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Week of 2 July 2007

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Monday, 2 July 2007
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08:13 - As of today, I go on a limited posting schedule. For the next month or two, I'm going to be working heads-down on the home chem lab book. There'll be interruptions, certainly, including edits on the astronomy book, which is now well into production. I'll continue to post here if I think of something worth posting, but I won't attempt to maintain a daily schedule, and any posts are likely to be short.

This week marks Independence Day, which in 2004 became significant for me in a second way. On 4 July three years ago, I converted to Linux almost exclusively, relegating Microsoft software to a very minor role in my operations, mostly testing and occasionally to run one or another Windows application that was essential for a book I was working on.

Every computer in the house now runs Kubuntu Linux. The only Microsoft software presence is a copy of Windows 2000 installed in a VMWare virtual machine that usually isn't loaded from one month to the next. I do have a few Windows-only applications like IrfanView running on my main system, but they're running under WINE rather than Windows.

And you know what? There's nothing I need to do that I can't do under Linux, usually better than I can do it under Windows. Just as important, there's nothing I want to do that I can't do under Linux. I'm not a gamer, but if I were I certainly wouldn't run games under Windows. As far as I'm concerned, the PC is dead as a gaming platform. Instead, I'd buy a gaming console. I dislike Sony at least as much as I dislike Microsoft, so it'd probably be a Wii for me.

I've been around PCs since before PCs existed. I built a "PC" in 1976--more than 30 years ago--from individual chips, including an 8080A processor. I remember the days of big iron, before the PC existed. Alas, I think most people have forgotten that PC stands for PERSONAL computer. My PC is MY PC, and I intend to keep it that way, despite Microsoft's efforts to eliminate the P from PC.

My PC hardware is my own; no one can take it away from me. More important, my PC software is my own; no one can take it away from me or tell me what to do with it. I don't have to worry that my PC will stop working one morning because some corporation's genuine disadvantage spyware decided that I'm a "pirate". Most important, my data are my own. My email, documents, spreadsheets, images, videos, music, and so on are stored in files that use open standard formats. Those data can't be taken away from me or rendered inaccessible at the whim of Microsoft or some other faceless corporation.

They say that if you drop a frog into boiling water it'll immediately jump out, but if you drop a frog into cold water and gradually bring the water to a boil you end up with boiled frog. I don't know if that's true or not for frogs, but it's certainly true for most PC users.

If you dropped an average computer user from back in 1985, or even 1995, into today's Windows environment, they'd be outraged. "What do you mean, Microsoft WGA shut down my computer? That's outrageous! It's my computer, not theirs!" or "What is this DRM shit that won't let me back up my files? They're my files, dammit!" The highways around Redmond would be clogged with PC peasants carrying torches and pitchforks.

But Microsoft and their MAFIAA buddies have nibbled away at our freedoms little by little, both by technical means and by bribing legislators and judges to pass and enforce outrageous laws that limit our freedoms. Things that would have been considered outrageous ten years ago, or even five, are now accepted as the norm.

It's time to change that, and it is within our power to do so. If you're still living in the Microsoft monoculture, I implore you to take steps to free yourself. You needn't dive straight in by formatting your hard drive and installing Linux (although I sure wouldn't object if you did...) You can take it in baby steps:
No doubt someone will raise the question of buying an Apple computer. In practical terms, that's better than buying a Windows computer, but not by much. The only real advantage to using an Apple computer is that OS X is orders of magnitude more secure than Windows. Almost as secure as Linux, in fact. But Apple is less obnoxious than Microsoft only because Apple has a tiny market share. Apple is still proprietary, and still does everything possible to lock you (and your wallet) into Apple "solutions". Jumping from Microsoft to Apple really is jumping from the proverbial frying pan. If you're going to jump, jump to Linux and have done with it.

Here's an example of what the OpenOffice.org word processor looks like, showing a peek at one of the chapters from the home chem lab book:


Tuesday, 3 July 2007
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07:47 - Two of the things I admire most about Mary Chervenak are her absolute, unremitting intellectual honesty and her absolute, unremitting determination. If Mary ever murdered someone, was brought to trial, took the stand, and was asked by the prosecutor if she'd murdered the victim, Mary would tell the truth. Mary doesn't lie, to other people or to herself. And when it comes to determination, Mary reminds me of that old Gahan Wilson cartoon that shows a cop looking at a meat grinder with a pile of ground meat underneath it and a hand and arm hanging from the handle. The caption is, "Most determined case of suicide I've ever seen." You probably think I'm exaggerating, but read on.

