April 30, 2004
A sense of when to lock
Outer Life has put up two entries titled “Bubble Boy” which hit two of the things I dislike about living in cities. I’m particularly fond of the second, which describes a sort of bunker mentality which I associate with the “burbclaves” in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. (How can I not like a book which, with a straight face, has a main character named Hiro Protagonist?)
Interesting timing, anyway. I was watching the first part of Good Will Hunting the other night. I like that movie, but haven’t seen it full length for years; I don’t often re-watch movies. I’m waiting for the scene where he explains to The Suit why he’s not going to take the think-tank job. Anyway. Last time, I saw it as a smart kid getting his due. This time, I’m seeing it as a defensive and messed-up person figuring out how to open up and let people help him. Odd.
The reason these two things fit together is something I noticed in watching. Whenever Ben Affleck’s character shows up to pick up Will, Will never seems to lock his door. Is he living at home with his parents, so there’s someone there? Why is the door never locked? This is South Boston, after all.
Out here, it’s touch and go when to lock your doors. I lock my car in the driveway; I had a CD player swiped from my car less than half a mile away while I was in the post office. But a neighbor leaves his bike outdoors, unlocked. At work, I don’t lock up; we’re in the middle of nowhere, just about, and several office windows look out on the parking lot. But I reflexively have the key out when I go to leave in the afternoon.
Maybe it’s just a feeling. Maybe when you’re comfortable somewhere, you automatically skip the locking up step. Clearly it’s so low-level I don’t really think about it most of the time.
Now playing: Next Lover from Seven by James
I drove to work this morning listening to Bob Edwards’ last Morning Edition. I’m a relative newcomer to public radio—I’ve only been waking up to Edwards for six or seven years, since I discovered that WHYY was the only eastern-Pennsylvania radio station with a morning show that wouldn’t make me feel like my brain was rotting from the second the radio came on.
Edwards takes vacations like anyone else, so for a few weeks it will probably just feel like another vacation. Clever of WFCR to run a brief pledge drive just before Edwards left, though. Lately they’ve been running promos featuring Edwards saying, “No, don’t stop pledging to your local station just because NPR has decided I’m too old!” Well, that’s not exactly what he says, of course.
Now playing: Universal Hall from Universal Hall by The Waterboys
April 29, 2004
I just blipped by a synopsis of “13 Going On 30” and was stopped by this phrase: Jennifer Garner’s character has “a new life as a successful magazine editor.”
Define “successful magazine editor,” please.
Now playing: Walls (No. 3) from She’s The One by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
Roll the bulldozers
Tomorrow is the deadline for students at The College to give up 100 parking permits in an attempt to stave off construction of the parking lot in the pine grove. According to email I got today from two of the students active in the effort to avoid this lot, they haven’t even made it to ten, which will leave the decision in the hands of the president.
This is one of those cases when I hate to be proved right:
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.
I don’t know if I’m allowed to be disappointed when I hadn’t really expected much more in the first place. But I am.
Now playing: Not The Same from the album Rockin’ The Suburbs by Ben Folds
A beaker for me, a cup for my HDD
There’s some question about whether or not my morning mug of tea (a habit since a high school) is good for me or not, but it turns out it might be good for my hard drives.
In related news (related by vocabulary, at least,) some of the email lint which made it through the [barriers] this morning promised something along the lines of “sex twenty times a day.” Somehow that seems like more of a curse, doesn’t it? For one thing, when would you sleep? Or go to work? For another, wouldn’t that be like going on a strict diet of (say) ice cream? By the middle of the second day, you’d be screaming with frustration at the sound of an opening freezer door. (I am remembering that part of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe where Edmund, I think, is beginning to get sick of his favorite food, which is all the Witch is feeding him.)
If spammers are going to waste all this ingenuity getting around the barriers put up by people who don’t want their crap, why don’t they at least put a bit of thought into figuring out something we could actually use?
Now playing: No Certainty Attached from the album Hologram of Baal by The Church
April 28, 2004
Truth in advertising
I agree with Sherry that it can be entertaining to watch the search strings people use to find you. But I spotted one today which I just can’t let stand. If you’re coming to me looking for advice on “faster swim turns,” you need to move right along. The other week I nearly gave myself a black eye with my own knee while doing a flip turn; I think I need help as much, if not more, than you do.
Is there any way I can reduce where I come up in Google for some terms? This is why I haven’t mentioned a certain ex-WRSI personality with a show on Air America recently.
Now playing: City Full Of Ghosts from the album Bring ‘Em All In by Mike Scott
Important information for the help desk
If you’re going to make pointed remarks about whether or not I am a “real professional” in your e-mail complaint about our website, please make sure you’ve provided important troubleshooting information like your operating system version in your first email—not your second.
I’m trying very, very hard to ignore what a jerk this guy is being, and respond precisely to the issue as I understand it. It’s very hard for me. I’m sorry I’m being so negative today, but aside from sunlight and a trail I didn’t know existed on this morning’s run, not much else positive has happened today.
Now playing: Brooklyn (band) from the album The Fine Art Of Self Destruction by Jesse Malin
It’s tough following Don Kardong on the same topic, particularly when there’s a pretty good AP article also making the rounds. (Wah, wah, let’s all feel sorry for Parker now.) I try to remember Amby telling me, once, “Good writing is about good thinking,” and he’s right; the success of this column (if there is any) is that I think I managed to write well about relatively half-assed thinking. I guess I could try sarcasm.
Leading me to wonder how much longer this is going to constitute “fun” for me. (I have to do it for fun, because I’m certainly not doing it for the money.)
Now playing: Nowhere from the album Nowhere by Ride
More frustration in the spam wars
Jeremy is encountering the same problem we did a few weeks ago: someone sent him mail (regarding his new book, which I would probably find really cool if I was using MySQL at that level) and his attempt to reply prompted a “prove you’re not a spammer” challenge from TMDA, a challenge-response system not unlike SpamArrest. The summary is that when you initiate the conversation, you shouldn’t then be sending challenge-response messages when they reply. (Do you ever wonder why people aren’t responding to your email?) I’ll just reiterate that I don’t think this is the way to win the spam battle. The comments to Jeremy’s post are quite interesting, actually, because he has enough readers to have comments on both sides of the issue.
I seem to post about spam a lot, but it has been a significant problem for me in this job. Our poor little gateway mail server gets hammered with spam daily. We reject between 6,000 and 8,000 connections daily based on a few DNS block lists, which means we simply refuse to “talk” to these addresses no matter what they’re sending. There’s only thirty of us in this office, so we’re averaging over two hundred rejections per person, per day. Then SpamAssassin kicks in; I don’t know how many it tags for the whole office, but it’s more than one per hour for me. Then three or four more per day make it down to get filtered by Apple Mail (or many of our Windows users use POPFile.)
That’s got to be more than half our incoming mail. It’s probably past sixty percent, maybe more like seventy. That’s disgusting.
Now we’re hearing more about a variety of spam being classified as “SEO Spam,” or Search Engine Optimization spam. It’s not driven to create a sale right away, like the UCE in your mailbox; rather, it is taking advantage of the community-driven parts of the Web to create more links to a site in hopes of gaming the search engines. It includes comment spam on weblogs, like the stuff that drove me to install MT-Blacklist, and now Wiki Spam. Unlike UCE, which is driven by the idea that if we send email to enough people, eventually we’ll find someone who wants what we’re peddling, SEO spam is driven by the idea that everybody is searching for what we’re selling, and therefore we must put billboards everywhere. Growing up in a state which outlawed billboards in my lifetime for an analogous reason: Eeeyugh.
(Cute new ecto trick below. Not sure if I’ll keep it, particularly since I usually wind up writing across several songs.)
Now playing: Blues For Your Baby from the album Too Close To Heaven • The Unreleased Fisherman’s Blues Sessions by The Waterboys
April 27, 2004
Possession is nine tenths of the claw
Despite what I would consider significant evidence to the contrary, Izzy seems to have decided that I am “the fun one.” When I am around, no matter what part of his daily snooze cycle he might be in, it is time to play in his mind.
Sometimes he is satisfied (briefly) by a game I name “paddles.” (I’m not sure what he calls it.) He rolls on his back, and I attempt to pat him five, fingers to paw-pad. He attempts to catch my hand. If I succeed, I get to pat his little white paws. If he succeeds, he gets to chew on my hand. Motivation on both teams is high. I enjoy teasing him so he has to roll from side to side like a soccer goalie doing core-strength exercises.
When I have something else I’d rather be doing, though, I bring out the Door Birdie. This is a fairly ordinary fake bird, as cat toys go, but it attaches by elastic string to the top of a door frame, and hangs about a foot above his head. Iz will wear himself right out trying to subdue it. He gets so wrapped up in capturing the bouncing bird that he sometimes gets wrapped up in the string, which is why it can only come out when there’s a roommate nearby to disentangle him if needed.
Of all the cats in the world, I’m not sure how I wound up living with the high-maintenance one.
I have rediscovered that I can get more mileage from my raw fingers if I select exclusively music which asks the player to “capo up” (that is, put a sort of clamp on the neck of the guitar which holds down all the strings behind a particular fret. This comes in handy for changing key quickly; it also reduces how much force is needed to fret the strings, since the capoed strings are closer to the neck than they would be if they were just held up at the nut. I think they do this often for young kids learning guitar, but since I never took lessons, I’m not sure.)
Fortunately for me, I also discovered www.altcountrytab.com, which showed me that Jesse Malin’s “Riding on the Subway” can be played with a capo. I expect to make myself thoroughly sick of that song by the end of the week.
Side note: I’m playing around with a desktop weblog interface called Ecto.
An argument for empiricism
My aunt, who has become a heavy user of “email this page to a friend” functions in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal since she discovered the internet (one cousin refers to it good-naturedly as “aunt spam,”) today sent an article from the NYT about the disagreement among various exercise physiologists regarding stretching.
I scoffed at it initially. How could anyone say there’s no value to stretching? If I don’t stretch, I can’t run, period; for me, it’s that simple. My iliotibial band will tighten up to the point that flexing at the knees is painful. I also disliked the suggestion, in the title to the article, that there’s no value to warm-up; when I’m in shape, I don’t feel comfortable attempting anything like peak effort (racing or speedwork) until I’ve been going at least two or three miles, preferably three.
