Posted on August 30, 2007 by Steve

The only cure I know for addiction is overindulgence. It might not be a good idea for substance abusers, but binge-induced-nausea helped me beat get over Audrey Tautou and, recently, the characters of Sacha Baron Cohen. I was dimly aware of his work when a less-than-damning review convinced me to take the plunge and watch "Borat."

Later, I noticed a few episodes of "Da Ali G Show" in the inflight entertainment system of our last trip. Such was our mirth that we had to stop watching a few times to avoid disturbing other passengers. On coming home, we found our video store carried the DVD and, in our haste, we grabbed a travesty as well. The shows were great, the movie sucked, and I was cured. The scripted movie was missing the essential ingredient of earnest personalities somehow getting connived into taking a complete idiot seriously.

Some favorite clips:
Buzz Aldrin
"Boutros Boutros Boutros-Ghali"
Andy Rooney
a hapless farmer

Trip Report: Venice

Posted on August 24, 2007 by Steve

We set a personal record for last-hour travel planning this time around. We settled on Venice late Saturday afternoon, seeing that flights were unusually open for August. The weather forecast called for some rain, but it was too late to be picky. The method we've worked out for finding hotels involves sorting the listings on tripadvisor by rating, then trying to book the ones that fit in our budget. We couldn't book anything that night, even after putting The Negotiator on the case. We e-mailed a few bed and breakfasts and went to bed. In the morning, we had two responses but still no rooms. I tried calling a few places and got nowhere. One proprietor was kind enough to give me the cell phone number of a friend who apparently had a spare room, but I didn't take her up on it. We finally booked three nights at a hotel near the bus station for about $165 a night via Expedia. We had to ditch plans to grab a travel guide on the way to the airport for lack of time, but at least we weren't going to show up homeless.

Venice is the poster city for car haters, and it is indeed pleasant to walk everywhere for days without dodging traffic. I was amazed at how we could find ourselves in an utterly silent aisle after turning a few corners from the cacophony of St. Mark's Square. Dogs benefit as well, most of them trotting leashless some distance from their masters. Cats, on the other hand, were in short supply.

Water taxis and personal watercraft are the rule for getting around quickly, but we managed to explore on foot as much of the city as appeared interesting, and only boarded a gondola for a requisite photo op and glide around. (Here's a sample of my cinematography and YouTube skills.)

Food was pretty expensive, and mostly oriented toward pizza & spaghetti, but three days was not long enough to tire of good pizza. Surprisingly, places started closing down around ten. We got a bit of old-fashioned Eurotude when we sat down at a pizzeria named Gino's at 11:30 one night. The waiter made it very clear that they were closing at midnight, then refused to replace a flat Coke, insisting that it couldn't be flat because he had just served one to another table. We got the bill without ordering food and shorted them half a euro of the automatic 12% service charge. I tried to make a point of it when he picked it up but he wasn't very interested.

Another fun moment was the chance encounter with a bit of graffiti that had been spotted by a friend years earlier.

The quickening

Posted on August 23, 2007 by Steve

It took us six years to decide about having a youngster, and even then we weren't sure we knew what we were getting into. But nine months is a long time to adjust to an idea, and we're getting excited. We bought the fateful shoes, as well as a rack of tot-sized clothes destined to be outgrown faster than they are soiled. Most of the larger items we picked up cheap, so we decided to splurge a bit on the stroller, and got a deal on a used Bugaboo.

Living with a gravida hasn't been nearly as bad as the guys at the office made it sound. And I wouldn't have guessed how fascinating it is to get a nightly performance like this.

Dvorak time test

Posted on August 22, 2007 by Steve

0:00 This post is bein 1:00 g typed in Dvorak. It has been a while since I had any practice s 2:00 o I am still doing a fair amount of hunt-and-pecking. After I trained 3:00 myself several years ago I took a timed test every day for a few 4:00 weeks and eventually got up around 50 wpm. With 5:00 qwerty I can probably test in the 70s so I never made the switch 6:00 permanent. The fact that I never know when I'll need to use a qwerty 7:00 keyboard makes it hard to give up. I bet I can bang out a few 8:00 canned sentences pretty quick though. Let's see.

