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Week of 11 June 2007

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Monday, 11 June 2007
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08:34 - Mary is hanging in there. Since the start of the Blue Planet Run on 1 June, she's already run the equivalent of about three full Marathons, and the run is only about 10% complete. Her husband, Paul, sent the following update yesterday.

From: Paul Jones
  To: <many recipients>
Date: Yesterday 15:09:59
  Re: Sunday


I spoke briefly with Mary a few minutes ago. She had a rough Saturday, with some sort of stomach ailment that prevented a full run.

In her run this morning, she was the runner today who crossed the French/Belgian border. European borders aren't really the big deal they are here. She reports that this particular border was being guarded only by some uninterested cows and a prodigious growth of nettles and there was a sign welcoming folks to Belgium. (Actually, isn't nettle soup supposed to be soothing to upset stomachs? I should suggest this). Her team now has a day off and won't run again until 3pm Tuesday local time. According to the website, that will be Almere in the Netherlands. She'll visit a Dow site tomorrow (her days off are only from running, evidently). There are, I think, six baton exchanges slated for European Dow sites. They'll be hitting several in the next week. I think Mary and Heiko will have to show up for those even if they're not running.

More when I hear.  -Paul

Mary Chervenak and Silver teammate Emmanuel Kibet passing the baton in the French countryside

Over the weekend, I decided to make a change to my daily backup routine. In addition to backing up my working data set every day to multiple local hard drives and network drives, I had been writing a DVD+R disc every morning. I kept the most recent six Monday through Saturday daily discs in the disc wallet that goes everywhere with me, as well as about six months' worth of Sunday discs and full sets of my archive (deep archive) and holding (recent archive) sets. The only real problem with that method is that it produces a lot of backup discs, 365 per year give or take.

So I decided to burn a backup DVD+R disc only once a week, on Sunday. The obvious problem with that is that I can't routinely carry my primary desktop system with me when I leave the house, so I needed a portable daily backup set. The obvious answer to that is an external hard drive (or, ideally, multiple drives). I've been using external hard drives all along, of course, but I decided to rationalize things by building two external hard drives solely for daily backups, to be labeled A and B. I'll back up to A on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and to B on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. When I leave the house, at least one and probably both of those external drives will go with me.

I've used many different external drive enclosures from various makers, and I've never been completely happy with any of them. Most of them, in fact, ended up in the trash. Antec sent me a couple of their new Veris MX-1 actively-cooled external hard drive enclosures, so I decided to give them a shot. These aren't inexpensive enclosures. NewEgg sells them for about $60 each, about twice what I've paid for enclosures from some well-known companies. But those $30 enclosures don't stand up to daily use. On one of them, the cooling fan died without warning and took a hard drive with it when the enclosure overheated. On others, the connectors have snapped off despite careful use. At about twice the price, the Antec MX-1 should be better built and more durable.

Here's a view of the back panel of the MX-1. From left to right, the connectors are for power, USB 2.0, and eSATA. Vents are visible above and below the connector panel.
When I opened the MX-1 box and pulled out the enclosure, I was disappointed at first. The Antec MX-1 enclosure is extremely light. It feels like it's made of plastic, and thin plastic at that. The $30 units I'd used were of mostly steel and aluminum construction, so I wondered how Antec could justify charging twice as much for a plastic box.

I soon found out. The MX-1 uses composite construction similar to that used in mid-range and high-end Antec computer cases, with plastic-aluminum sandwich panels to suppress noise and vibration and a carbon-glass filled frame for stiffness. What appeared at first glance to be cheap plastic construction is in fact an engineered composite design that uses expensive materials.

Installing the drive is a two-minute job. The enclosure uses one long black screw to connect the top and bottom halves. With that screw removed, the top of the enclosure can be slid backward a few millimeters and lifted off. The drive tray is secured to the bottom of the chassis with two screws. Once you've removed those, you can slide and lift the tray and move it from the chassis. There's a cable that links to the LED that the instructions indicate you should remove. That cable is long enough that you can install the drive without removing the cable if you're careful. If you do disconnect the cable, disconnect it by pulling apart the in-line connector rather than removing the connector from the circuit board. I did the latter, and it was a pain in the butt to get it reconnected. (I didn't see the in-line connector until after I'd disconnected the connector at the circuit board.)

