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April 30, 2007

It still tastes like soap!

Quite possibly the best marketing line I’ve ever seen on the package of a food product. Go here and scroll to the bottom.

Now Playing: Why Don’t You Love Me from Magician Among the Spirits and Some by The Church

Posted by pjm at 10:18 PM | Comments (0)


First place in yesterday’s race was long gone pretty early in the process. I kept second place in sight throughout, however, and finished within a minute of him: seventh overall, fifth male. I could easily imagine, in a different place in my athletic arc, sweeping through the field up to second. Working up to seventh from tenth at the first mile will have to satisfy me for now; it was a lot of work.

We attributed some of the times to the course, which includes 230’ of climbing and corresponding descent. The third mile, which is almost entirely uphill, was about thirty seconds slow for nearly everyone I discussed it with.

But, lest I be accused of exaggerating, here’s the numbers. The starting and finishing elevation is, according the the USGS, 160’; the peak of about 391’ happens around a quarter-mile past the three-mile marker.

MileElevationΔ ElevationMy Split

So the tentative conclusions are, (1) there’s a link between elevation change and pace, because sorting the miles by elevation change sorts most of my mile splits pretty well too, but (2) there’s such thing as “too much downhill.”

The profile would be more convincing, except that the scale distorts things a bit.

Elevation profile of the Rafters College Towne Classic

Now Playing: Sads from Magician Among the Spirits and Some by The Church

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April 29, 2007

Another reason to hate Microsoft

  • I have an older version of MS Office on my Mac, dating from my PowerBook.

  • My new MacBook came with a “trial run” (i.e. 30-day license) of the newest version of Office. That trial version has now expired.

  • I don’t run my primary account as an administrator. When I install software, it prompts for an administrator’s login and password, and I give those for a separate admin account.

  • Whenever I try to open an Excel file, the Mac tries to open the trial version first. It then gives an error (the trial version has expired, etc. etc.) and I need to deliberately use “open with…” to select the older version.

  • When I try to uninstall the trial run, it won’t let me, because I’m not an administrator.

To remove the software, I will need to quit all running programs, log out, and log back in again as the administrator. Then I’ll uninstall the software, log out again, and finally log back in as myself.

In other words, having failed to win me over as an upgrade customer, Microsoft insists on being a persistent inconvenience. This “trial run” has done nothing to convince me that MS Office is worth the price of an upgrade, and in fact has been antagonistic—I’d go a long way to avoid giving money to the company which installed this canker on my system.

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April 28, 2007

To the last race

This is the way conference meets should always end.

The University’s men’s team has been leading most of the day. W, the college whose hat Roger Fox wears in Fox Trot, has won for the last six or seven years, is now in second, and is overtaking fast.

It is the last relay, the distance medley. W is perennially strong in distance races; they’re favored to win. The University has a four-point lead. If they can score less than four points fewer, they win. More than four, they lose. This is The Race.

W is in the lead most of the way. Going in to the last leg, the only team in reach is B. The University, meanwhile, hands off to a kid I don’t recognize—a first-year, as it happens—in fifth, or sixth, or something like that. This is looking like a tall order.

There are eleven teams in the conference; nine of them, including B’s two rivals, suddenly discover that they are passionate fans of B, a fact of which they had been heretofore unaware. B’s anchor sticks tenaciously to the shoulder of W’s. Meanwhile, our freshman, looking like he might go critical at any moment and collapse in a puddle on the track, is picking off other teams one by one. Hey, maybe one more. Maybe one more.

B, despite having more fans than they’ve had in years, is unable to topple the mighty W, who win and score ten points. Nearly every ambulatory person in the area, and possibly a few cows (it was crowded) have packed on to the homestretch of the track, with only two or three lanes left clear for the runners. The University’s freshman comes into the stretch neck and neck with the anchor from the host college. They’re not going to give him the point just to see W go down, and he has to fight for it, so he does. And he does it; the University finishes third.

Scoring six points.

Tie meet.

And that was it for the scoring.

But seeing the rest of the team—the upperclassmen who’d won the 5,000m, swept the top three spots in the high jump, and scraped for points wherever they could find them all day—huddled around their freshman, forty meters past the finish line, hopping up and down chanting his name, because they had a share of the conference title for the first time that anyone could remember, and W had to share the title for the first time that anyone could remember, well, that’s a memory that will last a while.

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April 26, 2007

This doesn't feel like an ending

I didn’t realize until it was nearly over that I probably sat through my last classes for quite a while today. I’d say “ever,” but that’s a dangerous statement. Assuming I am actually judged to have satisfied the requirements for the Masters degree, they’ll be handing me paper in less than a month. (I am actually turning up to graduation, though there was an option for me to just have the degree mailed to me.)

I am being automagically rolled into the Ph.D. program, but I have had my request for leave (i.e. time away that won’t be counted against my “time to complete the degree”) approved. There’s a chance that in the next year, I’ll decide that I really want to be back in a Ph.D. program in fall ‘08. There’s also a chance that I’ll be struck by lightning. I suppose I’m more likely to decide that I’m cut out for research than be struck by lightning, but not by much.

