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October 31, 2004

Jack the tiger

As promised, our lantern, unlit and lit.

Jack o' lantern cat face, unlit

Jack o' lantern cat face, lit

I got compliments. From people who don’t know me, even.

Posted by pjm at 9:06 PM | Comments (2)

If wishes were horses...

…I’d still be relying on my own two feet.

I spent a chunk of Friday downtime starting to suss out the web app I’ve been calling “the wish list.” I created the subdomain and database on my host, laid out the database tables as best I could guess (I’m sure they’ll need tweaking as I go along, though,) and started thinking through site flow (that is, where a user starts, where they can go from there, where they can go from there, etc.)

I came up with half a dozen pages just for access control and authentication alone, and got discouraged with trying to imagine it all in detail, so this morning I’ve started coding up the access control parts. It’s easier than I’d expected; I forgot about PHP’s session functions, which make it pretty easy to remember that someone has authenticated (and who they authenticated as) through a session, then “forget” that data when they log out by closing the session. I’m hoping I can complete all the user-handling code today, then put some evenings this week in to the list-handling code.

I’m discovering that what’s different about this one is that the application is more complicated than the data. Most of what I’ve dealt with at work is just two different views of the data, the content manager’s view and the reader’s view. Here, how much of each record (and which records) are displayed is heavily dependent on what user is asking for it; there’s a lot of query and presentation logic in the application, so I have to do a lot more PHP thinking, and not as much MySQL thinking.

I haven’t even started to think about the presentation layer; everything is in bare, unstyled default HTML. I’m going to need a style sheet one of these days.

Now playing: Six O’Clock News from Failer by Kathleen Edwards

Posted by pjm at 10:50 AM | Comments (3)

October 30, 2004


Tonight was pumpkin soup, apple pie, beer and pumpkin carving at the house of an acquaintance of mine. I actually used to race him now and then in high school, but he was notably faster than I was. After a few years out in the midwest, he transferred to UMass, and his brother is now the coach at the College, so he’s been in Amherst ever since. His girlfriend is new in town, and I suspect the motivation here was to help her feel a bit more at home; it’s not easy moving somewhere and not knowing most of the people. There weren’t more than eight or ten people there at a time, but about fifteen passed through.

It was a really good time. The food was great, though the host’s family pretended it wasn’t. We were mostly runners, but that didn’t dominate the conversation entirely. Our lives overlapped in odd ways; we’d all run the same races different years, lived in the same towns at different times, gone to the same colleges in different years. We’d gone to the same concerts; I felt like the host’s music selection had all been lifted from CDs I’d keep in the car if I kept CDs in the car.

I was a little intimidated by the pumpkin carving (not that you’d notice from how I dug in.) Our host is a professional illustrator and I knew he’d produce some interesting lanterns. He did, and so did his girlfriend; in particular, he had a massive one which he used nearly all of in a bug-eyed gargoyle not unlike this one. I want to drive by their house tomorrow night and get a picture of it sitting out. I did a credible cat-face, which I’m actually a little proud of. I was worried that the rind was too thick and my cuts too thin for light to shine through, but we put a candle in it and it worked out all right. I brought it home; tomorrow I’ll light it and put it on the porch, and if I can get a good picture I’ll post it.

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

October 29, 2004


Right, so you all know the difference between a hacker and a cracker, right?

I’m adding a new feature to the CMA of our corporate website. It’s a pretty simple widget, actually, but it’s heavier work than I’ve done on this site for a few months. I added a table to the database, and now I’m writing a platoon of PHP forms to let someone manage that table in a relatively user-friendly way. To do it properly, I need to hunker down here, lock out as many distractions as I can, and stream code into BBEdit windows as quickly as I can remember it. I have browser tabs open to the MySQL manual and the PHP manual as well as the CMA forms themselves, and I have an open SFTP connection up to the server so I can push forms up as fast as I debug them. I have my headphones on (rare, in the office) so I’m not distracted by outside noise. The office manager came in to deliver a new phone book a few minutes ago and startled me, despite my C.H.I.M.P. mirror on the monitor. It’s flow; I cut loose a lot of nonessentials and get in the process.

This is all necessary because of the two parts of the process, planning and execution. The first part, visualizing the problem and the process, is relatively low-stress. The rest of it is, I suppose, a creative act: I take this concept, which I have in my head (and perhaps in a few paper notes) and realizing it in code. If I lose the concept in my head, it will take me hours to get it back. If I get sidetracked from what I’m at, it’s not easy to get the picture back.

But while it’s happening, flowing from my head into files (and running, which is something I love about runtime languages like PHP and web development: it’s there as soon as it’s syntactically correct,) it’s a rush. It’s like being on a wave. I think about the scene, early in Cryptonomicon, where Avi Halaby is about to explain his new business plan over the phone to Randy Waterhouse, and he starts out by announcing, “I am channeling the bad shit! The power is coming down from On High. Tonight, it happens to be coming through me—you poor bastard.”

I think, if I drill down to the bottom of my graduate school motivation, it’s this: I want my entire work life to feel like that. And I want to be able to turn it on and off like a tap. (I know, not bloody likely. But I can dream, right?)

Now Playing: Fast Way from Wholesale Meats And Fish by Letters To Cleo

Posted by pjm at 5:04 PM | Comments (0)


If I seem a little sleepy lately, it’s because the later part of the week has been the Festival of the Full Moon at our apartment. It’s celebrated pretty much any month when the full moon is visible, and can be a multi-night celebration. Iz is the primary celebrant, of course, and he decides which months will be celebrated and what form the celebration will take.

The early part of this month’s celebration was to be celebrated around midnight, with a toy known as “the chili pepper” (a long story.) Finding few takers for the ritual at that hour, he shifted to a passionate re-enactment, around 4 AM, of the cataclysmic struggles with the Great Scourge of the Bathroom, a production which involved props and a great deal of howling and banging from one end of the apartment to the other.

Somewhat later, when the celebrant’s acolyte (finally!) rose to prepare breakfast, his sluggishness was punished with a bite to the hand.

I’ll be happy when the festival is over for the month. If nothing else, I’ll sleep more.

Now Playing: Red Army Blues from A Pagan Place by The Waterboys

Posted by pjm at 1:49 PM | Comments (0)

Another public service announcement

If you upload files named space.asp, 1mbtest.ptf, or the like, to our anonymous FTP server, expect to be denied at the firewall next time you connect. Not that you haven’t already figured out that the server is configured as a drop-box—so you can upload to the upload directory, and download from the download directory, but not vice versa—which makes it difficult to abuse.

But when the banner says, “You are being watched,” it’s not just trying to scare you.

Now Playing: Dance With You from The Distance To Here by Live

Posted by pjm at 10:06 AM | Comments (0)

October 28, 2004

Demographics matter

You hear a lot of bold declarations and opinions stated as fact in an election season. It’s tempting and easy to assume that just because you see something as self-evident, everyone else will agree with you; this can lead, however, to a fair amount of frustration when you find that they don’t.

I’m not one for arguing over these things. Sometimes I will quietly vent some steam through my ears or shout at the car radio when I hear a candidate saying things I disagree with, but for the most part I form my own opinions and let others form theirs. It’s not a kind of friction I like.

Still, there’s one idea I’ve heard a few times this time around that I really do think is so outright wrong-headed that I need to say something. It’s expressed two ways, but boils down to the same turning point. That’s the concept of a “wasted vote” or a vote that “doesn’t matter.”

The “wasted vote” idea is heard a lot about “third-” or minor-party candidates. Why bother voting, the idea goes, when you’re voting for someone who doesn’t have a chance to win? After the last election, the idea gathered a lot more steam when a minor-party candidate drew a lot of votes—enough, in fact, that had they voted instead for one of the two major-party candidates, they might have turned the entire national election the other way.

I’m sorry, that’s just backwards. Those votes weren’t wasted. I’d say every individual who cast one of those votes spoke louder than any of the millions who voted for the other two. Politics isn’t binary, despite our desperate attempts to make it so, and a significant minority of my fellow citizens told us, four years ago, that our system was broken if such a small minority could throw it off the rails simply by speaking their minds. I’m disappointed that instead of creating some momentum for fixing it, we’ve simply told that minority to shut up and join the rest of us in our black and white world. The solutions are easy enough: refining and streamlining the electoral college. An end to gerrymandered congressional districts designed to make 90% of the country “safe” for one party or the other. And something like instant runoff voting that lets every voter cast one vote—but also provide a hierarchy of candidates they’d “settle” for if their favorite has no hope of a majority. If we can’t vote for a candidate who reflects our opinions and priorities for fear of “wasting” a vote, the system needs fixing.

