« October 2005 | Main | December 2005 »

November 30, 2005

Watching users

I’ve written a few web apps in the last few years, but never have I actually been able to watch users interact with it like I can with the Wish List, especially since I added the RSS feeds. Even before that, though, the principal users have been family, so nobody has been afraid to tell me when something doesn’t work the way they expected.

It didn’t occur to me at the time, but the site has allowed lists to become more fluid; I can watch how they grow and contract. I’ve spotted several different use patterns, both in making lists and buying from them, and in some cases the differences run in families. For example, I tend to create really long lists, like a restaurant menu, figuring everyone can find something that fits them, but I’ve seen others who create shorter lists that are almost entirely consumed by their family. And there’s a small minority who sign up to read others’ lists, but don’t add anything to their own. (Sometimes, “their” lists become clearinghouses of gift ideas other people had for them, so it’s not worth requiring that people put stuff on their lists.)

There are plenty of visual tune-ups it needs; aside from a slightly glossier style, there are some places where I should be using color and typography (to distinguish, for example, when someone added an item to their own list, and when someone else added it.) Also, I’m beginning to realize that there needs to be a capacity to add a series of notes to items, in essence making each list item a topic with theoretically unlimited comments. (I’ve already seen some people working around this missing feature.)

A link I saw on del.icio.us recently suggested there are plenty of people looking for more in their wish lists than Amazon offers. Perhaps after this Christmas is over, I should work out a hit list of features and roll this out as a more public application.

Now Playing: Directing Traffik from Life by Inspiral Carpets

Posted by pjm at 10:01 PM | Comments (0)

The NCAA is not a big deal

A lot of the more rabid running fans in the U.S. make a big deal of NCAA championships. You just have to look at the crowds tearing around the course at the cross-country nationals to get a feeling for it, but the non-stop braying on several message boards provides some quantifiable evidence.

The thing is, many of the contenders for individual NCAA titles aren’t even North American. Saskatchewan native Simon Bairu gave us some good quotes after winning the men’s title, but Simon was also pumped up for the victory of his team. On the other hand, very few reports from nationals have run quotes from the women’s winner, Johanna Nilsson, a Swede running for Northern Arizona. This was Nilsson’s second individual title (she won the indoor mile in 2002,) and her older sister, Ida, won a steeplechase title in 2004, but it was pretty clear that while Johanna liked winning, she didn’t take the title itself terribly seriously. Here’s a quote from the Terre Haute Tribune Star, the only ones I’ve found to mention this:

“I’m not going to sit here and say cross [country] is not important,” she said with an embarrassed smile at one point during her post-race news conference, but it was obvious she’d enjoyed her track success—including being national indoor mile champion in 2003 and national runner-up at 1,500 meters last spring—a lot more.
 “To win is always fun,” she concluded, still seemingly embarrassed by the attention. “I just don’t know if it means that much.”

But the Tribune Star implies that it’s just cross-country that Nilsson isn’t impressed by, not NCAA competition in general. So, here’s a quote from a conversation I had with New Zealander Nick Willis after he won the indoor mile title last February:

“It was nice to win an NCAA title, but I don’t think I would’ve lost any sleep if I’d retired never having won an NCAA title. It is a big deal to be over here, but coming from another country, you’re not brought up with the whole national championship idea. It’s always the big-scale things.”

All of which leads me to wonder, why do so many fans make such a big deal out of NCAA titles when even many of the champions don’t appear to take them that seriously? Shouldn’t we be looking beyond the NCAA, like the New Zealanders, and focusing our athletes on World Championships and Olympics?

Now Playing: Fell from School Of Fish by School Of Fish

Posted by pjm at 2:43 PM | Comments (0)

November 29, 2005

Good thing #328 about being an older-than-average grad student

All your t-shirts are not only stylishly vintage, they’re authentic, rather than store-bought, vintage.

Extra points if your vendor-ware is from an entirely different field, for extra obscurity.

Now Playing: Caroline from Bloodletting by Concrete Blonde

Posted by pjm at 2:21 PM | Comments (3)


Yesterday’s big positive: another grad student had a question about C. (Specifically, a question about pointers in C. Pointers have been a confusing topic for me since I took Comp 11 in 1992.)

