Friday, September 28, 2007

Fun with profiles

I finally decided to put more stuff in my profile tonight, and was messing around with some of the features of Blogger.

What I found cool was following the links in the favorite music and movie sections. So, for example, I essentially asked, "Who else out there likes The Partridge Family?" It was interesting to look at the profiles of the people who shared these same interests.

I shouldn't be so impressed with this since I used "matchmaker" systems back in the good old BBS days of the early 1980s. What's different about this, I suppose, is that it has such a global context.

So for the answer to the above question: There are 52 profiles that list The Partridge Family in their list of favorite music (including the ersatz profiles). Oddly, a clever kid named Sarah who probably was born 20 years after they were popular likes them. There is also Cathleen in NYC who is multi-talented and a comedian as well, and Mark in Chicago. Whatever, what a strange trip it has been.

So the moral to the story, if there is one, is that no matter how unusual you think your musical interests may be, there's someone out there who thinks it's just fine. That's a great feeling to have right before I turn in for the night...


Saturday, September 22, 2007

What's important

It's been a weekend of learning about things that are important and not important.

It began with something that has become commonplace to the modern landscape of life: People driving with cell phones in their hands. To these people: News flash -- you are not that important (and you don't drive as well on your phone as you do off it - really, you don't). So that call you're on that's making you drive erratically at 30 MPH in a 45 MPH zone and endangering (or at least inconveniencing) the lives of other people is not important enough. If it's that important, take the call off the road. If that's inconvenient to you, then the call isn't that important, right?

Good customer service is important. Tonight I had a nice dinner with friends at County Line BBQ at 2222/360 in Austin. I don't mind putting a plug in for these fine folks because virtually every time I eat there, they treat me and my family/friends wonderfully. The food is always good, and the service is usually good, but tonight the service was great. I told our waiter so. Everyone gets a tip these days (he got a very good one from me tonight). I'm sure that this waiter though went home feeling pretty good because someone actually told him what a great job he did. It's important to keep that going. In this fast-paced profit-motivated world we live in today not enough emphasis is placed on doing what's right.

This weekend I spent a lot of time talking to a friend about relationships (partly instigated by the entry I did on "baggage"). In fact, she and I spoke until 3 in the morning about that and for both of us that was an important conversation. Some of us just don't have a lot of good experience with the opposite sex. So if you're one of those people (I am) and you want to do the right thing, how do you figure out what to do? Both of us are going through a period of difficulty in our lives trying to let go of some baggage and to be open to finding someone new (one of us longer than the other). It is important to have the affection of someone else. It's also important for that affection to be genuine and honest or else hurt feelings and baggage results. There isn't any way I can compress that whole 5-hour conversation into words here. Suffice to say that I've been left with a lot to think about. It's important to listen to what others say. You can learn something that way.

It's not important to read literature regularly to be considered intelligent. Among the more intellectual of my circle of friends seems to have this attitude that reading books makes you a better person. Now I have no problem with reading, but if you'd rather see the movie than read the book, what in hell's wrong with that? I need to read a lot in my profession/hobby and don't have the patience to sit and read a book when I get home. So to all you people who feel everyone should be reading a book: I say take the time to remove MS-Windows from your computer and install Linux. Don't know how to use Linux? Go read a book on it.

It is important to read something once in a while, though. This commentary counts.

It's important to maintain connections to people. By connections, I mean real connections, not virtual ones through instant messaging (etc). We've become a society of people finding ways to shut ourselves off from the real world. People walk around with headphones in their ears either listening to music or talking to someone on the phone. It may seem like talking on the phone is staying connected, but in truth it is actually shutting you off from everything else going on around you. We lock ourselves into our homes and throw everything that is bothering us (the barking dog, for example) out into the back yard to irritate someone else. After all, if I don't hear it, nobody else does (insert sarcasm). We make ourselves available to anyone with a cell phone, but when that call comes in we forget that we came to sit, talk, and eat lunch with a friend. I think in our quest to make ourselves more connected, we've become less connected. It's important to disconnect for a while and connect to what's really going on. It's a big world out there. It's important for us to see it if we're ever going to strive to make it better.

...and on that note, I'm going to disconnect and see how some friends are doing on their three-week road trip. Have a great weekend.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Baggage - Part 1

I've decided it's finally time to bring out some baggage, and since this particular topic has come up several times in several places and in a recent posting it seems the right time to bring-up the Marianne topic.

First, let's put a face with the name (I like putting faces with names) (yes, the human on the left):

Background: Marianne was my first real girlfriend from around 1986-1988. With the exception of two other very short-lived romantic relationships, it was the last as well. We met through the personal ads in a local newspaper (which seems kind of hokey these days, but it was actually a pretty bold move back then). I actually was sick of seeing really stupid personal ads, and basically felt I could do better. I did, apparently. Marianne's mother actually saw the ad and brought it to her attention. A discussion about music late one night (The DeFranco Family's "Heartbeat, It's A Lovebeat" was part of that) and a couple of movies/"dates" later and the rest was two years or so of history.

