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Week of 11 December 2006

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Monday, 11 December 2006
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08:56 - Groklaw posted an interesting article about the Iowa antitrust suit against Microsoft. From the article:

Exhibit 7264. Almost three years ago, on January 7, 2004, Jim Allchin, the senior executive at Microsoft, sent an E-mail to Microsoft's top two executives, Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, and the subject was losing our way.

Mr. Allchin says, I'm not sure how the company lost sight of what matters to our customers, both business and home, the most, but in my view we lost our way. I think our teams lost sight of what bug-free means, what resilience means, what full scenarios mean, what security means, what performance means, how important current applications are, and really understanding what the most important problems our customers face are. I see lots of random features and some great vision, but that does not translate into great products. He goes on to say, I would buy a Mac today if I was not working at Microsoft.”

So there you have it. Three years ago, even before Vista had been entirely gutted, Jim Allchin, the "Godfather of Vista", had already decided he would rather be using a Mac. Which pretty much sums up Vista. Even the guy in charge of the Vista project doesn't want to use it. Why should anyone else?

Think about that for a moment. Here we have the guy in charge of the Vista project telling Mr. Bill and Uncle Festus that Vista has failed on all accounts and that he'd rather be using a competing product. And this was before Microsoft took a meat-axe to Vista's feature list in a desperate attempt to get something, anything, out the door. Allchin will be leaving Microsoft very soon. Any bets as to what he'll be running on his computer after he leaves?

After reading about it on Pournelle's page, I almost signed up for Google Notebook last night.

Coincidentally, I'd created a Google account on Friday. I was ordering a hearing-impaired telephone for Barbara's father, and Buy.com had the best deal. As I was checking out at Buy.com, they offered me a $20 discount if I paid with Google Checkout. Google Checkout serves as an intermediary, taking the credit card information and placing the order on the buyer's behalf. The actual reseller doesn't get the credit card information, which is a point in favor of Google Checkout.

I don't particularly trust Google, but I mistrust it less than I do most other corporations. Or perhaps I should say I trust Google with my credit card information more than I would most on-line resellers, although I don't trust Google not to accumulate information about me and my activities on-line. Still, signing up for Google Checkout seemed a reasonable thing to do.

So, when I read about Google Notebook on Pournelle's page, I already had a Google Account set up and ready to use. The features looked very attractive, but I eventually decided not to sign up for Google Notebook for the same reason I've never set up a Gmail account. I simply don't want Google tracking what I'm doing. As usual, Google offers a Faustian deal. Nice features, no charge, but I have to give up all my privacy to Google. My information lives forever on their servers, where it's availble for massaging by Google. Even worse, the government knows just where to go when it wants information about me. No, thanks.

There's actually no reason why the data should have to be stored on Google's servers, except that that allows it to be available anywhere from any browser. Of course, it'd be possible to accomplish the same thing by storing the information on my local hard drive, with an option to upload it to my own web site. Equally usable would be an option for strong encryption that would store only encrypted data on Google's servers, but that's not on offer. Google lusts after private data, any private data, and part of the bargain is that I give up my data to Google in return for their Notebook service.

So now Google knows that I've bought a hearing-impaired phone. I'm sure they'll store that nugget away, along with the other information they've managed to accumulate about me. But I won't make it any easier for them by posting other information to their notebook service.


Tuesday, 12 December 2006
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09:04 - Kim visited Atkins High School yesterday. She said the facilities were awesome, with laboratories "as long as this block". But for all of that, she said she'd decided that there was no way she would send Jasmine to Atkins. There are apparently no less than six gangs active at that school, and Kim refuses to dump Jasmine into such a rat trap, no matter how attractive the cheese. I told Kim I was very relieved at her decision, and had decided myself that if she had decided to send Jasmine to Atkins, the first thing I planned to teach Jasmine was AP Shotokan. That, and AP Combat Pistol.

I again mentioned the Career Center, which is where the smart kids go, and which has good facilities of its own. I also mentioned the idea of Jasmine attending Forsyth Tech (our local community college) while she was in high school. Kim agreed that those were alternatives, but said the attractive thing about Atkins was that Jasmine would be able to get started on all of this at Atkins while she was in ninth grade. Still, she'd ruled Atkins out.

