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Week of 10 April 2006

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Monday, 10 April 2006
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09:21 - One week until taxes are due. I'll spend some time this week getting them done and sent off.

I sure do wish they'd simplify our federal taxes, though. It seems to me that, if we must have federal taxes, a per capita tax would be the fairest. Something like $100 annually per adult aged 18 through 65, $10 per adult aged 65 or over, and $1,000 per child. The latter, of course, would discourage people who shouldn't be having children from having children. If you don't pay the per capita tax for yourself and your children, you and they are shipped to Iraq or Africa as foreign aid. Or perhaps you can just no longer vote.

I'm changing gears to work on the new edition of Building the Perfect PC. I'll spend a couple of days this week getting the taxes done, and most of the rest of the time on the phone with and emailing my industry contacts to line up samples of the new technologies that are supposed to ship this summer.

One thing I'm dithering about is including a Home Theater PC. I've never been entirely convinced that it's a good idea to have a PC sitting in the den to record TV programs, and events over the last couple of years militate more and more against that.

First, of course, is the shift from analog to digital cable and satellite feeds. The *AA has succeeded in making it very difficult to handle digital feeds in any rational manner. Then there's the availability of cheap DVR/PVR boxes. It's pretty hard to build a HTPC to compete with a cable DVR box that costs $5/month. That box has a lot of limitations, DRM and otherwise, but still it provides what most people want at a very low cost. Finally, there's the availability of inexpensive DVD recorders. Our $80 CyberHome 1600 DVD recorder functions exactly like a VCR, except that it records to $0.20 DVD+R discs or $0.50 DVD+RW discs instead of $2 tapes. That's all we need. It's all most people need.

Still, there are arguments to be made in favor of using the flexibility of a PC to expand recording options. For example, if Barbara and I go away for several days during which there happen to be several programs that we want to record, our CyberHome 1600 DVD recorder may not have enough capacity to do the job. We could solve that problem by buying more DVD recorders (or a DVD recorder with a built-in hard drive), but it's more elegant to record on a PC with effectively unlimited storage space, where recordings can easily be edited and then burned to disc.

And that box needn't live in the den. It could be in my office or anywhere that has a cable TV feed and a network connection. Nor is it limited to functioning as a DVR. It could also store our entire audio archive, ripped with FLAC or some other lossless compression method, as well as our digital photograph archive and the rest of our data, excluding video, at least for now. I exclude video because it's impractical to build a box with enough storage to keep a reasonable size video collection on-line. Assuming a collection equivalent to 1,000 standard-definition DVDs, we'd need about 4 TB of disk space, ideally RAID 1 or 5, which isn't really practical right now, if only in economic terms. Still, it is practical to build a home storage server that has sufficient disk space to be very useful, and could store a fair subset of a typical video collection.

Then there's the matter of getting the content out to the other rooms, which would require some sort of small, inexpensive satellite system at each end point. Either that, or an RF modulator in the central system that could put a signal back on the TV cable on a channel that we have blocked, incoming and outgoing, at our demarc, with perhaps an RF-based remote control that had sufficient range to control the central system from wherever we happened to be watching.  I'll have to think about all this.


Tuesday, 11 April 2006
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09:00 - The news sites are trumpeting ABC's decision to post four of its television programs for free download the morning after they air. Big deal, I say. The downloadable programs must be viewed on a computer, and are DRM'd to prevent viewers from fast-forwarding through commercials. In other words, they're significantly inferior to a disc you record yourself or borrow from a friend.

ABC, like all of the networks, is married to a dying business model. The commercial as we know it is doomed, and has been since the first VCRs shipped 30 years ago. In these days of sub-$100 DVD recorders, TiVo's, and Bittorrent, a business model based on the traditional 30-second commercial is no longer viable. But ABC, like the other networks, continues to try to hold back the tide.

If they were smart, they'd embrace these new technologies instead of attempting to delay the inevitable. They'd abandon their local affiliates and supply their network feeds direct to satellite and cable companies. They'd focus on product placement revenue to replace the revenue they can no longer derive from 30-second ads. They'd sell new episodes on-line for $0.25 to $1.00 each, before they aired, via private torrent downloads that were not DRM'd or copy-protected in any manner. They would encourage copying and sharing, because it would be in their interests to have their programs viewed by as many people as possible to increase the amount they could charge for product placements.

Instead, these senescent corporations behave in 2006 as though it were still 1966, when they had a monopoly on television viewing. They haven't learned. Those who fail to adapt to change, die.

12:33 - Someone asked me in private mail for my thoughts on the current immigration debate.

As usual, the Democrats and Republicans are engaged in a false debate. The real issues are seldom if ever mentioned.

First, if for no reason except protecting its citizens, a country must be in control of its borders. The United States isn't, and hasn't been for a long, long time. Our borders are so porous that anyone can enter freely, including terrorists and others who would harm us.

