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Week of 18 September 2006

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Monday, 18 September 2006
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10:22 - Thanks to everyone who's suggested alternatives for a digital voice recorder. Many people recommended various MP3 players that include a DVR function. Barbara's Creative MuVo N200 MP3 player has such a function, and I played with it a bit. The problem is that it's very awkward to use the PVR function on her MuVo, and I suspect the same would be true for any MP3 player.

What I'm looking for is a small device that makes it very quick and easy to record quick voice notes. I don't want to have to navigate a menu to turn on voice recording. I want something that has a dedicated Record button, so that all I need to do is push one button to record a quick note. So I decided to order an Olympus WS-100 voice recorder. It has only 64 MB of memory, but that translates to many hours of voice recordings, more than enough to capture random thoughts and brief notes. And at $70 it's a small risk. If it doesn't work out, I'll try something else.

I see that the Pope has apologized to Islamics, for what I'm not sure. If I were the Pope, my apology would have been something like, "Screw you and the camel you rode in on. Your so-called religion is pure evil, and those who practice it are barbarian scum." I don't doubt that's what the Pope was thinking. Too bad it's not what he said. Perhaps it is time for another Crusade.


Tuesday, 19 September 2006
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08:42 - Arrrrrr! Today is International Talk Like a Pirate Day.

I was looking around for a photo I have of our friend Mary Chervenak wearing a pirate eyepatch and with a parrot on her shoulder--actually, it's a small stuffed baby duck, but we did the best we could--but I couldn't find it. Oh, wait, here it is. Arrrrrr!

09:55 - Here's good news for people who've bought DRM-laden Microsoft WMA files. The Inquirer reports that Zune won't play MS DRM infected files. The article goes on to say that Microsoft advocates breaking the law to get copy-protected DVD-Video files onto the Zune.

It's ironic that Microsoft is starting a big push to grab market share from the iPod just as the iPod appears to be losing steam fast. Several articles I've read recently argue convincingly that the iPod is a passing fad. Sales of the iPod are plummeting, and people appear to realize that paying for copy-protected iTunes tracks is a sucker bet. One recent study found that the average iPod has fewer than five iTunes tracks on it. Rather than paying iTunes, most iPod owners rip their own CDs, download MP3s from P2P networks, or get their tracks from private darknets that they establish with friends. If Microsoft thinks sales of the Zune and DRM-laden music tracks is the path to riches, I'm afraid they're sadly mistaken.

12:37 - I was just talking to Kim about Jasmine, and I suggested that the best thing Kim could do to help Jasmine would be to help her learn speed reading. Kim says Jasmine is probably average in reading speed. That tells me that she could easily double if not quadruple her reading speed without any loss of comprehension.

I've never taken a speed-reading course or read a book on the subject, although I helped teach a speed-reading supplemental course while I was in college. But that was 30 years ago, so any resources I used then are long gone. So I'm soliciting suggestions for the best way for Jasmine to learn to read faster, ideally something that's low-cost and not very time intensive. Jasmine has already taken a speed-reading course offered by Wake Forest University, but that was when she was in fifth grade and had little appreciation for the potential benefits and a great awareness of the heavy workload.

Are there books or web sites that are particularly good for this purpose? The goal isn't to turn Jasmine into a "page-at-a-glance" reader, but merely to boost her reading speed significantly, ideally with better comprehension. All suggestions are appreciated.


Wednesday, 20 September 2006
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09:12 - Although autumn doesn't officially arrive until early Saturday morning, we're already having autumn-like weather, with highs in the upper 60's and lows in the middle 40's. The skies are also clearing, which means we may get more chances to use our telescopes. Our typical weather patterns for the last few years have given us clouds and haze nearly constantly from mid-spring until autumn. We're now entering the best time of year for astronomy, with reasonable temperatures and skies that are frequently clear.

Our observing buddy Paul Jones did some reconnoitering last night and located a potential new observing site for us. It's only a 20 minute drive from our house, has no local lights, and has skies about as dark as the Wake Forest lodge on the Blue Ridge Parkway. If the weather is clear this weekend, we'll probably give it a try.

After living with Kubuntu 6.06 LTS Linux for two weeks, I'm quite happy with it. I ran Ubuntu for several months, and got used to it, but I was never entirely happy. There were just too many minor irritations. Kubuntu has many fewer irritations, and those that do exist are pretty trivial. I've decided to standardize on Kubuntu for myself, but I'm still debating whether to convert Barbara from Xandros 3 to Kubuntu or Xandros 4. There's no hurry, so I'll simply wait until one or the other becomes the obvious choice.

