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Week of 11 September 2006

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Monday, 11 September 2006
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07:53 - Although it seems like yesterday, it was five years ago today that Islam launched the opening salvo in its renewed war against civilization. The United States, always slow to anger, has yet to respond. Islam's cities still stand, and the cancer that is Islam continues to spread. Let us hope that in the coming five years the righteous wrath of the United States will finally be aroused and that Islam will be wiped from the planet.


Tuesday, 12 September 2006
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08:40 - I've known for a long time that Windows couldn't be trusted, but I was shocked to learn yesterday just how little it can be trusted.

I have a 500 GB USB 2.0 external hard drive that I use for portable backups. When I leave the house for any extended time, that drive goes with me (along with my optical disc backups). Ordinarily, that external drive is plugged into my secondary desktop system, which runs fully-patched Windows XP. I set it up that way for a trivial reason. There was room for the external drive on top of the Windows box, while my Linux desktop system already had too much clutter around it. It didn't seem to make much difference where it connected, because all our systems are networked.

As it turns out, connecting the external hard drive to the Windows system was a big mistake. I found that out yesterday when I attempted to copy some backup DVD ISO image files from the external hard drive to my main Linux box. To make a long story short, they were corrupted. At first, I thought the external hard drive was failing, but when I attempted to copy some DVD ISO image files to my Linux system from the internal hard drive of the Windows system, those were also corrupted. It was pretty obvious that Windows itself was causing the problem.

To verify that, I unplugged the external drive from the Windows box and plugged it directly into my Linux box. The files transferred perfectly, at about 30 MB/s, to one of the internal drives on the Linux box. I checked the MD5 sums and found no corruption. When I again connected the external hard drive to the Windows box and played around copying some large files to and from it, the following message popped up on the Windows system.

Windows - Delayed Write Failed

Windows was unable to save all the data for the file E:\$Mft.
The data has been lost. This error may be caused by a failure
of your computer hardware or network connection. Please try
to save this file elsewhere.

Hmmm. Despite the reference to "write", the problem occurs in both directions. It's as likely to pop up when I'm reading files from the external hard drive as when I'm writing files to it. So I searched Microsoft.com and found KB article 330174. I was horrified to read the following:

Delayed Write Failure

Data corruption may occur if the Large System Cache feature is enabled in Windows XP. This problem does not occur on all systems. The key ingredients that lead to data corruption may include:

•    System Memory greater than 512 Meg. (1 gigabyte of RAM is common)
•    Large NTFS disk volumes and multiple large volumes. (60-100 gigabyte hard drives possibly in RAID arrays)
•    AGP graphics with large AGP resource requirements (AGP aperture greater than default)
•    Large file transfers. This problem occurs when the computer runs out of system page table entries. Windows determines (at boot time) the default number of page table entries to assign, based on the amount of system memory available.

The conditions listed above all contribute to increasing the number of page table entries that Windows XP must maintain and in extreme cases the page table entries may be exhausted. To avoid this problem ensure the System Cache option is NOT selected for Memory usage.

In other words, Windows XP unpredictably scrambles your data. Even entry-level systems nowadays often have more than 512 MB of RAM and 60 GB of disk space, so this problem is apparently widespread. What it amounts to is that Windows' file handling is fragile.

What's puzzling is that I'd already turned off delayed writes for the external drive and yet the problem still occurred. I turned off delayed writes for the internal hard drive, hoping that would fix the problem. It didn't. Although I just noticed the problem, I have no idea how long it's been going on. Fortunately, I had MD5 sums for all of the backup ISOs on the external drive, and none of the older ones was corrupted. I was able to copy those to my primary Linux box with no problems. There were a few ISOs on the internal hard drive of the Linux box. I was finally able to copy those to the external hard drive by rebooting the Windows box, copying one ISO file, rebooting, copying another, and so on until I had all of them transferred to the external drive. After copying them up to my Linux box, I deleted them from the Windows internal hard drive.

That's it for me. I'll never again trust a Windows box to store any data I care about. It was only by great good luck and my mania for redundant data storage that I avoided losing data, thanks to Windows. When I have a spare moment, I'll connect the external hard drive to my Linux box and reformat the drive from NTFS to FAT32 or a Linux filesystem. And I'm casting a jaundiced eye at that Windows box. It may not be long for this world.

What do you call an operating system that can't be trusted to transfer files without corrupting them? Crap, I'd say. If I ever had any thought of upgrading this one box from Crap XP to Crap Vista, that thought is gone forever. The onliest reason I run Crap XP now is because I have an astronomy charting program that requires Windows, and I need that application for the book I'm writing now.

