Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Whoop-Eee

On Friday, my latest woot! arrived -- a new ASUS Eee PC 900A (that's the device on the right in the picture, next to my full-size laptop). The Eee PC is one of a new class of laptop computers called a "netbook," so named because it is designed to be minimalist where the primary function is to access Internet services. In addition to being minimalist, it is also small and light -- a third smaller than a regular laptop ("notebook") computer -- making it very portable for carrying around to coffee shops and the like that have wireless network access.

I don't have an immediate need for a netbook right now, but woot! had a good price for this one, and it seemed like I could find some use for it. I can imagine taking the netbook on long car trips or when I'm traveling to visit my parents, as a lighter-weight alternative to the larger, older laptop. It also seems like it would work well in applications where I need to get access to devices (for work) through a serial port, and don't feel like lugging around a laptop in an already cramped network closet.

My initial opinion of the Eee, specifically: The keyboard is a bit smaller than a normal keyboard, so it does take some getting-used to if you have a lot to type (I usually do). Unfortunately, the keyboard also does not have a sturdy feel to it at all, and doesn't lock well into the case, so it feels very spongy. I suspect I will be making some minor modifications to try to correct the sponginess a bit. The display is a crisp 1024x600 8.9 inch display. Some fonts can be hard to read at that resolution and size, but the crisp display does help a lot with that. My unit came with a customized Xandros Linux distribution on it, designed to give Windows users a pretty familiar user environment. I'm not really a big fan of the user interface and have installed my own OS (Gentoo Linux) on it. I could probably customize Xandros to do what I wanted (Xandros is based on Debian Linux) but I personally don't see any advantage to doing this. I was able to connect external USB hard disks and other devices (including a full-size USB keyboard and mouse), and they all worked well. The processor is a 1.6 GHz Intel Atom processor, which is pretty fast but only has 512K bytes of cache, taking the performance down a bit. Despite this, the unit still can play full-length compressed movies without any problem. The battery lasts about 3 hours - however, I read that the unit consumes a good deal of "phantom power" while off, which would lead me to think that keeping it on its charger when not in use would be a good idea. There is a 4GB solid state disk (SSD, a disk made with higher-speed flash memory) that is a bit on the slow side, and a bit tight on space, but for the purpose of this device isn't too shabby. The touchpad works nicely, but the two "mouse" buttons below it are cheap and unpleasant to press. The touchpad responds well, you can do a mouse click by tapping the touchpad, and can simulate a scroll-wheel by sliding two fingers together up and down on the touchpad.

In short, this is not the system I would use for my daily home usage, as my laptop is much better for that. However, for computing on-the-go, this is not a bad machine. Understanding this limitation and remembering that it isn't a replacement for a full-size laptop (although I know people who do) will set expectations accordingly.

One additional issue I have with the Xandros Linux install from a technical point-of-view is the way they manage the SSD. The initial operating system (3.5G worth) is loaded onto the first partition, and the remainder of the disk (500MB) is set-up as an overlay on top of the first partition. In other words, the first partition is mounted read-only, and the second one is overlayed on top of the first to store any changes (deltas) to the first. This isn't the way I would do it, and isn't the most efficient way to handle both volatile (like web page caches) storage and efficient use of the SSD. What I would have done is to leave the OS mounted read/write and make darn sure that there isn't anything writing to the drive in the background. I would put the volatile storage in a RAM disk and overlay that on top of the /var, and maybe /tmp filesystems. Some strategically placed symbolic links could probably handle that well. As I learn more about the unit and prepare my Linux distribution of choice, I will likely head in that direction.

Finally, I discovered a very odd thing about this system and the custom Xandros Linux and the way it controls the built-in wireless adapter. Apparently when you turn off the wireless adapter, the OS has some way of telling the BIOS to disable that device. Yes, you read that correctly - the OS communicates directly to the BIOS and in the BIOS NVRAM the wireless adapter will be set to "Disabled" in the BIOS set-up when you disable it from Xandros. This caught me off-guard when I first installed Gentoo Linux on the system and couldn't get the wireless adapter to work ("What?! It just isn't there!!). I have been unable to find out how, exactly, it does this, but I think it is some special ACPI call and I will eventually find it.

