Thursday, October 30, 2014

A Datsun, Really?

Been trying a few different commute options lately because the road work for the MA-2/MA-2A "Crosby's Corner" project has been causing the road to change between the morning and evening.  Seems like the risk for an accident is a little higher right now, plus it gets all clogged up as construction equipment and stupid people try to push their way through the mess.

Years ago I used to commute north via I-93 out of Somerville then all the way up to I-495 and then south to Westford.  Westford is inconvenient to all desirable places people want to live, which is an accomplishment for a town.  Now living in Medford, I've decided to give that route a try again.  The evening commute is much improved and I attribute the entirety of that to being able to completely avoid Arlington.  The morning commute is still a little jammed up because the Market Basket trucks and merges for Boston-bound traffic (see, we have these highway interchanges that cause all directions of travel to feed through the same choke point....yay?).

Yesterday as the car made its way north on I-93, I heard a car approaching.  I could tell it was moving faster than traffic speed and it had a distinct sound to it.  Then it passed me on the left before then merging all the way over to the right to take the next exit.

It was a Datsun 280ZX.

This car in particular is baffling to me.  I have seen them my entire life in this same manner.  Every now and then one zooms past you on the road.  It was sold in the United States between 1979 and 1983.  The oldest ones are my age.

Yet these things are still going!  And the one I saw yesterday looked well maintained.  You would not expect it to be that age except the body styling clearly gives it away.

By this point they have to have really high odometer readings.  And I'm not sure if these cars had 5 or 6 digit odometers.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Paperless Billing Is Annoying

I'm a computer guy.  My career involves computers and software and a lot of sitting.  I've always been doing something with computers.  I adopt new technology quickly.  I used FTP before HTTP.  I like smartphones.  I like technology.

But I hate paperless billing.  At least right now.

Paper billing costs a lot of money.  Both for those sending bills and those sending payments.  But as paperless billing exists now, I don't find it convenient or time-saving.  Why?

For all of the billers I have had and currently have, paperless billing means discontinuing the paper bill and sending me an email telling my bill is ready to view.  There is nothing actually useful in that email.  Like maybe the amount due or the due date.  Nope, just a bunch of boilerplate text and a ridiculous URL that takes me to the biller's web site where I can log in and view my bill.  OK, so I've done this before and here's how it usually goes:
  • Link in the email doesn't work or there's a browser incompatibility.
  • I hit the main page and log in from there.
  • Forgot my password or find my password has been reset for "security reasons" because the last time I logged in was 30 days ago to view the previous bill.
  • Reset my password and log in again.
  • Poke around the site looking for my bill because the site looks different than 30 days ago.  They've had a month to redesign it.
  • Continually dodge the "would you like to take a survey" popups.
  • Finally find the bill, but it won't load.  It's a redirect from a CGI script or something server-side that is generating or otherwise making available a PDF file in the datastream and the browser can't deal with this.  Stumble around trying to figure out how to save this using curl(1) or some browser trickery.
  • Open the bill using a local PDF viewer.
Now once I have it opened, I have to pay it.  I use my bank's online bill pay for that.  So log in to another site and type in the amount I'm going to pay and click pay.

All of the above could have been eliminated by receiving a paper bill in the mail.  Which is what I do.  I get paper bills and then pay them online.  By receiving a paper bill, I don't have to juggle the clumsy logins of all of my biller's web sites.

Paperless billing to me would be useful if the actual bill came to my email inbox.  I want nothing to do with the biller's web site.  I don't want an account there.  I don't want to customize it.  I don't want to have anything to do with it.

I have mentioned this to billers before and they tell me they understand but that sending the complete useful bill via email would be risky for security reasons.  I mean, my email could be hacked.  Or I could have typed in an incorrect email address.  Or any of a number of other reasons.  If only we had a mechanism to secure email without disrupting what makes email so useful.  Hmmm, does anything like that exist?  Note that it's perfectly ok for a paper bill to be delivered by an unverified carrier to an unattended unlocked box at your house.

Oh well, maybe we'll get there one day.  Until then I'll keep opening paper bills and paying them online using my bank's service.

(Oh, and my bank does offer e-Bill services for certain billers.  So you can receive your bill electronically and view it through the bank's interface.  It's clumsy and not really reliable the few times I've tried it.  Maybe that will get better.)

Friday, September 26, 2014

Shellshock, We're Really Calling It That?

This week was rough with the security vulnerabilities in GNU bash.  The what?  I'm talking about computer software, so if you don't care about that there is no need to keep reading.

What is GNU bash?

If you have ever watched me use a computer or any nerdy type person use a computer, you might see them frantically typing away and entering commands as the screen scrolls information by.  Us nerdy types prefer a command line user interface as opposed to a graphical user interface.  Words instead of pictures.  A command line interface lets us directly tell the computer what to do.  We find graphical user interfaces tedious and time consuming.  That said, both interfaces have their place in the computer world.