I'm fascinated by the amount of activity on the messageboards by new Linux users. Quite a few people I considered dyed-in-the-wool Windows users have installed Linux, usually Kubuntu, and are playing around with it. Most of them seem to like it a lot. Ron Morse took the initiative in setting up a Transition to Linux forum, and from watching the activity there it's clear that a lot of people who're taking their first steps with Linux have found it very useful. I sense a groundswell of interest in desktop Linux, because what is going on here is no doubt also going on many other places.

I sense the beginning of a chain reaction here. More than two years ago, I was struck by a Linux neutron emitted by Brian Bilbrey. As I fissioned into a Linux user, I also started emitting a bunch of Linux neutrons that struck others here and on the messageboards. Many of those who were struck by my Linux neutrons became full-time Linux users, and have begun emitting Linux neutrons of their own. As I watch this happening, and realize that what's happening here is no doubt also happening elsewhere, I can't help but think that I'm seeing the beginning of a grassroots phenomenon that will eventually swamp Microsoft.

Some of my readers grossly overestimate the degree of influence I have, but whatever small influence I do have I am pleased to use to advance the cause of Linux. I was very late to the party, and my part in all this is very small, but I'm pleased to be contributing to the effort in my own small way.


Thursday, 21 September 2006
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08:28 - Here's a disturbing article, Microsoft Media Player shreds your rights. If Demerjian's conclusions are correct, which they appear to be, Microsoft is well on the way to eliminating Fair Use rights entirely.

I pay less attention to this stuff than I probably should. As a Linux user, most of this stuff has little direct impact on me. Alternatives still exist, such as recording TV programs to a DVD recorder, which produces DVDs with no DRM, or ripping CDs to unprotected MP3s, OGGs or FLACs. Finally, I simply don't care that much about recorded music or videos. If all of them disappeared tomorrow, I'd be perfectly happy. I'd just read books instead, which is pretty much what I do now.

But I'm on the far end of the bell curve in that respect. Most people, including most of my readers, do care about recorded music and videos, and most people still use Windows. I'm concerned on their behalf.

I occasionally see articles that claim that Microsoft is, like the rest of us, just another victim of the RIAA and MPAA. That's utter crap. Microsoft cooperates wholeheartedly with the RIAA and MPAA, not because it has no choice, but because it wants to be the middleman, taking a cut from every transaction. Ideally, Microsoft would like to take possession of your credit card, charging as much as it wants any time it wants, giving you nothing in return except the ability to watch videos and listen to music that you rent on Microsoft's terms.

As I've often said before, the solution to the this problem is simply to opt out. Vote with your dollars. Don't buy Microsoft software, don't buy CDs from RIAA companies, and don't buy DVDs from MPAA companies. Don't buy a Blu-Ray or HD-DVD player, and don't pay for DRM-laden downloadable music or videos. The ultimate goal of all of these companies is unfettered access to your wallet. Don't give it to them.

10:55 - SJVN asks How much abuse will you take from Microsoft? which I think is a pretty good question. More and more people, it seems, have decided that enough is enough. And more are joining them with every passing month.

Here's the truth. Except for 3D games, which few people play anyway, Linux is a perfectly good operating system for any home computer, and is in fact nearly always a vastly better choice than Windows. Every time I visit a friend who runs Windows on a home computer, I find that it's completely polluted with malware, spyware, viruses, Trojans, and rootkits. Every time I set up Linux for a friend, I find when I return months later that it's free of scumware. Windows cannot be used safely by ordinary people. Linux can be used safely without a thought to security. That in itself is enough reason to change.

Sure, you might have to use some different applications, but that's generally all to the good anyway. Firefox is a better browser than IE. OpenOffice.org can do everything most people need from an office suite on a home (or business) computer. There are substitutes available for popular home software such as Quicken that are perfectly usable. If they lack a few of the nice features of Quicken, well they also lack the many obnoxious ones. If your kids can't get along without their iPods, well, introduce them to Kaudiocreator and Amarok. If they want to trade music with their friends, teach them about the risks of P2P networks and explain the advantages of setting up a darknet of their own.

There really isn't any good reason to run Windows on a home computer, let alone to "upgrade" to Vista. If you must play Windows-only games, set up the system to dual boot. Live in Linux, and run Windows (which Bilbrey calls "Gaming OS") only when you want to play a Windows-only game. Alternatively, install CrossOver Office, VMWare, or Win4Lin for those times when you need to run Windows apps.

If you haven't tried Linux yet, download a copy of Ubuntu (or Kubuntu, which I prefer). Run it as a live CD and play around with Linux a bit. It's slow running from the CD, but you can at least get a taste of Linux without any risk at all. If K/Ubuntu looks like something you can live with, go ahead and click the Install icon and let K/Ubuntu have part of your hard drive. Windows and K/Ubuntu coexist just fine. If you do that, I'll bet that before long you'll find yourself blowing away your Windows partition and devoting your whole hard drive to K/Ubuntu.

