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Week of 30 January 2006

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Monday, 30 January 2006
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08:30 - I sense increasing desperation from Microsoft about the prospects of Vista, FKA "Longhorn". Uncyclopedia has leaked an early draft of a Vista ad.

I showed this to our Border Collies, Duncan and Malcolm. Both showed their fangs, abandoned Windows, and migrated to Linux. (Their first choice of distro was Yellow Dog Linux, but they wanted to stick with AMD/Intel processors, so I convinced them to try Xandros, AKA Black & White Dog Linux.)

As to Vista/Longhorn, I and many others got into the habit of calling this years-overdue vaporware "Shorthorn". Given the gutted feature list, which now appears to be finalized, it would be more accurate to call it "No Horn". Except that sounds like part of the description for a junker of a used car, which, come to think about it, isn't far from the truth.

For all intents and purposes, No Horn has become little more than a service pack for XP, albeit one that Microsoft expects us to pay for. None of the important features announced years ago by Microsoft actually made it into No Horn. WinFS was dropped entirely, and Indigo/Avalon are pale shadows of what they were to have been. Of the few even minorly significant features that are to ship with No Horn, most will be available to XP users via Microsoft Update. The only significant new features, such as more restrictive DRM, are ones that no one in his right mind wants.

Putting on my hats as a corporate buyer and a home user, I examined the list of new "features" in No Horn, and couldn't find even one that was even mildly interesting. When one considers that probably fewer than 1% of existing computers will be able to run No Horn with its new 3D video features fully enabled, that begs the question of who exactly Microsoft expects to buy No Horn. Microsoft will sell a lot of copies on new machines and via forced upgrades, of course, but I can't imagine that more than about 0.1% of the user base would voluntarily install No Horn unless it were a free update. And maybe not even then.

So Microsoft has been forced to try to sell No Horn on the basis of, get this, increased security. I might have choked reading that, except that I'm used to Microsoft's shell game when it comes to security. Each "new" release is touted as the most secure Windows ever, and each time that release turns out to be as insecure or more so than the preceding release. I see no reason to expect anything different from No Horn.

The emperor has no clothes. Never has had, never will. More and more people are coming to realize that.

10:10 - Ruh-roh. Something is wrong with this test I just took. Actually, I'm well-known for being meek, mild, gentle, shy, unassuming, and unassertive. Any of my friends would tell you that. Or else.

You Are Wind
Strong and overpowering
A force to be reckoned with, no one dares cross you
You have the power to change everything around you

You are best known for: your wrath

Your dominant state: commanding
What Type of Weather Are You?


Tuesday, 31 January 2006
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08:00 - Well, I received a total of only 13 discs from Netflix in January, five discs fewer than their worst-ever previous month. It seems that Netflix has decided to throttle me mercilessly. On a three-out-at-a-time plan, I don't consider 13 discs to be even remotely close to the "unlimited rentals" that Netflix claimed and still claims in their advertising. In fact, that's about half the number of discs that Netflix should have delivered if in fact they were using their best efforts to deliver discs.

We'll see how they do next month. If they don't improve substantially, I'll drop them and join Blockbuster Online.

The den system hung Sunday night. One instant, everything was fine, and the next it was locked up tight. I turned off the system, figuring it was the power supply, memory, or overheating, and left it off until yesterday after dinner. When I turned it back on, it worked normally for a few minutes and then locked up tight again.

I run this system with the top and side panels off. It's an Antec Aria SFF case with a 3.4 GHz Prescott-core Pentium 4 in it, and that's turned out to be too much heat load. At first, I didn't suspect overheating. The CPU fan was running loudly enough to be easily audible, but it wasn't screaming. In the past, when I was still running with the cover on, that CPU fan had gotten up to 5,800 RPM, which sounded like the proverbial Banshee.

I restarted it and ran BIOS setup. The cause of the problem immediately became obvious. For some reason, the CPU fan was running at only 2,900 RPM, and that never changed through all my testing. But the temperatures were outrageous.

In the few seconds it took me to start BIOS setup and change to the hardware monitoring section, the CPU temperature had already reached 40° C from a cold start. As I watched it over the next ten or fifteen minutes, it continued to creep upward until it reached 72° C. This is at idle, mind you. The Zone 1 temperature stabilized at 48° C, and Zone 2 at 58° C. No wonder the thing had been locking up on me. Those temperatures are 25° C to 30° C too high.

I grabbed the 6" table fan that I sometimes use as a field-expedient CPU cooling fan from my workroom and set it up blowing into the side of the Aria case next to the CPU. Within a minute or two, the Zone 1 and Zone 2 temperatures had dropped to 25° C, but the processor was still running at 69° C. I kept watching for several more minutes, and the CPU temperature stabilized after ten minutes or so at 58° C. 

