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May 31, 2004

Funspot

There’s one thing we don’t have around here: Funspot. We spent a chunk of time there on Sunday night. (You don’t check your watch in Funspot.) According to the website, it’s the “second largest arcade in the country.” I didn’t know that, and I’ve never really been much for video games of any variety (not since the Apple ][+, anyway, but rumor has it there’s a site where you can play Zork by telnet; that might be worth a look.) But you can play skee-ball and air-hockey as long as you’ve got tokens (and, in the case of air hockey, you can handle the line.) They’ve got a healthy collection of pinball machines as well. I don’t have the feet for bowling nowadays (I’m restricted to shoes with arches until the PF goes away) so we passed on that, and the mini golf.

The feeling there is very weird. It’s very much on the bygone mold of “amusements” off the route to natural wonders like Lake Winnipesaukee or the White Mountains (see also Clark’s Trained Bears) and it’s swarmed by adolescent kids and adults who identify with them. I feel a bit the same about Funspot as I do about, say, McDonald’s. Still, it’s hard to stand at the skee-ball ramp, concentrating on rolling straight up the line with just enough force to hit the fifty pocket, and not feel a little bit of what they’re selling. It’s plainer at the air-hockey tables, as long as nobody’s playing for blood. The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat. And, in the case of the younger patrons, (younger than me, anyway,) the chance to cruise for chicks. Or something.

You win tickets at certain score milestones at skee-ball, and I racked up nearly fifty. The prize counter doesn’t really offer much of interest to me, so I opted to take the entire set in penny candy. As the prize counter kid was counting it out, I said, “You must hate people like me.” “No,” he said, “I’ve seen much worse, believe me.”

Now playing: Spinning from I’m on my way (EP) by Rich Price

Posted by pjm at 9:35 PM | Comments (0)

Breezy Sunday

Returning down the dirt road to the Bear’s Den on Sunday’s run, A. and I heard a crack, and something about the landscape in front of us looked shaky all of a sudden. When I realized it was the telephone poles wobbling, I swore and bolted for the opposite side of the road. They stopped shaking in a minute, but looked tense. Just a few steps more, and we could see where a decent-sized pine tree (I’d guess about a thirty-year pine) had uprooted and come down across the lines between us and the cottage. The power lines were holding it up off an SUV which was (at the moment) untouched. Startling, but not fatal.

We skirted around through some yards to get to the right side of the road. Of the five lines on each pole, two had snapped at the pole on the far side of our driveway and were coiled around the foot of the pole just on the near side. They didn’t appear to be live. The phones appeared to be working, but my cousin observed that the power in the cottage was out. We went out and watched the fire and public works people arrive and try to figure out what to do. One of the families more closely affected (next door to the tree) was buzzing around, with one man standing in the road watching the tree as though he could keep it from slipping more, and shooing his older female relatives who persisted in standing directly under the power lines (thought not under the tree.) Then, observing that we wouldn’t be showering or washing dishes for a while (gas water heater; electric pump) we headed downtown.

Downed Tree

My cousin observed that as more of the lots are bought by families who haven’t been here generations (as ours has) they get cleared for larger and more comfortable buildings than our modest cottage. (About two notches up from “shack,” I suppose.) With fewer trees, the root systems (especially in this sandy soil) are weakened, and fewer trees bear more of the wind like we had on Sunday. He expects more blow-downs. “Actually,” he said, “this house has been pretty lucky when it comes to fallen trees.”

Now playing: New Enemy from All of Our Names by Sarah Harmer

Posted by pjm at 9:08 PM | Comments (1)

Fun things at an all-comers track meet

Admittedly, not quite your typical all-comers meet.

  • “Name” spotting: “Isn’t that so-and-so?”
  • Overhearing one certain voice in the cheers for the open 3,000m: “Go Daddy!”
  • How many of the athletes in the “unseeded” sections start their own watches at the beginning of their races, even though the event has FAT (Fully Automatic Timing)?
  • “It’s nice to get that over with. Where’s my beer?” (That may not have actually been what the athlete in question said, but that’s what we heard.)
  • Seeing a runner who’s been below-par for about seven years show flashes of old form (and run a really fast time.)
  • Watching the athletes revolving the track in cool-down packs in the half-light after the last event. (Can I string a few more prepositional phrases on this?)
  • Olympians doing quick-changes in the back seats of cars.
  • American Record holders standing by the side of the track cheering with everyone else.
  • The collegian’s entire family (and this is an extensive blended family) turning up. Stepfather on the phone with mother and relaying developments down to Florida.

It is nice to go to a meet and not be working.

Now playing: Pendulums from All of Our Names by Sarah Harmer

Posted by pjm at 8:43 PM | Comments (0)

May 29, 2004

Nothing like...

…a visit from the friendly Jehovah’s Witnesses to make your morning. They wanted to talk to me about, “…on Earth, as it is in Heaven.” (Roughly speaking; they started out with Isaiah and some of Daniel’s dream-interpretation with Nebuchadnezzar. I think if I had asked specific questions I might have drawn out some sort of political imperative as well, but I didn’t give any openings for that.) I didn’t want to tangle with them (I generally resent people leading me toward specific beliefs) and one had some sketchy English, so I smiled, nodded, and dredged up enough verses from memory to convince them that I wasn’t on a fast track to eternal damnation and I didn’t think they were dangerous fanatics. (Yankees fans are dangerous fanatics.) They were pleased, I wasn’t excessively annoyed, and I recycled whichever variant of the Watchtower they gave me.

Better than the last time I was proselytized to, which was when some LDS missionaries (?) came to my door in Allentown. (Lucky visit; I only lived there four months, and only three at that address.) I had assumed that LDS missionaries went “on mission” abroad, but I considering Allentown, well, I guess that’s a good place to go. (I recall the story about how my grandmother ended up in Maine; according to family lore, the seminary head asked her if she wanted to “fight sin” in our town, which we all found amusing; what sin is there is relatively deeply rooted and would probably put up a mighty fight.)

The Mormons offered to come back and discuss the literature they left with me, and I had a hard time convincing them that I really was moving the next day. (I was.) Allentown not being a giant of recycling, I don’t think that particular book of Mormon was pulped for newsprint, unfortunately.

Now playing: Glow-in-the-Dark Plastic Angel from This Town Is Wrong by Nerissa & Katryna Nields

Posted by pjm at 10:10 AM | Comments (0)

When I'm Here

Last night when I was ripping my new CDs, I went by the Nields site and found a very interesting link: Nerissa on All Things Considered, talking about “When I’m Here” with the song in the background. (I don’t expect anyone’s surprised that I’m favorably impressed with this disc.) She calls it “Zen Buddhist blues.” It’s curiously powerful, highlighting among other things something we’ve known since the Everly Brothers (or before): siblings harmonize better than anyone else.

I keep my lamp burning steady when I’m here
I keep my lamp burning steady when I’m here
I keep my lamp burning steady, when it’s time I will be ready
I keep my lamp burning steady when I’m here.

Putting that text down has barely an echo of the power of the words with the music. I sometimes think it’s an odd thing for as bloody-minded computer person as I am to be as into my music as I am, but I’m beginning to see a link here; it’s the magic. It’s putting things together and seeing them work together, whether that’s a few hundred (thousand?) lines of code to make a system, all the ingredients to make cookies (or not,) the words, the notes, the voices to make the music. When it all curls together to make something bigger than it started. It’s a temporary reversal of entropy. (The mnemonic I learned for Newton’s Laws: you can’t win, you can’t break even, and you can’t get out of the game.)

After today’s ration of track meets we’re headed for the Bear’s Den for the remainder of the weekend. I haven’t been there in nearly two years, but my cousin has hinted this will be the last summer of the cottage; it will ultimately disappear in favor of a more solid year-round retirement site for his parents. I’m not too disappointed; it stopped being a summer Eden for me years ago, anyway, perhaps when I grew big enough to wade to the “diving rock” without needing to swim. Still, the lake is there, albeit with more powerboats, and the mountains are as close to the ocean’s—is the word “numinousness?”—as I can easily reach from out here. Anyway… I’ll be here, or try to.

Now playing: When I’m Here from This Town Is Wrong by Nerissa & Katryna Nields

Posted by pjm at 8:35 AM | Comments (0)

May 28, 2004

Local record stores rule

On the way home from dinner, I stopped in to one of our excellent local record stores. It’s been a while since I bought new music (mid-April, when I bought Sarah Harmer’s disc at that show,) so I was looking to spend a little on new stuff.

I wound up with five discs for the price of three—Josh Ritter’s Golden Age of Radio included an unexpected bonus disc, and sitting by the register was a small stack of promo discs labeled “Free” and including Rich Price’s EP I’m On My Way. (Price opened for Harmer; this store sells Iron Horse tickets, and the gentleman behind the counter allowed as how that might be why they had the EP.) Two of those songs were also on his first disc, Night Opens, but for free I’m willing to take a few duplicates. (There’s a big grin there.)

I’m now very much in favor of a new way of checking out music. See, I get curious about an artist/band somehow. Maybe a friend mentions it. Maybe I see them at the Horse, or maybe they play with someone I like somewhere else. The curious bit doesn’t matter. Then I start exploring online. Lately, nearly everyone on the scale I seem to like has one or two songs for free download on their website. Or, just as good, Amazon has one of their songs for free download. I pull that down and put it in the rotation. (I got nearly an entire album’s worth of Kris Delmhorst that way.)

Ritter has been getting raves in a lot of places. I looked at his site and was able to download “Kathleen” from Hello Starling and “Harrisburg” from Golden Age of Radio from Amazon. Then I found chord changes for “Harrisburg” online, and couldn’t get it out of my head—It’s a long way to heaven/it’s closer to Harrisburg—faintly amusing given how close I used to live to Harrisburg, but anyway.

And guess what: they let me download music online for free, and I bought the CD! Imagine! I will refrain from making helpful suggestions on RIAA policy, for fear of getting obnoxiously strident…

Also on the list: The StrokesIs This It (recommended by Nicole, but also an Amazon download) and Nerissa and Katryna NieldsThis Town Is Wrong. They played “The Night I Let Glory Steer” at a New Year’s Eve concert at the Calvin at the beginning of 2003, but otherwise I’ve heard nothing from this disc…

Now playing: Harrisburg from Golden Age of Radio by Josh Ritter

Posted by pjm at 8:52 PM | Comments (0)

I'm being picked on

It seems like half the office is making the three-day weekend into a four-day weekend. Meanwhile, instead of unwinding gnarly problems in a rewarding manner, like yesterday, I’m doing the IT equivalent of cleaning bird $#!+ off cars.

I’m not sure of the what, why or whens but when I go online today, instead of the [normal home page], it pulls up lots of garbage, that I have trouble closing.
Can you help?

I’ll give you three guesses what it was, and the first two don’t count.

Spybot S&D, which I keep handy on a CD for just such occasions, found something like 180 spyware and hijack-ware “problems” on this system, including the (in)famous CWS. It took two scans and nearly an hour to get it all clear, and even that didn’t get rid of two separate folders of bookmarks which I honestly don’t believe were put there by the user. (Does anybody with a sound mind create a bookmark folder called “Adult Sites” on their work computer? To begin with, I don’t think she knows how to sort bookmarks into folders.) When I finished, I didn’t even offer a choice. I removed the Internet Explorer icon from her desktop, installed Mozilla, and made it the default browser. I showed her the icon on the desktop and said, “Here’s how you’re going on the Web from now on.”

Fortunately, she was disturbed enough by the pop-ups she couldn’t make go away (which might have been a harassment suit in a larger company) that she asked for a copy of the CD I was installing from so she could take it home and install Spybot and Mozilla on her home system. Then her neighbor came in and asked me to show her how to use the labels SpamAssassin puts on our email to filter spam out of her inbox. “What did we do before you came?” they asked.

Well, this kind of bottom-feeding, invertebrate parasite-ware has really sort of been a 21st-century thing, and I started here in 2001, so you really didn’t have these problems before. But unfortunately, even compliments like that get me thinking about something I’m not doing well, which is documenting what I do and how I do it. My motivation for this is making sure things keep running after I (inevitably) leave for grad school, but I joke, when I’m showing others how things work, “…so you’ll know how to do this if I get hit by a bus while I’m out on a run.”

