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Week of 7 May 2007

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Monday, 7 May 2007
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08:24 - Our guests depart tomorrow morning, so today is the last day of a long weekend for me. Tomorrow, heads-down work resumes on the book. I hope to have the final remaining chapter in the astronomy book complete this week, after which I'll return to work on the home chem lab book.

I was planning to build a new system over the weekend to replace the system I gave to Barbara's sister. Infrequently, I need to use Megastar or another Windows-only app, so I've always kept a Windows box as a secondary system on my desk. While I was debating whether to build a new low-end system for Windows or to build a new high-end system to replace my primary system, I decided instead just to run VMWare on my main system and install Windows 2000 in a virtual machine. I got that installed and running yesterday, and it seems to work fine. I don't think I'll need an actual Windows system ever again.


Tuesday, 8 May 2007
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08:20 - Our guests depart today. I've been pretty much lying around not doing much, so I'll need to do several loads of laundry, do a complete kitchen clean-up, and so on. Then it'll be back to work for me tomorrow morning.


Wednesday, 9 May 2007
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09:23 - We're back from our visit to the Bilbreys in Bowie, Maryland. Ordinarily, we go up over Memorial Day, but this time we made the trip three weeks early so that Barbara and Marcia could attend Malice Domestic, a big mystery conference that's held in the DC metro area. They had a great time at the conference, meeting authors, attending panels, getting books signed, and so on. Brian and I did our usual, lying around eating pizza and bacon, watching several episodes of Firefly, and playing on the computers. The dogs were a bit puzzled when Barbara and Marcia disappeared soon after we arrived.

The trip both directions was very pleasant this time. We left about 2:45 last Wednesday afternoon, missed all the rush hours along the way, stopped for a brief dinner at a gas station (which sold surprisingly good sub sandwiches), and arrived in Bowie about 9:45. We left Bowie at 8:55 yesterday morning, again missed all the rush hours, and made it home around 3:30.

One thing that contributed greatly to the pleasant ride home was that we drugged Malcolm, who has a bad habit of going berserk in the car. When the vet did the excisional biopsy on Duncan, he gave us some very strong tranquilizer pills (something-promazine). We'd used only one for Duncan that first night, so we decided to try one on Malcolm for the trip home. That dosage was perfect. He slept most of the trip, but behaved normally when we stopped at rest areas, jumping in and out of the car normally and attacking Duncan normally. Then he'd just curl back up and go to sleep again as soon as we hit the road.

I took along a spare 500 GB hard drive, planning to install Kubuntu 7.04 while Brian was there to help. I decided against that, though. I'm perfectly happy with 6.10, and the upgrade to 7.04 would have been a lot of work for little benefit. We did install VMWare and Windows 2000 on my main system, which pretty much eliminates the need for a separate Windows box.

When we got home and carried in all our stuff, I started doing things in priority order. First, I got Barbara's system restarted and made her a new weekly journal page. Then I moved the Samsung 930BF 19" flat-panel display from my office to the den, to replace the 17" CRT that I'd been using. When the den system started up, it was stuck at a maximum of 1024x768 resolution, which looks terrible on a 19" FPD that uses 1280X1024 natively. So I ran

sudo dpkg-reconfigure xserver-xorg

Once I did that and restarted, I expect the system to come up in 1280. It came up in 1024 instead, but now the selection for 1280 was available in System Settings -> Monitor & Display.

This morning, I vacuumed my desk, rearranged stuff, and got my main system reconnected. It's now sitting on top of the desk, and (as Barbara keeps pointing out) it's very loud. I need to replace the stock Intel CPU cooler with something better. When I first built the system, it was reasonably quiet, at least for a 130W Pentium D. Now, it whines loudly, even after I blew out all the dust in the CPU cooler fins. When I get a moment, I'll replace the cooler with a Thermalright or Zalman. Either that, or retire this guy to server duty and build a new Core 2 Duo system.

