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Week of 27 September 2004

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Monday, 27 September 2004

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{Five Years Ago Today]

10:00 - I need to do something about rationalizing how our data is organized. Right now, I have user directories where Barbara and I store our current working data sets--mail, documents, spreadsheets, and other stuff we're actively using or that has been created recently enough that it hasn't yet been archived. As of yesterday afternoon, my working data set was about 1.8 GB and Barbara's was just under 300 MB.

I also have an archive folder that presently has about 34 GB of files in it. Some of that is data we generated ourselves--old book manuscripts, email, etc.--but a lot of it is downloaded files, particularly installation files for various software packages. That directory tree includes a lot of really old stuff, for example SP1 through SP6a for NT4, antique versions of IE, Red Hat 6 ISOs, and so on. Those installation files by themselves occupy more than 20 GB.

All of this stuff is backed up to one degree or another. Our working data sets are backed up out the wazoo. I copy them frequently throughout the day to other hard drives on the network. Every evening, the working data sets are burned to DVD, on a set of six Monday through Saturday DVD+RW discs. Sundays, the working data sets are backed up to a set of five weekly DVD+RW discs, Sunday 1 through Sunday 5. Monthly, the working data sets are backed up to a set of 12 DVD+RW discs, January through December. All of those DVD+RW discs are stored in a Cordura CD storage case that sits right next to my primary office desktop system. If we ever had a fire or other catastrophe, I could grab it on the way out the door.

The problem is backing up (or archiving) the other stuff, and the reason it's a problem is that I haven't done a proper job of segregating the data. Right now, we have "current data" segregated, but everything else is in one huge pile of directories. The huge pile includes some pretty recent stuff, such as the manuscript and images for Building the Perfect PC, which I just completed last month.

Clearly, I need to set up a directory structure that will allow me to manage our data in three groups: Current working data should be as it is now, in its own directory structure and backed up very frequently. Beyond that, I need a "holding area" for stuff that I've moved from the current directories, but that hasn't yet made it to the deep archive directories.

The working data set must be kept at a size that will fit one DVD+RW disc. It doesn't matter how many DVDs the deep archive stuff requires for backup, because it will be backed up very infrequently, only when files are added to the deep archive. To avoid having to create new discs for the deep archive very frequently, I need to set up a holding area, to which stuff can be moved from the working data sets as necessary to keep them small enough to fit on a DVD+RW disc. I'll allow the holding area to continue to grow as long as it fits on one DVD. When it gets too large to fit on one DVD, I'll move everything in the holding area to the deep archive area and produce another set (actually two sets) of deep archive DVDs.

Doing it that way will allow me to (a) continue daily or more frequent backups of our working data sets that will fit on one DVD+RW disc, (b) back up the holding area to DVD+RW only when I move files to it from the current working set, which will probably occur only every month or three, and (c) backup the deep archive to DVDs only when I move everything from the holding area to the deep archive, which may occur only once a year or so.

Actually, there are fourth and fifth classes of data, categorizing them in terms of backup/archive requirements. One of those classes is data that needn't be backed up at all, for example OGG audio files ripped from our CD collection. If those files are lost, it's no problem to reproduce them, so there's no point in backing them up. The other class is data that needs to be backed up, but only temporarily. For example, if I set the PVR to record the Inspector Lynley series on Masterpiece Theatre, I'll want a backup of those files, but only until we've watched and deleted the episodes (or archived them to DVD).

What about tape? I've stopped using it. It's simply too slow and has too low a capacity to be practical for our needs any longer. Or at least that's true of affordable tape drives and tapes. Other than an antique 25/50 GB SCSI OnStream drive, which I won't use because the company is bankrupt, the largest tape drive I have is a 20/40 GB DDS-4 unit. I'd avoided using the DDS-4 tape drive for production backups because I have only one drive. If it failed, I'd be up the creek until I could get another. I had been using DDS-3 tape drives, of which I have several, but 12/24 GB is simply much too small for our current needs. At 3.5 GB/hour or so, they're also much too slow.

I can copy 3.5 GB of data to a DVD+RW disc in less than 10 minutes. The error detection and correction isn't as good as that of a tape drive, but it's good enough, especially given the massive redundancy of the grandfather-father-son disc rotation method I'm using. The DVD+RW discs also provide a lot more convenient method for retrieving a backed up file. Rather than have to restore a tape, I can simply put the appropriate DVD+RW disc in the drive and copy the file directly from it.

