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June 30, 2004

First, pick the right name

There were also some people who commented that instead of calling it a Working Group we should have called it a Task Force, because the resulting acronym would have been much more appropriate. All I can say is that I wish I had thought of that because that would have been a really funny name.

Ian Hickson on the naming of the Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group, or WHATWG

In that spirit, I plan on naming tonight’s venture We Have to Approach Termination on Telecommuting Finals, or “WHAT TF do I need to do before the last day of this class tomorrow?”

Now playing: Strange Desire from Welcome To Wherever You Are by INXS

Posted by pjm at 4:06 PM | Comments (0)

We're gaining

When I pulled up to the stop line at the traffic light in North Amherst this morning, I was the only vehicle in the center (“go straight”) lane; there were two waiting in the left-turn lane.

In the moment before the light turned green, I looked left and nodded at the other cyclist in the left-turn lane, with the car waiting its turn behind him.

Now playing: Cortez The Killer from A Box Of Birds by The Church

Posted by pjm at 1:13 PM | Comments (4)

Another way not to get sympathy from tech support

Email different descriptions of your problem to several different email addresses within the company. This will insure that most of the company will be aware of your problem, since they will forward your messages on to the help desk. It will also ensure that the help desk gets multiple copies, just in case one gets lost. Make certain that no single message contains any useful details to indicate the solution (or, for that matter, indicate the actual scope of the problem.) Avoid emailing the actual tech support address. Imply that, because you have class tonight and you’ve just discovered this problem, it is an emergency. Optional: contact us about a problem caused by non-standard software you have installed.

The fact that I can be snide here keeps me from whacking users with the clue stick.

Now playing: Feel Flows from Up To Our Hips by The Charlatans

Posted by pjm at 9:10 AM | Comments (0)

Sticking to stereotypes

Great article in Wired News today about the lack of security at the major presidential websites. The summary is, both sites have structural weaknesses (potential SQL injection and cross-site scripting vulnerabilities); both sites have privacy policies which are essentially meaningless (and, in some places, contain bald-faced lies); both sites track visitors in ways they don’t tell you about, the Bush site particularly obviously. The Bush site also has significant network vulnerabilities.

The part I found most amusing, however, was the software roundup, which fits the liberal vs. conservative stereotypes pretty well:

[T]he Kerry site is housed on an Apache Web server running on a Red Hat Linux box. The Bush website is hosted on a Microsoft IIS 5.0 server and uses Microsoft’s ASP.net.

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

Posted by pjm at 8:13 AM | Comments (0)

June 29, 2004

Moderating cynicism

If you’re interested (even faintly) in computer security, and have some kind of RSS reader permanently running on your desktop, you might want to consider adding the feed for the “Handler’s Diary” at the SANS Internet Storm Center. I’ve found that it often puts up notice of what, as near as anyone can tell, has just hit the fan, and who’s about to catch it. They also write for a mid-level of expertise; for instance, today’s entry has a pretty good description of just how some kinds of spyware and adware work in the context of Yet Another Scam.

Which is a sideways way of getting to the idea that I don’t really think my users are as clueless as I make out. I’ve mentioned before that I make a policy of installing and running SpyBot every time I’m asked to do anything with someone’s Windows box, and to date nobody, including myself, has come away “clean.” These are, in general, intelligent people, often with some very impressive specialized knowledge, and this software infection is as easy to catch as a cold with the system I put on their desk, with no training to speak of. What’s more, they’ve learned a very, very useful adaptive behavior, which is asking me whenever weird things start happening. So, unlike the clueless users who do infuriate me, we don’t usually have infected zombie boxes spewing garbage out onto the internet for days (weeks) on end.

You can prevent a lot of real infections easily by washing your hands, relatively frequently, with normal soap and hot water. (Don’t get me warmed up on antibacterials.) But someone has to tell you that, and the sheer volume of analogous things someone has to tell you about keeping your computer infection-free… well, it’s large.

The fault, in the spyware/adware issue, is squarely on the shoulders of the algae who write this stuff, and push their expenses off on me and my company in the form of my wasted time and that of my co-workers.

Now playing: Still Fighting It from Rockin’ The Suburbs by Ben Folds

Posted by pjm at 1:19 PM | Comments (0)

Cynical morning

Clive Thompson always knows how to speak to my cynical side. After spending a half-hour or so clearing CWS off yet another of my users’ systems, he linked today to his article in Slate, “Us Like Spies,” explaining “how computer users ask to be doomed to viruses and spyware.”

Thompson’s thesis, essentially, is that we’re too lazy to check up on the software we download and install, and too ignorant of what’s going on in the guts of the machine to understand what could be going wrong and how to fix it. And, largely, he’s right. But there are a number of steps users, even non-technical users, can take to keep their machines spyware and adware light:

  1. Don’t use Internet Explorer. Have I mentioned this before?
  2. Don’t download stuff just because it looks cool. You don’t need to replace your pointers or have special software to change your desktop picture on a daily basis, or any of a dozen “toolbars” for IE (which we dumped in step 1, remember?)
  3. If you download software, get it from a place you trust. I’ll download nearly anything from the Mozilla foundation because they’ve got hundreds of thousands of open-source zealots watching their every move, and if there’s spyware included with their stuff, they’ll get stomped. Likewise nearly every open-source package—these guys exist on their reputation, and they can’t afford to monkey around with shady software.
  4. Run one of the many good anti-spyware programs (like AdAware or Spybot) on a regular basis. Weekly is good. Daily is also good.

Am I sour today? Hell yeah. Having my first mug of tea wind up as a lake on the kitchen counter within seconds of adding sugar (and before it reached my lips) was a good start. I have some choice words for the various unicellular organisms I’m seeing in my traffic logs scanning this site for software they can exploit to relay spam, but due to my mood, they’re mostly vicious, obscene, and not fit for sharing with the rest of you wonderful people, because you’re not bitter, jaded burnouts like myself. At least, I hope you’re not.

Now playing: Same Direction from Listen Like Thieves by INXS

Posted by pjm at 9:34 AM | Comments (2)

June 28, 2004

Marketable

I was talking about career paths with friends in Boston this weekend. Most of this group of friends are older than I am, and I often wind up playing the smart-ass kid with them, which has its moments.

So I wasn’t quite sure how seriously to take it when one of them started insisting that I had to come work for her. She’s got some exalted management title at one of the gargantuan financial firms in the area, running some team of IT people. And she pitches a good case: though her office is in Boston, her team is up in the part of New Hampshire which is, for all intents and purposes, in Massachusetts. They use about every database package known to humanity (Oracle, MS-SQL, Sybase, PostGres, MySQL, Interbase, DB2, and for all I know Filemaker and FoxPro.) They move staggering amounts of data around the world on an hourly basis, and this is the team with the tools. She claimed corporate support for continuing education, as well (and, whatever bad things I may say about my previous employer, they would reimburse tuition for nearly any course you could reconcile with your job, whereas I’m on my own with Westfield.)

I doubt I’ll even ask if she was kidding or not. I rather like what I’m doing here right now, and I suspect that I’ll be best-off, when I finally get rolling in grad school, if I try to do that one thing well rather than letting coursework be just one of the flaming torches I juggle.

Still, it’s tempting, and I think the temptation is an insight to what I really want out of this degree. What I like doing is solving puzzles. Putting the pieces together and watching them go. To do that on a larger scale, I need tools.

Right now, I’m doing pretty well in that direction, because running a network of thirty-five (or so) nodes and five servers is really just a large-scale application of the same tools you use to run a high-powered home office. When you step up and start with applications that require load-balancing and fat-pipe networking and things like that… well, that’s another big step beyond where I am now. There are a lot of tools out there which I have access to even now, which I don’t really know how to use, and then there are more which I know we don’t need, so I don’t really know them.

I think more than knowing how to use the tools, I need the experience and knowledge to judge which tools are right for the situation. And be able to make my own, if necessary. It’s fun and fulfilling to do a whole lot of little stuff here, but wouldn’t it also be fun to wrangle the really big iron?

In this way, I’m of a similar mind to Dorothea—I don’t research things. I do things, and I learn them when I need to do them (and often by doing them.) I think that’s a serious warning signal when it comes to the kind of degree that begins with “P.” And that scares me too.

And maybe when I get out I can really be a dwarf, and

spen[d] a lot of time in the dark hammering out beautiful things, e.g. Rings of Power.

Now playing: Everlong from The Colour And The Shape by Foo Fighters

Posted by pjm at 1:56 PM | Comments (0)

June 27, 2004

Things that are good about being a so-called "grown-up"

(Part of an ongoing list, hopefully.)

  • When you go barefoot in public, nobody looks at your feet and thinks, “That’s one pair of socks that’s going straight in the trash.”
  • You can leave a meeting of friends with a can of soda in one side-pocket of your backpack, and a bottle of custom-labeled home-brew in the other.
  • You can buy a T token without bumming quarters from your friends.
  • At the grocery store in the evenings, you can put one foot on the back of the cart and push yourself down the empty aisles like it’s a scooter.

Now playing: Wake Up from Wonderland by The Charlatans

Posted by pjm at 9:02 PM | Comments (0)

June 25, 2004

Worst case scenario

I haven’t really brought up the part of this foot problem that really scares me. My mind wants to look away whenever I so much as think about it.

Immobilization. There, I said it. Four to six weeks in some sort of “walking cast” or other rigid appliance, holding my foot rigid from the ankle on down. In the worst-case scenario, I wear the infernal device 24/7, though the last time I was immobilized (four years ago,) I was granted little recesses to shower or swim. When I was freed, my ankle was so weak I couldn’t stand for long periods of time. (For “long” read, “ten minutes.”) It was a small victory when I could walk the quarter mile (or so) to work.

It was, frankly, hell. The only thing I can imagine worse than six weeks of immobilization is eight weeks of immobilization, and so on. If I’m lucky, I can arrange for it to happen during the hottest weeks of the summer. I hope it’s clear that’s sarcasm. Maybe if it’s a result of some surgical procedure I can get enough pills to render me cheerfully oblivious to the misery, but that’s never really been a winning strategy for me; I usually wind up just suffering in silence and biting anyone who comes near.

I’m concerned that there aren’t many routes left which don’t involve some level of immobilization, and the idea really turns my stomach.

Now playing: Waiting To Be from Spirit Touches Ground by Josh Clayton-Felt

Posted by pjm at 12:47 PM | Comments (0)

Inconclusive

Last night I went down to Springfield to get an ultrasound of my foot at Baystate Hospital. Aside from being asked at nearly every step of the process if I had “been registered” (answer: yes, on the phone a few days ago) it was pretty fascinating.

