Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Android Me


I held off for as long as I could before purchasing an Android phone. Frankly once they offered an unlocked restriction free developer version, it was hard to resist.

Next is to get the build environment working and start tinkering with the OS. Top on my list is figuring out if vpnc can be made to run on it.

Deserving future denizens of hell

  • Carnies

  • People who throw gum on the ground

  • Tow truck drivers

Monday, December 29, 2008

there's nothing like new hardware

There's really nothing like some new hardware to get the blood pumping. I've been converting my sad, old, NFS + LDAP serving cluster over to a fancy new Kerberos + AFS + LDAP + XEN environment. Virtualization is truly awesome, being able to create and reboot hosts at will without concern for the possibility of a late-night drive to the datacenter is so nice.

Probably the nicest part is that as I go to set up a new system, I can do a complete trial-run, documenting my changes. Get it working, then repeat the process with another vhost following my documentation to verify that the process is correct. Having so many potential options at my fingertips is a bit dizzying.

The thing that made all this possible was finally figuring out how to get around the damn kernel panic I was seeing using the ubuntu xen packages. Unfortunately it has to do with their forward-ported 2.6.24 xen kernel. If you go and get the official xen distribution and install that, building the kernel from source (which is a bit messy if you try to adapt the ubuntu kernel config), things work much smoother.

The kernel is a little older, and you lose out on some of the nicer drivers to have in the most recent kernels, but having a stable xen host is worth it. Especially with a server where you really only need disk + network drivers.

Friday, September 5, 2008

reCAPTCHA Turns People Into Distributed Processors

reCAPTCHA is awesome and I'm shocked I haven't heard about it before. This is an absolutely brilliant example of distributing a little bit of work to many people in a socially productive way. Whomever is behind this is a genius and deserves a firm handshake.

In a nutshell, reCAPTCHA provides a free (!) captcha service to third party websites where the captcha pictures are scanned text from books. This turns every captcha lookup into a human driven OCR process. Absolutely awesome.

Krispy Kreme Bacon Cheddar

bacon cheddar krispy kreme burgers

Wow, as Tom McMahon put it, "my heart attack just had another heart attack".

Telescopic Text

Joe Davis has an excellent exercise in exploration and expansion of concepts. You must check out Telescopic Text.

Monday, August 11, 2008

All night pawn shop

Over in the valley there's a 24-hour pawn shop that makes me a bit nervous. On the one hand I like the notion that if you really, really, really need money you can get it any time at a little bullet-proof window near katella, however on the other hand I can't imagine a lot of what goes through there is owned by those who sell it.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Getting Customers To Go Away

I recently had the opportunity to experience the ultimate in vendor stupidity. I placed an order for a new phone and then called to cancel the order 5 hours later. The cancellation call was around 11am the same day I placed the order with the vendor. Instead of simply canceling my order, the vendor informed me there would be a $25 "cancellation charge".

Now, in certain circumstances I can understand a cancellation charge. Specifically when there is some actual non-recoverable cost incurred by the vendor. Special order items, custom products, anything not already in stock, etc. But when an item that they had in-stock was ordered then canceled, and all they did was pick the order, charging me money to not send it to me simply ensures I will never place an order with that company again.

Someone I knew once said that a customer who doesn't bring you repeat business is not a customer, but a victim. I feel abused by this company and the only thing that makes me feel better about it is that a more reputable company had the same product for less than the crappy company even with the $25 cancellation charge.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

SWEBOK indeed

I suppose it's entirely indicative of the software industry, but I was still saddened when I noticed that the embedded 'title' field of the PDF version of the IEEE Guide to the Software Engineering Body of Knowledge, is "Microsoft Word - Title_page 2004.rtf".

The meta-data shows that the file was created using version FIVE of adobe's own acrobat creation tools, so why doesn't the title meta-data say "Guide to the SWEBOK" or some such? And the author field should be the IEEE Computer Society, not RobertD.

When someone in the IEEE Computer Society, writing a document on how to write software can't even get their tools to work the way the designer wanted them to work, it's a damning testament to the quality of software engineering. I'm sure RobertD isn't an idiot, his software should have helped him make this document, not made the IEEE look like a bunch of morons.

I'm not even going to begin to comment on the fact that the official swebok pdf download page seemingly 'requires' an email address, while the html version is served up anonymously, but you could always just download the pdf directly from the IEEE CSDP education portal.

