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Week of 18 July 2005

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Monday, 18 July 2005
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09:39 - This weather is getting old. Our forecast for today is the same as it's been for most of the last month or so, and probably will be for most of the next month or so. Highs in the 90's, relative humidity near 100%, with scattered thunderstorms in the afternoon, evening, and overnight. I don't know how people in the southeastern US survived before air conditioning was invented.

What kind of lunatic manufactures 40 pounds of peroxyacetone in his bathtub? Obviously, a lunatic with a death wish, but I guess for Islamic terrorists that goes without saying. Peroxyacetone is a dangerously unstable explosive. Not as unstable as nitroglycerin or nitrogen triiodide, but unstable enough to have killed and maimed a lot of people who have attempted to make it. The stuff can detonate simply from the friction of its crystals rubbing against each other. It surprises me that the four London bombers, each carrying ten pounds of this stuff, reached their targets without detonating spontaneously.

I suppose the attraction of peroxyacetone is that it's easy to make from readily available chemicals. All you need are acetone, hydrogen peroxide (even the 3% stuff from the drugstore will do), and a strong acid such as sulfuric acid (battery acid) or hydrochloric acid (sold at the hardware store as "muriatic acid" for cleaning concrete) to catalyze the reaction. But anyone who makes this stuff in any quantity is just plain nuts.

When I was a teenager, I used to make peroxyacetone a few grams at a time, and even that made me nervous. A few grams unconfined would simply burn, but much more than that would detonate, even unconfined. The stuff made me nervous enough that I worked with it behind a Plexiglass screen, using tongs. Manufacturing 40 pounds of the stuff in a bathtub, even in batches, is unbelievably stupid, particularly for someone who is supposed to be a real chemist.

It wouldn't have taken much more effort to make 40 pounds of a serious military explosive like RDX, which also can be made from readily-available precursors (formaldehyde, ammonia, and nitric acid). RDX is relatively hard to initiate, and so requires a booster. One commonly-used booster is PETN (pentaerythritoltetranitrate), which can be produced from from the hexamine precursor of RDX using formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, calcium hydroxide, and nitric acid. All of this stuff is readily available and can be purchased without causing suspicion. That makes me question not just the sanity of the chemist who made the London explosives, but his competence.

Our friends Mary Chervenak and Paul Jones had Barbara and me over for dinner at their house last night. Mary is an organic chemist for Dow and Paul teaches organic chemistry at Wake Forest University. When I mentioned that the London terrorists had use peroxyacetone, both just rolled their eyes.

I mentioned to Paul that I was going to post about this today, that I'd thought about the social responsibility issue, and that upon reflection I'd decided it would do no harm to post because the terrorists already know all this stuff. But, as Paul said, if they're stupid enough to use peroxyacetone, maybe they don't.

So I decided that perhaps I'd write up a series of detailed instructions for terrorists who want to make explosives. My guides would be full of handy tips, such as:

"Whatever you do, don't use an ice bath to cool the reaction vessel."

"An ordinary kitchen blender running at its fastest speed is an ideal way to mix the glycerin and acids when you're making nitroglycerin."

"When you add acid to a reaction vessel, don't trickle the acid in; dump it in all at once."

"Heavy red outgassing is a good sign. When it first appears, stir vigorously and apply heat."

And so on.

15:49 - If you need more evidence that Tivo has really lost touch with its users, C|Net just published an article entitled TiVo extends ad features. The article begins:

"TiVo has launched new technology designed to let commercials pack in more information, regardless of whether viewers are trying to fast-forward past them."

TiVo says:

"With our partners' feedback, we have worked continuously to develop a leading ad platform that is relevant and exciting for TiVo subscribers and, at the same time, makes it valuable for advertisers"

Duh. Surely TiVo must understand that its users DON'T WANT TO SEE ADS. What a deal! You buy a TiVo, pay them a monthly subscription, and in return they give you an "ad platform". They've even removed the 30-second skip feature, just to be helpful.