To start with, the ultrasound machine is easily the coolest piece of dedicated hardware I’ve seen since the TV trucks at Boston. The probes (there are several different ones) jack in to the front of the system with immense multi-pin plugs which must move staggering amounts of data. And the box appears to be running some kind of specialized video-editing stuff; the technician, in addition to a normal keyboard and trackball, also has a range of lit keys for swapping images, freezing one on half of the screen and then continuing to scan on the other half, etc. etc. A common technique was scanning part of my right foot (the one that hurts), freezing the image, then scanning the left foot and matching the image right-and-left on the screen. At one stage, she showed me flaring spots of color on the screen and said, “That’s blood flowing.”

I found this all pretty impressive while I was thinking of it as a high-powered workstation running specialized software, but eventually I figured out that it was, in fact, a machine—the entire system was specialized on this task. It probably didn’t even have an “operating system” as I understand it; it boots directly into this image-processing program, and that’s what it does. I did confirm that there was a network cable plugged in the back, but I haven’t established what good that did.

Anyway, after the technician took a look (and she knew where to look; she, too, has been sleeping with the sock for a while) I finished my book while waiting for the doctor to turn up and take his look. The ultimate verdict was inconclusive; the doctor actually said, “There’s not enough here to support a diagnosis of plantar fasciitis, even though that’s clearly what’s wrong.”

I suspect this is going to mean I will be headed somewhere, maybe back to Baystate, for an MRI. Apparently this is not an uncommon way of finding PF ruptures.

Perversely, I’m getting more stabbing pain than usual today.

Now playing: Shallow from Rock N Roll by Ryan Adams

Posted by pjm at 10:11 AM | Comments (0)

Yet another reason...

I know, I know. I keep harping on this. But it’s increasingly important. Dump Internet Explorer. Download something, anything, else. I recommend Safari, Mozilla, Firefox, or Camino. Why? Well, take a look at this. Here’s the short summary: yesterday, a large number of fairly popular websites were “compromised” (cracked and, essentially, booby-trapped.) Everyone who visited them after the compromise was exploited through a security vulnerability in Internet Explorer. In the case of the browsers, “…different executables were observed. These trojan horse programs include keystroke loggers, proxy servers and other back doors providing full access to the infected system.” In other words, you’re in pretty tough shape.

Except, needless to say, the people who weren’t using Internet Explorer.

Imagine, for a minute, someone installing an I-beam across the interstate. For various reasons, its height is such that everyone driving an SUV hits it and their vehicle is wrecked. But the Civics and Saturns and Neons go zipping on past, quite safely. IE is an SUV. Why keep driving it?

Now playing: The Theatre And Its Double from Forget Yourself by The Church

Posted by pjm at 9:32 AM | Comments (2)

June 24, 2004

Pick Your Horizon, II

A few weeks ago I posted about the views on my ride to work. Today is the sort of day which makes you happy to live outside the city—I almost wrote, “Happy to live here,” but I can think of other places I’d love to be on a day like today, as well. So I hauled the camera along on my ride in this morning. The hayfield which had been just cut with big rolls all over wasn’t as scenic this time, but I did get shots of the glorious desert-in-Massachusetts architecture of UMass, and the overlook from which you can see bustling downtown Whately.

I’ve put the photos in the “extended” entry as usual, so you only have to download them if you want to see them.

Now playing: Change The Locks from She’s The One by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers

Continue reading "Pick Your Horizon, II"

Posted by pjm at 3:58 PM | Comments (0)

Thoughtful morning

The way my bike is adjusted, the seat is fairly high, even though my legs aren’t very long. (Serious bike people might suggest that this means my bike doesn’t fit me well. I’d agree with them if I understood what they were saying.) The crossbar is just about high enough that it’s uncomfortable to stand over the bike with both feet flat on the ground.

This means that every time I start out from the ground, there’s this fractional second where I’m actually sitting in the seat, balancing, as my feet leave the ground and head for the pedals. “Well, of course,” you say, “don’t you always sit in the seat and balance on a bike?” No, not exactly; you put a good deal of weight on the pedals, through your feet, and balance that way. (This is subconscious, and it’s the reason recumbent bikes look scary to me: no weight on the feet.)

I wonder if other people do this, or if they’re more graceful as they get rolling.

In that fraction of a second, I get the feeling that always comes between the last day of something and the first day of the next thing—between graduation and the first day of work, between the last day of one job and the first of the next. I’m moving and being held up, but I don’t have my feet in yet.

The other thing I remembered this morning was the college classmate of mine who referred to my college bike as my “flying machine.” I’m still not sure why, but I think it’s because of the way someone riding a bike looks light and mobile, like a feather on a draft. It’s never that easy when you’re the one cranking, of course. I’ve noticed the same thing looking at people in kayaks; they always look like they’re flitting around atop the water like big bugs. Then you climb in, and you’ve got to push; it’s never as light as it looks.

Now playing: Polar Bear from Some Friendly by The Charlatans

Posted by pjm at 3:15 PM | Comments (0)

More disconnected spam statistics

Another thing that’s wrong with spam: the lists are bad. One of the bits of data coming from Logwatch is what addresses we reject mail from, and how often. Yesterday, we rejected 24 attempts to send mail to an address belonging to an editor who left nearly a year ago.

Sure, after getting enough 500 errors (in email, error numbers in the 500 range mean, “It’s permanently broken, give up,” as opposed to 400 errors, which suggest, “Try back later”) eventually the spammer might weed this out of their list, but by that time they will undoubtedly have spread it to other lists, far and wide. I can fully expect to be bouncing spam for this former employee as long as I’m with the company.

More recently, a copyeditor left. One of her email addresses was her first name, the predictably common “Jennifer.” We bounced 77 messages “for her” yesterday. I can only offer my sympathy if we ever hire another Jennifer.

Now playing: Saddle Up from Let It Rock: The Best of the Georgia Satellites by The Georgia Satellites

Posted by pjm at 8:31 AM | Comments (0)

June 23, 2004

Summer has truly arrived

Puffer’s Pond is warm enough for swimming. I went back and forth, end to end, back and forth. I have no idea what kind of distance that represents, but it was around half an hour (give or take) and my arms are tired, which is enough for now.

Now playing: Kiss Me On The Moon from This Town Is Wrong by Nerissa & Katryna Nields

Posted by pjm at 6:38 PM | Comments (0)

Sheared

The joke is an old one. It actually refers to a Far Side cartoon, in which an emaciated-looking lamb with some tufty hair is standing at an open door with a few scraggly flowers while a mother sheep calls up the stairs, “Look, Luann, Bobby got sheared!”

I think of it every time I get a haircut, mostly due to a college habit of averaging about one haircut per semester. It’s not that long(er) hair looks good on me—quite the opposite, in fact—but that I simply couldn’t find time to make it happen, and when I did, I tended to get it cut as short as possible in an effort to put off the next one.

We went to a place in town we referred to as “The Racist Barber.” (The shop is still open, but under different management.) One of my teammates went there, and when the barber asked where he was from, he answered, “Washington, D.C.” The barber thought about that for a minute, then said, “They’ve got a lot of colored people down there, don’t they.” We mostly avoided conversation and went there for cheap haircuts.

One semester I skipped haircuts entirely until late in the track season. Before the conference meet, another of my teammates put as much of my mop as possible into a topknot (think head-hunters) and shaved everything that didn’t go in the elastic. One side effect of this was a report going back to my brother, a senior at a different college in the same conference: “Your brother is weird, man.” Another was an unusual visa photo (taken before the shave, I think) on my student ID for the summer, which I spent in St. Petersburg. “What a hooligan!” laughed my host-mother.

Now playing: Junk Bond Trader from Figure 8 by Elliott Smith

Posted by pjm at 2:14 PM | Comments (1)

We should charge for support

This message (heavily edited) arrived shortly before I left last night, following up my response to their initial support request. They’re talking about a known problem with one of our CD-ROM titles, which springs from a bug in the version of Macromedia Director used to create the application, back in 1999, and I sent, essentially, a cut-and-paste answer, since we get the question relatively frequently. The bug, of course, applies to any app created with this version of Director—not just ours.

…So, your program is not compatible with XP on MOST computers without changing page file size, something the average user is NOT competent to tackle?

Is there ANY less problematic solution?

Oh, wait, you’re right, there is a less problematic solution, I’ve just been holding out on you. We only send that one to people who are rude to us and don’t believe our first response.

Is it any wonder Microsoft is mostly pay-per-incident support?

Now playing: Monster from ‘Mousse by The Nields

Posted by pjm at 10:54 AM | Comments (0)

June 22, 2004

I work with famous people

People I know keep popping up in the news lately. Yesterday, for instance, one of my current co-workers had her “other” work featured on Field Notes, a natural-history sort of segment that our local public radio station runs semi-regularly during Morning Edition. Scroll down to the section about the Graves Farm swallows.

Last Sunday, a bunch of my old training partners from Pennsylvania, including my coach, were featured in the Morning Call. When I first moved there, neither of the Marks had children and Colin was an infant. I suspect this reporter runs with someone’s wife—I might even have met her, but her name seems to have changed. It’s fun keeping up with them through the paper.

Now playing: Fired from Rockin’ The Suburbs by Ben Folds

Posted by pjm at 3:42 PM | Comments (1)

Network notwork

Yesterday we had a sort of gremlin in the network. Everything upstream of our network was running slowly; dialup slowly, in fact. It worked, but it crawled. Inside the network, things were flying as usual. I rebooted the network hardware that sits at our end of the T1. No effect. I checked load on the gateway. Nothing exceptional. I emailed our upstream provider. Nothing showing there, either. They agreed to ask the telco which owns the line to run a line test overnight.

(An aside: Here’s telecommunications deregulation for you: we pay two different companies for our T1. One company owns the cable and some kind of box in our basement which is locked shut and carries warnings about how it will burn your hands off if you touch it. That’s the telco. They own the line. The other company is in Springfield; they pick up the other end of the line, assign IP addresses to a few boxes at our end (I think we have three numbers—router, gateway, and FTP server) and generally give us an internet dial tone.)

I hadn’t even taken my bike to the basement this morning when the one other person in the building tracked me down and said we were still bogged down, so this time I rebooted everything: network hardware, router, gateway, switch. I figured I’d do it first thing, before anyone else turned up, but I did end up having a long discussion with the acquiring editor about the relative benefits of doing the most possible with cheap hardware.

It looks like the gremlin has been purged, but I’m still not sure what it was.

