Tuesday, 30 November, 2004

Web Site Reports

Internet Explorer continues to lose ground to Firefox and other browsers, at least on my site.  Since August, IE's share has dropped from 74.7% of visits to 66.4%.  The interesting thing to me is that most of the difference isn't in Firefox (which went from 11.3% to 12.0%), but in Netscape and "unknown."  Netscape was down in the noise until November.  Mozilla has  been in the 2.5% to 8% range.  "Unknown" seems to be in the 7.5% to 9.0% range.  Opera, Konqueror, and others each make up less than 2% of the total.

There hasn't been much change in the most popular search terms for my site.  TriTryst, Marine Military Academy, Windows Help, and Cab compression all made the top ten.  I was surprised by the number of search hits on "Thanksgiving beer" and "deer overpopulation."

There are some notable one-time search hits:

  • I can't even imagine what the person who searched on "random booty" was looking for.
  • "Mischel Wild," I've learned, is the screen name of a relatively new Eastern European porn star.  I hope she changes her name.
  • There are still quite a few people wondering how to dispose of a toilet, and I still don't have a good answer for them.
  • Somebody was wondering "who discovered linux."  Linux was invented by Linus Torvalds, and from the looks of things, more and more people are "discovering" it every day.
  • Why would anybody want "random sausages?"
  • If the person looking for "pit bull workout equipment" finds what he's looking for, I'd sure appreciate a note.  Charlie could use to burn off a little extra energy.
  • My favorite search term for the month has to be "how to stop smoking skunk."
  • You have to wonder about somebody who's searching for "comical pictures of animals having sex."  On second thought, maybe I don't want to spend too much time pondering that.
  • I see that I'm not the only person who has had difficulty trying to "set the freaking time in linux."
  • To the person wondering "where did the rabbits come from:"  You see, you put a boy rabbit in the cage with a girl rabbit and pretty soon you have baby rabbits. . .


Monday, 29 November, 2004

The Catholic Church and AIDS

I got a note today from the Executive Officer of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center, asking me to take a look at two articles that explain the Catholic Church's position on AIDS and contraception.  This was in response to my entry for July 30, 2001.

The first article, The Social Vaccine,  describes the success that the African nation of Uganda has had in using an abstinence-based program to combat the spread of AIDS.  One can't argue with such success.  I've long held that abstinence outside of marriage and fidelity within marriage is the most effective way to combat AIDS.  I also recognize that not everybody believes in abstinence, so I still advocate the use of condoms.  In my opinion, stopping the spread of AIDS using whatever means are available is more important than the Church's position regarding contraception and pre-marital or extra-marital sex.

The second article, Contraception: Why Not? by Janet Smith, attempts to explain the Church's continued insistence that contraception is one of the worst inventions of our time.  Ms. Smith draws some interesting correlations between the wide availability of contraceptive devices and all manner of social ills, but I'd be hard pressed to accept her correlations as conclusive.  Be that as it may, I've never advocated the type of indiscriminate behavior that she describes.  Contraceptives are a tool, and like any tool they can be misused.

The Church's position on the use of contraceptives in marriage still boggles the mind.  According to Ms. Smith, Pope John Paul II's position is:

"the sexual act was meant to be an act of total self-giving.  You want to give everything you've got to someone you love.  And when you're withholding your fertility, you're withholding something that belongs in the sexual act, something that actually belongs there.  To withhold it means that you're not giving of yourself completely."

I guess everybody has to believe something.

To Mr. Field who sent me the nice email, thank you.  At least I now more fully understand the Church's stance on the issue.  I don't agree with it anymore now than I did before, but it's nice to know that there is something there.  It's a shame, though, that it takes a layperson to explain it.  What the heck are priests for?

Sunday, 28 November, 2004

The monthly century

Today was Century Day:  time for my monthly 100 mile ride in order to complete my goal of at least one century a month for the year.  Today was a bit difficult for two reasons:  I've been pretty lazy since Debra and I did the Round Rock century on October 9, and the wind today was 15 to 20 MPH straight out of the south.

Debra did the first 20 miles with me.  We swung by the house where I topped off my water bottle, ate a small snack, and headed out onto the road.  Since the wind was so strong, I didn't want to do any real long pulls into it, so I did two 40 mile loops that had me going mostly east and west.  Still, the last pull into the wind was brutal so I cut the loop short and rode the last 20 miles in a subdivision, sheltered from the wind.

