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Stardate 20010630.2156 (On Screen): There has always been something important about ship names, especially on war ships. Three of the six big-deck carriers the US had going into WWII were named after important battles of the American Revolution: Lexington was the first battle, Saratoga was the first major victory over British forces, when a column commanded by "Gentleman" Johnny Burgoyne was stopped and forced to surrender in New York, and Yorktown was the last battle of the war, ultimately leading to the abandonment of the struggle by the British and to US independence. Lexington and Yorktown were sunk (respectively at Coral Sea and Midway) and later in the war new carriers were christened with the same names, in honor of those great ships.

Though it was inevitable that a carrier would be named after FDR in 1945, up through the 1960's, most of our carriers were equally given historically important names, either being named after important battles or after earlier ships. But beginning with the John F. Kennedy (one of about ten thousand things sentimentally named after JFK after 1963) that tradition was broken. The next carrier which was launched was named after Admiral Chester Nimitz, but to me that was appropriate since Nimitz was the naval commander who won the Pacific war, and commanded the greatest concentration of air craft carriers the world has ever known (more than 35 at a time). When Eisenhower died, they named a carrier after him, though I'm not sure he ever saw a carrier while serving. Then a carrier was named after Carl Vinson, a US Congressman -- and the floodgates were opened. Now nearly all our carriers are named after politicians, and I don't like it. I suppose I can accept carriers named after Washington and Lincoln, though a carrier named after Teddy Roosevelt is a bit strange, and who the hell was Carl Vinson?

Fortunately, that idiocy isn't percolating down to our light carriers and cruisers, which still carry names honoring military history. Wasp, Essex, Kearsarge and Bonhomme Richard are named after honored ships from the past. Boxer, Bataan, Tarawa, Saipan, Belleau Wood, Nassau and Peleliu are named after battles where the US Marines fought well -- which is appropriate because our light carriers are designed to support Marine amphibious landings. It is proper to commemorate battles this way.

Nearly all of our cruisers are named after famous battles; to a student of US military history those ship names bring back strong images (except for Thomas S. Gates; I don't have the faintest idea who that was).

Our destroyers are nearly all named after individuals from military history. Attack subs are named after cities and states, and boomers are named after states. Except Seawolf, but I think that's a pretty cool name for an attack sub, and that in turn harkens back to the old convention of naming attack submarines after predatory fish, the convention used during WWII. Names like Narwhal, Shark, Tuna, Dace, Darter and the oddly-named Wahoo bring back memories of brave and desperate men to the student, and Squalus is a source of much sorrow (as, indeed, is Wahoo).

I am disappointed that there is no longer a USS England. She was a destroyer-escort (sort of a cut-rate destroyer) named after Ensign John C. England who was killed at Pearl Harbor, and she was part of a group of destroyers deployed as a hunter-killer squadron for anti-submarine warfare. The Japanese often used their submarines for scouting duty, and an order to a group of them was intercepted and decoded by the Americans, who determined where they would be. This DE group was dispatched to the area, and rolled up the line of submarines. Over the course of about about two weeks, despite being one of about five ships in this group, England was responsible for sinking six Japanese submarines, a record unmatched in history. The Chief of Naval Operations radioed: "There will always be an England in the US Navy." Alas, there no longer is.

I am happy to see that the newest light carrier in the US Navy will be commissioned with the honored name Iwo Jima. It almost removes the sour taste I have in my mouth from knowing that our next big-deck carrier will be named Ronald Reagan. (God forbid we should ever name one "Clinton".) (discuss)

Update 20010701: A reader writes in with this link which describes who Thomas S. Gates was. Based on that, I have to say it was completely reasonable to name a ship after him.

Stardate 20010630.1839 (On Screen): ICANN had better wake up soon or it will have passed into irrelevance. There is no reason, none whatever, why they should be so penurious with TLDs. Letters are cheap and there's no good reason at all why there shouldn't be hundreds of top level domains. (There are hundreds already.) Why are they treating them as if they were precious beyond words? (They are words!) So why is it such a big event that a whole two new ones have become available?

The answer is that trademark holders are running scared. If fifty new domains show up, they'll be in a race with cybersquatters to nab all the desirable ones. I'm not sympathetic with that problem, and I see no justification in creating an artificial shortage of domains. (discuss)

Update 20010701: ICANN, this is your wakeup call. Off your asses!

