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Week of 2 May 2005

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Monday, 2 May 2005
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09:26 - Barbara and I gave her sister and brother-in-law a digital camera for their wedding anniversary. That raised a slight problem, because their home PC runs Xandros 2, and the 2.4.x kernel used by Xandros 2 doesn't have very good USB support. So I decided to upgrade them to Xandros 3, whose 2.6.x kernel works perfectly with USB mass storage devices like cameras.

Barbara picked up the system unit and hauled it home. When I fired it up yesterday, it got part way through the boot process and hung. That seemed odd, but I just rebooted it and it came up normally. I did a full backup of their data and installed Xandros 3. When I restarted the system again, it hung at the BIOS boot screen with a S.M.A.R.T. error message telling me that the hard drive was failing and that it was time to backup my data and replace the hard drive immediately. Hmmm.

That's the second hard drive that's failed in this system in a year or 18 months. Both were Seagates. It may be a coincidence, but of the scores of Seagate hard drives I've had running around here for years, those are the only two failures. That makes me wonder if the problem is really the hard drives, or if there's a problem with the disk controller or something. I pulled that drive, and when I get a spare moment I'll put it in a test-bed system and run in-depth diagnostics on it.

I needed to replace the hard drive, and I didn't have any parallel ATA hard drives in inventory. All of them were in systems, and most of those systems had served their purposes here and been donated to local non-profits long ago. Fortunately, Barbara remembered that we'd installed a parallel ATA hard drive in one of the systems that's still sitting in storage. I popped the cover on it, and found a 160 GB Maxtor parallel ATA drive, which I pulled and installed in the problem system. I installed and configured Xandros 3 on it, restored all their data, and set the system to burning in. If that drive fails quickly, I'll know there's a problem with the motherboard or some other component. One failure is unfortunate. Two begins to look suspicious. Three is the result of enemy action.

And I need to keep an eye out for sales at Best Buy and pick up one or two parallel ATA drives to keep in inventory.

I'm working on USB flash drives at the moment. I have several on the way in. When I last looked at these things a couple of years ago, they were interesting but pretty useless in practical terms. They had much too little capacity and their transfer rates were limited by USB 1.1 to less than 1 MB/s. The current generation is much more interesting. Capacities range up to 2 GB, and USB 2.0 High Speed transfers make them fast enough to be useful. So I'll be playing around with them quite a bit under Windows and Linux.


Tuesday, 3 May 2005
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11:11 - I plugged the "failed" 120 GB Seagate hard drive into a test-bed system and ran SeaTools on it. An odd thing happened. I ran the Quick Diagnostic first, and it told me the hard drive failed the test. I was about to pull the drive and discard it, but I decided to take Seagate's advice and run the Full Diagnostic, which takes some hours to complete. When I checked the system this morning, it had passed the Full Diagnostic with flying colors.

The test-bed system I used is actually ripper, a Sempron system that runs DVDshrink and a lot of Windows-only astronomy software. I think I'll pull its current hard drive and install the questionable drive in its place. The hard drive takes a beating in that system, so if it's going to fail it should fail there. I'm really curious to see if the drive is really failing or if there's something about the system that it was running in that's causing the repeated hard drive problems.

UPS showed up yesterday with a pair of Crucial Gizmo USB flash drives, one 512 MB and one 1 GB. I did a couple quick benchmark tests on the 1 GB model, copying a 673 MB ISO file to and then from the Gizmo. The write speed was about 8 MB/s and the read speed 10 MB/s (using the base-10 definitions that all the manufacturers use).

Crucial doesn't advertise read/write speeds, but from what I've seen performance is mid-range for a USB 2.0 drive. The slowest USB 2.0 flash drives are typically rated at 6 MB/s read and 4 MB/s write. The fastest USB 2.0 flash drives like the Kingston DataTraveler Elite claim 24 MB/s reads and 14 MB/s writes. Of course, the 1 GB Kingston DTE costs about 30% more than the 1 GB Crucial Gizmo.

