Wednesday, 30 June, 2004

Settling in

I always like to fly west.  We left Austin at noon today and arrived at John Wayne airport (Orange County) about 3:30.  By 5:00, we were kicking back on the porch overlooking the Pacific Ocean and sipping a cold Corona.  This should be a relaxing few days.

I've always liked the weather in southern California but I seriously dislike the traffic, smog, overpopulation, and weird politics.  It'd be different if I could afford to live in Laguna Beach where the population density isn't nearly as high as other parts of southern California and the sea breeze blows the smog inland.  I'd seriously consider moving out here if I didn't have to get up and fight the traffic every morning on the way to work.  There's still the weird politics to contend with, and I'd have to spend a little more time before deciding whether I like the people.  I've been spoiled by the casual friendliness that's part of central Texas culture and I don't know if I could give that up.  Most of the people I met "on the street" in Laguna weren't very friendly at all.  I realize that the 4th of July weekend is the height of tourist season and the locals are tired of all the transients clogging up the streets and the beaches.  Still, that's no reason to be surly and downright rude.

Tuesday, 29 June, 2004

On vacation

Entries will be infrequent or non-existent here for the next week.  I'm off to Laguna Beach, California with Debra to visit with some old friends and, although I'll have access to a computer, I probably won't want to spend the time required to write here.  I am going to take my SuSE Live CD and thumb drive, though, to see if I can boot my friend's computer and simulate doing some work.  I considered taking the laptop, but it's too inconvenient to lug around considering how little I'll probably use it.  Now if I had one of those tablet PCs...

Sunday, 27 June, 2004

Field Day

Field Day was a soggy affair.  It's been raining pretty much every day here in central Texas for the last two or three weeks, and today was no different.  I got a little later start than I had hoped, and managed to get soaked by the rain while I was running between the house and the garage to load my truck with all the stuff I needed to take out to the Field Day site.  The site wasn't any better, and we spent most of the time until 1:00 PM slogging around in the mud trying to get antennas up and the rest of the site arranged.

I'd never done Field Day before, or even participated in an amateur radio contest.  It's an experience unlike any other.  Mostly it consists of sitting in front of the radio making and logging "contacts" with other operators.  For these contests, we'll typically have an operator working the radio and a companion logging contacts on the computer.  A typical contact goes something like this:

Us:  CQ Field Day, CQ Field Day.  November Five Tango Tango.
Them:  November Five Tango Tango, Kilo Bravo Seven Uniform Quebec Delta.
Us:  KB7UQD, please copy two alpha south Texas.
Them:  N5TT, I copy two alpha south Texas.  Please copy three alpha Long Island.
Us:  I copy three alpha Long Island.  Seventy three.

There's a lot of jargon in there, but the translation is pretty simple.  It starts out with one station making a call "CQ," which translates to "calling all hams."  It's an invitation for anybody to reply.  The "November Five Tango Tango" is the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) phonetics for the call sign we were using, N5TT.  The responding station replies with our call sign, followed by their call sign; in this case KB7UQD (which is my personal call sign, by the way).  After that is what's called the "exchange."  This is a contest, so the ARRL wants some kind of verification that you actually made the contact.  For this contest, the exchange was the station classification (2A in our case, 3A in the responding station's case) and location.  The "I copy" is simply an acknowledgement.  And "seventy three" is ham shorthand for "best regards."  It doesn't sound like shorthand until you're doing this with Morse code, where "73" is only two characters.

You can make several such contacts a minute if you have a good antenna and plenty of power.  This goes on for 24 hours, obviously with some breaks to switch operators and such.

The primary purpose of Field Day is to practice emergency response.  In the case of natural disaster, ham radio is often the only means of communications.  Power, cell phones, and Internet connectivity go out very frequently.  But amateur radio stays on the air.  Hams pride themselves in their ability to run on backup power and get signals out when nobody else can.  Within hours (sometimes less) of a major disaster, hams can have antennas set up at a site and start coordinating communications with the outside world--anywhere in the outside world--without having to rely on commercial power or telecommunications providers.  You don't know how vital that is until something knocks out every other means of communication.

