become an incredible tangle of patching and testing on pretty much a weekly basis, and all of that just to have some reasonable assurance that Windows/IE/Office is patched to the current, imperfect standard. It's a never-ending battle, because as soon as you finish applying one patch, there'll be another along any moment. It's like having to get a new tetanus shot every week.

That's even assuming that all the patching gets done and no systems are infected. The reality, of course, is very different. Many, perhaps most, systems won't be patched, and many will end up infected, spewing garbage at the rest of us. So, even though I'm safe from the direct effects of the virus/worm/trojan-of-the-week, I'm certainly not protected from the secondary fall-out. I'll get hundreds of infected emails to wade through, hundreds more moronic virus warning messages from mailservers run by clueless admins, and a bunch of calls from friends who've been infected and are pleading for help.

When does this all end, or, more to the point, when do we all cry, Enough! It's pretty clear that Microsoft Windows and Office are broken beyond all possibility of repair. Microsoft itself as much as admitted that several months ago. Windows isn't secure, and they can't make it secure. How much longer are we going to put up with this crap? We need a new inner tube, I think.

11:59 - Ironically, my own ISP considers me a spammer. I use Roadrunner, and yesterday I sent out a message to members of WSAL. Three of them have triad.rr.com email addresses. All three of those messages bounced with this explanation. In short, I use rocket, which hosts my domains, as my SMTP server. Roadrunner now considers all mail originating from rocket as spam.

Am I upset? No, or at least not yet. I support blackhole lists as a necessary part of the war on spam. I do wish that the company that owns rocket would get things resolved with Roadrunner, though.

I am upset in a larger sense, though, and it's spammers I'm upset with. It's easy to forget that it's the spammers that are at the root of all these problems. Without spammers, we wouldn't have to use blackhole lists, SpamAssassin, and other measures to cut down on spam. The problem with all of these measures is that they aren't perfect. There are false negatives, but those simply result in a few spams making it into our inboxes. Unfortunately, there is also collateral damage in the form of false positives, whether of a particular message or an entire domain or IP address being blackholed.

I've lost mail without question. I lost quite a bit of it when the SPEWS fiasco occurred. I ended up with half or less the usual amount of mail when that happened. Instead of getting 300 to 400 overnight messages, I got half that. Assuming that roughly half of it was spam, that means I lost 75 to 100 real messages. I lost more real mail, I'm sure, during the SoBig.F outbreak. At one point, I was getting something like 600 messages per hour, of which the vast majority were SoBig. I had no choice but to delete everything and hope that I wasn't trashing much real mail. I'm sure I did lose a lot of real messages during that episode. And I'm just one person. Multiply that by the number of people who use email and the true extent of the damage becomes clear.

Email used to be pretty reliable. It never guaranteed 100% reliability, but it came as close as humanly possible. If I sent an email message, it almost certainly got to the recipient. If not, I could be sure that I'd get a bounce message to tell me delivery had failed. If someone sent me email, I was almost certain to receive it. No more. Now, I lose outbound and inbound messages regularly. I fail to see bounces because they're obscured by the hundreds of spams that I don't have time to check through. When I send an email, it may or may not get through. Even if delivery fails and a failure notice is sent to me, I may not notice. And an increasing number of outbound message simply disappear into the ether. They're never delivered and never generate a bounce. All of this is thanks to the spammers. How long are we going to put up with this?

13:04 - Jerry Pournelle is obviously a very brave man. With RIAA lawsuits against individual file traders in the news the last several days, Jerry goes out and publicly asks his readers to send him a copy of a music track. They do, and he then announces that he has in his possession an MP3 file that he has no legal right to have. I sent him the following mail:

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Are you trying to get sued by the RIAA?
Date: Thu, 11 Sep 2003 12:56:52 -0400
From: Robert Bruce Thompson
To: Jerry Pournelle
Priority: Highest

> Thanks to all those who have sent me an mp3 of the song Georgy Girl

Jesus, Jerry. You just put yourself square in the sights of the RIAA. If they're looking for a high-profile lawsuit against a music "pirate" they couldn't do much better than to sue you.

Or was that your intention?



Friday, 12 September 2003

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12:08 - I'm still thinking out the details of building a PVR/AV server. I've been checking out the various OSS PVR software, and it looks like at least some of it is now reasonably feature-complete and usable. Now I have to decide what to put where. That is, my first thought was to put a serious computer in the den near the TV and audio equipment, with lots of local disk storage, a DVD writer, a fast network connection, and so on. Now I'm beginning to wonder if I really want to do all that. What I may end up doing instead is installing a $75 DVD player near the TV and keep the PVR system in my office. I could record there, dump whatever we've recorded to DVD+RW (if we don't want to keep it) or DVD+R, and just play it in the den.

The problem is connections. In the den, we have TV cable, but no Ethernet. Getting Ethernet there would be a pain in the butt, because it's an exterior wall. Conversely, in my office I have the cable modem connection and Ethernet out the wazoo, but no TV cable connection. It'd be a lot easier to get a TV jack in my office than to get Ethernet in the den, because my office is over unfinished basement space. The only real downside to having the guts of the system in my office is that I'd have to write everything to a DVD before we watched it, which probably isn't much of a downside at all. At least I assume that writing captured video to a DVD is a pretty straightforward process.

I was talking to one of my techie friends about this last night, and he suggested using wireless Ethernet. I suppose that's a possibility, but it is slow and unreliable compared to wired Ethernet. Also, I'm told that getting wireless running under Linux can be problematic.

Navigator: "Approaching Initial Point in five... four... three... two... one... Mark!"

Pilot: "Bombardier, you've got the controls."

Bombardier: "Roger, Captain. Commencing run..." (keeping it level and steady as he concentrates on aiming  his load)

Bombardier: "Open bomb bay doors!" (we're now configured to drop our load, but we're also slow and vulnerable)

Bombardier: (pickles button) "Bombs away!" (as multiple sticks fall toward the target, with the suddenly reduced load we feel like we're on an express elevator heading up, and we accelerate and turn towards the egress route.)

You might think that's a description of a WWII B-17 on a bombing run over Nazi Germany. It might be, but it is also an accurate description of our nearly 16-year-old Border Collie, Kerry, on a bomb run of his own. That makes it a real problem to clean up after him. Instead of dropping a couple or three blockbusters, Kerry drops twenty anti-personnel bomblets. After he finishes his bomb run, which may cover multiple front yards, he immediately turns, accelerates, and heads for home. Fortunately, he doesn't have to deal with flak or Nazi fighters, because he sometimes makes it home on only one engine anyway.



Saturday, 13 September 2003

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Sunday, 14 September 2003

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