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Week of 9 January 2006

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Monday, 9 January 2006
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10:14 - I'm still writing, or, more precisely, organizing, the new astronomy book. Usually, I focus on chapters. Although I may have two or three in progress at a time, and I sometimes stop work on the current chapter to go add a quick thought to a new chapter, I generally work pretty linearly. For this book, because of its nature, I have literally dozens of chapters in progress simultaneously. That means I still haven't submitted the first two chapters, and that milestone was due 12/31/05. Still, I'm making a lot of progress, which is probably all O'Reilly really cares about.

Because this is a field observing guide, we'll have a chance to "beta test" it during our own observing sessions over the next few months. We'll be using what we've written as a guide for our own observing sessions, and modifying the original text as a result of those sessions. By the time we're finished, our goal is to have the book we wish we'd had when we were starting out. But there's going to be a lot of work needed to get to that point.


Tuesday, 10 January 2006
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08:18 - I didn't sleep very well last night. I dreamt that I was trapped in a building full of Fundamentalist Christian Flesh-Eating Zombies (FCFEZs).

I almost never have nightmares. When I do, they're generally over with quickly. Ordinarily, I would just have pulled out my .45 Auto or my Hi-Standard 10B riot shotgun loaded with anti-FCFEZ ammunition, blown away a few of the monsters, and the rest would have fled in terror. (I guess I really internalized that poster from my college days: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for I am the meanest son-of-a-bitch in the valley.")

But this time I'd somehow forgotten to bring along my weapons. I was on my own, defenseless. Even Duncan and Malcolm had gone over to the dark side. Things were not looking good. I was alone in a room, with FCFEZs trying to get in all the windows and doors. But then I heard a disturbance outside. It was Barbara, coming down the corridor to my rescue, killing FCFEZs left and right. Even FCFEZs don't mess with Barbara.

And then I awakened.


Wednesday, 11 January 2006
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08:52 - O'Reilly emailed me late yesterday to say that the QC2 PDF galleys for Repairing and Upgrading Your PC were available. I've downloaded them and will spend the next couple of days blasting through them. At this point, only minor errors can be fixed--typos and so on. Nothing that would change a page break, let alone a chapter break. I won't bother posting these for my subscribers to download, because the differences between the QC1 versions and the QC2 versions are very minor. We're scheduled to have all corrections in by early next week, at which point the book is finished and ready to go to the printer.

I usually prefer to buy top-quality stuff, at least if the price difference is not large in absolute terms. That's why, for example, we prefer to use super-premium Pentax eyepieces in our telescopes, despite the fact that they sell for $300 to $500 each. But yesterday, while I was ordering Barbara a Moon Map from Orion, I decided to take a chance on a mid-priced eyepiece.

The Pentax XWs are wonderful eyepieces. They have a 70° apparent field of view, 20mm of eye relief, and absolutely superb coatings. They're sharp across the entire field of view, even in scopes with fast focal ratios, and their contrast is better than any other eyepiece we've seen. The shortest Pentax we have is 10mm, which yields 125X magnification in our primary scope. When we need higher magnification, such as for Lunar/planetary viewing, we use Barlows with our longer Pentax eyepieces to boost magnification to 180X, 250X, 270X, and higher.

But Barbara dislikes using Barlows. She prefers using an eyepiece that natively provides the magnification she wants. I considered buying her a Pentax 5mm, shown on the right, but then I got to thinking. There are alternatives to Pentax eyepieces. The Vixen Lanthanum Superwide eyepieces, shown in the center, also have wide apparent fields of view, 20mm of eye relief, and good sharpness and contrast even when used in fast scopes. They regularly sell for about $235, but Orion is having a clearance sale on them right now for $200 each. The Vixen Superwide LVWs are true premium eyepieces, but we consider them a half-step behind the super-premiums like the Pentax XWs.

But Orion was also having a sale on their Stratus eyepieces, shown on the left. The Stratuses are basically Chinese clones of the Japanese Vixen LVWs. They have 68° apparent fields, 20mm of eye relief, and, based on the limited number of reviews I've seen, apparently have good sharpness and contrast and work well even in fast scopes. The Stratuses normally sell for $120 each, but Orion had them on sale for $96 each, so I decided to order a 5mm model. At a third the price of a Pentax XW, I'm not expecting miracles, but it'll be interesting to see just how close a $96 Chinese clone can come to the $300 super-premium Pentaxes.

