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Week of 8 January 2007

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Monday, 8 January 2007
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08:38 - I was sorry to see the announcement that Pegasus Mail is no more. I started using Pegasus Mail before it officially shipped in 1990, and continued using it until 1998, when I converted to Outlook 98. I continued to use Mercury, the SMTP server from the same author, for some time after that.

Pegasus was (and is) fast, featureful, and standards-compliant. It was simply unable to compete as a pseudo-commercial product in a world of open source software. In an earlier version of the notice now posted on his site, the author, David Harris, expressed his puzzlement that his commercial quality mail client was no longer generating sufficient revenue to support even one programmer. In the current version of the notice, Harris says:

Addendum, January 8th 2007:  I stress that this is purely a decision brought on by financial difficulty: if sponsors could be found to provide modest ongoing funding, I would be happy to continue developing the programs, and would even consider opening the source.

Which tells me that Harris still doesn't "get" open source. Despite repeated suggestions over the years to do so, Harris refused to open source the product. In a world of competent open source mail clients like Mozilla Mail, Thunderbird, Evolution, Kmail, and so on, Pegasus had become a product in search of a market. As Harris has learned, it's difficult to make money on software when top-notch competing applications are available for free. That's a lesson that Microsoft will also learn as Linux continues to improve and make inroads on Windows market share.

Even now, Harris labors under the mistaken belief that the Pegasus source code is the crown jewels. Now that Pegasus is dead, it has zero value as an application. More to the point, the Pegasus source code is also of essentially zero value. Even if Harris were to release the Pegasus source code under an OSI license, it's unlikely that any sustainable community would develop around it. The competitors are simply too good and too well established. Someone might lift a chunk of Pegasus source code here and there to add to more popular mail clients like Thunderbird and Kmail, but Pegasus itself would wither on the vine. The time to open source Pegasus was ten years ago. Now, it's been overtaken by events.

Over on the messageboard, Scott Kitterman observed that:

... this exemplifies the dangers of dependence on proprietary software.  With an open source/free program it couldn't just vaporize like this.

which is certainly one moral of this story. There's another, though. Fortunately, David Harris wrote Pegasus to comply with open standards. Anyone who's currently using Pegasus Mail either already has his email in standard mbox format or can easily get it there. Any number of other mail clients can import mbox data directly, with no loss, so it's relatively easy to migrate from Pegasus Mail to a current mail client. Imagine how much more difficult it would have been if Pegasus used closed, proprietary, undocumented data formats like Microsoft Outlook.

14:23 - Back from the dentist and having my fangs cleaned and polished. I have to go in again next week for some fillings and stuff.

When I got home, I walked the dogs. Our next-door neighbor Gerald was just driving up in his truck and asked if I could help him transfer some images to a CD. I did that, and he showed me an older CD that contained some video of their older daughter Emma. He wasn't able to read the CD. I tried it in their Linux system, which gave me a list of the directories on the CD, but refused to retrieve any of the files. I brought it home to check it in a Plextor, which was able to read some of the supplemental files, but alas none of the actual video data. I tried a few other things, including attempting to read the raw data off the CD, but nothing worked.

This just reemphasizes the importance of using high-quality discs. These were a brand that shall remain nameless, but which I'll refer to for convenience as Forgetorex.

While I was walking the dogs, I stopped to talk with Kim for a few minutes. She stopped at the house yesterday to tell us that Jasmine had been injured at her gymnastics competition on Saturday. No one is sure what happened, even after looking at footage from the camcorders that recorded the event, but Jasmine somehow injured her knee when she jumped on one of those springboard things that they use for jumping mounts. There aren't any broken bones, but her knee hurts badly. They suspect a torn ligament or something similar. Jasmine is going for an MRI this evening. Let's hope everything works out.

Mary also got hurt Saturday, running in a 50 kilometer race for which she says she wasn't adequately prepared. My women friends seem to be injuring themselves. I'm trying to talk them into taking up something with lower impact like, say, full-contact Shotokan.