So what in heck happened, and why has this set the groundwork for an almost 20 year romantic void?

I usually tell people that the break-up was because we both wanted the other to be someone we weren't. I wanted to get married. I wanted to put a little distance between us and our extended families and childhood lives so we could start making decisions for ourselves and being adults. I had gained a good deal of experience in the computer field, and Long Island didn't seem to offer a good tech career track. Marianne didn't want to get married (in her words, she wanted to get involved in international business, jet-set around the world, and men would have to cater to her demands rather than the other way around), and her closest friends were her extended family which she had no desire to leave. A lot of our schedule was centered around traditions her family had established and we were both expected to follow. I wasn't real crazy about some of the traditions and relatives, and that strained things. We both spent the first part of our relationship (when you're all goo-goo eyes for each other anyway) adapting to the other's way of life trying to make things work. When reality set-in, the break-up was inevitable, but when you've become so deeply involved with another person, that isn't an easy thing.

It's that deeply involved part that created the baggage. I'm not necessarily a private person, but there are certain things I keep close to myself and don't generally share. I broke my usual convention with Marianne and awkwardly shared feelings (in addition to the obvious ones) with her that I hadn't with anyone else. Toward the end of the relationship, I also got into a deep funk because I felt trapped in my job and my relationship goals were going unfulfilled. While she listened to what I said, she really didn't communicate with me about them. Worse still, I tried to get past the "international businesswoman" wall she put up around herself and get her to share some of her feelings and came-up empty. I felt betrayed and the lack of communication led to a sense of mistrust ("if you're not willing to communicate with me, then what are you hiding?").

Then her father said something to me one day in the heat of an argument that cemented the ill feelings - "You always have to have things your way." My self-esteem and confidence were already low, and I was already confused about whether I was expecting too much out of the relationship or life in general, and my goals were already getting kind of messed up. This comment together with the reactions I got from Marianne when I tried to discuss our relationship and in trying to understand her left me not knowing what I did right or wrong (or what appropriate expectations are) in the relationship and a lack of confidence to try again. The two later short-lived relationships, while not the same as this, basically removed any remaining confidence.

I still blame myself deep down for this whole thing getting messed up. More than a few people have tried to convince me otherwise. I know they're right and sometimes I actually believe them, but I feel my track record speaks for itself. I don't really know what ultimately happened to Marianne - I kind of stopped writing to her when she refused to give any kind of congratulations on some work-related accomplishments that meant a lot to me. I wanted to remain friends, but I had real friends and those real friends know that my work means a lot to me (even if they have no idea what I'm doing) and give me the "attaboy" that you sometimes really need when things otherwise seem to be going like shit.

To be at least a little fair, here are a few highlights of things we did that were really kind of cool:
  • The bowling league (we did rather well, actually)...the name of our team was "mixed nuts"
  • If it weren't for the constant encouragement we gave each other to finish college, we probably wouldn't have, and it would have been a horrible mistake.
  • Road trip to Boston ... and getting caught in a snowstorm
  • Her feelings about not wanting children (one of the few feelings she shared) was what made me realize I felt the same and what ultimately landed me in NO KIDDING!
Okay, so hopefully that's all there is to be said on the subject for a while...

Looking into the past

Like most people who have ...ehem... gotten on in years, I have accumulated a lot of memorabilia from my younger days that has moved from place-to-place with me over the years. One of those things is a boatload of cassette tapes. I still have a tape deck and figured it was time to go through these relics of the era of magnetic tapes (yeah, before they had ipods and CDs) and get them into a digital format before they deteriorate completely.

So here's what I've found so far, for your amusement...
  • Several prerecorded cassettes: "Twilight Zone: The Movie" soundtrack (I got this one just for Jennifer Warnes' "Nights Are Forever"), DECUS Fall 1988 Symposium on "Unique Ways To Use Ethernet" (if they only knew....hahaha), Billy Joel "Cold Spring Harbor" (a gift from an ex-girlfriend of 20 years ago, more about that some other day...), and finally a sample tape from a car I bought about 21 years ago (it had some pretty decent songs from the early '80s).
  • Me and two friends annoying my younger sister Hilary (I think she was around 5 or 6 at the time) with the reverb box that I built (I think we recorded this around 1980 or thereabouts). Hilary sang a song through the reverb box at one point ... I need to send her the MP3.
  • An elementary school concert from 1978. My sister Cindy and brother Curt were in the chorus at the time. I knew this because the concert program was with the tape (wow...).