The next part is near and dear to my heart here in Massachusetts. We’ve enjoyed a relative lack of signs, campaign speeches, and, I suppose, television advertising (though everyone is free to avoid television ads the way I do: turn it off!) We’re one of those “safe” states. The problem with this is when we assume that the outcome is a foregone conclusion (and I’ll admit it probably is,) we don’t get as motivated to go out and actually vote. Hey, it doesn’t matter—we know which way this state will go, right?

Wrong. It does matter. Not because we’re about to become a swing state; I think the pollsters would have caught that by now. But because politicians are always campaigning to the demographics of the last election, and, to a limited degree, the issues of it as well. I want them to see people my age out voting, no matter who for; in fact, I’d rather we show up and put a blank ballot in the box than not vote at all. If we show that we’re there, they might start listening to us. Maybe for once the baby boomers will let us get a demographic word in edgewise, before they finish wrecking everything.

There’s a guy on a listserv I’ve been on for years who will freely imply his political opinions at the drop of a hat, but loudly insists (about every two years) that he doesn’t vote. See, he’s a recovering alcoholic, and his assertion is that since he proved (to himself) that he can’t be trusted to take care of himself, now he’s given over all responsibility—including politics—to his Higher Power. It infuriates me every time I read it, because I suspect that behind the sanctimoniousness is plain laziness, and the effect isn’t “the removal of one irresponsible vote,” but the silencing of one voice. What if his higher power is giving him the chance to change the world with a vote? He’d never know.

The campaign season gives us an illusion that everything ends at election day. It doesn’t; it begins then. If you don’t vote next Tuesday, you’re invisible for the next four years.

It doesn’t matter what you think for that time; you don’t vote, so politicians don’t listen to you. They tune their policies to appeal to people who vote, or at least people they think will vote.

It’s too late to register here in Massachusetts, but some states (including the great state of Maine) will register voters up to election day. (I believe I first registered for a gubernatorial primary in Maine, and voted on the same day.) Show up. Check a few boxes, or leave them blank if you don’t like the choices. (Imagine how fast a restaurant’s menu would change if over half the people seated looked at the menu, then got up and left without ordering!) Is there something about the process that’s made you lose the motivation to vote? Not voting is sitting in the corner and sulking. Voting is saying you want it fixed.

OK, sermon’s over. You can uncover your eyes now. I can’t promise that I won’t be political again before the election, but I probably won’t be quite this strident again unless I’m talking about spammers, phishers, crackers or phreaks. Or the Continuing Education division.

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

Posted by pjm at 9:20 PM | Comments (1)

The sacrifices I make

Time was, I had the nicest monitor in the office. You’d think that would come naturally, my being the IT department and all, but in actual fact I often have the leftovers; I spend enough time buying everyone else’s machines that my own stuff doesn’t get replaced unless there’s smoke rising from it.

I managed the nicest monitor—a 19” ViewSonic LCD which pivots to be either portrait or landscape, a real asset in a publishing company—by not ordering it for me. It’s the show monitor. When we go to a significant meeting, like this week’s Society for Neuroscience meeting, my monitor gets shipped out and plugged in to a laptop in our booth to show off our software titles. And believe me, everything looks good on a 19” LCD.

Meetings happen twice a year, tops, though. The rest of the year, it accumulates sticky notes on my desk, which is better than sitting in the basement by a long reach.

But, like my department head, my monitor is currently in San Diego. And I’m still here, looking at a 17” CRT with the accompanying flicker. The thing that really gets me, though, isn’t the flicker: it’s the glare. Sunlight on a notebook on my desk reflects in the monitor. Sunlight from a neighboring office on the wall of the hallway reflects in the monitor. It’s not enough for me to long for a return to my cubicle days, but still, I’ll be happy when “my” nice, big monitor is back.

Now Playing: Mercy Of The Fallen from The Beauty Of The Rain by Dar Williams

Posted by pjm at 2:51 PM | Comments (0)

October 27, 2004

My evening runneth over

  • The Nields have a blog.

  • NetNewsWire 2 reads Atom feeds, so in addition to the Nields, I can finally read Julie and stag in the aggregator. (Tom, you’re the last hold-out.)

  • NNW also checks your clipboard when you click the subscribe button, so if you’ve copied a feed URL, it’s already in the window when you click “subscribe”—no need for the “paste” step. It’s the little touches that make it so nice!

  • The Sox are up already after the first inning. I hope if there are riots at UMass, the fires are put out before they reach our neighborhood. (That’s a joke.)

  • There’s a total lunar eclipse happening, like, now, and it’s a clear night. Don’t get caught inside watching the game!

Posted by pjm at 9:12 PM | Comments (0)

Could it be that simple?

Around lunchtime today, I drove across under the shoulder of Bull Hill, an arm of the Mt. Toby range (which is, I should add, absolutely stunning in orange and yellow right now,) through Leverett and into the back roads of Shutesbury. (Who am I kidding—Shutesbury is all back roads.)

I did this because I had an appointment with a particular podiatrist, one who is apparently so good that he teaches in Boston most of the week and has office appointments on Wednesday only, in this corner of the Pelham hills. He also doesn’t bill insurance, which simplifies things tremendously even if it can be somewhat expensive. Despite these hurdles, this was the earliest appointment I could get when I called in mid-September.

I laid out my injury history, these rounds of PF plus the iliotibial band syndrome from early 2003, the rolled ankles in early 2000 and late 2001, the ITBS from early 1999 and the weird ankle problem in 2000 which was supposed to be a fractured or dislocated navicular bone (but wasn’t.) With that data, plus an examination of my feet, ankles, knees and hips both loaded and unloaded (that is, with me standing up and lying down) he came to the following conclusions:

(1) Inflammation of my plantar fascia is a secondary symptom; my real problem is damage to the muscle which pulls my big toe, which is under the plantar fascia and slightly higher up my arch. Since I have a pretty long, bouncy stride (“miler’s stride,” one coach called it,) this is a pretty serious problem. (If I was a horse, they might have shot me by now.)

(2) This, and most of my previous injuries, is due to my tendency to hit the ground with the outside (lateral side) of my foot. As my un-even foot rocks in to meet the (relatively) even ground, it twists my foot into a more pronounced pronation (roll towards the inner or medial side) than I would normally have. This in turn puts a greater load on my big toe at toe-off, which leads to the inflamed PF and injured muscle. This is called a “forefoot/rearfoot varus abnormality” and it is apparently relatively common despite the name. He showed me how he thought this led to the ITBS and how it would also heavily load the navicular bone and possibly, eventually, dislocate it. (My navicular bones are preternaturally prominent on the medial side of my feet, once leading my father to exclaim, “What is wrong with your feet?!?”)

The solution, as it always seems to be, is orthoses: inserts for my shoes which essentially allow for my tilted feet to strike the ground squarely. He made them on the spot, and I feel like I’m going to roll out of my shoes now. However, if he’s right, once the inflammation is gone—and I hope the acupuncture will help with that—I should be able to start in running again.

Obviously, as long as my feet still hurt, I’m still not running. But this is the first of the many people I’ve described this problem to who has come up with a theory for why they hurt, and tried to address that cause, instead of simply starting me down a pre-ordained regimen for making them stop hurting.

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

Posted by pjm at 8:04 PM | Comments (2)

Turtles all the way down

Now, not only do I have the first use of the word heuristics on runnersworld.com, I think I have the first Stephen Hawking citation.

They will vote me class geek, if they haven’t already.

Now Playing: Get Me from Where You Been by Dinosaur Jr

Posted by pjm at 1:59 PM | Comments (1)

Morning revivals

On my way to the pool or the weight room, I usually avoid the sidewalk on Route 116 and instead take the college paths over the hill between the Octagon and College Row. This takes me daily past a statue of Henry Ward Beecher, Class of 1832, according to the pedastal.

Beecher, who is now probably better known as the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom’s Cabin,) was the greater public figure in their own time. As a preacher, he was a driving force behind one of several religious revivals that have periodically swept the U.S. (Some say we’re in the midst of one now, before you think they’re a thing of the past.) As such, he set up much of the abolitionist movement his sister set aflame. If I sound vague about details, it’s because I’m working from my distant memory of what I read as a guide at the Dickinson Homestead in my previous round of student days; since there’s so little solid fact about Emily, we wound up with masses of background detail about the political and social climate of the town and the College. It’s hard to separate the Dickinsons from the College, and the College from Beecher, in that context.

