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Week of 6 September 2004

Latest Update: Sunday, 12 September 2004 10:50 -0400

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Monday, 6 September 2004

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{Five Years Ago Today]

09:17 - Labor Day, so I guess I'll work...

I mentioned in my journal last week that I'd be installing Xandros on the new PC I'm building for our friends Paul Jones and Mary Chervenak. As it turns out, I'll also be installing Xandros on the PC my sister-in-law and her husband bought last fall.

That PC had Windows XP pre-installed. When I set it up for them, I did my best to secure it against viruses/worms/Trojans and other malware. I installed ZoneAlarm, the free Grisoft AVG antivirus software, and SpyBot Search & Destroy. I explained to Frances and Al how (and why) to keep the virus sigs and malware scanner updated, and set things up to scan automatically.

Unfortunately, my best wasn't good enough. Frances reports the PC has some problems that sound to me as though they're caused by some sort of malware. That's not my fault, nor is it theirs. Keeping an Internet-connected Windows PC free of malware is more than can reasonably be expected of people who aren't PC specialists. Those who simply use a PC as a tool to do their work are almost certain to fall prey to one or another of the exploits that arrive in a continuing flood.

I'd be willing to bet serious money that the average home Windows PC has a dozen or more viruses, worms, Trojans, spyware, and other malware installed, all without the owners' knowledge, let alone approval. It's not that the owners are stupid, or even ignorant. They know there's a big problem; they simply don't know what to do about it. Nor should they have to. The level of knowledge and effort required to keep an Internet-connected Windows system uninfected is far higher than anyone could reasonably expect from the scores of millions of people who have a home PC.

Fortunately, I was thinking ahead when I set up Al and Frances's PC. Instead of installing Microsoft Office, Outlook, IE, and so on, I installed Mozilla as their browser and email client, and OpenOffice.org as their office suite. Now, almost a year later, they're used to those OSS alternatives instead of the Microsoft equivalents. That's going to make it easy to migrate them to Xandros.

I'm not certain that Xandros supports all of their hardware, of course, although I suspect it does. Just in case, though, I'm not going to blow away their current Windows installation. Instead, I'll back up all their data to CD, and then pull their current hard drive. I'll install a new hard drive and install Xandros on that. An hour or two's work will give them a robust, secure PC that runs the software they're used to.And another Windows system will bite the dust.

Think about this: Installing Windows on the average person's home computer is about as responsible as handing a monkey a loaded AK-74. You're not doing your friend any favor, as he may find to his regret if his identity is stolen, his bank account pillaged, or the authorities discover his computer is being used as a zombie proxy for sending spam or distributing child pornography. You're also not doing the rest of us any favors. Those of us running Linux or Mac OS X aren't vulnerable to Windows exploits, of course, but we suffer the ongoing barrage from the tens of millions of infected Windows systems.

If you want to do your friend a real favor, install Xandros, Linspire, Mepis, or one of the other "newbie" Linux distros that are designed to be beginner-friendly. If gaming is important to him, set up his system as dual-boot, but warn him that it's critical to unplug the Ethernet cable from his system before he boots Windows. Impress upon him that allowing his system to be connected to the Internet while Windows is running is a disaster waiting to happen. Better yet, install some Linux games for him. Linux games won't satisfy a rabid gamer who lives and breathes Doom 3, but there are more than enough good Linux games to satisfy most people.

Remember: Friends Don't Let Friends Run Windows.

10:35 - Barbara knows I like large things. (I used to consider a 3-litre bottle of Coke the single-serving size, literally. And let's not even talk about my college days when a case of beer was the single-serving size, and I once found myself eying a full keg...)

So, while she was at Wal*Mart, she found me a new insulated cup. Here it is, with a Volkswagen shown for scale.

