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Week of 31 January 2005

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Monday, 31 January 2005
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10:37 - We didn't spend much time outdoors over the weekend. The expected winter storm arrived, although we got only an inch or so of snow with a thin coat of ice covering it. Other areas in the southeast got considerably more frozen precipitation, along with the inevitable power failures. We were lucky.

We cleared out the guest suite downstairs in preparation for the rug cleaning folks to show up tomorrow with their steam cleaning equipment. Barbara's sister and brother-in-law just ordered some new furniture, and offered us a good sleeper sofa and love seat, so Barbara wanted to get things cleaned up before they arrived.

Part II of our latest article, Building the Perfect PC: Quality on a Budget, is now available for download from the subscribers page.

Groklaw has posted an important article entitled, The Future Is Open: What OpenDocument Is And Why You Should Care. I've read the article and the associated documents, most particularly Microsoft's response (PDF).

It's clear to anyone who reads between the lines that Microsoft is striving desperately to prevent truly open document formats from being adopted. Of course they are. File format lock-in is the primary reason that Microsoft can extract billions of dollars every year in Office licensing fees. Make no mistake. Office is one of Microsoft's two cash cows, the other being Windows. Microsoft is doing everything possible to preserve their Office hegemony--and the MS Office revenue stream--and that most definitely includes torpedoing any move toward truly open file formats.

Microsoft is trying very hard to produce a closed format that appears to be open. The appearance of openness without the reality is critical for them. Accordingly, Microsoft emphasizes "royalty-free" as though that were all that mattered. It isn't, not by a long shot. A royalty-free format is not open if that format must be licensed, or indeed if Microsoft or any other company controls it.

Microsoft clearly hopes to have MS XML approved as an open format, although it fails to meet any reasonable standard for being truly open. In fact, MS XML is just more of the same-old-same-old format lock-in, just as much under the control of Microsoft as the admittedly proprietary .doc format. I hope the Massachusetts and European Union legislators see through this transparent attempt to maintain format lock-in.

I now use nothing except open formats, such as plain text, html, XML, PDF, zip, png, and the various OpenOffice.org formats, and I strongly recommend that everyone else do the same. Using proprietary formats is buying trouble.

For example, I remember some years ago trying to help Jerry Pournelle recover some documents and databases that he'd created in Q&A. He no longer had Q&A running on any of his systems. He wasn't able to locate the original Q&A installation disks. When he finally did find them, some of the floppies were no longer readable. When he finally did get a usable set of floppies (sent to him, IIRC, by a reader), the program refused to install properly on any of his current systems. I think he finally did get Q&A running by installing Windows 3.1 on an antique system, but I don't recall if he was ever able to salvage his data.

And that was data created relatively recently using a program that had been in popular use within the preceding few years. People who have data created by once-popular older programs like DisplayWrite or MultiMate have even more trouble salvaging their data. For now, there are services available that offer to convert such older formats, but those services are usually very costly. How long such services will continue to be available is anyone's guess.

The common thread throughout is that the problem formats are all proprietary. Plain-text documents created 30 years ago are still easily readable, as are the earliest HTML documents. I can open zip files I created 15 years ago, and I can display images created long ago using standard formats. The simple fact is that using proprietary formats makes data ephemeral, while using standard formats allows data to live forever. Which is one of the many reasons why I use OpenOffice.org and store my documents in its standard XML/zip format.


Tuesday, 1 February 2005
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10:00 - The steam-cleaning guy is downstairs right now, cleaning the carpet in the guest suite. The dogs don't like it a bit. They're lying as close as possible to the door to downstairs, listening to the hissing and humming with their ears pricked. They're whimpering constantly, and every once in a while a bark escapes them.

We have a new book project, and this one's going to be a death march. I can't say much about it except that it's for O'Reilly and it's not a computer book. The book needs to be 100% complete and ready to go to production by mid-April, which is ten weeks from now. I'm starting the book without a contract. My agent and editor will work out the details. I don't have time to wait for the contract details to be worked out. Obviously, things will be a bit sparse around here for the next few months.

Microsoft does it again. Not satisfied with locking up digital content, now they're planning to lock up analog content. C|NET just published an article, Microsoft, Macrovision align on copy protection, that gives the details.

"Microsoft and copy-protection company Macrovision have struck a deal that will add a new layer of anticopying defenses to video content being swapped between home devices.

The two companies said that Microsoft had licensed Macrovision's technology, which aims to stop people from making copies using analog connections between devices, such as those that typically link a set-top box to a television.

