January 31, 2007
And, of course, the new laptop has one of those tiny pinhole cameras in the top bezel of the monitor. Apple includes Photo Booth software which uses it, and includes some built-in distortions. Photos along these lines follow inevitably:
Now Playing: Скоро Кончится Лето from Черный Альбом by Кино
While transfer of affection isn’t easy, it turns out that transfer of almost everything else is alarmingly easy. When the new box was starting up, it asked me if I was transferring from an old Mac. I said yes, booted the old machine in Firewire Target Disk Mode, plugged it in to the new one… and waited for a few hours.
Once it was done, though, I’ve found very little from my old machine which is missing on the new one. I was able to log in and start working like I hadn’t switched machines. (A asked, and I didn’t have an answer: is there a comparable transfer utility for Windows? I don’t remember one when I was setting up XP boxen in my old job—not one that worked this well, anyway.)
The only hitches I’ve found are connected to the fact that I was switching from a PowerPC G4 to an Intel chip. So there’s, uh, an architecture issue. Most of my apps were already Universal, but every so often I bump up on something compiled for PPC. The list is pretty bizarre. TeXshop worked, but wouldn’t generate a PDF—the LaTeX utilities underneath needed rebuilding. My G4 Bon Echo build would crash at odd times, running under Rosetta. Likewise, DrScheme would start and run, but crash if I tried defining anything.
And then, in yesterday’s class, we were talking about Just In Time architecture-to-architecture translation. Which, while obviously very good, is evidently not flawless yet.
January 30, 2007
Love what's in front of you
A few months ago, I was reading a blog in which the poster wrote, “Love what’s in front of you.”
I responded in a comment, “I’m sitting at the kitchen table with my laptop. Aside from some furniture, that leaves me with my laptop and the fridge, and much as I may love either of them, I doubt they’ll love me back.”
I don’t really love the fridge, but I think over the past year and a half I’ve spent more of my waking hours with that laptop, a 12” G4 Powerbook, than with any single sentient being. (Iz tries to tip the balance by waking me up when I’m sleeping, but he sleeps so much himself that he’s not really pulling it off.) I’ve been using it for a bit more than three and a half years, and in that time I’ve stuck a few CDs in it, taken it apart, put it back together, replaced the optical drive, the keyboard, and the RAM, crammed the HDD full with photos, music, and recorded interviews, flown and driven all over this country plus Canada and Japan, done enough freelance writing to pay for the computer, hacked together several web apps, and installed more software than I care to think about, to handle more tasks than I could have conceived of when I bought it. If I get sappy about a pair of spikes I’ve raced in four times, imagine how I feel about this computer.
With that much use, you can imagine that it’s getting a bit beat up. The keyboard—the second keyboard—has some loose keys. There are scratches around the case, and in a few places the contours are not quite what they were originally milled to be. And there’s a CD stuck in the optical drive. (I’ve still got to figure out how to get that out.)
The MacBook arrived yesterday. It has a lot to recommend it, including a working optical drive, but it’s not love (yet).
(Where’s the old one going? Check back here and look under “increasing interest.” Then remember that I have nieces, and their father is an engineer, too.)
There aren’t many days left in January, but I’d been having a hard time coordinating the pool schedule and a lap counter to get in for the one hour postal swim. We finally went in last night, and even so it took several minutes to sort out a lane—there are very few lap-swim times where there’s an available lane at the University pool.
So I was cold and in a hurry to get going once I got in the pool. As a result, I didn’t take the extra minute or two to loosen up the goggles I was wearing, not my usual pair. They were too tight, and while the good side of that is a nice, dry seal, the down side is that after twenty minutes or so you really want the damn things off your face.
There’s not a whole lot to say about the swim itself; for me, it was just a lot of swish and splash, since I could neither see nor hear much of anything happening above the surface of the pool. I focused on staying relaxed from the beginning, and possibly as a result, I felt like my form didn’t break down much in the course of the hour. I was trying to get a long glide off the wall from each turn and keep my stroke smooth.
Comparing my splits with last year, I was out ahead from very early on, starting with the 7:05.7 first 500y and right up through 3,000y (43:36.6, nearly 45 seconds and, at the pace I was swimming then, a full lap ahead of last year.) However, my “fourth thousand” push wasn’t really there; I thought I was working harder, but maybe the combination of fatigue and pushing made my form break down and my work less effective. I haven’t broken down the splits closely enough to find out where I was slipping, but I wound up with a total of 4,120y—4,100 plus not-quite-another. (The pool has five-yard increments marked on the wall, and swim rules allow you to measure that closely.) So I almost squeezed in another lap, but not quite.
Oddly enough, I consider this an improvement. It means that, over eighty laps, I was averaging nearly a half second faster per lap, which is not insignificant. Also, the opening 1,000y of 14:22.56 while swimming easily is a confidence booster about what I could do if I was pushing over that distance. Plus, swimming for an hour makes a measly 1,000y race look short.
And I got to take the goggles off at the end. That felt better than stopping did.
January 29, 2007
Easy spam filter
With my new Mac at home talking to my old Mac (and the two of them therefore cutting me out,) I’ve been working on department machines today, living on the web and on my department account. Like being on the road, it slows down the rate at which I can get anything done, because my familiar tools aren’t close at hand.
One thing I’ve noticed in relying on webmail rather than a desktop mail client is that SquirrelMail, at least the version my webhost is using, doesn’t display inline email graphics by default. This means that even though I’m deprived of the very helpful spam filter on my mail client, the spam that does get through is essentially gibberish: the image, where the real sales message lies, is simply not shown. I still have to delete the mail, but I don’t have to make any effort to ignore the contents.
Another reason I wonder why eBay is still in business
It doesn’t take too much time spent on eBay to realize that the site is riddled with scams and fraudsters. Why else would they have so many links and “safeguards” in place to “protect” their users?