And, oh yeah, I just got email from my editor at O'Reilly. The home chem lab book is a go.


Tuesday, 9 January 2007
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08:50 - Ron Morse sends along a new icon for Firefox.

ScienceKit scared me again yesterday.  I got an invoice from them in the mail that included only two items--a bottle of Eriochrome Black T indicator and a box of 100 disposable pipettes--and no mention of the chemicals I'd ordered. I feared that the Wicked Witch of New York had struck again, so I called the Good Witches in California, Cindy and Michelle, who assured me that my order was in progress but that the chemicals I'd ordered would ship from a separate warehouse.

The mail yesterday also included a copy of a book I'd ordered. It's called The Home Chemist, and it was published by Popular Science in 1934. I flipped through it, and was delighted to read about experiments that kids did back in a more rational and lawyer-free age. For example, one experiment teaches kids how to make mercuric chloride, also called corrosive sublimate. It includes one sentence of caution, telling the reader that mercuric chloride is poisonous and that they should wash their hands after handling it. If a kid tried to make mercuric chloride nowadays, he'd immediately find himself surrounded by EPA agents parachuting in from black helicopters. If, that is, agents from the DEA or DHS hadn't gotten to him first.


Wednesday, 10 January 2007
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08:23 - Over on the messageboard, Jon Abbey posted a link to an interesting video:

Robert, this is loosely apropos of your mentoring talk concerning Jasmine, but mostly it's just a glorious thing to see that I had to share.

It's a Google Video of Jeri Ellsworth, a 30 year old high school drop out and autodidact, lecturing at Stanford University about her career, and about the cycle-accurate, full system re-implementation of the Commodore 64 that she created on a single chip.

That's after tales of her race car driving career, and her successful chain of Oregon computer stores.

What an impressive person.  Straight out of Robert Heinlein central casting.


Some of the lab equipment and chemicals I've ordered have started to arrive, with more to come.

One problem I foresee is shooting images for the book, and I plan to do a bit of experimentation on that. Unlike the images I shoot for computer books, which use standard front-lighting, many of the images I'll shoot for this book will require backlighting in order to show the colors of solutions, precipitates, and so on. In addition, there's the problem of reflections, because a lot of glassware will appear in the images.

My first thought was a lightbox of some sort, but that's not really workable because of the diversity of images I'll need to shoot, space issues, and so on. Basically, whatever I decide to use for lighting has to be quick and easy to set up, and non-instrusive in the sense that it doesn't get in the way of the experiment. I may try using the built-in flash unit with crossed polarizers on the flash and lens. I may also try using a couple of gooseneck lamps with neodymium bulbs.


Thursday, 11 January 2007
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08:49 - I finally got around to downloading some images from the Pentax DSLR yesterday. Here's a picture of the new flannel sheets Barbara got me for Saturnalia. For some reason, we seem to have penguins all over the house now.

And here's a Mighty Bright LED book light she got me. When I tested it the first night, I realized that it bears a strong resemblance to the Martian invasion craft in the 1953 version of The War of the Worlds. So far, it hasn't emitted any green sparks or vaporized any buildings. Perhaps when it grows up.

Several people have asked me to post some images of our new home chem lab. I'm still in the piling-stuff-up-as-it-arrives stage, but I decided I might as well document the process. Amongst the clutter are three 2-litre softdrink bottles at the left. The front one (Diet Coke) is a water sample that Brian and Marcia Bilbrey brought me from Bowie, Maryland. Behind it are two bottles of seawater that Barbara got for me on her trip to Myrtle Beach last month. The plastic container to the right of the stove started life as an eggdrop soup container from a Chinese take-out order, but is destined to be a chromatography jar. Speaking of the stove, I haven't decided what to do with it yet. I may just use the stove and exhaust hood as is, or I may enclose it to make a formal fume hood. I have some sheets of clear polycarbonate (Lexan) plastic that I may use to build an explosion shield. The stove itself will be useful as a safe source of heat for distilling flammable solvents and so on, although I may temporarily remove two or three of the burners and seal the holes. I'm debating about the convection oven visible at the rear. It would be very useful as a drying oven, but I may have to move it elsewhere to free up counter space.