Vague as it is, it explains why they have a statue of one of their earliest graduates (I figure the class of 1832 was, if not the tenth graduating class, in the single digits,) and not one of their most distinguished (that would be President Calvin Coolidge.) It might also explain Beecher’s somewhat sanctimonious scowl. I’ve only recently noticed that he appears to be looking directly at College Hall, a dramatic-looking building which is hard to miss when you’re passing through town.

College Hall used to be the town meeting-house (read “church,” from the days when “religious tolerance” meant allowing Catholics to live in town, and colleges were founded to allow right-thinking Trinitarian Congregationalists to be educated without the need to trek out to the wilderness of Williamstown or brave the Unitarian cesspit in Cambridge.) Beecher preached there on more than one occasion, if I’m remembering my Dickinson biographies properly. How it passed from the town to the College has escaped my memory, but it now houses many of the administrative offices; I clearly remembering standing in line there with various last-minute FinAid tasks (sign this form, write this check, thanks, you can stay for the semester.)

In that perspective, I wonder if perhaps Beecher’s scowl is more a reaction to the changes in his immediate view than a reflection of character. Somehow I think better of anyone who glares at FinAid.

(Actually, it looks like the statue is a duplicate of the one pictured in Wikipedia, which is located in Brooklyn.)

Now Playing: Came On Lion from All of Our Names by Sarah Harmer

Posted by pjm at 10:04 AM | Comments (0)

October 26, 2004

Inside job

It’s worse than I thought… it wasn’t just spam.

It was also one of our authors sending us a 32 megabyte Word file as an email attachment.

32 MB.

It’s wrong in so many ways, I don’t even know where to start.

The server strangled itself and spontaneously restarted six times before I could keep it stable long enough to get the culprit out of the mail queue.

Now Playing: Paralysed from Nowhere by Ride

Posted by pjm at 3:27 PM | Comments (5)

It makes my stomach turn to think of it

I came in this morning to find that our stolid little gateway server was refusing incoming and outgoing mail via SMTP. This is a defense mechanism: it shuts down the mail server when the load average gets too high. (Load average, for non-geeks, is a measure of how busy a computer is; usually it is given as three numbers, precise to two decimal places, which represent the average number of instructions waiting for the processor over the past one, five, and fifteen minutes. Since processors are usually able to deal with work pretty quickly, a desktop system generally has fractional load averages; a heavily loaded server shouldn’t get much over three, and at thirty the sysadmin begins to have trouble controlling the box because it won’t respond to commands.

(Heat issues also begin to crop up as the load average spikes: as the chip gets warmer, various materials on the board, such as connections and adhesives, reach temperatures where they can no longer do their jobs. So things pop loose, connections get sketchy, and some things solidify and crack. That’s why 733+ |-|aX0rz who overclock their Voodoo boxes have to liquid-cool the CPU.)

So coming in to numbers like this is alarming:

[root tools]# uptime
  9:44am  up 5 days, 23:25,  1 user,  load average: 21.63, 21.49, 21.24

Note that since the averages are for one, five, and fifteen, if they decrease from left to right, the load average is trending up.

In this case, the problem turned out to be a slew of zombie spamassassin processes.

Let me put the whole thing in terms more easily understood by non-geeks:

We got so much spam last night, the server choked on it.

This is the message none of the legislators who wrote (or watered down) that toothless piece of legislative masturbation known as the CAN-SPAM Act understood. Spammers are using the resources of others to spread their advertising message. And the load they are collectively placing on small businesses is bringing work to a halt. The day is going to come when we need to actually buy a high-powered, dedicated machine simply to handle email for a twenty-eight-employee office.

I laugh derisively at your economic stimulus package. Want to stimulate productivity in this country? Get the goddamned spammers off our backs.

Now Playing: We Never Change from Parachutes by Coldplay

Posted by pjm at 10:38 AM | Comments (1)

October 25, 2004

I could've used the sleep

There was no lifeguard at the pool this morning, nor did one show up in the half-hour I waited before giving up and heading home. I’ll get my workout in the evening session, hopefully; still, I wouldn’t have minded staying in bed. Probably they set their alarm for 6:30 PM, or something like that, which is my favorite stunt for missing the alarm.

A small group of regulars sat on the deck and grumbled good-naturedly while we waited. After being mistaken for a coach last month, this morning I was mistaken for a student, which was (briefly) gratifying.

Now Playing: Round Here from August & Everything After by Counting Crows

Posted by pjm at 4:42 PM | Comments (0)

Rearranging furniture

I just upgraded to Movable Type 3.121, or whatever the newest micro-version is. Let me know if you find any sharp edges I need to sand off. I’ve read that they often come up in comments.

Now Playing: Tomorrow, Wendy (live) from Still in Hollywood by Concrete Blonde

Posted by pjm at 11:16 AM | Comments (0)

October 24, 2004

Wish List

(For once, something that really belongs in the “wishful thinking” category…)

Some more discussion around the family dinner table involved family members with a tendency to get an early start on Christmas shopping. (I thought I was being harried by aunts at Thanksgiving, but when my sister-in-law asks about my list at Thanksgiving, it’s because I’m the last one she hasn’t checked off her list. I have to admit I’m a bit jealous.)

One thing we discussed was the possibility of creating a sort of on-line family registry. The idea is that family members would each be able to post a list. Then other family members would be able to not only read the list, but mark things off to avoid duplicates. So far, so Amazon.com, but the catch which I want to apply is more Christmasy: I don’t want the list owner to be able to see what, if anything, has been marked off their list. (I’m all about the surprises under the wrapping.) A. also suggested that others should be able to put items on others’ lists, so (as an example) if someone was getting charts, that could spark waterproof chart bags, or something like that. So there’s a rough idea of your feature set.

Following the great dictum about hammers and nails (“When the only tool you have is a hammer…”) I immediately started thinking of it as a MySQL/PHP application. I’d need to authenticate all users, because I’d need to do access control based on what username they auth with. I allow each login ownership of a list. (Maybe I’d need some way of managing lists for minors, i.e. The Pink Ladies.) So there’s one table: users and user data. And a small collection of forms-and-applications for auth, password creation, alteration and retrieval, etc. etc. Users can add items to the lists, so there’s another table: items. Relationship to user (the gift recipient) and creator, because when the user is also the recipient, there will have to be controls over what they can see and edit. They can’t see items others have created with them as recipient; they can’t see status of items they created with them as recipient. Items have titles, brief descriptions, maybe URLs, maybe images? (We’d need forms to upload image files.) Suggested sources, perhaps. We need to allow for both catalog-circlers and those who try to stay vague and inspire serendipity.

We’d need a mechanism for changing the status of an item.

The only thing I can’t map out in my head is the final trick: as the database owner, I would be able to look in the database and see status on everything—essentially, since I create the access control, I can also bypass it. I’m trying to figure out some way that I can store status such that the database owner can’t check it—it can only be read through the relevant PHP application. I’m thinking about using a unique hash for each item (maybe I hash the title?) and then deliberately scramble the hash when the status changes… but no, if I can figure out a way to check it with the application, I could write another application that bypasses the access control and gets it back out.

Maybe I need to apply public-key encryption and force my users to generate keys. I’m probably thinking about this too much anyway, because I suspect there would be enough people in the family who wouldn’t use it, or would constantly forget their password, or would ask [insert other family member here] to remember their password for them…

Ideas? Anyone?

Posted by pjm at 9:24 PM | Comments (2)

Bringing politics home

My family had an interesting discussion this afternoon which started with The Pink Ladies’ (my nieces’) fondness for all things Barbie. We talked about brands and marketing and how such a large fraction of the price tag of certain items comes from the money the companies spend on making you (or, in this discussion, The Pink Ladies) want them.

For a moment, I thought I caught my New England Conservative aunt echoing Naomi Klein. I was practically bemused right out of the conversation.

Now Playing: Gameday

Posted by pjm at 8:48 PM | Comments (0)

October 22, 2004

I know just enough to be dangerous

When my 5 GB iPod (a first-generation, I think?) would no longer mount on any of my Macs (though it would charge,) I stowed it in a drawer and got a 10 GB model (third-generation) with my Powerbook. I promptly crammed that one full. (My next iPod will be a 20 GB model. I had no idea I had that much music.)

Now I read that the iPod’s real dirty little secret isn’t the battery, it’s the flakey Firewire ports in the early models. Like my “retired” one.

