Wednesday, 28 February, 2001

Earthlink's Advertisement Rewrites History

EarthLink has recently been running television advertisements that say (I'm paraphrasing) "People used to think the world was flat.  Then along came Magellan, who set sail in one direction and came back the other way."  The ad ends with the line: "You can settle for someone else's version of the world. Or you can bravely embark on a journey of your own."

The first "journey" I'd suggest to people who sign up with EarthLink is some historical research.  They'll find that Magellan didn't come back.  He was killed in the Philippine islands.  Any 7th grader knows that.  If they dig a little further they'll find that the ancient Greeks knew the earth was round.  In Aristotle's time (350 B.C.) the estimate of the Earth's circumference was about 40,000 miles—about 60% larger than the real value.  About 80 years later, Eratosthenes used the technique described here to calculate a value of about 24,000 miles, which is very nearly correct.

History credits Magellan (and one of his captains, Elcano) with supplying the first "practical proof" that the Earth is round.  By that reasoning, I guess we don't yet have practical proof that the Earth circles the sun.

Tuesday, 27 February, 2001

Socialization of Home Schooled Children

The last two days, NPR's "All Things Considered" has run segments about the recent increase in home schooling.  Today's segment was about socialization of home schooled children.  The common perception of home schooled children is that they're shy, or weird, and have a hard time making friends or getting along with other children.  A college woman commented that people are surprised when they hear that she was home schooled.  "What did you do for friends?" they often ask.  As the NPR segment points out, "home schooling" is something of a misnomer.  It's really home-based schooling.  Home schooled children often get to go more places and meet more different people than public school children.

I get much the same response from people when they learn that I went to military school for five years.  I don't get the "what did you do for friends" line.  The one I get is "What did you do for fun?", as if it's impossible to have fun at a military school.  True, school was considered serious business, and we were expected to act with a certain amount of restraint in public.  But the school does have all the "normal" high school sports, plus things that most schools don't have including paintball, physical fitness team, a climbing wall, rifle team, and many other activities.  No, we didn't have cars and we couldn't leave the school during the week, and we couldn't go out drinking on the weekends.  I learned something much more important:  I learned how to enjoy myself no matter what I'm doing. I learned how to make my own fun, which is one of the most valuable skills any person can have.

Saturday, 24 February, 2001

Linux Not Ready for the Desktop

If you're still unconvinced that Linux needs some serious work before it's ready for the masses, read Linux: Not Ready for Prime Desktop Time over at www.osopinion.com, and be sure to read the comments in the talkback forum.  The author of the article, who is somewhat knowledgeable about computers, describes some of the problems that he encountered trying to get a Mandrake Linux system up and running.  His isn't an isolated case, either.  You can find similar complaints all over the Internet.

I wasn't terribly surprised by the majority of responses in the talkback forum.  To sum them up "Go back to Windows, you luser."  (To be fair, there are some informed and interesting replies, as well).  This is just the kind of advocacy that Linux needs in order to remain a geeks-only operating system.  Oddly enough, most of the posters admit (mostly indirectly) that Linux still isn't for newbies.  Many of their comments start with "if you'd searched the Internet for information, you would have known that..."  These people still don't understand that most users just want the computer to work:  they haven't the slightest interest in hacking the kernel or downloading and installing RPMs to fix operating system problems.

Linux advocates have no qualms about telling users to go grab some new kernel version or updated RPM, yet laugh whenever Microsoft releases a new update.  I fail to see how the Linux way is better than Microsoft's in this regard.  At least when I have to grab a Microsoft update, I just point my web browser at the appropriate site and press the Go button.  My computer automatically downloads and installs the update.  No messy command line or weird RPM commands.  

Friday, 23 February, 2001

Satellite Photos of the House

Not too many years ago, the mere existence of reconnaissance satellites was an official secret.  Everybody knew that they existed, but there was no official acknowledgement.  How things have changed.  These days, you can go to GlobeXplorer and get a picture of your neighborhood.  I got this picture of our neighborhood by typing in our address, and this picture of our property and our neighbors' by zooming in once.  (Our place is the one with the pool and trampoline.)

