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Week of 17 May 2004

Latest Update : Friday, 21 May 2004 10:13 -0400


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Monday, 17 May 2004

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8:15 - The Chapter That Will Not Die is finally complete, I think. I've sent it off to my editor at O'Reilly and my tech reviewers. I have comments from the tech reviewers already. Once I get comments from my O'Reilly editor, I'll incorporate all of the comments and post the finished chapter on the subscribers' page. While I'm waiting for my editor, I'll go back to working on the "Building a PC" chapter. I can begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and I'm pretty sure it's not a train.

I finally decided to do something about WebWasher on my den system last night. I've been using WebWasher for years to block ads, web bugs, scripts, and other obnoxious elements of web pages. It worked just fine until I started to build faster systems. Apparently, WebWasher is poorly programmed, because it simply doesn't work properly on 3+ GHz systems. It butchers a fair percentage of web pages, often rendering pages in unreadable form, rendering scripts as displayed text, and so on. So I went off in search of something better.

What I found is Privoxy, which sounds like a prescription medication one might see on one of those obnoxious TV commercials, but actually does a pretty good job of replacing WebWasher. Privoxy is GPL'd, and available for Linux, Windows, and several other OSs. The Win32 installer is a standard executable. The only configuration needed, at least initially, is to set your web browser to point to 127.0.0.1 and port 8118 for http and https. There's no GUI. To modify configurations, you have to edit text configuration files that use PERL-like syntax, but that's no big deal. It's easy enough to add or change settings by using the existing configuration lines as examples. And the default configuration seems to work pretty well.

9:04 - If you're at all concerned about your systems being infected by worms, go read this. Brian Bilbrey has written the most lucid explanation of the issues I've yet seen. He explains why you need a router/firewall, and why depending on ZoneAlarm or similar software running on the system that needs to be protected is entirely inadequate.

The only thing I'd add to Brian's comments is that it's a really good idea to stop using Internet Explorer and Outlook/Outlook Express. Use Mozilla and Mozilla Mail instead, and install a good proxy like Privoxy. The firewall/router stops port probes and worms--stuff that attacks you from outside. Using Mozilla, Mozilla Mail, and a good filtering proxy protects you from stuff that executes inside your firewall--viruses and malicious scripts on web sites.

I use a Linux box running ipchains as my firewall, but a $50 hardware router, if configured properly, can provide the same level of protection. One of the things I like about the D-Link hardware routers is that they are pretty well secured out-of-the-box, but nearly any inexpensive hardware router can do the job.

I confess that I seldom update Windows, even when Microsoft releases news of horrifying security flaws. Such problems don't concern me. What my firewall doesn't stop, Mozilla protects me against. Of all the systems I've had running here all these years, only one has ever been infected by a virus. That was Melissa, back when I was still running Outlook and opened an infected message I received from Jerry Pournelle. In those days, it was safe to open an attachment one received from a known source, or so we thought. Melissa changed all that overnight.

Nowadays, I feel perfectly secure. Barbara and I don't open questionable attachments, and Mozilla Mail allows us to view infected messages with impunity. The bad stuff has no way to get to our systems. Do yourself a favor and take similar measures.

11:01 - And it now appears that those who ridiculed President Bush and Prime Minister Blair for their belief that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction will have to eat their words. Any of those critics who are intellectually honest, which is probably a small percentage, will now have to admit that invading Iraq and deposing Hussein was fully justified. Most of the anti-war crowd will probably attempt to argue that finding one artillery shell filled with Sarin nerve gas is small justification for the invasion, but any reasonable person will admit that where one such shell exists, the likelihood is that there are others, probably many others, perhaps thousands of others. And Sarin may be the least of it. See also this article and this article.

Bush and Blair were right from the beginning. I wonder if we'll hear any apologies from their critics. Probably not.

