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More Asus Eee notes

The Eee and I are getting along fine. Apparently a new ACPI driver came along, or a BIOS update, and now there are a lot of brightness levels available from the keyboard, not just dim and dimmer. I don't think it goes to maximum brightness, but it's certainly usable.

I put aside Leeenux and set it up to dual-boot Windows and Ubuntu Netbook Edition. Both are Ubuntu, but the latter has full official support and updates.

Handy hint 1: Use Windows (Computer, Manage, Disk Management) to shrink the Windows partition prior to installing Linux.

Handy hint 2: If you are on the University of Georgia campus, download Ubuntu from the Georgia Tech mirror site — our net connection to there is fast. Same goes for other locations; you may be able to find a mirror site that is close to you.

Handy hint 3: After downloading the Linux .iso file, run a checksum on it (I used md5sum under Linux for this). It is very easy for such a big file to get corrupted in transit. I fought with corrupted .iso files for a whole afternoon yesterday without quite knowing what was wrong.

Handy hint 4: Be sure to turn off the boot accelerator in the BIOS. Leave it off. I'm not afraid of an American Megatrends BIOS splash screen — are you?

Handy hint 5: To boot from a USB drive, press Esc at the American Megatrends splash screen.

Handy hint 6: If you followed Handy Hint 1, tell Linux to install in the largest contiguous free space. If you skipped that step, tell Linux to install itself side-by-side with Windows, and Linux will do the partitioning.

Handy hint 7: The GRUB bootloader will show "Windows 7" and "Windows Vista." The latter is the recovery partition for the computer. You might want to rename it or remove it from /boot/grub/grub.cfg. That is an automatically generated file, so you will eventually need to do the same editing again.

Ubuntu Linux appears to be much faster than Windows on a slow single-core CPU. It certainly boots quickly. I can go from power off, through bootup, to full responsiveness (computer responding immediately to every button) in about 45 seconds with Linux. With Windows, this takes several minutes because, as you know, Windows wakes up as slowly as a teenager.

I'm closing out September early because I'm so busy. See you next month!



Melody and I went to Gwinnett County on Saturday evening, spent $250 at Best Buy, and came home with an Asus Eee 1005HAB netbook.

This is a mini-laptop computer that really does fit comfortably into a briefcase without doubling its weight. It weighs about two pounds (!).

Over the years, laptops have assumed the role of full-featured computers that happen to be easily movable. (Rather like "portable TV sets" in the 1960s, some of which required two people to lift them.)

We use laptops, of course. I have a Dell D830 issued by the University and also a Toshiba of my own that I use for purely private work. Both are powerful enough to do serious software development.

The netbook fills a different role. It is mainly for web surfing and other simple work. As a computer, it's limited (though far from useless). But it's also a web and e-mail terminal, an e-book reader, a PowerPoint player, a calculator... and I can easily take it everywhere I go.

In a world with netbooks, why will anybody buy e-book readers or even big calculators?

I also think netbooks have a great future as robot brains, or more generally as machine controllers. They cost only slightly more than single-board controllers that lack keyboards, screens, and familiar operating systems.

But it's fairly obvious that Asus sees the Eee partly as a computer for children. They've made it extremely easy to use and included lots of games. I think they are pitching it to 12-year-old girls in India.

Odd technical discovery: The Eee screen is dim, to conserve battery power, but the hardware supports higher brightness levels — they just aren't available from software. Find a utility called eeectl (freeware from India), run it with administrator privileges, and you'll have a taskbar icon that displays the CPU temperature. Right-click on it and you can adjust backlighting (which is safe) or things like the fan and CPU speed (which, as I understand it, might cause hardware damage, so be careful). I am going to write an article about all of this, somewhere. I would also like to see (and may create) a cut-down version of eeectl that adjusts only the brightness.

My Eee came with Windows 7 Starter, which isn't half bad, but has an odd quirk — you can't change the desktop background (from Windows' own settings). Fortunately Asus gives you a utility to do just that, but all you can do is substitute pictures.

I'm going to make it dual-boot Linux (using the "Leeenux" distribution) and will report on exactly how I set that up.

Surprisingly, the keyboard is not hard to type on. I'm not sure I'd like to type on it all day, but it's about 90% of normal size and not difficult to use.


Vinyl lives! ...?

For audio atavists, Best Buy is now selling a selection of 12-inch vinyl LP record albums. You can buy the Beatles' Abbey Road for $12.99, which, correcting for inflation, is the cheapest it has ever been. These are fresh pressings, and many of them boast of being high-grade 180-gram vinyl.