The Terraserver web site also has satellite images, but it's a little harder to get an image of a particular place unless you have the longitude and latitude.  You can type in your city and state, and then navigate to find your house, but it's not nearly as nice as entering your address.  One benefit of Terraserver, though, is that it will tell you if there are multiple images, and let you select the one you want to view.

Thursday, 22 February, 2001

World's Farmland in Trouble

I ran across this story last week, reporting that much of the world's farmland is in such poor condition that our production capacity could fall below what we need to support our population.  The report states that about 16 percent of the world's farmland is free of problems, with that percentage ranging from six percent in some parts of Asia, to about 30 percent in North America.  The report cites problems such as depletion of organic matter, chemical contamination, acidity, salinity, and poor drainage.

Depletion of organic matter is a direct result of not plowing plant debris back into the soil.  Chemical contamination results from the overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.  Salinity is caused by excess irrigation, or poor irrigation practices in general.  Most of these problems could be largely eliminated by fixing the depletion of organic matter.  That would reduce the need for irrigation, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides. 

I'm not trying to be alarmist or anything—we've a long way to go before our farmland won't support us.  But it's something to think about. 

Wednesday, 21 February, 2001

Programming Contest!

LinuxProgramming.com is running a programming contest.  They've written a lunar lander program that simulates launching a craft to a specified altitude, hovering there for a period of time, and then landing safely (i.e. not too hard).  Except there's a catch.  The supplied program needs a function that tells it how much fuel to burn at each time slice.  That's the contest part.  Contestants write a C function called setBurnRate that returns the burn rate.  Submissions are judged on completion (they must reach the altitude, hover, and land safely), and are awarded points based on the amount of fuel left after landing, and how softly the ship lands.  Prizes will be awarded for first through fifth places.  Full contest details are available here.  I'm looking forward to seeing how other programmers solve this problem.

Tuesday, 20 February, 2001

First Ride on the New Bike

I finally got the chance to take the new bike out for a good long ride.  I rode to work this morning (26 miles) and back home this evening (28 miles, longer route with fewer hills).  I'm surprised at how much difference the new bike makes.  I'm sure that part of the difference is that I actually was fitted for the new bike (saddle height and placement adjusted, handlebar stem extended to proper height, etc.), but that doesn't explain everything.  I made the ride into work today in near-record time, and I'm hardly in the best shape.  I suspect that it's a combination of being fitted, having a lighter bike, and less rolling resistance in the hubs (probably the biggest difference).  Perhaps I should rebuild the hubs on the old bike as a test.

The new bike shifts much more smoothly, too, and I was surprised by the difference in the ride.  People told me that I'd be able to tell the difference between the old aluminum frame and fork, and the new steel frame with carbon fiber fork.  I took that with a grain of salt.  No longer.  The new ride is much smoother.

Monday, 19 February, 2001

Cruise Pictures are In!

Debra picked up our pictures from the cruise today, so I went back and posted a few pictures in the cruise journal entries (Jan. 27 - Feb. 3).  Those little disposable cameras are handy for relatively close range shots (10 or 15 feet), but after that they're pretty much worthless. Unless you're shooting something big.  Out of the seven cameras that we used during the trip, we got maybe two dozen good shots (lots of good stingray shots).  That's the way it goes, I guess.  It sure would have been nice to have a waterproof digital camera, though. 

Sunday, 18 February, 2001

All Your Base are Belong to Us

About 2 years ago, somebody made the Hamster Dance site, which featured a bunch of animated GIF file hamsters "dancing" to a particularly annoying and infections song.  I split a gut laughing at that one.  It was available at www.hampsterdance.com, but no longer.  Then came Hamster Blast (be careful with this link—it opens a bunch of windows on your desktop), which lets you explode the hamsters as they dance.  There's a relatively new one now at http://www.funstun.com/smiley1.htm, which features a bunch of dancing and winking yellow smiley faces.  Not so funny, but that song.  It sticks to you like that song from the Disney ride...

I love those goofy web sites.  Some people have way too much time on their hands.  Imagine, for example, the work that went into this video that pokes fun at the terrible English translations in the old Zero Wing game.  The video originated here, which has some information about its production.

"All your base are belong to us."

