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Week of 29 October 2001

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Monday, 29 October 2001

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8:01 - We're back. We had fun, but it was tiring. We left Winston-Salem Thursday morning, and arrived in Wilmington, North Carolina that afternoon. We checked into the hotel and relaxed for a while before heading over to a chop house for dinner. Friday morning we drove over to the conference, which was a mile or so from our hotel. It was held in a combination branch-library/convention facility that had originally been a supermarket. I didn't realize that until someone told me. They'd entirely renovated the place, but I'd have thought it was purpose-built.

We met Nicki Leone and her plucky crew when we arrived. Nicki is the manager of a local bookstore, and was responsible for organizing the event. She had a lot of help from volunteers, many of whom are librarians with the local system. This was their first attempt, and they did a superb job. I was shocked later to learn that none of them had even attended a mystery festival before. Perhaps it was beginner's luck, but they got this one right.

I was particularly impressed by the authors they managed to attract. I really expected it to be mostly local and regional authors, with perhaps a medium-big name or two. But they managed to draw some very big names, including Ridley Pearson (St. Louis), Peter Robinson (Toronto), Sue Henry (Alaska), Tamar Myers (South Carolina), and Jan Burke (California). If it weren't for scheduling conflicts, they would have had several others, including Sue Grafton, Elizabeth Peters, and others of their stature. Very big names, and more than one of them has had one or more books on the New York Times bestseller list. I was very impressed. These folks did a wonderful job of organizing things, especially since it was their first event.

Not that there weren't a few minor glitches. I wandered around a bit while Barbara stood in line to pick up our badges. When she got to the front of the line, they had her badge, but not one for me. No problem. They gave me a blank one and I put my name on it. I did notice that they had a badge for "Richard Thompson". I don't know of an author with that name, and wondered if that was really my badge. As it turned out later, it was, so I just wore both badges. At one point, one of the fans stopped me, pointed at my badge, and said "Richard Thompson! I loved your book!" I responded (what else could I say?), "Which one?"

Barbara and I pretty much each did our own thing during the convention proper. She attended several panels and workshops, including one on finding local research resources in which she was a member of the panel. I also attended some panels, and spent a fair amount of time hanging out in the hospitality suite for authors. I told them I was flying under false colors with my green author badge. That is, I wasn't really an author in their sense of the word because I wrote computer books rather than novels. Peter Robinson asked me what someone who writes computer books was called. "An author", I replied. "There you are, then", he said. They were as curious about the details of what I did as I was about what they did.

The panels started on the hour and usually let out about 10 minutes before the hour. We smokers all headed for the door each time, so I ended up getting to know several of the authors quite well. From early morning to late night on Friday and Saturday, even hour on the hour I'd spend ten or fifteen minutes smoking with Sue Henry, Kate Grilley, and several of the other authors.

They served a buffet dinner Friday night and Saturday night, which meant we actually spent the entire day from about 8:30 a.m until 9:30 p.m at the convention itself. Barbara and I had dinner with Jan Burke on Friday night, and Ridley Pearson on Saturday night. Given that both of them are best-selling authors, I think Barbara didn't expect them to be as approachable as "regular people". I figured they'd be regular people, and I was right. Success hasn't changed either of them for the worse, except that they're both incredibly busy. Both were on tight deadlines, and both sneaked back to their hotels for a couple hours here and there to get a bit more done on their manuscripts.

Here's how down-to-earth Ridley Pearson is. Saturday night, after Margaret Maron's keynote speech, things were winding down. Barbara was up front hugging Sue Henry and Kate Grilley good-bye. Not being a huggy-type person, I ambled toward the back of the room (where the exit was) and was standing next to Ridley waiting for Barbara to finish. The conversation went something like this:

Ridley: "Bob, you and Barbara are staying at the Hampton Inn, aren't you?"

Me:  "Yeah. Do you need a ride back?"

Ridley: "I'd really appreciate it. I've been walking back and forth between here and the hotel since Thursday, but I'm really beat tonight."

So we got out to Barbara's Trooper. The back seat was full of stuff--signed hardbacks we'd bought, coats, book bags, a drink cooler, and so on. There was also a telescope in a soft case that occupied the entire floor area of the back seat. Barbara told Ridley to ride up front, telling him that the back seat was full of junk. He refused to hear of it, and insisted that Barbara ride up front. (In case you're wondering, taxis aren't exactly thick on the ground in Wilmington, NC.)

