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Week of 21 June 2004

Latest Update : Wednesday, 30 June 2004 11:28 -0400

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Monday, 21 June 2004

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{Five Years Ago Today]

10:15 - SS1 is under way. As I write this, the mothership is carrying it to 50,000 feet, where it will be released and turn on its rocket engine to boost to Mach 3 for the edge of space at 62.5 miles elevation. Go, guys.

I can't help but think of all those Heinlein juveniles I read as a teenager. SS1 wasn't built in the backyard by a couple of teenage boys and their scientist uncle, but it's the next best thing. Private space flight. Oh my. What I wouldn't give to be on one of those flights for the X Prize.

I may get to space yet. The SS1 pilot is, after all, 10 years older than I am now. As a teenager in the late 60's, I didn't doubt that space flight would be routine within my lifetime. Then came 30 years of NASA seemingly doing everything they could to destroy the dream. But perhaps it will work out yet.

I'm still doing the boring administrative stuff, getting organized for the new edition of PC Hardware in a Nutshell. There's a lot to be done.

I'm also continuing to play with Xandros, and the more I see of it, the more I like it. I mentioned to Barbara last night that I was considering installing Xandros on her main system. Her hair stood straight up. But I wouldn't do that. Not really. Not until I'm completed satisfied that she can do what she needs to do with Xandros.

11:30 - And SS1 is back, having successfully reached space. I couldn't believe how badly the news channels covered (or didn't cover) the flight. I sat there flipping among CNN, Headline News, MS-NBC, and FoxNews, expecting all of them to be providing uninterrupted coverage of the launch. But while the launch was happening, they were covering trivialities like Bill Clinton's book. No mention of the launch, except in one scrolling message on the bottom of the screen.

Finally, FoxNews ran some delayed footage of the take-off, and then returned to show the landing live. At least I was able to watch that. For an event of this magnitude, one would think all of the news channels, if not the broadcast networks, would have interrupted regular programming to cover the full event live. But no. These people have no sense of priorities. To them, it was just another news item, and a fairly minor one at that.



Tuesday, 22 June 2004

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{Five Years Ago Today]

10:36 - Adolph Hitler lost the war 63 years ago today, when he invaded the Soviet Union. Actually, it wasn't so much the invasion that did the Nazis in as the delay in invading. Originally, the invasion was scheduled for five weeks before 22 June 1941. Hitler's fatal decision was to delay the invasion of the USSR by five weeks to launch the appropriately-named Operation Punishment into Yugoslavia. As it was, the Wehrmacht and the SS were literally at the gates of Moscow before winter drove them back. That five weeks cost the Nazis the war. And all because Hitler, in a fit of pique, decided he had to punish Yugoslavia.

I continue to watch the Grokdoc project, which has all the characteristics of a developing train wreck. It's not even clear what the purpose of the project is. The opening line of the home page states,

"Welcome to GrokDoc's usability study of GNU/Linux newbies. Our goal is to create a useful manual on basic tasks that new users will find simple and clear and easy to follow, using what we learn from our study."

So which is it? A usability study or a documentation project? They're not remotely the same thing. Elsewhere on the site, which is a massive pile of spaghetti masquerading as a Wiki, they state that they don't intend to develop documentation, that their only purpose is to study usability with the intention of supplying that information to the folks who can fix the usability problems they uncover.

The basic premise is good, but you don't need 5,000 people to do a usability study. You don't need 500, nor even 50. Five will do. Many more than that and you simply make things more difficult without improving the quality of the data. I don't know much about usability, but I do know they're going about this all wrong. I mean, a "usability study for newbies" that focuses on Debian, Slackware, and Gentoo? Give me a break. Even the distros they list as "newbie-friendly", such as Mandrake and Fedora, are anything but. If they are truly concerned about easing the path of newbies, they should be focusing on the true newbie distros, such as Lindows/Linspire, Mepas, and (particularly) Xandros.

