February 29, 2004
Illusions of familiarity
The problem that I have with Boston is that I feel like I know the place, when in fact I don't. After all the visits (I've lost count, but I've been at the marathon every year since 1995, so there's nine right there) and places I've been around here, I feel like I "know" the streets, the landmarks, the people. Especially relative to someplace like NYC, which is easy enough to navigate but always feels like a foreign country. When I drove in to Boston for the '97 marathon, after not quite a year in Pennsylvania, I had a weird feeling of homecoming, like I was finally coming back to "my people." Then I thought, wait a minute, I'm returning to the capital of those my father refers to as "summer complaints."
When I run in Central Park, and I see someone I know, I feel like I've accomplished a feat of coincidence, bumping in to one person in thousands. When I run along the Charles, like I did this morning, I almost expect that sort of coincidence, and it never happens.
The problem is this whole illusion of familiarity. I only know broad concepts of Boston, except for the nest of hotels around Back Bay. The rest of the time, I'm improvising, filling in the blanks between what I actually know. Setting a course out from one landmark to the next and hoping I can get there from here.
It would be less frustrating, I think, if I let myself be unfamiliar; if I didn't expect myself to know the city well.
February 28, 2004
I am on my first-ever illicit wireless connection. Fourteenth floor of the Marriott Copley Place in Boston, connected through an unsecured access point I know not where. I expect the owner didn't intend to leave it open—it appears to be default settings (network name is "linksys") and the signal is weak. I wonder if it's from the Prudential apartment towers across the way.
There is (hardwired) ethernet access in the rooms for a charge of $9.95/night. We checked in immediately after a high-jumper whose name I won't mention, but he has won this meet (five years ago, if I recall correctly.) He asked about the access. When told the price, he said, no, I'll just find wireless somewhere. He may have found it in his room.
It's easy to interview someone after they've had a good race. It's hard to think of your next insightful, intelligent question when they can't stop smiling and you want to smile with them. Can't figure out if that makes this work lousy or really great.
February 27, 2004
I've had a few mentions of the picture, so I should probably explain it a bit.
Chekhov version: that's not me. I took it, though.
Tolstoy version: Fourth of July, 2003. Maine's mid-coast was wrapped in fog for most of the weekend, which was better than oppressive heat but didn't save me from fading to third in the annual road race. After the also-annual cookout with extended family, my father offered a cruise in Second Wind, his boat at the time.
In the fog, you couldn't see from one side of the New Meadows to the other, but Dad has a GPSr and is happy to go "gunkholing" in the little anchorages along the river to see who (and what) is at anchor, like window-shopping for boats. After working down the east side as far as Sebasco, we crossed over to the Harpswell side and looked in at Cundy's Harbor.
There was a racous cookout going on one of the draggers, maybe two or three families. Grill and beer on the fantail, inflatable raft on the outboard (port) side. On the starbord side, they had the "wings" (I'll never remember the right phrase) which is used to spread the nets, rigged out wide. A line was run through the block on the wing and one end made fast somewhere on deck. The kids were climbing up to the flying bridge, pulling in the free end of the line, and using it as a rope swing out into the harbor. Once the current swinger had released the line, the next in line would reel it back in and take their turn.
I got lucky and snapped a shot as one hotshot was right at the top of his swing. Considering the conditions, I'm impressed that it came out as well as it did.
When I registered this domain (another story, another time) it seemed like the perfect illustration. Of course, now if you do a Google image search on Cundy's Harbor I come up on the first page...
With everyone having pretty much given up CAN-SPAM as an expensive joke, it looks like the people who can actually drive change (read: monopoly or near-monopoly power) are making some. Sendmail, which I mentioned last week, is moving to support both Yahoo and Microsoft's anti-spam measures at the domain level.
