Week of 27 November 2006
Update: Friday, 1 December 2006
I took last week off. We spent the night of Saturday/Sunday, 18/19
November up at our observing site at Fancy Gap, Virginia, where we got
some decent observing weather for once. We headed home Sunday morning
to prepare for the arrival of our friends Brian and Marcia
Bilbrey, who spent Thanksgiving week with us, along with their dogs,
Lucy and Molly. With four people and four dogs, we had a full house for
We'd planned to take Brian and Marcia out to Friendship
to bust a few clay pigeons. When I checked on the preceding Friday, I
found that they're only open on weekends this time of year. That meant
we'd either have to shoot on Sunday right after Brian and Marcia
arrived or the following Saturday before they left. They opted for the
Sunday, so we headed for the range shortly after they arrived. Brian
and Barbara did most of the shooting. I fired only five rounds, and
Marcia only one. (She just wanted to find out what the recoil of a 12
gauge shotgun would be like. She found out...)
During the first part of the week, Barbara and Marcia spent a lot of
time out and about, while Brian and I mostly stayed at home working on
computers. We built a new Core2 Duo computer for Barbara, installed
Kubuntu 6.10 on it, and migrated all her stuff off her old Xandros 3
box. We then stripped down and cleaned up Barbara's old box, put the
original hard drive on the shelf, installed a new hard drive, installed
Xandros 4 on it, and took it next door to "store" at our neighbor
Stephanie and Gerald have a computer in the basement den, but Stephanie
wanted one upstairs. She's a stay-at-home mom who rides herd on two
daughters, ages 2 and 4, so having a machine on the main floor makes
her life easier. We thought Internet access would be a problem, because
their DSL modem is located in the basement, with no convenient way to
get a cable to where Stephanie wanted the upstairs PC located. As it
turned out, Internet access was no problem at all.
Ordinarily, I keep the radio turned off on my wireless access point.
I'd enabled it while Brian and Marcia were here so that Marcia could
use it with her laptop. (Brian sets up in my office and plugs into our
network.) As Brian and I were rebuilding the box for Stephanie, I
realized there was an easy solution right in front of us. Brian and I
installed a D-Link PCI Wi-Fi 802.11g+ adapter in the system. Xandros 4
recognized it and allowed us to enable WPA security with no hassle at
We carried the system over to Stephanie's house and set it up in a
corner of the living room. When we fired it up, we found we had 69%
signal strength from my WAP, which is more than sufficient for a
reliable connection. We entered the WPA passphrase, and the system
connected immediately. Stephanie is happy. Well, all except for the
fact that her new computer is sitting on an ordinary table in the
living room. She wants Gerald to buy (or make) her a computer desk. (He
builds custom cabinetry for a living.) As they say, the cobbler's
children have no shoes, and Stephanie has no computer desk.
But she does have a wedge. Brian configured her system to require
entering a password to unblank the screen. When Gerald arrived home and
noticed the new computer sitting in the living room, he of course
immediately sat down to look at it. When he moved the mouse, he was
presented with a login dialog. When he asked Stephanie for the
password, she explained that he would get the password when she got her
computer desk. Gerald, shifting to Plan B, told Stephanie that he had
to be able to access her new system before he'd run a cable to it for
Internet access. Stephanie told Gerald that she already had Internet
access. He didn't believe her until she showed him that she could get
to CNN, eBay, and so on. Gerald crawled around under the table looking
for the hidden Ethernet cable. Stephanie finally relented and told
Gerald that she was linked to my WAP. At this point, Gerald appears to
be checkmated. I just love the battle of the sexes.
Thursday, we all headed over to Barbara's sister's house for
Thanksgiving dinner. As always, Frances and her husband Al were
excellent hosts. Barbara had cooked the turkey, but Frances took care
of the rest. As usual, she had cooked enough food to feed a small army.
We feasted on turkey, ham, mashed potatoes, deviled eggs, dressing, and
I forget what else. As usual, I ate far too much and ended up lying
flat on the floor to recover.
