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Week of 22 May 2006

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Monday, 22 May 2006
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08:57 - Sometimes I wonder just how much more the American people are willing to take. For decades now, we've watched the federal government destroy everything that is good about America. We've watched them gut American manufacturing might, allow millions of American jobs to be moved overseas, and destroy our school systems. We've watched them actively encourage invasion by millions of illegal aliens across our southern border. We've watched as their actions cost the lives of thousands of US soldiers and hundreds of billions of dollars in pursuit of chimera like democracy in Iraq. We've watched them profit as gasoline prices tripled, causing great hardship to millions of Americans. We've watched them openly solicit and accept bribes from corporate lobbyists, and then pass the legislation paid for by those lobbyists. We've watched as the government of these United States has become of the corporations, by the corporations, and for the corporations.

How much more are we willing to take? The triumph of evil requires only that good men do nothing.


Tuesday, 23 May 2006
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08:55 - Hmmm. O'Reilly wants us to make a video in conjunction with the new edition of Building the Perfect PC. O'Reilly will package it and sell it separately, I assume via download but perhaps on a physical disc.

When my editor suggested doing this, I responded that (a) we don't have a video camera, lights, microphones, and other required gear, and (b) we have no clue as to how make a reasonably good video. No problem, says he. He'll drive down from New England, shoot the video himself. O'Reilly will do the post-production stuff, and we can do the voice-over later. So we'll probably be doing that this summer.

O'Reilly's corporate culture has about the same opinion of DRM as we do, so although I suspect it won't be an issue I will ask for assurances that the video won't be DRM'd. I consider "pirate" copies as just more PR for the book.

14:08 - The burglary of a VA employee's home resulted in the loss of detailed information, including social security numbers, about 26.5 million veterans, which I suspect is most or all living veterans. The news stories, of course, emphasize the danger of so-called identity theft, which raises a question that's been bothering me for a long time.

Why should identity theft be a problem for the person whose identity was stolen? If someone claiming to be me defrauds a business, for example, I was not a party to that fraud and I should not be involved in the resolution of that crime. It should be enough for me to state, "That wasn't me". Once I make that claim, the defrauded party and the authorities should have the burden of proving otherwise.

As things stand now, a victim of identity theft is guilty until proven innocent, and it's up to him to do the proving. If my identity is stolen, I may have to spend literally years and thousands of dollars to fix a problem that I had no part in creating. That's bass-ackwards.

The reason that identity theft has become so common is that financial institutions, businesses, and other at-risk parties have little incentive to take the steps necessary to prevent it. Tightening security would cost money and make things less convenient for them. The dirty little secret that's seldom mentioned in news stories is that many victims of identity theft end up paying off debts that they do not owe, simply because it's cheaper and much less work to pay off that debt than it is to contest it.

It would simplify matters immensely if a victim of identity theft could have his debt canceled and his credit rating restored simply by stating formally that he did not incur the debt in question. If the lender can prove that he in fact incurred the debt, then it goes back on his record. Otherwise, all record of the fraudulent transaction is eliminated.

The banks and credit card companies, of course, believe that many legitimate debtors would make false claims. The solution to that problem is to prosecute them for fraud, sentence them to a prison term, and place an indelible record of that fraud in their credit files.


Wednesday, 24 May 2006
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09:23 - I'm beginning to wonder if my Plextor PX-716AL has gone wonky. I installed the PX-716AL last summer in my main desktop system, and moved it to the new main office desktop system when the former system failed. The PX-716AL used to burn very high-quality DVD+R discs. Lately, though, it seems to be burning a lot of low-quality discs.

Other than for testing, I always use Verbatim MCC003 8X DVD+R discs or Verbatim MCC004 16X DVD+R discs. I go through a lot of discs, so I suppose the problem may be with this particular batch of discs rather than with the drive itself, but I'm getting concerned. The drive still burns a few good discs, but the average disc I've burned with it lately has hundreds of thousands of PI errors and typically tests with a Disc Quality in CD-DVD Speed in the low to mid 90's. In the past, I was burning discs with anything from a few hundred to a few thousand PI errors and Disc Quality of 99 or 100.'

I usually save a few discs from each 100-disc spindle for future comparison testing. I have half a dozen discs from several older spindles of 8X and 16X discs, so I'll probably burn a few test discs and see what kind of Disc Quality results I get from them. Thinking back, I'm pretty sure that that DVD+R Disc Quality shot I published last week was from a disc burned from an older spindle. The ones I'm burning lately have had hundreds of thousands of PI errors, versus about 45,000 on that one. And even that one wasn't a very good disc compared to what I'm used to. It had a DQ score of only 96.