Coincidentally, the local paper had an article yesterday that said that Forsyth Tech was planning to take over the Career Center buildings, which are adjacent. The Career Center would be relocated elsewhere, although the article didn't say where. Although I don't know where she got the information, Kim mentioned that it was a serious possibility that the Career Center would be relocated to the Atkins High School building. That would remove all the objections. Atkins would still be located in a bad area, but that's just a minor concern. The real point is that, as the new Career Center, Atkins would be attended only by good students. We'll see what happens.

As I told Kim, Jasmine has all kinds of alternatives, even disregarding Atkins. There is the Career Center, wherever it ends up. There is the possibility of Jasmine taking college-credit courses at Forsyth Tech, such as two semesters of general chemistry, two semesters of organic chemistry, along with similar coursework in math, physics, and biology. Of course, Kim wants Jasmine to attend a first rate school like Duke, Cal Tech, Carnegie Mellon, or MIT, and there's no guarantee that such schools would accept credit transfers from a community college. However, such schools would almost certainly accept credits if Jasmine backed them up with high grades on the various AP exams, which she'd be in a position to do. I'll also be teaching Jasmine how to keep a proper lab notebook, which sounds trivial but has no small part in convincing such institutions that a student is in fact qualified.

Well, we're now at 4.5 years and counting down until Jasmine graduates high school. Always assuming that she doesn't skip a grade, which is a possibility if she starts loading up on AP stuff. I told Kim I wanted to do whatever I could to help Jasmine, but that I wanted to make sure I wasn't in the position of the Boy Scout who helped little old ladies to cross the street whether or not they wanted to.

Jasmine is only 13 (and a half...), and she hasn't decided yet what she wants to do and be. She has an interest in science, but that's no guarantee that she'll decide she wants to be a scientist. If not, that's fine. Still, a solid grounding in science and math will help her regardless of what she eventually decides to be.

I told Jasmine once that the trick is to decide what she wants to do and then prepare for it, just as Sherlock Holmes did. For example, Jasmine is also interested in art and forensics. As an example, I told her that she might decide to become an expert in art forgery. That would involve taking lots of hard science courses, with perhaps a major in chemistry, but it would also involve taking lots of electives in art and forensics and perhaps courses in archeology and museum conservatorship. She might get her BS at one institution in one major with a minor, move to another institution for her masters, and a third institution for her Ph.D., always choosing schools that were strong in what she needed to master. The trick is for Jasmine to make sure that she defines her education according to what she wants to be, rather than allowing her education to define what she becomes.

We'll see what happens, but a dozen years from now I expect to be calling Jasmine Dr. Littlejohn.


Wednesday, 13 December 2006
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08:42 - I wish that the Firefox and OpenOffice.org folks would do something to improve the stability of their applications. I had a crash yesterday. Kubuntu itself came through unscathed, but both Firefox and OpenOffice.org crashed. The applications closed, and all of the browser windows and document windows simply disappeared from my task bar.

In their defense, at the time the crash occurred I had 38 Firefox instances active, with an average of probably 7 or 8 tabs open in each, and 17 OpenOffice.org instances active, which is about an order of magnitude higher than I'd expect to be able to have open safely under Windows. Furthermore, I lost nothing. When I restarted OpenOffice.org, it recovered all of the documents with no loss of data at all. I closed those documents I didn't really need to have open, and then restarted Firefox. It popped up a dialog to tell me that it had exited abnormally the last time and asked if I wanted to restore the session. I told it to restore the session, and all 38 instances came back, with all tabs successfully restored.

Now, I'll admit that this was an excessively large number of Firefox and OOo instances, even for me. Right now, I have only three active OOo instances, and only 21 Firefox instances active, which is pretty typical for me. Other people add bookmarks; I just open a new Firefox instance and leave the old one active, sometimes for weeks at a time. But still, it'd be nice if I could keep open as many instances as I wanted without having to worry about them crashing.

Perhaps memory is the problem. This system has only 2 GB of RAM. Maybe I'll expand that to 4 GB and see if that helps.


Thursday, 14 December 2006
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08:37 - As I was cleaning up my office in preparation for the Bilbrey's Thanksgiving visit, I found something I thought I'd thrown out years ago. A complete copy of Windows 2000, with the distribution CD, manualettes, and license certificate. Yesterday, I was looking at my former Windows XP system, in which the hard drive had failed. (It was a Seagate Barracuda 7200.9, which I find mildly surprising, but I guess even Seagate drives must fail sometimes.)