I've made a start on organizing the storage, although much remains to be done. I'd forgotten how much stuff accumulates in a chem lab.

The other side of the lab is still a mess, with stuff piled up all over. The first-aid kit and fire extinguisher are there for obvious reasons. What might not be as obvious is that 12-pound bag of baking soda, which is also a fire extinguisher.

And look what Barbara found while we were cleaning up the basement last weekend. She now sits on the subwoofer on my desk, and I'm growing rather attached to her.


Friday, 12 January 2007
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08:11 - To answer the sharp-eyed reader who asked about the item lying just to the right of the soup container, yes it's a disposable diaper. It's there because disposable diapers use granules of the superabsorber sodium polyacrylate to absorb fluid. Although I have an actual bottle of laboratory grade sodium polyacrylate, I intend to dissect the diaper and extract the granules to illustrate for readers an alternative to buying a bottle of the stuff.

Our neighbor Stephanie supplied the disposable diaper. Our friends and neighbors are getting used to hearing strange requests from me. Wait until I start the series with Marquis Reagent, which is used by drug enforcement agents as a presumptive test for various illegal drugs. It's a presumptive test because it yields false positives or at least strong reactions with numerous common substances. Aspirin, for example, reacts with Marquis Reagent to yield a bright red color, and ordinary cane sugar yields a pretty brown. I'll be testing Marquis Reagent against ordinary stuff we have around the house, and begging samples of stuff we don't have from friends and neighbors. In particular, I'll be interested in learning which common substances yield reactions similar to those of illegal drugs.

Earlier this week, I blew away the Xandros installation on my secondary office system and installed Windows 2000. I need a Windows box to run some astronomy software that's essential for a book project I'm working on, and there are other times when it's useful to me to run one or another Windows-only program. I decided to install Windows 2000 because it's the last version of Windows that doesn't have all the obnoxious activation and monitoring crap.

I gave some thought to security, particularly since SP4 is the most recent update I installed, but I'm not too concerned. The system sits behind a firewall, has Firefox installed, is never used for email nor for web browsing except to trusted sites, has had wscript.exe and cscript.exe deleted, and doesn't have permission to access the Linux systems on our network.

But as I installed Windows 2000, it asked me if I wanted it to handle Daylight Saving Time changes automatically. That started me thinking, because this software predates the change in DST that comes into play this year. A quick web search told me that Microsoft hadn't issued a DST update for Windows 2000 and had no plans to do so. But I did happen across this unofficial Windows 2000 Daylight Saving Time patch. From the article:

You may have forgotten by now, but two years ago the US government changed the dates for daylight saving time. When the law was passed it was set to take effect in 2007.

Well, here we are. It is 2007, and Microsoft has published updates for XP, and 2003. But...No update for 2000 Workstation, or any of the server editions.

This is a huge problem for many organizations. I know some companies that have hundreds of Windows 2000 boxes. The thought that they will need to upgrade to XP or 2003 (Just for this) is a nightmare. Microsoft is providing a hotfix - but only to the companies that have an extended support contract. To their credit, Microsoft does provide a registry workaround for the rest of us.

The workaround that Microsoft provides is not easy to follow. Check out the KB article at Microsoft.

It looks as though the high-definition DVD format war is over, and HD-DVD won. The porn industry has always been two steps ahead of Hollywood when it comes to taking advantage of new technologies, and the porn industry has chosen HD-DVD. Just as their choice of VHS was a major reason for the failure of Betamax, their choice of HD-DVD will almost certainly doom Blu-Ray.