The deal could make it harder for consumers to make permanent copies of TV shows and movies without permission, if they use computers running the Windows operating system. It should also help convince movie studios and other content producers to release their products in new ways online, the companies said."

Yeah, right. Translated, what they're saying is that the movie studios and Microsoft want us to pay every time we watch something, and that they want a cut each time. These folks are the implacable enemies of Fair Use, and this is just the latest nail in its coffin.

Yet another good reason to abandon Microsoft software, as if we needed another.


Wednesday, 2 February 2005
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09:30 - Barbara and I have 66 days left to write a book. Mark Brokering, O'Reilly's Marketing Director, called me last night, and said if I could get to 100% completion by mid-April we could make the deadline for a big national bookstore chain promotion that would increase sales of the book significantly. So I told him I'd have the book 100% complete by 10 April. So I'm going to have to push the throttle past the stops and go into afterburner between now and then.

One of my subscribers kindly offered to lend me his boxed set of Upstairs, Downstairs, which is 68 episodes on something like 20 DVDs. We have the series on VHS tapes that we recorded off-the-air, but I'd like to see this series again. Most films and television programs fall into my not-worth-watching-once category. A select few are worth-watching-once. An even smaller minority are in the worth-watching-repeatedly category. Upstairs, Downstairs is definitely in the final category.

On an entirely unrelated note, I have two spindles of Verbatim 8X/12X DVD+R discs sitting here, on top of ripper, the Windows system with dvdshrink installed. The DVD drive in ripper is an 8X Plextor PX-708A. I thought about replacing it with a 12X or 16X Plextor DVD writer, but 8X is fast enough. The system basically works in batch mode anyway, so taking a couple extra minutes to burn a DVD is no big deal.

Yet another winter storm is forecast, starting tomorrow morning. Right now, they're not sure how much we'll get. It sounds like it could be anything from a light dusting of snow with a bit of ice to a major ice storm. Oh, well. Barbara is planning to make her usual grocery shopping run this afternoon, but the stores may be a madhouse because of the forecast. If so, she'll just come on home. We have plenty of food and drink to tide us over.


Thursday, 3 February 2005
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08:15 - Okay, okay. Everyone wants to know what book we're working on, so I cleared it with O'Reilly. The title of the new book is Astronomy Hacks. (Subscriber Rich Micko got it over on the messageboard. Good guess, Rich.)

The big rush is because we want the book to be in the stores by the time the Deep Impact mission concludes on 4 July. That means the book has to arrive in the O'Reilly distribution warehouses by about 15 June, which in turn means we have to be at 100% completion and ready to go to production by mid-April.

When O'Reilly first mentioned a mid-April 100% completion date, I clutched my chest and gasped. That was because I'd confused O'Reilly "Hacks" books with O'Reilly "Hacking" books. The former are really "tips and tricks" books, while the latter are project books that involve actually building projects. The idea of having to build several dozen projects, even if they were mostly small ones, and write the book in a couple months was simply overwhelming. Once I twigged to the fact that "Hacks" books involve a lot more writing and a lot less building, the mid-April date was less overwhelming. Still intimidating, mind you, but at least I didn't feel like Custer when he looked up and saw all those Indians.


Friday, 4 February 2005
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08:30 - The mad dash continues. I'll be posting stuff as I complete it on the Subscribers' Page, so if you have any interest in astronomy check there.

It's to be a clear night tonight, if a bit cool, so Barbara and I will probably try to get out for an observing session. I suppose I should remain chained to my desk and writing, but a clear night with no moon is hard to pass up. I'll justify it to myself by saying that I need to shoot some images for the book anyway, so I might as well do it tonight.

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Plextor 708a new firmware
Date: Wed, 2 Feb 2005 13:19:07 -0800
From: Mike Lucas
To: Robert Bruce Thompson

Did you notice that Plextor has a new (Sept 04) firmware update that allows you to read (but not write) dual layer +R DVDs?  The link is here.  Thought you might be interested if you haven't gotten it already.

Thanks. I suppose it's a measure of how little impact dual-layer writing has had that I wasn't even aware that the PX-708A didn't read DL discs before. I haven't even tested dual-layer writing. At $10 or so per blank disc, it's a bit too rich for my blood.


Saturday, 5 February 2005
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16:24 - Oh, the irony. The incredible irony. Here's a screenshot of the home page of the Mozilla Sunbird calendaring project, which just made its first official release yesterday.

Sunbird screenshot

I think I'll wait until they get a few more bugs worked out...


Sunday, 6 February 2005
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