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Week of 11 February 2008


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Monday, 11 February 2008
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08:25 - Other than some time off this weekend working on household projects, I've spent the last couple of days working on the teacher's guide for the home chem lab book. There are several dozen lab sessions in the book, and each session concludes with anything from two or three to six or seven review questions. I'll publish the answers to those questions in a teacher's guide as a PDF, which has to be available by the time the book hits the stores.

I realize now that I should have taken notes as I went along to remind me what I was thinking. Many of the questions are easy to answer, for me if not necessarily for readers, but some of them are kind of subtle or open-ended, and it's for those that I wish I'd kept notes. For example, I might ask for two or three alternative methods to accomplish something, so each time I encounter such a question I have to think it through completely. I'm always worried that I'll overlook something that I'd thought of at the time I wrote the question.

Once I finish the teacher's guide, I'll ask Mary and Paul to read it to catch any errors I've made as well as to suggest additional material. With them reviewing it, it's unlikely that any gross errors or omissions will slip through.

I'm still working on scripts for the videos, as well as a series of supplemental lab sessions that'll be available in PDF form. And I'm working on the home forensics lab book as well. My to-do list is not a pretty sight. It'll be nice when I can finally mark some of these items as done.


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Tuesday, 12 February 2008
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09:06 - I'm still working on the teacher's guide. I did find out one nice thing about OpenOffice.org. I wanted this document to have a "live" table of contents via hyperlinks in the document, or, alternatively, a TOC in the left pane of the PDF display. OOo allows me to insert bookmarks in the document at the top of each section. I'm making a TOC list starting on page 2 of the document, and OOo allows me to make each of the entries in the TOC a hyperlink to the corresponding bookmark. On the Save-As PDF option in OOo, there's a checkbox that if marked saves structure information with the PDF. With that checkbox enabled, the PDF that OOo produces indeed makes the TOC live, so that clicking on any entry immediately jumps to the corresponding section of the document. Very nice.


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Wednesday, 13 February 2008
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08:03 - I keep reading articles about people's laptops and other personal electronics being searched by customs agents when they attempt to enter the United States. Some people have even had laptops confiscated, and despite promises that they'd be returned within a few weeks (which is certainly bad enough) at least one person's laptop is still in the possession of the feds a year after it was confiscated.

Despite the fact that it's clearly a violation of the Fourth Amendment, no one seriously questions the right of customs agents to do physical searches of people and material entering the US. Making sure there are no drugs or explosives concealed in a laptop is one thing, but these searches go further. Customs agents are looking at the contents of the hard drives in laptops, and attempting to compel people who have password-protected their data to give up those passwords. That's simply unacceptable, Constitutionally and otherwise. Furthermore, there are reports that people's audio players are being examined for "pirated" music. Jesus. Even the Gestapo didn't concern themselves with copyright violations.

If I were traveling outside the US, which I don't plan to do other than possibly a one-way trip if and when things become entirely unacceptable here, I wouldn't carry a laptop or other personal electronics. Instead, I'd zip up my data with strong encryption and upload it to my web server. When I reached my destination, I'd rent or borrow a laptop, download my data from my server, work with it as needed, upload any changes to the server (after encrypting the files), do a secure wipe on the data I'd put on the laptop, and return it to reclaim my deposit.

If for some reason I absolutely had to carry a laptop across the border into the US, I'd use steganography to conceal any important data in innocuous digital camera vacation images or camcorder files. They can't find it if they don't know it's there.



I see that Obama is kicking Clinton's ass, not that it'll ultimately matter. The bad news for the Democrats is that they have two possible candidates, neither of whom is electable. The good news for the Democrats is that they have a third candidate, John McCain, who is a center-left Democrat in everything but name. It looks like, as usual, come November we'll have no real choice at all.


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Thursday, 14 February 2008
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00:00 - Microsoft has launched a new FUD attack, this one threatening jail time for teenagers who download software, music tracks, and other copyrighted material illegally. They've done a survey that purports to show that teenagers' downloading activity can be curtailed merely by educating them about copyright law. Yeah, right.

Microsoft surveyed about 500 middle-school and high-school kids to determine their attitudes about downloading copyrighted files. They then "educated" the kids about copyright law and questioned them to determine what effect that "education" had had. There are some problems with their methodology, though. First, as everyone knows, people lie on surveys. A more accurate figure for the percentage of kids who trade software and music would be, I estimate, 100%. Second, consider the makeup of the group they surveyed. All of them are school kids, who are constantly conditioned to listen to what they're told and then regurgitate the expected answers on tests. So, after Microsoft "educated" these kids, the kids knew exactly what the expected responses were. Not surprisingly, many of them gave those expected responses on the follow-up survey. What's surprising to me is that so few of them gave the expected responses. I estimate that, after being "educated", the percentage of those kids who will continue to trade software and music files illegally is about 100%.

As adults, I think it's our responsibility to teach children about what's illegal and what's morally wrong, and the difference between those two concepts. For actions that are illegal but not morally wrong, such as trading music files, we need to teach kids an important lesson. How to do it without getting caught. That can be as simple as explaining to them the dangers of p2p networks and teaching them to use safe alternatives such as darknets. And, of course, encouraging them to abandon Windows and other proprietary commercial software in favor of Linux and other OSS alternatives.



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Friday, 15 February 2008
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08:20 - We survived the Great Blizzard of 2008. Here's what our front yard looked like Wednesday evening, just as the snow was starting to fall heavily.


The dogs had a good time with the snow while it lasted. Duncan makes what Barbara calls snow paws, spreading his toes out to make his feet about twice the normal size. Then, when he comes indoors, he has to chew and lick his paws to get rid of the ice between his toes. Malcolm likes to do his snow plow routine. He lowers his head to bury his snout in the snow and then runs across the yard, plowing a furrow in the snow.

When I took them for their first walk yesterday morning, I took them off-leash for the first time in a long time. There was an inch or two of snow on the ground and a lot of black ice on the pavement, so the law be damned. I wasn't about to try to hold onto two 70-pound dogs who were both using four-paw drive.

By yesterday afternoon, most of the snow had disappeared and by evening the only sign that remained was a few small forlorn piles of snow in shady areas. Today's high is to be 61F (16C). So much for the Great Blizzard of 2008.



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Saturday, 16 February 2008
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09:27 - Barbara and I are taking a break from cleaning out my office.

It's a little-known fact that my office almost made it into Greek mythology. Among his Twelve Labors, Herakles was offered a choice: "Do you want to clean Thompson's Office or the Augean Stables?" Unfortunately, that day my office was really a mess. Herakles picked the Augean Stables and my office missed its chance to become a part of Greek mythology.


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Sunday, 17 February 2008
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09:46 - My office still isn't completely cleaned out, although there's now literally a couple hundred pounds (call it 100 kilos) of stuff sitting in the library awaiting trash collection and Goodwill. I'll have more stuff for Goodwill when we get to my workroom, including scanners, printers, CRT monitors, PCs (less their hard drives), and so on. The PCs are mostly Pentium 4s and Athlon 64s, typically with 512 MB or 1 GB of RAM and almost no time on them, although there's probably a dual-core system or two in there as well.

We didn't get the cleanup done in one day, as Herakles did, but on the other hand I didn't run a river through my office, either.


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