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Week of 22 September 2003

Latest Update : Friday, 26 September 2003 12:01 -0400

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Monday, 22 September 2003

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10:00 - We had a pretty busy weekend. Friday was the first clear weekend night since early April, so we jumped all over it. Eight of our astronomy club members, including Barbara and I, headed for Pilot Mountain State Park. We arrived around 1930 and set up in the upper parking lot. The park actually closes at 2000 but Paul Jones had made special arrangements with the Park Ranger to allow us to use the park after closing.

It was a nearly perfect observing night. Clear skies, no moon until almost 0200, little wind, no mosquitoes, and warm enough that most of us were in short sleeves until very late in the session. We were above the haze, which meant the transparency was very good. My own limiting magnitude at zenith was about 5.5. Paul Jones, whose eyes are 18 years younger than mine, was able to see down to about magnitude 6. We stayed until about 0215, and enjoyed every moment. I made the mistake of drinking quite a bit of Coke and some of Paul's coffee while we up there. We arrived home around 0245 and got to bed by about 0300, but I was still awake at 0430.

I slept in until about 0930 and then took a nap in the afternoon. That was fortunate, because Saturday night was also clear. This time, we decided to head for our new observing site, just north of Walnut Cove, NC. Paul Jones has two friends who've bought 20+ acres of land there, with the intention of eventually building a home on the site. For now, though, it's just a grassy field, and has no nearby lights. We got out there Saturday evening around 1930, got set up, and sat around waiting for full dark. The site is actually darker in terms of local lights than Pilot Mountain, although it's nearer Winston-Salem, which makes the light pollution worse. I was still able to see down to about magnitude 5.5 at zenith, and Paul said he was able to get a 6.3 magnitude star, so it's a pretty good site. It's just that the sky background is noticeably brighter, which makes for less satisfying viewing.

By 2100 it was full dark, and we spent about 1.5 hours observing. (Here is my observing report.) Barbara and I have both just started working on the Astronomical League Herschel 400 Club, so both of us spent the evening working Cassiopeia. We both now have a good start on the Herschel 400 club, with eight objects logged each. That's 2% complete for each of us. Only 392 objects and 98% left to go.

By 2230, we decided to pack it in. All of us were still pretty beat from the long session the night before, and we'd gotten what we'd come for, which was to try the site. The new site is quite good, better than Bullington, which is where we have been doing most of our observing. It's not as good as Pilot Mountain, though. In future, we'll probably do our primary weekend sessions at Pilot Mountain, and our short impromptu sessions at the new site. I don't imagine we'll use Bullington at all any more unless the Forsyth Astronomical Society has some sort of special event there.

11:20 - It's pretty obvious that a new virus/worm/Trojan has hit. Monday morning arrives, people turn on their PCs, and a flood of infected messages goes out. I just checked my email after spending a few minutes looking at the web sites I visit regularly. It couldn't have been more than 10 minutes since I'd last checked email, but I had something like 100 new messages on the server. Nearly all of those were failure notices that resulted from messages with forged ttgnet.com From: lines. Literally two minutes later, I POPped my mail again and found 46 more failure notices. This feels like an unintentional DOS attack on my mail system.

What's interesting is the addressees. All of them I've looked at start with "McL", "McM", and "McN". I have bounces from messages sent to numerous McLarrity's, McManus's, McNally's, McNulty's, and so on. Very strange. Usually, such viruses/worms choose email addresses at random from address books and web caches. This one seems to be alphabetizing.



Tuesday, 23 September 2003

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10:11 - It may just be weather, but I'm beginning to wonder if we're experiencing a climate change. We might as well be living in a rainforest. Last Thursday night, we had four inches (10 cm) of rain in 24 hours. Last night, the deluge continued. I'd guess we had at least four more inches overnight, and I wouldn't be surprised if it were six inches. The forecast before we went to bed said we'd get an inch of rain, with heavy downpours at times. The rain started before we took the dogs for their final walk of the evening. By about 11:00 p.m. it was pouring heavily. That continued pretty much constantly for the next three hours or more. Barbara used to have a rain gauge outside the front door, but I think it washed away. I check the dogs periodically to make sure they're not developing webbed feet.

