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Week of 3 April 2006

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Monday, 3 April 2006
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11:18 - I'll be writing heads-down between now and at least the end of May, when this new astronomy book must be 100% complete. When I finish it, I'll take a day or two off and then dive into working on the new edition of Building the Perfect PC. As Pournelle says, it's a great life if you don't weaken.

I'm coming to terms with Ubuntu 5.10, although I still don't like it. Compared to Xandros, Ubuntu is ugly, slow, and clumsy. As a desktop replacement OS, I'd rate Xandros 3.0 about 8/10 to 9/10. On that scale, Ubuntu rates a 4/10.

I didn't bother to join the Xandros 4 beta team, so I have no inside information, but rumor has it that Xandros 4 will be announced the end of this week and ship immediately. Of course, I've also heard that DCC 3.1 has been delayed until this summer, and that Xandros 4 may be delayed until DCC 3.1 is final. I hope not. I desperately want a version of Xandros that will run on my new hardware.

Losing several days that I couldn't afford to lose taught me a lesson. This time, I'll build a second, backup-system, make sure it works, and then turn it off and set it aside. If my main system dies again, I'll have a warm spare that I can simply drop into place.


Tuesday, 4 April 2006
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08:38 - More spam from the despicable hana. I sometimes get several of these a day, and it's been going on for months.

Return-Path: <jerryp (at) jerrypournelle.com>
Received: from localhost ([unix socket]) by zidane.mazin.net (Cyrus v2.2.12) with LMTPA; Tue, 04 Apr 2006 00:36:14 -0500
X-Sieve: CMU Sieve 2.2
Received: from hana (unknown []) by zidane.mazin.net (Postfix) with SMTP id CE7A645C2E3 for <thompson (at) ttgnet.com>; Tue,  4 Apr 2006 00:35:20 -0500 (CDT)
From: jerryp <jerryp (at) jerrypournelle.com>
To: thompson (at) ttgnet.com
Subject: Re:
MIME-Version: 1.0
Content-Type: multipart/mixed; boundary="----=_NextPart_2.55422413349152E-02"
Message-Id: <20060404053520.CE7A645C2E3@zidane.mazin.net>
Date: Tue,  4 Apr 2006 00:35:20 -0500 (CDT)  (01:35 EDT)
X-Spam-DCC: EATSERVER: zidane.mazin.net 1166; Body=1 Fuz1=many
X-Spam-Checker-Version: SpamAssassin 2.64 (2004-01-11) on zidane.mazin.net
X-Spam-Status: No, hits=-91.0 required=4.0 bayes=0.6976 tests=BAYES_60=1.592, DCC_CHECK=3.9,MIME_BOUND_NEXTPART=0.499,MSGID_FROM_MTA_SHORT=3.03, USER_IN_WHITELIST=-100 autolearn=no version=2.64

The problem is that the jerryp email address is in my whitelist, which means that SpamAssassin automatically assigns any message "from" jerryp a -100 score before it starts to evaluate the message. This one ends up with a score of -91.0, which is to say it has an actual score of 9.0. Ordinarily, any message with a score of 4.0 or higher is killed by the spam filters.

I simply delete the messages rather than clicking on the buttom to indicate that they're spam. If I did that, my mail client would eventually start to treat real messages from Pournelle as spam. I wish this hana moron would run a scan on his or her system. I have a similar problem with frequent spam messages from a system that has hijacked the perobich address I whitelisted for Paul Robichaux.

I'm still heads-down writing. I'm working now on Camelopardalis, which is a serious contender for the most boring of all the constellations. Its brightest star is 4th magnitude, which means that most people wouldn't even recognize that area of the sky as deserving to be called a constellation. The Greeks in fact ignored Camelopardalis (and the similarly pathetic Lynx) and didn't include it in their sky maps. Oh, well. There are at least a couple of objects worth writing about in Camelopardalis, including Kemble's Cascade and NGC 2403. Not to mention the double star STF 1694, which I named LAFTWET in honor of my parents, Lenore Agnes Fulkerson Thompson and William Ewing Thompson.

09:45 - A warning about Ubuntu security.

From: Scott Kitterman <scott@kitterman.com>
To: Robert Bruce Thompson <thompson@ttgnet.com>
Subject: Bug #34606 in shadow (Ubuntu): "Administrator root password readable in cleartext on Breezy"
Date: Tue, 4 Apr 2006 08:50:35 -0400

Since I know you're using Ubuntu right now, I thought you ought to be aware of

Scott K


How very odd. I've always disliked the way Ubuntu and Kubuntu handle (or don't handle) the root account, but that's an extraordinary security hole, if what is reported is true.

When I checked, I found a couple of things that I don't understand after reading the report. First, on my system at least, the file they mention is not readable without root privs. Second, when I displayed that file and searched for the password, I didn't find it. I found my username, but the password was not present in the file.

15:18 - It's official. Microsoft suggests nuking Windows from orbit. They now suggest you strip the drive down to bare metal and re-install everything from scratch. From the article:

"When you are dealing with rootkits and some advanced spyware programs, the only solution is to rebuild from scratch. In some cases, there really is no way to recover without nuking the systems from orbit," Mike Danseglio, program manager in the Security Solutions group at Microsoft, said in a presentation at the InfoSec World conference here."