Stardate 20010630.1218 (On Screen): There are a lot of problems with multiple-choice computer graded achievement tests, but they have two virtues: they can be graded efficiently, and the grading is objective. It is true that it is possible to learn methods which will boost your score, but on the math SAT, there's still going to be a difference between a student who scores 750 and one who scores 450, and no amount of how-to-take-the-SAT training will alter that.

The biggest flaw of those kinds of tests is that they are not appropriate for testing certain kinds of things, and the ETS is now going to use an essay in some of its tests. I have deep misgivings about this. How do you objectively grade essays? And how do you grade 400,000 essays a year regardless? It can't be automated, and it isn't going to be economically possible for the grader to spend more than five minutes per essay. Also, one grader would give a different score to a given essay than another would, so the result will contain a strong element of chance.

The fundamental problem with the whole concept of continuously testing students for achievement in order to track the effectiveness of schools is that it can't really be done. You can try, but it isn't really possible to test effectively, efficiently and objectively. (You can have any two of those.) (discuss)

Stardate 20010629.1657 (On Screen): Thirty years ago, guys with too much money and no brains would work on hot-rods, trying to jazz up their cars to make them fast, powerful and snazzy looking. These days those same guys (including me) do the same thing to their computers. There's a whole industry subsegment of companies who cater to folks like me who are into constantly upgrading and hyping the performance of their systems. Recently they've gotten into not just performace, but looks. (I guess the idea is that driving your computer down Broadway is a good way to pick up chicks, or something like that.) For instance, there's a site which sells computer cases made of oak, though these days the coolest ones are made of aluminum. Another fad is to put a window in the side of the case so that you can see inside -- and of course, as soon as you do that then you want to have colored lights inside. And if you're using water cooling on your processor (to permit that little something extra on the overclocking front) then why not put dye in the water to make it look neat? That'll really attract the chicks. (Hey, baby, wanna come over to my place and see my computer?) (discuss)

Stardate 20010629.1512 (On Screen): It sounds like someone is well on their way to creating a practical exoskeleton, and naturally the military is interested. I can think of a number of uses it could have in combat situations. For one thing, it's going to be a God-send to the quartermasters; a man wearing one of these will be able to do a much better job unloading trucks. (I'm quite serious.) Another group even more likely to use them would be combat engineers or other military construction units. These could do many of the things done now using big power equipment (moving boulders and logs, for instance) in a much more efficient way when they're building roads or bridges or airfields.

Who I can't see using these any time soon is front line troops. That's because to a front line infantryman, silence is life. The last thing that a rifleman needs is to walk around sounding like a lawnmower. Until these things can be made to operate using a silent power source, you're going to see minimal use of them at the front. If you don't mind making noise, a tank will serve much better. (discuss)

Stardate 20010629.1351 (On Screen): Many years ago I bought a book (published by Microsoft Press!) called "Out of the Inner Circle" which was written by a guy who was about 21 years old. He had just emerged from paying his debt after a successful prosecution for computer crime and decided to write about what it was like to be in a hacker group called "The Inner Circle". It's a bit dated now but much of what it describes is still relevant. One of the things he describes is how ridiculously easy it is to guess the passwords that most neophytes select for themselves.

The two most commonly chosen passwords by novice users are "sex" and "secret".

When making a "dictionary" attack, they would start with a list of popular music groups, the names of members of those groups, sporting teams, sports stars, fifty or so male first names, a hundred female first names, and other things like that. Surprisingly, about half of accounts would fall to this short list of perhaps a thousand words. Those who did not would then be subject to a broader dictionary attack of hundreds of thousands of words.

Passwords are a secure or insecure protection based only on the intelligence with which they are chosen and protected. A few years ago I was briefly the system manager at a company where I worked, and I wrote and distributed a memo discussing password choice. The best password is a meaningless string of letters and numbers, but that's also difficult to remember. (Still, that's used some places where a password is given to you without you having any ability to change it.) The best way to form a good password that is relatively easy to remember is to concatanate two words together: "galaxyegg". But not words which make a normal English phrase or phrase from pop culture. Don't use "coldbeer" or "redbrick" or "purplerain". (discuss)

Stardate 20010629.1331 (On Screen): Also this. Both of these articles say about the same thing: what Judge Jackson is criticizing for saying during the Microsoft antitrust trial was things the authors of these pieces agreed with, and as such he ought not be getting the kind of trouble he's getting for it. But that's wrong, because there's a deeper issue.

