March 31, 2004
That high school back East
Not only did the Amherst Regional H.S. create an immense local argument (apparently a tradition for ARHS, which also drew significant fire for cancelling West Side Story as culturally insensitive) by staging The Vagina Monologues, but they’ve managed to embarass Autumn all the way out in Montana.
Despite rumors to the contrary, I hear there are some conservatives in Amherst. Can’t say that I’ve met any myself, but I’ve heard stories.
And on the sixth day...
Forgive me for finding this amusing, in this morning’s local public radio announcements:
The Hartford Symphony will be performing Beethoven’s Fifth on April Third and Fourth…
If only the weekend came a day later, we could have the Fifth on the Fifth.
Clarification for SpamArrest users:
You contacted our company. It is therefore your responsibility to be listening for our response. We should not have to jump through your “prove you aren’t a spammer” hoops when we try to respond to your initial inquiry.
(Thanks to Nancy M. for the links.)
March 30, 2004
Big yellow taxi
So, it looks like the College has found its annual spring controversy.
By definition, the Spring Controversy is something (relatively) harmless that the student body can get worked up about as spring arrives and they stop worrying about freezing to death on their way to the library. In my time, it was things like a (deliberately) shocking (but, apparently, not terribly artistic) play being performed in the only consecrated chapel on campus, which then required re-consecration, an alleged homophobic hate crime in the dorms and the alleged whitewash that followed, stuff like that. Given that I only remember two from my four years, and so far as I know all directly affected by those two have gone on to productive lives (I found a link for the hate crime victim a few months ago, but won’t post it here for obvious reasons,) for the most part we made mountains out of molehills.
Now they’ve found something that actually has real-world consequences. The ongoing dorm construction on campus is about to collide with the increasing number of cars on campus (not surprisingly, more students have cars on campus now than when I was there, even though not that much time has passed.) In a note on the faculty services page, the Facilities Planning and Management director explains that faculty will be taking over the Alumni Lot (so named because it is next to Alumni House, a vestigal little building used only for functions and receptions) and displacing student parking. And they propose creating a new lot behind the tennis courts to handle the student overflow.
Since the space in question is currently woods known as the “Bird Sanctuary,” you can imagine that this has created a little uproar. Yes, they’re proposing to pave Paradise to put in a parking lot.
There’s a lot involved here.
There’s a student lot (Hills Lot) which is barely ever close to full. It’s just difficult to get to, because it’s on the other side of an active rail line.
The cross-country course goes through the bird sanctuary. I have noticed a number of runners in the discussion.
One good discussion that has been sparked is the, “How many of us really need cars on such a tiny campus, anyway” discussion. I doubt it will have any lasting consequences unless the students back administration restrictions on students having cars on campus, which they probably won’t.
There’s already a small, “temporary” (unpaved) parking lot back there, under the power lines that pass through the bird sanctuary, where contractors park. The change is: expansion, pavement, 24 hour lighting.
Another side discussion: why was most of the notification aimed at faculty, and not students? (I can’t say that I’m too wound about that myself; there has been no notification to the community, which we can’t really scream about, but we also can’t graduate and go elsewhere.)
There’s a lot of land back there, but a lot of it is swampy. It’s not the wildlife that we’re concerned about, apparently, so much as our ability to go out and walk around with the wildlife.
I can’t honestly see any resolution other than the students, as a body, saying, “We’re willing to give up this, this, and this convenience in order to preserve this open space.” And I’m a little too cynical to expect that outcome. For one thing, the time frame is too short. By the time they’re ready to make a decision, it will be time to go home for the summer, and next fall they will have forgotten it all happened. Except for the cross-country team, which will have to re-route their course (again).
Side effect of all this: I’ve discovered that, as a user of the alumni mail system, I have access to “Planworld,” a sort of community bulletin board which could be comprehensibly explained to an alum of my vintage but would be hopelessly confusing to anyone else, I suspect. I had previously thought it was limited to current members of the college community.
Adventures in XML
This morning I created my first RSS feed. (I know, there’s one for this weblog, but Movable Type made that for me; I didn’t make it.) We’re starting work on overhauling biopsychology.com for the fourth edition of Rosenzweig, and an RSS feed makes sense for that site, so I’m figuring out how to produce one from the existing database.
So far, so good; NetNewsWire will read it, which means it is mostly clean. But there’s still issues with the validator: all kinds of non-XML characters. I can filter some of them with a custom PHP function (mainly just a string of
preg_replace() calls) between the database and the output page, but I can’t scan the output for every accented vowel.
So far, most of the PHP functions I’ve found for XML deal with going from XML to something else—taking an RSS feed and putting it in a web page, for instance. I’m going the other way, with “dirty” text which needs to be valid XML, and I’m not quite flying yet.
Later: I think the PHP function I’m looking for is
htmlentities(). Still, the validator is complaining about character set and MIME type.
Your feed appears to be encoded as 'UTF-8', but your server is reporting 'ISO-8859-1' I don’t know if I can tweak the MIME type and character set, given that I need to send this through PHP. Maybe PHP can indicate the MIME type?
Even Later: I had been worried that monkeying with the MIME type in Apache would cause the PHP processor to ignore the file. Well, only in httpd.conf; if I change the type in the mime.types file, all appears to be well.
htmlentities() doesn’t handle curly single apostrophes, so the Feed Validator still chokes. Oh, the humanity!
March 29, 2004
I started out trying to figure out why the Founder’s DVD-ROM drive was acting quirky.
Now it won’t boot from the hard drive.
Drive Not Ready- System Halted (I have ruled out any of my other IDE-bus tinkering, and there was plenty, as causes.) This is what I get for opening the case.
I wonder how much longer he’s on vacation?
[Update: It’s back. Who knew how badly you could jam up a system by plugging the “wrong” end of a ribbon cable into the motherboard? For that matter, who knew there was a “wrong” end?]
Going through the dead zone
I’m not planning on making a habit of short posts with links, no matter how Halley Suitt thinks I should be doing it, but this (which I found through Ralph at There Is No Cat) is too striking not to share.
Rides through the Chernobyl restricted zone. “…[a] town where one can ride with no stoplights, no police” and no danger of hitting a pedestrian.
Watch for the hook
March 28, 2004
I could swim faster if I wasn't so tired
I’m back. I could probably write for hours about all the minutia of the meet, from the mechanics of competition-pool warmup to the amusement I (apparently) provided the starters with my starting technique (which I can best describe as “graceless.”) I’ll try to stick to some highlights.
500 free: I got an goggle-full of water at the start, but fortunately, only one. It mainly only bothered me on my turns, where I had to close my eyes to avoid my precarious equilibrium from being completely whacked by the sloshing puddle in my eye. It took me about three laps to get settled, and I was moving well enough that I never felt (as I used to about this race in high school) that I would never be finished. In the last three or four laps, I could see the guy inside me in lane six just ahead of me, and I hammered to keep up with him but couldn’t, quite. The fact that I still felt capable of hammering is a good sign.
I counted laps for the Instigator, who also counted for me. This involves taking a large plastic sign and pushing it down at the end of the pool to show how many lengths have been completed—1, 3, 5, etc. to 17; then instead of 19 both digits are blocks of orange: last turn. I used the sign also to telegraph to him his progress relative to some pre-set split times he hoped to hit. Side-to-side, no, out too fast. Up and down, yes, pick it up now. He was out a bit quick, less than a second, but then he faded. “Not enough distance base,” he explained.
100 breaststroke: Another goggle-full of water, but in this race, it doesn’t matter all that much. All you need to see is the wall. I did a decently-good job of maintaining effort through the race. My brother said, “That looked like it was painful.” I thought he was talking about the race, but it turned out he was talking about my start.
Laugh-till-you-choke moment: in an attempt to refuel between races, I tried a U-Turn bar. Talk about frightening names for something to eat. “How did it taste?” asked my sister-in-law’s friend Heather. “I mean, the first time?”
100 free I was in the third of… I don’t know, twenty-three heats? As usual, I was the youngest in my heat, the only one under 40, in fact. This time I got a clean start and had close competitors on both sides to race with. I thought I did pretty well, for the third race of the day. I should note that in this event, I was not last.
My brother missed his Friday heat of the 100 butterfly, so instead he took a liberal interpretation of the “free” in “freestyle” and swam fly instead. (Crawl happens to be the fastest stroke, so “freestyle” is usually the same as “crawl”—but not necessarily.) His time would have placed him fifth if he’d done it Friday, but he was probably more tired on Saturday.
The title of this post comes from a shirt I spotted on deck. I didn’t feel all that tired, myself, until I was driving home.
I told my sister-in-law afterward that from a March perspective, I thought I could have done better, but from a January perspective (when I started training) it had gone remarkably well. We agreed that I could easily have shaved a bunch of time had I been better with things like starts and turns. And, I observed, “I wonder how I would have done if I’d started training in November instead of January?”
I’ll have to see how running is going. If I’m still gimping around next fall, I might have to start early on my New Englands training.
March 26, 2004
Off to the show
The home page for the meet is posting results pretty quickly after the races (I’m checking up on the family now—we have a first, two seconds, and a fifth, to date,) so unless I get on a public terminal and have a burning need to say something, that’s my news for a day or so.
One for the team
I think one of the things I’m missing these days is a team.