GNU bash is one such command line interface.  It is what we call a shell.  It interfaces us with the computer and allows us to issue commands.  GNU bash is arguably the most popular open source shell in the world and is the default shell on nearly every Linux operating system and MacOS X.  Other Unix and Unix-like systems can have GNU bash installed if you find yourself missing bash when using one of those systems.

What is GNU?

It's the Free Software Foundation and the name of their overarching open source platform project.  It's an organization that you can donate to and they promote and support development of open source software like bash.  But that's not important right now.

Hold up, did you say MacOS X?

I did.  MacOS X is a weird platform.  It's like a Unix (and any diehard will drag me in to an argument about technicalities, but I don't care.  I have hacked on xnu, userspace code, and the C library on Darwin, so I have my own thoughts and opinions about OS X), but it's clearly a Mac.  Underneath all the icons and iTunes and stuff is a core Unix platform that includes a handful of basic command line tools.  A command line environment needs a shell and Apple ships GNU bash with MacOS X to fill that need.

NOTE:  The first versions of MacOS X shipped tcsh as the default shell, then they moved to zsh, then they moved to bash as the default.

I just use Windows and have my development work in the cloud.

You're probably still vulnerable!  If you use Amazon EC2, for instance, your host is likely running a Linux of some sort and if so you have bash on it which is then vulnerable.  The cloud doesn't make this problem go away, it just moves it all to a single point of failure for a large portion of the Internet.

What does this vulnerability allow?

Arbitrary code execution through the use of environment variables passed to child processes.


Remember I said bash and shells in general are how we tell the computer what commands to run?  OK, so this vulnerability uses that very basic functionality of the shell to execute other software that would not normally be allowed to run.  That other code could be written to read passwords from your system, wipe your hard disk, or  replace all your MP3s with hamster dance videos.

Because the shell is such a core tool, nearly every other tool relies on it to do some work.  For example, web servers.  And email programs.  And so on.

Are fixes available?

Yes, patches are out and your Linux distribution has most likely already posted updates.

Where can I find more information?

Everywhere, but specifically:
What about SELinux?

SELinux is default on Fedora Linux and Red Hat Enterprise Linux.  It's a very complicated and confusing security layer that many people still don't bother learning.  Most disable it at the first sign of frustration.  But, if you have it set to enforcing mode, you gain a little more protection from this vulnerability.  See Dan Walsh's post about it:  Got SELinux?

And now it's Friday in my time zone and I've updated all of the systems under my control that I care about.  I do want to point out that the vulnerability does not exist in AT&T ksh93, pdksh, The Almquist Shell, or zsh.  Linux systems tend to have bash installed as /bin/sh and /bin/bash.  I personally like having a simple /bin/sh (like The Almquist Shell) and leaving bash either off the system or as /bin/bash.  Maybe that's worth considering now.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Making Robots Harder To Kill

In researching robotics for the eventual War With The Machines, a team of scientists have successfully built a robot that can learn how to walk after losing one of its legs.  Click here for the story.

We're already going to have zombies to deal with, now zombie robots.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Sometimes You Just Want To Type Ředkvička

With the release of Red Hat Enterprise Linux 7.0, I decided it was time to do a clean install on my workstation at the office.  This system started life with RHEL-5 of some variety and has received manual updates over the years eventually resulting in something that claims to be RHEL-6, but it's really not.  I can't install any standard RHEL packages.  I have to install everything by hand.  And /usr/local was getting a bit crowded.

So it was time for a reinstall.

After backing up data and rearranging where /home sits (wanted it on the largest physical disk), I started up the familiar installation program.  In a short amount of time, I was up and running with a new RHEL-7 system.  Now to configure it.

I am trying to run as much of a stock RHEL-7 configuration as possible so I can get daily usage out of the product we ship to customers.  It came as no surprise that I only needed to make minimal configuration changes.  Basically everything worked out of the box and I only needed to configure some internal repos we have for yum and site-specific things.  But that doesn't mean I found some things difficult or just not the way I like them.  With Ryan Lerch's help, I was able to get around the most annoying problems:
  1. The desktop I saw when I logged in was littered with everything in my home directory.  That's my own doing, but I miss the days where we had a separate Desktop/ subdirectory for the things you wanted to see on your desktop vs. in your command line environment.  Minor gripe, but it served as a good excuse to clean house.

  2. I do not like the default terminal color scheme.  I do not like the white background.  Easy enough to change.

  3. I absolutely cannot work without sloppy focus for windows.  Ryan Lerch helped here.  Got Tweak Tool up and the right extension installed and was able to toggle sloppy focus on.  This setting is a bit too buried for my liking, but that's ok I guess.  In terms of functionality, it's not quite right.  There is a brief pause between windows gaining focus.  It has taken some getting used to.

  4. I wanted a different window decoration theme but couldn't figure out how to easily change that.  Gave up.

  5. Failed to install a GNOME extension to display weather information.  Tracked down to not having the gnome-shell-browser-plugin installed.  The site could suggest that as something to check on your system rather than just saying it doesn't know what you're running.