The quick brown fox 9:00 jumps over the lazy dog.
The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
The quic 10:00 k brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
The quick brown fox 11:00 jumps over the lazy dog.
The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
The quic 12:00 k brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy d 13:00 og.
The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
The 14:00 quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
The quick 15:00

Maybe not.

2007 Vocabulary Challenge

Posted on August 18, 2007 by Steve

Three weeks ago, veterans of the Letter Pair Grid were invited to take part in a vocabulary challenge. A section of a large word list (AGID) containing 1125 words, 1% of the total, served as the master list. Participants had to list as many words as they could think of that might appear on the list, which contained words alphabetically between "lunate" and "marauder."

Three submissions were received, Ray's a last-minute effort arriving a bit late. With one point awarded for each master list word a participant submitted that no one else thought of, here are the scores:
Eric, submitting 526 words, wins with 153 unique matches.
Steve, submitting 430 words, found 56.
Ray, submitting 82 words, found 2.

The complete entries are here.

Ubuntu install report

Posted on August 17, 2007 by Steve

The promise was a Linux/Apache/MySQL/PHP server install in about 15 minutes. The reality, on a 450 MHz Pentium II with 128 MB of RAM, wasn't bad at all. Here are my notes:

21:40 choose 'Install a command-line system' from alternate install CD
21:41 detect keyboard by hunting for foreign letter keys - fun!
21:42 scanning CD
21:44 pause to bid on stroller parts on eBay
21:46 enter hostname
21:47 partioning
21:49 choose timezone
21:50 add user steve
21:51 'installing base system'
22:02 'select and install software' (automatic)
21:08 GRUB boot loader install (automatic)
21:09 'finishing install'
21:10 reboot, smoke test
21:14 stuck at 'Running local boot scripts'
21:18 google suggests hitting enter; it works; login prompt appears
21:21 sudo apt-get install openssh-server
21:36 adduser beowulf pwpwpwpw
      adduser ray pwpwpwpw
23:15 copied legacy /etc/shadow lines for users, hoping to restore old passwords
      sudo aptitude update
      sudo aptitude upgrade [lots of security updates]
      sudo passwd root pwpwpwpwpwpwpwpwpw

So in half an hour I had a running server. I still had to install several server components, but it couldn't be easier with this aptitude thing. When I mistakenly tried to blog when not logged in with my blogging account, it even told me how and what to install:

root@hecat:/home/steve/nano# nb -u all
The program 'nb' is currently not installed. You can install it by typing:
apt-get install nanoblogger
Make sure you have the 'universe' component enabled

With no graphical software installed, df reports under a gig used on /dev/hda1, discounting my bloated homedir.

What's spam coming to?

Posted on August 16, 2007 by Steve

The day after an attempted install of Red Hat Linux failed, I found an e-mail with this subject in my inbox: "For Red Hat Linux, this problem occurs if the server machine has the Linux kernel patch installed for aliasing the loopback device." It's a lot of mumbo jumbo, but I thought since the box was hooked up to the internet, maybe there was some weird automated troubleshooting service. I opened it.

It was like no spam I'd ever seen.

From: "anhyeuvn shipman" <>
Date: Tue, 14 Aug 2007 09:34:18 +0200

H.u g'e N e'w s To Im_pact C-Y_T-V
Chin.a Y_ouTV C-o r+p..
Symb,ol: C'Y_T_V
We h,a'v*e alrea-dy s'e e'n CY*TV's ma rket im+pact bef+ore climb in*g to o+v_e,r $2.0-0 w-i+t*h n-e'w-s,.

P.ress Relea se:
Ch.ina YouTV 's C nBoo W_e*b S,i't'e Ra,nks N'o,.'1 on Mic_r+osoft L*i.v+e Searc*h Eng*ine
CnBo+o Traffi'c Increas.e-s 4.9-% O v'e_r T*w-o Mon*ths
R*e a*d t*h'e news-, abo'ut t h_e imp-act, and
j,u_m+p on t+h-i.s fi'rst Tomor.-row morni_ng_! $ 0.4_2 is a g,i+f t at t,h-i,s price ...,..
Do y_o,u,r h-omewor.k a*n'd w*atch t'h_i*s tr*ade Mo-nday mornin*g.
Luc ius, a_l.l ha+il, Rome'+s gra_c ious g,ov+ernor.
EJclC_-ounterError St.a rtCount St.opCou-nt T.Jcl_Counter.
Oth'er Sis'ters al-ways m-a+d e an attem*pt to l.o,o,k as d.r.a_b as t*h'e m.e_n so as to go l,e s-s n*oticed a+n+d be l.e+s s des_*irable.