I now have all the excuses I’ll ever need to crack open my old iPod. Where’s the soldering iron?

Now Playing: A New Season from Starfish by The Church

Posted by pjm at 3:04 PM | Comments (0)

Not the way I see it

Craig Masback’s Bell Lap today on the Runner’s World site gave me a double-take. He describes a number of great running cities in America, and why they are what they are. And he lists a few others, including Fayetteville. (I assume he’s talking about the same Fayetteville I am, the one in Arkansas.)

Now, I have a lot of respect for Craig. He started (and named) the Bell Lap column before I was at RW, and now he’s been the head of USATF through two Olympics and four World Championships. And he’s still a nice guy, despite the relatively high volume of fertilizer he must have to tolerate in that job. But I have to ask: Craig, have you ever run in Fayetteville? If so… where? Sure, it’s a great place to watch a meet; Tyson Arena is a spectacular facility and the fans there know and appreciate the sport.

But where’s the running? For that matter, outside the University, where are the runners?

Now Playing: Ring The Bells from Seven by James

Posted by pjm at 12:51 PM | Comments (1)

Work and the elections

E-mail just went around announcing that our company is offering a paid day off on the second of November, “for anyone interested in assisting in transportation to the polls, or performing other support functions needed at the polls.”

It came with this caveat, though:

Remember, fish are not eligible to vote and the polls are not located at the mall.

Posted by pjm at 11:14 AM | Comments (0)

October 21, 2004

According to his means

The acupuncture therapist (I’m not ready to call him “doctor” except as a term of address) has a very interesting pay scale. He has a flat rate which applies to the initial appointment, but all follow-ups (like this morning’s) are on the scale. It works like this: you start with a base rate for office visits. Next you have a grid, with annual incomes on the left side and dependents across the top (“how many people are supported by this income,” or something like that; somehow I drop into the terminology of the Infernal Revenue Service here.) You find your place on the grid (since I have no dependents, other than one demanding but relatively inexpensive cat, I am in the far left column) and there’s a discount percentage there. You take that off the base rate, and pay the remainder.

Now, I figure that I do relatively well for myself, but I was surprised at how well I’d need to be doing in order to pay full fare on this chart.

It’s an honor-system process; you look at the grid, “request” a discount on a sheet with no supporting evidence, and sign your name. You’d think this would be a dangerous business practice, and it probably would be if, for instance, they ran the register this way down at the packie. But he’s run his practice this way for nearly thirty years, and he’s clearly making the rent. Basic honesty is holding it up; he trusts his patients and says so, therefore they’re straight with him. But even if honesty wasn’t there, I expect pride would back it up.

Now playing: Nothing (Lifestyle Of A Tortured Artist For Sale) from Dandys Rule OK by The Dandy Warhols

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

Is anyone not thinking about baseball?

It seems like half the town is walking around with a silly grin. I feel a bit bad for the company president, an unabashed Yankees fan (“I don’t think I can work here anymore,” exclaimed a co-worker when she found this out,) but not too bad considering the last, uh, decade or so. I think Julie had the word: schadenfreuderiffic.

From the dissatisfied ruckus Iz was making this morning, we wondered initially if he was, perhaps, a Yankees fan. He does, after all, wear stripes, and at his tender age he’s never seen them win a Series. On more careful reflection, though, we decided he would probably prefer the Tigers, or perhaps the White Sox.

I will now join the rest of New England in making, “Maybe this is the year” noises.

Now Playing: Attitude from All Shook Down by The Replacements

Posted by pjm at 11:02 AM | Comments (2)

October 20, 2004

...and if the distributor calls...

…yes, I probably am DOS-ing their FTP server by uploading forty-megabyte image files. They should refine their image submission guidelines, and more carefully define “actual size” to not include 300 dpi TIFF files.

Now Playing: Getting Away With It (All Messed Up) from Pleased to Meet You by James

Posted by pjm at 4:02 PM | Comments (0)

Maybe then I would get cable

I’ve never watched enough TV to be a Jon Stewart fan. Maybe now I should be. “A plague on both your houses,” indeed. I’m particularly tickled by his response to the “you’re not being funny” charge; it reminded me of Winston Churchill.

Woman at dinner: “Mr. Churchill, you are drunk.”
Churchill: “Yes, madam, and you are ugly. But in the morning, I will be sober.”

Now Playing: Solid from Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia by The Dandy Warhols

Posted by pjm at 2:58 PM | Comments (1)

October 19, 2004

Some things never change

I’m re-reading another book—Lydia Bailey by Kenneth Roberts, a hardcover first edition which was my tangible inheritance from my paternal grandfather. Roberts was strongly opinionated, to the point of being caustic, and bowed to no sacred cows; to my knowledge, he was (and probably still is) the only American writer to write a historical novel about the American Revolution from the perspective of a Loyalist, (“Tory,”) Oliver Wiswell, apparently the only one of his books which Down East Books is not keeping in print. His argument at the time was that a great many of the colonies’ best and brightest had chosen to remain loyal to the King and, in many cases, had suffered for it, so there must have been some merit to their case.

At any rate, when I opened Lydia Bailey I was stunned by the opening paragraphs, which (with some updates) are as true now as when Roberts wrote it, and as they presumably were when his narrator, Albion Hamlin, started his tale (which took him from Portland to Boston, Haiti, and Tripoli) in 1800:

I’m not over-enthusiastic about books that teach or preach, but I may as well admit in the beginning that my primary reason for writing this book was to teach as many as possible of those who come after me how much hell and ruin are inevitably brought on innocent people and innocent countries by men who make a virtue of consistency.

All the great villains and small villains whom I met so frequently in the events I’m about to set down were consistent men—unimaginative men who consistently believed in war as a means of settling disputes between nations; equally misguided men who consistently believed that war must be avoided at all hazards, no matter what the provocation; narrow men who consistently upheld the beliefs and acts of one political party and saw no good in any other; shortsighted men who consistently refused to see that the welfare of their own nation was dependent on the welfare of every other nation; ignorant men who consistently thought that the policies of their own government should be supported and followed, whether those policies were right or wrong; dangerous men who consistently thought that all people with black skins are inferior to those with white skins […] And I know that any nation that cannot or will not avoid the dreadful pitfalls of consistency will be one with the dead empires whose crumbling monuments studded our battlegrounds in Haiti and in Africa.

Posted by pjm at 9:07 PM | Comments (0)


I went in for my first acupuncture treatment today. (That’s first ever.) Contrary to some malicious rumors, I did not pop, nor have I been faintly hissing since the appointment.

The therapist was cautiously positive; he said their record with PF was about 40-50%, but I’d know which side of those odds I was on within about two weeks.

Now playing: A Rush Of Blood To The Head from A Rush Of Blood To The Head by Coldplay

Posted by pjm at 7:24 PM | Comments (4)

I want one

An article in Wired News today describes the TV-B-Gone, a key-fob-sized “universal remote” which simply runs through about two hundred “power off” codes for a wide variety of televisions. Through the course of the article, the developer and his friends are turning off distracting TVs in waiting rooms, restaurants, etc. It’s delightful.

[Inventor] Altman said he prefers to ask people to turn off TVs. The problem is places where there’s a captive audience and no one is available to respond to requests, like the Laundromat or the airport. Altman said he has turned off sets at his local laundries and at airports around the Pacific Rim.

…Responding to the accusation that it sounded like unaccountable power, [user David] Burke said, “You’ve heard about the battle for eyeballs. They’re your eyeballs. You should not have your consciousness constantly invaded. Television people are getting better and better at finding ways of roping us into TV where we can’t get away.”

Now Playing: Which Way Should I Jump? from Slinky by milltown brothers

Posted by pjm at 9:40 AM | Comments (3)

October 18, 2004

A GPSr for Geocaching

JM asked about GPS receivers for “newbie” geocachers, which I don’t really have a good answer for, since I’ve only ever used one. (And practically wore it out, actually.) It happens to be a Magellan Meridian Gold (Garmin and Magellan (Thales Navigation) are the dominant companies in the field,) but I think you can do pretty well caching with any GPSr which has some of these qualities:

  1. It’s hand-held. You’re not getting far with the GPS in your car.
  2. It should resolve to thousandths of a minute of arc. (First you’ve got degrees, then minutes, which are sixtieths of a degree, then seconds, which are sixtieths of minutes. However, most caches show coordinates as XX° YY.YYY, that is, degrees plus five significant figures of minutes.)
  3. You should be able to store twenty or thirty waypoints. (Waypoints are coordinates used to mark a location, so you’ll set waypoints for caches you’re hunting and then use the GPSr to navigate to that waypoint.) Like digital cameras, the more the better: I tend to fill mine with a few hundred.
  4. It should easily connect to your computer so you can upload/download waypoints.
  5. It should be easy to find out the coordinates of where you are now, your heading (the direction you are or have been moving,) and the bearing to the cache (which direction it is from where you are.) It’s particularly useful if it shows a compass dial with heading and bearing indicated; then you can just follow the arrow.
  6. It should be easy to edit waypoints. (Waypoints downloaded from geocaching.com have an altitude of 0, and if the cache is a few thousand feet up, that introduces some lateral error; if I’m having trouble with a cache, I’ll frequently “fix” the altitude of the waypoint to get a little closer.)

