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Week of 17 October 2005

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Monday, 17 October 2005
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10:30 - Today is deadline day for Repairing & Upgrading Your PC to go to production. We made it, although a few weeks ago I thought we wouldn't. Now it's in the hands of the O'Reilly production folks, who'll work their magic to turn the manuscript into an attractive finished book.

There'll be queries, QC galley proofs, and so on to deal with, but now the book is pretty much in their hands. I'll be posting the QC PDFs on the subscriber page for those who want to follow the progress.

And now it's time to start on the next book. Actually, the next two books. We'll interleave work on those two books, with the goal of having both of them in the bookstores for the autumn selling season next year. That means we'll be very busy for the next eight or nine months getting those two books written and off to production. And by that time, of course, we'll be starting another new book or two. It's a treadmill, but it's a fun one.

I'd best get to work on the preliminaries, although I am going to cut back a bit on my working hours for the next couple of weeks. I have outlines to work on, product samples to request, and so on.


Tuesday, 18 October 2005
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09:32 - I see that MS05-051, Microsoft's latest critical patch, may kill your system. Microsoft apparently didn't bother to test the patch against systems with modified ACLs, which is a common security measure employed by people who know what they're doing. So, in this case, knowledgeable people who tried to secure their systems properly and applied the patch as soon as it was released were the ones who suffered. Of course, it's a matter of damned if you do and damned if you don't, and Microsoft continues to recommend installing this flawed patch.

Having been burned frequently in the past by Microsoft patches, my own practice is to avoid installing Microsoft patches for as long as possible, whenever possible. My systems operate behind a NAT router, which by itself eliminates most of the potential vulnerabilities to worms. The other major threats, viruses and browser exploits, are also pretty easy to deal with. I don't run mail on Windows systems, but if I did I'd use a non-Microsoft mail client with HTML message display disabled and a good antivirus package like Grisoft AVG. I disable everything in Internet Explorer and delete the scripting executables. I install the Mozilla or Firefox browser and use it for everything. I install Spybot Search & Destroy and AdAware and scan periodically for malware, which I find only once every year or two, and that's always been from malware intentionally bundled with manufacturer distribution discs, such as the Logitech mouse driver.

The only time I've ever had a live infection on a system was many years ago, when I got a message from Jerry Pournelle that was infected with Melissa. Of course, nowadays I run Linux almost exclusively, so my systems are inherently several orders of magnitude more secure than Windows systems.


Wednesday, 19 October 2005
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12:28 - As incredible as it seems, we're short of computers around here. Right now, other than test-bed systems, there are only three systems running in the house--Barbara's office system, my office system, and ripper, which used to be my den system. Of course, I have parts galore in the stock room, so I could just build a system or two, but I think I'll hold off until I have time to photograph and document each build.

Fred is at it again about Intelligent Design. Frankly, I'm disappointed in him. He usually thinks and writes clearly, but on this particular subject he wears blinders. It's worse than that, actually. Fred intentionally distorts the issue, which, simply stated, is this:

Intelligent Design is not science. It is not a theory. It is not even a hypothesis. Intelligent Design is thinly-disguised Creationism, and as such has no place in a science classroom. No scientist recognizes Intelligent Design as an alternative to Evolution, or indeed as anything other than pseudoscience.

Evolution theory, despite the arguments of the ID zealots, makes no claims about the origin of life, but only the origin of species. Evolution is based on the mechanism of natural selection, which is not in any doubt. We can actually watch natural selection occur, as for example with bacteria developing resistance to particular drugs.

The ID folks sneer at Evolution as being "only a theory", with the implication that the theory is unproven and therefore their ID garbage is just as likely an explanation, if not more so. In science, a theory is the next best thing to a fact. A fact, in case anyone is unclear about the terminology, is something that has been observed. That the sun rose this morning is a fact. That the sun will rise tomorrow is a theory. Sadly, the vast majority of the public doesn't understand the difference. If asked, they would state with certainty that the sun rising tomorrow is a fact. And the ID zealots play upon this ignorance.

A theory must be falsifiable by observation. If the sun doesn't rise tomorrow morning, our theory is falsified. We, as scientists, discard that theory and propose another theory that fits observed facts. If the sun does rise tomorrow morning, it proves our theory that the sun would rise tomorrow morning, but it does not prove our extended theory that the sun will rise on each successive morning. But, as the sun continues to rise each morning, that provides another observed datum. As the sun continues to rise, morning after morning, for hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, of mornings, that adds additional weight to our theory. But our theory remains only a theory, not a fact. It can be falsified very simply by the sun not rising one morning.

Evolution is just such a theory, supported by the weight of a huge number of observed facts, all of which support the theory. Not one observed fact, ever, has falsified evolution theory. If one had, we'd be looking for a new theory.

Intelligent Design is not a theory, and there are no facts to support it. None. Zero. Nor, of course, are there any facts to disprove it, because by its nature as a non-theory, ID is not falsifiable.

