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Week of 15 September 2003

Latest Update : Friday, 19 September 2003 11:38 -0400

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Monday, 15 September 2003

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9:47 - Barbara is off on a bus tour with her parents through Thursday. She stayed at her parent's house last night, because they had to leave Winston-Salem by 4:30 a.m. to get to Holiday Tours in Randleman, NC in time to board the bus, which departed at 6:00 a.m.

I'll be preparing for Hurricane Isabel, which is beginning to look disturbingly like Hugo. The eye of Hugo came directly through Winston-Salem, and Hugo's sustained winds were still about 80 MPH at that point. In other words, Hugo was still a hurricane when it passed through Winston-Salem. I'm afraid Isabel may do the same.

Plywood and other disaster supplies are hard to come by even this far from the coast. I'm not going to worry about that. I'll bring in outside stuff, tie the grill down to the deck, and hope for the best if Isabel does come in our direction. I'll have the basement shelter area ready in case Isabel does head in this direction. Not so much for the hurricane itself, although that could be bad enough, as for the tornados that hurricanes often spawn. 

I'm actually more concerned about Barbara. They'll be in New Jersey, and are scheduled to depart there Thursday morning. I'm afraid they'll be returning through some pretty bad weather.

Every morning, Barbara gives the dogs a bunch of pills. Every evening as we finish dinner, Barbara hands me a little plastic cup with a bunch of pills in it. Not only do I have no idea what pills the dogs get, I don't even have any idea what pills I get.

So, this morning, I go out to get the paper and give the dogs their first time out. When we come in, the dogs make a bee-line for the kitchen, and stand at the counter waiting for their pills. (Barbara wraps their pills in ham slices, which accounts for their enthusiasm; I don't get a ham slice with mine, but I take them anyway.) So I go into the kitchen and find the printed list of pills by dog by day. I carefully choose the proper pills for each dog for Monday morning, wrap them in ham slices, and give them to the dogs. I then look around for the list of my pills. No list. Hmmmm.

11:25 - Taking showers can be hazardous to your health, but I already knew that. Residential hot water pipes have been linked to Legionnaires Disease, and are suspected of being the source of 2,400 to 6,000 cases annually. Apparently the Legionella pneumophilia bacteria, which occurs naturally in city water supplies, just loves the green gunk that accumulates in home hot water pipes and finds the typical hot water temperature comfortable. When you turn on the shower, out comes a spray of the bacteria. Most people do not become infected, but the elderly, those with diabetes, and those with immune deficiencies are particularly at risk. The article recommends temporarily raising your hot water temperature to 140 F and flushing out all your hot water lines every two or three months. Alternatively, you can just keep your hot water temperature high enough to kill the bacteria. It's also a good idea to run the shower hot for a few minutes before stepping into it.

Roadrunner still has my mailserver blackholed. It's been a week now, and I'm starting to get seriously annoyed. Jerry Pournelle is on the same server, so neither of us can send mail to rr.com accounts. Roberta Pournelle uses Earthlink.net, which apparently has been blackholed by aol.com, so she can't send mail to any aol.com address. The Balkanization of the Internet is occurring even as I write. And it's all because of those dastardly spammers.

This morning, I decided to do something about the rr.com blackhole. I use rocket for SMTP because Roadrunner can't keep their mailservers up to save their lives. But I figured that just temporarily I could switch my mail client to use the triad.rr.com SMTP server. So I fired up Mozilla Mail and checked the "Outgoing Server (SMTP)" section. Rocket, the server that hosts my domains was set up as the default and only SMTP server. I clicked the Advanced button and then clicked Add. I entered smtp-server.triad.rr.com, set it as the default, and saved the changes. Mozilla Mail accepted those changes. Just to be sure, I then exited Mozilla Mail, exited Quick Launch, and then restarted Mozilla Mail. It came up normally, and I sent a test message to an rr.com address. It bounced. Arrrghhh.

A quick check showed that Mozilla Mail had smtp-server.triad.rr.com set as the default. It just isn't using it. I've had enough problems with the bizarre behavior of Mozilla Mail's SMTP configuration that I hesitate to remove rocket from the list. I may never be able to get it back.

So I'm still not able to mail rr.com accounts.

I have also found several subscription emails that came in last month and fell through the cracks. My apologies for that. I'll get them processed as soon as I can. I'm getting so much mail and having so many mail-related problems that bad stuff just happens. And it's all the fault of the spammers. Bastards.

13:57 - Here's a chilling story. It doesn't seem significant at first glance. Microsoft is automatically downloading a bug fix to Xbox, without prompting or asking the users' permission to apply the update. The problem is the purpose of the bug fix. Without the bug fix, the Xbox can run Linux. After Microsoft updates the Xbox, it can't.