Something else I haven't been able to figure out is the Open Source and Free Software movements' collective disdain for the great unwashed masses.  If a user is unwilling or unable to download, compile, and install a new kernel from the sources, then that user is somehow unfit to use the software.  Yet at the same time, users are encouraged to move to free environments from proprietary operating systems like Mac OS and Windows.  It's akin to insisting that a person demonstrate the ability to rebuild an engine before being granted a driver's license.  These "advocates" are doing their movements much more harm than good.

I don't understand the overwhelming resistance to making Open Source software (Linux in particular) accessible to mere mortals.  The majority of comments I see on newsgroups and in other areas take this form:  "If we make it easy enough for anybody to use, then it just won't be fun anymore."  In their minds, it's a one-or-the-other situation:  either it's easy to use or it's fun to work on.  I don't get it.  Making a real desktop Linux distribution doesn't have to mean locking it down and stifling innovation.  Nothing will prevent people from continuing to enhance and extend the system.  On the contrary:  if the system is widely used by a more diverse group of users, then there will be more people contributing ideas and code.

It's funny in a way.  Every user is a potential contributor.  Those who resist moving towards a more user-friendly Linux for fear of stifling innovation are actually stifling innovation themselves by restricting the number of contributors to the project.

Friday, 16 February, 2001

No Linux Desktop Yet

One reason Linux has such a good record for reliability in the business community is that it's running in tightly controlled environments: servers that don't change very often. That's all to the good, but I think its reputation will be seriously damaged if millions of average users tried to use it today. I'm not saying that it can't be made into a good desktop OS, but there's some serious work to be done. What I see of postings on the Internet indicates that most of the Linux community aren't terribly interested in addressing those problems.  On the contrary, the overwhelming majority of comments that I've seen suggest that the community isn't at all interested in making the system usable by mere "lusers."

I had originally thought that Microsoft's increasingly corporate stance (its apparent push towards corporate, as opposed to individual user, environments) would push individual users and small companies towards an alternative.  The only real alternatives at this time are the Macintosh and Linux.  The Mac has its own culture that many people won't embrace, and an equivalent Mac is more expensive than its Intel/Windows counterpart.  Linux looks like an obvious choice, but the desktop functionality just isn't there.  Those in the Linux community who expect users to embrace the system on principal are dreaming.  Users will not give up functionality in favor of a free (as in beer or speech) operating system.  Functionality must come first.  Hard as it is for the hard-core Linux hackers to admit, Windows is still a better system for actually getting work done. 

Thursday, 15 February, 2001

Privacy is whose responsibility?

With all the stink about privacy concerns over the past few years, I've seen very few articles point out the painfully obvious:  privacy is, first and foremost, your own responsibility.  In Want Privacy?  Help Yourself Without Laws, Duane D. Freese makes a very good argument:

Should people who live in glass houses seek a ban on binoculars? Or fines for neighbors who talk about them? Or penalties for passersby who look in instead of away?

Or should people who live in glass houses simply buy drapes?

Technological solutions to social problems typically fail, as do legislative solutions to technical problems.  Politicians tend to rush legislation so that they can demonstrate to their constituents that they're "doing something," thus increasing their chances of re-election.  New laws are often passed to "do something" about whatever issue is currently hot.  All too often, there are existing laws that cover the hot issue, and introduction of new legislation just muddies the waters.  According to Mr. Freese, the privacy issue is one such case.

If you want things to remain private, then don't discuss or display them in public.  As Mr. Freese puts it:  "if you want real privacy protection in the open house that is the Internet, put up some electronic drapes. Don't count on laws that are nothing more than costly window dressing for the ambitions of politicians and the overwrought fears of some privacy groups."

Wednesday, 14 February, 2001

Want a new heart?  Stop smoking!

I ran across this news story the other day reporting that surgeons at The Alfred Hospital in Melbourne Australia are insisting that smokers quit smoking before undergoing major heart and lung surgery.  A statement from the hospital reads:  "The scarcity of organ availability obliges the Hospital to ensure that the best outcome from the 'gift of life' of an organ donation occurs."  It's about time, as far as I'm concerned.  As an organ donor, I (my family, actually) would like to see my organs go to somebody who's going to take care of himself rather than to somebody who just wants a little more time to enjoy his self-destructive lifestyle.  It may sound cold hearted, but that's just the way it is until organs start growing on trees.

