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Week of 27 October 2003

Latest Update : Friday, 31 October 2003 22:22 -0500

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Monday, 27 October 2003

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7:57 - My warning about Mandrake 9.2 destroying some LG Electronics optical drives apparently was quite timely. I got mail from people who had planned to install Mandrake 9.2 over the weekend until they read my warning. I also got some new subscribers as a result of that post, including one gentleman who wanted to send me $100 (!) in return for saving him some serious aggravation. I appreciated the thought, but a regular or patron subscription is sufficient. His email follows, anonymous per his request:

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Mandrake 9.2
Date: Sat, 25 Oct 2003 19:27:33 -0400
From: Anonymous
To: Robert Bruce Thompson

I always end up in the slowest line in the supermarket or bank. When the airline security weenies choose people for random checks they always choose me. I get called for jury duty more often than any three other people I know. I'm so used to getting screwed that it suprises me when something goes right. Thanks to you something went very right today.

I downloaded the Mandrake 9.2 ISO's and was going to install them this evening. As I burned the ISO's to CDR disks I was checking websites to pass the time. It must have been fate because I read your article about Mandrake 9.2 killing CDROM drives about a minute before I would have booted the Mandrake 9.2 install disk on my old Dell PC. 

I have been reading your site almost everyday for two or three years now. I am ashamed that I never considered sending you a subscription payment even though this is not the first time that something you wrote about saved me time and money. I really have been freeloading all thsi time and its time I did something about that. I was going to send you $100 by Paypals but I didn't know if they have ripoff charges like credit cards so I thought you might prefer a check. Let me know which you prefer and I will get it done tonight.

Keep up the good work.

Thanks for the kind words. I'm glad you didn't destroy your drive.

As far as freeloading, I don't think about it that way and I don't want my readers to, either. I very much appreciate that my subscribers are willing to donate their hard-earned money to help defray the costs of running my sites, but I really don't think of people who haven't chosen to subscribe as freeloaders. I prefer to think of them as potential future subscribers.

As to sending $100, that's entirely unnecessary. The regular subscription is $24/year and the Patron subscription is $36/year. Either of those is sufficient, and check or PayPal is fine.

There's more information now about the LG problem. Apparently, the problem exists only with some models of LG CD-ROM drives and at least one LG DVD-ROM drive. LG CD burners are unaffected as best I can determine. Note that LG (Lucky Goldstar) CD-ROM drives have been resold under numerous brand names and are used in many OEM systems from Dell, HP, IBM, and other manufacturers.

At this point, it's unclear if Mandrake will post modified ISO images to correct the problem. According to Mandrake, the 9.2 boxed sets have already been produced and gone into distribution, so it's very likely that the problem will exist for any copies of 9.2 bought at retail.

There's a lot of finger-pointing going on. Some people blame Mandrake, and others are just as certain that it's LG's fault. I think both companies have some responsibility, LG for producing drives that can easily be damaged by a software command, and Mandrake for insufficient testing before release. Contrary to what a lot of Mandrake supporters are arguing, it's quite common for hardware to be vulnerable to damage by software (just try updating your motherboard BIOS with the wrong binary). 

But the problem with the LG drives is two-fold. First, that taking an action that harms the drive is so trivial to accomplish. Second, that the drive is physically damaged rather than just render non-functional. For example, if I updated the firmware in one of my Plextor drives with the wrong binary, it'd stop working. But all I'd have to do is re-run the update with the correct binary and it'd start working again. In the case of the LG drives, the drive is actually damaged. Once it's dead, it's dead. You can't simply re-install the correct firmware to fix the problem.

Speaking of subscribers, things are going to be a bit sparse around here for non-subscribers for the next several months. I'm starting a new book project with short deadlines, so much of what I write will be private email to subscribers and updates of the subscribers' web page. Things that have to do with the book.

I'll continue to update this site, but things are likely to be short and sporadic.

