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Week of 30 October 2006

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Monday, 30 October 2006
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09:16 - I spent yesterday doing an unexpected upgrade of my main system from Kubuntu 6.06 to Kubuntu 6.10. I say unexpected because, although I intended to migrate to Kubuntu 6.10 eventually, I didn't intend to do it this soon.

It all started routinely enough. Yesterday morning, I was doing maintenance on my system. I noticed that I had only 100 GB or so free on my two supplemental 750 GB drives, so I decided to clean things up a bit. Big mistake. Or perhaps I should say it was a big mistake to use a meat-axe while not paying close attention. That meat-axe was the Linux command rm -rf, which can do some serious damage if you let it get away from you.

I let it get away from me. To make a long story short, I ended up deleting /etc on the primary hard drive instead of doing what I intended, which was to delete a backup copy of /etc on the secondary hard drive. The first hint I had that something was wrong was when I attempted to use the sudo command and got an error message that UID 1000 was not found. Oops. Of course it wasn't found, since I'd already deleted the password file. Oh, well.

After thinking about it a moment, I decided to go ahead and install Kubuntu 6.10. My main system was not functional, so I headed into the den and downloaded Kubuntu 6.10 on my den system. I stuck a burnable CD in the drive, fired up K3b, and told it to burn Kubuntu 6.10 to the CD. Or I tried to do that. K3b refused to start the burn. I'm embarrassed to admit that it took me a minute or two to realize that the reason K3b refused to burn the disc was that the drive in my den system is a DVD-ROM drive rather than a burner. Duh.

So I copied the ISO file to the Windows box that sits next to my main system. I don't have Nero installed on that system, but I do have Plextor PlexTools, which I thought would do the job. Sure enough, there was an option to burn a CD ISO. I chose that, and was presented with a pane with instructions to drag and drop the file I wanted to burn. I dropped the ISO in the box and started the burn. When it completed, I stuck the CD in my main system and rebooted. It tried to boot from the hard drive. I ran BIOS Setup and verified that indeed the system was set to boot first from the optical drive. That occasioned another minute or two of head scratching, until I thought to look at a directory listing of the CD in another system. Sure enough, PlexTools had burned the ISO file as a file rather than using it as an image. Duh.

So I used another burning app to burn the ISO to another CD, booted that CD in my main system, and installed Kubuntu 6.10. It looked fine, except that it was displaying at 1024x768 instead of using the native 1400x1200 resolution of my ViewSonic VG2021m display. I fixed that by editing /etc/X11/xorg.conf to correct the vertical and horizontal sync rates supported by the VG2021m and then adding "1400x1050" to the list of supported resolutions. Once I restarted X, the system came up in 1400x1050 mode.

That's the short version. The long version took all day, and the moral, as Brian Bilbrey told me, is that one should always use the full path rather than a relative path when using the rm -rf command. I think I'll remember that next time.


Tuesday, 31 October 2006
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08:27 - We have some friends coming to stay with us for a week over Christmas, so I'm adding to our video collection so that we have something new to watch while they're here. Last night, I downloaded1 a movie that was made in the late 1960's about 15 miles from the house where I grew up in New Castle, Pennsylvania. It's called Night of the Living Dead, and I haven't seen it since 1968. It seemed about time to watch it again.

I remember when they were filming it, and I suppose I could have actually gotten a role in it. I knew several people who intended to apply for jobs as monsters. If I remember correctly, they were paying something like $10 to people who were willing to be made up as monsters and stagger around on camera. I don't know if any of the people I knew actually appeared in the film.

This morning, I'm downloading1 another classic, Attack of the Killer Shrews. I'll never forget the climax of that movie, with the radiologically-mutated killer shrews pursuing the screaming scientists through the woods. Unfortunately, the film didn't have a very large budget, so the killer shrews were actually Lassie collies with pointy snout-cones. They were pretty horrifying in the final chase scene, though, running through the woods woofing and wagging their tails.