Kind of a summary of the device (vital specs):
  • 1.6 GHz Intel Atom processor (Pentium-M class chip, good stuff)
  • 1 GB of DDR2-400 memory (single module) expandable to 2 GB (supports 533 & 667 MHz, but runs at 400 MHz)
  • 4 GB SSD as a PCI Express Mini card (can be replaced and expanded, 32 GB SSDs are available). The 4GB SSD is a ASUS-PHISON UDMA/66-compatible device. Use the ata_piix driver as it looks to the OS like a standard PATA drive.
  • Display through the Intel GMA950 chipset at 1024x600 on 8.9" display (external VGA port available for external monitor)
  • 3 USB2 ports
  • 10/100/1000 Ethernet port (Atheros AR8121 PCI-E) - uses the atl1e device driver, not in the kernel used for the Gentoo live-CD (or in this case, live-USB stick).
  • integrated 802.11b/g wireless adapter (Atheros AR5212) - uses the ath5k driver in 2.6.27 and beyond, or the madwifi drivers
  • Touchpad is Elantech ETPS/2 - Is getting better Linux support, but as a regular PS/2 style mouse under Linux, it functions similarly to a Synaptics touch-pad, and in fact, there is ongoing work to better support the Elantech device. There are 2 buttons below the touchpad.
  • Audio is Intel's ICH7 (82801G) HD-audio chipset (but is far from HD). Works well. Has an integrated microphone (have not used yet) and speaker(s?) (sounds OK for what they are). There is a headphone and microphone jack on the side of the unit.
  • The Linux version of the Eee 900A does not have an integrated webcam!
  • Has an integrated SD HC slot which appears as a USB device. Booting and using the SDHC and any external USB storage media (hard drives, flash drives, etc.) are fully supported and you can even boot from them. Very nice.
For those unfamiliar with Linux, I add this final footnote: You will notice I use other names before the word "Linux" in the discussion here. Linux (or, more correctly, GNU/Linux) is actually just the kernel, which is the software that manages all the hardware in the computer. The Linux kernel by itself only makes up half of the operating system. The remainder of the operating system are pieces of software that manage interaction between the user and system functions and the kernel, and together with the kernel form what we affectionately think of as a UNIX-like operating system. The word you see together with Linux is the distribution name. Because nobody has really been able to come to a consensus as to what supporting software in the operating system should be included or how it should be added to, updated, or managed, various groups of people have created operating system bundles known as "Linux distributions." Xandros, Red Hat, Fedora, Gentoo, Debian, Slackware, and CentOS are all examples of Linux distributions. Each comes with its own strengths, weaknesses, and guiding philosophy. The good news is that while the distributions are somewhat different, most software inter-operates well between Linux distributions because of the open nature of the software and development and cooperation between the various groups. The same kind structure is present in Windows and Mac OS, but the companies that develop these operating systems have kept the source code tightly-controlled and hidden and dictate what applications/software and kernel are included. This creates a great deal of consistency but limits choice and prevents outside oversight that greatly restricts who can identify/fix bugs and security problems.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Epic Over-reaction

Every day it becomes more and more clear to me that something is very wrong with our society...

Today's continuation of the Blatant Stupidity series comes from a feature article in The Wall Street Journal online:
Just Say No....to Smarties? Faux Smoking Has Parents Fuming
Crush Candy, Suck In Dust, Blow Out Puffs; Schools Fear It'll Make Cigarettes Cool

It isn't the article that is stupid, although for a second I thought I was reading The Onion. No, what's stupid is the reaction by the parents and school.
School officials aren't amused. "It has come to our attention that some of our students are involved in something that is known as 'smoking Smarties,'" principal Phyllis Faust said in an email sent last year to parents of Hewitt-Trussville Middle School in Trussville, Ala. It called the practice "hazardous to your son or daughter's health."

"I have made it clear to our students that possession of Smarties (or similar candy) will result in a Class II offense," which usually means detention, the note said.

Jody Puryear, whose son Grant attends the school, says smoking Smarties could be a gateway leading "to smoking cigarettes or pot or anything else like that."

Excuse me?!

Let me remind you what we're talking about here: We're talking about these little candies that crumble into sweet, fruit-flavored powder when you bite into them. When I was a kid, my sister and brother and I used to call them "super pills."

None of us went on to abuse drugs (pills) as a result of powering-up with our Smarties super pills (although Mom may have taken issue with the inevitable sugar rush).

These people aren't complaining about Smarties being a possible choking hazard. They're not complaining about Smarties as being full of sugar and artificial flavoring, and rotting kids' teeth. These complaints would be pretty dumb as well, but at least they would be based on some real science. No, these people are saying that crushing Smarties and blowing out the dust ("fake smoking") is a gateway to real smoking.

Let's be honest with ourselves for a second - Isn't this just one of those harmless stupid things we all did as kids? Parents: Did you ever consider that these kids are mimicing what they see adults doing? You know, YOU? If you don't want kids to start smoking, then teach them why smoking is stupid.

Then there's the school. As far as I know we're not pumping-out long strings of geniuses from our public school systems in the United States. It seems to me that the effort that these school administrators are expending attempting to bust kids for possession of Smarties could be better spent figuring out how to get our kids educated and on-par with those in other countries. This kind of draconian response to a silly childish thing sends the following messages:
  1. That it's okay for authority figures to micromanage every aspect of another person's life
  2. Kids are able to exert control over adults through a harmless, childish act (what message did you think you were going to send when you reacted like this?!)
  3. You will take away the silly, harmless thing they're doing, forcing them to find another way to piss you off, which may now end up being the real thing.
That's right, the very way that these parents and school officials have reacted may lead to the exact behavior they were trying to prevent.

