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September 29, 2003

My quest for a replacement for my dying Palm V continues. After lunch at Shalimar with Fiid, Kim, Jason, and Adam, I was advised by Fiid and Adam to check out the PalmOne kiosk at San Francisco Shopping Centre. Well, I'm glad I did, because the Zire is lame. Compared to my venerable Palm V, the Zire lacks a backlight, is missing two buttons, and has a smaller screen. Lame lame lame. Back to the Metreon, to the Sony Style retail store, to look at the PEG-SJ22 again.

Just a momentary digression: Does Sony realize how utterly hideous the URL is that links to their product page for the SJ22? Here it is in all its glory:

Here's the one for the Clie PEGT615C/S/R:

Now, I'm no branding wizard. I couldn't have come up with a catchy product name like "Clie PEGT615C/S/R". I don't even know how to pronounce "Clie". Nonetheless, I think more reasonable product URLs are in order.

Well, the SJ22 is kind of thick: 21/32" thick. It's $150. It's just not exactly what I was looking for. Color and a jog-dial wheel are nice, but not really important, and definitely not worth $70. For some reason I have a hard time realizing that a $70 difference in computer hardware price is the same as $70 in the rest of the universe. If I bought a cookie and someone wanted $71 I'd freak out, but for some reason paying $150 for something I was hoping to pay $80 for seems reasonable. OK, I'm waking up to it, so it doesn't seem reasonable anymore, but at one point it kinda did. Anyway, the SJ22 is a bit too much for a slightly brickish thing with some features I don't really care about. Screw you guys, I'm going home. Gotta do some more product research.

The beautifully named PEGT615C/S/R is thinner but it's also $150. Yeah OK, it also has color and a jog dial... wait a minute, why is there even an SJ22 if there's this thinner thing for the same price? Oh yeah, the PEGT615C/S/R is on clearance. A bit of additional reading and I find that the Sony Clie line only supports Windows. Naw, couldn't be... must be something silly, like a bundled app only comes for Windows but it works with Macs otherwise. Hmm, nope, they really don't work with Macs at all. Lame! What the hell is Sony thinking? And then I found The Missing Sync which solves that problem but costs $40. So basically, any Clie will really cost me $40 more than the listed price. Now those $150 Clies cost $190. Forget it.

Handspring's factory outlet has some stuff. The Visor Edge was looking OK at $129 but not quite tempting enough. At $99 I would have bought it. I kept looking. There's the Palm m505 which is, you guessed it, $150. Also on clearance, also color. Don't these guys have anything for $100 that doesn't suck as much as the Zire? Sad.

But then I read the awful PalmOne Handheld Hall of Fame (where are the detailed specs, you dorks?) and found the m500. Perfect! I did some quick searching on eBay and found them selling at about $80. No warranty but hey, some of the refurbs and closeouts that Palm and Sony were selling only had a 90 day warranty. I found an m500 with a 90 day warranty from PalmOne (apparently the eBay seller is in some way acting as a closeout reseller for PalmOne) for $90. Sweet! The m500 is almost exactly the same size and shape as the Palm V... like, really really close. So I can use the same case that I already have. Nice. I can't wait to have a fully working PDA again.

September 28, 2003

I cleaned up the home office about a week ago and reorganized my shelf-o'-media. Upon doing so, I found that I have about nine old hard disks that I've kept around because I wanted to securely erase them. Enter The List which tells me to erase all of them already. I did some searching and found Eraser which is free and runs on Windows. I tried it and it's OK but man is it slow to Gutmann-erase floppies. Who? Oh yeah, Peter Gutmann wrote this now-famous paper which explains in nitty gritty technical detail exactly how hard disks manage to retain many, many layers of formerly recorded information when you change the data on them. This means that if you just "erase" a disk to all zeroes, or even all zeroes then all ones then all zeroes again, somebody can fairly easily (with an expensive and complicated machine, but without being a rocket scientist) get back not only the data that you think you erased the hell out of, but all the stuff you had on the drive all along. Holy crap. Not that I have tons of state secrets, but I do have Quicken data and whatnot hanging around and I'd like some assurance that the data is gone, daddy gone, the data's gone away, so to speak.

Well, Eraser is OK but I don't really want to tear open my super crappy PC (purchased used from Sapient for $200 at an "oh my god we're closing offices and laying people off, what will we do with all these computers" fire sale in early 2001) and stick a bunch of drives in it. The thing is just a pain in the butt to mess around in, kind of like most PCs unless you've gone to the trouble of buying a really tricked-out case and a beefy power supply. Also, Eraser doesn't erase drives nor partitions; it erases files or free space. I want to erase drives, blank, pow, no data left period. Fortunately, I have this Sawtooth G4 that I'm in the process of preparing for sale on eBay. Part of that process involves wiping the drive, but I also have to clean it out, pull out some of the upgrades and put back in the original stuff, reinstall the OS and catch it up with recent patches, etc. Amazingly enough this Mac, this curvy blue thing that one might think is all form and no function, has a ton of space for disks and lots of internal power cables for drives. Who knew? Even better, the two rather old SCSI drives that I still have will hook up nicely to the $30 Apple-branded Adaptec SCSI card that I bought to connect to a scanner. (That's going on eBay pretty soon, too... out with the SCSI, in with the USB and Firewire.) So I did some product research.

