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Week of 8 October 2007

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Monday, 8 October 2007
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08:27 - Other than a couple hours' work on the book Saturday and the same again Sunday, I pretty much took the weekend off. After finishing the final lab chapter on Friday, I thought I deserved a short break. This morning, it's back to work for me. It'll be heads-down work on the book from now through the end of the month. I may not finish it by then, but at least it should be nearing completion.

There may always be an England, but it's not going to be the England we've known, now that mere possession of a book can subject a person to felony charges. Of course, things aren't much better here in the United States, where someone can be sent to prison merely for thinking about doing something.

It used to be that convicting someone of crime required that the prosecution prove that, first, a crime had actually been committed, and, second, that the person charged with the crime had intended to commit the crime. Furthermore, the law prohibited entrapment, whereby the authorities encouraged someone to commit a crime. Nowadays, it's apparently sufficient for the authorities to prove intent, whether or not they entrapped the person charged, and whether or not a crime was actually committed.

I refer to the case of John David Roy Atchison, who recently committed suicide after being charged with intending to molest a little girl. It's difficult to have any sympathy for Mr. Atchison, of course. It's pretty clear that he did in fact intend to molest a little girl. And yet, before we celebrate, we should think long and hard about exactly what happened here.

Mr. Atchison was entrapped by a police officer masquerading as the non-existent girl's mother. No actual crime occurred, obviously, as the girl does not exist. And, if Mr. Atchison can be charged with intent to molest a non-existent little girl, should not the police officer be charged with offering to prostitute the non-existent little girl?

Prosecuting so-called "thought crimes" is a very slippery slope.


Tuesday, 9 October 2007
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07:53 - Work on the book continues. As usual at this point in a book, I have a lot of balls in the air, so posts here are likely to be infrequent and sparse for at least the rest of this month.


Wednesday, 10 October 2007
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08:16 - Still working heads-down on the book. I started the Mastering Laboratory Skills chapter yesterday, which until now was only a brief outline. I got about 3,500 words knocked out on it yesterday, along with half a dozen images, and hope to do the same today. If I can maintain that rate, I should finish the chapter by the first of next week.

That's the only major chapter that wasn't already in first-draft form. The Preface and Introduction chapters aren't started yet, but they'll take only a day or two each. Then it'll be back to re-write on the other narrative chapters. If I have any time remaining when those are done, I'll add a laboratory chapter or two, and perhaps add some lab sessions to existing lab chapters. As Pournelle often says, it's a great life if you don't weaken.


Thursday, 11 October 2007
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08:35 - My word count for the chapter is up to 6,834, so I'm making pretty good progress. On narrative chapters, I generally "write long" and then make a final pass to tighten things up and trim the word count a bit. This one's looking like it should have a final word count of around 15,000+, so I probably have three more days of actual writing and then a day or so of second-pass editing to do on it.

On Linux reliability.

From: Bruce A. Friend
  To: Robert Bruce Thompson
Date: Wed Oct 10 14:57:29 2007
  Re: Linux stability


I have a story that you might find interesting.  This is about the experiences of one of my IT co-workers.  His parents, in their very late 80s, had an aging Mac that they wanted to replace.  Rather than bother their busy son for advice about what to replace it with, they asked a friend.  He directed them to get an E-machine running Windows XP Home Edition.

Well my coworker spent a couple of hours, every couple of weeks, removing spyware and keeping the system running.  He installed Firefox and Thunderbird to get them off of Internet Exploder and Outlook, but it still was a pain to keep running.

One day he asked me if I had anything he could install on their machine as he was getting tired of fixing it.  I gave him a copy of Xandros 2 OCE and told him to give it a try.  He installed it with no problem except that it didn't recognize their HP all-in-one printer.

He said his 89 year old mother looked at it and said it looked a lot like Windows to her.  She was used to Firefox and Thunderbird so they were not a problem.  He said she poked around Open Office Writer and said she could use it as well.

He came to work and was happy and started to look for drivers for the printer.  I told him to wait as Xandros 3 OCE was coming out in less than a week.  When it did, I burnt him a copy of the install disk.  He told me the next day that it had installed with no problem and recognized the printer as well.

That was good but there is more to the story.  About a week ago, he came to me and told me his dad had called and told him there was a problem with the computer.  He went over and it was powered off, so he switched on the monitor and then reached over and pressed the power button on the computer.  His mom was watching and exclaimed, "I didn't know there was a button on that box too!"

The system booted just fine and there were no problems with the system. It had run with no problems and no reboots since he installed Xandros 3 over two and a half years ago.  I want to see the Windows system that will do that!

To bad Xandros decided to get in bed with Microsoft.  They had a good product.  It might still be good but I will never know unless they rescind the agreement.

Bruce A. Friend
Network Manager
IT Operations and Client Services
Antioch University

Thanks. That's been my experience as well. I've installed Linux for several relatives, friends, and neighbors, and it just keeps on ticking. Many of the systems I don't look at from one year to the next, and none of them has ever been infected by malware or a virus or has suffered any failure that wasn't hardware related.

As to Xandros, I agree that it's a shame they sold their soul to Microsoft, but Ubuntu/Kubuntu is certainly an excellent alternative. I'm running the Ubuntu 7.10 beta on my den system right now, and it looks and works great. As far as I'm concerned, it's Windows that isn't ready for Aunt Minnie. Linux does just fine.