Now playing: Come And Find Me from Golden Age of Radio by Josh Ritter

Posted by pjm at 9:40 AM | Comments (0)

Morning sighting

As I pedaled up away from North Amherst this morning, I spotted a guy on the other side of the road. For the most part, he looked like a sort you see on the roads around here now and then—young guy, backpack, slightly dingy clothes. He looked like an AT through-hiker without the luggage, and I imagined him having recently spent the night “camped” at some roadside conservation area.

There was something funny about his backpack, though. When I was approaching him, it looked like he had a black garbage bag sticking up from the top of the bag and waving a bit as he walked. I looked back over my shoulder when I passed to confirm the impression, and realized that he had a grey tiger kitten riding on his shoulder, almost like a parrot. It had its front paws up on his shoulder to keep a lookout, and its back paws propped on the backpack.

It reminded me of the story last year about the subway busker in Manhattan who was arrested for having a kitten with him on the platform. Except I expect this kitten doesn’t have a criminal record.

Now playing: Color Bars from Figure 8 by Elliott Smith

Posted by pjm at 9:17 AM | Comments (0)

June 21, 2004

Hacking

Logwatch is a hugely useful program on two of our three Linux servers, summarizing “interesting” activity in an email to the admin (me) on a daily basis. I want it to be just as useful on the third server, but so far I’ve had a lot of garbage in the reports. I suspected something quirky with the version; the two servers which are working well are using version 4.3.1, which shipped with Red Hat 9, and the one I’m trying to install on a much older system (it’s still running the 2.2 Linux kernel) is 5.1, and it’s choking. I get a lot of error messages and junk in the listings.

I asked about this on the Logwatch support list nearly a month ago, and it’s been on my list of problems to solve for quite a while. Today I finally got an answer from the author; Logwatch is a Perl script, and the old server is running Perl 5.000something, a relatively geriatric Perl now that the Perl junkies are talking about v6. I’ve installed a newer Perl to run alongside the older one in order to run SpamAssassin, so what I need to do now is convince Logwatch to use the new Perl, not the old one.

I can either see if it can be done with an installation flag (that is, install the software from tarball and see if I can set an option flag somewhere saying, use this Perl, not that one) or I can take the existing install and hack it. To switch Perl versions, I need to change one line in each of several dozen component files. This means either learning sed, which may be too much for the task at hand, or hacking a quick Perl script together. My Perl is rusty, but that’s what the Camel Book is for.

Update: Hold the phone; I just got the email announcement that Logwatch 5.2 was just released. If I’m gonna hack, I should hack the new version, right?

Update to the update: Well, my Perl skills really stink. I wound up with a lot of extra (and empty) files and no idea where the failure was. So I wiped it, reinstalled, and made the path corrections manually. It works wonderfully now, but it took some hammering with a wrench. I worry that I’ll clobber all the changes if/when I upgrade to 5.3.

What’s the worry? Well, one of the nice things about this package is that it presents me, at the beginning of the day, with a nice, pretty list of hosts which had packets rejected by our firewall, as well as what ports they attempted to connect to. Something like getting phone numbers for everyone who checked your car-door handle to see if it was locked.

Now playing: Inarticulate Nature Boy from Inarticulate Nature Boy by Josh Clayton-Felt

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

Operating systems as lifestyles

This weekend I finished Neal Stephenson’s In the Beginning… Was the Command Line and picked up Linus Torvalds and David Diamond’s Just for Fun: The Story of an Accidental Revolutionary. It’s an interesting pairing, as good as the time I read Murray Halberg’s A Clean Pair of Heels right before Bob Schul’s In the Long Run.

The latter two names, for those who don’t know them, were the 5,000m Olympic gold medalists in 1960 and 1964, respectively. Stephenson is an author (most recently, The Confusion) and Torvalds… well, as the book explains, Torvalds wrote and still maintains authority over the operating system known as Linux.

Stephenson’s book is a tour of a few wild ideas. First, operating systems. Second, that you can put a string of bits on a disk and sell it, and somehow maintain its marketability in the face of free competition. Third… well, operating systems, and Stephenson hits four “major” ones, specifically the matched proprietary rivals MacOS and Windows, the free and powerful Linux, and BeOS. The book is already dated—MacOS has made massive leaps since it was written, and BeOS is defunct—but in the telescoped development of the computer world, it’s important to have some history to properly judge the present. Anyway, Stephenson isn’t completely wrapped in geek-speak; as in his excellent Cryptonomicon, he’s very good at taking representative elements of “hacker” culture and explaining them in a way that makes sense to non-geeks but doesn’t trivialize them. He compares today’s technical culture to H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine with the below-ground Morlocks as a technical, book-reading minority running the technical show for the above ground Eloi, consumers of mass culture. He addresses the way different operating systems work in the wider organization of computer systems; how, for instance,

In trying to understand the Linux phenomenon, then, we have to look not to a single innovator but to a sort of bizarre Trinity: Linus Torvalds, Richard Stallman, and Bill Gates. Take away any of these three and Linux would not exist.

His main thesis is that the OS is a mediator between ourselves and the infinite complexity of the computer itself, and that the dominance of Windows is not because it’s better or because Microsoft is evil—it’s because American’s are looking for a mediated experience, looking for something Eloi can handle. And that Linux is the OS of the Morlocks. I’ve oversimplified this beyond belief, but it’s very, very interesting. (And it’s a free download from the website I’ve linked above, if you feel like paying for the paper and printing instead of buying a pre-printed version.)

Torvalds’ book is an interesting follow-up, because it reminds me how recently Linux became a viable OS. Its first release was around the time I was graduating from high school, and by the time I was out of college it was starting to run large servers. Now here I am administering three Linux servers and contemplating set-up of a Linux workstation here. (OK, maybe I am a little bored with being the only Morlock in the office.) It’s comic, self-effacing, and unapologetic; though Torvalds and Diamond clearly tried to keep the geek-speak to a minimum, they went over the head of their copyeditor at least twice that I’ve noticed (the ls command for getting a directory listing doesn’t include an apostrophe—what is an l's command?)

Still, Torvalds quotes one of his early postings about Linux: “Do you pine for the days when men were men and wrote their own device drivers?” He can actually make me excited about an idea like doing low-level system code. He describes the flash of feeling he got when the initial assembly-language terminal emulator which eventually became Linux 0.01 first began flashing letters on the screen, and I recognized it. Cool.

Geez. Book reviews, movie reviews. I’ll be doing restaurants soon. (This weekend was the Taste of Amherst. Mmmm, Indian.)

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

Posted by pjm at 9:52 AM | Comments (0)

Saved! - a sort of review

Not something I plan on doing often, but this has been percolating in my head since I saw it yesterday. And perhaps I should be doing it more often, if Tony is to be believed?!?

The key to Saved! is a throwaway line about halfway through. Pastor Skip is talking to someone who isn’t listening, and he tells a story about someone else telling him, “I can’t tell the difference between Christian rock and rock rock anymore.”

Put that together with the fact that the allegedly-Christian rock band at the “prom” is “playing” nothing but Replacements tunes, and you’re making progress. (Lip-syncing the actual recordings, in fact, not even a studio-band cover. “We’ll inherit the earth, but we don’t want it” is hardly an anthem for the born again—am I the only one who recognized it? This is a band which recorded songs like “Androgynous” and “Gary’s Got a Boner,” folks.) And the detail that Michael Stipe is a co-producer shouldn’t be left out either. I wonder why, in my area, it’s playing at the Pleasant Street Theater and not the big multiplex, but that might be my paranoia coming out.

Despite some of the (muted) uproar, this isn’t an anti-religion movie. It’s a lot more about the way a certain fraction of religious people choose to practice their religion, and the ways it can lead them into ignorance (pregnancy? Who knew?) and self-contradiction. None of this is new (I hope); what Saved! does differently is package it in a contemporary teen-movie wrapper for popular consumption. Run through a few plot points and you can see the candy coating: uncomfortable budding sexuality, check. Competition between “friends” for desirable person of opposite sex, check. Stuck up high school girl, check. Rebellious girl, check. Oblivious single parents, check. Resolution at prom, check.

The danger is that it will be seen as hateful by one side (it’s not—there’s not a hate-able character in the movie) and too lightweight by the other (it may be.)

Jena Malone does a good job with the main character; most of what she needs to do is look pensive and pretty, and she does that well. Mandy Moore is surprisingly good, as is the subplot of Macaulay Culkin and Eva Amurri. Pastor Skip is a stellar foil, but the real talent is in the scriptwriting. They hit all the high points, and hide some perceptive stuff in the cracks and crannies. (The suggestion that, for instance, a “Mercy House” for backsliders like gay teens or unwed mothers “is less for them than for the people who send them there.”) It’s a time bomb; it plants a lot of subtle bits you won’t think about until much later.

That said, if you’ve thought through religion issues before, you probably won’t find much new in there; it’s purpose isn’t to advance the discussion, but (I expect) to start it, hopefully in a less-than-confrontational manner.

Now playing: We’ll Inherit The Earth from Don’t Tell A Soul by The Replacements

Posted by pjm at 7:25 AM | Comments (1)

June 19, 2004

Demolition

I noticed the other week that access to the main quad at The College was closed off, so on Wednesday evening I persuaded A. to walk over to the campus with me and take a look.

The campus has been under heavy construction since shortly after I moved back up here. They call it the “residential master plan,” with a few goals including housing all first-year students on the Quad (which is the picture-perfect New England private school scene, except for the sixties-ugly library) and opening up more housing for roughly the same number of students; fewer one-room doubles and two-room triples, I suppose. Last year they gutted and retrofitted Williston Hall, which was once where I took Logic; this year they redid (again) North and South Colleges, the two oldest buildings on campus. (I lived in South my first and third years.) They also demolished Milliken dorm and built two new dorms at the southeast corner of the campus, which I believe were called Y Dorm and Z Dorm in Room Draw, but are now King and Wieland.

(When I was an undergrad, “A Dorm” and “B Dorm” made the transition to Jenkins and Taplin; I can remember which was A and which was B, but not which one got which name. Also, “New Dorm” became “Cohan,” but that stuck a bit better.)

With those projects completed (I think North and South are open now, they’ve done the landscaping,) the really monumental change started this month, once the Alumni were gone. They’ve demolished James and Stearns, the two blocks on the quad which, between them, housed more than half of each incoming class, mostly in two-room triples.