Well, there is this free thing called grind that I found on Freshmeat, but it doesn't work on Darwin out of the box because it uses some sysopen() flags that Darwin doesn't support. That took a few minutes to figure out and fix, but not too long. I made it take longer than it really had to because I decided it would be a great idea to figure out BootCD at exactly the same time... as in, let's make a Mac OS X boot CD that also has Perl and grind on it, so I can wipe all of the hard disks in a system at once. Not a terrible goal but I could have chosen a faster path to getting there. Oh yeah and I was also making grilled avocado sandwiches and stir fry at the same time. Why? Well, when one must wait 25 minutes each time one wants to burn a slightly more complete bootable OS X + Perl + grind CD-RW, and when it takes about 10-15 minutes for said CD-RW to boot (nobody said Mac OS X was ever supposed to boot from CD now did they?), one has to find other stuff to do with one's spare time.

After a couple of iterations of that, I got it working, except grind only does files; it doesn't know what to do with block devices... so it can't wipe whole drives either. I thought about rewriting it to use dd to write to the block device. I thought about creating a single enormous file that took up the whole partition, and then secure-wiping that file with grind. Then, I decided to look for a commercial solution so I could get on with my life.

I found a bunch of crappy programs that all cost about $30 and only do a couple of passes of all ones or all zeroes. Not good enough for my paranoid little mind. Then I found iWipe, bought it for a whopping $14, and cursed myself for not doing that from the start. It works. I burned it onto a CD-RW and in a few minutes it was erasing three drives at once (91K JPEG image). Cool. The 1.19GB drive goes into a Power Computing PowerCenter 150 that for some reason I still have. (More eBay fodder.) The ~28GB drive and the ~71GB drive are both defective so I'm not sure they'll ever finish. Eventually, if secure erasing fails to make any progress, they (and one or two other odd ones that died over the past few years) will get promoted from the "secure erase and dispose" stack to the "physically destroy" stack. That should be entertaining. Maybe Fiid will volunteer to give me a Sawzall demonstration?

September 26, 2003

The Yahoo Messenger protocol has been changed "for security reasons". Coincidentally... oh isn't that a surprise... none of the third-party multi-IM clients like Fire and Trillian can connect anymore. Yay. So I have to run Yahoo Messenger and some AIM client (Fire, in my case) until this is fixed. The Fire folks did an update in anticipation of this, but it didn't actually prevent users from being blocked.

I've been using Life Balance (which is basically a super to-do list manager) to keep myself organized for about a year now, and I really like it. It has helped me manage the anxiety of not knowing if I'm working on what I should be working on right now, and the anxiety of being afraid to put something away or in storage because I'm afraid I'll never remember to get around to dealing with it. The cool part about Life Balance is that priorities are relative to the parent item in the outline, so your actual to-do list is based on the combined importance of each item and all of its parents. That means that you can trust that your list (which is entered and tweaked by you in the first place) actually reflects what you think the proper priorities are in your life. All that's left is to just do what the list says. I am inspired by this quote from Invader Zim episode Career Day:

Miss Bitters: ZIM, the machine says that the only career you are suitable for is--
ZIM: Yes, yes, LORD OF HUMANS! I will rule you ALL with an IRON FIST!
Miss Bitters: No, ZIM, the machine has assigned you a career in fast food preparation.
ZIM: ...I will prepare food with my iron fist! Then I will work my way up to ruling you ALL with my fist! You! Obey the fist!

So now I have a mantra: Obey the list! It works. I'm getting lots of stuff done and I'm a lot more relaxed about my life. Some stuff won't get done for a long, long time, but that's OK because it's the unimportant stuff that's at the bottom of the list. What matters is that I'm getting the important stuff done in a timely manner, which is a new thing for me.

Yesterday I was checking email in the library at school and got tired of Thunderbird's quirks. It's only at version 0.2 so it makes sense that there are some quirks, but I thought it might be more finished since it's based on the already-working email client in Mozilla 1.4. Problems include:

  • mailto: links don't work. A weird error window pops up that isn't really attached to the mail window but you can't click it until you bring the mail window to the front. Lame. In Mozilla 1.4 they work, but when you click a mailto: link in Safari, Mozilla opens an empty browser window with the mailto: URL in the location bar, and then opens an appropriate message window on top of that. Why the extra window? Lame.
  • I have to retrain the Bayesian spam filtering feature. I guess it makes sense since the implementation may differ from program to program but it is annoying to have to keep a folder of spam messages around so that each time I set up a new mail client app, I can train it. I suppose there is probably some file somewhere for Mozilla and Thunderbird that uses the same format but there are other email clients in the world too. I wish this were just a server-side thing. There's already way way too much client-side configuration, and I haven't seen any way to easily set up a roaming profile that includes all of this stuff. Maybe I should go ahead and try to set up a roaming Mozilla profile but it seems like a lot of work.

I've also got SSL email issues. Actually this is more of an email server problem than a client problem. The IMAP server that I'm using supports SSL, but only if you disable non-SSL connections, unless you do some weird configuration stuff and recompile. Lame. I set up an SSL certificate that isn't signed by a CA anywherer, and yes I know that means I am vulnerable to a man-in-the-middle attack, but it's better than using plaintext IMAP in my opinion. The problem is that now when I connect from outside of my firewall, such as at school, I have to tell my mail client to connect to localhost so that SSH can do port forwarding. That means the SSL cert is not going to match, since it's signed for instead of localhost, so the IMAP client bitches twice: once for the SSL cert not being signed by a CA it knows about (which you can tell it to accept forever), and then again every single time I connect because doesn't match localhost. Sigh. I have some work to do here but it isn't as important as keeping up with school or work so I have to just deal with it for now.