This looks nice on the face of it. Sendmail, Yahoo and Microsoft probably have a finger in upwards of 80% of the non-spam email sent in the USA, and they may be able to at least arrange some kind of interoperability. (Nice metaphor in an unrelated article: "...most of us are more or less resigned to keeping both types of screwdrivers in our toolkits—we'll use whichever one is handy and fits our needs.")
Still, there are some serious problems to be faced. First, as I said last week, how do we figure out the switch? I can't be the only one trying to admin a mail server which is running a heavily-patched sendmail one or two point-releases behind the current stable, chewing my fingernails wondering if the vendor will get most of the security patches released before they EOL the box. Who's going to bring me up to spec?
Second, it's all very well to check domains on email against the IP of the actual sending machine, but I'd like to hear more about how that's going to be enforced. For instance, I own this domain and expect to be able to send mail with this return address. However, at home, I'm required to send outbound mail through Comcast's mail servers. So, my mail will bear a return address from flashesofpanic.com, but won't appear to have touched a system listed as a mail exchanger for that domain. Am I now cut off from sending email at home? I should hope not.
Following on that, I should point out that We offer the widest range of drugs available and provide access to complimentary online medical consultations.
What's available: ' Va.l.ium % Pntermi/n/ ? v|@grA . +X+ANAx - So.m.a
Puh-leeze get them off our internet! This... this... words fail me. Excuse me while I go outside and scream...
I had nothing to do with it, of course, though I had a very good time solving a series of puzzles for the Instructor's CD. I like hearing news like this, though, because I like working at a place where we take some pride in our work. The first edition of that book apparently ran nearly twelve years as the definitive book, without revision, unheard of in science books. That's a tough act to follow, but they did it, apparently successfully. Nothing ventured...
No, not a parasite that makes you cringe, a snippet of song that gets stuck in endless loop in your head when you're not in a position to get it out. For instance, while running (when headphones reduce your awareness of your environment, which is A Bad Thing no matter what Runner's World says,) or while swimming (when, let's face it, there's no way you're going to see anything more stimulating than the other wall.)
At least my head has been throwing up entertaining songs lately.
I don't say it, I imply it
I'm the Queen of Quiet
What kind of lover am I?
February 26, 2004
Quotes and hyperlinks
In the summer that I worked for the American Journal of Physics (actually, here) then-editor Bob Romer had a file with various names which contained "the unpublishable," various handwritten manuscripts from deluded unfortunates claiming to have disproven Einstein (or Newton!), invented a perpetual motion machine, etc. etc. For some reason I remember at least one of the authors actually writing from jail. Bob continued including choice excerpts (with the names removed) in his semi-annual Editor's Letter, which I got until he gave up AJP in 2001. Generally he responded with a kindly-worded letter pointing out that AJP generally did not publish new research. ("The Journal is particularly interested in manuscripts that can be used to bring contemporary research in physics and related fields into the classroom.")
Now I find a tool which would have made these even more amusing, if only by allowing us to rank them: the Crackpot Index.
The root of this is spending most of last fall sedentary due to plantar fasciitis. (Yes, that is the correct spelling.) I was swimming and pool-running for a while at the college, and in January I joined the YMCA for a while and really started putting some time in. Once we moved back to Amherst and it was reasonable to hit the College pool more often...
Well, the problem with inflammation injuries like PF and ITBS is that once the inflammation goes down, you can easily screw yourself up more by diving back into running too fast. I began to see swimming as a chance to keep my running reined in while getting back "in shape." (The fitness doesn't carry over entirely from running to swimming, but it doesn't hurt—and I did run my 800m PR after one of my seasons of swimming.) My brother gave me a goal to aim for: join him at the New England Masters meet at Harvard in late March (also known as the SCY, or Short Course Yards, championship, because it is contested in a 25-yard pool rather than a 50-meter or "Olympic distance" pool.) We agreed that I would attempt the 500 free, 100 breaststroke, and 100 free.