So, Ridley not only didn't pitch a fit because he'd been left to walk the mile or so back and forth from his hotel a couple times a day, he'd not even mentioned it to the conference organizers. Contrast this with how some big-name authors behave. I could mention more than a few from personal knowledge who'd have thrown a hissy fit if the conference organizers didn't supply a limousine or if the bottle of single-malt scotch in the hotel room was the wrong brand. But here's Ridley bumming a ride back to the hotel because he didn't want to bother Nicki Leone, who had more important things on her mind. Or so Ridley thought. He is a class act.

So, in fact, were the other authors I met there. When I was sitting around talking with Nicki one time, I mentioned that I'd never seen a nicer group of authors. She told me that they'd intentionally avoided inviting authors who were reputed to be "difficult". I did suggest that for next year's event they assign a volunteer to each big name author to make sure their needs were taken care of, and also to assign an overall authors' ombudsman who'd be on-site at all times to help authors with anything they needed.

I arrived home to find 819 new email messages, despite having signed off several of the high-volume mailing lists I belong to. It took something like 10 minutes to download all my new mail, and this via a cable modem. I went through my inbox with fire and sword, so if you sent me email recently and haven't heard from me in the next few days, please send it again. I may have inadvertently deleted one or two real messages whilst killing all the spams. Ordinarily, a spam gets between a quarter- and a half-second of my attention as I'm deleting it. This time, I'm afraid it was more like a tenth-second each.

I also found a royalty statement from O'Reilly waiting for me, and the news is not good. The statement covers Q2, during which computer book sales in general had tanked, and ours were no exception. I really need to get the manuscript for the new edition completed and submitted, so I'm going to be working heads-down on that until I get it out the door. That means I'll have very little time to spend here or over on the messageboards.

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Tuesday, 30 October 2001

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9:46 - I finished the first draft of Chapter 26, Building a PC, yesterday. I haven't managed to get it to my editor yet, however. That chapter has nearly 50 photographs, which I embedded in the text so that tech reviewers and others could follow the chapter properly. The trouble is, the Word document is about 15 MB. That didn't' concern me too much. After all, I have cable modem and my editor has a high-speed Internet connection. But when I attempted to email the chapter to him, it just sat in my outbox for several minutes and then returned an error. I'm not sure if Outlook is choking on it or if Mercury (my SMTP server) can't handle a file that large. I tried several times with no joy before I finally emailed my editor to ask if he wanted me to FTP it up to O'Reilly's server or if he'd rather I post it in a private area on my server. Oh, well.

Today I'm working on Chapter 25, Designing a PC. That will incorporate much of the work I've done with test-bed systems and testing of components for the system guides on the web site, which is still down pending completion of the first draft of the new edition. I'll be blitzing that until it's finished. Of course, even once it's finished, it's not finished. There's a lot of work left to do with tech review, rewrite, and final updates before it goes to the printer. I finished the first draft of the first edition in June and it didn't hit the bookstores until mid-October. If that same schedule holds true for this edition, it probably won't hit the bookstores until next spring, by which time I'll be working hard on the third edition.

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Wednesday, 31 October 2001

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8:52 - I finally just posted the chapter in a secure area of my web site and sent my editor the URL and password. He got it downloaded successfully. But I did find out what might have been causing the problem. I did a mailing to a private distribution list later in the day, and it blew up on some bad addresses. That reminded me of the bad old days when I depended on the Roadrunner SMTP server. Sure enough, when I checked the headers on a message I'd CC'd to myself, it had gone out via the Roadrunner SMTP server. That seemed odd, because I distinctly remembered installing the Mercury SMTP server on meepmeep (my Internet gateway box). So I checked the Mercury log and found that it hadn't delivered any mail since 10/25. That was very odd, because our mail had been going out normally since then.

When I checked meepmeep, I found two problems. First, the Mercury install hadn't put the Mercury loader in the startup group, so each time the system is rebooted Mercury had to be started manually. I'd shut down our boxes while we were out of town. When I restarted them after we returned, Mercury wasn't running. That explained the lack of log entries, but not why our mail had continued to be delivered after Mercury was no longer running.

Then it struck me. I use WinGate, and it requires that all changes be saved manually. What had happened was that when I installed Mercury I deleted the TCP Mapping configuration in WinGate that mapped calls to Port 25 on the WinGate machine to the Roadrunner SMTP server. But I'd apparently forgotten to save those changes, so when I rebooted the system WinGate came back up in its original configuration, with the Port 25 mapping intact. So, in a case of one mistake canceling another, we still had SMTP service, albeit via Roadrunner.