This certainly wasn't my fastest 100 mile ride ever, but it was one of my best.  I kept my heart rate in the proper range, conserved energy, ate and drank on schedule, and felt pretty good by the time it was over.  I'll have to remember how to do that when I'm in shape again and the weather is nicer.

Saturday, 27 November, 2004

Ham Radio Update

I continue to be surprised by the generosity of the people I've met since getting involved in ham radio last year.  As I noted last Saturday, I'd passed my General license exam but had no radio with which to exercise my new privileges.  I mentioned that to a fellow club member on Sunday and he offered to let me borrow his HF rig:  a Kenwood TS-450S along with a very nice antenna tuner.  It took me a couple of days to get it all hooked up and operating correctly, time being at a premium for the short work week, but by Wednesday night I was able to make some contacts.  I've talked now to people in New York, Maryland, Wisconsin, Arizona, and on Anguilla Island in the Caribbean (just east of Puerto Rico).

Until I actually started operating on HF, I really couldn't understand the attraction.  I thought it might be a cool novelty, but it's more than that.  I was incredibly excited today when I was able to talk to the guy in the Caribbean.

Now to sharpen up my Morse Code skills...

Thursday, 25 November, 2004

The 9/11 Commission Report

Browsing the bookstore last night, I came across The 9/11 Commission Report.  Although I realize that the document is available online, I opted to lay down the $10 for a bound copy.  I don't particularly enjoy reading electronic documents, and it'd probably cost more than the $10 for paper, ink, and a binder if I printed the thing myself.

The first chapter of the report (which is as far as I've gotten) describes the events of September 11, 2001 from about 6:00 am until 10:30 am Eastern time.  It details the events on each of the four hijacked flights, and discusses the reactions of the airlines, the FAA, and the military.  It's quite an interesting read, and puts to rest many myths that have been repeated as fact.

If you believe the report, that is.  I'm sure that there are plenty of people who will consider the report a cover up or a whitewash.  Although I'm sure that many details were left out, the version presented in the report jibes with my common sense interpretation of events.

Subsequent chapters examine events leading up to the attacks, focusing on why and how Usama Bin Laden and his group of fanatics targeted the U.S.  I'm surprised at how readable the report is, and how engaging.  Unlike most government reports I've been forced to slog through, I actually look forward to sitting down with this one.

I'm going to withhold my observations on the report until I've read it completely, and possibly until I make a second pass with all of the end notes.  Why use end notes, by the way?  Footnotes are much more convenient for the reader.

Monday, 22 November, 2004

A .NET Cabinet file interface

The third and final installment of my article series on reading and writing Microsoft CAB files from .NET is available now on DevSourceCreating an Object-Oriented Interface to CAB Files describes the CabCompressor and CabDecompressor objects that I created, which wrap the Cabinet SDK functionality in .NET objects and present a familiar .NET event interface to the callbacks.  Full project source code is available from a link at the end of the article.

Saturday, 20 November, 2004

Ham radio license upgrade

I spent every night this past week studying to upgrade my ham radio license from Technician to General.  Upon getting home from work, I'd spend an hour reviewing FCC rules, basic circuits, operating procedures, and other such things that I'd be tested on.  Then I'd spend 30 or 60 minutes listening to sample conversations in Morse Code.  It made for some long nights, trying to get the studying in and also finish up a few articles that I'd committed to.

Today I passed both the Morse Code test and the General theory test, which means that now I am a General Class amateur radio operator, with privileges to operate on the high frequency (HF) bands that make it possible to talk long distances:  all the way around the world if I have the proper equipment and conditions are good. 

And there's the problem.  I don't have a working HF transmitter.  I have a receiver and an antenna, but I'm missing the transmitter and a few other critical pieces of equipment.  I have a non-working transmitter, my grandfather's old Hallicrafters HT-37, but it needs some work before I can put it on the air.  I'm asking around to see if anybody has a loaner, but no luck so far.  I'm hoping that I'll find a new radio under the tree next month.  Until then, I'm like a little kid waiting for that Christmas that seems like it'll never get here.

