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Week of 22 December 2003

Latest Update : Friday, 26 December 2003 09:40 -0500


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Monday, 22 December 2003

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8:20 - The Home Theater PC chapter is almost ready to submit. It's still not complete, but there's nothing I can do about that. I need to actually work with this thing for at least several weeks to learns the ins and outs. I'll do a re-write immediately before the final deadline to incorporate what I've learned.

Fred Reed on advertising. Fred wants to use nerve gas on spammers. Too kind, I say. Kill them, certainly, but make them suffer a bit. Gut shoot them, keelhaul them, or draw and quarter them. Heck, crucify the sons of bitches. Nerve gas is too good for them.

Spammers commit what has historically been considered the worst of all crimes. Worse than murder. Worse than treason. Their crime is poisoning the commons, and throughout history and across cultures the worst punishments have been reserved for this crime. Ultimately, our time is the only asset that any of us has, and all of us depend on the Internet in general and email in particular. Spammers waste millions of hours of people's time every day. And, like an oasis in the desert, Internet bandwidth is a scarce and valuable resource. Spammers have strained Internet bandwidth to the breaking point, both directly and via the worms they spread via email to take over PCs and turn them into open-relay zombies. And we all know the appropriate punishment for someone caught poisoning a waterhole.

The aptly-named CAN-SPAM law, written by the marketing industry, will simply make matters worse. Millions of businesses that would otherwise not have considered using spam as a marketing tool will begin doing so now that the federal government has legitimized it. "Oh, look, now we CAN-SPAM!" The Do-Not-Spam list will have unintended consequences. US companies will be bound to follow it, and millions of people are likely to sign up for it, just as they did for the Do-Not-Call list. But, unlike the DNC list, the DNS list will be ineffective. Most spammers have already moved off-shore, at least in the sense that they no longer use mail servers based in the US, and the DNS list will simply accelerate that trend.

We'll still get billions of spams, but they'll all originate off-shore. How long will it be before the major ISPs decide to blackhole traffic originating from foreign IP addresses? Not long, I suspect. Actually, many ISPs do that now for traffic originating from China and other spam sources. The result is likely to be the US becoming an enclave, not that that would necessarily be a bad thing. Eventually, I suspect arrangements will be made to exchange traffic with Canada, the UK, Western Europe, Australia, Japan, and other nations that take strong measures against spammers. China, Cuba, and other countries that tolerate or even encourage open relays and spam servers are likely to be left out in the cold.

I'm looking for ideas for unusual things you can do with a PC, ideally ones that require some sort of special hardware. These won't be for the current book, but who knows what book we might do next. I've already come up with a couple of ideas, such as a personal weather station, a PBX/KSU phone system with automated attendant and voice mail, a home-automation controller, and an automated security-camera monitoring system. Barbara wants a dedicated PC that cleans bathrooms, although I confess that I have no idea how to build that one. It'd involve wheels and brushes, I guess.

If you have any thoughts, please post them over on the messageboard.

I'm also considering how I might build an ASD (Automated Santa-Defense) system. Year after year I've tried to nail Santa, only to fail each time. This year, my cunning plan involved a small tactical nuke wired to a trip switch on the chimney. Barbara pointed out the obvious problem with that idea. If it worked, we'd need a new chimney.

 

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Tuesday, 23 December 2003

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9:45 - I've posted the first chapter of the new book, Building a Home Theater PC, on the Subscribers' Page. It's a big file, with lots of embedded images. Even though I thumbnailed the images down to 640X480 at high compression, Word still generates huge documents when I embed images. When you access the Subscribers' Page, you'll be prompted for a username and password. That's not the one you use for the messageboards, but the one I sent you in the welcome email when you subscribed. Incidentally, the usual common-sense rules apply here. This material is a preliminary draft and is copyrighted by me. By downloading it, you agree that it's for your personal use and that you won't distribute copies to anyone else. The purpose of my distributing this file is for you to read it and send me your comments and suggestions. Yada, yada, yada.

I think the next chapter I'll write is Building a Kick-Ass LAN Party PC. I was originally thinking about building that one around a Shuttle "cube" barebones system, but that's no fun. With a Shuttle barebones system, you're not so much building a PC as adding drives and cards. I still can't figure out why anyone builds those things. They're expensive, use components that I wouldn't consider first-rate, run hot, and have almost no room for expansion.