I’m not suggesting that eBay deliberately encourages scams, or that they don’t care about fraud. I am suggesting that eBay has accepted a certain degree of fraud as an unavoidable cost of doing business, and that they don’t really care about their users being defrauded.
Check out the feedback for the user whose account was supposedly “hijacked” to bid on our camera. Three positive feedback notes from small purchases, then a wave of negatives and neutrals for expensive electronics. I doubt, frankly, that the account was ever legit in the first place; I think someone started it, made some small purchases to establish a positive reputation, then launched a wave of attempted frauds before discarding the account. There has been no response from the “original” user.
We re-listed and sold the camera for some $50 less than the next-best legitimate bidder on the original auction bid. eBay refunded the “final value fee” for the fraudulent auction, but I had to pay for listing the camera twice. Total losses due to the scam, on the order of $60. eBay’s not coughing that up, I’m pretty sure.
eBay feedback to reports of incidents tends to be along the lines of this incident: send a form letter, make the defrauded party jump through hoops to get partial restitution, etc.
Here’s another story of a serial scammer who was still “in business” on eBay long after local law enforcement had started investigating him for numerous frauds. eBay makes it difficult to leave negative feedback, which keeps innocent users from being smeared, but also discourages victims from speaking up about being scammed, and its hands-off attitude tends to let the criminals off scot-free.
I increasingly think it’s a bad idea to do business with anyone who has less than 99.9% positive feedback, because if 1 in 1,000 users left negative feedback, there are probably ten to fifteen more who just ate their losses rather than jump eBay’s hoops.
I eBay 100% bad? No. Is it a scam magnet? Hell yes. Are most of their buyer protections security theater intended to provide the appearance of safety, rather than any actual protection against criminals? Undoubtedly. Will I avoid it for any transaction likely to go over $200? You bet.
January 28, 2007
Recording the record
We got another world record last night, which kept me up late hammering out the report. I’m putting the finishing touches on a write-up of the record-setter, and I feel like there are half a dozen more two- or three-paragraph reaction pieces to be written.
A good one that doesn’t really fit anywhere: Craig Mottram, after his race, reporting a typically Australian exchange with his agent shortly before the race. Dibaba’s record had just happened, and Mottram was beginning to warm up.
“Good conditions out there, eh?” he said to his agent.
“No wind,” shot back the agent.
January 26, 2007
Who will write about track?
At yesterday’s press conference, I was about two enthusiastic sentences away from getting an assignment for Agence France Presse (aka AFP, aka “the other, other wire service.”) The press coordinator was running down her major-outlets list, making sure she had someone credentialed from each one, and AFP was the big absentee. I don’t think I was excited enough about the open doorway, or maybe someone else came up, but if she gave them my name they haven’t contacted me.
She used to cover this beat for the Globe back when I was at RW, and after the press conference ended we grumbled together about the lack of knowledge the assembled reporters have about the sport. There were essentially four people asking questions: the Globe reporter grilling Shalane Flanagan for this article, the press coordinator, the local USATF rep (I’m not sure why he was there,) and me. The Globe reporter is about par for the course: he’s not unintelligent, but he doesn’t know track and he only pays attention to running twice a year (the other time will be in April.)
The Globe has been getting attention lately for cutting its international bureaus, and Boston Sports Media is speculating that all departments are probably under the squeeze. Figure skating was one beat noted as probably “foreign” and you can bet that track, like every other “Olympic” sport, falls in there too. This meet will be getting significantly more local attention than it might from the Globe simply because the Patriots lost, the Celtics (let’s face it) stink, and the only local sports competition will be the Bruins, away in Ottawa. But with x correspondents and y events on every weekend in the fall, particularly when the Sox are in full swing, the ones covering track meets are generally only there because they didn’t get the assignment they wanted (Fenway,) not because they wanted to be out at Franklin Park talking to the winners of the Mayor’s Cup. The upshot is that the only guy asking knowledgeable questions (“Steve Hooker, you changed pole vault coaches after winning the Commonwealth Games; what has that done for your training?”) is the fan with a notebook.
So let’s count out the newspapers. That leaves the web guys, and that means fans with notebooks. (Actually, fans with digital recorders and/or expensive A/V equipment, but some of us are still old school enough to have notebooks, too.) We’re increasingly the ones feeding the wire services, too, and the rest of the money is coming not from free-standing media organizations (like the newspapers or the wires) but from organizations closely connected to the sport: USATF, IAAF, Running USA, the meet organizers. (My nifty Boston Marathon gig is technically at the will of the TV folks, but I have it because I have a good relationship with the BAA.)
I’m saying this like it’s a bad thing, and in many ways it’s not. It means the people covering the sport are the people who care about it. In general, fans of the sport are more likely to write good stories in today’s media environment. We’re more likely to be pulling for particular athletes to run well, but we’re also more likely to know what it means to follow an athlete, what makes them compelling to readers, and what’s a good story.
The problem, the old school track writers will say (and they’ll be right) is that we may be less likely to face the sport and its athletes when they’re wrong. We’re less likely to harry a semi-corrupt NGB head until he resigns, the way Ollan Cassell was harried in the ’90s. (This may have been the U.S. running media’s last great hurrah, and even that was a long and tedious effort eventually completed from inside USATF.) Maybe we’re less likely to ask the questions athletes don’t want to hear: about drug rumors, about ducking other athletes, about other shady dealings—or if we do ask them, they’re less likely to get printed in reputable places where they’ll be believed. I had a photographer chiding me in Fukuoka because I was “working for the man,” suggesting that nothing I printed should be taken seriously for that reason. (Did I mention that my pieces from Fukuoka were eventually reprinted in a nice, glossy magazine, with a byline and everything?)