Not only did I answer his question, but I did it in a way that made him say, “Hmm, I hadn’t thought of it that way before.”

Now Playing: Grunge Betty from Dandys Rule OK by The Dandy Warhols

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

November 28, 2005

Harvard has it in for me

My brother sent an email the other day with the rumored dates of the New England Masters SCY meet in the spring. Unfortunately, the first day, Distance Day, is the first Saturday of my university’s spring break, and I have plane tickets to go somewhere warm that day. The remaining three days are the following Friday, Saturday and Sunday; I expect to be returning from somewhere warm on Saturday, and I doubt I’ll want to swim on Sunday. (I could be wrong, of course.)

This is unfortunate, but it’s probably the only time that NEM could get the Harvard pool: around Harvard’s spring break. And when I balance “several days away from the miserable New England March” against “a chance to swim a big, competitive meet,” getting away from March wins every time.

When I get a few minutes, I’ll need to start looking for another target meet for the spring.

Posted by pjm at 2:03 PM | Comments (0)

November 26, 2005

Feeds and spoilers

I added web feeds to the Wish List this afternoon, which was a relatively simple operation thanks to previous experience and the simple tutorial which led me through my first feeds.

(Brief digression: Why not an Atom feed? Because all the pages which proposed to show me how started with something like, “First, look at the specification…” and I’m not at all interested in reading the spec: I just want to write a feed template. Danny Sullivan’s article just shows you how, and it just works.)

My learning step, this time, was adding the feed auto-discovery links to the heads of each page. I figure that many of the people using this are pretty low on the geek scale, and are most likely to use feeds if they’re spoon-fed via Safari or Firefox. So I made sure the code was there to pop up the relevant feed links.

I have code in the existing list display pages to control what gets shown to the owner of the list. If you’re looking at your own list (that is, you’re logged in, and looking at the list associated with the user you’re logged in as,) you don’t see status notes other people have left about items on your list, nor do you see items other people have put on your list. It’s part of the original idea behind this: it’s about preserving surprises if you want to, in a way most web-based wish lists don’t.

For various reasons not entirely unrelated to this post, I can’t require logins for the feeds. Since I can’t tell who is requesting the feed for a list, I can’t present the list differently for owners and non-owners. In other words, if you check the feed for your own list, it’s entirely likely to be a spoiler.

I decided this was a necessary risk. The value of having web feeds lies in providing current information, and gutting the feed content would be counterproductive. Instead, I’ve just not included the feed link or auto-discovery code for the owner of a list. They could still figure out the feed URL and subscribe, but it’s not happening by accident. And in my rambling introduction to the feature on the front page, I’ve included the caution: spoilers ahead.

Now Playing: Dear John from Jacksonville City Nights by Ryan Adams & The Cardinals

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

November 25, 2005

Back to the Wish List

After spending a good chunk of yesterday (and, come to think of it, a lot of today,) away from a computer, I’m coming back by doing some work on the Wish List. (I notice I’m not the only one doing some extracurriculars over the break.)

With some escalating use, people are starting to come up with more feature requests, so I’m ignoring most of them and scratching my own itches. One of them was adding Markdown formatting to the text fields, so it’s easier to write extended text blocks in item descriptions, not that we’ve been particularly wordy so far. But the thornier one, which I puzzled about for a while before adding, was pretty easy to implement.

What I did was scan the URLs for items to check if it was an Amazon link. If it is, I’m now adding my affiliate tag.

There aren’t many Amazon links included at this point, and some of the people using them have actually used clipurl.com or tinyurl.com already, which renders this point moot. Even if there were, I doubt the total revenue will be anything significant—I’m estimating somewhere between $5 and $10, actually. But I still felt a little creepy doing it, and I guess the fact that I’m writing this indicates that I’m a little defensive.

Anyway, with that out of the way, I have some other ideas to play with.

Posted by pjm at 11:26 PM | Comments (1)

November 23, 2005

Cooking with gas

I started making fudge for the holidays sometime in high school. The first few batches at Thanksgiving and Christmas were well received, and I reached a point where I was making three or four batches for distribution each Christmas. I acquired a big pot (also used for the occasional batch of chili) and a candy thermometer (like this one ,) a wonderfully industrial piece of kitchenware with a brushed-metal dial and red needle. I experimented with white chocolate (well received, but softer than the regular stuff) and peppermint (not bad, but the hot fudge tended to boil off the peppermint extract without taking much flavor from it.)