I’m still reluctant to rule out ever going back to school, but I think it’s more likely to be a part-time sort of thing than another two years of full-time grad school. My grandfather, as I’ve mentioned before, had three masters degrees, so I don’t feel any need to be constrained to a Ph.D. as my only future option.

N.B. There does seem to be some belief that just because I haven’t signed on with a corporation offering health insurance, that I don’t have a “real job” after graduation. This is not the case, of course. And, if you should happen to have a few thousand dollars that you can spare for an almost unquantifiably risky venture, drop me a line.

(What I learned in grad school: how to properly use e.g., i.e. and N.B..)

Now Playing: She’ll Come Back for You Tomorrow from Uninvited, Like the Clouds by The Church

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Posted by pjm at 10:38 PM | Comments (5)

April 24, 2007

How do you recycle a TV?

Remember videocassettes? Yeah, it’s been a while, but without TiVo one sometimes wants to record TV.

We have a little TV/VCR all-in-one, where the VCR was built in directly under the screen. The VCR has been unreliable for a while, but A tested it on Friday evening by putting a tape in. No dice; it wouldn’t play, and when it tried to eject the tape, it got stuck in this odd loop where it couldn’t eject the tape, detected that it was stuck, and shut off. When you turned it back on, it tried ejecting the tape again, failed, and shut off, etc.

I found the four screws that took the back cover off, then unhooked the internal bottom plate which held a lot of circuit board and the mechanics of the cassette-handling device. After removing a few screws, I managed a relatively successful cassette-ectomy, reconstructed the patient… and discovered that it was still trying, unsuccessfully, to eject a tape which wasn’t there.

If you’ve already thought, “Time to open it up again,” you think like me.

This time, I hoped I would find whatever connections existed between the cassette handler and the circuit boards, unplug them, and leave a functioning TV with no VCR. I was able to detach the cassette handler, but then when I powered it up again, it performed the same five-second shutdown stunt.

Then I started looking for things I could unplug. Being relatively cautious (as far as that can apply to someone with a VCR in pieces on the living room floor) I started by unplugging one cable, then trying to power up. This time, it wouldn’t power up at all. I plugged that cable back in… and it still wouldn’t power up.

At that point, I decided the patient had died, and it was time to stop spending time on it. I put the pieces back in roughly the right locations, bagged the spare screws, and put the back cover on. It went out for the Saturday morning trash pick-up.

Except it didn’t get picked up. I suppose it’s a “large item” or maybe hazardous waste, what with the tube and circuit boards.

So what’s the responsible, environmentally-friendly way to dispose of a TV?

Now Playing: Shining in the Moonlight from Nuclear Furniture by Jefferson Starship

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April 23, 2007

Installing Apache 2.2, PHP 5, and Subversion 1.4 on a Mac Mini

…and making them all play nicely together.

Something about the error messages I was getting made me decide I might have better luck with Apache 2.2. I used 2.0.x before, so I was a little apprehensive about being on the bleeding edge for all these packages, but since so much of the documentation I was following looks at older versions, I was a bit at sea about the proper way to configure the newer versions. (This Ruby, Rails, etc. tutorial, which was the initial Subversion installation, is pretty up to date on versions, but Apple’s documentation for Apache 2, PHP, and the Subversion bridge is four or five years old, and shows it.) Most of this is derived from instructions other people wrote up, and to them I am grateful… but I still had to do a chunk of this myself.

So here’s how I did it. Everything is installed from source, with the tarballs living in /usr/local/src/ and most of the binaries being installed in /usr/local/ somewhere. The installation sequence goes pretty much like this: Apache, Subversion, PHP, WebSVN.

In a perfect world, I’d have all my friendly binaries and could use wget, which I prefer, to do downloads, but I’m going to try to assume pretty close to an off-the-shelf Mac. This one is running OS 10.4.9, and the only non-standard software installed which affects this process are the databases, MySQL and Postgres, which you can install separately using packages from Marc Liyanage, and BerkeleyDB, which you can install from source if you’re willing to navigate Oracle’s website to find the documentation, but I’m not sure I did right anyway. You may need to prefix some of these commands with sudo depending on the permissions set in your /usr/local/src directory; almost every make install command will require sudo.

Naturally, this is just the process that worked for me. I expect it will still work for bug-fix releases of these packages, but for anything that’s a minor version number away, your mileage may vary.

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April 21, 2007

The web's most obtuse download

Four months after upgrading to an Intel Mac, I’m still finding various and sundry applications which I ought to upgrade from PPC to Intel. XDarwin is today’s project, just because I want to be able to compare how a PDF looks in Preview and Acrobat Reader here to what ggv shows me on the Suns. (I’m sure there are other good reasons to do this, but they haven’t fit my workflow yet. Maybe opening xemacs windows locally?)