As you might expect, not everybody is happy about this decision.  Opponents of the policy insist that smoking is an addiction that is positively enforced by society, and that denying smokers treatment is akin to refusing to treat an alcoholic or suicide.  That may very well be true, but then alcoholics and drug abusers are often required to undergo rehabilitation, and suicides are required to undergo psychological treatment.  Smokers, on the other hand, although encouraged to quit, cannot be required to undergo any kind of "stop smoking" treatment.  "Patients arbitrarily being denied treatment," according to one person quoted in the article, "is ethics masquerading as clinical judgments...competent surgeons are not ethicists."  No, they're not, but they do have the responsibility to see that scarce organs are put to their best use.  This isn't a value judgment based on social or economic status, but rather a clinical judgment based on the likelihood of the patient surviving the transplant and recovery, and actually benefiting from the procedure.

Tuesday, 13 February, 2001

Debunking Conspiracy Theories

Conspiracy theorists are an odd breed.  Seemingly intelligent people will believe some of the most outlandish things, and will refuse to examine the "evidence" critically or even apply simple mathematics to verify claims.  A case in point:  weather modification conspiracy theorists are up in arms about the Navy's HAARP project, a study of the ionosphere with particular emphasis on using it to enhance communications and surveillance systems.  The system uses a phased array transmitter with 3600 KW (3.6 megawatts) available for transmission. It's powered by six 2500 KW generators, each powered by a 3600 hp diesel engine.

Enter the conspiracy theorists.  This 1998 article in Criminal Politics magazine claims that the system is "...capable of transmitting 500 million watts of radio frequencies into the ionosphere.  Their electricity is generated by six 3600 HP diesel driven generators using 95 tons of fuel from the ARCO North Slope oil fields."

Somebody hasn't done his math.  One horsepower is about 745 watts, so six 3600 hp diesel engines would provide (at most, assuming 100% efficiency), 16.1 megawatts.  That's a far cry from 500 megawatts.  But I'll give the author the benefit of the doubt and assume 500 MW.  The article goes on to say:  "The average kitchen microwave of 500 to 1000 watts will boil a cup of water in less than a minute. What do you think 500 million, 1.7 billion, 10 billion or 100 billion watts will do to a body of water or the ionosphere the size of the state of Alaska, or for that matter, the size of the United States?"

Well let's just figure that one out using the Baltic Sea (the smallest of the Seas) for an example.  Assuming you could actually focus 500 MW on the Baltic Sea for the purposes of heating it, just how long would it take?

The Baltic Sea has a surface area of 422,200 square kilometers (about the same size as California), and an average depth of 55 meters.  That works out to 23,221,000,000,000 cubic meters (about 6,130,344,000,000,000 gallons of water; the difference between the Baltic Sea and a cup of water is a heck of a lot bigger than the difference between 1000 watts and 500 million watts).  We'll be kind and say that the average temperature of the water in the Baltic is 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit).  It's probably closer to 2 degrees C (35 F), but the difference won't really matter that much for this demonstration.  Standard physical equations tell us that it takes one calorie of energy to heat one cubic centimeter of water one degree Celsius.  We need to heat the water by 90 degrees Celsius.  A cubic meter is 1,000,000 cubic centimeters, so it takes

1,000,000 cm^3 * 1 cal/deg/cm^3 * 90 deg = 90,000,000 calories

or 90,000 kilocalories to heat each cubic meter to boiling.  That works out to 2.1e+18 kilocalories to heat all of the water in the Baltic Sea to boiling.  Referring to standard physical equations again, we see that one kilocalorie is 1.16 watt hours (Wh), resulting in.

2.1e+18 kilocalories * 1.16 Wh/Kcal = 2.4e+18 Wh

So if we applied 500,000,000 watts continuously, it would take:

2.4e+18 Wh/500,000,000 W = 4,848,544,800 hours

or 553,486 years.  That's one degree every 6,150 years.  Stepping the power up to 100 billion watts will do the job in 27,674 years, or one degree every 107 years.  That's assuming that there are no cooling effects on the water, and that all of the power produced is actually used to heat the water.  I don't think I'll lose any sleep over this one.