I'd like to give a message to you people: If you protect kids from every single activity where they could potentially harm themselves, then you're soon going to have a society full of pussies who can't deal with the face of adversity except to legislate it away or pull a gun and shoot everything and everyone in sight. Seriously. Childhood is the time when little humans prepare for adulthood. You can have fun and learn the lessons at the same time.

As I've stated here over and over again, people today are obsessed with addressing the symptoms of the problem instead of the problem itself. They don't know how to apply any kind of reasoning necessary to look at problem symptoms, discover the root cause of the problem, then determine what resolution (if any) should or can be applied. Instead, what I see over and over again are knee-jerk reactions to the symptoms with no understanding of the problem itself. These reactions quite often cause additional (more serious) problems while never addressing the original issue.

I'm really craving something sugary right now...

(The full text of the Wall Street Journal article is at http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123750945477390601.html)

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Registered Texan

I got my auto registration renewal form in the mail today, and there was an insert that asked, "What kind of Registered Texan are you?" It then directed me to a web site. So I figured I'd go figure it out. It was supposed to show how registration fees helped maintain highways, etc. Blah blah blah.

Anyhow, I went to the site and couldn't see anything. So, here's the kind of Registered Texan I am: I'm a Texan that doesn't use Flash, so I can't view your stupid site. Oh well.

(said with sarcasm) Nice to see that my registration dollars are spent developing web sites based on proprietary, platform-dependent web technologies. With apologies to The Pretenders, way to go Texas...

Windmills

Yesterday I decided to explore a bit of the western portion of Texas. This took me as far as Fort Stockton - and then turned around and headed back again. Counting some missed turns on an experimental route along the way, over 700 miles of driving in 13 hours.

Fort Stockton wasn't much to write home about - or even a blog entry about. Frankly I was underwhelmed, and the only explanation I have is that maybe I wasn't in the "good part" of the city. Some wanker there in a red musclecar performed a one-man attempt to show off his wankermobile by winding up the engine and pulling past me (in the white Prius) at a traffic light. Yeah, that was impressive, man. This will be the thing that stays in my head about Fort Stockton.

I think around exit 277, or about 20 miles east of Fort Stockton was a windmill farm that I get some of my electric power from (as part of the "green power" program). The number of windmills on both sides of Interstate 10 was impressive. I did get out of the car to take these two pictures, and to my amazement, there was no discernable noise coming from them. I mean, I was close enough to one set that I would have expected the buzzing, humming, or whatever such annoyances that I have heard people complain about, but I heard almost complete silence. The roar of the vehicles down Interstate 10 was far louder than the windmills, for sure. I also didn't see the pile of dead birds that allegedly get caught in the spinning blades, either, although admittedly I maybe wasn't close enough for that. The blades spin at about 30 RPM, one full rotation every 2 seconds.

I actually saw a house on a hill near Wimberley, Texas for sale that looked like it could be interesting. I don't think it was actually what I was looking for in terms of land or low maintenance and energy efficiency, but it was cool to look at. This may need to be a return trip this weekend (Wimberley is an hour's drive away, not 350 miles!!).

Waiting at home for me was the DVD Bill Hicks Live, of which I saw about 2/3rds before falling asleep on the sofa from exhaustion. Bill Hicks is (was) an interesting stand-up comedian in the same kind of genre as George Carlin and similar.

In general, it was a good do-nothing kind of day. It was the kind of day I most sorely needed after the past few weekends and the stress at work (which continues to be stressful). However, these long drives are starting to become tiring in their own right. At one point, when I no longer have an old cat at home to take care of, I'll probably need to start making these overnight trips rather than getting home in the same day.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Mobile Madness Part 2 - Contacting T-Mobile

This morning I decided to carry-through with the idea of staying with T-Mobile for a bit while I figured out what to do about my cell phone service. This meant moving to the paperless bill option, despite not wanting to do so. I went to T-Mobile's web site and going through the process.

What I didn't know is that before they will let you turn on the paperless bill option, one must receive an e-mail from T-Mobile and click on the included link. The problem is that I don't use a web browser to read e-mail -- I proudly use the Mutt text-based e-mail client. Actually that wasn't the problem - the problem is that T-Mobile expected their mail to only be read using a web browser and didn't include the URL (the thing that goes in the location bar of the browser) in text so I could copy and paste the link.

Remember my recent rant about businesses making demands regarding what operating system I had to use at home? Now we have T-Mobile making demands on what e-mail client I can use. So I'm now really frustrated, angered, and ready to figuratively rip someone's head off.