I don’t think anyone will cry over those dorms. The word I was tempted to use was “kennels.” They were close, tiny, and densely packed. An article in the alumni magazine referred to them as “rat-holes” and the atmosphere was somewhat Darwinian. The ceilings were low, the rooms were small (one was crammed with a bunk-bed and a single plus three dressers, the other with three desks and maybe a closet) and the room groups were picked by sadists in the Housing office. Thing was, if you lived there (I didn’t—I was in South) you really got to know your classmates. You formed up with room-groups you sometimes held on to until graduation, or you discovered a lot of things (and people) you’d want to avoid in your next three years.

People looked on those dorms like boot camp: a profoundly unpleasant experience that strongly affected their lives.

Now they’re gone, and for the next year the replacements will be under construction. (The incoming first-years in fall ‘05 will be the first to live there.) I snapped a few shots, and I’ve included one in the “extended” entry. It looks, from the sign, like the replacements will look a lot like James and Stearns; maybe they’ll even keep the names. But they look like they’ll be nicer. Those of us who came before can lord it over the young ‘uns. “Why, back in our day, James and Stearns were nasty, brutish, and short!”

Continue reading "Demolition"

Posted by pjm at 8:55 PM | Comments (0)

35 years

Last night there was a celebration, at the office, of the company’s 35th anniversary. By “celebration,” I mean about a hundred people (the office is 28 when everyone’s in) including families, part-timers and freelancers, pretty nearly everyone who’s touched the company and is in driving range. The back yard of the office was mowed back to the property line (only about half of it is mowed regularly) and a big tent put up, next to volleyball nets and horseshoes. Caterers dug a pit and baked lobsters and steamers on hot stones, in seaweed. More than one person compared it to a wedding reception without the hassle of a wedding.

I came to this company expecting a relatively brief stay, after five years at my previous company. I had my eye on graduate school, and thought it would happen a lot faster than it has. It will have been three years at the end of the summer, and might go close to four. It has gone much faster than I expected, and it’s been a much better job than I expected. When I signed on, there were a bunch of things I needed to learn just to do the job. Now I’m pushing projects because I think they offer me a chance to learn more. (Buying our own web server was one such. I had to learn to set it up and run it, and in turn it’s allowed us to handle sites and tools we might not otherwise have attempted.) People tend to stay with this company for a long time; even now, I still feel like a newcomer among them.

This company has few things in common with the one I left, probably beginning and ending with generalities: they’re both publishing companies which took the name of their founders and were started with fairly high ideals. It happens that one became a massive multi-media behemoth and the other stuck to its niche and and prospered. I’ll leave the question of which still maintains its high ideals as an exercise for the reader. I’ll also leave out the question of which paid me better.

The summer clambake was a regular tradition at the old place, but it never felt like the party last night; it was “the company picnic.” This was very, very different. And there was the president, talking to everyone, meeting everyone, with his daughters and his grandson there, telling us how we’d had one of the toughest years we’d ever had (in terms of scheduling—we’ve sent new editions of three of our biggest titles to the printers in the last six or eight months) and how, even after thirty-five years, he still looked forward to coming in to the office in the morning. His office is two doors from mine; he still intimidates me in a lot of ways, I think because I want to do a good job for him. He seems to have such a strong vision of what needs to be done, I want to stand behind him and hand him tools.

I know I will outgrow this job if I stay long enough, but I don’t think it will ever be easy to leave this company. It’s not something I look forward to.

Now playing: 1974 from Rock N Roll by Ryan Adams

Posted by pjm at 2:04 PM | Comments (0)

June 18, 2004

Rolling in

It’s been two days in a row now that I’ve sat up in the bed and wondered if riding the bike to work (abbreviated in my mind as “riding in”) is really the best idea. Once I’ve sat up, however, it’s not hard to get going. This self-powered commute is much, much easier to get motivated for than a daily run. Maybe it’s just as well that I’m not running. It’s too bad the schedule makes it hard to ride in and swim at the pool on the same day, but perhaps when Puffer’s Pond is warm enough for a stop on the way home, I’ll be able to wear myself out enough on a daily basis to prevent spontaneous combustion.

I could, very easily, take side streets from the apartment as far as UMass, and pick up my route there, but I usually ride through town. They’ve got bike lanes painted on the main road, and I feel like I should use them in an effort to keep them from going away. Still, when I sit at the left turn lane in the center of town, my bike and I aren’t enough to trigger the green arrow; I usually wind up waiting until a car pulls up behind me. I should probably go on the pedestrian signal, but I think I’m too bloody-minded for that; either I’m on foot and a pedestrian, or I’m a vehicle in traffic. I can’t have it both ways.

Both days, as well, I’ve been the first one in the office. I’ve been expanding the front-page design I rolled out a few weeks ago to all the sub-pages in the site, which has given me a chance to increase the modularization of the templates (it’s a good thing, trust me) and comb for obsolete or broken pages. I’ve been putting on the headphones and really digging in, which I haven’t done for a good long while. It’s fun to see it working, and in particular the design is much more attractive than it was previously. The whole site looks more professional. I wonder if I would have done as much if I didn’t have some momentum right away in the morning. I don’t usually have this much done by 10:30.

Now playing: I Know She’s In the Building from Bring ‘Em All In by Mike Scott

Posted by pjm at 10:30 AM | Comments (0)

June 17, 2004

Things I fear about graduate school

A list.

  • No program will accept me.
  • I’ll be accepted by a lot of programs and make a poor decision.
  • I’ll ask all the wrong questions in the interviews (I did this in undergrad, but made a good decision in spite of myself.)
  • I’ll want to go somewhere where the admissions standards are too high for me to meet.
  • I’ll go somewhere where I can meet the admissions standards, and the program will be weak.
  • I’ll go somewhere I don’t like living.
  • I won’t go anywhere, and won’t like that.
  • I’ll enter a Ph.D. program and hate it within two years.
  • I’ll enter a masters program and wish I’d gone for the Ph.D.
  • They’ll expect me to do nothing but research with no applications.
  • They’ll just teach applications and never address theories and principles.
  • It will eat my outside life (what little I have.)
  • I’ll leave a good job and not be able to find any when I’m done.
  • I’ll be qualified for dozens of jobs I’ll hate doing.
  • I’ll talk myself into going when it may not be the right thing for me to do.
  • I’ll be so bound up by the things I’m afraid of that I won’t make it happen at all.

Curiously, the one thing I’m not worried about is the value of the degree; I’ve seen plenty of job listings asking for an MS in Computer Science (“or BS and equivalent experience,” which I don’t have either—the BS, that is, since I studied Russian as an undergrad and got a BA.)

Now playing: Life Speeds Up from Hindsight by The Church

Posted by pjm at 9:38 AM | Comments (2)

June 16, 2004

Medical limbo

So, the doctor isn’t a fan of ESWT. “There aren’t any long-term studies,” she tells me. “You could go, spend $3,000 that’s not covered by your insurance, and have the problem recur in a year.”

She mentions surgery. I grimace. She adds that that would be a last resort… after a year or so. I add, mentally: Another year. She refers to “jogging.” This is not, in itself, a bad thing, but it does mean she doesn’t really understand what I’m talking about when I talk about running.

She thinks there is a rupture and/or adhesion of the plantar fascia. I’m not sure I understand what an adhesion is. She gives me an order for an ultrasound at the local hospital, to get a better look at the “soft tissue.” If the ultrasound is inconclusive, we’ll try an MRI. I haven’t figured out what she plans on suggesting based on the results of these tests.

It may be irrelevant, though. The hospital for which she gave me the paper doesn’t do ultrasounds on feet. (Just the more obvious applications, I suppose.) I’ll either need the doctor to intervene with the hospital, or send me to another hospital. Except she’s not in the office today. Nobody is.

I leave voice mail, and head for the pool.

Update: I can go to a hospital in Springfield, at a very odd (late) hour next week. I assume this is so I get a technician who understands feet. The whole thing of having ultrasound on my feet is making me identify, just a little bit, with Zeus.

Now playing: Into The Great Wide Open from Into The Great Wide Open by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers

Posted by pjm at 3:40 PM | Comments (0)

End-user troubleshooting

The wonderful thing about the problems most end-users have with computers is that somewhat more than 75% of them will be solved by simply shutting down the machine, going home for the day or out to lunch, then starting back up on return. If I could enforce this step as part of my documented troubleshooting process, I’d save myself a tremendous amount of time researching error messages, symptoms, etc.

The problem with this technique is the time it requires from the end-user. Often, by the time they get to me, they’re on deadline, or they’ve reached a high level of frustration, and they want something done now. You can’t just say, well, turn it off and let the chips rest for an hour or so.

(Doctors do exactly this, of course, which is why “take two aspirin and call me in the morning” is a cliché.)

The drawback from my point of view is, I don’t get to figure out what the actual problem is. As Neal Stephenson points out in In the Beginning… was the Command Line, we learn the most about computer systems when they fail.

Still, it’s nice to say, “I’ll get back to you on that first thing tomorrow,” and come in the next day to an email along the lines of, “Never mind, it’s better now.” Wizard that I am…

Now playing: Anesthesia from Hologram of Baal by The Church

Posted by pjm at 8:54 AM | Comments (0)

June 15, 2004

Exam

I just finished the first exam of the summer course. It’s still “open” for another three hours, but I’m still too far behind on rest to want to stay up past 11.

This, in my opinion, is the big win of the online course, and this professor has given online exams in “real” courses I’ve taken with him as well. I tend to test well, assuming I understand the material of the course, and as a result when I need to sit for an exam, I wind up sailing through the exam, going back and checking everything twice because I’ll feel like an idiot handing it in that quickly, and still being the first or second person to hand it in, usually in less than half the time allotted. It’s almost not worth the drive to Westfield.

Online, I don’t need to make the drive; I fill in the answers, save, and submit from home, in my own chair, with the music on and a drink on the desk. (I suppose it is theoretically possible to have a beer and take an exam, but I’m not sure I want to put that one into practice. Plus, there’s no beer in the fridge.) Low-stress environment. All I need to worry about is the network going on the blink, or the cat erasing my answers by walking over the keyboard. (He’s good at performing little keyboard miracles like that.) And when I’m done, hey, I’m already home.

By the way, a web form is a great test booklet; multiple choice etc. works well with web widgets, and even if a multi-line text input isn’t the world’s best text editor, at least you can cut and paste.

One of these days, my ability to handwrite will have become completely vestigal…

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

Posted by pjm at 8:38 PM | Comments (1)

Online in France?

A friend of mine who sometimes comments here will be relocating to France later this year. (I don’t think she’s told her employers yet, so we’re being obscure and secretive when we discuss it through email.) I believe the program involves teaching English.

We’ve agreed that this would be a really good weblog, and I’ve offered to set up something on flashesofpanic.com—subdomain, subdirectory, something like that—following the From Russia With Blog precedent.