Then this came up on a running list I’m on…

The last point of the run that I remember was about 2 ½ mile mark—running on the left side of a road that runs between the park and the East River. Next thing I knew, I woke up in an ambulance. Don’t remember the incident, but I’m told from the ambulance staff that I was the victim of a hit and run driver. … My theory is a school bus/small truck nicked me on the face with a rear view mirror …

Holy knock on wood, Batman! I think I need to start documenting stuff better just so Murphy’s Law will protect me from actually getting smacked.

Now playing: Deep Inside My Pocket from Tarantula by Ride

Posted by pjm at 1:34 PM | Comments (1)

May 27, 2004

Pukh

Riding home tonight, I noticed a lot of drifting tree pollen. Fluff, actually. It looks like a very light snowstorm on a sunny day, and I passed one driveway which looked positively snowed in with the output of a nearby tree.

When I was in St. Petersburg (nearly ten years ago!) the city was nearly snowed in by the same stuff. I asked about it, wondering if it was something special. The answer I got was simply, “пух.” (Pronounce that like “Pooh,” but end it with a sort of “kh” sound like you’re starting to clear your throat.) It seemed like there was an inch of it everywhere, every day. When I got up to run in the morning there was always a fresh coat. I didn’t even run very early; despite the almost constant sunshine (at its longest, “night” lasted three or four hours while I was there,) Petersburgers are not ones for being up and about.

I don’t know the perfect translation for пух. In fact, when I see the stuff now, I think of it with the Russian word, because it seems more apt.

Posted by pjm at 7:41 PM | Comments (0)

Speaking of new designs...

It’s done.

That’s been on my list for so long, and now it’s done. Next up for this site: polishing the interior to match. I should comb the whole thing, just for completeness, and check the error logs to see what people are trying to reach and failing so I can redirect them.

Now playing: Serpent Easy from Forget Yourself by The Church

Posted by pjm at 3:05 PM | Comments (0)

A little more on the fallacy of numbers

Still thinking about the problems with prioritizing browser support by current traffic.

One big one, which I have bumped my head on just recently here, is just who those numbers represent. The design I’m almost finished with for our home page worked well on nearly every browser, except IE/Mac, on which it was a train wreck. I whined. “Why do we need to support that piece of garbage? Who uses it?”

Well, the answer to that last question turned out to be, “Our entire production department,” who are still running Mac OS 9.x and for whom IE/Mac is still, sadly, the best available browser. So I sucked it up, found a few nifty hacks, and made it work.

So, say you’re doing a big, advertising-supported site. All you need is one advertiser who can’t reach your site with Safari, and either you’ll get an earful and start fixing things… or you just won’t get the advertising and never know what you lost or why. I don’t think that’s a chance I’d choose to take.

Anyway, it’s not the percentage of total traffic—it’s that one tiny segment of your marketplace which turns out to be really important.

Now playing: Mr. Right Now from If You Lived Here You’d Be Home Now by The Nields

Posted by pjm at 1:05 PM | Comments (0)

Safari, accessibility, and planning for the future

I probably shouldn’t be writing this before I’ve finished my cup of tea and let the caffeine soak down a little bit, but here I am. Undamped oscillation.

Backdrop: the site I used to run in a previous job, and still write for occasionally, launched another redesign three or four weeks ago, their second since I left. Any structural change in a site as large as that one is bound to have some issues, of course, and their first day with the new design was predictably rough. I know how they tend to work—in fact, I’m probably responsible for the way they work—and their priorities and motivations are different from the ones I work with now.

Which probably explains why I’m finding so many annoyances when I try to do anything on the damn site.

The first one I noticed is the one that has me so frustrated now. When you attempt to follow the link I provided above with Safari as your browser, you will be redirected to http://msn.runnersworld.com:0 and your browser will be stuck in a loop, showing only a blue background. I mentioned this on the first day: “Hey, guys, I know it’s busy down there and you probably know this, but in case you don’t, here’s one for your list…” Then, a week or two later: “Just to let you know, I’m still seeing this problem…”

Yesterday I got email from someone else I know from a mailing list:

I’m sure you hate to be a pointman for people toward whom you no longer have any official responsibility, but in case you are in touch with the RW Online people, would you mind telling them that their new site configuration absolutely fails on Apple’s Safari browser.

So I forwarded that along, with a bit more pointed message this time, along the lines of, “Hey, are you actually paying attention to this?” OK, it was a lot more pointed. As my correspondent noted, I do hate being pointman for people toward whom I no longer have any official responsibility.

The response I got back was similarly pointed, and can be summarized as, “We’ll move it up the priority list when Safari users represent more than 1% of our traffic.”

That’s screwed up on so many levels.

First, there’s the obvious logical difficulty. If Safari users can’t enter the front page of your site, they’re not going to register on your traffic. They’re going to leave. If they’re determined and/or forgiving, like me, they’ll visit with another browser, like Firefox or Camino. (And they’ll see other quirks: for instance, a large chunk of the navigation bar is missing in Firefox, but visible in Camino. And the archives of the Daily News, which I normally would use extensively, are unreachable through any method provided.) The fact that Safari users actually show up can only be attributed to those following links in from other sources directly to pages inside the site. It’s as though they said, why should we try to reach an audience that isn’t buying our product? Well, because they aren’t buying your product, of course.

Second, a small number of disgruntled users can generate a big headache. There are message boards on this site; what if one or two frequent contributors “vanish,” and the remaining community asks, “Whatever happened to Skip?” And it turns out that Skip is unable to reach the boards. Come on over to www.othersite.com, though, because everyone can reach that one. And poof, no more community. There is/was at least one message board on the web which exists primarily because I didn’t address a problem quickly enough. (Apparently, they’ve forgotten and/or forgiven, but they didn’t return.)

Finally, in a case like this, cross-browser compatibility isn’t about any one browser in use now. It’s about the Next Big Browser. If your site works well in all the browsers currently in wide use (say, IE/Firefox/Opera/Safari/Camino) it’s less likely to develop a fatal hiccup when IE 7 (for example) surprises everyone. It’s less likely to present problems for Marla Runyan’s screen reader (sorry, Marla’s less than 1% of your audience, right?) It’s more likely to behave predictably everywhere.

Needless to say, it doesn’t validate.

Anyway, they’re blowing me off, so if you can’t get at it, please don’t complain to me; they don’t listen to whiny crackpots.

Now playing: Trouble from Parachutes by Coldplay

Posted by pjm at 10:23 AM | Comments (0)

May 26, 2004

Wish list

One of the things that is bolshoi, bolshoi cool about Mac OS X is that I have, in the background, Photoshop running a batch job to chew through one set of files, and Imageready running another batch job on another set, and yet they’re running more or less independently, so I can have Ecto open here in the foreground and be writing this without any significant lag. (OK, the load average is higher than usual, but if your load average is less than 1 you’re wasting processor time anyway.) (That’s a bit of a joke. Really.) It’s all possible through the Unix core, which manages the running tasks and juggles them nicely in a way the old Mac OS never could. (Or Windows, maybe, but I have a hard time remembering past limitations of Windows since I so seldom use it.)

But here’s where it falls short of Unix: since Photoshop is working on that batch job, I can’t use Photoshop for anything else until it’s done. Maybe that’s a drawback of Photoshop, not the MacOS, but it would be nice to be able to fork off a new instance of Photoshop and get going on another task while I’m waiting for my batch to be finished. Then I’d never have to wait for the computer; instead, I could pile up a stack of work for it to do while I go home for the afternoon. Heh.

Now playing: Elevation from All That You Can’t Leave Behind by U2

Posted by pjm at 1:28 PM | Comments (0)

Opening a new browser window confuses users

A few weeks ago, I complained about how so many links insist on opening a new window. Let me decide if I want to keep the original page, I griped; I’ll open the new link in a tab.

Today Adot linked to an article about Seven tricks that web users don’t know. There’s good stuff there (for instance, as many as two thirds of users don’t know that the company logo in the upper-left of a page is usually a link to the site home page,) but the stinger for me was number 7:

7. Second browser windows
I’ve saved this one for last because it’s especially hard to believe—some people can use Windows applications for years without understanding the concept of task switching. (When I point to the task bar and ask them what it’s for, they can’t tell me.) Thus, spawning second browser windows can completely throw users off track because it removes the one thing they are sure how to use: the “Back” button.

This is my ammunition. Next time I’m asked to “make this link open in a new window,” I’ll ask for a good argument, and present this article as my backup. It’s not just an annoyance to me: it’s confusing users!

Now playing: Gardening At Night (Different Vocal mix) from Eponymous by R.E.M.

Posted by pjm at 11:55 AM | Comments (0)

Class online

Last night was the first (and only) physical meeting of the Computer Security course I’m taking over the first part of the summer. It’s an online course, something I’ve never done before. Yes, never. Geek that I am, I think I know myself, and I suspect I’d have trouble focusing on a course without regular class sections to hold my attention. We’ll see.

I’ve had three classes with this professor before (based on my transcript from WSC, you’d think they only had two professors in the CS department,) and this was a typical first meeting for him. The essential information was who he was, when his office hours were, and all the various ways to contact him; I was nearly ten minutes late, but he was still going on that when I arrived. In person, sometimes I feel like he teaches by repetition, presenting the same information three or four different ways just to make sure it sinks in, where I’d prefer to build on the information as soon as I’ve absorbed it.

We also did a rough run-through of the structure of the course. I recognize a lot of the topics on the syllabus, but only as topics; I’ve seen “Kerberos” before, for example, but other than knowing it has something to do with authentication, I couldn’t explain it. That’s good, there’s something for me to learn here.

And, finally, we walked through the software we’d be using to work through the syllabus. The course will be essentially self-paced, using WSC’s WebCT server. I’ve used WebCT in a limited manner for previous courses; this one relies on it. This is interesting to me on a professional level; WebCT is widely used and we’re sometimes asked at work to format ancillary material from our books for use with it. (I’m intrigued to notice that none of the “happy students” photos on WebCT’s home page actually show them gazing into a lit computer screen; in fact, I’m seeing some green chalkboards and pen-and-paper note-taking in there.)

Logging in to WebCT was a minor challenge; your login name is tied to your college ID number, and I was unclear on whether I even had such a number. It turns out that I do, but I use it so infrequently I was unable to even guess the slice of it incorporated in my WebCT login.

Once logged in, we’ve got a series of “lessons” already in WebCT. We attack them at our own pace, but there’s an exam on June 15 and it is strongly suggested that we have reached a certain point by then. The exams are self-scheduled (within a time frame) and taken online; other WebCT resources are a course message board and some Java-based chat “rooms.”

The lessons link to a fair amount of online reading; we’re also required to monitor a “security focused mailing list.” I already subscribe to two SANS lists, but I don’t think that’s quite what he had in mind, so for the time being I’m going to monitor Bugtraq as well.

I’ll be interested to see how this all works out. I’ve learned plenty in my previous WSC courses, but I’ve also felt like they’re pitched for a different kind of student. I’m trying to sponge up all the general principles and foundation I can, in hopes of building an advanced degree on that. Most of my classmates are just looking for a B.S., and either a job, or a raise at the job they’ve got. In many cases, this will be their first degree past high school. They almost make me feel guilty for being so… overqualified?

Perhaps now that class has started, I need an “education” category. (One day, I’ll remember to add categories to the template so you can see the classification I’m doing.)

Now playing: You Wreck Me from Wildflowers by Tom Petty

Posted by pjm at 9:40 AM | Comments (1)

May 25, 2004

Fat as a zero-sum game

There’s an interesting column by Don Kardong on the Runner’s World site today. Look now, because the new site design is so frustrating (for me, at least) that you might never be able to find that column again.