11:23 - Geez. CNN is running a feature article about Randall van der Woning's Big White Guy (BWG) blog. You might remember him from the Kaycee mess (in which he was an innocent victim). According to the article, BWG stands out among bloggers because in the five years he's been running his blog he's had 2,000,000 visitors, or an average of 400,000 a year. I just checked my stats. During the last 12 months, I've had about 628,000 visitors, and I consider my sites to be low-traffic personal sites. I've been pulling similar numbers of visitors for at least the last three years, so my sites are well over 2 million visitors total. During the last 12 months, Jerry Pournelle's site pulled in about 1.7 million visitors, and I'd guess that in the five years he's been running his journal he's pulled in at least 5 million total visitors. So, while 2 million visitors is significant, it's certainly not unusual. If CNN thinks that's a high-traffic blog, they need to do some re-thinking.

Thanks to everyone who's sending in new subscriptions and renewals. I'm going to batch them up and process them toward the end of the week so they'll have November 2004 expirations.


Tuesday, 28 October 2003

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{Five Years Ago Today]

9:12 - The issue of Mandrake 9.2 destroying some LG Electronics optical drives apparently has been resolved. The problem was indeed caused by LG Electronics. Briefly, the ATAPI command set includes the FLUSH_CACHE command, which is meaningful only for writable drives. A read-only drive, like the affected LG CD-ROM drives, should simply do nothing when it receives that command. A writable drive, like a CD-RW drive, should respond to the command. Accordingly a kernel patch intended to support packet-writing used the FLUSH_CACHE command to test a drive to determine what what functions it supported, which is allowable within the ATAPI specification.

Unfortunately, LG used the FLUSH_CACHE command in violation of ATAPI specifications to support the UPLOAD_FIRMWARE function. As a result of this error, when it received the FLUSH_CACHE command, an affected LG CD-ROM drive overwrote its own firmware with whatever data followed the FLUSH_CACHE command, leaving itself dead short of being returned to the factory for repair.

This Mandrake page has the full story. You can download the Mandrake kernel patches here.

OnStream has died, again. When OnStream tape drives first shipped, I recommended them as an inexpensive solution for those who needed a fast, quiet, high-capacity tape drive. Alas, the company went bankrupt in 2001, although it was bailed out by its Dutch parent company. I just learned this morning that OnStream again went bankrupt in late April 2003. This time, even their website is down. For the time being, you can download OnStream software, firmware, drivers, and manuals from this site. If you have an OnStream tape drive and intend to continue using it, I suggest you get them while you can.

If you intend to keep using an OnStream drive, it'd probably also be a good idea to buy some spare tapes while they're still available. But I don't recommend that. It's never a good idea to use an orphaned product for something as important as backing up your data. If you do that, you're liable to find yourself scrambling one day to replace a drive that's failed at the worst possible moment. If you're using an OnStream tape drive for casual backup of a desktop system, I recommend replacing the tape drive with either a Travan tape drive or a DVD writer. For a SOHO server, I recommend replacing the OnStream drive with a Travan tape drive.

OnStream failed, twice, for the same reason that other companies that depended on the King Gillette model failed. Giving away the razor and selling the blades is an excellent business model, but only if you can be reasonably certain that people who buy your razor are going to buy a lot of blades. Companies like OnStream (and SyQuest before them) are invariably too optimistic about the number of blades they're going to sell. I remember talking to an OnStream contact soon after they started shipping their DI-30 tape drives. I asked her how many tapes they expected people to buy. She said they thought the average drive purchaser would buy six tapes initially and more over the life of the drive. I should have known then that OnStream was doomed.

What really happens, of course, is that people buy a few tapes and then use them over and over. I know one guy who bought a Travan TR-4 tape drive that came with a bundled tape. That's years ago, and he's never bought any more tapes. He just backs up over and over again to that one tape. That's an extreme example, obviously, but his behavior is closer to the norm than what the OnStream person expected. The moral is that if you're going to sell a drive that uses proprietary media, you'd best make certain that you at least break even on the drive because you're not going to make anywhere near the profits you expect from selling the media.