The flood of "McN" bounces I was getting yesterday morning tailed off rapidly, and now I'm getting only one every few hours. I'm not sure what happened. I can't find any mention of a new virus/worm that might be causing the problem. I haven't checked many of the bounces in detail, but most of those I have checked have had either "Camille" or "Candi" as a subject line. I searched the Symantec, McAfee, and Grisoft web sites for those words, and none of them turn anything up.

Pournelle called last evening, and we compared notes about our spam email. He hasn't gotten any of the "McN" bounces, but he's getting hundreds of Swen messages. Conversely, I have yet to receive my first Swen message. My first thought was that Greg and Brian were blocking Swen on my mailserver, but then I realized that Jerry is on the same server. Duh.

Jerry and I also talked about the situation in Iraq. I told Jerry I thought we were nuts to be even considering spending $87 billion on Iraq. I suggested that we do a quick job of destroying Iraq's infrastructure. We should level all mosques and hospitals, wipe out power plants, dams, and water and sewage facilities, destroy the oil fields, pipelines, terminals, and ports, and depart. We need to make sure that Iraq will be no threat to us in the foreseeable future, and by destroying their infrastructure we guarantee that. People who are worried about starving don't have time to plot and carry out terrorist actions.

I suggested that as long as we have an army in being in the Persian Gulf, the next step should be to invade and occupy Saudi Arabia, hang the leadership, expel all Islamics to neighboring countries, and begin pumping oil. Doing that has a couple of major advantages. First, we can pump $5/barrel oil by the billions of barrels to the US and its allies, thereby jump-starting our economies. At the same time, we remove the Saudi oil fields as a source of revenue for our enemies, greatly reduce the oil revenues available to other Islamic enemy countries, and destroy that nest of vipers that organized, sponsored, and paid for the Islamic attacks on the US.

Jerry asked me what I thought it would take to hold Saudi Arabia, and I answered that I thought one reinforced armored division supported by an AWACs, a few dozen land-based F-16 fighters and A-10 ground attack aircraft, and a carrier battle group on call would more than suffice. The costs of maintaining that presence would be a drop in the bucket compared to the oil revenues we could generate from the Saudi fields. Because I don't hold grudges, I'd happily offer to sell oil to France and Germany--at $50/barrel. That would merely be a gesture, of course, because the world price of oil would collapse, denying the Islamics that revenue.

Finally, I'd relocate the heavy construction resources currently rebuilding the Iraqi infrastructure. I'd direct them to level Mecca, literally, and on the mound of rubble to raise a monument to the Americans murdered by the Islamics. Let it serve as a permanent reminder to all who would attempt to harm us.

15:48 - Here's why I'd never trust CNN to report the news impartially, or even accurately. I just checked the CNN.com and FOXNews.com web sites. Both report that a US airman formerly stationed at Guantanamo Bay Naval Station has been charged with espionage in connection with the prison camp for terrorists there. FOXNews reports that the airman's name is Ahmad I. al-Halabi, which should have been cause for suspicion in itself. CNN reports that a senior airman has been charged with espionage, but neglects to name him. Why is that, I wonder. CNN apparently considers this most significant piece of information not worth reporting.

This airman is, of course, the second person with links to the Guantanamo Bay prison camp who has been arrested recently. Both men are Islamic. Can anyone see a pattern here? It seems to me that a minimal first step after 9/11 should have been to discharge all Islamics from the US armed forces and to dismiss any Islamic employees from government payrolls. Instead, in its infinite wisdom, the US government not only allows Islamics access to classified information, but actually allows them physical access to the prison camp where Islamic terrorists are being held. Is it any wonder that the Islamics don't take us seriously?