With the drive tray removed, mounting the hard drive is very easy. Unlike all other external enclosures I've used, which have short jumper cables for the SATA power and data connectors, the Antec MX-1 has built-in connectors. You simply place the hard drive in the tray and slide it toward the built-in connectors until they mate. That's a much better solution than using short cables, which invariably end up crammed into too small a space and possibly folded or crimped.

Once the drive is in place, you secure it with four screws (provided) that thread into the bottom of the drive. Antec uses a soft plastic surround to isolate the drive from the chassis and minimize drive noise. The four screws are the typical Antec mounting screws with oversized heads that thread through soft plastic grommets to further isolate drive noise and vibration. Once the drive is secured in the tray, you simply slide the tray back into the chassis, reinstall the two screws to secure the tray to the chassis, drop the cover back into place, slide it forward until it locks, and then reinstall the long black screw.

The Antec MX-1 comes with several cables and accessories. The power supply is one of the nice in-line units rather than the typical cheap wall-wart. With the proliferation of devices that need to be plugged in, I've come more and more to appreciate ones that come with in-line power supplies that fit power strips without taking up more than one position. The MX-1 also comes with a vertical stand. Although I plan to put the unit on top of my primary system, the vertical stand would be useful to minimize the amount of space needed for those who keep the unit on their desks.

In addition to the expected USB cable, the Antec MX-1 comes with an external SATA (eSATA) cable and a cliff-hanger eSATA bracket. That bracket installs in place of an expansion slot cover and provides an externally-accessible eSATA port. Internally, it provides a standard SATA cable that you can connect to an available motherboard SATA port. That's a very nice touch, allowing people whose computers don't provide an eSATA port (which is to say most of them) with the ability to use the faster eSATA instead of USB. At some point, I'll probably install the bracket, but for now I decided just to use USB 2.0.

When I first turned the drive on, I thought it wasn't running. The Seagate Barracuda 7200.9 500 GB drive I used is a very quiet drive, but it's not inaudible, particularly when it seeks. The MX-1 has a drive activity indicator, a blue LED, but that LED is visible only if the chassis is above eye level. I had the enclosure sitting on my desk, and at first I thought the unit didn't have power. When I picked it up to check the connections, I could feel the slight vibration of the running drive and I saw that the LED was lit. This is one very quiet external drive enclosure.

As to durability and reliability, the only way to find out is to use the enclosure day-in-day-out for a few weeks or months. Time will tell.


Tuesday, 12 June 2007
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09:13 - Hmmm. Netflix started throttling me yesterday, exactly three weeks after I rejoined. I got an email early yesterday morning from Netflix, confirming that they'd received a disc I sent back on Saturday. My queue reported that they expected to ship my next disc that day. When I checked my queue mid-afternoon yesterday to see what disc they were going to send me, the status had changed to indicate that they expected to ship my next disc Tuesday, today.

Still, I can't complain too much. In those three weeks, they've shipped me 16 discs, of which one was bad and had to be replaced for a net of 15 discs. I sent back two more discs yesterday, which should arrive at Netflix today and have the replacements shipped today as well.

If Netflix starts throttling me too harshly, I retaliate. Ordinarily, I ship back two discs in the same envelope whenever possible, because that costs them the same in pre-paid postage as it does if I ship only one disc in an envelope. Return shipping is a very large part of their costs, so halving that postage cost where possible directly improves their bottom line. If they throttle me, I start sending back each disc in its own envelope.

I think they notice, too, because in the past when I started sending one disc per envelope, they quickly stopped throttling me and I went back to returning two discs per envelope where possible. I'll let them get away with the one late disc from yesterday, but if they don't ship out all three replacement discs today, I'll return those discs individually. It usually doesn't take more than one series of that before they stop throttling. If they play nice, I play nice.


Wednesday, 13 June 2007
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08:50 - The journal entry that never was...

I sometimes write a journal entry and decide not to post it. I did that the other day. I won't say anything more about it, except that it had to do with Mary's blog post about not being able to take showers or change clothes, and it referenced the WWI soldier's song Mademoiselle from Armentières (with the original lyrics, not the Bowdlerized children's version...)