I've been a member of the IEEE Computer Society and the IEEE for years, and a software developer for even longer. Sadly, this is totally indicative of the mishmash of disciplines that make up software engineering. Computer scientists are keen to point out how every discipline can make use of our science, but frankly software needs other disciplines as well. Marketing, management, communications, you get the idea.

This is what we can do

Phoenix chute
The folks over at Bad Astronomy really put it best, "Never, ever forget: we did this. This is what we can do."

Think on this, and think on it carefully: you are seeing a manmade object falling gracefully and with intent to the surface of an alien world, as seen by another manmade object already circling that world, both of them acting robotically, and both of them hundreds of million of kilometers away.

You can view full images and get a nice collection of links over at Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD).

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Avalon Hill's Advanced Civilization Is Not Quite Dead

It turns out there are others who are fans of the sadly out-of-print Avalon Hill title Advanced Civilization. A group calling themselves Civilization: The Expansion Project have been working on updated rules and an expanded map board to support 16 player play! Awesome.

If only it were possible to get new prints of the cards and maps so we could play this old game. There is a beta module for VASSAL available, however. VASSAL allows you to play board games online. Mostly geared toward wargames, it's a fairly generic engine that lets you produce your own modules. It seems handy, but I'm yet to find someone to try it with.

Great Southern California ShakeOut

The Great Southern California ShakeOut
November 12–16, 2008

The Great Southern California ShakeOut is a week of special events featuring the largest earthquake drill in U.S. history, organized to inspire Southern Californians to get ready for big earthquakes, and to prevent disasters from becoming catastrophes.

Monday, May 12, 2008

25-Year-Old Bug Fixed in BSD

Marc Balmer has a wonderful writeup of a bug in the BSD directory handling code that laid dormant for 25 years. The only tragic thing was that Samba programmers encountered and worked around the bug several years ago and somehow the message never got back to the BSD folks.

The other day, I got an email from Edd, an OpenBSD user, claiming that Samba would crash when serving files off an MS-DOS filesystem. This was Samba built from sources and not the one from ports. Since I use myself Samba a lot and for a quite large user base, I got interested in the issue and started investigating it.

What I found out in the end is a surprise and was not expected: A bug that has been there in all BSDs for almost all the time, since the 4.2BSD times or for roughly 25 years...

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Configuring Daemontools under Ubuntu (upstart)

With the moving of ubuntu from the old fashioned init to the modern upstart, the daemontools svscanboot package doesn't cleanly install. Here's how to fix it. You really do need daemontools if you're going to run djbdns or qmail.

The daemontools-installer package modifies /etc/inittab to cause the svscan/svscanboot process to launch. With upstart, there is no /etc/inittab, instead it is replaced with a collection of config files in /etc/event.d. There's currently a bug for this misbehavior, however it is over a year old, but has the workaround documented.

The solution is to first create an empty, bogus /etc/inittab, then run the installer, and then put a manually created file in /etc/event.d to actually launch svscan.

  1. Create a bogus inittab, touch /etc/inittab

  2. Install the installer, apt-get install daemontools-installer

  3. Fetch the code, get-daemontools

  4. Build the package, build-daemontools (and, of course, install it when prompted)

  5. Create /etc/event.d/svscan

  6. Run initctl start svscan

  7. If desired, rm /etc/inittab

The following is the contents of /etc/event.d/svscan:

start on runlevel 2
start on runlevel 3
start on runlevel 4
start on runlevel 5
stop on shutdown
exec /usr/bin/svscanboot

Now you will get the desired behavior of svscan starting at boot and being kept running by upstart.

Textbooks Cost Too Much

As someone who must saddle his students with pricey textbooks, I try as much as possible to avoid requiring anything but the barest essentials. However, sometimes there are materials the student needs to have in order to be successful in a class. Frankly making the tradeoff between recommended (i.e. never-bought and never-read) and required (i.e. bought but never-read) texts is a hard one.

I am in full agreement with the following passage from Why Do Textbooks Cost So Much which describes the three party pricing that occurs in healthcare.

Welcome to the world of textbook pricing, where, it would seem, the usual market forces don't apply. The textbook market in no way resembles the trade book market, in which the same person - the consumer - desires the book (the new War and Peace, the latest diet guide or whatever), acquires it, and pays for it, so that price points and competition are crucial. What the textbook market resembles most is the market for health care, in which one entity (the physician/the professor) desires - that is, assigns or prescribes - the product, a second entity (the patient/the student) consumes it, and a third set of entities (insurance companies/parents) foot the bill. Spiraling prices for textbooks, like spiraling medical costs, seem to be the inevitable result.