But you can’t just click a link and download XDarwin. You need to fill in your email address, and they will email instructions to you for download. I think I would only be more shocked if they asked for a postal address and offered to ship me a printed listing of the source code. (Better still, someone could print out the compiled binary in hexadecimal, pages and pages of seamless blocks of unreadable code.)

I haven’t had the email yet, so maybe there’s some esoteric gotta-hold-your-mouth-right steps required for installing XDarwin. This is famously complex software, after all. But at the same time, the people who want and need an X-windows server on their Mac are probably among the most capable software-installers around. Far more likely to my cynical mind is the idea that the XDarwin folks would rather I pay $40 for a CD than do a direct download.

I’m puzzled and annoyed at how much friction is involved in just getting a copy of this piece of software, let alone installing it. On the one hand, this speaks to how little friction normally exists in obtaining and installing software these days. When the X project started, selling CDs was not only a means of funding the project, but the best way to distribute the software. On the other hand, that isn’t true anymore—and for pity’s sake, folks, isn’t the name of the parent project XFree?

Update, 22 April: Eighteen hours later, still no email telling me how to download this software. Something’s broken here.

Now Playing: Enemy Fire from Gold by Ryan Adams

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April 20, 2007


I’m trying to make a Subversion repository available over HTTP from a Mac Mini. Put that way, simple enough.

  • All the instructions I found suggest not using the installed-by-default Apache, which is a 1.3 version. Instead, they recommend installing a 2.0 version and running it on a higher port. No problem.

  • SVN installed. No problem.

  • SVN modules for Apache installed. No problem.

  • The glue software, WebSVN, requires PHP. Problem. Once PHP is built, on attempting to restart Apache, I get an error suggesting that libapr-1.0.dylib is missing. (There are lots of good PHP packages for Mac OS X, but they’re all set up to install PHP on the default Apache, not the nonstandard Apache 2.0 I now have in addition.)

So I download APR and APR-Util, and build them. I attempt to rebuild Apache to use these updated libraries, and it won’t even complete the ./configure step. Apparently the new APR doesn’t create an apr-config file, which Apache is counting on to do its own build (that has to be at the path specified by --with-apr=.)

Maybe I need to go to Apache 2.2 to use APR, and thus PHP, and thus WebSVN? Or just pass on WebSVN and just use the module provided with SVN instead.

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April 18, 2007

Of course they'll stop for me

Since moving to Medford from the western end of the state, I’ve noticed a particular driving annoyance that I can’t make any sense of.

If you’re making a left turn from a side street (stop sign) onto a main road (no stop sign), do you:

  1. Wait patiently behind the stop sign for an opening.
  2. Stop at the sign, then creep up a bit so you can see better, and zip out at the first hint of an opening.
  3. Brake for the sign, then creep out into the main street until oncoming traffic from the left is unable to get by you. Once you’ve blocked them, either repeat the maneuver to get an opening from the right, or wait for an opening.

The driver’s manual, of course, calls for 1. Local traffic density combined with the tendency of parked cars to block the view to either side often means that 1 is impossible, and 2 must be employed. But a startlingly large number of drivers in Medford employ strategy 3, which seems to be only a half-step away from saying, “Traffic laws don’t apply to me.” (And, of course, many drivers around here have clearly taken that half step as well.)

What I can’t figure out is whether it’s just a Medford thing, or if it’s regional. Certainly if you did that where I learned to drive, you’d lose a fender or two, if you didn’t lose your license first.

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April 17, 2007


I have long misunderstood the definition of qualtagh to be the first thing a person saw upon waking.

In that context, it is always nice to have a cat who wants breakfast.

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April 16, 2007

Runners are just amazing

I will, of course, always be pulling for the American to win. But once (if) they’re off the back, I will happily (in a quiet, press-room kind of way) be pulling for Jelena Prokopcuka.

This is, after all, a woman who has been second twice in Boston, first twice in New York, and won in the pressure-cooker of Osaka. And, after running a tough marathon, she can come in and handle an entire press conference in English, which, judging from her answers to questions posed in Russian and assuming she speaks Latvian, must be at least her third language.

How can you not be impressed?

In the “cute press conference moments” category, add Madai Perez, who thanked the sponsors as most of the athletes did… but Perez thanked “Juan Hancock”.

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And this led to me figuring out how to text-message an international number

My Boston story is already online. With a six-hour time difference to Monaco, I was rushing to file so I wouldn’t keep my editor up too late.

It wasn’t as bad as it could have been, at least for most people who weren’t Deena Kastor. (And even she didn’t have as rough a time as Uta Pippig did in ‘96.) I ran out past Coolidge Corner and back after I saw my bikers off to Hopkinton, and despite being drenched by the rain I had this feeling that it was all going to be OK, that Kastor was going to dominate the women’s race, that everyone should be watching because this was going to be one of those races that we all talk about for decades.

Well, we’ll probably be talking about the weather, but the races were nothing but slow. A (who is partly responsible for the lack of editorial changes between my article and what ran, since she did a sanity check before I sent it in) observed that maybe my pre-marathon hunches aren’t to be trusted.

