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Week of 15 November 2004

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Monday, 15 November 2004

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{Five Years Ago Today]

09:45 - Brian Bilbrey sends along a link with a suggestion that I consider this snazzy little ASG (Anti-Santa Gun) for the coming Winter Solstice attempt to bring down Santa and his sleigh.

HK 40mm grenade machinegun

Brian suggests I nail Santa when he's at his most vulnerable, at landing or take-off. I have to admit I'm not optimistic. Everything I've tried in the past, from reindeer nets to Stingers to a ZSU-23/4, has failed to bring down Santa. But I suppose this may work. I've emailed Heckler & Koch to ask them to send me an eval unit with 1,000 rounds of HE frag belted, with tracer every fourth round.

I may have to get Tim Taylor's help to modify it, though. I notice the cyclic rate is only 350 RPM. That's perfect for the weapon's intended use, but an ASG needs a much higher cyclic rate, somewhere up around the 1,200 RPM of an MG-42. I'll set up the HK GMG in the back yard, camouflage it, and put out the usual milk and cookie bait. I might talk to one of our neighbors about using their roof and chimney, though. I'd hate to mess up our new roof.

I've always liked HK firearms, although I've only ever owned one. That was one of the small number of HK-41 assault rifles imported by Golden State Arms in 1966. The BATF blew it on that one, and they hated the GSA HK-41s ever after. The GSA HK-41 was in effect a military G-3 assault rifle, and was selective fire, or at least the model I had was. It may have had a civilian trigger group replaced with a military trigger group. I don't know. I bought it at a gun show in 1979, played with it as is for a year or so, and then resold it at another gun show. But it was fun to play with...

The selector lever was blocked from being moved up beyond the single-fire position to the rock-and-roll position by a small metal nub. That was easy enough to get around, though. The trigger group was secured by two pins, one at the front at the magazine well, and one behind the trigger group. All you needed to do to bypass the stop was push out the pin behind the trigger group, pivot the trigger group downward, rotate the selector lever counter-clockwise to the full-auto position, pivot the trigger group back up, and re-insert the pin. It took literally a couple seconds to do that.

I sold it because having it made me nervous. It was, as far as I knew, completely legal, but it was also an unregistered machine gun. That and the fact that I couldn't afford to feed it. I bought it, IIRC, for $600, plus $300 more for the matching Zeiss scope. I think I sold both the HK-41 and the Zeiss scope for $1,200 or $1,500. Nowadays, with the scope, I suspect it'd be worth $10,000 easily.

Eric Raymond has posted an excellent article, Islamofascism and the Rage of Augustine.

The article concludes, "But we will not be able to understand and squarely confront the evil at the heart of Islam, Naziism, and Communism, until we face the fact that all three of these monsters are Augustine's progeny, and that same evil is embedded in Christianity itself." It's well worth the time to read the article to discover how ESR comes to that conclusion.


Tuesday, 16 November 2004

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{Five Years Ago Today]

08:45 - N|vu is starting to annoy me. Periodically, for no apparent reason, it refuses to publish. Ordinarily, I click the Publish icon, which brings up a Publish dialog. After checking the settings on that dialog, I click the Publish button and N|vu displays a status dialog that names each file as it's published and puts up a little icon next to the filename as publishing completes. But sometimes when I click on the Publish button in the dialog, nothing happens. No error message, nothing. The dialog simply disappears, and nothing is published. I've taken to using gFTP to publish files manually.

C|NET has published a pretty good article that summarizes the actions of Microsoft vis-a-vis the SCO vs. IBM debacle. They don't get it all right, but they do get it mostly right, and only someone like me who follows Groklaw pretty closely would notice the minor errors and omissions. Basically, the article concludes that Microsoft has behaved underhandedly, but not broken any laws, which is about right.

One thing that comes through loud and clear in the article is Microsoft's desperation. Whenever I read something like this, I always have a mental image of Microsoft as a gigantic dinosaur lying on its side, surrounded by tiny mammals stabbing it with their tiny spears. Microsoft's tail is thrashing about, doing immense damage, but that doesn't change the fact that it's doomed to become a footnote of history and that the Linux mammals will inherit the earth. It almost makes me feel sorry for the dinosaur. Almost.

