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Week of 5 February 2007

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Monday, 5 February 2007
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08:12 - It's about time for me to put the home chem lab book on hold and start working again on the astronomy tourist's guide book. I wanted to get a couple of chapters of the home chem lab book complete, and I'm nearly at that point. I think I'll give it one more week, and then put it aside no matter what and dive back into the astronomy book. Once I get that finished, it'll be back to the lab for me.

I'm also thinking about what else I might use that lab for, other than a possible follow-on book or books to the home chem lab book. One idea I've bounced around with O'Reilly is doing a book on alternative/obsolete photographic processes. Back when I was a teenager, I actually did most of those, from Daguerreotype to platinum and palladium printing, Callotype, tintype, wet plate, albumin printing, carbon printing, dye transfer, etc. I even made my own Lumiere Autochrome color plates with raw starch, dyes, and lampblack, although they didn't work very well.

This would be a fun book to write, but I decided not to do it. It would be very expensive in terms of time, equipment, and materials, and I can't see the market for it being big enough to sell enough copies to make it worth our while.

Every Sunday, I do the laundry. Barbara is very picky about how her clothes are laundered. (In fact, she keeps "special loads" that she does herself.) She has a bunch of sports bras that look a whole lot like panties. Unfortunately, they require different processing. Panties can be dried in the dryer, but sports bras must be spread on a drying rack to air dry. (Apparently, sports bras shrink if they're dried with heat.)

I try very hard to make sure that all sports bras are extracted from the washed load and put on the drying rack rather than in the dryer, but (a) that takes a lot of time and effort, and (b) I sometimes overlook a sports bra and put it in the dryer. Yesterday, I proposed a solution to Barbara. Why not use a marking pen to label all of the sports bras "Bra" in large letters? That way, it'd be immediately apparent which were bras. I wouldn't have to spend as much time sorting washed loads, and there'd be no danger of a sports bra being heat dried by mistake.

When I suggested it, Barbara stared at me for a moment and then laughed incredulously. "You'd better not write on my bras," she said. At first, I thought she meant I should label the panties instead of the bras. I pointed out that it was more efficient to label the bras because (a) there were fewer of them, and (b) "bra" has fewer letters than "panties". As it turned out, though, her objection was not to me labeling her bras, but to me writing on her underwear, period.

Another good idea shot down, and just one more example of the difference between male problem-solving methods and female problem-solving methods.


Tuesday, 6 February 2007
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09:20 - I see on CNN that: Turner, contractor to pay $2M in Boston bomb scare

What is wrong with these people? The proper response from CNN would have been to send the mayor of Boston and everyone else involved a simple message. "We're sorry you're morons, but that's really not our problem."

We're talking about light boards that displayed a cartoon character giving people the finger. I've seen images of them, and how anyone could have believed they were destructive devices is beyond me. At most, I suppose the Boston authorities might reasonably have charged CNN and its contractor with littering.

And speaking of charging, the two guys who "planted" the devices are still under threat of criminal prosecution. In case no one's told the prosecutor, no crime is committed in the absence of criminal intent. It's clear to anyone with a brain that these two guys had no intent to make a bomb threat, which is what they're charged with.

When did we as a nation become Cowardly Lions? Why are so many people so timid? Osama bin Laden and his crew must have gotten a good laugh out of this one.

I've just been reading an article over on Ed Bott's blog about the cost of upgrading a group of family PCs to Vista. He concludes that you can use the Family Discount Offer option to upgrade three current XP systems for "only" $350. I don't know about anyone else, but $350 strikes me as a hell of a lot of money for next to no benefit. In fact, given the current compatibility issues and missing drivers, it seems to me that you'd be paying $350 to screw up your current systems.

Oh, and Microsoft admits that the init keys they provide for the family pack don't work. They're valid keys, for something, but not for Vista, and Microsoft has no idea what they're valid for. And they have no idea how long it'll take to fix the problem. It seems to me that they could just generate new keys and pass them out to the people who have problems (which is to say everyone who's bought the family pack), but they're not doing that. Instead, they're telling customers to wait until they get the problem fixed. No hint as to when that might be.