And I wasn’t the journalist who started asking Grigoryeva a question in Russian, then trailed off and switched to English. No, I know my limitations. I wonder if she’ll have more successes, or if she’ll become just another marathoner from Cheboksary. Why don’t the Russian men run so well? Surely they’re allowed to live in Cheboksary as well?

Now Playing: Can’t Make a Sound from Figure 8 by Elliott Smith

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April 15, 2007

A field guide to marathon jackets

The gentleman I was just talking to assumed I was running the marathon, because of the jacket I’m wearing. I didn’t want to take the time to explain that I’m not, but I’m sure someone else will leap to the same conclusion before the weekend is over.

If you see someone in Boston, tonight or tomorrow, wearing a jacket with long stripes from the shoulders to the elbows (the ones for sale to the runners seem to have short stripes like cross-hatches below the elbows) here’s how to know what they’re here for:

  • Black with orange stripes: Media, unless otherwise noted on the back. (Some USATF officials also have black jackets.)
  • Orange with black stripes: Volunteer.
  • White with orange stripes: Medical team.
  • Grey with orange stripes: Organizing committee (i.e. BAA employee.)

I’ve seen red and blue jackets as well, but they’re almost always from previous years; last year’s volunteer jacket, for example, was blue with red stripes, but otherwise indistinguishable from this year’s. The date is right under the seal on the wearer’s left, or on the back.

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Disconnected marathon thoughts

  • Let it not be said, here in the Hub, that we miss our chances to market marathoning. With the Red Sox going Japanese for pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, of course two-time Marathon winner Toshihiko Seko will be throwing out the first pitch at Fenway. Of course, Seko has been rained out today. Maybe Deena Kastor should’ve been rained out; if she wins here, she’ll certainly be welcome back to try again.

  • A pointed out this morning that Joan Benoit Samuelson agrees with my comparison of the Monday forecast with NESCACs last fall.

  • The forecasts right now suggest that today will be pretty bad, but that the rain will be tapering off tomorrow morning. My cyclists are still bracing for the worst, with puddles and wet roads meaning slick brakes and cold legs, but it’s definitely not the full force of the storm. Ironically, had the BAA not moved up the start times two hours this year, they might have escaped the storm entirely, if these forecasts are correct. (Undoubtedly we will all be proved wrong tomorrow.) Meanwhile, it snowed on me during my run this morning.

  • I really hope the weather is good enough to allow the TV helicopters to take off. The cameras on the ground rely on the helicopters to relay the video in to the trailers in town, and if the helicopters aren’t there, our only video is from stationary cameras like those at the start in Hopkinton.

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April 14, 2007

Evolutionary superiority

Thursday night, A and I went down to Harvard in the rain to attend a lecture by Daniel Lieberman, a professor of anthropology. Lieberman’s idea is that running played a role in human beings evolving into the form we now have. He pointed out the ways in which we are superior distance runners in nature—there are faster runners, certainly, and stronger ones, but no other species can claim the ability to run as fast as long as we do, particularly in warm conditions.

Then, he argued that the anatomical features which support this are evidence that natural selection favored those who could run well. It allowed for hunting strategies which brought in enough calories to support our outsized and energy-hungry brains, and in that way, he argues, running made us human.

The logical chain which brings him to this conclusion is hard to argue with, unless you are one of those who considers the world to be six thousand years old and the fossil record to be an elaborate fraud. If natural selection didn’t favor runners, how did we end up with a long, flexible Achilles tendon rather than the short tendons of our closest relatives? How about our springy necks, allowing us to hold our heads largely still (thus maintaining visual focus on our prey) during the bouncy motion of running?

Lieberman is dismissive of sprinters; we’re not very good at that, he says. There’s no man who can outsprint a horse, but there is a Man vs. Horse 22-mile race every year in Wales which is often close, and it’s on hot years that the horses lose.

Lieberman’s presentation was crisp and interesting; I wish all the lectures I’ve sat in could be that entertaining.

Now Playing: Take Me Down to the Hospital from Hootenanny by The Replacements

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Predicting the unpredictable

Previews are unwritable. I can only hope, after laboring for most of the afternoon with this one, that it isn’t unreadable; I’m so sick of it I could barely bear to sanity-check it (did I finish all my sentences?) before I sent it in. The men’s field for this year’s Boston is so hard to pick a favorite from that everyone is fleeing to the women’s race (which is legitimately exciting) rather than try to make guesses.

And speaking of making guesses, I’ve been amusing myself by comparing weather forecasts. As always, the best reading is the National Weather Service’s “Forecast Discussion,” which explains what mix of computer models they used to create the forecast they’re spreading. That’s usually where they’re brutally honest about what they do and don’t know about the upcoming weather. Today’s is almost schizophrenic as they try to figure out what’s going on with this “anomalous” storm which may drench the marathon. The part I liked the best, yesterday?


If you read between the lines, that says they have at least considered the possibility that it may snow during the marathon.

Now Playing: The Lone Wolf from Failer by Kathleen Edwards

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April 13, 2007

It could be worse

I’ve heard a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth about the weather forecast for Monday and the Marathon.