 

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Tuesday, 18 May 2004

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11:05 - It's baaack. The Chapter That Will Not Die is finally has again returned from the Dead. Shortly after I posted yesterday morning, I got email from my editor, which basically said, "Holy Crap! This manuscript chapter is going to turn into 100 book pages. Can you cut it to 25%?"

Not cut it by 25%, you understand, cut it to 25%. Urk. Writing is hard work, but cutting is harder still, particularly such a huge cut. We had some back and forth, during which I pointed out that cutting to 25% would require that I eliminate all explanation and simply list recommended components. We eventually agreed to aim at cutting it to 40% of the original length. That's doable, but is going to take a lot of work. So I'm back to work on The Chapter That Will Not Die.

This from Bo Leuf regarding Privoxy, which I still think sounds like a new prescription drug one would see advertised on TV.

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: privoxy
Date: Tue, 18 May 2004 00:30:48 +0200
From: Bo Leuf
To: Robert Bruce Thompson

I've been using privoxy for something like near two years now, mainly because of it being totally crossplatform. What with the extras in Mozilla Firefox such as flash block and so on, it's hard to beat. Before that in Windows, I used Proxomitron.

The Privoxy default settings are a bit on the restrictive side for some sites, but that's a matter of taste.

> What I found is Privoxy.... There's no GUI.

There is, sort of. Point the privoxy-filtered browser to http://config.privoxy.org/show-status (aka shortcut http://p.p) and you'll get an interactive web page (or rather a set of them) that lets you see current settings and reconfigure on-the-fly. The page is in fact generated internally and locally by privoxy, despie the apparent external address.

You may need to enable the main config file's toggles in sections 4.3 4.4 first

enable-remote-toggle 1
enable-edit-actions 1

(As I recall, these were enabled in the Windows version, but not in the more secure Linux /etc/privoxy/config).

/ Bo

Thanks. I actually was aware of the web-based management, which, as you say, is "kind of" a GUI. It's certainly not as easy to use as the WebWasher GUI, or perhaps I should say that it expects the user to understand a lot more about the plumbing of a filtering proxy. I don't mind that. I can puzzle out whatever changes I need to make.

From my point of view, the default settings are pretty good. I haven't changed them yet on my den system, and may not change them at all. I do wish there were a way to substitute a blank image for an ad, as WebWasher does, rather than the text notice that Privoxy substitutes for the ad graphic. Perhaps there is and I just haven't found it yet.

I'm still using WebWasher on my main office system, where it works fine. Of course, that's only a 1.7 GHz Pentium 4. On fast systems, including my den system and Barbara's main office system, WebWasher butchers rendering, displaying scripts as text. I'll probably install Privoxy on Barbara's main system once I get a bit more experience with configuring Privoxy. My main concern is that Barbara uses some subscription research sites, such as Factiva, that are very "fragile" in terms of what they require if they are to work. Privoxy allows one to configure specific sites as "fragile", so that's probably going to work. But I do want a bit more experience with it before I risk breaking Barbara's browsing for the contract work she does.

 

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Wednesday, 19 May 2004

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9:28 - Terrorists are by no means all stupid, but at least some of them are, shall we say, mentally challenged. These stupid sons of bitches attacked the Scottish Highlanders, which is about as bright as settling down for a nap in a nest of cobras. There were 20 of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. They were only outnumbered five to one, so the Highlanders fixed bayonets and charged. When it was over, 35 of the Islamic terrorists were dead, their bodies littering the road and floating in the river. Nine had been taken captive, and the rest had fled with their tails between their legs. The Highlanders suffered three men slightly wounded. Good job, lads. You showed those bastards good and proper.

In college, thirty years ago, I met a man who'd fought as a junior officer with the 1st SS Panzer Division on the Eastern Front and later in France against the Allies after the Normandy landings. I'll call him Hauptsturmfuhrer (Captain) Schmidt, because I don't remember his name.

