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Week of 13 December 2004

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Monday, 13 December 2004

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09:25 - Barbara returned late last night from her weekend bus tour to South Carolina with her family. The dogs and I greeted her joyously. She had so much fun that she plans to go again next year. When we heard that, the dogs' ears drooped. My ears drooped, too. It's just not the same when Barbara's gone.

I'm pretty busy from now until year-end, so there won't be much posted here. I have deadlines approaching, year-end tax/business stuff to do, the Winter Solstice holiday itself to prepare for and suffer through, and so on. So don't expect much here until after the first of the year.


Tuesday, 14 December 2004

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10:14 - I spent the afternoon over at Paul and Mary's house fettling their network. Mary was still recovering from running a marathon down in South Carolina last weekend. She ran an excellent race, and came in at 3:31. Hurray for Mary! She kept up an 8-minute mile pace for the entire race. What Mary does is beyond my imagining. Nowadays, I couldn't run one 8-minute mile, let alone 26 of them in a row.

Barbara went to the 5:30 gym class and then picked up pizza and brought it over to Paul and Mary's house. After dinner, we sat around for a while discussing ideas for the astronomy book that Barbara and I plan to write, and then headed home for an early evening.

Fred Reed has posted an interesting column about the death of newspapers. Coincidentally the business section of our paper this morning had an article about the decline in newspaper advertising.

Frankly, I'm not sure why we continue to take the local paper. There's not much in it worth reading. The national coverage is usually just a rehash of stuff I'd read on the web the day before. The local coverage is usually of little or no interest to me. Anything local I care about I'll hear about from other people anyway. I read Dilbert, which I can find on the web, and the bridge column, which I'm sure I could find on the web if I cared to look. We read Dave Barry's column, which again is available elsewhere. TV listings? The web is more up-to-date, and anyway we watch very little TV. We have the Weather Channel and the web for weather. There's just nothing in the local paper that makes it worth getting.

Newspapers were dying before the Internet became ubiquitous, and the web is hastening their demise. In 10 years, I suspect most local newspapers will have folded.

12:13 - A tractor-trailer just showed up out front with a 260-pound skid of UPS equipment from Falcon Electric. Jerry Pournelle has sworn by Falcon UPSs for years, and after talking at some length to a couple of the folks at Falcon I understand why.

Years ago, there were a few engineering-driven companies that built the best possible products, regardless of cost. Digital Equipment Corporation, Hewlett-Packard, and Compaq come to mind. They used milspec components, gold-plated connectors, and whatever else it took to build products as perfectly as humanly possible. If there was an alternative way to do something that was 10% better and cost twice as much, they spent the extra money.

In those companies, engineering was king, and marketing was, if anything, an afterthought. HP and DEC, for example, were both famous for expecting their products to sell on their own merits and by word of mouth. If you didn't appreciate how good they were, you didn't deserve to have them.

Alas, most of those companies are gone now, or as with HP, have morphed beyond recognition. Nowadays, if an alternative method is half as good and costs $0.10 less, nearly all companies use the cheap method without a second thought. So it was a pleasure for me to talk to the folks at Falcon Electric. It's an old-fashioned company in the best sense. The engineers still rule there.

During our conversation, I mentioned in passing that I'd noticed NewEgg didn't carry Falcon Electric UPSs, and asked where my readers might buy them. They were clearly puzzled that I expected their products to be available in mass-market channels. "Well, we do have distributors," they said, "but you can just buy our products directly from us."

I love it. A company that knows its products are so good that people will come looking for them. Glancing at the types of customers who buy Falcon Electric products, it's easy to see that they're justified in that belief. Falcon sells commercial-grade power protection equipment to large corporations, the military, telephone companies, and so on. In fact, to any organization that requires absolute reliability in power protection. There's no consumer-grade stuff on the Falcon product list.

So I took a look at the Falcon price list, expecting to clutch my chest and gasp. I was expecting Rolls-Royce prices, but I was pleasantly surprised. Falcon equipment isn't inexpensive by any means, but neither is it all that much more expensive than consumer-grade stuff with similar capacities.

I have three Falcon units in for testing, a 1 kVA line-interactive unit, and two on-line units, a 1 kVA and a 1.5 kVA. I plan to wring them out over the coming weeks. Stay tuned.

I'll be very busy for the next few days, reviewing the QC1 draft of the new PC Hardware Buyers' Guide book and incorporating edits. O'Reilly has this one on the fast track, and I want to get it as correct as possible and as current as possible before it goes to the printer. There'll be one more QC pass in early January, and then it'll be off to the printer.