Downloading Mozilla from the SFSU library was enlightening: I got over 300KB/s download speed, which is at least twice the maximum speed of my home DSL line. I knew they'd have a lot of bandwidth but I didn't expect that much of it to be available for wireless clients.

My Palm V is dying. I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that it has Mad Digitizer Syndrome. Well, it's gotten worse; I have to recalibrate the touchscreen several times a day again. The cheap USB cable that I got for it in the Heathrow duty free store has driver problems. It frequently needs to be unplugged and plugged back in before it can hotsync. I had the same problem on my PC but it was worse - the fake serial port (COM4) would just cease to exist as far as the OS was concerned, so the HotSync application would decide to switch to another COM port. Then when I wanted to sync I'd have to plug the thing in a few times, then tell HotSync to try COM4 again, and hope it worked. Lather, rinse, repeat. I gave up and just hooked up my semi-broken serial cradle that has a broken plastic tooth that holds the PDA in place, so you have to seat it in the cradle carefully or else the metal contacts won't touch and it won't sync. I'd buy a new cradle (and would have done so months ago) but it doesn't seem worthwhile when a Zire only costs $80 and the cable itself was about $40. I think new serial cradles are $50ish and Mac USB-serial adapters are something like $30-$50. Not worth it. I'll just buy a Zire this weekend and get rid of the Palm V and its sickly accessories.

I'm not sure how to dispose of the Palm V. Who would buy a mostly-broken one? I guess if I just put it on eBay and disclose all of the problems, somebody will have a use for it and will buy it for $20 or something. But if someone who is a Palm V hardware weenie is going to buy it, maybe I want to securely erase it? How does one do that? Does a hard reset really wipe out the contents of memory so that someone can't just recover it? Does it matter that much? I have to think about that.

A separate issue is that the Mac version of the HotSync application for some reason decides to run very slowly if its window isn't in the foreground. I don't get it. The Windows version doesn't do this. I don't think this is an OS thing; I think it's a silly application "feature". I looked for a workaround but I didn't see anything about it.

I tried out SideTrack on my PowerBook, which lets you emulate a right mouse button on the trackpad. I didn't adjust to it too well and gave up. I'll try again later. I really miss the two buttons on my Thinkpad. This is pretty much my only complaint with this laptop.

September 25, 2003

I finished reading The Iliad for my Ancient Epic Tales class last night. I enjoyed it even though the pace of the class is very fast & requires that I spend a lot of time reading and then preparing assignments for class. We still have to read four more books this semester (and write papers on them and have reading group discussions on them with prepared materials for each class...) but they're good ones.

My favorite Iliad passage by far was this one (the emphasis is mine):

"Ah for a young man all looks fine and noble if he goes down in war, hacked to pieces under a slashing bronze blade -- he lies there dead... but whatever death lays bare, all wounds are marks of glory. When an old man's killed and the dogs go at the gray head and the gray beard and mutilate the genitals -- that is the cruelest sight in all our wretched lives!" So the old man groaned and seizing his gray hair tore it out by the roots but he could not shake the fixed resolve of Hector.

Iliad 22.83-92 (tr. Fagles)

Ah, Homer... always keeping the story interesting. Based on my conversations with various folks (including Jim and boss-man Chris), this particular translation by Robert Fagles is a much more accessible one than some older translations. So, if you're interested, I definitely recommend reading it, especially if you're planning to see The Trojan War when it hits theatres a few months from now. That way you can decide if you think Diane Kruger is worthy of the role of Helen, and whether the rest of the cast fits as well.

September 22, 2003

If you need to update to OpenSSH 3.7p1 for Red Hat Linux 7.3 (or 7.2) but you don't have GTK 2 installed, then you will need to read this guide in order to make the SRPM install on your system. In case that goes away, I have another copy here.

September 19, 2003

I just spoke to my parents. The Men of the Family including my father are currently on the roof with a chainsaw cutting up the 100' pine tree that fell on my parents' house in Richmond, VA last night.

There's no electricity and they don't anticipate any for the next week or so. There's no running water either because the power outages are so widespread. She says that she and my Dad were watching the news during the storm and the power went off. They had a short chat about whether dinner would finish cooking with no power, and then suddenly the sunlight above them was shattered by the branch of a tree, showering them with broken glass. Amazingly, they were unhurt. They have a big tarp in place for now, but the deck, the gutter, part of the roof, and of course the skylight are all damaged by the tree.

There's not really anything I can do to help them, unless I can fix the roof or the power lines, which of course I can't. I asked and they couldn't think of anything either. I suppose I can do one thing, though, and that is to keep in touch. I suck at that but I think I can do a better job for the next week or so considering the situation. I do care, of course, but I just don't like talking on the phone very much. I had already made a decision to be better about keeping in touch, and now I have an even better reason to do so.

I've been looking at theft prevention solutions for my laptop. You may think "dude stop being so melodramatic and call it a damn cable" but that's not all I'm looking at. I've been looking at stuff like Stealth Signal and MacPhoneHome. At first I thought I should just write something like this myself, but when I started to think about tamper-proofing it and testing it and how to actually physically locate the stolen laptop I decided to see if there were commercial solutions. Mainly I was looking for ideas but I also decided that if it was cheap enough I'd just go ahead and buy a product/service and not worry about writing one myself.