Don’s topic is something like this: school districts are facing tight budgets around the country. (He cites his own district in Spokane, but they’ve been going through this in Northampton as well.) This is happening because, despite the best intentions and support of the local communities, the state(s) aren’t funding schools the way they used to. The states aren’t funding education the way they used to because the feds are squeezing the states. No doubt all of you have opinions about why the feds may be putting the budget squeeze to the states and hence to local school districts, and what should be done about it, so I’ll leave you to it; just don’t leave any child behind, OK?

Don doesn’t go for the easy political points, though, and I think that’s a good thing. He points out some realities.

In a way, you can’t blame administrators for making those cuts, since their primary responsibility is academic. Given the choice, is it going to be after-school sports or math? Regular PE or reading-support programs?

But he does get to the good point:

Maybe trimming that fat is seen as creating more fat in the real lives of students.

On that thread, I read an article recently about the Maine laptops-in-schools program. It’s no surprise that they’re struggling to continue funding that program, and some districts have committed to locally funding if the state can’t come through. In a state like Maine, though, for every Cape Elizabeth which can afford the laptops program, there are three districts up in The County which can’t. The reduction in state funding ends up creating an even wider gap between the haves and have-nots than existed before.

The upshot being, if I decide to raise my hypothetical children somewhere I can hypothetically afford to do so, their friends will be fat and ignorant, whereas if I assemble a massive collection of debt, their friends will be healthy and smart.

Now playing: Chelsea Girl from Live Light (France, 11/1994) by Ride

Posted by pjm at 5:00 PM | Comments (0)

Note to self: configuration files

Before ascribing configuration errors and jammed daemons to obtuse or arcane configuration syntax, rule out the possibility of spelling errors or other typos on the part of the operator. (See also PEBKAC.)

Now playing: Party Generation from End Of The Summer by Dar Williams

Posted by pjm at 1:30 PM | Comments (2)

May 24, 2004

Who broke the mail server?

It never fails to astound me how such a simple thing as email can be so immensely complicated to configure.

Yes, it’s simple; you can, in many cases, make a direct connection to the recipient’s mail server and type your message in directly, with only a basic grasp of the specifications. (That’s why they call it the “Simple Mail Transfer Protocol.”)

Yes, it’s amazingly complicated, in a way that makes a secure web server look easy. I broke the SMTP daemon on our web server on Friday, which, fortunately, is not the primary mail server for our domain. In fact, I was trying to configure it as a secondary mail server, so if the primary goes down for whatever reason, this box (which is geographically removed, being in Springfield, and closer to the network backbone) will accept our incoming email and store it until the primary server comes back on line. Our ISP is performing this function now, but our ISP is an ISP and therefore conservative (read: careful) in their spam filtering. I’d like to have control of both mail servers for the domain, so I can impose my draconian anti-spam policy domain-wide, and close the secondary loophole.

Anyway… it’s complex. You have to configure the daemon to understand what’s to be delivered locally and what’s to be stored and forwarded. (Which domains and sub-domains fall in each category?) You have to specify the locations of any number of maps, which I don’t wholly understand. And you have to couple this with some DNS tweaking, which I will have our ISP’s network guru handle. If you break it, you get looping mail (which can get bad pretty quickly with a powerful—or bored—machine) or just no mail at all.

As proof of how weird this all is, consider the available software for smtpd (also known as MTAs, or Mail Transfer Agents.) (I’m not mentioning package names here because I don’t want to come up in Google searches for help; those must be common and I doubt I’d be helpful.) The most widely used smtpd is, well, widely used, but often criticized for a dense and impenetrable configuration syntax. I concur; it’s a series of incantations and magic spells which often involve (as my father says,) “holding your mouth right.” The one distributed with Red Hat Linux, which I have successfully configured from scratch before, was intended to remedy this, to the point that it even includes “fix” in its name. However, the help page begins like this:

[It] has several hundred configuration parameters that are controlled via the main.cf file. Fortunately, all parameters have sensible default values. In many cases, you need to configure only two or three parameters before you can start to play with the mail system. Here’s a quick introduction to the syntax…

Um, several hundred? (Fitting that the home page opens with the Frederick Brooks quote, “All programmers are optimists.”)

Meanwhile, a third widely used program includes this qualification early on its home page (where “it” refers to the home page, not the software):

It’s not designed to be easy to use—it’s designed to be comprehensive. There are things in here which have sharp edges!

Is it any wonder that I’m writing here rather than reading documentation?

Now playing: One More Song The Radio Won’t Like from Failer by Kathleen Edwards

Posted by pjm at 1:44 PM | Comments (1)

When was that again?

This week is the beginning of summer-session classes at WSC. I’ve registered for the Computer Security course, and they’ve thoughtfully scheduled one in-building session, presumably for working through the logistics of the remainder of the course, supposedly online.

Of course, there’s just a time and room number—no actual day. Could be today or tomorrow, no way of knowing. All you need to do is forget one detail. (Judging from the “available sections” listing on the DGCE page, it’s Tuesday.)

Well, at least the professor publishes his GPG public key on his home page, so I can be painfully geeky and send encrypted email confirming the date.

Now playing: Stupidity Tries from Figure 8 by Elliott Smith

Posted by pjm at 10:46 AM | Comments (0)

May 23, 2004

Clarifications to the public record

In the unlikely event that anyone looked up the results for the Rabbit Run, I’d like to make some clarifications.

  • Yes, in my first race in the 30-39 age group, I won it. Incidentally, this is a good race for “cherry-picking” (the art or sport of finding small races which are easy to win): age-group winners (and overall winners) get a “prize bag” full of New Salem stuff. In addition to what appear to be quart (glass!) bottles of maple syrup, mine contained a number of gift certificates, a loaf of multi-grain bread, and a box of tea bags. Not bad for a $12 entry.

  • Topographic maps of the course should be consulted before taking that finish time as representative of what I’m capable of running even now, in my undertrained and gimpy-footed state, let alone well-trained.

  • The above sentence is a very large sandbag.

  • Despite the race name, the tortoise strategy is preferred. I stood as far back as eleventh (assuming I was counting correctly, which is a big assumption) in the third mile of the race.

  • I’ll never understand how larger races protest difficulty finding volunteers and getting them out on a road course to read splits, when this tiny affair on roads which may see five motorized vehicles in a year and five mosquitos per second had splits read at every mile marker (except the sixth, which was nearly in sight of the finish.)

  • The Quabbin is very scenic, and if you want to live in what appears to be the middle of nowhere but can’t afford a “kingdom lot” in up-state Maine, New Salem might be worth a look. It’s even smaller (by population) than the town I grew up in.

Now playing: Espionage from Parallel Universe - CD2 - mixture by The Church

Posted by pjm at 9:39 PM | Comments (0)

In which I enlist some help wrapping a birthday present

Izzy tightens the ribbon

Now playing: Go to Sleep from All of Our Names by Sarah Harmer

Posted by pjm at 9:24 PM | Comments (0)

May 21, 2004

The Rabbit

I have a weird fascination with the Quabbin. I think it was between my junior and senior years at The College, when I spent the summer here in Amherst, that I really began to feel the pull. The Quabbin is a massive reservoir to the east of us, created when the Metropolitan District Commission (read: Boston) dammed the Swift River (a tributary of the Chicopee River and therefore the Connecticut) in Belchertown and Ware, flooding (and forever erasing from the map) the four towns of Greenwich, Prescott, Enfield, and Dana. The water stored in the reservoir eventually flows through one of the longest tunnels ever built to become Boston city water. Large sections of the watershed around the reservoir are part of the Quabbin Reservation, a vast, restricted-access wildlife preserve intended to keep the water clean, I suppose.

I think the Quabbin is the real dividing line between Western and Eastern Massachusetts. Eastern Massachusetts is essentially a big suburb of Boston, out to the secondary center of Worcester. Western Massachusetts is more independent, sometimes more liberal (if you can imagine it,) vastly more rural and less populated, and significantly more ornery.

Part of the orneriness is a lingering resentment towards Boston for the removal of the four towns (and the maiming of a fifth; neighboring Pelham is geographically weird due to the borders of the reservation.) One of my employers that summer had framed maps of the four towns on the walls of his house. The primary dorms at Hampshire College are named for the four towns. And there’s a certain feeling that Boston did it once, they could do it again.

I’m not as fascinated as some people. For instance, there’s the UMass crew that got permission to go diving in the reservoir and make a film about it. Mark Erelli roomed with one of the producers, and wrote a song about it, “The Farewell Ball,” which we heard when he opened for Nanci Griffith at the Calvin.

Tomorrow we’re running a race in New Salem, northwest of the reservoir. The race is named for the railway line that ran down into the Swift River Valley from New Salem, the Rabbit. When you drive up Route 202 from Belchertown to New Salem, you see a handful of “ghost roads” crossing the route and heading down into the Reservation. Eventually, I imagine, they dead-end at the waterline. Apparently this race covers some of those roads, though there’s not a lot of race information around to tell where. I’m curious.

Posted by pjm at 8:05 PM | Comments (0)

Browser discrimination

Well, after I got my whining out of the way, I found some nifty tricks for making our front page work for standards-impaired browsers without sacrificing anything on the nice ones.

It works like this: First, assume all the layout is handled by CSS, with the content in as-bare-as-possible XHTML. (This allows for easy design changes; one just tweaks the styles, rather than messing with markup integrated in the content.) Second, recognize that while most of the CSS works on most of the widely-used browsers, certain specific sections will break on certain specific browsers. So instead of embedding the styles on the page, they get split into two external files. One contains a full layout which works with the widest possible range of browsers. The second contains those sections which break; it is imported using a specific syntax which the “crippled” browsers don’t understand, and overrides the safer style rules.

It’s almost like the height lines at the gates of amusement park rides: if you’re not this tall, you can’t ride. If you don’t understand this syntax, you don’t get the good stuff. I’m sure this is old hat to the professional designers, but I just do this part time (just like I do sysadmin part time, and support, and network admin…) It’s fun for me because it’s something new. I like feeling as though I still have stuff to learn, like I’m still on an upward path.

There’s a great page with a matrix of tweaks like this. I love it. I’ve got most of the people who will be approving the site on modern browsers (actually, all three of them are using Mozilla primarily now) so they’ll see the good stuff. But it will degrade gracefully for the stubborn IE/Mac or Netscape 4 users. (It’ll look a bit plain for them, but it won’t be a godawful train wreck, and that’s worth something.)

Now playing: Moscow Song from Appetite by Kris Delmhorst

Posted by pjm at 10:58 AM | Comments (1)

May 20, 2004

Roses have thorns,

Izzy has claws.

This is all, of course, my fault. He gets rambunctious in the evenings, and I give in and play the way he wants to play, which is rough. Think Dennis the Menace putting his dad down for the count. The problem is that I’m trying not to hurt the cat, and he’s playing for keeps.

The idea is that all is fair if I’m wearing the Kitten Mitten, which in addition to having pom-poms and bells is easily distinguished from an actual hand because it’s bright orange. Think ING or Dutch soccer and you’re on the right track. It’s as thick as good gardening gloves. I think one of the problems is that he starts pulling it right off my hand, then digs in on the newly-exposed skin like there’s another glove under there. Inevitably I end up losing some skin and a good bit of blood.

Last night I was considering just soaking my whole hand in NewSkin, about halfway up to my elbow. I really, really hope I am at least entertaining him. I think my nieces would like him because he’s much more social and curious than their Nana’s late tabby, but if they were to meet, I would predict tears. They’re not used to armed playmates.

Now playing: Crocodile from Nonsuch by XTC

Posted by pjm at 2:36 PM | Comments (0)

PHP is far too cool

I’ve learned PHP mainly from looking at other people’s code and consulting books and the online manual when I didn’t understand something I saw. I’ve been using it for a bit more than two years now, but there are still large, sometimes very useful sections of the language which I’m still learning. This will probably be true for years to come.

Take, for example, getimagesize(). For years, I learned that pages render faster when the width and height of the image are specified in the code; that step allows the browser to allow space for the image immediately and lay out the page before the image is received from the server. If the size isn’t set, the image has to be downloaded for the browser to determine its size and lay out the page around it.

