Saturday, 30 November, 2002

A concrete Zamboni?

They're building another huge warehouse something-or-other next to the Home Depot, and today they poured the concrete.  As we drove by earlier today we saw these guys out there zipping across the concrete on these little smoothing machines, looking like swamp rats on fan boats.  I guess these things are the concrete equivalent to the Zamboni.  I didn't have my camera with me when we first saw them, which is unfortunate because there were about three times as many of those machines on the slab at the time.  We had to come back a few hours later to pick up the dishwasher we'd picked out earlier, and I managed to remember my camera.

You see some of the guldurndest things on construction sites. 

Thursday, 28 November, 2002

Beer Bottling Day

Today proved quite interesting.  It started with a trip to the emergency room when Debra poked herself in the eye with the Christmas tree as she was unpacking it.  We're decorating early because we're hosting my brother's college graduation party next Saturday.  She managed a nice sized scratch on her eye (revealed by some fluorescent eye drops and a black light), and the doctor sent her home with some pain killers and a topical antibiotic.  Have you ever tried to find an open pharmacy on Thanksgiving day?  Not all Walgreens pharmacies are open 24 hours.

After we returned home, Debra continued decorating and I proceeded to bottle the beer (net, 45 12-oz bottles) that I brewed on November 10.  Late afternoon had us at the next door neighbor's enjoying Thanksgiving dinner, and later in the evening we visited our friends Jason and Sheila for dessert, conversation, and board games.  It was a good day, overall, although Debra's read on things is understandably a bit different than mine.

Friday, 22 November, 2002

TCO is more than up-front cost

The Gartner Group released a report this week saying that, although Linux has lower up-front costs, it may end up costing more to integrate with existing applications.  An article describing the report ishere.  Say it with me, now ... "Duh!"  I suspect that the Slashdot crowd had a field day with this article, but I'm too lazy to go search it out.  One would hope that IT directors who make these types of decisions (i.e. to "go Linux") would take these things into account.

Sometimes I think I've been in this business too long.  Every few years, some system or another is identified that will magically reduce complexity, increase efficiency, and save millions or billions of dollars in IT expenses.  Do people ever learn?  Of course there are hidden costs associated with changing over to a totally new operating system.

If an IT department wants to move to Linux, they'll need to do it slowly.  Install Linux on new servers to support new systems.  Learn how to configure and administer it.  Migrate some non-critical or low-use systems.  Keep track of the learning curve and unexpected migration problems.  Take your time!  Linux has a lot to offer, but it's not child's play by itself, and converting major applications from Windows or any other system to Linux is a process that's full of unexpected problems.

Thursday, 21 November, 2002

That's quite a Web site, Jim

I told a co-worker today to visit my web site.  He misspelled my name and ended up at www.mishel.com.  The look he gave me when that site popped up was priceless.

Mishel is a very pretty lady.  It's too bad she chooses to do some of the more risqué poses and outfits, as I think she's much prettier in her more fully-dressed shots.  Those eyes and that smile are very seductive.  But then, I always like to have a little left to the imagination.  Maybe there are more of those shots in the members-only area?

Wednesday, 20 November, 2002

Stupid Spam Fighting Ideas

So spam is killing email, and the way to stop it is with opt-in systems.  Or so Kevin Werbach says in his article on Slate.  This is stupid!  It will work, true.  Whitelists very effectively block mail from everybody except those that you specifically allow.  Your inbox will be free of clutter.  It also will be free of order confirmations, mailing list messages, status updates, and the dozens of other types of automated mail that you want to arrive.  Not only that, but whitelists only treat the symptom.  They keep your inbox clean, but do nothing to stop spam (is it really one-third of the Internet mail traffic?) from clogging the email system.

Some genius who posted a comment on the article proposed that we change the system to make it computationally expensive to send email.  The theory is that it wouldn't affect normal users who send maybe a few dozen emails a day.  They won't care if it takes five or ten seconds to process an email before sending it.  But bulk mailers would be out of business.  A ten second delay between emails would limit them to fewer than 10,000 messages a day.  This, too, would do more harm than good.  First off, you'd have to change the entire email protocol.  I'm not sure if the people at Slate who left that comment visible are poking fun at the guy (I sure hope so), or if they really think it's a good idea.