Of course, she’s got about a zillion other things to worry about, and hasn’t committed to this idea. I don’t have answers for a lot of her questions. For instance: what’s the easiest way to get online? One’s own computer and dialup? Is there public internet access (in libraries, for instance) in France? Cybercafes? Is the dialup still like blowing grapes through a very small straw, like it was when I was in Spain in 1999?

Suggestions, suggestions. Surely among the three of you someone knows more about this stuff than I do.

Now playing: Wrapped in Grey from Nonsuch by XTC

Posted by pjm at 3:02 PM | Comments (0)

While it's hot

OK, I’m an early adopter. As I’ve mentioned before, I think you should be too, particularly if you’re using Internet Explorer:

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

If you want help moving to Firefox from Internet Explorer, let me know and I’ll try to help over email. Honestly, though, it can’t be that hard; nobody took me up on my previous offer (despite a high-profile link from Asa) and I’ve never had any significant trouble upgrading my users here. (And if you’re using a Mac—and you probably should be—it’s almost amazingly easy.)

Now playing: Laughing from Murmur by R.E.M.

Posted by pjm at 9:23 AM | Comments (0)

Out of Time

Two bits from the Time article on weblogs, which (as usual) suffers from the oversimplification and utter lack of nuance unavoidable in sound-bite magazines.

One, the very first paragraph, which closes like this after introducing three well-known weblog people including Slashdot’s Rob “CmdrTaco” Malda:

Today they are some of the most influential media personalities in the world. You can be one too.

Oh, come on. Can’t we put that myth to rest? I’m not going to be even a moderately influential media personality from Flashes of Panic. First, I had much more “influence” (if you can call it that) when I was at RW, had about two orders of magnitude more readers (assuming as many as a dozen people are reading this,) and frankly, I’d rather drink too much cheap beer. Second, there will never be another Slashdot, assuming you can call Slashdot a weblog. (I won’t start that fight.) There will not be another Instapundit. Other than a very small number of full-time weblog authors, every widely-read weblog I’ve seen has been written by someone who is well known for some other reason. (Those of you who arrived here via my place in the twenty-author “Bell Lap” rotation on the RW site, raise your hands. Uh huh, I thought so.)

Starting a weblog in order to become a media personality is like learning an instrument in order to become a rock star. Fine, maybe you will; rock stars have to come from somewhere, after all. But if you don’t find you enjoy the instrument just for the sake of what it lets you say, no matter who’s listening… well, you’re wasting your time. (Yeah, big words from someone who’s barely been at it four months, but I was cynical before I started, too.)

Much better, later in the article:

Blogs can be a great way of communicating, but they can keep people apart too. If I read only those of my choice, precisely tuned to my political biases and you read only yours, we could end up a nation of political solipsists, vacuum sealed in our private feedback loops, never exposed to new arguments, never having to listen to a single word we disagree with.

I don’t think I could say that any better.

Now playing: A Pagan Place from A Pagan Place by The Waterboys

Posted by pjm at 8:42 AM | Comments (0)

June 14, 2004

Pre-started

The power company is planting new utility poles on the street outside my office. It requires the use of two trucks and a crane, plus a cop directing traffic. When I went out to lunch, I was tempted to stop in the street and watch them for a while.

Still, you’d think it would be easier if they moved the seedlings out earlier in the spring, instead of waiting until they were nearly full-grown, wouldn’t you?

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

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

Perishable

Who knew that Cat-5 ethernet cables were a perishable resource?

Every so often, I add a half-dozen or so eight-foot cables to the office supply order. The nice ones in blue with the snagless plugs. I put them in a box in the server room, marked “Ethernet Cables.” Today, I looked in and found only the fifty-foot monster we used once to go room-to-room.

We don’t add new systems to the network very often; I think I can count the new network devices since my arrival on my hands. I would expect our demand for new cables to have been pretty small—less than a dozen, perhaps. I find two unoccupied six-footers in my office (which has nearly as much hardware as the server room; I count eleven PCs, though seven are stacked like cordwood in the corner, and two more are over at my “workbench” waiting for some level of attention.) But these cables aren’t of the new, snagless variety.

I can only hope they’re off together in a closet somewhere, and I will be finding little jumper-length segments of Cat-25 serendipitously in the coming months.

Now playing: Good Time from Hard Candy by Counting Crows

Posted by pjm at 12:30 PM | Comments (0)

June 13, 2004

Not fooling anyone

I’m still on Central Time, despite being in Amherst. (With the hours I’ve been keeping, I might as well be on Pacific Time.) Once again, this does not bode well for the morning.

I managed the expansion of this story on the planes. This one is a bit more of a bear, but I need to get it done because the farther I am from it, the hazier my memory of watching it is. I’m already relying on the results sheets more than I’d like. I need to plug in a bunch of quotes, right now it bristles with ATHLETE QUOTE TK. Two of which are the “blood from a turnip” type of interviews. I have wondered if it might help for coaches to delegate athletes’ training partners to go through the mixed zone with them, so they might feel a bit more comfortable talking, but maybe it would make them even more self-conscious. Still, one woman in particular was wooden and nervous last year and has, in the last year, become merely reticent and self-deprecating. It’s been quite impressive to watch.

I’d like transcribing much, much more if I could listen to music with the other ear.

Posted by pjm at 11:24 PM | Comments (0)

Carefully arranged irrationality

It passes all understanding—well, mine, anyway—why we should be routed through both Minneapolis and Detroit en route from Austin to Hartford. There’s a perfectly good Minneapolis-to-Hartford flight leaving at about the same time we head to Detroit. We tried changing tickets, but they said (essentially) that the fare was tied to the route.

Now, it seems like if the Airline has committed to carry us from Austin to Hartford (or even, admitting that there’s probably a relatively small number of people making that particular trip on a given day, from Minneapolis to Hartford) that it would be less expensive for them to send us directly, rather than in two hops. Less expensive for them equals more profit. But apparently the pricing and scheduling of air travel has been sufficiently abstracted that it no longer reflects much reality; like packets in an IP network, once we’re in the system only our destination matters, and the route we take need only reflect the internal logic of the system, which is opaque to us.

Sometimes I find it intriguing to try and figure out why I get routed the way I do. Sometimes it just gives me headaches, like today when I’m dramatically short on sleep and tolerating a three-hour layover while still in Central time with two flights still remaining.

I wonder if an airline which operated by logical pricing, scheduling, and routing rules obvious to its passengers could be profitable? Or would it drown as the passengers invented Byzantine ways to game the system?

Posted by pjm at 1:04 PM | Comments (0)

News from the land of unfortunate scheduling

Oooh, man, tomorrow’s today’s going to be tough.

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

June 12, 2004

The meter is running

I was amused, a few days ago, to read Sherry’s “bad reasons that I will decide a guy is un-datable.” Amused, largely, because of many of the comments; she stated up-front that they were bad reasons, but one of them is, “too young” and several commenters are either piqued or acting it. The first list—“A few regrets”—is much more interesting, and yet the “too young” line in the second is the one people picked up on. I will resist getting Freudian, I will, I will… oops, too late.

Age is measured too many ways and “young” is an impressively vague way of describing it. Stating a number in calendar years is among the least useful, though easily measured, metrics. I’ve known people older than I who act much younger, and many of the athletes I’m talking to here have a maturity I certainly lacked at their age. I’ve heard people talk about calendar age, intellectual age and emotional age as differing numbers, and recently there’s been a lot of talk from the medical people about physical age vs. calendar age (“But you’ve got the heart of a man half your age!”)

Those are all old concepts, but not ones we keep in mind easily. I guess it’s conditioned in to us in elementary school, where one-year differences (and smaller!) in calendar age make such a big difference in our social circles. When I’m in danger of forgetting, I try to remember used cars. There’s model years, and there’s mileage. They’re each important in their own way, but mileage is what really drives the price, not model year. (This metaphor actually breaks down right in this spot, since high mileage on a recent model year is a bad thing for a car, but could be a good thing in a person… or not.)

I could say that what I find interesting about these athletes is exactly the sort of thing which makes them different from me. I want to know what they’ve done over the last four or eight years which has brought them to such a different place, and how much they’ve thought about how it’s changed them. The differences between them are just as interesting, and even how they react to me and my colleagues with our cluster of notebooks and recorders. Some are natural interviews, casual and articulate under the leading (or hopelessly vague) questions. Others are tongue-tied and reticent, yet ferocious on the track, performing before a crowd.

They’ve all got very high mileage in a literal way. Many have international experience and have competed at the highest levels in their sport, even if only to see how far they still have to go. And they’re all so different when they come off the track. Eventually the only number we can compare them by is a finishing time, and even those are so slippery and condition-dependent that we end up with just the individuals, the personalities.

That’s where we end up in inter-personal relationships, too, isn’t it? She did say, bad reasons.

There. Heavy thinking over for the day. Track tonight. Writing afterward. Flying early in the morning. I should do some packing now.

Posted by pjm at 4:16 PM | Comments (0)

Titan Games

This was in a USATF press release yesterday. I’m not sure I agree with the accuracy of the tag line, but it’s a laugh anyway:

The Titan Games—It’s not all the Olympic Sports, Just the Most Painful Ones!”

Posted by pjm at 11:07 AM | Comments (0)

Drive-by internet

I am sitting in a parked car next to Republic Square in Austin. I am online with the strongest wireless signal I’ve had all week (I’ve been wired in the hotel, and admittedly I probably could have had a stronger signal yesterday if I had actually gone in to Bookpeople instead of sitting outside in front of Whole Foods.)

Austin turns out to be the free Wi-Fi capital of the world, and Republic Square is a flagship. This is helpful, because at this hour, nobody else is open.

It turns out that due to the late-in-the-game nature of our preparations for this trip, our hotel is in about the worst possible location for nearly everything—a sea of concrete highways and parking lots.

The last time I remember this feeling is Sacramento at the 2000 Trials. The feeling is of being behind and low on sleep, knowing only the hotel, the track, and a few places in between. Eating entirely at restaurants, and not always very good ones. (The best meal I’ve had so far was from the salad bar at Whole Foods.) No exercise and a backlog of Other Stuff to Do. I am easily frustrated right now, a side effect of being low on sleep.

That said, I should get back to work. I’ve got the women written up from Thursday, and now I need to finish the men. It’s tougher, because I missed about half of the only men’s final on Thursday while I was talking to the winner of the women’s final. I usually wind up missing a lot of the men’s events for that reason. The mixed zone is funky that way.

