Week of 5 February 2007
Update: Friday, 9 February 2007 11:37 -0500
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
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
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
- 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
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
- 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
- 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
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.
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.
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
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  
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
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.
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
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
1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 by Robert Bruce