Now, let it not be said that I am unsympathetic. Running 26.2 miles sucks under any circumstances, and rain driven by wind is an unpleasant cherry on top.

But before you start whining to me, let’s consider a little race I ran last fall, in which we had a foot and a half of standing water on part of the course, and over half the athletes who competed contracted a bizarre rash which took nearly two weeks to clear up.

You go to the line without worrying about the things you can’t control, like the course, the weather, or the other runners. You think about the things you can control, like your training, your strategy, and your mindset. If you want a free pass for whining, I want to see scars.

Now Playing: With No Shoes from Tellin’ Stories by The Charlatans

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April 11, 2007

The Marathon is getting out of hand

I can tell that I will spend the majority of my time from now until Monday either preparing for the marathon, working on something marathon-related, or actually at the marathon. I’ll probably spend as much time on the T between now and Tuesday as I do for the rest of the year.

  • Many of my former RW co-workers, including my Pennsylvania roommate, are in town, or will be by the weekend.
  • There are a few dozen media events, starting Friday (for my list, anyway,) and going through the weekend.
  • I need to meet with the bicycle spotters at least once before the race, and that means color-printing the nifty uniforms PDF and making “marathon cards” so they can prepare for on-the-fly runner identification.
  • I’ll have to do some studying. In addition to the media guide, there’s plenty of other details flowing into my inbox—a complete historic breakdown of all head-to-head matchups within the elite field, for example.
  • And, as of today, I got email from the iaaf.org editor expressing some level of desperation: last year’s writer is unavailable, nobody else has responded, can I write a preview for Saturday and a quick report on Monday?

I suppose it’s not news to anyone to say, it’s nice to be wanted, but sometimes it’s exhausting.

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More found money

The haul of found money has grown somewhat since last year. I counted last night. We had less folding money ($2 rather than $7) but more of everything else. Pennies led in overall numbers (591 of them, though 7 were so damaged—bent, chipped, or otherwise no longer cylindrical—that I threw them in the trash after counting them). The dimes had the greatest value again, a whopping 95 of them, but this year they were tied by 38 quarters. I’ve no idea why we found so many quarters this year.

The grand total was $28.91, plus €.01 (now there’s a tiny coin) and £.05. That’s a smidge more than 8 cents a day, but it doesn’t include a few dozen times when I judged a coin too dangerously located (e.g. in the middle of a busy intersection) to be retrieved. I doubt that would have changed the total much, unless they were all quarters.

I suspect some of the increase can be explained simply by my running more miles this year, but other factors might be (a) living in the Boston area, where we’re more likely to be doing all of our running on roads as opposed to trails, and (b) living across the street from a popular softball field, which means my morning run usually ends amid the parking lot debris of the last night’s game. And I’ve found that coins tend to turn up near where people park their cars.

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April 10, 2007

Access, but not too much

I’m not having a lot of luck poking holes in the home firewall, so maybe someone else has an idea.

Here’s the new network:

Network diagram

We’re connected to the internet with a Comcast cable modem. Sitting immediately behind the modem is a Linksys BEFSR41 v.2, a four-port ethernet router which was the wonder of its day. It happens that day was seven years ago, but I’ve flashed it with a 2004 firmware upgrade and taken the obvious steps like changing the default password, so it should be perfectly functional. The router accepts an externally-routable IP address from a Comcast DHCP server “outside” and establishes a local network with non-externally-routable addresses “inside.” (As an example, it assigns itself as its LAN address; the 192.168.x.x range is not valid on the wider internet.)

One local ethernet port leads to an Apple Airport base station, the second-generation “snow” version from 2002 or so. (This, also, has had a firmware upgrade in the not-so-distant past.) The Airport has a fixed IP address in the local network,, and distributes more local addresses via DHCP in the range to a rotating cast of laptops using wifi. (There’s no encryption standard supported by all laptops and this base station, so it’s not possible to password-protect or encrypt the network. Access control is by a list of approved hardware fingerprints, so if you visit us, we’ll need to spend a minute or two determining the MAC address of your laptop’s wireless card and putting it on the list.)

Also on the wired network is the Mini (no up-to-date icon on that one), also holding a fixed IP address of (I think) My current puzzle is this: how do I train the router to allow SSH connections from “outside” to reach that Mini?

I can ping the router itself, and even bring up its management interface, which suggests that Comcast is (for once) not the problem. I have asked the router to forward incoming port-22 connections to that IP address, and I have also tried designating it as the so-called “DMZ” host, which is supposed to expose it completely. Neither one has worked so far. Close reading of the router manual (when in doubt, read the directions) suggests that these don’t work when the router is assigning DHCP addresses, which is why I shifted DHCP duties to the Airport. I wonder if the very fact that the Mini sits in the DHCP address range, even though the router doesn’t assign it, is the current stumbling block?

Update: Moving the static local IP of the Mini helped, but giving it a full set of network information—the address of the router being key—turned out to be the final solution. Hopefully it can run on “full headless mode” now.

