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Week of 28 July 2008


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Monday, 28 July 2008
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08:36 - We made a Costco run yesterday, taking Paul and Mary along as guests. Between our stuff and their stuff, we had Barbara's Trooper packed pretty full for the return trip. They decided not to join Costco, because they'd end up making a run only every few months. We told them they were welcome just to tag along with us whenever they needed to stock up again.



It appears that serious, widespread problems may be developing with nVIDIA graphics cards. The original spin from nVIDIA was that only a small number of notebook GPUs were affected, and only those used in some HP notebooks. Charlie Demerjian says that's wrong. According to Charlie, all nVIDIA G84 and G86 GPUs--mobile and desktop--suffer from a design/production flaw, and are doomed to premature failure.

Events seem to confirm what Charlie is saying. Dell now says that some of its notebooks are affected, and now desktop part vendors have begun demanding a recall as well. There have also been many reports of premature failures from users of other brands of notebooks, including Apple, that use the G84/G86 chipsets. The only "fix" for notebooks appears to be installing a patch that causes the notebook fan to run more or less continuously. Obviously, that kills battery life. Furthermore, according to Charlie, the patch isn't a fix at all. It's aimed at merely delaying failure until the units are out of warranty.

If Charlie is correct, and it appears to me that he is, installing the patch is a sucker bet. With the patch installed, your notebook has only a fraction of its normal battery life and is very noisy. The GPU may last a bit longer before it fails, although it seems likely that we'll start seeing many more cases of premature fan failure. Presumably, the vendors hope the extra cooling will allow the GPU to live just long enough to take the system out of warranty.

I don't have any video cards or embedded video based on the G84 or G86 chipset. If I did, I wouldn't install the patch. Instead, I'd beat the hell out of the GPU, hoping to uncover the problem while my GPU was still in warranty. Before the warranty ended, I'd call the vendor's tech support line, report a GPU failure, and demand a replacement.

And if I held any nVIDIA stock, I'd sell it now. Best case, it looks like nVIDIA is going to take a severe beating. Worst case, the cost of warranty replacements may kill the company. Unfortunately, the only real alternative for 3D graphics is ATi, which is owned by AMD. AMD has serious financial problems of its own. It's not out of the realm of possibility that in a couple of years we may all find ourselves running integrated Intel graphics from lack of any alternative.


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Tuesday, 29 July 2008
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08:40 - Thanks to everyone who emailed me to tell me that Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments has been chosen by Cool Tools as the Best home chemistry lab book.

I confess that somehow I hadn't heard of Kevin Kelly or the Cool Tools site until now. My editor tells me that Cool Tools is "the current bearer of the Whole Earth Review torch". Obviously, this site has considerable clout, because the Amazon.com rank for the book has been in the middle three-figure to very low four-figure range since the article appeared on Cool Tools.

I intend to spend some time browsing that site and reading Mr. Kelly's other recommendations.



A $33 million mistake.

Yesterday morning I tried Cuil, supposedly a potential Google killer. I spent five or ten minutes doing various searches. If my results are any indication, Google has nothing to worry about.

The first search was for "Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments" with quotes. Cuil returned zero results. Okay. I tried it without the quotes. Cuil found ... zero results. So I typed in "Robert Bruce Thompson" with quotes. Cuil claimed to have found 61,109 results. The first page was bizarre. It had results for several of my books listed and it had cover images of several of my books. Unfortunately, the two were completely out of sync.  The first hit was for Illustrated Guide to Astronomical Wonders, but it had an image (not the cover image) from the chemistry book. Another hit for PC Hardware in a Nutshell had the cover image from Astronomy Hacks. Another hit for PC Hardware in a Nutshell, this one in Spanish, had an image of what appeared to be a castle of some sort. And another Spanish entry from AddALL.com had a picture of some bald guy with a beard that I've never seen before. And one result was, I'm pretty sure, in Portuguese, but with a cover image of the Russian-language version of one of my books. Then there was the hit in German with an image of a random group of people I've never seen before. Geez.

So then I tried a bunch of other searches, pretty much randomly. I searched for "Brian Bilbrey" and found only a few hits that referred to very old pages, messages he'd posted on mailing lists, and so on. The one for "Jerry Pournelle" wasn't much better. Nor was the search for "ammonium metavanadate" or "Becke line".

So I searched for "Mary Chervenak". Here's one of the hits, which shows how badly Cuil matches hits to images. The image appears to be a cover shot for an album by Paul Jones and Dave Kelly. Mary is in fact married to a Paul Jones, but not this Paul Jones (unless her Paul Jones, who's an organic chemistry professor at Wake Forest University, is hiding something from all of us.)


If you want a search engine that ignores recent pages in favor of really old pages, ignores relevant pages in favor of irrelevant pages, ignores English pages in favor of pages in other languages, and has linked images that bear no relation to the entry, Cuil.com is the one to use. Otherwise, you're much better off sticking with Google.


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Wednesday, 30 July 2008
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08:12 - We had dinner yesterday at Dioli's with Paul and Mary. It's an Italian deli that focuses more on take-out than sit-down dining. There are raised stools and a counter around the perimeter of the place, and one table in the center that seats a dozen people. Just after we sat down to eat, one of the staff came over and asked if we minded if he sat at the table with us to have his dinner. We welcomed him and Mary started talking to him. He's in college, majoring in sustainable technologies. I told him that Mary was too modest to mention that she'd run around the world last year to support sustainable water systems, so I would. Mary said she'd forgotten about it.



My den system was dead this morning. I figured we'd had a short power outage, but when I powered the system back up it displayed a message that it had shut down because of a processor thermal event. It's the BTX system that we built about two years ago for the second edition of Building the Perfect PC, and I'm not surprised that it overheated.