I'd planned to install Linux on that box, but then I started thinking about it. I really need the Windows-only astronomy software for at least a bit longer, so it made sense to install Windows on that box once I'd replaced the hard drive. But there was no good reason to install Windows XP instead of Windows 2000. Windows 2000 SP0, which is what I have, doesn't support S-ATA out of the box, so I dug around until I found a 160 GB Seagate 7200.9 parallel ATA hard drive and installed it in the box.

I fired up Windows 2000 Setup, which recognized the drive, albeit as only 128 GB. I ignored that, because that extra 30 GB or so won't even be missed on my network, which has something like 3 TB of available hard disk space. The format seemed to take forever, so I just let it do its thing while I did other work.

One odd thing. When I fired up the system, the 120mm rear fan in the Antec case started up quietly, ran quietly for a few seconds, and then started making an awful racket. At first, I thought it had been fouled by a wire, but that wasn't the case. I was going to replace the fan while the hard drive formatted, but Antec attached that fan with pop rivets. As I was considering my alternatives, the fan suddenly started running quietly again. At first I thought it must have died completely, but when I looked over at the system, there was the fan running normally with only a faint hum. Very odd. But since it seems to be working and would be a pain in the butt to replace, I think I'll just leave it as is.

The format required a couple of hours, after which Windows 2000 installed uneventfully. While the format was going on, I visited the Microsoft web site to download the latest security patches. I was able to download the network install version of Service Pack 4, but there were later things I was unable to download.

There was a post-SP4 security roll-up package that was only available to "genuine" Windows installations. So much for Microsoft's promise to provide security-related downloads to all Windows users, whether or not they'd proven themselves "genuine" to Microsoft's satisfaction. My installation was "genuine", but I had no desire to install WGA so I opted out of downloading that one. I searched the Internet for the filename, and was able to locate it on numerous sites. Many of them looked questionable, but the file was available for download from a Unisys site, which seemed a reasonable risk.

So now I have a Windows 2000 installation with SP4 and the post SP4 SRP installed. I haven't tried to get the post-SRP security patches, but then this system sits behind my firewall and won't be used to receive email or browse the web with Internet Explorer. It should be safe enough.

Now if only I could get it to share its C: drive. I enabled sharing and set up the share of C:, but I can't access that share from my other systems. They see the Windows 2000 system and the shared drive, but when I attempt to access the shared drive I get a pop-up dialog asking me to enter my username and password. I defined the share as wide-open, accessible to everyone with full control, and not requiring log-in, but Windows demands authentication anyway. It's been so long since I worked with Windows that I don't remember how to fix this problem. Suggestions appreciated.

From Jon Abbey over on the messageboard:

Robert, I'm going to hypothesize as to the cause of (say!  nice revamp of the forum look 'n feel!  swank!) your crash, and say that it was due to exhaustion of RAM/swap.

Linux allows over-commit of memory, in which the kernel says 'sure!' to programs requesting memory allocations, without bothering much to check to see if there's actually enough RAM or swap to deal with the issue.  Since many programs request blocks of heap/stack space that they never use, this is a very good thing, as it enables more programs to run concurrently than would otherwise be possible.

Memory pages are not actually mapped into a process' memory space until the program tries to write into that block of memory, whereupon the kernel scrambles to find a page for the program to use, booting a memory page from the program's (or another program's) RAM usage to swap if necessary.   If there's not enough swap space on disk to hold these ejected pages, there is trouble, of course.

The kernel, being the fastidious thing that it is, does not like to start telling programs (and we could be talking about any and all running programs) that they can't continue due to a memory fault, without trying to do _something_ about things, so it includes a feature called the Out Of Memory (OOM) killer.

The OOM killer picks a likely candidate or candidates for death and pulls the trigger, so that the rest of the system can continue to operate, rather than having every single running process start falling from the sky.

With your scenario, Firefox and Open Office would have been very prominent users of big memory allocations, and so were more likely to be targeted by the OOM killer for extermination, while letting other processes (and the operating system itself) keep running.

You would know that this happened if your desktop login continued running, but the Firefox and Open Office windows would blink out.

The other possibility that would take down Firefox and Open Office while leaving your operating system running would be if the X server crashed.  If the X server crashes, it would drop you back to the Kubuntu login screen as all programs using the windowing environment shut down for lack of a display to interact with.