If that seems like a strange lead-in to announcing that the BPR website folks have finally gotten around to posting Mary's latest blog entry, well, you'll understand when you read the entry. As a matter of fact, I'll repost it here, because I'm afraid BPR may reconsider and pull it.

28 June 2007

The shoulders of the M7 are littered with all kinds of interesting things – truck tires, serpentine belts, transmissions, empty bottles, smoked and un-smoked cigarettes, doll heads, jewelry, clothes, lunch – like a Wal-Mart Supercenter with a really big automotive department. Using only roadside detritus, an enterprising individual could build a car (although not necessarily a functioning one) and stock it for a family of four (although a pretty dysfunctional one).

Russian drivers give crazy a whole new meaning. Painted lines are open to interpretation, dividers are merely suggestions, and shoulders provide additional passing lanes. Even driving direction on a two-lane road is subject to change without notice. I'd rather run down the middle of the Garden State Parkway wearing nothing but a feather boa and stilettos (and without money for tolls – although, come to think of it, I probably wouldn't need any) than brave the M7 outside of Moscow.

I'll admit I'm subject to irrational fears. I get spooked easily at night, I don't like confined spaces, and I'm not overly fond of the number 13. I am, however, truly afraid of the M7. No, not afraid. Terrified. Every time I face the M7, I have to confront a heart-pounding, cold-sweat-inducing, cry and scream and beg for your life kind of fear. I see the M7 and I want to run. Which would be a good thing, I guess, if running away from the M7 was an option.

Unfortunately, I had to run on the M7. On the shoulder. With the serpentine belts and the doll heads. With the insane Russian traffic. I'd imagined my death by runaway Russian truck or speeding Russian car a dozen different times, so I suppose that's why I wasn't prepared for what actually happened.

I was first up the morning of June 30th – the first runner of the day at 9 AM. My stomach was a little gurgly and strange when I woke up, so I opted to skip breakfast. A wise choice, as it turned out. By mile four, my stomach had stopped gurgling and was instead making squeaky little protests. By mile six, protest turned into open rebellion; my legs were covered with diarrhea. My socks were brown, my shoes squishy, my shorts indescribable. I had a police escort who witnessed the whole explosion from behind and who may now be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result.

I always wear my favorite shorts on the last day of a four-day shift, when I'm usually the most tired. I'm convinced my favorite shorts are imbued with some sort of luck, because I always have a good run when I wear them. Well, almost always. And now, my favorite shorts are imbued (possibly permanently) with something other than luck. Hmmm. I may be in the market for a new pair.

I did finish my run – not elegantly, but definitively. At the conclusion of my leg, no one wanted me to ride in their van and I was offered Wet Wipes the way mints are offered to someone with bad breath – politely, repetitively, and with a certain sense of urgency. The baton was taken away from me and, I think, boiled in bleach. I'm not sure I'll be able to look Hilary Swank in the eye if we hand the baton back to her on September 4th.

Upset stomachs, less-than-ideal terrain, hot, dusty, miserable runs – all part of the experience. I'm okay with it. I can take the bad along with the good, the terrible with the amazing, the hellish with the transcendent. To put it simply, life is like a box of chocolates: sometimes you get delicious, sometimes you just get brown. And until now, I'd been unable to adequately express my disgust and disdain for the M7. No longer. “A big load of crap” sums it up nicely.

If I were ever on trial for my life and the judge allowed me to choose a champion to run for my life, I'd choose Mary. As Mary would be the first to admit, there are runners who are faster than she is, or can run farther. But there aren't any runners who are more determined than Mary is, or tougher. I'd pick Mary because I know that she would save my life, or die trying.

It's a real privilege to have Mary Chervenak as my friend. And she can ride with me any time.


Wednesday, 4 July 2007
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08:48 - Happy Independence Day!

Incidentally, after I re-read my post yesterday, I realized that I should mention that Mary isn't naive and certainly isn't stupid. Far from it. She's so far to the right on the Bell Curve that from her perspective the top of the curve probably looks like a small hill on the horizon.

If Mary ever murdered someone, she wouldn't have to tell the truth on the witness stand, because no medical examiner would realize that the victim had been murdered, let alone how it had been done. Mary is slow to anger, but, when provoked, her temper falls somewhere between volcanic and thermonuclear. Take it from someone who's provoked Mary's temper, and never wants to do so again. At least not without full body armor.