If the test burn is as bad as those I've been seeing recently, I'll swap in another DVD burner and see what happens. I have a bunch of Plextor, BenQ, and NEC DVD burners sitting on the shelf, so perhaps I'll play musical drives and do some serious testing.

My hands have started to hurt a bit. It's more discomfort than pain, and it's primarily in the center of the palms of both hands, although I do get minor twinges in the joints of my fingers. I don't notice it much while I'm working, but it bothers me a bit at night when I'm trying to go to sleep. Barbara gave me a soft rubber ball to squeeze, but that doesn't appear to help.

I'm not sure if the problem is related to using the keyboard and mouse, or if it's simply osteoarthritis. I turn 53 years old in a couple of weeks, so I suppose it's not unlikely that I have some arthritis in my hands. I think I'll try swapping out my keyboard and mouse to see if that helps.

And here's a cunning plan from Swenson:

From:    Jan Swijsen
To:      Robert Bruce Thompson
Subject: daynote
Date:    Tue, 23 May 2006 22:05:56 -0800  (Wed, 02:05 EDT)


You should ask O'Reilly to explicitly DRM-protect the video. And then, on the video add an explanation of how to break that DRM and give explicit permission to do so.

That way you teach people not only to build a PC but also how to break DRM.

Kind regards,
Sjon Svenson

I *like* that idea. I'll forward it to my friends at O'Reilly to see what they think. We'd have to be very careful, though. We could end up facing criminal charges under the DMCA for teaching people how to crack our own video.

10:29 - Urk. O'Reilly put its foot down. No DRM, they say. Their DRM consists of asking people not to make unauthorized copies of the videos and documents they buy. That's for stuff they're selling. We may also do some freely distributable videos as PR for the book.

I just burned a test DVD to an old-stock Verbatim MCC004 16X DVD+R disc. Scanning it at 16X with Nero CD-DVD Speed 4.51.1, I get a Quality score of 95, with PI Errors averaging 5.30, with a maximum of 24 and a total of 53,907, and PI Failures averaging 0.04, with a maximum of 9 and a total of 239. I scanned the same disc at 1X. It's about 25% of the way through that scan, with similar averages and maxima.

Those are decent, but not exceptional, numbers. My best scan ever showed less than 100 total PI errors. I've commonly burned discs with fewer than 1,000 PI errors, and in the past I'd have considered one with more than 10,000 PI errors as of dubious quality. I'm going to burn a few more old-stock 8X and 16X discs from different spindles and scan them, but at this point it looks like the Plextor PX-716AL drive may be the problem.

Of course, I can't rule out the NEC ND-3550A drive that I'm using to run the scan. It's possible that that drive just doesn't like these discs. When I have a moment, I think I'll swap out the ND-3550A for a Plextor PX-740A and retest some of these discs.

That may be a while, though. Barbara tells me that we're taking some time off for the Memorial Day weekend, at least the three-day weekend and perhaps a day or two beyond that. We don't have any big plans. We'll probably have a cook-out on the deck with friends one evening, and perhaps get out the telescope and do a bit of observing if the weather is clear. I usually work seven days a week, and it's been a few months since I've taken more than one day off, so I'm kind of looking forward to a few days of down time.

13:02 - It looks like the NEC ND-3550A DVD burner is the problem. Here's the quality scan from an old-stock Verbatim MCC003 8X DVD+R disc, burned at 4X in the ND-3550A and scanned at maximum speed in the ND-3550A. This isn't a horrible disc, but there are a lot more errors than I want to see, specifically 422,577 PI errors and a maximum of 310 PI errors. The PIF average is also quite high.

But here's the quality scan from an old-stock Verbatim MCC004 16X DVD+R disc, burned at 4X in the ND-3550A and scanned at maximum speed in the ND-3550A. This is a horrible disc, with more than 1.3 million PI errors although the scan was only 33% complete. The PIE Max of 4618 and particularly the PIF max of 1572 means this disc is unreadable, as the ND-3550A drive decided partway through the scan.

When I have time, I'll pull this drive and replace it with a Plextor PX-740A. I suspect all of my problems were a result of this ND-3550A, which appears to be defective. I did upgrade the firmware from 1.04 to 1.06, but the problems were occurring even when I was still using the 1.04 firmware, so it's unlikely that downgrading the firmware will help.

It's also possible that this drive just hates Verbatim discs, at least MCC003, MCC004, and MKM02 models. I'll try the drive with some Taiyo-Yuden and/or Maxell discs to see if it gets along any better with them. Also, I have two or three other ND-3550A drives on the shelf, so I'll give them a thorough workout to see if the problem is specific to this sample.


Thursday, 25 May 2006
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08:20 - Nearly every article I read about the major television networks looking for alternatives to the traditional 30-second commercial mentions that the broadcast networks have to be careful not to alienate their affiliates. Why?