Judge Jackson is a citizen of the US and has a right of free speech. But professionals in various professions have an obligation of silence beyond that of the law. I am an engineer and I know a great deal about the business dealings of the various companies for which I have worked over the years. This is inevitable, because I can't do my job of product design without knowing that, and if I were to reveal my knowledge it could cause my former employers a great deal of damage. I don't reveal that information; I feel a professional obligation to keep silent unless there's an overriding concern. I would reveal information about a crime, for instance.

Doctors and ministers receive information from their patients under confidence. They are not legally compelled to keep that information confidential, but they are professionally compelled to do so, and a priest will go to prison rather than violate the confidentiality of the confessional.

Our legal system has as its foundation the idea of the impartiality of the judges who make it work. If no-one believes in impartiality, then the legal system will ultimately collapse. Judges know this, and there is a strong professional ethics among judges to not mouth off about cases as they're being tried. It would take a very compelling reason in a specific case to make doing so more important than the resulting overall damage this would do to the judiciary. Even if Judge Jackson did think the things he talked about, and even if his evaluations of the parties in the case were valid, there was no compelling reason for him to talk about them while the case was being tried. He was scathingly denounced for it by the appellate ruling, and rightly so. (discuss)

Stardate 20010629.0940 (On Screen via long range sensors): There's something esthetically pleasing about the fact that a library of Mesopotamian Cunieform works has been posted onto the web. A substantial body of the oldest writings known is now being distributed with the most high tech publishing system ever created by the human race. (discuss)

Stardate 20010629.0804 (On Screen): A scientists claims to have found evidence for the existence of the mind independent of the brain. But his evidence is deeply flawed and useless. He bases it entirely on interviews with patients who had been declared "legally dead" but who had later been revived. Of course, part of the problem here is that "legal death" can be based on heart disfunction, especially in the case of traumatic death. There isn't time at an accident scene to administer an EEG to prove brain disfunction. So "legal death" doesn't prove that the brains of these patients actually stopped functioning during the intervals he claims.

But that's not the real problem with this study. He interviews these patients after the fact and find that some of them claim to have memories of the times in question. His basic mistake is to assume that if someone remembers something then it must have happened, which is provably false. This flaw is universal among people who study this phenomenon, also demonstrated by people claiming "out of body" experiences; it is far easier to explain as hallucination. (discuss)

Stardate 20010629.0736 (On Screen): My favorite movie with Jack Lemmon is one most people have never even heard of. It's a comedy called "How to Murder Your Wife" and it never misses a beat, from start to finish. (By the way, no-one dies and no-one is ever threatened with death. That's not what it's about. It is completely appropriate for kids to watch.) All the casting choices were right on the money, but the film would have failed if Lemmon had not given everything he had in the performance -- but, of course, he did.

I simply cannot think of another actor who could have played that role and made it work; it might as well have been written with him in mind. (For all I know it was.) I'm deliberately not describing the plot line or characters, because if I did it would spoil one of the best jokes in the movie, which plays out in the first ten minutes of the film. If you haven't seen it, don't read any plot summaries; just get the thing and watch it. You'll be glad you did. (discuss)

Stardate 20010628.1654 (On Screen): Yet again it is proved that a committee has a huge number of asses but no brains. Speaking as an engineer, I have never yet seen a successful planning process where a goal is set based exclusively on desirability. The right way to set a planning process is to concentrate on means and resources, and then to predict the result based on that. Then when the process is complete you put the plan into affect, and hope to achieve that result. As the process continues you monitor progress, and if it's going slow you reevaluate the means and resources.