Going in, I'm expecting the 5mm Stratus to be a close match to a 5mm Pentax XW. I wouldn't expect the Stratus coatings to be as good as Pentax coatings--no one's are--so the Stratus will probably have a bit lower contrast than the XW. It also wouldn't surprise me if the Stratus showed some flaring if a bright object is just outside the field of view. In longer focal lengths, I'd expect the Stratus to show somewhat more field curvature than the Pentax XW, but at 5mm I expect neither will show any noticeable field curvature.

I almost didn't order the Stratus, in the expectation that I'd be satisfied with nothing less than the Pentax XL, but after thinking about it, I decided to go ahead and order the Stratus. If nothing else, my astronomer readers will be interested in finding out how well or poorly the Stratus eyepieces compare to premiums. And I can always sell it if I don't like it.


Thursday, 12 January 2006
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16:12 - I've fininished proofing the QC2 galleys for Repairing & Upgrading Your PC, and sent my comments back to O'Reilly. At this point, I'm whacked. Proof-reading is very hard work. I think I'll take the rest of the day off and dive back into the astronomy book tomorrow.

Most Windows users I speak with are not just blind to the fundamental design flaws in their chosen operating system, but seem to be in a state of active denial. One such person commented to me the other day that coverage of the WMF flaw was "overblown" and that it had turned out to be "not so bad after all."

Not so bad? Not so bad as what? If there can be said to be levels of catastrophic when it comes to security holes, this one takes top honors. I know it's an old joke, but in this case it's true. The WMF flaw is not a bug; it's a feature. Microsoft intentionally designed this behavior into the way Windows handles WMF formatted files, and somehow never noticed that by doing so they'd left a backdoor big enough to drive an armored division through.

When my correspondent further stated that very few systems had been victimized by exploits against this flaw, I asked him, "How do you know? How could you ever know?" I don't know. Microsoft doesn't know. No one knows. There could be "only" a million systems that have fallen victim to this design feature. Or there could be ten million, or a hundred million by now. We'll never know, because the exploits against the WMF hole are directed against a feature of Windows that allows the malefactors to have their ways with the compromised systems.

If you detect a virus or spyware on a system, it's often impossible to know for certain how it got there. So, when someone's scanner detects a particular virus or spyware or Trojan, how does he know how it came to be there? Can he prove it entered his system via an exploit against the WMF flaw? Probably not, but that doesn't mean the WMF flaw wasn't responsible.

And many infections will go unnoticed, because the last thing malefactors want nowadays is to damage the infected system or in any way to make it obvious that that system is infected. They prefer a symbiotic relationship, where they do something somewhat useful for your system, such as displaying current weather data in your task bar, while hijacking your system to do something very useful for them, such as hosting kiddy porn, serving as a spam relay host, launching paid-for DDoS attacks, or accumulating your bank account numbers and other information useful for identity theft.

Not so bad after all? I'm flabbergasted by the ability of so many Windows users to ignore potentially catastrophic security and privacy risks. I guess after so long working without a net, they've become inured to the dangers. The frequent sounds of other Windows users splatting on the pavement seems to be of no concern to them. It can't happen to them, right?


Friday, 13 January 2006
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10:08 - Friday the 13th falls on a Friday this month.

Some friends of ours are interested in learning to shoot, so we may go out tomorrow and shoot some baby skeets, or at least give them the scare of their lives. Barbara will probably come along, at least for the ride, and may shoot as well.

I'll go along mainly to offer encouragement and moral support. I'm likely to embarrass myself if I shoot. I've shot a few rounds of skeet and trap, but my most recent outing was more than 25 years ago. And I didn't do all that well then.

In my admittedly limited experience, some people are naturals with a shotgun. Many years ago, I took my then-girlfriend out for an introductory session with a manual trap and a 12-gauge 870 pump-action shotgun. She'd never fired a shotgun before, so I had her fire a few rounds just to get a feel for it. After giving her a few tips, I had her start shooting at clays. She smoked the first one, which I put down to beginner's luck. I was flabbergasted when she went on to nail 18 clean and two cripples in her first round of 25. I don't expect our friends to do nearly that well, but it could happen.


Saturday, 14 January 2006
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Sunday, 15 January 2006
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