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Week of 4 December 2006

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Monday, 4 December 2006
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09:20 - The weekend was a bit hectic. At 9:14 p.m. on Friday evening, I got email from Phil Dangler at O'Reilly, telling me that the OTD PDF galley of Building the Perfect PC, 2E was available for download. "OTD" stands for "Out The Door", and is just what it sounds like. As it turned out, the book was scheduled to go to the printer on Monday (today), so I had only the weekend to do a final check and correct.

Phil was very apologetic. O'Reilly's production department is apparently extremely overloaded at the moment, presumably with books that they're trying to get out the door this month. I told Phil it was no problem. I'm used to turning around edits on complete books in a couple of days, so the only issue here was that it was a weekend. I worked on the check all day Saturday, which was Barbara's birthday. (She turned, using Elayne Boosler's syntax, 20:32, or using my own syntax, 34(H).)

I burned through about half the book on Saturday before it was time to leave to meet Barbara's sister and parents for dinner. After dinner, we headed over to Frances's house for cake and presents. Barbara had said not to buy her a birthday present because she'd count the membership I'd signed up for at the pistol range as her birthday present. But I knew she wanted a green laser pointer for astronomy, so I'd ordered her one of those. Am I romantic, or what?

Sunday, I did the laundry and worked on the second half of the book while Barbara cleaned house and put up Saturnalia decorations. I got through the entire book except the index by late afternoon and sent in my comments. The book goes to the printer today. Now all I have to do is complete the questionnaire from the marketing department that they'll use to produce the press release and similar stuff. I always hate doing those.

I've often said that everyone should buy their music directly from independent artists rather than buying CDs from RIAA companies, who treat their musicians pretty much as Simon Legree treated his slaves. Most independent musicians are at least as good as those who are hyped by the music labels, and many are better.

Barbara and I just listened to one example, the CD Silver Darlings by The Browne Sisters & George Cavanaugh. One of the Browne sisters is Diane, an Internet friend of mine. Silver Darlings was their first CD, recorded when Diane was only 15. They've since recorded several others, which Barbara and I also plan to buy. If you enjoy Celtic music, do yourself a favor and order this CD and/or the other CDs by The Browne Sisters & George Cavanaugh. I think you'll enjoy them, and they make good Saturnalia gifts.

Actually, I didn't realize for a long time that Diane was also a musician. I "met" her on the DorothyL mailing list, which is devoted to mystery novels. Reading her posts on that list led me to read her first traditional mystery novel, High Rhymes and Misdemeanors: A Poetic Death Mystery, which she wrote under the pen name of Diana Killian. High Rhymes is usually classified as a cozy, but it's actually a romantic mystery similar to those written by my late friend Caroline Llewellyn.

My first reaction upon reading High Rhymes was that it was much too good to be a first novel. As it turns out, it wasn't. Diane actually wrote an earlier novel called The Art of Dying that she self-published with Xlibris. Nonetheless, High Rhymes was stunningly good for an almost-first novel, and Diane has followed it with two others in the series, Verse of the Vampyre and Sonnet of the Sphinx. If you enjoy well-written cozies, order all three. I think you'll like them as much as I do.

Something happened in Sonnet of the Sphinx that all authors dread. I'll let Diane explain.

  Re: [DOROTHYL] mistakes
From: D.L. Browne
  To: DOROTHYL listserv
Date: 2006-08-19 21:37

Sharon Wheeler wrote:

Yes, we know everyone makes mistakes, and that  things you think you've checked 20 times suddenly get mangled. But what it boils down to is trust. If I'm picking up a book, I trust the author to have done their homework. If they're blase about it ('oh, the Americans won't notice the mistakes about Britain' or whatever), then there are plenty of other authors out there that I'd rather spend time with.

Coincidently, this recently happened to me. A reviewer caught a mention of hummingbirds in SONNET OF THE SPHINX. Guess what? There are no hummingbirds in Great Britain.