Which is a sad commentary on just how crappy Windows and Internet Explorer are. Expect the usual excuses from Windows fanboys.


Wednesday, 5 April 2006
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08:46 - C|Net has posted an interesting article, Developers fast to fix open-source bugs. Here are some of the results from the article.

Open-source project Defect count
March 6
Defect count
March 20
Amanda 108 0
XMMS 6 0
Samba 216 0
Ethereal 143 19
Icecast 12 2
SQLite 31 6
Gcc 140 97
Gaim 113 51
Net-SNMP 148 61

The article states that, on average, of the 17.5 million lines of code from 32 open-source projects that were examined, 0.434 bugs were found per 1,000 lines of code. That's an order of magnitude or more better than the best commercial software products, but substantially inferior to the Linux 2.6 kernel, which averages only about 0.17 bugs per 1,000 lines of code. By comparison, Windows XP is reported to have between 30 and 50 bugs per 1,000 lines of code.

Netflix is apparently not a very nice company. This article reports that Netflix is suing Blockbuster on the basis of patents that should never have been issued. And this article reports that Netflix is the largest user of spyware to promote its service.

Perhaps so, but Netflix has at least reduced their throttling of our account. We experienced only minor throttling last month, mostly cases where Netflix mailed a movie from somewhere other than their Greensboro distribution center, which therefore took two or three days rather than one day to arrive. They sent us 22 discs during March, of which 21 were readable and one was cracked. If Netflix doesn't throttle at all, they'll deliver between 24 and 27 discs a month, so 21 usable discs in a month isn't bad at all. Much better than the measly 13 discs they sent me in January.


Thursday, 6 April 2006
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10:30 - There are a lot of things I dislike about Ubuntu 5.10, but three of the most annoying are its lack of so-called "non-free" software, its lack of current versions of popular applications like OpenOffice.org and Firefox, and its odd way of handling SMB shares.

Unlike Xandros, which is also based on Debian, Ubuntu toes the party line established by the "free software" nutcase Richard M. Stallman. If you try to play an MP3 file in Ubuntu, for example, it tells you it can't play the file because doing that requires a "non-free" codec. If you click on a PDF file, it's displayed with a free application that's nowhere near as good as the "non-free" Adobe Acrobat Reader.

I suppose that's fine for free software zealots, but I'm firmly in the OSS camp established by Eric S. Raymond. I want my system to do what I want it to do, whether the software required to do that happens to be free-as-in-speech, free-as-in-beer, or not-free-as-in-costs-money. Fortunately, there's a quick and easy way to address that problem with Ubuntu. While searching for a repository that had all those non-free files I wanted available for Ubuntu, I happened across Automatix.

Automatix is a script that downloads and installs most of the stuff I wanted automatically. For example, it installs codecs for MP3, DVDs, and so on, as well as updating Firefox 1.0.7 to 1.5 and OpenOffice.org from 1.9 to 2.0x. I ran it last night, and now my system has most of the software I want installed.

As far as the SMB shares, I'm not sure what's going on. Barbara's primary Xandros system, adelie, is also our file server. It has three Windows shares, named /usr, /holding, and /archive, which contain our working data, short-term archive data, and long-term archive data, respectively. My main system contains corresponding directories, /usrback, /holdingback, and /archiveback, which (as you might have guessed) contain backup copies of the directories on the server.

When I installed Ubuntu 5.10 on my system, I noticed that the menu at the top of the screen contained an item named Places. I clicked on that and found an item Network Servers. Drilling down showed the Windows Network, adelie, and the Windows shares on adelie. It was trivially easy to map a share on adelie to my local machine, or so I thought. Indeed, the shares I mapped showed up on my desktop as icons, as well as in the file manager. Clicking on one of those icons on the desktop or in file manager indeed displays the directories and files on adelie. I can copy files and directories to and from adelie from my local machine. Everything should be fine, right?

Wrong. Those mappings aren't quite right. I found that out when I opened N|Vu and tried to edit this page. Only the local directories show up in the file-open dialog. Hmmm. So I opened the file manager, right-clicked the html file and chose open-with N|Vu. N|Vu fired up with an empty screen. Other applications, including the GIMP, behaved the same way. I can see the files on adelie, but I can't access them with many applications. OpenOffice.org was an exception, kind of. It's file-open dialog also showed only local directories and files, but if I used the file manager to display a directory on adelie and double-clicked on an ODT file, OpenOffice.org opened it fine. I was able to edit and save the file normally. Or I was able to until last night, when I updated OOo 1.9 to OOo 2.0. Now, OOo behaves the same as the other applications.

Brian Bilbrey suggested the other night that I go to the heart of the problem and create permanent mappings in fstab, bypassing the GUI entirely. I'm comfortable editing fstab, but I'm not comfortable mucking about with SMB issues that I don't fully understand, so I haven't done that. My fear is that I'll bork things entirely while I'm on short deadlines, although I suppose worst case I'd simply have to re-install Ubuntu. Boy, will I be happy when Xandros 4 ships.