In general, higher price brings two things: better reception (a more sophisticated antenna—GPS signals are weak) and/or better battery life. I do pretty well with a pair of AAs in mine, as long as I remember that plugging it in to the car jack automagically turns on the backlight and I need to turn it off when I unplug.

The geocaching.com website has a buyer’s guide which is nearly as general as this list. Among other things, they mention base maps; a good base map will keep you oriented to major roads nearby (mine lists most numbered state routes,) state parks, major mountain summits, etc., and a really good one will include more detailed topographic information. I’ve been supplementing my in-memory base map with topo maps I print from National Geographic Topo!; I can merge waypoints into the maps, so I’ve got a pretty good idea where I’m headed, at least in the part of the country I have CDs for. I’m not the only one, either; I’ve found Topo! maps that other cachers have left in caches. There’s one cacher near Boston who works entirely from topo maps, aerial photos, and other resources to locate caches without a GPSr.

Of course, once you’ve found the first stage of a multi, the map is of limited use. And now that I’ve explained how to select mid-range consumer electronics in order to leverage billions of dollars of military satellite technology for the purpose of finding hidden tupperware in the woods, I think my credentials as a raving geek are pretty much indisputable.

Now Playing: No Certainty Attached from Hologram of Baal by The Church

Posted by pjm at 3:09 PM | Comments (2)

Bostonians with principles

I only saw a little of last night’s Sox game, but there was one priceless moment.

Alex Rodriguez hit a two-run homer into the Green Monster seats. As he made his way back to the dugout, play over, the fan who retrieved the ball threw it back on the field.

The Sox left-fielder threw the ball back into the stands. He wanted no part of it.

The fans threw it back. Again.

League series, what league series? It was a Yankee home run in Fenway Park. Nobody wanted that ball.

Me, well… having grown up with the Sox, I’m too cynical to make any “this could be the year” noises. I’ve ceased expecting World Series appearances the way Yankee fans do. But I cheer for two baseball teams: the Sox, and whoever’s playing the Yankees.

Now Playing: Personal from Still Burning by Mike Scott

Posted by pjm at 12:35 PM | Comments (0)

October 17, 2004


I had an idea that I might go hunting caches yesterday, since I hadn’t planned anything else. I wasn’t feeling too motivated, so I picked a particularly intriguing one over in Ware, which involved retrieving a key from another (relatively) nearby cache which included the true location of the first hide, then using the key to unlock the cache itself. Then I had to stash the key, the rules being that it should be in another cache within 45 minutes’ drive of Ware. This looked like enough of a Quest to be interesting.

Once I was out in the woods looking for the first one, though, I was hooked again. Being back on the trail was nice. As I returned to the car with the key and was plugging the new coordinates into my GPSr, I noticed that there was another waypoint nearby. (I download big batches to the GPSr, something like “the 100 closest caches I haven’t found yet,” to save keying in every one I go after.) Well, how often do you get two caches in one reservation? (I was particularly gratified since I’m a member of the conservation organization that maintains the reservation.) So, I got back out and started walking again, but this time without a sheet describing the cache, or any of the hints, since I hadn’t expected to go after this one.

I suspected I might be in trouble when what I found was simply a small canister with more coordinates. I was on the trail of a multi-cache. Oh well, now I was started. I got a pretty good tour of the reservation, in fact, with a pretty big collection of glacial erratics (leading me to log, “This cache rocks!”) Then I finally headed down to Ware, birthplace of one of my favorite creatures, to finish the quest; I eventually left the key in Granby.

Even when you’ve got coordinates to a destination, sometimes I need to remind myself to focus on the GPSr in my hand and try to get right to the destination. It’s as though I’m training myself not to be distracted by another project. Sometimes, along the way, I have to chase another destination, though, and the impulsiveness isn’t always a bad thing.

At the Rock House Reservation

Now playing: Lodestar from You Were Here by Sarah Harmer

Posted by pjm at 12:36 PM | Comments (3)

October 16, 2004

Where the streets have no name

Someone has stolen our sign again. This last sign made it several weeks. I have to imagine the town is getting a little frustrated. Either that or they have about sixty signs for this street in a closet somewhere.

But it’s comforting to know there’s always someone with worse problems.

Posted by pjm at 10:05 PM | Comments (1)

October 15, 2004

Off the groove

They’ve been waxing the floors in the gymnasium at the College this week. While they dry, we’ve been entering and leaving through different doors. On the one hand, I don’t get to walk by the solemn, self-confident team photos from sports the College no longer contests, and wonder what happened to the players on the 1939 baseball team. (I’m in some of these pictures, but not in the part of the hall I pass going to the locker room or the weight room.)

On the other hand, yesterday I left by the back door and walked up the hill the way I used to after practice every day. The leaves are changing, and the view south from atop the hill was pretty spectacular. The College has maintained this view through some judicious land purchases and leases, essentially allowing the southern part of town to develop so long as it’s not visible from the campus. One of the results has been the preservation of a lot of very nice open space; another is this view, pretty much hills and trees straight back to the Holyoke range, where Bare Mountain and Rattlesnake Knob look back at the viewer. The hills in between, “Mounts” Castor and Pollux, were apparently named for twin maple trees on their crests when they were both cleared farmland. The northern twin is gone, or subsumed by other trees, but if you look carefully from Bay Road there is still a flaming red maple at the crest of the southern hill.

The hills look like a storm-tossed sea in a Japanese painting, or a seriously rucked-up rug. From here, there’s nothing placid about them, though you’d think there would be. I wonder how many students stop for a few seconds at the top of the hill when they pass by, and look out, and think about the world beyond the little microcosm they’re in. I know I used to look, but I can’t remember what I was thinking about.

Or do they at least look out and think, “Whoa.” Especially since they cut a row of tall pines on the first-base side of the baseball field, the view is pretty clear.

Jolted out of my routine, I managed to forget the half-full mug of tea I had left in my locker while I swam. I expect it will be iced tea when I go back tomorrow. I wonder if the under-dose of caffeine on the day is responsible for my current low-grade headache.

Now Playing: Weirdo from Between 10th And 11th by The Charlatans

Posted by pjm at 3:20 PM | Comments (0)

October 14, 2004

What a waste

Look, I need to gripe for a minute, OK? If you don’t like entries like that, skip ahead. (Or wait for the next one, or whatever verb means not reading this.)

The college at which I am supposedly doing a post-graduate certificate in preparation for graduate work has posted their spring semester schedule. Once again they are offering precisely nothing of use to me. “Once again” meaning, “for the sixth consecutive term,” if you’re not counting the two electives I took to mark time.

A year ago, I went in to talk to the department head about the odds of my ever finishing the certificate if they never offered classes I needed. He agreed that they needed to do something about scheduling required classes in the evening. (See, the school is a solid hour’s drive from my workplace, so I can’t make a class before 6.) Precisely nothing has happened. If I’d known what a waste of time this was going to be, I would’ve given up on them and started applications long ago. I feel like I’ve wasted a year.

The crushing frustration of it is, they were my only option. It’s not like I went there because they came highly recommended; I went there because they were the only ones within an hour’s drive who offered serious classes in the evening. I didn’t know then that they offered the same classes every year, and that after a year and a half I would’ve taken everything useful they had to offer. I didn’t know the only street available was a dead end.

And I’ve already asked my two professors at this college if they would write letters of recommendation. I feel like I should be sending forms now, or I’ll never have the letters in time for December and January application deadlines.