Insulated cup with VW


Tuesday, 7 September 2004

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{Five Years Ago Today]

08:11 - I got some work done yesterday, but not as much as I wanted. My deadline for the second chapter was a week ago tomorrow, and I'm determined to have a finished chapter sent in by close of business tomorrow. So I won't be spending much time here or on the messageboards until I get that knocked out.

Then O'Reilly wants an article from me by next Monday. Busy, busy, busy.

Incredibly, the Royal Navy have decided to use Windows 2000 for the Combat Management System on their new Type 45 destroyers. Windows for Warships? Their engineers tell them they're nuts. I wrote about exactly this more than four years ago. (Scroll down to the second entry.) What is truly scary is that the Royal Navy is retrofitting Windows-based software to their nuclear-armed subs.


Wednesday, 8 September 2004

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{Five Years Ago Today]

8:55 - Last night Barbara and I watched the Serena Williams vs. Jennifer Capriati quarter-final match. Anyone who watched the match knows that Serena Williams actually won it. No question about it. In the opening game of the third set, Williams hit a return down the line. It was clearly in. The lineswoman called it in. The replay showed it was not only in, but well inside the line. The chair umpire, Mariana Alves of Portugal, should never be permitted to officiate at another match. She announced the score as advantage Capriati, when the actual score was advantage Williams.

Williams was stunned, and approached the chair. The umpire didn't announce an overrule, she simply awarded the point to Capriati. Williams went on to win the next point, and therefore the game. In meaningless points played after that game was over, Capriati eventually won the game, according to the official score. All of us who watched know that Serena really won that game.

From that point forward, I kept track of the actual game score, because I wanted to know if and when she'd won the match. Incredibly, in the final game, with the official score of 5-4 Capriati (actual score, 4-5), bad line calls gave Capriati not one, not two, but THREE points. Two of Williams' shots were called out although they were clearly good. Replays subsequently showed the shots to be good. Capriati also hit a second serve long for a double fault, which again was clearly deep, and confirmed by the replay.

In the larger scheme of things, a tennis match is meaningless. Still, it seems to me it's also important to get the small things right.

I had a dream last night. Now, I know that humans and dinosaurs never co-existed. When the first protohumans walked the earth, the last dinosaur had been dead for more than 60 million years. Still.

My dream featured a huge, Allosaurus-looking thing. In case you're not up on Allosaurus, they were probably the most fearsome competitor predator that ever lived. (Many now think T. rex was a scavenger, incapable of chasing down prey, instead surviving on carrion.) Allosaurus was an eagle to T. rex's vulture. Imagine something that outmasses a bull elephant, 40 feet from snout to tip of tail and 10 feet tall at the hips, with short front legs, three-fingered gripping talons, and a gigantic head with hinged teeth with reverse serrations to ensure that prey once bitten had nowhere to go but down Allosaurus's throat. A fearsome predator indeed.

I believe the only known Allosaurus species is A. fragilus (probably the least appropriate name ever given), but somehow I knew the one I saw in my dream was a different species, A. microsoftus. And this one was surrounded by a horde of protohumans. Somehow I knew they were H. linuxus. The mammals versus the saurian, and I knew which side I was cheering for.

The humans were throwing spears. At first, they didn't seem to have much effect on the giant lizard. But H. linuxus were patient. They just kept throwing spears. Some bounced off the tough hide of the saurian, but many of them stuck. The humans didn't have it all their own way. With each careless lash of its tail, A. microsoftus did immense damage, but the little human mammals didn't give up the fight with the giant lizard. They just kept throwing spears, and the saurian gradually weakened.

Eventually the saurian could fight no more, having been bled dry from the cuts of a thousand spears. It teetered, but the humans had no pity for it. They kept up the attack relentlessly until the saurian toppled. It crashed to the ground with a mighty sound, and moved no more. The beast was slain. The humans had won.

The moral I took away from that was that you should support OSS if you're human. Only dinosaurs favor Microsoft.

14:15 - Our power went down about 12:30 and just came back up. This is a day that I'm destined not to get anything done.