Wednesday, 24 September 2003

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11:13 - I am death on flashlights. Cheap ones, good ones, it doesn't matter. When flashlights see me, they die, or at least their beams become weak or intermittent. I am the Typhoid Mary of flashlights. The cheap ones invariable die early deaths. I suppose that's to be expected because they are cheap, but after all a flashlight isn't rocket science. It's a metal or plastic tube with some cells, a light bulb, and a switch. The technology had pretty much been mastered by the end of the 19th century. (Incidentally, the reason they're called "flashlights" is that originally the bulbs burned out so quickly that they used momentary-on switches to save the bulb.)

But even the good ones die. I have half a dozen dead Maglites around here. Little one-AAA Solitaires, dual-AA Mini-Maglites, and one or two 4-D Maglites. It's not that I drop them or mistreat them. I feed them good alkaline batteries and am careful with them. But invariably the switches stop working or they just turn hinky. They have lifetime warranties on them, so I suppose one day I should just pack up the whole bunch and send them off to Maglite for repair or replacement. Still, it seems odd that I have such frequent problems with what is supposed to be a pretty good product.

The reason I'm on about flashlights is that Barbara needs a new red-light flashlight. Amateur astronomers use red flashlights to avoid damaging their night vision. When Barbara and I started observing a few years ago, I bought each of us a red-LED flashlight from Orion. They cost $13 each, and are basically just cheap Chinese yellow plastic 2-AA cell flashlights with red LEDs instead of bulbs. She soon started having problems with hers (I'd touched it...), so I bought her a better one. The switch in that one soon died, so I sent it back under warranty. Orion repaired it and sent it back to me, whereupon it almost immediately failed again. After that, we just pitched it because it wasn't worth wasting any more time on.

I think what I'm going to do is buy her another Maglite with the red lens. Maybe I'll buy two. That way, when the first one fails, she'll have a spare. I can simply batch up dead Maglites and send them off periodically for replacement.

I also need to do something about our notebook screen. I have it turned down as dim as it gets. I'm using a Windows theme that emphasizes reddish colors, and the astronomy software we use has a "night mode" that converts it to using mostly red tones. Even so, it's much too bright to use while observing, and white light leaks out around the edges of the screen. I think what I'm going to do is get some deep red film to cover the entire screen.

I thought I knew what to do about that. Back when I was mastering forgery, I had access to a full print shop--offset press, letterpress, process camera, the whole nine yards. Back then, we did manual lay-outs, and used a deep red film called Rubylith to mask. I figured I could just go out and buy some Rubylith, but although it's still made (the manufacturer has a web site), it's pretty hard to come by locally. I talked to a few printers locally. All of them knew what Rubylith was, but no longer used it. I think I gave them a blast from the past just by mentioning it. I could probably order it from somewhere, but all I need is enough to do a notebook screen, a couple of flashlights, and perhaps some courtesy lights in the truck. (I'm currently using brake-light tape for those, but it's not entirely satisfactory).

I did find one astronomy-specialty retailer who sells the stuff, but they want $9 plus shipping for two 8.5X11" sheets, which is a major rip-off. I may be forced to order it from them, and it would certainly be cheaper than spending time looking for it locally, but I don't like people who do business that way. I've tried other sources, including the If It's Paper paper retailer and the art-supply stores A.C. Moore and Michaels. None of them know what I'm talking about.

13:35 - I see that a federal court has ruled against the Do-Not-Call List. Of course they have. The wishes of tens of millions of ordinary people count for little weighed against the deep pockets of special interests. I wonder how the marketers got to that judge.

This is yet another example of the de facto supremacy that the judiciary in general and the federal judiciary in particular have arrogated to themselves. The legislative branch favors such an action and passes legislation to enable it. The executive branch, in the guise of the FTC, also favors such action, and implements it. Then the judicial branch steps in and tells the other two branches they're not permitted to do what they wanted to do. We're supposed to have a balance of power here. If anything, the legislative branch was to be primary, the judicial secondary, and the executive the weakest of the three. That's far from true nowadays. Fortunately, it appears that decision is likely to be overturned. One would hope.

