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Week of 24 April 2006

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Monday, 24 April 2006
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09:55 - 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 $250.

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 8" SCT.

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.


Tuesday, 25 April 2006
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10:21 - 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 time-critical issues.

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 stand for.

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 ad-blocking software.

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.

12:13 - 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?"


Wednesday, 26 April 2006
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09:45 - 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.


Thursday, 27 April 2006
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11:00 - 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.


Friday, 28 April 2006
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09:35 - 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 dim objects.

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.


Saturday, 29 April 2006
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Sunday, 30 April 2006
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