Friday, December 19, 2014

It's almost like a new machine

So I made some updates to my desktop computer, finally:
  • Upgrade from Ubuntu 12.04 LTS to 14.04 LTS.  Yeah, I know, I'm not exactly a fast follower here, but I like my machines to work. Waiting a while to update to the next long term support release feels smart. I let others work out the kinks for a while before moving up.
  • Changed from 32 bit version to 64 bit version. I tried 64 bit a while back - probably in the 10.04 era - and had no end of trouble with software not being available in 64 bit, or not working properly. It appears those issues are now resolved.
  • Changed the boot disk from a standard hard disk to a solid state disk. Just a small one (128 MB) from Crucial but plenty big for the OS and swap space.
The difference in how the machine feels is amazing.

Boot time is substantially improved, though the POST on this motherboard still takes forever.

Apps load faster. Much faster. All that I/O wait while Chrome loaded for the first time is gone. Or rather, it's not gone, but I don't note it happening anymore.

Even simple things like working with email and playing YouTube videos are faster and smoother. I'm not sure why that is, but it seems to be.

This system has a new lease on life, which is a good thing. I hate buying new computers and this one should go another two years easy now. Maybe more than that.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Comments are hidden

I just hid all comments on this blog. If you want to reply to something, feel free to email me.


Because I have come to the conclusion that comment sections - in news media outlets, blogs, YouTube, and every other place I have seen them - can get absolutely repulsive. Yes, they can be fine if they are moderated well, but that's a pain for a big site and even I have hit questions about whether to delete a comment or not. So I'm getting rid of them entirely. Gone.

Now I know this is a small time blog, with only a few readers. I've rarely had a problem with comments, but it has happened. Nothing serious, but it has been a thing.

So I have decided to take a stand. Comments are hidden, and I will not display them.  If I could turn them off entirely I would.

This will do nothing in the grand scheme of things, but it makes me feel slightly better. And as always, if you want to reach me, there are ways. It's not like I hide on the Internet and make myself hard to reach.

Thanks for your understanding.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Cognitive Dissonance At The Gas Station

You've all probably seen the sign at the gas station telling you not to use your cell phone while filling your tank. Something like this one:

The first thing to know about that is that it's wrong. No one has ever found a connection between cell phones and explosions at gas stations. No one.  Here, check it out for yourself:

Yes, a spark can cause a fire from the gas vapors, but cell phones don't spark unless something is seriously wrong - perhaps like this:

That said, you wouldn't think the company that put up that stupid sign saying you should turn off your phone also put up this:

Yes, those signs are on the very same gas pump. I've grayed out much of it because it doesn't matter. Just in case you can't read it, it says "SMART PHONE CHECK-IN at a Valero Station to receive one (1) entry to sweepstakes." Really.

Turn off your phone!
Use your phone to check in and enter our sweepstakes!

Hey, Valero! Which is it? Will I die in a fiery explosion if I check-in? Can I (or my next of kin) hit you with a suit if that happens?

Sometimes I have no idea how we continue to survive.

This shouldn't bug me, I know. It's a small thing, but it is the small things that help explain why we haven't found intelligent life anywhere in the universe yet: because there isn't any. Not even here on earth.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The NSA Is Reading My Email

This isn't paranoia on my part.

As some of my readers here know, I am a sculptor. I carve stone. In addition I repair sculptures in some cases. I don't work on really expensive stuff, or anything by noted artists, or anything valuable by virtue of age - I don't have formal, conservator training - but that doesn't stop people from emailing me and asking for those kinds of repairs, or asking questions about how to get such repairs made by someone else.

And I've had questions from a fair number of places... much of the US, Australia, and England, at least.

But two days ago I got one from Pakistan. A very nicely spoken (well... written) gentleman there has a couple of very old, broken, Buddha sculptures, and he was looking for some advice on how to fix them. I replied and told him what I could, as I do with everyone who asks such questions of me. (The gist of my advice, of course, was to find a conservator. 2000+ year old sculptures need to be repaired by an expert.)

This morning he sent me a picture of one from his collection that is unbroken. I don't feel like I should publish it here - I haven't asked for permission - but it is lovely. He also asked for advice on how to safely display his sculptures with less risk of additional breakage.

And once again I replied, discussing the issues around displaying them, and telling him about museum putty.

This is all completely innocent, of course. Or is it?