Demand tapered off recently, and last year I think I only made one batch at Christmas and skipped Thanksgiving. Since this year’s Thanksgiving is being hosted by rookies, I figured once I had the requested rolls baked (yes, I made rolls,) I’d pitch in a batch of fudge. I’ll bring part of it up to the town where much of the rest of my family is eating, at the suggestion of one of my cat-sitters.

Making fudge is relatively simple (if you’ve got one of the red-plaid Better Homes and Gardens cookbooks, and it has the “Remarkable Fudge” recipe, that’s what I use.) It’s fascinating to watch, though. You start with evaporated milk, butter, and all the sugar you can find in a big saucepan (the biggest you own,) and you heat it for a good long time. The first few times, I would just stir tediously until the candy thermometer showed the right temperature, then dump in the chocolate, vanilla, and marshmallow, stir and pour. After I’d watched more carefully, though, I could see the syrup go through at least two intermediate state changes on the way to the final state. Getting it to that final state is important, too; if it’s not cooked hot enough, it won’t set up properly in the pan, and the result will be gooier than fudge should really be.

I’ll find out for certain about this batch tomorrow, but based on licking off the stirring spoon, I think it’s a winner.

Now Playing: Released from Winter Pays for Summer by Glen Phillips

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

November 22, 2005

Decks cleared

With the programming project I just handed in (over half an hour early!) I’m now clear (aside from the omnipresent stack of grading,) well into next week, possibly for the first time this month. November has been pretty thick, work-wise, and even though I’ve had good days, this has been a rough week: first the fruitless all-nighter, then today getting the grade for the bombed quiz. (It was better than I’d feared; I almost went to the professor to argue that I had a higher grade than I deserved.)

So much the better that this assignment went in on time and, for once, with me feeling like I’d met and possibly exceeded the parameters of the assignment. This particular course has been my first extensive experience coding in Java, and while I can’t say that I like it (I still prefer PHP,) it’s getting easier, and I’ll be able to apply what I’m learning to other languages. A big part of programming is learning patterns of thinking, and it’s the ease with which the hacker can implement the ideas in their head that makes them prefer particular languages over others. (That, and suitability to tasks, but that overlaps.) Learning other languages provides new ways of thinking.

A big step towards becoming more comfortable with Java was downloading and installing Eclipse on my Powerbook. Eclipse is an IDE (Integrated Developer Environment) for Java, and it happens to be open-source and cross-platform. It has the usual range of bits like syntax coloring and auto-completion which make it a notch above a text editor, but what helps more than anything is its error-checking (it highlights errors and suggests fixes,) and the ease with which it lets me flick around the many files a Java project produces. I even found myself using the “Refactor” menu, pushing properties and methods up into abstract parent classes. I kept being tickled by how easy things could be.

I understand there are plugins galore to allow one to customize and extend the program, but I’m not quite there yet. Also, the Mac version is still a “Carbon” application, which may run natively in OS X but displays some funkiness. (For some reason, it won’t stay in the dock.)

Meanwhile, it’s time for me to try to get ahead so I don’t get this slammed again at the end of the semester.

Now Playing: Used Cars from Badlands: A Tribute To Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska by Ani DiFranco

Posted by pjm at 11:50 PM | Comments (0)

I must have wanted to do this for at least ten minutes

…because that’s how long it must have taken for me to fill out the entry form for this meet. Actually, maybe fifteen, since I had to use a calculator to figure out my seed times; this is a SCM meet (Short Course Meters) and almost all the short course meets one usually does are yards. In fact, the last time I raced SCM was in high school, where Boothbay had the only meters pool in our league. (Bates had a pool with a movable bulkhead, so they could swim SCY or SCM, but it was set for yards when we had meets there.)

Anyway, I used my times from last spring’s Simon’s Rock meet and piped them through the calculator to get some seed times. I have no idea how accurate they are, but I’ve noticed that I seem to be pretty close to the median in the ordered time lists, rather than closer to the bottom as I’ve come to expect.