If people are willing to change the entire email protocol base, then it's time to design a high-performance, secure, flexible, and extensible system that's based on current technology.  I would suggest that end-to-end accountability be part of the new system.  That would eliminate spam, as well as provide a modern system that can more easily handle the features and volume that we need.  The current system is based on and designed to work with 30-year-old technology.  That it's lasted this long reflects well on its designers.  But it wasn't designed for today's environment, and its limitations are fast becoming a hindrance to continued use.

Yahoo and everybody else is running this AP story reporting that the high-fat, low-carb Atkins diet actually works.  The real news isn't that the diet works—we've all known that for years—but that the medical establishment and the USDA are finally admitting that their food pyramid (what used to be the four basic food groups) is a bunch of crapola.  My fear now is that people are going to start offering low-carb foods and people will flock to those thinking that doing so will help them lose weight, or stay healthy.  What people seem to miss is the need for a balanced diet, along with moderate daily exercise.  Only the exact nature of the balance and the exact amount of exercise required are in question.

Speaking of low-carb foods, Anheuser-Busch recently release their new Michelob Ultra beer (hey, beer is food!).  The advertising slogan?  "Lose the carbs, not the taste."  Since I'm trying to keep the ranting to a minimum recently, I'll let you decide how tasty a beer can be if it has fewer carbohydrates.  Especially an "ultra light" version of an almost tasteless beer.  Consider, though, that the ingredients are water, carbohydrates (sugars and hops), and yeast.  The yeast consume the sugars to produce alcohol.  Any remaining taste is produced by leftover carbohydrates.  Don't believe the marketing hype.

Monday, 18 November, 2002

Chicago

I flew to Chicago this morning for client meetings today and tomorrow.  The client apparently has a good deal with the Ritz Carlton, because they put us up there for two nights.  It's quite a place, the Ritz.  But when all's said, it's just another hotel room.  I prefer sleeping at home in my own bed.

The Ritz is right across the street from the Chicago Water Tower and the Chicago Avenue Pumping Station—two landmarks that survived the great Chicago fire of 1871.  I managed to get pictures of the Water Tower from several different locations:  two from across the street in front of the Pumping Station (here and here), from the 22nd floor of my client's office building (here), and from the 95th floor of the John Hancock Tower, where we had lunch (here).

It seems that my neighborhood isn't the only place in the country that's fighting a deer population gone wild.  According to this New York Times article (free registration required; try this link [Free Republic] for a mirror), it's a nation-wide problem.  Deer populations have exploded in the last decade.  Estimates place the number of deer nationwide at around 20,000,000—about the same number as 200 years ago.  But today their predators (wolves, bears, and wild cats) are mostly gone, and their habitats have shrunk drastically.  Today's deer thrive in heavily populated areas, where they feast on landscaping and bed down in small patches of undeveloped urban and suburban land.  According to the article, population densities of more than 15 to 20 deer per square mile cause noticeable degradation to the ecosystem.  In some places today, deer number in the hundreds per square mile.  I've counted well over 50 deer on a single walk from my house to the stop sign a half mile away.

Today's deer have two predators:  cars and hunters.  Estimates put the number of deer killed on the nations highways at about one million annually, along with about 100 people and $1 billion in property damage.  That makes deer deadlier than alligators, sharks, bears, and rattlesnakes combined.  Bambi has fangs.  Hunters take a few, but mostly bucks, which isn't very effective as a population control measure.  Not when a single buck can impregnate 50 or more does in a season. 

How to control the populations?  That's a tough problem.  Biologists have tried a number of methods, none of which has proven very effective.  Whatever, we certainly shouldn't be feeding them like my idiot neighbors do.