And here's a sad tale from Belgium.

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Belgium
Date: Mon, 15 Nov 2004 22:32:05 +0000
From: Sjon Svenson
To: Robert Thompson

Hello Robert,

I know you are fascinated by figures. And by government. I found some figures for Belgium that might interest you.

Belgium has 923.000 people in public service. That's 193.412 federal, 363.218 in the states (190.368 in Flanders), 285.843 in provinces and communities. And with 77.575 in special copses (military, police, courts, Council of State, diplomats, etc. ) and 2860 clerks in parliament. That is 1 civil servant for every 11 inhabitants (1 per 17 in Flanders). Counting up to 26.42 percent of payed employees and 20.4 of the working population. In Flanders it comes out at 14.2% of the working population (Walony has 22.77%) It equates to 25 civil servants per square kilometer.

There are 23.996 politicians (I am not sure whether they are counted among the civil servants). 242 of which are federal (ministers and  an parliamentaries), 340 in the states, 811 in the provinces and 16.757 in the communities. Going down means you get more of them which is logical. (I know the numbers don't count up because there are some -ex senate, arrondisment- not counted. ) It amounts to 1 politician for every 430 inhabitants (1 per 467 in Flanders). And 1 actual minister in government for every 214.786 inhabitants. That's 1 politician for ever 1.36 square kilometer. 

No I am not proud. I wonder how things are over in the US.

Kind regards,
Sjon Svenson

Wow. You have my sympathy. It's hard to imagine how you and the rest of the productive Belgians can get anything done with that many politicians on your backs. It's not quite that bad over here, at least in terms of politicians per square kilometer.

Just a suggestion, but over here we have an open season on deer every year to prevent their populations from growing beyond what the environment can support. It sounds to me as if Belgium desperately needs to have an open season on politicians to weed them down to a more reasonable level, say one per every 100 square kilometers. Unlike deer, politicians aren't edible, but you could at least have their heads stuffed and mount them over your fireplaces.


Wednesday, 17 November 2004

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{Five Years Ago Today]

09:45 - I'm going back to Windows. Well, not really, but I am going to have to use Windows part-time. I'm working on stubbing out some chapters for an astronomy book, and I need to use charting and other astronomy software that runs only on Windows. I suppose I could muck about with CrossOver Office or WINE, but it's just a lot simpler and more satisfactory to run Windows XP. Besides which, I need at least one Windows XP test-bed system running to do screen shots for the new edition of PC Hardware in a Nutshell, so I might as well kill two stones with one bird.

So, here's a typical day's challenges for me. I have several systems sitting around here that are ideal candidates for the new Windows box. The trouble is, Windows won't load on any of them. Or at least the Windows XP discs I have, which are original discs with no service packs or patches, won't load. They don't know about Serial ATA, they don't know about recent Intel chipsets, they don't know about much at all.

And, of course, I've built these systems without floppy disk drives, and Windows XP Setup is too freaking stupid to let me provide updated drivers via CD rather than floppy. One option is to install an FDD, but that's ridiculous. The other option is to build a slipstreamed Windows XP CD with all the latest patches. I decided to do the latter.

Which brings up the question of how to build a slipstreamed Windows XP distribution CD. I could do it the manual way, copying the original distro disc to the the hard drive, along with SP2 and any other patches I wanted to install, running a manual update with the appropriate command-line switches to update the disk-based copy, using ISO Buster to pull the necessary data from the original distro CD to make the new CD bootable, creating a new ISO image, and then burning a new bootable distribution CD.

But when I was doing a sanity check on Pournelle's latest column, I noticed he mentioned a product called nLite, which automates that whole process (and does a lot of other stuff besides) for Windows 2000, XP, and 2003. Here's what the main menu looks like.

nLite main screen

So I downloaded nLite, but it turns out it requires Microsoft .NET Framework 1.1 along with SP1 for that product. So I downloaded all of those and installed them on the Windows 2000 Professional system that used to be my primary desktop system. I hated to do that, because now I wonder what nasties I installed without knowing I was installing them. But this machine is not long for this world anyway. It'll be stripped down and be repurposed as a Linux box or donated to Senior Services with bare drives, so I guess I can live with having .NET installed for a while.