After reading Ed Bott's post, I decided to calculate how much it would cost to upgrade three family PCs from Windows XP to Linux. As it turns out, it's cheaper than upgrading to Vista. A lot cheaper. $350 cheaper, in fact.


Wednesday, 7 February 2007
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08:57 - Cool. My editor at O'Reilly just forwarded me a link to a NY Times article that mentions Building the Perfect PC, 2E. It's not a review, but a mention in the NYT certainly can't hurt.

Speaking of promotion for that book, I'm scheduled to do a show with John Iasiulo on the Computer Outlook Radio Talk Show tomorrow at 5:00 p.m. PST, another with Luria Petrucci (AKA Cali Lewis) on GeekBrief early next month, and still another with Tom D'Auria on TechTalk sometime in March. I'm not sure how much they help sales of the book, but I always enjoy doing interviews.


Thursday, 8 February 2007
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09:05 - UPS showed up with a box from Elemental Scientific yesterday that contained all but two of the items I'd ordered back on 15 November 2006. Most of the contents were bottles of chemicals, 43 of the 45 I'd ordered. One, a 4-ounce bottle of Biuret Reagent, had leaked slightly, but done no great damage.

As I expected given Elemental's very low prices, the chemicals were rather crudely packaged, typically in plastic bottles with inkjet-printed labels. That doesn't matter, though. What matters is the chemicals themselves, which are fine. Those same chemicals in the same grades from institutional suppliers like Fisher Scientific or Sigma-Aldrich would have cost at least twice as much, and in many cases four or five times as much. The only real difference is that they would have been packaged more attractively, with more expensive containers and four-color labels. That just wasn't worth the additional cost.

I'm happy enough with Elemental Scientific that I plan to order 20 or 30 more chemicals from them. Let's hope it doesn't take three months this time.

I downloaded and watched a bunch of GeekBrief episodes yesterday, and I understand why it's so popular. Luria Petrucci (AKA Cali Lewis), is bright, pretty, enthusiastic, and funny. She and her husband started GeekBrief in December 2005 as a part-time venture. Within a couple of weeks, they were already up to 3,000 viewers, and they soon began using so much bandwidth that their ISP started throttling them. Within six months, they were both able to quit their day jobs and work full-time on GeekBrief.

I'll be on GeekBrief on 7 March for an audio-only interview. Luria asked me if I could do the interview via Skype. I told her I'd much prefer to use Ma Bell, because I don't trust Skype. I haven't trusted it since day one. A closed-source application that uses stealth technology and is able to bypass my firewall isn't something I want on any of my systems.

But apparently Skype is the standard for podcasts because the voice quality is superior to an analog voice line, so I told Luria I'd manage somehow. I think I'll just download the Windows version and install it on my notebook, which links to our wireless network. That way, I can do the actual interview downstairs, where it's quiet, rather than in my office, which has a lot of machines running.

We'll be talking about building a PC to run MythTV. Luria is comfortable with Windows and OS X, but she's not a Linux person. Still, she downloaded Ubuntu and MythTV, and is ready to dive in. I told Luria that she really, really might want to download KnoppMyth instead, because it eliminates about 90% of the hassle of getting MythTV installed and configured. (And even the remaining 10% is intimidating for most people.) But she's determined to build a MythTV PVR from scratch, so I can only admire her guts.

As a young woman, Luria is concerned that people won't take her seriously. She's always looking to build what she calls "geek cred". I told her that building a MythTV box from scratch would gain her immense geek cred. Kind of like that old t-shirt, "I configured sendmail". Nothing more needs to be said.

And speaking of interviews, I have to remember to call in to the Computer Outlook Radio Talk Show tonight. I'm on at 5:00 Pacific Time for an hour.


Friday, 9 February 2007
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08:10 - Our CyberHome DVD recorder has apparently bitten the dust. I'm not sure if the problem is the drive itself or the electronics, but it's not worth messing with. I think I paid NewEgg $78 for it originally, and it's a mechanical device, so it's not surprising that it lasted only a bit more than a year.