Second, the United States is perfectly capable of securing its borders, and in fact could do so at a lower cost than we currently pay, directly and indirectly, with our wide-open borders.

Third, the economic impact of illegal immigrants from Mexico and other Central American and South American countries is hugely negative, and we are all paying for it in our federal and local taxes and otherwise. Simply put, the United States does not need additional unskilled and semi-skilled laborers. Those illegal immigrants cost us much more than they contribute, just as our native-born unskilled and semi-skilled laborers have a net negative economic impact. In economic terms, unskilled or semi-skilled laborers do not contribute as much as they consume. The rest of us make up the difference in our taxes, by paying much higher medical insurance premiums than we otherwise would, and so on.

Fourth, the influx of unskilled illegal immigrants inevitably drives down wages for unskilled native-born workers, most of whom are black. The resentment of Mexican illegals among blacks is already at a boil, and can only get worse. The situation is exacerbated by the perception among most employers of unskilled labor that Mexican illegals are more reliable and harder working than blacks, which contributes to the displacement of native-born blacks in unskilled jobs, driving more and more of them onto the welfare roles. This problem will only get worse, and the end game is unlikely to be pretty.

Fifth, the fact that the United States is an English-speaking country with a common heritage is almost forgotten. The United States is in danger of being Balkanized by the flood of illegal immigrants who do not speak English and expect Americans to accommodate their language and customs rather than the converse.

What would I do if I were Bush? I'd expel illegal immigrants en masse, returning them to their countries of origin and charging the costs of that repatriation to the countries in question. Announce a 30-day grace period, during which anyone who is in the US illegally can freely leave the country. Then, clamp down. Assume that anyone who has not taken advantage of the grace period is potentially a terrorist, and treat them accordingly. Put a $1,000 per head bounty on illegals, no questions asked. Fence and mine the borders, and patrol them with forces authorized, indeed encouraged, to use deadly force against attempted illegal border crossers.

Conversely, open up immigration to desirable immigrants, people who are likely to produce at least as much as they consume. If a Mexican physician or scientist or engineer wants to live in the United States, I say we should welcome him and his family with open arms. The US needs more people like him. What we don't need are unskilled illegal immigrants sucking us dry.


Wednesday, 12 April 2006
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08:49 - I suppose it had to happen sooner or later. C|NET reprints a New York Times report about out-sourcing fast-food order takers. For now, the remote order takers are teens in a California call center being paid minimum-wage. But how long will it be before that call center is underbid by one in Bangalore? Actually I'm surprised that fast-food places employ people to take orders in drive-through lines. They could use touch-panels or speech recognition to eliminate the need for human order takers completely. Which again points out the danger of having no skills.

13:00 - Doing our taxes always raises my blood pressure, because I know I'm going to end up writing checks with way too many numbers on them to the state and federal governments. But even the unfairness of income taxes in general is sometimes trumped by something that's so clearly unfair and unreasonable that my blood pressure spikes.

I just ran into one of those. It's going to cost us a lousy $7, but it's an outrage nonetheless. I was working on our state income taxes. We earned more in 2005 than in 2004, so I knew there'd be taxes due. I'd increased my estimated tax payments to the state last year for that reason. I guessed pretty well how much to pay in estimated taxes, too, because we ended up owing less than $1,000 more than the sum of what had been withheld from Barbara's paycheck and what I'd paid in estimated taxes.

So, I get down to the line about penalties and interest for under-withholding. The instructions said that we wouldn't owe any penalties or interest if our state tax liability this year, less any amount withheld, totaled $1,000 or less. Fine, I thought. We won't owe any interest. But I'm very painstaking when doing taxes, so I filled out Form D422. It was then that the outrage occurred.

Believe it or not, when calculating interest and penalties due, what I'd paid in estimated taxes DIDN"T COUNT. When the instructions said "less any amount withheld", they were speaking literally. Instead of subtracting the total amount that Barbara and I had paid in withholding from her and estimated taxes from me, I could subtract only what she'd had withheld. That made Line 6 > $1,000, which meant we had to pay interest on the amount underwithheld. With that fact determined, they THEN allowed me to add back in what I'd paid in estimated taxes to determine the total underpayment.

As it turned out, we'd exceeded the trigger level by only a couple hundred dollars, and the interest due on that was $7. That happened because my estimated tax payments were something like 80% of the total amount we'd paid in withholding and estimated taxes. If I'd paid a few hundred dollars less in estimated taxes and Barbara had paid the same amount more in withholding, we'd have owed no interest.

What an outrage.


Thursday, 13 April 2006
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08:53 - I confess that I don't understand the concept of "use tax". In North Carolina, we pay a 7% sales tax. On the state income tax form, there's a line to fill in for how much "use tax" you owe for things you bought mail-order or via the Internet from out-of-state vendors who don't collect North Carolina sales tax.

Now, the whole reason that North Carolina doesn't collect sales tax on out-of-state sales is that the Constitution forbids it.