What follows is a pretty accurate paraphrasing of the dialog between me and the customer support representative (edited down for size, but the gist of the conversation is accurate):

Me: I would like to know how to reconfigure my account so I receive my e-mails from T-Mobile in text-only.
T-Mobile (TM): You would like to know how to send text messages?
Me: NO! I mean I received an e-mail from your organization in HTML format in order to subscribe to paperless billing under duress, and it contains a link that I cannot click-on because I don't use a web browser to read my e-mail.
TM: Well, all you need to do is read the mail with your browser and click on the link.
Me: I don't have a way to do that, my mail server is set-up for text access only.
TM: Then you need to change how you read your e-mail. We assume that if you are accessing our web site with a web browser that you also read your mail with a web browser. [ed note: I cannot stress how ludicrous and wrong this line of thinking is...anyone who has any basic knowledge of how the Internet operates would know this is completely wrong].
TM: You can just give us an e-mail address on Gmail or Yahoo! so we can send you the message, click the link, and that's it. We won't send you any e-mail after that anyway. [ed note: that's not what their web site says]
Me: I can see that there is nothing you can do to help with this. Okay, then is there any way to continue receiving a paper bill without being charged this extra fee that you're about to start charging me.
TM: No, you need to go to paperless billing.
Me: Would you be able to give me the e-mail address for your customer relations department, so I can contact them to express my disappointment with this.
TM: They don't have an e-mail address - there is a postal address where you can write that department on our web site, or I can give that to you now.
Me: So you claim to be saving paper by forcing me to not receive a paper bill, but you still force me to do business with you through the postal service and not save paper and a stamp by using e-mail. That doesn't seem very fair to me.
TM: You can receive a paper bill, you just need to pay a monthly fee to continue to receive it.

I am omitting the rest of the call regarding getting the compression turned off on my voicemail so that the messages don't sound like people have marbles in their mouth. The conversation is similar.

To turn on paperless billing, I ended up saving the message to a file called shit.html (so that the name would appear in their web server's referer log that way), opened the file in a web browser, and clicked the stupid link. I concede that I know how to handle an e-mail that comes as HTML with links in it - but to handle it takes extra time that their dimwit programmers could have avoided by placing the link as plaintext (even as plaintext within HTML would have accomplished what was needed). It was obvious that my point was lost on T-Mobile.

This was not a good way to start off the morning. What happened in the afternoon was truly deflating...

I stopped by to speak with a couple of people in a group I support about something unrelated to mobile phones, but when I found that one of them had Verizon Wireless as his carrier (and he was a techie like me) I picked his brain a little, and got some feedback from the other people there. A summary follows:
  1. It turns out that charging for a paper bill is the latest fad among all the providers to trick people into paying more money. It isn't just T-Mobile...and that doesn't mean it's right.
  2. The other people in the room where truly convinced that charging for a paper bill "to keep from killing trees" was justfied. While I am concerned about the environment, I doubt that getting my bill on paper is responsible for killing trees. Now, the chemicals used to bleach the paper is another story...but that could be rectified by using a different kind of paper.
  3. The guy on Verizon said that they do a lot of compression of the audio on normal phone calls, so that the calls tend to lose high frequencies. This explains my Mom's experience where she said that calls on Verizon (her provider) sound mushy.
  4. The same guy explained that he has travelled to various other countries, and unlike most countries' cell providers the United States carriers are unique in nickel-and-diming people for every little service, even those that don't really cost anything to provide.
  5. Conclusion from listening to everyone in the room: All the carriers suck.
The conversation left me drained and even more deflated than my conversation with T-Mobile earlier in the day.

There is basically nothing I can do. If I want cell phone service, I basically have to bend over, let them kick me in the balls repeatedly, and say, "Thank you, sir, may I have another." What a sorry state of affairs.

When I was in high school and college, and there was no Internet as we know it, and e-mail was an experiment that a bunch of us wrote on a shared DEC minicomputer, at no time did I think that the fate of this technology would end up in the hands of a bunch of corporate executives (and government officials) with the technical knowledge of a potato and the ethical conscience of a serial killer. We've come so far, but gone so far backwards...

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Mobile Madness Part 1

This weekend while casually looking at T-Mobile's web site, I discovered that the bastages are going to start charging me for a paper bill (before, they were only doing this to new customers). No warning - just will start charging me as of September 1. This, combined with voicemail where the recordings sound like the callers have marbles in their mouth, has given me the motivation to start looking for another cell phone ("mobile") provider.

The first thing I noticed is that all the phones suck. Now, I know you're out there saying that your iPhone is the most fantastic thing you've ever used, but to be quite honest everyone calling me on one sounds like they're in a tunnel. What I'm looking for is a good phone, not something to run my life (and pay almost $100/month for the privilege). So back to the phones in general: Looking at the reviews, there isn't a single phone that everyone likes. Almost universally, people have trouble with battery life. Many have complained about their phone "locking-up" and/or resetting by itself, or about bad overall reception or dropped calls. In general, the manufacturers of the phones place a higher priority on the texting and multimedia functions while the phone portion seems like an afterthought. I don't have a "regular" phone line - my cell phone is my phone line. Therefore, I want something where people can hear me well, and I can hear them well.