Paul brought pizza over for dinner last night. He didn't stay late, but he did update us on the behind-the-scenes stuff that's going on with the Blue Planet Run. Mary's not the only one who's terrorized by the M7 road they've been running on. All but one of the runners are afraid of the M7. The exception is the youngest runner, Shiri Leventhal, who at age 23 is still immortal, and finds running on the M7 to be exhilarating. I'd use a different word for being narrowly missed by tractor trailers moving at 80 MPH, but then I'm not 23.

Frankly, I think it's irresponsible of the Blue Planet Run organizers to have its runners using this road. A blown tire or a moment's inattention on the part of a Russian driver could turn quickly to tragedy. Here's an image of David running on one of the better parts of the M7. In many places, the shoulders aren't nearly this wide.

Barbara has taken the rest of the week off to paint and do other projects around the house. Today and the rest of the week are normal working days for me.

11:38 - I knew the runners were now running on rural roads, but I thought they'd be returning to the M7. Paul says not.

From: Paul Jones
  To: Robert Bruce Thompson
Date: Today 10:49:57
  Re: latest run

Update on the M7:  they haven't been on it for awhile.  The BPR folks realized their error pretty quickly and remedied it.

I'm sure Paul is relieved. I know I am. And I'm sure Mary is, along with the rest of the Blue Planet Run team.


Thursday, 5 July 2007
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11:28 - As expected, the dogs had a horrible time of it last night. Malcolm pretty much ignores thunder and fireworks that boom, at least if they're not too close, but nearby fireworks that pop and particularly those that whistle drive him nuts. He starts barking maniacally at them, and there's no way to shut him up. Meanwhile, Duncan, who turned 12 on 1 January, is terrified by thunder or any kind of fireworks. Here's Duncan after he somehow managed to wedge himself under my nightstand. Barbara put a pillow on his shoulders so that he could hide his head, but lifted it while I took this picture.

We weren't quite sure how he got in there, but we knew he wasn't getting out without our help. Apparently, when he headed for his dog bed, he just kept going until he was under the nightstand and then hung a right. I was worried that he'd stand up and knock the lamp off the night stand and end up with broken glass all around him. So we moved the lamp and the other stuff off the nightstand and just left him there. When the fireworks were over, we lifted the table straight up to allow Duncan to escape his cage.

I'm not sure what it is about Border Collies and thunder/fireworks. Every one we've had--and I've had at least one BC and usually more for nearly 50 years--has completely ignored loud noises until age 6 or so. After that, they suddenly decide that loud noises are a deadly threat and start acting terrified every time there's thunder or fireworks.

Which wouldn't be so bad, except that I'm afraid old guys like Duncan will injure themselves. During a thunderstorm the other day I couldn't find Duncan and went off in search of him. I finally found him in the shower in the master bath. Old Kerry was just as terrified. When he was about 15, a thunderstorm scared him. We found him wedged behind the toilet in the hall bath. We finally got him out, but I thought for a while that we would literally have to disassemble the toilet to free him.

13:37 - When it works the way it's supposed to, technology really is wonderful. Paul had more things to do this morning than he had time to do them, so he asked if I'd mind stopping over at their house at 9:00 to let in the guy who was installing the new tile floor in their kitchen. I helped the guy move the stove, refrigerator, and dishwasher back into the kitchen and reconnect them. Then I took off on the second part of my mission, taking a CARE package for Mary to the package shipping store.

Apparently, DHL is the most reliable at getting things to Russia. DHL phone support said it'd take "at least seven days" to get the package there. The first hotel Paul gave me was where Mary would be on 11 July, so that was a non-starter. Fortunately, he'd given me a second hotel address in Irkutsk, where Mary will be on 17 July, so that's where I sent the package. Paul said the package contained nonperishable foods and a bottle of contact lens solution, and to declare the value at $10. The package is about the size of a shoe box and weighs seven pounds (~ 3 kg). It cost $200 to ship, but I'm sure neither Paul nor Mary begrudges a cent of that. Apparently, some things are almost impossible to find in Russia.

I got home from these errands around 10:30 and immediately emailed Paul and Mary to let them know everything was fine at home and the package was on its way. About three minutes later, I got a phone call from Paul, who'd read my email on his cell phone after his meeting. We talked for a few minutes and then hung up. I checked my email and found a message from Mary in deepest Russia, thanking me for getting the package on its way to her. So, across 11 time zones and without much in the way of wires, we communicated almost as though we were in the same room. Technology really is amazing.