Their task list is also bizarre. It includes setting up a firewall. What they should have done was sat down with a few newbies, handed them a distribution CD, and watched what happened. The newbies would have defined the task list for them. They'd have ended up with a more realistic task list and some basic questions, such as "Is this going to wipe out my Windows?" and "Can I run Linux and Windows at the same time?" Their current task list is:

  • Email
  • Letter & Printing
  • Surfing the Web
  • Firewall
  • Installation

Instead, off the top of my head, it probably should have been something like:

  • Backing up your Windows data
  • Dual-boot considerations
  • Choosing a Linux distro
    • Distros compared
    • Locating distro download sites
    • Downloading the distro
      • ftp
      • Bittorrent
    • Using MD5 checksums
    • Burning the distro to CD
  • Installing Linux
    • Configuring the system to boot from CD
    • Choosing Setup Options
    • Choosing a Windows Manager
    • etc...
  • Configuring Internet access
    • Static versus DHCP
  • Configuring Windows Networking access
    • Joining a Windows workgroup
    • Joining a Windows domain controller
    • Joining a Windows AD controller
    • Accessing shared Windows volumes from Linux
    • Accessing shared Linux volumes from Windows
  • Installing a Printer
    • local printer
    • remote Windows printer
  • Configuring the Mozilla browser
    • Installing ad/pop-up blockers
  • Configuring Mozilla Mail
  • Installing better fonts (including Windows public-domain fonts)
  • Etc., etc., etc...

Well, that's not complete nor meant to be, but you get the idea. The point is that they need to watch newbies to find out what newbies need/want to do, and what they have problems with.

Speaking of Xandros, UPS showed up yesterday with a box from them. It contained boxed copies of the Deluxe and Business editions. I'd completely forgotten I'd asked for boxed copies. I already had the manuals in PDF form, but I've never looked at them. I didn't even look at the Quick Start Guide until a couple days ago. Which should tell you something about just how intuitive Xandros really is.

I'm getting lots of mail from people who want to try the Xandros Open Circulation Edition (OCE). Xandros makes that available in two ways. You can download it for free with BitTorrent, or pay Xandros $10 for an FTP download. A lot of people want to try Xandros, but don't want to pay $10 or install BitTorrent. Given that the OCE is freely re-distributable, I'm sure there must be mirrors available by now. If anyone has a list of those, please let me know so that I can post it.

11:03 - While I was watching the SS1 landing yesterday, the reporter pointed out Burt Rutan and Paul Allen standing together. The camera appeared to be hand-held. As it zoomed in jerkily on Rutan and Allen, I was pretty sure I caught a glimpse of Jerry Pournelle standing next to them. It wouldn't surprise me. Jerry knows everyone. Which reminds me of the old Jerry Pournelle joke:

One day at Chaos Manor, Jerry was talking with Ed, who was visiting him for the day. At one point, Jerry commented, "As I once said to Albert Einstein…"

Exasperated by what he perceived as Jerry's name-dropping, Ed protested, "Albert Einstein! Yeah, right. Is there anyone you don't know, Jerry?" Nonplussed, Jerry replied, "Well, I guess I know just about everyone and just about everyone knows me."

"Bullshit," said Ed, "you just drop names to impress people."

"You wound me," Jerry replied, "but I'll prove it to you. Name anyone you want, and I'll introduce the two of you."

"Okay," says Ed, "how about you introduce me to Clint Eastwood?" Jerry agrees, and the two of them jump in Jerry's Explorer and drive out to Clint Eastwood's house. Jerry rings the bell and steps aside waiting for Eastwood to answer the door. A moment later, the door opens and Eastwood says, "Who the hell are you, and what do you want?"

"Aha," shouts Ed, just as Jerry steps in from the side. "Jerry!", shouts Clint, "Long time no see. How the hell are you?" Ed and Jerry pass an hour or two visiting with Clint, with Jerry and Clint catching up on old times.