It's been sitting there on the floor for two years, sucking in dog hair. I've tried to clean it out a couple of times, but I could do only a superficial job. The BTX air duct covers the CPU heatsink/fan, and there's no access without completely disassembling the system. There's probably enough dog hair in there to build a new dog.

As I sat there debating with myself about tearing the thing down to clean it out versus dropping in a different system in its place, I realized that now was a good opportunity to connect up the Mac Mini system that Brian Jepson, my editor at O'Reilly, sent me on long-term loan. He bought a newer Mac Mini to replace this one, which is one of the original PPC models. The Ethernet port stopped working, so Brian sent along a USB Ethernet dongle. The system has only its original 256 MB of RAM, but that's easy enough to upgrade. IIRC, there's only one DIMM slot, but I can drop in a 512 MB or 1 GB DIMM to replace what's in there.

Barbara will be happy, because that BTX system has always been loud. And getting it running will give me a chance to try the Mac for editing the camcorder videos we've been shooting. I'll probably wait until this weekend to get it all set up.


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Thursday, 31 July 2008
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08:52 - Usually, I wake up when Barbara's alarm goes off at 6:50 a.m. This morning, I managed to sleep through that as well as Barbara taking her shower and playing ball with the dogs as she read the paper and had breakfast. I didn't wake up until 8:00 when she came back to get dressed for work.

I'm still computerless in the den. We missed the computer last night while we watched Delderfeld's To Serve Them All My Days. Usually, I keep the IMDB page for whatever we're watching up on the screen so that I can answer Barbara's questions like "what else have we seen him in?"

On the forensics book, I'm currently working on the glass and plastic analysis chapter, which I hope to finish today or perhaps tomorrow. There are only four lab sessions in that one, which makes it go faster. I'll start another chapter this weekend, but I'm also going to block out some time to get the Mac Mini installed and working in the den. Brian suggested I upgrade the memory from the stock 256 MB to 512 MB or 1 GB, but I think I'll try it with 256 MB first. Upgrading the memory involves using a putty knife to pry off the cover, which makes me a bit nervous. I don't want to break a system that belongs to someone else.



10:00 - I just noticed a couple of articles on FoxNews: Memo to Barack Obama: It's the Christians Stupid! and Memo to John McCain: It's the Christians Stupid!. The author is apparently a Christian nutter trying to convince the two major-party candidates for President of the United States that they should both pander to the wishes of fundamentalist Christians.

In reality, of course, neither of them should do that. For Obama, it doesn't matter. They'll all vote for McCain no matter what Obama says or does. For McCain, it doesn't matter, either. They'll all vote for him no matter what he says or does. Even though they hate McCain, they're about as likely to vote for Obama as they are to vote for Satan.

The author of these articles is living in a dream world in more ways than one. He claims that 84% of Americans are Christian, and 47% are evangelicals or born-again Christians. Give me a break. It's a small fraction of that even right here in the Bible Belt.

Right after I read the articles, I took the dogs for a walk. As I did so, I totaled the religious practices of the homes we passed, at least for those for whom I knew their religious practices. Our next door neighbors to one side are fundamentalist Christians, Southern Baptists. The whole family goes to church every week, if not more often. Mary, Kim's mother and Jasmine's grandmother, attends church every week, but Kim and Jas do not. That was about it. Of ten houses, that totaled one with four regular churchgoers and one in which one of the three people who lives there is a regular churchgoer. That's five people out of more than 30. Call it 15%. And that's in the Bible Belt.

My impression is that there aren't many Christians in this country, at least if you define Christians by their church-going habits. Congregations are shrinking, and have been for at least 50 years. Churches have been consolidating and closing all that time. Catholics can't get enough priests or nuns to keep their facilities staffed. I remember reading one time that nuns in the US averaged something like 58 years old and that something like three nuns died for every new nun they were able to recruit. Also, although obviously there are exceptions, the average churchgoer is elderly and getting older. Other than weddings and funerals, I haven't attended church very often in my 55 years, but some of those who do tell me that congregations are indeed shrinking and aging every year.

Of course, it's possible that 84% of Americans are Christian, if you set the bar low enough. My parents took me to church when I was small. Does that make me a Christian? Hardly. Barbara and I got married in a church, although I came close to strangling (literally) the minister during pre-marriage counseling. Does that make me Christian? No way. Nor Barbara, who's spent Sunday mornings for the last 40 years or so playing golf with her father. Two of our good friends got married in a Catholic church to make her parents happy. They also attend mass at Christmas and Easter. Neither of them believes in god. Do they count as Christians? I don't think so.

And here's another interesting factoid. Few ministers or priests actually believe in god. They stand up and preach every Sunday, but are they Christians? Not by any reasonable definition. And there is probably a larger proportion of atheists among the Jesuits than among the general population, but I'm sure most people count Jesuits as Christians.

Obviously, evangelical Christians make up only a fraction of those few regular churchgoing Christians. They make a lot of noise, certainly, but there just aren't that many of them. So why would any politician pander to them?


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Friday, 1 August 2008
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08:28 - The start of a new month and, as usual, I'm not where I wanted to be. The forensics book is progressing well, but not as quickly as I'd hoped it would. Still, I should finish up another lab chapter today or tomorrow and then start another.



Yahoo is doing the right thing, offering people who purchased DRM'd music tracks from them a choice of coupons that can be exchanged for DRM-free tracks or a direct refund. I'd like to think that Yahoo planned to do this all along, but I suspect the cries of outrage prompted their decision.



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Saturday, 2 August 2008
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Sunday, 3 August 2008
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