T'h*e Rewr+iteLo g d,_irective s e*t*s t_h-e n*a-m_e of t*h,e f,i*l*e to whic_h t-h*e serve*r l+o g,s a_n,y r-ew,riting action s it p_erfor+ms.
E.L O - T_i,m+e - Tr,ack08.

I've seen spam-filter-defeating obfuscated subject lines like "v.i@.gra," but in this case the message itself was almost unreadable, and there were no links or images. Was it an encoded Botnet call to arms? A freak error from a script kiddie? I was able to make out enough of the message to determine that it was some kind of stock shill, but it's so scrambled I can't be sure what stock it's for.

Oddly, that obscurity and the coincidental subject made it the only spam I've opened and read for years.

2007 Vocabulary Challenge

Posted on August 15, 2007 by Steve

Three weeks ago, veterans of the Letter Pair Grid were invited to take part in a vocabulary challenge. A section of a large word list (AGID) containing 1125 words, 1% of the total, served as the master list. Participants had to list as many words as they could think of that might appear on the list, which contained words alphabetically between "lunate" and "marauder."

Three submissions were received, Ray's a last-minute effort arriving a bit late. With one point awarded for each master list word a participant submitted that no one else thought of, here are the scores:

Eric, submitting 526 words, wins with 153 unique matches.
Steve, submitting 430 words, found 56.
Ray, submitting 82 words, found 2.

The complete entries are here.

Or no rebuild

Posted on August 15, 2007 by Steve

The Fedora Live CD promised a small download (smaller than three CDs anyway) with the option to install over the net. It booted up fine, but meagre system resources rendered it unusably slow. I double-clicked the "Install to hard disk" icon and the CD started merrily spinning, and went on spinning all night. Come morning I had to do a hard reset and was relieved to see the old Mandrake system come online.

Plan B is now in the works. I grabbed the "alternate" CD, which permits a barebones install that needs only 128 MB of RAM. We shall see if one can really turn on a LAMP in around 15 minutes.


Posted on August 14, 2007 by Steve

It's been over two years since the last major housekeeping was done on this server, and the time is right for another rebuild. With any luck Hecat will be online again tonight, if only in skeletal format, with a brand new OS.

"Getting shot hurts"

Posted on August 13, 2007 by Steve

This and other insights can be found in the Reagan diaries. Turns out the guy was ripping one-liners nonstop after getting shot.

To the doctor about to operate on him: "I hope you're a Republican."
To his wife: "Honey, I forgot to duck" (quoting Jack Dempsey).
To a nurse: "All in all, I'd rather be in Philadelphia" (W. C. Fields).

Worst travel dining

Posted on August 12, 2007 by Steve

San Francisco cowboy bar mistake
Perhaps not as bad as the title makes it sound. Near the end of our trip, we went to some fancy restaurant/lounge that had been recommended. They wanted a $10 cover, and we decided it was too swanky for us. So we got back in the rental and drove around and eventually ended up in some Western-themed joint near that awful Fisherman's Wharf. There was no cover, but the food was not as cheap as it tasted, the music was a nuisance, and I would have paid to stay hungry.

Canard solitaire
As told elsewhere.

McDonald's in New York City
Not a bad dining experience, but it was a rather poor judgment to suggest getting supersized while we were still dating. As I remember it, we couldn't decide on anything else, and there may have been some toilet-related urgency. We don't pass by McDonald's in New York too often, but whenever we do, I get a little reminder of my cheapskate past.

Gouged in Barcelona
Ah, but traveling only got better once we were married. On this trip, I was supposed to make vacation plans for the first time, but I just hit a few websites the day before we left. It didn't help that I packed a bunch of socks and no pants. By the third day we were wandering around wearing beach clothes and unable to find the beach, leading naturally to a fight that evening.