10:44 - Here's an interesting PBS video about home chemistry.


Friday, 12 October 2007
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09:07 - I ran into a problem yesterday that I expected would be trivially easy to solve. As it turned out, it wasn't. Or at least the solution wasn't obvious. I wanted to download a copy of the video I posted the link to yesterday, and save a local copy to my hard drive.

It's in flash format, which is annoying enough, but the proprietary Adobe player is even more annoying. Right-clicking on the video pops up a menu, as expected, but of course there's no "save local copy" choice on that menu. So I fired up adept, Kubuntu's package manager, and searched for "flash", expecting to find a utility that would grab a copy of a streaming flash video and save it to disk. If there's such a utility available in the standard repositories, I must have missed it.

So I emailed a couple of friends, asking them if they had any ideas. One of them suggested QtTube, which works fine if you have the exact URL for the video. That's obfuscated with embedded flash videos, of course, and I didn't have time to track it down. But presumably it's doable. I don't understand why PBS doesn't just post this stuff as freely-downloadable .mpg files. After all, they're supported by public money.


Saturday, 13 October 2007
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10:07 - Thanks to everyone for the suggestions about how to grab a copy of the PBS flash video. I tried a bunch of Firefox plug-ins. None of them worked. Several people suggested that I just copy the file from the Firefox cache and rename it to .flv. I'd already thought about doing that, but I wasn't able to find the file. On my Linux box, Firefox puts its cache files in the directory


I looked there, but the largest file was only 6 MB, which obviously wasn't large enough to hold that video. Finally, someone suggested I do a search for recently changed files. I did that this morning, and found no large files other than ones I knew weren't the video. Then I realized belatedly that I was searching only /home/thompson. I told search to look in root (/) and all subdirectories, and it located the 25 MB flash video file in /tmp. Duh. Obviously the flash plug-in has its own ideas about where to store temp files.

I took a break yesterday from working on the book. Instead, I spent the day working on a proposal/outline for the next book.

13:11 - I emailed Dale Dougherty, the co-founder of O'Reilly and the publisher of Make, to suggest he watch the PBS video. He replied that he'd seen it when it ran on Monday, and that it had been made "out here in San Francisco". Which made me wonder...

Almost universally, people use the constructs "up north" and "down south", and for an obvious reason. Geographic maps are printed with north up, and all of us see maps frequently. But the constructs "out west" and "back east" are still widely used. Presumably they date from the 19th century, when most people lived near the east coast, and some people traveled "out" to the west or returned "back" to the east. But I wonder why that usage persists generations later.

Currently, the population clusters mostly near the coasts--east, west, and south--and with some exceptions the center of the country is relatively lightly populated. So perhaps we should start using the center and edge of the circle as reference points. For example, someone traveling from Omaha to New York (or Los Angeles) could say he was traveling "out to New York", and someone traveling from New York or Los Angeles to Omaha could say he was traveling "in to Omaha". Someone who was traveling from New York to Los Angeles could say he was traveling "over to LA", or vice versa. Which I guess means that someone who was traveling from Boston to Miami would say he was traveling "around to Miami".


Sunday, 14 October 2007
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13:27 - Barbara and I went out observing last night, for the first time in a long time. Every time it's been clear, there's been a big moon up, and every time there's been no moon it's been hazy. Last night was clear, with only a sliver of a moon that set well before the end of astronomical twilight.

Our astronomy club was having a regular club observation last night at its primary observing site, but that site has become so light-polluted with local lights that observing there is little better than observing in town. So we decided to observe in-town, and work on our Astronomical League Urban Observing list. We added eight objects to our bag, including several objects in Ophiuchus and Cygnus. Finding objects under light-polluted urban conditions can be very challenging because there are so few stars visible to serve as guideposts. But a couple of more urban sessions this autumn and winter, and perhaps one more next spring should allow us to complete that list.

We should also complete the AL Caldwell Club list soon. We're about 20 objects short of completing that list. It's not a very good list, but we started it so we'll finish it. Barbara has also nearly completed the AL Lunar Club list, which I haven't started. That list requires observing and identifying 100 specific Lunar features, such as craters and rills. I told Barbara last night that I planned to complete the Lunar Club list in 15 seconds one night when there's a full moon. I'll just put the moon in the eyepiece, say, "yep, there they are are" and log all of the required objects. Barbara says that would be cheating.

Ultimately, we're both working toward meeting the requirements for the AL Master Observer certificate, which requires completing the lists of ten AL clubs. Five of those are required: Messier Club, Binocular Messier Club, Lunar Club, Double Star Club, and Herschel 400 Club. We've already completed (or could easily complete) four of those.

The problem is the Herschel 400 Club, which requires logging 400 Herschel objects. Many of those are very faint galaxies, which can be observed only from a very dark location on a night of excellent transparency. We're more than half way through the Herschel 400 list, but most of the remaining objects are best viewed during the spring and summer months, when observing conditions around here are usually very poor. It may take us years to complete the Herschel 400 list.

No doubt we'll do it, though. Meeting the requirements for the AL Master Observer certificate isn't supposed to be easy. Only about 65 amateur astronomers world-wide have done so, with only about 10 new members being added per year. Perhaps Barbara and I can get it completed in time to be two-digit members.


Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 by Robert Bruce Thompson. All Rights Reserved.