Second to phone audio quality is the Bluetooth interface and phone book. I don't generally talk on the phone in the car, but having the hands-free interface in the car has been very convenient and much safer than holding a phone to my head while driving (that hand is better spent steering or using the directional signals). If the phone doesn't interoperate well with the car then that feature is worthless to me (both in the car and phone). The phone book should at least be able to have assignable ringtones, including one called "silent" (for those people I never want to hear from again). For ringtones, all I ask is that there is a built-in selection of about 3 ringers that sound like a phone. I don't want the phone to play songs when it rings, I just want it to sound like an old school electronic ringer. That's all. The phone should be able to transfer the entire phone book to the car over Bluetooth, not just an entry-at-a-time like my current Motorola V195.

Searching through available phones was a challenge, but using the carriers' web sites was borderline ridiculous. Like the phones, the web sites are more interested in pushing multimedia crap down everyone's throat. In this case, that means fcsking Flash, which I don't/can't use (how many fargin times do I need to say this?!). Taking the number one position on the crappy web site category is Verizon Wireless. The web site layout was okay, but if you don't use Flash, you can't even see a larger picture of the phone (I assume that's what they were trying to show me). But wait - there's more! I wanted to look at the manual for the phone. It was hard to find the manual, believe it or not. Finally, I stumbled on the location, and rather than having it in PDF format...you got it...you had to have the STUPID FLASH PLUG-IN TO READ THE MANUAL! WTF? I wanted the MANUAL, not some fscking multimedia presentation! Will you STUPID people who design these web sites get a god damn clue already. I don't know what moron decided that Flash was an appropriate mechanism to present what would normally be in a paper user manual, but they should be hung up and shot. Attention T-Mobile: THIS IS WHY I WANT A PAPER BILL! I'm tired of this crap where I have to have run Windows or MacOS and Flash (or whatever other damn plug-in they may decide to shove down my throat this month) in order to manage the account for my PHONE! Folks, I don't demand that you run your web site on Linux or FreeBSD. Don't tell me I have to use Windows or MacOS on my computer. I'm your customer, or potential one (maybe not). So while I won't demand that you run your web site on a reasonably secure OS, I will demand that you make it platform-independent (ie. you stick to standards), so your customers aren't just Windows and Mac users. Geezus H. Christ! Verizon, can you hear me now? Good.

Continuing... I don't like at&t in general, and that's another reason not to get an iPhone. I've done business with at&t for various services, and in general, at&t treats people as though at&t is the only game in town, and cements the deal with unreasonable terms and conditions and poor customer service. I liked Sprint when I used them before. The only reason I switched from Sprint was because I needed a phone with Bluetooth but without a camera (work restriction) and the only thing Sprint could give me was a Blackberry. Sprint's web site is somewhat better than Verizon's, but not much better. The one plus for Sprint was that I could easily see the manuals for all their phones (at least the ones I checked). Unfortunately, none of the phones looked any better than with any other carrier, and Sprint likes to charge a lot for them (along with a 2-year contract, of course). I'd like the people who come up with these terms to consider what would happen if they were stuck with a shitty customer for 2 years, the only way to escape the madness being to pay some extortion money to the customer. I say this because that's exactly what a 2-year agreement means to me, as a customer. Isn't paying $90 for a phone that only works on your network enough of a guarantee that I'll stick with your service if it's good?

So then we come full-circle to T-Mobile. You'd think that being their customer for almost 3 years and paying them on-time, that they would be able to do something better than charge me almost 2 bucks a month for a stupid paper bill. The T-Mobile web site is slow. It has so much fluff that it brings my poor old 1.4 GHz Celeron-based laptop (running Linux, so it is pretty fast yet) to its knees. They are also putting more Flash crap on their site, making it less and less useful to me. Again, their voicemail sucks - the problem being that they compress the voice down so much that it distorts. I know how this works because I actually manage a voicemail system for work (since it's also open source, I also know how it works internally). So while T-Mobile does, indeed, maximize their disk space by compressing the heck out of the audio, they also make the audio unintelligible. As more people call me from devices that are not primarily phones (like Blackberries and iPhones), the unintelligible speech becomes more and more of an issue (since it is frequently partially distorted already). The customer service people at T-Mobile, as nice as they try to be, don't know what in hell I'm talking about. Overall, I haven't been entirely displeased with T-Mobile, but when I do have an issue, they are less than helpful. While their priorities seem to be headed in the exact opposite direction from mine, they're unfortunately the known irritation rather than the unknown one. My phone (the Motorola V195, as I said before) is not the best phone in the world, but when I do call people the experience is close (if not identical) to being on a regular phone line.