My aunt’s comment echoed my own frustration: “Take your choice of expert.” It’s one of the things that’s most frustrating about science in general, and athletic performance science in particular (in the general way I understand it): there are so many topics where nobody can agree on The Right Way to Do It. The rest of us settle in as “Experiments of One” (a George Sheehan phrase,) either as literature reviewers (scouring the running magazines and a few available technical newsletters,) or empiricists like myself.
Back to the second paragraph. I know what works for me. I know I need to stretch, I know I need to warm up, I know that I respond well to relatively high training volumes (70 miles per week, and up,) at most race distances. I also know those aren’t absolutes. Different people respond differently, which is why someone can be the “World’s Best Coach” for one athlete, but give nothing but frustration for another. The number of purely mechanical variables is huge, just to start with: leg length, length ratios of thigh bone to ankle bone, muscle volume, total mass, slight variations in the strength of fascia muscle, ligaments, tendons, bone. Nearly intangible variations like the rate at which the heart pumps blood (I have joked that one of my goals is to so strengthen my heart that my resting heart rate, generally in the low 40s, approaches one single liquid thump per minute,) efficiency of the lungs at transferring oxygen from the air to the blood.
Even that incomplete list is a pretty complex polynomial, almost encryption strength. Sure, we’re insatiably curious about this stuff, but I wonder if we don’t spend too much time trying to find magazine answers that work for everyone, and not enough trying to figure out why something works for some people and why it doesn’t work for others. Then, instead of looking for the magic fitness program, we could figure out how to decrypt our own individual training keys.
By the way: yes, I had to look up “empiricism” to make sure I was using it correctly. I was entertained to see that one of the definitions has synonyms including “quackery.” I make no promises that I’ve spelled it correctly in all cases.
April 26, 2004
More about bad music
So, I sounded off last week about Blender’s 50 Worst list, to the point that I actually got less articulate than usual. A bit of a scrambled opinion, that. I’ve been thinking about it since then, but I can’t promise that I’ve got clearer opinions to offer.
The thing that really got my goat was not so much that they listed things as “bad” that I thought were “good.” Taste differs. I know that and they know that. What bothers me is that they presented it as some sort of absolute—implying, “This stuff is bad, purge it from your record collection.”
For some reason, music is more prone to this sort of taste absolutism than other things I could name (food, for example,) though fortunately less so than clothing. It hooks in to the seductive oversimplification that what you listen to says something significant about who you are. Swallow that postulate (and I have) and you’re vulnerable to all kinds of people telling you what to buy if you want to be cool; you’re also vulnerable to a wounded feeling when people tell you that stuff you may genuinely like is crap. (This figures prominently in High Fidelity, of course:
…It’s no good pretending that any relationship has a future if your record collections disagree violently or if your favorite films wouldn’t even speak to each other if they met at a party.
…but then, one could argue that the central theme of High Fidelity is overcoming the fallacy in question.)
Anyway, on, on. Another point. The night after writing the previous post, A. and I, with her sister, went to see the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players at the Horse. If you’re not familiar with the Trachtenburg Family, it’s a husband and wife, plus their ten-year-old daughter, who buy slides at estate sales (my favorite part: they even have a TLA. “ADSes,” for Anonymous Deceased Strangers) and write songs to go with the slides. The father is actually a pretty decent musician, and the daughter is a very good drummer for a ten-year-old, but drums and piano or drums and guitar is not the best two-piece I can imagine, and their dynamic range is pretty narrow. It was the first time I’ve ever wondered about having earplugs at the Horse.
The slide part is a large part of the appeal (the other part is a cute ten-year-old kid playing drums.) It’s the performance-art aspect which makes them a draw, but eventually it feels a little like a gimmick—like you’re watching strangers play charades, or something like that. I couldn’t help but wonder how it would work with someone whose music I liked.
See where I’m going here? I don’t think the Trachtenburgs were bad—they’re just not my cup of tea. They’re a deliriously funny idea, but now I’ve seen them and I don’t feel any need to see them again.
Another point, recognizing that I have nothing with which to tie these points together other than the title: I did get a guitar out again last night, for the first time in months. My fingers still (mostly) remember where to go; I never practiced much to begin with, so lack of practice doesn’t hurt me much. Of course, my fingertips were stinging too much to continue for more than five or six songs. When I cut down my guitar “collection” (it peaked at five, three electrics and two accoustics,) the accoustic I kept was a big old Martin with a relatively wide neck, which forces me to work harder than I would with the smaller Gibson I returned to my mother. I think this was blind self-sacrifice on my part, since long-term improvement of my guitar playing isn’t really in the cards, and the Gibson was more fun to play.
Anyway, the point isn’t to prove how well or poorly I play; it’s fun for me, and that’s what matters. The point is that sometimes I sing along to myself. (Let’s face it, sitting and strumming isn’t much fun unless you’re playing with someone else, or someone is singing.) I make even less claim for my singing voice; even I can tell that I’m usually off the note. Again, it’s fun. But for some reason I can only do it with the door closed, or nobody in the house, or something. If someone’s in the room, I clam up, massively self-conscious.
Instead, I go watch other people play. And there’s nothing I like more than watching someone who really enjoys what they’re doing on stage, and who believes in their music enough that they don’t give a damn about whether they’re good or not, whether or not, someday, Blender will announce that everything they ever did was just awful. They just play.
Maybe I did have a point after all.
April 25, 2004
This afternoon I made my second attempt at baking these particular cookies. It’s been a few months, actually. Someone at work made a batch and brought them in, which reminded me of how my mother used to make them. I asked her for the recipe, and she pointed out that it’s on the back of the bag of peanut butter chips.
Well, I’ve tried twice now. The cookies are supposed to bake pretty much in the shape they’re dropped, fairly tall, but instead they spread on the pan the way chocolate chip cookies do. The dough tastes right, the cookies actually taste right (except for the whole texture issue,) but they just aren’t quite coming out. And I can’t figure out what it is I’m doing wrong.
At least this time I failed with a single batch, instead of rashly trying to double the recipe. I did manage to break my blender anyway, so it may be a little while before I’m ready for the rematch.
Update: I went to the source. She suggested that I’m somehow shorting the flour. Hmmm.
On being lied to
I just sent off a column to run Wednesday, using the “Got BALCO?” shirt as one of my hooks.
Constrained, however, by a word limit (oh, come on folks, this is the web, for crying out loud) and my own opening (OK, I wrote myself into a bit of a corner) I couldn’t vent the real bitterness I have about this issue.
It’s like this. In 2003, I attended a track meet as a reporter. An athlete who will remain nameless here, but who has been named in the ongoing scandal surrounding the designer steroid THG, ran a world record time at that meet. I reported the meet for the Runner’s World website, and they also ran post-race interviews by me with the athlete and coach.
In the interview, the coach essentially attributed the athlete’s improvement to yoga. He had a good rationale, based on an allergy/asthma breathing issue, which yoga alleviated. Then, less than a year later, the athlete was busted for a positive test for a designer steroid.
So, there’s two possibilities here. One, the coach was honestly unaware of the steroids. Given the nature of his relationship with the athlete, this would probably require the athlete also to be unaware of this (and, in fact, this is apparently what they are contending in a pending lawsuit.) Two, he looked me in the eyes and lied.
Either way, I then caused this lie to be published online under my byline.
I can’t begin to express how frustrating I find this. For the most part, I just try not to think about it.
Look, folks, inject yourself with whatever you want. It’s your body. But don’t put me in a position where I am unknowingly complicit in your deception. If that means not racing, don’t race.
April 24, 2004
Secret alumni cabal
This morning I attended a meeting of the Friends of Athletics for my college. I’ve been a member for three or four years—since I felt like I had enough money to give—but this is the first time I’ve been free on the day of the Annual Meeting.
As a track and cross-country athlete at The College, I always felt like The Alumni represented a sort of looming cloud at the athletic department, pressuring coaches and administrators to take whatever steps were needed for a winning football/baseball/basketball team, and to heck with anyone else. The Dead White Male lobby, to perpetuate a stereotype. I wanted to go to the Friends meeting to see how it really worked.
As expected, yes, all white males. I was the youngest attendee, also not surprising, but there was one member only five years older. On the other side of the scale was “the junior member,” a gentleman who graduated in 1937, if I am not mistaken. In addition to the athletic director, there were nine of us. Once prompted with my name, the AD successfully remembered my sport as well, which I was slightly impressed with; my collegiate career was hardly memorable, perhaps distinguished mostly by the abysmal performance of the teams I led my sophomore and junior years.
One thing put to rest immediately in my mind was the influence of the Friends. With a membership hovering below 900, our annual budget would have a hard time financing a full scholarship, if the College gave such things. As it turns out, the primary use of the Friends budget is financing various assistant coaches on loan from the three or four graduate programs in the area. The College gets energetic, fresh assistants, and the graduate programs (sports management at UMass, sometimes the MBA or exercise physiology programs, and small grad programs at Smith and Springfield College,) get to give their students real-world experience. (One such assistant is now the head track and cross-country coach—actually, one such assistant is now the AD.) Ironically, they seldom work with football, which has its own core of people. The AD emphasized that the Friends’ support was the core of this program—in fact, one of the attendees serves on a few committees at nearby WNEC, and he explained that they lacked the money or support to do anything similar, though they would prefer to.
The Friends used to finance equipment for the Fitness Center which I am fortunate enough to enjoy access to, but it was endowed a few years ago and no longer requires our help.
It developed that the real driving force behind the department’s moves is more likely to be anonymous or semi-anonymous alumni or parent donors with a project in mind. One such project discussed was installing artificial turf and lights on one of the athletic fields; apparently this sort of project can take years due to objections from students, faculty and the community on ecological or quality-of-life grounds. The College already has lights installed on one field and the AD suggested that the turf and lighting upgrade might be easier there, since it would be just an upgrade rather than a new installation of lighting. I was ambivalent about this.
This swung the conversation around to the parking lot. (You thought I’d forgotten!) The AD’s opinion was that the objections to the original plan were silly—“It’s already a parking lot, …their objections don’t make sense,”—but he was lobbying team captains to try to get athletes to give up their parking permits, since one of the alternative plans was to use the “upper tennis courts” as a temporary lot, and he’d rather see no lot than one on the tennis courts.