Crucial takes a minimalist approach to bundled software. They don't include any. Many USB 2.0 flash drives include a sync utility and an encryption utility. Crucial simply provides a USB mass storage device and leaves it up to you to decide how you want to synchronize and encrypt your data. At first glance, the lack of software may appear to be a drawback, but I think I actually prefer Crucial's approach.

I mistrust synchronization software. I keep my data organized into directory structures that can easily be copied directly to the USB flash drive without worrying about whether the sync software is doing its job. And I really mistrust bundled encryption software. If I wanted to encrypt the data I was storing to a USB flash drive, which I don't, I'd prefer to use my own encryption software. Otherwise, I'd fear I was writing my data into a Hotel California. One competing drive, for example, claims to disable itself permanently after a certain number of failed access attempts. Superficially, that sounds attractive to those who are concerned about security, but it scares the hell out of me. One small glitch, and my data might be gone forever, locked into the device.

At any rate, the Crucial Gizmo is the first USB 2.0 flash drive I've had a chance to look at. I have others on the way in, so I'll be testing and comparing them as well.


Wednesday, 4 May 2005
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Please give a moment's thought today to Alison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer, and William Schroeder. Thirty-five years ago today at Kent State University, the Ohio National Guard murdered those four students and wounded nine others. Two of those dead were merely spectators at the anti-war protest that occurred that day. The other two were minding their own business on their way to classes. No students were armed. No Guardsmen had been injured, nor were they in any danger. The Guardsmen fired randomly for 13 seconds--13 seconds--into a group of unarmed civilians, killing students as much as 700 feet away. No one has ever been brought to justice for this massacre, nor even suffered administrative discipline.

I was sixteen years old the day it happened. That day, the government irretrievably and completely lost my trust, as it did that of many, perhaps most, of my generation. Whatever one's position on the war--I supported it--murdering unarmed and peaceful American college students was an action from which the government could never recover. Until that day, most Americans believed and trusted their government. Since that day, well, let's just say that most Americans no longer believe what the government tells them or trusts it to do the right thing. As Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young said, "Soldiers are gunning us down." Us.

Lest we forget.


Thursday, 5 May 2005
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09:42 - Many authors are obsessive about checking the Amazon rank and reviews for their books. I don't check mine from one month to the next. In fact, I think the last time I checked Building the Perfect PC was in late 2004. But last night I happened to follow a link to the Amazon page for Building the Perfect PC, and I'm glad I did. I found a one-star review that had been posted yesterday by someone with the pen name "Flying Tiger".

Ordinarily, I don't let bad reviews faze me. It's impossible to please everyone. I'll read the bad review, and if it makes any valid points, I'll keep them in mind for the next edition. But reading this review made me wonder if the reviewer had even read the book. I'm not sure why I did it, but I clicked on the link for "Flying Tiger", which told me that the real name of the reviewer was Mark Chambers. That name sounded vaguely familiar, but I couldn't remember where I'd heard it. I noticed that the nickname was listed as "mlcbooks" so on a whim I entered http://www.mlcbooks.com in my browser.

So, I find that mlcbooks is the home page of computer book author Mark L. Chambers, who just happens to have written a book titled Building PCs for Dummies. Although he criticizes our book for being out of date, his own book is a year older than ours. And, whereas our book has 35 reviews averaging five stars, his book has 30 reviews averaging three stars. Amazon is subject to "grade inflation" so in fact a book that averages five stars is probably pretty good; one that averages four stars is probably mediocre; and one that averages three stars is probably piss poor. I doubt even 1% of all books listed on Amazon have average ratings below three stars, at least those books with multiple reviews posted.

So, we have the author of an old, poorly-reviewed book trashing Building the Perfect PC. That's pretty pathetic, but it still pissed me off. I immediately clicked on the link on Amazon to report the review. That simply generates a message to Amazon, without allowing you to enter the specifics. I expect to hear from Amazon soon, at which time I'll tell them specifically why I objected to that review.

I also contacted several people at O'Reilly, and they're going to try to get the review pulled. One of them suggested that the best way to counter it would be to post another review pointing out that "Flying Tiger" is actually the author of a competing book. I can't do that myself because my absolute policy is never to write reviews of my own books or competing titles, but if any of my readers care to post a review to counter Mr. Chamber's underhanded action I certainly wouldn't object.