I've now exchanged multiple emails with someone in Pakistan, and that someone has also sent me a picture.

Wanna bet I am on the NSA's radar now? And probably their equivalents in at least the 5 eyes countries? You know I am.

If my emails weren't being monitored and saved before, they definitely are now.

And I had to think about whether I would reply to these emails or not. I actually sat at my desk for a couple of minutes wondering if it was worth the risk - of getting tagged by the NSA as communicating with someone in Pakistan, someone I don't even know personally - to discuss sculpture repair. That's appalling.

Imagine what this could have looked like. What if we'd talked about something more delicate, like the state of politics in his home city, or religion.  Ponder that for a bit.

The direction the US has taken is a dangerous one. Each day we look more and more like the dictatorships we claim to oppose, and it happens one tiny little step at a time. One little freedom given away in the name of "security". One little act of self censorship because someone might be watching.

I'm sure this blog post will only cause the NSA to watch me that much more closely. And possibly other agencies as well... FBI, CIA, who knows. And apparently various presidential directives and secret interpretations of certain laws make that all completely legal.

It makes me sick to my stomach.

Monday, May 5, 2014

On Wreckage: Urban and Human

A few weeks back we found ourselves in New Orleans for a weekend. It was French Quarter Fest, but we were there for a wedding. We were only there for a few days, so we had fairly little time that wasn't structured or spoken for. As a result we really couldn't get out of the French Quarter while we were there, and what follows is from only that point of view.

The town felt crowded to me, and apparently exists on tourism revenue alone. I am not a big fan of crowds, so I am glad we didn't find ourselves there during Mardi Gras, or something similar, where the crowds are - I think - much larger.

French Quarter Fest is a big, free music show, with quite a few stages set up around town, in addition to the various existing music venues that were also participating. And that music was a good thing, though after a while the traditional jazz bands were starting to sound very similar. Still, we could walk just a couple of blocks and encounter some new group playing something different if we got tired of the group we were listening to.  We heard biggish bands, a middle school band, and a bunch of things in between. The music was the best part of the city in my opinion.

And of course, in addition to all the music on the stages, there were the various street performers. Quite a few jazz bands, as well as a number of smaller groups, more than a few human statues, some magicians, a transformer (honestly... watch the video), a bunch of artists selling their work, and more than a few barkers for various businesses.  (Huge Ass Beers, anyone?)

Everyone raves about the food in New Orleans, and we did eat reasonably well, but only if your definition of "reasonably well" includes "dramatically increasing your chances of dying from a heart attack or stroke if you stay on this diet for more than a couple of days."  And given our hotel was a block or two from the French Quarter, and the number of times we were woken up by ambulances in the middle of the night, it is pretty clear a fair number of people in the city were succumbing to various - possibly diet related - medical emergencies. A look at the people attending FQF supported that suggestion, if you get my drift.

But if that was all I had to say about New Orleans I wouldn't have written this post. Sadly there were a number of things I found problematic in The Big Easy, and those are what I really want to mention.

Some simplistic research on hurricane Katrina tells me that the French Quarter was not severely damaged or flooded during that event. There was some wind damage, and a bit of flooding, but apparently it wasn't too bad. However, looking at the French Quarter today I would have thought it had been flooded out.

Streets and sidewalks are uneven at best, and a serious hazard in general. Buildings - and the famous iron balconies - sag in obvious ways. Any steel or iron that hasn't recently been painted is rusted. In short, the French Quarter is decaying right before our eyes. On top of that was a nearly omnipresent stink of sewage - I think - which I found particularly distressing while we were attempting to pick a restaurant. There was always water pooled in sidewalk damage and potholes, but it didn't rain while we were there. Perhaps that was the source of the odor?

And walking down Bourbon Street was, well, fairly offensive. I guess the various strip clubs and what-not have all set up shop there, and I understand that's part of what New Orleans is famous for, but it was all so run down and ugly that it actually felt awful. Nothing struck me as upbeat, or a place where a dancer, bartender, or bouncer might go to get a break, even if they were doing something less than desirable in the eyes of society. Instead it felt like the run down, disreputable end of the city, where people wind up when they have no choice. I avoided Bourbon Street after I figured out how I felt about it.

And then there were the people. There, too, I saw decay and degradation, as well as the PR side of things that the town wants you to see.