I'm not a gamer and have never been to a LAN party, but my readers who are and have tell me that the Shuttle cube systems really aren't as popular as the buzz on gaming web sites would have you believe. Most people apparently make the rational choice and build their LAN party systems around mini-tower cases. So that's what I plan to do. I'm going to use an Antec Super LANboy case, which is aluminum and very light. In fact, when I picked up the box I thought it was empty. I'll dress it out with lighted fans, glowing UV cables, and so on. I'll probably even use rounded ATA cables. Not exactly my cup of tea, but there it is.

I don't make New Year's resolutions. If I did, one of those I'd have made a year ago would have been that by the end of 2004 at least one of my primary desktop systems would be running Linux. I have a couple of Linux boxes running here, but they're servers and routers, not boxes I actually interact with on a daily basis. If I'm going to get comfortable with Linux, I need to have a box that I actually work on every day that's running Linux.

So I decided to make my den system a Linux box. Actually, part of my motivation for that was that Windows 2000 on that box was driving me insane. It had been fine until I made the mistake of installing SP4. Ever since I did that, the box hangs several times a day for anything from a few seconds to a minute or more. Checking Task Manager shows that services.exe is occupying 99% of the CPU. Ironically, that problem was supposedly fixed by SP4, but I never experienced it until I installed SP4.

With the decision made, I had to choose a distribution. I'm intrigued by UserLinux, but that's not here yet. Same thing with Novell/SuSE. I thought about installing the latest SuSE, but they don't make ISOs available for download, and I didn't want to mess with a network installation. That left three distros on the short list. Despite the feelings of betrayal that many people harbor for Red Hat, I have nothing against them. I considered Red Hat Linux 9 and Fedora Core, both of which I already had the ISOs for. Ordinarily, I'd have ruled out Mandrake for reasons I've mentioned before, but while he was visiting over Thanksgiving Brian Bilbrey had downloaded Mandrake 9.2 and burned CDs for it.

Since I already had a set of CDs for Mandrake 9.2, I decided to give it a try. Although it's considered an excellent desktop distro for newbies, I still don't like it. I can't explain exactly why. Part of it is niggling little things. For example, when I installed Mandrake 9.2, my computer clock had just been set to proper time by NetTime running under Windows 2000. When the Mandrake install finished, even though I accepted the default America/New York location, my clock ended up being four or five hours slow. Similarly, when I went over to the Ximian web site to download Red Carpet, I found that there were only two files instead of three. I'd noticed when I chose a distro to download Red Carpet for, most of the ones I was interested in had an asterisk by their names, but Mandrake 9.2 didn't. I eventually found out that that asterisk meant that there were three files. The missing file for Mandrake 9.2 was the Red Carpet GUI. I could still have used Red Carpet with Mandrake 9.2, but only from the command line. Those are small things, certainly, but those are only two examples of many, and the annoyance factor starts to add up.

So my short list was down to two distros, Red Hat 9 and Fedora. I had the ISOs for both, but Red Hat 9 is on its way out and Fedora is on its way in, so I decided it made more sense to go with the newer product. I burned the Yarrow ISOs to CD and will install them this evening on my den system.

Barbara and I have a cooperative arrangement with some friends. When we're out of town on an observing trip or whatever, they take care of our dogs. When they're out of town, we take care of theirs. They've left on a nine-day Christmas trip, so we're taking care of their two dogs, an Aussie and a Golden Retriever. This morning, the Aussie drew blood, although he didn't mean to.

Dogs vary in how gentle they are about taking treats and so on. Malcolm is extremely gentle. He almost never gets me with one of his fangs when I'm handing him a Snappy. Duncan used to be very gentle, but lately he's gotten a lot more vigorous about taking the treats. He sometimes nails me unintentionally. He turns nine on New Year's Day, and I wonder if his mouth-eye coordination isn't what it once was.

Both of the dogs we're taking care of are extremely vigorous when taking treats. I gave them each a Snappy as I was leaving this morning. Ewan, the Aussie, snapped so vigorously at it that he almost took my thumb with it. I walked home with my thumb dripping blood. I put some antibiotic cream on it and bandaged it, but it still stings. You can bet I'll be a lot more careful from now on.