Also, you used to be able to aspire to a career in this field. You’d want to be the next Marc Bloom or Don Kardong or Kenny Moore, and I think at least Erik Heinonen is trying to do so, but there really isn’t enough money rolling around to follow that career path full-time. You’re more likely to wind up as Matt Taylor, which is cool but not a career (so far).
Sometimes I’ve chided myself for not taking this sideline of mine more seriously. But is it possible that this half-assed weekend-warrior freelancing is actually the most sensible way to be a track writer these days?
Small things decaying
I’ve been driving the same car for nearly ten years now. It’s been pretty good to me, in general, and since I left Pennsylvania the rate at which it accrued mileage has dipped—particularly since we moved here, where on an average week it only leaves the driveway once.
But still, an eleven-year-old car is getting up there. (Before I get much farther, I should note: I have every intention of keeping it going as long as it’s good for more than spare parts. No point in using the metal, plastic, etc. to generate a new car on my account until I’ve used this one up.) Like the two which came before it, it’s starting to show little rattles as pieces work loose; the finish has all the nicks and scuffs that come with years on the road (even the (many) parts which have been replaced.) The power socket has actually separated from its hole in the dashboard and dangles loose in front of the gear shift.
This morning, I tried to pop the hood to put in more windshield washing fluid. The hood wouldn’t pop. I pulled again… and the latch snapped off in my hand.
This one I may have to fix. (Or get fixed.)
January 25, 2007
Freelancing and its ups and downs
I have a preview of this weekend’s Boston Indoor Games out. I am not a fan of writing previews; I spend far too much time fact-checking the credentials of the athletes, looking up rankings and performances, to really get much flow in the paragraphs. This year, I started thinking well in advance, and managed to boil things down to a pretty simple formula: Dibaba, Defar, shot putters, and Australians. Others might be interesting to me (e.g. Nick Symmonds) but it’s better to give several long paragraphs to the top stars than to try to cram in lots of names and times.
Of course, every year I miss someone I should’ve mentioned, for whatever reason. Two years ago it was Dibaba, who ran a world record and didn’t get a mention in my preview. Last year, it was the two-mile record which was, apparently, never in the cards to begin with. This year, I neglected to mention Sarah Jamieson, who is “only” a Commonwealth Games silver medalist (and fifth-ranked in the world in her event,) but would be the fourth in the “Australian invasion” I mentioned in the title. Oops.
Anyway, for the first few years I had this gig, I walked on eggshells with the editor, trying to produce the straightest, most professional reports I could. After all, I reasoned, there were plenty of others who wouldn’t mind this work, so if he didn’t like what I sent, he’d find someone else. Then I met him last spring in Fukuoka, and realized I might be able to get away with a bit more life in my stories. But my idea of “humor” sometimes just comes off as bizarre to others, so it was with some trepidation that I used this as my opening paragraph:
It should be enough to say that both Tirunesh Dibaba and Meseret Defar, Ethiopia’s “Dueling Ds,” will be racing at the Boston Indoor Games on Saturday, although not against each other. But such a brief meet preview would be a disservice to the other top-ranked athletes competing in the first major fixture of the North American indoor season, not to mention raising suspicions of laziness on the part of the reporter.
I thought about providing an “alternate opening,” but didn’t—and he ran this one unchanged.
January 24, 2007
Enough with the athletic metaphors
I am writing a homework assignment, and had to stop myself from labeling the questions “Warm up” and “Main set.”
Now Playing: Empty glass from I’m on my way by Rich Price
Technorati Tags: gradschool
January 23, 2007
Milestones and barriers
If you pay little or no attention to the running world, you may have missed that Ryan Hall ran a 59-minute half-marathon in Houston earlier this month. He broke the American Record, which was beyond old enough to drive and getting towards old enough to drink, and in fact ran faster than anyone born outside Africa ever had. There are seven faster people on the books, including names like Moses Tanui, Paul Tergat, and Haile Gebrselassie. So this was a legitimately big deal.
Still, I’m getting a little tired of reading articles talking about breaking “the 1:00 barrier.” This was not a Bannister-esque performance. One hour is the yardstick of a truly world-class half, to be sure, but it’s hardly a physiological obstacle. Four minutes for the mile was a “barrier” because for so long it had seemed like world best times were approaching an asymptote, and four minutes looked like it. There’s a quote about the four minute mile somewhere, saying, “It turned out to be less like Everest and more like the Matterhorn: it looked imposing at first, but I hear now they’ve even had a cow up it.” The four-minute mile needed a Bannister, someone to show it could be done.
Nobody’s doubted the sub-hour half-marathon could be done for fifteen or twenty years, if not longer. (I think Tanui may have been the first, on a course in Milan which turned out to be short; they remeasured, and he went out and did it again the next year on the full-length course.) Nobody set out to run a sub-hour and failed dramatically, time after time. Nobody declared it impossible. It was never a barrier.
It’s a handy round number. That’s all.
Now Playing: Little Buddha from Coil by Toad The Wet Sprocket
January 22, 2007
The spike ritual
As I get older and slow down, sometimes how I race becomes more important than how fast. I may have bought my spikes at a dramatic discount at a liquidation sale, but I’ve come to treat the little rituals surrounding them with a reverence all out of proportion to their actual effect on my racing. My racing gear in the morning light on the kitchen table somehow seems more alive than being at the track itself. This is three-quarters of what I’ll wear when I’m racing: socks, spikes, singlet. The missing piece is a pair of black shorts, which I was wearing when I took the photo.