I don't own an Xbox or any other game console, so it might seem this story would be of minor interest to me. I am interested, though. As DRM technology continues to proliferate, how long will it be before Microsoft decides to tell my PCs they're not allowed to run Linux? If you think that's an unrealistic fear, you haven't been paying attention.



Tuesday, 16 September 2003

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10:35 - For dinner last night I had Tuna Shock and Potato Chips. Great cooks are sometimes forced to improvise, and that turned out to be the case for me last night. I'd finished the first steps of making Tuna Shock, but when I went to the pantry for a can of black olives I found none. All was not lost, however. I needed small, roundish objects to replace the missing olives. I came across a can of Spanish peanuts, and the rest is history. I named the resulting dish Crunchy Tuna Shock.

I know that many of my readers won't believe me. I also know that those readers who happen to know me will not doubt that I am telling the literal and absolute truth. Actually, the Spanish peanuts went quite well with the tuna. That gives me an idea for a modification. The peanut-butter-and-tuna sandwich.

Every once in a great while I get a spam that's actually worth reading. Here's an excerpt from one that survived SpamAssassin to make it into my inbox yesterday.

Dear Preferred Customer,

The Britannica Store is pleased to offer preferred customers the Ultimate Reference Suite 2004 DVD or CD for under $25. If you don't own the 2004 edition, here's what you are missing:

  • Improved user interface
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  • Multiple reference databases
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  • Britannica Classics from our most famous contributors

This exclusive pricing won't last long order your copy today! Not sure which format to choose? Compare DVD & CD-ROM features.

Shop online: Enter Promotion Code UPG413, click "Update Cart," and save!

Call: 1-800-323-1229 weekdays between 8am and 6pm Central Time.

Well, not a spam, actually. I did buy the 2000 edition (I think it was) and provided them with my email address, so I suppose technically this is unsolicited commercial bulk email rather than spam. I know many people think there's no difference between those two, but I do differentiate.

I found the earlier edition worthwhile, although the interface sucked. For example, if there was a way to browse articles I couldn't find it. I've actually read the Encyclopedia Britannica, which I suspect not many people have. I started with A when I was in junior high school and worked my way through every volume. The lingering memories from that are probably what made me so dangerous back when we used to play Trivial Pursuit. So I'm pretty familiar with the printed edition (or at least an earlier version of it), and what I miss the most about the electronic edition is the ability to browse. Perhaps this new edition has added that feature.

The sustained winds of Isabel have decreased over the last couple of days from 160 MPH to 115 MPH, taking it from a strong Category 5 to a moderate Category 3. A lot of people along the North Carolina coast are relieved, but it's easy to forget that Category 3 is still a Major Hurricane. If Isabel hits the North Carolina coast, as it now appears it will, there will be widespread devastation. Perhaps not the catastrophic devastation that a Category 5 storm would cause, but devastation nonetheless. As of now, they're saying that those of us in Triad, North Carolina can expect winds of only 25 MPH, so barring any change in that I probably won't go out and tie everything down. My sympathies are with the folks who live along the coast and inland coastal areas. They're going to get nailed.

10:59 - Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention. Those morons at VeriSign have intentionally broken DNS. The good news is that VeriSign can now generate more ad revenue. The bad news is that DNS no longer behaves the way servers and clients expect it to. The way DNS is supposed to work is that you enter a domain name. The DNS system either resolves that domain name to an IP address or reports that the domain name doesn't resolve. But VeriSign is now using a global A record that redirects all irresolvable queries to VeriSign servers. I just typed in "www.tttgnet.com" (one extra "t") and found myself, after a very long delay, looking at a VeriSign page with sponsored links.

For more information, see this article. VeriSign either doesn't care or is too stupid to realize that this action borks mail and other Internet services that expect an irresolvable domain to be reported as such. I'd imagine that VeriSign headquarters will soon be surrounded by sysadmins bearing torches and pitchforks. At least I hope so.

15:28 - We amateur astronomers are a dedicated group. Yesterday, I'd mailed a couple of my observing buddies to mention that the Clear Sky Clock (CSC) predicted superb observing weather for tonight. One of the guys I mailed was Paul Jones. His wife, Mary Chervenak, is on a business trip to New Jersey, and Paul was to pick her up at the airport tonight at 9:30, so he'd emailed me earlier to say he wouldn't be able to go out. Then, this afternoon, I got an email from Paul that started like this...

Man alive, the CSC looks good tonight. I may be able to go, Bob, if you head out, but most likely not. It is a long story, and she is okay, but Mary was robbed this morning in New Jersey.