11:28 - As smart as Microsoft is collectively, they sometimes just don't get it. They've just announced that they'll provide Windows XP Starter Edition in Russia later this year. I wonder just exactly what they expect to accomplish.

$  0
Windows XP Professional
$  0
Windows XP Starter Edition
$ 36

According to the article, XP SE won't be available separately, but only with new computers. I can't imagine that any Russian OEMs will cut their own throats by bundling it, as opposed to offering it as an option. So who exactly is going to pay $36, which is quite a bit of money in Russia, for a crippled version of something they can load themselves for free?

I see this as a desperate act by Microsoft. Linux is killing them in the developing world, and they have to do something to fight back. I have no good way to estimate what percentage of PCs in the developing world run licensed copies of Windows--no one does--but it has to be very, very small. Almost certainly under 10%, and probably under 5%. In other words, licensed Windows is probably third in market share, behind Linux and unlicensed copies of Windows.

I'd guess that the vast majority of PCs sold in the developing world come either with Linux pre-installed or without an operating system. Either way, many of them probably have unlicensed copies of Windows installed soon after they are carried home from the store. That's a fact of life, and there's not a thing Microsoft can do about it. Legal niceties like pursuing individual copyright infringers aren't high on the priority lists of the governments of developing countries, and no amount of bribes will help Microsoft change that. Sure, they'll get governments to crack down here and there on commercial infringers, but if I'm a PC seller that's easy enough to avoid. I just install Linux on my PCs and there's nothing anyone can do.

The only way Microsoft can grab any significant market share for Windows and Office in developing countries is to price them at a reasonable level. That might be $5 or so for a CD that contains licensed copies of both Windows and Office. Even at that price, though, a lot of people will choose to run Linux or unlicensed copies of Windows and Office instead. Say that at that price Microsoft succeeds in selling 10 million copies a year. That's $50 million less costs, which is a nice chunk of change, but a tiny fraction of what Microsoft expects. Still, there's no real alternative. Microsoft has to resign itself to the fact that they're not going to be able to mine large sums from developing countries.

And the risk of pursuing such a low-price strategy is immense. People in the US and other first-world countries will ask, reasonably enough, why they should pay one hundred times more for the same software. And there isn't any good answer to that question. Increasingly, people will begin to opt out of Microsoft software, using free alternatives like OpenOffice.org, Mozilla, and Linux instead. The only thing sustaining Microsoft right now is its installed base, and as that installed base begins to erode Microsoft's prospects will become increasingly bleak.

Like any software company that can no longer compete on merit, Microsoft will begin using the court system to fight back. I expect some truly ugly IP suits, most of which will be based on the ridiculous software patents that Microsoft is pursuing so avidly right now. Unfortunately for Microsoft, that strategy isn't likely to work, either. Any patents they attempt to use to cripple competing OSS applications will be attacked. Microsoft will find its own relatively sparse portfolio matched against that of IBM, which is the largest by far in existence. IBM will fight tooth and nail to protect OSS, not because they're good guys (which they are), but because they "get" OSS.

I see nothing ahead for Microsoft but problems and more problems. It's ironic. Microsoft started out as a small supplier of tools and utilities for the then-dominant operating system. We may come full circle, and find that in a decade or so, Microsoft is again a small supplier of tools and utilities for the then-dominant operating system. The only way they can stop that from happening is to preserve their huge share of the installed base and to continue to mine that installed base for additional revenue.

We see that happening now, with Microsoft forcing paid upgrades on Windows 2000 users who don't want to continue using a known-insecure version of IE. Microsoft could easily back-port the XP SP2 version of IE to Windows 2000. XP is, after all, just a minor upgrade of Windows 2000. The code bases are quite similar. That Microsoft chooses not to back-port IE is a clear indication that they intend to continue mining their installed base for upgrade revenue, whether or not users want to upgrade or have any real need to.

And Microsoft may well have shot itself in the foot with this decision. Millions of corporate PCs still run Windows 2000. Given the choice between a paid upgrade to Windows XP and changing default browsers to something secure like Mozilla, many of those corporations will choose to change browsers. For some, that's difficult, because they use in-house web-based apps that depend on ActiveX, ASP, .NET, and other Microsoft technologies. So, many corporations will be trapped.