My first spikes were cross country spikes, with the sockets and a flexible plate hidden under a full-length rubber outsole. Since then, I’ve had middle-distance spikes like these, with a nominal heel pad and a fully exposed spike plate like this. I don’t remember which of my coaches taught me how to take proper care of a pair of spikes, but I learned that the way to keep the spike elements from fusing—sticking in the sockets forever—was to put a dab of petroleum jelly in the socket before screwing in the elements, and to always take the spikes out after use, rather than leaving them in until circumstances dictated a new set of elements. I’ve followed that practice religiously since wedging two elements in an older pair of spikes.
The elements, for the most part, are made to be light, not hard; they’re remarkably soft metal, and they’re easy to strip if you’re not careful with the wrench, or if they get cross-threaded. (The fact that they’re soft also drives their frequent replacement, of course; they dull easily.) The two that got wedged were so stripped the spike wrench couldn’t grab them at all. I wound up using a bastard file to create new, flat edges on the elements which I grabbed with vise-grip pliers to remove them.
I keep my used-but-not-used-up spikes in a tin; you can see the half-inchers I use for cross country (I wouldn’t mind some sharper ones, but I need more races to justify that,) and a bag of new quarter-inchers for track. I broke out new ones for Sunday; those are the twelve in the lid of the tin, waiting to be screwed in.
The spike goes in with fingers first, to make sure it’s not cross-threaded. Your fingers feel resistance before the wrench will. Then you use the wrench to give it the last half-turn, to make it truly tight rather than just finger-tight. Six of these in each shoe are teeth on the track, the nails pushing back against the rubber (and pushing me forward) until the last millisecond of my stride, with no slip. It’s a little difference, a few ounces less upper, a bit more grip on the toes, but when they first go on it’s like wings on my feet. If you look closely, you can see red dust from the track on the spike plate, left over from my December race at BU. If you looked over the shoes closely, you’d find mud from the cross country race last fall. Maybe it’s less to do with how much they contribute to my racing, and more to do with how many memories they’re part of.
January 21, 2007
That’s how much faster I was today than in December.
I’d say something rueful about never having worked harder for less improvement, but I’m sure there were times in college when I was hammering out the miles week after week and getting slower. And the fact is, my training over those three weeks has been pretty undirected.
But I went in with a much higher degree of planning and consideration today. A ran with me down to the Harvard track (about three miles from us) and gave me a strategy distilled from the strategic mistakes she’d seen runners make at yesterday’s meet. (Essentially, the time to bear down is the closing laps of the second K and the start of the third, because that’s when most people seem to lose the plot.) I’d looked at the heat sheets and knew I’d be running at the back, so I planned to avoid getting out too quickly and set up targets for the second part of the race. Then, with A on the first corner to take splits and yell them to me, I switched off the little accountant in my head that wants to beep a watch and try to run a specific pace, and gave myself permission to relax and just race.
And I did that. I fell to the back, tucked in behind a guy who looked like a wily veteran (he turned out to be 50) and ran a series of really good splits for the first half of the race. I only understood about half of what I heard A yelling to me, but I did hear her say that I’d passed the mile (more or less) in 5:24, which was just about exactly the pace I’d wanted to run, averaging 40.5 per 200m lap. (The laps at Harvard aren’t 200m, of course, more like 201.1, but let’s leave that alone for now.)
Right around then, though, the two of us caught a pair of straggling younger guys (I assumed they were college kids, but looking at the results I think one was actually a prep) and my pacer took his sweet time moving around them. I didn’t want to move past and give up on his near-perfect pacing, so I waited. When he did pass them, he took off hard, and even though I followed him right around, he gapped me then and I found myself adrift. Right about then was when things started to hurt and I started feeling sorry for myself. There wasn’t a whole lot of race left, but I ran a pair of 43-second laps (5:44 pace) before finally delivering a 39 for the last one.
Final time, 10:14.90. In other words, I ran the same time, but smarter. (“You’re getting good at that pace,” commented a training partner who also ran both races.) I wasn’t last (I actually lapped someone), and I hit my seed right on.
On the one hand, I wish I could have done a bit better. But I didn’t have a lot of reason to expect a better time; I’d run pretty close to the edge last time, and I hadn’t done workouts that had made me feel like I was in measurably better shape. And all in all, I’ve had fun with this season. I haven’t run this many short races in ages, and I think I enjoyed them more now than I ever did in college. And if I can do the work to bring the speed up to longer distances, I could run some pretty good races in the spring and summer.
January 20, 2007
In an effort to put some bounds on our heating bill, I hung a curtain over the doorway leading upstairs to my office. (For various architectural reasons, there is no actual door there.) As a result, it is even colder up here on the third floor than usual. (On the second floor, we have forged a thermostat compromise involving A shivering and wearing hats indoors, and me walking around in shorts.)
How cold is it on the third floor?
Well, I have my laptop closed, impairing its ventilation. (I’m using another monitor.) Yet I can run processor-heating applications without the fan kicking in.
Now Playing: Little Bit by University
I have committed to one more track meet for this indoor season. It’s tomorrow, this time on Harvard’s bizarrely non-standard (but reportedly fast) track rather than the springy new one at BU.
Due to the fact that this meet does not run all races as mixed, I am the slowest seed in the men’s 3000m (rather than being in the third quarter of the total mixed list.) I suspect I will not be running alone, but I think my only possible sane strategy is going to be to head straight for the back of the race, then hang on there until I either die or discover that whoever is next-to-last has slowed beyond what would otherwise be my goal pace.
January 19, 2007
Sometime in the late ’80s or early ’90s, a bright young man implemented a fairly effective file compression algorithm for the Mac, and distributed it as shareware. That was Stuffit, and by the mid ’90s, when I had my first Mac, the
.sit files it created were the de facto standard for distributing Mac software.
At some point, the software company which had either obtained or grown up around Stuffit split the brand into Stuffit Expander and Stuffit Deluxe. Expander only worked one way (to de-compress existing archives) and was free, further enabling its spread; Stuffit Deluxe allowed Expander to handle other formats, to compress, to segment archives across multiple disks, and other fancy tricks, and cost several dozen bucks.