Talk about a gentle lead-in. After I got finished choking on my iced tea, I called Paul, with visions of Mary having been mugged. I was particularly worried because at the astronomy club picnic last weekend Mary and I had gotten to talking about self-defense for women and I'd showed her a couple of ways to counter a frontal assault, breaking a frontal choke hold and so on. I had this image in my mind of Mary trying to defend herself based on the pathetically small amount of instruction I'd given her and getting hurt badly as a result.

As it turns out, though, it wasn't really a robbery but a burglary. Mary's rental car was broken into and her luggage and ID stolen. She wasn't there at the time, so it's a matter of aggravation rather than injury, thank the gods. Mary is catching an earlier flight--the airlines are apparently quite good about things if you show them a police report--and is due in at 5:30 this afternoon. The rest of the conversation went something like this:

Paul: So I probably could come out tonight, but I want to stay with Mary.

Me: Maybe you could convince her that the best way to relax and decompress is to lie on her back looking at the stars...

Paul: Well, I could come out tonight, but then I'd have to sleep on your sofa.

Me: Yeah, for the rest of your life.



Wednesday, 17 September 2003

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11:29 - For dinner last night I had ham and cheese on rye sandwiches. I'm now out of Coke and just finished the second one-gallon pitcher of iced tea Barbara made before she left. Assuming I don't want to drink water from now until Barbara gets back, my alternatives are (a) go to the store for more Coke, and (b) make some iced tea. This could get ugly.

The last time I made iced tea, the tea bags broke and I ended up with tea leaves floating in the brew. I looked around the kitchen for a funnel, but the only one I could find was a dinky little thing that held maybe two ounces. Not much when I had a whole pot full of hot tea to filter. I went downstairs looking for the big funnel we use for oil changes, but couldn't find it. I ended up using the little funnel. A paper towel didn't work very well as filter paper, so I tracked down Barbara's fingernail maintenance kit and stole a cotton ball. It took me quite a while to filter the tea through the tiny funnel and cotton ball, especially because the cotton ball kept clogging.

Fortunately, when Barbara returned she showed me a very nice little instrument called a "tea strainer". That's what I'll use this time. I'll make a two full gallons, which should hold me from now until Barbara returns tomorrow evening.

Isabel has weakened to a strong Category 2 hurricane, but it hasn't crossed the Gulf Stream yet. I think it'll feed on the warm water it encounters later today and tomorrow, and make landfall as a Category 3. I hope it doesn't make Category 4.

The track predictions don't make much sense in terms of timing. When I looked first thing this morning, the eye of Isabel was 450 miles from Cape Hatteras and moving at 9 MPH. But the forecast landfall was for tomorrow morning, only 24 hours away. At 9 MPH, it'll take Isabel 50 hours, more than two full days, to travel 450 miles. So either they're expecting Isabel to speed up significantly or someone hasn't mastered basic math. Ordinarily, when they talk about a hurricane making landfall, they're referring to the eye crossing the coastline.

Perhaps they were talking about hurricane-force winds making landfall, which is a very different thing. I hope that's not what they mean, because if it is that means that the North Carolina coast will be pummeled by hurricane-force winds from tomorrow morning on until the eye is well past the coast, which means a 24-hour plus beating. Any strong hurricane is bad news, but a slow-moving one is worse than one that passes quickly. Winston-Salem is on the extreme left edge of the forecast track, which extends up into Ohio and Pennsylvania by Friday evening.

Thanks to everyone who has expressed concern. We're not in any real danger this far inland, although depending on the actual track and how quickly Isabel loses steam it's possible we'll have some strong storms and perhaps even a tornado or two spawned from Isabel. They're not forecasting extremely high winds here, which I hope means they expect Isabel to lose force very quickly once it makes landfall. As of now, the Weather Channel web site is forecasting winds here tomorrow and tomorrow night of about 40 MPH. We'll see a lot of branches and possibly some trees down in the area, but there shouldn't be any major damage. There's a good chance we'll lose power, but the outages around here shouldn't be widespread. I'll take down the bird feeders, tie the grill to the deck, bring in the garbage cans, make sure I have fuel for the generator, and so on, but other than that there's not much to do.

Those nearer the coast are going to get hammered. Expect to see some scenes of devastation on the news tomorrow night.



Thursday, 18 September 2003

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10:09 - Marcia and Brian Bilbrey are the proud almost-owners of a new home. They're due to take possession in mid- to late-October. Very nice.

Isabel is likely to make landfall around lunchtime, likely as a Category 2. That's bad, but not nearly as bad as it could have been. Unfortunately, the storm surge may correspond to high tide, which makes the flooding worse. Right now, the forecasts say Winston-Salem will miss the worst of it. We're to have winds gusting to 40 MPH or so and an inch or two of rain, but that's about it. Areas to the east of us will have much higher winds and much more rain, in some cases up to a foot or so. The area is already sodden from rains that so far this year have been 50% to 100% above average, so there's nowhere for this new rain to go except runoff. That means the flooding is likely to be worse even than might be expected from such a storm.