 

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Wednesday, 24 December 2003

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9:05 - This is very odd. Almost 20 years ago, a young woman named Deborah Sykes was raped and savagely murdered in Winston-Salem. I remember the case vividly, because I was working downtown at the time. My office was only a couple of blocks from where her body was found. The case had racial overtones from the start, because Sykes was white and witnesses reported seeing her being accosted by two or three black men shortly before she was murdered.

Eventually, a young black man named Darryl Hunt was arrested, charged, and convicted of murdering Ms. Sykes. This was in the days before DNA evidence was available. Black leaders in Winston-Salem always proclaimed Hunt innocent, and he was later granted a new trial, where he was again convicted of murdering Ms. Sykes and sentenced to life in prison. DNA evidence eventually proved that the semen found in Ms. Sykes did not belong to Mr. Hunt, but because it was always known that two or three men were involved in the crime, Mr. Hunt's convictions stood. He had been convicted twice of murdering her. Whether or not he also raped her was immaterial to those convictions.

Then, a few days ago, the morning paper announced that a DNA match had been found. The man whose DNA matched the semen found in Ms. Sykes was known to frequent the same bars as Mr. Hunt back in 1984, although at this late date it's difficult to establish that they were friends. It's not an unreasonable assumption, though, and again it had always been known that there were two or three men involved in the rape and murder. It seems to me, therefore, that the reasonable course of action would have been to try the man whose semen was found in Ms. Sykes, convict him of raping and murdering her, and execute him.

Mr. Hunt has been convicted twice of murdering Ms. Sykes, and the DNA evidence didn't change that. He's still guilty of murdering her, although not of raping her. But the headline in the morning paper says, "Darryl Hunt's Release Delayed". Until this morning, as far as I could tell, the fact that they'd located the man whose semen was found in Ms. Sykes had no bearing on the guilt of Mr. Hunt. But now apparently Mr. Hunt is to be released. Why? What has changed? It has been known for a decade or more that Mr. Hunt had not raped Ms. Sykes. He was convicted twice of murdering her. He was convicted twice on eyewitness testimony. How does the fact that the previously unknown man who raped her has now been identified change any of that? The obvious answer is that it doesn't, and that Mr. Hunt is still as guilty as ever of murdering Ms. Sykes.

What I found disgusting from the start is that the so-called black leaders in Winston-Salem turned this rape and murder into a racial issue. Indisputably the victim was white and those who raped and murdered her were black. So what? Every white person I knew was outraged that a young woman, regardless of her skin color, had been raped and savagely murdered by two or three young men, regardless of their skin color. Had Ms. Sykes been black and the men who raped and murdered her white, the white community would have demanded just as loudly that they be convicted of the crime. Whites want to convict and imprison or execute people who rape and murder young women, regardless of skin color.

But the black demagogues who are the self-proclaimed "leaders" of the black community have always claimed that Mr. Hunt was arrested and tried because of his skin color. How so? Whoever the authorities arrested and tried was going to be black, because the criminals had been identified by eyewitnesses as being black. Interestingly, none of the black people I knew thought racism played any part in Mr. Hunt's arrest and conviction. Just like regular white people, regular black people want to convict and imprison or execute people who rape and murder young women, regardless of their skin color. It's the so-called leaders of the black community, who have a vested interest in driving a wedge between whites and blacks, who tried to make this case something it wasn't.

So now it seems that one of the men who murdered Deborah Sykes will go free. We can at least console ourselves that Mr. Hunt has served 18 years in prison for murdering Ms. Sykes. Not enough, certainly, but better than nothing.

 

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Thursday, 25 December 2003

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Merry Christmas and Happy Saturnalia to those who celebrate them. Death to Islam.

10:05 - Barbara is off to her sister's house to celebrate Christmas with her family. It's just another working day for me.

I finally have my den Linux system working to my satisfaction. I started by installing Mandrake 9.2, mainly because when Brian and Marcia Bilbrey visited over Thanksgiving Brian had burned a set of CDs and left them here. Mandrake didn't work out for various reasons, so I decided to burn a set of Fedora Core CDs and install them. I'd already downloaded the ISOs soon after Fedora Core shipped, so it was a matter of a few minutes to burn the CDs.