Now Playing: Paint A Vulgar Picture from Strangeways, Here We Come by The Smiths

Posted by pjm at 9:38 AM | Comments (0)

November 20, 2005

Luke's music

There’s a pretty decent wireless network in this hotel. Sometimes it can be a bit slow, and oddly enough the signal is better in our room than it is in the lobby, but in general it’s pretty good; we haven’t needed to break out any of the guerilla network tools (a network hub, the Airport Express, whatever,) that I sometimes bring along to make sure we can both get online.

The hotel is also loaded with college cross-country runners, and as a result I’m trying something new: listening to someone’s shared iTunes playlist. I’ve never been on a network with other people sharing music; my co-workers have never been that savvy, and I tend not to be looking at iTunes when I’m online at school.

But now we’re playing our music off “LUKE’S LimeWire Tunes.” I have no idea who Luke is—just that he’s somewhere in this hotel, and he downloads music using LimeWire. And I know a bit about his music, which I suppose might tell me even more about him.

Now Playing: Portions of Foxes from More Adventurous by Rilo Kiley

Posted by pjm at 8:39 PM | Comments (0)

November 19, 2005

Dazed and frustrated

I guess you could say it was bound to happen sometime: I stayed up all night working on a project. Specifically, a programming assignment due Monday evening. Of course, Monday evening I expect to be on a series of planes returning from Terre Haute, we’re leaving to go there this afternoon, and I’m not sure what kind of connectivity I’ll have there. (The library, I suppose, but maybe, like Tufts, they will have locked down that network by now.)

Somehow, I managed to work all night without any sense of progress. The idea is to optimize a particular operation against a randomized simulation (virtual memory paging in a resource-starved situation, if you’re in to that sort of thing,) and the grade is based on “performance:” the ratio of cycles spent blocked to cycles spent working, the smaller the better. Several of my classmates have posted results (in the anonymous, norm-setting, results-sharing tool,) and they’re down in the range of 0.5. The supplied example solution, which is deliberately bad, runs around 10 or 12. By 8 or so last night, I was reliably between 1.6 and 5, averaging around 2.4.

And despite several different approaches overnight, I haven’t managed to improve on that for the last twelve hours. I finally grabbed two hours of sleep after I found myself nodding off at the keyboard around 7 AM.

My best plan is to submit something today before we leave. If I happen to be able to improve it from Terre Haute, so much the better, but I can’t count on being able to do that. Also, I have another project due Tuesday (which I can work on without a network connection) which I’d counted on spending my free Indiana time on.

You can imagine that this is pretty frustrating for me. I mean, if you pull an all-nighter on a project, aren’t you supposed to see progress? My code looks a little better, but in terms of results, I would’ve been better off asleep. More to the point, if I’d been chipping away at this all week, I could’ve gone to the TA or my classmates and said, how is this working for you? What am I doing wrong? Now, everyone’s home for the weekend, and it’s pretty much my own problem that I’m only finding these roadblocks now.

Now Playing: Mouse Trap from Going Blank Again by Ride

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

November 18, 2005

Think before you drink

Think before you drink For all the un-autumny weather we’ve had this fall, I’ve been lucky in that I’ve only had to drive to campus (rather than walking or biking) twice. I’ve even done a fair number of my errands by bike. However, I discovered today that I can’t really do spur of the moment grocery runs on the bike; I need plenty of carrier space, and improvising only gets me so far. Yes, that’s Doc Bronner’s soap in my bottle cage. Fortunately, I wasn’t so overloaded that I needed to put a frozen burrito in the other one. Good thing I don’t need fluids on these short-haul rides.

When I run out of cargo space, I wrap my coiled cable lock around my left arm. It hangs there pretty comfortably, but it also makes my arm into a small mace, what with the heavy lock and all.

Now Playing: Dangerous Type by Letters to Cleo

Posted by pjm at 2:11 PM | Comments (2)

November 16, 2005

Resonance to dreams

As usual, I nearly forgot that I had a column running today. Go, read it: I’m not sure anyone else does.

I actually just emailed my resignation from this particular column rotation. My primary reason is my increasing lack of time, which affects not only my ability to write but the attention I pay to the sport and therefore my ability to come up with relevant and interesting topics.