But I live in fear of Mary's Fist of Death, so I decided not to post that entry. I did send it to Mary privately, though. Here's the exchange.

From: Robert Bruce Thompson
  To: Mary Chervenak
  CC: Paul Jones, Barbara Thompson
Date: Yesterday 13:46:44
 Fwd: Self preservation

When I read your blog entry about not being able to bathe and being the runner who crossed the French/Belgian border, I just started to laugh. I told Paul that I almost posted that information on my web page with the comment "Inky, Dinky, Parlez Vous", but that would have been too subtle for about 99.999999% of the world's population. Maybe not too subtle for you, though, and the Fist of Death worries me, even at 4,000 miles range.

So here's what I sent Paul last night. I just talked to him, and he said that you might not appreciate me posting it, but you might find it funny if I mailed it to you privately.

So here it is.

Please don't hit me...

<offending journal entry redacted>

From: Mary Chervenak
  To: Robert Bruce Thompson
  CC: Paul Jones, Barbara Thompson
Date: Today 03:14:16
  Re: Fwd: Self preservation

Hi Bob --

Your post made me laugh out loud -- I did get the reference, but I don't think things have gotten quite that bad!! Our schedules have stabilized a bit and I'm now showering with greater frequency, much to my relief and the relief of my teammates. Thanks for sending it. No Fist of Death today!

My team crossed from Holland into Germany last night. Weird to listen to Dutch and an English version of Dutch all day and then wake up hearing German. And for the first time in about 35 years, I am nearly illiterate. It's a humbling feeling.

We're headed to the Czech Republic in a day or two, but for now, we run through Germany (and a number of Dow sites). Onward!

From: Robert Bruce Thompson
  To: Mary Chervenak
  CC: Paul Jones, Barbara Thompson
Date: Today 08:13:57
  Re: Fwd: Self preservation

See, I *knew* you'd get it. Boy, do I have a world-class sense of self-preservation, or what?

I'm pleased that things are going better for you and your teammates. Paul has told me about some of the problems you all have encountered and what you've done to overcome them. I am still stunned by the magnitude of the task you've undertaken. You're my hero. We're all cheering for you.


Thursday, 14 June 2007
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10:07 - For the last several days I've been exchanging email with lots of people across three continents trying to make sure we have the necessary permissions to use the DSS images for the astronomy book. It gets extremely complicated because there are so many organizations involved and because all of them have their own requirements for permissions, as does O'Reilly.

For example, one organization just granted us permission to use the images (to the extent they can; they're only one of the organizations from which we need permissions for the same images) but their standard permissions grant may not be sufficient to satisfy O'Reilly's requirements. Why? Because they granted us permission to use the images in the book, but O'Reilly needs more than just that permission. O'Reilly may post the book on Safari and elsewhere, which means they need permissions for electronic use. O'Reilly may publish foreign-language editions, which means they need those permissions as well.

Brian Jepson, my editor, is doing everything he can to help, but ultimately according to the contract we're responsible for getting all necessary permissions. Needless to say, I'm extremely uncomfortable with this. I'm not a copyright attorney, and I have no clue what's needed. I'm afraid that I'll think I have all necessary permissions and then after the book is published learn that I didn't. If that happens, I'm stuck between the copyright owner and O'Reilly.

I do know one thing. I will never again do a book that requires any sort of copyright permissions. I will hold the copyrights to both text and images for anything that goes into any book I do. As far as this book, I'm just about at the point of telling O'Reilly to pull all of the images because I don't want to risk being responsible if it turns out after the book is published that we don't have the necessary permissions.

13:27 - One guy's response to the Xandros deal with Microsoft. A man after my own heart.


Friday, 15 June 2007
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09:17 - The Blue Planet Run continues on schedule. They're updating the web site daily now, although they're still sometimes a day or two behind. You can follow the run on their updates page. Here's an image from the Day 13 page. Mary commented on her blog page about her running style. As she says, "I don't pick up my feet when I run," which this picture shows pretty clearly.

Mary running in Germany

That's why Mary's running style is so efficient, and also why she falls from time to time. That's the same reason a Border Collie can run all day long, covering literally 50 miles a day or more. At a fast trot, which is their most efficient gait, the Border Collie's paws barely leave the ground. Even at a dead run, at speeds approaching those of a greyhound, a Border Collie's paws rise only a few inches from the ground.