In the latter case, there's not much that you can do about the crash, as who knows what caused the X server to fall down and go boom.

If it was the former (Open Office and Firefox went away, but your desktop login kept going), though, you can address the problem by adding either more RAM or some more swap space.

Hope I'm not relaying the trivially obvious, here, just wanted to comment on what likely happened.

Which sounds like a good explanation of what happened. The X server didn't crash. Firefox and OOo simply disappeared. Firefox is known to have memory leaks, and OOo demands a lot of memory, particularly when there are several large documents open. I'd have thought that the 2 GB of RAM I have installed would suffice, but perhaps I should just boost this system to 4 GB.

From: Alberto S. Lopez
  To: Robert Bruce Thompson
Date: Yesterday 17:43:54
  Re: Professor Eben Moglen on Free Software and Social Justice
I came across this video/speech at the October 2006 Plone conference in Seattle <http://www.geof.net/blog/2006/12/10/eben-moglen>  by Eben Moglen and I was simply thunderstruck at the lucidity and articulateness with which Eben Moglen speaks about the subject of Free Software and social justice.

In his keynote address, among many other things, he speaks of the immorality of closed, proprietary software, the imminent demise of Microsoft and the eventual triumph of Free and Open Software.

To give you an idea of who this guy is, please go here:


Wikipedia entry:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eben_Moglen

Larry Lessig speaks of him here:  http://www.lessig.org/blog/

Robert, please take some time to listen to this keynote speech or watch the YouTube video of the same keynote.  If you can, please listen to it twice, as some of the stuff that he covers in the speech is very profound and may be glossed over at first glance.

It is simply put, one of the most impressive, well spoken, most thoughtful speeches on the state of Free Software at the dawn of the 21st century that I have ever come across.

Well worth your time, believe me and I would love to know what you think of it.  Better yet, if you find the subject worthy, please write about it in your DayNotes journal so that your vast readership can be exposed to this very important treatise.


Alberto S. Lopez

I'm very familiar with Professor Moglen. As I've said before, I'm not in the Free Software camp with Stallman and Moglen. I'm in the Open Source Software camp, with Torvalds and Raymond. I don't believe that closed, proprietary software is immoral, nor do I object to paying for software.

I advocate open-source software because I think it's a superior development method, but my main concern is and always has been open formats. I object to Microsoft software not because it's proprietary and commercial, but because it uses proprietary data formats that deny me ownership and complete control of my own data. (Well, that and the fact that's it's buggy and horribly insecure.)

Furthermore, I think it's very presumptuous of the Free Software folks to describe GPL-licensed software as "free" when in fact the GPL is an extremely restrictive license. If these folks were truly in favor of "free" software, they'd use the BSD license or, better still, release software into the public domain. That would be truly free software.


Friday, 15 December 2006
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08:17 - Okay, there are now only ten days remaining until Christmas (or Saturnalia, in my case), so it's time to come up with a list of good gifts for techies. These aren't for me, incidentally. Every year, I get queries from women I know about what to buy their techie husbands/boyfriends/SOs, as well as from a few men who don't know what to buy their techie wives/girlfriends/SOs. (Which reminds me of the famous toast: To our wives and girlfriends. May they never meet.)

So, please post a list of five or ten good gift ideas over on the messageboard. They can range from inexpensive to very expensive. Stuff like iPods and PS3s are obvious, but it's okay to list them anyway. You can list stuff you already have that you think others might like, stuff you don't have and wouldn't buy for yourself but would enjoy receiving as a gift, or stuff that you just think is neat.

I'll scan through all the responses and consolidate them for anyone who asks me for gift ideas.

Chuck Waggoner responded over on the messageboard to my query about problems accessing a Windows 2000 share:

Regarding the Windows shares, my experience has been the following, regarding simple Workgroup networks.

When installing Windows (at least 2k) there is a choice along the way to installation, about making the computer secure with user accounts, or defining no user and leaving the computer open with no log-in.

If you do the latter, any other computer can access that open, no log-in computer without any authentication.

But, if you choose to define user accounts, then it is necessary to log onto the accessed computer using a username and password that is a valid account on the computer that is to be accessed.  All computers must have the same Workgroup name to see each other (at least in W2k).