Secondarily, I think we’ve reached the interesting situation where the meager honorarium I’m paid for these columns is a bad deal at both ends. I doubt many people read them, and I’m pretty sure the site won’t be the worse for not paying me for more columns. On the other hand, if I figured the per-hour or even per-word rate I was paid for those columns, they were going pretty cheaply, even for me.

So, I’m done. If I come up with a good idea or opinion, I’ll just post it here. Or maybe I’ll flog it around to other outlets; my range of “clients” has changed a bit in recent years. In fact, next weekend we’re going to a little cross-country meet, and I have two assignments, both for print publications, and no online work.

Now Playing: I See Monsters from Love Is Hell by Ryan Adams

Posted by pjm at 11:15 PM | Comments (0)

Tolerance level

It’s true that nearly every professor makes a note at the beginning of the semester that people should turn off things like cell phones or other stuff that beeps before they come to class, but it’s also true that it’s tough to remember. (I tend to leave my phone on its “meeting” setting for days at a time, which sometimes leads to me missing calls because I forget to also check the voicemail.)

I’m not sure what the etiquette is when the professor’s phone rings.

I also have to wonder about the second ringing phone. Didn’t they check their setting, compulsively, when the first ring woke the class? And, even if they silenced it quickly, didn’t it occur to them that we’d all be hearing their voice-mail alert soon?

Full disclosure: my turn to have a ringing phone in the classroom was during orientation for all new TAs, while the dean of the graduate school was talking. It was my GA supervisor calling.

Now Playing: Alternative Girlfriend from Maybe You Should Drive by Barenaked Ladies

Posted by pjm at 7:40 PM | Comments (3)

November 15, 2005

Time management

I don’t talk too much about the grad school big picture, mostly because I don’t want to turn up on anyone’s Google search for my department (ah, too late,) professors, or classmates. I don’t want to burn anyone here, not that most of what to say would be a problem to anyone but myself. Also, because I’m usually neck deep and digging fast.

The biggest problem has shaped up to be the way I’m earning my funding. I mentioned my three quarters of one and one quarter of another support distribution back in August, and it turns out I’ve answered my unanswered question about it: no, I don’t like it. It’s not working. (More after the jump…)

Now Playing: I Don’t Need A Hero from Bloodletting by Concrete Blonde

Continue reading "Time management"

Posted by pjm at 8:02 PM | Comments (0)

Wow, that was bad

I was almost feeling like I had a handle on the topic of today’s Algorithms quiz. At least, that’s how I felt until I looked at the first question. I don’t think I’ve known less of the material on a test since the final exam the first time I took calculus. (The fact that I have to use ordinal numbers for that should tell you how it went.)

Fortunately, this particular quiz only counts for approximately 2% of the total course grade. I usually don’t pay attention to that sort of thing (just do your best on everything and the grade will take care of itself,) but it’s nice to know that one blown quiz doesn’t mean the whole semester has augered in.

Now Playing: Paths Will Cross from Josh Ritter by Josh Ritter

Posted by pjm at 7:05 PM | Comments (0)

November 14, 2005

Did pop music make me think like this? Or do I listen to pop music because I think like this?

Last Thursday’s Algorithms class featured an analysis of collision resolution through chaining in hash tables. (Don’t worry; unlike my professor, I won’t be giving a test.)

The problem came when I caught myself humming, “Some chains are shorter than α” to the tune of The Smiths’ Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others.

Now Playing: Antenna from Starfish by The Church

Posted by pjm at 9:32 AM | Comments (0)

November 13, 2005

No ducks in our house

Through a survey A. and I picked up from a box at the end of this morning’s Quabbin run, I have discovered that the state Department of Conservation and Recreation maintains a Quabbin Watershed Advisory Committee.

Yes, the QWAC.

Now Playing: The Loved One from Kick by INXS

Posted by pjm at 2:35 PM | Comments (0)


There’s a professor in our department who, according to department folklore, gets a haircut and clean shave precisely once a year. I have only anecdotal evidence of this, though his appearance certainly does bear it out; he’s got more beard than nearly anyone I can think of. The stories go on to suggest specific dates for the annual barbering, but I’m too suspicious of those details to repeat them, because they seem to push the idea from eccentric over-practicality into something more ritualistic.

