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Week of 27 March 2006

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Monday, 27 March 2006
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Tuesday, 28 March 2006
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Wednesday, 29 March 2006
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08:11 - What a nightmare. Last Thursday afternoon, I shut down our network just before Barbara and I left for an astronomy field trip to the Wake Forest University lodge at Fancy Gap, Virginia. We spent Thursday night through Sunday at the lodge with friends, but the weather didn't co-operate.

The clouds finally cleared and we got in a few minutes observing on Saturday evening, but the winds were blowing at between 30 and 40 MPH sustained, with gusts over 50 MPH. It was simply impossible to observe, even though we laagered several vehicles to shield us from the wind. Our Isuzu Trooper was parked sideways on a slight slope, and Barbara was afraid the wind would literally tip it over. Enough was enough. We retired to the lodge and sat in front of the fire for the evening.

When we returned home Sunday, I fired up the network. Everything came up normally except my main system, which appeared to be completely dead. I popped the cover and found that the green LED on the motherboard was the only sign of life. At first, I figured it was the power supply. I replaced that, but it didn't help matters.

As it turned out, the motherboard had died. It was an Intel D925XCV, the same motherboard that failed in the same way on Jerry Pournelle's main system a month or so ago. He built that system in August 2004, a few months after I built mine.

After screwing around with it for a while on Sunday and all of Monday, building and rebuilding the system several times, I decided yesterday just to build a new system and have done with it. The good news is that I'm typing this on my new main system, which is an Intel D945PVS motherboard with a Pentium D dual-core processor and 2 GB of DDR2 memory, an MSI 6200 PCI Express video card, and about a terabyte of disk space, all in an Antec server case with a TruePower 2.0 480W power supply.

The bad news is that I'm running Ubuntu 5.10 Linux because Xandros 3.0, including the most recent 3.02 release, isn't new enough to recognize the 945 chipset. I disliked Ubuntu the first time I tried it (and the second and the third) and I dislike it now. I tried installing Kubuntu 5.10, but it screwed up the video so badly I couldn't see anything but multi-colored blocks all over the screen.

So here I am running Ubuntu 5.10. And what's really interesting is how I got it. I hadn't yet realized that Xandros 3.02 wouldn't load on the new system, because I couldn't find my Xandros 3.02 CD. I had burning software installed only on my main system. I didn't feel like downloading and compiling K3b on my den system or Barbara's main system, so I walked over to see our next-door neighbor, whom I'd given a copy of Xandros OCE 3.02 a few months ago. When I asked him if I could borrow that disc, he invited me in and started digging through his disc file. He found the Xandros OCE 3.02 disc, and also offered me a copy of Ubuntu 5.10. I'm glad I took him up on his offer.

Ubuntu 5.10 is far less convenient than Xandros 3, but at least it runs on this system. I have most of what I need up and running now. The exceptions are email, which I need to make some decisions about, and my Windows astronomy software, which I had running under Crossover Office on Xandros.

I had been using Mozilla Mail, which I like, but since Mozilla deprecated their original suite, that's no longer a long-term solution. Thunderbird just isn't good enough. I considered using KDE Mail, which Barbara uses, but that's not a good fit for the Gnome-based Ubuntu. I'd tried Evolution in the past, and found it lacking in mail functionality, but I hadn't looked at it since version 2 was released. Ubuntu bundles a recent version of Evolution, and it looks considerably more capable now. Perhaps I'll standardize on it, once I figure out how to make it handle multiple accounts.

So, I've lost a bunch of time on this, and deadlines are approaching. I need to get back to work.

13:47 - Holy Cow. I knew I was having a bad week, but now someone points out Dvorak's latest column, and I find myself agreeing with Dvorak. Not only that, but the column says nice things about the French! I think I'd better go lie down for a while.

I've found my new email client. Evolution is a lot better than it used to be, and looks like it will do everything I need to do mailwise, in addition to providing a good PIM and contact manager. Now if only I could import my mailbox files from Mozilla Mail en masse instead of importing one mailbox at a time.

The only real problem I'm having with Ubuntu is that it doesn't include Crossover Office, which I was using to run my Windows astronomy program. That's not a huge problem, because there's a Windows box on the desk/credenza behind me that runs that software. I use it to print and scan the charts for the book. The only thing I really used the astronomy software under Linux for was looking up data, which I can do as easily on the Windows box. In fact, I think I'll either move that Windows box onto my main desk or slide the desk/credenza around to sit at a 90° angle to my main desk, where I can use the Windows box more easily.

The most annoying thing about Ubuntu is that it handles Windows networking very poorly compared to Xandros. Still, it's good enough to do what I need to do, for the time being. I will probably upgrade this system to Xandros 4, once it's available. A brief flirtation with Ubuntu won't do me any harm, but I miss Xandros already.