A UN chartered committee has set the goal of reducing the new HIV infection rate by "25% by the year 2005". That is entirely too round a number for my taste, because it indicates that it isn't based on a detailed analysis of the expected result of specific efforts. Rather, someone tossed a number in the air and everyone else said "That sounds good." Now everyone involved in the process can go home with a warm feeling of having done something important. About the only concrete action here was a pledge of more money, which is definitely a good thing (if the pledgers actually follow through, which remains to be seen). But I would have felt a lot better about this if the plan had rather involved things like "distribution of at least 300 million condoms world wide over the next four years", along with an analysis of where the condoms were going to come from, where they were going to go, and who was going to pay for them. Now that is a "plan". (discuss)

Stardate 20010628.1640 (On Screen): This study claims that while many parents justify buying a computer for their kids because it will be used for educational purposes, mostly they're used for other things (including "playing games", gasp). This is an overly simplistic way of looking at things, because it turns out that the researchers are using a very restricted definition of "education", to wit programs like the "Freddy Fish" series.

But that's a simplistic black-and-white way of looking at it. For instance, depending on the "game", a kid may also be learning typing skills. Is this a bad thing? I sure don't think so; I didn't learn to type until I was in seventh grade (when I took a summer school class), or to use a mouse until I was 32. But a lot of kids are entering kindergarten now with at least some ability to type and use a mouse. These are valuable skills.

Another thing is that a lot of games involve reading, at least to some extent, and in some games there is a very strong written component. Likewise, many of the games being played involve sharpening a kid's reflexes and eye-hand coordination, plus learning to make quick decisions. And depending on the game there will be observation, object recognition, problem solving, planning and organizational skills. These are all valuable. (I bet a lot more first graders now have at least some reading skills than was the case when I was that age.)

I'm certainly not saying that this means that playing "Elmo's alphabet game" (or some such) is a waste of time and that all kids should be concentrating on Quake 3 Arena, though I would suggest that a kid playing Sim City or Roller Coaster Tycoon is learning a heck of a lot. I'm trying to say that education operates on a lot of levels, and having fun almost always involve some degree of learning. Anything which engages a kid's brain is a good thing. I'd much rather a kid be interactive with a game then passive watching TV. (And if you can't get kids to read books, then getting them to read web pages is the next best thing.) (discuss)

Stardate 20010628.1616 (On Screen): ZDNet takes a cheap shot at Yahoo for a perceived inconsistency. While Yahoo claims it can't suppress access to certain material from users in France, it is at the same time adopting a geographically-targeted advertising mechanism. Ha ha.

There isn't actually any contradiction, because the two are not related. The difference is one of efficiency. For the targeted advertising to work, it only has to be mostly correct. The idea is simply to boost the relevance rate for advertising, but it doesn't have to be 100%. If, say, 10% of the ads fly to the wrong places then it will succeed. Among other things, this article claims that the targeted advertising will know where the user is. That's not correct. What it will know is where the licensee of the IP block is. But, for instance, if I were to access an account at Software Tool and Die (, then Yahoo's system would think I was in Massachusetts even though I'm in San Diego. (For the first few months after I moved here from Boston, I did exactly that, dialing into STD via long distance. That only ended when I got my RR cable modem.) Most people using a dynamically allocated IP will indeed be geographically near the system which licenses it, but not all. To stop hate material from reaching France, it would require nearly 100% success, and that's not possible; how is Yahoo to know whether someone in France is using a local network access point to use an account on a server in the US? It can't, but it would have to in order to fully comply with the French court order.

Moreover, targeted advertising will be handled by a specific server, and the people purchasing the advertising will do the work of deciding where they want it delivered. But to suppress hate material, Yahoo itself would have to monitor all the things posted on its site (including its auctions) and categorize them, because the people setting the auctions surely won't do it. It's not a comparable situation. So while it makes a great laugh-line, ZDNet is off base here. (discuss)

Stardate 20010628.1549 (On Screen): Today's appellate ruling in the Microsoft antitrust suit appears to be a Rorshach test, with everyone seeing in it what they want to see. Most of the news coverage hasn't helped any, trying to be too brief in summarizing the points of a very complicated decision. This linked article is the best explanation I've found so far about the case, but to get the real story you need to actually read the decision, as tough going as that is. It's a split decision, but in my opinion it is far more in Microsoft's favor than against it. With this, I think the result is going to be a negotiated settlement. They almost had one last year, but some intransigent state Attorneys General stopped it. Microsoft's bargaining position is stronger now and I think there will be an agreement. Despite an order for another (partial) trial, I don't think that will happen. I think we're going to see another consent decree. (discuss)

Stardate 20010628.1500 (On Screen): There are military bases all over the country, and the Pentagon and the top military brass don't want most of them. For decades they've been trying to close the majority of them, and every time they do, invariably the congressman whose district the base is in will make a speech about how much damage that will do because it will "take away jobs". Well, yes. That's true. And your point is?