I have many pictures of our BCs at a dead run, and it's amazing how efficient their gait is. Here's one of Malcolm running flat-out, herding sheep into a pen. (He's never been trained to herd sheep; BCs do that instinctively.)

Malcolm herding sheep

12:38 - Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols thinks that Ubuntu will be the next Linux distro to strike a deal with Microsoft. I think he's wrong, and I think it's because he misses the point of these deals. Microsoft is entering these deals for exactly one reason. Not interoperability cooperation, nor any of the other red herrings that have been floated around. Microsoft needs to be able to point to as many Linux distributions as possible that have conceded that Microsoft has patents that affect Linux. That way, it can use FUD to influence the PHBs who make the decisions.

Despite its nebulous claims, Microsoft has no such patents, or none that will hold up if they ever come to court. Microsoft cannot afford to show its hand, because as soon as it identifies the patents in question with specificity, one of two things is going to happen to those patents. First, most of the patents, probably all or nearly all of them, will be voided on the basis of obviousness and/or prior art. A recent Supreme Court decision makes it much easier to challenge patents on those bases, and you can bet that most of Microsoft's anti-Linux patents would fail on those grounds. Second, if Microsoft does happen to have a few patents that stand up--not likely but not impossible--you can bet that OSS coders will code around those patents fast enough to make Microsoft's collective head spin. In short, Microsoft is engaging in a huge bluff, and it can't afford to have anyone call that bluff.

In effect, Microsoft is signing up weak Linux distros like Xandros and Linspire to serve as shills. In essence, Microsoft is saying, "we've shown our cards to Xandros and Linspire, and they know we have a royal flush." (Novell and Xandros have both said that they haven't conceded that Linux violates any Microsoft patents, but of course those claims are lost in the noise that Microsoft is making about the deals.) In reality, Microsoft is sitting on a 6-high bust. They know it, and we know it. But Microsoft hopes to influence the PHBs, who don't know it. The PHB attitude is "where there's smoke there must be fire", so Microsoft is generating as much smoke as it can.

As to Ubuntu signing a similar deal with Microsoft, it just isn't going to happen. Ubuntu may sign a deal with Microsoft, but if they do it will be missing the critical patent protection clause that has so many people upset with Novell, Xandros, and Linspire. Shuttleworth isn't anti-Microsoft, and he might indeed sign a deal to gain access to certain Microsoft technologies such as codecs. But you can bet that Shuttleworth isn't going to sign off on a deal that includes patent covenants.

Despite its backing by Canonical, Ubuntu is a community distribution, unlike SuSE, Xandros, or Linspire. If Shuttleworth signed a patent covenant deal with Microsoft, the Ubuntu community would simply walk. There are many other distributions that would welcome them. Ubuntu would find itself losing nearly all of its developers overnight.

14:46 - Netflix is starting to annoy me. They received a disc from me on Monday, and they should have shipped out the replacement disc that same day, for arrival on Tuesday. Instead, they delayed shipping that disc until Tuesday. Instead of shipping it from a reasonably local distribution center, they shipped it from Lansing, Michigan, with an ETA of today. It finally got here today, three days late.

When I opened the envelope, I immediately noticed that the disc was cracked. Not cracked in transit, mind you. It was cracked and had been "repaired" with a glob of glue of some sort. Netflix shipped a known-defective disc to me. I wasn't sure I even wanted to put it into my player, but I finally decided to give it a try. The player rejected it instantly. As soon as the tray closed, it popped back open again.

I called their toll-free number to complain, but I got tired of listening to on-hold music and just hung up. I finally reported it through the web site, but it's too late for them to ship a replacement disc today. They don't operate on Saturdays, which means the best I can hope for is that they'll ship me a replacement disc next Monday. If they again ship it from a distant center, I may end up having to wait until next Thursday or Friday to received it. That's ridiculous. I should have had that disc three days ago as it is, and I may not have it for another week. That means an effective two-week turnaround on one of my three "unlimited" discs. You can bet I'm going to start returning discs one-per-envelope until they straighten up.


Saturday, 16 June 2007
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Sunday, 17 June 2007
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