They are also selling turntables that digitize the audio so you can immediately convert the vinyl albums to CDs...

I do not think vinyl is a good way to deliver audio. I suppose I should applaud the preservation of a technology that I remember fondly, but there's no way it could sound better than a CD. Vinyl is actually a quite limited medium and introduces distortion of its own.


Jupiter with the 5-inch

On the evening of the 23rd, I had my vintage Celestron 5 out for lunar work, and I decided to image Jupiter also. This is with a telescope only 5 inches in diameter, using my usual video astronomy technique. I'm surprised at how well it came out!

This is a better-processed version of the picture than the preliminary one I posted on Facebook.


Ramparts of Mare Orientale

The most spectacular feature on the Moon is Mare Orientale (the Eastern Sea), but from Earth, we see it, at best, edgewise. For a space-probe picture of what it looks like head-on, click here.

It consists of a plain surrounded by three concentric mountain ranges. In my humble photo (above), you can see all three mountain ranges; the third one is right on the edge (at the arrow), and you can't see the plain. Compare my picture with the space-probe photo. Up in my picture corresponds to the view that you would have if you were on the right-hand edge of the space-probe picture, looking toward the middle.



Before September 15, nobody wants to do any work, even though the semester starts in mid-August. After October 15, everybody realizes they have too much work. The month in between is frenzied. I have been handling 200 e-mails per day, two telephones ringing at once... and not writing blog entries.

Seasons (let's get technical)

Happy equinox! It's the first day of autumn. We are now in the half of the year when the nights are longer than the days.

Now you know. Officially, the seasons are defined by sunlight, not weather:

  • Autumn: Nights are longer than days, and increasing.
  • Winter: Nights are longer than days, but decreasing.
  • Spring: Days are longer than nights, and increasing.
  • Summer: Days are longer than nights, but decreasing.

The shortest day of the year is the first day of winter, December 21.


Jupiter and Uranus

Jupiter and Uranus are nearly the same direction from the earth right now, and on the evening of the 19th I was able to see them in the telescope at the same time (at 40×). The picture above was taken with a 300-mm telephoto lens. Jupiter and its four bright satellites are at the bottom. Uranus is at the top, looking like a satellite of Jupiter that has escaped and turned bluish. It is actually a planet much like Jupiter, a little smaller and considerably farther away.


Jupiter is now in the part of the sky where I can get a good view of it before midnight. Here's my best Jupiter picture yet. This is from 3 minutes of video taken with my 8-inch telescope.

Recession over

I am almost too busy to write a blog, which is why you're seeing entries at 3-day intervals.

The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) has determined that the recession ended in June 2009. That's what I said at the time.

I'm hearing lots of whining from people saying, "No, it's not over yet," and that reflects several misunderstandings.

First, June 2009 is when the shrinking stopped. They don't mean the economy has grown back to its previous size.

Second, they're talking about growth of the Gross Domestic Product, not about any individual's checkbook.

Third, we aren't getting the same economy back. The real-estate frenzy of 2006 isn't coming back. You may have to change jobs, or even move, to be prosperous in the future.


[Minor updates added.]

A glimpse into economic culture

In a recent conversation, I finally got a glimpse of why many of the "hippie generation" — people about 3 to 10 years older than me — don't save for retirement.

They think it's materialistic.

They think that it is nobler to just not be concerned about money. To some of them, good money management means you are preoccupied with material rather than spiritual (?) things.

Unfortunately, that means they are probably planning on making me — or taxpayers younger than me — support them in their old age.

And isn't being fair to your peers a spiritual thing?

Or does the "hippie ethic" include sponging off others? I seem to recall (from the 1970s) that it does.

Short notes

I'm still working very hard and it may stay that way all semester. But I'm getting a lot done!

The Clare College concert was outstanding! Catch them in England if you've missed them in the United States.

Zillow saw that we got the grass mowed. After months of unexplained decline, they show the value of our house shooting up rapidly again. (I watch Zillow to learn about Zillow and the local economy, of course, not to learn about my house. My house isn't on the market.)

How research is different from taking courses: When you find out you need to know something, you learn it, without waiting for a teacher to dole it out. As I told my research group today, if you take a course every time you need to learn a new skill, you'll get your degree in about 50 years. The other thing is, of course, with research, there's nobody prearranging things to make them easy, or even possible. You're not doing an exercise that somebody made up.


Short notes

It's true that I've had a birthday. But the order of digits on my birth certificate is uncertain. I won't disclose whether I was born in 1957, 1795, 1759, 1597, 1579, or even 1975.