With nLite installed, the original XP distro files copied to /distros/wxp/original and the 270+ MB XP SP2 file copied to /distros/wxp/sp2, I ran nLite. It found the original distro files, and found and uncompressed the SP2 file. However, when it attempted to apply the SP2 files to the original distro files, I got a Windows GPF from update.exe.

I thought about that a moment and convinced myself that perhaps applying SP2 required that SP1a be applied first. So I copied the SP1a executable to the /distros/wxp/sp2 directory and started nLite again. This time, I pointed it to the SP1a file, which it extracted and applied correctly. At that point, I figured I'd have smooth sailing, so I ran nLite again, and again told it to apply SP2. It blew up again with an update.exe GPF. Hmmm.

The only thing I could think of was that the SP2 executable had somehow been corrupted. It extracted okay, which argued against it being corrupt, but what other possibilities were there? So I downloaded SP2 again from Microsoft, and again ran nLite. Once again, the process blew up with an update.exe GPF. Crap.

At that point, I wondered if SP1a would be good enough. The original XP Pro distro doesn't recognize Serial ATA, but perhaps XP with SP1a applied would. So I told nLite to go ahead and generate an ISO. It did so, and I burned the ISO to a CD-R. As a first test, I installed XP/SP1a on a system that's recent but doesn't have any cutting edge stuff installed. That appeared to complete normally, so I decided to try installing XP/SP1a on the system I really want to run it on, which is an Intel D925XCV motherboard with PCI Express video, S-ATA drives, and so on.

The copyright pigopolists are at it again. This time, the RIAA and MPAA have marshaled all their bought-and-paid-for Congressional lackeys to force an obnoxious new copyright bill through the lame-duck Congress.

When I wrote some years ago that these SOBs would eventually get a bill passed that made it illegal to skip commercials, people told me I was exaggerating. Well, this bill--you guessed it--makes it illegal to skip commercials. You're still allowed to fast-forward through portions of the program itself, but it will be illegal to fast-forward past commercials and all devices and software will be required to enforce that provision. The bill doesn't actually require us to watch the commercials. It's still legal to use the bathroom or grab a snack while commercials are running. For now, anyway. The RIAA and MPAA plan to close that loophole in subsequent legislation.

I told Barbara last night that, whether or not this bill actually passes, I've really had it. Barbara now watches only one regular program, Left Wing, and it probably won't be on much longer. We can get weather and news from the web. Barbara said, "Okay, when this TV dies, we just won't buy a new one."

I'd actually like to go further than that. I'd like to move the "goddamn noisy box", as Jubal Harshaw called it, to the closet and pull it out only under extraordinary circumstances like natural disasters. I'd stick a pair of rabbit ears on it. That gives us the local stations, which we could watch in emergencies. We can stop paying Time-Warner Cable $60 a month or whatever it is they charge us for the TV feed, and just keep the cable modem service. That $60 a month would buy a lot of books.

And I do wish Barbara would stop buying CDs from RIAA companies. I've been meaning to introduce her to Magnatune, whose slogan is, "We're a record company, but we're not evil". That, and encourage her to buy directly from the artists.

Actually, the whole idea of copyrighting recorded music and movies is unconstitutional. Congress is granted the power to pass laws that provide copyright protection for "authors and their writings". Period. The Constitution does not give Congress power to provide copyright protection for recorded music and movies. Any law that provides such protection for recorded music and movies is unconstitutional on the face of it in the absence of a Constitutional amendment to give Congress that power.

I do wish the EFF or someone would raise a Constitutional challenge to these laws, not to mention to the unconscionable extension of copyright terms. We need to get back to the way things were intended to be. Copyrights lasting at most a few years, and patents lasting no more than one year. The Founding Fathers, particularly Tom Jefferson, were extremely uncomfortable with the very idea of copyrights and patents, and time has shown those fears to be justified.

13:17 - I just spent 45 minutes on the phone with some nice folks from Falcon Electric, who make high-grade UPSs and SPSs. Jerry Pournelle has been recommending their dual-conversion ("true") UPSs for years, and I decided it was time to listen to Jerry's advice and take a look at some of their products. They're sending me eval samples of their true UPS and line-interactive SPSs. I'll install them in my office and Barbara's and give them a workout.