So I moved a copy of the Mercury loader shortcut to the startup folder, reconfigured WinGate and saved the changes, and finally (just to be absolutely sure) rebooted meepmeep. Everything worked as expected, so we now have local SMTP service again.  Suspecting that the problem emailing a 15 MB attachment was caused by restrictions on the Roadrunner SMTP server, I was going to email my editor the chapter again. But he'd already gotten it from my web site, so I figured that'd be a bit gratuitous. Perhaps I'll email it to myself as a test.

Today I continue work on the Designing a PC chapter. Tonight is Halloween, and I suggested to Barbara that we set up a scope in our front yard for an impromptu public observation session. She nixed that idea. Barbara doesn't mind kids one at a time or in small numbers, but she doesn't like being surrounded by them. Neither do I, come to that. Luna is full tonight, and our friend Bonnie Richardson wants to shoot some photographs of the moon rising over Pilot Mountain. I talked to Barbara about it, and we decided we'd head up there as well. Conditions are to be about perfect, other than the fact that Luna is full, which pretty much rules out observing DSOs. Those aren't called "faint fuzzies" for nothing, and when the moon is up they're just about impossible to see. Still, the Pleiades will be high and Saturn will be up out of the muck by 9:00 or 9:30, so it won't be a wasted trip.

Barbara sends me the following, captioned "bin Laden escaping with his wife".

bin-laden-wife.jpg (69603 bytes)



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Thursday, 1 November 2001

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8:25 - Barbara and I went up to Bullington last night, as much to keep Bonnie Richardson company as anything else. The moon was full, and this was apparently the first time there'd been a full moon for Halloween in something like 50 years. Bonnie wanted to shoot some photos of Luna rising over the knob of Pilot Mountain, so we decided to do the same. Instead of using a camera connected to a scope, I just took Barbara's 35mm camera with a 400mm lens and a 2X extender. Instead of setting up a tripod, I just used the spare tire on the back of the Trooper as a mount.

Other than Luna, there wasn't much to see. Talk about light pollution. The full moon bleached out everything. It was literally bright enough to read a newspaper, with sharply defined moon shadows. Bonnie had three of her telescopes set up: her Celestron 8" SCT with the camera, her 80mm short-tube refractor, and her 127mm Orion Apex Mak-Cass. She was shooting 400 speed film, which meant that she was using 1/1000 second with her f/10 scope. It'll be interesting to see her results.

InfoWorld posted an interesting article about the performance differences between Windows 2000 and Windows XP. Basically, they conclude that XP is a pig. Windows 2000 outperformed XP, sometimes dramatically, in all their tests on uni-processor systems. XP did better on dual processor systems, but unless you have a dual 2.0 GHz Xeon, you'll probably see better performance if you stick with Windows 2000. I haven't tested XP yet, although I have it in-house, but these results don't surprise me. Yet another reason to avoid XP.

Something very strange is going on with Word 2000, and I didn't know if it was the program or something weird about the specific document. I was working yesterday on Chapter 25, Designing a PC, when Word went into Capslock-on mode. I've seen Capslock get out of synch before, such that I get all caps with the Capslock light off and normal text with it on, but this wasn't that problem. No matter how I toggled Capslock, I was getting all caps. So I saved the document, exited Word, restarted Word, and found everything was back to normal. I didn't think any more about it until the same thing happened a few minutes later.

This time, I exited Word and tried typing in Notepad, where everything was normal. My other programs also worked properly. So I fired up Word, created a blank document and started typing. No problem. Exited the blank document and called up the chapter. All caps again. Exited Word and rebooted the system. Restarted Word, and everything was normal. Once again, I figured the problem was solved, and once again it started happening again in a few minutes. Rebooted again, and the problem went away and appeared to be gone for good. Until, that is, I copied a bunch of text from one of my web pages and used Paste-Special to past it as unformatted text into the document. It displayed in all caps. Arrrrghhh.

At this point, I decided to try working on a different system. The Capslock problem didn't recur, but every time I tried to do a Paste-Special, the pasted text was in all caps. So it's obvious that this particular document is somehow cursed.

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Friday, 2 November 2001

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8:25 - Miracles do sometimes happen. The Register reports that that extreme rarity, an honest California appellate court, has ruled that DeCSS is protected on First Amendment grounds. The CCA (Copy Control Association) had gotten an injunction against DeCSS being distributed. The court ruled that, in source code form, DeCSS is protected expression. In practical terms, it doesn't make much difference to me. I've had a copy of the DeCSS source code since the day it was released. Everyone I know has a copy of the DeCSS source code. I don't expect I'll ever use my copy, because I don't watch DVDs. But it is nice that the California appeals court ruled in favor of our endangered Constitution at the expense of the monied interests who usually prevail.

