Barbara and I visited Costco for the first time Saturday, and decided
to join. We filled a shopping cart with stuff, and got out for about
I wanted to buy a spindle of CD-R discs, but I passed on what Costco
had to offer. They had piles and piles of 100-disc spindles, but all of
them were TDK branded, some made in China and some in India. As far as
I know, the only CD-R plant in China belongs to CMC, and I wouldn't use
CMC discs on a bet. I believe the only CD-R plant in India is owned by
Moser Baer, and again I wouldn't use their discs.
It's ironic that high-quality CD-R discs now sell for nearly the same
price as high-quality DVD+R discs. After rebates, I paid $22 for my
last 100-disc spindle of Verbatim DVD+R discs, which is about what a
spindle of 100 good CD-R discs costs now. I suppose that makes sense,
because they are after all pretty much the same thing: a flat
polycarbonate disc with a reflective layer and a dye layer. DVD+R discs
still usually cost a few dollars more per hundred than CD-R discs,
which probably comes down to licensing fees.
For years, my friend Paul Jones and I have had an ongoing good-natured
argument about equatorial telescope mounts, which Paul prefers, versus
alt-az Dobsonian mounts, which I prefer. Paul's parents bought him
an 8" Celestron SCT in 1983, and he's been using it ever since. Then
Paul made the mistake one night of looking through Steve Childers'
17.5" Dobsonian, which gathers five times more light than Paul's
After that, Paul started reconsidering the advantages of a Dobsonian.
Among the biggest of those advantages is affordable aperture. Although
it's possible to mount a large telescope on a traditional equatorial
mount, it's impractical for anyone who needs a portable telescope. An
equatorial mount large enough to support a large scope weighs several
hundred pounds and costs many thousands of dollars.
So Paul, suffering from aperture fever, decided to join the dark side. He sent me a picture Saturday of his new 15" Obsession Dobsonian.
Barbara planned to watch Left Wing
at 8:00 last night, but she turned the TV on early. It was tuned
to the local NBC affiliate, which was running a Dateline episode about
preparing for an avian flu pandemic. I don't remember the government
ever being this emphatic about preparing for a potential emergency, and
that includes the Cuban Missile Crisis. Ordinarily, the government
tends to err on the side of caution, wanting to avoid panic at all
costs. It's obvious they're extremely concerned this time, or they
wouldn't be risking panic by being so emphatic about the potential
disaster we're facing.
They're talking about schools, businesses, and government offices
closing for long periods, and utilities failing. What they're not
talking about is the only hope of preventing the pandemic from
spreading throughout the United States, and that's a lock-down at the
first sign the virus has made the jump to human-to-human transmission.
By a lock-down, I mean shutting down the airlines entirely and closing
the interstate highways to all but essential traffic--food and fuel
shipments and so on. It would also mean closing businesses, schools,
churches, and anything else that involves people gathering. The
economic and social costs would be hideously high. Our cities would
turn into ghost towns, with no traffic on the streets and everyone
huddled in their homes.
Like everyone, Barbara and I hope it never happens, that the avian flu
doesn't make the jump. Or, if it does, that in the process it becomes
less virulent. But if it does happen, we'll be prepared to hunker down
at home and wait it out. That means having sufficient food and water
stored for at least a month, and ideally several months. It also means
being prepared to do without electricity, water, and other utilities if
they fail. Still, as Katrina showed, it's a good idea to be prepared
for any eventuality.
Talk about incompetent program design. I normally have a banner from
the EFF at the top right of this page. The banner image isn't on my
server. I link to the EFF server. They requested people do this so that
they could substitute a different banner to alert people about
So, this morning I attempted to open my local copy of this page with
N|Vu. Unfortunately, the EFF site was down, so N|Vu couldn't display
the EFF banner. Instead of failing sensibly, it simply sat there,
displaying the page but refusing to allow me to edit it because the
banner hadn't loaded. There's no stop button or other means of telling
it to ignore the banner and let me edit the page.
Speaking of images and N|Vu, there's another issue that straddles the
border between incompetent and evil. When you insert an image with
N|Vu, which inherited this "feature" from Mozilla Composer, a dialog
box pops up. The default action is a button labeled "Alternate text",
and the cursor sits in a text entry field. If you attempt to continue
without entering alternate text for the image, N|Vu returns an error.
There's another button labeled "Don't use alternate text", but you have
to mark that button for each image. There's no way to make N|Vu default
to not requiring alternate text.
