Twitter Weekly Updates for 2010-03-21
- Just arrived at TLV. Will stay in Israel till the end of March. #
- Arrived at parents' house. Wifi again at last! #
Blog update, forum crash.
Some have you may have noticed that my blog has a new look. Others may have noticed that the Israeli polyamory forum that I’m hosting has crashed, losing all information. Both of these events have to do with my (paid) hosting account at bluehost.com.
It all started when I wanted to upgrade my ancient wordpress install (with some custom modifications) to a more modern and standard install. So, I backed up my blog and database and proceeded to install the new version. This required a few iterations, each requiring to delete the old instance of the blog.
My major mistake was during one of those installations, I have misclicked and deleted the wrong site — the active poly forum. The delete action did create a backup, but since the database was exported using the wrong encoding, all Hebrew data (including the entire forum) was lost.
I immediately called my hosting provider, but they did not have backups of my account. I never set up a backup script for my hosting account, so the entire contents were lost.
I did reinstall a new forum and the blog. I am now working on a backup solution for my account.
The new blog has several nifty features: On the right sidebar you may find my current exact location. Also, the subscription system should work better and replies could be verified by OpenID.
Happy π day!
Today is March 14th, aka pi day, a day celebrating one of the most important numbers in mathematics - π.
Since I happened to be in Germany today, I celebrated π day with my brother and his wife by making 2π — a yummy beef pie for dinner and a chocolate pie for dessert.
For dessert we decided to make the pie even more meaningful and decorate the pie with the first few digits of π, resulting in a delicious, and informative pie:
More photos are available on Flickr and Facebook.
In other news, I’ll be arriving in Israel on Tuesday. If you want to meet me, let me know…
Open Letter to Stanford University
I have sent the following letter regarding the AlertSU system at Stanford University. I am hereby posting the letter I have sent verbatim.
Subject: Troubling unsigned email message sent via AlertSU.
I have received an email message regarding a personal issue via the AlertSU system, which is supposed to be only used for emergencies (letter attached below). The letter was unsigned except by the general name “STANFORD UNIVERSITY”.
First of all, I would like to request the name and job title of the author of this message, since this information was never supplied.
Second, this message is by no way shape or form related to any kind of emergency, and therefore should not be posted via AlertSU — a system the Stanford community cannot opt out of.
Third, I am very concerned about the content of the message itself. The message uses phrases such as “stranger”, “Unbeknownst to the student” and “did not appear to pose a threat” and selectively mentions some of that person’s private belongings. It seems these were designed to lead the readers to assume that the stranger may have intended to act maliciously, when this is just a simple case of a person forgetting his bag in a stranger’s car. The important cautionary note is that you should make sure to take your belongings with you upon leaving a vehicle.
Implying that lighter fluid and handcuffs have no use other for illicit purposes reeks of intolerance that the Stanford community should not be subject to.
In the early morning hours of Saturday, January 30th, a Stanford student struck up a conversation with a stranger at a bar in Palo Alto near the campus. The stranger, a male, suggested that they go out for food. The student drove the stranger to a McDonald’s in East Palo Alto. The stranger then asked the student if he could crash at the student’s residence. The student refused, so the stranger got out of the student’s vehicle. Unbeknownst to the student, the stranger left a bag of personal items in the student’s car. Upon discovering the bag, the student took it to the Stanford Police (on Monday, February 1) so that it could be returned to the stranger. Among the items in the bag, the police located a pair of handcuffs and lighter fluid. The officers were able to ascertain the identity of the stranger and, after some investigation, determined that the individual did not appear to pose a threat to the student or the community. None-the-less, the Stanford Police would like to remind you to be wary of offering rides to people whom you do not know.
Macs, part 4: getting a new MacBook
In my previous post I wrote about my experience with macs, and the conclusion was that in order to criticize macs effectively, I should get one. Over $3,000 and one week later, I got a brand new MacBook Pro 15″ (and a free iPod touch).
The mac came in a brown box, which included a white box inside it. Inside the white box, was the MacBook, the power and video adapters, and a black envelope. Inside the black envelope was a book titled “Everything Mac”. There was also an envelope labeled “Everything Else”. Following the instructions in the “Everything Mac” book I connected the power supply and powered on the mac using the hidden power button. The book included important information about using the TrackPad, stuff I had to figure out slowly in the previous posts.