I've been thinking about revising my SPS recommendations for some time now. In the last few years, SPSs have gone from being niche products to mainstream products. You can find them at Best Buy and Wal*Mart now. In one sense, that's good, because having an SPS is better than not having one. But I've been concerned by the falling prices of these units. I saw one APC unit at Wal*Mart for under $30. It looked like an outlet-strip surge protector, but had battery backup built in. How reliable can that protection be? It's like saving money when you go shopping for a parachute.

And it's not just the cheapest units that concern me. I've also watched prices plummet on mainstream units. I remember when an inexpensive APC 650 VA Back-UPS unit sold for $250. Now you can find a similar model for half that. Now, lower prices are good, no doubt, but Moore's Law doesn't apply to SPSs. They're simple devices--a battery, an inverter, and a switch. There's only so much room for cutting costs by increasing production efficiency and economies of scale. After that, cost reductions have to come from using lower grade components.

So I decided it was time to take a look at better grade units. I'm also going to look at true UPSs for the first time. In the past, a true UPS cost much, much more than an SPS, even a good one. If a good SPS of a given size sold for $500, a true UPS of similar capacity might sell for $1,000 to $1,500. That's apparently no longer true. The retail price on one Falcon SPS we talked about is $579. A Falcon true UPS of similar capacity lists for $725. More, certainly, but not excessively so given the benefits of a true UPS.

16:38 - The lady from Wilson Pest Insulters just called to say it's time for our annual inspection. Unfortunately, there's not much they can do about termites any more, since the federal government in effect put termites on the protected species list. The damned EPA, as usual without any scientific basis for doing so, banned the chemicals that actually control termites. Gone are the days when pest control companies could lay down a barrier of lindane, chlordane, heptachlor, or something else that lasted forever and actually killed termites.

Nowadays, the pest control companies are limited to using stuff that doesn't last for long and doesn't actually work. As the guy who was out retreating our house some years ago said, "this new stuff doesn't actually kill them, it just hurts their feelings." At least our house was built in 1968 and so has a pretty good barrier remaining. I have sympathy for people who build new homes in areas subject to termite infestations. There's nothing on the market they can use to provide an effective barrier. The best they can hope for is that if they retreat often enough they'll be able to keep the termites from eating their homes.

If we ever built a new house, I'd wait until they'd dug the foundations and then one night I'd put down a heavy barrier layer of the good stuff myself. Or I would if I happened to have some of it hidden away.


Thursday, 18 November 2004

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{Five Years Ago Today]

08:28 - Microsoft Internet Explorer is in the news again. C|Net says, "Microsoft's Internet Explorer has become a turkey shoot for flaw finders", with 19 new vulnerabilities exposed in the last two months, including some exploitable flaws in systems patched with XP SP2.

Microsoft complains, as it often does, that it is "concerned that this new report of a vulnerability in Internet Explorer was not disclosed responsibly, potentially putting computer users at risk." Well, perhaps that's because Microsoft has a nasty habit of ignoring vulnerability reports, often for literally months, until they are made public.

C|NET goes on to say, in another article, that "Microsoft says IE updates possible." C|NET reports, rather generously I think, that IE "saw its last major upgrade in August 2001." In fact, it's been a lot longer than that. IE 6.0 was a trivial upgrade of IE 5.0, which in turn was a trivial upgrade of IE 4.0. IE 4.0 was a good browser for its time, good enough to make the then-current version of Netscape look bad, and to cause Netscape users to abandon it in droves. And that was all Microsoft wanted. Since IE 4.0, they've done basically nothing to enhance their browser. In a very real sense, Internet Explorer is abandonware.

If you're still using IE, do yourself a big favor. Install Mozilla Suite or Firefox, lock up IE completely, delete the active scripting executables wscript.exe and cscript.exe, and disable IE as the default browser. It takes five minutes and it does more than anything to protect you from viruses, Trojans, worms, and spyware. More than installing a virus scanner. More than installing a spyware scanner. More than installing Microsoft updates. More even than installing a firewall.