Wednesday, 15 December 2004

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8:39 - Someone emailed me the other day to ask me to explain why the arguments of the Intelligent Design folks are pseudoscientific and wrong. Basically, it's because they make a fundamentally flawed assumption, which is that the current state of things is somehow special. For example, Fred Reed, for whom I otherwise have a lot of respect, writes:

Consider a thickish book of, say, 200,000 words. By the newspaper estimate that there are on average five letters per word, that's a million letters. What's the likelihood that our monkey, typing randomly (ignoring upper case and punctuation) will get the book in a given string of a million letters?

He has a 1/26 chance of getting the first letter, times a 1/26 chance of the second, and so on. The chance of getting the book in a million characters is one in 26 to the millionth power. I don't have a calculator handy, but we can get an approximation. Since 26 = 10 exp(log 26), then 26 exp(1,000,000) = 10 exp(log 26 x 1,000,000) . Since log 10 = 1 and log 100 = 2, log 26 has to be between, somewhere on the low end. Call it 1.2.

The monkey thus has one chance in 12 followed by 1,000,000 zeros. (OK, 999,999 for the picky.) That's what mathematicians call a BLG (Brutishly Large Number). For practical purposes, one divided by that rascal is zero. If you had a billion billion monkeys (more monkeys than I want) typing a billion billion letters a second, for a billion billion times the estimated age of the universe (10 exp 18 seconds is commonly given), the chance of getting the book would still be essentially zero.

He misses the point entirely, which is not surprising because statistics and probability are slippery things. The question is not the probability of his monkeys producing a particular book, which is to say the current state of things, but a book, which needn't be in English or indeed recognizable by us as a book at all.

Let me give a concrete example. I used to play bridge, in which a deck of 52 cards is dealt to four players, giving each player a hand of 13 cards. An old practical joke amongst bridge players is to stack the deck so as to give an unsuspecting victim a hand of 13 spades. In a truly random deal, the odds against him picking up a hand that contains all 13 spades are more than 645 billion to 1. So, if a player picks up a hand of 13 spades he suspects, almost certainly correctly, that someone has stacked the deck.

In a nutshell, this is the argument of Intelligent Design. That the likelihood of picking up a hand of 13 spades is so vanishingly small that when we pick up such a hand it is impossible that we could have received that hand as a result of a random deal. Some unseen prime mover must be behind it. Superficially, that is a reasonable argument. The problem is, it has a major logical flaw. To understand why, you have to understand that the probability of receiving any specific hand of 13 cards is exactly the same as the probability of receiving a hand containing 13 spades. For example, in a random deal I am no more likely to pick up

S: Q-9-4-2
H: K-J-7
D: A-10-8-3
C: 9-6

than I am to pick up

S: A-K-Q-J-10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2

By the arguments of Intelligent Design, therefore, if I sit down at a bridge table, it is impossible for me to be randomly dealt any hand at all, because the probability against my receiving that specific hand is so vanishingly small. In other words, the logical flaw in the arguments of Intelligent Design folks is that they assume the way things are is the way they had to be. Their argument is circular, because it presupposes a hidden guiding hand must exist for any result at all to occur.

The Intelligent Design folks make much of the argument that evolution is "only a theory", with the implication that a theory is only a guess. In science, a theory is far from a guess; it is the next best thing to a fact. Scientists will not state that evolution is a fact, because scientists place great value on facts. For something to be accepted as a fact, it must pass a very high bar. In theory, for example, the sun will rise tomorrow. But that is not a fact until it has been proven to have occurred.

The theory of evolution is supported by all of the facts we have. If someone discovered and confirmed just one fact that was fundamentally incompatible with the theory of evolution, that theory would be discarded. Scientists would devise new hypotheses to explain what we observe and would then test those hypotheses against known facts. But unless and until such a fact is discovered, the theory of evolution is the best and far most likely explanation we have for the facts we observe. If you think of evolution as being just a guess, you're simply proving that you understand nothing about science.


Thursday, 16 December 2004

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10:27 - I don't usually care for Christmas stories, but here's one worth reading. It's the story of Ebenezer Broadcaster.

As the story says, "Mass marketing died when the Internet was born, and media is now all about consumer choice." Broadcasting is deader than buggy whips. It just doesn't realize it yet. Oh, the entrenched broadcasting interests will struggle mightily to maintain the status quo ante, but they'll inevitably lose. As Canute learned, no one can hold back the tide.