I don’t remember the exact sequence here, because for a few years I worked for companies which subsidized my software needs to a terrifying, yet satisfying, degree, but sometime around the millennium Stuffit Expander became an actual part of the default software set shipping with new Macs.
Also around the same time, Apple lurched towards the Unix world (which uses GNU-zipped tape archive files with the
.tar.gz or just
.tgz extension and started encouraging the distribution of software as disk images (
.dmg files.) Software makers started distributing
.dmg.tgz files, because the process of mounting the disk image offered a hook for presenting a license (even if that was the GPL.) Apple started including an “archive helper” utility which both creates and unpacks
.tar and almost every format except
.sit (which still requires a license from Stuffit’s makers.) The Stuffit people, now a division of Smith Micro, had to scramble to monetize Stuffit, because their model still requires that the Expander be distributed for free, and there’s no longer an obvious reason to buy any other version.
So they throw hurdles in your way to the free software, essentially making it impossible to find your way to the download through their site without filling out a form asking for your name and email address—with no way to opt out of their follow-up emailings, at least until you’ve received some of their spam (at which point they’re required by law to let you unsubscribe.)
Too bad enough people have posted links to the direct download site. Now you can avoid their marketing form by searching for “
Stuffit Expander direct download” and skip the form. (You’re not evading the license: that still pops up. When you mount the
.dmg file, of course.)
I’ve been too busy to wrap up the story of the errant camera.
eBay spotted the fraud not long after I did, and cancelled the bids administratively. Apparently the account belongs to a perfectly legitimate user, but it was “hijacked” (read: legitimate user’s password was compromised, possibly through phishing) and the winning bid was placed by someone else controlling the account. I’m betting that the intent was not to defraud me, but rather to convert the contents of an illicitly-accessed PayPal account into less-traceable merchandise as quickly as possible.
With that bid cancelled, I looked back down the bidding list. I checked out the second-highest bidder and found, after a long string of positive reviews, two recent negative reviews along the lines of, “Never paid for items AVOID AVOID AVOID.” So I sent a “second chance offer” to the third-highest bidder, some forty dollars down the scale from the original “winning” price. That was active for a day and wasn’t taken, so I’ve re-listed the camera.
I’ve registered a dispute for the original “sale,” since supposedly that’s what I need to do in order to get eBay to refund their charge on my account for the fraction of the sale they take as their cut. That, and the resale is really just tedious. Get this thing out of here, huh?
Now Playing: Sooner Or Later from Bang! by World Party
January 17, 2007
I dusted off the eBay account last week to sell some accumulated stuff. The major item was A’s first professional digital camera, a Kodak DCS620 with no cards, no lenses, and just the one battery. The 620 was Kodak digital guts stuffed in the body of a Nikon F5, and therefore is a big, heavy monster of a camera, particularly next to the (relatively) sleek Nikon D series cameras A has been using since about 2003.
The price wasn’t bad, but things have started getting weird. The invoice address and the user’s shipping address don’t match, but they’re both relatively close to each other in the U.K. Then I got email from the email address listed with the buyer’s account, and it (a) uses a different name than the account does, and (b) asks me to ship to an address in Nigeria “for my son who is traveling in West Africa for a scholarship” and they’re in a hurry because they’re currently traveling in Portugal themselves.
By now the rat smells so bad you can probably smell it too. I’m now 95% certain this “buyer” is a scam, perhaps looting someone else’s PayPal account by converting it into expensive electronics. Here’s how I replied:
I can’t in good conscience send this camera for your son to travel with in West Africa. Did you read the listing carefully? This is one of the heaviest digital cameras ever made, and quite large even without the lens. There is no lens included in the sale, so I would have to assume you already own one. And West Africa, sadly, as you may know, has developed a reputation for fraudsters and scammers; a camera this large would be difficult for your son to protect. You should buy your son a smaller, less expensive camera where you are in Portugal, and send it to him yourself; as I’ve stated in my listing, I won’t be responsible for shipping overseas.
Let’s see how this plays out.
January 16, 2007
Making things deliberately difficult
This morning, after I spent an hour and a half or so sitting on stools in the stacks of the library with Professor Σ looking at textbooks (we seem to have finally found one) I took on the task of writing the first homework assignment.
We assume that the students know some C++, but probably not much else as far as programming goes. (That’s going to change in a hurry.) Professor Σ’s stated (if ambitious) goal for this course is to give the students a feeling for why one would choose one language over another in a given situation, and what makes particular languages good for particular tasks. So this assignment was to ask a language to do something it’s bad at—in this case, to ask C++ to parse a text file.
The assignment I came up with asks the students to write a C++ program which parses
/etc/passwd, ignoring comment lines, and print the first, sixth, and seventh columns. (Columns in
/etc/passwd are separated by “:” characters.) Then I tried doing it myself. I’m not an ace C++ hacker, but I was able to do it with Perl in eight lines… and in C++ I took 37 lines.
I suppose an optional way to make it tougher would be to require that only entries with valid shells be printed out. Perl, again, could handle that with maybe three or four more lines; I can’t even imagine how I’d do it with C++ (though, again, I’m sure it’s possible.)
It looks like I’ll be learning some Scheme. And I’m tinkering with Ruby anyway…
January 14, 2007
I decided not to redirect hotlinks to my images to something obnoxious, though it would have been satisfying for a little while. (I was thinking of, “Image hotlinking suspended until News Corp. pays my bandwidth charges,” but I figure 90% of MySpace users wouldn’t get it anyway.)