I started this whole adventure because I caught an illusion that it was possible—that I could pick up the courses I was missing, and start something new. That I could learn something in depth instead of skimming the surface of everything. Somehow in the last year the illusion has eroded. I can’t get the classes. And, with one exception, I can’t get the graduate schools to take me seriously—they act like they’ve mis-read my email, I must be inquiring about the graduate certificate program, the part-time program, anything but the serious academic program. “Our Ph.D. program is very selective.” «Yeah,» I’m thinking, biting back the retort, «I’m familiar with selective institutions.» Is it any wonder I prefer to email? And that exception is talking about provisional acceptance. I know I’m a good bet. I just can’t prove it.

I used to get this frustrated at work. I had a foam pig, the stress-ball kind of foam, and I used to spike it at the walls. Eventually someone delicately suggested that I should manage my stress better, and I stopped throwing things. It was fine when I was running; if you’re training properly, at the end of a workout there’s no energy to be angry with anything. Your heart just says to any irritant, “Eh. I’ve seen worse,” and idles along at 45 bpm or so.

Now, I want the pig back. I’m so angry I could spit. What an astounding, inefficient, apathetic waste of time.

Now playing: Everytime from You Were Here by Sarah Harmer

Posted by pjm at 9:02 PM | Comments (2)

Not your Messiah

On reading that Eamonn Coghlan plans to run the Dublin Marathon, I have a story to share.

Some years ago, in my previous job, I went to a big national-level high school cross-country meet with a few co-workers. Eamonn (who, if you don’t follow running, was a dominant miler for Ireland in the ’80s and ’90s, known as “Chairman of the Boards” for his invincibility indoors,) spoke at the post-race dinner.

The speech was probably his standard “stump speech” at the time, since he was recently retired, and he hadn’t polished his public speaking skills. It wasn’t that his presentation was bad; he was quite comfortable. It was that he hadn’t dropped the casual tone of the track circuit, and the speech was laced with mild profanity of the “God damn” level.

He talked about his early years running and his troubles at Villanova, and how various coaches, parents, and other authority figures had kept him on the track to running stardom. Midway through, we noticed that they all addressed him the same way, in Coghlan’s Irish brogue: “Jaysus Christ, Eamonn!”

For quite a while in our office (and still, in my mind,) he was referred to as “Jaysus Christ Eamonn” rather than by his full name.

Now Playing: Boys from Rock N Roll by Ryan Adams

Posted by pjm at 9:15 AM | Comments (0)

October 13, 2004

That doesn't look like a Grady-White

This is, I should add, a massive in-joke.

Lobster boat in Bass Harbor, ME

Now playing: What Do You Hear In These Sounds from End Of The Summer by Dar Williams

Posted by pjm at 7:38 PM | Comments (1)

You may be looking for...

It hasn’t happened lately, but due to the title of this site, I get a fair number of people finding it in searches for “panic” or various permutations. Obviously, this site isn’t a resource for panic disorder; it’s named from one of my favorite quotes, and deals pretty much exclusively with garden-variety, non-clinical panic.

If you wound up here by looking for something else, try these sites:

(I also see a fair number of people searching for “flashes” of various sorts; however, I don’t feel bad at all about misguiding them.)

Now Playing: Nightingale Song from Fear by Toad The Wet Sprocket

Posted by pjm at 3:13 PM | Comments (0)

You might not want this mental image

Yesterday I added RAM to an indigo iMac AV. Since the instructions suggest laying the Mac face-down on a cloth during the operation, I used my shirt. The instructions are also fairly specific about grounding and static precautions, so I couldn’t help but wonder if I should be using a “hack naked” shirt for this purpose.

Now Playing: Train from Play by The Nields

Posted by pjm at 11:19 AM | Comments (0)

A space of my own

I have a locker at the gym now. Not just the empty locker where I hook on my own lock while I’m swimming, but an actual locker with my name associated with it in the database and a college-issued combination lock. I didn’t think they’d do that for someone not either paying tuition or receiving paychecks, but I suppose if they’re letting me use the facility at all, the locker is not a big step. (And as a dutiful donor to both the Annual Fund and the Friends of Athletics, it’s not as though I’m a charity case for them.)

I’m finding that not only do I feel more at home (and less like a burglar,) but I have altogether too many useful ideas about getting around work-project sticking points in front of the locker, where I have nothing to write them down on. I may need to stash a notepad in there.

Now Playing: Fair from the album “Whatever & Ever Amen” by Ben Folds Five

Posted by pjm at 9:14 AM | Comments (0)

October 12, 2004

Turning, and turning out

The sign in front of Annie’s this noon noted that tomorrow is the last day to register to vote in the November election, in Commonwealth of MA. (Why I end up living in commonwealths, I’ll never understand; I prefer the sound of “Great State of…” much more.)

After hearing the reports of voter turnout in Afghanistan, and seeing the degree to which everyone I know seems to be exercised about the coming presidential race, I’m going to be sorely disappointed if we, as a nation, don’t top the 51% turnout we had in 2000. (Yes, you only needed to persuade less than a quarter of registered voters to turn out and vote for you in order to become president.)

I’m glad, actually, that I’m in a state so solidly partisan that we’re not the focus of a barrage of campaigning. The roadsides of Maine are thoroughly sprinkled with signs for local and national races in a way we’re not seeing here. Since I don’t watch television, I can’t be sure if they’re getting more drivel on the idiot box than we are. But that’s four electoral votes. Four. There has to be a better way.

Behind all the political litter, the foliage is spectacular in a literal way. From Cadillac Moutain, you could look west to Sargent Mountain and see red and orange trees creeping up the sheltered folds of the otherwise rocky dome. Here in the Connecticut Valley, not two hundred yards from Annie’s there was a car pulled over while the driver snapped a shot of a blazing-bright field with Mt. Toby beginning to change in the background. I remind myself to look up from the signs at the ephemeral posters autumn is putting up, as the broad-leaved trees cash in their summer investments and hope they saved enough for the winter. Is it too early to anticipate sugaring season?

Now Playing: “Not Fazed” from Going Blank Again by Ride

Posted by pjm at 5:04 PM | Comments (1)

Closed for the season

That’s a concept that seems somehow self-fulfilling to me. I’d say well over half the storefronts on the west side of MDI had a sign along those lines in the window this past weekend.

In their defense, it makes all kinds of sense. Why head in to the store and spend the day there when you’ll barely have enough customers to make it worth it?

On the other hand, it seems like one of the reasons there are no customers is that everything’s closed! We saw plenty of hotels with the “No vacancy” sign lit, and the trails around Great Head and Cadillac Mountain were crowded enough. In fact, downtown Bar Harbor (where nearly everything was open, of course) was so crowded it made me shudder to contemplate what it must be like in the summer.

Hmm… no sysadmin jobs open at Jackson Labs right now. (Or MBNA, for that matter.)

Posted by pjm at 10:55 AM | Comments (0)

October 11, 2004

Tales from the car

I can report now with some certainty that it is possible to ride the Pelham Road from just past its start at the Pelham Historical Society on Route 202 (at which point it is, of course, named the Amherst Road) nearly to its end at East Street in Amherst, with the clutch in all the way, assuming one has the requisite lack of… maturity, I suppose. There was a touchy spot just past the reservoir when my speed dropped to around 20 MPH, but once the road started down again, I knew I was home free. That’s one bit of curiosity satisfied.

A road-killed turkey is unlike any other roadkill.

The reek of Post Road Pumpkin Ale in the kitchen has nothing whatever to do with the above anecdotes, but with a number of bottles leaving their carrier through the bottom, rather than the top as expected.

Posted by pjm at 9:57 PM | Comments (0)

October 9, 2004

Inside information?

Last night I was sitting in the traffic at the Hampton tolls in New Hampshire. Normally, I’d be impatient, but I’d just finished listening to the Sox finish their divisional series sweep on AM radio, so I was well-disposed towards the world.

Off to my right I saw a curious truck. It looked like a flatbed, but the bed was about two feet thick, with gates around the sides of the deck. When I figured out that the contraptions on top of the bed were dogsleds and the “bed” was a series of kennels, I wondered if perhaps he knew something about the weather forecast in Maine that I didn’t.

Posted by pjm at 9:44 PM | Comments (0)

October 8, 2004

Turn Gight

We are, around here, True Believers in the power of proofreaders. We proof everything, even if it has merely been breathed on between its last reading and press time. (Or, in my case, burn time.) So it’s still amusing to me to open my package for [Suitcase][1] 10 and see the band that reads:

Software CD Under Left Flap ↓ User Guide Under Gight Flap ↑

Now playing: Awake from Wholesale Meats And Fish by Letters To Cleo

Posted by pjm at 3:09 PM | Comments (0)

Indeterminate manifesto

When I arrived at the gym to swim this morning, there was an orange flyer on the door announcing in block letters, YOU ARE MORE THAN YOUR ABS.