I say this because I’m listed, for tomorrow’s meet, as “New England Masters—Unattached.” If I had known the organization of things before I started, I could have joined Maine Masters, where I know at least two of the swimmers, but it turns out that MMSC isn’t a sub-group of NEMSC the way, say, UMAMa is. There’s the group that swims at JFK Middle School in Northampton, but I think it would be a little weird joining a team when I’ve never dipped a toe in their home pool. (Same problem with UMAMa, actually.)
It’s part of the “misery loves company” philosophy, I think. If I’m representing something bigger than myself, I’m less likely to slack off when things get ugly. I have to hold up my end. And when I’m done, I’m more likely to be satisfied with what I did. By myself, well, it’s just me, and it doesn’t matter that much.
That’s how it was in high school, when I ran (and, sometimes, swam) for teams which tended to win more than they lost. (Our cross-country team went undefeated through the conference meet when I was a senior.) In college, for the most part, being on a team was about practice; we showed up each day and hurt with each other. Sort of a “misery loves company” situation.
When I was preparing for my (ultimately disastrous) Boston run in the spring of 2000, I put a bit of time into deciding what to wear. At the time I was running a fairly big website and was generally racing in a singlet with its logo and the domain name. But instead of running past a few hundred thousand marathon spectators with our URL, I opted to wear the company Corporate Challenge uniform because I was one of ten or twelve from the company running that year. I wanted the feeling of being one of several, even among the thousands who ran that year. (Actually, I would rather have worn the uniform of the guys I trained with but I had to take a paycheck in to account.)
I’m teamless, nowadays, and when I’m in shape to run, I race in my old college uniform. I had an offer to join the Dirigo RC when I wrote an article about them for New England Runner, but joining a Maine-based team while living in western Massachusetts seemed a bit uncomfortable. Likewise the B.A.A. and GBTC, both of which have some sentimental appeal for me (I know a lot of runners on both teams, and GBTC is, or was, the club of Bill Rodgers.) There’s Sugarloaf (affectionately known as “SMAC”), which is local but lacks a certain, uh, competitiveness. (In other words, I could slack off in a race and know they wouldn’t care. Not quite what I’m after.)
Tomorrow, I’m racing in a slate-blue (“navy,” according to the catalog, but it’s not like the “navy” I know) suit which is about as close as I can come to my high school colors. There will be three of us there, actually (and no, they’re not both related to me.) It won’t be the same, but maybe I can pretend for a few minutes.
And one last word for the comment spammers...
(OK, sorry, that was probably uncalled for. I got two of ‘em in quick succession, just as I was installing MT-Blacklist. First I edited them so they appeared to comment on their own spelling, which was poor, and to change the spamvertized URLs to point to the MT-Blacklist page. Then I deleted them. I considered changing the links to the Slashdot-popular goatse.cx domain, which is emphatically not work-safe, but decided they probably didn’t care.)
(Further comment for those who saw the earlier post and are wondering if I can even swear properly: fsck (work-safe).)
Note to self: robots
I’m tightening up some things behind the scenes here. Spiders hitting this site aren’t an issue yet, but I should remember to reread this when they are.
This must be a coincidence, right?
Blue Rabbit writing about the girl who made her quit coaching.
Tom is writing about his least favorite part of being a parent.
I got my first comment spammer.
March 25, 2004
Everyone else counts
I suppose I should add, “…too” to that title, since as written it suggests that you or I (not being “else”) don’t count. But never mind, that’s not the point.
Via Nancy McGough’s del.icio.us site, I find this post at Design Observer, Michael McDonough’s Top Ten Things They Never Taught Me in Design School.
Most interesting to me is the last one:
10. The rest of the world counts.
If you hope to accomplish anything, you will inevitably need all of the people you hated in high school. I once attended a very prestigious design school where the idea was “If you are here, you are so important, the rest of the world doesn’t count.” Not a single person from that school that I know of has ever been really successful outside of school. In fact, most are the kind of mid-level management drones and hacks they so despised as students. A suit does not make you a genius. No matter how good your design is, somebody has to construct or manufacture it. Somebody has to insure it. Somebody has to buy it. Respect those people. You need them. Big time.
Speaking of pills...
Last night, standing in front of the medicine cabinet, I realized that I don’t share most geeks’ definition of, “I took the red pill” or “I took the blue pill.”
To me, those mean ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen sodium (Aleve), respectively. So much for The Matrix.
Check your weapons
Another NYT article in today’s “Circuits” section is called “Stand and Fight: An Arsenal for Spam Victims.” Unfortunately, it deals mostly with commercial anti-spam tools, and I’ve mentioned my problems with these before. It mentions challenge-response matter-of-factly, as though there are no drawbacks to suggesting to random people trying to get in touch with you that they might be spammers. Still, they’re trying.
I’m trying, too. A preponderance of drug spam in my inbox (“Spam giving you a headache? We’ve got the pill for you!”) finally spurred me to tweak our SpamAssassin rules, and it has worked well. I’m keeping a close eye on the losers, to see what’s worked; an autopsy, if you will. Working backwards, a few rulesets added from the SpamAssassin Custom Rules Emporium (thanks to Jeremy, who keeps posting useful stuff, for the link) have been helpful, but mostly they’ve served to inflate the scores of stuff that might have been caught anyway. Much more useful were the small list of tweaks Kasia posted.
There was an afully weird collection of links and news on my radar screen this morning.
There was yesterday’s NY Times story on something we’ve seen a good bit of here, “Online Swindlers, Called ‘Phishers,’ Are Luring Unwary.” Remember, AOL help desk people will never ask for your password.
And the condescending (and somewhat dated) spoof, “Welcome to the Internet Helpdesk.”
Yet despite all this, “For Some Internet Users, It’s Better Late Than Never.”
Once largely written off as a lost cause, older Americans are now coming into their own as Internet users. … “People are continuing to learn and stay mentally active instead of vegetating,” [Leonard Krauss] said.
What I want to know is, what’s the rate of virus and worm infection among new internet users (of whatever age) relative to the internet population at large? (Yes, that’s bitterness talking; I am, in general, in favor of people learning new things.)
March 24, 2004
Tone and voice
It has occurred to me that my protestations of swimming near-incompetence from the last few days are written in nearly the same tone as the more strident and self-important posts about things I pretend to know about.
I’m not quite sure what to do with that realization, but there it is. Am I becoming one of those people who thinks every word they write is truth because they have a weblog? (Or, as the “B.C.” pedastal calls it, “TRVTH.”)
I hope not. Warn me?
In the meantime, I will sit back and let what happens, happen.
New England Masters has posted psych sheets for this weekend’s meet. A psych sheet is simply a list of swimmers in each event, sorted by seed time. This is supposed to get you mentally ready for who you are competing against. I am seeded:
- 102nd out of 127 in the 500 free (the Instigator of this circus, by way of comparison, is seeded ninth),
- 90th (eight-way tie) out of 124 in the 100 breaststroke—and I will not beat that seed, and
- 188th out of 211(!!) in the 100 free, though I will probably beat that seed.
Not bad for a guy who hasn’t waited for a gunshot on pool blocks for thirteen years, I suppose. However, a bit of perspective: when sorted by age group I am last, or next to last, in every event. (I’m tied for last in the 100br but I’m not likely to swim 1:25.)
A phone conversation with the Instigator last night revealed that I will likely be sharing a heat, in the 500 free, with Arnie Green from Maine Masters. Green is a member of the Maine Sports Hall of Fame and was an All-American swimmer at Yale and a nationally-ranked age-group miler.
He’s also 72 and has recently had a hip replacement. And he’s only seeded ten seconds behind me.
Fixing what's not broken
They’re replacing Bob Edwards on Morning Edition. I can’t quite figure out why they’d do that, considering that (apparently) Morning Edition is the second most widely syndicated show on radio, behind only Rush Limbaugh.
Airbag has email addresses, fax and phone numbers for, shall we say, listener feedback.
March 23, 2004
These things seem to come in bursts. My posts, I mean.
Via Wendy, I find Busted Crayons. Genia was a classmate of ours through junior high. Like many of the people I knew then, I don’t think I’d even thought of her for, oh, a decade or so. (Out of sight, out of mind? Slava Bogu for the ones who refuse to stay out of sight.) Wow. Cool.
Revised expectations of an African morning
Yesterday I started a new book for review, and this evening I found this howler (well, in my eyes) at the start of the fifth chapter:
The saying goes that “every morning in Africa, an antelope wakes up. It knows it must outrun the fastest lion, or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest antelope, or it will starve. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a lion or an antelope—when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.”
That’s a very well-known saying in running circles (it was adapted to a Nike ad campaign a few years back,) and here it is stated nonsensically. See, the lion doesn’t have to outrun the fastest antelope; any antelope will do, and the slowest is all he really needs to keep from starving. It’s only logical: if you’re faster than the fastest lion, you aren’t dinner. If you’re slower than the slowest antelope, you can’t catch dinner. In the overlap, you’re fed—or dead.
This misstatement is common (especially considering that the phrase is usually parrotted on team t-shirts or whatnot, not seriously considered.) This book must have been read at least three times in the production process, though. Why didn’t the copyeditor put at least five big red flags on that one?