Instead, I found this splendid technique which redirects outside requests for
.*jpg|.*gif|.*png$ to a PHP script displaying the image with a text credit. Since this is served as
text/html, it shows as a broken image if it’s embedded in another page; however, if you use a link to the image, you get the display page. This means you can link to the images, but not embed them in your pages.
January 13, 2007
A cat's life
What would your life be like if people dropped what they were doing to adore you periodically through the day—particularly if it wasn’t because you were campaigning for attention, but just doing something reflexive like sleeping?
I have my goal for the spring.
When I was home last weekend, my brother spent some time skimming our swim club’s top ten lists to find out where I was ranked. I’m ranked in a bunch of short course meters events, just because SCM is sufficiently oddball in the northeast that the only meets are held in places like BU or Wheaton with a movable bulkhead allowing the pool to be configured for it. Except in the 100m BR (where I am the only club member of my age group ever to swim the event, and therefore hold the record,) I’m ranked third behind my brother and whatever club member held the record before he broke it.
In SCY, where there are a lot more meets and therefore more opportunities for other people to swim fast, I’m largely invisible. I’m ranked in exactly one event: the 1000y free from two years ago. My 13:49.18 ranks me 7th in the age group. What’s more, there are targets in front of me; it’s only 20 seconds to 5th, and about 38 to 4th. (There is then a gap of about two minutes to 3rd.)
I was thinking about those three marks in front of me yesterday while I was in the pool; I was also thinking about Amby’s plans to race the mile. I wasn’t very motivated for the set I was doing, a ladder I’ve done a dozen times before, but as I approached the “top” of the ladder I realized: this was easy. I was chewing up this workout in a way I never had before—maybe not in terms of absolute speed, but psychologically I felt charged up the way I seldom do in a swimming workout.
I’m signing up for the 1,000y at New Englands again this year (it will be March 17, which means my brother will have aged up and out of my age group. This opens up the possibility of some secondary goals.) I want to move up on that ranking. I’d like to be number four. That’s a lousy place for Olympics or Olympic Trials—Pre’s place from Munich, Don Kardong’s from Montreal—but I’m not swimming a kiloyard in the low 11s without performance enhancing drugs or flippers. Fourth will be fine: 20 laps in 39 seconds will get me there with room to spare.
Fifth wouldn’t be half bad, either. But I’m training for fourth.
January 12, 2007
The power of search
And, within two days, I am the #1 hit on Google for “medford parking sticker”. (“Medford parking permit” gets a lot of noise from the University, which provides information about permits for parking on its Medford campus.)
Thanks to Google’s cache, I did find a page on the police department site which provides this information, but (a) it provides inaccurate information, saying the fee is $5 when it’s actually $10, and (b) to find it, you need to pick “Administration” (not “Traffic/Parking”) and then “Central Records,” neither of which are intuitive choices. (I sent an email to the site’s contact address noting both of these things, hopefully with a constructive tone.)
It’s tricky, as a site builder, to know how to steer people around your site. In this case, it’s probably worthwhile for the webmaster to consider five or six simple, common questions that people come to the site trying to answer. “How to get a parking permit” is one. “How to pay a parking ticket” (or traffic ticket) is another one I can’t figure out right away, and probably should be able to. (It turns out this happens on the city’s website, which is significantly worse than MPD’s.) There’s no point in making a site like this “sticky,” nor in pushing a lot of information most people aren’t interested in to the front page. And making the whole site easily indexable is key; I shouldn’t be able to grab the top spot in a search that easily.
January 11, 2007
How briefly I knew you
As a Christmas gift, I got a copy of Bradford Washburn’s autobiography, Bradford Washburn: An Extraordinary Life. I’d never heard of Washburn before, but as it turns out, I’ve enjoyed his work; among other things, Washburn ran the Boston Museum of Science for 41 years, starting from a tiny institution in downtown Boston and doing the organizing and fundraising that created the landmark building on the Charles River which I remember visiting (via the T!) on a visit to my Cambridge-resident aunt when my age was in single digits.
Now she’s back in Maine, and I’m the one who’s the pretext for Boston visits by my nieces. I read Washburn’s biography in about a week. He doesn’t discuss the museum much, but that wouldn’t make much of a biography anyway; instead, he writes about climbing Mt. Washington at age 11 (he later made maps of the mountain; I suspect we used one when we climbed it last summer,) growing up in Cambridge and New Hampshire, learning to fly, and his many summers on expeditions in Alaska. Washburn logged several “firsts” in Alaska, but he was more interested in technique and technology—trying out winter weather gear for the Army, learning new cartographic techniques, and applying new photographic technology to both artistic and cartographic photography of the mountains. He noted with some amusement that even though it is claimed that the University of Alaska doesn’t give honorary degrees, he had one. (He also had honorary degrees from my current University and my brother’s college.)
And within a few weeks of finishing the book—and noting that Washburn was born in 1910, so he had reached a pretty advanced age even at the time of writing it—I find his obituary in the Globe. It seems somehow backward to me that, in the space of three weeks or so, I should review all of such a long life—as though it was playing at double speed, or something.
January 10, 2007
Someone needs to eat eBay's lunch
Someone with a lot of web experience and good venture backing needs to go in and steal eBay’s business.
I suppose I shouldn’t be saying this, since eBay’s founder is an alumnus of the University and has donated a big chunk of change over the last few years. But I spent an hour last night trying to post a simple item listing—with 45 minutes of that spent in a chat window with a customer service rep who never asked what browser I was using and spent most of the time trying to solve a problem which was, to me, secondary (and unnecessary) to the issue I was really having, to wit, the form validation was broken.
Let’s leave aside, just for a moment, the issue of eBay’s own design and layout. Let’s just think about the usability of the forms. If Web 2.0 has taught us anything, it’s that it’s possible to write easy to use forms which require the user to jump through a minimum of hoops to get things done. Also, we’ve learned that not all the internet is using IE 6.0 on Windows. So why am I facing a pseudo-Ajax form which insists that I need to enable PayPal for this listing when (a) it looks to me like PayPal is already enabled, and (b) if I assume it isn’t, there’s no clear way to enable it. (There’s no unclear way, either.)