I lied about two Seagate drives failing. The most recent failed drive was a Seagate, but the first drive that failed in my sister-in-law's system was in fact a 160 GB Maxtor DiamondMax Plus 9. I'd labeled the Maxtor "BAD" with a marking pen, but my tendency not to throw anything out came to the rescue this time. I still had that first failed drive sitting on the shelf, so yesterday I stuck it in the test bed system as the Secondary Master and ran SeaTools diagostics on it. Like the "failed" Seagate drive, the Maxtor drive passed SeaTools diagnostics with flying colors.

So, the upshot is that I don't believe there's really anything wrong with either drive. I suppose it might be the ATA cable. I wish now I'd changed it out when I installed the replacement drive.

11:05 - The PayPal phishers are at it again, this time apparently with the aid of a virus that gloms email addresses and sends their phishing mail to those addresses. They include the other addresses as visible CCs, apparently hoping that'll make their scam more credible.

PayPal scam

They did a pretty good job on the appearance of the email. It really does look like an email from PayPal. Of course, they kind of ruined the effect with the "Congratulations!Papal®" line. Unless they're congratulating the new pope, I suppose.

15:02 - Well, they reached the right decision in the case of the Marine accused of murdering a wounded enemy at Fallujah last year. He won't be court martialed. I am flabbergasted that anyone even considered court martialing the guy. He did his job properly, just as he'd been trained to do. A wounded enemy combatant is no less dangerous for being wounded, and may in fact be more so. When one considers Islamic so-called culture, one would be insane to risk assuming that a wounded Islamic was harmless. These are, after all, the same people who have so many volunteers for suicide bombings that they have to turn them away in droves.

When I was in college, one of my friends was a professor, Al Brower, who'd landed at Omaha Beach on D-Day as a sergeant in the US Army and carried his Thompson Gun all the way to Berlin. I remember Al talking about the time his platoon attempted to allow two SS soldiers to surrender. They approached Al and his buddies in single file, one behind the other, with their hands up. When they got close to the American soldiers, the front guy bent over and the rear guy snatched an MP-40 submachine gun that had been strapped to the back of the front guy and opened fire on the Americans.

Al and his buddies gunned them down, of course, without suffering any casualties of their own, but they did learn a lesson. From that point forward, none of them ever allowed SS to surrender. They shot down any SS who attempted to surrender, and they didn't feel the least bit guilty about doing so. I'd certainly have done the same, as would any sane person. The laws of war were on their side, as they were on the side of the corporal charged in the Fallujah shooting.

And the Waffen SS were real sweethearts compared to what our soldiers are up against in Iraq. The Waffen SS, for example, honored the Red Cross and rarely shot enemy prisoners. (Yes, I know about Malmedy and other massacres; there were exceptions, but generally the Waffen SS obeyed the rules of war on the Western Front except when it came to false surrenders.)

The Islamic terrorists our soldiers face in Iraq obey no laws of any sort, and our forces are legally entitled to treat them savagely. In fact, even if that Marine Corporal had knowingly shot an unarmed prisoner, he'd have been fully within his rights in doing so. By the laws of war, the Islamic terrorists in Fallujah were subject to summary execution, just as any terrorist is.

No one would have heard about this incident were it not for the presence of a television reporter, which to me is a good argument for eliminating television reporters from war zones. It all started with Viet Nam, with the TV news bringing war scenes into our living rooms. Nowadays, better technology allows the TV networks to broadcast war scenes in real-time, which only makes matters worse. War is inherently unpleasant. The folks at home shouldn't be subjected to the gory details, not because they should be spared the unpleasantness but because they don't need more reasons to interfere in matters they don't understand.

Let our soldiers do their jobs. They don't need armchair quarterbacks criticizing them. And they certainly don't need to fear being charged with a crime for doing their jobs.

As to that corporal, I think he should be praised for his actions, although I'm sure he'd be the first to tell you that he was only doing his job. Think about it. If you were in that life-and-death situation in Fallujah, who would you rather have backing you up? That corporal, or the news weasel who made such a big deal out of nothing? I know which one I'd choose.