Friday afternoon, we went out to the pistol
to give Brian and Marcia a little experience with pistol shooting. We
took along the Ruger bull-barrel .22 target pistol, the Ruger .357
revolver, and the .45 ACP Colt Combat Commander, in order to give them
a wide range of pistols to shoot. The .44 stayed home. It's a bit much
for me to shoot comfortably, let alone Barbara or Marcia. All four of
us shot all three pistols, although Marcia much preferred the .22 Ruger
for its lack of recoil.
Barbara and I ended up re-joining the range. We'd been members several
years ago, but for some reason just stopped going very often and so let
our membership lapse. Shooting as non-members would have cost us
$15/hour times the four of us. We decided it made more sense just to
pay the $275 for an annual family membership, which allowed
and Marcia to shoot for free as our guests.
This last week has been a big change for Marcia. She was not a pro-gun
person, but I convinced her that, as an aspiring mystery novelist, she
really needed to get some hands-on experience with firearms. It's
difficult to write convincingly about things you haven't experienced,
and here was an opportunity for her to get that experience. She made
the most of it, and is so often the case, realized that shooting is
The other major change was Marcia's attitude towards Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
In the past, she teased Brian and me for liking it. This time, Marcia
made the mistake of watching an episode with us, and was immediately
hooked. All week long, each time we were ready to leave the
house on one excursion or another, it was Marcia who kept
"Don't we have time to watch just one more episode of Buffy before we
Oh, and speaking of Marcia
and Barbara being out and about nothing in particular, I
found this revealing image over on Nick Scipio's site.
From now until the end of the year, I'll be in heads-down working mode.
I have the astronomy book to finish up, contracts for new books to
negotiate, a chemistry lab to be built in the basement, and several
other neglected to-do list items to get finished. There's also the
typical year-end stuff to be done. That means the posts here are likely
to be sporadic and short.
Tuesday, 28 November
Last Monday, our clothes dryer stopped heating. I had two wet
loads of laundry, which I took next door and dried in Stephanie's
dryer. Our dryer is a Sears Kenmore unit, so I called Sears service.
The lady I spoke with told me that the first service appointment she
had available was for Monday the 27th. I told her that if that was the
best she could do to please schedule someone to come out and fix our
dryer that morning.
She asked me if I wanted to schedule it as a service call, which cost
$59 plus parts, or if I wanted to sign up for a maintenance agreement,
which was I believe $149 and covered the machine for a year. I asked
her if I had to choose right then or if I could choose
when the service
guy arrived. She said that she had to put one or the other in the
service order, but that I could change it later.
Tony, the service guy, arrived and fixed the dryer. He
presented me with an invoice
for $152 labor and a $38 part. I told him what I'd discussed with the
lady on the phone a week ago, and he said that wasn't an option. Once
he showed up, the service contract was no longer available. I called
back Sears customer service and spoke with another lady named Heather.
She put me on hold for several minutes while she checked into the
situation. When she came back on the line, she apologized for the
misinformation the other lady had given me and said they'd talk with
her to make sure she didn't do it again, but said there was no way she
could enter a service contract for our dryer and adjust the bill.
I was momentarily struck speechless. She admitted that they had
misinformed me but told me there was no way she could fix their
mistake. Huh? She finally said that she could talk to the manager of
the service department, who may be able to do something to fix their
mistake. He's supposed to call me back. No callback yet. We'll see what
When I told Barbara what had happened, she just said we'd never again
buy anything from Sears. Way to lose a customer, folks.
If you've wondered how Vista, which is essentially a service pack for
Windows XP, could possibly have taken 5 years and supposedly billions
of dollars to produce, here are a couple of articles 
that explain the problem. If you don't want to read the whole sad
story, suffice it to say that Microsoft had an entire team of people
working for a full year to code the shutdown menu. In all, 43 people
were involved, and what they came up with is an utter mess.
Wednesday, 29 November
- A couple of months ago, I bought an Olympus WS-100
digital voice recorder.
A month or so ago, I recommended it to Jerry Pournelle, who ordered one
the same day. He mentioned it on his page yesterday, and I thought it
was worth posting the email I sent him.