So at the end of part 1 of Mobile Madness, it seems as though my best short-term course of action is to discontinue receiving a paper bill from T-Mobile and keep using them. At the same time, I'm going to start talking to friends (other than the ones who are tethered to their iPhones) to see what's working well for them. As soon as I can find some better alternatives, I'll proceed to part 2 and share my experiences.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Lunchus Ejectus

This weekend has turned out to be worse than last weekend. I should have suspected that something was amiss when half my tongue and throat was sore and my tongue felt swollen last weekend. On Thursday a friend and I met for lunch and I had the chile relleno plate. What I didn't realize was that I would be painfully seeing and tasting that lunch again a few hours later in not-so-pleasant forms and spending the entire night in and out of the bathroom. I nearly dragged myself to the emergency room since I was starting to feel so weak between bathroom visits I could hardly make it back to bed.

At first I thought this was food poisoning, but my friend and I had the same thing to eat, and she thankfully didn't end up sick. Then I remembered the sore throat and how drained I've been feeling, and have come to the conclusion that I probably have some form of the flu. Which one doesn't really matter - feeling miserable doesn't need a name.

So Friday I was off from work, sick. I'm still not feeling well, but better than I was. I've been eating a bland diet trying to get my stomach back to normal, but frankly nothing really feels too good. I anticipate that I'll be back at work on Monday but once again the ability to have a bit of a rest has gone down the toilet (almost literally).

So to add one remaining data point to punctuate a most irritating week... A while back my Mom recommended that I see the movie Marley & Me. "It's really good," she said. "But it has a sad ending," she also said. Now I'd say that the movie, cinematically, is good. [Possible spoilers follow] However, it isn't really a good idea to recommend a movie featuring a misbehaving dog, the development of a family with 3 kids (including one "oops"), to culminate in the decision to put the old dog to sleep...you don't recommend a movie like this to someone who's childfree, depressed, and who has an 18-year-old cat. It simply was not an uplifting movie. I've seen too many situations like this throughout my short existence on this planet.

A movie that really is good is Outsourced. This is not another depressing movie about US workers losing their jobs to cheap foreign labor. It really is an uplifting movie. It has humor and romance and is just all around good. I enjoyed it. I was planning on seeing it anyway (it was in my Netflix queue), but decided more quickly to see it on a friend's recommendation. She actually found the call center activity realistic and funny, and it was, but I just enjoyed it entirely.

Anyhow, that's the latest. Here's hoping for some good health again pretty soon, a chance to relax, and a return to some witty (?) banter...

Monday, August 10, 2009

Ketchup

Aside from movie reviews and complaints about Time Warner, I haven't said too much here lately. Part of that is because nothing much aside from "the usual" is going on, and partly because I haven't been up to writing much lately...

As a response to Speck's comment on August 4 to the Book of Faces posting (her response was actually in a different place) to my comment about trouble finding people with whom to share interests, which, in a short summary, was, "Have you tried finding groups of people that are as computer-minded as you?" The short answer is, "Yes, I have." However, the longer answer is that I am a lot more than just a one-dimensional person. Even if my interests were limited only to computers, the kind of things I do seem to be less fascinating to people (apparently) than being able to shake an iPhone and have it pick a restaurant for you (yes, to those who haven't been approached by someone touting all the wonderful things an iPhone can do to solve all life's problems, there really is an "app" that does just what I said...). It's picking random numbers, for heaven's sake. That was one of the first things I ever did with a computer! On the computer side of things, maybe I should appreciate the fact that few people actually know what in hell I'm talking about because it means I'll likely have a job for the foreseeable future.

I do have other interests, which have appeared here from time-to-time...musical tastes, seemingly watching lots of movies, driving in the country, interests in ideas for sustainable housing, and so on. So it isn't just computers. The problem is being able to share these things with others. Example: In Speck's posting "one more thing - I'm on a Boat" she says (in regard to The Lonely Island's "I'm on a Boat"), "It's fucking awesome! I've tried showing it to some people and they don't think it's funny." That's exactly the sentiment I'm talking about. You find something really cool and you get an ice cold response from the people around you (and, in this case, I believe I was one of those people, sorry!). There was a time I would make these "mix tapes" for people I knew, would talk about some of my crazy inventions, drag people along with me on my weird trips out to the middle of nowhere, and that kind of thing. Now? Not so much. Almost not at all.

In defense of both me and to "Speck" ... a disclaimer here is that we both know each other in person, and to be perfectly honest, she's probably one of the few people who actually isn't entirely afraid of either my musical tastes or drives out to the middle of nowhere....which probably explains her comment about the computer-related stuff.

Change of topic...