I read both web sites and they had a bunch of info about how the products work and the usual "aren't you scared? You need this!" kind of sales-y stuff. OK, great, they do what I want and they're both under $50; neither has any clear technical advantage. But I wondered whether the software actually pays off for the end-user. So I emailed both companies on Wednesday. Brigadoon Software (makers of MacPhoneHome) sales hasn't responded. StealthSignal's sales folks did:

Dear Jamie:

Here are the answers to your questions, feel free to contact me if you have anymore questions or comments.

> What is the recovery rate to date? That is, what percentage of stolen
> laptops have actually been recovered by the police and returned to users?

Our percentage of recovery is 63%. The recovery rate reflects on the effectiveness of the Stealth Signal system to track as well as the Police's response time to actually search the premises the computer sent the stolen signal from.

> What is the average turnaround time for a successful recovery? That is,
> from the time a laptop with StealthSignal is stolen, what is the average
> amount of time before it is recovered and back in the user's hands?

The average time is about 1-2 months. We just located a computer that was stolen in March, so it can be a wait sometimes, but on the other hand in December of 2002 we located a computer 9 hours after it was reported stolen.

> Do you have any testimonials or case studies? I couldn't find any on
> your web site.

Yes, I have attached a few.

The case studies are invidual testimonials, not great, but good enough. I took a closer look at the pricing. StealthSignal charges per year; Brigadoon Software charges a one-time fee. I read Brigadoon Software's web site and marketing collateral, and in a PowerPoint presentation they name some clients. So I decided to do a Google search.

Based on what I found, I decided not to buy PCPhoneHome. [Note: Actual links and commentary removed 2003-11-7 because Brigadoon Software CEO Terrance Kawles has threatened to sue me. Also, Brigadoon Software did respond on 9/23/03 to my request for more info. By this time I had decided not to buy their product and so I didn't bother to publish the fact that I got an email. The letter Terrance Kawles has sent me threatening to sue me made note of the fact that I never gave him credit for getting back to me: "for you to maintain that I did not reflects badly on my company". So I'm mentioning it after all.]

September 18, 2003

It's a good day. I'm sittin' in the middle of the quad, in the shade, on a bench, listening to decent live music, got a full-strength wireless signal. The screen is fine in the shade. Sweet! 2.5 hours of battery at this rate. Checkin' mail, bloggin', chillin'. OK, so I just had a double iced mocha with soymilk, so I'm kind of in a wired/wireless hyper/chillin' state, oo look at me getting all enigmatic. But I'm enjoying it.

My phone battery is dead so I can't call somebody back right away but that's OK. I just had a "Tijuana Road" burrito in the student center so my breath would probably reach thru the phone and slap them silly anyway. Best to sit here and listen to the birds chirp. There are even seagulls on top of some of the buildings... boy are they lost. I guess the Pacific Ocean is just over a mile to the west, so they're not too far off course. (Don't believe me? check out the map.)

September 17, 2003

Can you tell the difference between a computer programming language inventor and a serial killer? Take the Killer Quiz.

Now that I have laptop that I take to school (and elsewhere), it's getting annoying not to have a VPN set up so that I can access my home server stuff in the same way that I can access it when I'm physically at home. I looked into FreeS/WAN which is a Linux add-on that provides IPSec VPN functionality. Well, guess what, it doesn't have some pretty basic features like the ability to work across a firewall doing NAT, so I can't use it. But wait, there's SuperFreeSWAN which can do that. Cool. (Also cool is the fact that the author works for a company named Foobar Oy.) I really don't like the idea of patching my kernel and FreeS/WAN to get it all working so I was happy to find that they will even supply you with an RPM that installs the pre-patched Linux kernel source. Nice!

Sidebar: Picture a dusty old box in the attic - that represents my knowledge of Linux kernel configuration, compilation, and installation. I've done it, I can do it again, but it's foggy, and the part I do remember is that it takes a lot of messing with and looking stuff up and configuration tweaking and rebooting. Whee. I prefer to just install the major releases and add security patches. That actually takes longer but I get a whole bunch of features at once, the machine boots right away, and all I have to do is re-install the stuff on top of the OS instead of potentially breaking the OS itself. There's a cleansing effect that comes from having to reinstall your computer every few years, and I like the feeling of a freshly rebuilt computer that doesn't have any old crap on it that I installed years ago and forgot to remove.

So it took my server 100 minutes to compile Linux with SuperFreeSWAN. Then it failed as it was creating the binary RPM (that's the compiled and configured but not installed result of rebuilding the source RPM) because my /var partition where it decided to assemble the files only had 40MB free. I'm not sure why it needed so much space until I cd'd into the directory where the build was taking place and did a "du" to see how much space it was taking. 240MB!?! Yikes. And guess what, if RPM fails in the middle of a rebuild operation, it deletes everything anyway the next time you run it. So I made a symlink from /var/tmp to a really big drive and rebuilt it, which took another ~100 minutes. Yay, it worked. Then another 2 minutes to rebuild the SuperFreeSWAN utilities binary RPM from the source RPM, and then I installed both of the binary kernels. A small change to LILO and a reboot, fingers crossed... hey, it boots! Awesome. Wait a minute... some stuff is complaining. As it turns out, the Ethernet drivers won't load because they need some kind of option that the kernel doesn't have. Argh. No way am I going through that crap again. I rebooted into my regular old kernel and did some searching and it looks like I'm more or less on my own on this one. Lame.