When the power failed, I had just finished installing Windows XP on a test-bed system. The system came up normally, and I then installed XP SP2. Geez. When the system rebooted, I had no mouse. At first, I thought it was a problem with the USB Logitech cordless mouse, so I pulled that one and installed a USB Microsoft optical mouse. After the reboot, my mouse cursor remained in the center of the screen, unresponsive. Crap.

So I shut down again and installed the USB->PS/2 adapter on the MS optical mouse and tried again. This time it came up and the mouse worked normally. So I shut down again, reconnected the mouse to the USB port and restarted. No mouse. I don't know why, but on this system XP SP2 simply won't recognize a USB mouse.

The next problem was the network drives. I wasn't surprised that XP without a service pack didn't recognize the network adapter on the Intel D875PBZ motherboard, but I did expect it to recognize the network card after I installed SP2. No dice. So I went into my office, downloaded all the latest drivers and BIOS update for the D875PBZ, burned them to CD, and carried them back out to the den. I ran the Intel INF install utility, which should have allowed Windows to recognize the ICH-5R southbridge.

The system restarted normally, and I next attempted to install the Intel network drivers for XP. No joy. The Setup program ran fine and told me the drivers were installed, but when the process completed and the system rebooted, Windows still did not recognize the network adapter. Checking Device Manager showed me that it also didn't recognize the USB hubs. Geez.

Windows XP hardware detection is sadly lacking compared to Linux. The Intel D875PBZ isn't exactly an oddball motherboard, and it's been around long enough that Windows XP with SP2 should certainly recognize its components. But no. What Microsoft used to call the "out of box" experience with XP truly sucks.

Oh, well, I'd better try to get some work done.


Thursday, 9 September 2004

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{Five Years Ago Today]

08:32 - I will get the Wireless Networking chapter off to my editor today, no matter what.

The good news is that the insurance company is going to pay for the existing shingles to be torn off and new shingles installed. The bad news is that the sheathing needs to be replaced (or supplemented), and the insurance won't pay for that. We had a roofer out to give us an estimate yesterday. By all reports he's honest and competent. He tells me he'll install half-inch plywood over what's already there. With the hurricanes lately and much of US plywood production being sent to Iraq, the cost of plywood has shot out of sight. The roofer says he estimates he'll need 81 sheets, at $40/sheet installed.

I see that the ban on so-called assault "weapons" is to expire Monday, which I think is a good thing. Imprecise terminology always offends me, and the weapons that had been banned were in no way assault rifles, to use the proper term.

The genesis of assault rifles was in Nazi Germany a year or two before the end of the war. Until that time, there were two classes of hand-carried primary personal weapons. Ordinary soldiers carried a rifle, now called a main battle rifle, which fired the standard rifle cartridge. Non-coms, some officers, tankers, and other special troops carried submachine guns like the MP-38 and MP-40, which were compact, selective-fire weapons that fired a pistol cartridge. The main battle rifle was effective out to between 500 and 1,000 yards, but had a relatively slow rate of fire. The submachine guns were effective only out to 50 to 100 yards (although obviously their bullets could kill at much longer ranges), but had a high rate of fire.

The waffenamt decided that most troops had no real need for the extreme range of the standard rifle, with its accordingly slow rate of fire. The high rate of fire of the submachine gun was desirable, but something more than a pistol-class cartridge was needed. They came up with a compromise that they called an StG for sturmgewehr. Literally translated, that's "assault rifle". The StGs fired a 7.92mm bullet, the same diameter as the bullet used by the standard Kar98k German service rifle and their light and medium machine guns, but the StG cartridge was much shorter than the standard cartridge, with accordingly lower velocity and effective range. Like submachine guns, the StGs were selective fire, which is to say that moving a level on the receiver allowed the user to change between semi-automatic single shot mode and fully automatic rock-and-roll mode.