I deeply resent that the program attempts to force me to enter
alternate text whether I want to or not. I suspect that some programmer
decided that it would be a Good Thing to force people to use alternate
text to aid blind people, but forcing users to take particular actions
based upon what someone else thinks is the Right Thing to Do is
against everything that free and open source software is supposed to
I had a similar discussion with Mozilla folks years ago, when they were
still arguing that it was irresponsible to provide embedded ad-blocking
in Mozilla. "That would kill the free web," they said. "So what," I
replied, "People don't want to look at ads, and you should worry about
the interests of the people using your browser, not about the interests
of advertisers." And to this day, Mozilla browsers don't bundle
Nor, for that matter, do Linux distros that include Mozilla or Firefox.
I suggested long ago to Xandros that they should include the Adblock
plug-in by default, as well as filterset.g or a similar list. They
don't do it, nor does Ubuntu or any of the other distros I've looked
at. Why not? A browser that automatically blocked ads would be a
service to their users.
Attempting to prop up unviable business models like Internet
advertising is ultimately futile. Taken to its logical end, it
encourages evil like this.
This from Mat Lemmings, who used to keep a journal page that we all enjoyed reading.
From: Mat Lemmings
To: Brian Bilbrey, Robert Bruce Thompson
Subject: FW: National Alert Status
Date: Mon, 24 Apr 2006 20:56:54 +0100 (15:56 EDT)
Thought this might appeal....!
The British are feeling the pinch in relation to recent bombings and
have raised their security level from "Miffed" to "Peeved'.
Soon though, security levels may be raised yet again to "Irritated" or
even "A Bit Cross". Londoners have not been "A Bit Cross" since the
blitz in 1940 when tea supplies all but ran out. Terrorists have
been re-categorised from "Tiresome" to a "Bloody Nuisance". The last
time the British issued a "Bloody Nuisance" warning level was during
the great fire of 1666.
Also, the French government announced yesterday that it has raised its
terror alert level from "Run" to "Hide". The only two higher levels in
France are "Surrender" and "Collaborate". The rise was
precipitated by a recent fire that destroyed France's white flag
factory, effectively paralyzing the country's military capability.
It's not only the English and French that are on a heightened level of
alert. Italy has increased the alert level from "shout loudly and
excitedly" to "elaborate military posturing". Two more levels remain,
"ineffective combat operations" and "change sides".
The Germans also increased their alert state from "disdainful
arrogance" to "dress in uniform and sing marching songs". They have two
higher levels: "invade a neighbour" and "lose".
And the Canadians, presumably, have raised their alert status to "Can't we all just get along?"
I'm actually starting to get used to Ubuntu 5.10 Linux, which is kind
of scary. The major issues I encountered were getting Ubuntu to map
Windows network shares into my home directory, the solution for which I
described earlier, and the fact that Ubuntu is relentlessly "free"
software. That means it doesn't support a lot of things out of the box
that most people are going to want, such as MP3 and DVD playback, and
it doesn't include any "non-free" applications like Adobe Acrobat
reader. The latter problems are easy enough to solve, either by running
automatix or by visiting the Ubuntu RestrictedFormats page.
I used the former method, because automatix also does a lot of nice
things like updating Firefox to the latest version and installing the
Microsoft core TrueType fonts.
I still like Xandros, and I still recommend Xandros for Windows
refugees who have no Linux experience and don't want to spend a
lot of time learning Linux. I have copies of Xandros 4 Desktop and
Xandros Server due to arrive shortly, and I'll certainly look at both
in some detail. In particular, I plan to build a small server and run
Xandros Server on it as a production server. From the material I've
read, Xandros Server appears to be essentially a clone of Microsoft
Small Business Server, but with all the advantages of running Linux
rather than Windows. I'll probably install Xandros 4 Desktop on my den
system and work with it long enough to satisfy myself that it makes
sense to upgrade Barbara's main desktop system. I may also run Xandros
4 on my main desktop system, although it will have to have some real
benefits to make it worth my while to migrate from Ubuntu.
- I'm still working hard on the new edition of Building the Perfect PC,
writing the narratives, accumulating hardware samples, and so on. We
should have everything we need in hand to build the Mainstream PC by
next weekend. That'll be the first BTX system we've built, and we're
looking forward to it.
One thing I'm debating is optical drive recommendations. We've been
using and recommending Plextor optical drives for years, but we're
beginning to wonder if their premium price is justified for routine
use. It's not that Plextor drives aren't as good as they ever were.