Perhaps things have changed dramatically, but the last time I looked the networks paid local affiliates to run their feeds. The networks charge advertisers for commercial time, and then pay part of that revenue to the affiliates who broadcast the programs. That made sense back in the old days, when over-the-air television was the only option. It makes no sense at all nowadays, when OTA broadcasting is viewed by only a very small percentage of the population.

Affiliates are essentially nothing more than a distribution mechanism, and a very costly one. Costly, and completely unnecessary in these days of ubiquitous cable and satellite TV. The small percentage of OTA viewers are generally not those that advertisers want to reach anyway. So why do the networks continue paying for this huge, expensive, unnecessary distribution network?

Right now, we get the local CBS affiliate on our cable on channel 3 and NBC on channel 11. I don't recall which channels the local ABC and Fox affiliates are on, but it may be channels 7 and 10. If the major networks announced tomorrow that they were dropping their local affiliate networks, you can be sure that ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC would remain on our cable system, most likely on the same channels. The only difference would be that the feed would come directly from the networks instead of from their local affiliates.

Well, that and that we'd have network programming 24 hours a day to replace the lost local programming. Local programming essentially comprised syndicated talk shows, reruns of old programs in syndication, and local so-called news. I don't know many people who would consider local news much of a loss. Ours runs for two hours every evening at dinner time, which two hours is split into about an hour of soft features, many of them thinly-veiled commercials that are paid for but not acknowledged as such, perhaps 45 minutes of loud car dealer commercials and other trashy local ads, and about 15 minutes of actual news and weather, if we're lucky.

And the news, such as it is, is a poor excuse for journalism. As Don Henley wrote, we "got the bubble-headed-bleach-blonde who comes on at five, she can tell you bout the plane crash with a gleam In her eye." And, "We can do the innuendo, we can dance and sing, when its said and done we haven't told you a thing, we all know that crap is king..."

We don't need the weather segments either. If I want to know the forecast, I look it up on the Internet. If our cable system would offer channels a la carte, I'd pay a buck a month or so for the Weather Channel, but until that happens I'm happy enough without it. So why do we need local affiliates?

Of course, none of this really matters to Barbara and me. Barbara watched the final episode of Left Wing a couple of weeks ago. That was the last network program she was following. I gave up network TV completely when the last episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer aired, so that's probably it for us in terms of network television. I can't imagine we'll ever buy an HDTV. Even if we're forced to because our old analog TVs fail, we'll never use the HDTV for anything except watching DVDs. Standard DVDs, because we're not going to buy into the HD-DVD/Blu-Ray crap, either.


Friday, 26 May 2006
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09:28 - The last work day before a long holiday weekend. Barbara and I will probably take a day or two off beyond the three-day weekend.

From:    Mike Mills
To:      Brian Bilbrey, Robert Bruce Thompson
Subject: Gun Safety 101 - Don't shoot the mirror.
Date:    Thu, 25 May 2006 15:46:46 -0400


This dude came very very close to having his head blowed clean off...

This looks like a hoax to me.

A .44 Magnum bullet would have penetrated a great deal more, probably through every interior wall of several apartments and then through the brick or concrete block exterior wall. See <http://www.theboxotruth.com/docs/bot1.htm> for example.

Even a .44 Special would have penetrated much farther. I know from my own experience. Several years ago, I was almost shot with a .44 Special, ironically by the instructor during a firearms safety course that was required for a carry permit.

With the French Open coming up, I've started to think about tennis again. A couple weeks ago, I watched a couple of young guys playing. Both had the two common weaknesses shared by nearly every player at club level and below. A pathetic backhand and a pathetic second serve.

I've never understood why the backhand is such a big problem for so many players. When I started playing tennis, my regular partner was my brother, who is left-handed. I'm right-handed, so for cross-court rallies we were always hitting forehand to backhand. I don't think there was ever a time when either of us was noticeably weaker on one side than the other.

It's actually easier to hit a backhand with power and accuracy. The forehand is not a natural motion. Your body is in the way, unless you hit an open forehand as I often did. Conversely, the backhand is a natural motion. (If you don't believe that, try dealing cards forehand. Better still, try throwing a Frisbee forehand.) When you hit a backhand, your arm can swing freely and your body is not in the way. The turn of your torso and the transfer of weight from your rear foot to the front foot is entirely natural, so the backhand allows you to produce very high racket head speed, with the forward motion of your body mass behind it. That translates into pace.

It's easy to hit a backhand flat, with topspin, or with underspin. You simply take the racket straight back for a flat stroke, back and down for topspin, finishing high, or back and up for underspin, finishing low. It's easier to disguise the direction of a backhand, even if you play with a locked wrist. (I used to use the same wrist snap for groundstrokes on both sides as I did when serving, which adds a lot of pace at the expense of some control and makes it nearly impossible for your opponent to anticipate the direction of the shot.)

