Trashing Julian’s cube, racing Toyotas



Last week, a few of the programmers got together (it was Lan’s idea) and, uh, “decorated” Julian’s cubicle with aluminum foil, post-it-notes, and balloons. We originally wanted to fill the cubicle with balloons, but we didn’t have quite enough time and got bored after inflating a few hundred balloons.

Gallery of Julian’s Birthday Cube

That Saturday, a few of us drove out to the Toyota Put It In Play event and spent the morning racing around in Toyotas. It was much more fun than it might sound.

Gallery of Toyota Put It In Play

After both of those, I gotta get a lot bigger Memory Sticks for my Sony digital camera. The movie feature is pretty slick, but it eats up space. I only had a 128mb stick because it was the largest I could find locally on short notice, but for our New York City vacation next month, I’ll be picking up something a heck of a lot bigger, that’s for sure.

Another good week


Overexcited.jpgJust got back from a week up in Dallas where I had all kinds of fun. We trashed Julian’s cubicle for his birthday, complete with balloons, aluminum foil, and post-it notes. I’ll put together a separate photo gallery of that this weekend.

Erika drove up to Dallas and surprised me on Thursday for dinner. She finally got to see the office (pictured here, with me a little too excited) and see the dump of a hotel where I’ve been staying. I’ve been a little too concerned about the company’s finances and not concerned enough about my own well-being: I’m never staying in that hole again. The lumpy pillows were the last straw. I swear, it was like sleeping on a giant popcorn kernel. I couldn’t get these things to flatten out no matter what.

I stayed overnight Friday to attend the Toyota Put It In Play event on Saturday, and what a great time. Dino, Phatmany, and a friend of hers helped me give some Toyotas a flogging. Got plenty of photos from that too. The bottom line: attend Put It In Play if it comes to a city near you. It’s a hoot.

But before I toss a multimedia gallery up, I need to unpack and unwind. And while I do, I’ll be listening to the new Better Than Ezra CD, Live At House of Blues New Orleans. The recording quality is superb, the set list reads like a Greatest Hits, and there’s even a DVD with the full event. I’m saving that one for when Erika and I can watch it together, though.

5 keyboards in the closet


keyboards.jpgYou know you’re a geek when find five separate keyboards in a closet, none of which have been hooked up to a computer for any discernable length of time.

The big black Toshiba has to be at least six years old. I got it when I was working as a network admin and we got some really cool black Toshiba desktop computers. I remember they were among the first to have software power-on and power-off with Windows 95. If you splurged (and we did) on the matching black Toshiba monitors, they had a really cool volume knob on the monitor. It had a great feel to it, like a high-end stereo component, very smooth action.

The black Dells were on sale at Directron for something like $2. I got them because Erika liked the Dell QuietKey “feel”, and they were cheap. I figured someday I’d set up her own computer, and I’d use these. She has one of my old laptops now, so no need for these.

The white Dells I’m not so sure about.

All of ’em are going into the trash. I’m really not a packrat at all. I have no idea how these made it through moving from the apartment to the house.

And yeah, those are my feet in the edge of the picture.

Dumping Audiovox Thera, getting Audiovox CDM-9900


2004-10-10 Ebay 021.jpgAfter using an Audiovox Thera PocketPC phone for what seems like forever, I’ve ordered matching new phones for Erika and I. The Thera was pretty cool, but it had two strikes against it: it’s friggin’ big, and Verizon no longer lets you use data minutes out of your voice pool. They’re making you pay for a separate data plan now, so I can’t just surf the web with their high-speed data network whenever I want. That was the whole point of getting that particular phone: running internet apps like web browsing, email, and instant messaging from anywhere. So now my Thera is up on Ebay, along with a ton of Thera accessories.

The morale of the Thera seemed to be that I don’t need a phone that plays MP3s, surfs the web, or anything else. I just wanted a phone that supported analog mode for roaming (which the Thera did, thank goodness), had voice-activated dialing (the Thera didn’t), and had a speakerphone (the Thera did). I also wanted to get the same phones for both Erika and me so that we could share a spare battery and cradle.