  6. I'm not a big fan of the default Cantarell font.  The name is way too similar to my last name and it's not a great font.  Ryan Lerch suggested the Droid Sans fonts, which I switched over to with his help.  This was a direct css hack that will no doubt be lost when I upgrade this system.  I made a backup copy of the original and left a note for myself, but that still doesn't mean I won't lose it during an upgrade.

  7. The window title of the application in focus is displayed on the menu/status/whatever bar at the top of the screen.  The default mode shows an oversized watermark of an icon behind the title in the bar.  The image extends to the edges of the bar and looks incomplete and makes the window title difficult to read.  I've seen this for a while and to me it just looks like a display error.  Example:
    The image appearing behind the word Calculator is hard to read.  For me anyway.  Ryan Lerch helped me modify the CSS file directly to disable this.  Might be nice to have an extension to turn off the image more easily.
But my biggest gripe has been with the keyboard layout configuration.  I have tried numerous ways to configure the US International AltGr variant layout and nothing sticks.  I used to just run setxkbmap as part of my session init script, but that does not work.  Through trial and error, I learned that GNOME uses ibus for input settings.  Once I disabled that, my Xkb settings were honored.  Here's what I did:
  • As root, run something like this:
    localectl set-x11-keymap us pc104 altgr-intl lv3:ralt_switch,compose:caps
  • Run localectl again to verify the settings.
  • Now run this as your normal user account (I assume you are logged in to GNOME):
    gsettings set org.gnome.settings-daemon.plugins.keyboard active false
  • Log out and log back in.
  • Verify you can type characters using the us altgr-intl layout.
Searching online showed multiple recommendations for leaving ibus in place and just disabling it.  So I did that.

And so far my keyboard settings have survived logouts and reboots.  If there is a better way to get this configuration layout, let me know.  I did try using the control center Input Sources thing to change the settings, but it does not offer this level of configuration.

Monday, May 19, 2014

What Is It Like to Have Some Form of Colorblindness

I've been colorblind my entire life and it's not really a severe problem, it just means some things will be more annoying to you than to other people.  Coloring assignments in elementary school were annoying, as were really anything that required coloring.  I read the labels on crayons and markers.

Color-coded systems are also frustrating, which is why color should always supplement some other system whenever possible.  It's not always possible and sometimes color just makes sense.  Airports are marked with rotating green lights.  Ships mark their port and starboard sides using colored lights.  And of course, the question I get most often, we have red and green traffic lights.  So how can I see those?  I don't know, I didn't make my eyes, but I do know that I can pass the vision test at the RMV and that I've never caused a wreck and I've been driving for 19 years.

It is extremely difficult for me to drive at night because stale green traffic lights look exactly like sodium vapor street lamps and oncoming vehicle headlamps.  Local roads at night are most frustrating.  If I have to drive at night, I prefer controlled access roads.  But then again, I just avoid driving long distances at night.

I dislike those high intensity discharge headlamps that BMW and other manufacturers started using.  I also dislike it when people remove tail light lenses and replace them with clear lenses.  You start making everything look the same.  At least give me a fighting chance!

This is a really common image that shows up to describe to people what it's like to have forms of colorblindness.  It's ok, but not great.  People need a better example with a wider range of colors.  And I found site that does a good demonstration.

Colour Blindness Simulator

Upload a JPEG image not larger than 100k and 1000x1000 or lower in resolution and it can convert it to provide a reasonable demonstration for protanopia, dueteranopia, or tritanopia.  I tested it using a recent picture of our daughter.

Original Image

How I See It

And there it is.  I asked Karen to look at it and see if it looked different.  She said it did, so hopefully I saved the right images here because they look the same to me.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Road Has Been Removed

What happens immediately after you buy a new car?  Of course it rains, but in my case the city comes by and removes your road.  Our street was removed this week so they could grade and resurface.  This was planned and we knew about it, but when exactly it was going to happen was unknown.

Supposedly today they are repaving and it will be done at 4pm.  I don't know.  Right now it's raining.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

New Car

Last week I took delivery of a 2015 Subaru Forester - Premium edition with all-weather package (do not let the name confuse you, the Premium edition is one step up from the base model and there are five or six trim levels).

I had been growing concerned with my 2012 Ford Focus.  The Focus replaced my 2004 Jetta GLI.  The Jetta was purchased new in Georgia and made its way to New England and eventually Hawaii where it enjoyed nearly four years of mothball status before being called up to service to move Karen and I from Seattle to Boston.  Putting less than 3200 km (roughly 2000 miles) a year on the car in Hawaii and then suddenly driving it across the country did a number on the car.  It wasn't long after being back in New England that breakdowns started happening.  Not wanting to play that game, I got rid of it and got a new Ford Focus.

The Focus looked like a nice replacement.  I did not want another VW and the Focus was at a price point I liked.  But I got the SEL trim level which came with nearly every feature and option available, including the parking assist feature which happily backed the car in to another while parallel parking.  The Microsoft SYNC system was also somewhat frustrating, needing updates and attention more than any of my other computers.  But that was all cosmetic.  What I really disliked was the transmission.  The Focus has a dual clutch transmission.