Friday, 6 July 2007
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09:46 - NBC says that people who fast-forward through commercials are just as valuable to the advertisers as people who watch the commercials in real time, and they have data to support their claim. NBC says that viewers who compress a 30-second commercial down to 1.5 seconds without sound are just as "engaged" as people who actually watch the full-length commercial. (Actually, they give one example where viewers are more "engaged", a 68 versus a 66, when watching the 1.5 second version than they are when watching the 30-second version.)

If all this is true, I have an obvious suggestion for NBC. Charge advertisers the going rate for a 30-second commercial, but compress it down to 1.5 seconds and strip out the sound before you run it. If you compress a 120-second commercial break down to 6 seconds, I promise you I won't fast forward. I won't even have time to reach for the remote.

In fact, doing it that way may be better for your advertisers. The other night, Barbara and I watched the final four episodes of Studio 60, which we'd recorded on our DVD recorder. When a commercial break started, I just pressed the commercial-skip button to jump ahead 30 seconds at a time. We saw perhaps 1/10 second of each commercial. Four button presses, and we were back to the show in about 5 seconds flat. That means that Barbara and I actually viewed about 0.4 seconds worth of commercials during each break, versus the 6 seconds we would have viewed with the method I suggest.

Everyone wins this way. We spend 15 times as long watching the commercials (6 seconds versus only 0.4 seconds), but the commercial breaks are over in only 6 seconds, about the same time it takes me to skip them manually, but without the manual effort. The advertisers should be happy, because we're "engaged" with their commercials (whatever that means) instead of skipping them entirely. Producers could make 60-minute shows that actually ran 59 minutes, and we'd be back to the good olde days, when a one-hour show had only one minute of commercials. Everyone wins.

Actually, I'm sorry to say, even the prospect of 1.5 second commercials wouldn't lure us back to commercial television. As I've said before, the whole concept of broadcast television is a dinosaur. The days when everyone watched the same three or four networks every evening are gone forever. Network programming is a numbers game, and quality shows can't make the numbers needed to retain a slot in the schedule, if they even make it on the air in the first place. I've watched quality programs like Studio 60, Firefly, Veronica Mars, and so on struggle to make the numbers necessary to retain their slots. It isn't going to happen. We're watching broadcast TV spiral down to the least common denominator. It will soon be only moronic reality programs, which are cheap to produce and draw numbers large enough to ensure they remain on the air.

But all of this is based on the assumption that slots are a rare and precious commodity. That was true when we had only three or four broadcast networks. It's no longer true, and never will be again. I remain convinced that the ultimate solution is to disintermediate the networks entirely, broadcast and cable, and have the producers sell directly to their fans. That's the only model that can succeed in today's environment, at least for those who want quality television programs. Think about it.

Ever since the Microsoft Xbox 360 shipped, there have been persistent reports of severe problems. I've seen estimated failure rates of between 15% and 25% of all units sold. Until now, Microsoft has denied that any widespread problems exist, attributing the reports to a vocal minority of Xbox 360s. Someone was lying, and now it's clear who. Microsoft is taking a $1.15 billion charge against earnings for its fiscal Q4, attributable to problems with the Xbox 360.

Some simple math gives us an idea of the scope of the problem. Microsoft has reportedly sold 11.6 million Xbox 360 consoles since their introduction in November 2005. Those consoles sell for between $299 and $479. Many buyers opt for the more expensive units, so let's assume an average selling price of $400. The gross margins are probably pretty low, so let's assume that Microsoft actually gets $350 on an average Xbox 360 sale. Simply dividing that cost into the charge they took obviously isn't valid because there are other costs associated, but it does give us some idea of the scale of the problem. Doing the math gives us 3,285,714 units, or about 28% of all units shipped. Even if you discount that somewhat, you still end up with a failure rate in the 20% to 25% range.

And those numbers seem likely based on other evidence. There have been numerous reports of people who've had multiple Xbox 360 failures, some of whom have had their units replaced five or more times, sometimes many more. If you accepted Microsoft's earlier numbers for failure rates, the likelihood of such multiple failures was astronomically small. On the other hand, if you accept a failure rate of 25%, those folks are merely unlucky. At a failure rate of 0.01, we assume that a guy who reports five units failing is either lying or has bad power or something, because (0.01)^5 makes it almost certain that something other than the unit itself is the problem. On the other hand, if one out of four units fails, the guy who has five units fail has just ended up on the wrong side of a 1024:1 bet.