Military spending should not be a form of welfare. It is unfortunate that this is what it has become. Make-work jobs are a drain on the economy. And the record of base closings is interesting: in nearly every case employment in the area has risen afterwards, because it turns out that the land gets used for other things afterwards. Sometimes they become commercial airports, or office parks, or real parks, but whatever they are it usually turns out that the closing was a good thing overall for the community. But even if that were not true, the argument that people will lose their jobs should not be a factor in the decision. Bases should exist if and only if they really benefit the military.

In the 1980's this got so scummy, with attempts to close bases constantly being derailed, that Congress created a bi-partisan commission to recommend base closings and adopted rules which made it so that the resulting report could only be accepted or rejected in total, with no amendments. This did indeed result in the closing of some bases, but not enough. It's too bad that this is what it takes. (discuss)

Stardate 20010628.1451 (On Screen): I'm very happy to learn that the government of Cuba is doing the right thing in the so-called "reverse Elian" case. Two kids living in Cuba lost their mother in a traffic accident. Their father is a political refugee living in Miami; all the relatives, including those in Cuba currently caring for the kids, want the two kids reunited with their father. It would seem to be relatively uncontroversial. But the father is a defector and the possibility existed that Cuba might not issue exit visas for the two kids. The good news is that they are doing so, and the two kids will soon join their sole living parent -- as they should. (discuss)

Stardate 20010628.1447 (On Screen): They are still making the same mistake of assuming that everyone in Israel wants peace. Secretary of State Powell has announced a plan to get the peace process back on track (as if it had ever been on track), but yet again there's that stipulation that the process can't proceed unless violence ends. This is music to the ears of the people who've been committing the violence, because they don't want a peace process, at least on the terms which have been proposed. (If they'd wanted peace above all else, they wouldn't have started their terrorist campaign in the first place.) The right way to go about this would have been to proceed with the peace process in spite of the violence. The only way to stop the terrorists is to deprive them of popular support of the people on behalf of which they think they are campaigning, and that can only occur by giving those people (the Palestineans) something which is valuable. But the way they're going now, this pronouncement yields control of the situation to the terrorists and permits them to destroy it. Which they will do: there will not be any cessation of violence over the next seven days. (discuss)

Stardate 20010628.0729 (On Screen via long range sensors): This is decidedly bizarre. Dell has put a marketing survey online asking for opinions about processors. (Here's the chance of all Mac fans to vote for the PPC, not that there's any chance of Dell bringing out a computer based on it. I don't understand why they even included that, frankly.)

This could be interpreted two different ways. First, Dell might actually be considering breaking with its historical Intel-exclusive policy and bringing out an Athlon-based computer. The rumors have been that they're working on a notebook computer with a Palomino in it. Or...

Or they might be looking for marketing ammunition. It is interesting that this survey includes a place where you are supposed to rate Intel and AMD on a number of characteristics. If one of those comes out seriously favoring Intel, and if Dell decides it wants to stay the course with Intel, then that characteristic would get heavily featured in Dell's advertising.

The mere fact that they're asking is significant, however, and indicates how deep of trouble Intel really is in, and how much of a threat AMD has become. Intel says it wants to regain 80% market share. AMD is going to try for 30%. They can't both succeed, but the historical timeline favors AMD on this one, and in my opinion so do the products being offered right now. Intel is in trouble because the Pentium IV is not what it should have been. And it's going to get worse before it gets better. Dell is the only remaining major PC maker who does not offer AMD. If they, too, break ranks then it's going to be a major black-eye for Intel. (discuss)

Stardate 20010628.0622 (On Screen): Africa is in a terrible plight, and absolutely does need more foreign aid than it has been getting, including from the US. I accept this. Still, this news report betrays an attitude I keep running into. What is "Africa"?

In this, as in so much else, "Africa" seems to mean sub-Saharan Africa, or the part of Africa not inhabited primarily by caucasions. In other words, it doesn't include the part of the continent historically inhabited by Arabs, Berbers, Romans, Greeks, and the like: The parts bordering the Mediterranean, where they speak semitic languages.