15:53 - I just finished migrating my subscriber list over to Evolution, and sent out a test message. If you're a subscriber and you didn't get that message, please let me know. If you did get the message, there's no need to respond. Thanks.


Thursday, 30 March 2006
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08:20 - Another month almost gone, and deadlines for the new astronomy book are approaching rapidly. One of things we decided up at Fancy Gap was to cut back the scope of the book. It had become obvious that we were attempting to cover too much, from beginner objects to truly expert objects, in one book. That would confuse the beginners and frustrate the experts. So, on the advice of several of our "kitchen cabinet", including Jim Elliott, Steve Childers, and Paul Jones, Barbara and I decided to cut the book in two.

This volume will cover beginner to intermediate observing targets. If this book does well, we'll do a second volume that covers intermediate to expert objects. That means we have to go back and redo what we'd already done, which costs us time we don't have to spare, but on the other hand it also cuts down on the amount of work we have to do on chapters we haven't started yet. O'Reilly wants the manuscript complete by mid-May and no later than late May, which means I'll be pushing it seven days a week from now until then. Oh, and I have to find some time soon to do our taxes. As Pournelle says, it's a great life if you don't weaken.

Don't expect much around here between now and when we finish the book.


Friday, 31 March 2006
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08:57 - Twenty years of networking. I just realized that our home network turns twenty years old tomorrow. On 1 April 1986, I brought up our home network for the first time, linking our IBM PC/XT to another PC using ARCNet cards and RG-62 coax. We were even linked to the Internet, or what passed for it back then, via a dial-up modem. Email was store-and-forward to my UUCP bang address. The network had a total of 20 MB of hard disk space, which seemed like a lot back then.

I remembered this this morning when I was running the daily backup and noticed the names of Barbara's and my data directories. Her data is in /usr/BARBARA and mine in /usr/THOMPSON. The "usr" part somehow became lower-cased at some point, but those upper-case directory names have been in continuous use for 20 years now, since the time that all PC file and directory names were upper-case.

There's only current data in those directories now, but the older data has been continuously moved to archive directories under the same names. Those archive directories, which total probably close to 100 GB on-line and off-line, contain hundreds of thousands of files, many of them no longer accessible. A quick check turns up Q&A documents and databases from the early 90's, not to mention data files from long-forgotten applications like Ashton-Tate's Framework, long-obsolete DOS versions of WordPerfect, and so on. There are documents produced with WordStar, MultiMate, and DisplayWrite, and graphics files produced with Harvard Presentation Graphics. There are even some documents produced on DECmate with WPS-8 and later transferred by wire to one of our PCs. There are a lot of files for which I have no idea what the native application was.

All of this reminds me why I've converted completely to OpenOffice.org and ODF. If ODF had existed 20 years ago and I'd used it, I'd be able to open all of those documents today. Instead, I saved those documents in the proprietary formats used by long-forgotten programs. That data is dead, and proprietary formats killed it. Never again.


Saturday, 1 April 2006
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09:21 - During Senate confirmation hearings in 1955, Charles Erwin Wilson, the Chairman of General Motors, made a statement that's been misquoted ever since. Most people believe that Wilson said, "What's good for General Motors is good for the nation."

In fact, Wilson had been nominated for Secretary of Defense, and he was asked during the confirmation hearing if, as Secretary of Defense, he could make a decision that would be in the best interests of the country but harmful to General Motors. Wilson replied that he could make such a decision, but added that "for years I thought what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa". A very different thing.

And yet, there is no doubt in my mind that what is bad for General Motors, or indeed Ford, is bad for the nation. Right now, General Motors stands on the edge of the precipice, near bankruptcy and eventual liquidation. It may not happen this year or next. Indeed, it may not happen this decade. But unless things change dramatically, it will happen. General Motors, and Ford as well, are being driven to the edge by the insane demands of the UAW and other labor unions. This must stop now, or the United States will soon lose two of its manufacturing behemoths.

It's simply unconscionable and unsustainable that GM and Ford have been forced by government labor laws and regulations to pay ridiculously high wages for what amounts to unskilled or at most semi-skilled labor. Right now, the average assembly line worker costs GM or Ford almost $80 per hour. That's nearly $160,000 per year in wages and benefits for doing work that, in a free market, would probably be worth at most $10 to $15 per hour, fully burdened. Is it any wonder that GM and Ford are being driven into bankruptcy?

The only answer I can see is what I've proposed before. GM and Ford should walk away from their existing plants and existing labor contracts. Declare bankruptcy, liquidate, and reform as new corporations based in the Southland. They'll find here a willing labor pool that's actively hostile to unions, people who would be more than happy to work hard for a reasonable wage. It's long past time for GM and Ford to not just break the labor unions, but to crush them. And moving their operations to right-to-work states is the way to do that.


Sunday, 2 April 2006
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