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Week of 27 November 2006

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Monday, 27 November 2006
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08:30 - 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 the week.

We'd planned to take Brian and Marcia out to Friendship Sporting Clays 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's house.

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 all.

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 range 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 Brian 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 actually fun.

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 asking "Don't we have time to watch just one more episode of Buffy before we leave?"

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 2006
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08:27 - 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 happens.

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 [1] [2] 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 2006
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09:00 - 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
  To: Jerry Pournelle
Date: Today 16:37:10
  Re: Olympus WS-100

> What I did note on my Olympus WS-100 during our morning walk was the rest
> of the plot of Mamalukes

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 2006
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09:07 - 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 the beginning."

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 sanctions involve some serious jail time.


Friday, 1 December 2006
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08:34 - 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 scale instead.

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 Balances 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.

Item Options Quantity Amount
Laboratory Glassware Set 1 $59.00 USD
Laboratory Hardware Set 1 $39.00 USD
Basic Laboratory Tool Set 1 $12.00 USD
4" Mortar & Pestle set 1 $15.00 USD
5mm Glass Tubing (pack of 6) 2 $6.00 USD
Vacuum Filtration Kit 1 $49.00 USD
Laboratory Thermometer -10°C to +150°C 1 $8.00 USD
Butane Micro Burner 1 $39.00 USD
Rubber Stopper size: #2 - solid
1 $0.25 USD
Rubber Stopper size: #6 - solid
3 $2.25 USD
Rubber Stopper size: #6 - 1 hole
2 $1.50 USD
Rubber Stopper size: #6 - 2 hole
2 $1.50 USD
Subtotal: $232.50 USD
Shipping & Handling: $19.95 USD
Sales Tax: $0.00 USD
Total Amount: $252.45 USD

That puts my current lab equipment inventory list as follows:

balance, electronic, 200g x 0.01g 1
beaker, 150mL 8
beaker, 250mL 2
beaker, 50mL 1
beaker, 600mL 1
bottle, Barnes dropping, 30mL 12
bottle, gas washing, 16 oz 1
bottle, storage, amber, 500mL 24
bottle, wash, 500mL 2
brush, test tube 1
burner, alcohol 1
burner, butane micro 1
burner, electric 4
clamp, swivel 1
cylinder, graduated, 100mL 1
cylinder, graduated, 10mL 1
fire extinguisher 1
first aid kit 1
flask, Erlenmeyer, 125mL 12
flask, Erlenmeyer, 250mL 2
flask, Erlenmeyer, 500mL 1
flask, Erlenmeyer, 50mL 1
flask, filtering, 500mL 1
flask, Florence (flat-bottom), 250mL 6
flask, volumetric with stopper, 100mL 1
flask, volumetric with stopper, 25mL 1
forceps 1
funnel, 50mm glass 1
funnel, Buchner, 90mm, with stopper 1
gauze, wire with ceramic center 1
goggles, splash, laboratory 4
holder, test tube 2
hood, fume 1
mortar and pestle, 4” 1
oven, convection drying 1
oven, microwave 1
paper, filter, 90mm, medium flow, qualitative, 100 sheets 1
pinchcock 1
pipette pump, 10.0mL 1
pipette, eye dropper 12
pipette, Mohr, 1.0mL 1
pipette, Mohr, 10.0mL 10
pump, vacuum, hand-operated 1
rack, test tube, (to fit 50 18x150mm test tubes) 1
rack, test tube, (to fit 6 16x150mm test tubes) 2
refrigerator 1
respirator, disposable 10
ring, support, 4” 1
rod, stirring, glass 12
scoop, powder 1
spatula, 6” 1
stand, support, 5”x8” with 20” rod 1
stand, tripod burner, 4”x9” 1
stopper, rubber, assorted solid, 1-, and 2-hole X
stopper, rubber, solid (to fit 18x150mm test tubes) 40
thermometer, spirit, -10°C to +150°C 1
timer, countdown, 1 hour 1
tongs, beaker 1
tongs, crucible 2
triangle, clay 1
tubes, test, 16x150mm 12
tubes, test, 18x150mm 50
tubing, glass, 5mmx12” 12
vial, 1 dram, 12x60mm 12

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 meth labs.

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 responsible adult.

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 hits 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:

> Nothing 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 Cities Survey 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 rising again.

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 2006
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Sunday, 3 December 2006
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Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 by Robert Bruce Thompson. All Rights Reserved.