What amazes me is that engineers—people who understand and live by these physical equations—believe this craziness.  What a wacky world.

Monday, 12 February, 2001

Weather Prediction and Modification?

I talked to somebody today who insists that he can predict the weather months in advance, to the point of giving specific dates (within a day or two) when we'll get specific amounts of rain.  He's also warned me of a couple of impending hurricanes, one to hit Florida in early September, and one to hit the Gulf Coast in early October.  This person also insists that different government agencies have considerable (although not total) control over the weather.  According to him, just about every rain we get in Central Texas is somehow enhanced by cloud seeding, and the controlling agencies have the capability of making the rain fall over particular places:  streams and rivers that feed our reservoirs in particular.  The guy seems pretty normal (I've known him for about 18 months), but he has some crackpot ideas.

There is some evidence that cloud seeding (both rain enhancement and hail suppression) are effective, but the evidence is hardly conclusive.  Weather systems and rain clouds are sufficiently complex and variable that it's difficult to determine if the observed effects are caused by cloud seeding, or just "noise" in the systems' natural variability.  This web site contains a good introduction and discussion of different cloud seeding techniques and their effectiveness.  There are those who claim that our ability to modify weather is much more than what the government lets on.

A 1996 US Air Force Research Paper titled Weather as a Force Multiplier: Owning the Weather in 2025 explored some of the possibilities and problems of large scale weather modification.  It's an interesting read, but more of an academic exercise than practical research.  That doesn't prevent conspiracy theorists from insisting that the things discussed in the paper are actually being done today.  There are some private companies (Eastlund Scientific, for example) doing research in this area, but nobody serious is claiming the ability to change the direction of a thunderstorm or hurricane.

Sunday, 11 February, 2001

Landscaping Work

Debra and I are slowly reducing the amount of grass around the place by replacing sections with planted beds.  This involves quite a bit of work:  digging out sod, tilling the soil, adding compost and mulch, and planting.  The end result will be worth it, though:  less grass to take care of.  In addition, the grass that's left will benefit from more attention, and the new beds require less water and much less work than grass.  This is a long-term project that we started last summer.  If we add a couple of new beds every year, we should have the place the way we want it in 5 to 10 years.  We're not going anywhere.

We're also committed to organic gardening here, preferring natural methods over chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides.  Our reasons for going organic are purely pragmatic.  First, for our lawn and gardens, it's simply cheaper to use organic methods.  Chemicals are expensive.  More importantly, chemical herbicides and pesticides are poisons, plain and simple.  I'm not real keen on putting on my plants (especially the vegetable garden) something that's labeled "Hazardous, keep away from children."

Chemical fertilizers are another matter entirely.  Assuming I didn't mind spreading hazardous materials (just read the fertilizer bag) in my garden, why else would I not use chemical fertilizers?  Two reasons.  First, there's really no need.  Proper application of compost and mulch is much cheaper and easier.  Second, chemical fertilizers just aren't as effective as natural methods over the long term.  Fertilizers are like speed:  effective for a quick "pick me up," but not something you want to use on an ongoing basis.  Fertilizers have many of the nutrients (nitrogen, mostly) that plants need, but they lack organic matter that's necessary for continued soil health.  Also, fertilizers typically release too quickly: giving plants an overdose or allowing nutrients to drain out of the soil.  Compost, on the other hand, releases slowly and also contains abundant organic matter.  

Saturday, 10 February, 2001

A New Bike!

Debra's anniversary present to me was a gift certificate to the local bike shop so I could get a new road bike.  My current bike is a Cannondale R200 that I purchased used from a friend about a year ago.  I chose to buy a used bike last year because I wasn't sure that I'd enjoy road cycling as much as I do mountain biking.  I learned fairly quickly that I do in fact like riding on the road,  and in the past year I logged almost 3,000 miles on that old bike.  I'd talked about getting a new road bike, and was pleasantly surprised by Debra's gift.