How many homeless do you need to see sleeping in doorways? How many kids who should be in school but were instead out tap dancing to earn a few bucks? How many obvious health problems - obesity being the easiest to spot - are straining Louisiana's health care budget?

Yes, there were happy and healthy people. I have no idea how many were locals as opposed to visitors for FQF, but there are definitely health and homelessness problems in New Orleans that are difficult to address. Interestingly, though, nearly all of the people I talked to who actually worked there - in the restaurants and hotels - left me with the impression they would like to leave town, or were already planning on it. Perhaps two felt differently, but honestly it seemed like people who live there want to leave.

And after a while, walking down the streets and seeing the leaning, decrepit buildings felt a lot like passing the homeless people sleeping in doorways. The empty shop windows - and there were more than a few of those - had a similar impact. The whole place felt physically dirty - like it could be scrubbed with bleach for decades and never get clean - and more than a bit desperate.

By the time Sunday rolled around I was glad to be getting on a plane and going home.

Of course there are problems in every town, and maybe the Central Business District or the Garden District are in better shape than the French Quarter. I didn't get there, so I don't know, and I shouldn't judge an entire town based on such a small sample of what it has to offer.

But then again, it seems - based on my admittedly skewed view of the world - that New Orleans puts the French Quarter on a pedestal. It's the place people go to have fun, the home of Mardi Gras. I can't help but feel that it ought to be more attractive than it is. Better maintained. Healthier. Less downtrodden.

So now I've been to New Orleans, and I really don't feel a need to go back. I know people who love it there, and I can see there is history to be learned and a culture to understand, but it wasn't a place that I felt comfortable. The people were friendly - and even welcoming - but it just didn't feel like a place I would want to call home.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

My Google+ Story

Yes, I am posting this on Blogger, but for a reason, which I will get to. Please be patient.

I started using G+ shortly after it opened up to general users. Previously I had used that other social network - FB, the 800 pound gorilla - and looked at a couple of others.

FB started out amusing, but the more I used it the more I began to hate it. Their technology decisions are awful, their privacy settings labyrinthine, and the defaults they select when adding new features with privacy impacts are, generally, wrong. But it was where all the cool kids were, so I went there too.

And I really got sick of it. The memes, the game posts, the inability to see all of the posts from my friends on my wall (or feed, or whatever they want to call it next week), and so on. Mostly though, it was far too much like high school. Friend counts that didn't matter, and almost no discussion of anything actually important. Yes, there were occasional posts that mattered, but they were all about events in the lives of immediate family and friends, much less about what was going on in the world.

Then, G+ arrived, and I tried it out of curiosity. Like most, I circled people I knew at first, and worked with that for a while, but as those I knew shared posts from people I didn't, I started circling a few of those, and my circles grew. And I started to learn things; not about G+, but about the world.

I cannot claim to know what Google's developers had in mind when they created G+, but I can see some of what they have wound up with, and the best explanation I've read so far that said G+ was about content curation. Think about that for a moment. G+ lets users with similar interest find each other. They don't have to be friends or know each other, like FB, and they can write full sentences - or many pages - unlike twitter.

And that fits me. I use G+ to hear from people with interesting things to say on topics I care about, and interesting points of view. I have never met most of them, and I probably never will, but here on G+ we interact.

There are people here that share posts on just about every topic imaginable. If you want to know about yak herding, you can search for it (I just did) and find all kinds of stuff.

I follow people who post about astronomy, human rights, technology, teaching, and a couple of generalists who fill my feed with fascinating articles... so many I have to pick and choose which ones I read in depth. G+ makes me smarter and keeps me informed about the topics I choose. It also gives me a place to talk with others who share my interests, and discuss complicated issues.

After a while spent on both G+ and FB, I decided I was done with FB and deleted all of my posts. (And yes, I suspect that they are still there in FB's servers, and that there is nothing I can ever do about that, but such is life.)  I keep the FB account just in case I need it to sign into some system that only uses FB for authentication, but that hasn't happened yet, and the few times I have wandered down that path I stopped when I was informed that I would have to turn FB's platform apps back on.  (Those got turned off a long time ago to avoid a bunch of security concerns, and I am not turning them back on, ever.)

So now I use G+ as my primary social network, and my life is much enriched.

I won't claim that G+ - or Google - is perfect. They've made mistakes, and I am sure they will make others. But the big irritants in FB are not present in G+: I know how its security settings work, and I get so much more out of the experience.  I'm sure I miss a few important posts from friends over on FB that might matter, but honestly there is no way to be sure FB would have shown them to me in any case, given the idiotic scheme they use for determining who sees any given status update.