The graduate from the ’30s treated us to a story about how, in his days, no students were allowed cars on campus, since Amherst was a dry town even after the repeal of Prohibition, and the students tended to drive to Springfield, drink themselves sick on “rotgut hooch,” then get in wrecks on their way home. “So,” he concluded, “if we could restrict the students’ privilege to have cars on campus then, why can’t we do it now?”
All in all, I was pleasantly impressed by the meeting, which was not malevolent in the least. I wonder, though, how long it will be until women begin showing up at the meeting; the College has been coed for a bit less than thirty years now, I think.
April 23, 2004
I shuffled in to the pool this morning (I was the only one, by the way) and interrupted a poor-coffee-service story the lifeguard was telling the swim coach.
While I was stretching, I overheard enough of the conversation to figure out that she had been to Penn Relays with the track team. Distance Night always runs exceptionally late, for some reason, and when the races were over, apparently, they just drove straight back to Amherst. When they arrived (not long after 5:30, apparently) she figured there wasn’t any point to sleeping when she had to be at the pool at 7.
While I was pool-running, I saw her staring at me with that blank, stoned-out gaze you give the only thing moving in the room when you’re struggling desperately to stay awake. Eventually the coach told her to go home and sleep. I didn’t hear all the conversation, but there was some dismissive statement about the odds of me drowning while unsupervised in the pool.
It has come to this
Last night, in downtown Amherst, I saw a college student of the weightlifter variety (I don’t know if he’s actually a weightlifter, but he was obviously younger than me and obviously had significantly more muscle mass.) The thing that struck me about him was his t-shirt, which was white with that distinctive dairy-board type on the front: “Got BALCO?” I nearly bounced my jaw off the floor.
I wasn’t sure if I was relieved when I spotted the back, which read “Giambi does” with a website address I couldn’t read. Here I’d thought the drug scandal that has been the buzz of the track world for months had finally penetrated the thick skulls of the stereotypical frat-boy-level sports spectator, but it turned out this was just another, slightly more subtle variation on the “Yankees Suck” shirt that gives a classic sports rivalry a bad name.
Track has been trying for years—no, decades—to return to the kind of popular visibility it had in the early Cold War years, when USA vs. USSR track meets would pack the Rose Bowl or the L.A. Coliseum for consecutive days, or even the late ’70s when our marathoners would finish first and fourth, then second and fourth, at consecutive Olympics. Well, it looks like we’ve made it. We’re on a Red Sox fan’s t-shirt. Our biggest stars line up right next to the overpaid big shots of baseball and football.
It’s a grand jury hearing they’re lining up for, of course, but let’s not quibble.
TBP, esq. at Unbillable Hours went geocaching. He’s got commenting turned off, so I have to make my comments here.
I’ve played around with geocaching for nearly a year, though I haven’t been out much in 2004. (There was one weekend last year where I hunted up seven caches, which isn’t bad out here in Western Massachusetts but would be small-time in the eastern part of the state.) I’ve even placed two.
The appeal of geocaching is that it takes you somewhere you might not ordinarily go. For me, it pulls me out of the five or six miles between home and work and helps me explore this area by seeking out little boxes. It’s definitely an odd sport; there’s seldom anything in the caches you’d actually want to have, unless you’re the age of my nieces (and a lot of people do this with their kids, so that’s A Good Thing.) But there’s a brief rush of accomplishment when, for example, you’re staring at what appears to be a blank rock wall, and suddenly the one rock out of place practically jumps out at you and turns out to have a tupperware container behind it. I suppose that feeling must be similar to those Magic Eye things I could never see.
But I think it’s reasonable to say that I would never have explored places like the Keystone Arches, for example, without geocaching. And if running isn’t getting me outdoors as much as I’d like, well, caching will fill in the blanks.
April 22, 2004
Markdown is pretty damn cool, all in all, and I’ve written about that before. I’d have a hard time going back to hard-coding all the links, italics and bolds I put in my posts, and having classy “smart quotes” and em-dashes looks nice as well. But on Tuesday I noticed that, since it concentrates on the canonical
<strong> HTML tags, it doesn’t allow for some slightly more gimmicky things, like strikethrough or the like, which require a
<span> and style information.
Wonderfully, since Markdown is GPLed, and written in Perl, I can poke around in the code and figure out how it works. And then I could add strikethrough. The problem is, how do I indicate a strikethrough? At first I thought initial and closing dashes,
-like this- would do the trick, but then I wondered about those compound snowball-of-nouns-as-an-adjective phrases I like to use, which would probably look pretty darn funky. So this needs some thought, and some code reading.
Should be educational.
There were more transient email failures this morning. Like last time, parts of the system worked, other parts didn’t. Restarting the daemons didn’t help. Watching the log file (
tail -f /var/log/maillog produces a nice stream of log messages as they are appended to the log file) showed that there was a lot of stuff going on successfully (it is infuriating to see the amount of time that server spends beating off brazen spammers—it’s like watching someone trying to do patient embroidery in a mosquito swamp.) And yet stuff was timing out. (I blame the spammers. I always blame the spammers.)
A theory from a helpful colleague suggested DNS timeouts. (That is, the service which resolves internet names like mail.flashesofpanic.com into numeric IP addresses was responding so slowly that my mail servers were giving up.) Our service provider does that for us; maybe they’re getting swamped. Maybe I need to be doing that down here? Another service to administer when I don’t quite understand the subtleties of the configuration files (and yes, I’ve got the cricket book.)
One thing that does have to happen is making Raven our backup mail exchange (MX) instead of our ISP’s mail server. The ISP guarding the back door is forced by their situation as a service provider to be more lenient about suspected spam, and a lot of trash is relayed in by that route. If I have responsibility for both primary and secondary MX, I can be equally strict on both of them, and hopefully lighten the load on both.
April 21, 2004
Listing the worst
Someone on a discussion list posted links to Blender’s 50 Worst Artists in Music History and an excerpt of their 50 Worst Songs Ever (incomplete because it’s in the current issue, unlike the Worst Artists.)
I read it with a sort of sick fascination, because although I agree with them on many counts (I can do without Celine Dion, for example,) like probably nearly anyone else who reads it, I actually like a few of the songs/bands mentioned.
I’m not personally disturbed by this, of course. I know the kind of person who works for a Felix Dennis publication like Blender, and I know that they derive a lot of personal pleasure and self-validation from trashing the pleasures of others. (The level of self-loathing in, say, Stuff can be downright alarming if you read it the right way.) They also sell a lot of magazines this way, flip-flopping month by month between “Radiohead: Greatest Innovative Geniuses in Rock History” and “Radiohead: Pretentious Art-Rock Wankers.” (I notice what they’re playing, of course, is oh so cool.)
It’s certainly fair to say that pop music has produced more than its fair share of trash. It’s probably also fair to say that I own copies of some of that trash, or once did. It’s also fair to say that otherwise good artists can produce some lousy stuff (Concrete Blonde just wasn’t the same after “Bloodletting”) and that some awful bands can produce something that resonates in your soul. (No examples here.) People can even be derivative, but sheesh, does everyone with a recording contract have to have the sort of groundbreaking impact of Nirvana?
Now let’s also add in the idea (raised on the same discussion list) that in the last century, recorded music has decimated the old model of music, which was personal performance. People compared themselves to the near-perfection of execution they were hearing in recorded music (“I’m taking checks and facing facts/that some producer with computers/fixes all my shitty tracks,” sings Ben Folds in “Rocking the Suburbs”) and they quit trying. You don’t often see a bunch of folks get together with instruments and just have a good old time pickin’ and singin’ anymore, do you? We hear the perfect music on the radio, and we pick out the ones that speak to our hearts on iTunes, and the guitars (mine, at least) gather some dust.
Well, even if I’m losing the live-vs.-recorded battle, I’m damn well not going to give up my Toad the Wet Sprocket CDs to some black-clad magazine editor in midtown Manhattan because he’s decided all they ever produced were “R.E.M. readymades.” Probably he listened to “All I Want” (their radio hit) and missed “Stories I Tell” or “Jam” or the ones that never made it to singles. Or maybe I should just stick to below-the-radar bands like The Church which get ignored, great or awful, by the Blenders of the world.
Maybe what I need is to make my own list: “1,000 Worst Magazines.” (Having worked in the magazine industry, the list of those I consider worthwhile is significantly shorter. Probably I could number them without taking my socks off.) Somewhere on there will be an entry for Blender: “Conceived on a night of drunken mistakes between Maxim and Spin, and got the worst of both parents.”
There’s an art to crafting the messages sent to users logging in to a shared machine (from a multi-user system to an FTP server.) These are called, variously,
motd (for Message Of The Day) or “banners” and they’re supposed to communicate the basic stuff your users should be reminded of when they log on. An analogous message in the non-computer world would be the FBI warning at the beginning of a videotape, or the “This preview approved for all audiences…” clip at the beginning of a movie preview.
I need a lot more practice in this art, since most of my users don’t open interactive sessions with banner-delivering systems on a regular basis. The heaviest banner-server is the FTP server, and it’s also the trickiest to write for. For one thing, most people don’t use FTP servers very much anymore, so they need a quick refresh on how to use anonymous FTP. (For the record, log in as “anonymous” and provide a valid email address—preferably yours—as the password.) And for the |33# |<!dd33z who are perfectly aware of how to exploit an anonymous file server, there needs to be some notice that yes, I’m paying attention. Without scaring the legitimate readers too much.
On Cuckoo, the message was far too wordy. I may have swung too far in the other direction on Kinglet. The message simply reads:
You have reached the FTP service on kinglet.ourcompany.com. You are being watched. Behave accordingly.
This is how it begins...
Can I ask if you are available for another assignment. I know it is on the other side of the US but will you by any chance go to the Portland IAAF GPII on 5 June?
The realistic, I want to de-stress and have a normal life for a few weeks answer should be, “No, I’m not flying to Oregon.” That’s probably what I’ll answer.
Still, that’s a heavy-duty siren song for me. Why?