In the short run, that's good for Microsoft, because vendor lock-in is the only thing that's sustaining them. In the long run, though, that's very bad for Microsoft. No trap is permanent. If I'm a CIO, I have a long memory. I'll start looking at open source alternatives like Perl and php. At first, perhaps I'll just do a pilot project or two using OSS infrastructure. Then I'll start developing new projects with OSS tools, keeping the legacy Microsoft stuff in place temporarily. Eventually, I'll replace those legacy Microsoft systems with systems that I have complete control of.

This isn't a war Microsoft can win. They'll win a few battles along the way, certainly. But in the end they'll lose.

(Checking my server logs last night, I found that Microsoft IE is now in the minority among browsers that access my site. IE showed a 51% share, with other browsers, mostly Mozilla and Firefox, at 49%. That ignores Opera, which doesn't even rate an asterisk in my logs. That's because most Opera users use the default behavior, which is to report itself as IE. At a guess, Opera may have 2% to 5% of the market among my visitors, which means IE's share is actually only 46% to 49%.)

12:37 - This is very annoying. Barbara's PC appears to have died. We had some sort of electrical event this morning. With one exception--the microwave--all of our digital clocks were unaffected. All of the PCs not on UPSs crashed, including Barbara's. (Yes, I know, I need to put her on a UPS. Well, actually, she has an APC 650V Back-UPS Pro, but the battery died and I haven't gotten around to replacing it.)

When I sat down at Barbara's desk, the first odd thing was that Xandros was hung part way through its boot, still displaying the splash screen. I powered down Barbara's system, waited a few seconds, and powered it back up. It appeared to boot normally, but when I attempted to use the mouse the cursor was frozen. That was odd. I tried plugging it into a different USB port and restarting the system, but it still saw no mouse. So I tried connecting a new mouse (a Microsoft Optical Trackball, actually). It barely lit up, and wasn't recognized either, on any of several USB ports. So I shut the system down again, and installed one of those little green USB to PS/2 adapters. With the trackball plugged into the mouse port, I restarted the system. I was able to log on normally and use the mouse/trackball. Everything appeared normal.

Until I tried to connect to the Internet. Nobody home. I eventually checked Control Center->Networking, and discovered that as far as Xandros is concerned it has no network adapter. Hmmm. I can't believe this is a software problem, but I'll probably try doing a repair installation of Xandros first, hoping that'll fix things. If not, it looks like I need to build Barbara a new PC. I could just stick a PCI network adapter in the existing PC, but there're enough weird things going on that I don't trust it.

{I don't usually go back to fix things, but in this case, the error I made wasn't obvious. In the second paragraph above, I somehow typed "crash screen" instead of "splash screen". Xandros never displayed a "crash screen", whatever that might be.}

13:19 - Well, that was odd. I stuck the Xandros 2.5 distribution CD in Barbara's drive, rebooted the system, held down the Shift key, and chose "Restore Xandros". After answering a couple questions, Xandros went ahead and repaired itself. When I rebooted Barbara's system it came up normally with the network adapter working properly. It appears to be completely okay. Very odd.


Tuesday, 28 September 2004

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{Five Years Ago Today]

10:50 - Malcolm turned five years old yesterday, and I forgot to make him a birthday cupcake. I'll make it up to him somehow.

Barbara called last night. Everything is going well. I told her everything was also fine here, except that we were nearly out of dog food and I didn't know what kind to buy. Science Diet Senior Small Bites, as it turns out. I may just stretch the remaining dog food by adding human food to it. I asked the dogs and they're both in favor of that plan.

The remnants of Hurricane Jeanne came through here yesterday and last night. We had a brief heavy rain yesterday morning that amounted to 0.3" (~0.75cm). I heard it raining last night, heavily at times, so when I took the dogs out first time this morning I checked the rain gauge. At first, I thought someone had emptied it. Then, as my eye moved further and further up the scale, I finally saw the meniscus at 4.6" (~11.7cm). Wow. I knew we'd gotten more rain, but I didn't realize we'd gotten another 4.3".

It's still raining as I write this, but only a light sprinkle. The forecasts say we may get another quarter to half inch before noon, but by then it should mostly be past us.