Saturday, 26 June, 2004

Opening links from Evolution

I got a note from Rob Haynes, who found my June 4 entry about the trouble I was having with the Evolution email client not opening links in a browser.  He wrote to tell me that he found the solution on an old Ximian mail list posting here.  The solution is pretty simple:

  1. Run /opt/bin/gnome-default-applications-properties.
  2. Select "Custom Web Browser."
  3. Enter the appropriate command for your browser.  For me that was "firefox %s".

Working with Linux can be so frustrating at times.  I never would have thought to set GNOME applications properties to affect the operation of my mail client under KDE.  It makes some sense, though, seeing that Evolution is a GNOME application.

David Gristwood, an employee at Microsoft, today posted an article by Jim McCarthy entitled 21 Rules of Thumb for Shipping Great Software On Time.  Whatever your opinion of Microsoft software in general, they do ship software that meets most users' needs most of the time, and developers can learn a lot from the rules they (try to) follow.  I haven't fully digested the article, so won't comment on it much other than to say that it's well worth the read.

Some of the discussion following the article is quite good, but you'll have to filter out the juvenile "Microsoft sucks" comments that are the result of the article being mentioned on Slashdot.  I don't have the patience to wade through the inevitable mountain of crap on the Slashdot thread.

Thursday, 24 June, 2004

Bicycle power generation

ARRL Field Day is this upcoming weekend from 1:00 PM Central time on Saturday until 1:00 PM Sunday.  Ham radio operators all over the country will be out operating from temporary locations, setting up generators, putting up temporary antennas, and trying to contact as many people as they can over that 24 hour period.  This is my first Field Day, so I'm not really "up" on all that goes on.  It should be interesting.

My contribution to the local club's efforts are twofold.  I brewed up a special batch of Field Day Bitter, a low-alcohol beer that should prove refreshing during the heat of the day.  Provided we don't indulge too heavily.  More importantly, I'll be serving as the power source for our "natural power" rig.  The rules say that we get 100 bonus points (Field Day is a contest, by the way) for making a certain number of contacts on natural power.  Natural power is defined as power from other than gasoline/diesel generators or commercial power sources.  If you use a battery, the battery has to be charged by natural means.  Most clubs will throw out a few solar panels to charge a small battery and make their contacts running low power (5 watts or less).  We decided to hook a bicycle up to an alternator and a car battery so that we can run for an extended period at 100 watts.  My friend and fellow ham Steve Cowell (KI5YG) did the engineering, and I (along with a little help from Debra and Tasha the poodle) pedaled enough power into the battery that we should be able to get our 100 point bonus.

I won't bore you with the math, but charging a 95 amp hour battery takes a lot of pedaling.  8 to 10 hours to get it fully charged.  I'm beat.

If you're interested in how Steve hooked it all up, take a look at the alternator wiring close-up (big picture:  1600 x 1200).  The light bulb is a dual filament brake light bulb that we used to limit the amount of current the alternator field draws.  At full strength the alternator is very difficult to turn and it causes the belt to slip on the bicycle rim.  If we do this again next year we'll find a more secure way to attach that belt.  More details later.

Monday, 21 June, 2004

Thermal depolymerization update

In myMay 30, 2003 entry I mentioned Changing World Technologies and their thermal depolymerization process for recycling organic wastes.  At the time, they expected to have their first commercial plant in Carthage, MO up and running Real Soon Now, processing 200 tons of turkey waste daily from the Butterball turkey plant.  The July 2004 issue of Discover Magazine has a follow-up article that describes their progress to date.

The Carthage plant, a joint venture between CWT and ConAgra Foods, still isn't working at capacity.  They lost a lot of time (six to nine months) inspecting and repairing 5,000 welds and are in legal action against the contractor.  They've had it work at capacity for up to 12 hours at a time, but they're still tuning the system:  calibrating, tweaking, and refining.  They're estimating a fall 2004 opening for the plant.  Still, what they have is encouraging.  The system is reportedly 85 percent efficient, and should be able to operate without sucking power from the grid.  The oil produced easily meets the specifications for diesel fuel.  In short, the chemistry works.  The rest is "just a technical problem."  I'm still excited about the prospects for this one.