That aside, I have to admit this approach has some appeal. I certainly wouldn’t mind having back all the hours I’ve spent so far this year removing stubble from my face.

Now Playing: Penny Look Down by Decibully

Posted by pjm at 2:23 PM | Comments (0)

November 12, 2005

Not the help you were looking for

If you search Google for “help wrapping a present”, this entry is currently the second result.

If you search for “help wrapping a present -cat” (which is search-string-ese for “leave out the cats,”) it’s the first.

Now Playing: Frinck from Songs From The Other Side by The Charlatans

Posted by pjm at 5:09 PM | Comments (0)

November 11, 2005

There must be a more elegant answer

Does anyone know an elegant way to test, within a PHP script, if PHP is running as a CGI or as an Apache module?

Now Playing: She Wants To Play Hearts from Demolition by Ryan Adams

Posted by pjm at 11:07 PM | Comments (2)

It's November, which means...

…that all your annoying ahead-of-the-game relatives are asking you what you want for Christmas. Or, alternately, you’re coming up with all these great ideas which you will forget by the time they ask you.

Last year, I hacked up a quick PHP web app which facilitates sharing of lists among families. It’s a bit rough, but eliminates several of what I consider shortcomings of wish lists like Amazon’s. I’ve done a little bit of revision recently, and have plans for a few more features, but it works and my family, for one, is using it again this year.

If you think your family might be interested (and, I admit, it’s not for everyone,) drop me a line and I’ll send the address.

Posted by pjm at 3:52 PM | Comments (1)

Black cats

I read recently that black cats are genetically tabbies: black, with black stripes.

Posted by pjm at 3:42 PM | Comments (0)

November 9, 2005

It seldom hurts to ask

I emailed the University swim coach to ask for help.

A. pointed out that this was unlikely to get me anywhere, since most varsity coaches have their hands full with their teams, but I figured the worst that could happen was that he just wouldn’t reply. I introduced myself, explained my swimming situation (bored and plateaued,) and asked for advice. I figure I need some combination of three things: new workouts, a long-range workout plan, and some feedback about my form.

After a long time with no response, I got email saying, yes, he’s really busy, but come to the Advanced Swimming phys ed. class three mornings a week, and he’d expand their workouts for me.

I’ve been to two, now, and it’s a good start. I’m doing the “advanced” workouts, and while the yardage is well within my range, the intensity of the workouts is a good bit higher than I was maintaining on my own. Most of the sets have 20- or 15-second recoveries, which is not much at all. It’s work, no question. There’s also a senior Mechanical Engineering major who is just about my speed, so I feel like I’m working out with someone.

The downside is that these don’t really constitute a training program, other than the progressive nature inherent in a class. Also, because the skill level of the class is largely lower than my own, it seems unlikely that we’ll be doing any butterfly drills, for example.

I’ve actually registered to take the class next semester. I can’t get credit for it, so it’s a little pointless, but I feel like it may balance things out somewhere in administration-land.

Of course, the coach mis-heard my name when I came to the pool on Monday, so he’s been calling me “Mark” for a few days. (It should be obvious, but for those who don’t know me, that’s not any fraction of my name.) I’m trying to think of a graceful way to make the correction, and I’m half tempted to just let him go; we both know what he means, after all.

Now Playing: Uniform Grey from You Were Here by Sarah Harmer

Posted by pjm at 9:53 PM | Comments (0)

November 8, 2005

Public service announcement

I have the first sentences (or at least the main ideas) of a few posts in ecto now, but not the time to follow up on the ideas. I’m having too much fun implementing drag and drop by midnight. Whee!

And figuring out how to cover for yesterday’s gaffe, when I confidently assured my Comp 11 students, in a study session, that they wouldn’t have to know how to create a .o file for the exam. Then I read the lab section of the exam. Oops. If any of you are reading, the command is g++ -c sourcefile.cpp.

Now, I wonder how hard it would be to get goggles before making it to the pool at 10:30 tomorrow, considering that the swim shop appears to open at 10 and is in North Reading?