However, I'm not as negative about the spiraling costs of healthcare that most people are. I believe the US medical system delivers high value for dollar, and the only thing that's really missing is pricing transparency. For example, I actually spent MORE on healthcare than was strictly necessary because the price I thought a particular procedure would cost was actually the "insurance" price, and had I paid directly I would have saved several thousand dollars. I look forward to the day that I can see a plain statement of costs and services from a doctor.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Make Windows Vista More Faster

Microsoft has published tips on how to make vista run faster and in a nutshell, the tips are:

And if none of that works....

How, exactly, is this advice different than the advice they gave for Windows 3.1, Windows 95, Windows NT, Windows 2000, Windows ME, Windows XP.... ?

Of course, I write this on a computer that was last rebooted 5 days ago while connected to a computer that was last rebooted 300 days ago, but I guess that's because I'm not using windows.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Free Energy Crackpots

I shouldn't be, but I'm amazed that there are still gullible crackpots who are earnestly working every day toward achieving free energy. Not in a tongue-in-cheek, or steampunk-cybergoth manner, but in an actual effort to achieve the impossible of free, perpetual energy. A world filled with alleged friend-of-a-friend witnessing of a running perpetual motion/free energy machines and crazy plans.

Seriously, the number of assertions I see where someone says they are 'close' and only need a 'bit more work' to get a working bench model are dizzying. Of course, one wise person on the Intarwebs pointed out...

The Internet has been taken over by truth seekers and things like free energy, and then of course all the scams that I assume are funded by the oil companies hoping that people will buy in to them and get scammed and then never touch free energy again.

So, if you ever get burned by some free energy plans or schemes, just remember, it's the oil companies that are seeding disinformation.

In the meantime, give Idiocracy another viewing.

Monday, January 7, 2008

The Hacker Diet

This just in, eating food makes you fat, exercise makes you hungry.

The one thing that might be said about exercise with certainty is that it tends to makes us hungry. Maybe not immediately, but eventually. Burn more calories and the odds are very good that we’ll consume more as well. And this simple fact alone might explain both the scientific evidence and a nation’s worth of sorely disappointing anecdotal experience.

If you want to be thin, eat less. Yeah, the hacker diet works, but eating less is hard when food tastes so good.

Educating Users Doesn't Work

Marcus Ranum has an excellent article which I find myself going back to often, it's titled The Six Dumbest Ideas in Computer Security. My favorite is number five, Educating Users.

On the surface of things, the idea of "Educating Users" seems less than dumb: education is always good. On the other hand, like "Penetrate and Patch" if it was going to work, it would have worked by now.

This ties directly into password policies as users (in the aggregate) have shown themselves to be completely incapable of managing something as complex as passwords and authentication. For several years now I've been operating a lab with a very simple password policy. Your password is random and no, you can't change it. It works because every human I've encountered thus far, when asked to type in a string of 8 completely random symbols on a daily basis rather quickly memorizes it. For those who do not log in on a daily basis, they are the ones most likely to pick duplicate or otherwise insecure passwords, or write it down anyway. So, they have a slip of paper that says 'your password is:' anyway, it just happens to be a good one.

And yes, I have been tracking the number of password resets requested, and no, there aren't very many. Also, those that do get reset, are often repeat customers who never bother to keep track of their password in the first place.

Screwdrivers Are Not Animals

An excellent article, Animals Are Not Things which describes animal welfare from a very pragmatic point of view. My favorite quote:

I am not required to keep a pair of screwdrivers in my toolbox, so that they can socialize with other screwdrivers.

Although, I should point out that I have several dozen screwdrivers in my screwdriver drawer. Therefore my bases are covered should we discover that we are wrong about them. (I for one welcome our new robot masters.)

Statistics on the book industry

Para Publishing has a fascinating collection of statistics about the book publishing industry.

A successful fiction book sells 5,000 copies.

A successful nonfiction book sells 7,500 copies.

59% of the customers plan to purchase a specific book when entering a bookstore.

40% make impulse purchases.

2002: Of the $23.7 billion spent on books, only $10.7 billion is spent in bookstores. The non-traditional outlets sell more books.