TiVo has sold out to the dark side--their so-called "partners"--and I wonder why anyone would continue to use it. There are better alternatives available, including simple, inexpensive DVD recorders, which at least allow you to zap commercials instead of forcing you to watch them. For those of a more technical bent, it's pretty easy to roll your own recorder with live pause and other TiVo-like features. And all without having to pay TiVo's monthly subscription.


Tuesday, 19 July 2005
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10:07 - The heads-down writing continues.

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: peroxyacetone
Date: Mon, 18 Jul 2005 22:32:53 -0800
From: Jan Swijsen
To: Robert Bruce Thompson

Apart from easy availability of the ingredients it also doesn't contain the typical nitrogen components. Those are what set off explosive-detection devices (and bomb-dogs are  trained to detect them). So when you leave a bomb somewhere it's less likely to be detected.

For suicide bombers premature (not a good word in this context) is not a big problem of course.

It's true that TATP is not nitrated, but that's probably immaterial. The preference of Islamic terrorists for TATP has been known for several years, and my understanding is that bomb dogs are now trained to alert when they detect the odor of the acetone emitted by TATP.

Trying to detect terrorist bombs before they explode isn't the answer. It still has to be attempted, of course, but a lot of them won't be detected in time. The answer is to stop them at the source, which requires expelling Islamics from the US and western Europe. I find it unbelievable that Islamic foreigners--including, incredibly, Wahabbis--are still permitted to wander freely around the US and Europe. Obviously, our governments aren't taking the threat seriously.

-------- Original Message --------
Subject:     Roll Your Own Recorder
Date:     Mon, 18 Jul 2005 21:50:23 -0700
To:     Robert Bruce Thompson

Bob -

I hope you will devote a portion of one of your books to discussing ways
& means, recommended HW, etc.

But then - you would have the DRM Nazis all over you & your publisher
like white on rice (to use the more PC version of the expression).

Oh well. It /was/ a good thought. Back to the drawing board.

Oh, we plan to cover building a PVR in future books, as we did in Building the Perfect PC. There's nothing illegal about it. The problem comes with talking about circumvention measures outlawed by the DMCA, which means, for example, that we can't safely talk about hacking copy protection.

11:52 - Periodically, I look at alternatives to Xandros Linux. I did that yesterday, downloading and installing Simply MEPIS, Kubuntu 5.04, and Ubuntu 5.04. Once again, I concluded that none of these popular distros come close to matching Xandros for usability. For example, when I installed Kubuntu, it set the screen size to 800X600 at 60Hz on a 17" monitor which I'd used at 1024X768 at 85Hz with Xandros. No problem, I thought. I called up the desktop configuration dialog, intending to change the video settings, but found that the only choices available were 800X600 and 640X480, both at 60Hz. Geez. So I installed Ubuntu, which was even worse. It set the video at 640X480 at 60Hz, with no other options available. Sure, I could have gone in and edited configuration files manually, but who needs that aggravation? I'm sticking with Xandros.

(In a fit of insanity, I also downloaded Fedora Core 4. Fortunately, I remembered before I installed it that I'd sworn off ever using any RPM-based distribution.)

Our latest article, Choosing the Best Star Atlases, is now posted on O'Reilly.net.


Wednesday, 20 July 2005
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10:43 - It was 61 years ago today that Oberst Graf Klaus Philip Schenk von Stauffenberg slid a bomb under the conference table at Wolfshanze, Hitler's eastern headquarters. The bomb detonated, but someone had moved it behind one of the pillars that supported the conference table, and Hitler escaped with minor injuries. What a pity, but it does remind us that bombs can be used to do good as well as evil.

Heads-down writing again today, followed by dinner and an astronomy club meeting. At least we can talk about astronomy, because we sure haven't been able to do any lately. We've had thunderstorms nearly every night. Those few nights we haven't had thunderstorms, we've been socked in with clouds. And on the very rare clear nights, the moon has been up, which makes DSO observing impossible. This crap has been going on all summer every summer for the last three summers, which makes it pretty hard to log the summer objects we need for the Herschel 400 and several other Astronomical League lists we're working on. The only real solution may be to move to New Mexico.