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April 9, 2007

Reducing set size

Once again, some algae is using a domain at which I get mail for fake return addresses on a spam run. Last time, it was this domain, and I turned off the catch-all address, but I’ve been using the catch-all at this other domain much longer, and consequently I’ve distributed more addresses which I might like to stay active. I’ve been getting one or two bounces a day for a while, but today the spammer got greedy and I decided to act.

So how to keep legit addresses open? I could try to remember them all… or I could write a Perl script to scan my mail directory for email addresses at that domain and return a list of all it finds, along with a tally of how many times they’re found to help me decide if a given address is a “keeper.” (Stand back, I know regular expressions!)

And now I have a list.

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April 8, 2007

Professor Coach

I’ve mentioned before how our building contains Computer Science, Electrical Engineering and Athletics. Professor β’s office has coaches for several doors on all sides, so last Sunday some of her grad students changed her job description. (I grabbed a phone-cam shot.)

Professor Coach

Now Playing: Money Talks from Live From The Bowery Ballroom by Kathleen Edwards

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April 7, 2007

Cleaning the cabinet

I discovered the reason the Mini was so slow: I had installed the compiler from the first system disk I had lying around. In other words, I inadvertently installed a PowerPC compiler on an Intel Mac. That won’t work well. I updated the installers and re-ran the entire installation stack in about half the time I’d spent on the fraction completed with the other compiler. (The “wrong” compiler still worked, of course, but since it was (a) running in a translated mode, and (b) cross-compiling, I was maxing it out more than it may have wanted, and there may have been some quirks in the resulting software.)

Once that was done, I shut down the whole network and ripped it to pieces, hoping to rebuild it in a better configuration. I took the Ikea half-round table which held all the hardware and cut two big rectangular slots in the back, the better to run cables through; previously, it had only had drilled holes. (I produced a lot of sawdust doing this, thus adding “vacuuming” to the end of the “to do” list.)

I swapped the Belkin router which has, I think, been dropping our ‘net connection on a regular basis, and instead resurrected the Linksys router that I bought in 2000 or so when I first had cable internet, back in Pennsylvania. With a 2004 release of the firmware and the password re-set, that one is now chugging along nicely and hasn’t dropped the connection yet. We’ll see how it does in the long-term.

I moved the power strip which served the network up into the table itself, then threaded all the power and network cables through the table so it also accommodated the cable modem, router, and the old Airport wireless base station. With the power brick for the Mini inside the table as well, the Mini itself wouldn’t fit, so I sat it on the tabletop with its power cord and ethernet cable sneaking up from the back of the table. Now there are only two cables coming in to the whole nest, the coax for the cable modem and the plug for the power strip. It’s much neater than before.

I set the router up to allow SSH connections in to the Mini from outside. We’ll see how that goes. I’m hoping that will allow tunnelled connections to its webservers, so I can reach the SVN respository easily from outside the house.

It was a lot of work and a big mess while it was happening, but I’m a little proud of the results. This has to be the best-looking server cabinet I’ve ever worked with.

Now Playing: Don’t Bang the Drum from This Is the Sea by The Waterboys

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Now that I am running two different machines with dual cores, there are some details I need to get used to.

Load average numbers, for example. Normally a load average of 1 means the machine is perfectly utilized, an instruction always coming up just as the CPU is available to handle it, no wasted time and no waiting. With a dual-core machine, that number is 2. If I saw a long-term load of 1.5 on a single-core machine, I’d be worried; with these, it means the system is practically coasting.

Likewise, I can run top and get some surreal numbers. Right now, for example, I see a process on the Mini which is taking 188.9% of the available CPU time.

Now Playing: 109.Pt2 from Some Friendly by The Charlatans

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Posted by pjm at 11:42 AM | Comments (0)

April 5, 2007

Commodity server

This afternoon, our first capital investment arrived at my apartment: a development server in the shape of a Mac Mini. I’ll do some initial configuration using the keyboard, monitor and mouse I use in my office with the laptop, then it will get an ethernet cable to the router and live as a headless server next to the cable modem.

I bought the bare minimum configuration, which explains its remarkable 27-hour turnaround from order to delivery. I figured if it ever turned out to be under-endowed in terms of RAM or disk space, we could probably manage an upgrade.

Then I thought about the specs of this little box relative to the old Qube 3, circa 2000 or 2001, which was the office server at my old job. The Qube did a lot of work for us, functioning as mail server, gateway, firewall, DHCP server, sometimes router, and sometimes web server. And yet…

Qube 3Mac Mini
CPU 233 MHz AMD, single-core 1.66 GHz Intel Core Duo
RAM 256 MB 512 MB
Disk 40 GB (after upgrade) 50 GB

And that’s leaving out the physical size; the Qube had about the same footprint as a Mini, but the Mini is about 40% of the Qube’s height, and much, much quieter.

And for now, at least, all we’ll be asking of it is SVN and some light web serving. Maybe someday it will become an Xgrid master or someone’s desktop, or maybe we’ll just chain Firewire disks on it and make it a file server. Not bad for such a little box.