Heh. Here's one that's going to drive the television industry nuts. SonicBlue is selling the ReplayTV 4000, the first digital video recorder with broadband connectivity. It requires a broadband connection and home network. What will drive the TV industry nuts is that it has built-in commercial-zapping and a facility that allows you easily to send recorded material to someone else who has a ReplayTV 4000. The unit comes in several variants that appear to differ only in disk storage, from a $700 40-hour unit to a $2,000 320-hour unit. That's a one-time cost, because there's no monthly (or lifetime) fee for service. They're taking pre-orders now for the "limited quantity" of units they'll make this year. They're supposed to ship on 11/15.

My guess is that this product is Linux-based and that the only difference between units is how big an IDE drive is installed. If that's the case, I suspect the 40-hour unit will be very popular, because a lot of people will buy it and stick in a cheap big IDE drive to convert it to a 320-hour unit. It'll be interesting to see how much difficulty is involved in doing that. If they've protected it in any way, I expect workarounds to appear on the Internet within days.

10:33 - Barbara has gotten in the regular habit of clearing out her cookies in Internet Explorer. The other day, she asked me how she could do the same thing in Opera. I had to tell her that I didn't know. Opera maintains a plain-text cookie file, but it's formatted oddly rather than using the standard CR/LF record delimiter typical of ASCII databases. I looked through Opera itself and couldn't find any cookie maintenance facility, which is a major gap. So I visited the Opera web site, which referred me to a third-party web site to download a cookie management utility. That works, but it's yet another executable to keep track of and is certainly not the optimum method for managing cookies. There's no reason why Opera shouldn't have such a facility built into the browser, and I'm not sure why they don't. Surely by version 5 they should have discovered the need for such a utility. Purging useless or potentially malignant cookies should be easy to do. Opera makes it very hard. 

And this from Swenson on the ReplayTV 4000.

-----Original Message-----
From: Jan Swijsen []
Sent: Friday, November 02, 2001 10:07 AM
Subject: realplay TV

I had a look at the picture of the inside ( It looks as if they used a nonstandard drive cable so maybe simply swapping the drive may be a bit difficult.

Can be done all right but it won't be a simple drop-in.


I had the same reaction you did when I looked at the photograph. Then the twisted wires made me think perhaps it was a SCSI interface, but there aren't enough wires for that. Counting the wires, I think what we're looking at is a serial ATA interface. If that's the case, it won't be long before you can buy a drop-in replacement hard drive.

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Saturday, 3 November 2001

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9:15 - I'd no sooner posted that information about the ReplayTV 4000 than more information started to roll in. The Big Three TV networks sued, claiming copyright infringement, and asked for an injunction against the device being distributed. What a bunch of weenies. It's already well established in law that (a) people have the right to record TV shows, (b) people have the right to zap commercials while watching what they've recorded, and (c) people have the right (under the Home Recording Act of 1992) to give copies of those recordings to friends for personal use.

Some have already commented that HRA/1992 didn't work as a defense for Napster, but that was an entirely different situation. With Napster, you were giving copies to "friends" you'd never met or spoken to. It was the "friends" who were initiating the transfer, so you didn't know who you were transferring the music to, or even necessarily that you were transferring it. Napster stretched the intent of the HRA/1992, to say the least. 

But the ReplayTV device in fact falls under HRA/1992 by any reasonable interpretation. The person who made the recording is initiating the transfer, and is transferring the material to a specific, designated individual, rather than publicly posting the material for download by anyone who wants it. Also, the transfers are by necessity retail rather than wholesale. Recording MPEG video requires about 1 GB per hour, so a typical movie will occupy about 2 GB of disk space. Transferring that movie via a broadband connection is much more resource-intensive than transferring MP3s. Typical broadband connections limit uploads to something in the 128 Kb/s to 256 Kb/s range, which means it may take literally a full day to transfer a movie. If anyone should be against the ReplayTV 4000, it's the ISPs, whose bandwidth will be sucked dry if these devices become popular.

And speaking of stupid copyright stuff, my friend John Mikol sent me a link to this page. Apparently, these people have copyrighted the "music" generated when you use a touch-tone telephone to dial a phone number, any phone number. They want $0.05 per call or a flat fee of $2,000 per year. John says he's converted to pulse dialing to avoid the licensing fees, but I pointed out that they may also have copyrighted the pulse music. After all, what's music is a matter of opinion. To a whale, that series of clicks might be a love song. I hope these people are kidding, but these days it's never safe to assume.