So, after 8 hours of putzing around with this, I bought that Linksys BEFVP41 IPSec router that I mentioned last week. I haven't had time to get it all working yet but it seems pretty cool... mainly I have to re-think the way my home network is set up because I've never had a VPN before and I have to actually plan and map it out a bit before I go trying to make it work. There are questions like "who is the DHCP server now" and "what IP range should VPN clients get on the local network" and "do wireless clients have to use the VPN too?" that I have to answer. I did the "dive in and just get it working" thing and really screwed things up :) This is not the sort of thing that responds well to spontaneous configuration. After a couple of hours of breaking stuff and then fixing it and drawing diagrams on graph paper on Monday night, I had to stop to do homework.

Kim and I saw the Alex Skolnick Trio, OHM, and Marty Friedman perform last Thursday night at Slim's.

The Alex Skolnick Trio played straight jazz but instead of playing typical jazz standards based on showtunes from 70 years ago, they used metal standards! They played Highway Star (Deep Purple), Still Loving You (Scorpions), some song I didn't recognize, Goodbye to Romance (Ozzy), Dream On (Aerosmith), and War Pigs (Black Sabbath)... on a hollow-body guitar with a clean tone & an upright bass. It was pretty damn funny but they pulled it off.

We had seen OHM previously in L.A. at The Baked Potato (see my August 24 entry) and they rocked the house again. Roberto Pagliari is a totally amazing bass player. 6-string fretless with no lines (see photo) and he's absolutely tearing it up, no mistakes or flat/sharp notes, upstaging Chris which is saying something. He's been hiding under a rock for his whole life or something, I swear. Just Google "Roberto Pagliari" or "Robby Pagliari"and you'll see why I think that. I've been a Chris Poland fanboy since Peace Sells and I have all of his albums (even the little weird ones) but I didn't expect to discover "Pag". He's a monster. In L.A. our seats were close but behind and to the left ("back, and to the left...") so we couldn't see anything but Kofi very clearly. This time we were in the front row. Awesome.

Finally Marty and crew came on stage, following a poser guitar tech getting all grungy and overly excited about himself during the soundcheck. Marty had a distinct air of arrogance about him as did his band. OK, so he's a very very capable guitarist, famous, etc., so he has something to be proud of, but damn. They opened with a heavy but slow song that I recognize but can't name - probably off of Dragon's Kiss. Pose city. The 2nd guitarist was Ron Jarzombek (ex-Watchtower, which is really good shred prog metal, if you like that sort of thing) and he was all about the cheesy 80s 2-guitarist metal poses. I was just not prepared for these virtuosic musicians who I respect for their playing ability and inventiveness to basically come across as something out of Spinal Tap. I had a hard time not laughing in Marty's face when he scanned the audience with his scowling & pouty "worship me" look. Just look at his picture on his web site. Yup. And the music was booooooring. 15 years ago that stuff was OK but now it's just Tired. We bailed during the 2nd song. I was really hoping for some inventive new material, but I guess not. Same old boring macho guitar rock, with no effort put into songwriting, just there to provide an easy foundation to solo over. Weak.

Back on 9/1, Kim and I bought a couch from someone who posted an ad on Craigslist. We rented a pickiup truck from U-Haul to move it. While I was getting a ride back from their remote parking lot back to the U-Haul office, I saw an accident. One of the drivers drove off - a hit and run. This took place in sight of the U-Haul office. While I was waiting in line to pay for the rental, the guy who had driven off came running back down te street... to pick up his license plate which fell off during the accident!

The GOP denies outsourcing fund-raising to India.

I wrote instructions for patching the OpenSSH 3.7p1 RPM so that it doesn't require GTK 2. This was necessary so that I could upgrade to OpenSSH 3.7 to close the vulnerability they just announced. Unfortunately I can't link to anything in particular because the OpenSSH website still doesn't say anything about the 3.7 release. Lame!

September 10, 2003

Hannibal from The A-Team used to say, "I love it when a plan comes together." My home network plan is coming together. Love it.

My 12" PowerBook G4 showed up and it's just as nice as I had hoped. There's something terribly cool about installing app after app on this thing and seeing "48.3 GB Free" in Finder windows. Sick! The screen is smallish, but it is bright and crisp, flawless, and of course it can drive a 1600x1200 display in 24-bit color (in addition to the LCD display) so I can do Real Work on it without going crazy with scrollbars and whatnot. Actually I haven't replaced my older G4 desktop yet; I've concentrated on just getting it apps installed so that I can use it first, and then I'll migrate all the stuff off my desktop. I spent some time messing with the font smoothing so that I can actually read text; fortunately the Terminal application has an option to disable smoothing altogether which I think is more readable.