When the system started for the first time, I was greeted with a language selection screen, and then a welcome video (with no useful information). After the welcome video, I was prompted to press Esc to hear instructions on how to use the mac. I did, however, it started a detailed explanation about an accessibility feature that didn’t even work.
I managed to complete the setup without much difficulty, but no tutorials were provided. According to instructions in the Everything MAC book, I installed software updates, and started to explore. I found a document about “Stacks” and document and download stacks. I also found some online tutorial videos.
One of the things I tried to do with the new mac was use the “Time Machine” backup software. I tried connecting two different external HDs, and got no visual response from the OS for the first, and only the small FAT partition showed up for the second. Reading about it online, I figured that ext3 partitions are not supported, and only plain old FAT drives can be used for backup. Big fail!
Another thing I tried was to download TV shows on iTunes, but I was stumped by the repeated requests for money. I have paid $3000 for a mac, why do I have to pay extra to use it???
Macs, part 3: Podcasts, Customer Service, and Fingers
As I’ve posted before, I’m staying at a fancy hotel in the Boston area. Next to the hotel is a Mall, and in this mall is an Apple store. Again I tried using the display laptops. If you recall, the laptops have no mouse buttons (the entire pad is a button), which after a short use causes pain in the wrist. The answer I got regarding this issue from “mac people” was: My mac has a button, but I’m sure the no-button pad is just A-mazing, Steve Jobs is God and I am his servant!
So, this time I tried a new approach: I asked a customer service person at the Apple store for help. The customer service rep didn’t repeat the same “Apple is God” story I get from fanpeople (I guess they are trained to avoid it). Instead, he calmly explained to me another Mac gesture: Hold a finger on the pad while dragging another finger. I had to ask where I find those fingers. It turns out Apple hardware uses unique input devices called “fingers”. The idea is that the trackpad somehow reacts differently to multiple input positions. It turns out this feature is required for basic functionality. Right-click is also supported with the Ctrl button, there is also a multi-finger gesture for that but I’m not sure what it is.
The next thing I tried to do is to replicate functionality I have on Linux on the mac machine. The functionality I decided to try was downloading and playing podcasts. I googled it and the search results pointed me to software called “GarageBand”. I launched it from the dock and selected podcast. It opened a complicated screen with space for male and female voices (why do I have to tell it who’s talking in the podcast?). I decided to try listening to Car Talk from NPR. I used the Safari browser to find the Car Talk podcast, and copied the URL. Then I had to right-click (with Ctrl) on a submenu that said Podcast (why do I have to select podcasts again?), the only option was “open in iTunes”. I know iTunes is spamware for copying music to iPods under Windows but that was the only option. Anyway, the iTunes had an option to add a podcast under the Advanced menu (If that’s advanced, what’s the basic way?). I pasted the URL using SpecialAlt(⌘)-V and confirmed.
Now I could go back to GarageBand and after a few trails I could finally see the podcast there and drag it to the play area. I put it under “Male Voice” since the show is narrated by men. The GarageBand software seems to be an audio editor like Audacity. I’m reminded of old Windows 3.11 WAV files were opened in sound recorder… Anyway, I clicked the play button and it played! seeking was pretty hard since it was extremely zoomed and there was no way of seeing the entire file in one screen.
I thought to myself there must be an easier way to do it. So I googled “mac podcast player” and found a program called Juice. I installed it, subscribed to Car Talk with the URL, and clicked on the play button. Well, it stated playing. In the background. With the same show of Car Talk still playing in GarageBand. All attempts to stop it didn’t work. I even closed Juice entirely (with SuperAlt-Q, as the customer service guy explained) and still both podcasts were playing. It finally stopped after I SuperAlt(⌘)-Q’d all applications I could find (except GarageBand, and Finder, that wouldn’t close).
Then, I decided to see if GarageBand can export to a mobile device. The whole idea of podcasts is to listen to them on the move! So, under the share menu there was something about Podcasts and iWeb. I clicked that, and the podcast stopped playing and moved to the start, forgetting my playback location. Good thing I remembered what it was and seeked back there manually (the export failed BTW).