The first symptoms showed up back in mid-January. At the suggestion of one of my readers, I disconnected the power cable and let it sit for an hour or two. When I plugged it back in, it apparently worked. But only apparently, because Wednesday night when Barbara wanted to watch a three-part episode of Studio 54 Where Are You? that we'd recorded, it turned out that the first and second discs were blank, even though I'd watched the recorder apparently recording them. Oh, well.

So yesterday I ordered a replacement from NewEgg. The one I ordered is a Panasonic DM-RES15S, which costs $149.99, but with a $30 rebate and free shipping. I'm sure the Panasonic is also made in China, but it may be a bit more reliable than the $78 CyberHome was. The Panasonic has more bells and whistles than the CyberHome, but all I really care about is its VCR-replacement features, which are more than adequate. The Panasonic also has some DRM features, so I'll be looking at hacks sites for information about how to disable those.

Microsoft may have gotten more than it bargained for in the prosecution of Russian teacher Alexander Ponosov for copyright infringement. Ponosov purchased computer equipment that turned out to have unauthorized copies of Microsoft software installed on it. Ponosov says he did nothing wrong, and from all accounts it seems that he's telling the truth. However, he faces a five-year prison sentence in Siberia if he is convicted of the charges. Putin calls the charges "nonsense". Gorbachev appealed directly to Bill Gates to waive the charges, but Gates did not respond. So Ponosov is looking at a five-year stretch in the neogulag.

As you might expect, this has given pause to other educators in Russia, none of whom presumably want to risk spending five years in Siberia. Russia news outlets are reporting [1] [2] that Education Minister Nicolay Karpushin says that Russian schools in the Perm region will abandon commercial software in general and Microsoft software in particular, in favor of Linux, OpenOffice.org, and other open-source software. And who could blame them?

In other news, Ben Maurer of Carnegie-Mellon has been doing some experiments with a BitTorrent client he wrote. He found that BayTSP, one of the MPAA's attack dogs, is tracking the trackers and sending DMCA notices to the ISPs of anyone whose IP address is found in one of the BitTorrent swarms they're tracking. The problem is, BayTSP doesn't bother to verify that their targets are doing anything illegal. As Maurer says,

"If your ISP forwards a DMCA notice from these guys, point them here. This research suggests that they have no evidence of wrong-doing. If ISPs learn that the folks sending them DMCA notices are not being completely honest, they may be willing to reconsider their position about how they respond to the notices. The people I work with at Carnegie Mellon seemed willing to reevaluate their policies given this evidence."

What Maurer doesn't say is that it's a crime to knowingly issue a DMCA takedown notice to someone who is not infringing your copyright. If someone pursues this, BayTSP could find themselves in a lot of trouble.

And speaking of copyright issues, the RIAA suffered a major defeat when a judge ruled that they were required to pay the defendant's attorneys' fees in a case that they'd dismissed with prejudice. What's significant about this case is that the judge resoundingly rejected the RIAA theory of contributory copyright infringement. For the first time, a judge has ruled that demonstrating a direct connection between a person and an IP address that had been used for unauthorized copying of music files is not in itself sufficient evidence to convict that person of copyright infringement.

Which is as it should be. For example, if I choose to run my wireless access point wide open as a public service so that anyone within range can use my Internet connection, I should not be liable for actions taken by those random, anonymous users--even if they download copyrighted music or movies or child porn--any more than the city should be held liable because it provided the street that a bank robber used to escape in his getaway car.

The RIAA and MPAA want courts to accept their assumptions as proof, when of course they're nothing more than assumptions. They should be required to prove exactly who took the action in question. Of course, they'll argue that proof is impossible, which it probably is. But that's their problem, not ours.

11:37 - My Amarok playlist just fired up the Rolling Stones, Get Off of My Cloud. Which reminds me of the difference between Mick Jagger and a Scottish shepherd.

Mick Jagger shouts, "Hey, You! Get off of my cloud!"

The Scottish shepherd shouts, "Hey, McLeod! Get off of my ewe!"

(I can say that, because I'm Scots.)


Saturday, 10 February 2007
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Sunday, 11 February 2007
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