My guess is that Ford was trying to simplify the car and make it more fuel efficient for the most common driving cases.  That's fine, but this transmission is terrible for city driving.  It is fantastic if you get it on the highway and do highway speed.  Well, not fantastic, but you can tell that's how it expects to be driven.  When driving in stop and go city traffic, it doesn't quite know when and how to shift.  You end up having the car lurch at times, downshifting or upshifting when it thinks it should.  City driving here also means any non-highway driving.  It should really be called local driving.  Variable speeds, stop signs, rolling stops, yield signs, parking lots, and so on.

I took the Focus in for service a few times to see if they could do anything about the transmission issue.  All I got were factory reset to defaults -and- apologies from the mechanics saying they knew what I was talking about but they couldn't change anything.  They also said that Ford probably should not have marketed it as a city driving car.

Winter driving was especially challenging for the Focus and I decided that it just wasn't going to be a good car to keep for a long time.   I settled on a Subaru Forester.  I've never owned a Subaru and I am really not a fan of the Outback, but I decided to try the Forester.

The negative reviews I found for the Forester were around cosmetic nonsense on the interior, highend features like X-MODE or EyeSight, or the fact that the vehicle comes with a CVT.  Car people seem to really dislike CVTs.  Whatever.

The 2015 models were on the way when I was looking at the Forester, so I decided to put a deposit on one and wait for delivery.  I put a deposit on the car on March 26 and I got it April 30.  Considering it's manufactured in Japan and enters the US via Rhode Island, I think that's pretty good.

It's been almost a week with the new Forester and I have to say that I like it a lot.  Those who know me know that I'm probably going to cram a bunch of ham radio gear in the car and I'm to say, that's true!  Here's what I have planned:
  • The dash has a double DIN mounting area for stereo equipment.  I'm going to remove the double DIN sized factory stereo and replace it with an aftermarket Kenwood stereo and my Uniden scanner.
  • With that mounting scenario I can wire the scanner to the car stereo and car antenna.
  • There is a little cubby area below the air conditioner controls that is perfectly sized for a two-way radio.  I am planning on a Kenwood TM-281A there because it has a front mounted speaker, avoiding the need for another speaker.
  • I have a luggage rack now so I can install a luggage rack antenna mount for the VHF antenna.
If this all goes according to plan, I will only need to run one power line to the battery, one power line to the fuse box (for the scanner, not the two-way radio), and one coax line for the VHF antenna.  We'll see.  Once you pry the dash off, you usually find some surprises.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Red Hat Summit 2014 Has Come and Gone

That was a busy week. I worked all days at the event. Demonstrations in the Infrastructure pod in the Red Hat booth, session presentations, and the ever popular and always busy "hallway track". I also had a 3 hour volunteer shift helping out in the Staples-run Red Hat Cool Stuff Store.

I've been to a lot of Red Hat Summits. The conference has changed a lot over the years and it just keeps getting bigger and bigger. The really interesting thing to me is the energy level among all present. Closing in on my 10th year at Red Hat has exposed me to many different projects and products at the company. Some work and continue to grow, others not so much. It is interesting to see each year at the Summit.

The Summit this year was in San Francisco (a city and county known to the state of California to cause cancer, proposition 65 warning). Back in 1998 I started making regular trips to San Francisco when I was working for a small company called Walnut Creek CDROM. I worked on the Slackware Linux project and the timing of this work happened to be around the dot com bubble of the Bay Area. I moved out to California at the end of 1999 and left in the summer of 2001. It was a short but interesting time in my career.

I was 19 when I started working with Walnut Creek CDROM and I was 20 when I moved out there. Going back there now at the age of 35, I have a much different view of the place and industry. I moved out of California about 13 years ago and was last there for a conference 11 years ago. Some things have changed and some things hadn't. Here's what I noticed:
  • You still see the silly looking mountain side sign for South San Francisco when leaving the airport.
  • BART goes to the airport.  When I lived out there the closest you could get was Daly City.  Then you got on a samTrans bus.
  • I didn't see the big giant YAHOO! billboard from the highway, but I may not have been close to it.  (Oh, I guess this is why.)
  • The Bay Bridge toll was $6.  It was $2 when I lived out there.
  • Starbucks density rivals Boston's Dunkin Donuts density.
  • There are entirely too many Walgreens locations downtown.  Replace the signs with Duane Reade and it'd feel like New York City in some locations.
  • Proposition 65 warning signs on every. single. thing. ever.
  • Cable cars still have a huge line for tourists.
  • The Sony Metreon is now just a big giant Target.  With a Starbucks.  The theater is run by AMC.
  • San Francisco still has a huge homeless population.
  • Single use shopping bags now have a city-imposed 10 cent charge.
Rasputin is still around and I made a stop in there and did buy some stuff.  They still sell used VHS tapes and laser discs, which is awesome.