So, I've sent my membership check to New England Masters, and started attempting the "sets" on their website for distance free. Odds are pretty good that I will be last in my age group for all three events, but the Responsible Party pointed out that I would almost certainly be the fastest runner in the pool.
Everything I do at work to filter spam from our incoming email is "free software" ("Free as in speech," they say, "not free as in beer.") There's a bit in Wired News today which underlines that decision. Two new filter developers (using various refinements on mathematical recognition of spam fingerprints) are claiming Ivory-soap levels of accuracy in identifying spam, which is a good thing on it's own. But what I find remarkable is the reaction of the "professional" spam-hunters like Brightmail:
"People can make any kind of claim at any time," said Francois Lavaste, vice president of marketing at Brightmail. "You can make claims today, but what matters is how they hold up down the road."
Even if independent tests prove CRM114 and Dspam to be more effective, Lavaste cautions potential users to consider whether they need the training and support that vendors of commercial solutions can provide.
"ISPs might find it attractive and acceptable, but is it an ISP-class solution?" said Lavaste. "That remains to be seen."
Here's the problem: Brightmail depends, for its very existence, on a continuing flow of spam to justify the expense of hiring them. What is their incentive to completely shut out spam? It's like the Soviets; once they were in power, where was their incentive to achieve "true Communism" where "the state would wither away?" Brightmail doesn't want to wither away, and they don't want open-source spam filters cutting in to their business. Whereas the open-source spam-filtering guys would rather get back to doing something really interesting, instead of shoveling manure. Who would you trust to get the job done properly?
February 25, 2004
What a geek
(Undoubtedly the first in a series.)
I was just thinking, sure the current MT template I have might validate (I actually haven't checked yet, which might save me from irredeemable geekness), but is it semantically correct?
Whenever we've got a "big" (relatively speaking) book in production, the marketing department agitates to post PDFs of the page proofs, which they use to sell the book before printed copies are available. The production department supplies me with PDFs; I put them on the web server and arrange a download page and some level of access control (usually simple authentication, a login name and password.)
As the process is increasingly template-based and therefore nearly automatic, the hardest part is often coming up with the login and password. I can't use the "secure" generated passwords I usually assign for system access, because marketing would scream. Often, because our books are usually multi-authored, I'll use one author's name as the login and the other as password.
For a recent case, marketing vetoed that approach (I'm still not sure why) so I flipped through the previous edition of the book and pulled out the gnarliest vocabulary words I could find. Today, marketing forwarded this email (excerpted):
The neuroscience oriented username and password get an A for creativity.
Can I transfer credit for that grade?
So, now we've got the switch in the basement, ticking along. What do we do with the 10BaseT hubs we replaced?
With PCs, the answer is (usually) easy: Low-level format the drive, reinstall the OS and some basic software (usually Mozilla and OpenOffice) and donate them to the local schools. Or install Linux and make them into servers like Kinglet. Or, as a last resort, break them up for salvagable parts and recycle what we can. At any given time, I have five to eight retired boxes in various states of disrepair in my office. (Right now, including Kinglet and not counting laptops, there are nine.)
Network hardware is different. Does the school want a set of slow hubs? I suspect the eventual answer will be eBay, but that introduces a whole new set of accounting hoops I don't want to deal with right now.
No, I've changed my mind...
Last night was a Daring Weekday Night Out. (When did weeknights go back to being like school nights?) Over to the Calvin for Nanci Griffith, playing the Iron Horse 25th Anniversary concert. There's not much question about Nanci's politics; both her guitars sported large "Nixon/Agnew" pins (including one which read, "Now more than ever.") Her explanation: "After all, what's the difference?" Since I was just a few months old when Nixon resigned, I don't think I appreciated the joke as much as the rest of the audience, most of whom looked like they had been going to the Iron Horse for around 25 years.