  • Way too many "mix tapes" that were an obvious attempt to either (1) declare my never-ending love to the current infatuation at the time (copies of some of these were actually given to the person), or (2) express my disappointment at there not being a current infatuation at the time. I probably shouldn't trivialize the former so much - it was actually a rather sweet and creative gesture, but at the moment (where I'm closer to the latter) it's more of a glass-half-empty time. Most of these tapes are destined for the trash, methinks.
  • Quite a few sessions where I recorded stuff I liked off the radio. About 60% of this resulted in me buying the record/CD at some later time (take that RIAA nazis...), and the rest are songs that are either impossible to get (some really hard-to-find 60s and 70s stuff) or just weren't worth buying. I also had some really amusing commercials recorded.
  • A telephone call with someone I knew in high school talking about MACRO-10 assembly language on the PDP-20 under TOPS-10. Not only am I showing my age, but I'm also proving that I have been a mad computer scientist for a very long time... No, the person had no idea they were being recorded, and I didn't bother listening to it...much.
  • Last, but not least, some songs recorded live from a Randy & The Rainbows concert at a park in Long Island, NY where I grew-up.
What was amazing is some of the incredible sound quality of the recordings, even after generally being treat like crap all these years and given the relative quality of the equipment I used (low-to-mid-range consumer gear).

I'm probably about halfway through the 60 or so tapes. The second half is going to be a challenge -- the tapes are in bad shape (some are broken and need to be spliced somehow) and I know have some hidden gems. If nothing else, when I'm done with this, I can finally prepare to say a final goodbye to cassette tapes and that technology. It was good, it was real, it was even real good at times, but it's a heck of a lot easier to deal with 44.1 KHz PCM files...

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Thanks John Stossel

A non-tech comment and big "Thanks" goes out to John Stossel of ABC News for his segment regarding health care on the Sept. 14 episode of 20/20. While I have seen Michael Moore's movie SiCKO, and enjoyed it (it raises some very good questions), I felt that there was another side to all this.

Health insurance is not insurance - at least not the way people use it. People use health insurance as though there is a magical pixie fairy in the sky that provides the funding and we all just benefit from it. Where SiCKO is right is that the health insurance industry as a whole is plain broken. Where it is wrong is saying that a government-run health care system is the answer. I asked my doctor (who tends toward the liberal side of the political spectrum) about this, and she said that socialized medicine was simply not workable.

All this being said, I think both Moore & Stossel together present good examples of what's wrong (and right) with health care in the US. It's time people understand that there really is no free lunch. Someone is paying - even in the socialized medicine scenario. Likewise, left entirely in a free-market capitalist system the health care system will not be where it needs to be.

I don't have the answer to this, but I think sometimes it's people asking tough questions and showing both sides of the issue that help bring about positive change. It's great that the debate didn't end with SiCKO. With the 20/20 episode, the discussion is still being kept active, and people who couldn't see eye-to-eye with Michael Moore will also see there really is a problem. Stossel ended the segment with some positive alternatives. It was refreshing to see.

It's for you...

Dear god,

I said I wanted an Open Source phone system -- not open sores with salt rubbed in them. Please correct your mistake as soon as possible.

Your's Frustratingly,

"CPU"

About 2 years (or more?) ago, I decided it would be a neat idea to spearhead a project to replace the antiquated phone system for our research laboratory of 600+ people with something more modern and based on Voice Over IP (VoIP). After looking at the total crap that was out there commercially and usually based on MS-Windows I came upon Asterisk, an Open Source PBX based on Linux. Lots of collaboration with friends and reading through thousands of lines of source code got me up-to-speed and excited about the prospects of replacing our phone system.

Fast forward two years later. I've learned a lot about telephony that I never knew (and some I still don't want to know). But what I really learned was that not very many people really know much about telephony, and lots think they know and don't. We've deployed Asterisk along with a lot of serious customization that I've pretty much done on my own. It's very cool. Some stuff isn't so cool...

The biggest hassle though has been finding T1 interface cards that do the right thing with timing. This is a fundamental thing that has to be right -- If audio is is being transmitted digitally faster than the receiving end is expecting to receive it, then pieces of the audio will get dropped. This is barely acceptable for speech, but it isn't at all if you have a FAX machine or modem on there.

So I have adapter cards from vendor "A" who just happens to know Asterisk really well because their founder created it. We bought vendor A's Quad-T1 cards back at the beginning and they usually worked, but had some quirky problems with them. Two years go by and those quirky problems are becoming more problematic, and we want to get a hardware echo canceler too. So we try to contact vendor A several times by e-mail, to which they either respond with a completely nonsensical answer or not at all. My last question was, in effect, "Can your hardware be upgraded? If yes, how much does it cost? If not, is there a trade-in policy for new hardware?"