In this news article, "Africa" doesn't seem to include Egypt. You can tell because it says that the US gives $745 million annually to "Africa". In fact, the number is far, far higher than that. But nearly all of our foreign aid to that continent goes to Egypt. In 1999, Egypt alone received $2 billion in foreign aid from the US (a legacy of the Camp David peace accord). On the other hand, to lump Egypt in with the rest of Africa when calculating US foreign aid to the continent would be deceptive, in a sense. (But leaving it out is also deceptive. It depends on what you're trying to prove.)(discuss)

Stardate 20010627.2304 (On Screen): Astronomy Picture of the Day is one of my regular visits and it is nearly always good. Much of the time it is fantastic, but this time they've topped themselves. They've provided an interactive map of Mars, such that if you click anywhere on it you can see a zoom of that section. It is color-coded by altitude, showing the stark variation planet-wide. Particularly noticeable is the low altitude area in the north, which I am quite certain was once under water. In other words, it was an ocean. I'm certainly not alone in this belief, and the evidence is very strong.

The best evidence seems to be that in the early part of the life of the solar system, there were numerous small bodies moving around, and collisions (and cratering) was common. After some period (a few hundred million years) most of these smaller bodies had either hit something or been gravitationally flung out of the system, or had been segregated into stable orbits, and in any case the result was a marked decrease in cratering events. So surface areas which are old tend to be very cratered (e.g. the surface of Luna or Mercury or Ganymede) while younger surfaces (Europa, Io) or surfaces subject to weather (Earth, Venus, Titan) are not. Mars is curious because some parts of its surface are heavily cratered and some are not. There are three relatively uncratered features in particular which stand out.

First, there is a massive impact crater in the southern hemisphere at (70,-40). There are a few craters in that area but not many; it appears to be the result of a really big impact after the main cratering interval was over. Second is a large area of active vulcanism centered at -110 degrees longitude, on the equator. This includes the largest known mountain in the solar system, Olympus Mons, which is so tall that its peak is outside the atmosphere of Mars. Given that these volcanos were erupting long after the cratering event, it's not surprising that the surface there is quite smooth since the craters have long since been buried by lava flows.

The third, and largest, uncratered region is the northern depression. It is not an impact crater and there's no evidence of vulcanism there. With just an occasional crater it contrasts strongly with the heavily cratered ancient areas of the surface. So why is the surface of the northern depression so free of craters? I think there can be no doubt: water. For most of the interval of heavy cratering, that part of the surface was under water. That did two things: it prevented most of the craters from forming at all, and any really big ones which did form were eliminated by erosion and sedimentation. After the oceans vanished, later rare impacts formed craters sitting in isolation. (There are features which are clearly rivers.)

So where did the water go? Not yet known, and it may have gone a lot of different places. First, some of it may be underground in permafrost. Second, a fair amount of it is probably locked up in the ice caps. But it is unlikely that all the water could be stored in that way. The majority of it (IMHO) probably evaporated off into space along with most of Mars' atmosphere. The problem Mars had was that it just didn't have enough mass to hold an atmosphere for 4 billion years (especially since it also ceased being volcanically active a long time ago, removing a major source of new atmospheric gasses), and once most of the air was gone, the water would go next. But that process is a slow one, taking hundreds of millions of years. Mars is the most exciting body in the solar system (besides Earth) because it is the one which future humans are most likely to terraform and colonize. It's almost tailor-made for it, in fact, given that its day is nearly the same as that of Earth. (Agriculture on the Moon would require substantial infrastructure because a lunar "day" is 29 earth-days long.) If we could create a new atmosphere on Mars (not impossible; the required gasses are there, stored in rocks) it would last longer than the human race. (discuss)

Update: If you have a very fast PC running Windows, you should definitely go here and download the Mars Explorer program, and also the Mars screen saver.

Stardate 20010627.2134 (On Screen): There's trouble in River City in the commercialized Linux community; it's finally beginning to dawn on people that it's really hard to make money by giving things away or selling things at a loss. And, even more amazingly, that companies that don't make money go out of business. So Caldera is actually trying to get significant revenue from licenses from its Linux sales. (Horrors!) And they don't care who knows it.