Mark Erelli opened, and echoed the Dar Williams concert a few months ago by reminiscing briefly about his "squirrel-infested" apartment just a few blocks from the Calvin. (Dar introduced songs with the Northampton addresses she had when she wrote them; one of them, it turned out, was right next door to the D.A.R. headquarters.) My favorite of Mark's was "The Farewell Ball," a story about the flooding of the Quabbin.
I wasn't familiar with either artist before, and didn't leave feeling an urge to buy their records, but I'd probably cherry-pick tracks from ITMS. I did notice that Mark had collaborated with Erin McKeown and Kris Delmhorst, who I like (having seen Erin play with the Nields at the Academy of Music, and Kris open for Dar at the Iron Horse). So, considering.
At a (different) Nields show at the Horse, I recall Nerissa explaining how she watched all her friends turn thirty and get in to country music, and swearing she wouldn't go that way. This by way of introducing some song from "Love and China", probably "I Haven't Got a Thing," which might as well be Willie Nelson. Maybe this is a cautionary tale? Hence the title for this entry, which is from a Toad the Wet Sprocket song about Nanci Griffith and Loretta Lynn.
Looking at Mark's site, I almost thought I'd find a connection from him to Tom, but it turns out I was confusing Cliff Eberhardt with Charlie Degenhart.
February 24, 2004
The office network will be down from about 5:00 to 5:30 this afternoon while I install a new switch in the basement. Both our internet-facing servers (Bluebird and Cuckoo) will continue to accept connections from outside, but desktop PCs will not be able to reach servers, printers, or the Internet.
Time planned for minimum after-hours time for me, and minimum inconvenience for normal co-workers. Stakhanovites can wait a few minutes for their network.
The new switch will be a significant improvement to the office network, increasing the speed of most network segments and significantly reducing the routing load on Bluebird.
Most of you won't notice the difference unless you are moving large files between servers, but our current network is so noisy it's giving our gateway server fits.
If everything goes smoothly, the actual downtime will be significantly less than half an hour. If nothing goes smoothly, we'll try again at another time.
If it doesn't work when I plug it in, I will only futz with it until 5:30 before giving up and plugging the old hardware back in. I'll be a bit stunned if it is really this easy.
If you have any questions or concerns, let me know.
Please don't tell me I need to reschedule so you can stay late and work on this file that lives on one of the servers.
The big blue switch goes in this afternoon—small networking on about as large a scale as it gets without becoming large networking.
[Update: It's in, it works, my posting packets are flowing through it. In the time estimate, I should have considered the time required to unplug forty-eight Cat-5 cables from the old hubs, and plug them back in to the new switch... everything went smoothly, yet it still took half an hour. Now I need to put a terminal program on one of the laptops so I can patch in to the console port and figure out how to manage it.]
(1) I tried commenting on Scheherazade's car shopping escapades, but it looks like TypePad has crashed.
I can't help wondering if it has something to do with the subject of her next post.
(2) Comments pointed out that Defective Yeti's cat has a new toy. I can't help but wonder if the Terror of Gaylord Street would be that restrained.
(3) Win Fowler wrote about patience, but started by saying he had about lost his. I was looking for something to tie in to my column from last week, exploring the sort of decades-long patience required to develop Olympic athletes, but I think the hook is one I didn't expect—that developing marathoners is short-term compared to the patience required to effect the sort of social change represented by same-sex marriage.
More to come about small businesses and computer needs.
On the route I ran today, there is a paper wasp nest in a tree. When the tree is leafed out, the nest would be pretty much invisible, but right now it sticks out like a volleyball.
Having just finished Bernd Heinrich's Winter World (which also gave me the name for the FTP server I mentioned a few days ago), I'm now curious about the fate of the nest. If I remember correctly, abandoned wasp nests are recycled by other nest builders (birds, squirrels, chipmunks) which are in abundance around here; the paper is prized by some species. How do they know if the nest is abandoned? I can't remember if wasps overwinter in the nests (probably not), or if they just hold the queen, or eggs, or none of the above. Is any wasp nest in winter an abandoned wasp nest?