I ended up picking the new Audiovox CDM-9900 because it was cheap ($50) and had the features I wanted except the cradle, but hopefully that’s coming soon. It’s a 640×480 camera, but of course you know the picture quality is probably going to suck. It does have a flash, though, and it has the ability to capture 15-second videos and send them to others. Thus, another reason for the matching phones with Erika: when she’s working, I can annoy her with short video clips of my latest expeditions.

The local Verizon store had been out of these phones, and had said everybody was sold out of them as soon as they came in. I can see why, at $50 a pop. The online store also said they were out of stock, but I pushed my luck and called them up personally. Presto, two Audiovox 9900’s on the way to my house. I’ll post a review once they come in, along with sample photos. (I haven’t been able to find a review on the net yet.)

Rescuing a possum


raccoon.jpgWhen I went downstairs this morning to make my second pot of coffee, I opened the kitchen blinds and saw a little creature in distress. This fella got his legs caught in the boards of my back fence overnight, probably while walking along the top, and was stuck.

He was still alive, thank goodness, and I was heartbroken at the thought of him out there. He wasn’t struggling – he was quite mellow – but I had to get out there nonetheless. I put on a thick jacket and a pair of gardening gloves, went out, and talked to him for a while to make sure he wasn’t going to jump me like a crack fiend carjacker. He seemed content to just nibble on the branch where he was stuck. I gently took hold of his giant feet (stuck on the other side of the fence) and held his rear end with my other hand, and unbelievably, he didn’t try to bite me. He wasn’t stuck in too tightly, so I was able to pick him up and out, and set him back upright. He thanked me, promised to write, and staggered along the top of the fence, probably headed for his momma.

I’d say he was adorable if he wasn’t so dang ugly. He was hideous. But there’s no way I could live with myself knowing an animal was stranded on my back porch. I wish I would have noticed him before Erika woke up, because she was genuinely and absolutely panicking at the sight of me picking up such a (relatively) big animal. She had visions of him taking a big bite out of my arm, and well, so did I, but ya gotta do what ya gotta do.

I had no clue what he was at the time, but I’ve since figured out he was a possum. Amazing. I’ve actually held a possum.

Miscellaneous home buyers tips


Some blog authors use their blogs as a cross between a public information source as well as a private one: for example, John Dowdell will often make notes in his blog when he wants to save information for a later date, in an easily searchable format, that other people may also find useful. I’m going to do that here in my Home Buyers section of the blog by adding a few notes about our home buying experience so that the next time we buy or build a house, we’ll have all our notes at our fingertips. Having said that, here’s my notes so far:

In the master bedroom, people shouldn’t be able to hear the garage door open/close, and people shouldn’t hear a TV playing in the living room.

The pantry should be well-lit so that food is easy to see.

Get electric outlets positioned outside for landscape lighting.

Have an attic fan, gutter guards, and upgraded bathroom fans installed while the house is being built. These are cheap to upgrade initially, but expensive to have done down the road. No matter how good they say the bathroom fans are, they’re probably junk. Get the exact make/model and go to Home Depot or Lowes to check its noise ratings and air volume ratings.

Make sure bathroom light switches are in the bathroom – not out in the bedroom. You want to be able to turn on the bathroom light without disturbing people sleeping in the bedroom.

If the television in the living room will be visible from the kitchen, have speaker wiring installed in the kitchen. That way, the living room stereo can be hooked up to speakers in the kitchen, allowing people in the kitchen to hear the TV without turning the TV up too loud.

You can never have too much recessed lighting. We have about 4 recessed lights for every 18×18 area of the living & dining rooms. And get dimmer switches on it.

Hexed laptop


I’m so frustrated that I’ve gotta take a few minutes and vent. I rarely air my work laundry here on the personal site, but at the moment, I’m so angry it just doesn’t even matter anymore.

Seven months ago, when our company decided to move development to Java, I found out that my personal laptop didn’t have the CPU power or memory required to run Sun NetBeans, our development tool of choice. Sure, Netbeans would load, but things like code completion and syntax checking didn’t work. As a new Java programmer, those are the things you need the most. I wasn’t surprised – it was a vintage 2000 Thinkpad T21, and even though I liked it tremendously, it was indeed getting pretty old. I asked my managers for a company laptop, and they said sure.