I know it's dumb to watch the game show "Deal or No Deal" on TV, but what puzzles me is how people on that show consider choosing random numbers to be some psychic experience. My favorite situation is when someone is choosing the high dollar values (meaning they're not going to win those) and Howie Mandel (the host) says, "You need to start choosing values from the left side." I want to yell at the screen, "Hey Howie! That's what the f**k I *AM* trying to do!" I actually want to go on that show sometime, pick briefcase number 1 as mine, and then choose every other case in order (so, the first six would be 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7) and keep going from there. It would drive the producers crazy...but the outcome wouldn't be any different. The dollar value of the amounts inside the briefcases are randomly sequenced. It doesn't matter which ones you choose, unless you have some idea of what is inside each case. In any event, I think I like watching the show (with my finger on the fast forward button) because I am fascinated by the amounts that the "banker" offers to buy the contestant's briefcase, and at what time one should stop picking random numbers and just take the darn offer. Guilty pleasure, I suppose.

Responding to JC, and her comments with regard to mine about body art. Yes, I think we're both saying the same things in different ways. I basically was saying, "to each their own," but at the same time saying, "there are some things that I just don't find attractive." I just think my view is a bit more narrow-minded than others, and apparently less narrow-minded than your Dad, and a lot less narrow-minded than my Dad (don't get me started). Just like with my other friends who are into the whole tattoo thing, there are a lot of things to admire about the person (in this case, you) well beyond the body art. I need to stop here though, my skin hurts thinking about all this...

Catching-up on Mental Shrapnel as well, I think people's behavior in airports and in airplanes speaks volumes about attitudes of people in general these days. I'm blessed this week with the barking dogs in the house 4 houses down that I'm pretty sure will be left mostly out in the back yard all week. These dogs are the ones I can hear clearly down the skylight starting at 7am and stopping at just after 9pm. Why someone would allow a person to care for their animals by throwing the animals in the back yard in 100+ degree weather for the day is beyond my comprehension. Why people smoke is beyond my comprehension. Why people act in airports and airplanes and, well, all over, like they're the only people on the planet and have no idea that there are other people around is also beyond my comprehension. At some time the idea of being considerate has been replaced with the message of "tolerance." I put that last word in quotes because what I'm talking about is not really what the whole concept of "tolerance" was about, but somehow has been warped to include that. Is being considerate of others a stone-age concept of the past? Is this just showing our age? Perhaps. Looking at the behavior of those around me indicates that the predominant attitude is that everyone is allowed to do what they want, and we just ignore those behaviors that bother us. Better? I don't know. I just know that it isn't the way things are in my world...and it won't ever be that way...

This past weekend I wanted to relax and get some stuff done, but alas I was stricken by an odd illness (?) that I can't really explain. One side of my tongue was sore (like my tongue got swollen and I bit it), and the pain extended down into my throat. By Saturday night I had a splitting headache. All I wanted to do all weekend was sleep, so that's mostly what I did (instead of doing what I wanted to do). I was feeling mostly better by the time I was due to go out to dinner on Sunday, and today (Monday) I'm fine again. I never had a fever (indicating an infection). Strange.

I need to get back to work now...

Friday, August 7, 2009

Cable Update

Well, everything is finally fixed. While the road to get there was a bit on the bumpy side, and the repairs took longer to happen than they should have, in the end things got fixed.

As expected, there was a load of confusion over what was actually wrong. I got a call from the technician in the morning (even though I specifically said that the problem was starting late in the afternoon). He didn't leave a message, but I called back on the number on the Caller-ID, and I mentioned what happened. He looked at the schedule and noticed that there were several service calls on my street. The light bulb went on.

After a call in the afternoon saying the problem was fixed, and finding it wasn't when I got home, and calling back to say it wasn't fixed, and getting a recording that there was a problem in the area, requesting a call back when the problem was fixed, and later getting the automated call that it was fixed and it wasn't fixed, calling back and getting a recording again that there was a problem in the area........

The cable service went dead a short time later. I mean dead as a doornail. No Internet. Not any sign of a signal. This happened for a half hour. At that point, I knew they were working on the trouble. It had the signature of what happens when they are in the process of replacing a part that's broken. About a half-hour later, service returned. The TV signal was good (real good) - the TiVo reported no signal errors at all (RS Corrected/Uncorrected). No digital distortion.

Things are looking good at this point. The signal strength is a bit low in my opinion on some channels (lower than it was), but it is a good signal. I waited until now to update everyone, because I was half-expecting that I would get home from work today and have to call once again, but it was all working as well as last night. I'll even say that the number of errors being reported in the signal are less now than before this whole problem started.

So while I do feel that the journey was a bit long and frustrating, in the end the problem was repaired.