Concert: If you like classical choral music, go to the First Presbyterian Church in Athens, Georgia, at 8 p.m. on Thursday, September 16. The choir of Clare College, Cambridge will be here. They're not just world-famous — they are one of the two or three best choirs of their kind in the world.


Short note

The astute reader will surmise that I'm working hard on something other than writing blog entries. Also, I wrote a lot of material last time (two days ago) and you should simply continue reading it.


Re-engineering the household

Now that we're empty-nesters, Melody and I have been re-engineering our household. Recent changes include having the lawnmowing man do a massive cleanup and weeding-out of the shrubbery; throwing away lots of trash, such as worn-out plastic flowerpots; cleaning out a garden shed where Cathy's ceramics will be stored; taking down the art studio in the living room, turning it back into a living room; changing a ceiling fan light fixture (which I had dubbed "Quixote's windmill") to a ceiling-mounted fluorescent; and training Babbage (the dog) to sleep in the den instead of the bedroom.

We miss Cathy and Sharon, but we're enjoying being alone together!

Pickup trucks?

This evening, in front of Wal-Mart, I had to dodge an oversized pickup truck that was occupying four, count 'em, four parking spaces.

And on the financial radio show that I hear, in fragmentary form, while driving home from work, I keep hearing about men who aren't supporting their families properly because they feel they must have a $30,000 truck.

Unlike them, I have never felt the need for a pickup truck to complete my masculinity. I have sometimes felt the need for a pickup truck to haul things around in — but that assumes a practical truck, not a waxed-and-polished showpiece.

Am I missing some hormones or something?

Famous quote

With the help of the U.S. National Archives, I have ascertained that, contrary to what I thought, it was not George H. W. Bush who said, "You never hear about the wars we prevent." It was me.

I should explain. Those are the words I carried away in my head after watching a TV interview (it turns out to have been "Meet The Press" on February 22, 1976). But Mr. Bush did not put it that succinctly. They're sending me a transcript of the full interview.

I have been quoting those words frequently in connection with my research, which involves software to read the news wires and identify places where international conflicts are heating up.


Today's Google story

If you get an unidentified charge on your credit card, it's a good idea to Google the description, to see if you can find out where it came from.

But when you do, you should actually read what Google finds, and think a moment. Omitting this step can lead to amusing results.

On Labor Day at 7 p.m. I got a call from an agitated person — who did not give her name or location — asking about an unidentified charge. For the sake of privacy I will say it was described as "ABC CONFERENCE 2345 XYZ" though it wasn't really exactly that.

Well, I was at home... on a holiday... and neither my department at UGA nor my business has the ability to put charges on credit cards.

"So why did you call me about this?"

"The web page said to."

"The web page?"

"Yes, the web page for ABC CONFERENCE 2345 XYZ. You should know there's a web page with your home phone number on it!!!"

At this point I thought maybe someone had mistakenly put my phone number on a web page for something I have no connection with. So I asked:

"What's the address of the web page?"

"It's ABC CONFERENCE 2345 XYZ, like I told you!"

"That's not a web address, ma'am."

It turns out that:

(1) she had no concept of web addresses; she always just typed words or phrases into Google;

(2) she had typed "ABC CONFERENCE 2345 XYZ" into Google;

(3) she got my résumé, which happens to have "ABC" on it in one place, and "conference" on another page, and "2345" somewhere else;

(4) she believes "it's dangerous to click through" so instead of looking at what Google found, she simply dialed the first phone number she saw, convinced that it must be the number for the person who made the charge.


Short notes

As of September 5, I have had a sibling for half a century. (Happy birthday! You know who you are! :)

And on September 5, the particle-board tabletop that I used as my desk at Yale and in California, and as a workbench later, was finally discarded. Quarter-century-old particle board is mostly particles!

And yet another milestone: my blue Selectric typewriter was taken out of service. Its retirement is only temporary, but I now own three Selectrics and have only two offices.

Meanwhile, in national news: The bulk of economists reportedly favor continuing the Bush tax cuts. Argue with them, not me, if you disagree.

Meanwhile, have you read Alan Perlis's epigrams on programming?

And have you ever heard a Gelineau psalm? We sang them in Clare College Chapel in 1977-78. The ordinary students (not just the choir) were expected to sight-read the music — they figured we were a bright bunch. And we did all right. Most of them had a lot more musical training than me. I didn't sing very loud.


Short notes

Grumpy professor: No, I do not take it kindly when three students (out of 12 in the class) put their heads down and go to sleep while I'm giving a seminar. They're not my students. They're not going to be.