The system isn't easily accessible. It sits at the back of a corner table near the wall, with a sofa on one side of the table and a love seat on the other. Obviously, the CPU heatsink wasn't doing its job, so I kind of balanced myself and leaned over the top of the monitor to look into the case. The CPU fan had quite a bit of dust on it. I couldn't see down into the heatsink itself very well, but it appeared to be clogged with dust. Time for the Dust-Off and Formula 409.

I wish I could install a better CPU cooler to replace the stock Intel unit, but there's simply no room in the Aria case for an oversized cooler. As it is, there's less than half an inch clearance between the top of the CPU fan and the bottom of the power supply, and the power supply obstructs about half the surface of the CPU fan.


Wednesday, 1 February 2006
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09:00 - Arrrghhh. Yet another of my friends is flirting with the dark side. Yes, it's true. Brian "Mr. Linux" Bilbrey has purchased and installed a, gasp, Mac Mini.

Now, I understand Brian's motivations. In fact, if I didn't write about PC hardware, I might have been tempted myself to migrate from Windows to OS X instead of Linux. But I hope I would have avoided the temptation and switched to Linux anyway. It's not that OS X isn't a good operating system. It is, worlds better than Windows and superior to Linux in some respects.

No, my problem with OS X is that it's non-free, and I don't mean that in the whacko Richard M. Stallman sense. Stallman tortures the English language when he describes the GPL, one of the most restrictive licenses imaginable, as "free". Public domain is free. The BSD license is free. The GPL is about as non-free as I can imagine.

I mean "free" in the sense that Linux is non-proprietary, not under the control of one company with agenda of its own. I mean "free" in the sense that Linux allows me to have absolute control of my own computer and my own data. I mean "free" in the sense that Linux doesn't lock me in to one particular vendor.

It's true that I run Xandros and that Xandros is a "proprietary" or "commercial" version of Linux. That doesn't matter, though. If it became necessary, I could migrate away from Xandros to another Linux distro in a heartbeat, and without looking back. If I commit to Windows, I'm also committing to Microsoft locking me into their products and their policies. If I commit to OS X, I'm committing to Apple locking me into their products and their policies. I don't want that. I want choice. And I most certainly don't want the obnoxious DRM with which Windows and OS X are laden.

Ironically, I received this message this morning from Roland Dobbins, another of my friends who's moved to OS X.

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: DMCA vs. homebrew.
Date: Tue, 31 Jan 2006 23:15:57 -0800
From: Roland Dobbins
To: Jerry Pournelle, Robert Bruce Thompson

DMCA vs. homebrew.


This article, and the Boing Boing article it links to, talks about how Microsoft is using its DRM as a club to marginalize smaller PC OEMs and home-built PCs. And, although Microsoft has a justifiably horrible reputation for supporting DRM, Apple is as bad or worse, but in subtler ways.

Wendy Grossman wrote an article for The Inquirer a couple weeks ago, in which she presents a "Digital Rights Manifesto". She ended the article by asking, "How's that for a start?" I replied that it was a terrible start, because the whole point of her manifesto was to make DRM palatable to a wide audience, which is exactly the wrong approach.

Simply put, the central question of DRM is who should have control of your computer and the data stored on it. If you think you should be in control of your own computer and data, then you must recognize DRM as the enemy. If you support any form of DRM, including such "benign" forms as those Apple uses for iTunes, then you are ceding control of your computer and your data to corporations and governments.

That's something I'll never do, which is why I'll stick with Linux no matter how tempting OS X may be.


Thursday, 2 February 2006
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09:03 - I've received howls of outrage from Mac OS X fans.

Just to set the record straight, I object to Microsoft Windows on numerous grounds, including its proprietary nature, its gross inferiority technically, and the policies and practices of Microsoft, especially including its support for DRM. I object to Apple OS X because of its proprietary nature and because Apple supports DRM.

Although I've never used OS X, and never intend to do so, many of my friends whose opinions I respect do use it. They tell me that OS X is, in a technical sense, comparable to Linux in terms of stability, security, and so on. That's not surprising, because OS X is based on an OSS BSD kernel and system utilities, on top of which Apple runs its mature, elegant, proprietary GUI. And, as Roland Dobbins points out, OS X itself is not infested with DRM as Windows is.

But Apple as a corporation supports DRM and, by attempting to make DRM palatable, does all of us a disservice. Accordingly, I would no more use or recommend Apple products than I would products from Microsoft or Sony. (I grudgingly make an exception for Microsoft keyboards and mice because I would be doing my readers a disservice if I ignored them.)