As careful as I am in my research (and I am very careful and there is A HELL OF A LOT of research in these books) it absolutely never crossed my mind that there might not be hummingbirds in the English Lake District. I didn’t double check because…I thought I knew this to be true. I’ve researched the endangered status of those wretched red squirrels, I checked the admission price of Beatrix Potter’s Hilltop Farm, I researched Percy Shelley’s addiction to laudanum. I can tell you the book he was reading—heck, I can tell you the POEM he was reading when he was drowned. I’ve checked and double-checked stuff that never made it into the novel. But you don’t get credit for all the stuff you get right, you only hear about the mistakes you make.

Now had this mistake been pointed out to me courteously and privately I’d have been chagrined and embarrassed. But it was pointed out in a rather snide review (that also contained one glaring error—NOT THAT I’M COUNTING OR ANYTHING).  

There’s not a lot that I can do at this point. Several thousand copies of the book—with the mistake—are circulating even as we speak. British people everywhere are scowling and shaking their heads—watching their bridges of disbelief come crashing down at their feet—maybe only narrowly getting out of the way in time!

Do I take out an ad in MYSTERY SCENE and apologize publicly? Do I hand over my laptop in disgrace? Do I abandon the series because I am obviously unworthy to write it? Or do I just resolve to be a little more careful in future—and let it go. I don’t know if such an attitude is blasé, but what’s the healthy and productive response to making a mistake in a book? Will obsessing over it somehow make amends?
Sure, I see mistakes in books all the time, and yes, occasionally they are bad enough to jolt me out of the story—but if the story entertained me to start with, I get over it and go on enjoying the book. What’s harder for me to get past, as others have pointed out, is flat characters behaving in unbelievable ways, boring plots, dull dialog—-crummy writing.

I guess I just don’t take any of it that seriously. I don’t have “trust” issues with the authors of the books I read—maybe because I don’t rely on them for anything more than a few hours amusement.

Let she who is without sin cast the first book. Know what I mean?
Finally, sincere thanks to Lynn Dielman and Pat Browning for their very kind posts this week on SONNET OF THE SPHINX. I do sincerely appreciate it.

Diana Killian

D.L. Browne (aka Diana Killian)

So I emailed Diane privately and pointed out that, although there may not be hummingbirds in the Lake District, there most certainly are Hummingbird Hawk Moths, an insect that is very easily mistaken for a hummingbird.

  Re: [DOROTHYL] Open letter FROM Diana Killian re the hummingbird kerfluffle
From: D.L. Browne
  To: DOROTHYL listserv
Date: 2006-08-28 22:37

Dear Mr. Ewing, Mrs. Songer, Mrs. Browning, et al,

It is with great interest I have followed your discussion re the peculiar migrating habits of hummingbirds, nightingales, the sun, and authors who do not do their proper research (the latter easily recognized by the large dark sunglasses they wear at mystery conferences).

While I welcome, nay EMBRACE, any and all interest in my humble scribblings (both the accurate and inaccurate ones), I feel that it is always a mistake to COMPLICATE one's alibi--er--research with too many facts. "Simplify, simplify," as the Marines say.

Or something like that.

In short, while one (this one, in particular) does appreciate the ingenuity and energy spent on my behalf--and the behalf of those little feathered emigrees--I have decided to come clean in my next novel. Indeed, I have already penned the moving and momentous scene wherein my heroine, budding ornithologist Grace Hollister, confesses to her larcenous swain that a few months previously she MISTOOK A HUMMINGBIRD HAWK-MOTH FOR A REAL HUMMINGBIRD.

I have it on the expert advice of Mr. Robert Thompson that this is an easy enough mistake to have made.

Yours MOST sincerely, humbly AND etc.,
Diana Killian

D.L. Browne (aka Diana Killian)


Tuesday, 5 December 2006
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08:02 - I think about our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan a lot. Every Sunday, I read the list of casualties that Brian Bilbrey posts, and I mourn the loss of our brave young men and women.