The direct marketers have been screaming that the Do-Not-Call registry would cut their business in half. That's a shame. A shame, that is, that it would cut their business only in half. One has to wonder about that. Are one of every two people we see on the street really too stupid or too lazy to add their phone numbers to the list? I suppose there must be a few, very few, mentally deranged people who actually enjoy receiving telemarketing calls, but I can't believe that 50% of the population falls in that category. My guess is that the Do-Not-Call list is a lot worse than the direct marketers are admitting to. What they really fear is that their business will be cut not by half, but by 90% or more. As the available pool of callees decreases, those who for whatever reason have not added their phone numbers to the list will receive more and more telemarketing calls. The number of available callees will continue to spiral downward until the direct markets have no one at all left to call.

The Do-Not-Call proposal was weak to start with. It exempted too many types of organizations, mostly on questionable grounds. For example, political organizations were exempted on supposed First Amendment grounds. That flies in the face of reason. There are no First Amendment considerations to blocking nuisance calls from political organizations. They are no more entitled on First Amendment grounds to harass me by telephone than they would be to force their way into my home and demand that I listen to their propaganda in person. Similarly, polling organizations were exempted, apparently on the theory that what they do is pro bono publico. That assumption itself is debatable, to say the least, but the real issue is that there is absolutely no evidence that requiring polling organizations to honor the Do-Not-Call list would in any way affect the validity of their polls. Then there is the issue of pre-existing business relationships. Simply because I happen to order something from, say, L. L. Bean, shouldn't mean that I'm granting permission for them to call me to try to sell me more stuff.

What the Do-Not-Call List should have required was 100% opt-in. Active opt-in, as in it should have required that if I want to receive telemarketing calls I must actively request that a specific company put me on their list to receive calls. Instead, the DNC registry allows what amounts to passive opt-in in many cases, and even opt-out under some conditions. If asked, the FTC would say that they were trying to balance the interests of consumers and marketers. Why? Why should the interests of marketers have any weight whatsoever? The FTC should have acted 100% in the interests of consumers without regard for the effect their actions might have on direct marketers. They didn't, and although the resulting DNC registry was pro-consumer, it was by no means 100% so. And even this weak, marginal DNC registry doesn't survive a court challenge? Give me a break.



Thursday, 25 September 2003

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10:44 - Thanks to everyone who responded by private mail or on the messageboard about red flashlights and red masking film.

As to the former, I now many sources of various and sundry red LED flashlights, including several that look like good possibilities. I thought I'd killed another flashlight yesterday. Barbara has a little single AA cell flashlight that she uses while we walk the dogs. The night before last, it failed, but it looked as though it just needed a new AA cell. After Barbara left for work yesterday, I found that flashlight on the kitchen counter with the head unscrewed. I decided to be a nice guy, so I got an AA cell from the refrigerator, put it in the flashlight, and screwed the head back on. I turned on the switch. Nothing. Hmmm. Killed another one, or so I thought.

When Barbara got home yesterday, she looked at the flashlight and asked what I'd done. I told her, and she suggested that perhaps the bulb was dead. We didn't have a spare bulb, and she asked where I'd gotten the AA cell. I told her I'd gotten it from the refrigerator, where she keeps a whole pile of cells of different sizes. It was the last AA in stock. She suggested that perhaps the AA cell was bad, so, with great trepidation, I removed an AA cell from my own astronomy flashlight, which happened to be sitting on my end table. I used that cell in her flashlight, and it worked perfectly. Hmmmm.

Then Barbara pointed out that I have an annoying habit. I don't throw stuff away. When I change the cells in a remote, for example, instead of throwing the old ones into the wastebasket, I leave them on my end table. (You can never tell when you'll need a dead AA cell for some reason. It could happen...) Apparently, Barbara, not realizing that I was storing those dead AA cells on my end table, had put them back in the refrigerator.

I went to my office and fished around in my shoulder bag for some AA cells. I found four, with expiration dates of January 2002. (I also cache things like a squirrel caches nuts, and I'm just as likely to forget what I've cached and where as the squirrel is.) I used one of the old cells in her flashlight and it worked fine.