Barbara is due back late this evening, which means she'll be driving through pretty heavy rain and gusty winds. Fortunately, she drives a heavy 4X4 so she shouldn't have much problem. Her Trooper is slab-sided, and you do feel the winds in it, but it's heavy enough that they probably won't be much problem. I remember back when she drove a Camry there were a couple of times that wind almost literally pushed us off the road. The Trooper takes a lot of pushing.

I went to the Forsyth Astronomical Society meeting last night. There were a lot of visitors, most of whom heard about FAS during the two recent Mars public observations. The meeting was stultifying. It started at 7:30 p.m. and didn't end until a couple minutes before 10:00. Fortunately, Paul Jones forgot to bring the club history stuff. We were supposed to have our annual club history presentation. If he'd remembered to bring the stuff, we might have been there until midnight.

When I got home, I had to take care of the five dogs. Yes, I said five. In addition to our three, I'm now taking care of two dogs that belong to one of our neighbors. His grandmother died yesterday morning, and he and his wife needed to leave for Michigan or Wisconsin or somewhere like that. I told them just to take off and not to worry about the dogs.

After I fed and walked our three, I headed for their house. One of their dogs, Ewan, is a very territorial Aussie (about Duncan's size--60 or 70 pounds) and doesn't like me much. I went up to the front door and heard no barking. As I opened the door, I heard a rumbling noise. I looked over, and there stood Ewan, showing his fangs at me, with a rumbling noise coming from deep in his throat. I showed him a dog treat, which distracted him a bit. I could just see the thought running through his mind, "Should I kill and eat this intruder, or should I take the dog treat?" He came over to me hesitantly, and I gave him the treat. I told him, "No more fangy if you expect any more treats." From that point, he just followed me around as I filled water bowls, secured the outside dog door, and so on.

This morning, he was waiting at the door with no fangy showing, so I gave him a treat and did what needed done. He followed me around again. I sat on the sofa while he and Maggie, a Golden Retriever, finished eating their breakfast. He shoved her out of the way and polished of the remainder of her food. She came over to get an ear scratch while Ewan finished off the food. Once he'd done that, he came over, shoved Maggie out of the way, and got an ear scratch of his own. I think Ewan and I have come to an accommodation.

12:51 - I took the dogs out a few minutes ago, and it had just started drizzling. The winds are from the north at perhaps 10 or 12 MPH, with periodic gusts. They're now forecasting sustained 35 MPH winds this afternoon and evening with gusts to 50 MPH or more. I took the garbage cans and all the other loose stuff indoors last night, but I didn't tie down the grill. I may do that later today if the winds get as strong as predicted. The Weather Channel's server farm is apparently breaking under the load. I've gotten lots of page errors, partial pages, and timeouts.

Brian and Marcia Bilbrey are actually more in the path than we are. Bowie, Maryland is expected to have sustained 50 MPH winds tonight, with gusts to 65 MPH or more. That's no joke. There'll be trees down, power outages, and significant property damage. There's also likely to be flooding. If Brian and Marcia don't update their journal pages, you'll know why. Fortunately, the server that they (and we) use is located in Texas, so it won't be affected.



Friday, 19 September 2003

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11:38 - Barbara has returned, to universal acclamation. The dogs are happy, I'm happy, everyone is happy. Barbara had a rough ride home. The bus was coming south through southeastern Virginia just as Isabel was heading north through the same area. She also said the drive from the bus company in Level Cross, NC back to Winston-Salem was pretty rough.

We had winds of 40 MPH or so, and sporadic heavy rain with steady moderate rain throughout yesterday. The paper this morning said that Forsyth County had had four inches of rain. We had only scattered power outages in Forsyth County, although Guilford County (Greensboro) to our immediate east had 50,000+ homes without power. I spoke to Marcia and Brian Bilbrey a few minutes ago. Marcia called on her cell phone, and reports that the Bowie, MD area suffered fairly minor damage, although power outages are widespread. Brian tells me the power company is estimating three to seven days before power is restored, so it may be a while before he and Marcia can update their web pages.

If there can be anything good to say about a hurricane, it is that it dragged all of the junk north with it and so we will have clear skies tonight. This is the first weekend night since early April that we've had excellent observing conditions forecast, so we'll be doing some serious Mars observing tonight. The moon isn't up early, so we may even get in some DSO observing.



Saturday, 20 September 2003

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Sunday, 21 September 2003

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