Every day, they risk their very lives to defend us and, in a larger sense, to defend Western civilization itself from the scourge of Islam, the goal of which is to kill or enslave all of us. And sometimes, such as when I read something like this, I wonder why they bother. From the article, Islamic fears kill off children's thriller:

A LEADING children's publisher has dumped a novel because of political sensitivity over Islamic issues.

Scholastic Australia pulled the plug on the Army of the Pure after booksellers and librarians said they would not stock the adventure thriller for younger readers because the "baddie" was a Muslim terrorist.

The article goes on to say:

This decision is at odds with the recent publication of Richard Flanagan's bestselling The Unknown Terrorist and Andrew McGahan's Underground in which terrorists are portrayed as victims driven to extreme acts by the failings of the West.

What are these people thinking, if indeed they're thinking at all? Are they both stupid and evil, or just one or the other? Those are the only possibilities.

To point out the obvious, Islam declared war on Western civilization a millennium ago, and nothing has changed as far as Islam is concerned. It's true that for most of the last thousand years Western civilization didn't even notice the hostility of Islam, but that's attributable to the incompetence of Islam.

At its heart, Islam is uncivilized in the literal sense of the word. A civilization is a culture that builds cities. Islam is a culture of villages, ruled by old men, with women held in subjection little different from slavery. Islam has never produced anything of cultural, scientific, or economic value. Islam consumes what its betters provide. To the extent that Islamic countries have any technology or infrastructure at all, they can thank Western civilization.

Not that they're likely to. Instead, their goal is to destroy Western civilization and enslave all of us. They have no hope of doing that without our active help, and idiots like those mentioned in the article are eager to give it to them. I guess I answered my own question. They're both evil and stupid.


Wednesday, 6 December 2006
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08:45 - What a hypocrite. What a moron.

Edgar Bronfman, head of the Warner Music Group, publicly admits he's fairly certain that his children have "stolen" music. His response? He gave them a stern talking to. No mention of filing a lawsuit against them (or himself?) or sending them (or himself?) a lawyer's letter demanding thousands of dollars in compensation.

In one stroke, Bronfman has illustrated his belief in a double standard and demolished any claims the RIAA might have for collecting large sums of money from those they claim have "stolen" music, at least music from Warner artists.

What should he have done? Well, if it had been me, I'd also have given them a stern talking to. I'd have explained to them the legal and financial risks of using a P2P network to download music, and suggested that instead they rip CDs and trade them directly with friends who'd done the same. Instead, Bronfman apparently shook his finger at them and told them never to do it again. Let that be a lesson to them.

I might have had at least a tiny amount of respect for the guy if he'd done what he claims is the right thing. As soon as he found out what was happening, he should have notified the RIAA attack lawyers and insisted that they file a lawsuit against him. But he didn't, which proves he's both a hypocrite and a moron. A moron, because, on behalf of not just himself but of Warner Music Group, he's abandoned what he would define as the high ground just to save himself a few thousand dollars which he wouldn't even notice.

From: Ron Snider
  To: Robert Bruce Thompson
Date: Today 01:21:17
  Re: Islamic science and mathematics ...
"Islam has never produced anything of cultural, scientific, or economic value."

Surely that is a bit over the top, is it not ?  For years I've been hearing that the old islamists gave the world all kinds of mathematics stuff, etc.  ??


That's certainly the myth. The reality is different. Nearly all of what is attributed to "Islamic science" is merely Arabic translations of Greek and Roman writings, most of which were lost in their original forms after the collapse of the Roman Empire. That's why, for example, most stars have Arabic names, even though those stars were originally plotted and named by Ptolemy or other Western scientists. Many, probably most, and perhaps all of the "Islamic" writings that are not known to be translations of Western works are almost certainly unattributed works by anonymous Western authors. Furthermore, most or all of the so-called Islamic scientists who did produce original work, particularly the alchemists, were actually Christians and Jews living in lands conquered by Islam.

