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Week of 23 January 2006

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Monday, 23 January 2006
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08:38 - Our latest book, Repairing & Upgrading Your PC, is complete, and should be hitting the bookstores early next month. As they've done for our last several books, O'Reilly has agreed to send a limited number of review copies to my subscribers who request them. If you receive a copy, you agree to read it and post a review on Amazon.com (most important) as well as any other places you'd like to post your review (such as B&N).

As always, if you want a review copy it'd be a good idea to get your request in as soon as possible. I do nothing except collect requests and forward them to O'Reilly. If there are more requests than review copies available, O'Reilly decides who to send the review copies to. That's fine with me, because it avoids any hard feelings. In the past, O'Reilly has sent between 50 and 75 review copies to my subscribers, so if you request a copy there's a pretty good chance you'll get one.

If you're not currently a subscriber, you can subscribe here. The offer is open both to current subscribers and new subscribers, although the cutoff for requests is this Friday. There are detailed instructions for requesting a review copy on the subscribers' home page.

I spent most of the weekend dealing with hardware and OS problems. It started Friday afternoon, when I decided it was time to hook up the new Epson 3490 scanner I'd bought, which was allegedly Linux compatible. Linux-compatible it may be, but you couldn't prove it by me. After struggling with it for two or three hours, I finally decided discretion was the better part of valor, and I'd be better off just connecting it to a Windows box.

The problem was, I didn't have a Windows box to connect it to. So I decided to convert my secondary office system, which currently runs Xandros, to run Windows. I'd actually tried doing that before without success. The problem was that this system doesn't have any SATA interfaces on the motherboard, but uses an SATA hard drive connected to a PCI adapter card with an SIL 3112A SATA controller chip. Xandros recognizes the disk adapter card just fine and installs with no problems. The version of Windows XP I had--the original, unpatched 2001 version--didn't recognize the adapter. So I got a copy of Windows XP with SP2 integrated from a friend, assuming that the later XP distribution disc would recognize the SATA card with no problems.

To make a long story short, it didn't. Microsoft brags about Windows' hardware support, but my experience has been that late versions of Linux, particularly Xandros, are much better at recognizing hardware (except, of course, scanners). I pulled the Xandros hard drive from my secondary system, installed a new 250 GB SATA hard drive, and fired up Windows Setup. What's most annoying is that Windows recognized the hard drive well enough to copy a bunch of files to it. I could hear the drive seeking as it wrote the files during the first part of Windows Setup. But then Setup aborted, telling me that there was no hard drive in the system. Arrrrrghhh. Setup copied files to the hard drive in a system in which it thought there was no hard drive. How moronic can it get?

As long as I was opening cases and swapping hard drives, I decided to pull the secondary hard drive from my primary Xandros system and replace it with a larger model. Everything on that drive was backed up to optical discs, and I was archiving that data anyway. So I became root, edited fstab to comment out the sdb1 line that mounted the secondary drive, and shut down the system. I pulled the secondary drive, installed a fresh 250 GB drive, and restarted the system.

Ruh-roh. The system rebooted to the Intel splash screen and hung. At first I thought I'd done something truly idiotic like removing the primary hard drive instead of the secondary. But that didn't make any sense. Even without a bootable drive installed, I should at least have been able to get to Setup.

As I sat there on the floor pondering possible causes, I heard a rattle coming from the desk above me. It was the new Epson USB scanner, wiggling its USB cable and showing its fangs at me. Yep, scanners are rattlesnakes, and this time I got bit. So I shut everything down, disconnected the rattlesnake, and restarted. The system came up normally.

I logged on as administrator (root), opened a console, and ran fdisk /dev/sdb to create a 250 GB primary partition on the new drive. After rebooting the system (always a good idea after running fdisk), I again logged on as administrator, opened a console, and ran mkreiserfs to format the new partition. After logging out and logging back in as myself, I checked to make sure sdb1 was visible, which it was. But when I attempted to copy some files to the new drive, I got an error message about not having permissions. Duh. I logged back in as administrator and reset the permissions so that users other than root would have write access to the drive.