15:51 - Autumn weather doesn't usually arrive this early in Winston-Salem, but today has been a definite autumn day, and late rather than early autumn. The high temperature today has struggled to reach 48 F (9 C), when normally we'd expect highs around 70 F (21 C). Also, with 100% humidity, an occasional drizzle, and a sustained 8 MPH (13 KPH) wind, it feels even cooler than it is. The first time I took the dogs out this morning, I wore a flannel shirt. That wasn't enough, so I came back in and put on a winter jacket. If this keeps up, we may use the fireplace for the first time this year.

This from long-time reader Rob Megarrity:

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Tape Drives & Backup
Date: Wed, 29 Oct 2003 04:58:12 +1000
From: Megarrity
To: Robert Bruce Thompson

Hi Bob,

Hope you don't mind my occasional observations on computing matters. I do find your opinions helpful and will probably become a contributor eventually. I'm not sure how "PayPal" works e.g. from Australia, so I would probably opt for a cheque (like the "freeloader" who is coming in from the cold after the Mandrake LG issue!). Your Snail-Mail address?

My experience with tape drives in the SOHO environment is that they are almost always not used correctly. Whatever tape regime is used, it becomes such an ingrained task that, over time, nobody is quite sure what is being backed up, let alone what to do if a restore is required. Also, quite often a legacy tape unit stops working and a suitable replacement is hard to find. -I wouldn't be happy with a tape backup system unless a spare drive was available, maybe even a spare computer so that a test restore could be carried out. (Losing a few files would be bad; overwriting the whole system with junk would be worse!)

A very sad example was a school admin. office which had been religiously "backing up everything to tape" for the last 4 years. Since a test run took only a couple of minutes, I became suspicious and looked at the files on the tape; you guessed it, the C:\WINDOWS folder had been used as a test backup and nothing else had ever been added to the schedule.

I think that I have only ever sold 1 tape drive. That customer was fairly switched on and I set everything up for them; recently, however, I found that a financial program (QuickenW) had taken upon itself to save to a spare hard drive which was not backed up to tape. This is one to watch out for... some programs "helpfully" change their default data directory, even if you are simply browsing some old data.

I have no idea whether PayPal works at all from Australia. Many of my subsribers here in the US send checks anyway. The address is on the Subscribe page.

Your points about tape are well taken. It's up to someone who knows what he's doing to set things up properly and then just hope it gets done as often as it should. I'm facing that situation right now with my sister-in-law's system. I need to get them set up to backup to CD-Rs. Part of that will be organizing their data in one place (I can't figure out why Mozilla Mail stores mail in a hidden directory!) and part will be establishing a very simple procedure to do the backup at the press of a button.



Wednesday, 29 October 2003

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11:15 - Things are a bit hectic around here. My agent emailed me late yesterday afternoon to say that O'Reilly had made an offer on the new book. I'll talk to him this morning about what to counter-offer, but it looks like we're close enough that the book is as close to a done deal as it can be until a contract is actually signed. That means I'll be working heads-down for the next few months, so updates here will tend to be short and sporadic. As usual, I'll keep my subscribers posted on what I'm doing via private posts on the subscribers' page and email to subscribers.

Among other things, I have what Jerry Pournelle calls "sanity checks" to do for author friends. Each month, as Jerry sends me iterations of his column from first draft to final, I read them and send back annotated copies. That's coming up in the next few days, so I have to budget some time for it. I'm also doing a sanity check on one of Carola Dunn's forthcoming Daisy Dalrymple mysteries. I made it through chapter nine last night, which is a third or so of the total. I'll try to finish it tonight or tomorrow night and get my comments off to her. She hasn't quite finished writing it, so I won't know whodunit until she sends me the final chapters.

Incidentally, if you like cozy mysteries, you'll probably love Carola Dunn's Daisy Dalrymple series. They're very much in the style of Christie and others from the Golden Age between world wars. They're set in 1923 and now (finally) 1924. Carola set each of the first dozen or so titles in the series about a month apart in 1923. Barbara makes a point of reading series mysteries in order, but I usually don't worry much about that. For the Daisy Dalrymple mysteries, though, I recommend you read them in order.