The reason for the sturmgewehr name is interesting. By the time these weapons were deployed, late in the war, German forces weren't making many assaults. They were in defensive mode, but Hitler regarded defense as another word for defeatism. The real intent of the waffenamt was to produce an enhanced submachine gun that would greatly increase the firepower of individual soldiers who were fighting to defend the homeland. But if they named it using the traditional MP (maschinenpistole or machine pistol) nomenclature, Hitler would have forbidden its production. (Actually, the first models were named using "MP"). So they renamed it "assault rifle", which had a nice offensive ring to it.

Although the Nazis invented the concept of an assault rifle, it was the Soviets who took the ball and ran with it. Particularly a guy named Kalashnikov, who designed what was to become the AK-47. The AK-47 basically ripped off the StG44/45 design, but by that time the Nazis were in no position to protest the intellectual property theft. Like the StGs, the AK-47 used a shortened form of the standard rifle round, in this case a 7.62 x 39mm version of the long Soviet 7.62mm rimmed cartridge.

The two defining characteristics of an assault rifle are that it fires a sub-rifle class round and that it is selective fire. So, if Wal*Mart had been selling AK-47s or StG-44/45s, the government would be justified in called them assault "weapons". But what they were selling didn't come remotely close to meeting the definition. The semi-auto Chinese AK-47 knockoffs were simply cheap, ugly semi-auto rifles that were affordable. If there's one thing the government hates, it's affordable weapons. Can't have the riff-raff armed, you know.

So, the expiration of the ban on these rifles is good news. Once again, we'll be able to buy a useful defensive rifle and 1,000 rounds of ammunition for something like $250 total. The government really hates that.

11:23 - They say Dog Bites Man is real news. Here's something even more unusual: Dog Shoots Man in Self-Defense. Apparently, this guy had seven unwanted puppies and decided to kill them humanely by shooting them in the head with his .38 pistol. One of the puppies was struggling and its paw pressed the trigger, causing the pistol to shoot the man in the wrist.

What's outrageous, though, is that the man is being charged with cruelty to animals. How so? He was killing them quickly and painlessly by shooting them in the head. That's sad, certainly, but it's not cruel by any sane definition. The animal control departments of nearly every local US government kill millions of unwanted dogs every year, and few of them do it as humanely as this guy was doing. Many use a gas chamber, stuffing the chamber with a score or more victims and then introducing lethal gas. The animals know what's happening, and fight for their lives, clawing and biting the other animals in an attempt to escape.

So, who is being cruel to animals? Not this guy.


Friday, 10 September 2004

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{Five Years Ago Today]

09:27 - Barbara and I got married 21 years ago today.

I was 30 years old, and Barbara was 28. We'd only met the preceding February, and when we told our parents of our plans to marry I suspect they all thought I was pregnant or something. We'd announced our intentions not long after we started dating, and although no one ever said anything I suspect both sets of parents thought things were moving along too fast. They probably thought we'd be divorced in a year or two. And here it is 21 years later. I can't imagine what the last 21 years would have been like without Barbara. I'm looking forward to the next 21.

Barbara is very hard to buy gifts for. She doesn't wear jewelry or use perfume, and when she really wants something she usually buys it for herself. About the only things I can buy her are practical gifts that she wouldn't buy herself. So, she's been having problems for the last few months with the CD receiver in her car. I've been too busy to do anything about it, and a replacement CD receiver isn't something that Barbara would feel comfortable ordering for herself. I ordered her a new CD receiver from Crutchfield, and this weekend I'll remove the dashboard in her truck and install it for her.

I was going to try to surprise her, but that didn't work out. The problem is that Barbara is seldom far from her Trooper. She drives it to work in the morning, comes home with it, goes to the gym in it, and so on. Installing the CD receiver without Barbara knowing about it was going to be a problem.

I'd enlisted the help of our friends Paul and Mary, thinking that perhaps Mary could get Barbara separated from her truck long enough for Paul and me to remove the dashboard and install the CD receiver. We couldn't get it worked out, and our cunning plans took on increasing desperation. At one point, Paul suggested I steal her truck while she was at work. That was a non-starter, because she has a key-card that's needed to get the truck in and out of the deck.