On Tuesday evening, I did a kitchen-sink install of Fedora Core, on the advice of many experienced Linux users who said that putting everything on the hard drive would save aggravation later. As it turned out, that was the wrong thing to do. That installation never worked right. In particular, networking was hosed. I'd accepted the default DHCP option during installation, and networking appeared to work after I finished the installation. I was able to get to the Web, check my mail, and so on. It was late in the evening by then, so I went to bed.

When I tried to use the system the following morning, I couldn't access the Internet. At first, I thought Roadrunner was down. Barbara went back to her office and shouted that she couldn't get to anything either, so that confirmed the problem, or so I thought. I went into my office, expecting the cable modem to have only two lights rather than the usual four, but it appeared normal. I sat down at my main system and was getting ready to fire up putty to look at my Linux router, thinking perhaps it was hung. Before I did that, I fired up Mozilla on my main desktop, and it worked normally. Hmmm.

To make a long story short, the new Linux box was using the same IP address as Barbara's system was using. I changed her system to static addressing, gave it an IP address, and everything started working. I brought up the Linux box again and tried to assign it a static address. The first problem was that the Ethernet interface was inactive and refused to be activated. I eventually created a new Ethernet interface and got things working, but only temporarily. I couldn't get the new settings to "stick", and every time I restarted the system it would come up with the Ethernet interface inactive.

There were enough other weird things going on with the new Linux box that I'd about concluded that Fedora Core wasn't ready for prime time, so I decided to install something else. Brian had also left a Debian CD, so I decided to give that a try. The command-line install started when I booted the CD, but it told me it couldn't find a hard drive to install on. The problem, of course, was that this system has a Serial ATA hard drive, which was apparently beyond Debian's ability to find. So much for Debian.

I was debating about which distro to try next when I decided to give Fedora Core one more try. I'm glad I did. This time, I told it to do a "Desktop" install, which took only a few minutes compared to the hour or more the kitchen-sink install had taken. I also overrode the default DHCP choice and assigned static IP information. When the system restarted, everything worked normally. I got Mozilla configured the way I like it, installed WebWasher, and brought up Evolution, which is greatly improved in version 1.4 relative to the earlier versions I'd tried. I got filters configured to move my mailing list mail to folders and to delete messages flagged as spam by SpamAssassin.

Alas, Evolution is a pathetic mail client when compared to Mozilla Mail. Evolution has all of the basics, but few of the niceties. One of the biggest lacks is the Junk Mail filtering built into Mozilla. SpamAssassin running on my mail server flags 90%+ of the spam messages, but that still leaves fifty or more spams a day landing in my inbox. Mozilla's Junk Mail feature catches perhaps 3/4 of the spams that get past SpamAssassin, leaving me with only a dozen or so spams a day to deal with manually.

What's even more annoying is that I use my inbox as a kind of holding area for messages that I still need to deal with. Mozilla offers numerous sort orders for a folder, including "Order Received". I keep my inbox sorted that way, which means that missed spams are all grouped together and can be dealt with quickly. Evolution offers many fewer sort options. I have it set to sort by date, which means that the newly arrived spams end up intermingled with real messages, where I have to locate and delete them one at a time.

Overall, I'd say that Evolution is a usable but not idea email client. I'm dithering about whether to use it or Mozilla Mail on the Linux box. The upside to using Mozilla Mail is that it's what I use on my other systems, and it's a more capable client. Against that, Evolution, like Outlook, has an integrated PIM, which I'd very much like to have. I face very much the same choice I faced on 16 January 1997, when Microsoft shipped Outlook 97. I was using David Harris's Pegasus Mail then, and the choice was between continuing to use the extremely powerful Pegasus Mail versus changing to Outlook 97, which had a pathetic mail client but offered integrated PIM functions. I decided then to go with Outlook, and I may decide now to go with Evolution. But it was a different world then. Spams were still relatively rare, and my email traffic was a small fraction of what it is now.

But the real point to all of this is that I've migrated to Linux on one of my main desktop systems, and I'm going to stay with it. Mozilla works fine, I have WebWasher up and running, and either Evolution or Mozilla Mail will serve as my email client. OpenOffice.org works just like it does on Windows, although that may not be good enough given the problems I've had using OOo to work on my O'Reilly chapters. I haven't set up file sharing yet, but that shouldn't be too difficult.