After an awkward dinner, we found an internet shop and booked train tickets to an outlying town for the following day. Still a bit sullen, we walked back up Las Ramblas toward the hotel. We stopped at one of the many cafes and I ordered two Cokes. The waiter brought out two giant jugs, together at least a gallon of cola. On another day that might have been welcome change from the usual half-pint glass with an ice cube or two, but it was after midnight and I just sipped at mine, trying weakly to make conversation. The bill arrived. Later I would regret not having documented the evidence, for a blinding rage prevented me from making a clear note of the amount. I recall it being 22 euros. The waiter had gone into hiding, so I threw what vitriol as I could translate at some employee, who presently brought out a bill half as large.

Best travel dining

Posted on August 11, 2007 by Steve

While not all that much of a gourmand, like anyone else I enjoy eating. My favorite memories of food on the road combine memorable locales with tasty repasts. Here are my top five.

Dessert in St. Maarten
There was a humble and disarmingly charming little French cafe just down the street from our resort with its typically passable buffet fare. All we had was a single plate of something dense with chocolate and a couple of coffees, but with the exquisite presentation it seemed almost a shame to consume it.

Tomatoes, basil and mozzarella in Rio
After making the not-to-be-missed sunset visit to Pão de Açúcar, we took the cable car down to look for some grub. There was an establishment right on the beach, but we were scared off by signs which seemed to indicate that it was some kind of military facility. A passing tourist assured us that we could eat there, so we walked in and got a table on the patio. The gibbous moon rising over the water and a miracle of geology looming overhead made it a magical evening. We had a plate of sliced tomatoes topped with slices of mozzarella, basil and olive oil, a dish that helped cure me of a childhood hatred of tomato.

Later, we had pizza on the balcony of a casual restaurant in the Botafogo Praia shopping mall, by nearby Botafogo Beach. It was tasty enough, and the view over the water with Sugarloaf Mountain in the distance was like something out of a dream.

Marriott Grand Marquis
Not particularly exotic, but I was quite taken in by the hotel's dizzingly cavernous lobby and the view from the top floor revolving lounge, where I had some cocktail or other.

Midye Dolma in Istanbul
I neglected a favorite memory, more relevant to this post than some fancy hotel. On an early visit to Istanbul, we took a ferry across the Bosphorus and I stepped into Asia. My first act on that continent was to walk up to one of many guys selling stuffed mussels. The pictures in this recipe make my mouth water. These are the ingredients:

large mussels
olive oil
dried onion
dried mint
tomato paste
a sugar cube
salt and pepper
hot water

The vendor would grab a mussel, scissor half of the shell around to serve as a spoon and squeeze a lemon half over the morsel inside. His practiced hand was just efficient enough to keep up with the two of us greedily shoveling bivalves down like candy. When we were finally satisfied, we asked to settle up but the guy had apparently neglected to keep count. We had to tot up the shells in our trash bag to calculate the bill, which in those days was in the millions but worth every lira.

Tossa del Mar hotel balcony lunch
This economical DIY snack from the grocery store across the street was more enjoyable than any expensive meal I've had.
photos are a nice touch
low-res approximate location

Any old beef in Buenos Aires
My standard order at any restaurant is whatever comes in chicken without bones. I made that mistake on our first day in Argentina, but after tasting my wife's lomo, I didn't order anything but beef for the rest of the trip. Wherever we went we got a slab of red meat the size of a boot sole for the equivalent of a few dollars, the meat tasty enough to tempt a vegan.

location of a sidewalk restaurant on the corner of Córdoba and Florida that we happened to visit twice.

AFI top 100 movies

Posted on August 10, 2007 by Steve

Another Top 100 list from a self-appointed authority: the American Film Institute's choices for the best films of all time. To see their PDF list, use the bugmenot credentials moviebuff100/hundred or check the Washington Post's copy.

I've seen 37 of these titles; three of them were assigned viewing in school ("Apocalypse Now," "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," and "To Kill A Mockingbird"). Only ten of them impressed me enough that I am reliably drawn in when they come on TV.