As far as mathematics, the only original contribution I know of by Islamics is the Arabic numbering system and zero, and there are convincing arguments that those concepts were in fact actually created by Irish mathematicians. (Ireland was a shining light in science, mathematics, and other intellectual pursuits during the so-called Dark Ages.)

I've just registered a new domain, homechemlab.com.


Thursday, 7 December 2006
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08:38 - A date that will live in infamy.

The stories about teenage chemistry mishaps have started over on the message board. My own contribution:

I actually caused three "incidents", two of which resulted in the school being evacuated.

In 6th grade, I was assigned to a group of students to make a project. We chose to make a working model of the Mexican volcano Paricutín. My part was to provide the filler, which as I recall was potassium nitrate, sugar, sulfur, and several other components designed to provide the lava flow. I made two pounds of it, and packed the model.

When I touched it off, the flame rose a couple of feet and large clouds of choking sulfur dioxide gas immediately made the classroom uninhabitable. The teacher started shouting for the kids to get out, and pushed the fire alarm on her way out the door. The whole school ended up standing outside while the fire department checked things out.

I was a bit concerned about our grade for that project, but we ended up getting an A.

Then there was 8th grade, when I mixed a fair amount of potassium chlorate and red phosphorus in the chemical storage room behind our classroom. Hey, I didn't know what was going to happen. During class, the mixture spontaneously combusted, and large clouds of smoke poured out of the chemical storage room.

The teacher grabbed a large fire extinguisher off its wall mount, but couldn't get it to work. As he was staring down the cone of the thing, looking for a blockage, I reached over and pulled the pin. Unfortunately, his grip on the extinguisher was squeezing the handle, so when I pulled the ring the fire extinguisher went off in his face. He was wearing a nice navy blue suit that turned completely white.

I did get called to the principal's office on that one, but they took no disciplinary action. They did tell me to be more careful in future.

And then there was the time in high school when... No, I don't think I should talk about that one even now. I have the right to remain silent.

Barbara has bought a disturbing number of "CDs" lately that won't play in the CD player in her truck. Each time, I dupe the CD for her, and the copy plays fine. Until this morning. I stuck her just-unwrapped copy of Sarah McLachlan's Wintersong in the DVR writer in my main office system, fired up K3b to make a copy, and the system locked up tight. I suppose it's possible that the disc is defective, but I think it's more likely that it has some obnoxious form of copy protection on it. I'll deal with it somehow.


Friday, 8 December 2006
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09:03 - Another Windows zero-day exploit. No, not the Word exploit, for which Microsoft's solution was basically to stop using Word documents that you hadn't created yourself. This is yet another Windows zero-day exploit. It's against Windows Media Player, and seems likely to be as severe as the Word exploit. Microsoft hasn't issued a patch or workaround, but for now the best solution seems to be to disable WMP from auto-opening .ASX files.

We no longer run Windows, so I've given up even trying to keep track of all the vulnerabilities in Windows. Doing that is pretty much a full-time job, literally, which should be sufficient proof for anyone that Windows is fundamentally defective. Among my technically-competent friends and colleagues, very few run Windows except when there is no alternative. About half of them run Linux, and the other half run OS X. All of them boot Windows on their personal systems only to run games or when they must run a particular Windows application for which no Linux or OS X equivalent exists. Many of them are forced to run Windows at work, but very few of them run it at home.

Even Jerry Pournelle, who is seriously invested in Windows, has said he plans to migrate to OS X, and is now taking steps to do so. For Jerry, the final straw was apparently the infamous Windows delayed write error, which he's written about recently in his columns. Jerry has repeatedly asked Microsoft to comment on the problem, and has gotten no response. He concludes, reasonably in my opinion, that Microsoft hasn't responded because they don't know what's causing the problem.

How is it possible that in late 2006 a mainstream operating system can unpredictably trash hard drives and that the vendor apparently has no idea why this is happening? It's not like this is a new problem, either. It's been going on since at least Windows 2000, and Microsoft has at least once claimed to have fixed the problem. That fix didn't work, because the problem occurs even in a fully-patched Windows XP. As Jerry says, perhaps the problem will be fixed in Vista. But probably not.