I got a grin out of this one; it struck me as typical of the deconstruction attitude, because it didn’t really replace the idea it destroyed. I imagined the hapless borderline-obsessive fitness-center-goer dumbstruck in front of the sign, thinking, “They’re right! I am more than my abs! I’m a mathematician! I’m a cook! I’m a musician!”

I also imagined the hard-core athlete, walking past and thinking dismissively, “Well, duh. I’m biceps, triceps, quadriceps, lats, pecs, trapezius, etc. etc….”

At some point in my swim, the thought, “Someone’s gotta tell Men’s Health…” crossed my mind.

When I left, I saw the sign had been moved to the front of the assistant football coach’s desk, so whatever the intentions of the sign-poster, the athletic department seems to be going with my second interpretation.

Now playing: Buffalo from Hologram of Baal by The Church

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

October 7, 2004

When audience size matters

When I write up big day-reports like yesterday’s, it doesn’t really matter to me how many people read it. When I note things like Johnny Kelley’s passing, I’m mainly writing to the people I know are reading and wouldn’t get the news elsewhere; incidental people are just gravy.

But sometimes I want to post something like, “spamd wants to work nine to five like everyone else, even though it’s software. It crashes every time I leave the building. How do I go about troubleshooting it?” And I wish the odds were better that someone reading would know the answer.

Now playing: You’re Aging Well from The Honesty Room by Dar Williams

Posted by pjm at 2:57 PM | Comments (3)

We can leave the course now...

…Johnny Kelley has finished.

For years in the ’80s and ’90s, the crowds who turned out to watch the Boston Marathon were waiting for two things: the leaders, and Johnny Kelley. Kelley “the elder” ran the marathon 61 times, winning it twice, with his last finish coming in 1992, when he was 84. It took him nearly six hours that year, so you can imagine the spectators came prepared to camp out for a while. But for many of the people of Boston, he demonstrated that the marathon was just as much about tenacity as it was about the kind of speed and elegance seen in the leaders.

John J. Kelley, “the younger,” was also a Boston champion and the high school coach of my former editor, Amby Burfoot, also a Boston winner. Amby has in his office a print by Andy Yelenak which, while simple in design, illustrates the kind of influence Kelley had on running and racing even into this century.

Now playing: Here Comes A Regular from Tim by The Replacements

Posted by pjm at 11:03 AM | Comments (2)

October 6, 2004


Since I know both of you are waiting anxiously to hear how the rest of my afternoon went, I’ll spill.

Before I get too far, though, an aside: I’m not mentioning the names of the university or the professor, not because I’m trying to keep them secret, but because I don’t (yet?) want to turn up on web searches for those names.

I went in to the department office and grilled the graduate admin for a few minutes. Unfortunately, she’s a temp and had only been there for three months, but she was able to tell me some about aid. This department has three types: the typical TA, the common RA (Research Assistant,) and the decidedly atypical SA. That’s Systems Administrator: they have a number of students helping to run their network. More on this later. I discovered from others that all three are classed as “aid:” they come with small stipends (“Enough to survive in the area”) and tuition remission. Anyway, the admin was very friendly and I made a point of treating her as though she did know things—if, in fact, I go there, and she’s still in that office, she’ll be a very good ally to have.

I went up to my meeting and found the door closed. I knocked to no response (not surprising.) I waited for a while, getting increasingly frustrated. What if I took a precious vacation day from work and hauled my way out here and didn’t have the meeting? Eventually I remembered my allies in the department office. I went back down and asked if they were sure he was in this afternoon. There was another professor in the office: “A. might be in Professor D.’s office. Try there.” Sure enough, they were puzzling out some problem in there. He met me in the hall on my return trip.

We spent ten or fifteen minutes on my situation. Academically, I’m a long shot for them, not because of my grades or unorthodox undergraduate major, but because of two missing courses: Programming Languages (something I’d actually like to take, since it explains things like memory management, the differences between strongly typed and dynamically typed languages, etc. etc.) and Data Structures and Algorithms. “Generally speaking,” he said, “We’re not too strict about the prerequisites. We want some proof that you can take a math class. And we want some proof that you can program.”

Curiously enough, despite having a minor e-commerce system and an evolving CMA under my belt in PHP, I wouldn’t tell you “I can program.” I’m not sure if this is over-modesty on my part, or if there’s some truth to it.

He said they sometimes accept students “conditionally,” which meant that they essentially spent their first semester on academic probation: in order to stay in the program, they need Bs in all their courses. The discussion of “aid” came here. “We’re not accepting you as a student,” he said. “We’re hiring you for a job, and paying you partly with education.”

We then adjourned to a Wednesday colloquium required for all full-time graduate students. The presenter was a professor (a theorist, I assume) from a nearby, much larger university (and, curiously, one which is also on my list,) and he was explaining recent research they’d done which involved linear algebra and, apparently, a method of simplifying the solution to a set of very time-intensive computational problems dramatically. I swear what he was saying made some sense to me at the time, though I had no idea where he’d started (we joined the talk already in progress.) I did determine that (a) CS professors really can actually speak in the jargon I read in their research papers, and (b) I can learn some of that jargon given the right context.

I met a few students as we were leaving the colloquium, one of which Professor A. introduced me to specifically because he was one of Professor A.’s advisees, and he spoke some Russian. So I was introduced as the one who majored in Russian. (I have a feeling this is going to be my parlor trick: “He’s the one who majored in Russian.”) He looked at me, expectantly. “<I’ve forgotten most of it,>” I explained. “<I never knew much,>” he replied. “<My wife is Russian.>” We went back to English, and I asked about which program he was in. The MS, he replied. I asked why he’d chosen not to take the Ph.D. track. “I don’t need that headache,” he explained. “I just want a good job. The Ph.D. doesn’t help you with that. I need to graduate and earn some money.”

Back at the office, I got a full explanation of just what had been explained in the colloquium. Professor A. was so excited by it he was laughing more than once—you’d think the presenter had just explained how gold thread could be spun from ordinary wool. Again, I almost understood what was going on. Then came a brief digression into the recent faculty politics of the graduate school (not department politics, apparently, but university politics) and another swing in which I was taken next door for a tour of the server room. Racks on racks of Dells with Linux, a cluster or two of Suns, and load-balancers. “I’m responsible for four major releases of this load-balancing software,” he announced. “I kept finding bugs.” (Modesty does not appear to be Professor A.’s strong suit.)

The next stop was probably the most interesting one: as we left the server room, it struck him to introduce me to the new head sysadmin. Now, I had skimmed a copy of the campus newspaper during lunch, and this new sysadmin was hired recently to upgrade the network support for the entire graduate school, not just EE and CS. It turns out he’s essentially just planning on scaling the CS network up for everyone, and I found myself in what was almost a tentative job interview. What did I do at work. How was our web server set up. Was I using Apache. What other packages were built in with Apache. What *nixes had I worked with beyond Red Hat Linux. Did I program with C and C++. (Barely, more comfortable in Perl, even more comfortable in PHP.) Then we digressed into computational linguistics—a topic I know little about, but wound up in because I needed to spell my name. Due to the regional accent I grew up with (but, largely, stifle,) people often misunderstand it, so I have to clarify. He was fascinated. How did it differ from the Boston accent. How would my name be pronounced if I wasn’t hiding the accent. He moved in to a databasing project being done by a German professor, and noted that a background in languages could be a very useful thing there.

I didn’t exactly leave with a job offer, but something like, “Stay in touch, we have work for people with your skills.”

I left feeling pretty good about my chances at this university. It was a beautiful day for campus visits, in any case, but all the people I met were friendly, optimistic, and clearly enthusiastic about the work they were doing. I was too late to talk to anyone in graduate admissions, but I left my coin with the mascot’s statue. (I’ll have to leave him unnamed as well, but the pennies go on his trunk, which should tell you all you need to know if you know the schools in this area.) I drove back into the sunset, saw a deer browsing beside the road as I navigated heavy traffic, watched contrails, and had a blinding flash of inspiration about a project at work which I had to pull over and write down lest I forget it.

I need to visit another department so I have something to compare this to. I don’t have a baseline to say, they were good, but this is even better. And while I liked and appreciated Professor A.’s enthusiasm, as I drove home I realized he reminded me of no one so much as my first-year Russian professor, who suckered me in to that department. I haven’t yet established if I should consider this a good thing.