My iPod showed up yesterday. I didn't even have time to open it because of school. Today I got a chance. It's gorgeous, and man oh man is Firewire fast. It's replacing a Rio 500 which I was very happy with. The Rio 500's pro's were: [a] super small (the smallest available MP3 player at the time I got it) [b] expandable via SmartMedia flash memory (I upgraded it to 128MB) [c] Mac-compatible. The cons were: [a] slow USB interface (slow even for USB) [b] battery sometimes jostles out of place resetting the unit [c] not quite as loud as I would want [d] the hold button is also the on/off button so it's easy to slide past "hold" to "off". But generally it was great. The iPod is clever but it lacks a few things that the Rio 500 has. The Rio has a thumbwheel on the side for volume adjustment. That's pretty useful since the most common reason to use the UI of an MP3 player is to tweak the volume. There is also a "hold" setting on the Rio that disables all the buttons, and it's easy to reach even when it's in your pocket. Finally, all the buttons are raised and can be found by touch. The iPod fails at all of these. The hold switch is tiny and too close to the headphone jack, so it's very hard to switch it on or off without taking it out of my pocket. The buttons are recessed / flush with the surface of the iPod and are touch sensitive, so if you're feeling around in your pocket it's really easy to skip to the next track or pause playback by mistake. The volume knob is a big round circle that you have to move your finger around, so again, forget about doing that in your pocket. I understand that there is an availble remote control, which may fix all of these issues. My final concern is that it looks very delicate, so I'm worried that putting it in my pocket with my keys is going to result in scratches, or worse, damage to the socket on the bottom of the unit. Maybe if I have the remote (which I think will also act as a headphone extender) I can put it in a jacket pocket, but I'm thinking that maybe I need some kind of protective cover. The Rio was plastic but not smooth and white like the iPod, so minor scratches wouldn't show up as obviously.

I got the AirPort Extreme card with the PowerBook; it's a combo 802.11b/802.11g wireless card. I did a bit of research on wireless access points and decided to go with Linksys hardware this time. In my searching I found this article about 802.11g range compared to 802.11b and 802.11a. It's pretty hardcore technical, but skip down to Figure 10 or so and start looking at the results of their real-world signal quality tests. Cool! Apparently 802.11g does a lot better range-wise than 802.11b or 802.11a.

I ended up getting the Linksys WRT54G. I had planned to get the WAP54G but when I went to Central Computer to buy it, the WRT54G, which also has a built-in DSL modem and a 4-port Ethernet switch, cost the same! Go figure. I don't need another DSL modem or switch right now but if I can have them for free, why not? The WAP55AG was something like $120 more, just in case somebody ever wanted to come over with a laptop which had 802.11a but not 802.11g. Forget it.

It took some fiddling but I got 802.11g working with 128-bit WEP (it sucks but it's better than nothing). I'm impressed with the range - I was able to go all over the apartment and out on the back deck and I still had a good signal. I got >1MB/sec file copy speed and good interactive latency, too - the above section about the PB and iPod was written in emacs over an SSH connection over the wireless link. I definitely intend to spend more time outside on the deck looking at Mount Sutro when I write my papers and code and surf and blog and play The Frozen Throne and whatnot.

The next step is to get a VPN set up so that I can securely access stuff from school and so that I'm not relying on WEP for security at home. I've been reading some stuff about IPSec and PPTP but I also came across a link to vtun and CIPE. I haven't decided what to do yet but I did see the Linksys BEFVP41 IPSec router for only $109.95 at Central Computer. Damn. Last time I checked, the cheapest VPN appliance I could find was the SonicWall TELE3 which costs about $400. Still, after spending all this money on hardware, I think I'd better stick with a Linux-based software solution.

One thing that I found while I was downloading and installing stuff on my new laptop was Labels X. Basically it brings Finder labels back under Mac OS X. Love it! I used to use labels all the time to categorize stuff, and I even wrote a Perl module so that I could access labels from Perl scripts on Linux, since netatalk searching is so inefficient. I'll probably switch from netatalk to NFS soon since it seems to work better with OS X (mainly, it allows long filenames, which netatalk doesn't), but I still think it'll be useful to have server-side scripts that can build custom indexes based on Finder labels.

How come when I'm waiting on hold, the hold music is always plagued with static? We can put a man on the moon but several decades later we can't get high fidelity hold muzak.

I'm very happy to hear that there will be a Firefly movie. I really loved the TV series.

Kim got free tickets from work for Beach Blanket Babylon. Ugh. The performers were great, the costumes (and mega enormous hats) were great, but the writing suuuucked. Awful. Every tired, corny, obvious joke you could imagine was incorporated into the script. There's a difference between being fearless about what topics you dare to make jokes about, and just failing to filter out the bad jokes. This was the latter. Failure to self-edit. I'm very happy that we didn't end up paying $34/seat (which is the price for the seats we got) or I would have demanded my money back after about 30 minutes. It was that bad.

11:50pm: I had some problems with the wireless access point. It worked for a few hours but then a couple of times it just kicked me off and wouldn't let me connect again even though I knew the password. Somehow it spontaneously decided to stop doing WEP also. I upgraded the firmware to the latest version (which I was planning to do later but decided to do right away...) and then I found out that the new firmware includes a web interface that doesn't work with Safari correctly. Bug report submitted to Linksys:

The latest firmware (1.30.7 US) doesn't work quite right with Mac OS X's Safari browser. It did with the firmware that came preinstalled (1.02.1).

Steps to reproduce:
- upgrade to 1.30.7 US using file "WRT54G_1.30.7_US_code.bin" from the
- Make sure Wireless Security is set to Disabled
- Launch Safari 1.0
- Log in to the web browser UI for the access point (defaults to Setup page)
- Set Wireless Security to Enabled
- Click Edit Security Settings
(popup window opens)
- Select Security Mode: WEP
- enter a passphrase and click Generate
(the page reloads)
- Click Apply
Nothing happens!
- Click Cancel
Nothing happens!

Workaround: Use IE 5.2 for Mac OS X instead of Safari.

I wonder if/when that'll be fixed.

September 5, 2003

I ordered a PowerBook. I'm impatient. Wouldn't you be? It shipped already. I'm so excited.