This past week I went to the bike store and ordered my new bike, and went to pick it up today.  The new bike is a 55 cm LeMond Buenos Aries, pictured at the right.  For you bike techies, here are the specs.  Reynolds 853 and 525 steel alloy frame with carbon fiber fork, Shimano 105 groupo, Rolf Vector wheels, and Look pedals.   Having ridden both aluminum and steel, I much prefer the softer ride of the steel frame.  I've also ridden (and like) carbon fiber, but it's another $1,000 to step into one of those.  I considered getting a LeMond Zurich, but I just couldn't justify spending the extra money.  If I was racing, maybe, but I'm just a recreational rider.

Along with the bike, I picked up new shoes and a new helmet.  The bike's sitting in the back room now, computer attached, waiting for me to take it out in the morning.  I sure hope the weather cooperates.

Friday, 09 February, 2001

Linux Fragmentation?

Turbolinux is laying off people in advance of their merger with LinuxCare.  SuSE has laid off most of their US staff, moving technical support and other services from the US to Europe, leaving only the sales force in this country.  Depending on your view point, the Linux shake-out has begun, or is continuing.  I expect the consolidations to continue, at least in the US.  At the same time, the Linux community seems to be fragmenting along geographical boundaries.  Red Hat appears to be the major distribution in the US.  In Europe, SuSE is the the dominant version, and Turbolinux is dominant in Japan.  The other distributions (Mandrake, Debian, Slackware, Corel, etc.) are still around, but appear to be losing market share.

I expect two things to happen.  First, the major distributions will continue to differentiate themselves and fragment further.  This will eventually lead to serious incompatibilities between the major versions, due to different kernel versions and installation defaults.  At some point in the not-too-distant future, binary compatibility between major distributions may be impossible, rather than just difficult as it is now.

The second thing I expect to happen is more of a hope.  Some enterprising company will fork the kernel, and concentrate on creating a distribution aimed entirely at the desktop market.  This will undoubtedly piss off a large portion of the Linux community, and will result in many hard core Linux zealots treating the new distribution (and the company that creates it) worse than they treat Windows and Microsoft.  Not that it will matter.  A company that can create a real, usable desktop Linux distribution will easily overtake Apple, and give Microsoft some serious competition.  Of course, that enterprising company could very well be Microsoft, especially if the company is broken up.  Wouldn't that be an interesting turn of events?

Thursday, 08 February, 2001

Common User Agent Problems

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has posted a note on Common User Agent Problems, which discusses common mistakes in user agents, and suggests remedies.  It also suggests "good behavior" in the face of error conditions or other places where standards don't suggest specific behavior.  The article doesn't mention any specific implementations, but it does mention many of the problems that I've encountered using Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator.

It struck me as I was reading the article that web browsers are generally expected to attempt to render broken content in some reasonable fashion.  It is considered "bad" behavior for a web browser to just report an error and halt when it encounters a poorly-formatted HTML page.  Practically speaking, I'm glad that my web browser will render broken content.  The purist in me would be happy if the browser wouldn't try.  It's unfortunate that people can get away with posting poorly-formatted HTML with the expectation that browsers will go ahead and render it.  Browsers would probably be more robust, and certainly smaller, if they could simply fail when they encountered an error.  But then, that would place the burden of actually creating proper content on web site developers, who appear to be as sloppy as most programmers. 

Wednesday, 07 February, 2001

LinuxProgramming.com

If you're just getting started with Linux programming, take a trip over to LinuxProgramming.com and look around.  There are many examples of Linux programming, and a relatively new feature called SourceLib has small, focused examples that show how to use many of the operating system's features and services.  The site also contains news of interest to Linux programmers, and periodic editorials.  Lou Grinzo, the site's editor, is on something of a crusade to bring responsible development practices to the world of Open Source programming.  His standards show in the SourceLib material:  each example is focused, well-written, and well-documented.  In his editorials, he continually stresses the value of good coding practices, testing, binary compatibility, and treating users with respect.  One can only hope that the community will actually listen.