Come on in. The water's fine.


Friday, 22 September 2006
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08:45 - Today, after 34 years of service, the Navy retires the F-14 Tomcat, one of the truly great US warplanes.

The Tomcat was built as a weapons platform for the very long-range AIM-54 Phoenix missile, which was designed to provide a huge radius of protection against air threats to our carrier battle groups. Opposition fighter pilots feared and dreaded the Tomcat and its AIM-54 missiles. During the Iran-Iraq wars, Iraqi pilots learned to recognize the distinctive AIM-54 targeting radar signals from F-14 fighters flown by Iranian pilots. Reportedly, during Desert Storm, our F-14 pilots had only to light up their radars to make the Iraqi fighter pilots run for cover.

But now the F-14 has been replaced by the F/A-18, a warplane that is quite capable, less expensive, much easier to maintain, and much cheaper to fly. Still, it's not the F-14, and I don't doubt that many of our naval aviators regret the passing of the F-14.

As they say, the nice thing about standards is that there are so many of them.

I now have four USB devices that I connect and disconnect frequently. (Things like printers and scanners don't count.) Those four devices are two digital cameras, one external hard drive, and my new Olympus WS-100 digital voice recorder. In order to connect those devices, I need not one, not two, not three, but four different cables.

The external hard drive uses a standard USB cable, with a full-size B connector. One of the digital cameras uses a 4-pin mini-B connector and the other a 5-pin mini-B connector. The Olympus WS-100 DVR has a standard A plug on it, which means I need a non-standard "USB" cable that has a Series A plug on one end and a Series A jack on the other. Fortunately, Olympus includes one with the unit. Unfortunately, it's only a foot long, which doesn't do me much good.

I'm not sure what the Olympus designers were thinking. Most tiny USB devices like MP3 players provide a "standard" 4- or 5-pin mini-B jack. Olympus apparently wanted to be different. They designed the unit so that sliding off a plastic cover exposes a standard Series A USB plug, which plugs directly into a USB  port on the PC. Unfortunately, my main desktop system sits beside my desk, and the front USB ports are down near the floor. I suppose I should just break down and install a USB hub. One more thing cluttering up my desk.

Oh, yeah, it's actually five devices and five different cables, because my camcorder uses FireWire.

12:03 - Rich Micko says on the forums that he wants to jump on the Linux bandwagon, but he needs a Linux replacement for Outlook. I use Kontact, shown here, which for me is a complete Outlook replacement.

There's also Novell Evolution, which looks even more like Outlook and has an Exchange Connector. I used Evolution for some months, but I prefer Kontact.

Incidentally, this is just the default appearance for Kontact. Like most Linux programs, it's extremely configurable in terms of functionality and appearance.


Saturday, 23 September 2006
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08:40 - I'm trying to develop the habit of carrying my Olympus WS-100 Digital Voice Recorder around with me all the time. It has a neck strap, so that's how I've been carrying it, outside of my shirt. I figured I'd draw some comments about it, if only people telling me it looked dorky.

Yesterday, I encountered quite a few people while walking the dogs, taking Malcolm to the vet to get the staples out, and so on. Not only did none of them comment, none of them apparently even noticed. They probably figured it was a really tiny cell phone.

I guess it's the time we live in, where people have become accustomed to others carrying all sorts of electronic doo-dads. I could probably carry my 17mm Destructor Ray Pistol without anyone noticing, let alone commenting.

Nah, probably not. Years ago, I used to carry my .45 ACP Colt Combat Commander everywhere I went. I usually carried it concealed, but at times for one reason or another I carried it openly. Even back then, I drew an occasional comment.

My favorite was the young mother who asked me, "Is that a gun on your belt?" I wanted to reply, "No, ma'am. I'm just glad to see you," but of course I didn't. She'd probably have missed the reference anyway. And run screaming from the room.

But most of the comments were of a helpful nature. "Excuse me, mister. Did you know your gun is cocked?" Eventually, I got tired of explaining that the proper (and entirely safe) way to carry a 1911 pistol is in Condition 1, cocked-and-locked, so I started just answering "Yes, thank you."

Some of the guys I worked with carried their 1911's in Condition 0, cocked-and-UNlocked, most of them with the grip safety also pinned, but they were nuts in other ways as well. I asked one of them if he was trying for a do-it-yourself orchidectomy.

Actually, I've been thinking about starting to carry again. If I do so, I'll do it openly. There's little point to applying for a North Carolina concealed carry permit, because there are so many restrictions on it. But one never knows when one might run into an Islamic terrorist, do one?

And, of course, if I do start carrying the Colt again, the chances are nearly zero that anyone would tell me I look dorky.


Sunday, 24 September 2006
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