The other day, Paul suggested that I disable her truck Thursday night so she'd have to drive my truck to work this morning. He suggested I disconnect a wire from the distributor cap or something. That might have worked with most women, but not with Barbara. She worked during college at an auto parts distributor, and if her car hadn't started she'd have popped the hood and noticed the loose wire immediately.

So I ended up just giving her the CD receiver last night, and telling her the story of how we'd attempted to get it installed without her knowing about it. Most people wouldn't consider a CD receiver a very romantic anniversary gift, but it was the only thing I knew of that Barbara really wanted and she seemed pleased with it. It was at least better than some of the gifts I've given her, such as the torque wrench and 12-point metric socket set. (I'm not making this up.)

11:38 - I need a new hobby. We'd planned an observing session for tonight. As of last night, the Clear Sky Clock was predicting nearly perfect conditions. No clouds. High transparency. The CSC is updated twice a day, usually around 0100 and 1300. When I looked again this morning, the forecast had gone from nearly perfect to terrible. I also checked the Weather Channel hour-by-hour, the Weather Underground, and AccuWeather. All of them said we could expect clear skies tonight. Hmmm.

So I called Paul Jones to see what he thought. As we were talking, he checked the Weather Channel, Weather Underground, and so on. They'd been updated since I checked, and they were all now forecasting clouds as well. Crap. I need a new hobby.

I got to thinking. I have a couple TB of hard drive spinning here and enough systems to put together a small supercomputer using a Linux cluster. Perhaps I should assemble a virtual night sky using DSS and other detailed mapping and image data. Instead of viewing the sky on a standard display, I could build a pseudo-telescope that looked just like a Dobsonian.

Rather than using mirrors for the optical path, my pseudo-telescope would display output from the supercomputer, with images rendered in real time as someone moved the scope. Once an object was in view, it would drift, just as it does in a real Dobsonian as the earth rotates. Small flat-panel displays would provide the images for the Telrad, finder, and main "scope". The "scope" would use high-resolution encoders like those used with digital setting circles to report back to its controller exactly where it was pointed.

It could be made just as difficult to locate and log objects using the virtual scope as it is with a real scope, the only difference being that instead of showing up at a field in the middle of nowhere and hoping for clear skies as we smacked mosquitos or shivered in the freezing air, we could just meet at our house, pull down the dark shades and turn off the lights.

Doing an actual planetarium display so that it would appear to the eye that we were under starry skies would be impractical, but there's no reason that we couldn't work using just the Telrad, finder, and scope displays. For example, if I wanted to search for globs in Sgr, I could simply use the main controls to tell the scope it was now pointed at, say, the star Kaus Australis. From that point, I could star-hop to the object I wanted to view, with the supercomputer rendering the images visible in the Telrad, finder, and scope in real time, including drift and field rotation. It'd be easy to emulate eyepieces as well. Instead of buying $1,000 worth of 31mm Nagler and Paracorr, the system could simply display the field of view that the eyepiece would provide.

There'd be a lot of advantages to a virtual scope, including that we could "observe" any time we wanted and any object we wanted. If we wanted to observe winter constellations at the peak of summer, we could do it. If we wanted to observe southern constellations, including those so far south that I'll never see them unless I take a trip to South America, we could do that, too. The brightness of the display could be set to simulate the view in any size scope. If we got tired of observing with our 10" Dob, we could simulate the view through a 20", 40", or 100" scope.

It could even be a time machine. For example, when I was a teenager, I could see bright colors in M42 (the Great Orion Nebula). Blues, greens, and even a tinge of red, all in a 6" reflector. Nowadays, about the most I can see is a greenish-gray tinge, and that in a 10" scope. I could set the view to show me what I'd have seen when I was 15 years old if I'd been using a 100" scope. And I'd be able to see star colors again in all their glory. Nowadays, all but the brightest stars seem white to me, but I remember as a teenager seeing the bright blues, oranges, reds, and yellows clearly, even for relatively dim stars.