Brian has talked about Getting Things Done, the time management book he just bought. While we were working in his office, I noticed it sitting there on the desk and started flipping through it. It talks about capturing data, and I mentioned to Brian that for that purpose I really liked my Olympus WS-100 digital voice recorder. I convinced Pournelle to buy one, and now he carries it everywhere and swears by it. I asked Brian if he wanted to play with my WS-100 and he said he didn't need to because I'd already convinced him to order one.

At that point, I left the office and went downstairs. A few minutes later, Brian came down and I asked him if he'd ordered it. He said he hadn't, and I mentioned that when I was flipping through Getting Things Done, I'd noticed several flow charts for time management. Every one of them had a little box "Will it take less than 2 minutes to do?" with the Yes arrow pointing to another box that said "Do it now". So he turned around, went back upstairs, and returned about two minutes later to say he'd ordered one from NewEgg.com.

Olympus should be paying me a commission on these things. Every time I recommend them, I hear from readers who've ordered them. Without exception, they've been very pleased with the WS-100. It has a neck strap, and I wear mine nearly all the time except when I'm in bed. Recording a voice note is trivially easy. You just slide the switch on the back to On, wait a second for the device to boot, press the Record button, and start talking. When you're finished, you press Stop. That's it. Each voice note is a separate .WMA file. You can listen to them directly on the WS-100, or transfer the files via USB to a computer.

When I was deciding what to buy, a lot of readers pointed out that any MP3 player has a voice recording function. That's true, but it misses the point. Using an MP3 player as a voice recorder is clumsy because it's not a dedicated device. With the Olympus WS-100, I can record a voice note just by pressing a couple of buttons. With an MP3 player, I have to drill down through menus, remember which buttons do what in DVR mode, and so on. It's just not the same thing.

Barbara and I no longer subscribe to many magazines. Brian and Marcia get quite a few, including Scientific American, Smithsonian, and National Geographic. I enjoy reading many of the articles they publish, and as I was reading a stack of their back issues I realized that I would also enjoy writing those articles. So one of the items on my to-do list (captured, of course, with my WS-100) is to look into writing articles for Smithsonian, National Geographic, History, and similar magazines. I've no idea what's involved or how well these magazines pay, but it's worth looking into.


Thursday, 10 May 2007
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10:20 - I'm downloading Xandros 2.0 Server Standard right now. Reading the specs and feature list, Xandros 2.0 Server Standard looks ideal for a small-business server. I'm not sure when I'll have time to get around to installing it. Actually, at the moment, I don't have a system to install it on. I do have the SOHO Server system from the book, but I've pillaged it for components to build other systems. At some point, I'll rebuild it with a stack of 1 TB hard drives, but for now my main Kubuntu Linux system is doing double duty as our "server".

I'm still cranking away on the astronomy book, which as usual has become The Book That Will Not Die. All of the constellation chapters are in finished form, but the initial narrative chapters still need work. I'm particularly motivated to get these chapters finished so that I can re-start work on the home chem lab book.

We have a field trip up to the Blue Ridge Parkway scheduled for tomorrow night and Saturday night, but it looks like we're going to be rained out, as usual. Barbara and I both have so much to do that we decided if we did go up Friday night we'd drive back instead of spending the day Saturday up there. But now the forecasts are all calling for rain and thunderstorms both nights, so it looks as though we'll be staying home.

Moron alert. The New York Times has announced that it plans to data-mine visitors to its on-line properties. Hmmm. When it data-mines my visits, it'll learn that I'm an 18-year-old unemployed female with a household income of more than $100,000 per year. Unless I use my other account, in which case it'll learn that I'm a 90-year-old female physician with a household income under $10,000 per year. And of course I don't allow persistent cookies from the NYT. Nor for Google, come to that.

Not that it really matters, because I don't see any of their ads anyway.

11:02 - Here's a very nice t-shirt from ThinkGeek. The perfect gift for the geek or geekess in your life.

12:18 - Here are (left to right), author Diana Killian, Barbara, and Marcia Bilbrey at Malice Domestic. I would have posted this image yesterday, but I wanted to get permission from the photographer, author Sara Rosett. She's kindly given me permission, so here it is.