It’s like Mission Impossible, I guess. Leave workaday job, get on jet, cross continent for a special mission. Watch impressive athletic performances. Talk to genetic freaks with astounding physical gifts about their upcoming, highly exclusive convention in Greece. Byline in internationally-read publication, albeit on the web and not in print. And visit the other Portland, which is a city I rather like, as cities go (and believe me, I don’t like cities.)
Not enough answer. Maybe I’m just worried that if I say, “No,” too often, they’ll stop asking, and I’m not sure if I want that. I’m such a sucker.
Still, I think the cost/benefit ratio on this one is far too large.
April 20, 2004
Relax, we understand j00...
Now, see, this is a really good way to kill time dead. Maybe not “work-safe,” but at least you can read it in a public place.
I should really do something about this graphic-novel addiction weakness.
Wanted: Wife or Water
My mother’s email was titled, “Only in Maine,” but I can imagine this sign elsewhere, too. She spotted this in East Boothbay over the weekend.
Days like this, I wonder if I will ever catch up with the stuff rambling around my head, my desk, my inbox. Three days ping-ponging across the state and around Back Bay have me a bit behind on things I’d normally be paying attention to. What with paying attention to things that needed it, it took all morning to clear my inbox.
Coolest thing about working for TV: the hardware. Cables and jargon running down the street together, trailers air-conditioned for equipment, not people, gear so specialized I doubt I’ll ever see it again to figure out what it does, let alone how. Entire semi-trailers that are essentially racks for banks of pizza-box computer appliances, and gnomes who understand the entire rack for a living. You’d think television production was relatively simple, point a camera and feed it to the antenna. Maybe cut between several cameras. Then you start adding the graphics. (Can we display the athlete’s names? How about the average monthly income in Kenya, Russia, and the USA, as an excuse for why Americans annually stink at Boston?)
Then it gets even more complex. How about a two-box with the baseball game, since the relief pitcher’s wife is running the marathon? How about maintaining two clocks on the screen, one for each race (the elite women started 29 minutes before the men this year) plus which mile they’re on? There was a guy to my left with an IBM Thinkpad jacked in via serial cable to this shoebox-sized custom box with “Magma” on the nameplate. He was running a badass Visual Basic program that just did “the bug,” the ESPN logo with the race clocks and mileages. What was inside that box, I’ll never know, but there was a lot of wire coming out. I think I’d need a CG class, plus one in linear algebra, to figure out what it was doing in theory, let alone in hardware. One thing it definitely didn’t have was state persistence; when the power went out, he went down with everyone else despite (in theory) having a battery backup.
The baseball game was a serious distraction, due to the player’s wife. At some point the director was sufficiently frustrated with the score updates that he cut one off: “If they want to watch baseball, they can change the f%&#ing channel.”
Boston is probably weird in that it incorporates so many different technical fiefdoms. The ESPN feed is also used by (at least) two local television stations and some international ones (Eurosport, for one) and as a result the whole TV compound is heterogenous. There are half a dozen (or more) companies, each with their own trailers, and a little river of cables runs down the gutter of Exeter Street splicing everyone together. I wonder at the number of actual, full-time-with-benefits ESPN employees there; it seemed like everyone was a free agent, working from job to job, and that the production was a snowball of independent contractors (like Total RF, the only one I can confidently identify—I think Clear Channel and some kind of independent production company are involved as partners with ESPN as well) and sub-contractors (like myself.) Which is fine, I suppose; the part that amazes me is that these little companies can occupy and thrive in such specialized niches.
April 19, 2004
I think I could set the tone of the weekend by explaining how I remembered all my various cables, battery chargers, etc. but neglected to actually put my laptop in my bag. Fortunately, I didn’t actually need it. (The absent-mindedness continued to the point where I actually went for a run this morning wearing a heart-rate monitor chest strap, but didn’t realize until I was a mile in to the run that not only was I not wearing the receiver, but it was in Amherst.)
My job, for the second year, was to sit in the back of the ESPN production trailer and be the conduit for information from the bicycle spotters on the course (the guys in orange vests, if you were watching on TV) to the production crew. This entailed meeting with the spotters and production crew on Saturday (between weddings) then the production people Sunday (to verify that all the hardware was working, I knew how to work the intercom in the production space, etc. etc.)
I turned down an offer to reprise my old role writing Runner’s World’s race updates at the last minute, though my successor there did buy me lunch. (And I still got in at the private party they throw annually, though there has been a lot of turnover in the old office and the folks at the door didn’t know me. Nice party, if loud; I get distracted talking to old friends by counting the various Olympic and World medals in the room.)
Today I turned out just after 7 to “see off” my spotters. They loaded up with the wheelchair athletes for the ride out to Hopkinton; I checked in and confirmed that I was ready to listen (unlike last year, when I’d spent the night dealing with food poisoning and turned up to deliver the message that if they couldn’t hear me, it was because I was out throwing up on Exeter Street.) I delivered two economy-sized bags of Jolly Ranchers and Life Saver Gummies for them. They’re going to be on bikes for three hours; if I want them to keep talking to me, I need to keep their blood sugar up. Went for a run, checked out of the hotel, and headed to the truck.
We had a 10:30 check in with the riders, and it was a train wreck. First, we can’t hear them at all. (We’re on a cell call with the lead rider, who was also the only spotter for the women’s marathon in St. Louis.) Then, we can hear them, but they can’t hear us. Finally, it develops that this technology is at the CB level where, if someone has their talk key down, nobody else can talk. So if someone puts their radio in their carry pocket in such a way that the talk key is down… well, the rest of us aren’t talking until they get off the air.
In this way we limp through the race. I stare wide-eyed at the four moving cameras (one pickup truck and one motorcycle with each race, men and women) watching for mile markers and tapping the guy updating the “bug” which shows what mile they’re on. Nicole, beside me, is plugging times into a spreadsheet and producing mile splits, projected finishes, and stuff like that. And talking with the lead spotter, who is phoning in splits from the women’s race with the most reliable communication device we have, his cell phone. Not too bad; I know for fact that we got three or four good bits to put on the air.
And then there was the time when the entire TV compound lost power for two or three minutes. So, our communication issues were really pretty minor.
Maybe more on this later. It feels a bit disjointed. If I’ve left out bits which are important for understanding the whole, comment and I’ll try to get to it later, because the nice thing about live TV is that when it’s over, I don’t have a story to write!
April 18, 2004
Life is busy around here.
Yesterday I hit two weddings. Friends with whom I’ve done the last two Reach the Beach relays got married in Hopkinton, on the starting line. Very informal, but on the TV news on two networks, apparently, and every area newspaper except the Glob. Then in to the city for meetings with the TV people. Then out to Holyoke for the reception to one of A.’s friends’ wedding. (Couldn’t get back in time for the ceremony, though I tried. Fortunately, as the “and guest,” nobody noticed.)
Today, lunch with my successor at my old job, and an afternoon hanging around in the TV trailer sorting out whether I’ll be able to do the job they hired me for. (More on that Monday night, if I can.)
I’m hoping to zip out now and see if I can talk with my ex-roommate at the Big Bash the former workplace holds.
Lots of people will be melting from Hopkinton to Boston tomorrow. If you live west of the city, have ice out.
April 16, 2004
Kinglet is up, running, and taking orders (so to speak)! I’d invite everyone to come by, but, let’s face it, there’s nothing really interesting there.
Some last minute scrambling involving my right hand (disk partitioning) and my left hand (assigning working directories to the ftpd) not knowing what the other had done, but Linux has a solution for everything, or so it sometimes seems.
This morning, in an email, I compared Kinglet with its predecessor, Cuckoo, like servers in a restaurant:
It won’t go back and forth to the kitchen any faster, but it will write down your order faster, cover a lot more tables, and carry more dishes at any one time.
I’ve spotted this in a few places, most recently There Is No Cat and Airbag. I tried it for entertainment, and the results were, predictably, entertaining. The idea is to open the nearest book (no, don’t go looking—the nearest book,) open to page 23, find the fifth sentence, and post it.
I find it most amusing that the two above both hit the same book, but got different sentences.
Some of these could be legitimate, perhaps web crawlers creating an index; but when the hits are coming from dialup12345.nowhere.aq in faraway Antarctica, it’s more likely that some script kiddie is probing your ports.
From Linux Security Cookbook, Daniel J. Barrett, Richard E. Silverman & Robert G. Byrnes, the introduction to Chapter 2: “Firewalls with iptables and ipchains.” Hey, I’m at work, what did you think the closest book would be? OK, maybe the woodpecker book, or the camel book, or the armadillo book.
To heck with Shakespeare
The weirdest things cross my mind in the pool. For instance, this morning.
We all know the usual equation:
∞ monkeys + ∞ typewriters + ∞ time = complete works of Shakespeare
For various reasons, I went hunting through an archive of files from college last night, and found (among other things) this collection of quotes I saved from the Spring 1995 course I took with Joseph Brodsky at Mt. Holyoke College. I grabbed them because they struck me as odd at the time, but I’ve noticed that the collection is both “odd” in the “unexpected from a professor” way, and “odd” in the “that’s what made him a poet” way.
Anyway. The notes in italic are mine, mostly made at the time I copied them down.
Excerpts from MHC Russian 230, “19th Century Russian Poetry in Translation,” Joseph A. Brodsky.
“Should society be blamed for Pushkin?” I wasn’t aware there was blame to be placed…
“Society would be far better off.” …if we spent all of our time discussing the differences between Pushkin, Baratinsky, Ryazinsky, and Lermontov.
“Does this reflect reality?” Metaphysical contemplation of the clock.
“We are going to beat it to death, but still it will survive.” Plan of action for a poem.
“I’m just trying to sound as native as I can. False pretense…”
“[The 19th century] is such an idiotic notion.” Erasing whole centuries in a single bound.
“… the last moment in which people retained some degree of sanity.” The 19th century, which we just abolished.
“How does he dare to be surrealistic?”
“I believe in bad translations.”
“Poetry, boys and girls…” After all, we are at an all-women’s college.
“We’re fine on time. But we don’t have coffee. And we can’t smoke.” Accepting bits of reality. (This after elaborately suggesting in the previous class that perhaps we wouldn’t mind smoke…)
“Are you bored? I am.” Not what you want to hear from a professor.
“You can’t really do that in English, even for educational purposes.”
“That’s better than I expected, but in an outlandish direction.” Well, I thought it was reasonable… speaks for me, I suppose.