Here is a good essay on time management (not written by the man whose picture you see at the top). Here is another. Common theme: You should budget your energy and effort, not just your hours and minutes. All to often, the result of the recession has been, "Work harder, not smarter." We need to recover from that.

Mankiw cites convincing evidence that economists and policymakers need to distinguish small businesses from tiny businesses. Otherwise, you can falsely say something "doesn't affect many small businesses" when in fact it doesn't affect part-time individuals, but does affect businesses that employ people. The backbone of the economy comprises businesses that employ about 2 to 50 people, not tiny part-time enterprises that happen to file Schedule C.

Finally, if true, this is scandalous: the company that markets MonaVie (acai juice) — or rather, markets the marketing of MonaVie, since it is a multi-level pyramid — is reportedly doing all sorts of unfair things to a blogger who criticized them. (I say "reportedly" — I have no direct experience.)

Three observations:

(1) On the Internet, threatening your critics is like shooting yourself in the head. The threats become far better known than the original criticism, and you will be universally hated.

(2) Multi-level marketing is not the right way to sell anything. If products are "not sold in stores" it's normally because they can't face the competition there. We have an efficient market economy. In this day and age, if something is salable, you don't need a high-pressure sales force to sell it.

(3) I do not like the commercialization of social and family relationships, nor the brainwashed way that multi-level marketers talk, nor the quasi-religious faith-commitment that multi-level marketing companies so often demand.

I do not buy things from multi-level marketers. Look up any multi-level-marketing company on the Web, and you will see plenty of bad news.


Notes on installing fluorescent lights

We just installed a four-tube fluorescent light fixture in place of the ceiling fan light in our breakfast room. We're probably going to do more of the same. Here are some handy hints.

(1) Get a unit with an electronic ballast. Instant turn-on, no grounding required, and it works with bulbs that are in marginal condition.

(2) Hang it with toggle bolts. You can pre-thread the toggle bolts into the fixture, then push all four toggles into the holes in the ceiling, and presto! The fixture hangs there, already fully supported, while you tighten the bolts. You can't do that with wood screws or expanding fasteners.

(3) Make a cardboard template to locate the holes. This is much easier than trying to hold the fixture against the ceiling with one hand while you mark the holes with the other, and steady the ladder with your third hand...

(4) Pay attention to the color of the bulbs. We used "Kitchen and Bath" (3000 K). In my home office, we'll probably use high-color-rendering bulbs.

(5) Get a 4-bulb fixture. You can take half of the bulbs out if they're too bright.


What I do at the office

If I tell you that I spent the afternoon working on software that reads the news wires and detects emerging international conflicts, any American should be proud of me.

If I tell you that I spent the afternoon hunting prepositions in a long list of verb phrases, any number of redneck politicians could make fun of me for "wasting" taxpayer money.

But I am describing the same afternoon (namely September 2).


Economic tidbits

Within the next few years, I expect that private student loans will no longer be exempt from bankruptcy. And that's as it should be, even though it will make loans harder to get. A private loan that is not bankruptable is too close to indentured servitude. Whether the change will be made by legislation or by court rulings, or a mix of the two, is not yet clear. (See my earlier comments here.)

As I've said before, the "American Dream" of having everyone own a house is largely artificial, created by FDR's 1930s economic stimulus plan, and appreciated by employers because it keeps employees "stable" (they can't move away suddenly, even if you don't pay them very well). Here's more about that. We are moving into a world in which not everybody needs to be a real estate owner. Forget the malarkey about tax deductions — renting can be cheaper than buying.

And here is the key to success as a personal-finance writer. Hmmm... He's got a point.


Forty years?

It's hard to believe that September 1, 1970, was forty years ago. That day was, in some ways, the beginning of my adult life. It was my first full day of high school, at Valwood School, which I loved, and also the day my first good telescope (a Criterion RV-6) was delivered.

When I say "the beginning of my adult life" I do not mean I was an adult. I mean that a lot of things were launched which have continued more or less unbroken until today. I felt much more of a break between eighth grade and ninth than between ninth grade and anything since then. From ninth grade until today, on the other hand, is more or less continuous.

On that day, the weather took a turn towards clear and cool; I remember the blue sky. We had the same kind of weather here today, and I'm going to get out a telescope and look at the sky tonight.

(A question of detail: I'm positive that September 1 is when the telescope arrived because that is recorded in a logbook. But I thought the first full day of school was a Monday — preceded by a shortened day the previous Friday — whereas September 1 was a Tuesday. I was not keeping a journal at the time, so I can't check.)

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