This is what I've always said about Time Warner Cable. They are a company that is too large. With that size they've become so fragmented that while they independently have a lot of talented people, it is hard to get those people to the right place. This isn't specific to Time Warner either - it explains the way a lot of large organizations work (organization being an oxymoron in this case). Growth is good. Unbounded growth, like in people, makes the organization fat and sluggish, and unable to get anything done. Figuring out what the boundaries are, and who defines them, is at the heart of discussion in various disciplines (including politics).

Anyway, I'll never know who figured out what the trouble was in the cable transmission system, and what they did to fix it, but to those people who worked in 90+ degree weather last night, thanks. I appreciate your efforts.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Definitely, Maybe

I saw the movie Definitely, Maybe tonight. Excellent movie. I'm not going to write much about it - it was a good movie, and worth seeing. Good insight into relationships, in general. Thank you Netflix.

It's time for another installment of pointing out the stupidity that surrounds Time Warner Cable. Over the past 3 days, my cable/Internet service has been working intermittently poorly. That's not the stupid part though. I thought it was just me on day 1, called to report the problem, and cancelled the tech visit the next day since the problem seemed to be fixed. Then when I got home in the evening, the same problem happened. I called my neighbor and discovered it wasn't just me, and we both reported the problem, but a recording said there were troubles in the area. Okay. Seemed to work again in the morning on day #3, but at the end of day #3, problem recurs. Neighbors all having the same problem. The problem: pixelization and sound cutting in-and-out. In other words, digital distortion and poor signal quality.

What is stupid is how TWC handled the report when I called and told them that the problem was intermittent and my neighbors were all having the trouble. They seemed to ignore this, and even after my repeated insistance that it wasn't something within my house and that they needed to get someone to work on this, they still seemed to find it necessary to schedule a technician appointment for the next day (the earliest they could get someone to come out). I came to find out that my next door neighbor reported the same problem 2 hours earlier, and they didn't even bother to put 1 and 1 together (particularly after I repeated over and over again that it was other customers as well).

I've been down this road before: They will send someone out who will put a level meter on my cable line, criticize my inside wiring, and not be able to do anything because they don't do this kind of work. I hope I'm wrong. I'm also concerned that the trouble, being intermittent, will not happen as readily as it is today. It's the kind of problem that will continue to come and go until it is fixed. That's why they really need to address the problem while it's happening. I didn't come to that conclusion by myself - it was actually a good TWC technician who told me that.

Far be it for me to tell the cable company how to do their job though...I'm just a petty customer. I warned them, if they make me take time off work, they had better resolve the trouble that day or I may consider canceling my service. I am already going to insist on at least a credit for the 3 days of service I essentially lost.

It did make me take pause and wonder if I really need to keep getting cable TV. After all, Netflix has been pretty good, and I get great reception over-the-air for network TV. I do like having some of the unique programming on cable, but at times like this I wonder whether the pain is worth it. Three days in a row, three days being very stressful at work, three days of wrestling with cable rather than enjoying my time off and unwinding.

Finally, while I can't provide any specific details here, I have a word to say about the environment that I work in. My job is as a system/network administrator and I manage two other people in my group. I also do the development of the phone system (based on the open source Asterisk project, that I've mentioned before). Anyway, some people work in what is called a "hostile work environment," and there are generally human resources implications to that situation. In my case, with some of the people I support and the people I supervise, the work environment for me seems more like a "psychotic work environment." Psychotic meaning, by definition, "characterized by defective or lost contact with reality especially evidenced by delusions, hallucinations, and disorganized speech and behavior." One of my employees did something (in deference to what I asked him to do), then made up a situation that made no sense and was entirely incorrect that he said I did to cause him to react differently, and when I told him that was not what happened, he called me a liar. In most work environments, that would be cause to send the employee home without pay to think about the definition of insubordination. However, where I work, that has legal implications, and the upper-level management wouldn't back me on that decision. I am finally getting my 2008 performance evaluation with my 2009 goals this week. Yes, you read that correctly. I have a lot of stuff to do, not a lot of time to do it in, and with a psychotic work environment including two guys I inherited that I'm finding cause me more work than they accomplish, I'm stressed out beyond belief. I desperately need a vacation. I don't know when that will happen now. I admit I'm not a great supervisor (I'm a techie, not a people person), but for heaven's sake, I can't believe I'm even holding our group together given the circumstances. I'm really getting tired of being treated as though I'm senile.

The last thing I need is my cable TV and Internet service to start getting flaky and having to deal with that too.

A friend of mine at work had to have her cat put to sleep a few days ago. She came to tell me about that and ask whether the humane society would take the remaining food, cat toys, etc. (the answer is "yes"). This particular person is someone I admire a lot, but we haven't yet found a consistently common ground on which to connect. Available in theory, but emotionally not really available. The situation with her cat came as a surprise, and I really didn't know how, exactly, to handle it (aside from the phrase, "I'm sorry"). I am painfully aware of what a heartwrenching situation this is.

It has not been a good week.