From: Robert Bruce Thompson
Date: Today 16:37:10
> What I did
note on my Olympus WS-100 during our morning walk was the rest
> of the plot
I'm glad I
recommended it to you. I find mine indispensable. I always have it with me, because I wear it
around my neck when I go anywhere. (I'm still waiting for someone to
comment on my teeny-tiny cellphone.) It sits on the desk in my office during the
day, and on my end table in the evenings. I haven't yet started taking
it back to the bedroom at bedtime, but I may. One thing is sure. I haven't
lost a thought since I started using it.
My memory used to be extraordinary. I never took a single note all the
way through high school, college, and graduate schools, because I could
remember the lectures pretty much verbatim. I never carried a DayTimer
or address book, because I could memorize names, addresses, telephone
numbers, appointments, and other pertinent data without even making a
conscious effort to do so. If I had a stray thought, I could file it
away for future use and retrieve it effortlessly. Hell, back in the
days before calculators, I'd memorized the log tables without even
consciously setting out to do so. My memory was dependable, and I came
to take it for granted.
That's no longer true. As I've gotten older, my memory has started to
decline noticeably. I can still memorize things like telephone numbers
and addresses pretty easily, but it now takes a conscious effort, and
it's sometimes harder to retrieve things than it used to be. In
particular, it's become too easy for me to lose stray thoughts.
That's where the Olympus WS-100 comes in. I always have it with me, and
I can record a brief note to myself any time. Often, that note may be
literally only a couple seconds long. That's enough of an index point
to start the cascade, and I can then remember in its entirety what the
original thought was.
I'm glad that I disregarded the advice of many people who suggested
that I buy an MP3 player and use its voice recording function. Although
that may be workable for some people, I much prefer the dedicated
buttons of the WS-100. Sometimes, a dedicated device is much better
than a Swiss Army Knife.
If you find yourself forgetting things, I highly recommend the Olympus
WS-100 as an inexpensive, effective fix. The key, as I realized
immediately, is to get in the habit of carrying it and using it. Once
you do that, you won't believe how helpful it is.
Thursday, 30 November
For a couple of years now, I've been reading articles on Groklaw and
elsewhere that have been a bit premature in declaring SCO's case
doomed. As any attorney will tell you, going to court is a crapshoot.
In reading those premature predictions of doom for SCO, I've often been
reminded of Winston Churchill's famous remark, "This is not the end. It
is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of
Yesterday, SCO's case reached what I believe is the beginning
of the end.
Judge Kimball made it pretty clear in his ruling that SCO's antics
haven't fooled him and that Magistrate Judge Brooke Wells has been
correct in her rulings. At this point, I think we're safe in assuming
that SCO is toast. There'll be a lot more sound and fury over the
coming year, but everyone who has been following the case, including
SCO, must now realize that SCO has lost, and lost completely.
SCO may have done more than lose this case. Their behavior and that of
their law firms has been sufficiently egregious that I expect sanctions
against Darl McBride and other SCO executives and against
Boies, Shiller & Flexner. I can only hope that those
involve some serious jail time.
- It's the first day of the last month of the year, and I
have much to do before year-end.
I ordered some more stuff yesterday for the home chem lab. First up was
a digital scale. Back when I was a teenager, the best I could afford
was a decigram scale, which is to say one that was accurate to 0.1
gram. Nowadays, any number of electronic centigram (0.01 gram) scales
are available for $100 or less, and even milligram (0.001 gram) scales
start at around $250. I thought seriously about buying a milligram
scale, but keeping my readership in mind I decided to buy a centigram
The least expensive electronic scale I found was the UN-200 200g/0.01g
unit sold by United
Nuclear for $59. That one looked a little flimsy to me, so I
opted for the US-made My Weigh iBalance 201 200g/0.01g unit that Precision Weighing
sells for $99. They also sell less expensive centigram scales with
maximum capacities of 50g and 100g, but I wanted the 200g capacity to
make it easier to tare beakers and so on.