So now I'm back where I started, except that my primary system now has a nearly empty 250 GB secondary drive instead of a full 160 GB drive.

And I see that bedbugs are making a return, thanks to environmentalists and their mindless crusade against DDT. DDT is cheap, effective, and has been proven harmless, except to bugs. You can eat the stuff without ill effects. All of Rachel Carson's allegations were debunked long ago as completely bogus, junk science at its worst.

The Nazis murdered 6,000,000 Jews. We call them monsters and rightly condemn their actions as crimes against humanity. And yet most people think favorably of environmentalists, whose campaign to ban DDT results in at least that number of preventable deaths every year. Millions of deaths from malaria and other insect-borne disease, that could have been prevented by DDT. Millions more deaths from crop failures and starvation, that could have been prevented by DDT. These environmentalists are no less monsters than the Nazis were.

13:26 -
I see that Ford is going to cut its workforce by another 30,000 or so and close several plants. I'm surprised it's taken this long. Ford and GM are forced to compete with one hand tied behind their backs against Toyota, Nissan, and the other Pacific Rim automobile companies. Ford and GM must operate under the crushing regulatory burden in today's business climate. If that were the only competitive disadvantage, they could deal with it. What they can't deal with is the artificially inflated labor costs imposed by the UAW.

Let's face it. A job on an automobile assembly line should pay $10 to $15/hour with few or no benefits. These jobs are at most semi-skilled, as evidenced by how easily robots can substitute for humans in most of them. Instead, Ford and GM are forced to pay their semiskilled workers at rates many of my professional readers would envy. This simply can't go on. Labor costs are destroying Ford and GM.

I have a simple proposal for Ford and GM. Don't just close older plants and cut your workforce. Now, with massive lay-offs on the horizon, is the ideal time to break the union for once and all. Close all your plants in union-friendly northern states and rebuild modern, state-of-the-art automated plants in business-friendly southern right-to-work states like North Carolina. You'll find you have a labor force ready and waiting that's willing to work hard, and happy to have a stable job that pays $10 or $15/hour. You'll find that our workers don't like unions and have pride in workmanship. They'll build better cars for you, at lower costs, and allow you to compete head-on with Toyota, Nissan, and the rest, both in terms of price and in terms of quality.

Move down here. If necessary, spin-off new subsidiaries that are legally separate from the parent corporations, and allow those parent corporations to wither on the vine, taking the UAW down with them. As the old corporations go bankrupt and disappear, your pension obligations and other long-term debt disappear with them. And I have no sympathy for those UAW members left holding the bag. They've been leeching the life blood of Ford and GM for generations now. It's about time the free ride came to an end.


Tuesday, 24 January 2006
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09:18 - Netflix has been throttling me to death all month. I just checked yesterday, and they've sent me only nine discs month-to-date. They've turned around only three discs in the one day they claim to require. They have delayed every other disc by at least one day, and often by three or four days.

For example, if they receive a disc back from me today, they should ship the replacement disc today, which should arrive tomorrow. Instead what typically happens is that they'll acknowledge receiving the disc first thing today, and change my queue to say "Shipping" for the next disc. That status (or perhaps "Shipping Today") will remain up until the afternoon, when it will change to "Shipping Wednesday". Tomorrow, my queue will say "Shipping Today". If I'm lucky, it'll actually ship that day. Otherwise, it'll change in late afternoon to "Shipping Thursday". When it finally does ship, instead of having an ETA of the following day, it'll have an ETA of two days, if I'm lucky. If not, it may be longer.

For example, last week they shipped me two discs on Thursday (which should have shipped Tuesday) with an ETA of not Friday, not Saturday, but Monday. So, instead of getting those two discs on Wednesday, as I should have, I had to wait until Monday. Netflix managed that by shipping from San Jose, CA instead of Greensboro. The USPS got one of those discs here on Saturday. Two-day service from California to here is pretty good, and better than Netflix counted on.