Corporations in general regard all of us simply as wallets, from whom their goal is to extract as much money as possible, and DRM is simply the latest tool in their arsenal. I believe in the free market, and I am willing to pay for value received. But I certainly do object to corporations that attempt to latch onto us like leeches and suck us dry. These corporations are attempting to co-opt technology to serve their nefarious ends. They're no longer willing to accept a one-time payment in return for providing a product or service. Instead, they want to lock us into providing them with a continuing revenue stream.

And they certainly can't be accused of failing to think big. These corporations long ago realized that, if they were to achieve their goals, they had to control us and our computers. So they've implemented DRM. But that by itself was insufficient, because in a free market DRM fails miserably. No one in his right mind accepts DRM if alternatives exist. So the corporations had to remove that option. They've attempted to do that by buying politicians and judges, by buying laws like the atrocity that is the DMCA, and by attempting to force new market standards like Blu-Ray and HD-DVD. Their goal is eventually to have complete control of our televisions, our computers, and our wallets.

We can fight back on several fronts. We can protest to our congresscritters, and let them know we'll fight to drive them out of office if they support DRM. We can boycott companies that support DRM. There's no need to fund Microsoft or Apple when Linux is a viable alternative. There's no need to fund RIAA companies when there's so much good music available from individual artists, Magnatune, and other sources that respect the free market. There's no need to pay Apple to download music tracks when you can rip them from CD and store them in .MP3, .OGG, or another unencumbered format.

Apple has fallen a long way from their rip, mix, and burn days. They had the right idea, then, and it's the right idea now. Support the artists, sure. They're the creators. If you rip a CD, send the artists $5 with Paypal or whatever. If you rip the Serenity DVD, send Joss Whedon $5 with Paypal. But don't fund the corporations that are attempting to control us.

10:50 - Netflix is really, REALLY, REALLY starting to annoy me. They started throttling me big time as of the first of the month this month. They're using every trick in their arsenal, from delaying shipping discs for a day or two, delaying acknowledgment of returned discs for a day or two, shipping me discs from San Jose or Minneapolis instead of from Greensboro, and so on. In the last three weeks, they've delayed every disc by at least two days using one or another of their methods.

My first month with Netflix established a reasonable expectation for what Netflix meant when it promised "unlimited rentals" and "one-day turnaround". They sent me 25 discs that month. Last month, they really started to throttle the hell out of me, sending me only 13 discs total for the month, which was five discs fewer than the worst preceding month, and little more than half the number of discs they sent me the first month.

I wonder what would happen if I disputed my credit card bill, claiming that Netflix simply isn't delivering what it promised. Actually, I wonder why the FTC hasn't stepped in.


Friday, 3 February 2006
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09:40 - Hmmmm. I told Barbara Wednesday evening that I wanted to order an Orion StarBlast telescope. She reacted as I expected: "What do we need with yet another telescope?"

Short answer, the StarBlast is an RFT (rich-field telescope), which basically means it shows a wide swath of sky in the eyepiece. With a low-power eyepiece, the StarBlast can show a true field of view of 3.9°, which translates to three times as much sky as our 10" Dob at its widest. I look at the StarBlast as an alternative to a giant binocular, which is expensive and requires an expensive, heavy, bulky mount. With 4.5" of aperture, the StarBlast gathers much more light than any mainstream giant binocular, and the Dob-like base means it's extremely stable. At only $170, it's a steal.

Orion markets this as a kid's scope, but the truth is that there are probably at least as many of them used by experienced adult astronomers. The scope comes with two throw-away eyepieces, Orion Explorer II Kellners. We'll use it with much better eyepieces. It'll be interesting to use a $170 telescope with an eyepiece that costs twice as much.

I also needed a $10.00 adapter plate from Orion, to let me mount our 8X50 straight-through optical finder on our 90mm refractor. So I called Orion to order the adapter plate, and on the spur of the moment I decided to just order the StarBlast as well. Uh-oh. Orion sent me an email invoice, so I did a couple of creative edits before I showed it to Barbara:
Order #999999  Order Date: 02/02/06

Sold To:

Ship To:
Same address as Sold To

Ship Via: Fed Ex Home Delivery
Phone: (999)999-9999
Product Total: $ 179.90
Sales Tax: None

Stk # Quan Description Price Avail
09814 1 StarBlast Astro Telescope 0.00 In Stock
07215 1 Finder Scope Dovetail Base SCT 179.90 In Stock

Shipping Charge: 19.95

I tried it on with Barbara soon after she arrived home.

"Look, dear. I ordered that adapter plate for only $179.90, and they threw in a free StarBlast telescope!"

Didn't work. Didn't really expect it to. Oh, well.


Saturday, 4 February 2006
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Sunday, 5 February 2006
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