Sunday, 14 November, 2004

Upgrading to Windows XP

After a little over four years, Debra outgrew the 6 gigabyte drive on her machine.  The darn thing's been giving her trouble for months, but she wouldn't let me do anything about it.  I tried to defragment the drive, but the Windows 98 defragger kept restarting for some reason and wouldn't ever actually defragment anything.  When the system started telling her that there weren't sufficient resources to run Word, it was the last straw.

A trip to Fry's is always a good thing.  I stopped there on Thursday with about an hour to kill before a dinner meeting.  I was looking for a 30 gigabyte drive to put in Debra's machine, but the smallest Fry's had was a 40 gigabyte Maxtor.  I thought $75 was pretty steep, but since that was the cheapest they had, I took it to the register.  The guy at the door who checks receipts noticed the 40 gigabyte drive and informed me that the 80 gigabyte Maxtors were on sale for $50.  Twice as much for a third less.  So I returned the 40, picked up an 80, got the credit, and headed out.

Saturday morning I backed up all of Debra's data on two CDs, opened the computer, and installed the new drive.  Then I installed Windows XP Home along with service pack 2 and all the other critical updates.  Installing software took most of the day, and even overflowed into today a bit.  But now Debra has Windows XP and about 70 gigabytes of free space.  It's surprising how much faster XP is compared to Windows 98.  I suspect the new drive is faster, and I know for sure that the page file on the XP system isn't fragmented like the Windows 98 page file was.

Whenever I upgrade to a new operating system, I buy a new hard drive.  The old drive stays in the system as the secondary device ("D drive") so I have a live backup of the old data.  That's saved my bacon numerous times when I've forgotten to back up some critical data.  I must have hooked up the IDE cable wrong this time, because Windows XP decided that the new drive (the boot device) should be drive F:, and the old drive was C:.  I managed to change the drive letter for the old drive (it's K: now), but Windows won't let me change the drive letter of the boot device.  Of course, by the time I realized this, Windows XP was fully installed and I wasn't about to go through that again!

In any case, we now have a Windows XP box in the house with SP2.  It's a huge improvement over Windows 98.  We'll see how it does.  If I run into any problems, I'll be sure to report them here.

Sunday, 14 November, 2004

Old Computers are Essentially Worthless

Last weekend I took three old computers and a bunch of old computer parts to sell at the Austin Radio Roundup--a ham radio "swap meet". Think of a flea market for old radio gear and electronics parts. The computers were an IBM PC (4.77 MHz, two diskette drives), a Leading Edge XT, and an IBM PS/2 Model 30. Parts included a 500 megabyte hard drive, some 10 MBPS network cards, some old computer speakers, a few keyboards, and other assorted valuables. A quick back-of-the-envelope estimate put the "new" value of this equipment at $10,000.

I got $15 selling the speakers, a track ball, a few cables, the disk drive, and a few other things. (The drive went for $2 to a guy who planned to take it apart and use one of the bearings for a code key.) I tried to give away what was left. No takers. With few exceptions, the rest went to the local computer recycler. 20 year old computers are essentially worthless because they aren't good for much except door stops, boat anchors, or museum pieces. Museums have all the computers they need, and there are better tools for holding doors open and boats in place.

Old radios, on the other hand, are still useful. Hams affectionately refer to old tube type equipment as "boat anchors," while at the same time lovingly restoring the radios and warming ourselves in the heat given off when we operate it. Radio waves are the same now as they were in 1955. My 50 year old Collins receiver will pick up people who are using the newest top of the line Yaesu transceiver. Similarly, if I fire up the Hallicrafters transmitter, the Japanese ham with the Icom is going to hear me just fine. Granted, the old gear is kind of tempermental and is somewhat difficult to operate, but it works in the modern world.

If there's a point to this tale, it's that some technologies take longer to mature than others. 80 year old cars, radios, and airplanes work just fine in today's world.  I wonder if computers will ever mature to the point that I could reliably use a 20 year old machine on a modern network.

Wednesday, 10 November, 2004

Tyranno Poodle Rex

One of the programmers I worked with years ago was something of an artist.  He'd come into my office from time to time and draw funny pictures on the white board.  Jason also was somewhat fascinated by our poodles, who would accompany Debra to the office whenever she came by.  In any case, I just had to take a picture of my white board the day he drew Tyranno Poodle Rex and Jimbopoodlus Horribilis.