The core argument of ID is the logical fallacy that a watch proves the existence of a watchmaker. What we observe is so complicated, the ID folks argue, that it couldn't possibly have arisen merely from the random processes of nature. An Intelligent Designer must have created it. But what ID ignores is that what is, is.

Consider four people sitting down to play bridge. The 52 cards are dealt, 13 to each player. One player ends up with all 13 spades, the second with all thirteen hearts, the third with all thirteen diamonds, and the fourth with all thirteen clubs. Everyone knows instantly that someone has stacked the deck, an Intelligent Designer, if you will. The likelihood of that occurring is so vanishingly small that there must have been an intelligence behind that outcome.

But consider this. The probability of your being dealt all 13 spades is exactly the same as the probability of your being dealt any 13 specific cards. Every hand, every deal, has exactly the same vanishingly low probability of being dealt. By the arguments of the ID folks, it's impossible that you can be dealt any hand at all randomly, because the probability of your receiving any 13 specific cards is so small.

Just as we consider a hand of 13 spades to be "special", the ID folks consider the world as it is to be special. But there's nothing special about it. It simply is what is. Other than random chance, there's no particular reason that we mammals ended up being the dominant intelligent life form on this planet. It could just as easily have turned out that lizards developed intelligence and mammals never developed at all. And if that had happened, I don't doubt that we'd have a bunch of ID lizards arguing that there must be a watchmaker.


Thursday, 20 October 2005
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10:00 - Someone asked over on the messageboard if it was any longer worthwhile building a PC-based PVR/DVR system, when his alternative was to pay Comcast $15/month for an integrated PVR. My answer was that it depends.

For us, with analog cable and analog SD television sets, no kind of PVR makes sense. We simply don't watch enough television to make it worthwhile. Our best option is one of the $99 DVD recorders that have replaced VCRs, substituting a recordable DVD disc for a VHS tape. For people who watch a lot of television and have a digital cable or satellite feed, I suspect the DVRs offered by the service providers are the best bet, particularly since they're more often $5/month than $15/month.

I see no place at all for the TiVo, and only a small niche for home-built PVR/DVR systems. I'm debating right now whether to include a PVR/HTPC system in the next edition of Building the Perfect PC. If we do include it, it'll be a Linux/MythTV-based system. When we wrote the first edition, the least expensive DVR recorder we found sold for $600 or $700, and one with embedded TiVo sold for $1,000, not including the $300 subscription for program listings. At $1,300, we had a lot of room to play. With optical-only DVD recorders now selling for $99, and DVD recorders with a 100 GB hard drive for $350, we no longer have that pricing umbrella.


Friday, 21 October 2005
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08:22 - Step One was escaping from proprietary Microsoft applications like Internet Explorer and MS Office in favor of OSS applications like Mozilla and OpenOffice.org. Step Two was escaping from Microsoft Windows by migrating our systems to Xandros Linux. I just took Step Three yesterday, escaping from proprietary Microsoft document formats.

With the release of OpenOffice.org 2.0, it's official. We're now using ODF (OpenDocument Format) exclusively, and have no intention of using any proprietary Microsoft formats ever again. Of course, we were already well along that path. The last two or three books we've done were in OOo 1.1 .sxw format. The last book we did in .doc format was the first edition of Building the Perfect PC, and I'm regretting that choice now as I clean up the mess, trying to get chapters ready to edit for the new edition that's due out about a year from now.

I'm already working with O'Reilly to make sure our change to .odt for documents won't present any problems to our editors or to their design/layout folks. O'Reilly already has a macro that adds a custom O'Reilly formatting menu, so I'm perfectly content with the change.

I'll gradually convert all our old legacy .doc and .xls files to ODF, but otherwise proprietary MS formats are banned from our systems starting today. When I post new chapters for my subscribers to look at, they'll be as .odt and .pdf files, but not as .doc files.

Conversion won't be trivial, but I do want to convert everything so that I'll be able to open all these files a year from now, or twenty years from now. Just a quick perusal of our archive directories shows that we already have quite a few files, including some very old Microsoft format files, that are effectively orphaned, not openable by any software we now have access to. Others, including some old WordPerfect files, are still readable by a few applications, but are in danger of extinction.

I did a quick search of our hard drives for Microsoft proprietary document files, and was surprised to find 8,900 listed. As you can see, each file is listed three times, although it's actually stored on disk only twice. The archive directory is located on Barbara's system, and the archiveback directory on my system. My system has a mapping to /archive on Barbara's system and also has a mapping to the root of Barbara's system, so each file that's on her hard drive shows up twice. Even so, there are nearly 3,000 unique .doc files, which surprised me. I wonder if there's a batch convert utility for OOo 2.0 that will sweep directories for .doc files, open them, and save them as .odt files.

Excel files are a smaller problem. The search listing for .xls showed only 635 files, so that probably translates to just over 200 unique files.


Saturday, 22 October 2005
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Sunday, 23 October 2005
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