Apple sent me a shipment notification. They've really cleaned up their supply chain since the last time I looked, which was back in 1995. I heard that they were trying to get more just-in-time -- more like Dell. An article I read several years ago contrasted Apple, Compaq, HP, and IBM with Dell. The "builders" did market research, designed a product line, forecasted sales, built lots and lots of PCs, and then sold from inventory at a set price. Dell was much leaner, creating a more confusing product line -- lots of overlapping models, and the lineup seemed to change every other week -- but allowing almost unlimited custom configuration and very quick introduction of new parts and up-to-date pricing.

At one point in the early 90's (December 1992, I think) Apple had massive overstock in things like PowerBook 170s and had a major fire sale, and lost a lot of money. After that, I can't remember Apple ever not having serious product shortages. I guess they decided that it was better to lose prospective customers than to actually spend money and have to throw some of it away. I believe that this was the major reason they lost market share in the 90s - when I was a reseller I had tons and tons of students hoping to buy a Mac as their first computer, but they gave up because a 12 week delay was too long. Being an IBM reseller was no picnic either - they were just as backordered as Apple, but when a customer passed on a Thinkpad in favor of some other PC, IBM wasn't losing customers to another platorm forever.

It's pretty obvious that Dell's just-in-time inventory practices and quickness to bring new models and parts to market were connected, and were very successful. I imagine that Dell is held up as the ideal PC company in business school these days for this reason. And I've heard that Apple is trying to become more Dell-like. Part of that requires that they get rid of all the dusty old hardware sitting on dealers' shelves, which I think is the reason behind the Apple Store -- it's a shift to ordering direct instead of going thru dealers. I think the Apple Retail Stores aren't really connected to this, as much as they are to problems with CompUSA and other well-organized chain stores not promoting Macs effectively. CompUSA is much better than some random mom n' pop Apple dealer at keeping its inventory and price lists current.

Another part of the transformation involves switching from proprietary chips and peripheral interfaces to industry-standard interfaces and chipsets: Apple Desktop Bus -> USB, and NuBus / a host of totally model-specific expansion slots -> PCI, mainly. This means that they don't need to have special suppliers making special chips (which costs a lot more than standardized parts, plus it means that they shouldn't have as many problems as they did in the 90's with massive product shortages being caused by one little custom chip that was backordered and held up the whole manufacturing process. If your products use lots of custom parts, it can make sense to have a lot of them made in one run, and then stick 'em in a warehouse. But if you under-forecasted sales for that model, it might take several months to get those parts again, in which case your customers get really, really angry. At one point it was my job to be the frontline explainer of these shortages to Apple customers. Retail sucks sometimes.

Another major transformation involves the just-in-time manufacturing of products. Once you can get parts fairly quickly because they're standard, and available from multiple sources, there's no need to build lots and lots of units in anticipation of demand. You can just take a guess and then make sure to react appropriately, remembering that sometimes pent-up demand masquerades as robust demand. I read an article somewhere about FedEx introducing a service whereby FedEx will be your warehouse. That way, you can go straight from the point of manufacturing to the customer without a lot of back-and-forth transactions. It seems like Apple is doing this because this is the path my PowerBook is taking from the factory (97KB JPEG). FedEx is in charge of getting it from Taiwan to SF. I'm not sure I understand why FedEx thinks that it's possible for the package to get from Anchorage, Alaska to Indianapolis, Indiana (a 2995 mile trip) in 2 hours and 17 minutes, unless they have planes that travel at almost Mach 2 (which is 1340mph at 30,000 feet). That's why that figure is yellow on my map. I think the 7 hour figure (which works out to ~428mph) is more believable. The trip from Taipei to Anchorage is 4696 miles long and took 11 hours, which works out to 427mph (including take off and landing time, etc.) so that's probably the right arrival time.

So, it looks like Apple is using FedEx to ship and warehouse stuff straight from its point of manufacture. Cool! But why has it been sitting in Indiana for 14 hours? Gimmie gimmie!

September 4, 2003

Pax, whose blog lacks permalinks so I have to say stuff like "in his 9/4/03 entry which may be many many clicks off of his home page by the time you read this", disagrees with my suggestion that law enforcement be empowered to shut down or disconnect computers that are infected with a virus that is attacking other computers via the internet. His arguments & my responses:

  • Law enforcement is often less clueful than the average user. That's what detectives and special agents are for. Not every cop knows how to do forensic work (autopsies, ballistic matching, etc.) either.
  • Who says what computers are spreading evil? I do! My mail log is full of undeliverable bounce notices from various worms that spoofed addresses on my computer. My firewall logs periodically get clogged with evidence of some new worm that's trying to get into my network, to the point where I have to specifically not log that one thing. You can put all the virus authors in jail and their viruses are all still out there attacking random targets. Similarly, you can kill the chicken in Asia that transmitted SARS to the first infected human but that doesn't stop the disease from spreading. Only by isolating the infected individuals/computers and dealing with them can we hope to stop it... and there are hundreds of millions of computers on the internet, all connected together such that they can directly connect to and infect each other, except in the cases where somebody has been conscientious and patched/firewalled them appropriately.
  • Law enforcement cannot cope with the speed and ease with which an evil program can co-opt the Internet. Guess what, all those worms that came out in the last few years are still out there attacking all the time. YOu just don't hear about it because they're not new and unfamiliar. Some worms are written to deactivate after a certain amount of time but that's not typical. They never go away. The computers that are vulnerable to an old worm (because they're unprotected and running old, vulnerable software) are vulnerable to all the new worms that have come out since then, generally speaking. So the next time a worm appears and starts infecting computers that haven't been patched since 3 months ago, all those computers that have been unpatched for 4 years get infected yet again. Get those things off the damn network.