But I had that astronomy charting program almost working under Crossover Office on Xandros 3. The only problem I had with it was that some fonts weren't displayed properly, but that may have just been because I didn't have all the required fonts installed under Linux. But now I have Xandros 4 and a newer version of Crossover Office. For that matter, I can install the latest WINE, upon which Crossover Office is based, on my main Kubuntu system. Of course, I'd also have to get the Epson 3450 scanner working under Kubuntu, which may be trivial, or buy a scanner that's supported by Linux. But doing that would eliminate my last reason to run Windows.

12:38 - Here's an article that completely misses the point, despite the fact that many respectable people are quoted. The article claims that software "monoculture" is endangering our computing infrastructure. It presents as the only alternative the use of diverse systems, which it says companies are unwilling to do because of the much higher costs of implementing and supporting a diverse base.

The problem isn't operating system monoculture. The problem is that it is Microsoft Windows--insecure and unsecurable--that is the dominant OS. If a company wants to migrate to a secure OS, it has two choices. Mac OS X and Linux are both orders of magnitude more secure than Windows is or ever can be. Mac OS X is expensive, but most important applications have OS X versions available. Linux is very inexpensive, both in software cost and because it runs fine on low-end, generic Intel boxes, but some applications that are important to corporations are not available in Linux versions.

I don't know much about OS X, but I've been told that it lacks the management tools needed to maintain a large network. Linux is behind Windows in some ways in that respect, although better in others, but Linux is getting better tools all the time. The usual knock on Linux is that it requires more expensive staff to maintain than does Windows. That may be true, although Linux expertise is getting more and more common, but the simple truth is that one Linux guru can maintain a much, much larger and more complex Linux network than one equivalently-skilled Windows guru can maintain.

If I were a corporate CIO, I'd immediately declare Windows a legacy OS, and insist that no further development occur on it, other than emergency measures to maintain the Windows infrastructure while we migrated to Linux. I'd have all of our users converted away from MS Office to OpenOffice.org as soon as possible, despite the one-time costs required to do such things as migrating complex spreadsheets with MS-specific macros. All of our application development would be web-centric and desktop platform-neutral. I would not even look at Windows Vista, because I'd know there was no way we would ever implement it. Every day, I would be looking for ways to escape the Microsoft lock-in in favor of open document formats and, secondarily, open-source software.

If my boss queried me about costs, I'd simply point out in detail the real and continuing costs of using Microsoft software. Not just the ridiculously high license fees, but the large software costs involved in trying to secure Windows and, particularly, the huge costs in staff time required to maintain Windows on the desktop and on the server and deal with its frequent critical security flaws.

Microsoft used to talk a lot about Total Cost of Ownership. I haven't noticed much of that from them lately, perhaps because they've finally realized that Microsoft TCO claims are a standing joke among system administrators. For a while, they were able to befuddle the non-technical upper management types with their ridiculous claims, but I suppose that by now even the PHBs are starting to realize that Microsoft has been shoveling a big load of crap.


Wednesday, 13 September 2006
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09:15 - Production on the new edition of Building the Perfect PC is proceeding apace. I just boxed up a bunch of components to FedEx out to O'Reilly so that they can shoot the cover image. I tried to shoot it myself, but I don't have the lighting (or probably the skills) to shoot an image good enough to use on the cover.

Several people have asked whether I turned on Delayed Writes for the internal hard drive on the Windows box. The answer is that I didn't. That feature is supposed to be disabled by default. I have no idea why it's even an option to enable it, because enabling it risks data corruption. But I didn't enable it, and I have no idea how it came to be enabled. This was a vanilla installation of XP, updated via Microsoft Update to the latest patches. I installed OpenOffice.org, Firefox, my astronomy app, and a few other programs, but nothing that should have messed with write-caching settings.

That's one of the real problems with Windows. I never have any idea what's going on, or what obnoxious "feature" will be installed with the latest patches. Microsoft routinely abuses the patch process to install things that I don't know are being installed and wouldn't want to be installed if I did know about them. With Linux, I never have the slightest doubt that a patch is intended to do just what it says and nothing else. With Windows, I always wonder just what nastiness I'm installing when I install a patch.

Several readers asked why I don't buy a Mac. The short answer is that Apple is as bad as Microsoft, or worse. They're smaller and have an insignificant market share, but if someone waved a magic wand and reversed the market share positions, Apple would be as obnoxious as Microsoft. Both are proprietary, both strive to lock in their customers, and both are in bed with the *AA. Apple has a much better OS, certainly, but otherwise there's not a lot to choose between them.