On the other side of the coin, PHP led me in to dynamic pages that had to include images, frequently without knowing the size. (For example, catalog detail pages on our company site will include a cover image only if the image exists; if not, the image tag isn’t written. The cover images vary slightly in size, so hard-coding the dimensions in the templates is out.) So in the name of flexibility, I left out the image size and simply included the reference.

With getimagesize(), I can check the size on the server side (conveniently skipping the “is it really there” step, which is included,) and write a complete image tag. I can even use fewer steps to check if the file is JPEG or PNG. Excellent.

(Look, most of the people I know read this now and then are probably much less impressed than I am. But here in the office, I’ll just get blank looks, and I’m excited about this. So nod politely, I’ll get back to less geeky stuff someday.)

For example, given the book keyed in our database as 0914, I can write this in the template (assuming $last4 is the database key, and $title and $author have already been determined from the database):

if ($img_size = (getimagesize("images/$last4.png")) || (($img_size = getimagesize("images/$last4.jpg"))) {   
    list($width, $height, $type, $attr) = $img_size // Get individual variables from the array
    switch ($type) {
        case 1:
            $filestring = "images/" . $last4 . ".gif";
            break;
        case 2:
            $filestring = "images/" . $last4 . ".jpg";
            break;
        case 3:
            $filestring = "images/" . $last4 . ".png";
            break;
    }
    echo "<img src=\"$filestring\" alt=\"$author: $title\" style=\"width: $width px; height: $height px; margin: 8px; float: left;\">\r";    
}

and get this HTML out:

<img src="images/0914.jpg" alt="Coyne and Orr: Speciation" style="width: 125 px; height: 165 px; margin: 8px; float: left;">

That’s the XHTML; for HTML 4.x, I could drop in the $attr variable instead of the CSS size definition; it’s wasted in XHTML. I think. Technically, I could even drop in a Shockwave animation, but I don’t really think we’re there yet.

I realize this is probably neat like digital watches, but it’s already made my day.

Edit: Damn, I can tighten that up even more and save a variable…

Now playing: Within Your Reach from Hootenanny by The Replacements

Posted by pjm at 10:26 AM | Comments (0)

May 19, 2004

The sound of one browser clapping

I am, nearly constantly, stumbling across bits of writing on the web that I want to quote, or link, or something. Maybe in someone else’s weblog, like Kasia being sick of gas-price complaints; she’s a lot more direct than I was. (Of course, as near as I can tell, Kasia is more direct than I am.) Maybe a news article or opinion piece like a Bell Lap in Runner’s World (frustratingly, they’ve just redesigned and broken all my links back to my old articles, not to mention broken the entire site for Safari despite my complaints, and a whole bunch of little glitches—c’mon, guys, you’ve had over a week. Get on the stick.) Something someone says in one or another mailing list I’m on. Or even a bit of new software, like Camino 0.8, which is so slick it might even take me away from Safari.

I’m not sure what the point of it all would be, though. I think it’s an applause reflex: yes, I like that. It’s the same motivation I have for putting other weblogs in the link column; it’s not as though anyone’s looking to me for more reading. It’s more of a nod to the writer, polite clapping, encouragement. But, just as I learned to stifle the “me too” reflex on email lists, I’m trying to resist the urge to fill this space with applause.

Maybe it’s a downside to doing a lot of my weblog reading in NetNewsWire; when you read the feed, you have to make an effort to head over and read the comments (if any.) I forget that this isn’t the only place where I have a voice.

Now playing: Pearls from Mercurotones by The Buck Pets

Posted by pjm at 4:01 PM | Comments (0)

Title excised (pun control)

I was playing “paddles” with Iz last night, so he was rolling around on his back. (That cat goes inverted more than any cat I’ve ever known. I think it’s because he’s so combative; on his back he has the use of 24 claws instead of 23. Plus teeth, of course.) He rolled one way, and suddenly I saw a tick on the floor. He rolls back, and it’s gone.

The game was called (too many players on the field) and some vigorous combing began. Being a typical boy who prefers grooming on his own terms, Iz was not cooperative; the kitten mitten was called in to aid in subduing him, but inevitably Iz was the only one not bleeding. Cleaning the brush, I found the tick clinging to the shed hair.

I found a bottle of hydrogen peroxide left over from sterilizing my stitches (with Iz in the house, it’s always a good idea to have something to sterilize stitches with,) poured about half a cup into a glass, and combed the tick into the peroxide. Oh, says the tick, disinfectant bath. He paddles around on the surface, obtusely unaware that he is the infection. Using an implement, I push him under. He turns out to be a diver. I hold him under. He climbs up the implement. I push him under again, then remove the implement. He stays under, but keeps ticking. Er, kicking.

After two minutes in the toxic kiddy pool I have determined empirically that ticks are not bothered by peroxide. I’ve heard that isopropyl alcohol is better, but I have no alcohol of any sort readily available, not that I would waste consumables on a tick.

Instead I decide on that all-purpose tool of the modern world, the microwave. Thirty seconds on high, and the eight legs curl up in a little tiny ball. Entirely more effort than it deserved, of course.

The unanswered question, though, is how it got in to begin with; Iz doesn’t go outside. Either it came in the house on its own, or hitched a ride on one of us. I’m not really comfortable with either option.

Now playing: Seen Your Video from Let It Be by The Replacements

Posted by pjm at 11:08 AM | Comments (0)

May 18, 2004

In today's good news,

Sasha is three today.

Cake is scheduled for the weekend, but that may be as much for my benefit as hers.

Now playing: Red-Eyed And Blue from Being There (Disc 1) by Wilco

Posted by pjm at 3:03 PM | Comments (0)

Karma

It’s probably a little over-simplistic to imagine some great accounting of righteousness in our lives that levels the pinball table every time we try to tip it, but it certainly helps sometimes.

I’ve been something of a slacker at work lately. I enjoy what I do, and I love the middle stages of a project where the problems have been identified and I’m finding the tools, fitting them to the task, and really getting into the meat of it. My problem is that I loathe the final stages, the going back and sanding off the rough edges left by the tools, the interminable finding of little details which need fixing. As a company, the reaching for perfection we do in the final stages of a project is what makes us what we are; we do good work, and that’s why we’re successful. As an individual, I get itchy. Discovering that my big batch jobs converting EPS book art into JPEG files missed nearly every table in a twenty-eight-chapter book, for example, makes my skin crawl. Instead of the comfortable big batch job that runs in the background for a few hours, I will have to open each of the files, “fix” them slightly, and send them through the process in runs of one to five at a time. They will have to “catch up.”

Same thing with final checks on CD-ROMs. Inevitably they are hybrid CDs, with marginally different file structures for Macs and Windows systems, and the spell recited to make them come out properly is complex, but we will repeat it four, five, six times, fixing one or two spelling errors or bad links each time. Inevitably we’ll find the one we missed two or three weeks after it has gone for reproduction.

It’s tedious, it’s exacting, it makes me itch to be outside and moving instead of sitting here. But we’ve got two projects in final stages right now, two batches of tetchy little fixes requiring my attention. I feel like a small child resisting vegetables, but I need to do this stuff. First, because not fixing the problems just puts them off, and exposes the errors to customers, which is A Bad Thing. Second, because I’ve done an unacceptable amount of slacking in the past few months, and I should make up for it somewhere—even if I’m the only one who knows about both the slacking and the make-up. Karma, you see. It knows.

Now playing: I Miss You from Post by Bjork

Posted by pjm at 1:50 PM | Comments (0)

Spring farewells

I’m of two minds about whether to write about this. I’m concerned about the perception that I’m giving a false importance to the event, playing for sympathy, or just being overly dramatic.

On the other hand, there won’t be any other obits, and many of you reading here knew her, so it’s not inappropriate for me to remember her here. I’ve written about plenty of things of less consequence, and there are a few good stories here.

My parents had their cat put down yesterday morning. Our cat, I should say, since she got up with me every morning for my last two years there, standing on the edge of the bathroom sink to bump noses with me when I got out of the shower. She was a little grey tiger we got from the shelter. We were looking at kittens in another cage when my father shushed us, then turned and fished out this tiny kitten with a purr so big it was shaking her whole body. I named her after a stuffed cat that my aunt gave me while I was still in the crib. They resembled each other, except one had a bell in the end of its tail, and the other didn’t.

She had respiratory problems in her old age, and the purr became a soft buzz. She didn’t approve of her staff’s noisy grandchildren, even though they were enthralled with her. At some point, the younger girl got too close, and got hissed at. “The kitty smiled at me!” she reported to her grandmother, delighted.

Again, I don’t want to invest this with any false drama. Two of my cousins lost their grandmother on the other side yesterday as well, and it feels a bit foolish to be talking about a cat (and not even the one I work for) in that perspective. But she was a friend as well, I have good memories of her, and they’re worth a few minutes to me.

Now playing: Five-O from Laid by James

Posted by pjm at 9:49 AM | Comments (1)

May 17, 2004

Next job

Without psychoanalyzing my need to constantly come up with alternate professions for myself, I put this forward with no further comment:

“Cat wrangler.”

Posted by pjm at 9:36 PM | Comments (0)

Big day

I guess it was a big day in Northampton today. We didn’t get much of it in Amherst, though I did take a tech support call from a guy who wanted to talk about it while we waited for his machine to reboot. We both sort of circled the issue, not wanting to get in too deep if the other person turned out not to have the same viewpoint we did. I wondered if he’d been thinking about it more than I had.

Or maybe he has the attitude described in the current Valley Advocate:

[T]he next generation doesn’t think gay marriage is as big of a deal as their parents do. Like the Internet, cell phones and rap music, kids look to the world around them and accept it for what it is (whether or not they like it) and adapt accordingly.

I remember the day last winter, before moving back to Amherst, when I was coming home from work and traffic slowed to a crawl in downtown Northampton. Nothing new, but a lot of flashing blue lights in front of town hall, and noise. Music. Big crowd on the steps. I rolled down the window, and heard

Goin’ to the chapel and we’re
gonna get married…

I figured it out when I read the newspaper, of course. That’s always going to be one of my “Only in Northampton” moments.

Posted by pjm at 9:04 PM | Comments (0)

Wheels

It’s bike commute week here in the Pioneer Valley, and I’m trying to ride to work four days out of five. Five out of five would be cool, but some days it’s just not possible.

I have three possible routes to work: I can drive, which is most convenient, fastest, and costs a bit less than $2 in gasoline. I can take a bus, which is relatively slow (30 min. one way,) on a limited schedule now that the University is not in session, and costs $1.80 (two $0.90 passes.) And I can bike or run, which takes about twenty minutes (riding) to an hour (running a roundabout route,) is route-flexible (after-work Puffer’s Pond stops are both reasonable and practical) and is fueled in a way I actually enjoy—specifically, me chowing down.

(I have heard people who claim they run not because they like to run, but because they love to eat. I have some sympathy for that point of view.)

There’s the odd car that doesn’t share my view of the rules of the road (I’m not blocking traffic, I am traffic) but I’m just enough of an opinionated coot to give back as good as I get in most cases.

In a way, Bike Commute Week is an attempt at organized action on high gas prices: people voluntarily using no gasoline for a day, two days, a week. And hopefully discovering that it’s a reasonable alternative to paying for gas. I don’t, in theory, have a problem with paying for gasoline; even at $2-plus per gallon, I don’t think the price we’re paying represents the real cost of the resource. So I don’t think the proper response to historic highs in the price of gasoline is to complain about the price and ask the oil-company fat cats to lower it. (Well, maybe they’re not historic highs, but I can remember filling this same car at $0.85/gallon, so within the past six years it has more than doubled.) They are, after all, giving us what we’re asking for, and thanks to something in the pricing structure in this country (I can never figure out if it’s government, subsidy, lower taxes, or government subsidy in the form of lower taxes) we still pay less for gasoline than nearly everyone else in the world.

So, if you don’t like the price, don’t buy it. I don’t like paying $50 monthly for the two or three hours of television which might actually enrich my life (but which I don’t have time for anyway,) so I don’t. If I don’t like paying $2/gallon for gasoline, I should drive less. I’m willing to cough up for trips to see my nieces, to road races, etc., but the convenience of burning fossil fuels to get me to work each day might not be worth the real cost. So I’ll try non-motorized transit for a while.