The movies are full-size MPEG2 files, about 4 GB for the first movie and 1.9 GB for second. I'm not sure how to handle them. I suspect that our DVD player understands simple MPEG2 files, so I can probably just burn the files directly to DVDs and have the player accept them. If not, I'm sure there are utilities that will handle formating things properly for DVD.

As I downloaded these files, I kept thinking about how reasonable it is that they're in the public domain, and wondering why all older films aren't. Using the 14+14 year yardstick, which seems long to me but was formerly the standard, any film, music, or book that was copyrighted earlier than 1978 would now be in the public domain. That seems much more reasonable to me than the current copyright term of life + 10,000 years or whatever it is.

1 Note to MPAA: these movies are in the public domain, and perfectly legal to download.


Wednesday, 1 November 2006
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08:27 - The start of a new month. The year is disappearing fast, and I have lots left to do.

Last night was Halloween. When Barbara arrived home from work yesterday, I announced that I'd chosen our Halloween viewing entertainment. Yep, Attack of the Killer Shrews. Barbara groaned, but took it in good humor. I'd just burned the 1.9 GB MPEG2 file directly to a DVD, and hoped for the best. Obviously, there wouldn't be any menus or other features that a typical DVD-Video includes, but I hoped that our DVD player would just present a directory listing and let me run the file. That's what it did. Unfortunately, although the video worked properly, there wasn't any audio. Oh, well.

Several years ago, Barbara and I started leaving the house dark because there weren't any young children trick-or-treating in the neighborhood. The character of the neighborhood has changed over the last few years. We now have lots of young families with children, so next year we'll probably turn the lights back on and hand out candy.

When we walked the dogs last night, Barbara wasn't expecting to see many children out, but the neighborhood was full of them. When Malcolm sees someone he doesn't recognize, he barks. Last night, he barked constantly on the walk. Duncan, on the other hand, loves everyone. Barbara calls him her Wal*Mart greeter. He was making a fuss over kids he'd never met, while Malcolm stood back barking at them. Barbara took Malcolm home, while I stood outside talking with our neighbor Kim, as she handed out candy to the kids.

I'd best get to work.


Thursday, 2 November 2006
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08:40 - Microsoft has officially announced that Longhorn/Shorthorn/Nohorn will ship on 30 November for businesses and 30 January 2007 for retail customers. I am barely able to contain my excitement, but I suppose somehow I'll manage.

The phrase "too little, too late" comes to mind. After straining mightily for more than five years and supposedly spending many billions of dollars on the project, Microsoft will deliver what amounts to a service pack for Windows XP, which in turn was essentially a service pack for Windows 2000, which in turn was essentially a service pack for Windows NT. Microsoft gutted the announced features of Vista, leaving us with what amounts to an updated GUI on top of the same old same old.

Of course, Microsoft claims there are many new features in Vista, but the only really important new features are Draconian activation, pervasive DRM, and a license that requires users to buy a new copy after one hardware change. No, thanks.

I'm one machine away from being a Microsoft-free zone. That one machine is currently running Windows XP because I need it to run the astronomy charting software I'm using for the current book. Once that book is complete, that machine will be formatted down to bare metal and have Linux installed on it. Goodbye, Microsoft.

CNN reports that the web hit a major milestone last month. There are now more than 100 million named web sites with content. The little acorn has grown into a mighty oak. I remember the first time I browsed the web. Back then, it was possible literally to "finish" the web, by which I mean it was possible to follow links until you had visited every page linked to on every other page.

That was no longer possible by the time I brought up my first home page in February 1995, although I'd guess there were only a few tens of thousands of sites active back then. Within a month or two, I'd started keeping a journal page, which must have been one of the first "blogs", if not the first. It was all very primitive, running on a 486 box (or was it a 386?) running The Major BBS with the ICO (Internet Connection Option) to provide the web interface, and connected to the Internet via a "nailed-up" dial-in connection.