Still, I got to see Alistair Cragg’s last race for Arkansas, and that was pretty cool. It’s easy to see why he has fans. Harder to see why there were so many different reporters from the Arkansas papers talking to him… how many newspapers do they have around Fayetteville, anyway? And why did one of them have so many really, really bad questions?

Posted by pjm at 8:40 AM | Comments (0)

June 11, 2004

Being on the road

In only two days, Austin reminded me of everything I hate about traveling to track meets. A new one is the lack of time to whine about them on my weblog.

At least tonight I was able to meet some “old friends I’ve never met” (from a listserve I’ve been on for, oh, about eleven years) and see the bats streaming out from under the Congress Avenue Bridge.

Posted by pjm at 10:56 PM | Comments (2)

June 9, 2004

Ingredients for disaster

1 medium-sized stadium with metal seating
4 tightly-scheduled days of competition
1,000-plus keyed-up athletes (or, one heaping kilo-trackie)
1 persistent lightning storm

Prepare stadium and schedule days well in advance. Select athletes carefully and have ready at least four days in advance. Add a large portion of athletes, first day, and lightning storm to stadium. The resulting mixture should spread over remaining days.

Optional: At any point in the process, add hotel fire alarms to taste.

Posted by pjm at 11:08 PM | Comments (1)

June 8, 2004

I work best under pressure

Now there’s a lie. But why else would I be writing this instead of packing?

We’re off before the sun tomorrow morning, for Austin. I’ll likely be writing a good deal while there, but not necessarily here. We’ll see. Allegedly the hotel has broadband in the rooms. I don’t know when I started thinking it was normal to bring a four-port switch and a few segments of cat-5 to a track meet, but I guess it’s a natural progression.

These folks have politely asked if I might have some material for their site, and I politely told them that they are not at the head of the queue.

Posted by pjm at 9:09 PM | Comments (0)

All about envy

Yesterday the pool re-opened for the summer. The hours aren’t quite as good as during the school year (noon to six, no morning or evening hours) but if I do summer hours at work, it’s doable. I can handle this until Puffer’s Pond is warm enough for regular workouts.

As I pulled in to the parking lot, I saw the track coach bounding over towards the track. I could tell he was on his way to a workout, because he had his spikes in hand. He ran a 3:44 1500m in Boston last weekend and looks like he’s in good shape. There was a lot of spring in his stride. I envied him so much I practically drooled.

After the workout, once I’d had the bad news from the scale (course corrections are due,) a father with his kid in the locker room asked if I was a runner. “You’ve got the build for it,” he said. That’s the only way to call it, since the “Greenfield Winter Carnival” shirt I was wearing gave no indication that it was from the associated race. It’s funny that even though I feel like I’m a long way from the runner I used to be, I’m probably a lot closer than I feel, and relative to most… well, as you get closer to the asymptotes, those incremental differences get bigger and bigger.

I’m trying to get I have an appointment to talk to a doctor about ESWT, which is a new treatment for PF. I’m not sure where it’s offered; I might have to go to Boston.

I’m thrashing in the pool again, thanks to too long away. I managed a mile, and I’m not too sore today, but I won’t get that far today. I’m wondering if I shouldn’t just bag running for the rest of ‘04 and really put my effort into swimming. Too bad it’s too late to train for (let alone enter) the Peaks to Portland swim.

Now playing: The Blonde Waltz from Us And Us Only by The Charlatans

Posted by pjm at 3:27 PM | Comments (1)

Am I the only one who thinks this way?

(The answer is most likely “Yes,” but read on.)

I’ve started getting site traffic reports with the hosts “resolved.” (Before, I was just getting IP numbers, which I either recognized—65.96.x.x is probably someone on a Comcast cable modem, for example, and I recognize the IP of our gateway here at work—or would look up if they were large enough, using dig.) Some of the host names attached to the IP addresses are self-explanatory, like crawl10.googlebot.com or the cable-modem hosts with the IP number in the host name.

The thing that really alarmed me was an address like this (and I’ve mangled it, because it’s our home gateway, but the format is the same): h004087c63b0f.ne.client2.attbi.com.

The reason this is a little spooky is, if you strip off the h and format it slightly differently, say as 00 40 87 c6 3b 0f, well, it looks an awful lot like a MAC (hardware) address (six octets of 0 to 255, represented in hex,) possibly that of our router. I’m not going to dig too deeply into the mechanics of network addressing here, but the MAC address is the way Comcast actually recognizes that router, when it maps an IP address to it and routes internet traffic for it. It’s “burned” in to the hardware of that router.

(In theory, every network port on earth has a unique MAC hard-wired on it at manufacturing time. That’s a lot of MAC addresses, but 2566 is 248, if I’ve got my math right, which is, roughly speaking, enough number-space to assign a MAC address to every grain of sand on Popham Beach. It can be remarkably handy to identify an otherwise unmarked piece of hardware by checking the manufacturer who assigned the MAC address.)

I’m not a believer in the idea that security-by-obscurity solves everything, but it seems to me that exposing the mapping of hostname -> IP number -> MAC address like that is a little spooky and perhaps dangerous, much like using Social Security numbers as driver’s license numbers is. It spreads the information a bit too widely, and (I think) exposes the router to too many extra issues, like IP hijacking and packet spoofing. As noted above, it can be used to identify the manufacturer and possibly the hardware in use, helping the bad guy identify which exploits to try. MAC addressing is more a local network thing than a wider-internet issue—it’s too close to the bottom of the stack of network protocols—but on the local network it can really jack things up. Sure, those things could happen anyway, but why make it so easy?

Outrage moderation: it might not be the MAC address at all, it might just be an arbitrary hexadecimal number in the range 000000000000 to ffffffffffff. Or it could be Comcast getting warmed up for IPv6, which I understand uses 48-bit addressing instead of the 32-bit addressing used in IPv4.

Now playing: Page One from Between 10th And 11th by The Charlatans

Posted by pjm at 8:53 AM | Comments (0)

June 7, 2004

Class progress

Someone commented on a post a week or so ago asking for details about my course this summer, which is primarily WebCT based.

Yes, my professor has office hours, scheduled twice a week and more if we arrange in advance. I’d have to haul down to Westfield (just under an hour’s drive,) but I’d have to do that two or three times a week anyway if I was taking a “real” class.

Do I like it? I’m not sure. “Self-pacing,” for me, has so far meant “procrastinate.” Doing it at the computer is even worse, since that’s one of my primary procrastination tools. I’m making decent progress, but I suspect if I was going to regular class meetings (and therefore had more frequent milestones to hit) I’d be moving faster. I like not having to trek to Westfield on a regular basis, and I like being able to do it on my own time, but I think it’s hard for me to make the effort to get lessons done.

The whole WebCT thing has been a bit of a letdown. There is very little discussion on the “Discussion” board and the “course content” pages are actually hosted on the CS department’s network, as near as I can tell, and framed (possibly authenticated) by WebCT. There’s also a presentation issue with the content: very few college faculty can present an easily readable web page, CS professors included. I am frequently distracted by an urge to clean up his markup!

Now playing: A Letter To Elise from Wish by The Cure

Posted by pjm at 8:38 PM | Comments (1)

Fastest Foster

I’d heard that Jack Foster died this weekend in New Zealand, but hadn’t heard how.

For those who’d never heard of him, Foster was an astounding athlete at his best, not so much for his absolute performances but for the time span one would consider his “prime.” Specifically, Foster ran his fastest marathon in 2:11:19 at the age of 41, winning a silver medal in the Commonwealth Games and setting a record for marathoners over 40 which would stand for sixteen years (until 1990, when his countryman John Campbell would shave off fifteen seconds in that spring’s Boston Marathon, a record which stood at least ten more years.)

To put that mark in perspective, there are only two American men, of any age, who have run faster in the past two years.

I discovered this morning, reading the newspaper stories, that Foster was hit by a car while riding his bike. Which, frankly, gives me chills.

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

Posted by pjm at 3:39 PM | Comments (0)

June 6, 2004

Pawsfest

Today was “Paws-Fest” at the Dakin shelter. As a being-there sort of event it’s very dog-centric, since they travel well; lots of treats and running around and doggy-play things. However, they also have a feline photo contest, and naturally we had pictures of Izzy entered. (We distinguished between “entering Izzy” and “entering pictures of Izzy,” because he’s a long way from being Mr. Congeniality.)

While certainly among the better pictures entered (in my naturally unbiased opinion) there were some very good shots of outdoor cats in their element. Our pictures didn’t capture any of the “numbered” prizes (grand prize, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.) but we did win a sort of “specialty” prize (akin to Mr. Congeniality, I suppose) called “One of a Kind.”

Iz doesn’t seem too disappointed.

I’m putting the pictures in the “extended” entry so front-page and RSS readers won’t have to download them unless they’re looking for them.

Continue reading "Pawsfest"

Posted by pjm at 2:53 PM | Comments (1)

Sheeptacular

Several years ago I was in Chicago for the famous “Cows on Parade” exhibit, where they had custom-designed cows installed up and down the streets. The next year it was duplicated in New York and now it apparently travels the world.

The idea was a great one, and as with most great ideas, it’s been ripped off far and wide, for better or worse. Yesterday, returning from Albany, we came through Pittsfield and saw the opening day of Sheeptacular. It must be seen to be believed, of course, but I think the name is really the crowning achievement.

Now playing: Top of The World from James by James

Posted by pjm at 1:46 PM | Comments (2)

Asymptotes, or The Search for Perfection

In the absence of actual running, I am considering “ultimate performance” goals. Race times are quirky and unpredictable: too reliant on the race-day weather conditions and the course itself. So I’m concentrating on fitness.

  1. Find the “elbow” of the power-to-weight ratio curve.
  2. Reduce resting heart rate to 1 bpm.
  3. Increase max VO2 to 100. (VO2, simply put, is the efficiency at which your body is capable of extracting oxygen from the air you breathe.)
  4. Get drug tested.
  5. Calibrate best times at all distances to conform to the curve described by Pete Riegel’s equation, t2 = t1 × (d2 / d1)1.06
  6. Swim… ah, just read about Michael Phelps, who “can manipulate water like no human since Moses.”

Phelps’ flexibility is most visible on the blocks, after he hunches over and awaits the horn of the starter.

A few competitors shake their arms of nervous energy. The guy in Lane 4—reserved for the fastest qualifier—raises his rapidly but fluidly above his spine until the back of his hands meet with a “WHAP!” that is audible throughout the natatorium. Phelps repeats the motion, calling to mind a bird flapping its wings.

The effect is like Tiger Woods pumping his fist at Augusta National on a Sunday afternoon. You are racing for second. I can do things you can’t.