(Hey, did I mention this before, or what?)

(Update, an hour later: No way this thing is going to seduce me away from my MacBook; it’s 2 GHz with 2GB RAM vs. 1.66 GHz with a quarter of the RAM, and just doing a command-line install of Ruby you can see the difference. As a multi-core machine, if Apache is built with thread support this sucker is born to be a server.)

Now Playing: Tomorrow from Demolition by Ryan Adams

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April 4, 2007

Opinions: passport?

My current passport expires in April of 2008. This is a long way away, but the University is hosting a “passport day” later this month for easy submission of renewal applications so I’m considering whether to re-up now. It’s not a simple decision:

  • RFID passports. Security experts have been deriding the security of these things for years, but Any Day Now all new passports issued will have an RFID tag. Do I try to duck in under the wire (as late as March, non-RFID passports were still being issued) or wait until I need one and hope they refine the technology? Penalty for a bad decision is being stuck with insecure, first-generation technology for ten years, though I could always disable it.

  • Summer travel. They say 8-10 weeks to get back the new passport, due to the recent surge in applications. (Lots of people who used to go back and forth to Canada and various Caribbean islands without passports are now required to have valid ones.) With a late-April application, I should have it back by mid-July, but it feels perilously close to my mid-August departure.

  • Less significantly, the stamps. Shouldn’t I collect a few last stamps in that old one? It doesn’t have as many exotic ones as my first passport (the one with the Russian stamps, and the full-page 1991 Polish visa stamp, both of which caused various immigration officials to pause while flipping through the book,) but a lot more. Or should I inaugurate a new one with a nice Japan sticker and an EU stamp?

I know, rough decision. I should be spending my mental energy on buying our development server. (Probably a refurbished Mac Mini. Funny how well those things fit the home server niche.)

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Posted by pjm at 11:13 AM | Comments (3)

Professor's revenge

  • Get the first copy of the campus newspaper off the stack in the morning.
  • Solve the sudoku.
  • Post the answer as your first slide in each class.
  • Your students without laptops now have nothing to do but pay attention.

(Posted, of course, as someone who was working on lecture slides in colloquium yesterday.)

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April 3, 2007

My very own lecture

Once I got used to it, I really like Keynote. I wish we’d been able to do the business plan presentation with it. It’s like all the cool stuff from Powerpoint, with all the cruft stripped away. I was able to run the lecture from my MacBook in two-screen mode, with the slides on the projector (one screen) and the “presenter view,” which shows the current slide, any notes, and the next slide, on my own screen, so I always knew what was coming next. Other than a few muffed transitions (I mis-programmed them) and some sections where I talked ahead of my own outline, things went pretty smoothly. I was easily able to click out of the presentation into demos online, some of which were actually running on my machine.

Except, of course, for the usual snoozers. 1:30 PM is a lousy time to have class; one of the women said last week that she found she needed to have her afternoon coffee early to get through this block, even when it’s not me lecturing. If I had time to re-do, I would hack more of my code samples into stuff they could easily download and try out on their own. I did show them how to switch on the web server on a Mac, and hinted at how it’s done for Linux. (Looking now at the default Ubuntu build I have in Parallels—didn’t I mention that my Mac now runs both XP and Linux?—I see that Apache isn’t installed on the standard Ubuntu, so maybe fewer students have a built-in Apache than I expected.) I also gave them the URL for my laptop (a DHCP URL only valid while I was jacked in to that ethernet cable) so they could run my demos on their own.

It turns out I was able to recycle some unused work as an example. I did this site over winter break (not the design, but the infrastructure) in Perl, then discovered that the host didn’t support Perl CGIs, so I redid it in PHP. (Pretty easy, actually; it’s a single HTML template, a CSS file, a couple images, and some plain text files. There’s not a whole lot of code involved.) I used the Perl version as a code example for the HTML::Template module, then the whole thing as a demo for the idea of using the filesystem as a simple database.

I also told them that one of the biggest sites built on PHP was one probably everyone with an open laptop had visited at least once during that class block. Several people guessed Google, but then someone guessed right: Facebook. Whereupon we got one denial… from a student who recently “friended” me on Facebook.

Standing in front of a class and talking requires a tremendous amount of mental energy; you have to be on all the time you’re up there. It’s like performing in that sense, I suppose. I feel burned out and unable to focus afterward.

Now Playing: Blue Pastures from Whiplash by James

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You can fix things by whining about them online, Part 3

Sunday evening I posted a cranky evaluation of tax software and my misadventures with it this season. This afternoon, I got a nicely-worded email from an H&R Block project manager thanking me for the detailed feedback, “because that’s the best way to improve the product year over year.”

I have to imagine, because taxes are inherently frustrating and any related hitch doubly so, that they get a lot of irate feedback. Even if this is a form letter—I say that because of its length, not its tone—responding politely like that is classy. It’s good to see a big company adapting to change rather than fighting it.

(See part 1 and part 2.)