Spam of the week. I got one last night whose subject line read "Do you own a gas mask?". Well, yes I do. I also own a radiation survey meter, dosimeters, and other NBC protection equipment that you'll find in any well-stocked household. I want to buy an M1A1 Abrams Main Battle Tank with the HEPA filter option, but Barbara won't let me. I even tried pointing out the advantages of an M1A1 for commuting during rush hour, but my arguments fell on deaf ears.

But, man, what I could do with an M1A1 in traffic. Those old guys wearing hats and cruising in the left lane at 20 MPH under the speed limit would finally get what they deserved. I can see it now, cruising down the Interstate.

Me: Target! 12 o'clock. Old American car in the left lane. Range 400 metres. Speed 42 MPH. Loader, load HEAT.
Loader: Up!
Gunner: Target acquired!
Me: Fire!
Gunner: On the waaay!


It appears that a settlement in the Microsoft antitrust case is near. Basically, Microsoft gets everything they want and gives up almost nothing. Is anyone surprised?

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Sunday, 4 November 2001

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9:25 - Thanks to everyone who mailed me to say that the touch-tone song site was a joke. I figured that was the case, although I can't view their site because it requires ActiveX, which I have disabled. I can't believe that any webmaster still uses ActiveX. Actually, I'm surprised that that many of my own readers still have ActiveX enabled on their browsers. Talk about a gaping security hole waiting to be exploited.

Since I took the web site down for a revamp, I've been getting several messages a day asking when it would be back up. I decided it would be easier just to bring it back up, even though it's a work-in-process, than to continue answering the queries. So it's back up, although there's still not a lot there yet. I'll be adding new pages frequently over the next few weeks, as I have time to get to them. In the interim, there'll be lots of 404 errors. I know about those missing pages, so you don't need to tell me about them.

Barbara was at a Border Collie trial all day yesterday. I took some time off to just lie around and read. Barbara arrived home before 5:00, well in time for the arrival of our friend Sue Stephens at 6:00. We all went out for Chinese and then came back and set up the refractor in the front yard to view Luna and Saturn. Well, originally we were set up in the front yard, but there was a tree in the way. Ordinarily, we'd just have waited until Luna and Saturn rose above the tree, but Sue had had a long day and planned an early night. So we picked up the scope and moved it into our neighbor's front yard. That house is vacant, so that presented no problems. We still couldn't get Luna and Saturn except through a tree, so we picked up the scope and wandered down the street with it. We finally found a good spot, right in the middle of the street, so we set up there, keeping our fingers crossed that there wouldn't be too much traffic. There wasn't, and we were able to observe Saturn and Luna for some time before Sue decided to call it an evening.

Someone on one of my mailing lists reported that there was an occultation of Saturn by Luna last night. We missed that, because it was visible only from Europe and Northern Asia, but there is another one coming up in the early evening of November 30th that's visible here. We'll be ready for that one. Planetary occultations are fairly rare. A lot of people with 10, 20, 30 or more years of observing experience have never seen one. We hope the weather will co-operate for the one on November 30. We're in the "good" part of the year for clear skies here, so there's a good chance we'll be able to see it.

There's a lot of other good stuff in the sky this month, too. Comet LINEAR (C/2000 WM1) will be up all month, and may approach naked-eye visibility late in the month. The Forsyth Astronomical Society and SciWorks have a public observation scheduled for the 10th at Pilot Mountain, when there will be no moon. The November public observation usually draws a pretty good crowd, so Barbara and I will be up there with our Dob. The new moon occurs the 15th, so we'll have only a sliver of moon for the Leonids meteor shower in the early morning hours of the 18th. This should be the most impressive meteor shower in 35 years, with projected counts in the hundreds or even thousands of meteors per hour. I expect there'll be a meteor every 5 to 10 seconds, which is an impressive fireworks display. Most people will probably miss the Leonids, alas, because the shower starts around 0300, peaks around 0500, and finishes by 0700. Barbara may be one of the ones who misses it. She's not really happy about the idea of getting up at 0200 and driving to Pilot Mountain. There's an even more impressive second shower, but that'll not be visible from the US. And, finally, the asteroid 4 Vesta is tooling around Aldebaran in the Hyades, and will approach naked-eye visibility (6.5) late in the month.

And, of course, the gas giants are high in the evening now, as is mighty Orion the Hunter. It's going to be a good month for observing.


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