A failure rate of 1% would be bad, 5% terrible, and 10% catastrophic. And it looks to me like the actual failure rate on the Xbox 360 is probably more than twice what I'd consider a catastrophic rate. To put that in perspective, I remember reading one time that the Yugo had an initial failure rate of about 1.5%. That is, about one out of 67 new Yugos simply didn't work, refusing to start or exhibiting other serious failures. That earned the Yugo a reputation as the worst automobile that had ever been foisted on the American car-buying public. And Microsoft has managed to make the Yugo look reliable.


Saturday, 7 July 2007
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09:36 - Maximum PC declares 2008 the Year of the Linux Desktop. Frankly, I'm never sure what this "year of" stuff means. For me, 2004 was the Year of the Linux Desktop, along with 2005, 2006, and 2007. For many of my friends, 2007 was their first Year of the Linux Desktop, or 2006, or 2005, or whatever. I know more than a few guys whose first Year of the Linux Desktop was back in the last century.

No one, even Microsoft, would deny that Linux has a huge presence in server rooms, and yet there was never a Year of the Linux Server. So why does there have to be a Year of the Linux Desktop? Linux is nibbling away at Windows market share. Every day, more people give up Windows and migrate to Linux. It's very difficult to get good market share numbers for an operating system that can be downloaded freely and requires no registration, but by most estimates Linux runs on significantly more desktop computers than OS X, and the numbers for Linux are growing fast.

With the exception of 3D gaming support, Linux now has everything it needs to be a mainstream desktop OS. Ultimately, the lack of 3D gaming support doesn't matter much, because only a very small percentage of people play 3D games on their computers. For those who do want 3D gaming, my advice is to take the extra money you would have spent to build or buy a PC capable of 3D gaming, and use it to buy a Wii gaming console. Then, buy or build yourself a general-purpose PC, install Kubuntu Linux on it, and have done with it. You'll spend less money overall, and you'll end up with a better PC and a better gaming environment.


Sunday, 8 July 2007
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15:06 - Barbara has finished painting, thank goodness. Both of the treat weasels have paint on them. Duncan has a few extra white places on his tail, which aren't particularly noticeable, but Malcolm has both white and light blue paint in his fur. If anyone comments on that, I'll just tell him that Malcolm is a blue merle Border Collie.

I fixed my main desktop system yesterday. For the past couple of months, the CPU cooler fan has been whining loudly when the system is under heavy load. Thinking perhaps things were clogged with dust, I popped the lid a month or so ago and blew out the dust. It didn't look bad, but there was some accumulation in the fins of the CPU cooler. I didn't think about it again until the other day, when I was doing something that put both cores under heavy load. The CPU fan started to whine again, so popped the lid to take a look.

This time, I didn't shut the system down before removing the lid, and the problem was immediately obvious. This system has only one case fan, and it wasn't spinning. I spun it gently with my finger, and it started spinning. I left the cover off, with a small table fan pointed toward the CPU cooler and drive bays. That'll take care of cooling until I have time to dig out a replacement fan from the stock room and install it. But with the field-expedient arrangement, things are pretty quiet once again, even with both cores loaded to nearly 100%.

Mary Chervenak isn't the only one of the Blue Planet Run team who's had GI problems, which was probably caused by eating fresh fruit and vegetables.

It occurred to me yesterday that Paul or I probably wouldn't have had the problems that Mary and the other runners have had. Like Barbara, Mary is a clean freak. Both of them wash a drinking glass or mug after (believe it or not) using it only once. Paul and I don't believe in washing our mugs too frequently. Here's picture of the large insulated mug that Babara got me back in 2004 (with a VW shown for comparison; I like large mugs.)

I was just thinking back over the last three years, trying to remember how many times I've washed that mug. It may be five times, but I think it's only four. Call it an average of one washing every 8 months or so. I sometimes wipe down the outside of the mug if it gets too sticky, but I try to avoid washing the inside. And at that I'm a clean freak compared to Paul. I don't think he ever washes his mug.

Paul and Mary didn't live together when they first got married. Paul had been hired by Wake Forest University here in Winston-Salem, while Mary was still doing post-doc work at a university in Canada. When Mary moved to Winston-Salem, she visited Paul's office at the university. She wanted some water, and Paul offered her his mug. When she filled it from the drinking fountain, she noticed that there were brown swirls in the water. Mary immediately made a solemn vow never to use any of Paul's drinking utensils.

Okay, the downside is that Paul and I have disgusting drinking habits. But the upside is that drinking from our mugs probably helps us produce lots of helpful antibodies.


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