I’m fortunate in that biking to work is realistic for me (only about a twenty-minute ride.) But I think it might be more than just good fortune; I think I’ll always want to arrange my life such that a person-powered commute is possible.

Now, where the rubber will really hit the road is when I buy my next car. Peppy and fun or principled and efficient? Maybe I can hang on to the black horse until I don’t have to choose.

Now playing: Shakin’ from Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia by The Dandy Warhols

Posted by pjm at 10:59 AM | Comments (0)

May 14, 2004

Maybe there's something to it after all

Let’s leave aside my motivations for figuring out Izzy’s astrological sign for the moment. (You can tell it’s not usually my thing because I had to check the newspaper to figure out the dates.)

Anyway, he is, appropriately enough, a Leo (he wants to be a lion if he ever grows up) and his horoscope for tomorrow is priceless:

It is important that you try to understand what is motivating the people around you if you expect to manage them with any effectiveness at all.

On a related note, I remembered another bumper sticker (and this one might actually exist):

I ♠ my pets.

Posted by pjm at 9:25 PM | Comments (2)

Splash

Two summers ago (I think) it was some wicked hot around 4th of July. Coming back in from Second Wind on two different occasions, I helped my father moor it, then stripped to shorts and swam back to the dock rather than take the dinghy (predictably enough named Puffin.)

I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, in a pleasant-reminiscence sort of way. Maybe it’s because we got a taste, earlier this week, of how summer can be as unpleasant as winter in its own way. Maybe it’s because my usual pool is closed now. Or maybe because Second Wind had sea trials yesterday in advance of a potential sale.

Now playing: Walls (Circus) from She’s The One by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers

Posted by pjm at 4:27 PM | Comments (0)

What's the frequency?

When things are slow at work, I write more.

Things aren’t slow at work right now.

Now playing: Backwards World from Spirit Touches Ground by Josh Clayton-Felt

Posted by pjm at 2:14 PM | Comments (0)

May 13, 2004

Wheeeeeeeeee!

In Amherst, there are two signs that spring is wrapping up its construction work and letting summer take over, and they inevitably coincide on one week in May. The first is finals, and the second is the town fair. I couldn’t believe it when they started setting up outside my window my sophomore year, when I lived even closer to the Common than I do now. (It’s less than a quarter mile, now, two blocks or so; back then, it was just past the front yard.) I wondered it I would make it through finals.

I rolled by yesterday when they were setting up. Today, they opened a bit more than an hour ago. Now I’m thinking about just getting a big pad of tickets and spending the weekend going in circles. (I know, how is that different from other weekends…)

It’s not a serious fair, like the Tri-County Fair in Northampton in the fall, or the Cummington Fair in late summer. No barns of animals, no band stage or horse track, no oxen pull. Just a dozen or less rides crammed on the Common with the associated fried dough, cotton candy, etc., a sort of fast-food fair. But still, as James Joyce said, “Rapid motion through space elates one.”

I might be disappointed with Cummington this year—they used to have a lumberjack’s competition, but it looks like it won’t be there this year. If I ever can’t run, there’s something I might try. Assuming I didn’t cut any toes off learning, of course.

Now playing: This Dreadful Life from Cherry Marmalade by Kay Hanley

Posted by pjm at 4:15 PM | Comments (0)

Winning behavior

Speaking of Sydney, does anyone remember the sprint relay at the last Olympics? The winning American team’s “victory lap” was a study in ugly-American-ism, strutting and preening and wrapping themselves in the flag. Certainly there’s a large proportion of exhibitionism and unchecked ego in sprinting, but in today’s atmosphere I think a similar display would have the Greeks ripping up the seat cushions and throwing them at the winning team.

There’s a great column in today’s USA Today by Christine Brennan with ideas for turning that around. One suggestion: while the US team marches in behind the large flag, usually they each have small flags they’re waving. Imagine if they traded those for the flags of their heritage. The Greeks have almost adopted world-champion decathlete Tom Pappas already (and who wouldn’t?); imagine if he’s next to Mebrahtom Keflezighi and his Eritrean flag, Abdi Abdirahman and a Somalian flag, Marion Jones with the flag of Belize… we are everyone.

The rest of it is plain old politeness. If Marion turns at the finish line and finds Ekaterina Thanou or Zhanna Block and hugs them the way Ana Guevara or Maria Mutola does. If David Krummenacker shakes hands with his opponents the way Haile Gebrselassie does. If the sprinters sit in the blocks inside their own heads, the way Ato Boldon or Kim Collins do, instead of trying to get into everyone else’s.

Actually, if we could just bottle Deena Kastor and have everyone take a drink before they go to Athens, that would be a good start.

Now playing: Red Red Sun from Listen Like Thieves by INXS

Posted by pjm at 1:15 PM | Comments (0)

May 12, 2004

Summer school

I’ve threatened to write about my continuing education saga before, but it’s beginning to come to a head here. I’ll start with background and immediate circumstances without getting in to doubts, hopes, fears, etc.

When I left my last job, one of the reasons I gave was that I wanted to go to grad school. That’s not quite the case; it would be more accurate to say that I was burned out in a job I thought I loved, I felt underqualified to do anything else, and I saw grad school as a way of gaining credentials. (This is not entirely unfounded; many jobs I’ve seen listed that look interesting require at least a master’s.)

I saw grad school as an impossibility for quite a while. As I’ve mentioned, I majored in Russian in college, and lack not only the motivation to continue in literature, but also the language skills. So that’s out. And due to an unfortunate combination of circumstances my sophomore year, I opted out of the computer-science double major, taking only three of the required ten (or so) courses. (I don’t weep too much over this, because I doubt I would have learned as much then as I fantasize now.) Then, at some point, a career-hopping friend pointed out that night school was a perfectly good way to get the missing courses and be ready for graduate school in CompSci.

Sure enough, there was Muhlenberg Evening College and they were offering calculus just that semester, and I got started picking up the missing math. (I wore a Muhlenberg hat for several years, mostly because I liked it, but also because it was fun to tweak my name-school-conscious family a bit.)

I lost a bit of momentum when I moved, because I expected that living in a college town I would have lots of options. Alas, that’s not the case. Apparently available night-school options come from being near a population center, not being near an education center; the “Continuing Education” offerings at UMass tend more towards “Math for Life” rather than mathematical statistics. (And, more of a problem, they tend to be offered during the work day.) I have repaired instead to the local state colleges and community colleges, trekking down to Westfield State College on a regular basis and eventually enrolling in a second BS program there.

Of course, now that I’ve enrolled, I’m running out of options again. They’re not offering the courses I need (big ones like Statistics, Algorithms, Data Structures, Intro Theory) in the time slots I can make (6 or later.) This spring I was unable to find a course scheduled anywhere in driving range that would be useful to me. This summer I’m considering taking the online Security course at WSC, even though I’ve already taken my required electives, because there are no other options, and it looks professionally interesting. (I seem to be going through the program backwards: I’ve already done most of the third year, but I can’t seem to get in the first and second year courses.)

I’m not really interested in spending ten years (at the rate I’m going) just getting ready to enter a two- or five-year graduate program. But I’m also not interested in leaving a perfectly good, interesting, and well-paying job to take classes full-time and unenrolled without any idea if I’ll be accepted into a graduate program on the other end. The momentum is ebbing again. Ever met someone who’s dropped out of night school?

I’m thinking, right now, about just applying for entry in fall ‘05 and hoping someone will take me and give me time (even unfunded) to pick up the courses I need. I’m not terribly optimistic about it, though. Maybe I should just pick up a few good certifications? It would be quicker and probably cheaper.

Now playing: Almost from All of Our Names by Sarah Harmer

Posted by pjm at 9:36 PM | Comments (1)

New season's line, continued

Well, the reduction is, at least tentatively, complete. (The covers are “artificially” reduced—scaled by your browser—because I don’t want to produce Yet Another Complete Set of Covers if they decide to change the size again.)

The part that really got to me was reducing the cheetah. (I almost said “downsizing,” but he’s still got a job.) Because, you know, cheetahs never win.

If this site looks a little skewed, I was playing with the CSS last night. I stopped when I decided I really need to start from the ground up instead of munging what’s already here.

Now playing: The Bell And The Butterfly from Wonderland by The Charlatans

Posted by pjm at 3:54 PM | Comments (0)

Milestone

Today I opened the first box of Girl Scout Cookies, which had “30 MPW” on the end.

You might recall that I label each box with a weekly mileage. I modified the rules this year, so not only do I have to run the miles, I have to feel like I could run it again the following week; this keeps me from running more than I should and re-injuring myself just to get into the cookies. I actually ran a 30+ mile week back in March, but it wasn’t repeatable. (My training weeks actually end on Sunday, but today’s the first day I’ve been hungry enough to crack in to the extra cookie supply. Maybe it was biking in.)

The next box is marked “35 MPW.” I doubt I’ll get there this week, but maybe next week.

Now playing: Supernatural Radio from She’s The One by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers

Posted by pjm at 2:13 PM | Comments (2)

Shakedown spin

Since next week is Bike Week, I thought I’d ride in to work once or twice this week, both to get myself in the habit (I hope to ride at least three out of five days next week) and remind myself what steps I need to take to make it work on a daily basis.

This is the first time I’ve biked in since moving back to Amherst from Northampton, so the route wasn’t entirely familiar. There was at least one climb I hadn’t been anticipating, since I went up Route 63 and cut across into Sunderland rather than ride on Route 116. But I’d say the biggest lesson from today’s shakedown cruise is that in addition to work clothes, I need to remember a belt.

Fortunately these pants aren’t ones that require a belt, though when I’ve forgotten this checkbox on the list before, I have been known to improvise with Cat-5 cable.

Now playing: Where Is My Mind? from Surfer Rosa by The Pixies

Posted by pjm at 9:36 AM | Comments (2)

May 11, 2004

New season's line

We’re almost ready to roll out the reason I’ve been talking about non-standards-compliant browsers so much lately.

Please feel free to take a look. I’ve still got some fine-tuning bits I want to sort out, but if something looks remarkably out of place, let me know (and please also tell me what browser and version you were using, on which operating system.)

Update: Just sat through the critique with the various company officers. Basically, never mind that nice, bold, fills-your-screen size, we’re going to be gutless and make sure it fits on the screen of someone whose monitor resolution is set to 800×600. So it will be a cramped little box adrift on a sea of blank space, if you’ve got a decent monitor. Can I tell you how much I wish I could scale graphics according to browser window size? At least they didn’t insist on anything that will prevent it from validating.

Update 2: I’ve started the shrinking. Needless to say, there’s some image resizing in my future. Can I just leave them all in the dryer overnight?

Now playing: You Don’t Know from Monday Morning Cold by Erin McKeown

Posted by pjm at 10:57 AM | Comments (2)

Lock your doors

I know this is getting to be a broken record for me, but I really am professionally paranoid (and for good reason.) Anyway, you don’t want to hear me in “I told you so” mode.

There’s an article in Wired News today about “browser hijackers:” bits of spyware/malware which embed nasty stuff on your computer. And by “nasty” I mean, “felony conviction.” I couldn’t read the whole article, it just infuriated me so much.

Better news: via Adot’s, news of a browser plug-in (for Firefox and IE) called Spoof Stick which essentially shows you where you really are on the web. So if you’re about to be hooked by a phishing spoof, you look at Spoof Stick and see, “Hey! I’m not on Downtown Bank’s site! This is beyondthelaw.com!” It seems a bit like the angle-of-attack and tilt gauges in my cousin’s old Tercel, which he referred to as the “oh $#!+ meter”—do you really need a special dial to tell you you’re going uphill? You’d think not. But you’d also think a closed door would be enough to keep people out of a car without the need to lock it.

A friend quoted an email newsletter from Peter Coffee:

I spent almost an hour on the phone one morning last week de-Sassering my mother’s almost-new laptop via a coast-to-coast long-distance call. Call it a tipping point: After that incident, I’ve finally decided to start treating the cup of computing security as much more than half empty, rather than treating security threats as trace contaminants in an otherwise benign environment.