They are. It's that other drives that sell for considerably less are
much better than they used to be.
We've been very favorably impressed, for example, by the NEC ND-3550A.
I have several of the NEC drives and several 100-disc spindles of DVDs
sitting here awaiting a torture test. I've done that before with
Plextor drives--burn discs continuously for hours on end, inserting a
new disc as soon as the previous one finishes--and I plan to do that
with several NEC drives when I get an uninterrupted 12 to 16
hours to do so.
I'll do the same thing I did with the Plextors--keep three or four
drives burning constantly, and then pull out ten or so random discs
that each drive has burned, weighted towards the later burns, and do
in-depth surface scans on each. The Plextors did nearly perfect burns
with very low bit-error rates, even on the discs they burned after 12
hours or more of continuous burning. I'll number each disc to indicate
sequence number and which drive burned it, so that if a problem does
develop I'll have some idea of when it happened.
In the past, cheap drives tended to give up pretty quickly. One LG
drive I tested years ago started writing discs with high bit-error
rates after only half a dozen continuous burns, and soon started
burning coasters. That time, I thought perhaps I'd run into a bad run
of discs, but I let the drive cool and repeated the process with discs
from a different batch with the same result. Okay burns for the first
half dozen or so discs, and then problems developed rapidly. It'll be
interesting to see how the NECs stand up to that kind of abuse.
Frankly, I'm not sure that this kind of testing is really useful. After
all, not many people are likely to burn through an entire spindle of
discs in one sitting. But I think it does provide some useful
information, and as far as I'm aware no one else does this.
Barbara and I met Steve Childers and Paul Jones up at Fancy Gap on the
Blue Ridge Parkway yesterday evening. Even though it was a school
night, we stayed out until about 1:00 a.m. and then drove an hour home
to Winston-Salem. We got up this morning at the regular time, so we're
both dragging a bit.
It was worth the trip and the loss of sleep. Observing conditions were
excellent. We cleared Leo, adding about 15 objects to the done column
of our Herschel 400 list. (AKA The List That Would Not Die.) Steve had
his 17.5" Dob set up, Paul had his new 15" Obsession Dob, and we
had our 10" Dob. When we observed the same object in all three scopes,
it was clear that Steve's scope was brighter than Paul's, but it took a
side-by-side comparison on the same object to tell the difference. Both
the 15" and the 17.5" scopes are worlds ahead of our 10". Paul's scope
is almost one full magnitude brighter than ours, and Steve's is more
than a full magnitude brighter. Still, as Barbara said, she has no
desire to buy a larger scope. Neither do I, as long as we can beg some
eyepiece time on Steve's or Paul's scope when we're trying to log very
Paul's scope has Argo Navis digital setting circles installed. Those
work by using two encoders, one on the altitude (up and down) axis and
one on the azimuth (right and left) axis. The encoders feed a hand
controller, which they keep continuously updated as the scope is moved.
After you align on two bright stars, the hand controller knows where
the scope is pointed at all times. If you want to put a particular
object in the eyepiece, you simply punch that object into the hand
controller, which displays arrows to tell you which directions and how
far to move the scope. It works very well.
Paul was very happy to have his DSCs. He's a very experienced
astronomer, but he's been using an equatorial mount for 23 years now.
To him, it's second nature to locate objects using equatorial
coordinates, which are similar conceptually to terrestrial coordinates,
but are fixed relative to the north celestial pole (near the bright
star Polaris) rather than the north geographic pole. Because the earth
rotates, equatorial directions are not fixed relative to our point of
view on the moving earth.
An alt-az scope, like Paul's Dob, uses alt-az coordinates (up, down,
left, and right), which are fixed relative to our position on earth,
but not relative to the apparent motion of the celestial sphere. That
makes things a bit confusing for Paul. He's used to thinking in terms
of celestial north, south, east, and west, and now has to learn to
think in terms of terrestrial up, down, left, and right. That's not an
easy transition, and the DSCs will be very helpful to him as he learns
to think instinctively in the alt-az framework.
Barbara and I are very happy for Paul. He's like a kid with a new toy.
He kept taunting us, of course, pointing out how bright things were in
his new scope relative to our dinky little 10" scope and how quickly he
could find objects with the DSCs. We taunted him right back, accusing
him of cheating and using training wheels.
1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 by Robert Bruce