Now Playing: No Fear from Everything Changed by Abra Moore

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April 2, 2007


Professor Σ is away until Wednesday. This has been fairly common this semester, due to his long list of non-class responsibilities. In the class I TA, we had a visit from Career Services once, and a midterm review (which I ran) last time.

Tomorrow, I’m lecturing. Fortunately, not on our recent class topics (lambda calculus and denotational semantics) but on something a bit more practical: programming for the web.

I wrote up a brief outline, and now I’m hacking together slides in Keynote. I have to say, I’m hugely impressed with people who can lecture with slides twice a week. This is an incredible amount of work! I can only hope someone learns something.

Now Playing: Red Army * Blues (Song Of The Steppes / Red Army Blues) from A Pagan Place by The Waterboys

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April 1, 2007

Joke's on me: Taxes by computer

I’ve never filled out a paper federal return. Tax software was getting good right about the time I started paying my own taxes. Pennsylvania’s paper return was frighteningly easy (five minutes’ work, in general) but once I moved back to Massachusetts one year of their paper forms was enough; now I buy state add-ons for tax software. There are enough quirks in my return that I can’t use the web-based services, some of which are actually free. (And yet I also know that my return is simple compared to those of other people I know; there is still a market for actual live accountants doing tax forms.)

There are two big players in tax software: Intuit’s TurboTax (formerly MacInTax), and TaxCut, which is now published by H&R Block. I’ve tended to buy whichever one costs least and hasn’t ticked me off recently. This year I went with TaxCut; now they’ve ticked me off enough that next year I clearly need to return to TurboTax.

TaxCut fell down on tuition. Since I’m “fully funded,” my tuition is not eligible to be counted as a deduction. TaxCut, however, just asked what tuition I’d paid. I filled in the number from the 1098-T the University sent me, and the software entered a nice $600 deduction from my tax. Hey, wait: what about the matching scholarships and grants? I had to do some research, then go back and zero out that number. (Ouch.)

TaxCut also made it difficult to go straight to the forms and fill in data. I have a few tricky entries where I simply get a letter that says, “Enter $nnn.mm on Schedule Z, line 5746.” I can’t do that easily in TaxCut; it’s simple in TurboTax.

The competition is pretty fierce in this field, because I got “free” software CDs from both companies. (“Here’s our software, if you want to use it, come pay us online.”) The TaxCut CD included a link to buy TaxCut Premium (which includes one state add-on, and is therefore what I need,) for $29.95, but when I then arrived at the linked website, the price was $34.95. Nothing to make you extremely suspicious about a company like a sneaky price raise. I should’ve taken that warning and returned to Intuit (a pretty annoying company in their own right,) particularly given the installation customer service nightmare TaxCut put me through a few years ago, but I didn’t. Let the rest of you be warned: don’t make the mistakes I did. Intuit is the lesser of two evils. Can’t someone make tax software that doesn’t suck?

It should go without saying that I print and mail paper forms. E-filing saves the government money—so why are they asking me to pay extra for it?

There’s nothing to make you opposed to nearly every policy of the federal government like finishing your tax forms. An unintended consequence of my freelance writing is that I wind up sending a large check to the feds every year; I’ve never had a refund. I like it that way, to some degree; assuming the sum I pay is fair, I’d rather hold on to more of it longer than give the feds too much and have to ask for it back. I know some people arrange their deductions such that they get a refund every year; I’d rather earn a few bucks in interest on that cash first.

Now Playing: Empty Glass from Night Opens by Rich Price

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Posted by pjm at 4:43 PM | Comments (0)

You can't be serious

There’s a thin line to tread when you run a news site on April 1. A good joke is a good joke—at RW we once adopted a common jab aimed at the magazine and ran a (fake) press release announcing that we were changing our name to Walker’s World—but there’s inevitably a certain amount of heat from the people who either didn’t get the joke, or just didn’t think it was funny.

With that in mind, I applaud the courage of telegraph.co.uk, who today ran the headline, “Revealed: cash-strapped London ready to share Olympics with France”.

It almost reads as serious for a few paragraphs:

The Government is drawing up plans to “farm out” several events at the 2012 London Olympics—including the showpiece opening ceremony—to Paris.

Steeply rising costs and unexpected delays in developing the London site have forced the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to draw up the radical contingency proposals.

Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, is understood to have set up a top level, inter-departmental working party to consider the options.

One idea is to stage some of the events in Paris, which was narrowly beaten by London to host the Games when the International Olympic Committee made its choice in 2005.

Part of the unspoken protocol, though, is that you have to give away the joke somewhere, and while the Telegraph drops a number of hints (check the URL, for example), they give the best one to the French:

No formal approach has yet been made to the French government about the “Games-share” plans, but it is thought that it is likely to expect some concessions in return for its co-operation. “We are very excitable,” said Avril Bouffonnerie, a spokesman for the original French bid. It is thought she meant “excited”.

Avril Bouffonnerie? Nice. We generally used April S. Loof to give our game away; this is so much better. I can’t wait to see how much of the hate mail they get for this is published.

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

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