"No Tax or Duty shall be laid on Articles exported from any State.

No Preference shall be given by any Regulation of Commerce or Revenue to the Ports of one State over those of another: nor shall Vessels bound to, or from, one State, be obliged to enter, clear, or pay Duties in another."

For example, if I buy something from Amazon.com, which is located in Washington state, the Constitution says that neither Washington nor North Carolina can collect a tax or duty on that transaction. So, when North Carolina collects "use tax" on something I've bought out-of-state, they're claiming that it's not a tax upon the sale of that item, but upon its use in North Carolina.

If that's true, North Carolina should be charging the 7% use tax on all transactions, not just those that occur outside North Carolina. In other words, if I buy a $100 item at the local Wal*Mart, North Carolina should collect a $7 sales tax, plus a $7 use tax, for a total of $14. But it doesn't. It seems to me that this is clearly a subterfuge to bypass the Constitutional prohibition, and the use tax provisions of the law should therefore be voided.

I see that some articles on the topic say that Congress must pass a law to enable states to collect sales taxes on out-of-state purchases. That's not good enough, at least by my reading of the Constitution. A law passed by Congress cannot override a provision of the Constitution. It takes a Constitutional Amendment to do that.

11:54 -I want to like Novell Evolution. I really do. I first looked at Evolution back in the days when I was still using Microsoft Outlook. I like the idea of an integrated PIM/email client, but Evolution just didn't cut it back then. It was feature-poor and unstable. The current version of Evolution is much more full-featured and crashes much less frequently, but it's still deficient for my needs.

Among other things, there's no obvious way to create archives with Evolution. That is, I'd like to be able to keep recent email "on-line" and older email off-line and in a different location than my working data, but still accessible.

Outlook did that by allowing multiple .pst files, which could be stored in any location, and even automated the process of moving old messages to the archive file. Mozilla Mail has no real archiving function, but there's an easy workaround. I simply created another account in Mozilla Mail, duplicated the folder structure of the working data store, and periodically moved messages en masse from the working folders to the archive folders. Mozilla Mail allows me to specify the directory where the files for each account are stored, so I simply pointed the archive account to my holding directory instead of my main working data directory. Evolution doesn't allow me to do that, or if it does, it's not clear to me how.

Evolution also makes no provision for deleting an attachment from an email message. For example, if O'Reilly emails me a 5 MB PDF, I'd like to be able to extract that PDF, store it in a subdirectory of the ORA directory in my working data set, and then delete the attachment from the message. Evolution won't let me do that. My choices are to delete the message entirely, or have a 5 MB message cluttering up the Evolution data directory.

Evolution has numerous other annoyances, enough so that I've concluded it's not for me. The question becomes which email client I should migrate to. Barbara is using KMail/Kontact/Korganizer, and seems happy enough with it. I'll probably check it out.


Friday, 14 April 2006
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09:00 - Is Microsoft misleading customers about what its security patches do? This guy thinks so.

Which points out one of the huge differences between OSS products and products from commercial software companies. It's a matter of trust.

When a patch is issued for Linux or another OSS product, most people have a very high level of trust in that patch. High in two respects. First, that the patch will fix the problem without breaking anything else. Call that trust in their competence. Second, that the patch will do nothing other than what it is supposed to do. Call that trust in their honesty.

Commercial software companies in general and Microsoft in particular enjoy no such level of trust, at least among sane people. Frankly, I've never trusted Microsoft's competence. It has a long history of issuing patches and service packs that either don't fix the original problem or introduce other problems, or both. Years ago, I trusted Microsoft's honesty, although it abused that trust so often and so badly that my trust in Microsoft's honesty disappeared many years ago. Nowadays, if Microsoft tells me it's Friday, I'll check my calendar.

The sad part is that even pro-Microsoft people don't trust Microsoft in either respect. I know a lot of folks who follow the Microsoft party line completely, but even they regard any Microsoft patch or update as a rattlesnake poised to strike. If they're honest, they'll tell you that they don't trust a Microsoft patch not to break something. And that when Microsoft releases an update for DirectX or Media Player or whatever, they wonder what additional DRM measures or other nastiness lurk concealed and unmentioned in that update.

When a new version of an OSS product is announced, we anticipate the new functionality it will provide. When a new version of a Microsoft product is announced, we temper that anticipation of what will be added with doubts about what Microsoft will take away. We simply don't trust them.


Saturday, 15 April 2006
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09:54 - GRRRRR! I just put our federal tax packages--1040 and estimated--together and stuck the envelopes out on the mailbox. Now to put the state tax packages together and get them mailed off. To state the obvious, we're all paying much, MUCH too much in taxes and getting much, MUCH too much government in return.

And, as if paying outrageous taxes wasn't enough to raise my blood pressure to a dangerously high level, there's this from Brian Bilbrey's page. Yet more evidence that Microsoft cannot be trusted, no way, no how. Who do they think they are?


Sunday, 16 April 2006
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