“I’m going to say something funny to you, so prepare to smile.”
“…pretty cheeky. But in poetry it’s OK, because it only takes two lines and doesn’t tax you much.” Talking about explanations of the world.
“What tense did I employ?” Not a rhetorical question. Neither class nor professor knows the answer.
“The law of probability is not suicidal.”
“Some days are born ugly. This is one of them.”
“You don’t know this gesture, do you?… Good. Stay that way.”
“What do you talk about when you’re drunk? Well, at least you, boys.” Women, of course.
“Our evening session has a slightly illegal feeling.”
“What does one pull? …legs?”
“One man’s Mede is another man’s Persian.”
“You were not born yesterday. Practically, but not exactly.”
“Unfortunately, we’re not in paradise, we’re in a classroom.”
“A little schizophrenia is the norm, I think. But that’s a good thing… it keeps you from going nuts.” A discussion about learning additional languages
“Commas do marvels in this world.”
“We are dealing in geology here, which is larger than history. Geology starts where history stops. History is grass.”
“I’m sorry, I’m just out of my mind.”
“By now you are well acquainted with the peculiarities of the Russian grammar.” I’ve been studying Russian for three years, and I’m still not well acquainted with the peculiarities of the grammar.
“We have fifteen minutes, do we? Let’s kill them.”
“I like the malevolence of this poem.”
“If you don’t answer my question, I’m going to go out in the hall and smoke a cigarette. Or perhaps outside.”
“Next time I bring pliers.”
“Don’t do it for my sake; I’m going to be bored with it anyway.” Our term papers appear to be a lost cause.
“‘B’ is for ‘Bearable’” My grade on that paper
“The future is possible. You may not think so, but it is.”
The following three courtesy of Susannah Buzard, who wrote them down for me the day I missed class due to glazed ice on the road.
“That’s beautiful… beautiful.” No, it’s a chair, and it’s just been tripped over.
“I’m going to tell you whatever you like. You don’t understand this, so I won’t ask any questions.”
“We have two minutes left, but I’m sick of this.”
“Today we’re going to resume our silly games.”
“Perhaps in some universe where parallel lines do meet…”
“I’m not responsible for anything. No, I’m responsible for everything.”
“This class needs a drill sergeant, not a professor.”
“Well, if you don’t see it, I will point it out to you.”
“The sum of the courses will be what the parents have paid for.”
“It would be nice to appoint some semi-divine entity supervising the arts.” …because various pagan pantheons have one up on Christianity, I think
“All these ‘-isms’ are ‘-wasms.’”
“Perhaps it is Morse code, and I am the reciever.”
“Eternity is a form of unemployment.”
“They’re God’s most successful models… they get a lube job and return to life. It just takes a thousand years. And what’s a thousand years in Elysium?” Discussion of souls in Elysium
“I’m sorry that I’m not very sequential, but you’re used to that.”
“I’m not exactly in charge of my own mind.”
“I’m not going to finish this sentence, either…”
“Buy farms: that’s what I’m trying to urge upon you.”
“For the next two minutes it will be spooky.”
“You may, now and then, freak out.”
“I need to paint… I mean, do it on the blackboard. I may fail, but let me try.”
“Sunlight and Russian poetry… what makes you think they have anything in common?”
“…and Moscow is a good thing to be.”
“Here we have a religious conversion—through surgury, but nonetheless a conversion.”
“Injected: that’s a gas-station verb.”
“Unwittingly or intentionally—both, let’s say, because it makes no bloody difference.”
“It’s lovely, it’s cute, but no.”
“Don’t fall asleep, Mr. Morse, or I will too.”
April 15, 2004
After a few weeks of cursory glances at (OK, obsessive combing of) the site traffic report, you get used to some standard spiders, like the googlebot. When you’re a low-traffic site like this one, there’s a little anticipatory glee: hey, more traffic from random Google searches for “drive not ready system halted” (try switching the ribbon cable plugs, dude) or “morning africa antelope” (just get the relative speeds right) or “panic girls” (sorry, can’t help you there.)
On the other hand, for the last day or so there’s been Tutorial Crawler 1.4.
Now, the discussion I found on Webmaster World was pretty mixed. The spider follows the robot exclusion protocol. It doesn’t hit your server hard. But, damn if it doesn’t index everything three or four times. For the last few days, it’s been the number one browser type on this site, outstripping both IE/Win (the most common web browser in the world—I’d say “most popular,” but not everyone who has to use it, likes it) and Safari, which is used by this site’s biggest visitor, me.
And there’s nothing even remotely resembling a tutorial on this site, which is what it claims to be indexing. Nor am I seeing return traffic from their search engine.
Friend or parasite? I can’t tell. At least I know if I close the door, they’ll stay out, unlike the spambots.
April 14, 2004
As reported in the Stupid
OK, so I don’t have a terribly high opinion of The College’s newspaper (a weekly). Still, I’m somewhat surprised at the lack of stories about the Parking Lot in the Amherst Student:
The online archive seems to lag a week (or more?) behind the printed editions, so there may be more in this week’s edition.
Update: Nothing at all in the April 14 edition. I guess this isn’t really the “spring controversy.”
A run late at night
I won’t detail the thought process that led to me dredging this up. It’s revised slightly from a post I made on a discussion list shortly after I moved up here from Pennsylvania. It’s about a memorable run, as you’ll see, and in my mind it ties in both my old roommates and when I was running strongly; this was near the beginning of a long stretch of good running which included a near-PR at the half-marathon, a PR at four miles and (barely) the marathon, and six race wins in one calendar year. Any surprises that I remember it fondly?
After we loaded the truck and cleaned the house Monday evening, I settled down for the night in a sleeping bag on the floor of my old room. (The bed was packed, remember.) I planned to get up around 6 AM and run before putting the last bits in the truck, handing in my PO box key, and grabbing breakfast with my now-ex roommate.
Well, about one in the morning I figured I wasn’t getting much sleep. And that I wouldn’t be for a while. I remembered a story Wish (or maybe Amby) tells about one of the Great Ones of American running in the late 60s or so, maybe Gerry Lindgren when he was running 200 mile weeks. Someone asked how he managed the mileage; he replied that sometimes he’d get up in the night to use the bathroom and figure as long as he was up, he might as well get in an hour or so. (Of course, for Lindgren, an easy hour was about ten miles.)
So as long as I was up, I figured I’d get the run in.
I did the Phone. The Phone (named for its shape on a map, where it resembles a phone handset with big earpiece and mouthpiece and very narrow handle) is two big loops on the ridge south of Emmaus, climbing to the top of the ridge on 10th street, returning to town on 5th street, crossing over on Minor to 2nd street and climbing again, this time forking right before cresting the hill, going down into Vera Cruz, and returning to town on 2nd. Three long hill climbs in a ten mile loop, all approaching (or exceeding) a mile in length. It’s truly a masochist’s delight; we used to call each other before lunchtime runs and ask if anyone was ready for a Phone call.
After leaving downtown Emmaus (pretty rapidly—there’s not much of it, and since we were living between 9th and 10th there wasn’t much left before you were headed up the mountain) I was navigating like a prehistoric sailor, running from island to island of, not light, but dim glow. Sometimes there would be a streetlight or someone’s garage light but mostly it was me and the moonlight, me mostly hoping the moonlight would provide enough contrast that I could tell paved road from, say, forest floor.
The first loop was the only visually tough part. I saw a whopping three cars on the road for the entire run, which was somewhere under eighty minutes. In some sections I would have my eyes bugged out looking for the faintly different darkness that represented road in front of me; in other parts I would be sailing along a moonlit road with a pretty good idea what was ahead. I only wavered once; the rest of the time my legs just knew where to take me.
As I came down off the last big hill and headed for home, I passed by a house with a bunch of kids sitting out on the porch, one holding what was probably a beer. As I passed, I heard one saying, “Dude, it’s 2 AM.”
When I got back I set the alarm later, and slept fine. Still only about four-plus hours, but no less than if I’d got up at six to run.
One advantage to running in pitch blackness: you can take a pit stop pretty much anywhere, even in the middle of the road if you’re brave enough. The disadvantage: I stepped to the side and watched a skunk poke through the tall grass in front of me. Hi there, don’t get shocked, I’m just passing through… I saw one of his buddies in the road a few yards later, but he wasn’t moving anymore.
Straight from the bottle
Every spring, a farmer from nearby Leverett taps the maple trees next to the office. You know spring is inevitable when trees for miles around sprout buckets.
Every year, until it arrives, I forget that the “toll” paid for tapping the trees on our property is a pint of the good stuff for each of us. It’s on my desk now.
A run in the morning
It’s unaccountably warm this morning. I went out in shorts, once again marvelling at the almost luminous paleness of my legs after a winter in the pool.
I think the paper nest I spotted in February may not have belonged to wasps at all; this morning I observed that the entry/exit hole seems much too large for just insects.
The Fort River is in early flood stages; I saw at least one place where it had spilled over its banks and was up in someone’s “back forty.” I skipped the Misty Bottom trail (normally one of my favorites) in favor of Mill Lane, somewhat more reliably dry.
My heart rate was higher than normal, in the 150s, but I was probably pushing a bit more than usual, and once I reach a level of effort it’s hard for me to back down from it. Once I stop, it drops like a shot. That’s the swimming fitness, I suppose.
I wish the problem wasn’t in my plantar fascia. I have a relatively long, bouncy miler’s stride, not a marathoner’s shuffle, and that means I deliver a lot of push at the end of my stride, which goes right through the arch. To get faster, I need to be doing bounding drills and hill work, eventually, and that’s really going to stress the PF. I miss being able to count on that pop in each step.
April 13, 2004
Scheherazade has me reminiscing again, this time about private jargon. If this is too much for one day, well, come back and read it later.
Once upon a time, I lived with this guy, which should be enough introduction for now. Every once in a while, we’d do something completely mundane, and he’d get this wild look in his eyes and say, “Boy, we live on the edge.” And I’d look back and say, “If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much space.”
Eventually, we’d gone through this call-and response enough times that I started prefacing my end with, “You know what I say: …” After several more repetitions, that became his cue to follow up with the clichè which started out as my response.
By the time we moved and split a house with a third guy, “You know what I say,” from either of us, encompassed the entire exchange.