Friday, 11 May 2007
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08:49 - Still working on the astronomy Book That Will Not Die. We have the cabin reserved at Wake Forest University's site at Fancy Gap, Virginia on the Blue Ridge Parkway for tonight and tomorrow night, but the forecasts all say it'll be cloudy with thunderstorms so we probably won't bother going up. We both have lots to do anyway.

Tomorrow, we're going to Lowe's to buy a new refrigerator. I called them yesterday to ask if their prices include delivery and hauling away the old refrigerator. They do, kind of. The guy told me that we have to pay $59 for delivery and haul-away, but that we can file a rebate form to have that $59 refunded. That's simply stupid. Lowe's puts us through the hassle of filing the rebate and themselves through the cost of processing it, instead of just making it an instant rebate. Geez.

Last night, I got my first-ever outdoor haircut. Our next-door neighbor, Stephanie, is currently a stay-at-home mom, but she's also a professional hair dresser. In my subtle way, I'd hinted that it was about time for me to get a haircut. (I told her that while we were visiting Brian and Marcia, my long hair had frightened a small child, who'd run away from me screaming.) Stephanie called after dinner last night and asked if I wanted to come over and get my hair cut in her back yard while the kids played. So I sat in a lawn chair and got my hair cut.

I also had a chance to talk to Kim yesterday. She filled me in on the sad news from last week. While Barbara and I were up in Bowie, one of the neighborhood boys was killed in a car accident. Brenton Hiroshi Stovall was only 18. Although the Stovalls live on the street behind us, directly behind Stephanie's and Gerald's house, we don't really know them.

While I was walking the dogs late Wednesday afternoon, I ran into Jasmine, who was just coming out of her house. She was dressed up, and I knew she was getting ready to leave for the funeral. I asked her if she knew Brent well, and she said that, yes, he'd been her friend. I was surprised that Jasmine knew Brent well, since he was 18 and had just finished his first year of college, while Jasmine turns 14 next month.

Kim told me later that when she and Jasmine moved to Winston-Salem from New York City about four years ago, Jasmine at age 9 really needed a big brother and that Brent had filled that role. Most guys that age are too busy with their own concerns to pay much attention to younger kids, but Kim said Brent had been a hero not just to Jasmine but to many of the other kids in the neighborhood. Brent was never too busy to talk to them, offer advice, drive them to McDonalds or the mall, and so on. Kim said the funeral and service were very long because so many of Brent's high school and college friends, teachers, and professors spoke about him. He will be missed.


Saturday, 12 May 2007
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10:05 - Barbara and I just returned from a trip to Lowe's to buy a new refrigerator, stupid rebate and all. The old refrigerator is a Hotpoint that we bought soon after we moved into this house, about 20 years ago. It still works pretty well, but the door mounting mechanism is failing, causing the door to pop open unless we press it firmly each time we close the door. We bought a Whirlpool Gold model this time, with a top freezer rather than a side-by-side. According to Consumer Reports, whose reliability numbers are at least somewhat credible, Whirlpool is by far the most reliable manufacturer, and top-freezer models are much more reliable than side-by-sides. So that's what we bought.

We were clouded out last night, so we didn't bother to drive up to Fancy Gap. The forecasts for tonight are even worse, unfortunately.

I'm still cranking away on the astronomy book. My editor emailed me yesterday

How are things coming with that intro chapter? I've seen your posts on your journal that it just won't die... do you think you'll be able to stick a fork in it soon?  Or is it more like driving a stake through its heart, chopping its head off, and launching it into the sun?

To which I replied:

The latter, unfortunately. It's the chapter that I'd titled Mastering Observing Skills. I just realized this morning that I'm attempting to cram pretty much the entire contents of Astronomy Hacks into one chapter, and it's just not working. Duh.

This is a chapter that really needs to be a book, and .... it already is. So I'm going to drop that chapter entirely and just refer readers to AH, which they really need to have anyway.


Sunday, 13 May 2007
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