That was seven months ago. I still don’t have a laptop. I’ve heard every excuse in the book: it’s delayed in shipping, there was a goofup in the order, we don’t have the money, we can’t order without a PO, somebody didn’t sign the PO, you name it. I would have given up on it, except that since my manager quit last month, I’ve been driving back and forth to Dallas every week, lugging my home desktop back and forth in my trunk. I’ve planned a trip up to Michigan for four months, and I can’t take the desktop computer up to Michigan on vacation, so this week I really started pressing for answers.

I got the closest thing to an honest answer this week when the network admin admitted he’d ordered it but he’d messed up the order, and had to place the order again. He still wouldn’t give me a tracking number or ordering information. I said if it’s not ordered, just be straight with me and tell me so I can go buy one myself. He insisted it was ordered and that I shouldn’t get my own, I’d be crazy, yadda yadda yadda. He offered to let me use a laptop from a member of the network crew who’d just started, an ancient P3-800 (even older than my old one) that at least had a 1400×1050 screen – pretty much a requirement when you work with Dreamweaver. I figured why not, can’t hurt, etc.

This weekend, as I’ve been trying to install programs, this laptop has shown itself to be a real pig. The CD drive doesn’t read most CD’s, there’s a bootup error for one of the memory chips, and it keeps giving me CRC errors when copying files across the network. Total junk. I’m troubleshooting with a couple of different memory modules, but things ain’t looking good for my vacation.

So now I’m between a rock and a hard place: I can call off the Michigan trip, or I can go up there with this flaky laptop and hope it works well enough for me to get some work done. I know if the laptop dies while I’m up there, or if various parts don’t work, my boss will be furious that I’m not functioning 100% while we’ve got an important client demo going on. I’ve been frustrated enough with work lately, but this totally pushed me over the edge. I can’t rely on anybody to do anything they commit to, and now it’s come to the point where it’s intruding on my personal life.

Funny side story: the two guys who had this laptop before me both quit the company after years of service. This was the last company laptop they had before they called it quits.

Coffee and pills

SQL Server

coffeePills.jpgI had a really crummy day yesterday. Things just weren’t going my way, and I had all kinds of stupid small programming problems at work. Just one unrelated thing after another. Sometime in the afternoon, I stumbled downstairs for yet another pot of coffee and some ibuprofen, but I wasn’t really paying attention. I was juggling all kinds of things I had to fix, things I had to look out for, things I wish had never happened, etc. I made the pot of coffee, then I couldn’t remember if I’d taken the pain pills or not. I remembered getting the bottle, opening it, and putting it back, but there was no water glass on the counter, so I didn’t understand what I’d done with the pills. (I rarely dry-swallow pills.)

This morning, I went to make coffee and figured out what happened to the pills. Wow. Evidently things were pretty bad yesterday. Thank goodness I don’t operate heavy machinery.

You’re lookin’ at Linux!


webcam.jpgWow, about time. The site’s finally moved over to Linux. Ended up using PHP just to get it to go live quicker & smoother – I can always play around with Java on other sites. Besides, I don’t edit the code on this one much now that I use MovableType.

Lots of things going on. I’m on the Communications Committee for the neighborhood homeowners association, and I slapped together a web site for us. will be a place for the Park Square residents to post news, hang out in the forums, post photos, etc.

That was my first portal using Xoops, an open-source PHP portal. I gotta say I was impressed – very slick installation, great modules, easy to administer. Had the whole thing up and running in less than an hour, and spent the next few hours tweaking it.

I’m pooped. Time for bed.

I give – no more Linux on the desktop

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OK, I give up.

This morning I figured I’d take another shot at setting up a VPN client, this time using SSH like a guy at my company uses. I got started, got about an hour into it, and it doesn’t work on Xandros because the kernel doesn’t have the PPP module built in. Sure, I can recompile the kernel, but there are dire warnings on the Xandros forums about how you lose support when you do that. Grrrreat.

Disappointed, I decided to read back through my blog to see how the experience of moving to Linux has gone over the last month and a half. I sat here staring at the original blog entry and thought to myself, “Man, has it really been that long? Have I really spent a month and a half just trying to get a desktop configured?”