Finally, he moved out and in with his girlfriend (now his wife) and those days passed on. The third guy and I developed a minimalist language centered on communicating as much as possible with varying inflections on the word, “Dude.”
To some degree, I miss that.
The update on the parking lot meeting came by email today. As near as I can work it out from the report of one attendee (representing student government, so not exactly disengaged) sentiment at the meeting was pretty conservative: let’s see what we can do with alternate parking, and have a referendum on limiting student parking not in ‘04-‘05, but in ‘05-‘06. (I’m not sure what they saw that solving, other than how to tell their classmates they didn’t want them having cars.)
The president was (rightly, I think) opposed to the responsibility-ducking aspects of the referendum, and dismissed the arguments against a cash incentive for giving up parking permits (roughly, you’re giving more money to the people who already have greater resources in the form of a car) “because it’s for the common good.” (I’m not sure I buy that part.)
So the student government is going after commitments from 100 students not to bring cars next year, using $200 each as an incentive. I’m not thrilled, I guess, for a number of reasons. It reminds me of the worst sort of federal subsidy, temporarily changing behavior but not really creating lasting change (and creating a sense of entitlement in the meantime.) It misses a spectacular “teachable moment” where voluntary individual action saves a common resource. And, more to the point, it merely pushes the problem back for a year or so, while adding to next year’s debate the question, “Will we get the $200 again this year?”
There’s also the problem of who qualifies for the $200. Do you need to have a permit this year or not? (One anonymous poster on the Daily Jolt forum posted along the lines of, “Sweet! $200 for giving up my parking permit? I’m getting a parking permit immediately!”) How about first-years who weren’t eligible for permits this year?
Well, maybe they’ve saved the Bird Sanctuary for now. But I think they’ve missed a chance for positive long-term change. Still, I’ll take the woods however I can get them.
Further adventures in encryption
I may have to take back my earlier comments on the difficulty of setting up public-key encryption in Windows. So far, WinPT is pretty darn cool. Some of the features are a little patchy yet, but I can take an encrypted file and hit Alt-Shift-D and get plaintext. (Well, a passphrase prompt first, and then plaintext.)
I think it’s time to document this and plan for installation; the only places the plaintext is held in memory are (a) the text-entry buffer of the sender’s browser, (b) RAM on the server, and (c) the recipient’s machine, if they save a decrypted version. That presents a much greater challenge for an attacker. (And, to a degree, security is all about reducing risk, not eliminating it; you think of crime as like a flood, and put things out of reach of the ten-year flood or the fifty-year flood, but the hundred-year flood… well, once in a hundred years maybe you can handle getting wet.)
To do lists, software installation, documentation, etc… I suspect if I tell you about all my work projects like this, I’ll lose all four of my readers.
I think I need a “music” category. Not that I’m showing y’all categories right now (and I will, eventually, defend my use of the phrase “y’all” despite being about as Yankee as one can get without being Canadian) but I seem to talk about it a lot.
Some discussion last weekend about the Rock-Off, so I did a quick web search the other day to find that article, which was a kick. I’m a bit amazed that neither Reindeer Records nor the Rock-Off itself has a website, but I think Louis Philippe, the moving force behind the damn thing, has his reasons which may or may not be completely rooted in Luddism. Maybe it has more to do with the shoestring on which he perpetually operates.
Anyway, after establishing that the year in which my band (not an actual link about the band—we appear to have never existed, in Web terms) came in second was not, in fact, the year when the band that won became the band currently known as Rustic Overtones (we lost to Stickfigure, not Aces Wild,) I wondered what happened to everyone. I saw two of the guys at the high school reunion a few years ago, but our frontman I hadn’t heard from. My brother claimed he’s DJing retro nights in Portland, which would fit, (considering that his greatest legacy to me is an enduring appreciation for Brit-pop.) Then a Google search turned up his new band.
My initial impulse is to get snarky reading some of the stuff, even looking at the pictures. (Want to guess which guy I played with? I’d say, pick the goofiest looking one, but they all look a bit goofy, don’t they?) The thing that’s funny is, if I didn’t know him, I’d be more likely to look at the site and say, hey, pretty cool. But I remember him (and myself, and us) when we were right at the height of adolescent self-importance, and we looked pretty damn goofy then. I keep thinking, “He hasn’t changed at all.”
Well, is that so bad? I downloaded a bunch of songs (about five from his “old” solo stuff, three more from the new band) and they’re not actively bad or anything like that. They’re not the second coming of the Replacements, either. Nothing wrong with that. If I didn’t know Shawn back in the day, I’m not sure I’d drop $15 on his CDs at a show, but I might go (with earplugs—see yesterday’s “residual tinnitus” note) and have a good time. And hey, the guy has played CBGB, for Pete’s sake. I believe that’s more than Rosemary Caine (who had a song about the Bird Sanctuary, by the way) could claim.
We’ve gone down different paths, that’s for certain. I left the late nights, loud venues, inexplicable fans, and clothes that smelled permanently of cigarette smoke, which weren’t much to my taste to begin with. I suppose Shawn had a clearer vision of where he wanted to be than I did, which is not a surprise; he probably still does. He doesn’t want what I have, and I don’t want what he has.
Well, maybe I still want to play guitar more than I do now. Odd, that what I’d miss the most would be those callous-armored fingertips.
April 12, 2004
Sometimes, the stuff keeping your latest project from working has nothing to do with misunderstanding the technology; sometimes you just reversed a few characters in an environment variable, leading to a bad path, leading to an encryption key not being available, leading the whole thing to fail.
With that path corrected, it works. I can put a message in a quick form on our secure server, and it will be encrypted by the user’s browser, decrypted by the server, re-encrypted by the server using my (work) GPG key, and emailed to me. I can then decrypt here. It’s not fully secure, of course, since the steps taken on the server involve writing the plaintext to disk, then unlinking that plaintext file, so a determined cracker could still recover the data from the disk, given enough time. That should be fixable if I can figure out how to keep the plaintext only in RAM, and direct it to
gpg as a stream. GnuPG is also warning that the memory used is insecure, and I suspect that the memory used to encrypt the message (both the registers where PHP stores the plaintext variables when they’re initialized, and possibly the ones
gpg uses) could be read when it’s deallocated, but that would require a live tap into our system; one crack wouldn’t reveal ATM-drive levels of sensitive data.
Still, I suppose those are the parts to work on next. That, and working out a fairly simple method of decrypting such messages on a Windows box.
Update: Yes, I can pipe the message directly from a variable into
gpg as a stream and avoid writing anything to disk. There’s just that “insecure memory” issue, and Windows decryption.
Back to the Horse
So I missed the parking lot meeting (no updates, by the way, though they used a lot of my emailed input in the “overview” document which was mailed around) in favor of a show at the Iron Horse. I found myself thinking that Tom would really like having a venue like this nearby, then read this morning that he was thinking the same thing, more or less.
The show was Sarah Harmer, with Rich Price opening. I’d never heard of either before, so it was all very adventurous. Price wasn’t a disappointment. He’s got a voice like David Gray, but it’s as though Gray decided to perform nothing but Kathleen Edwards songs. He wasn’t much for stage banter, flying directly from song to song, some by himself, some with a three-piece backup band. (The guitarist looked too young to get served at the bar; the drummer was playing with a seriously reduced kit, just kick, snare and hi-hat. He played mostly with brushes and once reached behind himself to smack the crash on Harmer’s drummer’s kit, which amused me. Making the best of what’s within reach.) Price announced that they’re doing a benefit tonight at Northampton High School to benefit Leeds Elementary, with a full set (“We’re going to rock the house for the kids,” he explained) so in the unlikely event that (a) you read this, (b) you’re in easy driving range of NHS, and (c) you missed the show last night, you might want to head out tonight.
Sarah Harmer did succeed in topping Price (it sucks when your opening act steals the show) although her band managed to have worse haircuts. It was interesting that I was thinking “Kathleen Edwards” because Harmer, also Canadian, has a lot of common starting points. Just remove most of the whiskey and a lot of the bitterness. She’s at once so unselfconscious and almost intimate on stage that I had trouble looking right at her for a while—like it wouldn’t be polite. (I haven’t quite figured that one out yet, so if it doesn’t make sense to you, don’t worry.) They had some problems with the mix, like maybe the bass was up too loud, or someone wasn’t damping their strings, and like many, Harmer isn’t a uniformly great songwriter, but (now that I’m listening to her CD “All of Our Names,”) I can see that a lot of her stuff is flat when recorded, but comes alive on stage. (And, in some cases, vice versa.)
I really like having a place like the Horse nearby. Between that and the Calvin, there’s a venue for nearly all my favorite acts (those still performing, that is) and there’s always four or five shows a year worth going to. Also, the Horse is small enough that most of the time you’re safe in assuming you won’t need to bring earplugs to the show, and you won’t leave with the residual tinnitus I know so well from high school.
On the back of a recent, “classic” greeting card, I find the following (which can be loud, so check your speakers): www.eatmousies.com.
Oddly enough, that’s not the tune I had imagined for that particular song. And I do wish they hadn’t chosen to do the whole thing in Flash. It doesn’t seem to go, somehow, with someone known for two-color illustrations and simple line drawings.
April 9, 2004
Encrypting the server
For various reasons, I’m trying to get our web server (the secure part of it, that is) to accept form input, encrypt it with GPG, and email the result to my address here. It’s a proof-of-concept hack which will be expanded to other areas of the site once I make it click. So far, I have plowed through this tutorial, which got me pretty close but still chokes in the PGP execution, and just found this one which should get me closer (better source) but hasn’t done the trick yet.
When I first set up my email to send and receive encrypted and cryptographically-signed email, it was a bit arcane, but not too headache-inducing, thanks to the excellent work of the MacGPG group and Stéphane Courthésy, who made GPGMail. They Mac-ified the installation process as much as possible, and included a step-by-step walk-through to get me up and running. It was pretty easy, and I wondered why more people didn’t do it.
Doing it on Raven, so far, has not been brutal, but it also hasn’t been a breeze. I got GPG installed and running with minimal difficulty, but using it has been another story. Actually encrypting a file from PHP has been impossible, so far. And, once I get this proof-of-concept working, I still need to install something on a WinXP system which will let a co-worker (who is less tolerant of arcane technology than I) easily decrypt files, preferably within our common e-mail client, and that has been downright improbable so far.