Carola is an excellent writer, and she's very careful about researching her books to ensure authenticity. I remember one example of a research question she asked me. She had been trying to find out if there had been Band-Aids or something similar in 1923, and, if not, what people used instead. I told her I didn't know, but I'd ask my mother, who'd been five years old that year. My mother said that she believed there were Band-Aids back then, but they weren't in common use. Instead, mothers covered their children's scratches and scrapes with a collodion solution that she thought had been called "New Skin" or something similar. I checked the Internet and found that "Nu-Skin" is still sold and still used for the same purpose. Carola is like that about checking the smallest detail.

We had similar discussions about whether or not she could equip one of her characters with a Leica camera. I did some checking, and found out that at the time she was writing about it was possible, barely, that that character might have been able to get one of the prototype or early-production Leicas. The character was a member of the aristocracy, so it was quite possible her family would have connections that might have helped her get a Leica before they were commercially available in Britain.

Actually, I got to know Carola because I emailed her about a comment in one of her early books in the Daisy series. More than once, she has Daisy bemoaning the fact that the photographs she's taking are monochrome and wishing that color photography were practical. I emailed Carola and explained that color photography was eminently practical in 1923, and that millions of Lumiere Autochrome color photographs were being shot every year in Britain by that time. Carola started coming back to me with other questions, e.g., "What poisonous substances would likely be present in an amateur darkroom in 1923?" and things continued from there.

Reader Gary Mugford has some very interesting observations on backing up. I've never used either of the products he mentions, but I may give them a look when I have a spare moment.

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: backing up
Date: Tue, 28 Oct 2003 20:44:24 -0500
From: Gary Mugford
To: Robert Bruce Thompson


Karen Kenworthy of Windows Magazine fame is still writing software and her Replicator program has become a useful tool. It allows me to mindlessly mirror folders quite easily and has enough intelligence to let me make fairly smart backups. She's at www.karenware.com. Replicator runs quickly since it only copies updated files (a changeable setting), will mirror deletions if requested, and all it needs is lotsa space. That, I have.

In my case, the data folders on my C: and D: drives are backed up to an OOPS folder on G: with each day's backup going into a separate sub-folder. The backup path is c:\data ====> g:\oops\data\<DOW> which Replicator replaces with the day number. So, I get daily backups and have the last seven days as discreet backups on the main system. Every second day, the whole of G:\oops is copied across the internal network at my house to N:\oops on the other computer.

All of that is automatic, done in the background and is staggered to occur at the likely hours that I would be occupied doing something else (eating, sleeping, ... well you get the idea [G]).

Once a month, I copy stuff onto CD's that I store at my friend's house. That changes this month with the recent purchase of a DVD-writer. It used to be a tape backup, but the restore test failed two months in a row and I decided a Sunday afternoon spent shoving CD's into a writer while watching the sport of choice was a much safer, saner solution.

Last week, the G: drive, which resided on a second separate hard drive in my system, bit the dust. Out went that drive, in went a replacement, I quickly set up a Replicator session to copy N:\oops BACK to G: and then deleted the session. No sweat. Had it been my main computer's main drive, I would have pulled out the monthly backup from the start of the month and restored it (I use Ghost). Then I would have copied data from N: back to G: and then back to C: and D: as required. Wouldn't have been perfect, but no other solution I could put in place would be.

For your sister, run the world's best Windows Explorer replacement, PowerDesk (from which hidden folders are not so hidden), find the folder in question and paste the copied pathname into the Replicator source field. Make another drive in your OOPS area and paste that name in the target folder. You get a backup in a logical place and makes CD/Tape/DVD backing up pretting easy.

Hope this helps. GM

Gary Mugford
Idea Mechanic
Bramalea ON Canada

14:53 - I sent out a mailing to subscribers earlier this afternoon. If you are a subscriber and did not receive the mailing, please let me know at thompson at ttgnet dot com. I got the usual number of bounces due to full mailboxes, a problem that seems to get worse each month as spam increases. If you are a subscriber and have an alternative (more private) email address, please send it to me. I still have a few subscribers for whom the only email address I have is a hotmail.com, yahoo.com or other "junk" address. These addresses generate a huge number of bounces, so if you're still using one to receive my mailings I'd appreciate you giving me a better address.