Posted by pjm at 9:56 PM | Comments (1)

Easing in to the pool

I am sitting on a bench in front of the EECS department of a university to which I (tentatively) plan to apply for graduate study. I am something like 45 minutes early for an appointment to talk to a professor who has much to recommend him. I have gone in, walked around, and felt like I was somehow interrupting something. In a few minutes I will need to go back in and talk to someone in the department office in the name of extracting useful information. I could wish that leeching bandwidth from an open wireless network would be all the introduction I would need, but alas, I will need to actually walk in, introduce myself with face and name, and demand time from an actual person. Who knew that this would be the hard part.

I took a campus tour with a bunch of prospective undergrads. That was a waste of time; I’ll know better now. I found a father who was there without his daughter (she toured with her mother, earlier, and he was bringing himself up to date) and we stood in the back and discussed the relevance or irrelevance of the information being fed to us. (On-campus housing, for example, is of no interest whatever to me, though it was to him.) I was reminded, painfully, of the inane babble I myself had produced as a tour guide, lo these many years ago; I spent some time considering the things which appear important on tours which then prove to have so little relevance in the actual college experience. The woman who walked us around apparently belonged to the Fraternity of Long-Haired Blondes, since she waved “hi” to nearly every one she saw.

Near the library I picked up thirty-one cents in change which had apparently fallen out of someone’s pocket as they sat on the grass. One of the campus traditions has to do with exams and the placement of pennies at a particular spot on a particular statue. When I’m done here, I will pass the statue on my way to the graduate admissions office. I plan to leave at least a nickel.

Posted by pjm at 2:03 PM | Comments (1)

October 5, 2004

man Mac

For Mac users: via TidBITS, a package called ManOpen, which lets you read unix manual pages in a regular Macintosh application (with helpful things like scrolling) rather than on the Terminal screen. It comes with a command line app called openman which lets you spawn a ManOpen window from the Terminal command line.

For the unix-averse (or uninitiated): man is short for “manual” and it’s the command for getting just that: a manual for a particular program. Of course, the abbreviation leads to all kinds of command-line fun, like the recursive man man, the frustrated (and frustrating) man bash, and the absolutely futile man woman:

$ man woman
No manual entry for woman

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

Posted by pjm at 12:09 PM | Comments (2)

Just one more pint

I avoided giving blood for a while when I was running well. Supposedly it takes about two weeks to replace the plasma, and that’s time I couldn’t be running close to the red line, so I didn’t do it. I felt guilty, though.

I can’t claim that I enjoy donating. Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s not, and in either case I don’t find puncture wounds any more fun for being voluntary. I had one or two incidents in Pennsylvania where I was almost the one they threw back. I don’t mind the sight of my own blood, but the needle in my arm gives me chills.

Two things bring me back. First, when I was in high school, the biology teacher was a veteran and took blood drives seriously. He had his seniors in the AP course (which I didn’t take, but my brother did) organize one every year, and somewhere along the line he hit just the right notes to make it the expected thing to do: I was proud to be able to go down and roll up my sleeve. I suppose I was proud to make the minimum weight, in those days; I also had some determination to take on anything my brother had already been doing for two years. (Fortunately, I outgrew that determination before he acquired daughters.)

Beyond that, though, my grandfather was a determined and active volunteer with the Red Cross for as long as I could remember, teaching CPR courses and whatever else they needed him for. I guess I thought he might be keeping an eye on me, and I don’t think there are many cases even now where navigating by my grandfathers’ examples is a bad idea. Even now, I can’t make it through a blood drive without thinking of him, and I can’t miss one without making a mental promise to him that I’ll make the next one, really.

So yesterday I walked around the stations at a church in South Amherst and produced another packet which I’m diligently trying to replace now. This one was pretty easy—the needle insertion was, as always, a bit of a drag, but I finished my packet in good time. The next bed over was going at a pretty good rate as well; the attendant exclaimed, “Wow, you guys are bleeding like… like…”

I finished for her. “Like we didn’t intend to?”

Now playing: Just Try from Dandys Rule OK by The Dandy Warhols

Posted by pjm at 10:50 AM | Comments (2)

October 4, 2004

I can't be the first to notice this...

While looking for something else, today I stumbled across a “weblog” on Blogspot which appeared to be mechanically generated. (Let’s put it this way… I looked at the author’s “profile” and they’re averaging about 250 posts per week.) It appears to be generated from news-site feeds, apparently a search for a particular keyword, because each post is just a sentence or two plus a link. Every link is to the same place, and—surprise, surprise—that’s a .biz website.

After all, why comment-spam everyone else’s weblog when you can create your own and spam actual entries

Now playing: Hiroshima Mon Amour from A Box Of Birds by The Church

Posted by pjm at 1:52 PM | Comments (0)

October 3, 2004

Part of the precipitate

I’ve never understood the attraction of freeway overpasses as impromptu billboards, but nearly every bridge over U.S. 495 from the start in Amesbury down to Lowell has some kind of message, generally along the lines of, “Welcome home Cpl. Mike,” or, “Gina I ♥ U.” Sometimes it’s an array of American flags, which seems a little confused to me. (“Freeways are so patriotic!”)

At some point someone realized you could spell out messages by wedging paper cups in the chain-link fences along the bridges, and this method of pixelated expression spread widely. Today, though, I thought I saw the beginning of the end. Somewhere around Lawrence, a fairly large number of white cups had been used on a longer message than usual:


Posted by pjm at 7:49 PM | Comments (0)

October 1, 2004


Well, I’m not doing too well on my Become a Nag campaign. I’m up to three LORs and one appointment, which is progress, but I need more appointments and I need to at least ask about more LORs so nobody has to print a copy for every application. And I need to get cracking on self-documentation: résumé and “personal statement,” the distillation of my history and motivation on this track to two or three sheets of paper.

The interviews are a ton of work, because even once it’s set up, I have research to do. What are the questions I need to ask? What does this person do? What’s their interest? I have to show up with my homework done; I need to be looking for information I couldn’t get on the web.

So, with this work in front of me, I’m working with a carrot. Four new CDs sit on the desk: the newest (I think) from Ryan Adams and Josh Ritter, the other Sarah Harmer, and Coldplay’s Rush of Blood to the Head. I can listen while I’m working. I hope they get me somewhere.

Now playing: Weakened State from You Were Here by Sarah Harmer

Posted by pjm at 7:57 PM | Comments (0)

We subdivide well

I’m always impressed at this office’s skill in splitting up baked goods. Doughnuts, cookies, you name it, if there’s a plate near the coffee pot, one or more of them will have been somehow partitioned.

Granted, the occasional cake, or today’s large cinnamon rolls, probably require this. But I think the height was reached the time I saw a single muffin on the counter which had been neatly sectioned into eight slices. Three of them were missing.

Now playing: All One To Me from Tomorrow by James

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

Selective memory

I took a long time to get going, in the pool this morning. I’d say I was close to halfway done with the set before I began to hit on all cylinders; I was so far off, I did a few open turns (as opposed to flipping them.) I had to be a little more mindful of relaxing and reaching out in front of me to get a full stroke.

I was thinking to myself, “This ‘getting in shape’ business is hard work.” And I realized, as I thought about it, how much I choose not to remember about being in shape when I was running.

It’s easy to remember the fun stuff. The long runs where I was floating past the scenery and felt like I could go for days; the races where I stretched myself from the start and knew I was going to finish well if I could just hang on; the times I got antsy holding back behind another runner and seemed to be able to put him well behind me just by thinking about running free for a few minutes.

What I haven’t been thinking about was the dues paid to get there. Prying myself out of bed before the sun through the winter and watching my step for black ice. Clueless dog owners. The track workouts where the start of every repeat was an exercise in self-delusion. (You can’t look at the whole workout; you just put the repeats on the plate one at a time.) The weird chemical smell of sweat when I’m really, really depleted on a long run.

I’d tell you that this is all worth it, but the funny part is that I probably wasn’t thinking so at the time. Even in [the race I won][1] I don’t remember allowing myself much jubilation.

I can’t find the poem I’m thinking of online, but I believe it’s by Donald Finkel: “Interview with a Winner.” It’s in The Runner’s Literary Companion, and it ends something like this:

What did you win?
a chance

What’s next for you?
next week’s race

that wasn’t it either

Maybe I just want to be back in the game, entropy be damned.

Now playing: 3 Strange Days from School Of Fish by School Of Fish

Posted by pjm at 12:39 PM | Comments (1)