This sort of fits in with a theme of social order that I feel strongly about: No social system that depends on everybody being good will succeed. Laissez-faire capitalism, and socialism both fail for this reason. Some people are just going to be bad, whether badness means negligence or stupidity or evil. Some people are going to try and take stuff from you even though they know it's wrong. Some people are going to lie, or be too lazy to do what they know is right, or not bother to make sure they know what they're doing. That's why there must be soldiers and cops and firefighters and lawyers. Without them, the nice peacful friendly people get robbed, enslaved, raped, conquered, and/or killed by the mean nasty people, and infected, run over, and generally harmed by the dummies. (Naked Economics, which I'm reading right now, has some interesting things to say about capitalism in this respect - it has flaws that won't fix themselves if left alone, like monopolies, and individuals who suffer in the short term so that the average standard of living can improve in the long term.) For the internet, this means we need stuff like security to prevent some of the badness from happening (kinda like locks do), and laws to deal with the bad people.

6:39pm: There was just a Magnitude 3.9 earthquake in West Oakland. I felt it. 3.9 is like being in a car when someone jumps onto the bumper once. No biggie; you might miss it if you were in a car, on a bus, walking down the street, etc. But you never know, it could be followed by something much bigger. Good thing I just fixed all of our non-working flashlights!

September 3, 2003

Concerned about your job being sent offshore? How about your own country's political system? Here are a couple of stories (one, two) about the GOP outsourcing fund raising to India.

Enemy of the State is on TV right now. It's pretty obvious at this point that we don't have that level of law enforcement coordination. Maybe we will in a few years but at this point it seems sort of prepostorous. I've worked in the government before and stuff just isn't that well linked together. It would be laughable, except for the fact that it would have been pretty useful a couple of years ago. On the other hand, the point of the movie is to talk about abuse of law enforcement surveillance, which isn't funny at all. I'm all for the coordination, but not for the invasion of privacy. I like my privacy. It's said that the only normal people are the ones you don't know very well. I've heard of The Transparent Society but I don't think America is ready for everybody to know everything about everybody else. There are too many people with strong opinions about what everybody else should be doing and who are willing to hurt or kill other people to enforce those opinions. I think we're a lot better of not knowing what the hell everybody else is up to.

My stepmother Sherry has some really funny things to say about teaching.

I keep hearing this term "buttrock" in a musical genre context. Fortunately now I know just what buttrock is. It sorta reminds me of Run Ronnie Run, which was great, BTW.

My friend and former cow orker Ray wrote a fascinating account of what's technology was useful for at AllAdvantage, and a Java vs. C++ encryption performance competition within their engineering department that ended up being more or less a toss-up. It's pretty cool because it supports my general assertion about Java that C++ isn't really faster if you use object-oriented C++, as opposed to writing super hand optimized procedural C code and calling it C++. And you get the bonus of higher developer productivity from Java. You still have to profile and optimize your code but not at a super low level - you just have to do stuff like not ask a databse the same question 10000 times to get the same answer, and to make sure you're not keeping 100,000 copies of the same string in memory (both are real world examples from projects I've worked on). Make it correct, then make it fast. The first part is easier in Java (or another garbage-collected OO language) which gives you more time to do the second part. But this example is a good one because there wasn't a need for really gross code mangling just to get it to be fast enough. So maybe the whole process (make it correct & make it fast) takes less time?

I had a funny experience on campus a couple of days ago. I was asking about the wireless network on campus (which is pretty cool since it covers several outdoor areas) and they asked me what kind of computer I had. I remember a time when institutional Mac support was either a pain in the ass, or nonexistent, generally speaking. Well Apple's OS X strategy must be a success (or maybe there are more Mac fans at SFSU than I thought?) because the answer was "oh it's easy if you have a Mac; if you have a PC it's more complicated." Well yeah, it's generally harder to do anything on a PC, but I'm used to that harder process being supported, and the simpler Mac way of doing things being unsupported because of market share. Apple has done a good job of moving away from a broken-ass underlying OS and weird proprietary hardware that nobody makes parts for, toward a Unix core and standardized hardware, so that vendor support doesn't involve hiring squirrely developers who know how to code for a niche platform that requires all sorts of ugly hacks. It's just a matter of writing another driver and/or different firmware.

This is good because I just ordered a 12 inch PowerBook G4. Hooray for educational discount Back-To-School deals! I'll be selling my Thinkpad and G4 desktop since I don't really need them anymore (and brand new fancy laptops are expensive even when they're on sale on top of a discount).

September 2, 2003

At some time in the next few weeks I need to fix a ReplayTV 2020 that probably has a bad hard disk. I was planning to look on eBay for one of the "hard disk upgrade" sellers who basically take a normal blank HD and add the ReplayTV software to it. It seems there's some kind of tricky partitioning needed to get it to work... the OS is on 2 partitions so that when it patches itself, there's a backup copy it can use if needed. Well it looked pretty scary a year or so ago but now there is apparently a nice GUI RTVPatch program that should make it pretty simple to do. I happen to have bought a 160GB HD recently (it was on sale so I got 2, and I've only installed one so far) so it should be pretty straightforward.