Thanks also to the numerous readers who made suggestions about clear red film. One frequent suggestion was for something I'd not thought about--theatrical gels. I was able to find a local source that sells them for about $7 per 24X30" sheet, which was a lot better than the price the astronomy-specialty reseller was charging for Rubylith film. But then another reader pointed out an inexpensive source for Rubylith. This place charges about $7 for a 30X40" sheet, which is better still. Even with shipping, it comes to less than $14, and that's enough film to treat several notebook screens, with plenty left over for flashlights, truck courtesy lights, and so on. I think I'll order three or four sheets, because the shipping cost remains constant for up to four sheets and a couple members of my astronomy club also want a sheet for themselves. I think the Rubylith will be better for our purposes than the theatrical gels, so I'm going to try it first.

I also solved another of our astronomical equipment problems yesterday. Our Orion XT-10 10" Dobsonian telescope arrived from Orion perfectly balanced. The problem was, it didn't stay balanced. In stock form, the scope has an 8X50 straight-through finder and comes with light Plössl eyepieces. As long as we used it in that configuration, the balance was fine. But we added stuff. First a Telrad unit-power finder, which with batteries added a pound or so to the front end of the scope. Next, we replaced the stock straight-through 8X50 finder with a 9X50 right-angle, correct-image finder. That added another half-pound or so net weight to the front of the scope. Then we bought our first premium eyepiece, a 14mm Pentax XL. That weighs a half-pound or so more than the stock eyepieces. The net result is that we now have two pounds or so extra  hanging off the front end of the scope, which means it no longer balances. To make matters worse, the stock mirror cell includes a flat steel plate behind the mirror that slows cool-down. I want to remove that plate, but it weighs about a pound, so removing it would make the front end of the scope three pounds heavy.

The solution is to add weight to the bottom rear of the tube to offset the weight on the top front of the tube. We need to add it to the bottom rear rather than the top rear (which would be easier) because we want the lever arms equalized regardless of tube elevation. The only way to do that is to make sure that the axis that joins the excess weight at the front to the counterweight at the rear passes through the center of gravity of the tube, which is to say at the altitude hubs. Otherwise, the scope will balance properly only at one particular elevation.

The easiest way to counterweight the tube is to use heavy magnets, but it's non-trivial to find just the right magnets. The problem is physical size. When it swings up and down, the tube has very little horizontal clearance with the base, so it's important that the magnets be flat. Someone on one of the astronomy mailing lists had mentioned what sounded like the perfect magnets a month or two ago, but I'd lost the message and couldn't locate it in the archives. I posted out to the list, and the guy who'd originally posted the message gave me the good news/bad news. The good news was that he'd ordered a half dozen of the magnets and they work perfectly. The bad news was that he'd gotten the last six they had in stock and they weren't expecting any more to arrive. He did say that he was using only four of them, and offered to send me his spare two.

After I gratefully accepted his offer, I decided to check the web site. The magnets were showing as in stock, so I called the place. I started by ordering four, and the guy commented that they had only nine in stock. So I decided to order six, just in case, and leave three for someone else. They should be here Monday.



Friday, 26 September 2003

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10:41 - Once again, our judiciary attempts to block the will of the executive branch, the legislative branch, and the people. A second federal judge has weighed in against the Do-Not-Call list, this time on First Amendment grounds. I have read the Constitution and the Bill of Rights carefully, and I find that rights are reserved to three primary groups--the Federal Government, the State Governments, and the People--along with several specific groups such as the press, homeowners, Authors and Inventors, and so on. The relevant article reads thusly:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

I see no mention whatsoever of rights reserved for businesses or corporations, and no Constitutional basis for protecting speech by a business or corporation. Even if such protections were present, they certainly would not apply to the issue in question. I have, for example, the Constitutionally-protected right to free speech. What I do not have is any Constitutionally-protected right to demand that you listen to what I say. I am free to say what I wish here, or to stand on a street corner and proclaim my ideas to passers-by. I am not free to force my way into your home and lecture to you, nor even to stand outside your door and shout at you.