Friday, 7 April 2006
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09:04 - Ron Morse posted the following on the messageboard:

Too bad Kubuntu doesn't get along with your machine. I've been playing with the Daper Drake Flight 6 release and find it to be very Xandros like, except not anywhere nearly as fussy about hardware.

The install was excellent. The Aunt Minnies of the world are going to get a bit confused by the partitioning choice screen if they are not familiar with the way Linux enumerates disks and partitions, but once by that (low) hurdle...it's brilliant!

Off the install this one is also missing the same key packages but I used apt-get from a console to install synaptic and once that was done obtaining and installing Firefox ( and Evilution (2.6) was a snap.  Default repositories all that were necessary (No hassles about identifying which ones)  and the servers are much more responsive than Xandros'.

OpenOfficeOrg 2.02 and k3b 0.12.14 are part of the distribution set.  KDE 3.5.2 is snappy! 2.6.15 kernel (single processor).  

User data/files mostly just copied over from Xandros (I don't let files from evaluation installations x-pollinate with working installations).

I like this a lot better than the gnome-based Ubuntu 5.10.

For me, installation was flawless (sound/printer/network/windows shares) all perfect from the start.  Even the media player (Kaffiene) worked right away.

Didn't have to call Bangalore even once.

So I downloaded the Live and Install versions last night and burned CDs. I fired up the Live version on my den system, where it recognized all the hardware and seemed to work fine. Unfortunately, a lot of the stuff I wanted to look at, particularly SMB networking, is missing from the Live version. But at least I can run the Live version on my main office desktop system to make sure it recognizes the chipset, video, and so on. I'll probably use the Install version to wipe out my den system and experiment with the Kubuntu 6.6 alpha 6 release.

Although I'm frequently accused of being anti-Windows, a Xandros bigot, and so on, the truth is that I'm OS-agnostic. If Dapper Drake ends up being as good as you say it is for my purposes, I'll migrate to it in a heartbeat and abandon Xandros.

I got email from my editor at O'Reilly yesterday asking if we could accelerate the schedule on the second edition of Building the Perfect PC. Earlier, they'd asked us to give preference to getting the new astronomy book complete first, but now it seems they're running out of stock on the first edition of BtPP.

Ordinarily, that wouldn't be a problem. They'd simply reprint the book, as they've done before. But in this case, with the first edition reaching the end of its useful life, reprinting becomes problematic. If the book were one-color, they'd just do a reprint order for a couple thousand or a few thousand copies. But the book is four-color, and that means that short print runs are very costly per copy. Setup charges for four-color books are very high, and to reduce the cost per copy to a reasonable level you have to order many, many thousand copies. Understandably, O'Reilly doesn't want to get stuck with a lot of unsold and unsellable copies of the first edition.

So we'll shift gears and make sure we get Building the Perfect PC, 2E completed in time to hand over to O'Reilly's production folks so that they can get it done and off to the printer in time for a mid-autumn release. That means we have to have the manuscript 100% complete and off to production by mid-summer. That in turn means I'll be scrambling to sweet-talk a lot of vendors into delivering early samples of some of the new technologies that are due to arrive this summer. Things are likely to be pretty hectic right around deadline time, with builds and re-builds, shoots and re-shoots, and writes and re-writes. We'll do what we have to do to make sure the book is as current as possible when it hits the stores, with the goal of giving it a shelf-life of two years or so.


Saturday, 8 April 2006
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13:17 - The annoyances with Ubuntu 5.10 continue, although I'm stuck with it for now. One of the major annoyances had to do with burning DVDs. I burn a lot of DVD+R and DVD+RW discs, and Ubuntu burns them very slowly. It doesn't matter if I use K3b, the burning applet built into Gnome, or GnomeBaker. I'd get 1.6X to 1.8X burn rates every time, on both 4X DVD+RW discs and 8X or 16X DVD+R discs.

Not only that, but while I was burning a disc, the rest of the system crawled nearly to a stop. It would take a full minute for Firefox to open and literally 15 to 30 seconds for it to switch between tabs. This on a system with a Plextor PX-716AL drive, a dual-core Pentium D processor and 2 GB of RAM. My first thought, incredible as it seemed, was that Ubuntu had turned off DMA for the Plextor burner. And that's indeed what was causing the problem. The solution is easy. I opened a terminal and typed

sudo /sbin/hdparm -d1 /dev/hda

to enable DMA for the Plextor drive, which solved the problem completely. Of course, that solution is far from obvious to someone with no Linux experience, and it's ridiculous that Ubuntu doesn't enable DMA for the DVD burner automatically. Ubuntu is clumsy like this in many, many ways, a far cry from the elegance of Xandros. Ubuntu is often recommended to people who are would-be Windows refugees, but I think it's a very poor choice compared with Xandros.

Of course, Ron Morse says that the alpha of Kubuntu 6.6 (the KDE version) is far, far better than 5.10. I installed the 6.6 alpha on my den system last night, although I haven't had a chance to play with it much.


Sunday, 9 April 2006
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