Top marks:
2001: A Space Odyssey
A Clockwork Orange
Apocalypse Now
Blade Runner
Citizen Kane
The Godfather
Pulp Fiction
Saving Private Ryan
The Shawshank Redemption

Dr. Strangelove
Easy Rider
Forrest Gump
The Godfather Part II
The Graduate
King Kong
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Rear Window
Schindler's List
The Silence of the Lambs
The Sixth Sense
Star Wars
To Kill A Mockingbird

Annie Hall
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
The Maltese Falcon
The Wizard of Oz

Logo loco

Posted on August 08, 2007 by Steve

But with major pop culture icons, the assumption has to be that the great majority of people who see your Bart-bedecked paraphernalia are already familiar with the dude. So why drop jack on a Cartman plush doll? --RWH

Couldn't the reason be as simple as that the Mr. T aficionado likes to see Mr. T, that seeing Mr. T makes him happy, therefore he surrounds himself with images of Mr. T? True, there's no need for these displays to be public; a private shrine should do the trick. Perhaps the admen have calculated that they'll get more mileage from their kitsch if they license products more likely to be seen in public, like T-shirts. Bumper stickers, in particular, aren't designed to be seen by their owners. I think they've tapped into something primal and profitable:

Ha-ha, it's a Bart sticker! Bart's funny. I like Bart, therefore I like this Bart sticker. I can buy this Bart sticker, therefore I will buy this Bart sticker.

One could argue which of those two "therefores" is more irrational. The first one seems to follow this logic: "Oh look, they make labels that adhere to motorized conveyances. And this one has my favorite cartoon character on it, so it must be the one for me." Pretty crazy. The second one is hard to believe too, but studies have demonstrated that the mere fact that something is available to purchase makes it more desirable to purchase.

Hot metal

Posted on August 06, 2007 by Steve

Metals are the latest trend in thievery -- not gold or silver, but copper and lead. California farmers are dealing with irrigation systems stripped of their wires; Johannesburg is facing power outages due to stolen cables; London churches are losing their roofs; and someone hacked off the arms of a statue of Pelé in Brazil. If David Copperfield could really make off with the Statue of Liberty, he could net a quarter of a million for its 62,000 pounds of copper. Apparently the construction boom in China and UAE has caused a spike in the prices of raw materials.

It made me wonder if the famous Simon-Ehrlich wager would have turned out differently with a time scale other than 1980 to 1990. An analysis from last year suggests that if the bet had extended 25 years, ending in 2005, Ehrlich would still have been out a bundle. Even a fifty-year bet starting in 1955 would have been a win for Simon.

New passport

Posted on August 05, 2007 by Steve

I got caught up in the Great Passport Backlog of '07 when I sent off my ten-year-old passport to Philadelphia on May 8. I thought I might have it back in time for an island trip in late June, but I had to take advantage of the relaxed re-entry requirements and use a birth certificate. Come mid-July, we were making plans for an August getaway, and the State Department application status page was still making vague promises of a 10-12 week turnaround. The help desk hotline was helpless, so I signed up for e-mail notification and before long was informed that my new passport had shipped. It arrived on August 2, after about 12 weeks, and is one of the new models with who-knows-what biometric data encoded in its covers and a spooky hologram of George Washington across from my photo.

Watch this space for updates as I sail through immigration checks and have my identity stolen faster than ever.

Pins and needles bend and break

Posted on August 04, 2007 by Steve

USA Today is not likely to get a lot of dissent from this op-ed:
'A bridge in America just shouldn't fall down'

Unfortunately, bridges do fall down. In his epic history of bridge builders and bridge failures, Henry Petroski described research published in 1977 showing an eerie pattern of catastrophic bridge disasters roughly every thirty years:

1847 Dee Bridge
1879 Tay Bridge
1907 Quebec Bridge
1940 Tacoma Narrows Bridge

The researchers, Paul Sibly and Alastair C. Walker, found two failures of bridges under construction in 1970, both using a new style of construction known as a box girder. In fact, each of the earlier disasters struck a bridge using a new construction method -- trussed girder, truss, cantilever, suspension, and then box girder. Petroski suggested that engineers behind a new design were more conservative, and later builders had more confidence and took greater risks, until a failure occurred. He warned that a catastrophic failure of a new style of bridge -- perhaps the beautiful and daring cable-stayed bridge -- could occur around the turn of the millennium. So far it hasn't happened, and one can hope that great projects like the Millau Viaduct will be around for a long time.