As they're driving away, Jerry says, "See. I told you. I really do know everyone." Not satisfied, Ed says, "Yeah, but that might be a coincidence. Let's try another one." Jerry agrees, and Ed suggests President Bush. So they jump on a plane at LAX and head for DC. They show up at the White House and take the tour. As they near the end of the tour, Ed thinks he's beaten Jerry. But then an aide calls Jerry aside and whisks him and Ed into the Oval Office.

"Jerry!", says President Bush, "it's been too long. We've missed your counsel and advice around here. Actually, I'm thinking about dumping Dick this fall. Would you consider running for Vice President on my ticket?" Jerry demurs, but he and Ed do spend a couple hours chewing the fat with the President, who's cancelled meetings with his National Security Advisor and his campaign chairman to free up the time to visit with Jerry.

Shaken, Ed tells Jerry he's starting to wonder, but he's still not convinced. "Okay," says Jerry, "let's do one more. Pick out anyone you want." After some thought, Ed knows he has Jerry. "Okay," Ed says, "introduce me to the Pope." So they get on a plane and head for Rome.

When they arrive, they learn that the Pope has a public appearance scheduled for that day. Jerry and Ed show up at Vatican square, where they find half a million people gathered to hear the Pope speak from his balcony. "This'll never work," Jerry says, "the Pope will never notice me among all these people. I'll tell you what. I know all the guards. They'll let me through to see my old buddy the Pope, but they're too worried about security to let you through. How about if I go in to visit with the Pope and then come out on the balcony with him? Will that satisfy you?" Ed agrees that that would indeed be sufficient proof that Jerry knows the Pope.

A few minutes later the doors open and out comes Jerry Pournelle onto the balcony with the Pope. When Jerry returns to where he left Ed, he sees an ambulance and a cluster of people gathered. He pushes his way through the crowd to find Ed lying on the ground, with ambulance attendants trying frantically to revive him. "What happened," Jerry shouts. "Oh, hi Jerry," a bystander replies, "he seemed just fine until the guy standing next to him asked him, "Who the hell is that up on the balcony with Jerry Pournelle?"

12:31 - One of my readers was surprised that I hadn't commented on this Supreme Court decision. The only thing I could suggest was a slightly revised Miranda Warning:

"You have don't have the right to remain silent or to refuse to answer questions. Do you understand? Anything you do or don't say may be used against you in a court of law. Do you understand? We can make things up if we want to and charge you on that basis. Do you understand? You have no right to consult an attorney before speaking to the police or to have an attorney present during questioning now or in the future. Do you understand? If you cannot afford an attorney, tough luck. Do you understand? You do not have the right to refuse to answer questions at any time. Do you understand? Knowing and understanding your complete lack of rights as I have explained them to you, are you willing to answer my questions or do we have to beat it out of you?"



Wednesday, 23 June 2004

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{Five Years Ago Today]

14:23 - Thanks to everyone who has subscribed or renewed recently. If you'd like to subscribe, see this page.

I'm working hard on the next revision of PC Hardware in a Nutshell, even as my agent and editor are still hammering out the contract details. They're going to give me some more page count to work with, so the new edition should be even more comprehensive than preceding ones. Now all I have to do is write the thing.

This revision will take many months to write, and more months to get produced and out to the bookstores. There's a lot to be done. I'm in acquisitions mode right now, requesting samples of all the new technologies. I'll be posting initial impressions and so on as I work with them.



Thursday, 24 June 2004

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{Five Years Ago Today]

11:43 - I'm wondering if it's time to upgrade our Local Area Network again. We're falling a bit behind the times technologically, still using 100BaseT. If I do replace the network, we'll go to Gigabit Ethernet, which would be our fifth or sixth network here at home.

I think we probably had one of the first home networks on the planet, before even Jerry Pournelle had networked Chaos Manor. This was back in the days when an Ethernet adapter cost $500 to $1,000, and a simple hub (we called them concentrators back in those days) was $2,500 or more. Someone who was installing Ethernet gave me some ARCnet stuff and we had a two-station ARCnet network, running on RG-62 cable. After that, we proceeded to Artisoft LANtastic! (anyone remember them?), 10Base2 (thinwire, "cheapernet"), 10BaseT, and finally to 100BaseT.