Monday, 11 November, 2002

Triclosan

Triclosan, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Medicines, is "an antiseptic that is active against a wide range of bacteria and fungi. As a soap or liquid it is used as a preoperative hand wash for surgeons and for cleansing and disinfecting the skin of patients before surgery, injections, or taking blood samples. It is also included in various skin preparations to prevent infection of minor wounds and for treating such conditions as eczema and acne."  It's a broad-spectrum antibiotic that's used in (among other things) dish soap, hand soap, toothpaste, and as an additive to plastics to aid in bacterial resistance.  Chances are, if you've purchased any kind of "anti-bacterial" soap, its one active ingredient is triclosan.  But is it effective?  And is it safe?

There's no doubt that triclosan is effective in killing bacteria and fungi.  But as an additive to soap, it's almost irrelevant.  There is no evidence that using a triclosan-enhanced product will get your hands or your dishes any cleaner than plain old soap and water.  In a hospital environment where every little bit counts, its use is understandable.  In your kitchen or bathroom, though, you're just wasting your money.

A few years ago, and again last year, there was some concern that widespread use of triclosan would result in resistant strains of bacteria.  There have been some studies to indicate the possibility, but I haven't seen anything conclusive.  But the threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria isn't the only danger.  The manufacture of triclosan is known to create small quantities of  dioxins and dibenzofurans, both suspected carcinogens.  The EPA classifies triclosan as a pesticide and notes its risks to humans and to the environment.  The chemical shows up regularly these days in environmental surveys.

How much of a risk is it?  Probably not huge, but it seems irresponsible to me to employ such a strong antibiotic agent for everyday use, especially when its effectiveness is at best questionable.  It's hard to convince people, though, that the "anti bacterial" bullet on the product label is just marketing hype.

Sunday, 10 November, 2002

Brewing Beer

Today is the 227th anniversary of the founding of the United States Marine Corps.  To commemorate the occasion, I am brewing beer.  Actually, the beer serves another purpose:  my brother graduates from college next month, and I said I would brew some beer for his graduation party.  Since he's getting a degree in Public Relations, I'm calling it "PR Porter."  A Porter is a British dark ale, medium bodied with moderate (4.5 to 6%) alcoholic strength.  It was the common man's drink, and widely consumed in the United States during colonial times.  Because it took my brother five and a half years to finish school, I'm making the beer 5.5% alcohol.

The picture above shows the ingredients that go into the beer, and the picture to the right the equipment used in brewing.  The coil of copper is an immersion chiller that I use to cool the wort after boiling.  The plastic bucket is the primary fermenter.  When I'm done cooking, I cool the wort, pour it into the bucket, add water to make 5 gallons, and pitch the yeast.  The picture doesn't show the secondary fermenter (a 5 gallon glass jug) or any of the bottling equipment.  If I remember on bottling day, I'll supply another picture.

Wednesday, 06 November, 2002

News of the Hurd

Infoworld reported today that the GNU Hurd has been delayed once again.  That in itself is hardly news—the Hurd has been delayed for the last 12 years or more.  What caught my eye is the reason for the delay.  According to the article, Richard Stallman, president of the Free Software Foundation, said:

"There are two problems that have to be solved.  One of them is the lack of high-speed, serial-line handling, and the  other is the limit on the size of a file system which is at somewhere between one to two gigabytes, which means that if you get a moderate size disk you have to divide it into smaller partitions, which is a nuisance."

Having to live with a 2 GB disk partition in a world of 120 GB drives sounds to me like much more than "a nuisance."  A few paragraphs down, Stallman is quoted as saying:

I don't think it was realized how bad it is practically speaking not to be able to use whatever your disk partitioning is.

Let me get this straight now.  They've been working on this kernel since at least 1990, they've spent the last year or so in a big push to deliver something, and now only a month or so before their "scheduled" release, they realize that people might want to use their entire hard drives, and communicate faster than 19,200 bps?  It's not like they couldn't have foreseen multi-gigabyte hard drives coming back in 1994 or so.  Heck, I've had a multi-gigabyte drive since 1996, and I'm not what you'd call an early adopter.

We're supposed to take these guys seriously?