Back to basics
This seems to be the week of stumbling around things I thought I was good at, or at least was in the groove with. Not only did I flail in the pool last night, but now I’m getting back to the final configuration of Kinglet and I’m flailing around at that. First I tried to compile an FTP daemon only to discover that, paranoid that I am, I hadn’t put a compiler on this box. (Make the script kiddies compile their own binaries for their rootkits, I say.)
I almost committed to a configuration rebuild from the CDs before I figured out that not only was an older version of the daemon already installed from my first setup, but I could download a decent binary of the current version as a package.
I stumble around things like this, while there’s a flyer on my desk for USENIX ‘04. Now, that looks awfully appealing, to be sure, but days like today, I wonder if I’m even qualified for the training track. (Or if my employers see my job as one that would justify attending something like this. I don’t think they consider me a systems admin.)
Let alone… refereed papers and invited talks? I read the summaries of the papers from LISA ‘03 that were published in ;login: and they almost made sense. How do I bootstrap myself up to the point of understanding them? Well, education. Remind me to discuss that catch-22 sometime.
While reading Dan Cederholm’s latest post about charging batteries, and nodding in recognition and identification at his tale of searching out available outlets in airports in order to get the last few bits of charge into his PowerBook before the flight began (I’ve been there,) I couldn’t help but remember a commentary made by Andrei Codrescu on All Things Considered a few years ago, where he compared the airport charge-heads to vampires.
(Codrescu also has something to say about webloggers.)
Envy, class wars and psych experiments
Another NYT article this weekend led me to the weblog of Clive Thompson, who is a writer on topics which interest me, and immeasurably more successful in that regard than I am.
There, I found a wonderfully interesting article about envy, framed in some issues I had thought about but not in the depth Thompson presents them: the schadenfreude surrounding the conviction of Martha Stewart, the apparent rapacious greed of corporate executives (apparently) everywhere, the growing concern about the gap between rich and poor in this country… even, as Halley Suitt mentioned today, the “class war” card being played in the presidential campaign. It’s worth a look, if you’ve got a few minutes. Check the Notes from the Virus Underground, as well.
I got back in the pool last night. Among other things, I learned that my feeling of comfort and smoothness in the pool sprung mostly from just getting in regularly; with a week (plus) off, I was flailing and splashing again. Hopefully that will go away by Saturday, when I race.
A lot of the set last night was 50s from block starts. Starting from blocks in swimming is very unlike starting from blocks in running. In running, you’re using blocks to push yourself forward and slightly upward. In swimming… well, for me, at least, it amounts to throwing myself at the water in such a way that I arrive in the pool with my goggles still sealed to my face and a certain amount of forward momentum. Should I fail in the latter, I lose only a few yards of space on my competitors in the pool. (Since I will probably be the slowest swimmer in my age group in all three events, I will most likely be seeded with good swimmers from significantly older age groups.) Should I fail in the former… well, I don’t like the idea of swimming ten laps with goggles full of chlorinated water. So, I practice.
The result of my block-work was a red chest and an eye-catching little cut on the bridge of my nose where my goggles were pressed in to my face with each start. I look once again like I’ve been in a bar fight, but this time it doesn’t involve stitches.
March 22, 2004
Front and Centre
That’s the name of Wendy’s new weblog. (Quick background: Wendy is Tom’s wife, which feels like a backwards way of introducing her; I met her in Junior High, and didn’t meet him until they were both in Pennsylvania getting ready to get married.) She hasn’t posted much yet, but we’ll see.
I like this name, because the faux-quaint spelling of “Centre” is not Wendy’s; it describes the location of the sidewalk clock pictured on the front page, which is at the corner of Front and Centre Streets in our hometown. I have a magnet depicting the same clock on the fridge. I would not have remembered that it is spelled that way, because locations “in town” are usually discussed verbally and seldom in print. (I have never actually lived in this city, but in a low-population outlying town which makes it easier to just say, I’m from this city.) Our downtown seemed to specialize in quaint spellings; the “Hobby Shoppe” confused me no end when I was too young to figure out what they were up to. Still, they’ve got nothing on the “Olde Hadleigh Grille” down here in Hadley, which isn’t even all that old, nor is it very near the “Olde” part of Hadley.
So, um, neat visual pun. And Hi to Wendy. (See, I did have a point.)
March 21, 2004
Happy Feet, Healthy Food
I know, it’s been a prolific day for me. I’m putting off doing my taxes.
I got a large-ish package from Breakaway Books in the mail on Friday which I hadn’t been expecting. It turned out to be an advance copy of Happy Feet, Healthy Food by Carol Goodrow, and I remembered Carol asking for my address a few months ago.
Carol is an acquaintance of mine from my days at RW. I tried to help her bootstrap in to the world of running an expanding website, and (she claims) I was often the only one who would answer her questions when quite a lot of the rest of the company seemed to be hoping she would just run her site and keep quiet. I still see her from time to time at events, and occasionally answer a technical question (or, in some cases, help her figure out what her question is, by which point the answer is obvious.)
This book of hers is, like her site, a demonstration of the idea that the best and most effective approaches to some problems can be the simplest. The problem, in this case, is one that we read about regularly nowadays (and, in my case, write about): our national obesity problem, in particular how it starts with our children.
Happy Feet, Healthy Food isn’t a weight loss manual, nor is it a how-to exercise book for kids that might be read once and forgotten. It is a week by week log, encouraging nothing more difficult than regular participation in active, fun things kids already know how to do.
The idea is simple and compelling, so much so that Amby Burfoot (a person for whom I hold a great deal of respect) wrote in his foreword, “This book you are holding is a work of genius.” Get used to being active and eating well when you’re young, and you’re not only less likely to be an obese child, you’re more likely to carry the good habits into the rest of your life.
This book isn’t about any secret or quick fix; it’s about establishing habits. It’s about parents getting outside and doing fun, active things with their kids instead of sitting in front of the television. (Or computer.) It’s subversive. Who knew?
Of course, I don’t (yet) have children, so it may be a while before I have an actual use for the book (other than saying good things about it.) Still, having the copy sitting out on the table makes me feel like a radical, which is pretty strange itself considering how it looks.
I am trying to write this while my current office-mate insists I get up and help him fetch out the ladybug he has been watching for the past hour.
Since he is likely to turn up here again, allow me to introduce Ishmael of Ware, Sovereign of the Third Floor, Knight Protector of the Honorable Order of Mousebane, First Lord of the Empire of Shays Street, Duke of Northampton and Heir to the Throne of Dakin (Izzy to his staff):
I suspect that, due to the quote I’ve taken this weblog’s name from, I’m likely to wind up in the search results for people looking for winner of the 1987 Nobel Prize for Literature.
I wrote my senior honors thesis on Joseph Brodsky’s prose essays, eight years ago at this point. The previous spring I had the rare and, as it turned out, fortunate priviledge to attend Brodsky’s 19th Century Russian Poetry class at Mt. Holyoke College. That course counts, I think, among my most intellectually challenging (and, perhaps, interesting) among the thirty-one and two halves (never mind) I wound up taking.
I still pull out the thesis now and then, and I’m regularly surprised to find that it’s not utter crap, though I still suspect it is. A few months ago I backed it out of WordPerfect files into plain text with the intention of using it as a stage for learning XML, and perhaps I still will, someday, put it online, in the hopes that the acme of my relatively brief career as a Russian Literature scholar might be of use to someone else.
Brodsky, sadly, died at age 56 while I was midway through my writing. The class that I attended was his last. I never got my final paper back from him, nor do I know to this day what my grade was.
At any rate, those wishing to learn more about the poet and thinker who, according to this brief biography from the University of Michigan,
precisely articulated the point of view of the educated Homo sovieticus, whose savage irony was the last bastion against despair…
…might try a few of these links:
- The Joseph Brodsky museum in St. Petersburg
- Quotes and quotations (but not as good as the marginalia I wrote down during class…)
- Brodsky’s page at the Academy of American Poets
- The Nobel e-Museum’s page about the 1987 Prize for Literature (includes the acceptance speech, one of his greater essays)
- The quote from which this weblog gets its title can be found in the title essay of Brodsky’s first book of essays, Less Than One, which is almost undoubtedly available at your favorite bookstore, online or otherwise.
Oh, cool, I can embed PHP in the MT template. The new “Last five freelance articles” list in the left bar will update whenever I add an article to my clips database. (If only I could automate updates to that database, alas.) I wonder what else I can add. I thought about “last five races,” but that goes back about a year now. Maybe if I raced more often.
Right now, I might be better served clarifying the semantics of the template itself—too many places, in my opinion, where head levels and lists should be used instead of (for example) a series of links with line breaks. Hey, if it’s a list, code it as a list.
The complainant must have rights to the name, or to a name ”identical or confusingly similar.” The name doesn’t actually have to be a registered trademark, but it needs to have been used in commerce, like a brand. Actors, musicians, even authors get protection this way, while politicians, scientists and religious figures do not. …
Not that this is an issue for me, since I believe I’m the only one with a variant of my name registered as a DNS zone. When I first did it, it was lack of originality and immediate need (I was looking for a job, and that works best when your website is not flashesofpanic.com, I’m afraid.) But it’s good to know that since I’ve used my name in commerce, as a writer, I’ve got a pretty strong claim on the domain. In fact, I discovered through my site referrer statistics that the site is seen, at least from one perspective, as “site of the freelance writer.”
So, there you go. I’m back to the Brand of Me.
Update: Here’s another link to the story from the author, James Gleick’s, website.