He’s just getting to that point?

The good news: there’s a new system for the Boss, still in its box in my office. Yes, it’s still Windows, but I sold him on replacing IE with Mozilla as his primary browser. And (since I need to remind myself that some things still just work) Raven has been up 237 days without a blink. When it hits 366, I’m making cupcakes. Sometimes the stuff that’s broken occupies all my attention, and the simple things which just work are forgotten.

Now playing: Stop Whispering from Pablo Honey by Radiohead opinion: 3 (of 5)

Posted by pjm at 10:44 AM | Comments (0)

Bumper sticker

Izzy has a deep-seated belief that his breakfast cannot come soon enough. One of his (usually counter-productive) strategies for advancing its arrival is to wake his sleeping staff by biting them.

This morning I decided, in the vein of the “I ♥ my cat” bumper stickers, that Izzy’s sticker would read, “I 8 my people.”

Posted by pjm at 6:21 AM | Comments (0)

May 10, 2004

Olympic years

Bluerabbit followed up my Olympic Trials post asking, more or less, you’ll be in Athens, right?

No, actually, I’ll be taking my Olympics tape-delayed, puréed, and advertising-saturated (which is to say, barely at all) like everyone else in the States. I won’t even be shifting my sleep-wake cycle to get the results from the web the way I did for Sydney.

The primary problem is my primary occupation. Since I’ll only be finishing my third year at my current job, I haven’t built up much (if any) vacation time, and much of that has been sifted away during the year at other events: a day for the NCAA cross-country meet, a day each for the Marathon Trials, a day for Boston, you get the idea. My big chunk of time off for this year will be five days in Austin next month for the NCAA track meet (three days off work.) (I have taken a “real” vacation, back in January, essentially making a three-day weekend into a four-day weekend.) With the number of vacation days I got after finishing two years at work, I would have had to skip every other event this year in order to take seven days (maybe eight) to go to a ten-day meet in Sacramento. Athens was just… not an option.

Beyond that, press credentials for Olympic Stadia in whatever year are very, very hard to come by for full-time, professional track writers, and doubly so for dilettante freelancers like myself. While I was at Runner’s World we never had more than two; only one in Sydney. We fudged things by trying to work our international editions together, feeding our website with copy written by reporters from our U.K. and Australian editions, but I was never high enough on the ladder to get even the second credential—maybe the fourth or fifth. I understand that my successor is going to Athens, but without a credential; he’ll be working in a hotel or some independent press room, not in the stadium.

As I understand it, the credential process is handled by the USOC, who has an allotment of credentials for all U.S. media. The USOC in its wisdom knows that it will reach many, many more people by making sure the New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, et al., have a full staff at the Games. Specialty sport publications and websites (one of those descriptions fits any outlet I’ve ever written for) are low on the mass-audience priority scale. From that perspective, it makes sense, but if you’re trying to cover the biggest event in four years for your sport, it’s maddening.

I had an offer of work in Sacramento, but I had to turn it down. For Athens, I didn’t even get in line; there are far too many people in front of me.

Honestly, though, I think I will miss Sacramento far more than Athens. I’ve only been to two big international meets (the 1999 and 2001 World Championships, in Seville and Edmonton respectively) and after the second I honestly felt I’d seen them all. The level of sleep deprivation and work backlog gets distressing pretty quickly, particularly since you’re inevitably connecting on a balky dialup network and the smallest network task becomes monumental; it’s reminiscent of working at very high altitude. If I’m going to do that, I’d prefer to do it in the U.S., talking to athletes I’ve seen race, even some I know and care about. And I’d rather not do it in a stuffy, heavily polluted place like Athens. I heard the stories after the 1997 World Championships; essentially, they said then, “The IOC was right, Atlanta was a better choice.” Nothing I’ve heard about Athens gives any indication that this is going to be a fun Olympics. (I’m not holding my breath for Beijing, either, in all honesty.) I think the heat and pollution are going to put a lid on top performances; in fact, I think you’ll see the marathoners who have good races in Athens won’t race well again. I think I will be happier in Puffer’s Pond.

Now playing: Top of The World from James by James

Posted by pjm at 9:04 PM | Comments (0)

Making the marks

I’m a little amazed at how much head-space I find I have devoted to guessing who’s going to be on the U.S. Olympic team in the nine as-yet unselected distance and middle-distance events this summer. (The marathons are picked, though there’s a possibility of ferment between the men’s marathon and the 10,000m. Still no women’s steeplechase: boo, IAAF.)

Unlike 2000, I’m not even going to the Trials due to a lack of vacation time. Yet I find that I am already committing to memory the Olympic qualifying standards, who’s got ‘em, who might get ‘em before the Trials, who might get ‘em at the Trials if the race is fast enough.

The silly part is that, at some level, the excitement is that we can’t predict it. We put a bunch of our best athletes on the track and see who can produce in a high-pressure situation. We trickle that data through a complicated set of rules, and sometimes a surprise comes up. Who would have picked a Stanford junior with a freaky chopped stride and hippy stream-of-consciousness interview style (won’t slow down, won’t shut up) to win the 1500m and a ride to Sydney in 2000?

Part of it is a sort of attention triage, weeding out the people who are remarkable for qualified reasons (for instance, “Really good… for a high schooler”) from those who are simply fast. Part of it is being ready for the various complicated scenarios which come up when Trials results and Olympic qualifications don’t overlap. But in the end, what I’m doing is setting up expectations for the specific reason of having them overturned.

Some have argued that that’s half the fun of an Olympic year, and I’m beginning to agree with them. After all, most of these athletes will have to run the race(s) of their life (lives) to make the final in Athens.

Now playing: Subterranean from Songs From The Other Side by The Charlatans

Posted by pjm at 1:48 PM | Comments (1)

Au Courant

A few weeks ago I wrote about Carol Goodrow’s Happy Feet, Healthy Food. Carol was in Sunday’s Hartford Courant (free registration, sorry,) which profiled the book—in the sports section, even. (Sunday’s Courant also had a really good column, albeit with a cryptic headline, about Gavin Coombs’ race.)

On the way to work this morning, I saw three runners. All female, all (relatively) young, the second part not terribly surprising in a college town. It did remind me of a feeling I’ve had at races in recent years, that I’m in a minority. Most of the male runners I see (and overall, males still have a marginal majority in running) are older, forty-plus or beyond. The women tend to be younger, mid-twenties to mid-thirties. I haven’t been able to find statistics to back me up (and I’ve tried), but seems like someone should be delivering a message to college-age males: if you’re wondering where the girls are, try putting the beer down and putting some miles on your shoes.

Now playing: Getting Away With It (All Messed Up) from Pleased to Meet You by James opinion: 5 (of 5)

Posted by pjm at 10:56 AM | Comments (0)

May 8, 2004

Shoeless Gavin

For various reasons which would require an more space than I’m willing to give them in this post, I watched a few races at today’s Hartford High School Invitational, at Trinity College. (Funny that I just mentioned that track earlier this week.)

In the boy’s two-mile, which was loaded with runners from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and New York, the crowd favorite was Gavin Coombs from Connecticut. But Coombs lost his right shoe within fifty meters of the start of the race. (I’ll never understand why the race wasn’t called back.) There was an audible sigh from the crowd.

Still, he stayed in the race. If the announcer hadn’t been harping on it, I probably wouldn’t have noticed the missing shoe for a while. Running barefoot on a tartan track is a great way to rip up your feet, even heavily calloused runner’s feet, but for five laps I couldn’t even see any unevenness in his stride. He hung with the lead pack (being led by two Boston-area runners) and hovered around third to fifth. I was impressed. He looked smooth and strong, even relaxed, but he had a shoe on his inside foot and not on his outside. (If I was given a choice of shoe, I’d choose the outside shoe; he could not have been having a good time on the corners.) He has a classic runner’s build, skinny with long legs, and his form is remarkably good for a high schooler. The announcer was overusing the word “valiant.” (He used it twice more in the girls’ race. Maybe he was anticipating the Sunday funnies.)

In the sixth lap, he started to fall off the lead. I think when he saw them drawing away from him, whatever was blocking out the pain in his foot gave up. He didn’t make it around the start of the seventh lap; he stopped and lay down on the infield. I imagined what he could be thinking, and none of it was happy.

After the race, the announcer pointed him out, being tended by the trainers, and again lauded his valiant effort. I wonder if Coombs wouldn’t rather be under the stands somewhere. His in-state rival, Ahmed Haji, ran a Connecticut state record by seven seconds; Coombs would almost certainly have been under the old record as well, even half-shod.

It seems to be the way of things, in this sport, that you see an athlete who shows sparks of something great. In a lot of cases, though, something’s always in the way. Coombs was apparently too sick to run at the cross-country nationals last winter. Others have been brilliant in high school but fade out at the college level, weighted by their own expectations of improvement, and their perceived failure. While they’re struggling, their fans are just hoping they can run to the potential everyone thought they saw.

Sometimes it happens. Shalane Flanagan never made it to the national meet she was richly qualified for as a high school student. Finally, in ‘02 and ‘03 she won the NCAA meets by such commanding margins that the races were over before the first mile mark. She’s talking seriously about making the Olympic team. There’s hope for Coombs yet.

Posted by pjm at 9:54 PM | Comments (0)

May 7, 2004

Get it done

That’s what the head track coach at The College (now ex) used to say. It was his reflexive motivational phrase: “Get it done.” At the end of the season he’d post results from New Englands and Nationals with the scrawled notation, “Got it done.”

I was thinking about that this morning when I saw the reading period hours for the pool posted on the gym door. Next week will probably be my last in the pool, because I won’t be able to make their sparse open hours over the summer. I’ll have to find something else to supplement my running with while I try to not over-stress my hopefully healing foot. Eventually it will be warm enough to swim at Puffer’s Pond, but I haven’t been so bold yet. Hypothermia isn’t my thing.

One option is biking to work. It’s probably about six miles one-way, mostly through UMass. And the week after next is Bike Week. Great timing. Now get it done.

Now playing: My Friends from End Of The Summer by Dar Williams pjm rating: 5 (of 5)

Posted by pjm at 4:17 PM | Comments (1)

Cats, bags, etc.

I was talking to my parents last night. (I do this, now and then.) We were discussing the topic of the Family Business website, and how one would find it. We share a name with one of those impossible-to-spell Maine counties with a Native American name. When I search Google using the name of the county (ending in “c”) I can’t find the business (which ends with a “ck,” the “correct spelling.”) So I had to pitch two unfamiliar ideas to my parents: first, people don’t find you through links, particularly links from Chamber of Commerce websites. They find you by searching the web. Second, people can’t spell, so it’s worthwhile to include a number of common misspellings of your name at least in the <meta> tags on your site. (Or you can go the Google route and register misspelled domain names. Come to think of it, we should do that here at work.)

At some point, my father said something about how the chamber of commerce site was getting “45 hits a day.” That number is probably wrong (not to mention vague: who talks about “hits” nowadays?) and he admitted that, but in my disbelief I coughed up something like, “45? I get more than that on flashesofpanic.com!” (Because, you know, you’d think a minor city on the coast of Maine could pick up more traffic than me.) I knew this might be a tactical error when it was half out of my mouth, and sure enough, Dad followed up with, “Why would anyone go there?”

Anyway, Mom, Dad, nice to see you here.

Now playing: Every Picture Tells A Story from Georgia Satellites by The Georgia Satellites

Posted by pjm at 2:13 PM | Comments (4)

A little more about browsers

In my Wednesday post about Use a Better Browser, I mentioned my frustration trying to develop websites for a browser with uneven standards support, like Internet Explorer. You wouldn’t think this would be an issue, would you? After all, HTML is HTML, right?

Here’s one problem: starting in the mid-90s, web developers learned they could pop open new browser windows, and commercial sites started using this technique extensively so they could link to outside sites without “losing” the customer to a link. I used to deliberately open new windows if I wanted to come back to the source page (right-click or command-click, open link in new window.) I’d wind up with a screenful of open browser windows. (My supervisor still lives in this world. Every CD or site I do, he comes back with a list of links that should, in his opinion, open in new windows.)