This kept me puzzling until the end of the run, when I noticed that, thanks to the amount of time I've been in the pool lately, I smell like heavy-duty household solvents when I sweat. The miasma might even be poisonous, but I'd have to confirm that with chemistry I recall even less than the ins and outs of wasp nests.
February 23, 2004
More good jargon
SPOF == Single Point Of Failure, a system where, if one component (and it could be one particular component, not any one component) fails, the entire system fails. An example is MS Outlook's monolithic .pst mail file; if any part of that file is corrupted, all of your mail is just entropy on the disk.
In another context, SPOF is Spousal Piss-Off Factor. "I stopped watching college football because the SPOF was too high."
[Here I should note in the name of honesty, since not everyone actually knows me, that I never started watching college football, nor do I have a spouse. At least, not that I'm aware of.]
A Valley full of Pioneers
Our local NPR station woke me up this morning with news of a Brookings Institute study (maybe this one?) suggesting that our area has been losing college graduates in the mid-20s to mid-30s at a faster rate than nearly any other place in the country. Presumably they accounted for the concentration of higher education and the fact that we import non-college-graduates and make them graduates, whereupon they migrate to Boston and New York City at a pretty high rate.
This was augmented by quotes from a professor at the UMass B-school who said that the high rate made things look pretty bad, but in fact the problem was that we simply didn't have many people in that demographic to begin with.
This is no surprise; this area is saturated with kids with still-wet undergrad degrees, while most of the "good" jobs available are for those with graduate degrees, years of experience, or both.
Meanwhile, I live in a town where I feel like everyone is much younger than me, or much older than me.
[Update: No link on the website; WFCR doesn't post "shorter stories" so I can't cite my original. Dang. Hope the Gazette picks it up, though a cursory glance at their site this afternoon suggests not.]
Run away screaming
I just got done sending this message to a co-worker, in response to an email (note: heavily edited.)
Yeah, one of the spam-filtering daemons apparently decided to go home for the weekend.... I noticed a lot more [spam] making it through, but only this morning checked and noticed spamd wasn't running, so I restarted it.
This is exactly the sort of thing that makes most people cross their eyes and/or glaze over while I'm talking to them. And if I try to explain everything, it defeats the whole purpose of the jargon (abbreviation and efficiency, though I imagine sometimes it looks more like exclusion and obfuscation.)
For what it's worth: a daemon is a program (process) which runs constantly, usually on a server, waiting for a request from elsewhere. (Windows calls them "services.") A daemon program is usually named with a "d" on the end, so in this case, "spamd" is the daemon that filters email for spam. (Two other common daemons are ftpd, which lives on a file server handling FTP requests, and httpd, which makes the web go 'round.)
February 22, 2004
Just what the heck am I doing here?
Lots of things, but hopefully not some others.
I expressed a fairly derisive view of blogs (I still dislike the word and will avoid it where possible) when asked by a friend several months ago. Since then I've actually started reading some. I developed a negative view of weblogs because the ones I found were self-important, self-centered (the second not always a cardinal sin, but deadly when combined with the first) and self-congratulatory. I learned that "the blogosphere" (or, more sarcastically and even more unfortunately, "blogistan") is a place where everybody knows everything and doesn't hesitate to tell you, and by corrolary anyone outside knows nothing. Being something of a contrarian, I have no desire to be part of that kind of "blogosphere."
Still, the medium is somewhat compelling for a few reasons.
First, I make a miniscule but appreciable side income as a writer, often a columnist. And weblogs provide a new medium for practicing that art.
Second, I have many friends with whom my correspondence is poor to terrible. Once they are aware of this, I can skip a lot of the what-have-I-been-doing and go directly to what's on my mind, which might actually spur me to write real letters now and then.