I tried to be ambitious yesterday. I started out on an eight-mile run, another incremental extention in the distance I’m comfortable with since coming off this PF problem.
Before I reached six miles, maybe forty minutes in to the run, I started to feel what I can best describe as a pulling in my right arch. Five or six minutes later, it was more like a stabbing. Very much like the feeling of a “toe cramp” that I would get in the pool; a sort of muscle spasm in the same place the doctor triggers the toe-curling reflex.
I stopped. A. finished up the run and came back to get me with the car, though I’d walked about a mile (I felt like I was more than halfway home.) I was a little knot of frustration and anger, and the worst of it was (is?) that running—the thing I was frustrated and angry about—is normally how I vent frustration and anger. Swimming lets me vent energy, but it’s not a release; it’s an anesthetic.
Pool’s open again tomorrow. I’m not sure if I want to try running today or not.
March 19, 2004
I’ve been using Markdown as a Movable Type plugin for a few days now, and I’m enjoying it, because it reduces the amount of coding I need to do within posts.
The author, John Gruber, just posted a very convincing argument for why it’s useful, not that I needed convincing, but in the process raised issues in XML/RSS/Atom that I wasn’t aware of. He also made a few good points about the utility of weblog software which I think I understood inherently, but not as clearly.
Simply put, weblog software isn’t software for producing HTML; it’s software for managing collections of posts. And, he extends, “posts” should not need to be snippets of HTML, but articles or arguments or letters—something which can be written, not coded.
This may be the thinking I need to make the last steps towards real usability in the homegrown CMA I’ve been evolving at work. (Version 0.1 is powering plantphys.net; Version 0.2 is running devbio.com.)
Not a robot
We’re getting a little too used to auto-responders in our online life. We’ve got a site that is subscription-based and requires the usual login and password. There isn’t a sophisticated bail-you-out system for e-mailing you your login and password, should you forget them; too many keys you could either forget, or use to dredge up the bit you do need to remember. Or something. Instead, the “Forgot your password?” page instructs you to send an email to a role address which happens to wind up in my mailbox.
Here’s where the fun begins. This is a very generic address; it could be used for people having trouble installing PAUP* or getting virtual memory errors with Sylvius. It reaches a real person—me—who dredges up the correct fix, if I know it, or asks for more information, or whatever other help I can offer. But the folks reaching it from introstats.net are treating it like an autoresponder. Hey, guys, I don’t know where you’re coming from. If I get an email with the subject line, “login and password” and nothing but a name (or, worse, just a registration number) in the body, how am I supposed to know which of our many titles I’m dealing with? Read your mind? (I can usually guess, of course, but that’s not the point.) Even better, how am I supposed to distinguish your message from spam?
In this case, the best solution is to add some text to the page with the email address explaining that context is necessary in the message. I do think people are getting more and more accustomed to computers detecting the context of the information they’re keying in, and responding accordingly, and this is leading to issues when the context is not present.
March 18, 2004
Go jump in a lake
My cleverly-arranged training-location setup collapsed this week. The College1 is on spring break this week, and due to the resulting shortage of lifeguards, the pool is closed. My fallback, the Amherst Community Aquatics Center, has even funkier hours than Pratt Pool2. I walked over on Tuesday night, but they appeared to be closed due to snow. Last night I didn’t have the energy to do the “are they or aren’t they” dance, so I slept instead. Today and Friday, I’ve got other things to do.
I think this is tapering a bit more than intended.
What I miss is being able to stop, on the way home from work, at Puffer’s Pond or the like, and just jump in. Sure, no lane lines and you can’t see the bottom of the pool, but it’s not closed for team practice, either.
Years ago, when I stayed in town between my junior and senior years, I used to do Saturday morning runs from Puffer’s Pond with a teammate. We’d park at the pond and run north several miles on the Robert Frost Trail, come back, and run straight in to the pond (which hadn’t, by that time of day, filled with summer swimmers.) It made an afternoon at the Dickinson Homestead downright tolerable.
OK, I’ve got some spring fever going.
If you don’t know the name of a structure at the College, it’s safest to call it “Pratt.” Everything else is; in fact, they’re on track to have two different dorms named “Pratt” in a few years.
Creepy crawly 'lectric critters
Or, looked at from another point of view, more things to be paranoid about.
The New York Times is reporting on another nasty little packet of evil making its way around the ‘net (though not as explosively as Netsky or MyDoom or other “name” nasties.) And Wired News is echoing my point about commercial anti-spam solutions, except they’re—correctly, in my opinion—applying the same argument to anti-virus vendors.
The argument, briefly, is, what motivation to anti-virus companies have for really stopping all the viruses, worms, etc. when those same bits of malicious mobile code create demand for annual virus-signature-file subscriptions?
None, of course.
Although we, at work, do employ a commercial anti-virus solution (and, even if we used one of the wonderful free ones, as a commercial user we’d still need to license it,) the single best barrier we have to email-borne nastiness is a copy of the Sanitizer on our email gateway. It doesn’t rely on signatures—it relies on the basic logic of, “Why the %@#^ would you be e-mailing us an .exe or a .pif in the first place?” We’ve got an FTP server for legitimate file transfer; I’ve yet to hear a soundly-reasoned explanation of why we should be accepting .exe files through email.
Now, Bluerabbit disagrees with me that this kind of thing should be a concern of the average internet user, and SANS (or, at least, Alan Paller,) agrees by quoting Walter Mossberg and the WSJ (excerpt at the SANS link) in saying, “stop blaming the victims” and instead call on the big vendors, Microsoft etc., to create systems which are (more) secure out of the box.
Sorry, hollow laugh. Microsoft represents the vast majority of (vulnerable) systems on the ‘net, and a big reason for that is that Windows is (relatively) inexpensive. (That’s an oversimplification; Windows runs on inexpensive hardware, and Microsoft keeps the cost low as a leader for Office sales, which is where they make serious money.) Making Windows more secure means making Windows more expensive; Microsoft has basically admitted that, and they’ve admitted that making the next Windows more secure has pushed back its release date by a year or two.
Give the “average internet user” the choice between two systems. One is, say, $2,000. The other is $1,800, but the user is cautioned that it is significantly less secure. Nineteen out of twenty will buy the cheaper system, because they (still!) don’t really see worms and viruses as much more than a pretext for selling them up with anti-virus software (like rust-proofing on a new car). (“You want Norton with that?”)
We’re drowning in the collective choices we made. Sure, Microsoft should take a hefty chunk of the blame, and so should the AV industry. But secure choices have been out there for years, more come up every year, and we’re not choosing them. (The same thing’s happening on the highway: there are “safe” small cars out there, but they’re not as safe anymore because so many people want “safe” SUVs that would decapitate my little Honda like a gingerbread man.)
Securing Windows would be a big help, but it’s not happening for years (and that’s not counting how long it will take legacy systems to go off-line.) The average user needs to do something now, and saying, “It’s not my fault” is not what they need to do. Fine, it’s not your fault, but it’s in your lap now either way.
Paller does make a very good point about forcing better security from software vendors:
The National Strategy To Secure Cyberspace, unveiled by President Bush more than a year ago, clearly outlined the best approach to accelerating security improvements in products: using federal procurement power. However, behind closed doors, the software vendors’ highly-paid lobbyists in Washington have bottled up nearly every initiative that would have allowed the government to use its procurement power to require significant security improvements.
There’s something twisted in the whole situation.
Update: Ars Technica weighs in, linking to the same Wired News article, but doesn’t offer much new other than some statistics about those using AV software and getting infected anyway. Ars also doesn’t seem to think there’s anything which can be done, so I guess they haven’t found the Sanitizer.
Slightly smaller breakfast
Not that anyone is looking to me to figure out where Rachel Maddow went (though apparently someone found me via a Google search on that name), but since I’ve taken the Big Breakfast out of the links list, I figure I should offer at least the token update I’ve heard. (By the way… I wonder how many people using the “blogroll” phrase for the links list are familiar with the etymology of the term? I think more of you all than that.)
I took down the link because, while Bill Dwight is doing just fine with the radio bit, the weblogging bit has really gone downhill.
Meanwhile, the improbably named Tiger Beat confirmed what Maddow told us herself, that she’s going to New York to be part of the new Air America radio network (better known as the future host of Al Franken’s “The O’Franken Factor.”) The fun part which Steve pointed out is that the program listing is now up. Maddow is part of a nine-to-noon morning show, co-hosting with Chuck D.! No word on continuing weblogging.
March 17, 2004
That is the question
Well, twenty-four hours later (with some breaks, I’ll admit) there are still white flakes coming down, but no longer the it’s-going-to-be-going-for-a-few-more-hours type. The question in my mind now is, how fast will it melt? Or, to put a finer point on it, will I be caching this weekend, or skiing? A lot of the ski areas—including both of my favorites, the ones that groom for skating—have already closed for the season. Maybe I should be snowshoeing for caches?
Cats and roofs
I knew that cats like high places. (This is apparently a combination of their liking for places that are good to pounce from, and their preference to be where they can see but not be seen, since people tend not to look up.) We saw this a few weeks ago. Now I read in Gates of the Mountains that this is common behavior, especially for yellow cats. I’d think it was the same cat, except they aren’t in Amherst and we aren’t in Montana. (And their trackback appears to be munged, and I can’t figure out how to comment on their entry. Sigh.)