I also had several addresses return fatal errors. Ordinarily I'd obfuscate these addresses before posting them, but I recognize them as being long-term problem addresses. If you're one of these folks, please send me a replacement email address. Fair warning: I'm about to delete them from my mailing list.

<larry.see@mindspring.com>: host mx13.mindspring.com[] said: 550
larry.see@mindspring.com...User unknown

<culam@sonic.net>: host mx.sonic.net[] said: 550 5.1.1
<culam@sonic.net>... No such user here

<ray.mears@physio-control.com>: host ns-mx1.physio-control.com[]



Thursday, 30 October 2003

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10:08 - We expected the solar storm to cause spectacular aurorae last night, and we weren't disappointed. After dinner, Barbara and I headed up to one of our dark-sky observing sites, where we met Bonnie Richardson. End of astronomical twilight (full dark) was at about 18:55. We set up our chairs and sat facing the northern horizon. Bonnie had brought along her camera, tripod, and cable release, and was set up to photograph the aurorae.

At first, not much was visible. We thought there was a reddish glow on the northeast horizon, but we couldn't be sure it wasn't a light dome from one of the surrounding towns. As time passed, it became clear that what we were seeing was in fact aurorae. They were like shimmering curtains in shades of red and green, extending all the way from the horizon up to 30 degrees elevation or more. Then Bonnie pointed to something on the northern horizon, and asked, "Is that a searchlight?" Sure enough, it looked just like someone had pointed a powerful searchlight straight up into the air, as they sometimes do at business openings, sporting events, and so on. It wasn't a searchlight, though. It was an extraordinarily bright manifestation of an aurora. It flickered on and off and changed from a greenish white color to reddish and back again.

All of that happened from about 7:00 p.m. until about 8:30. Paul Jones and Steve and Sean Childers arrived late and asked if we'd seen anything. By that time the really impressive show was over, so I told them that there'd been a great show that ended with a shimmering auroral curtain that spelled out The End in red and green letters. So they turned to Barbara and Bonnie and asked if we'd seen anything. My feelings were hurt, of course, because they didn't believe me, but Barbara and Bonnie confirmed for them that we'd seen a spectacular aurora display.

We hung around until about 10:00 p.m. Barbara had to get up early for work, so we took off, leaving Bonnie, Paul, Steve, and Sean there. I'm sure we'll hear about the spectacular rainbow aurora we missed by leaving early.

People sometimes ask me why I don't buy a Mac. My usual response is that they're proprietary, expensive, slow, and don't have many applications available for them. Then there's this. Pity the poor people who bought OS X 10.2.  There are some security holes in it, which Apple has fixed with the release of OS X 10.3, or Panther. But if you want to patch your 10.2 version, you're out of luck. Apple says they're not going to release patches for 10.2 and earlier versions. Their solution? Upgrade to 10.3, for only $129.

Even Microsoft, which is widely reviled for money-grubbing, doesn't expect people to pay to fix security holes in recent products. Heck, until recently, Microsoft was providing free security patches for Windows 98 and Office 97, which are five or six year old products. I'd understand if Apple didn't provide patches for version 9, but it seems to me they should issue a free service pack to fix the security holes in any version of OS X. Asking their customers to pay $129 to fix Apple's screw-ups is simply inexcusable.



Friday, 31 October 2003

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9:26 - Happy Halloween.

Every morning, I log on to download my mail. I count the total number of messages, the total number of spams, the number of spams caught by SpamAssassin, the number of the spams missed by SpamAssassin but caught (or missed) by Mozilla Mail, and so on. A summary of the last few months reveals some interesting numbers:

Month Total
by SA
% Caught
by SA
July 6,577 3,728 2,849 43.3% 2,790 97.9%
August 8,981 5,462 3,519 39.2% 3,403 96.7%
September 8,535 4,078 4,457 52.2% 4,330 97.2%
October 11,391 4,154 7,237 63.5% 7,036 97.2%

The number of spams I received in overnight mail increased from "only" 2,849 for the month of July to 7,237 for the month of October, a 154% increase. The percentage of spam has jumped from about two messages in every five to nearly two messages in every three. And that's on all accounts. On my main ttgnet.com account, it's now running 75% to 80%. Fortunately, SpamAssassin is maintaining a very high hit rate. And, of the 2% to 3% of spams that make it past SpamAssassin, Mozilla Mail's junk mail filtering is catching about 80%. That means I usually have to deal with only two to five spams a day that actually make it into my inbox.