Take a basic desktop application: instant messaging. There are two main clients, Kopete and Gaim. Gaim crashes like a drunken Exxon ship captain, and I can’t even get it to reliably log in. Kopete works great, never crashes, but whenever someone sends me a web link over Yahoo, it gives me an error saying the XML document could not be parsed. I’ve gone through forums trying to find out what’s going on, and the solution is to tell your friends, “Please turn off your extended text stuff like colors when you’re chatting with me.” That’s the SOLUTION? Please.

I still haven’t gotten many of my peripherals working – like my scanner, my fax modem with caller ID, my USB FM radio, and my webcam. My DVD burner will burn CD’s, but not DVD’s.

After a month and a half, I feel like I’ve given it a real shot. I feel like I’ve put as much time and effort in as I can possibly put in. I’m not ashamed to say that I couldn’t figure out a lot of the basics, like VPN connectivity, and despite what people are going to say, it’s not because I’m dumb or inexperienced. The stuff’s just not ready for mass desktop use yet.

That’s not to say I haven’t learned anything useful. I think Linux is the right way to go on the server side, and I’m still switching my sites over. EvilBunny and I went in on a dedicated Linux server from EV1servers here in Houston, so over the course of the next week or so, I won’t even need a static IP address here at the house.

Believe it or not, I think the decision was affected by the fact that I own a house now. Everything really does change when you buy a house: your priorities just shift. On the weekends, I don’t want to sit in front of this box and play network admin: I want to build deck furniture for the backyard, grill out, hang out with the neighbors, and relax. Two years ago, I might have embraced the work involved with running Linux on the desktop. Now, though, I just don’t feel motivated enough to bother. I want something that just works on the desktop, and in 2004, that’s Windows XP.

Moving my site to Linux


I’ve been running Linux on the desktop for a little over a month. I’m using it as my mail server and DNS server, and now it’s time to start migrating my web sites over from ASP to JSP. Most of the translation should be pretty straightforward – there’s hardly any dynamic code in, for example. At the same time, I’m also going to upgrade my MovableType blogging system from 2.6 to the new beta 3.0. I may not have a blog entry again until this weekend, depending on how much time the site conversion takes. Wish me luck.

I got Slashdotted – and made $13.20


A few days ago, the RIAA announced that they were suing another 477 people who shared MP3’s. I had a fake Yahoo press release rigged up so that people could put in a friend’s name, and it would generate an official-looking link that they could send to their unwitting friend. The friend would read the article, see their own name, and presumably wet their pants, thinking they were one of the 477 defendants in the lawsuits. I posted this little gem to Slashdot, a popular geek news site, and braced for the worst.

For those of you unfamiliar with Slashdot, there’s a phenomenon known as the Slashdot Effect: when Slashdot readers see the article, they all click on your link more or less simultaneously, and the huge amount of new traffic brings your site to its knees. It’s a great test to see how stable your web server is, how efficient your code is, and most importantly, whether you have the bandwidth to accommodate the huge number of visitors. With my home DSL line, the last factor there was obviously the weak link in the chain. Sure enough, within a matter of minutes my DSL was dead slow. The server held up fine, of course, because it just wasn’t that much bandwidth to worry about.

Seeing the sudden influx of visitors made me think – hey, I should put Google ads on the fake Yahoo press release. Who knows, maybe I’d earn a buck or two? Over the course of three days, the pages involved got 46,092 hits – a very respectable number given the puny bandwidth of my DSL line.

Out of those 46,092 hits, only 28 people clicked on the ads, earning me a whopping total of $13.20.

I’d heard from other sources that Slashdot readers are extremely web-savvy, and unlikely to click on banner ads. I would agree with that simply because I’m a Slashdot reader myself, and I don’t even see banner ads anymore. My mind just completely bypasses anything that looks like a banner ad. My click-through rate of .06% bears that out. Look at it another way: out of every 1,646 visitors, only 1 person clicked on a banner ad. Wow. That’s some pretty low numbers.

Part of that has to do with the types of ads Google was showing. On the press release, Google displayed ads for lawyers (because the page was about lawsuits, I guess.) On the sign-up-a-friend links, Google displayed ads for web templates, presumably because I have templates for ServersAlive elsewhere in the site. Interesting.