So if it's so easy to hit a good backhand (which it is), why are most people's backhands so pathetically weak? At first, I thought it was probably a matter of poor footwork, but after watching a lot of people with decent footwork but terrible backhands, I concluded that it's actually very simple. They're using the wrong grip.

Many people use the Continental (Aussie) grip or something close to it for backhands. That's fine if you're playing on grass, where the ball doesn't rise far off the grass. I used to use the Continental grip for groundstrokes on both sides when I was playing on grass or wood. But most people play on hardcourts, where you can take the ball on the rise and still have it at waist height. For a ball at that height it's almost impossible with a Continental grip to hit anything more than a very weak, underspin backhand, because the racket face is tilted upward.

The proper grip for a backhand on most hard courts is the Full Western grip, which is 90° from the Eastern Forehand grip. In other words, you hold the racket face parallel to the ground and "shake hands" with it, with the "V" between your thumb and forefinger centered on the top facet of the grip. The Full Western grip puts your wrist behind the racket, which provides immensely more support for it than traditional backhand grips, which depend on the thumb to support the racket. When your arm and wrist are in the proper orientation, the Full Western grip puts the racket face perpendicular to the court at the moment of impact, as it should be. (With the Full Western grip, you needn't change grips to hit a forehand or backhand; exactly the same grip is used, and the same face of the racket, for hitting both.)

The other problem people have with the backhand is using the two-handed grip. For the first hundred years or so of tennis, two-handers were very rare. There were exceptions like Bromwich and Segura, but they were considered oddballs. Few players, male or female, from professionals down to duffers, would have even considered using two hands. It just wasn't done. Then Chris Evert and Jimmy Connors came along, with their famous two-handed backhands.

And wonderful backhands they were, too. Unfortunately, few realized that their backhands were so good in spite of the fact that they were two-handed, not because of it. Evert and Connors both started playing tennis when they were toddlers, and too weak to use one hand. Neither made the transition to using one hand, and both were dominant players of their generation. Many people just assumed that using two hands for the backhand was some sort of magic bullet. It's not.

Using two hands is bad in every respect. Perhaps worst, it reduces your horizontal reach, as you see demonstrated every time two-handers are hard pressed and attempt to hit a one-handed backhand. Using two hands also reduces your ability to deal with high and low balls, and to choose among a flat, topspin, or underspin stroke. Using two hands makes it much more difficult to disguise the direction of your shot. Finally, it reduces your power considerably. Even pros fall victim to the mythical advantages of the two-handed backhand. To which I can only say that if they learned to hit backhands properly with one hand, they'd be a lot more dangerous off that side than they are even now.

Then there's the pathetically weak second serve problem. How often do you see big guys hit booming flat first serves followed by little puff-ball second serves that clear the net by five feet? I blame that on tennis coaches, instructors, and books, nearly all of which propagate the myth that your second serve should alway go in, lest you strike a dreaded double fault. Well, double faults are Good Things. If you're not hitting double faults frequently, you're not serving well.

Most instructors and books tell you to develop a reliable first serve and then work on power. That's bass-ackwards. Develop power first, and then strive for reasonable reliability. By that, I mean that you should develop an extremely powerful, flat first serve that goes in 50% of the time on a bad day, 60% on a good day. Once you have that, you don't need a second serve. You just hit a second first serve.

Run the numbers. If your first serve is at "only" 50%, that means that of every 100 points you serve, your opponent is looking at cannonballs on 75 of them. But what about the 25 double faults, you ask? Who cares? A powerful serve that goes in on 75% of your points means you probably win at least 70% and possibly 75% of the total points you serve. (I played more than one match in which the only points an opponent won on my serve were those I double faulted.) And on days when your serve is "on" at 60% your opponent will be looking at a fast ball on 84% of the points you serve. Assuming you can generate sufficient power, no opponent stands a chance against your serve when he's looking at 75% "first" balls, let alone 84%. (If you happen to get your percentage up to 70%, he's looking at 91%, but if you're serving 70% that's nature's way of telling you you should be hitting the ball harder.)

As they say, the flip side of hitting a lot of home runs is that you also strike out a lot. But for a big server, the "strike-outs" don't matter much. I played many five-set matches where I served 20 or more double faults. But in those same matches, I often served 30, 40, even 50 clean aces. And my serve wasn't broken often once I realized that hitting a weak spin serve as my second ball was just another way to lose a point.

Of course, all of that assumes you're not playing on clay, which is why I hate clay. Hate it.


Saturday, 27 May 2006
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Sunday, 28 May 2006
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