It being a work trip, I didn't have a lot of time to run around.  At some point in the future, I imagine we'll head out there on a non-work trip.  Karen has never been and would like to see it.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

How It's Made: Vaginas

"Vaginas grown in a lab from the recipients' own cells have been successfully transferred to the body for the first time," says this article.

Monday, March 31, 2014

I Told You So

Back when Dropbox was new, several friends pushed me to sign up for it.  It's totally awesome!  So easy to share files!  Blah blah blah.

I was a little skeptical.

But I signed up anyway.  And I used it for a few months before eventually discontinuing my use of it.  I had a handful of problems with the service, both technical and non-technical.  For starters, they are closed source.  I have a big problem with that, mostly because I have spent my career working on open source software and have a personal problem with companies who take work that I likely helped along the way at some point, offer some sort of service, and don't contribute code back.  I don't care that they charge for the service, it's the fact that they sit on their changes as some sort of secret sauce that no one else can have.  Intellectual property lawyers and open source advocates have a long way to go before they understand each other, but let's say that Dropbox sits on the traditional side of the argument.  I sit on the other side.

They offer a client for Linux and other platforms.  The Linux client (at least when I looked at it) amounts to a small executable that they downloads a gigantic amount of unnecessary software and crams it in to a hidden directory in your home directory.  It's basically like an entire Linux distribution just for running Dropbox.  This is completely unnecessary and ties back to the fact that they are not open source.  If they worked with the Linux community, they wouldn't have to invent these stupid hacks to work around what they perceive as problems on the Linux platform.  "But all distributions ship different shared libraries!"  Yes, they do.  So open source your damn project and let the distributors incorporate it in to their distribution.  They will do all of the ugly work of integrating it in to their platform.  Companies still don't understand this and instead sign up for doing the annoying work on their own.

"But they are open source," you say?  Oh, you mean this.  Yeah, that's actually not really required to use the service and does nothing by itself.  That is just the Nautilus plugin that communicates with the Dropbox backend software.  It implements the drag-and-drop functionality for GNOME desktop users.  You still need the binary-only blob that is downloaded and installed automatically when you getdropbox.

OK, so enough of the technical arguments.  Dropbox is about easily sharing files with people on the Internet.  Like you share files in your office maybe.  And it does this well.  Across platforms.  But Dropbox has decided that it is going to declare itself a publisher rather than a common carrier.  It's a tricky business that they're in.  Is it ok to facilitate sharing files among people you don't know and then wipe your hands clean and say you're just the common carrier, like criminals using phones but the phone company not being responsible for any part of facilitating that crime?  Napster tried to be a common carrier and lost.  Of course, their service specifically was for sharing music with the unspoken selling point being you can avoid paying for CDs.

What about, that site that no one knew about until the FBI raided the offices and founder's New Zealand.  They were more similar to Dropbox than Napster and the US government was still able to go after them, with questionable legal power and jurisdiction.

Dropbox is now scanning files you drop in your box for any content that may violate the Digital Millenium Copyright Act.  Their legal team likely advised this as being the best mode of operation now given the legal action taken against other companies in recent times.  But is it right?  A topic for a law school exam, but I personally don't think it is sustainable for content enforcement in this capacity to be fair or equitable.  It's already unfair and it will only get worse.  The RIAA and MPAA need to come up with a new model for copyright ownership and revenue because the models of the past do not work in a world where I can download and watch Pacific Rim on my phone.

I had a feeling that Dropbox would eventually start doing this if they weren't already.  Do you mind your files being scanned by a company?  Do you have private data stored there?  Unless you have total control over the system you're storing data on, you given up privacy.  Maybe that's ok for some people, but do you really feel ok knowing that ANYONE at the service provider has access to your data?  Do you trust that service provider?  Think twice before using services like Dropbox.  You and your data are rarely, if ever, in any company's best interests.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Good Fluke

There was a story a week or so ago about a small business named SparkFun in Boulder, CO that sells electronics and tools and such to the hobbyist market (they call it the maker crowd, but I find that term sort of silly).  They look for and carry less expensive alternatives to professional equipment.  Wait, why don't I just link to the article instead?

A common tool used in the hobbyist electronics crowd is the digital multimeter.  You've likely seen one and you may even used one.  These are the devices that measure volts, amps, and ohms.  Sometimes other things.  The gold standard among these meters is generally Fluke, though opinions on gear are as common as models of multimeters out there.

SparkFun was importing a couple thousand multimeters from China.  It looks like they were labeled under SparkFun's house brand name.  These are nice looking meters.  In fact, they look very similar to the Fluke style meters.

And that's where the problem starts.

SparkFun received a letter from US Customs and Border Protection in Denver telling them that their shipment of meters from China would not be allowed in the United States due to trademark infringement.  The letter pointed them to the trademark in question and told them their options:  return the meters to China or pay to have them destroyed in the United States.  Both options cost a lot of money.