15:35 - This is starting to get old. Given what's happened to Florida this year, I suppose I shouldn't complain, but in 2004 North Carolina has been hit by the following storms or their remnants: Alex, Bonnie, Charley, Frances, Gaston, Ivan, and Jeanne. It's become common here to have days with 4" (10 cm) or more of rain, which is to say a month's worth in one day. Oh, well. At least we have a new roof.

It's no wonder we got so much rain last night. Here's the track of Jeanne. We're just barely east of that track, just below the Virginia/North Carolina border.

TS Jeanne



Wednesday, 29 September 2004

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{Five Years Ago Today]

11:08 - I watched the first two-hour segment of Origins on PBS last night. Cosmos it wasn't, but it was enjoyable and educational. The second and final two-hour segment airs tonight. According to the press materials, this mini-series was four years in the making, which seems a bit much.

Coincidentally, I saw a link on one of the news sites to a story about the new television season, featuring capsule summaries of all the new programs. There's not a one I'd waste the time to watch even once. When I think about it, I'm always frustrated at how television has been almost entirely wasted. The flood of network programs is almost entirely crap, and has been for years. When I think about what television could have been and could still be, it makes me want to throw up my hands in despair.

I wish there were one, just one, channel that ran top-notch programming all the time. PBS comes close at times, but it's not what I'm looking for. A&E, The History Channel, The Discovery Channel, The Learning Channel, and so on are pale imitations of what I'd like to see. I want a channel that runs first-rate programming 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I want a channel that makes me regret missing programs because I don't have time to watch all of them. I want a channel that I can turn to any day, any time, and find something running that's worth watching.

I want a channel that runs science programming like Sagan's Cosmos and Burke's Connections and Day the Universe Changed every day. Not just the original programs, of course, but updated new programming of similar quality. I want a 20-part series of two-hour episodes on the history of chemistry. And others on the histories of astronomy, biology, physics, and other disciplines. An ongoing series of two-hour episodes, each devoted to a great painter, writer, or musician. A series that provides a comprehensive history of ancient Egypt. Another about Greece and another about Rome. A ten-part series about the history of photography, from early use of the camera obscura through Scheele's discovery of the light sensitivity of silver halides to Nicephore Niépce, Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre, and William Henry Fox Talbot through George Eastman to the invention Autochrome by the Lumiere brothers to the invention of Kodachrome by Leopold Mannes and Leopold Godowsky. Another series about forensic science, from the 1784 conviction of John Toms through Orfila and Marsh to Simpson and the establishment of formal forensics laboratories.

But I want more than simply educational programs. I want entertainment programming of the sort PBS runs on Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery, but more of it. I want I, Clavdivs, All Creatures Great and Small, Brideshead Revisited, Cadfael, Poirot, and Holmes, and I want them on every night. I want new programs based on mysteries by great authors of the past like R. Austin Freeman and great current authors like Rhys Bowen, Carola Dunn, and Sarah Andrews.

I want all of this without commercials, and I'm willing to pay for it. If you bring me this channel on satellite, I'll install a dish, cancel my cable TV service, and pay you $20 a month forever. Hell, I'd pay you $50 a month, because I pay more than that now for the crap my cable system provides. And I won't be alone. You'll quickly pick up your first million subscribers, and you may eventually stabilize at 5 million or 10 million subscribers. That's a lot of cash flow to produce an ongoing flood of new high-quality programming.

And no DRM, please. In fact, you should budget to install a server farm with a ton of bandwidth, because you should allow subscribers to download any programs they want from your archives. If you do all this, you'll have loyal customers for life.

15:40 - One bad thing about Xandros is that the image viewing facility in Xandros File Manager is very fragile. In particular, it deals very badly with either large images or large numbers of image files within one directory. Usually, the problem manifests as XFM crashing and displaying a KDE error message. A few minutes ago, I had a worse experience. I double-clicked an image file to view it. XFM displayed only the top two-thirds or so of the image. It then stopped rendering the image and displayed a tiny hourglass-like icon. My keyboard and mouse were unresponsive. After a few seconds of this, the screen went black and I was presented with a login prompt. Fortunately, I didn't have any unsaved work. But this is very annoying.


Thursday, 30 September 2004

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{Five Years Ago Today]

10:08 - Bad news last night. Mike Barkman has lost his battle with cancer. I never met Mike, but we'd exchanged email for years. Mike was a good man. We'll all miss him. Icarus Ascending, indeed.

