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Week of 31 October 2005

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Monday, 31 October 2005
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08:46 - I'll be busy this week. I have an article to write for Make magazine as well as reviewing copyedits on the new book.

It's time to buy another digital camera. Barbara likes the little Concord 5345Z point-and-shoot, but she still takes her Pentax SLR film cameras along on trips because she wants the interchangeable lenses and other features of an SLR. So I decided it was time to buy her a digital SLR as an early birthday present. I looked at the models from Canon, Nikon, and others, but I think I've settled on the Pentax *ist DL, which Pentax describes as an entry-level DSLR. It appears to be relatively easy to operate, at least for a full-featured DSLR, and it has a couple other advantages, such as using standard AA alkaline or NiMH batteries and accepting her current K-mount lenses.

The manual describes K-mount lenses as having limited functionality, but I'm not entirely sure in what respects they're limited. Obviously, they can't autofocus, but that's not a problem. If they operate normally as manual-focus lenses in aperture-priority mode, that's all I care about. She could at least use her existing Pentax 50mm macro, 70mm to 150mm zoom, and 400mm telephoto, although they'd function as the equivalent of a 75mm macro, 105mm to 225mm zoom, and 600mm telephoto, respectively. The camera is available in a bundle with an 18mm to 55mm zoom, which is the equivalent in 35mm terms of a 27mm to 83mm zoom, and that should suffice for the bulk of her shooting.

I'm thinking about ordering the camera from these folks, who have a good price on it and have a pretty respectable rating on resellerratings.com. I'll probably also order her a 1 GB SD card or two and a few other accessories. Advice appreciated.

11:31 - Okay, it's ordered. Ordering was harder than it should have been. I first tried ordering the camera on the web site. I filled out the form with my name and other information, the credit card number, and so on, and clicked "Submit". The buydig.com web server went into a catatonic trance. After about ten minutes, my browser finally returned a time-out message. Not knowing if the order had been accepted or not, I called their toll-free customer service number, where I spent half an hour on hold. The woman I spoke to couldn't find the order, and suggested I call and place the order the old-fashioned way. I did that, and didn't realize until after the salesman, who was in the hurry you expect from a New York camera store (actually, New Jersey in this case) had hung up that he hadn't asked for my email address or given me a confirmation number. Oh, well. It should be here later this week. I just hope I don't get two of them.

13:43 - If you want to understand the Massachusetts OpenDocument Format decision, go read this article. It's quite long, but it covers everything anyone needs to know about the Massachusetts ODF decision and Microsoft's frenzied attempts to overturn it.

ODF is Microsoft's worst nightmare. It strikes at the heart of the Microsoft monopoly on office software, which itself is the keystone upon which Microsoft's monopoly on desktop operating systems depends. Linux terrifies Microsoft, but ODF is orders of magnitude more threatening. Microsoft is pulling out all the stops to prevent this genie from escaping the bottle. Unfortunately for Microsoft, the genie is already on the loose. Even if Microsoft can succeed in stomping out the Massachusetts initiative, which is unlikely to happen, ODF is in the wild and its growth is exponential.


Tuesday, 1 November 2005
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08:50 - The start of a new month, and only two months left in 2005. By the end of the year, I want to have made substantial progress on the two books I'm working on now, so there's much work to be done.

On the Netflix front, I received 19 discs during the month of October. By my estimate, Netflix engaged in moderate throttling. Had they turned around discs as quickly as possible, I would have received 25 or 26 discs. Still, 19 discs for $19 plus tax is pretty good. And, in actuality, I received more than 19 discs. One of the discs they sent me was cracked, and two were unplayable. If you count those, Netflix actually sent me 22 discs last month.

The Antec Aria system is back in the den. Barbara is quite happy that we have a computer there again. We've gotten used to having it there for everything from checking weather forecasts to looking up things on IMDB while we're watching a movie.

That system is back to running Xandros Linux, which it had run for nearly a year with no problems. While I was using it temporarily as ripper, running Windows XP, it had nothing but problems. Every time I started the system, it'd pop up a warning dialog to tell me that Windows had experienced a serious error. This despite several re-installs and replacing the hard drive, which turned out to be unnecessary. Periodically, it would also blue screen at boot, displaying a string of garbage. With Xandros Linux installed on it again, it works perfectly normally.