While you're at it, do your friends, family, and neighbors a favor by installing Mozilla Suite or Firefox for them. You'll be giving them a modern browser that's worlds ahead of IE functionally and orders of magnitude more secure. Friends don't let friends use IE.

Speaking of security, Brian Bilbrey posted a link to one of Rick Moen's "rants", this one about Linux and viruses. If you still believe the Microsoft party-line FUD that claims Microsoft software is victimized so often only because it's ubiquitous, go read this article. The frequency of attacks on Microsoft software, as I've said all along, has nothing to do with its market share. They occur because Microsoft software is fundamentally flawed. Linux does not suffer from these flaws, and Moen argues convincingly that virus scanners for Linux are not needed.

I remember an old Far Side cartoon that showed a pile of meat under a meat grinder that had a human arm hanging off the handle, with a cop standing there looking on. The caption said, "Most determined case of suicide I've ever seen." That is about the level of cooperation a Linux "virus" requires from you to damage your system. Unlike exploits against Windows, many of which do not require the user to do anything at all out of the ordinary, Linux exploits require extraordinary levels of user cooperation. You have to not just shoot yourself in the foot, but shoot yourself in the foot repeatedly. Let's look at the relative effort involved for a typical exploit against Windows versus that required for an exploit against Linux:

Windows: Visit a malicious website or receive an infected email. For many Windows exploits, that's all you need to do. You're toast. Your system is "owned" and will probably soon be functioning as a spam relay or, worse, a zombie server for child porn files.

Linux: Receive an email with an infected attachment. Manually save that attachment to disk. Log off and log back on as root. Use chmod to change the infected file to executable. Run the infected executable file manually.

As Moen says, anyone stupid enough to go through those hoops to run an executable from an unknown source has more to worry about than being infected by a virus. And as the number of users stupid enough to go through all these hoops asymptotically approaches zero, Linux "viruses" can't spread, which kind of takes the fun out of being a virus.

If you still believe Microsoft's market-share FUD, go read this article.

11:00 - Microsoft is up to more of its usual charming tricks. Here's Groklaw's take on it.

Steve Ballmer showed the world Microsoft's true colors today and what their nasty strategy against Linux really is. He gave a speech in Singapore at Microsoft's Asian Government Leaders Forum and told them that he thinks Linux violates patents, though he wasn't specific, and someday, someone will come after governments that switch to GNU/Linux, and sue them for those IP "violations":

They used to muscle other IT companies. Now they are threatening governments of the world. What a charming company. Use their product and you won't get hurt. Otherwise, watch out for your kneecaps. No doubt that endeared them greatly to one and all and as for fears, well, how could you not trust a company whose CEO is so pleasant?

John Dvorak sees Microsoft building up to offering a Microsoft Linux. Given the above warning, that seems unlikely. But Dvorak's alternative theory may have substance. Here's what he thinks the Vintela and Connectix purchases and the Lindows lawsuit mean:

I don't doubt they're right about Microsoft's intentions, but I'm less concerned than they are about the results. I remember thinking when Microsoft paid Sun a lot of money and Sun announced they'd open source (although not GPL) Solaris that Microsoft wanted Solaris for themselves for some reason. This may be it.

As to a patent attack on Linux, I've said before I think that's doomed to fail. Microsoft will be bringing a knife to a gun fight if they take on IBM, Novell, and the many other IT companies that are staunch defenders of Linux. But that's the least of it, really. Every day, Linux becomes more entrenched in corporate America IT departments. If Microsoft truly wages open war on Linux, they'll find that they're up against not just IBM, Novell, and other IT companies, but against Corporate America.

Microsoft should learn a lesson from their stalking horse SCO. SCO thought their lawsuit would be a slam-dunk, and instead they get their head handed to them every time they show up in court. SCO is going down, down, down, and if Microsoft has any sense they'll learn by SCO's experience.

Unlike others, I didn't take yesterday's announcement that Microsoft was taking a minority position in Vintela as any indication that Microsoft had any real interest in Vintela the company or in its products. Instead, I think this is just another way for Microsoft to funnel money to SCO to keep the pot boiling. SCO is now dangerously short of cash, and the last thing Microsoft wants is for the SCO suit to fail from lack of funds. So Microsoft kicks in another $10 million or so, which is pocket change to them, and funds SCO's suit for another couple quarters or so.