Barbara returns home this evening, and not a moment too soon. I've been surviving on sandwiches, Reese cups, and Coke, and the dogs are out of food. Last night, I had the second and last Banquet frozen dinner. Fried chicken just like your grandmother used to make, if your grandmother was one of the world's worst cooks.

When Barbara finally arrives home, the dogs and I will do our little circle dance to greet her.

Here's an article worth reading if you're thinking about installing a PCI Express video adapter. I'm building a PCI Express project system right now as the basis for two articles I'm doing for O'Reilly. I think my editor and everyone else was surprised that I chose to use an nVIDIA PCI Express adapter. Now you know why.

The rest of the year is going to be very busy for me. I intend to finish the second article for O'Reilly this week. In October, I have to start and finish a Pocket Guide for O'Reilly. I have a 1 December deadline for 50% completion on the new edition of PC Hardware in a Nutshell, but I'm not going to make that. I'll spend all of November and December getting that done.

I know I say this often, but this time it's true. There won't be much around here between now and the end of the year. I'll post sporadically, and try to visit the messageboards as often as I can, but I'll be busier than the proverbial one-armed paper hanger. In fact, I was going to declare a 3-month sabbatical between tomorrow and year-end, but I decided I'd rather keep posting if, as, and when.

14:16 - Barbara's absence finally forced me out of the house. We were completely out of dog food, and the dogs were clearly getting worried. I thought about just running over to McDonalds at dinner time and buying something for myself and a couple of cheeseburgers with a large fry to feed the guys, but I decided it'd be just as easy to go pick up a bag of dog food.

So I headed over to the pet store, which is near the library, and got a 40 pound bag of Science Diet Senior Small Bites. Since I was near the library, I decided to stop in and see if they had anything new I wanted to read. I picked up three books and headed for the checkout.

Uh-oh. I remembered belatedly that I no longer had a physical library card. My original card was issued back when we installed the DRA software for the library system, and that must be a dozen years ago or more. It had rotted in my wallet and split into fragments years ago, and I'd pitched it. Ever since, Barbara has just checked out the books for me. I hadn't checked out a book on my own account for probably a decade.

But, as I've said before, numbers are my friends. I happened to remember that my card number was 1112500510005, and I figured I could talk the lady at the checkout desk into accepting it. As it turned out, that wasn't necessary because she recognized me. But when she entered my card number into her terminal, it responded with an invalid card number message. Rats. As it turns out, they purge cards that've gone unused for several years, and of course mine fell into that category even though Barbara checks out probably a dozen or two books a week for me.

I've now lost my library card number, which was the fifth one issued when we installed the DRA software for the library system. Bill Roberts, who was then the library director, got card #1. The assistant director got #2. I think Jim Cooper, who was then head of the MIS department, got #3. My co-conspirator John Mikol got #4, and I got #5. Oh, well.

What's worse is that when John and I had root access to the library software, which was then running on a DEC VAX 6210, we'd both bumped our priorities from "1" (standard) to "9" (highest). That meant that if I wanted a book that was in heavy demand and reserved it, my reserve went to the top of the queue. (That annoyed Barbara, but it was okay with Bill Roberts. We told him at the time, and he said that was fine with him--any little thing to make sure we were responsive when they had problems...). So now I've lost not only my #5 card number, but my high priority.

Hmmm. It's only been a decade or so. Knowing how things work in county government, it wouldn't surprise me a bit if I *still* have root access. Hmmmm.


Friday, 1 October 2004

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{Five Years Ago Today]

09:16 - Barbara is home. The dogs are happy. I am happy. All is right with the world.

Barbara arrived home just before 10:00 p.m. last night. She'd been up since 6:00 a.m., so she went to bed soon after arriving home. When I went back to the bedroom later, I found Duncan was sprawled out over my half of the bed and didn't want to move. He finally made room for me, grudgingly, and I was able to stretch out next to him, balancing myself on the edge of the bed. He was pretty clearly claiming Barbara for himself.

I just transferred the pictures Barbara took with the Concord 5345Z digital camera, including a couple of movies she took accidentally. I'm sure she'll be posting some of them on her page as soon as she gets time to do so.

Today I want to finish building and shooting images of the PCI Express project system for the article. That'll be easier with Barbara here to help. I also much prefer the Concord 5345Z camera to the Olympus C-5000Z for shooting illustrations.


Saturday, 2 October 2004

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Sunday, 3 October 2004

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