There are other signs that Blu-Ray is turning into a trainwreck. When the PS3 started shipping a few weeks ago, it was in such high demand that people were able to sell PS3s on eBay for as much as $14,000. Then reality set in quickly. I called three of our local big-box stores yesterday to ask about PS3s and Xbox 360s. Everyone had lots of PS3s in stock, and two of them told me that PS3s just weren't selling. One even mentioned that they'd had a lot of PS3 returns since Christmas from people who wanted to trade them in on Xbox 360s or Wiis.

The only reason that Blu-Ray hasn't been written off entirely is that the movie studios prefer it for its perceived superior copy protection. But that preference matters only as long as Blu-Ray remains a viable alternative to HD-DVD. In 2007, I think we'll see HD-DVD player sales outstripping Blu-Ray player sales by huge margins. If that happens, the studios that currently support Blu-Ray will have no choice but to begin releasing their titles in HD-DVD, which will send Blu-Ray into a death spiral.

If Blu-Ray ultimately does fail, it shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone. It'd be just another in a long series of failed Sony proprietary formats.

12:25 - Holy Cow! A tractor trailer just pulled up in front of our house, bearing hazardous material placards. As soon as I saw it was a motor freight company, I knew it must be the chemicals I ordered from ScienceKit. The guy told me he had a pallet for me on the truck. We lifted it down onto a handtruck and hauled it around back to put it in the basement. Here's what I ordered:

Calcium, reagent grade, granular, 25 g
Ethylene chloride, laboratory grade, 500 mL
Hydrogen peroxide, 30% reagent ACS grade, 100 mL
Sodium hydroxide, reagent grade, pellets, 500 g
Barium nitrate, reagent grade, crystals, 500 g
Calcium carbide, laboratory grade, lumps, 500 g
Nitric acid, 15.8M reagent ACS grade, 500 mL
Barium hydroxide reagent grade, crystals, 100 g
Hydrochloric acid, 37% reagent ACS grade, 500 mL
Acetone, reagent grade, 500 mL

Every one of them was in a separate box, all shrink-wrapped to the pallet. The driver asked me what I needed this stuff for, and I told him. I've decided that openess is the best policy. If I tried to hide what I was doing, people would think I was running a meth lab or a bomb factory.

Which reminds me of a cartoon I saw about 35 years ago in Playboy. I think it was by Gahan Wilson, or someone immitating him. It showed two cops in a patrol car driving down the interstate. The cop who was driving appeared normal, but the passenger had his eyes bugged out. They were passing a tractor trailer with a large logo and lettering on the side that said "National Marijuana Importers, Inc.".


Saturday, 13 January 2007
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08:33 - Paul Jones stopped by on his way home from work yesterday. When I mentioned that my stuff had shown up via a tractor trailer with hazardous material placards on it, he said that he figured it had been my stuff that had been involved in the wreck that closed US 52 (an interstate-like north-south corridor in Winston-Salem) for most of the day yesterday.

That was potentially a very bad situation that turned out as well as anyone could have hoped. Before dawn yesterday morning, a tractor trailer driver fell asleep at the wheel, ran off the road, and turned over. He was hauling 5,000 gallons of formaldehyde, but the container didn't rupture. That's fortunate, because spilling 5,000 gallons of formaldehyde is no joke. At the least, we could have expected some serious injuries, and it's not unlikely that people would have been killed.

That wreck caused other wrecks, including that of another tractor trailer carrying tires and five 20-gallon containers of concentrated nitric acid. That trailer burst into flames, but the fire department was able to extinguish it before any serious damage was done.

As it turned out, there were no deaths and no serious injuries. But US 52 was closed completely for most of the day. When we watched the local news at 6:00, the southbound lanes were still closed.

An apparent relative of the Aflac duck from Nick Scipio's site (warning: site not work-safe).


Sunday, 14 January 2007
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Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 by Robert Bruce Thompson. All Rights Reserved.