And why am I faced with customer service which asks me to flush my cache and delete all my cookies before they consider that I may be on a Mac, and may be using Firefox? (Once they learned I was on a Mac, they actually suggested I try Safari instead, which was both amusing and horrifying—is eBay so much of a nightmare for Firefox on Windows as well that Safari does a better job?) I flushed the cache (can’t hurt much) but only deleted eBay and Paypal cookies—I’m not sure they trusted me to do that properly, but I don’t want to lose logged-in sessions on a lot of other sites just because eBay is broken.
So why can’t someone do this better? Well, there are significant barriers to entry, and one of them is brand recognition. Another is the massive ecosystem of small businesses living like barnacles on the eBay ship; how do you recreate them and all the business they send through the parent?
But oh, there must be an easier way to do this. (The same goes for buying airline tickets, while I’m at it.)
Update, 1/11: While I’m at it, can’t I get a feed of items I’m watching? How about items I’m selling? Why should I be bound to the My eBay page? How about better permalinks for auction items? Friendlier URLs, perhaps ones which don’t expose the underlying technology (what if eBay switched to Rails from the DLLs they’re using now? How about if they switch from Rails to something else? Do they break all the URLs?)
How to get a Medford parking sticker
If I’m going to be the primary source for the local Boloco hours, I might as well cover a few other public services.
To get a city of Medford parking sticker, you need a check for $10 made out to the City of Medford, and your car’s registration (current, obviously.) If your registration doesn’t show a Medford address (for example, if your car is leased) you’ll need to show your drivers license as well (presumably to verify that you live in Medford.)
For the third year in a row I’ve found this information impossible to find on either the City’s website or the police department’s website, (my carping about this last year is already on the first page for some searches) so there it is.
January 9, 2007
I’m a fan of reusing paper, and it’s not uncommon for me to print out and hand in assignments on the backs of old media kits and track meet results. But there’s a challenge coming.
I’m going through some of the stacks of stuff in my office, and found a thick pad of results I brought back from World Cross for just this purpose. But as I started taking the staples out, I realized: It’s all A4.
I will be using the “Page Setup…” menu option a lot in the coming months. Why can’t the U.S. suck it up and switch to some international standards?
January 8, 2007
Magazines, (ultra) marathon men, and mania
I’ve ignored Mr. Karnazes as best I can for several years now, because my gut reaction to nearly all of his very-long-distance running “feats” has been that they all smell like publicity stunts. 300 miles non-stop? Running all of a relay like Reach the Beach? 50 marathons in 50 days? Hype. All of it. Don Kardong once said that 26.2 miles (the marathon distance) was where racing ended, and ludicrous extremes began. I tend to take a more conservative view than Don, because I’m not capable of “racing” at the marathon distance. You can imagine that this puts Karnazes, in my mental map, out with the competitive eaters and David Blaine.
And yet he keeps getting the attention he craves, and magazines like Wired keep writing sensational articles.
Yes, sensational. Wired headlines their article with “The Perfect Human” (then provides no support for that claim,) and promises “12 secrets to his success.” There are at least two problems with that five-word sentence. One is that it presumes any strategy Karnazes uses is a “secret,” (because, you know, without such trade secrets, anyone could be doing 300-mile weekends, right?) and two is that it presumes Karnazes’ various circus stunts constitute “success.” (Mr. Karnazes, meet Mr. Bekele. The distance is 10,000m and “success” is defined as a world title. Go.) Even Runner’s World is in on the act, giving extensive publicity to Karnazes’ 50-marathons 50-states 50-days stunt last fall.
Let’s get something straight. Dean Karnazes has less relevance to average runners than a professional football player has to Little League baseball players. I’ll expand the pool of “average runners” to include professional, competitive runners and nearly anyone who has ever run a marathon. He pushes the edges of the bell curve so far out that nearly everyone, from Rosie Ruiz to Paul Tergat falls within one standard deviation of the mean.
And while there are some software applications for finding outliers, most of them are finding the outliers for the purposes of discarding them, which is exactly the sort of reaction we get from John Hawks. Hawks has some good points—a blister is a signal that you need to toughen up, not an engineering problem to be solved with Krazy Glue—but when Karnazes and his bizarre overcompensation stunts presented as some sort of perfect model of distance runner, it’s no surprise that Hawks’ reaction is to dismiss the entire group.
I honestly don’t understand long distance runners—I know they exist, but they seem utterly foreign and strange to me. Some think they are the model for ancient humans. As for me, well…
“Somewhere along the line, we seem to have confused comfort with happiness,” he says.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not confused!
Right, except not. I’ve heard about some studies which suggest that the biomechanical differences which allow us to run long distances are the ones which separate us from our more-simian ancestors, but I’m not going to make such dramatic claims here. I can understand runners seeming “utterly foreign and strange” to someone with no life experience in the area. But I’ve seen plenty of people (including myself) agitated and jittery in a surfeit of comfort. And I’ve seen a lot of pleasure, a lot of satisfaction and even transcendent feeling that comes with the “flow” of a long, difficult, and perfectly-paced effort.
But it’s not for everyone, as Hawks makes clear. Karnazes is probably the worst possible example to show people like Hawks. Not only is he a circus act, but his very attitude suggests that everyone else is inferior for not sharing his insanity. It’s as though he has defined his own sport, crowned himself world champion, and challenged anyone else to a pissing contest using his rules. Personally, I’m not interested, no matter how many magazine articles get written about him.