Roadrunner just announced that it's boosting download speed caps for residential users from 3 Mb/s to 5 Mb/s in January, with business users jumping from 6 Mb/s to 8 Mb/s. Internet2 can transfer an entire DVD in four seconds. Technologies like WiMax hold the promise of delivering inexpensive, fast broadband access even in thinly populated areas. Soon, anyone anywhere who wants a fast broadband connection will be able to have one at an affordable price. That's the death knell for broadcasting.

Every evening now, our Roadrunner connection slows down. As more and more kids discover BitTorrent, they're spending their evenings searching Suprnova.org for torrents to download the latest movies and TV programs. Roadrunner continues to build out their networks, so the slowdown is temporary, but what those kids are doing is permanent. They've gotten out of the habit of watching broadcast television, instead looking to the Internet to deliver entertainment. They'll never return, nor will their children or their children's children. The phrase "network television" has taken on a new meaning.

Companies that are committed to the old order are doomed, no matter how many congressmen and judges they bribe or how many laws they buy. Wishing things were different isn't a viable business plan. It's the newer, smaller companies that are fast on their feet and willing to recognize and exploit the new reality that will prosper.

Ubiquitous high-speed Internet access is the largest agent for change we've ever seen, not just in how we play but in how we work, at least so-called "knowledge workers." Many of us still commute to work every morning, to a downtown office, but that is already changing and the pace can only accelerate.

This idea of centralization developed in the late 19th century, when typewriters were costly and telephones rare. At that time, centralization made sense, because it was cheaper and more efficient to move people to a central location where they could share scarce, expensive resources than it would have been to provide those resources in employees' homes. Nowadays, the converse is true, and yet many of us still drive to work every morning.

The cost of that is outrageous. We waste millions of man-hours per day on needless commuting and spend trillions of dollars on the infrastructure to get commuters to and from work and to provide workplaces for them. This morning, when I finished reading the newspaper in the den, I did my usual 15-second commute to my office. Barbara left to drive the 10 miles or so to the law firm where she works downtown. She starts work very early to avoid the morning rush and find a good parking place, which is telling.

Even disregarding Barbara's commuting costs in time, gasoline, vehicle depreciation, and parking fees, the equation simply doesn't balance. Her law firm spends thousands of dollars per year to provide a workplace for her, which amounts to a desk and chair, a computer, a network connection, and a telephone. She has all of that at home.

How difficult would it be for her firm to virtualize the centralization? Not very. Instead of paying thousands of dollars per year for space for her, all they need do is provide a fast Internet connection with VPN, a computer (which they're providing anyway), and some minor office equipment. They could also provide an IP phone, which could be virtualized as a part of their internal phone system. If they want face-to-face conversations, install a webcam. That's it. Multiply those cost savings by the number of staff they employ and it comes to a huge number.

Every study of telecommuting I've seen says that the upsides far outweigh the downsides. Sure, her firm might have to hire a few more IT people, because they'd be making house calls. So what? They could cut down on the amount of expensive downtown office space they pay for by about 90%. Their space needs would be minimal. Some staff and client meeting rooms, a few offices, facilities for IT equipment, and that's about it.

Telecommuters are happier and more productive than people who commute to offices. They get more work done, get it done faster, and that work is of higher quality. Telecommuters cost the company less, much less, than office-bound workers. Some companies fear that telecommuters will be harder to supervise and less productive than office-bound workers, but the converse has proven to be true. Some would-be telecommuters fear the "out of sight, out of mind" issue, thinking that by missing out on water-cooler conversations they will become isolated and perhaps overlooked at salary-review and promotion time. Again, that fear has never materialized. A good worker is a good worker, period, no matter where he happens to do his work.

In fact, I wonder if there's a business opportunity in office outsourcing. I can visualize a company that hosts businesses that are changing to a telecommuting model. Provide office space dedicated to the needs of telecommuting-based businesses. Small suites, some with dedicated meeting rooms and others for those satisfied with common meeting rooms. Centralized server and telecomm facilities that would eliminate the need for companies to employ much dedicated IT staff. Redundant datacomm set up to meet the requirements of a large number of telecommuters. Technicians who could be dispatched to the homes of telecommuters who had computer or telecomm problems. Consultants who would help companies design and deploy a comprehensive telecommuting plan. And so on.

It's interesting to think about all this, but it'll be more interesting to actually do something about it. If I can get Barbara comfortable with the idea, I plan to cancel our cable television and telephone service and run our house on IP. That won't happen immediately, but it is one of my long-term goals. We'll see how it all works out.

Sometimes I just want to strangle someone...



This is one more example, albeit trivial, of why Firefox annoys me. What possible reason could there be for arbitrarily switching the buttons? Confusing long-time Mozilla Browser users?