16:19 - Astronomy Hacks just got slashdotted. Feel free to post your own comments.


Thursday, 21 July 2005
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10:30 - The slashdotting had its predictable effect on the Amazon ranking of Astronomy Hacks. It was in the 600's yesterday evening, the 400's overnight, back to the 500's this morning, and now sits at 661. It's fun to watch one of our books hit the three-digit Amazon ranks, but it doesn't really mean much unless it's persistent. This short blip may mean that Amazon sold 20 or 30 extra copies in the last 12 hours or so. Still, it is fun to watch.

I was just reading several articles about how Microsoft is trying to force Office 2003 on users, before Office 12 arrives in 18 months (their estimate, not mine). The estimates vary, but most suggest that Office 2003 currently makes up only 5% to 10% of all MS Office installations (Microsoft claims 15%, but they have motivation to exaggerate). As best I can determine, the antique Office 97 still has about a 30% share, Office 2000, about 40%, and Office XP, about 20%.

When you think about those numbers, it becomes obvious that the Microsoft Office cash cow is dying. The 30% of MS Office users who use Office 97 aren't going to upgrade to a later version of MS Office, or they'd have done so already. The same is true for Office 2000 users. Together, they comprise 70% of the installed base, and they ain't budging. Office XP uses are already running a recent version, and Office 2003 users the most recent. Why would they upgrade? Who exactly is going to buy Office 12? Not many people, I think.

Microsoft's problem is that earlier Office versions are more than good enough for what people want to do. All of the upgrades have added only bells and whistles that most people don't care about. Office 12 will be more of the same. It's no wonder that Microsoft hates perpetual licenses and is doing everything possible to move its user base to software rental. That's why I've argued in the past that security flaws actually benefit Microsoft. By refusing to fix security holes in earlier versions, Microsoft forces upgrades to newer versions of both Office and Windows.

We see that now with Windows 2000, which at about 50% share is still the dominant corporate OS. By not porting Internet Explorer 7 to Windows 2000 (which would be trivially easy to do), Microsoft hopes to force Windows 2000 users to upgrade their OSs. What they hope doesn't happen, of course, is that all those Windows 2000 users migrate to Firefox. But I suspect a lot more Windows 2000 users will upgrade to Firefox than to a newer version of Windows. Isn't it nice to have alternatives?

And, speaking of alternatives, I've been looking at a late beta of OpenOffice.org 2.0. I actually prefer OOo 1.X and StarOffice 7 to Office 2000, but OOo 2.0 is a significant upgrade. OOo is already starting to establish a foothold in corporations. Some data I've seen suggest that corporations migrating from early versions of MS Office are at least as likely to migrate to OOo/SO as they are to migrate to a later version of MS Office. There are some niggling compatibility issues between MS Office and OOo/SO (and one major one, macros), but there are also significant compatibility issues in upgrading from an early MS Office to the current version, so that's a wash.

Given the small number of people who are likely to upgrade to Office 12, and the growing groundswell for OOo/SO, I think it's not at all unlikely that a couple years after the release of Office 12 we'll see Office 12 with last-place share, behind OOo/SO. My guess is that Office 12 will be lucky to achieve 5% share two years after its release, by which time OOo/SO may well be at 8% to 10% share. Wouldn't that be embarrassing for Microsoft?

14:32 - I am having one of those days when I get absolutely nothing done. Duncan has diarrhea, poor dog. Malcolm has been barking constantly.

And I've just had my first-ever failure of a Plextor drive. Not that I can blame Plextor. This one wasn't a natural death. It was murder. When K3b finishes burning a disc, by default it ejects the disc and leaves the tray sticking out. Malcolm started barking ferociously. I was hoping it was UPS delivering our author copies of Astronomy Hacks, which were to have been delivered Tuesday, then Wednesday, now today. (I think they've lost the box, because every day they reschedule it for delivery the following day.)

As it turned out, it wasn't UPS. It was some other large truck, so I told Malcolm to shut up and headed back into my office. Unfortunately, I work by preference with dungeon-like lighting, and I didn't notice the Plextor tray still sticking out. I hit it with my knee, ripping it out of the drive. Oh, well. It's a PX-708A, so it's no great loss. I have a bunch of 16X drives sitting around, so I suppose it'd make sense just to shut down my main system and install a current model DVD writer in it.