But the real commercial basket-case is VA Linux, which has decided to get out of the hardware business (which was originally its entire business). In a supreme irony, at this point VA Linux consists of little more than

But then there's damned little surprise about this actually. VA Linux is bleeding money like its carotid had been severed. In the quarter ending 20010428, it had a net loss of $109.7 million on sales of just $20.3 million. For every dollar in revenue they spent $6.39. Even for a dot-com that's impressive. The trends are horrible: from the year ago quarter sales dropped 40%, but expenditures rose 135%. Even more scary is negative cash flow of $56.8 million in that quarter, leaving VA Linux with just $67 million in cash and cash equivalents. Total convertible assets were $131.1 million at the end of April. Of about $450 million in stockholder equity, nearly two thirds is "goodwill and intangible assets" (which means things which can't be turned into cash upon bankrupcy). Of course, there's no reason to believe that these trends changed in the last seven weeks, so their financial picture will be even worse now. (If they've continued bleeding cash at the same rate, they're down an additional $30 million by now.)

A few days ago there was an outage which shut down SlashDot for a couple of days. It was actually a router failure, but some wags suggested that VA Linux had decided to shut down. At this rate, next time that really will be the reason why -- and it's likely before the end of the calender year.

After years of red ink, the board at Corel finally decided last year, as Corel lay on its deathbed, that Michael Cowpland was not an asset. Corel just announced its second consecutive profitable quarter, despite the bad times. I wonder whether VA Linux's board might need to consider how valuable Larry Augustin really is. (I bet he's got a doozy of a golden parachute.) (discuss)

Update 20010628: This rings hollow now.

Stardate 20010627.1543 (On Screen): There seems to be a problem here. Either Win2K's LDAP allows an arbitrarily large number of password attempts remotely (permitting a brute force dictionary attack) or it permits a fixed number of attacks and then shuts off permission, which permits an easy denial-of-service attack. (You could lock someone out of their own machine by hitting their account enough times to get their account locked.)

There's another security approach in between these two. Make it so that there's a moderate time expense per miss. If five password attempts fail, then lock the account for ten minutes. Then unlock it again. That has the effect of preventing a dictionary attack (because the rate of probes drops too far to be feasible) while not permitting the DOS (because the account isn't permanently locked). (discuss)

Stardate 20010627.1436 (On Screen): South African President Mbeki is a blithering idiot. This reminds me of Lysenko, only it's going to cost even more lives (and that's saying something). For anyone at this point to deny the connection between HIV and AIDS is the act of a fool. I hope, at least, that he doesn't impede a private effort which actually has a chance to stop the spread of the disease in his nation. (discuss)

Stardate 20010627.1423 (On Screen): Let that be a lesson to you, Philippines! Don't elect a washed-up second rate actor to the presidency! (Ahem) (discuss)

Stardate 20010627.1419 (On Screen): I believe we have found the canonical example of libel. It strikes me that Brock is not a very intelligent man; he's admitted to smearing Anita Hill mainly to push his newest book. But he's also publicly admitted both falsity and malice; Ms. Hill's libel case against him would be open and shut. I expect a court filing within a week. (discuss)

Stardate 20010627.1104 (On Screen): Home-recordable DVDs are coming. In the last forty years, new formats for storage of entertainment have come along several times, and Phillips in particular has struck it rich on intellectual property rights. Its first big hit was the audio cassette. It did OK on the laserdisc, but really hit it big with the CD (which was based on laserdisc technology). So now everyone wants to be the next Phillips.

So we're not going to get just one recordable DVD format. We're going to get three, all mutually incompatible. There are subtle differences between them but they're not dramatic and any of the three would be acceptable if it were universal; the real reason they're incompatible is because each has been proposed by a different company or group of companies who want to get rich off everyone else's sales.

There are two lessons from history which need to be observed. The first lesson is from the great VHS-Beta war: VHS didn't take off until after it had already defeated Beta and become the de-facto standard. The second lesson is from Digital Audio Tape (DAT). Based on blackmail from the recording industry, DAT was designed (crippled would be a better word) with severe copy protection mechanisms, so that it could not be used to reasonably record from CDs. DAT died and vanished without hardly leaving a ripple, even though it was technically vastly superior to the audio cassette.