I also placed an order with United Nuclear to fill out some gaps in my
lab equipment inventory.
|Laboratory Glassware Set
|Laboratory Hardware Set
|Basic Laboratory Tool Set
|4" Mortar & Pestle set
|5mm Glass Tubing (pack of 6)
|Vacuum Filtration Kit
|Laboratory Thermometer -10°C to +150°C
|Butane Micro Burner
||size: #2 - solid
||size: #6 - solid
||size: #6 - 1 hole
||size: #6 - 2 hole
|Shipping & Handling:
That puts my current lab equipment inventory list as follows:
electronic, 200g x 0.01g
Barnes dropping, 30mL
gas washing, 16 oz
storage, amber, 500mL
Florence (flat-bottom), 250mL
volumetric with stopper, 100mL
volumetric with stopper, 25mL
Buchner, 90mm, with stopper
wire with ceramic center
and pestle, 4”
filter, 90mm, medium flow, qualitative, 100 sheets
test tube, (to fit 50 18x150mm test tubes)
test tube, (to fit 6 16x150mm test tubes)
support, 5”x8” with 20” rod
tripod burner, 4”x9”
rubber, assorted solid, 1-, and 2-hole
rubber, solid (to fit 18x150mm test tubes)
spirit, -10°C to +150°C
countdown, 1 hour
1 dram, 12x60mm
I still have some stuff to order, including sep funnels, burettes, a pH
meter, and so on, but I'm getting there.
In addition to actually ordering equipment I need, I'm also "testing"
various vendors on behalf of my future readers. So far, I've ordered
stuff from Indigo Instruments and Elemental Scientific in addition to
the orders I placed yesterday. I intend to place an order with Science Kit,
which appears to be an excellent source of equipment and chemicals for
hobbyists and home schoolers.
I called them yesterday to ask what the "restricted" button meant on
their on-line order pages. Apparently, they won't sell to individuals,
but only to schools, formal home schoolers, and companies. That's not
as bad as it sounds, though. When I asked the nice woman what I had to
do to establish my credentials to order chemicals, she told me that one
of the acceptable means of proving that I was a company was simply to
send them a copy of my federal EIN. That's easy enough to get. Anyone
can apply for one with the IRS. You can do so on-line or via an 800
number, and a copy of the document the IRS sends you suffices to prove
your eligibility to order chemicals from Science Kit.
The reason companies restrict chemical shipments has less to do with
liability than I first thought. That's a consideration, certainly, and
none of these companies will knowingly sell chemicals to minors. But
their real concern is with the DEA's list of drug precursors used in
The DEA hasn't banned these chemicals. They can't, because their lists
include such commonly used and economically essential chemicals as
acetone, iodine, sulfuric acid, potassium permanganate, and so on.
Instead, the DEA "restricts" these chemicals, which means they can hold
the seller responsible for supplying chemicals that are subsequently
used in a meth lab. There's no prohibition on selling the chemicals to
anyone, but the DEA enforces a retroactive penalty if it turns out the
chemicals are subsequently misused. Shades of Martha Stewart.
Different vendors have different policies. Some, like Photographers'
Formulary, sell restricted chemicals but insist that you complete what
they call a "DEA form" to establish to their satisfaction that you have
a valid need and purpose for the chemicals. Others, like Elemental
Scientific and Science Kit, merely insist on establishing that you're a
Here's a story
about a guy who's facing child porn charges for shooting
photographs of girls under 18 who are clothed.
No sex. No nudity. The feds just don't like the poses.
I wonder if Jerry Pournelle has reconsidered. He thought I was going a
bit far when I deemed DHS the Heimatsicherheitshauptamt and suggested
that Ridge be given the rank of Oberstgruppenführer, but the
just keep on coming.
I'm beginning to think seriously that it's time to emigrate. Where's a
good Lunar colony when you need one?
I posted the preceding to Pournelle's back-channel mailing list. Eric
Pobirs responded, saying he didn't think this was anything new. To
which I replied:
new here beyond the web angle. Groundless child pornography
> accusations have been rampant since it became OK to discuss
the subject on
> the TV news shows in the late 70s.
You couldn't be more wrong. Sure, there have always been groundless
accusations of child pornography, but this in an entirely different
matter. I recall some years ago a grandfather being charged because
he'd taken some photographs of his nude year-old grandchild. The
company that processed his film turned him in. But, as ridiculous as
that arrest was, the child was indeed wearing no clothes.