The disc that arrived Saturday was supposed to be Good Neighbors Disc 2. Indeed, the sleeve said it was Disc 2, but the disc itself was Disc 1. I reported that error, and Netflix told me just to add it back into my queue, thereby delaying things yet again. The disc that was supposed to be Disc 1 arrived yesterday, also from San Jose. I was hoping it was also mislabeled and was actually Disc 2, but alas it was another copy of Disc 1. I opened that one while the mailman was delivering to our next-door neighbor, and immediately resealed it and handed it to him for return.

The moral here is that when Netflix claims "unlimited rentals" and "one-day turnaround", don't believe them. They're lying.


Wednesday, 25 January 2006
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09:32 - Oh, the humanity! The MPAA admits it engages in "piracy". The article focuses on one particular act of illegal copyright infringement, but the interesting thing is that the MPAA admits that it routinely infringes copyright by copying copyrighted films.

Which, as far as I'm concerned, means the MPAA has no legal standing to sue ordinary civilians for non-commercial copyright infringement. How could any judge not immediately throw out any lawsuit by the MPAA in which the plaintiff claims damages from an individual for engaging in exactly the same behavior that the MPAA admits to? The article says that the MPAA's infringement was non-commercial, so that's all right then. Exactly. Non-commercial copyright infringement should not be penalized at all, as the MPAA tacitly admits by its own actions.


Thursday, 26 January 2006
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08:31 - Netflix is really starting to annoy me. Here's the latest. I returned a disc that, to add insult to injury, was the wrong disc in the right sleeve. It should have been logged in on Tuesday, so when it hadn't been logged in as of late yesterday afternoon, I clicked on the "Report a Problem" link. Here's what it displayed.

So, the disc has to be out for six days before I'm allowed to report it, which is pretty outrageous to start with. Even accepting that, by my calculations, that means I was allowed to report it yesterday, 1/25. Instead, Netflix says I have to wait ten days, until 1/29/06, despite the six day requirement they state. This is getting very annoying.

Netflix did mail me late yesterday afternoon to say they'd finally shipped another disc to me. The ETA should have been today, but it wasn't. Not tomorrow, either. The ETA is Saturday, so they've managed to cost me an extra one day with their delay in shipping, plus an extra two days with the delayed ETA. And I tried again to report the disc that they hadn't logged in, with the same results. They insist I wait until 1/29, ten days after the disc shipped.

Here's the number of discs they've sent me by calendar month:

Aug - 25
Sep - 22
Oct - 19
Nov - 22
Dec - 18
Jan - 10 (through today)

Which pretty much debunks their claims of "unlimited rentals" and "next-day service". To make matters worse, these numbers include several instances where one title is counted twice because Netflix shipped me the wrong disc, a disc that was too scratched to play, and, in one case, a disc that was cracked in half. Subtracting those reduces my totals by about 1.5 discs/month on average.


Friday, 27 January 2006
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09:24 - Yesterday, I finally sent in the second chapter of the astronomy book to my editor at O'Reilly, only 26 days late. Ugh. I hate missing deadlines, but it was more important to get it right than to get it in on time.

Tonight, we'll try to get in a bit of backyard observing, working toward completion of the Astronomical League Urban Observing list. AL has numerous "observing clubs" that focus on particular aspects of astronomical observing. Barbara and I have completed the requirements for the Messier Club, Binocular Messier Club, and Deep-Sky Binocular Club, and are working on many others, including the Lunar Club, Lunar II Club, Double Star Club, Caldwell Club, Herschel 400 Club, Herschel II Club, Globular Cluster Club, Open Cluster Club, Planetary Nebula Club, and Urban Observing Club.

Eventually, we'll meet the requirements for the Master Observer Club, which requires completing the requirements for ten observing clubs. Five of those clubs are required:
The other five can be any of the other AL observing clubs. To date, there are only 48 members worldwide in the Master Observer Club. Barbara and I would very much like to join that small group before this new astronomy book hits the stores, but it will be difficult for us to do that. Like most experienced observers, we don't pursue particular lists. Instead, we "constellation sweep", observing objects in a particular constellation and then moving on to the next constellation. We've nearly finished or at least made substantial progress on several of the clubs, but have quite a bit of work left to do on several others.


Saturday, 28 January 2006
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Sunday, 29 January 2006
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