So trademark infringement?  On a multimeter?  Turns out that Fluke applied for a trademark covering it's distinctive case design in 2000 and was awarded the trademark in 2003.  These meters from China were styled in the same manner as a Fluke device which is what triggered the trademark infringement concern.  As a trademark owner (any trademark owner), you must defend your mark or risk losing it.  This has happened many times in the past and lots of companies regret not being more aggressive in defending their trademarks, however silly they may be.

Fluke is an American company and part of what our import controls are for is protecting the interests of American businesses.  In this case, a very large business (Fluke) unfortunately disrupted a very small business' livelihood.  And both businesses are American.  Who do you cater to?  We want both to succeed, right?  In SparkFun's case, the cost of either option would likely have put them in significant debt and made it hard to continue doing business.

We talked about this story at lunch one day and I said that Fluke should step up and either offer to cover the destruction fee or do some sort of other goodwill thing for SparkFun.  You acknowledge a growing market of technically minded people who just can't really afford Fluke gear right now and you hopefully keep everyone liking Fluke, whether or not they can afford the equipment.

A couple days later, Fluke did just that!  Wow, a business trying to do good to help a smaller business.  While they did not cover the cost of destruction, they did one better and offered SparkFun a free shipment of genuine Fluke meters to do whatever they wanted with.

This is amazing to me.  Fluke really seemed to understand the bind they put SparkFun in.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

We [may have] Bought A House

Karen and I have been searching for a house to buy and finally came across one we really liked.  We put in an offer last week and it was accepted, so we have begun the slow crawl through the remaining paperwork.

We were hoping to stay in Cambridge, but the property availability, types, and price were just not what we were looking for.  So we looked 6 km down the road in Medford and found a house we like.

We have been renting for a long time now, and were both renters even before we met.  We are looking forward to some simple things that most homeowners probably take for granted:
  • a dishwasher
  • a washer and dryer that is (a) in your house and (b) that you don't share with other apartments
  • a microwave oven
  • a driveway
  • a garage
Yes, these are pretty silly, but the last time I lived somewhere with a dishwasher was in 2007.  And I haven't had my own washer and dryer since 2005.

The sellers want a closing date of May 30th.  Pictures at some point.  So much paperwork to sort out before then.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

I Still Want Unix

We have phones that are 50 times more powerful than the first computer I had in college.  I haven't lifted a CRT display in....well, I have no idea how long now.  Laptops are now considered dated and touchscreen interfaces are more and more common today than ever before.

I love being able to watch a movie on my iPad or look up something via Google on my phone, but when I want to hack or do something requiring a keyboard, I want a Unix system.  Still.  I think it's the speed and proficiency thing.  Once you become really accustomed to particular user interface, it becomes harder for you to want to use different user interfaces.  Yeah, I know about the Find operation in a text editor or a word processor, but I'd much rather use pipes and grep for that at the command line.  It's just faster for me.  Maybe it really isn't, but it feels that way to me.

An oldie but goodie:

This is the June 24, 1995 Dilbert comic strip.  I don't have the beard and there is hair on the top of my head, but maybe I should start wearing suspenders.  Standard AT&T issue suspenders.

I see complex UI proficiency in other areas too.  I am an amateur radio operator and there is rarely anything simple in that hobby.  The long time radio operators refer to the new operators who purchase handheld radios an appliance jockey.  A little harsh.  Just because they have chosen to purchase a Japan built handheld radio doesn't mean they respect you and the way you "radio" any less.  Ehh, they're just angry old guys.

Hardcore amateur radio operators love Morse code communications.  It's a skill that requires training and a lot of practice to become proficient at.  And then the user interface is still never trivial.  Yet, they love it.

For all of the user interface advancements out there today, I still want my dated and difficult to use system.  I spent all that time learning command line options after all.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Shack It To Me

Poor Radio Shack.  They just can't get it together.  Also, why the hell do they have more than 5000 stores?  That is a ton of batteries.

Their most recent earnings call notes that even though this is their 8th consecutive quarter of huge losses, they still have a plan to turn things around.  Really?  REALLY?  They must be sitting on a mountain of cash because I would have expected massive store closings before now.  Even though they are closing 1100 stores, I expect more closings after that and likely an eventual move to online sales only or just closing up entirely.  Of course, this is assuming that they are going to stick with the same product focuses.

Things I think Radio Shack should also do in order to bring customers back:

  • Stop "Radio Shacking" people when they just want to buy batteries.  Even if you haven't done this in years, most people still remember it.  Why do you need my name, address, and phone number just for batteries?  Oh, for the catalog?  No thanks.
  • Promote hard to find gadgets and accessories.  Look at Cyber Guys online.  This is a perfect example.  They specialize in the hard to find but nice to have gadgets and accessories.  If my local Radio Shack carried those kinds of items, I would go there rather than order online.  EVEN if the price in the store was slightly higher.
  • If you're selling parts for projects, sell all the parts that make sense.  For example, don't have a store selling resistors without also selling good soldering irons.  Don't sell car stereo do-it-yourself stuff but then sell inadequate spools of wire at the wrong gauge.
  • Take the LEGO approach to restoring business.  You now have a generation of potential Radio Shack shoppers who were kids in the 80s and 90s.  What about the occassional limited time reintroduction of a classic Radio Shack product.  A stereo with the Realistic brand on it, for example?  Things we remember seeing in the store and wouldn't mind seeing again just to remind us of back then.  We might even buy it.
  • DON'T tell me to go to another store if you are out of stock of some item.  Offer to sell it to me in the store from your web site, but do something like offering me a coupon to come back or waiving shipping.  I am absolutely shocked when I have gone in to Radio Shack, asked for a item, told it's not in stock (or worse, they don't know what I'm asking about) and then suggested another store to go to.
  • Probably a lot of other things.
I can tell you this.  I am uninterested in a Radio Shack that is just a big cell phone store.  We already have those and no one likes going to them.