By the way, you really should get a digital camera for your office if you don't already have one.  When I was writing computer games we had a lot of ad-hoc design sessions and problem solving at the white board in one programmer's office or another, and then would take a picture of the white board in order to record the meeting's results.  It's a whole lot more effective than blocking off an area of the board with big "DO NOT ERASE" messages.

Tuesday, 09 November, 2004

My First Programmable Anything

I got my first calculator in 1976 or 1977--a Casio castoff from my dad.  It was no great shakes, just your basic four-function calculator with a single memory.  Not that I really needed the thing.  None of the problems I had to solve up through trigonometry required the calculator.  We had trig and logarithm tables, slide rules, and knew how to interpolate.  Come to think of it, I'm not sure we were allowed to use electronic calculators during tests.

In the summer of 1978 I saved up enough money (and $80.00 was quite a lot to a 16 year old kid back then) from my part time furniture moving job to buy a Radio Shack EC-4000 programmable calculator, which was a re-branded TI-57.  What a fascinating piece of equipment!  I bought the thing a couple of days before my family headed out on a driving trip to Disneyland.  I spent the three traveling days curled up in a corner of the truck going through the book, learning how to program the thing.  I even spent a little time with it at the campground there by Disneyland.  By the time I'd had the thing for two weeks, I knew that I was going to be a computer programmer.

The TI-57 was kind of an odd beast in the world of programmable calculators in that it was relatively inexpensive but had branching instructions.  Other programmable calculators in its price range lacked branching instructions, which limited their usefulness quite a bit.  I remember that it took me a day or so to understand the usefulness of branching instructions, but once I did...wow!  I wrote all kinds of cool little programs for the thing, drawing flow charts and testing my logic like the manual taught me before painstakingly keying the instructions into the calculator and testing the program.  The only program I can remember well is my prime finder:  given a number, it would go through the calculations to tell you if it was prime.  I was quite impressed with myself when I reduced the time required to determine the primeness of the number 1,000,003 from 35 minutes to a little less than eight minutes.  Oh, the joys of program optimazation.

I just stumbled across the Datamath Calculator Museum today while I was looking for something else, and seeing that old calculator brought back lots of good memories.  The Web really is a wonderful thing.

Monday, 08 November, 2004

Wishing for an address book standard

Another item in Jim's list of things that should be easy but aren't: converting address books. Come to think of it, you shouldn't have to convert your address book at all, but rather use the existing one with a new program. But you can't do that, and converting from one vendor's proprietary format to another's is difficult or impossible.

Why are software developers so dead set against agreeing on a standard address book format and interface that they all can use? Is writing address handling code really so exciting? Why the heck isn't there a simple, standard, text-based (or XML, if you want to use the latest and greatest buzzword technology) address book format and a standard library to which all programs can interface?

It's available on Windows, if you limit yourself to Outlook (or Outlook Express), Microsoft Office applications, and third party applications that use the incredibly complex MAPI and CDO interfaces. Forget being able to modify the darned thing with a text editor, though. And forget being able to reliably import addresses from other programs into the Microsoft Office applications.

Microsoft isn't the only uncooperative vendor here, by the way. In fact, one could make the argument that Microsoft is the only vendor that is even partially cooperative. At least they define an interface (MAPI/CDO) that all Windows programs can use to interface with the address book. It's difficult to use, but it's possible. Not so with other vendors' address books. In the last 18 months or so, I've used Microsoft Outlook and Outlook Express, PocoMail, KMail and Evolution on Linux, and Mozilla Thunderbird. Plus my PalmOS-based telephone. The only two that share data reliably are Outlook and the phone. All the rest use their own proprietary formats or interface for storing addresses. Most will import addresses from Outlook or Outlook Express, but won't go the other way, nor will they import from other programs' formats.  Writing code to convert between formats is difficult and time consuming.

You think maybe I'm an extreme case and that I wouldn't have this problem if I'd just stick with one email program? That's almost true if I'd stick with Microsoft applications (IE and Office). As long as Word or Excel will do whatever it is I want to do with addresses, no problem. But if I buy a third party program to perform some specific task, I'd better hope that the vendor included MAPI/CDO support for the address book. Considering how buggy and difficult to use MAPI/CDO has proven to be, I'm not terribly surprised that many vendors have opted not to include that support.