We were also one of the first homes to have always-on Internet access, albeit via dial-up. I think that started in about 1988. I had a phone line devoted (literally) to a dial-up Internet connection. That gained me what probably should have been an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest residential phone call ever. At one point, the dial-up connection from our home had been nailed up for something like 18 months. And they say teenagers spend a lot of time on the phone.

People always use to say, "Boy, that must really piss off the phone company." Not really. A nailed-up connection cost them no resources. It used a phone line on each end, which they were being paid for. They didn't care if it was in use or not, because having it in use occupied no resources. Their switch was a non-blocking DMS-100, which is to say that every port could be connected to another port simultaneously, so our nailed-up connection wasn't occupying any scarce resource. The limited resources at a CO are things like dial-tone generators and DTMF generators, both of which are used when a call is placed but then freed up as soon as the connection is made. So our 18-month phone call actually cost them less in resources than if we'd been using those phone lines normally.

At the time, I was telecommuting a lot, so my company was happy to devote a phone line and a modem on their end to my exclusive use. I was sad the day the connection dropped. I don't remember why it happened, but I remember having the connection stop working and then hearing the modem re-dialing. Because my system was set to re-dial automatically, we ended up being connected for months, disconnected for 30 seconds, and then reconnected for months more.

At any rate, it may be time for a network upgrade, especially since most of the systems I'm building now have embedded Gigabit Ethernet. The only problem would be the cabling in the walls, which is Category 5. I may be able to get away with using it as is instead of replacing it with Cat 6, since the longest run is perhaps 75 or 80 feet (25 meters). I'd probably have to replace all the jacks with Cat 6 jacks, though. Maybe I'll try running Gigabit Ethernet over my existing Cat 5 cabling and jacks and see how it works.



Friday, 25 June 2004

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{Five Years Ago Today]

9:36 - I just sent the following message to subscribers:

"Security researchers warned Web surfers on Thursday to be on guard after uncovering evidence that widespread Web server compromises have turned corporate home pages into points of digital infection."


A known, previously-exploited, but unpatched Internet Explorer vulnerability is being exploited to infect systems that visit compromised web sites running Microsoft Internet Information Server (IIS). The mere act of visiting such a web site is sufficient to infect a system, which is then "owned" by the malefactor.

The identity of infected web sites has not been made public, but they are said to include major sites, including banks, search engines, and auction sites. The infection mechanism is javascript code that has been appended to the end of web pages without the knowledge of the site administrators.

Microsoft has not provided a patch. As a stop-gap solution, security experts recommend disabling Javascript and ActiveX scripting on Internet Explorer. A better solution is to replace Internet Explorer as your default browser with a modern browser, such as Mozilla 1.7.


UPS showed up yesterday with a sample of the Plextor PX-712SA, the first optical drive available with the Serial ATA interface. I was about to install it in the Aria system in the den, when I realized that that system is running Xandros Desktop 2.0 Linux, which doesn't support DVD writers. Duh.

I'll get it installed in a Windows system and do some serious testing. I'll have to get some more DVD+R blanks, though. None of those I have, other than the one that comes with the drive, support 12X writes. Fortunately, Plextor's recommended media list includes several brands of disc that work at 12X, including some that are certified for only 4X.

The PX-712SA is a "do-it-all" drive. The only thing it lacks is support for dual-layer media, and that is a can of worms at the moment. I haven't recommended a dual-layer drive yet, because I think people who buy the current models may get burned (so to speak...).

11:32 - I just sent the following message to subscribers:

This is a *different* one...

"Security experts are tracking a new piece of malware that appears to be compromising large numbers of Windows PCs and may be laying the groundwork for the creation of a large spamming network or a major attack in the future.

Analysts at NetSec Inc., a managed security services provider, began seeing indications of the compromises early Thursday morning and have since seen a large number of identical attacks on their customers' networks. The attack uses a novel vector: embedded code hidden in graphics on Web pages."