The lesson is this: customers want one format and won't buy a copy-protected format. They want to record anything and everything and be able to give the copies to any of their friends without having to worry about standards compatibility. (For all its quality problems, VHS gives them that.) Without that, none of these standards is going to succeed. Recordable DVD doesn't offer enough over CDs and VHS tapes to make it worthwhile to customers if it is severely restricted by copy-protection mechanisms and incompatible formats. (discuss)

Stardate 20010627.0703 (On Screen via long range sensors): For a mere $45 billion, it is proposed to build an underseas tube from the UK to the US. Maintained in a vacuum, using a maglev train, travel would be at 2300 MPH and a cross-Atlantic trip would take half an hour.

Leave us be reasonable for a moment, shall we? We're reaching the point of diminishing returns on travel speeds. When aircraft were able to reduce the travel time across the Atlantic from five days to 1 day, that was a major gain. More important, the cost of implementing air travel in that way was relatively low, so that it was profitable to do so. Indeed, it ultimately became no more expensive than sea travel had been, because ships are big and expensive in their own right. A 747 can move the more people across the Atlantic in two weeks than the Queen Mary, but the 747 costs a lot less to buy and to operate. But this system? Is there really any economic need for a system this fast, especially when it will cost as much as it will? After the system has moved its first million passengers, it will have had an amortized cost of $45,000 per passenger, not counting operating expenses. (Assuming, that is, the proposed expense is accurate. These kinds of projects tend to come in way over budget.) I'd also like to know just how one evacuates a 2000 mile tube and keeps it in a vacuum (say, 20 torr or lower). (discuss)

Stardate 20010627.0635 (On Screen): Those who ignore the past, and all that. In the early days of the computer industry, a visionary named Adam Osborne created the first practical portable computer. It would fit under an airline seat. Costing less than $2000, it was a great commercial success. Then Osborne Computers made a massive blunder: they announced their next model before it was ready, while still having a huge supply of the first one. Sales collapsed as people decided to wait for the next model, sticking Osborne between the horns of inventory expense and declining sales. The company eventually went bankrupt.

Palm did the same thing to itself this last quarter. With huge inventories of monochrome units, it announced its color units -- and sales collapsed. It remains to be seen whether it will survive this debacle. (discuss)

Stardate 20010627.0506 (On Screen): In a ruling in a case brought by Germany against the state of Arizona, the World Court states that its rulings are binding on the US and the states which make up the US. I'm sorry, but the World Court is wrong. None of its rulings are binding on anyone. The whole point of the World Court has been influence and propaganda. People go to the World Court to try to get rulings which will embarass their opponents. Its rulings have never been binding on anyone, ever.

In this particular case, the only things which are binding on the state of Arizona are the US Constitution and the laws deriving from it, and the constitution of the state of Arizona and the laws deriving from that. I could set up a "Clueless Court" here in San Diego and start issuing court orders which included statements that they were binding, but that wouldn't "make it so". (discuss)

Update: The World Court also doesn't have the power to order delays of executions scheduled in the US.
Update: Apparently the legal theory behind the World Court's claim that its orders are binding is that they were issued under terms of an international treaty to which the US is a signatory. It is true that treaty obligations have the force of law in the US. But they do not have the force of the Constitution. The US Court system is chartered by the Constitution and its powers are described there. Congress can't usurp those powers with laws, including through treaties. Thus it remains the case that the World Court does not have the power to override court orders issued by US courts, whose powers come directly from the Constitution.
Update: More discussion on this here.

Stardate 20010626.1040 (On Screen): Within five minutes of receiving the previous link in the mail, someone else mailed me this link which contains a listing of net lunatics. It was an odd juxtaposition, to say the least. Is some Higher Power trying to tell me something here? (discuss)

Stardate 20010626.1031 (On Screen): A reader writes in and asks me to comment on this site. "Project Censored" contains a list of the top 25 Important Stories Which The Media Deliberately Ignored! I'm afraid I'm going to have to wear my reactionary-conservative hat for a while, because I simply am not that impressed with this list. First of all, this list has a blatantly leftist slant to it. (There is a strong anti-free-trade anti-capitalism bent to a lot of it, for instance.) Second, most of the stories here are exaggerated. Third and most important, most of them aren't really stories.

It should come as no surprise that all of these articles were researched by students with "faculty advisers"; I have noticed that students tend to be a lot more idealistic and extreme until they get out of the ivory tower and earn a living for a

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