Now playing: God Only Knows from James by James

Posted by pjm at 11:03 AM | Comments (0)

June 5, 2004

Temporary reprieve for the Bird Sanctuary

It’s been a long time since I posted about the Bird Sanctuary Parking Lot, but I guess it’s been a long time since I had anything to post. Today I got this update through the email list:

[The president] made an announcement concerning our efforts at the Commencement faculty meeting. The college will be converting the upper tennis courts to a temporary parking lot and halting any immediate plans for the creation of a lot in the existing Bird Sanctuary.

The email goes on to confirm my opinion that “this is very good news, but it is by no means a victory,” and urges continued efforts towards “a sustainable solution to parking at the college.” (For one, I doubt the athletic director is pleased with this news.)

One thing I observed this spring, while I was busy being disappointed that they couldn’t get some kind of commitment from the students, was a truly remarkable number of cars regularly parked above the softball field (far side of the track) for intramural softball games. Do you want to really make a difference in the number of cars students feel they need on campus? Talk to the ones that feel they need to drive to the softball field. It’s not a big campus, folks. My walk from the apartment to the pool this winter was longer than most possible dorm-to-softball walks.

I wonder if there are some opposing mind-sets on campus. On one side, the environmentally-minded long-term thinkers (like myself, except I’m neither a student nor on campus.) They recognize the way our national love affair with (and enslavement to) our vehicles is creating a future resources problem and how parking on campus is but one manifestation of this future problem. The opposed mind-set is more pragmatic. I don’t empathize, so I can only try: at best, what good is it doing for me to give up my car when nobody else is. At worst, I’m going to drive my SUV around as much as possible so those tree-hugging weenies can see how much I care about them and their precious causes.

To date, I’ve only heard the, er, tree-hugging weenies. (I’ve met some of them. Many are runners. I like them. Not just because they’re runners, I promise.) I haven’t heard or read anything from the others; in fact, as near as I can tell, they aren’t saying anything.

They’re just driving SUVs to the other side of a relatively small campus for an intramural softball game.

Until we—me and the other tree-hugging weenies—can convince the others that this is a real problem which requires a concerted solution—heck, until we can reach them and get them to engage the idea that there’s a problem—there will be no sustainable solution.

Until then I’m just one more snowflake on the less-driving snowball, hoping eventually we’ll have enough for an avalanche.

Now playing: The Day I Let Glory Steer from This Town Is Wrong by Nerissa & Katryna Nields

Posted by pjm at 7:02 PM | Comments (0)

Definition of "tough crowd"

As part of this security class, I’ve been assigned to follow a security listserver. I’ve subscribed to bugtraq for the first time. Most of it is relatively humdrum announcements of obscure vulnerabilities in even more obscure software (or so it seems to me) but suggestions of vulnerabilities (shortened on-list to “vulns”) or exploits for widely-used software (such as the ubiquitous Linksys four-port home routers) meets some pretty intense scrutiny.

This group doesn’t pull punches when it comes to stuff they don’t like, either. Here’s a signature file (and yes, I know posting this witticism is probably like posting the last joke your aunt mass-mailed you, but it proves my point):

Did you know that, if you play a Windows 2000 CD backwards, you will hear the voice of Satan? That’s nothing! If you play it forward, it will install Windows 2000!

Now playing: Chelsea Hotel #2 from Come and Find Me | Other Side by Josh Ritter

Posted by pjm at 6:22 PM | Comments (0)

June 4, 2004

Hallway buzz

One of my favorite copyeditors is leaving today. I signed a card earlier. (I never know what to sign, or where. Nobody else does either, from the looks of it.) There was a lot of buzzing and whispering, maybe giggling, in the hall near her office a few minutes ago, then just now a burst of laughter which released all the electricity and mystery.

Now playing: New Frontier from Hard Candy by Counting Crows

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

Frustration

I’m about to whine in a boring and uninteresting way. Nobody wants to read it, but this is where I can do it, so just skip on to the next entry, OK?

Frustration is bottling up in a way I really don’t like. In fact, I think if a spammer (just to pick an irritant at random) was to show up here, I might reach physical violence. I’ve already considered throwing things twice today, and I haven’t anything here in the office that’s safely throwable. (Well, there are four or five computers nobody would miss—SuperMac, anyone?)

Let’s start with tech support. After all, everyone else does. We have this one program which is a perpetual drag on my days. I will not name it, because I don’t want this page coming up in a Google search, but for various reasons the installation procedure has become more complicated than it should be. This is a bad thing, because over enough installations users will find some way to fsck even the simplest procedure. I spend a lot of time on the telephone talking people through this installation. This is particularly difficult because I need to describe things to them which are best visualized (that is, after all, why it’s called a Graphical User Interface.) I don’t know what they’re seeing, so I have to guess or prompt them to describe it until I hear the right hook. Today, after spending upwards of half an hour talking to one woman (including inadvertently shutting down all my running applications) it developed that we’d sent her a Windows serial number for her Mac software.

To top it off, the author of this program apparently has a very high level of insecurity about whether his program actually works the way it’s supposed to. It’s very widely used in the field, is cited regularly in papers, but he figuratively wakes up nights wondering if there’s a bug somewhere which is producing incorrect results for everyone. He’s developed this insecurity into the program itself, a sort of pathological reduction of expectations, so in addition to the installation problems, every so often someone asks when they’ll be able to get a “final” version. Damned if I know. If my analysis is right (and it might not be,) never.

If I was a good programmer and understood the field in which this program is used, this would be a grain of sand around which I would produce a pearl of a program, and we could forget this thing and move on. But alas, I can’t code that well, nor do I understand the field (though conveniently, we publish a Made Easy-type book on the subject.)

And then there’s the spammers and malware-spewers… I’ve been in on them before. Word is that even though Microsoft is allegedly fixing zillions of security problems in Service Pack 2 for Windows XP, they’re blocking those with “unlicensed” (i.e. illegal) copies of Windows from installing SP2. So, say, half the Pacific Rim is going to toddle along with the same insecure installation they had before and saturate the rest of us with zombie-relayed spam and viruses, just like they are now. Thanks for nothing, Mr. Gates. With all the bird feces I get in my inbox, I can’t imagine what it would be like if we weren’t bouncing, filtering and deleting like mad. I think I’d go down to the basement and unplug the T1.

Last but not least, of course, my foot is jacked up. I’m following the rule of thumb I learned years ago: if it hurts two days in a row, take two days off. If it still hurts, take a week off. If it still hurts, get professional help. Well, two days didn’t help, so tomorrow I start the week. It’s not like it’s something sudden; it’s been aching all along. It’s just gotten worse over the last week, and called attention to the fact that it’s not getting better.

Injuries are something you deal with when you run a lot. The frustration is just the sheer length of this. I’m tired of all the contortions I go through to fight it off, the taping, the brace, the goddamned sock every goddamned night. I’m tired of icing. I’m tired of doing half-assed training to keep it from getting worse, and while I appreciate the sentiment of the person who helpfully commented that maybe I was “doing too much” even for “an elite runner,” (a) I’m a long, long way from elite—a full five minutes off Olympic Trials qualifying at 10k, just to pick one example—and (b) in order to run that 30 miles per week, I endured a patient (and tedious) buildup starting in January. Going back and starting from zero feels far too Sisyphean even for this sport.

I know I should be finding something else to push me towards recovery. Acupuncture, new orthotics, this new sonic therapy thing they’re doing. I just feel like I’ve reached my capacity for “something elses.” I already published the list of things I’ve tried. When do I say, “Hold, enough?” When do I ride the bike down to the Connecticut and just see how far I can throw my spikes and become another sedentary American like everyone else?

And, oh, yeah—it looks like this site is currently inaccessible. The host is being DDOSed. See malware, above.

So, yeah, frustration. Usually when I’m this wound, I go for a run. Guess what! My frustration is recursive! Maybe another dunk in Puffer’s would straighten me out again. Or something… a few hours on a project which interests me and occupies all my attention, no distractions. Flow. I miss it like a home I’ll never see again.

OK. Tantrum over. Back to work.

Now playing: 1000 Umbrellas from Skylarking by XTC

Posted by pjm at 3:39 PM | Comments (0)

Alleviating my own frustrations by mocking others

I’d like to call your attention to the Bad Review Revue on Defective Yeti.

Now playing: Dangerous Type by Letters to Cleo

Posted by pjm at 2:08 PM | Comments (0)

Pick your horizon

When I came back here, I remembered it as a beautiful place, but I was mostly thinking about the southerly view from The College, bounded by the Holyoke Range and Mt. Tom, and perhaps the view southwest from route 116, just south of the college, looking across fields and the Fort River valley towards Belchertown and the Pelham Hills. Driving and riding north to Sunderland from Northampton gave me a daily vista of Mount Sugarloaf and the west flank of Mount Toby (which reservation makes up something like two-thirds of the land area of Sunderland.)

Coming up from Amherst, the Mt. Toby hills are the dominant feature of the landscape. With Mt. Sugarloaf, they squeeze the river near the Sunderland bridge (a very pretty place) and on many mornings they are shrouded with river fog even as Hadley and Amherst have cleared up. I imagine the fog flowing down the river valley and piling up on Mt. Toby like an avalanche on an outcropping. As I head up into Sunderland, it looks like a big skein of cotton pulled out and draped over the tops of the mountains. Nearly any northbound route out of Amherst will, at some point, show these mountains, but Amherst tends to look south to the Holyoke Range.

Since I’ve been riding to work, I’ve found another nice vista. If I take the low-traffic (but longer) route, I turn on to East Plumtree Road near where Leverett and Sunderland meet at the Amherst line. Marked with an “X 314” on the second map above, less than a hundred feet down East Plumtree you can look west right across the Connecticut River Valley. The river is invisible at this point, but it’s easy to spot the three (or so) white buildings that make up the center Whately (I’d call it “downtown Whately,” but I doubt this audience would spot the irony; it’s just the obligatory collection of civic buildings, town hall, library, church. There is no “downtown” to speak of in Whately.) Behind that, the green rollers of the “hilltowns” and the beginnings of the Berkshires. There are several nice houses there cleverly positioned to make the most of the spectacular view.

If I’d been there at the right time Wednesday, I might have been able to watch the gusher of a thunderstorm we had sweep across the valley. I keep meaning to bring a camera on my bike commute and document all the things I spot which somehow seem so interesting while I’m riding by.

Now playing: Stray from Dead Air by Heatmiser

Posted by pjm at 10:52 AM | Comments (3)

June 3, 2004

Just in case you were wondering...