There are plenty of distance runners—heck, even a few ultramarathoners—who, aside from this single peculiar athletic quality, act like normal people. If you’re looking for someone you can identify with, or even learn from, it’s better not to start by looking at the circus.
January 7, 2007
Not long now
I took this photo in May ‘05 from the window of my room in my parents’ house in Maine. The view this weekend wasn’t too different, minus the buds on the trees.
Imagine a sunset over that lake, and it begins to explain why I’ve never been too impressed with the visual appeal of other places I’ve lived.
January 5, 2007
I’m beginning to reach the point where I’m getting a little sick of seeing a quarter of my daily bandwidth go to images hotlinked from Myspace. It’s not like putting my URL on the images is drawing any new traffic, and Iz’s birthday-present photo is winding up on some pages which have to represent the bottom 10% of the non-pr0n web.
But more than anything else, I’m beginning to just resent Myspace. At the top level, the site is owned by News Corp. (i.e. a stinking rich media conglomerate) which sees it as a vehicle for aggregating and selling the attention of young people.
Which is fine by me; it’s certainly no worse than television in that regard. But when you put it that way, why am I being asked to contribute resources I pay for—even a small fraction of those resources—with no return? Let’s face it, Rupert Murdoch et al have a lot more spare change than I do. It’s high time I cut them off.
It’s pretty easy to redirect all image requests referred from myspace.com to another image, and the methods are well-documented. But which image? I’m not feeling quite as vindictive as the guy who goatse’d Myspace (although that may rank as one of the widest-scale practical jokes I’ve ever heard about.) A few choice lines expressing my point of view would be sufficient. But which ones?
- No taxation without representation?
- It’s your space, but it’s my bandwidth?
- Something else? Suggestions welcome.
January 4, 2007
Other side of the coin
Now I’m really on the other side of the coin. I’m the TA for Professor Σ’s Programming Languages course in all but formal assignment. Since he’s essentially rewriting the course, we’re starting already. (Two weeks until classes start. I figure if department politics pushes me to another course, at least someone will benefit from the work. I have a higher good-karma-per-semester rate than nearly anyone else in the department.)
My current task: suggest a good textbook. (“No text” is also a valid suggestion.) With that, off I go into the mirror image of the world I inhabited two years ago.
What did they use at other universities when they taught this course recently? (How close is their syllabus to what we have in mind?) Is the text centered on one or two languages, or is it feature based? (I’m making gross generalizations already.) Is it being used because it’s good, or because the professor wrote it? (Three cases in today’s survey. Note that these two cases aren’t mutually exclusive. Put another way, it’s an OR, not an XOR.)
I haven’t even started on the book sites themselves—the class of pages I used to produce, albeit from different publishers—to start answering the more serious questions. What do they cover? In what depth and order? How new are they? And honestly, it has to be asked: how much do they cost? There’s one book, relatively widely used in today’s survey, which is available free online. (Actually, three of them are; this is the only one I saw which appears to be used outside the author’s own university.) Is it being “relatively widely used” because it’s good, or because it’s free? How do I find out?
I have to remember I’m not the one making the decisions. Or at least, I won’t be the one responsible for the decisions that get made.
January 2, 2007
Scenes from the first day after break
Technically, it’s not “after break,” because classes don’t start for another two weeks (plus), and grad students aren’t required to be back until the week before classes start. So I was one of only four grad students in “the extension” this afternoon. (The extension has offices for sixteen of us.) The other three were various international students who do not, generally, go “home” over breaks. I saw two other grad students and only two faculty members all afternoon.
One of the four of us in the extension, who mentioned last month that I was “working much harder” this year, turned up while I was eating lunch. After sitting at her computer for ten or fifteen minutes, she turned back to me and exclaimed, “Classes don’t start until the 18th!”
I nodded in agreement.
“We don’t have to be here until next week!”
I nodded again.
“I thought classes started today!”
My best guess is that when you’re ABD and not actually taking any classes, this sort of scheduling detail isn’t always high on your radar screen. Actually, no, better guess: she has children, and for them classes probably did start today.
January 1, 2007
I made very few tweaks to the wish list site this fall, but somewhere along the line my quick hack to add an affiliate code to any Amazon links actually started working. (I’m mystified as to how it works now but didn’t before, but I won’t question it.) Between mid-November and the end of December, affiliate fees from the Wish List rung up around $35, which is pretty close to paying my hosting fees for the past three Decembers. That’s pretty cool.
I’d particularly like to thank someone who put a massively expensive medical textbook on their Christmas list. (Unless there are other med students using this that I don’t know about…)
Plans and decisions
I’ve been wishy-washy here for a year about what happens when I finish my MS at the end of the spring semester.
For the last month, it’s been increasingly clear that I’m not ready to move on to the Ph.D. For one thing, I haven’t lit on one area that sets me on fire, one thing I’m willing to devote three or four years of research to. Without that, I think going on is probably a bad idea for everyone. For another, the open doors have been closing; Professor β has decided I’m not such a great fit for her group (basically, my math skills are deficient, and I’d have to spend some time catching up,) and Professor Γ didn’t get the grant she wanted to fund me with. I could still try to work with Professor Σ, and I will be doing my MS work with him, but I’m starting way behind.
So it looks like I will take my paper in May and run. (Actually, I will be automatically rolled into the Ph.D. program, whereupon I will immediately go “on leave” for an indefinite period.) I’ve been talking with another student in the same situation, and he and I have been cooking ideas for a little website which we may try to turn into a going concern once we’re finished in May. I’ll post more as it becomes interesting. (Other than it being a website, it’s not an area I’ve worked in before, so let’s not get too excited yet. It’s the technology that interests me.) That will probably mean a lot of work, some of which is actually starting tomorrow.
But yes, of course this new project will have a weblog, too. Isn’t that the first thing after the business plan, nowadays?