The false positives for both SpamAssassin and Mozilla Mail are reassuringly low. I average something like 225 spams every time I check my overnight mail, and probably more than that number again during the day. Call it 500 spams a day. For the last week or so, I've actually been checking each message that SpamAssassin or Mozilla Mail flags as spam to make sure it really is spam. During that time, of the 3,500 or more spams that I've examined, I've found only about half a dozen that actually weren't spam. And none of them were "real" messages. All were mailing list traffic that looked "spammish".

My agent called yesterday to say he'd nailed down the book deal with O'Reilly, so I now have a death-march to get the book completed by deadline. I am going on semi-hiatus from tomorrow through Monday, 1 March 2004. I will continue to create new weekly pages each week, but many or most of them are likely to have few or no posts. Or at least that's the plan. Knowing myself, I suspect I'll end up posting more entries than I expect to. In short, it'll probably still be worth your while to make a quick check here every day or two, but there won't be nearly as much here as is usually the case.

I will keep my subscribers updated with periodic email reports as well as access to the private subscribers-only web pages, where I plan to post chapters in progress and similar stuff. Nothing top-secret, but stuff that's confidential enough that I don't want to post it publicly. The "social contract" that I have with subscribers is that I post the stuff for them to read, but they don't distribute it further. Most publishers are paranoid about stuff like this, but O'Reilly--no surprise--understands that I'm restricting distribution to a relatively small group of knowledgeable folks who are likely to contribute useful feedback on the raw chapters.

I'll also have to curtail the amount of time I spend responding to email from non-subscribers. I'll continue to read all of it, of course, but I simply won't have time to reply in any detail, if at all.

If you're not a subscriber and you want to be a part of this, see this page.

14:23 - I just sent the following message to subscribers:

I've just discovered that Google's Advanced Search results are broken when returning cached results. I just wasted an hour or more thinking it was a local configuration problem, and figured I might save some of you from wasting your time.

Here's what happened:

1. I was using about:config in Mozilla browser to reconfigure some stuff.

2. I have a permanent bookmark for Google Advanced Search on my Personal Toolbar. I clicked that to bring up Google and entered a search phrase. When I clicked on a live URL for one of the results, everything normally. But when I clicked on a link for a cached result, Google returned another copy of the Google Advanced Search screen, this time with the cached search string inserted where I'd normally type the search terms.

3. I fired up Internet Explorer (ugh). I don't have a toolbar link to Google on it, so I just typed www.google.com and got to the standard search screen. I entered a search string and got a screen of results. Clicking on either the live URL or the cached URL for either result returned the expected page. At that point, I was convinced I'd somehow borked Mozilla browser.

4. After spending an hour trying to un-bork Mozilla, I finally did what I should have done, which was copy/paste the long string of URL that links to a cached page into IE. IE returned the same weird result, a Google Advanced Search screen with the cached search string inserted in the search terms box. Okay, at that point I realized it wasn't Mozilla causing the problem.

As best I can determine, the problem is caused by Google. If you search from the basic search page, both live URLs and cached URLs in the search results work fine. If you search from the advanced search page, the live URLs work normally, but the cached URLs are broken.

22:22 - I am sitting here being driven insane by a tune I cannot get out of my mind, American Pie, by Don McLean, whom I saw in concert in about 1973 or 1974. And the refrain keeps going through my mind:

Bye, bye, Miss American Pie.
Drove my Chevy to The Levee
but The Levee was dry.
Them good ol' boys were drinkin' whiskey in Rye,
singin' this'll be the day that I die.
This'll be the day that I die.

It's playing over and over again in my mind, again and again and again.


Saturday, 1 November 2003

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Sunday, 2 November 2003

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