I tell you three times. If you run Internet Explorer as your default browser, you're just plain nuts.


If you're running IE, go download Mozilla 1.7. Do it right now. Install it, and make it the default browser. You may hate it initially, but use it for a week, and you won't be able to believe you continued using IE for so long when such a superior product was available. I promise.

A few things you might want to do right away:

1. The default theme is a clunky, old-fashioned looking Netscape theme. Choose Edit -> Preferences, and expand the Appearance item at the top. Choose Theme and change the theme to Modern. Close and restart Mozilla to let it take effect.

2. Spend some time in the Preferences dialog, looking at what's available and changing the defaults as you prefer.

3. Install the Mozilla extensions Adblock and Flashblock


4. Save the following to an ASCII text file with an arbitrary name.


5. Exit and restart Mozilla and press Ctrl-Shft-P to bring up the Adblock configuration dialog. Choose Adblock Options and import the filters list by pointing to the name of the ASCII text file you created above.

There are lots of other things you'll probably want to do, but these will get you started.



Saturday, 26 June 2004

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{Five Years Ago Today]

11:05 - Hmmm. Yet another convert to Xandros. Brian Bilbrey introduced me to Xandros during our visit over Memorial Day. He'd also posted a very favorable review of Xandros a couple months back. Despite all that, I was surprised to read on Brian's page this morning that

"I'm going to convert Gryphon, the Sony laptop and my main "work" box over to Xandros. I spend more time than I should mucking about with that machine. Xandros just works. I'll leave Gentoo on Goldfinger the workstation, but there I've leeway in case of breakage. I really don't with Gryphon."

I think of Brian as a Linux guru and a Gentoo type of guy, so to have him give Xandros such a strong endorsement is surprising, to say the least. I agree with him, of course, but that's from my Linux newbie perspective. Obviously, even experts like a desktop Linux distro that "just works". Strong praise indeed.

We are now down to zero functioning UPSs in this house. The APC 1400 VA unit failed a year or so ago. Barbara's APC Back-UPS Pro 650 needs a new battery. Last night, after we were asleep, the Smart Power Systems 2.2 KVA UPS that runs most of my office systems started beeping. I ran into my office to see what was going on--the power hadn't failed elsewhere in the house--and found the UPS lights going berserk. I reset the UPS, and everything was fine. For a couple hours. Then it started beeping again, and again the thing was lit up like a Christmas tree (literally, with red and green lights flashing...) I turned off the UPS, but left it plugged into the wall receptacle. A couple hours later, the beeping started again. I finally unplugged it.

So now everything, including the server and router, is running on wall power. Barbara has been asking me periodically to replace her UPS battery, but with deadlines I just never got around to it. All of these units are elderly, probably at least five years old. It's not worth replacing the batteries in such old units, particularly because I need to review UPSs for the new edition of PC Hardware in a Nutshell. Rather than buying batteries, I'll ask several UPS vendors to send me samples of current-production units.

One thing I can say is that these units APC and Smart Power Systems, have been extremely reliable for many years. I've never even replaced the battery in the Smart Power Systems unit.

This morning, I started plugging everything back in again, this time with no UPS protection. When I brought up the network, the Intel 10/100 hub started, for lack of a better word, quacking at me. It honestly sounded like there was a duck in my office. Obviously, there's some sort of small fan in that hub, and either a bearing was failing or the blades were striking something.

Ironically, I'd just mentioned upgrading my network to 1000BaseT. I went to the stockroom, where I thought I had a D-Link Gigabit switch, only to find that they'd sent me a 100BaseT switch. Oh, well. I replaced the Intel 100BaseT hub with the D-Link DSS-8+ 10/100 switch, and all is well. I'll probably still upgrade our network to 1000BaseT at some point, but the main reason I was planning to do so was my concern about the Intel hub, which has been doing some other strange things for quite some time. Now that I have the new D-Link DSS-8+ 10/100 switch installed, the matter is much less pressing.



Sunday, 27 June 2004

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{Five Years Ago Today]




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