Now Playing: Joey from Bloodletting by Concrete Blonde

Posted by pjm at 7:17 PM | Comments (0)

November 7, 2005

Quick New York wrapup

I wound up making a quick hack to my PHP forms to email a copy of every new update to my editor. I’d push it to the database, then start on the next one; once she’d read it, she’d either email an edited version back to me (seldom) or tell me which changes to make (more common.) Most of the changes were on the level of when numbers are spelled out and when numerals are used, terminal commas, and things like that, but once in a while we’d have a more interesting puzzle (“Is it appropriate to describe someone as a casualty? Is there a good metaphor for describing the way the men’s pack is spread across two lanes of road?”)

Other technical details were annoying but not crippling. My wonderful hyperlinked bios turned out to scramble the front page of the site, so I ended up going back after the race and filling them in rather than using them while the race was in progress. I also had issues with updates which included line breaks; it turned out I needed to do some addslashes() and stripslashes() work to make PHP and MySQL play well together again. This sort of thing always gets me in trouble, because somehow I end up with multiple-escaped apostrophes (\\’) and I wind up just replacing them with ’ to make them work.

The wireless network in the press room was sketchy for the first half hour or so, then once it was stabilized we had no troubles with it. (Others reported continuing issues through the race, but I didn’t experience that.)

By going to the NYRR to help out for a few hours after the race, I got to leave NYC after the course had been re-opened to traffic, which made it simpler to get out of town. Traffic was heavier than I had expected, but I made it back to Medford in just under four hours, which must be some kind of record, to the glee of one lonely kitty.

Now Playing: 10:15 Saturday Night by The Cure

Posted by pjm at 10:06 AM | Comments (3)

November 6, 2005

I should know better than this

Why didn’t someone point out to me that one can’t run a webserver on a wireless network, and expect anyone (other than to reach it?

Oh, well… it’s still better than last year. Now it’s automatically emailing my new updates to my editor, and she emails the edits back to me. I tried putting it up on one of my sites, but my web host has disabled PHPs FTP functions.

Posted by pjm at 8:57 AM | Comments (0)

November 5, 2005

Keeping up with the Kenyans

I don’t know how busy I’ll be tomorrow, so I’ll post this now. I’ll be working on this page.

Posted by pjm at 6:07 PM | Comments (0)

November 4, 2005

Dev Addict

If I flip through the media credentials hanging over my desk, I will find nine previous NYCM credentials. This will be my tenth. In 1996, I managed the “live” updates on the Runner’s World site in pretty much the same way I did for the NYRR in 2004, except that nowadays I have to run each update through an editor (who usually improves them, but adds another level of complication.)

It’s about time, I figured, that I quit hand-coding HTML and pushing around text files.

Tonight in my lab sections, I re-installed PHP and MySQL on my Mac (the 10.4 update blew away my previous installations, unfortunately,) and started hacking at some PHP for the first time in months. I think this must be what recovered addicts feel like when they get a dose of their drug of choice.

What I have now is a tiny little web app, hosted on my Powerbook, to manage updates. One form handles additions and editing; in its “addition” form, I just have a big text box with a “New” button. When I click that, my text is time-stamped and dumped in a database row.

Another page shows a list of updates (sorted by time-stamp) and their edit status. The editor, if she’s on the same network I am (and if the NYRR comes through with the media-center wireless network, she will be,) can click links for each update to see a preview, make changes, and approve it for publication with a click.

The sauce atop this sundae is a link which pulls all the updates out of the database, puts them into the requisite text files, and if I can solve the final bugs, FTPs them to the webserver for me. One-click publishing.

The cherry is that I’m creating a text-file with Markdown link definitions for all the elite athletes’ bios on the NYCM website, so if I mention an athlete with a bio, I can just type [Paul Tergat][] just the way I would when I’m writing here, and it will be a link to his bio when I push the files up to the server.

I may only get five hours of sleep tonight, but damn, this is a cool little app.

Update, 11:30 AM: Cleaned up my hit list this morning. The major issue turned out to be my firewall; I couldn’t establish the FTP connection from PHP with the firewall on. I’ll need to disable it during the race. (Eek, but no way around it right now.)

Now Playing: Next Lover from Seven by James

Posted by pjm at 1:26 AM | Comments (1)

November 3, 2005


If I’m such a geek, why are five out of six messages currently in my inbox related to upcoming races?