And speaking of annoyances, one thing that really outrages me is when software attempts to force me to do something its way because the programmers have certain beliefs. The first time I ran into that was with Eudora, which refused to allow me to request a return receipt as the default action. I needed return receipts for what I was doing at the time, but the only way to get them with Eudora was to request a return receipt on a message-by-message basis. Eudora even provided a sanctimonious explanation in the help file, saying that it was a waste of bandwidth to request return receipts. Give me a break. That was enough to make me swear off using Eudora. I've never used it since, and I've recommended against it any time anyone asked me.

I've run into a similar situation with Mozilla Composer and its derivative N|vu. When I insert an image, as I just did above, these programs prompt me to enter alternative text. I don't want to enter alternative text. I don't care if my site complies with government or other standards for accessibility. I don't have the time or the inclination to sit there thinking up alternative text entries. But Composer and N|vu default to prompting for alternative text, and there's no option to change that default.

If that were merely an oversight, I'd be annoyed but not outraged. But I'm sure it's no oversight. Someone decided it would be a Good Thing to help the blind by making it difficult for everyone to avoid entering alternative text. In other words, that someone decided that it was acceptable to make my life more difficult to benefit a group for which he feels sympathy. And I deeply resent that.

Set the default to require alternative text. Fine. But if I once mark the radio button for "Don't use alternative text", that should change the default automatically and permanently. To force me to take that extra step each time I insert an image is simply obnoxious. Enough so that I'm looking for another HTML editor.

And here's a response from an anonymous correspondent, who points out something I should have mentioned about Intelligent Design.

Excellent argument.  The only other thing I would point out is that disproving a hypothesis or a theory is not proof that an alternative is correct.  Supporters of Intelligent Design seem to think that poking holes in the theory of evolution proves them correct, when in truth, it says nothing at all about the validity of Intelligent Design.

That's what happens when I sit down and start writing off the top of my head. I forget to mention important points. Thanks for the catch.


Friday, 17 December 2004

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10:05 - I finished up the QC1 pass through the PC Hardware Buyer's Guide book yesterday and sent my comments off to O'Reilly. I'm still awaiting comments from my "kitchen cabinet", but I suspect there won't be too many.

I was looking back over my goals for 2004. Some I completed partially, some I didn't even start on, and a few I finished completely. Notable among the latter was one of my more important goals: "Migrate to Linux: This Year For Sure". I completed that one in spades. All of our primary desktop systems, including Barbara's, are now running Xandros Desktop Linux. Other than my notebook, a PVR system, a temporary file server, and several test-bed systems, we have no Windows systems in the house.

The notebook will be converted to Linux as soon as there's a workable Linux version of the Cartes du Ciel planetarium program available for Linux. Of course, there's always Xephem. It's powerful, but I just can't get used to the Motif interface. Perhaps I should make more of an effort to learn Xephem, because at the rate the Cartes du Ciel Linux conversion is going, it may be years before there's a release version.

The PVR system (actually, there are two) will probably be converted to Linux as well. I haven't looked at MythPC, Freevo, or any of the other Linux-based PVR packages lately, but I'm willing to bet they've improved since I last looked at them. Of course, now that Barbara is down to watching exactly one weekly program, Left Wing, it may not make sense to have a PVR system at all, other than to write about. Especially since I want to drop our cable TV service. Perhaps I should build an automated BitTorrent-based PVR system. Nah, I guess that'd get the MPAA upset with me.

The file server is still running Windows 2000 from inertia more than anything else. I'll probably convert it to Xandros before the end of the year. Either that, or I may decide we don't really need a file server at all. In that case, I'll strip it down to bare metal, install SuSE, and donate it to Senior Services. They'd probably appreciate it. It's a Pentium 4 box with 512 MB of RAM and a DDS-3 tape drive. It'd make a nice small server for them.

One of my goals for 2005 is to quietize this place. I'm tired of the whine of CPU coolers and exhaust fans. For a lot of our systems, that won't require much more than replacing stock CPU coolers with quiet units from Thermalright or Zalman. For others, I'll have to do a bit more work.

I have three books on the schedule for 2005, so it'll be a busy year.


Saturday, 18 December 2004

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{Five Years Ago Today]


Sunday, 19 December 2004

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09:28 - I was just checking my web access logs this morning, and I see that for December to date only about a third of my traffic reports the agent as Internet Explorer. The remainder is almost entirely Mozilla and Firefox. What really amazed me, though, is that about a sixth of my traffic comes from Linux desktops.

When you consider that a lot of my visitors browse this site from their offices rather than their homes, which usually means they're running Windows/IE, those numbers are truly staggering.


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