In practical terms, the telemarketers like any business entity have fewer free speech rights than we as individuals enjoy. Courts have generally recognized that commercial speech enjoys many fewer protections than individual speech, and this is pretty clearly an example of unprotected commercial speech. That a federal judge ruled otherwise makes wonder if he was bought and paid for. If not, I don't understand how he could possibly have ruled as he did.

Reading his ruling suggests an obvious solution. He took issue with the FTC Do-Not-Call List differentiating among types of speech. What he found unacceptable is that polling organizations and non-profits were exempted from the rule. If that's his only objection, the answer is simple enough. Modify the enabling legislation and FTC rules to eliminate those exemptions. That's what Congress and the FTC should have done anyway.

Then the issue becomes the political exemption. If everything but political calls were exempted, would that satisfy the judge or not? If so, we'd all be better off, because polling organizations and non-profits would also be forbidden to call us. If not, the enabling legislation and FTC rules would also have to eliminate the exemption for political calls. That would be ideal, of course, in that not many people have any wish to be bothered by political calls. But you can be sure that if that exemption were eliminated, the political parties would immediately file suit on First Amendment grounds. They have no more right to intrude in our homes than the telemarketers, of course, but you can be sure they'd fight that one to the Supreme Court.

Even if everything works out as it should, I wonder if the DNC list will have much practical effect. How does one prove one has received a forbidden call? North Carolina, for example, already forbids automated sales calls--those calls where you pick up and hear a recorded voice pitching something. I got one of them the other day that was recorded on my answering machine. The recorded caller did not identify herself or her company. At the end of the message, she said to press one on my phone to leave a voicemail for her if I wanted more information. She did not identify her company or give a telephone number to call. Ignoring for a moment the stupidity of configuring an automated call system to leave messages on an answering machine when there's no way for the recipient to know who called or get back in contact with the caller, that raises the question of how to prosecute that company under North Carolina law. If I'd been there and pressed one to leave a message for her, does that constitute my waiver of my right to complain?

I may just bring up another automated attendant. For years, Barbara and I received literally zero nuisance calls, because our automated attendant answered the phone and required the caller to hang up if it was a nuisance call. Real callers were required to press 1 to speak to Barbara, 2 to speak to me, and so on. When a lightning strike destroyed our KSU, I didn't bother to replace it. We simply do what many people do now, screen our calls with our answering machine. In truth, we don't get all that many nuisance calls any more, and if the DNC list does take effect that should cut them to 20% of what they are now, so I'll probably just wait and see.

12:01 - The following messages from my friend Bo Leuf document a very disturbing trend.

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Google censorship
Date: Fri, 26 Sep 2003 15:21:57 +0000
From: Bo Leuf
To: Robert Bruce Thompson

Something interesting happened today. Google has suddenly implemented location-dependent redirection, which means that connecting from Sweden, I am no longer allowed to use any other server than Google.se, a localized version. I am consistently redirected, no matter how cleverly I try -- apparently it's IP-block based. It has already been documented that the different localized versions of Google give different hit results and in fact implement "filtering appropriate to the locale" -- in the case of China, outright censorship. Evidently, we are now all to be treated in this enlighttened way.

/ Bo

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: more Google
Date: Fri, 26 Sep 2003 15:31:40 +0000
From: Bo Leuf
To: Robert Bruce Thompson

So what? you might ask, if Google redirects. Surely the filtering, if any can't be that drastic.

Ok, a practical example: I searched for "warp"

Google.se: about 1,650,000 hits

Google.com (going through my USA-based server): 2,390,000 hits.

It's far worse than I would have believed!

I confess that I'm puzzled by Google's behavior. Why do they not simply ignore objections made by foreign governments, which I assume is the reason for this censorship? At most, the foreign governments could block Google entirely, which if I were Google I'd prefer to allowing myself to be forced to censor users. And why is Sweden, of all places, apparently requiring Google to censor the data they are providing to Swedish citizens?



Saturday, 27 September 2003

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Sunday, 28 September 2003

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