Tuesday, 06 February, 2001

Thoughts on Linux

After almost a year of working with Linux on a regular basis, I'm both impressed and discouraged.  I'm impressed by the operating system's flexibility and its stability.  At the office, we have a Linux system running our DNS server, and another system that we use for testing and a few non-critical systems.  Both of these systems do their jobs flawlessly.  My system at home is more of a work horse.  I use it for development, and also run an internal web server, an FTP service, and an SMTP service.  This system, too, is rock solid.  I can crash some of the programs I run, but I've yet to have a user program take down the system.  I haven't worked with a more stable operating system, and for many (perhaps most) server applications, I'd rather run Linux than Windows 2000.  So why am I discouraged?

For all of its stability, Linux is still hard to use, especially as a desktop operating system.  The number of useful applications available for Linux, while growing steadily, is still quite small compared to Windows.  I haven't yet found a word processor that I like and has the features I need, nor a spreadsheet, presentation editor or HTML editor.  Nor have I found a decent development environment.  Borland's Kylix will likely change that, at least for Pascal programs.  I'd still like a good C/C++ IDE.  Will I have to wait for the C++ version of Kylix?  Nothing would make me happier than to replace Windows 2000 with Linux on my primary workstation, but I can't give up the usability that I have.  Both GNOME and KDE are coming along nicely, but they still lack many features of Windows that I have grown to rely on.  I'm discouraged because I see the major push in the Linux community to be improving the underlying operating system technology while the system's usability as a desktop operating system continues to suffer.  I'm not giving up by any means, and I'll continue work with Linux, but I've resigned myself to using Windows 2000 for the next couple of years.

Monday, 05 February, 2001

Samsung's Watch Phone

Calling Dick Tracy!  Samsung has introduced a new Watch Phone.  At 2.7" x 2.3" x 0.8", and weighing 48 grams with battery, the thing isn't a whole lot bigger than the watch I bought in Jamaica last week.  It also has a longer battery life (90 minutes continuous talk, 60 hours standby) than the 3-year-old telephone that I cart around with me every day.  It also has more features:  voice-activated dialing, earphones, and multiple alert signals (alarms).  Samsung is working on text-to-speech software that will give users audio access to short message service and email.  At $1,000, it'll probably remain a cute gimmick for people who don't have anything better to do with their money, but it sure is cool.

In other cell phone news, at least four vendors were showing phone/PDA combinations at Comdex in November.  The Casio Cassiopeia's new battery pack doubles as a phone, and Handspring's Visor Phone ($299) clips into the Springboard expansion slot.  Kyocera was showing its upcoming Palm OS-based cell phone, and Microsoft revealed its prototype Stinger cell phone.  Finally, the guy at the Sprint store in Circuit City last week told me that Sprint will be offering PDA/phone units in the second quarter of this year.

Many vendors seem to think that wireless handsets (or wrist sets) will replace PCs as the preferred way to access the Internet.  I can't see it happening any time soon.  There's just not enough screen real estate, and we don't yet have a reasonable alternative user interface.  Text to speech technology is certainly good enough these days to read your email to you, but speech to text isn't quite there.  Even in the best conditions (little background noise, clear even speech), speech recognition requires huge amounts of memory and processor cycles, and isn't accurate enough for serious communication.  Worse, speech isn't nearly as effective as the written word for conveying the kinds of information that we transmit via email.

The technology's cool, though, and almost worth buying just for the gadget factor...

Sunday, 04 February, 2001

Fig Update

I chopped the figs to the ground on December 30, and on December 31 I wrote about finding a live fig branch and transplanting it into a pot of compost.  When we got home from our cruise last night, I checked on the plant and found that one of the stalks has two new sprouts on it.  One of the others has what appears to be a sprout—it's hard to tell right now.  Anyway, I took another picture for the "before and after" series. 

[The fig plant eventually died when I put it outside and the deer ate it.]

I spent half of the day outside, picking up the rest of the leaves around the yard, and getting ready to plant some gardens.  The compost is rotting nicely.  The rest of the day I spent here trying to catch up on my back log of work:  a week's worth of mail, email, journal entries, and other stuff that got neglected while I was off having fun.  Tomorrow it's back to the grind.