…Puffer’s Pond is still too cold for swimming. I checked, but only made it about halfway across before wising up. I need about five more degrees.

Now playing: Next Lover from Seven by James

Posted by pjm at 7:55 PM | Comments (0)

You've got scams!

I think if I actually managed to choke off the flow of spam into my users’ mailboxes, many of them would miss the entertainment value of complaining about it.

One in particular has had a series of notifications about winning European lottery tickets. (I’m sure this is some sort of variant on the infamous “Nigerian” advance-fee scam.) We wondered today just how many tickets she had “bought.” It occurred to me, though: if x out of every y tickets bought are winners, and you buy zero tickets, wouldn’t you then have a theoretically infinite number of winners?

Either way, it looks like these s[p|c]ammers have sufficiently advanced math skills to have determined the value of division by zero.

(Thumbnail explanation of the above cryptic word: it’s a regular expression, a way of expressing text strings with some flexibility. In this case, a string beginning with “s”, containing either “p” or “c” in the second position, then “ammers” over the rest of the string. It should match either “spammers” or “scammers” successfully, and it’s very brief. Unless you feel compelled to include a four-sentence explanation.)

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

Posted by pjm at 3:50 PM | Comments (0)

Road hazard

When the alarm clock went off this morning, I could hear rain on the roof window. Not a good sign when you’re planning on riding to work because your foot aches so damn much. Two slaps of the “snooze” button later, I could tell it was tapering off. By the time I was dressed, fed and had lunch packed, it wasn’t raining anymore; in fact, I got out my sunglasses.

With the college students gone home for the summer, traffic is no longer an issue on my ride to work, just wet roads which left me with a fine layer of road grit all over by the time I got to work. As I was starting up the last long hill north of town, though, I saw a young girl and her father (apparently) standing beside the road. OK, I thought, they’re waiting for a school bus. Why’s she wearing a bike helmet? And why is her backpack nearly lying in the road?

As I got closer, I saw that her father was wearing a bike helmet, too. Then I saw that her “backpack” was a large, dead woodchuck (or similar animal.) Her father was explaining something to her, talking with his hands. I noticed the gestures for “running out in the road,” and “smack!” Their bike was one of those instant-tandem types where the child rides a sort of one-wheel “trailer” bolted on the main pipe of the adult’s bike. I’m still not sure why they stopped to examine the roadkill, but I’m curious.

Now playing: Only Teethin’ from Tellin’ Stories by The Charlatans

Posted by pjm at 1:37 PM | Comments (0)

Why validation is worth a few minutes

That’s code validation, specifically the act of running your HTML through a specially-designed SGML parser to determine if it’s “valid.”

Sometime last month I linked to Dan Cederholm’s discussion of new window creation. There’s an extensive and interesting discussion in the comments (where, oddly enough, I couldn’t find anyone bringing up the “it confuses the user” point.) One comment reiterates something I sometimes need to be reminded of: all this jumping through hoops to make pages validate is worth something. It makes pages faster.

I can’t improve on the explanation given in Dan’s comments by Al Abut:

Modern browsers are actually several different browsers packaged and hidden under one skin—an old Quirks mode one that’s basically the ghost of NN4 on life support, and a blast from the future, a tiny, lean, super fast rendering engine in Strict mode. Tiny because valid xml files are structurally oh so simple—it’s the whole point of xml and xhtml! Oh, and just declaring it Strict doesn’t make it so, just like wearing pink pumps doesn’t make me a pretty girl. If you use the Strict doctype but don’t validate, throwing the browser an error, it bitch slaps you back to Quirks mode and starts rendering from the top again, just like you rightly deserve.

So, my point, again: if you want your users to drive in the fast lane, your code needs to meet the entrance standards. If it doesn’t validate (or, if it claims to be Strict but doesn’t actually validate) you’re back on the potholed side streets.

Now playing: Kiss Me On The Moon from This Town Is Wrong by Nerissa & Katryna Nields

Posted by pjm at 11:59 AM | Comments (0)

June 2, 2004

Special words

Sometimes I notice people using characteristic words and phrases when they talk. Scheherazade posted about such a person this weekend (last paragraph, “agricultural”) and it reminded me of talking to Josh Cox at the men’s marathon trials back in February.

Josh’s phrase was “jacked up.” I’ve heard people use “jacked” to mean excited, and it makes some sense that way; one’s energy level is elevated. Josh was using it to mean, “messed up” or otherwise not in good condition. I liked that usage more; it brought up images of cars jacked up for tire replacement, or on a lift in the garage.

I’ve decided this is how I’ll describe my current condition from now on: “My foot is jacked up.”

I’ve probably got quite a few of these myself, but it’s harder to find them in your own speech. (What? Not everyone talks like I do?) One that leaps to mind is “wound.” Past perfective of “wind.” Think “wound up,” in the mechanical toy sense (and think about winding that toy too far.) Or “tightly wound.”

Now playing: The Day I Let Glory Steer from This Town Is Wrong by Nerissa & Katryna Nields

Posted by pjm at 2:40 PM | Comments (0)

A different kind of print publishing

Or perhaps I’m just idealistic about my workplaces until I’ve been there long enough to get really sour.

Going from magazines to textbooks included a certain change in tolerance. In magazines, no matter what happened, there was another one next month. One accepted the idea that the bulk of your work (in print) would be recycled fairly quickly. In textbooks, even the fastest-revising title will be on sale for at least two years, and on bookshelves much longer. The printer’s schedule is just as tight, but the imperative to get it right this time, because it will be a colossal pain to correct it later, is much greater.

Also, going from consumer-oriented publications to a relatively narrow segment of the already constrained academic market changes the attitude of both readers and authors. The readers have higher expectations of us, for certain. The authors… well, this morning FedEx delivered a cheesecake and a large collection of bagels from two authors whose volume recently emerged from the printers. That never happens in magazine publishing.

On a side note regarding my former employers, yesterday someone found this site with the search query “runnersworld safari os x.” I guess that makes three of us, at least?

Now playing: Someone Special from Hindsight (Disc 2) by The Church

Posted by pjm at 10:38 AM | Comments (0)

June 1, 2004

On the plus side...

Having the ice around is a big help with the weekend’s collection of mosquito bites. They appear to have congregated at my prominent ankle-bones, again, and I think the only thing more comfortable than the ice would be a lit match.

With poison ivy, my trick is antihistamines of the Benadryl caliber (it’s an allergy, after all,) but that seems like overdoing it for mosquito bites.

Now playing: Sunshine/Nowhere To Run from Tarantula by Ride

Posted by pjm at 4:46 PM | Comments (0)

Limp

As I sit here, I’m rolling my bare right foot back and forth over a bottle of ice. It’s a green plastic Gatorade bottle of the sort you’d see on the sidelines at a football game, a smidge smaller than a canister of tennis balls, and I filled it and froze it solid in the office freezer weeks ago. I will work my foot over it absent-mindedly until my foot is quite numb, then return the bottle to the freezer to be ready for another session later.

The problem that I have is called plantar fasciitis, or PF for those unsure of the spelling of “fasciitis.” At root, it’s a very simple problem: the fascia muscle on the underside (plantar) of my foot is tight and/or inflamed. It’s very common among runners and people who make poor shoe choices, though I’d never had problems with it before. For a demo, put your (shoeless) right foot on your left knee. Grab the toes with your right hand and push them back so they’re nearly perpendicular to the rest of the foot (or at least as far back as they will comfortably go.) Run your left hand along by your arch, where the doctor checks the foot reflex. You’re feeling the plantar fascia. Now imagine it aching whenever you’re on your feet for an extended period (say, half an hour in the grocery store) and you’re close to where I am.

Since the plantar fascia wraps around the heel bone, most people experience PF as heel pain. I’ve gone through a few stages, one the classic heel pain, another involving the constant feeling of having a large rock lodged in the arch of my shoe. Now it mostly aches, except for some occasions when it “pulls,” a sort of stabbing feeling in the arch followed by the rock-in-the-shoe feeling.

I’ve been fighting this since the beginning of August of last year, when I tried just treating it with rest. Since then, I’ve hit just about all of the recommended treatments, including (but not limited to):

  • Massaging my foot by rolling it over a golf ball (not good)
  • Icing (ongoing)
  • Taping (largely ineffective, but better than not taping)
  • Active Release therapy (no significant improvement, but try it for iliotibial band syndrome)
  • New orthotics (no significant improvement)
  • New shoes (I miss my nice, light trainers and resent my clunky motion-control bricks)
  • Arch braces (like taping, it doesn’t seem to help, but it lets me run without making things worse, usually.)
  • A “sock”-type night splint (The most useful thing I’ve tried, since it keeps me from tightening up overnight, but after eight months I’m thoroughly sick of it; I remember to put it on at night when I wonder why I feel so comfortable.)
  • Finally, a cortisone shot. (Helpful for about two months, but obviously no magic bullet.)

So far as I can tell, there are three things I haven’t tried: more-rigid orthotics, surgery to release the plantar fascia, and acupuncture. (I’m leaving out a foot transplant, aromatherapy, Rolfing, and bionic replacement; psychotherapy might be called for eventually, though.)

I am running some now, but between thirty and forty miles a week (around half my pre-PF load) I have plateaued. I can’t add more miles without a significantly sorer foot, but I can’t really do anything I want to do without adding more miles. Since running at a faster pace stresses the plantar more than running at a slow pace (since the quicker pace is, essentially, applying more force to the arch at toe-off) I’m stalled at about 8:00 pace, unless I’m in a race. (Racing is like alcohol; one loses a certain percentage of judgment when a starter yells, “GO!”) I need to maintain a heavy icing and stretching regimen to run even this much, along with the taping, bracing and splinting. This can get particularly amusing when I find myself taking a break from a road trip in order to sit on a bench outside a grocery store with my foot on the five-pound bag of ice I just bought.

There’s some question in my mind if it’s worth it; if I should quit trying to run for a while, and once again focus full attention on getting rid of the problem. I’ve heard stories of people fighting this for seven months to a year; I’m on ten months now. The catch with that approach is that a certain amount of running is simply required for me as my life is currently structured; when I am not running, I am not much fun to be around. (Whether I am much fun to be around when I am running is a question I am not prepared to address objectively, but when I’m not running even I sometimes don’t like being around me.)

And then there’s the question of whether I actually have the time and energy to focus on the problem with everything else I’m trying to do. There are too many commitments on the back burner as it is.

Now playing: Irresistible Force from Revenge Of The Goldfish by Inspiral Carpets

Posted by pjm at 12:24 PM | Comments (2)