Apple recap

Posted on August 03, 2007 by Steve

Two years ago, in this space I described the newest member of our family, an iBook. There was an initial period of adjustment and doubt, and many hours spent patiently encouraging the iBook's siblings to share their peripherals, but it is now a fixture in the household and frequently joins us on outings to school, coffee shops, and vacations. I am still using the iPod mini to audit music scraped from blogs.

At the risk of adding to the many lists of annoyances in OS X, I will mention a few gripes. I still have to go to my happy place after trying to maximize a window, failing, and then having to use the teeny-tiny target on the bottom right corner to resize. Here's a look at the file picker as I tediously root around the library of mediocre iPhoto, looking for an image to attach to an e-mail.

wee little window

That little scuff in the corner is the only resize handle, and the cursor doesn't change to let you know when you're over it.

It also bugs me that most (but not all) applications fail to close when you close their only open window. These apps (and any minimized apps) appear in the "Alt-tab" sequence but nothing opens when you switch to them. If I exit from Terminal, Terminal should die. If I switch to a minimized application, that application should pop open. Any questions? Overall, I grind my teeth about as often using OS X as I do using Windows.

But it's easy to criticize. Here are a few things Apple got right.

  • Slot CD drive -- why do we still put up with flimsy plastic trays?
  • There's a four-level LED charge indicator on the battery, which works when the computer is off or the battery is disconnected, and even when the battery is charging.
  • The power plug glows orange when you connect it to the computer, then green when charging is complete, whether the computer is on or off. (The power adapter alone is a credit to Apple's designers. To reduce weight and clutter, you can remove the wall cable and plug the brick -- more like a deck of cards -- right into the wall outlet. It has collapsible hooks for winding up the cord. And it cools off, presumably not drawing power, once the computer is fully charged.)
  • Restart from hibernation -- actually it doesn't seem to hibernate. We close the lid when we're done working, then open it to resume where we left off. There's a beat or two as the hard drive spins up, but I never feel like I'm kept waiting. A newer Sony laptop wakes up with a black screen and a crude progress bar, reminding me that standing up an operating system and restoring a session from a cold start is actually a lot of work.
  • Remaining battery life is shown in hours and minutes.
  • Hardware design: it is sleek. And patching in more RAM was easy -- fold down the keyboard, remove a shield (the four tiny screws stay attached to the shield), and snap in the module. Oh, another complaint: the laptops on display in the Apple stores always seem to have more RAM than the descriptions on the price tags indicate.

    Just in time for this review, the iBook froze up a few times recently, requiring that we touch the power button for the first time. I suspect a recent update to Firefox, which has always been open at the time of the freeze. Stay tuned for an update in 2009.
  • How rich are you?

    Posted on August 01, 2007 by Steve

    Find out at the Global Rich List. It's run by an English marketing company with the stated mission of "Teaching the world to burp," so there's no worry about having a guilt trip laid on.

    Most people I know land in the same percentile with me. What does it mean? I got to thinking about what it meant to be rich in times past. Being able to acquire a lot of stuff and a nice home has always been a part of it, but having one or more factotums around to do your bidding was the real mark of having arrived. But maintaining servants, and their quarters, and having to provide for their needs presented a real burden for the nobleman. Today we enjoy the benefits without the burden. Grady the butler is waiting on every corner to meet our needs, only to disappear into the crowds once we are finished with him.

    "Grady, be a dear and fix me up some lunch. There's a fine man! Here's five for you."

    "Bring round the carriage, Grady, I must be in town directly! Here's something for your trouble."

    "Tea would be nice about now. And cake! Awfully good of you, Grady. Take this, I insist."

    "Grady, here's money enough to pay for gas for the past month. Be so kind as to run to Grady at the bank and have this sent to the account of Grady Gas Works. Be quick about it, here's 41 cents for you!"