Some militarized elements of the SS, such as the Einsatzgruppen and the Totenkopfverbande, were responsible for unbelievable atrocities, but the Waffen SS were soldiers, and are generally acknowledged to have been among the best fighting soldiers in history. Better than Alexander's hoplites. Better than Caesar's legionnaires. As good or better than any elite unit anywhere or anywhen. The 1st SS Liebstandarte, the LSSAH, they of the famous skeleton key, were the elite of the Waffen SS. They got the best recruits, and had first claim on new weapons. Hitler moved the 1st SS around to put out fires, and it saw action in most major campaigns.

In the spring of 1944, the 1st SS Panzer Division was pulled off the line on the Eastern Front and moved west, in the expectation that the Allies would soon invade France. Beginning immediately with the D-Day landings, the 1st SS was in the thick of the fighting, where it acquitted itself well. But Schmidt told an interesting story.

The 1st SS, Schmidt told me, had fought ferociously throughout the war. They never surrendered. They never retreated. They were used to fighting against greatly superior numbers, and they were used to taking heavy casualties. Despite that, unit morale remained very high. But then the 1st SS came up against the Scottish Highlanders in a series of engagements. They were impressed by the fighting qualities of the Scottish Highlanders. "We were mean bastards," Schmidt told me, "but the Scots were meaner bastards. We called them 'Devil soldiers in skirts'."

So, one day in mid-1944, somewhere in France, a dug-in unit of the 1st SS heard the bagpipes of the Scottish Highlanders approaching. It started out barely audible, but kept getting louder and louder. The Scots pipers were playing Scotland the Brave as they marched into battle. That 1st SS unit, from a division that prided itself on never retreating, broke and ran en masse before they ever saw the Highlanders. They were "creeped out" by the bagpipes, Schmidt said. (Those were the words he used.) It was the only time Schmidt had heard of a unit of the 1st SS breaking and running, and it was because the Scottish Highlanders terrified them.

And it was the Scottish Highlanders that these stupid Islamic terrorists chose to attack. I wonder if they're eligible for the Darwin Awards.

 

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Thursday, 20 May 2004

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9:32 - The Chapter That Will Not Die is finally almost dead. I ran into page-count problems, and had to cut it from about 40,000 words to 18,000+ words. I sent out the cut version yesterday to my O'Reilly editors and my tech reviewers. All seem to think it's a pretty good chapter, even in its greatly reduced form. Once I get comments back from my O'Reilly editor, I'll incorporate them and any comments that are still relevant from what my tech reviewers sent me based on the full-length chapter, and declare the chapter DEAD.

I have one "real" chapter and the Preface left to write. I'm going to try to finish the real chapter before the Memorial Day weekend, so that I can collapse and vegetate for a few days.

Here's what we amateur astronomers in the North Carolina Piedmont Triad have to deal with every spring.

forecast.jpg (65784 bytes)

And that's the best 10-day forecast we've had for quite a while. I told my friend Paul Jones the other day, only half in jest, that I was considering building a radio telescope in the back yard. That way, we could all sit indoors and "observe" in comfort on a computer monitor, using false-color mapping of various wavelengths. I think it'd have to be a phased-array antenna, though.

11:16 - The draft manuscript of the "Choosing and Buying Components" chapter, AKA The Chapter That Will Not Die, is available for download on the subscribers' page. If you download and read it, please let me know if you have any comments, suggestions, or corrections.

 

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Friday, 21 May 2004

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10:13 - I have one week to finish the last chapter and the preface. I probably won't make it, but that's my goal. Barbara and I both badly need a break, so we plan to take the holiday weekend off. No work, no checking email, no nothing. I'll probably shut our computers down. At some point, we just have to draw a line, or we'd both be working all the time.

So that gives me one week to get this stuff finished. When the holiday weekend is over, I'll be back at it, this time starting work on the 4th edition of PC Hardware in a Nutshell. Sometimes I feel like a hamster on one of those little exercise wheels.

 

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Saturday, 22 May 2004

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Sunday, 23 May 2004

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