That little experiment really sobered me up as to how difficult it is to make money off banner ads. I’ve never tried it before, and I certainly wouldn’t want to try to make a living doing it. I’ve got friends who run sites with Google ads, and they do quite well in revenue, but again, not nearly enough to pay the mortgage.

Still struggling with Linux

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After what can only be described as a struggle, I now have smtp mail working – meaning, I can receive mail. I can’t send it yet, though, because it keeps saying my passwords aren’t right, even though I know they’re right and I can log in correctly. At least the mail is coming in, though, so I went ahead and cut over to Linux as my mail server.

The biggest part of the struggle is the “documentation” involved with open source products. There are apparently far more people willing to code programs than there are people willing to write good, intuitive documentation. Makes sense: most programmers I know hate to write documentation, and when there isn’t any money involved, the documentation is going to suck.

Fixing setup problems with Courier, the email program I picked, meant surfing through countless forums looking for people who experienced the same problems I had. There was absolutely nothing enjoyable about this process whatsoever. Usability hell. I literally grimace when I walk up to this computer now because there’s so much work to do, and the work just isn’t any fun at all. It’s not the joyous discovery of new possibilities anymore: it’s the grim acknowledgement that when you pick Linux software, the first thing to look at isn’t the feature set, the project’s vitality, or the project’s history. The first thing to look at is the documentation, and that will tell you if the installation will be a ten-minute thing or a two day, caffeine-fueled grumble-fest.

Courier was a grumble-fest. It’s over-documented in a bad way: there are hundreds of pages about obscure setup options, but not a straightforward howto guide that shows a basic, simple one-domain installation. I found a few third-party ones with bad syntax that referred to outdated options, and threw my hands in the air.

Sure, I could sit down and write my own. But after two days of arm-wrestling command line syntax, I’m ready for a break.

Working with Solaris

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I’m in the second round of Java training this week. When I walked in on Monday, I headed straight for the Solaris workstation: I figured now that I’m migrating to Linux, I could take this knowledge and sit down to any Unix box and start work. Sure enough, I’ve been able to do everything I needed to do pretty easily. While I’m not growing a beard and wearing suspenders, I am definitely starting to assume the holier-than-thou attitude of a Linux user. This operating system rocks – well, when it works. Ten years from now it’ll be ready for every desktop – but it’s definitely going to take that long.

I mentioned that to somebody and they noted, “Haven’t those Unix-style operating systems been around a lot longer than Windows? Why did Windows get so polished, so fast?” Because it aimed for the desktop first, going for easy usability rather than stability and security. Windows beat *nix to the usability milestone, but *nix beat Windows to the stability milestone. Now it’s a race for each to overcome the part they were missing.

You can’t add stability back in, but you can add usability back in. The *nix operating systems are going to win this one, but will it be enough to actually get into every desktop? Can *nix overcome Windows’ market share? Linux is technically better than Windows, but Betamax was technically better than VHS, and we know how that one went.

Am I qualified to be asking any of these questions? Of course not, but I finished with my lab exercise early. Back to work.

Installing JavaHMO on Xandros


I’ve got a Tivo with the Home Media Option, which lets your Tivo play music from your computer’s MP3 collection. JavaHMO is a third-party server program that is a vast improvement over Tivo’s software, which lets your Tivo do things like show the local weather forecast, the movie schedules at your local cineplex, show internet webcams, and even listen to Shoutcast radio streams.

After installing JavaHMO 1.2 on the Xandros Desktop 2.0, I didn’t get any errors, but JavaHMO didn’t start and didn’t write a log file. Every time JavaHMO starts, it’s supposed to write its logs to /var/log/javaHMO.log. You can start it manually by going to a command line and typing “jhmo start”, and if it doesn’t create the log file, you need to do some work to your system.

According to the JavaHMO FAQ, you have to do a few special steps to get JavaHMO running on Debian, but some people may not be aware that Xandros is based on Debian. Even if you know that, what needs to happen after the JavaHMO installation isn’t exactly intuitive.