The above connection was made courtesy of Sherry at Stay of Execution, a fellow Mainer but not, like myself, living in exile, who also kindly mentions this weblog in the same entry. And her trackback isn’t munged. I wonder if I can deduce Gates’ trackback from Sherry’s? The format is probably the same, but the URL appears to involve a unique number (only six digits? huh?) with no easy way to deduce how that number is assigned. Hmmm.
Update: “Gates” have fixed their Trackback. Or had it fixed for them. Same thing, isn’t it?
March 16, 2004
Trying something new
This would be a bit less interesting to me if I couldn’t tinker with it, so I’m trying out Movable Type plugins. First up is Markdown and SmartyPants from John Gruber at Daring Fireball. This is supposed to make my em-dashes—you know, the long hyphens—into true em-dashes instead of double-hyphens, and allow some other “formatting” and “typography” stuff to happen without me coding it all in the input window.
I'm playing with this as a bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you column topic for someday when I'm feeling particularly ornery, the way I wasn't when I wrote today's column.
I didn't get a look at yesterday's Runner's World Daily until this morning, thanks to some technical difficulties on their end. RW has changed the format of the Daily dramatically since some layoffs last fall, essentially no longer running newspaper-length news on a daily basis, but running one-paragraph summaries and links to outside sites. This is a pretty common practice, in particular at the irrationally-popular amateur site letsrun.com, whose freewheeling, unmoderated message board is at once the most ignorant, offensive, and direct information source on the sport. RW still runs full-length stories, but more often now they are from wire services like the Running USA Wire, or flat-out press releases.
I think RW started the story-link trend in the late 90's, while I was there, with the "Splits" section in the Daily News. I had hoped that would highlight good writing about the sport which might otherwise go unnoticed; instead, it devolved into a roundup of international news and wire stories, which is good, I suppose, if that's what you're trying to do. A few other sites, including some I'm involved with, use links to stories elsewhere as a way of providing comprehensive coverage they lack the staff or budget to handle (and often do it better than RW ever did,) while still producing (and, in my case, paying for) original, professional interviews, photography, and event coverage. The result is a sort of commons, with everyone putting something in the pot and dipping out a bowl of the complete stew.
OK, background over. Last weekend, as I've mentioned, I was at the NCAA Indoor Championships at the University of Arkansas. I've covered this meet three times before for RW Daily, but this year I was essentially harvesting interviews for the "Brief Chats" they still run daily. Instead, they linked to the roundup stories I wrote on assignment to another site.
So, long story short, now they're letting someone else pay me, and running the headlines anyway.
It doesn't bother me that much in the short run, since I have a real job, and despite RW's profitable website, they don't pay very well for website work. (At least one decent writer stopped working for us before we were in the black because we didn't pay very well.) But in the long run, what's happening is that RW is cutting back their contributions to the soup, but dipping more than ever out of the pot.
Why is this unfortunate? Because the biggest contributors to the pool of articles are newspapers with a scope which is, at best, regional, and college or university Sports Information departments. (On the media mailing list for the NCAAs, SIDs outnumbered unaffiliated outlets two to one; it went to three to one if you took Northwest Arkansas newspapers out of the "unaffiliated" list.) The national-reach newspapers, like the NYT and USA Today, are cutting back travel budgets for their Olympic writers, so the story that goes out nationally gets written by the local AP or Reuters stringer. Not a problem in New York City. Problem in Northwest Arkansas. This is not a good way to maintain a consistent, high-level perspective on the sport; it's a way to lose the forest in the trees, as I hinted in an earlier column. We're already seeing serious errors in regional coverage, committed by local newspaper reporters who would rather be watching the Eagles game, echoing across the country.
Maybe the answer is not just linking to all these stories, but annotating the links: "Useful information here," "Meyer knows his stuff," or, "Basic facts correct, but reporter's analysis is ignorant, and here's why."
Or maybe the outlets which are making money should be investing in, and maintaining, a base of reporters who do know what they're talking about. (Third-person pronoun used deliberately: I like my real job.)
I need to come up with a racing suit for New Englands. (Worth thinking about since today is the birthday of the Responsible Party.)
The Responsible Party has suggested this or this, but it should be noted that I lack most of the musculature of the folks in the picture. (Of course, if there was ever a context in which this was acceptable, this is it.)
My mother forwarded an adorable picture of my nieces. I'm not going to post it, I'm just going to gloat, though I might share with any who ask.
March 15, 2004
I've written to this guy more than once about copyright violation, but I don't think he listens, and once I left the organization which holds the actual rights to the work in question, I gave up trying. But for Google's sake I think it's worth pointing out: Christoph F. Eick copied this article on his website without permission. Maybe he'll notice this page in his referrer logs, but I doubt it. Or perhaps he'll Google himself...
Put it this way. Your computer is your house. (If you spend as much time at it as I do, this is more than just a metaphor.) There are people walking around your neighborhood every day—heck, every hour—trying doorknobs. You don't need to install an IDS; you need to lock the goddamned door.
Because the first thing that happens, when someone finds that door unlocked, is that they will climb up on your roof and start throwing rocks at everyone else's houses. The fact that I have a tough roof and shatterproof windows is irrelevant; one of those other houses is mine, and when the rocks start coming in, I'll want to send him to jail, but you can bet I won't be all too thrilled with you for leaving the door open.
Continuing the metaphor to the workplace: the IT guy is supposed to make sure nobody comes in without a badge. (As one article I read put it, "Not every scruffy-looking character with an unironed shirt is part of the IT department.") Maybe you can't be blamed for the strange guy throwing firebombs from your office window, but the guard at the door sure can be.
Sorry for being so unforgiving, here, but (a) nobody's reading this anyway, right? and (b) I'm getting frustrated with the "not my fault" attitudes I'm reading about with every new virus outbreak... and the infected emails in my inbox.
Public Service Announcement
I am no longer accepting email from the ind.iquest.net subdomain, due to repeated virus-infected messages originating there even after repeated warnings. If you're trying to reach me from that particular dialup pool, I suggest using a comment on an entry here... but I actually doubt anyone's trying to reach me, they're just too irresponsible to have an up-to-date virus filter, even though there are at least two free alternatives.
There is no excuse for still, on this day, not having taken at least basic steps to secure your PC. Cost is not an excuse. Time is not an excuse, sorry. Pay for that time with the money you saved by buying an insecure Windows PC instead of a Macintosh.
(OK, no, there is an excuse: if your PC belongs to your company, and there's an IT guy like me who is supposed to be responsible for keeping it secure. If you're that IT guy, or that IT guy's manager, sorry, you're on the line now.)
March 13, 2004
I guess it might look odd for me to abruptly go silent after a few days of four or five posts a day, but I did spend most of Friday as a guest of American Airlines (and doing some PHP coding on the plane which I hope to be able to troubleshoot online at some point. I'm so used to having the online manual available that I've yet to set up a self-sufficient development environment here on my Powerbook.) And after the meet, I did write two thousand words about what I'd seen... so it's not too shocking to find me gazing, unfocused, at the top row of the keyboard this afternoon before the second session. QWERTYUIOP.
Late this morning we headed up, in the rain, to an obscure dirt driveway west of the University of Arkansas campus, which dwindles to a trail and a chain-link pseudo-gate. Behind that, a loop of rocky trail about a mile and a half long which I think of as "Razorback Ranch." (That might actually be its name, but I don't have a source for that, so don't quote me.)
Running anywhere else in Fayetteville, even now when the local heroes are hosting (and contending for) the national championship, feels almost anti-social. There's a choice of concrete sidewalks alongside heavy-traffic arteries, or no-sidewalk winding, hilly side roads. At Razorback Ranch, we've run in to clumps of athletes and coaches from the teams here to compete: Stanford, BYU, Michigan, Texas A&M.
Two years ago, I was in better shape than I am now, and I went up to Razorback Ranch for a sixteen miler. I must have done eight or ten laps to make the miles, combined with getting there and heading back. It's a long enough loop that I don't feel like a gerbil on a wheel, like I would if I tried doing that on a track. I did two laps today, probably less than half the distance I did then, and I would gladly have done the entire run on that rocky hilltop instead of the roads of Fayetteville.
A. speculated today that the Arkansas runners share the "secret" of the Razorback Ranch with other runners to prove that there actually is decent running in the area. I speculated to the contrary: that they kept it obscure so people wouldn't find out that the best running in the area was a pathetic little not-even-two-mile trail loop.
March 11, 2004
Wasn't that a Robert Frost poem?
Anyway, I'm on dialup for a few days. Down to Arkansas on an achingly early flight tomorrow morning for the NCAA Indoor Championships and a bit of out-of-state caching; back on Sunday (on a similarly early-bird flight.) Let me know if you're in need of anything razorbacky.
More work tidbits
A coworker gave me a photocopy of this review in Science in which a biologist from the Institute Pasteur and Avenir's Department of Immunology considered the Matrix trilogy as a metaphor for evolution, finite resources, selective pressure and interaction among species in the natural world.