And yes, Google definitely is a big company, and bad things do happen at big companies. Not always, but sometimes. I am aware of that.

Maybe Diaspora will take off one of these days, or something similar. A social network that avoids big companies controlling the data and yet offers an environment like that of G+ - with its by-the-users content organization and curation - might be the best of all possible worlds.

But so far G+ works for me. None of the fluff, lots of great content. Anyone claiming G+ is a ghost town is probably trying to use it like FB.  And why would you do that, any more than you might use Twitter like you'd use FB?

I mentioned at the beginning that I was posting this to Blogger for a reason. Two, actually. First, I have friends that follow me on Blogger that don't use G+ (at least not yet) and I hope they will see this description and consider giving G+ a try. Second, I have Blogger setup to cross post to G+ automatically, so those who follow me there will see it too.

So that's my G+ story. I hope others find G+ as valuable as I do.


Wednesday, April 23, 2014

What Has Jeff Been Doing?

Here are two images. That do they have to do with each other?

The first:

The second:

Ignore the colors being screwed up in the second image. The flash was on and I didn't get a shot without it. It's the content that matters in any case.

So... how do those images relate?

<Insert Jeopardy "waiting for an answer" theme here while people scribble frantically on cards. Or something.>

OK! Time's up! Here's the answer, but it's not phrased as a question.

The first is an image of the tools used by an oral surgeon. I had a tooth removed and an implant stuffed into my jaw to replace it.  (Note the covered hypodermic needle on the right edge of the image, in particular, if you doubt me.)

The second is of the flowers sent to my home by the oral surgeon and the dentist, thanking me for letting them treat me. Really. That's what the card said.

In response I have a couple of questions:
  • Am I spending too much for my dental care?
  • Are these guys hoping to get me back to replace more of my (admittedly bad) teeth?
  • Should I go looking for a cheaper provider?
Enquiring minds want to know. Oh, and since I know at least a couple of people will ask...
  • Yes, the surgery went fine. No real pain, no swelling, no bruising, etc.
  • The implant has to sit for 3 months before they can install the peg and the fake tooth.
  • I've had bad teeth ever since I had braces as a kid, as far as I know. Correlation appears to be a fact between braces and gum recession and bone loss, at least in some cases, but causation isn't clear.
And yes, I have a number of other teeth that are poorly attached and will probably give out sooner or later. If my oral surgeon and/or dentist have kids of the right age, I may well be paying for their college education during this process.

Finally, always remember: Teeth suck. Jeff's teeth suck absolutely.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Passwords Revisited

A while back I wrote a long post about passwords: how they work, how they are cracked, how to pick them, etc.  Here's a link to it.

But computer security is an arms race. The bad guys change tactics to react to what the good guys (that would be you) do. In this case, one of the ideas that was newish (at least to me, at the time) isn't so useful anymore. Much of that post is still relevant, but apparently hackers have started cracking passwords made of disparate words strung together.

Here's a post from Bruce Schneier - someone I trust in the security field - that discusses choosing good passwords. His preferred technique is one I discussed as well, so not all is lost.

I'm really glad to hear him say that changing passwords regularly is more trouble than it is worth. I wish more computer security places understood that.

So, read what Bruce has to say. It's good advice.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Well now... that's something nice I never knew...

I'm sure I am the only one who didn't know this until just now, but if you're a Chrome user, you can grab a tab and drag it off, away from the chrome window, and it will get put into a new chrome window by itself.  And, correspondingly, you can drag a tab into another chrome Window and it will get sucked in and become a tabbed page in that window.

There's a bit of trickiness to getting tabs to merge into other windows... I haven't yet figured out all the magic, but it definitely does work.

I can't tell you how many times I have opened a new window and then loaded up a page I had open elsewhere so I could compare things side by side.

I wish I'd known about this a long time ago!

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

An ad I wrote for our local freecycle list

Apparently my muse bit me this afternoon while I was composing an ad for our local freecycle mailing list. Someone has already responded telling me they really liked it. That's nice, and it causes me to overcome my usual reticence and share it here. Maybe you'll enjoy the ad too, but unless you live close to me, don't bother asking for the material, and if you are that close, why aren't you on the list already? (Seriously... email me and ask how to join it.)