My kids will never know a retail world with CompUSA, Circuit City, Incredible Universe, Phar-Mor, American Fare, Revco, Zayre, Richway, Montgomery Ward, Service Merchandise, Computer City, Eckerd, Egghead Software, and Lechmere.  I don't want to add another company to that list.

If Sears can still do it, I think Radio Shack can.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Had Milk

Big Milk (America's Milk Processors by way of Milk Processor Education Program, in other words THE MILK LOBBY) want you to say goodbye to got milk? and say hello to Milk Life, the new ad campaign.  Expect it to last either a week or a couple of decades depending on the public reception.  Why, you ask?  Because.

Don't worry, it still works with parodies and jokes.  For example, "got milk?" becomes "got milf?" but you can also turn "Milk Life" in to "Milf Life".

No word yet on what ads lactose intolerant people are supposed to be looking for.

Oh, I'm really sorry, we don't take reservations.

We've been invited to a wedding somewhere in Calisota and I spent today sorting out travel details.  We have airfare and rental car taken care of, now to reserve a hotel room.  The wedding has two hotel blocks, so I assumed this would be the easy part of sorting out travel details.  Here's how the phone conversations went down:

(H=hotel, M=me):

H:  "Thank you for calling Popcopy Hotel, do you mind holding?"
M:  "Sure, that's fine."
H:  "How may I help you?"
M:  "I need to make a reservation in a wedding block in the hotel.  The wedding is near the end of April."
H:  "You need a wedding block of rooms?"
M:  "No, there is a wedding block to which I've been invited and I'd like to reserve a room in it."
H:  "OK, can I have the name?"
M:  "My name or the wedding name?"
H:  "Your name."
M:  "David Cantrell."
H:  "I'm not seeing a reservation under that name."
M:  "I know, that's why I'm calling.  I need to make the reservation."
H:  "Oh, hehehehehee, my mistake."
...CLICK, on hold music...
H:  (new person) "What's the check-in date?"
M:  "Oh, ummm, April 23rd."
H:  "One night?"
M:  "No, I need to check out on April 27th."
H:  "Just you?"
M:  "No, it's my family.  Me, my wife, and my daughter."
H:  "Just a moment."
H:  "OK, the hotel is under a mandatory rate for that time period due to the occupancy."
M:  "Right, so there should be a wedding block under the name Bride & Groom.  That's why we're traveling."
H:  (type type type) "OK, that wedding block does not cover all of the nights you need so we have to charge the full rate for the other nights, is that ok?"
M:  "Sure, that's fine."
H:  "Are you a AAA member?"
M:  "Yes."
H:  "OK, just a moment."
H:  "Yeah, the hotel is under a mandatory rate for that time period due to the occupancy."
(ugh, we already went over this)
M:  "Sure, that's fine.  We can pay full rate for the other nights as long as we can get the wedding rate for the block nights."
H:  "Not a problem.  OK, so I've got you checking in on April 24th and checking out on April 27th."
M:  "We arrive on the 23rd, I need an April 23rd check-in."
H:  "Oh, that's not available for this wedding block.  But if you want to reserve a full rate stay for the 23rd to 27th, that's available."
M:  "What?"
H:  "I can only extend you stay by a specific number of days, but I can't get the 23rd on this reservation."
M:  "So you're telling me there are rooms and the only way to get an extra day on our stay is to not take the wedding block rate at all?"
H:  "That's what the system is making me do.  Do you want me to call other hotels in the area?"
M:  "Is there someone else I can speak with about this reservation?  I don't mind paying the full rate for the extra nights."
H:  "I don't know, you'll have to call the hotel."
M:  "I'm not talking to the hotel?"
H:  "No, this is central reservations and I can only do what the system allows."
M:  "Ugh, ok, I'll call the hotel."
H:  "Do you want keep this reservation?"
M:  "No, go ahead and cancel it."
H:  "But you might not be able to get a room later."
M:  "I can't get a room now apparently."
H:  "But you can cancel up until the 21st with no penalty."
M:  "I'll take my chances."
H:  "Thank you for calling Goliath International Hotel Consortium."

I wait until after dinner and call the hotel back in an attempt to make the reservation.   Here's how that goes.