I wondered, when I started out, why more people don’t use encryption. The answer is, first, because most people don’t understand it. (Raise your hand if you understand when a public key is used and when private key is used. Uh huh, I thought so. And that’s just the first step; there’s also the difference between signing and encrypting, signing before or after encrypting (or both), key generation algorithms (which black box do you use, some encrypt, some only sign) etc. etc.)
The second problem is that getting past the concepts involves some really wirehead-level software. GnuPG hasn’t really progressed past the command-line stage (even MacGPG, which is pretty damn elegant for GPG, is mainly a GUI wrapper which triggers command-line stuff in the Terminal app.) For really widespread use of encryption, you need seamless integration with mail, and that would require each mail developer (or someone associated with the project) to develop a plug-in (like GPGMail, which strikes me as a model of how it should work,) or build the code directly in to the package (*ahem*, Microsoft.)
Until then, encryption is probably going to stay in the domain of geeks like me. And I think that’s a bad thing. For one thing, GPG-signed messages save a lot of headaches when it comes to email-borne malware like the recent “your email has been suspended” worms. My users know that a legitimate message from me has my GPG signature, even though few, if any, can verify that signature. No worm has yet even tried to forge a GPG signature, nor can a spammer spoof my address with credibility.
And then there’s encryption. I know, “What do I have to hide?” Not much, except for the time I needed my nieces’ SSNs when I was setting up beneficiary information on a bank account. Still, don’t you want to drive John Ashcroft crazy? All that email out there he can’t read! The James Bond factor alone is almost worth the trouble, don’t you think?
OK, maybe not. But you’re not me.
Parking lot rhubarb
So, there’s supposed to be a 9:00 PM meeting on Sunday (the 11th) about this parking lot.
Of course, none of the emails which tell me that, include the vital “where” information. If you’re in the area, and looking for the meeting, I suggest standing in front of the Campus Center and hollering.
For various reasons, I have schedule conflicts. They’re inevitable, nowadays: I have trouble going to things I’m interested in due to prior commitments to things I probably ought to be doing.
Update: The meeting will be in Merrill 3. I can’t remember if 3 is the biggest one or the smallest one.
I’m still pondering ways to deal with the malware-spewing web servers I discussed earlier. One tech list I’m on suggested a great solution which exploits what I think is one of the coolest things on the internet: routing tables.
See, every host on the internet maintains a list of network routes to other hosts. Not a complete list—that is, my Mac doesn’t have a route to every website I visit—just the first step. So, my Mac knows that for every host on the internet, the first step is our gateway router. Our gateway router knows routes for our local network and, for all others, it knows to go up to our service provider. Our service provider’s routers know their network and several backbone routes (how they decide which to use is higher magic than I know.) It’s very comparable to driving: imagine routers as intersections, and routing tables as green signs saying, this way for Sunderland and Deerfield, that way for Northampton, the other for South Hadley.
Now, imagine that I specify a route for a specific site. You can do that, manually adding a specific route to the table if you don’t want certain traffic to go through a given place (say, you don’t want encrypted backups to pass through a dodgy network, or you don’t want to drive through the construction on Route 9 to Northampton.) But you can also exclude routes, or route traffic to a particular host somewhere else. So, say, you specify that any request for a known malware source should be directed to 127.0.0.1 (binary 01111111.00000000.00000000.000000001, which universally means “this host right here, the one I’m at,” a.k.a. “localhost,” hence the t-shirts at thinkgeek.com that say, “There’s no place like 127.0.0.1.”)
What you’ve done is say, “If you’re planning on heading there, you can’t even leave the driveway.” You’ve actually enforced the joke, “You can’t get there from here.” It’s where the driving metaphor breaks down; it’s as though you were able to actually erase all the roads going somewhere.
It’s a hack, of course. Who ever would have thought you would want to specify that you were absolutely not to reach a particular host on the internet? Instead, we have this shockingly elegant strategy using the network tools that already exist. I love it so much I need to share. So sue me.
April 8, 2004
Voice in context
I was looking at Bill McKibben’s Long Distance today and noticed a curious phrase in the description:
At the age of 37, bestselling author and journalist Bill McKibben stepped out of the ordinary routine of his life to spend a year in “real training” as a cross-country skier. With the help of a trainer-slash-guru, McKibben took on a regimen equivalent to that of an Olympic endurance athlete’s, running and skiing for hours every day in preparation for a series of grueling long-distance ski races.
Notice what I did? Yeah, that phrase “trainer-slash-guru” really sticks when it’s in print, doesn’t it. Why spell out the slash when it’s there, typographically, to be used? There’s a time when you can get away with that, and that’s when you’re representing people’s spoken words in print (which is not the case here.)
I wonder what happened there? Overzealous dictation from a writer who works best speaking out loud? Quirky style from an equally quirky editor? Either way, it jolted me out of the stream.
Still, the same thing happens daily when people try to represent the text strings of computer jargon in speech. Ever dictated an URL over the phone (or on the radio? How long before the NPR announcers figured out that they had to spell out “cref” in “tiaa-cref.org”?) “Aitch-tea-tea-pea colon slash slash…”
So, poetry entry for the day, thanks to Calvin College (College, not Coolidge…)
Waka waka bang splat tick tick hash,
Caret at back-tick dollar dollar dash,
Bang splat tick dollar under-score,
Percent splat waka waka number four,
Ampersand right-paren dot dot slash,
Vertical-bar curly-bracket tilde tilde CRASH.
This morning, the first finder came by, and logged the cache around lunchtime today.
What I want to know is, what took them so long?
April 7, 2004
Weird name of the day
Is it Microsoft’s answer to XGrid?
A breakfast cereal, as our VP suggested?
A sci-fi space station serial?
Nastier and nastier
Another interesting worm came in (I’d say “over the transom” but perhaps “through the scuppers” might be a better term?) just now.
It’s the usual “your email account has been suspended” message (uh huh, you’re suspending my email?) with a twist: no attachment. Just a link.
I didn’t follow the link, not even with my Mac—I ran “dig” on the IP address to get the relevant domain name, (which is www.espacol.com, by the way: Do Not Touch!) Then I opened a “telnet” session to the web daemon for that domain, and hand-keyed the HTTP request. The page served sniffs your browser and version, and serves a CGI script if you’re using particular versions of Microsoft Internet Explorer. I’m not willing to spoof IE and deliberately download the CGI, but I’m betting twenty bucks to a paper cup of lukewarm tea that it’s nastiness coded to exploit one of the many vulnerabilities for that browser.
So: I can’t block them at the mail server, because there’s no attachment to get a grip on. I’m currently sussing out firewall rules to prevent my users from even connecting to that web server, but how many malware-spewing hosts can I manually firewall? I have to hope they heard my explanation last time (“Nobody’s suspending your email unless it has my PGP signature on it!”) for the time being… and strongly advocate that my Windows users dump IE and move to Mozilla.
Still psyched about challenge-response spam "prevention"?
How about the New Scientist article detailing how to kill a mail server, triggering a DDOS by sending an email forged to appear to come from that server. Now, look at how much spam has spoofed return addresses and consider that “DDOS” means “Distributed Denial Of Service.”
This has been a public service announcement courtesy of the One Question Certification Test for E-Mail Filter Authors.
(Thanks to Nancy M. for the first link.)
The p(arking )lot thickens
The problem with being on this email distribution list discussing the proposed parking lot in a pine grove is that all the discussion takes place on student hours. In other words, long after I’m asleep.
The latest development, apparently to be reported in today’s Student, is that President Marx has “put aside $20,000 to be used as a sort of incentive for people with cars to forgo their parking permits.”
Since the latest guess is about 100 students voluntarily giving up their parking permits, that works out to roughly $200 each. More to the point, it changes the transaction from, “Give up your car to save this beautiful pine grove from sodium-vapor lights, pavement and exhaust fumes,” to “Give up your car for $200.” Something about that feels too much like the $300 “tax refund checks” from the eternal revenue service which arrived in late 2001—it feels like one’s opinions are being bought. (I considered my grandfather, and gave that particular check to the Red Cross, who, sadly, turned out to need it much more than I did.)
My concern is that a $20k incentive encourages a quick and transient fix. It doesn’t encourage long-term behavior modification to remove the root of the problem. The correlation to a current high-profile issue in international relations will be left as an exercise for the more politically-inclined reader.
The discussion is getting heated. One writer pointed out that the idea of direct incentive rewarded those who were already financially advantaged, i.e. they had cars. Clearly not someone who saw my student car, already ten years old when it arrived on campus with doors that didn’t match the body (I got them for $200 at a junkyard in Chelsea, Maine.) Or the twenty or so of my classmates who pooled $100 each to buy a beater which they shared between them.
The convenience of having a car on campus has a cash value, so giving up that convenience is a cash loss. Therefore the $200 (or whatever) is not a cash reward, but merely compensation for a tangible loss. Not very unfair.
I don’t buy that one either, because the “value” of having a car on campus is paid for directly in gas and maintenance (the reason I graduated with credit card debt,) and indirectly in noise, pollution, and the need for parking lots like the one that sparked this discussion in the first place. To me, it seems that the whole point is that that price is too high. And we should refuse to pay it.
Update: A point I wish I’d made: one bright lad brought up Zipcar.
April 6, 2004
William Taubman won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography for his book Khrushchev: The Man and His Era.
I had two classes with “Professor Bill” (so called in my family, to distinguish him from “Professor Jane,” his wife, who was my advisor in my major) a fair spell ago: “Personality and political leadership,” a course on applying psychobiography to political science, which he team taught with a psychology professor, and “Russian and Soviet Politics” which is self-explanatory. The first class almost certainly sprung from his continuing work on this book (which was nearly twenty years in the writing, since new primary sources were continually becoming available) but I really lacked the psychology grounding to get much out of it. (This is the story of my academic life: take the interesting courses first, but miss out because I didn’t have the grounding.) The second was pretty fascinating, and I remember it as being one of the courses I actually looked forward to (as opposed to fearing because I had chosen sleep over getting the reading done.) The rapidly-shifting landscape of Russian politics has rendered most of the “current events” history in the intervening time, but that’s just an excuse to take it again, not that I’ll get the chance.