Friday, 6 May 2005
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12:37 - That was quick. Amazon has already pulled the "review" written by Mark Chambers. Thanks to all of you who posted counter-reviews or sent mail to Amazon, Mr. Chambers, and his publisher. I hope Mr. Chambers won't try this nasty trick again, although somehow I doubt he's learned his lesson.

Actually, I have a problem with the whole anonymous review process at Amazon. There's no doubt that favorable Amazon reviews can help a book's sales, or that unfavorable reviews can harm sales. It seems to me that allowing anonymous reviews is an invitation to abuse either way. Amazon should require that any reviewer be clearly identified, and not just by a pseudonym.

A year or two ago, Amazon Canada screwed up and posted the actual reviewers' names on previously anonymous reviews. For the day or so that lasted, many authors, including me, checked a lot of books and authors to see who had and had not reviewed their own books and competing books. All of us who did that now know who is honorable and who is without honor.

I was pleased to find that none of the authors of whom I thought highly had reviewed their own or competitors' books anonymously. Conversely, I was unsurprised to find that many authors of whom I have a lower opinion had reviewed their own books favorably and/or their competitors' books unfavorably. But the real solution to this problem is for Amazon and other on-line booksellers to eliminate anonymous and pseudonymous reviews.

I'm still working on the PC hardware book, but I'm also doing some other stuff. I need to write a couple astronomy articles for O'Reilly's web site. Those will probably be Astronomy Hacks that I didn't have time to write before deadline for the book.

I also need to write a proposal/TOC for our next book for O'Reilly, which will be another astronomy title. The new astronomy book will be larger than Astronomy Hacks, and will be more in the nature of a field observing guide. It'll be a lot of work, but it'll also be a fun project. As usual, I'll post material as it's completed on the Subscribers' page so that subscribers can follow the whole process of writing the book, from outline to completion.

And I really need to get a semi-permanent Windows XP test-bed system built, if only to run Windows-only DVD ripping software and astronomy software.

15:14 - Good news about the broadcast flag. A federal court has struck down the FCC ruling that would have prohibited the manufacture or sale of devices after 1 July that do not recognize the broadcast flag. This decision is a major win for the EFF and a major loss for the MPAA and other copyright pigs. Of course, it may be set aside by a higher court or rendered moot by Congress, but for now it looks as though at least some of our Fair Use rights will remain protected, at least for a while longer.

What disturbs me about all of this is that the MPAA and RIAA pigopolists have put us on the defensive, reacting to their outrageous proposed laws and regulations. We should go on the offensive, and a good place to start would be to write your congressweasel to demand that the DMCA be repealed. We can't buy their votes like the MPAA and RIAA do, but we can and should make it clear to them that we do everything possible to make sure they are voted out of office if they support the pigopolists.

And there are many other measures that need to be taken. First, we need to rationalize the copyright laws. Copyrights were intended to be of limited term, and what we have now is essentially unlimited terms. We need to return to something reasonable, say a five-year term renewable for another five years. That should be retroactive, so anything that was copyrighted more than 10 years before the new law passes should automatically enter the public domain.

The intial copyright registration should be free or low cost, but copyright renewal fees should take into account the value of the copyright. That way, works of limited commercial value would enter the public domain after five years. Works that retained substantial commercial value after the initial five-year term would be renewable only at a fee that reflected that commercial value.

That might be implemented by allowing upset bids, where the initial copyright holder could set the expected value of the work during the five-year extended term and pay some reasonable percentage of that value, say 10%, as a copyright renewal fee. Anyone who wanted to could upset the bid of the original copyright holder by paying a copyright renewal fee of ten times that amount, which would buy the copyright for them.

Once we get copyright terms rationalized, I'd think the next step would be to modify copyright law to legalize non-commercial copyright infringement, recognizing the reality of how people behave. Any law that makes the majority of the population criminals is a bad law, and the laws against non-commercial copyright infringement do just that.

It's time to make the copyright pigs squeal. Write your congressweasel to get things rolling.


Saturday, 7 May 2005
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Sunday, 8 May 2005
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