For some reason, I didn't feel like doing that, so I decided just to use the Antec Aria sitting on credenza behind me to do my backup today. That system was formerly my main box, but I replaced it with the current system because the Aria was running hot and the fans were screaming. I solved that, albeit temporarily, by pulling the top and side panels from the Aria, leaving it open to outside air. It's been running for almost an hour now, and is barely audible.

Of course, in order to back up to DVD, I had to have DVD writing software installed. The Aria is the box that I used the other day to install half a dozen Linux distros, one after the other. It currently has Xandros 3.02 Business Edition on it. X3BE has built-in DVD burning, but I don't much like it. It won't do verifies, for example. So I decided to install K3b. There are versions of K3b for Xandros available in the Xandros unsupported repository and a couple other sites, but none of them work properly. Every one generates "broken packages" messages when I attempt to install it.

There being no alternative, I downloaded the K3b sources, installed the compiler, K3b development environment, and other necessary packages, and started K3b compiling. Interestingly, make took a lot longer to run on the Aria, which has a Pentium 4/3.2 Prescott, than it did on my main system, which has a 3.4 GHz Pentium 4 Extreme Edition. Apparently, that extra cache really helps, because the difference was much greater than I'd expect from 3.2 GHz versus 3.4 GHz.

And the Aria system is still almost inaudible because the CPU fan is running at about 1,700 RPM rather than the 5,600 RPM it sometimes reaches with the case closed.


Friday, 22 July 2005
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10:26 - I see the British police know how to handle an Islamic terrorist. Chase him. When he trips, sit on him and shoot him five times in the chest and head. Give the bastard no chance to trigger his bomb.

The New York City transit cops, on the other hand, have their hands tied by political correctness. They're doing random spot searches of backpacks and briefcases, but the authorities have announced that they won't use so-called racial profiling. Now there's a plan. Search an Italian grandma's knitting bag or a Chinese businessman's briefcase, but don't dare bother the young Islamic man with the backpack as he goes through the turnstile. That goes beyond stupidity. It's insanity.

Fortunately, although our authorities are politically correct and probably insane, our citizens aren't. They know what the dangerous people look like. I have one piece of advice for young Islamic men in the US who are not terrorists. If you use mass transit, don't carry a backpack. That grandma may have a Glock in her knitting bag, and the businessman may have a Ruger in his briefcase. In light of recent events, they're not likely to give you the benefit of the doubt. And, if I were sitting on their jury, I'd vote to acquit, as would most American citizens. I'd consider your death an unfortunate accident, but better safe than sorry.

15:58 - Incredibly, after an 8-month analysis and search, Microsoft has apparently decided to name the new version of its Windows operating system, formerly known as Shorthorn, after Arnold Schwarzenegger's famous line from the Terminator series. Yes, it's true. The new version of Windows will be known throughout the universe as "Hasta la Vista Windows", which my Spanish-speaking friends tell me means "Goodbye Windows". Could they be trying to tell us something?

After years of effort and long delays, Microsoft will give birth to what amounts to Windows XP SP3, so it's a who-cares anyway. Nearly every important new feature that was promised for Shorthorn has been eliminated, falling victim to the rush to get Shorthorn out the door by 2006, a date Microsoft looks unlikely to meet. Of course, Microsoft simply redefines the product features retroactively, so it can meet any arbitrary deadline it chooses. But don't expect much more than XP SP3. And this is a service pack you'll have to pay for.

Microsoft executives have compared Shorthorn to the Apollo program, which resulted in humans setting foot on the moon. To my way of thinking, the Shorthorn launch is more likely to resemble that famous footage of Langley using a catapult to launch his airplane from a boat on the Potomac River.  (Hint: it crashes immediately and sinks like a stone.)


Saturday, 23 July 2005
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Sunday, 24 July 2005
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Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005 by Robert Bruce Thompson. All Rights Reserved.