Saturday, 03 February, 2001

Day 7: Back to the World

We docked about 6:00 this morning, and they had everybody off the ship by about 9:00.  As with the arrival, departure was well planned and well executed.  We kissed our luggage goodbye last night after dinner, claimed it in customs this morning, and then loaded it onto a truck headed for the airport.  We were at the airport by 8:30.  My only complaint is that our flight didn't leave until 12:20.  It sure would have been nice to have an earlier flight.

I'm really amazed that they can turn that cruise ship around in 12 hours.  They'll start boarding passengers about noon today, and the ship will leave port at 7:00 pm.  In 12 hours, they offload passengers and trash, empty the holding tanks, take on food, water, and fuel, restock the bars and restaurants, replenish other consumables, and generally make the ship ready for the next 7-day cruise.  The amount of stuff they have to do in those 12 hours is frightening, and I'm amazed that they get it all done.

If you get a chance to take a cruise, do it.  It's one of the best vacation values going.  The food is superb, the service is unsurpassed, and it's a lot of fun.  Debra and I have sailed with Holland America and with Princess, and highly recommend both. 

Friday, 02 February, 2001

Day 6: At Sea

Today we spent the entire day at sea.  We arrive at Port Everglades early tomorrow morning and disembark.

There's a lot to do on a cruise ship.  On the last cruise we took (a 10-day cruise in February 1998 to see the Solar Eclipse), we didn't take advantage of many shipboard activities.  This week, we took advantage of the evening entertainment and some of the other activities.  Quickly:

Saturday:  "Welcome Aboard" show featuring the Sea Princess Dancers, and comedian Dave Heenan.
Sunday:  Multi-instrumentalist Mark Donoghue, who plays piano, guitar, harmonica, mandolin, and sings.
Monday:  Comedian Dave Heenan.
Tuesday:  Magician and Illusionist Gaetano.
Wednesday:  A musical show called "C'est Magnifique"
Friday: A variety show featuring Mark Donoghue and Dave Heenan.

Those are just the shows we saw, and they were all good.  There were other, similar entertainments that we didn't see.  In addition, there was a deck party with live music every afternoon, a tropical deck party one evening, dancing in some of the on-board bars, karaoke, movies, bingo, a golf simulator, and dozens of other activities.  There's an onboard health club with treadmills, stationary bikes, and weights, aerobics classes, scheduled "walk a mile," pool volleyball, table tennis, and (of course) shuffleboard.

A cruise ship is a 5 star resort hotel that just happens to move from place to place.  Throughout the week, we met several couples who say they stay on board for the entire cruise.  To them, the activities aboard the ship are much preferable to the activities on shore.  Maybe I'll feel that way after a few more cruises.

Thursday, 01 February, 2001

Day 5: Cozumel, Mexico

Cozumel, Mexico.  It was raining early this morning, and we were worried that it would spoil our tour.  Not to worry:  the weather cleared and the snorkeling was great.  We spent about an hour snorkeling in a bay (about 20 feet deep), and then sailed to a beach where we had a picnic lunch and rested in the shade.  The trip back to the port was about an hour long, which we spent dancing and drinking on the bow of the catamaran (pictured right).  The tour included an open bar, and I wasn't shy about taking advantage of the Dos Equis and margaritas.  We sure had fun dancing the Macarena, the Electric Slide, the old Village People song Y.M.C.A, Mambo Number 5, and all the rest.  The conga line sure got interesting after a while, with the bartender giving everybody a mouthful of margarita every time we passed the bar.

We spent the afternoon shopping in Cozumel.  Of the three ports we visited this trip, this one was the most fun for shopping.  The people are incredibly friendly, and there are hundreds (thousands?) of shops that sell a wide variety of stuff.  The most enjoyable part about shopping, though, is dickering with the salespeople, and I think they enjoy it at least as much as we do.  If they didn't, they wouldn't ask such outrageous prices to start.

Today is our 10th wedding anniversary.  One reason we took this particular cruise is that we visited Cancun on our honeymoon.  Cozumel is about 30 miles across the bay from Cancun.  To celebrate, I ordered a bottle of Dom Perignon at dinner.  The stuff is expensive, sure, but what the heck.  I can afford one every 10 years.  And it's good.  I don't particularly like most champagnes, but this stuff is wonderful.