H:  "Thank you for calling Popcopy Hotel, do you mind holding?"
M:  "Sure, that's fine."
H:  "How may I help you?"
M:  "I called earlier and was transferred to central reservations.  They were unable to help me and told me to speak with someone directly at the hotel."
H:  "OK, do you mind holding for a moment while I help some guests?"
M:  "Sure, that's fine."
H:  "Sir, I don't want you to have to wait for a long time, can I transfer you to the front desk?"
M:  (I wasn't talking to the front desk?) "Sure, that's fine."
H:  "How may I help you?"
M:  "I tried making a reservation with central reservations and they were unable to help.  I need to make a reservation for April 23rd to 27th.  And..."
H:  (interrupts) "OK, just so you know, if this is for business travel you should call during business hours and speak to our business representatives who can make a business reservation for your business travel needs.  Business."
M:  "This isn't business travel.  There's a wedding block and we need a room in that block plus some days."
H:  "OK, well, I can't make a reservation for you now.  Our systems are out of date since reservations happen all the time."
M:  "What?"
H:  "You need to call back during business hours and speak with one of the sales & catering managers who can help you with this reservation."
M:  "But I don't need a block of rooms for a wedding.  I'm just trying to get a reservation in a wedding block.  I'm invited to this wedding."
H:  "I know.  I know.  I know.  This is how it works.  I can't actually make you a reservation, you will need to talk to one of the sales & catering managers tomorrow during business hours."
M:  "Does this seem at all efficient?"
H:  "Oh no, it's a lot of work, but that's how they do it here."
M:  "OK, I guess I will call tomorrow and see what happens."

And that's where I stand.  No room yet.  I wonder if anyone can make a reservation at this hotel.  With these procedures, they should have vacancy all the time.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Taco Bell Breakfast Menu

Taco Bell has recently introduced a breakfast menu.  Or should we say firstmeal?  Just like you can find at any authentic Mexican restaurant or your typical mid-range dining establishment actually in Mexico, Taco Bell will be offering classic such as the Waffle Taco, the Breakfast Burrito, and the A.M. Crunchwrap.

A Waffle Taco sort of defeats the purpose of a taco.  You can't really hold it, eat it, and not get food all over yourself.

Going to have to find a Taco Bell to try these.

Monday, February 24, 2014

But Microsoft *did* kill my pappy

I came across a blog post titled Microsoft Killed My Pappy yesterday.  I don't normally write responses to blog posts, but something about this one stood out.  The author comments on the anti-Microsoft sentiment present in the industry and how a lot of it is really unfounded.  People hating on Microsoft simply because they've always heard other people hate on Microsoft.  The author wants people to have their own reason to hate Microsoft, don't just use someone else's reason.  OK, but a lot of those reasons are probably still valid.  At the very least, awareness of those reasons is important.

Most people have heard "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." or at least a variation of that (The Life of Reason by George Santayana).  Maybe a history teacher mentioned it to you in school.  Or maybe a parent.  It is a simple but important statement.

Understanding computer industry history allows us to advance the industry and not constantly make the same stupid mistakes over and over again.  We will reinvent the wheel, but maybe we can avoid the big embarrassing missteps.

Take the Microsoft antitrust case.  The author points out that the case was initiated in 1998 for actions in 1994 and it was all about Microsoft bundling the browser with the operating system.  The author points out that this behavior is now commonplace.  OK, fine, but you can't compare Microsoft's actions in 1998 to actions of companies now.  The computing landscape was far far different in 1998.  Most people still went to a store to purchase a web browser in a cardboard box in 1998 (or 1994 if you were an early adopter).  Microsoft saw an opportunity to control a market.  Basically to stop it from becoming competitive.  If they could make the idea of choosing a web browser irrelevant, they could get back to doing other things.  And they did just that.  Turns out most people don't care who their web browser vendor is.  As long as it works and gives them access to content, that's all they care about.  Netscape was solving that problem before Microsoft and was making a lot of money doing so.  Rather than buy out Netscape (as is the case for most of Microsoft's reactions to situations like this), they chose to produce a functionally similar piece of software and include it with Windows.  Sneaky.

Twenty years later we don't think about the web browser like that.  The web browser is so integral to how we interact with computers today that we have entire operating systems based around the idea of exclusively running a web browser.  Things are different.

Do I hate Microsoft?  Not really.  Certainly not like I used to hate them.  I would consider myself indifferent to Microsoft.  And that's really an indication of how the industry has changed.  I went from viewing them as the enemy to viewing them as irrelevant.

The things Microsoft is doing now, as the author states, such as open sourcing various projects really don't matter to me.  Microsoft open sourcing anything or even starting a new project as open source strikes me as a too little too late move.  Similar to Sun open sourcing Solaris.  By the time it happened, no one cared.  But maybe Microsoft can become a strong contributor in the open source world.  I will wait and see.

I do not think Microsoft is more evil than companies like Google, Facebook, or Amazon.  We need to remember what these companies have done so they don't do it again.  Do not disregard industry history.  It may be boring at times, but it's the closest thing we have to keeping companies honest.