If you're looking for a good New Year's Resolution, one that you might actually keep, how about this? Resolve to migrate away from Windows to Linux. Download Kubuntu 6.10 or buy a copy of Xandros 4. Install it in dual-boot mode if you must, but resolve to live in Linux as much as possible and to run Windows only when you absolutely must. Resolve not to give up easily, but to devote some serious effort to becoming Windows-free. You'll thank yourself later.

13:32 - Interesting timing. Just as I posted the previous entry, I accidentally bumped the mouse on the Windows system that I've been using to produce charts for the new astronomy book. When the screen lit up, I saw a plain-text message, something about Windows being unable to find a particular file.

I restarted the system, and Windows XP appeared to start normally. But when I clicked on Windows Explorer, I just got an hourglass and eventually an error message. It soon became very clear that Windows was completely borked. My first thought was that Windows had borked itself, which is a distressingly common thing to happen.

I booted Xandros 4, intending to install it in dual-boot mode so that I'd be able to access some of the data files on the Windows system. Xandros 4 Setup started up normally, but when it started to resize the NTFS partition, it displayed some error messages. At this point, I'm not entirely sure if there's a physical problem with the hard drive, or if Windows has simply trashed the filesystem.

It's no big deal either way. I've finished generating charts for the book anyway. This system is the one we built as the "budget PC" for the new edition of Building the Perfect PC, so it wasn't destined to remain around here much longer anyway. When I get time, I'll strip it down, replace the hard drive if necessary, install Kubuntu 6.10 on it, and donate it to a local non-profit or some deserving kid. It's actually a pretty competent system, with an AMD Sempron 3100+ processor, 512 MB of RAM, embedded nVIDIA 6100 graphics, and a DVD writer.


Saturday, 9 December 2006
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10:07 - Barbara has left us again for a bus tour to the beach with her parents to watch the Christmas shows. The dogs and I are bereft. Duncan refused to eat last night, not just his dog food, but the Vienna sausage I cut up and put on top of his food to temp him. Malcolm isn't even bringing me the tennis ball to throw. They're both lying around with their "woe is me" expressions. I had peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches for dinner last night, which is a more complex meal than I usually prepare when I'm on my own.

I told Barbara before she left that it'd be wild-women-and-parties time. As usual, she just laughed. She knows that I don't know any wild women and don't like parties. I did get an email this morning from a Russian girl named Ludmilla who seems eager to talk to me. She sounds like a wild woman. Perhaps I should reply.

The UPS guy showed up after dinner last night with a couple boxes from United Nuclear. I unpacked some of the stuff last night. Nothing damaged so far except a plastic test tube rack that was crunched. Counter space in my chemistry lab--which used to be the kitchen in the downstairs guest suite--is getting tight already, and there's more to come.

I need to get the shelves and cabinets organized down there, and I also need to do some serious thinking about chemical storage. There'll be some pretty nasty stuff stored there, including concentrated hydrochloric, sulfuric, and nitric acids, chlorates, permanaganates, and other oxidizers, and so on. Most of it will be in pretty small quantities, typically 25g to 500g of solids and 500mL or a liter of liquids, but even so it's worth some thought to keep incompatible stuff well separated.

The response to my plan to build a home chemistry lab has been interesting. With just one exception, my scientist friends have all been enthusiastic. Barbara didn't get it at first. When I mentioned building the lab and said that our chemist friends Paul and Mary would be excited about it, Barbara said, "Why? They have real labs of their own." I explained that real scientists are always excited about doing real science on whatever level, and that Paul and Mary would even be intrigued by "toys" like the chemistry sets I had when I was young. The science is the point.

When Barbara told some other people she knew that I was building a home chem lab and writing a book about it, their response was "why?" I suggested that she reply, "To help get kids excited about chemistry, and to encourage the next generation of scientists that will keep your sorry ass fed, clothed, and healthy." Barbara is more diplomatic than I am.