Sunday, 20 June, 2004

SuSE 9.1 Personal available via FTP

Slashdot reports today that SuSE has made an ISO image of their 9.1 Personal version available via FTP.  The FTP address is ftp.suse.com/pub/suse/i386/9.1-personal-iso/.  This the first time in recent memory that SuSE has made one of its distributions available as an ISO.  With previous versions of SuSE Linux it was possible to do an FTP install, but you couldn't download an ISO and burn it to CD.  The ISO version includes almost everything from the CD version that you can buy in the store or from SuSE's Web site.  The only things missing are some proprietary programs.  As the Slashdot story says, you could install this version and use it to get from SuSE all the things that are on the Professional version (minus the proprietary stuff).  Of course, you'd have to do a lot of downloading.  The Professional edition consists of five CDs.  It also includes two DVDs:  one containing the full 32-bit and 64-bit distributions, and the other that has full sources.

One of my goals this year is to do at least one century ride (100 miles) per month.  January through April wasn't terribly difficult because I was training for and then doing my ride to Harlingen.  May's ride was the Armadillo Hill Country Classic, also not too tough because of my residual fitness level and keeping up my training.  My training over the past four or five weeks, though, has consisted mostly of riding with Debra for an hour to hour and a half three times per week, and doing a longer ride of about three hours on Sunday.  This is not enough to maintain the conditioning for a comfortable 100 mile ride.  My first mistake this morning was leaving the house late:  8:00 rather than 6:30 or 7:00.  It got up to 90 degrees by noon, and I was hurting.  I also overestimated my fitness level and selected a course with a few more hills than I was ready to tackle.  I managed to finish the ride, albeit at a slightly slower pace than I had expected and more frequent stops.

One of my stops was planned.  Today is World Juggling Day, and the members of the Texas Juggling Society gathered at the Barton Springs Pool for juggling, swimming, and such.  I stopped by a little after noon, did a little juggling, jumped in the pool (cold), and then headed off again.  I still had 30 miles left to ride.  Barton Springs Pool, by the way, is a great place to relax on the grass and go for a dip in a spring-fed pool.  It's a big pool.  I learned something new, too:  Austin's nudity laws are quite liberal.  Lots of women were sunbathing topless.  I might have to visit there again.

Thursday, 17 June, 2004

SuSE Linux 9.1 Live-Eval

SuSE recently made their SuSE Linux 9.1 Live-Eval version available for download.  You simply download the ISO image (about 675 megabytes), burn the image to a CD, and then boot a computer from that CD.  SuSE Linux 9.1 comes up, letting you give Linux a try without having to install anything to your hard drive.

I downloaded the Live CD image to my SuSE 9.1 Professional system last night, and this evening K3b, the CD Kreator, made quick work of burning the image to a CD.  I put the CD in my Dell Latitude laptop and rebooted.  I didn't have to answer a single prompt during the boot process, and in about the same time it takes to boot a Windows install CD, I had a working Linux system running.  Everything's done on the CD or in a RAM drive.  It's stunning.  Just beautiful.  I can browse the Web, work with OpenOffice applications, check email, play games, and even mount my Windows shares so that I could store files over there.  I should be able to mount the laptop's hard drive, but I haven't figured out how to do that yet.  I also need to see if I can mount my 256 MB Memorex USB thumb drive.  With the SuSE Live CD and a workable thumb drive, I could work on just about any modern system.

Thursday, 17 June, 2004

Mozilla Firefox

It's been years since I last tried any version of Mozilla.  I've been hearing good things about Firefox 0.9 (the revamped Mozilla browser), though, so I thought I'd give it a try.  Download and install on my Windows system took just a couple of minutes, although it did crash trying to import my Favorites, cookies, and history.  I restarted the thing and told it to just import my Favorites.  I'll re-generate the cookies if I need them.  With a total of about 30 minutes time actually using the browser, I'm reasonably convinced that I won't be using Internet Explorer anymore on this machine.  IE will have to implement tabbed browsing, popup blocking, and a much better "Organize Favorites" interface before I give it another serious look.  The rendering problems and clunky user interface I remember from the Mozilla browser of years ago are gone.  The user interface for Firefox is clean and slick, and the browser's feature set outshines IE.  At least it does for the things I use.  We'll see how I feel after working with it for a week or two.