Posted by pjm at 5:43 PM | Comments (1)


Somewhere early in my class notes for Algorithms—the class I nearly dropped—there is a note in the margin which reads, “Don’t let the gunners get you down.”

I write lots of irrelevant bits in the margins of my notes, getting the ideas out of my head before they derail my class focus. Today, I wanted to flip back and write that note again, as I caught a glimpse of one of my classmates with one hand in the air to answer a question, and three—three!—sharpened pencils in the other hand. Undoubtedly there’s a good explanation for that, but it’s easy to take little snapshots and use them to convince myself that everyone else in the class is more together and better prepared than I am.

“Gunners” is a term that’s familiar to law school students, but less so to CS students. I’m sure I was one, in my evening-college classes before I came here. It’s a funny feeling, when you feel like you get the material and you want to answer the questions and move on to the next exciting bit, rather than waiting as your classmates look perplexed and puzzled and fail to come up with the answer (or the confidence to put forward the answer they have.)

The problem is, one or two guys with all the answers can unintentionally fool the rest of us into thinking we don’t know any of the answers, unless we put our blinkers on and ignore them.

Now Playing: 10 A.M. Automatic from Rubber Factory by The Black Keys

Posted by pjm at 2:19 PM | Comments (0)

November 2, 2005

Gives me the shivers

Back in my old job, I worked a lot with an obsolete all-in-one “server appliance” called a Cobalt Qube. It was a handy little thing: gateway, firewall, mail server, web server and file server all in one. It would’ve handled DNS and FTP if we’d asked (or, more correctly, if I’d thought those were a good idea; I didn’t.)

In today’s NYT there’s a squib about a box called the Chili Box. Pardon me, but it gave me chills. It’s the Qube all over—not literally, but in all the important ways. Custom hardware, complete with a colorful case and very few buttons. Web interface. Firewall, network gateway, file sharing, mail server and web proxy all in one cute little case. The ‘net has changed in the last five or six years, so the web server is gone (who hosts their own website in their office anymore?) and the firewall is bumped to the top of the list; spam filtering is built in instead of installed aftermarket by a painstaking sysadmin.

And I’m betting there’s a custom flavor of Linux in there waving the baton. I wonder how long Chili Networks will be dealing out security updates? If they’ll actually increment version numbers on the updated daemons, instead of back-porting patches like Cobalt and Sun did? If they’ll update the kernel at all? Because I bet there will be some enterprising home-grown sysadmins out there who will take those nice, economical Chili Boxes and keep them running much, much longer than Chili Networks think they’ll be supporting them.

They’re cute, though. I wonder if they’re quiet enough to sit in the living room next to the cable modem?

Now Playing: Under The Milky Way from El Momento Descuidado by The Church

Posted by pjm at 9:41 PM | Comments (2)

Newton's first law of athletics

“For every healing injury, there is an equal and opposite new injury.”

My foot has been feeling fine lately, despite several longer-than-planned runs. However, I seem to be having ITBS problems again. Figures. It would be pretty tough if I had to blame the bike, but it may be a factor.

And, to top it off, last night I popped my left shoulder moving Iz off my desk. (He also popped the “S” key off my laptop in the course of resisting that move, but that snapped back on, unlike my shoulder.) This morning in the pool, I found I could pull through, but the recovery part of my stroke (swinging my arm forward to pull again) was hampered somewhat. I opted for a workout full of drills (lots of sculling and underwater dolphin-kicking) and by the end it was loose enough for 50y of fly. So I won’t lose everything at once.

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

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

November 1, 2005

More studying

The Algorithms mid-term ended a bit more than an hour ago, and my head still hurts. I have to hand it to the professor, though, he knows how to time an exam: very few people finished early, and I suspect I was one of many who finished within two minutes of when he called “time.” This unlike the midterm I heard about in a class I’m not taking, which turned out to actually be a three-hour exam crammed into a seventy-five-minute class block.

I need to get back to book studying soon, though. Yesterday, FedEx delivered my textbook for Sunday’s exam. It’s a media guide for the NYCM, where I will once again be writing the “mile by mile” updates on the race website. This exam will take approximately three hours, and while others might finish early, I probably won’t.

Now Playing: Too Late from Songs for a Hurricane by Kris Delmhorst

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