While I was re-installing the system in the den, I also swapped out the keyboard and mouse. I had been using a standard wired Microsoft keyboard and a Logitech cordless mouse. I replaced those with a Microsoft Wireless Desktop, which is very nice.

Despite my usual advice, I'm running this system with the side and top panels off. With the panels on, the system runs very hot because it sits between the side of a love seat and the side of a corner table, which block the ventilation holes in the side panels. With the panels off, ventilation is no problem. The system actually runs a lot quieter with the panels off because the CPU fan runs at about a third the speed it does when the panels are on. The downside is that the top of the system is completely open and I generally have a liter of Coke in a large cup sitting on the very corner of the table, directly over the system. If that cup ever gets knocked over, it isn't going to be pretty.

Yet another reason to Just Say No to DRM. Mark Russinovich of SysInternals reports that Sony DRM installs a rootkit. I've never trusted closed-source software, and this is just another example of why it's foolish to do so.

About 25 years ago, I worked for a software company that provided billing and accounting software to law firms. That software included a "time bomb" that caused the software to stop working every few months unless an update was installed. When the software stopped working, the data was inaccessible until a patch was installed to re-enable the software.

That time bomb was never mentioned to firms who bought the software. Although I never gave away the secret, I thought having the hidden time bomb was a sleazy and dishonest business practice, and I made that clear to the owner of the company. The company later experienced severe financial problems and eventually disappeared, presumably taking a lot of law firms' data with it. I've never forgotten that, and for that reason I've never trusted closed-source software.

12:20 - More on Sony's rootkit from The Register, Removing Sony's CD 'rootkit' kills Windows. "Essential System Tools", indeed. I really do wonder how much longer sane people will continue to use Windows, not to mention buying DRM-laden content.

It's easy to forget that until very recently copyright infringement was a civil matter. Thanks to Clinton, it's now a criminal matter. We need to repeal all of these ill-considered laws, beginning with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and return to sanity. It would also be nice if Congress passed a law that explicitly defined all forms of non-commercial copyright infringement as Fair Use.


Wednesday, 2 November 2005
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08:30 - Better buy that DVD recorder while you still can. The copyright pigs are at it again. This time, they're asking their bought-and-paid-for congressmen to pass a new law to block the so-called analog hole. If this legislation is enacted, say good-bye to DVD recorders, video capture cards, and any other device or technology that can capture an analog stream and record it to a digital device. From the article:

"Analog video which has been branded as "do not copy", will last for only ninety minutes only in the digital world - and will be erased, literally frame by frame, megabyte by megabyte, from your PC, without your control. You'll watch a two hour film, and as you watch the final half hour, the first few scenes will be being dissolved away by statute."

One of my readers suggested something I hadn't thought about doing. Instead of having the Antec Aria case sitting on the floor, I'm considering getting rid of the case entirely and just mounting the components to the underside of the corner table.

There's not much, really. Just the motherboard, power supply, hard drive, and optical drive. I haven't thought it through, but I'm think about mounting the motherboard directly to the bottom of the table surface, facing down. I could do the same with the power supply and hard drive, and mount two or three 120mm case fans blowing directly over them to cool them. For the optical drive, I could come up with a spare detachable drive bay from an old case and use it to mount the optical drive flush with the bottom of the tabletop, where it would be accessible. While I'm at it, I may replace the 17" CRT with a 17" LCD display.

Oops. When I mentioned this idea to Barbara last night, she was not amused. She suggested instead moving the system to the top of the end table. I may do that.


Thursday, 3 November 2005
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08:40 - FedEx showed up yesterday with the Pentax *ist DL digital SLR camera. I'm very impressed. It looks and works pretty much like a 35mm SLR. Barbara is very happy with it. I pulled the 256 MB SD memory card from our little Concord 5345Z point-and-shoot camera because I haven't ordered any memory cards or other accessories for the Pentax yet. I popped in four freshly charged NiMH AA batteries and shot a few test images.