In mid-1998, right around the time Jerry Pournelle brought up his eponymous web site, I moved my domain and site to a commercial provider, the name of which escapes me. I decided then to start afresh, and so took down all of the stuff I'd written before then. I don't remember why I did that--it probably had something to do with conversion issues--but I wish now I'd left the stuff up.

I probably have backups of that stuff buried deeply somewhere in my old archives, and I periodically think about retrieving that material and posting it on this site. That's assuming that it's still accessible. That material predates my decision to keep all archive data on spinning platters and migrate it to new hard drives as I upgraded my disk storage. That was a time when I measured my available disc storage not in terabytes or even gigabytes, but in megabytes. Disk storage was expensive back then, and I moved old stuff off my hard drives an onto floppies or tape, later onto CD-Rs. It may be gone forever.


Friday, 3 November 2006
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08:15 - Shocking news yesterday. Microsoft and Novell signed a non-aggression pact. My first thought was that I didn't know what to think. What possible advantage could such an agreement have for Microsoft?

Well, one huge advantage. Microsoft has been constrained from making patent attacks against Linux by the strong patent portfolios of companies that are friendly to Linux, and Novell was certainly one of those companies. This agreement removes Novell's patents as a factor. I'm not sure how much good this will do Microsoft, though, because IBM is the 900-pound gorilla, and IBM has $billions of reasons to defend Linux. I can't imagine IBM making such an agreement with Microsoft, but then until yesterday I couldn't have imagined Novell doing it, either.

Any mention of Red Hat was conspicuously absent from the discussions yesterday, so it's pretty obvious to me that Red Hat is Microsoft's target. Poor Red Hat. Attacked by Oracle and Microsoft in one week. It wouldn't surprise me to see Microsoft file patent infringement claims against Red Hat in the near future. Microsoft might have been restrained by the monopoly consent decree before this agreement, but now Microsoft can point to this agreement if the government antitrust folks object to an attack on Red Hat. I've never said that Microsoft is stupid. Evil, but not stupid.

The next obvious step in this dance is for IBM to buy Red Hat, which would neatly counter Microsoft's play. Between the Oracle announcement and the Novell-Microsoft agreement, Red Hat's stock price is likely to be depressed for some time, making it an attractive candidate for a buy-out. We'll see what happens.


Saturday, 4 November 2006
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10:30 - No comment.

On converting download MPEG2 files to DVD-Video format, Greg Norton posted the following advice on the messageboard.

I follow this procedure for converting most of the popular video formats to DVD:

1) $ ffmpeg -i input.avi -target ntsc-dvd output.mp2

2) $ dvdauthor -o output_dvd -t output.mp2

3) $ dvdauthor -o output_dvd -T # generates basic table of contents

At this point, output_dvd will have a file/directory hierarchy ready to burn to a DVD for the living room player.

Both ffmpeg and dvdauthor are available in the Debian multimedia repositories. The ffmpeg binaries generally have sufficient compile-time options to process non-compliant audio/video in an MPEG2 file into streams that meet the DVD standard.

Note that some input video files will require specifying the aspect ratio on the ffmpeg command line in order to show up properly on a TV screen.

Which works fine. I queried Greg about the first line, since my source file was already in MPEG2 format. He replied that AVI files can be of various types, including MPEG2, and suggested I use the commands as is. I did that, literally. I renamed the downloaded file from NIGHT_OF_THE_LIVING_DEAD.MPEG to input.avi and ran the commands exactly as listed.

I ended up with an output file named output.mp2, which the second command line converted to a DVD-Video directory structure with VIDEO_TS and AUDIO_TS subdirectories. I converted that directory structure to an ISO image and burned it to DVD. When I ran it in our DVD player, it worked just fine. The movie starts immediately when the disc loads, and the audio works properly. Thanks, Greg.


Sunday, 5 November 2006
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