Please, somebody create a simple XML-based address book format along with a standard access library. Give it away. Let other vendors include it in their code. Evangelize it. Convince Microsoft and the Open Source crowd to embrace it. That one step would make life so much easier for all users, and would go a very long way on the road to convincing users that computers don'thave to be complex and frustrating.

Sunday, 07 November, 2004

The Incredibles

Debra and I just got back from seeing The Incredibles at the theatre.  This is the new Pixar animated movit that I've been waiting on for a year.  It didn't disappoint.  It's brilliant.

What happens when two superheros get married and try to raise a "normal" family, putting away the superhero outfits for the mundane suburban life?  The movie is well written, the animation is superb, the soundtrack is spot on.  I couldn't find any faults in the movie.  It's the best film I've seen since Monsters, Inc.

Although the movie is animated, it's not really for kids.  No doubt that kids will enjoy it, but I'm pretty sure the movie was written primarily for adults.  I don't want to say too much about the film, because I'd hate to spoil it for you.  Go see it.  It's absolutely wonderful.

Saturday, 06 November, 2004

Web traffic reports

The reports I get from SectorLink provide a lot more information than just what search terms are used to access my site.  They tell me how many visits I get, from what IP addresses, average hits by day of week and hour of the day, which robots and spiders are accessing the site, which files are the most popular, and what browsers and operating systems are used.  Windows is still the dominant OS--about 87% last month.  Internet Explorer is still the dominant browser with 70% share, but that's been decreasing as both Firefox and Netscape climb.

The reports also list links from other sites--browsers pass this information along when somebody clicks on a link.  I've recently egun to get a lot of referrals from some strange places like cashblaster.biz, riskfreegains.biz, and best-prom.com (just to list a few).  I've checked those sites and haven't found a link from them to my site, which leads me to believe that somebody's playing games with the referral URL.

Has anybody else seen this kind of thing with their sites' traffic reports?  Are they hoping I'll link to them because they supposedly link to me?  What gives?

Wednesday, 03 November, 2004

Pondering the same sex marriage prohibitions

Gay rights activists see the passage in 11 states of measures banning same sex marriage as a defeat, when they should view it as something of a minor victory.   Five years ago, nobody even talked about gay marriage, and now it's being discussed openly and put to the vote.   These new measures are temporary at best, even if they do pass the inevitable legal challenges.   And if they're struck down, there's the possibility that the laws they were designed to strengthen will be struck down as well.

I'm not at all surprised that such measures passed in the states where they were on the ballot.   The majority of the voting public is uncomfortable with the idea of same sex marriage.   It's new and different.   To them, it's bad enough that we acknowledge sexuality at all.  Seeing homosexuality openly celebrated on nationwide TV is shocking.   Is it any surprise that people who were brought up to believe that sex is private and homosexuality is evil would be distressed by the idea of same sex marriage and want to prevent it?   This is more than an emotional issue.   It strikes at the core values that people have lived with for forty years or more. (Forty-plus being the largest voting block.)

I think that banning same sex marriage is an important step in the process of our society reevaluating its sexual mores.   We have to over react before we become rational.   More importantly, it will cause us to discuss fundamental principles that make up our Republic, chiefly among them the Constitutional protections against the tyranny of the majority.   This issue is not fundamentally different from laws that prevented interracial marriages, and in time--probably within my lifetime--same sex marriage will be commonplace.   That doesn't help the thousands of same sex couples who want to get married now, I know, but that's the way things happen in our society.   You don't change a society by forcing people to accept things that are contrary to their fundamental value systems.   You do it by changing the fundamental values of the younger generations.   In a very real sense, it's a war of attrition.

The debate won't stop at same sex marriage between two people, by the way.   I already hear grumblings of threesomes, foursomes, and larger "group marriages" vying for equal rights.   To tell the truth, I don't see where we could reasonably withhold the legal and civil benefits of marriage from such groups.   That will cause some serious social upheaval as the whole concept of a family unit is redefined.   Even that could happen in my lifetime.   If it does, I expect to see a fair number of same sex couples protesting against it.   Some things don't change.