After a little bit of this, we decided to try a competitor's (vendor "B") adapter card, because some people on the Internet say they work better. Vendor B's cards are interesting and their sales and tech people are responsive, but the device drivers are just not there. So we bring some of the real show-stopper issues to vendor B's attention and indicate that vendor A's cards do this thing correctly. Their tech guy spends 30 minutes on the phone trying to convince me that vendor A's cards don't do what I think they do, and tries to play down the seriousness of the issues we found (failure to provide redundant timing).

Oh, did I mention that these adapter cards are $1,500 each (add $1,000 for echo canceling hardware).

In the end, I learned a lot by understanding what was going wrong with vendor B's cards, and got vendor A's cards to work better in our system (no thanks the vendor A's folks, and we still don't know if we can upgrade the cards or not). We decided to send vendor B's adapter cards back.

I don't know everything about telephony. I do have a good understanding of the concepts, though. What people are doing to implement these concepts is twisted, and it doesn't need to be this difficult.

We're about 2 months from completing the transition from our old phone system, and then will begin the arduous task of implementing a way of maintaining this mess. Wish me luck.

...ring... "Hello? Oh, hello Mr. Frustration. Hold on...I'll get him.... It's for you."


Monday, September 10, 2007

It's time to trash "Flash"

Yes, really.

Many of the folks out there using the Internet don't really have any idea about how the Internet is put together. Even more don't realize that there are more computers out there than just Micro$oft-based PCs and Apple Macintoshes. What was really cool about the technology that now makes-up the World Wide Web was that it brought together all the different computer operating systems and types so, for example, geeks using Linux could make media presentations that "normal" people using Windows could view (and maybe understand).

So along comes Macromedia (now Adobe) with this idea for a multimedia presentation language called Flash. The concept was well-intended: Create a way for web publishers to create web pages with rich multimedia content, like animation, sound, and video. This was missing from the specifications for the language (HTML) used to present documents to web browsers. The application, originally called Shockwave Flash, was designed so that the content was presented in a way that could be viewed on different kinds of computers and it would look/sound the same. This idea was right in-line with the spirit of the Web.

What's wrong with Flash is that it only runs on computers that Adobe designs the player or plug-in for. The technology is proprietary, meaning that the full specification for how it works is only available to Adobe. So if Adobe doesn't feel like making a Flash player/plug-in for your computer or operating system, you can't view the Flash content. When I ran an operating system called FreeBSD I was unable to view anything that used Flash (like YouTube, for instance) because Adobe decided not to support that operating system.

The other thing wrong with Flash -- or maybe the people who use it -- is its over-use. There is no reason to use Flash to present restaurant menus or navigate web pages because there are perfectly good ways to do this without rich multimedia presentations. It slows down web access for people who have slower Internet connections, and it makes the pages cluttered and/or distracting. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of web page developers who are more interested in showing-off their skills at Flash programming than to clearly and concisely present the content.

Since multimedia on the web is useful for some stuff there needs to be a way to present it without allowing the content (and ultimately entire web sites) to effectively be controlled by a single corporation. The answer is that we need an open source multimedia presentation language. The term open source and open standards refers to a process by which the technology is made available to the public at large so that the geeky computer types can use their abundant free time to make it work on all different kinds of computers, much like the Firefox web browser (for example).

For those who still are not convinced -- consider this: Radio, movie, and television content are effectively controlled by large corporations. The Internet and web technologies have taken the world by storm because publishing content is within the reach of the average person with a computer. Now, consider if all of the technology that drives how you access Internet content is controlled by the same organizations. They would force advertisements into content, limit what content could be allowed, and so on. While this is already starting to happen to some areas of the Internet, it would become more and more prevalent. This issue is one of demanding that the way people express themselves in this new media be untainted by proprietary technologies and needless content restrictions (more on that in a later post, hopefully). It's a free speech issue. Whether you love or hate Micro$oft, or Macintosh, or Linux, it's something that needs to be addressed NOW.

I say, "Trash Flash." It'll be painful in the short-term, but we all know that something better will come out of it in the long-term. Smart geeky people: Please, make that something.

In the beginning...

So here's this shiny new place to write all sorts of hopefully interesting (or amusing?) stuff. So here's what happened:

A friend of mine, who I'll refer to only as "Speck," told a group of us about the many virtues of "Blogger." Now, I really hate the term blog because it's really just this fad thing that everyone seems to need to have, but I do have to say that the interface is interesting, and it does provide a place to say what's on my mind.

During the last few weeks, I've had this great desire to start writing about stuff. I could just write the dang content in raw HTML (or even as plaintext) as any other mad computer scientist would do. But this just seemed like a way of recognizing the talents of some other mad computer scientists out there and prevent becoming too focused on the layout (someone already did that!).

So in the coming posts, expect odd opinions, rants, and some technical revelations. In other words, my own version of what everyone else seems to write, but with my own twist.