Barbara said the other day that she was betting Linux wouldn't last 24 hours on my den system before I went back to Windows. Based on past events, that seemed a safe bet. But this time I really mean it. That den system is going to be running Linux from now on, for better or worse. If there's something I need that I can't run on Linux, tough. I just won't run it. I'll learn to live within the limitations Linux places on me. I simply refuse to enter yet another calendar year not running Linux on at least one of my main client systems. So there.

 

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Friday, 26 December 2003

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9:40 - Hmmm. Mad Cow Disease strikes the US. Government and beef industry spokesmen are counseling against overreacting, and that makes sense to me. I think the appropriate reaction is to stop eating beef until all vestiges of the threat are eliminated. The risks are minimal, certainly, but the alternatives are many and there's no reason to assume even a minimal risk when pork, chicken, fish, and other alternatives are readily available.

Obviously, the assurances of the beef industry can be discounted. Their livelihood is at stake, and they of course think everyone should assume the risk of eating their products. Nor are government agencies an unbiased source of information. They try to balance the interests of consumers with those of the industry they oversee. A widespread consumer boycott of beef would be economically disastrous for the industry, and the government will do anything possible to avoid that, including understating the risk. Even if the government could be trusted in the sense of not intentionally lying, I have zero respect for proclamations by "government scientists." I'm sure there are real scientists working for government agencies, but they're not the ones who make the public statements.

Variant CJD has killed about 150 Britons since the BSE outbreak in Britain, and the same could happen here. In fact, it could be much worse, and we may not know for years how bad it really is. Thousands, tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of people in Britain may be infected with the vCJD prion but asymptomatic for now. I've seen various estimates of the latency of vCJD, and I don't know which to believe. I'm not sure anyone does. Only time will tell.

At the time the outbreak raged in Britain, I told several of my British friends that if I were visiting them I'd eat something other than beef, and I'd expect them to do the same if they were visiting me here now. We have a bunch of beef in our large freezer downstairs, and I'm not concerned about eating it. However, I think I'll talk to Barbara about not buying any more beef for the foreseeable future. I like pork, fish, shrimp and other seafood, lamb, and other meats, and I can tolerate chicken. All of those are safe if cooked properly, which beef is not. The beef industry has my sympathy, but frankly I think that anyone who continues to eat beef until this problem is completely resolved is nuts.

Nor are dairy products safe, despite protests to the contrary by government and industry spokesmen. In 1997, the Times of London reported that a vegetarian had been diagnosed with vCJD, the prion presumably originating in dairy products. To the best of my knowledge, dairy products and beef muscle tissue have not been ruled out as routes of transmission for BSE, despite statements to the contrary by interested parties. Although I prefer butter to margarine, perhaps it's time for me to start using margarine, as Barbara does.

Urk. Barbara announced last night that she'd be going to the gym this morning and that when she returned we would clean up my workroom and office. Here are some before shots:

workroom.jpg (68352 bytes)

Workroom

credenza.jpg (53267 bytes)

Credenza

desk.jpg (47038 bytes)

Desk

The workroom is worse than it looks, because there's stuff piled behind all the stuff that's visible. The credenza isn't as bad as it looks. Cleaning it up should be a five-minute job. And the desk isn't that bad at all. Perhaps I can strike a deal with Barbara. We'll clean up my office but not clean up the workroom just yet.

Linux still lives on my den system. The more I work with it, the more I realize that I can put up with its lacks. There are things I can't run on it, but I can do without those on the den system. I'm not ready to convert all my desktops to Linux, not even close, but I can certainly live with Linux on some of them.

I am about ready to convert to Mozilla Mail as my mail client. As much as I like Evolution's PIM features, I simply can't abide its limited functionality as a mail client. I may end up doing on my den system what I do on my main system--use Outlook/Evolution as a standalone PIM and use Mozilla Mail as my mail client. That's not ideal, but it's workable. I really, really wish that Mozilla Calendar was ready for primetime. With that working, I could dispense entirely with Outlook and Evolution. But Mozilla Calendar is still too lightweight for me. It's missing a lot of important features, not least stuff like Palm synching. Once Mozilla Calendar has that, I'll move Barbara to it and I'll start using it as well.

Well, Barbara is due back from the gym shortly, so I'd better prepare myself. I'm afraid she'll come up the stairs carrying the shop vac and weed whacker.

 

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Saturday, 27 December 2003

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Sunday, 28 December 2003

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