And no light pollution. In a simulator, the star fields would appear as they do from a true dark-sky site, few of which still exist east of the Mississippi River.

It wouldn't be real observing, of course, but it'd be the next-best thing. I'll have to think about this.

Here's something I don't understand.

-------- Original Message --------
Subject:     Concord 5345z
Date:     Thu, 9 Sep 2004 17:52:24 -0500
From:     Christensen, Chris
To:     Robert Bruce Thompson

Robert: You might rethink your recommendation for this camera: (from their faq)

"2. Is the Concord 5345z compatible with Linux OS?

No, the Concord 5345z does not support the Linux operating system (OS).
Currently, there is no plan to develop a camera driver that is
compatible with the Linux OS."

Many cameras now simply appear as usb mass storage, this one doesn't: it requires a software driver to be installed in any computer that will access the camera.  I can't use this camera at home (Linux only), and, it turns out, that I can't use it at work, because "administrator access" is necessary to "install a device".  Since I bought the camera for an Australian vacation (and procrastinated like usual), I don't have enough time to return it for something more suitable.  I guess I won't be e-mailing any photographs home from internet cafes.  I'm going to try a usb flash card reader to see if that works to read the memory card I installed.  It may very well not, if they've done something "funny" with the file system.

Other than that, I agree that the ease of use and performance are very good.

That's odd. I'm using my Xandros Linux box to transfer images off the Concord 5345Z with no problems. It shows up as a USB drive when I plug it in and turn it on.


Saturday, 11 September 2004

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{Five Years Ago Today]

10:30 - Three years after December 7th, the United States had already crushed Imperial Japan, and was months away from nuking them. It's now three years after September 11th, and so far nothing has been done to punish Islam.

Mecca, Riyadh, and Teheran still stand, while our enemies laugh at us and plan further attacks against us. Why do we allow this?


Sunday, 12 September 2004

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{Five Years Ago Today]

10:50 - Barbara has joined the penguin ranks. Her main desktop system, adelie, is now running Xandros 2.5 Business Edition. Yesterday I pulled her hard drive and installed what I thought was an empty hard drive that turned out to have Xandros 2.0 installed on it. I blew away that Xandros installation and installed 2.5 on the freshly-formatted drive.

Barbara has been using Mozilla as her browser and mail client for quite some time, so there's no change there. The major change for her will be using Mozilla Composer rather than FrontPage to edit and publish her journal page. I also installed several applications that aren't present by default. I installed Evolution 1.4 as her calendar. I would have used Mozilla Calendar, but it doesn't support PDA synching. I was planning to install the tools needed to enable synching under Evolution, but just then Xandros Networks went down, so that remains to be done. I installed Tux Racer and TuxCart just to give her something to play with, and GnuCash for checkbook management.

There will also be minor glitches along the way, I'm sure. For example, her sound isn't working with the default install, and I haven't messed with it yet. I'm sure I'll be able to get it going with little difficulty. Her system uses an Intel motherboard, which should be pretty well supported.

With the exception of the DVR system, my notebook, and messier, my former primary desktop, which is now a temporary server, we now have only test-bed systems running Windows. Everything else is running Xandros, Mandrake, or SuSE. I'll probably leave the notebook running Windows, at least until the Linux version of Cartes du Ciel ships, because we use that system primarily as an astronomical observing aid. Messier won't be running Windows much longer unless I decide to convert it to a test-bed. The DVR system may be the last hold-out. Right now, it's running ATI's MMC software, which requires Windows. At some point, I may well change it over to a Linux-based app like MythTV or Freevo, but that's not a short-term priority.

In short, we are well on our way to being a Windows-free zone, at least in terms of production systems.



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