After all those trials, an Apple guy finally approached me, and told me — that the store is closing and I have to leave. I asked why is the GarageBand thing so complicated, and he said that I should use iTunes to play podcasts. He couldn’t explain more since I had to leave. That’s all for now.
PS: I forgot to mention the fact that keyboard shortcuts don’t work as expected, the Alt-F4 Expose settings screen for example, says that expose could work F9, F10, and F11. Instead, those buttons adjust the volume! It turns out the real shortcut is F3! But I found that out only after coming back to my room. Amazing documentation from Apple, yet again.
PPS: I even thought I’d buy one just to see how it works, but an Apple laptop costs over $7,000, and for that price it’s only a 256GB hard drive. What is it made of? Solid Gold? And you still have to pay extra for backup hardware (yes, macs need special $500 hardware to enable backups). It seems like macs are the fancy hotels of the computer world — anything you want to do costs extra.
PPPS: I suspect Apple puts addictive substances in their products. That’s the only way I can explain why anyone who’s purchased an Apple product seems to be in love with it. On a more serious note, I think the main driver for people loving Apple products in cognitive dissonance — You don’t want to admit to yourself you significantly overspent for a product that is no better than others, and since things aren’t customizable, people convince themselves they like it that way.
Rant about fancy hotels
I have just arrived in Cambridge, MA for a week of consulting for Microsoft Research. They paid for my flight and hotel room so they put me in a fancy $200/night hotel. In this post I will try to explain why in my opinion, in general, the fancier the hotel the worse it is.
I have nothing against hotels as a service. Hotels provide a traveler with a clean place to spend the night, and with basic necessities. Hotels are useful when traveling, or when you need a clean neutral place to have sex. However, fancy hotels do not seem to provide these well, and charge a lot of money to do so.
Compare, for example, the fancy hotel I’m staying at now with a cheap motel for $40/night. The motel included a microwave and fridge, free parking, free wifi, and a free “breakfast”, which, admittedly, is nothing to feast over. However, the fancy hotel includes none of those (or least without caveats galore).
Here is a comparison of the cheap motel and the fancy hotel. I am purposefully omitting hotel names, as this is common for many hotels and motels.
Price per night
free, right outside room
WiFi free with loyalty program, otherwise $10/day
free airport shuttle
15 minute walk from subway station
free coffee and popcorn
$21 for continental breakfast
free in room, empty
free in room
right off highway
near center of town
lots of empty drawers, closet
one drawer, small closet
Queen size, comfy, extra pillows on demand
King size, very comfy, useless decorative pillows
One phone near bed
Three phones (one cordless)
Free local calls
Included, with fancy showerhead
Included, with fancy showerhead
The Strange World of Macs (Part 2)
I promised a second post about macs, and it’s time to deliver. The reason I’m updating about it now, is that it turns out that two of the undergrads working with me on the computational pool project are mac people, and use mac laptops. Whenever I explain to them why macs are hard to use and complicated they keep saying I’m doing it wrong, and there’s a better way to do it. My main complaint here that this “better way” is never documented and isn’t easy to find.
For example, one mac person in our group re-installed a mac machine that was sitting in my office after the HD died (it required a trip to the shop to replace, since mac hardware is hard to maintain, and this is desktop!). After he left, I tried using his machine, the first thing I was greeted with was a screen asking for a password. That’s not very user friendly!
So, I googled for password reset information. I found several sites explaining how to reset a password without the CD, but all required you to be already logged in. I realized, it must be possible with the CD. However, there was no apparent way to boot from CD. Heck, there was no apparent way to get the CD out of the drive. Later I found the eject button on the keyboard, but still the computer will always boot from HD. I googled “mac boot from cd” and found you need to hold the option button while booting, not del of F1 like normal computers, and of course no message on boot to tell you that.
I booted the install CD, and it had a password reset option, but it didn’t work, since it wasn’t the right version. I had to boot an upgrade CD in order to successfully reset the password. After the password was reset I could finally log in.
Next step was to create a user for myself. This was not easy. The “spotlight” search feature I was told so much about did not work since it was “indexing”. I finally found the user management from the control panel and created my user.