13:30 - I periodically check my website logs to keep track of how many people are using Linux rather than Windows and Mozilla/Firefox rather than IE. For the month of November to date, 14.4% of my traffic is from Linux boxes and 59.2% from Mozilla browsers. Although my visitors are more clued-in technically than average, those are still very nice numbers for both Linux and Mozilla.

I wonder what they'll be a year from now. I'll guess that Linux should be up to 30% and Mozilla to 85%. Remind me to check back in a year to find out how close I came.

15:55 - It was a year ago today that we had to take Kerry on his final visit to the vet. He was an old dog, a month short of 16 years, and it was a miracle that he lasted as long as he did. He came to live with us when he was about four, when we moved my mom in with us. Barbara had never had a dog before, and she worried more about having Kerry living with us than about having my mom living with us.

Barbara mentioned Kerry last night, and she was obviously still upset about losing him. I told her then what I tell anyone in the same situation. When Kerry died, at that instant somewhere else a Border Collie pup was born. That pup is Kerry, although I'm sure that the little girl who owns him (and he, her) has given him another name. So Kerry turns one year old today. And the cycle continues.


Friday, 19 November 2004

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{Five Years Ago Today]

09:30 - I had a duh moment yesterday. All of our primary client systems and several others are running Xandros Linux. Other than test-bed systems, the PVR (which is currently in pieces in my workroom), and a couple of other minor exceptions, the only Windows box in the house is my old primary desktop, messier, which I converted into an ad hoc file server.

Windows Networking is easy, Linux networking less so. With an eye to the day when we won't have any production Windows systems around here, I've been playing around a bit with Linux networking, particularly NFS (Network File System) and CUPS (Common Unix Printing System). Neither is particularly user-friendly, even in the Xandros implementation. In fact, OSS luminary Eric Raymond delivered a rant not long ago about how user-hostile cups is. Suffice it to say that even ESR had problems getting CUPS configured and working. For a Linux newbie like me, getting shares established and accessing those shares from other clients, whether they be Windows or Linux systems, is non-trivial to put it mildly.

My duh moment came when I realized there was absolutely no need to run Unix protocols even on an all-Xandros network. Instead, I can use Windows shares under Xandros to provide access to network volumes and printers, whether to other Xandros systems or to Windows clients. It's ironic that Xandros Linux makes it much easier to create and access Windows shares than Unix shares, but there it is. Duh.

So, before long I'm going to shut down messier permanently and serve files and printers from Xandros. I think I can do so without much disruption. Currently, Barbara's and my data are in the /usr root-level subdirectory of the C: drive on messier. The C: drive is shared as messier_c, so a typical UNC filename is //messier_c/usr/thompson/ora/booknotes.sxw, which Windows clients see as f:/usr/thompson/ora/booknotes.sxw.

For Windows clients and apps, there's not much problem. I can simply set up a directory structure on a Xandros box, say hypatia (my main desktop), and redefine the Windows share for f: as that directory structure. There may be a bigger problem with Xandros clients and applications that don't use the Windows drive letters, but I'll think that through and see what I come up with. At worst, I may have to reconfigure our apps to point to a different servername and top-level directory, but that should be easy enough to do. 


Saturday, 20 November 2004

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{Five Years Ago Today]


Sunday, 21 November 2004

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{Five Years Ago Today]

08:50 - This coming week will be a quiet one around here. Barbara and I will work Monday and Tuesday and then take the rest of the week off to visit with friends over the Thanksgiving holiday.

(Warning to burglars: Ignore this at your peril. When we are away from home, we leave George, our guard rattlesnake, with free run of the house. George is a 7-foot Eastern Diamondback rattlesnake and is not defanged. Generally, George is pretty laid-back, but he's shedding his skin again, which always puts him in a bad mood. Ordinarily, he lives in a terrarium downstairs, but we let him out when we and the dogs are going to be away from home. Don't mess with George. And this year George is joined by Martha, our new female Eastern Diamondback rattlesnake. She's a couple feet shorter than George, but more aggressive.)


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