Today she drew my attention to a footnote in one of our forthcoming titles, which is spawned from a discussion of storage and curating data, and follows notes on the proper printers to use for hard copy (laser, not ink-jet or dot matrix) and expectations of life for electronic media (under a decade). Emphasized notes are mine:
Many individuals now consider posting data on the World Wide Web to be a means of permanently archiving data. This is illusory. First, it is simply a transfer of responsibility from you to the computer system manager (or other information technology professional). [That's me.] By placing your electronic archival copy on the Web, you imply a belief that regular backups are made and maintained by the system manager. ... Second, server hard disks fail regularly (and often spectacularly). Last, the Web is neither permanent nor stable. GOPHER and LYNX have disappeared, TP is being replaced by HTTP [Not here—yet.], and HTML, the current language of the web, is already being phased out in favor of (the not entirely compatible) XML. ... It often is easier to recover data from notebooks that were hand-written in the nineteenth century than it is to recover data from Web sites that were digitally "archived" in the 1990s!
What is it that I like so much about this company?
One, yesterday someone did a global page with the message, "Turkey out the west windows!"
Two, most of us knew which were the west windows. (I have one.)
Three, we left our work and looked.
Jail a spammer, part 2
Or, as has been the case twice in the last week, you can catch them abusing the Habeas warrant mark, and report them, so Habeas can go after them with trademark and copyright law. Much tougher than CAN-SPAM (which I think should come up when you search Google for "miserable failure," but I didn't make that particular Google-bomb.)
Anyway, both the NYT and Wired News carried news of spammer lawsuits from major ISPs today. Much as I love to see spammers with their feet in the fire, I'd rather not see the fruits of any successful lawsuits lining Microsoft's pockets. Spread it around down here, where the damage is being done. Where my poor little Bluebird, which should be perfectly adequate to serve mail for a thirty-mailbox office, is getting so hammered with spam that it sometimes shuts down the mail servers to avoid overload. If we have to cough up for a new mail server with more horsepower... well, that's all very nice for the hardware dealers, but it's an unacceptable expense for a small business like us.
Ran for the 8:35 bus, missed it anyway, and waited for the 8:50. What is taking them so long with my car, anyway? Yesterday I was thinking I could get along pretty well without a car, but now that I'm wondering, it's bothering me.
Still, the pond at UMass was a vertiable traffic jam of Canada geese, presumably making a rest stop on the way back up north. And the sky is about as blue as we're going to see it in March. It's that kind of day.
March 10, 2004
Jail a spammer
It can't happen fast enough. Did you get a...
...stock solicitation? Send it to the SEC.
...Nigerian (or "advance fee") scam? Sic the U.S. Secret Service on 'em.
...offer to sell prescription drugs without a prescription? (This seems to be the bulk of my spam lately...) Try the FDA.
(via the helpful folks at the U of Oregon...)
Starting tomorrow, the FTC is soliciting comments on CAN-SPAM. My comment, of course, is, "Why couldn't they pass a law that works? Say, one with capital penalties and enforcement provisions?" But if you want them to know what a shambles that law was (you're getting less spam, right?) they want to know at regulations.gov.
It seems to be a day for being misinterpreted. A. and I were extensively quoted by the Daily Hampshire Gazette's running columnist on the USATF indoor meet, particularly Jen Toomey. He also mis-identified Shayne Culpepper as "Shane Cunningham." I am mostly amused. Partly that he essentially did his meet coverage by calling us, but also because he does understand running; he just doesn't have the time or inclination to keep up with the latest stars. At RW we talked about the difference between "the sport" of running and "the activity" of running; those who get one don't necessarily get the other.
Anyone in the Gazette's market who really cared about the big meets read about them online (or drove to Boston, as we did) instead of waiting for the newspaper, anyway. Coverage of sports is going to become either online or local; a local writer summarizing a meet in Boston or Budapest (confusingly, the World Cross-Country meet will be in Brussels in a few weeks) is a pointless exercise to begin with.
I would probably make my points better if I wasn't writing in between starting various wait-for-it type tasks on the servers. This might mean I'd write better if I wasn't doing it at work, but at home there's a similar pattern involving the cat.
As I write this, there is a terminal window streaming a bunch of junk in the background. It is compiling GnuPG, which is a variant of PGP, on our web server. (And if you were aware of computer society in the mid-90s, you remember what PGP was, right?)
A. is being a real build-from-scratch webmaster again, for the first time in a few years, and technology has made a few steps in that time. She's fighting with configuring pre-built PHP/MySQL applications to do what she wants them to, when she doesn't really know how PHP and MySQL work to begin with. Not too surprising; when I started here nearly three years ago, I didn't know much more about LAMP than what it stood for (Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP, Python or Perl.) I learned as I went, starting with PHP, adding MySQL (with a well-timed Database Management course), then Linux and Apache last summer when we built our server. I've figured it out over years, and she's trying to do it in days.
Since I did it so slowly, I forget how obscure this is. I am downloading a "tarball," a compressed blob of source code, and "compiling" it to run optimally on my system. How many consumer (read: Windows) boxes even have a compiler? Everything's pre-compiled because the hardware is standardized to support Windows. Compilers are standard on Linux, because hardware isn't standard; Linux and BSD variants run on nearly everything, and a utility like GPG needs to run on all of them. So you distribute the abstracted source code, and the compiler builds an executable binary for your system, and yours alone.
So I got used to being able to download these things, and utter the magic incantations (
make install) and it works. Meanwhile, it streams this comforting mass of, well, garbage across my screen (you should see the PHP installation, which goes for nearly fifteen minutes) which would probably make your eyes bleed if I quoted large sections of it.
Sometimes, to make the compile work, you need to figure out masses of stuff. What's the path to utilities x, y, and z? Does everything have the proper permissions? (When you work as root, permissions become irrelevant, but the web server daemon doesn't work as root and I do have to keep it in mind.)
Imagine Windows as microwave dinners. Pop in the CD, heat, eat. Compiling from source is more like popping raw material and a recipe into a cooking machine, and watching it make dinner from scratch. It's either deep voodoo, or a lot of fun. Or both.
This is farther out on the geek spectrum than I am. A good way out, I think; my idea of a good case mod is one that puts the computer in a closet somewhere.
March 9, 2004
Breaststroke in three minutes
Breaststroke is antithetical to my last ten years as an athlete. "Big muscles use big oxygen," said Coach Wescott at cross-country camp, and as a distance runner I cultivated leanness and measured fitness by how well I could leach oxygen from the air and use it for fuel. Breaststroke is about big muscles; it is about being anaerobic sooner, and staying there longer than anyone else except butterflyers, and they're so oxygen-starved they don't even think anymore. By the time I hit the first wall of a breaststroke set, I am more anaerobic than a loaf of bread dough.
Marathoners talk about an immoderate early pace with the tag, "writing checks your body can't cash." Breaststroke is about your body buying expensive sports cars with counterfeit hundred-dollar bills, then driving off with the salesman's wife. It is about learning what your limits are, because those are too slow and you'll have to swim harder.
I am so going to get hammered in this race.
Freestyle in three minutes
The first length after a rest is just as smooth as the Olympians make it look. You haul in the black line like a big rope and fake it into coils behind you, and sip air from the little space behind your own bow wave. The lane lines skip by like guardrail pylons on the freeway. Your arms are pistons. Your hands are two-cup scoops,
There are so many places I can go with that title.
In computer cracking, there is a little bundle of nasty known as a rootkit. Essentially, it replaces a whole series of operating system components so the sysadmin (me) can't see what varieties of mischief are being performed on their system.
Since this is an arms race, there is a utility named chkrootkit which checks for the fingerprints of a rootkit, essentially telling the sysadmin, "You are now on thin ice, get this box off the network." The TLA (Three Letter Acronym) is IDS, or Intrusion Detection System (though there are more thorough IDSes in the world, like tripwire and fcheck.)
Now, various versions of chkrootkit vary in how well they detect various rootkits. And, because I'm responsible for keeping our system(s) secure, I am professionally paranoid.
So cron (the scheduling daemon) is running five different versions of chkrootkit over the course of each day, and emailing me the results. This is the rough equivalent of giving an employee a polygraph every five hours, forever. (Except the employee works as much as eighty-six days without so much as a coffee break, so the metaphor is sketchy.)
Height of geekdom: I should have a site icon. You know, for the address bar. You've seen them.
The miscellaneous wish list for hardware in this office is getting pretty lengthy. Failing laptop battery, failed UPS for the accounting server, 100Mbps ethernet hubs to remove the last 10Mbps segments of the network, wholesale OS upgrades for eight or nine Macs.
And, uh, Microsoft. Let's see, how big is the pig in the python if I try to bring the office up to (say) Office 2003 from Office XP? At Microsoft rates, where you either pay crippling per-seat full licenses, or site-license for a term and pray they update (which they might not—it looks like the release of Longhorn, the next major Windows OS revision, is into 2006, which is past the term of the site contracts MS started selling in 2001.)
It's a trade-off, a balancing act. Where can I get away with recycled hardware and on-the-cheap solutions, and where do I need to argue for significant investment? I'm still learning. There was a pretty good New York Times article about this a few weeks ago. The summary was, "It's hard." Yipes.
I got this image in email this morning, from my mother. Taken fifty-four years ago, it shows (from left) my great-grandfather, my father, and my grandfather, three men with the same name.
What's striking to me is not how much my father looks like I did when I was little, but how much my grandfather—twenty-nine at the time, if my math is right—looks like I do now. Except older. I think only my family would see the resemblance, the shape of the head and nose, the way his eyes are set, the ever-present ears, but to me it leaps out like I'm looking at a mirror.