Open source software is not a religious issue for me, although I will always give preference to it over commercial software for its many practical advantages. Open data formats are a religious issue for me. I want to have complete control of my data, and proprietary data formats such as those used by Microsoft take control of my data away from me. Equally, I'm not at all opposed to DRM, as long as I have the keys. What I will not accept is someone else having control of my data, whether via proprietary formats or DRM that is not under my control.

In practical terms, all of this means I use and will continue to use Linux and applications such as OpenOffice.org that leave me in control of my computer and of my data. I strongly recommend that anyone else who wants to keep control of his own data do the same.


Thursday, 14 September 2006
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08:46 - I moved my 500 GB external hard drive from the Windows box to my main Kubuntu system yesterday. It was formatted NTFS, so the Kubuntu system could read from it, but not write to it.

I reformatted the drive as VFAT and copied 34 GB of archive data to it. Then I began copying about 20 GB of MP3 files that I'd ripped from Barbara's CD collection. The problem with VFAT became evident immediately. It doesn't allow the colon symbol in file names, and many of Barbara's album titles and track titles used the colon. I started to replace the colon in those file and directory names with a hyphen, but then I realized that was pointless. The only reason I'd chosen VFAT for the external drive was because it's the only filesystem that both Linux and Windows can both read from and write to. But I don't care about Windows, and never will again. So I reformatted the external drive as ReiserFS and recopied all the data.


Friday, 15 September 2006
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10:50 - Barbara says the BioFreeze stuff works for her, so I'm going to mix some up for her. She bought a 4-ounce spray bottle at Andrews Pharmacy, the only local place that carries it. According to the lady at the pharmacy, the spray stuff is more concentrated (10% menthol versus I think 5% in the gel) and costs no more. Still, Barbara paid something like $25 for a 4-ounce bottle, which is outrageous. The only active ingredient is 10% Menthol, so I decided just to mix up some myself.

I have 40 grams of menthol, which I'll dissolve in 500 ml of 70% isopropanol (or a pint, 473 ml) to make a 10% solution. (Before anyone questions my math, isopropanol has a density of 0.785, which means a 10% weight-to-weight solution requires about 480 ml of 70% isopropanol.) I'll probably add a few drops of green food coloring to make it visually obvious that the bottle doesn't contain plain isopropanol.

That gives me 500 ml for a total cost of about $12, or the equivalent of about $3.00 per 4-ounce bottle. If you want to mix your own (although I disclaim any responsibility if you do), you can find bulk menthol at hundreds of on-line vendors. The price varies hugely. For example, I found 100 grams for $28 at one site and 30 grams for $90 at another. The best prices are generally at new-age "aromatherapy" vendors and similar places. Chemical supply houses generally charge more.

I probably should have asked one of my buddies at R. J. Reynolds to check into getting some for me. I suspect Reynolds gets the stuff in 55 gallon drums for their cigarette production plants.


Saturday, 16 September 2006
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09:30 - I used to be able to remember things. Then, around the time I turned 35, I realized that my memory, particularly my short-term memory, wasn't as good as it had been. I started to forget things. Now, at age 53, I've pretty much lost the ability to remember things. If someone gives me his address and phone number, I have to write them down or I'll forget them. The problem is, I never developed the habit of writing things down.

The other day, I mentioned to Barbara that I need a pocket-size notebook and pen to record things I want to remember. Yesterday, I got to thinking about it, and realized that what I really need is a digital voice recorder that I can keep with me at all times to capture thoughts and data. It's much faster to speak than to write, and those recordings should be easy to transfer to my desktop system and, if necessary, to transcribe into my PIM.

I visited NewEgg, and found that they carry many DVRs. They have some really cheap models, but I wanted one with USB connectivity so that I could transfer recordings to my computer. Nearly all of the USB models NewEgg carries are made by Olympus or Sony, and I won't consider Sony. The Olympus models range in price from $67 to $190. I decided that the least expensive model, the WS-100, would do what I need to do.

The only problems are that the thing is huge (3.7"L x 1.57"W x 0.59"D) and probably not very robust. I'd prefer something about the size of a small USB flash drive built to milspec, so that I could just keep it in my pocket. Alternatively, a belt holster would work. But this thing comes with only a neckstrap, which I suppose I can get used to. I was also surprised to find that it records in WMA format. I'd prefer OGG, or at least MP3, but I can deal with WMA.


Sunday, 17 September 2006
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