First, install the “equivs” package in Xandros Networks. Then, logged in as the administrator (that’s what Xandros calls root), follow the directions at to build the Java dummy control packages. After building the packages, they tell you to use the “update-alternatives” command, but the syntax they give is wrong, and there’s an easier way anyway. Instead, just open Xandros File Manager and double-click on each of the .deb files, choose Launch Xandros Networks, install. The dummy packages have dependencies, so do the java1-runtime-dummy, then java2-runtime-dummy, then the java-virtual-machine-dummy and the rest in any order.

While still logged in as root, start the terminal and type “jhmo start”. Nothing spectacular will happen, but look in /var/log for a file named javaHMO.log, and if it’s there, at least you got it to start.

Wasn’t that fun? And who says Linux isn’t ready for the desktop, eh?

Building a workbench

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Workshop.jpgI built a workbench using a kit from Simpson Strong-Tie this weekend, and I’m quite proud of it. Simpson’s directions were easy to follow, and I built the work bench in a few hours of pleasant labor. It’s solid, it doesn’t wobble, and I can’t say enough good things about their self-drilling Strong Drive screws. Those things are great – very quick, very strong.

I modified their plans to build a 6′ long version instead of a 4′ one, because I wanted it to span the width of our one-car garage less my two garbage cans. I wish they’d have supplied the dimensions necessary for the optional 6′ and 8′ versions. After some careful calculations, I figured out the optimal cuts to build a 6′ workbench with only 6 2×4’s, but I bet most people wouldn’t be so careful.

Now I’ve got my tools displayed up on the pegboard (not visible in this photo, taken before I put up all the pegboard hooks) and I can park the injured Volvo in the garage. We’ve got three cars at the moment while we wait on the Geico crew to do an estimate on the damage.

I’m loving this woodworking thing. After building virtual stuff all week, it’s entirely pleasant to build structural things that you can actually put your hands on.

Forgot to mention – I was wrong about the VPN


A couple of days ago, I thought I’d managed to get the pptp vpn client working under Linux. No luck. The next morning, I found out that it would let ping packets pass through, but wouldn’t the Watchguard firewall at our office wouldn’t send back any other packets. Great. Lovely.

Day 6? 7? Who cares, Linux doesn’t work yet

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birdfeeder.jpgSo I’m several days into working on my VPN connection, and I just flat out gave up last night. I’m doign my work inside a VMware window, which lets me run Windows XP inside of Linux. I have my easy VPN connection in the Windows session – it takes just a few mouse clicks to set up – and I can take my time getting things like VPN and multiple displays running under Linux.

The most frustrating part is the finger-pointing: when you ask for help, it’s like talking to a level 1 tech support person at AOL. People seem to actively look for reasons why your stuff would’t work. I started with a $200 NVidia dual head video card I already owned, but several distros crashed during installation, and people kept telling me how bad NVidia drivers were, so I figured I should replace it. I asked around, nobody had any serious opinions but people agreed that a single dual head card is more stable than a pair of cards, so I grabbed a $100 ATI dual-head card. All of the distros successfully detected it, but none activated the second head. So I manually shuffle around through text files making manual changes per various faqs, since there’s no one definitive correct faq. The closest I came was a Xinerama howto, and it got me close enough to activate the second display, but it’s just a simple clone of the first one. The howto doesn’t mention anything about cloning versus spanning.

So then people started pointing fingers at the card: they say well, maybe a single card won’t actually work – your best bet is probably two cards. Wha?

This will be the fourth trip I’ve made to Fry’s trying to get a working machine for Linux. Every time, people say my hardware is the problem, or I’m using the wrong distro, or I must be dumb. Or maybe it’s all three. Who knows. Who cares. I’ve got birds and squirrels.



I started working on getting PPTP VPN working at 5:30 this morning. I was determined to be able to VPN into our office Watchguard Firebox from my Linux desktop, because I can’t get work done without it. I struggled and struggled, and finally got it via an obscure command line switch. Pptp wasn’t returning an error, but the first solution under troubleshooting tips turned out to be right. I added the nopcomp switch, and bam, I’m in business.

Tomorrow, it’s back to my regularly scheduled development. I’ve already got the Java SDK, NetBeans, and the basics going. It’d be nice to have Outlook running under Wine, but I’m not going to get greedy. Yet.