Everything has changed about the setting of the picture, too. None of the structures pictured still exist, the gravel drive is paved, part of the yard overgrown, trees fallen and replaced. But I recognized that, too, immediately, as if the very contours of the island (yes, it's on an island) are printed in my DNA.
The thing that's startling about recognizing my own face in my grandfather's is how far apart we are. At twenty-nine, he had two children, lived almost half his life, and was set in the path that took him to becoming the man I knew. The details of the world we live in have changed remarkably—I don't think I could explain to him what I do in a way that he would understand—but we're so close to being the same person. It's as though I'm living his life with different decisions, to see how it might have been different. I wonder how I'm doing, in that perspective. I wonder if I'll ever know.
Looking at it more, another striking thing about the image is how much my father looked like his granddaughters. Or vice versa.
March 8, 2004
Odd thing to blank on
Before the Powerbook, I used to have an iBook. I sold it to my mother when I bought the Powerbook. When I gave it to her, I told her it just had a normal CD-ROM drive - no DVD-ROM, no burning, nothing special. I have a Firewire CD-RW, so I didn't feel any need for that stuff when I bought it. Why pay extra?
So, it turns out the iBook has a DVD player after all. I looked under the keyboard (don't ask why, I felt compelled to take it apart) while home last weekend, and saw "DVD" near the inventory tag. She then proved this hypothesis using one of my nieces' DVDs. I must have known that, and simply forgotten. Weird, weird thing to forget, though.
I should warn you that I have a tendency to repeat myself. I discovered this when my running partners could finish my stories for me. It's not that I have a shortage of stories; it's that I keep refining my favorites, highlighting different parts in different contexts, and so on. Practicing, I suppose. The funny part is, practicing never made me enjoy anything more; in fact, with a certain amount of practice, I get bored and prefer to skip the performance. (This is why I never got very far beyond playing an instrument and into being a musician; I couldn't easily go beyond the mechanics of manipulating the instrument and into expression.)
So, if something comes up more than once... well, you've been warned. It may take a few pick-it-up-and-turn-it-over cycles to get it out of my system.
Not a guinea pig
ETS, the wonderful people who do the GRE (don't worry, I wrote that sentence looking for the absurdity) emailed me (and, undoubtedly, a few thousand others who took the GRE in the past year) asking if I would test new questions for them, and get paid for it. (As opposed to the usual GRE CAT, where we pay them to test questions on us.)
Apparently such testing can't be done with a Mac, though. Too bad. Not that I have the time for such frivolity, but I will miss taking their money.
I was reading Kasia's hall of comment-spam shame and was further amused to find her story about "nerd attention deficit disorder." My high school history teacher, who was a Jeopardy! champion at some point, explained this differently. "I have a mind like flypaper," he said. "Everything useless sticks."
(This particular teacher was a startlingly fortunate guy, being also a lottery winner. Last I heard, he had been forced out of the school because he refused, on principle, to be fingerprinted under some new state law for teachers.)
March 7, 2004
My brother is a freak. No, no, he's just a whacko, since his daughters appear not to have inherited any freakish traits (aside from the normal toddler stuff.)
I was home over the weekend and he gave me a two page "Taper 101" article, covering the last three weeks leading up to New Englands. First of all, taper? I just got started building my base up. It includes things like "broken swims" (aren't all my swims broken?) and fin swims, which, since I haven't been out with fins yet, seem like they would probably mess me up pretty badly. ("Broken swims," it turns out, are races split into atoms, with rest inserted in the joints. So a 100 might be 4×25y with 5 seconds of rest between each one.)
Point seven is, "Get lots of sleep." By the time I reached point seven I was so numb I forgot to laugh out loud.
I will have to read this again, later, when I am trying to figure out what to do for a workout. And another time before I write up his training plan for the marathon he has proposed for the fall.
The cat comes and sits on my keyboard. Unable to continue working, I opt to depart for the kitchen to make supper. The cat moves to the nice office chair I have pre-warmed. Clearly I have witnessed the thinking of a master.
March 5, 2004
More pool time
I sent my entry today for the NEM SCY championship. New England Masters has been pretty slow about getting my membership card to me, which my brother reports is due to a new registrar, so I had to mark that space "pending" and send it in with the incomplete fee, which is cheaper than the late-entry fee. For the record, I have self-seeded at 7:30 for the 500, 1:18 for the 100 (both relatively conservative, I think) and 1:20 for the 100 breaststroke. (More ambitious. I need more work there; my form falls apart as I get tired.)
I was feeling good about my fitness until Wednesday. Usually I'm the fastest swimmer in the pool during lap swim (discounting obvious team members making up missed workouts), but on Wednesday there were two girls in there who were really making me look bad. One of them could kick nearly as fast as I could swim, which just ain't right. On the other hand, they're not old enough for masters swimming, so maybe I'm just getting slower as I get old.
Aside from the fact that I have traded achy knees for achy shoulders (and I should note that running does not lead to bad knees; running like I do leads to bad knees) I have found out an interesting swimmer secret. They claim that they shave their heads for speed and/or psychological reasons before a big meet. I have decided that they really shave because their hair has taken on the approximate texture and luster of cotton candy. They shave so they can start fresh at the end of the season. I am planning a very short haircut for the end of the month.
Three weeks to go.
[admin@raven admin]$ uptime 18:06:09 up 169 days, 21:46, 1 user, load average: 0.00, 0.00, 0.00
I don't know why I get a little flash of glee at that uptime number. Maybe it's that, having built the system, it's reassuring to see that it has been running for nearly half a year without a reboot, or any other significant tweaking. It's as though, last August, I hit a little "got it right" target and now my geek score keeps running up.
Or perhaps I should be concerned that our primary webserver has zero load. Hello? Anybody out there? (By the way, no, this domain is not hosted on the company server.)
A few dozen things I thought about writing about here in the last day or so, including the sudden appearance of sap buckets and tube systems in the past week, the high school musical, and the drunk cretin on the street last night who was convinced that I was somebody from his school with the nickname "Jockstrap." (Sorry, bub, anyone looking like you wouldn't have survived long at my school.) How I was worried that this morning's lap-swim earworms would be "Annie" songs, but was saved by the classic rock station the swim coach had on.
But perhaps I should come to terms with the idea that I can't log every idea, can't chase every link? Hm.
Every so often, I wind up spending a significant part of my day fighting fires. This morning, we started with the infected home machine. (And, of course, GriSoft's website isn't responding, so it's taking a long time to download AVG.) Then we had the editor who mistakenly saved a file over another, and wants to figure out how to recover the original one. I could almost see the tears in her eyes while I explained that, no, when you overwrite the file, it's gone, like running your credit card over a big-ass magnet.
Now the mail server is running dog-slow, and everyone's complaining that they can't send email. (I need more detail than, "It won't go," sorry.) OK, here, I'll take the opportunity to install a few patches on the server, and reboot the damn thing.
The upside is, everyone expects me to make this work, because they have this vision of me as The Miracle Worker. The downside is, well, everyone expects me to make this work. &$^#. System's back up, and now I can't get mail or send it.
[Update: It's qpopper, at some level. I think. SMTP appears to be working, but you can't POP or read through IMAP. inetd appears to be working, but neither qpopper nor imapd will come up, so users get "connection refused."]
[Update 2: POP appears to be working. It's just IMAP. And, of course, I'm the only IMAP user in the company. Damn and blast.]
[Update 3: Then they were all working, but really, really slowly. For no apparent reason, because the load on the box was minimal. Now, equally inexplicably, it's all back. Apparently I "fixed it," but since I don't know what was wrong, nor what solved the problem, if it happens again I'm equally as clueless. I blame the spammers. I always blame the spammers.]
March 4, 2004
Clip the hurdle
Let me say, right up front, I like what I do. If I wanted to boil it down, my job is to take various company requests ("We'd like to do X, Y and Z") which have a technical component, figure out how to make it happen, then do it. I should also point out that I enjoy the "figure out how" more than the "do it" part.
So I find it particularly frustrating that I couldn't deliver on the new website design. A few months ago, they dropped a paper mock-up on my desk. I had a lot of other jobs passing through, so I worked on it here and there, but only in the last few days did I finally get a grip on it. And I just couldn't do it.
Now, I know that looks an awful lot like it's done. Assuming, of course, that you've got a screen resolution greater than 800x600px, and you're not using Mac OS 9, nor Netscape 4.x, nor IE of any version on a Mac. See what I'm getting at? There's technology to solve all the problems I faced (8-bit alpha transparency in a graphic? No problem... if you're not using IE. Something else? No problem... if you're not using Safari.) It became a "pick four out of five" situation for any change they wanted. And ultimately, I'm going to have to take most of the code I wrote to make this move, and junk it.
I challenged myself to make it look good on any browser, at (nearly) any resolution. I failed, and I'm frustrated with that.
You know how you always think of the right name at the wrong time?
This line of thinking spurred by sighting the neighbor's cat atop his roof this morning.
Two days in a row, now, I have overheard conversations in Russian on the bus. (Not the same people, either.) Yesterday I also overheard a discussion in an Asian language I couldn't place. (I can often guess at an Asian language based on ideograms, if it's printed, but I can't tell the spoken words apart terribly well.) Perhaps it's a cultural imperative (mine) about not talking to strangers, combined with the fact that foreign-language speakers in New England are more likely to know each other, but I feel like an English conversation on the bus is seldom heard.