Oddly, the camera soon displayed a "Battery Depleted" message. I think I need to order some new high-capacity NiMH batteries. These Lenmar batteries I ordered some months ago from NewEgg seem to be of pretty low quality. Brand suggestions appreciated, both for batteries and SD memory cards. I'm not sure how fast this KingMax SD card is, but I think I want a fast card to minimize the time required to write an image to the card. I see that SD cards are available in speeds up to 133X and 150X. Do I need something that fast, or would the 50X or 60X models suffice? I figure I'll buy Barbara one or two 512 MB or 1 GB cards and have done with it.

I haven't had a chance to see how Barbara's existing K-mount lenses work with the new camera. I'm particularly interested in using the Pentax 50mm macro, which will be useful for shooting book images, and Barbara is interested mainly in how/whether her 400mm telephoto will work. This is all going to be fun to play with.


Friday, 4 November 2005
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07:55 - If Abraham Lincoln were writing the Gettysburg Address today, he might have to change the closing line a bit

... that government of the corporations by the corporations for the corporations, shall not perish from the earth.

Perhaps I've simply reached the limits of what I can take, but this week has been particularly depressing. Google has started scanning copyrighted texts, running roughshod over copyright law for its own commercial benefit. Sony's DRM rootkit made the news. Microsoft appears to have bought enough politicians in Massachusetts to put the future of the OpenDocument initiative in serious doubt. It seems as though large corporations can do pretty much as they please, as long as they're willing to buy enough politicians.

Which makes me wonder why we, as Americans, put up with the gross corruption that permeates Congress and our state and local legislative bodies. Since when has it been acceptable for corporations to bribe our representatives? Representatives are, after all, supposed to be representing us. Not Sony, not Google, and not Microsoft. And yet, essentially all of our representatives and senators are bought and paid for, beholden to the corporations that pay them bribes.

It seems to me that the solution is pretty clear. Individuals should be able to contribute money to politicians; corporations, labor unions, industry consortia, and other organizations should not, whether directly or indirectly via PACs and so on. Furthermore, individual contributions should be limited in scope. If I want to contribute money to a candidate who is running for the US Senate from North Carolina, or to a candidate running for the US House of Representatives in the 5th North Carolina Congressional District, that's fine. They're my representatives. But why should I be permitted to contribute money to a candidate from another state or Congressional District? They don't represent me, and any money I sent to them represents a bribe, pure and simple.

If Bill Gates, as an individual, decides to contribute a billion dollars to each of his senators and his one representative, he is within his rights. Let him buy 1/50th of the Senate and 1/435th of the House of Representatives. The other 49/50ths and 434/435ths limit the potential influence Mr. Gates can wield, even if he also buys 100% of the President of the US.

For corporations and other organizations, the matter is even clearer. These entities are not people, and are not entitled to representation. I know that to be a fact, because I've read the Constitution. Any campaign donations or in-kind contributions made other than by individuals are naked bribes, as are sweetheart employment deals whereby a departing congressman steps into a highly paid job with a corporation that he has faithfully represented. Those who pay such bribes and those who accept them should be sentenced to life in prison, if not death, for subverting and corrupting the political process.

13:31 - Getting old is hell.

When I was in high school, my vision was 20/10. I don't know what it is now, but I have to wear glasses to work comfortably at the computer.

I happened across an article that was talking about how alcohol and fatigue affect reaction time, which made me wonder how much I've slowed down. In a high-school science class, we tested everyone's reaction time, doing 20 passes each with penalties for hitting the button too soon. The class average reaction time was 0.44 seconds, with a reasonably large standard deviation. My average was 0.09 seconds, with a small standard deviation.

Now, I know I'm still pretty fast. If I open a cupboard door, for example, and something falls out, I generally catch it before it's dropped more than six inches. But I was curious about my actual reaction time, so I went off in search of web-based reaction-time testers. Most of them used five or ten passes, but I ran a total of 20 passes each. All of them agreed pretty closely. My average reaction time, at age 52, has increased to about 0.18 seconds.

Getting old is hell.


Saturday, 5 November 2005
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Sunday, 6 November 2005
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