Now, finally, IF--in the same Workgroup--you create user accounts in all computers with exactly the same names and passwords (in all computers), then you can log onto any other computer with no username and password required--the computer can tell that you are authenticated with a required username and password already.  That is a lot of work, but it is what I do on the home network which has 5 computers on it with 4 identical log-ons and passwords in each.

Before I discovered this--mostly through trial and error--people were telling me I must be crazy, because they had no problems whatever accessing other computers with no authentication required.  After my experiments and further questioning, it turns out that they were running their computers open--turn it on and you were in.  I have used accounts and passwords since W2k came out, but apparently, it has been only recently that other people have started doing the same.

This is not well-known stuff and not explained in Help files.  I know a couple situations where everyone within each family sharing the same wireless network, cannot share files because they do not know how to see or share each other's drives.  They email files back and forth (in the same house) because they cannot share them on the local network.  Crazy, but true--and some of these people are technically-minded in other areas of life.  What's more, unless the networks were set up like mine, everyone has to know each other's usernames and passwords, too (or the administrator account name and password for each computer).

This does not even get into permissions that may differ between accounts.  That can be an even bigger nightmare.  During installation, Windows asks the question if you want users to be able to share each other's files, but does not tell you that it is setting file creation permissions to do this if you answer 'no sharing between accounts'.  If you said 'no, don't share', then, you may see a file you need on a remote computer on the network, but even though you authenticated properly, you do not have file permission to access that file you see and need.  It is a nightmare.

Which I'll investigate if I install Windows 2000 again. Yesterday afternoon, I blew away the Windows 2000 installation and installed Xandros Professional Desktop 4.1. After I finished installing Xandros, the first thing I did was fire up the scanner utility, hoping for the best but not expecting much. I was surprised to find that Xandros recognized the Epson Perfection 3490 scanner and that the scanner Just Worked.

That by itself eliminates one of my major reasons for running Windows. I have a bit more experimenting to do. All I did initially was run a prescan and final scan on a document, but that worked well enough. I haven't tried scanning a color image, but I have no reason to think it won't work as well.

When I get a moment, I'll try installing the MegaStar astronomy software under Xandros. It almost worked under the earlier version of CrossOver Office that came with Xandros 3, so it may work properly with the later version of CrossOver that's bundled with Xandros 4.

The head of the Heimatsicherheitshauptamt, Oberstgruppenführer Michael Chertoff, is pushing hard for national ID cards. As Robert Heinlein pointed out, the arrival of national ID cards is one of the early signs that a totalitarian system is coalescing. It may be getting close to time to leave.

When I mentioned migrating to Pournelle, he asked me where we'd go. I suggested Mexico, but he said I'd never survive there. I pointed out that Fred Reed seems to like it there. Pournelle responded that Fred is quite restrained and diplomatic, whereas I say what I think.

Jerry may be right. The United States is the world's last best hope, the shining city on the hill. If the United States goes down, the entire world collapses into a black hole from which it may never emerge.


Saturday, 16 December 2006
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10:12 - Last night, Barbara and I attended her firm's Christmas party. I lived through it, although the music was so loud that at times I had doubts that I'd survive the evening. Fortunately, the evening was clement and there was a patio adjoining the ballroom. I spent a lot of time out on the patio, not just to smoke my pipe but to get away from the music, which I estimate was between 100 dB and 110 dB. It was loud enough that it was almost impossible to make yourself understood to the person sitting next to you, even if you shouted. Literally.

Barbara and I sat with her boss Steve and his wife Beth on one side and her cow-orker Drew and his girlfriend Sammi on the other. Without their company, I'd probably have gone insane.

I was struck by Sammi, who reminded me strikingly of Terri Mistarz, a girl I knew in college more than 30 years ago. Sammi not only looked like Terri had looked, but had the same mannerisms. I finally leaned over and shouted in her ear to ask if by any chance she had relatives named Mistarz. She doesn't, so I guess coincidences happen.

Sammi has just graduated from high school. Instead of going to college, she joined the Navy. She reports in February and will train in cryptography. I hope she ends up in a nice, safe desk job. I'd hate to think about her being on the sharp end. Heck, I hate to think about us risking our saltiest, grizzled old CPOs and gunnies, but I really hate thinking about putting teenage girls on the firing line.

I just read an article that lists what it proposes as the ten most dangerous toys of all times. And I actually had one of them.


Sunday, 17 December 2006
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