OFFER: melamine boards (it's a long shot, I know...)

Back in the dark ages - before the invention of electricity and running water - when we bought our home, the previous owner installed a set of closet shelves and rods in the master bedroom closet. Despite my telling him not to do it, he did it anyway, and it was really not the right thing, and I wish he hadn't done it, but he did, and we lived with it for over 2 decades*.  (That's about as long as that run-on sentence, I think.)

A few weeks back we finally got around to taking that old closet system apart and installing something we liked better.  Yay us!  Yay for the annual Elfa sale!

Sadly the old system didn't go quietly into that cold night, or something. Plastic bits broke, metal bits bent, some screws that held shelves together were rusted or corroded into the melamine in odd ways. And, being an aggressive recycler, everything plastic or metal has already been hauled away to help the Gray Bears feed people in need. (I'll bet that donation bought them all of 5% of a banana, or something.)

What I am left with is a bunch of pieces of melamine.  You know the stuff: particle board, covered in white plastic.  Occasionally ground up by unscrupulous business people in far away countries and included in pet food and baby formula to make it look like there is more protein in there than there really is.**

How much melamine you ask?  I'm glad you did. This much:


The small pieces are 16" by about 23", give or take.  The large ones are 42" by 16", again, give or take.

As you can see, some are drilled with holes for shelf pins.  I think all of the longer pieces are like that on one side. Some of the smaller pieces are also drilled, but some were the shelves, and those are hole free.

This is pretty thin melamine - maybe half an inch or a bit less - so take that into account if you are interested.

To be honest, I have no idea if anyone will want this stuff. I hope so, but if not I will haul it off to the dump one of these days, which I kind of hate to do.  But it cannot be recycled by any craft that we, here, possess. It must be taken into Mordor and cast into the very fires of Mt. Doom, where it was forged. I, must do this***, unless one of you has something you can do with it that is more ecologically sound than stuffing it into the landfill.

I must stress that it is not suitable for use as closet shelving again... all of the bits that made it work that way are gone and at least one piece is dinged up on an edge where a screw was firmly stuck in the particle board while disassembly was attempted.  You'll want to use this for some other project.

So... if interested, feel free to let me know.  Somehow I doubt I'll get any takers, but I can hope.

I am on xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx Road, and will deliver to reasonably close locations if desired.  Most anyone that would respond to this email is closer than the landfill anyway, so it's a win.


* Don't ask why electricity and running water weren't invented just 2 decades ago. I'm making this up.

** Yes, I know, those unscrupulous businessmen only grind up the plastic bits and not the particle board****. But you'd think the latter would add fiber, right, so it would be good too? And anyway... didn't you read the first footnote? I am making all of this up.

*** If you represent the Tolkien estate, please don't sue me. Also, if you work for or with Peter Jackson or the companies that created the Lord of the Rings movies, please don't sue me either.

**** Yes, I know, they actually use the liquid version in pet and baby food, before it's been applied to the particle board at all. So sue me.  Unless you're associated with the Tolkien estate, Peter Jackson, or related parties. See footnote immediately above.

*****  My there are a lot of footnotes here.

Monday, January 6, 2014

A Suggestion Regarding Costco and Food Sampling Stations

Have I mentioned I hate shopping? Have I mentioned that I really hate the modern, American way of shopping?

Yeah... thought so.  Regardless, after today's adventure I propose the following:

  • Charge Costco (and other, substantially similar businesses) for each and every food tasting station they open within 10 feet of any intersecting aisles, and for each food tasting station they open in the middle of an aisle that is less than 50 feet wide. I propose a fee of $1000 per hour of operation, levied against each and every food tasting station in violation of either of those rules.
  • Charge each person at least $1 per sample they take from any and all such stations. I am open to charging $5 or $10 per sample, though. Exact change required. Bills only; no coins.

You might suggest that would kill off food sampling in Costco stores. Yes. Yes it would. And I would be thrilled were that to happen.

You might wonder what would be done with the money collected, if anyone continued running tasting stations. I honestly don't care. Realistically it should probably be used to fund anti-obesity campaigns, but you could put it all in a big pile and burn it as far as I am concerned.

Anything to stop the abomination that is food tasting at mega stores. There's no way to get around or through the congestion, and I always come out of there feeling lucky some other customer hasn't gone postal as a result of the insanity.

Am I going too far with this?