Sunday, 10 December 2006
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10:40 - Kim stopped by after dinner last night to tell me that Jasmine had passed her computer competency test, which is required for graduation. (Originally, it was required for graduation from middle school to high school, but so many kids failed it that they changed the rules; now they're allowed to retake it in high school, although it remains a requirement for high school graduation.)

Kim found out after the fact. She didn't know exactly when the exam would be given. She'd planned to do some extensive review with Jasmine before the exam, and I'd told Jasmine that I'd be happy to sit down with her one weekend and do what I could to help. Jasmine apparently didn't feel the need for any of that. She went in, took the exam, and passed it, informing her mother casually "Oh, by the way..." after she received her results.

Kim is now faced with a dilemma. Jasmine's high scores in math and science tests earned her an invitation to attend Atkins High School next year. Atkins is a so-called "magnet school" that specializes in science and engineering. It's the only school in our system that offers those programs. Unfortunately, like most magnet schools, Atkins is a bad place, situated in a poor neighborhood and attended by many kids that Kim would rather Jasmine not be exposed to.

There are fights at Atkins, and racial tension. Kim told me of one recent fight, where a girl lay in wait in the cafeteria for another girl. Well, actually, she stood in wait on one of the tables in the cafeteria. When the other girl arrived, the first girl kicked her in the head and then jumped on her. Several other students jumped in and attacked the victim, who was injured pretty badly.

I've no idea what punishment, if any, was meted out to the attackers. If I were running things, expulsion would be the least of it. I'd see to it that the attackers were charged with felony assault and battery and jailed.

Naturally, Kim has reservations about Jasmine attending such a school, and I share those reservations in spades. Tossing Jasmine into that kind of environment is like tossing the proverbial sheep in among the lions. As Kim said, she wishes she could just wave her magic wand and move the Atkins magnet programs to a good school.

The real problem is that the school administration puts the programs people want in schools that people don't want. That's completely intentional, of course. If it were not for the magnet programs at Atkins, no parents would want their children to attend Atkins. Atkins would have only complete losers and would score very poorly on standardized tests. Atkins would fall afoul of the NCLB rules, be taken over by the state, and all of the teachers and administrators would lose their jobs. Can't have that, can we? When it comes down to a choice of job security versus the good of the children, guess which one loses?

So, parents are faced with the choice of sending their children to a good, safe school that doesn't have the programs their kids need and deserve versus sending their kids to a rathole of a school that does offer those programs. Some choice, huh?

I suggested again to Kim that she look into home schooling. She's concerned about doing that because her back problems sometimes prostrate her for literally days or even weeks on end. Like most parents, she's also concerned about her ability to teach some subjects, particularly science and math. I suggested to Kim that she check into local home schooling groups. Surely these are all problems that have been encountered before and solved? I don't have children and I've never been involved in home schooling, but I suspect that if I were I'd be teaching science, math, and computers to my own and others' children, and that others would be teaching in their own areas of competency to not just their own children, but mine as well.

I've told Kim that if she does at some point decide to home school, I'd be willing to devote a few hours a week to teaching Jasmine science, computers, and math. I don't know the rules. For example, it may be that students are required to take an actual AP chemistry course in a school before they're allowed to take the AP chemistry exam. If not, I'm perfectly comfortable teaching Jasmine AP chemistry, AP calculus and other math topics, and AP computing topics. Heck, without much preparation, I could probably teach Jasmine AP biology, AP physics, and several other AP topics. If I devote even a few hours a week over the next four years, we could cover a lot of ground. Jasmine is a smart girl. With proper planning and preparation, I don't see any reason why she shouldn't be able to skip her entire first year of college, or at least most of it.

Of course, we have to keep Jasmine's preferences in mind. As Kim said last night, Jasmine is interested in science and math, but at this point we don't know for sure how interested she is. It may be that she'll take to science and laboratory work like a duck to water, but it's also possible she'll decide this isn't something she wants to pursue. Either way, though, a firm grounding in science and math can't hurt.


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