All this time I was interrupted with an annoying window that wouldn’t close saying “Welcome” in different languages. Same annoying pop-up junk as with Windows. After that was done, an “install updates” popup came up and it had to restart and install the updates. By the time I was writing this post, the updates have finally been installed. I will now try to log in.
I am now on the mac itself. I managed to install Adium and Firefox. As it turns out, the popup window that appears is a mounted virtual drive. The two icons represent the application and a shortcut/symlink (I’m not sure) to the “Applications” folder, which is similar to the Start menu in windows. Dragging one to the other launches an install script, though I’m not sure exactly how. After installation is done you must unmount (”Eject”) the disk image in order to use the application. The application itself is only available from the applications menu, which can be accessed by searching for “Applications” using the magnifying glass on the top-right of the screen (called “Spotlight”). Spotlight does not search the web, or for uninstalled applications.
You could also use spotlight to search for a specific application. In a way, it’s like a limited graphical command line. The most important application to locate with Spotlight is the real command line (called “Terminal”). This application will later appear on the bottom of the screen, and as I found in the book “Mac OSX or Unix Geeks”, you can drag it do a different position on the bottom of the screen to have it stay there. I did not find a similar way to add a non-running application.
Another discovery I’ve made: The screen has a hidden camera near the top, I guess Apple literally watches you. More to come soon.
Tried to install Hebrew. Worked, but without a keyboard shortcut. Any attempt to enable launched a monster keyboard shortcut menu, where it turns out that Hebrew conflicts with the “spotlight” thing. So, it’s either Hebrew or being able to launch applications. Updates to come.
Walking to work experiment
Today is day 6 of my walking to work experiment, and I could proudly say the experiment is a success. For the past 6 work days, I have been walking all the way from home to work and back every day. A distance of 2.7 miles.
Why would I do such a thing? For several reasons: First, walking is good for my health. Second, I can save money on gas and parking. And third, it is good for the environment.
Basically, I decided last Tuesday to see if it is possible to walk all the way to work, so I gave it a try. On that first day I realized I should probably take a hat, water, and a better portable radio. I took the route recommended by Google Maps, only to later find various shortcuts to make my way easier. My conclusion after this initial experiment: It’s not too bad.
I kept walking Wednesday and Thursday. Then Friday morning it rained. I decided to walk anyway. Also, I said if I can walk in the rain, I can keep up this walking program. So, the same day I returned my parking permit and bought an umbrella. I bought 4 daily parking permits just in case.
Now is day 6 of my walking experiment, and I still haven’t used any of the parking permits. I feel good and happy. I really hope I can keep it up.
Order, Office Depot, and Vertical Storage
Those of you who have been following my twitter or Facebook updates may have noticed that in the past three days I was in a cleaning spree, transforming my room from an unpassable mess (literally) to a reasonably clean and spacious environment. In addition to the detailed sorting and throwing away of junk, I made some reforms to the order in my room. The goal is to hopefully have maintainable order, instead of just temporary order.
One of the things I’ve realized is that I do not have enough storage space for all my stuff when all my clothes are clean. That leads to extreme clutter in the clothes drawers and clothes being stored on the floor. My soultion was to use vertical storage. I went to Target (retail) and purchased a vertical storage device. This device allowed me to make use of unused room volume for storage while keeping floor area clear. Amazing!
Similarly, I used a 99L storage tub to store all my unused boardgames and empty boxes, instead of keeping several volotile stacks around the room.
Another great solution was to puchase two additional garbage containers to allow for pre-sorting of paper and recycleable trash. No more keeping unneeded paper or empty water bottles on the floor or desk. Now I can trash them immediately and do not need to collect during cleanup time.
While I was at Office Depot, I also found a better solution than envelopes for paper storage. It’s called a “file folder“, and not in the standard sense of a directory for digital storage, but rather a physical object that stores paper.
Hopefully this new room order will actually last.
New HTML Parser: The long-awaited libxml2 based HTML parser code is live. It needs further work but already handles most markup better than the original parser.
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If you're a C programmer with some spare time, take a look at the mod_virgule project page and help us with one of the tasks on the ToDo list!