In a poli-sci department littered with (relatively) well-known names, Taubman was not a “celebrity professor” the way some of his colleagues were. It’s good to see his work recognized like this.
It’s been there nearly a year, long enough that I don’t even see it anymore, just like the “HOWTO Run a Microsoft-free Shop” printout and the email from someone who thought our website was the best she’d seen for reviewing and browsing through textbooks. (She must not get out much.) But lately people keep noticing it and commenting as though it’s new. It’s a bright-orange sticky note, about two inches square, containing only three lines to make two down-cast eyes and a frowning mouth.
It’s the sad-server sticky. I got home from the Boston Marathon to find chkrootkit putting up yellow caution flags, and a quick day’s forensics with e-mail help from another user of the same server model proved that a lot of system binaries weren’t what they were supposed to be.
It was a pretty clumsy kit, and it shouldn’t have been so easy to find. I started out thinking I could zip it up, replace the compromised binaries, and move on. Then I realized that I couldn’t reliably tell which ones were the compromised binaries, because all the tools which tell me about them… could be compromised. I squawked briefly, then yanked the server offline.
This was the start of a sleepless week for me, since the server in question was our internet gateway, our mail server, and our file sharing server, and I needed to at least fake two out of three until the original box was back on line.
The box went to an outside contractor in Connecticut. On its way out, it was sitting briefly on the reception desk; before I picked it back up for its drive to Connecticut, someone attached the “sad server” sticky.
The contractor fixed the problem by putting a new (second) hard disk in the server, five times larger than the original, and installing the operating system from scratch on the new HDD, mounting the old one only to copy old files. He also juiced up the memory and installed a bunch of nice security apps; learning how to use those was how I learned how to secure the web server we put on line four or five months later.
Meanwhile, I ripped apart retired desktop systems in the office to find enough parts to build Frankenserver. A recently retired Pentium II got an additional network card (one for the internet, one for the LAN) and a fresh Linux installation. Then I had to configure it to be our gateway router. Then I had to set up mailboxes and teach it how to accept mail for our domain. Then I had to teach all our users how to get mail from the temporary box… and then do it all over again when the restored server came back on line. I worked through the weekend and late into the evenings, a true rarity considering what a M-F 9-5 office this is. If it hadn’t been for my other, other job and the fact that the internet connection there was stable, I probably wouldn’t have gone home at all for a few days.
I still don’t know how they got in. It’s enough that they’re out now. That’s why I now enforce tough passwords, why I firewall like mad and prefer to keep our FTP server on an entirely separate box (among other steps.) Even though I learned a lot in a hurry, and came out smarter and more confident, I’m in no hurry to deal with another sad-server sticky.
I just did this for a co-worker, but I know I’ll be doing it again (and again) so I’ll just make the public offer. If you’re running Windows and aren’t certain about your security setup, let me know and I’ll burn you a CD. The package I’ve done up today includes:
A hardcopy printout of Cheapskate’s Guide to a Safe PC.
The most-recent installer of AVG Free Edition.
An installer for Spybot Seach & Destroy.
The free version of ZoneAlarm.
And, Mozilla 1.6, because everybody needs a standards-compliant browser.
Of course, with these links, you could just do it yourself, right?
April 5, 2004
I can never remember if we just entered, or left, Daylight Savings Time.
Anyway, I know I’m a bit late to the party, but I only just noticed that my clock was an hour slow. Probably because it’s a binary clock.
It can't be coincidence
Notice a pattern?
And those are just the ones I’ve noticed. I guess, if I should ever rename this weblog in order to be popular, I’ll need to register alesthestuff.com, or some such, just to maintain my own literary theme:
Oh many a peer of England brews
Livelier liquor than the Muse,
And malt does more than Milton can
To justify God’s ways to man.
Ale, man, ale’s the stuff to drink
For fellows whom it hurts to think:
Look into the pewter pot
To see the world as the world’s not.
Something tells me… yep, HurtsToThink.com is already gone.
April 4, 2004
A good thing about interviewing...
There’s a subtle thrill to being the one in a press conference (or mixed zone scrum) who asks the question which draws the answer that everyone quotes the next day.
This weekend, the quote was Colleen De Reuck’s explanation of how her nine-year-old daughter Tasmin views her success: “I’m not famous, because I’m not Britney Spears or Hilary Duff.” Nope, not me.
April 3, 2004
I can carp and moan all I want (and I have) about the parts of interviewing that I don’t like, and for many reasons I’m not really a good interviewer in the way many of my peers and role models in this sub-profession are. But the part that really drives me nuts is not getting the raw material, but the very first step in refining it. Transcribing. Sitting down at the computer screen with a recorder (inevitably mono, so I have only one earpiece in) and distilling a low-quality voice recording into ASCII half-sentences at a time. Sometimes I get good at it. Most of the time it’s tedious, and I hate it.
Sometimes I fool myself into thinking that better equipment (a mic?) will help, but so far, it tends not to. I have found that even though A. and I have essentially the same digital recorder visually, mine (which was half the price) not only has significantly less memory, the quality is lower.
April 2, 2004
Mars and Venus
Another in my probably-continuing series of Columns Which May Never Be Published. Why I’m doing this when I will have a column due on Monday, I’m not sure…
I noticed the contrast between the men’s and women’s Olympic Marathon Trials in 2000, when the women’s was the first Trials I had ever attended, and the men came later. I noticed things missing in Pittsburgh (men) which I had taken for granted in Columbia (women.)
This time, the men came first (Birmingham, in February) and the women are, well, tomorrow. And now that I’m looking, the differences are all over. It’s all about tone. For instance, nobody makes a big deal about how, well, it’s all men at the men’s Trials. But everyone seems to want to mention, hey, wow, lots of women in this race! History is behind this—there are women here who ran the first women’s Trials, which was only in 1984, and they remember what a seismic event it was. The organizers in particular remember when women running marathons were revolutionary. I don’t; I take women running marathons for granted. I knew who Joan Benoit Samuelson was before I knew who Frank Shorter was, and there are plenty of women here younger than me.
Birmingham was different from the usual men’s Trials in that the race director, Valerie McLean, was so possessive and affectionate about “her boys,” a group which included all qualifiers. (She actually drew some—hopefully good-natured—criticism for the amount of PDA most of them got after finishing.) Normally the men’s Trials is a culling process, a place where pecking orders, already pencilled in, are drawn in India ink. You will wear that number for the next four years, and if you’re the 63rd qualifier, you don’t get a lot of press (unless you’re from, say, North Dakota, and you’re the only local qualifier.)
The women’s Trials are all about Getting There. There is very little emphasis on qualifying times; it’s like a small college where nobody talks about SAT scores because “we’re all smart together here.” Nobody mentions that the gap between the first qualifier and the last is a whopping twenty-seven minutes. Oh, and by the way, no American has ever run faster than the top seed. (Maybe this is why the men are so competitive; with only thirteen minutes separating first and last, the tiny differences become crucial.) The women just don’t talk about the fact that after tomorrow, three go to Athens and the other 125 go home. At the men’s Trials, that’s all they talk about. At the women’s Trials, they talk about history and memories and achievement. They don’t talk about selection, elimination, and culling.
One more data point. If this race follows the pattern of other all-women’s races I’ve been to, there will be a rose (or some other flower) for every finisher as they pass through the chutes. Unsurprisingly, they don’t do that at the men’s Trials.
Extension: consider the track Trials, to be held in Sacramento in July, both men and women in one, exhaustive (and exhausting, trust me) ten-day track meet. More like the men’s marathon Trials, or the women’s? The men’s. Sprinters trash-talk. Marathoners group hug. It’s not just a male-female thing. It just seems that way, sometimes.
I’m in St. Louis now, so suddenly a parking lot in a pine grove seems a long way away, but I got myself added to a circulation list of discussion, so I have some email.
There was an article in the Wednesday Daily Hampshire Gazette about the controversy, but since the Gazette is now requiring registration I doubt anyone who doesn’t actually get the hard-copy will bother to read it. Nothing substantially new, except for the biology professor (!) who said a lot in a “border area” wasn’t such a bad idea compared to pushing back “further into the woods.”
The good news is, the student opposition to the lot seems to be well-organized and resourceful; rather than just complaining, they have raised an alternative site for the lot (the unused “upper” tennis courts behind the Merrill Science Center and the temporary modular dorms known as “the mods”) and have created enough momentum in student goverment to start a referendum where the students would agree to limit their own parking rights. Currently first-years aren’t allowed to have cars on campus; this would restrict parking “rights” to juniors and seniors, with a sort of draw system for sophomores to keep the numbers in check. So perhaps I was too cynical about the students being able to make sacrifices to preserve their environment.
If they can pull it off, I think it will be pretty impressive: a community of people making individual sacrifices for an indirect collective good. Possibly a more important lesson than any being taught in the classrooms.
April 1, 2004
Automation breaks down
In the background, my system is grinding away at PDFing a Quark chapter of one of our titles.
For whatever reason, we’re making PDFs of a particular book. Now, ordinarily, we’d have these PDFs hanging around as a by-product of the production process, but this time (again, the reason’s not important) we don’t.
We could get the page-proof PDFs from the printers, but they’re so swamped right now, it would take days.
So I’ve got the CDs that we archived the Quark files on, and I’m grinding away at it, because I’m the one whose list is short enough that this rises to the top.
This is increasingly frustrating work for two reasons.
One, the version of Quark we’re still standardized on stores absolute paths for images. Therefore, in order to PDF one of these, I need to correct the paths for all linked images, from the old path to the production file server to the new path on the CD. This is amazingly tedious in OS 9—each figure is in its own sub-folder in the Art folder, so for each one I need to navigate up a level, down a level, click, when OS X and the Columns view would have me breezing through. You’d think, too, that it could figure out that all the files are still in the same (relative) position, it’s just the root of the document tree that has changed. But no.
Two, since this version of Quark still runs in the Classic shell of the MacOS, I can only do one at a time. I actually have to wait for the progress bars on Chapter One to finish before I can start on Chapter Two.
Can’t I script this somehow?
Fortunately, I only have to play toaster (did I mention that each chapter is on a distinct CD?) for so long before I head out to catch a flight to St. Louis.