Then, along came tabbed browsing, first in Mozilla, then Chimera (now Camino), then Safari. Now everyone (except IE) has it. I open a single browser window with a slew of tabs. And I get annoyed when a link opens a new window: if I wanted a new window, I’d open one. Otherwise, let me open it in a tab. (Yes, I recognize that’s an issue on this site. Many of the links still use the Movable Type default behavior, and I haven’t made changing them enough of a priority that it’s actually happening.)

I thought about this when I was reading Dan Cederholm’s latest SimpleQuiz, which is about what you do when someone insists you open a new window with that link. One of the suggestions in the comments was a technique explained on youngpup.net, which deals with exactly the frustration I had. Still, reading the comments on Dan’s entry shows how complicated such a simple thing gets.

Meanwhile, on the “petulant web developer wishes the world would change to make his life easier” theme, one of the comments to the Wednesday post (which is threatening to set a Flashes of Panic record for comments by people I don’t actually know) led me to DASDUA, “Developers Against Standards Deficient User Agents.” Now, here’s a whiny organization. It reminds me of the point, somewhere in my age-group soccer time, when I thought to myself, “This game would be a lot easier if the other team wasn’t here.” Well, yeah…

Now playing: Bring A Gun from Seven by James

Posted by pjm at 10:32 AM | Comments (0)

May 6, 2004

The kingfisher won't tell you everything

Like most geeks, I have great love for O’Reilly, the publishing company which makes the greatest computer books about the best tools. My bookshelf here at work, aside from the strong tilt towards software boxes and sticky-noted reference copies of our own titles, looks like it was sponsored by O’Reilly.

Still, I need to administer a good hard kick to the kingfisher book, which did me wrong today. I had PHP installed. I had MySQL installed. I had Apache talking to PHP. But PHP couldn’t talk to MySQL. Why? I read, over and over, the fifteen or sixteen pages which discuss, in excruciating detail, the various permissions (on databases, tables, and columns) which can be granted or withheld on a per-user basis, and the command syntax for granting and revoking.

Nowhere in those fifteen pages did it mention the flush privileges command, which forces MySQL to reload the privilege settings. You need to issue that command before your changes take effect. I found that in, of all books, SAMS’ Teach Yourself MySQL in 21 Days.

I suppose I could have checked the online manual. But man, I trusted the kingfisher, and he let me down.

Now playing: Bodhisattva from A Decade of Steely Dan by Steely Dan

Posted by pjm at 4:06 PM | Comments (1)

Rock City

Great article about the Northampton music scene in the Glob today. Makes me want to live around here. (I’m grinning, but you can’t see me.) I think for years the “Paradise City” label was used ironically by Northampton residents, but in the last few years enough people have been believing in it that it’s actually happening.

I didn’t know that Kris Delmhorst was local now. Though I’m not too surprised, since we first saw her opening for Dar, who used to live here. I notice they didn’t mention the Nields sisters, though.

Now playing: Welcome from Magician Among The Spirits by The Church

Posted by pjm at 3:28 PM | Comments (0)

Aspirations

Yesterday I linked to this interview with George Dole, a native of my town and graduate (in the late 1940s) of my high school, who went on to Yale and Oxford and wound up as an Oxford runner in the Oxford v. AAA meet fifty years ago where Roger Bannister ran 3:59.4. My brother noticed the typical Morse athletics story (Dole started out in basketball) but I noticed the education part. Morse still sends a student to Yale every five or six years (if we’re lucky) but if anyone winds up at Oxford, it’s a closely guarded secret. Can’t have those kids imagining that if they study hard, they’ll get anywhere other than Orono, right? Because they can’t teach you to draft, or weld, or anything like that, at Oxford.

So, on the other side of aspirations, there is the University of Michigan. Two of Michigan’s brightest track stars, Nick Willis and Nate Brannen, are “red-shirting” the spring season (not competing for Michigan) in order to train and race for the summer. The stated goal for both is to run at the Olympics for New Zealand (Willis) and Canada (Brannen). The odds are pretty even; Brannen (Alan Webb’s freshman roommate, before Webb transferred to George Mason and went pro) has two NCAA championships and a small collection of Canadian records, but has to run certain marks and place at the Canadian championships. Willis, who is simply a beautiful athlete to watch, has to reach more challenging marks, but will be automatically selected if he runs them.

What’s nice about this is how Michigan’s sports information department is treating it. Most red-shirt athletes simply don’t exist from the university-SID point of view (unless they win a national championship.) Michigan, on the other hand, has put up a whole section of their website to follow Brannen and Willis’s pursuit of their dreams. It’s really well done.

The only thing that’s missing is video of one of Willis’ unearthly surges. Now there’s something to aspire to.

Now playing: Superhero from Dilate by Ani DiFranco

Posted by pjm at 1:17 PM | Comments (0)

Fifty years ago today

“Ladies and gentlemen, here is the result of event No. 9, the one-mile. First, No. 41, R. G. Bannister of the Amateur Athletic Association and formerly of Exeter and Merton Colleges, with a time which is a new meeting and track record, and which, subject to ratification, will be a new English native, British national, British all-comers, European, British Empire and world’s record. The time is three…”

The noise of the crowd eclipsed the rest.

Posted by pjm at 9:13 AM | Comments (0)

May 5, 2004

Writing deliberately

Sherry has thought about “now playing” more than I have.

I’d better catch up. (Trust me, in my mind this is a relevant link.)

Sherry’s thinking (as I understand it) boils down to this: “What does it have to do with what you’re writing about? If there’s no clear connection, it can only detract from the point you’re making.” (When/if I make significant structural changes to these pages, I am going to use Sherry as my guinea pig, if I can figure out how to make it worth her time.)

Of course, one could employ the “it’s my weblog and I’ll do what I want to” argument, but that’s just a way of evading the fact that you haven’t, actually, thought something through. Sherry’s right: despite my formatting tweaks, the way Ecto inserts the “now playing,” it’s a weird little postscript that doesn’t match the entry it goes with. It’s a U-Haul trailer on a sports car. Since iTunes is usually pulling random stuff out of the library (I have a complicated system to weight that randomness, but I won’t go into it here) the odds of a song and a post being related are, well, pretty small. For that reason, I’ve stopped tagging them on while I figure out a better way.

I have had people tell me they like it (OK, “person,”) and Tom pulls it off fairly well, even though his songs seldom relate to his posts either. Of course, Tom is (among other things) a professional musician. It’s fun to see what pops up there, and follow the links.

There is the question of, “Why do you think anyone would be interested in what you’re listening to?” I don’t think I can answer that satisfactorily, any more than I can answer the question, “Why do you think anyone would be interested in what you’re thinking about?” I can try, though.

One part: it’s there. Ecto has one button, and there it is. Of course, this puts “now playing” on a par with ugly tiled backgrounds on personal home pages (“…because I can!”) and I think I’m hoping to do better than that here.

More parts: I don’t understand the urge to share music, but it’s there. Why else mix tapes (mix CDs, now, I guess.) I made a few, but the best ones were the ones I got from Shawn in high school. I think there’s a bit of the mix tape in “now playing.” The problem with it, though, is that the urge falls apart when you think about it. Why should anyone else like what I like? I promise, your neurons aren’t hooked together exactly the same way mine are, and the electric charge I get from certain music probably won’t look quite the same on your MRI. I don’t think I’ve ever made a tape for anyone that they liked as much as I did. It must be hooked in to the weblog idea, though, and the misconception that what you listen to says something about who you are.

Maybe the solution is to tuck something over in the sidebar, the way Rachelle does with her links. Or Sam’s “Temple of Boom,” though in both cases I’d have to figure out how it’s done (and, in Sam’s case, how to have it not break on archive pages.) And I’d have to come up with a less smart-ass title.

Obligatory Good Will Hunting quote (not really obligatory, but it applies):

Will: Great, or maybe we could go somewhere and just eat a bunch of caramels.

Skylar: What?

Will: When you think about it, it’s just as arbitrary as drinking coffee.

(Now, I can get back to thinking about fink and creating a pseudo-LAMP development environment on my Mac, which is what I do think about, when I think. Some of the time. Some of the time I think about fink, that is, not some of the time I think. I’m going to cite the First Law of Holes and stop now.)

Posted by pjm at 5:16 PM | Comments (1)

Anniversary

Tomorrow is a big event.

I wasn’t planning on doing anything, but since I read about this gentleman, with whom I apparently have some geographic connection, I’m wondering. Ideas? Anyone?

Posted by pjm at 2:34 PM | Comments (1)

Organized insanity

Three of my bikers from Boston, Josh, Mike and Hap, are part of a relay running from San Francisco to Boston.

I can’t figure out if this is the coolest thing I’ve seen in a while, or further evidence that the world has gone nuts.

Posted by pjm at 11:22 AM | Comments (0)

Browser upgrade

If you were looking at this in any browser but Microsoft Internet Explorer, it would look and run better and faster.

Dori called attention to the Use a Better Browser campaign yesterday, and I actually wound up staying up late reading some of the links, including the excellent article from Tim Bray explaining why we can’t (shouldn’t, won’t) be tied down by the browsing capabilities built in to Windows. (I like his illustrations, too.)

I’ve been frustrated many a time attempting to create a site design which is valid (X)HTML and CSS, but also works well across the spectrum of browsers. Inevitably, I wind up compromising part of the design because it is both really slick in “standards-compliant” browsers, and an awful train wreck in Explorer. (Concrete example: www.devbio.com/ has a company logo floating under the navigation bars. That’s supposed to be anchored to the bottom of the browser window, but you can’t do that in IE; if you try, it works everywhere else, but in IE it winds up running over the chapter selection menu.)

Based on that paragraph, I wouldn’t bother posting this, because if the only message of “Use a Better Browser” was, “Get rid of the software you’re comfortable with and have a bookmark investment in so that I can have an easier time doing my job,” it wouldn’t be worth doing. There will always be people using IE, and as a site builder I will always have to allow for them, even if they’re less than 10% of visitors to a site. Evangelism won’t change that.

The message, which Bray makes clear, is that using a “modern” browser (such as Mozilla, Firefox, Opera, or Safari) actually provides a better Web experience. They render pages faster. Many designers are taking advantage of tweaks and quirks to hide features from IE (because they’re “broken” there) and display them in the newer browsers which can take advantage of them. And there are upcoming technologies, like SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics) which improve the online experience, and which IE will not support until Longhorn, which we’re now hearing might not arrive until 2006. Not convinced? All four of these browsers have pop-up ad blocking built in. (I haven’t checked Opera, but I’m sure it’s not missing there.) Microsoft is just now admitting that might not be a bad idea.

Looking backward, there’s the security issue. I think I download and install a Microsoft security patch for IE on a twice-monthly basis. Personally, it’s a mild annoyance. As someone also responsible for a small network and slew of desktop machines, it’s a colossal pain. It is much, much easier for me to advocate Mozilla in-house, and help my users switch over. Every one who has made the switch has remarked on the improvement.

So, just like the security CD, I’ll make this a standing offer. If you’re switching from IE to Mozilla or Firefox on a PC, and need help moving your bookmarks or switching the default web application in Windows, let me know. (In the unlikely event that I don’t already know you, please remind me that you saw this here.) I’ll provide email support (and faster, probably, than mozilla.org can, since I have lower volume.)

Posted by pjm at 10:36 AM | Comments (2)

Blogging as a way of avoiding pitching

It might be a reach for me to call myself a “journalist,” but I did feel a lot of truth in Glenn Fleichman’s article in which he quotes Wonkette’s author (who I don’t generally read, being mostly apolitical) saying:

That’s why I started a blog, actually. Because I wanted to just write stuff without having to prove to an editor it was a good idea. If the only thing I get out of Wonkette is the ability to get editors to assign me stories without my having to sell the pitch, I will be happy.

Further along:

all the really successful/popular blogs are run by people who were already writing for a living, if not actual journalists—either professors or journalists, basically.