This is entirely different. The feds are attempting to redefine child
porn to include images of clothed
underage people if they think the pose is objectionable.
As Ayn Rand pointed out fifty years ago, the goal of all these
ridiculous laws is to make all of us criminals, because the government
can control criminals. Arbitrary and selective enforcement means we'll
all be afraid to do anything at all for fear of being arrested. Am I
now to be imprisoned if I take a photograph of my 13-year-old friend
Jasmine and some government dolt decides it's too sexy? That'd be a
nice way to force critics of the government to shut up, now wouldn't it?
Microsoft Vista debuted yesterday, to a chorus of yawns. I know
literally no one who has "upgraded" to Vista or who plans to do so in
the immediate future. All of the corporate types are waiting for SP1,
not to mention a new PC cycle, which puts any significant upgrades at
least a year in the future, and probably two or three. I expected some
of my gamer friends to upgrade immediately, assuming they could get
their hands on a corporate copy, but even they're taking a wait-and-see
approach. I heard that one small company in Flower Mound, Texas
upgraded yesterday, but that may be an Internet rumor.
Speaking of Flower Mound, Texas, I notice that it's #10 in the Center
for Digital Government Digital
among cities with populations from 30,000 to 74,999. Winston-Salem also
did well, tied for #5 in the 125,000 to 249,999 group, just behind
Richmond and Salt Lake City, and, surprisingly, ahead of #9
Durham, NC (part of the Research Triangle).
The really interesting part of that survey is who isn't listed. The
Route 128 corridor and Silicon Valley are conspicuous for their light
representation. The bulk of the list comprises cities and towns from
the Mountain States and the Southeast. Perhaps the South is indeed
The morning paper has a big AP article about the release of Windows
Vista, including a quote from "Scott" Ballmer. What most interested me
in the article was a breakdown from Gartner Dataquest that forecasts
the market share of operating systems to be installed on
newly-purchased PCs in 2007.
32.1% - Windows Vista Business
25.9% - Windows Vista Home
22.1% - Windows XP Professional
09.1% - DOS/No OS
04.8% - Linux
03.7% - Windows XP Home
02.3% - Mac OS
If true, those numbers are pretty impressive. Not for Vista, which will
have only a 58% market share on new PCs, nor for OS X, which will
account for only about one of every 43 PCs sold. A 58% share is
underwhelming for the monopoly OS, and a 2.3% share shows that Apple is
still stuck where it's always been and is likely to remain.
But the numbers for Linux are very impressive. At 4.8%, that means
about one of every 21 PCs sold will have Linux installed. Moreover,
some part of that 9.1% figure for "DOS/No
OS" translates to
Linux. A part of that 9.1% is likely to be systems that will
eventually have unauthorized copies of Windows 2000 or Windows XP
installed, as for that matter is part of the 4.8% nominally Linux, but,
based on these numbers, it's not unreasonable to expect Linux to have
at least a 6% to 7% share of new systems for 2007.
That's huge. I've often wondered exactly where the tipping point lies
for desktop Linux, and I've concluded that it's probably between 10%
and 20% of new PC sales. By tipping point, I mean the point at which
hardware and software makers can no longer afford to ignore Linux. When
desktop Linux reaches the tipping point, hardware manufacturers will no
longer be able to ignore Linux. They'll have to provide Linux drivers
or risk losing too much business. The same is true for software
manufacturers, eventually including Microsoft itself. The day that
Microsoft ships a major application for Linux, we'll know that Linux
has finally won.
Actually, I think Linux has won already. It's like election night when
one of the networks forecasts a winner with only 2% of the vote in.
Just because the numbers happen to be small at the moment doesn't mean
the trend isn't blindingly obvious.
I don't have any inside information, but I'd be willing to bet that
Microsoft is already planning for the death of Windows as we know it.
It's pretty clear that Vista will be the last major monolithic
Microsoft OS. Microsoft spent five years and many billions of dollars
doing Vista, and that just isn't going to happen again. Instead, I
predict that Microsoft will take the Apple approach by coding a Windows
GUI to run on BSD UNIX. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that they
already have such a project underway.
Saturday, 2 December
1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 by Robert Bruce