This is not (necessarily) the result of a significant immigrant population in the area, either. Most of the conversees got off at UMass.
I probably notice this only because I grew up in such a culturally homogenous town. (I snicker to myself when residents around here talk about how diverse Amherst isn't. And Northampton principally features a fully-diverse spectrum of "European-Americans.") I do think there's something odd about spending five years in Pennsylvania but having to come back to New England to be exposed daily to the languages of the world, but I can't quite put a finger on it.
March 3, 2004
There are around 19,000 files in the Life Instructor's Media Library, spanning six CDs (and one DVD-ROM, for convenience.) Is it any wonder that one or two might go missing?
You mean they're not made from Girl Scouts?
The cookies have arrived.
I am (usually) the best customer for any daughters in the office. Since I bought for three single guys (including myself) at my old job, I was the best customer for the Wischnia twins. Now, I'm just buying for myself, but I stock up, and the Bennett twins (why are they always twins?) come around office to office rather than just have their mother put out the order form, so I like to reward that bravery. (Asking other people for money takes courage, I think, even if you're selling cookies.)
This year, as last year, I need to be careful about balancing calories in with calories out, so I will be repeating last year's stunt. Each box gets a label on the end with a weekly mileage total. Run the miles, open the box. It's that simple.
Our company refers to our "products" (books, mostly) by one of three ways. By the author's last name, like "Rosenzweig." By the title, like "Life." Or by the ISBN (which is how I key them in the database.) Sometimes we use a combination, which is helpful when one author has multiple books, or something like that. The problem is, the computer has to be literal about what is uses for the database key, and people don't. So how do I match a request about "the Avise book" to a menu item reading "0418 - Molecular Markers, Natural History, and Evolution, Second Edition"?
Wetware, of course, that fallible link we weren't supposed to be relying on here. I just remember them.
One problem I find with "so many" people writing weblogs is that I find, after I've posted something, that any number of other people have covered it much better than I did. Through Halley Suitt I found Jonathon Delacour's discussion of relationships and connections in the weblogging community, which includes more links to some good stuff, some of which I've read and some which I haven't. (I recommend the Stavros the Wonderchicken article, if you have time to read it, especially the part about writing whatever you want, however well you want to, whether or not you think anyone's reading.)
I am too new here to have a community, I think, but it's fun sometimes to look at the few links so far. For instance, somewhere I was found by Nancy McGough, who was responsible for my start(s) with mail filtering in college and again when I got here and became a mail admin through her procmail quick start. She's using a very interesting (from my point of view) software package, but as far as I can tell, Nancy has never been shy about finding potential in interesting new software packages. (Wikis spring to mind.) Anyway, it was a tickle to see that nice reference in my logs.
March 2, 2004
Explaining the mixed zone
I want to hear these words...
Tom, an interesting person I never would have met if he hadn't married one of my best friends from high school, is having troubles with the latest virus outbreak. His sign, "The words, 'But I knew the person who sent it!' carry no weight in this room!" reminds me of one of my own longtime troubleshooting rules.
This came from one of the staff at the computer center where I worked in college. At one of our weekly meetings, he turned up and just said, "If I get an email about a problem with any one of the PCs or printers in the center, I will ignore it unless it contains the sentence, 'I turned it off, and I turned it back on again, and it still doesn't work.'"
They're still the first questions I ask when someone has a problem here: "Did you quit and restart the program? Did you reboot the computer?"
(As long as you're looking at Tom's weblog, read his letter to his daughter.)
The price of time
Every so often I promise myself that I'm going to get out of the freelance writing gig, but it never happens. I keep coming back for a byline hit. What keeps me going, probably in this order: seeing a chunk of text in a widely-read location with my name on it. The ego-boost that comes from being asked to write something by someone who, presumably, has some opinions about quality work. And, last but not insignificant, the checks cover any number of minor budgetary sins.
Oh, yes, the checks. I'm coming to realize a few things about the checks. One, work for websites tends to be more interesting than work for print. Two, work for websites pays in peanuts, work for print pays in whole bags of walnuts. So to speak. If I do two hundred words for a widely-read magazine, it pays ten times as well as six hundred for a relatively-widely-read website—but the magazine has ten times the advertising revenue of the website. And those two hundred words will have barely a spark of life in them, while I can (sometimes) develop and communicate a strong argument with six hundred. We won't even speak of the ridiculous next step up to television, which I have touched once or twice.
Do I ever feel like I'm doing my best work for those who would least appreciate it? Yes, but so what—nobody seems to care much about a standards-compliant website, either, but it gives me some satisfaction.
The problem is that the work is not just going to a track meet and talking with athletes, intelligent observers of the sport, and other reporters. It's also getting home late at night and transcribing the recordings (a mess of stuff with background noise that has me tearing my hair out) during the free time I should be using for better things like sweeping the kitchen, unpacking the last boxes, or relaxing with a book. And when I've finished off one set of recordings, it's time to take off for the next one. I'm not sure when I get to do my laundry. Then I need to track these bits, invoice for them, send proposals to editors for other pieces... if I had to do this to buy groceries, I'd starve, and I'm consistently impressed by people (like one of my former housemates from Pennsylvania) who are not only able to stay afloat writing for several years at a stretch, but to manage it in New York City.
March 1, 2004
Must stop following links...
Found at Flutterby:
Mom: "Should I get one of those Pentiums I see advertised on TV all the time?"
Me: "Do you want me to help you with it if you have a problem?"
Mom: "Well, yes."
Me: "Then get a Mac."
Mom: "Oh. Okay."
Total number of technical support calls fielded by me regarding my mom's computer over the past five years: two or three.
I should point out that my mother was bright enough to get a Mac without my help.
Weblogs vs. reality
Blue Rabbit commented on my earlier "Apolitical (we)blogging" post, and raised a point I think is better not buried in the comments. Simply put, according to this report, people who have contributed to weblogs (and that's including every updated-sometimes and dead LiveJournal as well as the busy, happening "celebrity" webloggers) represent about one in every twenty internet users. And internet users are just about two thirds of the country? So, about one in every thirty Americans has, at some point, posted to a weblog. Ten percent of them (so, roughly one in every three hundred Americans) claim to post more frequently than once a week.
That may be a "community," but it's not a "population" and probably not even a "demographic." The idea that the other two hundred ninety-nine are listening carefully to the one, while not entirely absurd, seems a little bit optimistic to me.
What it reminds me of more than anything is the sort of attitude our area takes towards politics. The two towns I've lived in around here are painfully liberal, not enough that anyone has applied the clichè "People's Republic Of" to them, but enough that "contested election" means the Green Party put in a candidate, and the "W: Let's not elect him in 2004, either" stickers are dense in the parking lots. The general attitude towards the current presidential election is that of course the current administration has done so much damage that of course the righteous rage of the nation will sweep him from office in November. I feel like this is, at best, a head-in-the-sand attitude; after all, pretty much half the nation did vote for the current president in 2004, and just because he's managed to tick off a liberal college town in Massachusetts (as one of my hall residents put it nearly ten years ago, "this commie college in this commie state") doesn't mean he's going to lose enough electoral votes to lose the election.
In other words, just because all your neighbors agree with you, doesn't mean the whole country does.
The reason Halley Suitt is right about political weblogs being less interesting than the regular-people's-lives weblogs (at least, I think she's right) is that regular-people's-lives weblogs are interacting with the so-called "real world" (by which I mean, any community built around something other than the internet.) Political weblogs are arguing with the television and each other, and don't feel real any more. They're only talking to their ideological neighbors, and they think this means everyone sees the world the way they do.
Meanwhile, because I'm multitasking as usual, I need to figure out why Photoshop won't see this EPS the way I do. Do I need to open it in &$%# Classic Mode again?
The car is at the body shop all this week, repairing a January accident and furthering my ultimate goal of replacing every major body panel. (Still to go: driver's door, both front fenders, hood and roof. The roof could be tough.)
Which means I am taking the bus to work until the car is back (a week or more, they say.) Fortunately, I got a new issue of ;login: for bus reading. (Not that I lack for books, but a magazine is both more manageable while riding, and more disposable if lost.)
One thing I noticed was the date. Consumer magazines tend to be dated into the future; Runner's World just sent out their April issue. Today, however, on the first day of March, I got the February ;login:. Mmmm, honesty among procrastinators.
Political blogs are simply political. Regular-people-telling-the-truth-about-their-lives blogs are subversive and radical. [I love to read the politico-blogs but learn more about the way the country is going from the day-to-day blogs.]
I don't love to read "politico-blogs" (I don't,) and I disagree that the "day-to-day blogs" really reflect "the way the country is going" (I don't think they've actually reached that kind of critical mass yet; I think they represent the way a certain level of technical elite wishes the country was going.)
However, I agree that they make better reading. (Big grin.)
Learning through puzzles
A weblog I really need to include on the links list is Dan Cederholm's SimpleBits, which I found through A List Apart. Dan is a web designer, and he has been running a series of "SimpleQuiz" features which raise issues of sound HTML design by posing puzzles. The most recent quiz, for instance, asks how one would code a string of text which requires emphasis, bold, and italics. Sounds simple, right? Not so, and the discussion is always interesting for someone like me who is trying to get more comfortable with "standards-based" layout.