One wonders—strictly out of curiosity, of course—if I would have more than four readers here if I had already been writing “for a living” (which I will probably never do, for reasons similar to Glenn’s points about pitching.) Of course, in the long run, the difference between four readers and forty is really not significant.

Anyway, that’s an aside. The point is that I probably would write more (assuming I had time to do so) if I pitched more. And I don’t pitch much because I hate doing it. So I don’t write as much.

Now playing: Best Black Dress from Gotta Get Over Greta by The Nields

Posted by pjm at 9:48 AM | Comments (0)

May 4, 2004

Stymied

I could probably just post a “now playing” instead—Hammering In My Head comes to mind, for example.

After my suggestion that I’d be happier if I stopped doing work-stuff outside of work, I got email from my mother yesterday afternoon asking if I could help out a bit with the website for the Family Business, which I guess is somebody’s way of telling me never to say never. More on this later, perhaps. There’s certainly more to be said.

Something has gone awry in the file server the Production department uses, which ground them to a standstill this morning.

Production has traditionally run their own IT show, since the rest of the building had traditionally just bought Wintel boxes at random and plugged them in. (I was hired to do website and CD-ROM production, with IT as an afterthought, but I’m pretty bad at doing things halfway.) Production, consequently, has their own file server, until recently their own fast segment of the network (we’re all fast, now,) their own backup system, their own network printers, etc. And for pragmatic and political reasons, I’ve left them alone with that for the most part—if they don’t need my help, they don’t need my help. I’ve got plenty to keep me busy with getting everyone else’s collective IT act together, plus the other stuff I do.

So today I got to troubleshoot a server I’d not previously looked at for more than a minute at a time. Which is running an operating system I haven’t used regularly for about two years. I got everyone connected and working again, but it’s a kludgy workaround connection which doesn’t solve the real problem with the server, which I still don’t understand. I am honestly longing for Production to move to OS X. If I worked with them more regularly, and understood what they really need their machines to do, I could have had them ready back in the winter, after the big general book shipped but before they got swamped with this spring’s projects, but anyway.

I thought I’d fill the rest of the afternoon with a quick fix on the registration database for one of our software authors (providing differently-formatted views) but instead I broke it so even the previous default view doesn’t work.

I am considering hiking up Bare Mountain after work, looking for a cache I’m not sure is actually there, but given my record so far today, that might be a bad plan.

Now playing: Chromium from After Everything Now This by The Church

Update: Having whined, the registration database turned out to be an easy fix. I had to get my loops in order.

Posted by pjm at 4:40 PM | Comments (0)

May 3, 2004

Something to read

This started as a comment at Stay of Execution, but it got a little out of hand, so I’m posting it here instead.

When I was a student of Russian, memorization of poems was encouraged. It’s common in the study of Russian literature, both inside and outside Russia, apparently. As one of my professors put it, “When you memorize poetry you always have something to read on the train.” I spent at least one track meet (at Trinity, in the rain, otherwise memorable mostly because we got the van stuck) with Akhmatova’s “Lot’s Wife” cycling in my head. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to run twelve and a half laps thinking about “And the righteous one walked in the footsteps of the messenger of God,” but it might reduce one’s confidence in passing the pacemaker, and certainly raises some concerns about checking one’s heels for pursuers.

When I took 19th c. Russian Poetry with Brodsky, he insisted on us memorizing a poem (which he assigned) for each class. The first task for each class was writing the poem of the day and handing it in; he was draconian in his grading, knocking points off for missing or misplaced commas.

Here’s the catch: we weren’t all Russian language students in that class. And despite Brodsky’s own linguistic situation, he refused to assign Russian poems to be memorized in English translation. So we memorized poems in English. A lot of Frost. Some Auden. Some Houseman. Some Burns. Despite the obvious connections, not a whole lot of Dickinson, but a little.

Not much of it has stuck with me, though enough to drift to the surface when prompted. Perhaps I will find the list somewhere and post it.

Update: Into the archives. A quick curriculum of English poetry for memorizing, by a Russian (and English) poet, from my notes. I may be missing some.

Frost:

  • “Acquainted with the night”
  • “Desert places”
  • “Design” (“…and see if you can sleep well.”)
  • “Provide, Provide”
  • “Planting a wood”
  • “Away”
  • “Neither out far nor in deep”
  • “The gift outright”
  • “Stars, I have seen them fall”
  • “Two look at two”
  • “Fire and ice”
  • “The middle of the road”

Hardy:

  • “Darkling thrush”

Shelly:

  • “Ozymandias”

W.H. Auden:

  • “As I walked out one evening”
  • “O what is that sound which thrills the ear”
  • “Look, stranger, at this island now”

Misc.:

  • “Timor mortis”
  • “Sir Patrick Spens” (Eek, I should know who this is. Browning?)

Now playing: My Son from Under The Big Top by Rosemary Caine

Posted by pjm at 5:21 PM | Comments (3)

Steering or navigating

I ran eight miles, more or less, on Sunday at the Ashley Reservoir in Holyoke. Last time I tried that was late in March, when the pool was closed, and the result was bad for my plantar fascia. Big setback. This run was just hard, and I finished thinking I might be on my way back again.

On the way back from Holyoke, for some reason we decided donuts were in order, and we stopped at Atkins Farms for the purpose of procuring some. I couldn’t decide, so I went for both, and sat down with a chocolate glazed and a chocolate cream-filled. I discovered, also, that Atkins donuts are about twice the size of normal donuts—in thickness, not in circumference. So, two massive donuts for lunch.

This would not seem to fit in with any effort to hold off the weight gain that usually comes with reduced activity. At a given mileage (say, over fifty per week) I reach the point where I can eat pretty much anything, and I generally do. When injured, however, things can get ugly pretty quickly.

I’m not terribly concerned about becoming overweight; from racing weight, I have about thirty pounds of slack before I even reach “average.” However, runners live with a certain brutal equation about weight: two seconds per pound per mile. In other words, for every extra five pounds I carry, I will work just as hard to run a minute slower in a 10K. Obviously, there’s a limit to that equation, which is when there is no longer any “extra” weight; reducing beneficial mass (like the muscles that drive one forward, the bones that hold one up, the fuel the muscles burn, etc.) will hurt one’s results just as much as carrying dead weight. But for now, let’s just accept as a given that I’m at least ten pounds, probably more like twenty, on the right side of that break point as well.

(I established a “floor” of sorts in my first two years in college, when I ran my PRs at most of the standard distances; around that time, upperclassmen from the crew, knocking on doors looking for recruits, told me I was “twenty pounds too heavy to be a cox and twenty pounds too light to be a lightweight.”)

I can’t stand dieting. Loathe it. I’d rather run eighty mile weeks. On a treadmill. I’ve got better things to be worrying about. I don’t want to be in the habit of stepping on a scale every morning and letting that number rule my consumption for the day.

So I consider my long-term goal (“racing weight.”) I consider general steps to take. (Fewer cookies and jelly beans. More mileage.) Then when I’m at the college to swim (once or twice a week, in other words,) I step on the scale there and check my position. If I’m not headed towards the goal in a general sort of way, I make course corrections. In between, I don’t think about it much.

It’s the difference between navigating and steering, between being the captain of the ship and checking position every so often and being the helmsman with hands on the wheel and an eye on the compass. I feel like I’m in charge. And if I say the crew gets two donuts for lunch, the crew gets donuts.

I tend to apply this approach elsewhere as well, but it’s not always as successful. (We’ll discuss my continuing education career later. I hope.) I think I’m happier this way, though.

Now playing: Best Imitation Of Myself from Ben Folds Live by Ben Folds

Posted by pjm at 3:03 PM | Comments (1)

Shown up

Last night, A. made the cookies I failed at (twice.) (That is, I failed to make them sucessfully, twice; A. didn’t make them twice.) They’re good. Not quite what I remember my mother making, but much closer to that ideal than anything I produced.

The really humiliating part of this is that A. never bakes. If I was desperate for a sports metaphor, I’d compare this to being dunked on by Tiger Woods.

Still, the cookies are good.

Now playing: Medication from Version 2.0 by Garbage

Posted by pjm at 11:06 AM | Comments (0)

May 2, 2004

Hoedown

The local police and UMass security are bracing for a sort-of-annual party/riot at UMass, the “Hobart Hoedown” (named for the street full of student apartment buildings which usually ends up the center of the mayhem.) The Gazette printed an article on Friday quoting students suggesting that it might move to neighboring Sunderland or Hadley. Or it might not have been this weekend at all. Might be next weekend.

Last night we met an ambulance high-tailing down Route 9 towards Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton. I heard at least three more sirens before going to sleep. I was hoping they were fire engines responding to Yet Another False Alarm and not more ambulances.

I wonder if I’ll be laughing or grumbling when I read the paper on Monday.

Now playing: High Speed from Parachutes by Coldplay

Update: The newspapers are reporting a “normal weekend” in Amherst. The pot continues to simmer.

Posted by pjm at 6:43 PM | Comments (0)

Community watch

While I’ve mentioned geocaching in the context of a hunt and the reward of the find, a large part of it is community driven. There is something utterly different about standing in the middle of the woods, a fair way from anything deliberate, holding this (relatively) tiny box that someone hid, knowing that they told you the secret of where it was and now you’ve found it. Just as powerful is the thought of the people who found it before you and those who will find it afterward. My father and I both enjoy paging through the logbook at each cache we find. When you do a few caches in a particular area, you start to recognize handles, handwriting, and the kinds of trades people make. You start learning the styles of particular cache hiders. You wonder if people are starting to recognize these things in your logs and your caches.

It’s a funny community that develops, since we seldom actually see each other. Even on a busy weekend, it’s rare and faintly exciting when someone else visits a cache on the same day I do. We walk the same paths, but only rarely do we actually meet in person.

I did some caching with the community in mind on Saturday morning. I went up to South Deerfield and followed the Pocumtuck Ridge Trail from the Mount Sugarloaf auto road around the southeast shoulder of North Sugarloaf and up to the ledge that looks south towards Sugarloaf itself. There is—or was—a cache there called “Valley View Too” which hadn’t been found since last May, though with only one “Did Not Find” logged since then. (Curiously, the caching slang for a failed search, “DNF”, is the same as the runners’ slang for a failed race, where it indicates “Did Not Finish.”)

The caching community only knows the state of a cache by the reports on the website. A string of successful find logs means the cache is probably there and in decent shape (unless the logs indicate otherwise.) A string of DNFs should prompt the owner (who presumably can find it without trouble, since they remember where they put it) to head out and verify that it’s really still there, or, in the case of disaster, clean up the wreckage and list the cache as closed.

I wanted to add another bit of information to the collection about Valley View Too, and unfortunately it was another DNF to the list. I suspect the owner is no longer paying attention—the cache is now a year and a half old—so I requested that it be archived unless someone who knew its actual location could verify that it existed. I didn’t do this lightly; I searched feasible locations within a hundred-foot radius of the coordinates reported by both the original hider and the only later finder to report coordinates (not everyone reports where they find the cache, but considering how inaccurate these things can be despite their precision, I think it’s worth adding to the pool of data.) I spent between 45 minutes and an hour at the mountaintop.

It’s frustrating to log a DNF—I logged another in the afternoon—because it’s not always clear why you couldn’t find it. When you make a successful find, probability snaps into one scenario: successful find. When you DNF, it’s not clear why. Would I have found it if I’d searched just a little longer? Was I distracted by the snake or the flowers (I got pictures—what, I’m not going to enjoy my time in the woods?) and miss looking in the last place where it was hidden? Or is it simply not there, carried off by the owner, a non-cacher who stumbled on it by accident, or even a bear?

The advantage of this frustration is that it raises that question for the community. Hopefully someone else will see that question and set out to answer it.

Meanwhile, I got a great walk on a nice day, and went somewhere I hadn’t been before.

Now playing: Harrisburg from Golden Age Of Radio by Josh Ritter

Update: Two more DNFs were logged on Valley View Too on Sunday, making me feel a bit less incompetent. I am amused, however, that it got two visits in a year, then three on one weekend!

Posted by pjm at 6:05 PM | Comments (0)