The reason for the 2 GB disk partition limitation is a surprisingly short-sighted design decision.  The partition size is limited because the Hurd maps the entire partition into main memory.  32 bits only gives you 4 GB of address space, and the high bit typically is used for overhead, leaving only 2 GB for a partition.  Some argue that moving  the Hurd to 64-bit architectures will alleviate the problem by allowing partitions up to 16 million terabytes.  I suspect, though, that they'd have some serious trouble managing the memory map for even a 120 GB partition using this scheme.  This looks to me like a typical academia-inspired design that is ill suited to real world conditions.

Maybe, as the proponents are wont to claim, the Hurd is breaking new ground in operating system design.  I keep hearing about all of its "innovative" features.  After a dozen years, though, many of those "innovations" have been put to practical use in other operating systems while the Hurd continues to languish due to poor designs and politics.  I've yet to see a good explanation of the compelling "innovations" contained in Hurd.  The project ceased being relevant except to its developers at least 5 years ago.  The only reason you hear about it these days is because the industry press seems to think that RMS speaks for the entire alternative (i.e. non-Microsoft) community and will publish whatever incoherent or irrelevant ramblings he chooses to utter.

It's maddening.  And comical.

Sunday, 03 November, 2002

Buying Gas Supports Terrorism?

I got an interesting email from a friend of mine today.  It's one of those silly chain letter calls to action that you see from time to time.  I had to stop and think about this one, though, and I'm still pondering it.  The subject:  Oil Imports Pay for Terrorism.  The reasoning:

Every time you fill up the car, you can avoid putting more money in the coffers of Saudi Arabia.  Just buy from gas companies that don't import their oil from the Saudis. Nothing is more frustrating than the feeling that every time I fill-up the tank, I am sending my money to people who are trying to kill me, my family, and my friends.

The messages goes on to list the oil companies that do and do not import Saudi oil, claiming that their source is published reports from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Yes, I know that the Saudi government does not promote terrorism.  In fact, they actively discourage it.  However, there's no doubt in my mind that some Saudi citizens side with the radicals who would like to see the United States destroyed.  How much of what I pay for a tank at the local Texaco station finds its way to those who would do me harm?  This isn't going to keep me up nights, but it's something to think about.

Saturday, 02 November, 2002

Pondering a Windows-Free Workstation

At the beginning of September, about the same time I started working with Linux From Scratch, I began wondering if I could become Windows free at home.  Not for any activist purpose, mind you.  I have no great dislike of Microsoft or proprietary software, nor any great love for Linux or open source software.  Since then, I've installed Linux on a test server here, and also on my Celeron 666 machine, and am in the process of learning enough about it so that I can move all of my critical home applications to Linux.  That's right, I'll be writing this web site, answering my mail, and surfing the Web with a Linux box as my primary machine.  I haven't set a time frame, and I'm in no great hurry, but I'm moving that way.

There are several reasons.  After 20 years of MS-DOS and multiple versions of Windows, I'm looking for something new and different.  I've been tinkering with Linux for a few years now, and I've been having fun learning new things.  If MS-DOS and Windows kept me amused for 20 years, I guess Linux can give me something to think about for at least 5.  More importantly, I've been saying for a few years that Linux isn't yet polished enough for everyday use as a desktop system, but I wonder how much of that is just fear of something new.  I can afford to spend a little time experimenting with the system.  I'll either prove myself right, or end up with a more useful desktop computer.  Either way, I can't lose.

As I said, I'm in no big hurry to do this.  As it stands now, I'm still just tinkering with the Linux system, and even after I get my major applications transferred I'll keep the Windows box around for a while.  Perhaps indefinitely.  However it shakes out, it's going to be an interesting ride.  Stay tuned.

Friday, 01 November, 2002

The Microsoft Decision

To a giant yawn, the judge reviewing the Microsoft case today said that everything's okay, Microsoft has been duly punished, and the dissenting states can go pound sand.  In other news, the sun set in the west.  I doubt that anybody's surprised by today's ruling.  I'm surprised, though, by those people who are disappointed by it.  It's not like they didn't know it was coming.

There's nothing to see here.  Move along.