Third, I have some interests—computers in particular—which I can't really discuss with my readily available friends. They'll listen with a patient look on their faces, but as soon as a word of jargon passes my lips, I'm speaking another language. So there are things like that which I can bubble about here, because if you don't give a damn you can just skip to the next entry.
I'm not planning extensive rehashes of my daily life. I'm planning on sharing the flashes of panic, which are also the interesting bits.
I am the man...
Flying visit to Nantucket (out Saturday, back Sunday, ~24hr. from on the ferry to off the ferry in Hyannis) this weekend, sprung from a desire not to spend the whole weekend in Amherst.
Details may come later with pictures.
February 20, 2004
More new hardware
In the background, the whirring of a CD-ROM drive is Red Hat Linux 9 installing on a retired Micron box. When it's done, it will become our new FTP server, Kinglet, replacing the old one, Cuckoo. (Our servers are for the birds.)
I find it quite satisfying to take a machine which is too slow or under-powered to run Windows on a desktop any longer, and put it in another job where it can shine.
I just added a link to the Big Breakfast weblog, with mixed feelings.
The Big Breakfast was Rachel Maddow's morning show on WRSI ("The River"). It's the only morning show I've ever heard (other than Morning Edition) that didn't make me want to throw the radio out the window; they used to advertise it as, "Because we have a radio station, and you have a brain."
Maddow was pretty public about her political views and wasn't afraid to promote them on-air, which was actually part of the appeal. Well, actually, read some of the weblog and you'll understand most of the appeal. The problem is, Maddow stopped doing the Big Breakfast a week ago (leaving for greener pastures,) and there has been no indication about what will happen to the weblog in the meantime.
If you see Maddow posting somewhere, let me know, OK?
View from everywhere
One thing I liked about running in Amherst was that nearly every run you did featured a view of the College at some point. Which either told you how far you had gone, or how far you still had to go. One of the reasons is that you can see Johnson Chapel and the Merrill Science Center from a long distance away both on Route 9 and the various cross streets between Route 116 and South East Street. To the west, in Hadley, the Johnson Chapel steeple and the cupola on College Hall are visible from most of the roads I'd run on. The only way not to get an Amherst College vista (assuming you're noticing them) is to run north.
The GPSr is on its way back to Thales Navigation as of this morning, by priority mail. All indications are that Magellan turns these things around pretty quickly once they get them, so I may have it back by next weekend. By which time, of course, I won't have time to go caching any more.
They're (apparently) doing the repair under warrantee, which is nice of them since I'm out on the ragged edge and, since it was a Christmas gift, I don't have proof of purchase date.
The unit fit neatly in the box for my external HDD, bought a few years ago. Why I've hauled the box around through three moves, I don't know, but it came in handy here. 6 GB drive, how quaint.
February 19, 2004
Great as it looked, though, I think I'd have to watch, not participate. Like many things which look really cool to me on first sight, I think most of the participants are WAY more serious about it than I would be. A lot of things fall into that class: cross-country skiing, Perl, even geocaching. Fortunately caching isn't a real group endeavor (you might never see another cacher) so nobody cares how serious you are.
Dealing with spam
Jeremy Zawodny linked to an excellent ACM article by Eric Allman. Allman (whose claim to fame is that he wrote sendmail, the MTA which handles mail transmission on something like 80% of the *nix hosts on the internet) complains that by addressing the spam problem through block lists and filtering (as I do) is solving the problem at the expense of the same people shafted by the spam problem in the first place - the average user. He's right, of course, but the ultimate solution, shifting the cost of spamming from the recipient to the sender, would require replacing the SMTP standard, which would mean a wholesale shift in the plumbing of the internet. To put this in everyday terms, imagine the telephone shift from pulse dialing (the clicks produced by rotary phones) to tone dialing. Now imagine if people with pulse dialing hadn't been able to call people with tone dialing while the transition was happening. See the problem? Not one I've got a solution to, certainly, which is why I go on filtering.