I was unable, though, to get Firefox 0.9 running on my SuSE Linux system.  I went to the Firefox page, downloaded the package, and followed the directions in the README file.  They need to update their README.  The document is full of references to files that have the "mozilla" prefix, but everything in the downloaded archive has the "firefox" prefix.  That's a minor nit.  The major problem is that I simply can't get the thing to run.  I think the installer ran okay, but when I tried to run the browser, I got the following error message:

Xlib: connection to ":0.0" refused by server
Xlib: XDM authorization key matches an existing user!
(firefox-bin:4525): Gtk-WARNING **: cannot open display:

I suspect that means something to somebody, but it's Greek to me.  It might have something to do with me running the install and the browser from within an X console.  I wonder if the startup script is trying to start the X window server?  I'm also installing as root so that everybody has access to the browser.  Whatever the problem, I couldn't make it work after futzing with it for an hour so I gave up and installed Firefox 0.8 from the SuSE distribution DVD.  I guess I'll see if I can get a Firefox update from SuSE's site.

One thing did strike me funny about the Firefox installer running on Linux.  The first screen that pops up tells me to exit all Windows programs before continuing.  I got a pretty good chuckle out of that one.

Wednesday, 16 June, 2004

Losing weight isn't enough. Exercise!

There's a lot we still don't know about how the body works.  In my May 13 entry I mentioned some recent research about the biology of fat.  In a nutshell, too many fat cells will cause toxic levels of chemicals in the body, leading to problems with heart, liver, kidneys, etc.  You'd think, then, that if you got rid of a significant number of fat cells, those chemical levels in the blood would go down.  Makes sense, right?  Researchers thought so, too, but according to this article, it doesn't work that way.

Researchers checked  the blood pressure and blood chemistry for 15 women who went in for cosmetic liposuction.  Readings were taken before they had the surgery, and again three months after.  No change.  Losing the fat didn't change the metabolic brew in the blood.  One possible explanation is that the type of fat removed by liposuction is not the primary culprit.  Liposuction doesn't remove visceral fat, which some researchers think is the real culprit.  Others think that you have to change the fat cells' size through diet and exercise, or put the body into energy deficit, again through diet and exercise, to switch on healthier fat chemistry.

Somehow I don't find this terribly surprising.  If there's a quick and easy way to lose weight and become healthy, I haven't yet found it.  But I know the slow and steady route works:  reasonable diet and moderate exercise.  Call me a relic.  I'll stick with the tried and true on this one.

There are some advantages to a database driven content management system (CMS) like PostNuke.  It's nice to have the majority of the content in a single file (database) that can be easily backed up.  Having the database also makes it much easier to support a Web-based article entry mechanism.  I can visit my PostNuke powered site from any Web browser to post updates.  Another benefit is the ease with which I can change the site design.  Most of this is possible without a database, but it's much more difficult.  But using a database has its disadvantages, too.  With a pure HTML site I have a mirror of the contents on my local computer, giving me a very good off-site backup.  With the database approach, I have to download the database myself (inconvenient) or depend on my hosting provider's backups (risky).  With the database I'm also at the mercy of the CMS software.  Although all the information is in the database, getting it out in a usable form can be very difficult.  I wonder if it's possible and reasonable to store most of the content in flat files on the Web server and use a database for indexing, classification, and perhaps some caching.

PostNuke also has what I consider a design flaw:  non-database site content (images in particular, and any static pages) are stored in folders within the program's directory hierarchy.  For example, topic images are stored in /modules/topics/images and static html pages are stored in /modules/Static_Docs/data.  The /modules/topics and /modules/Static_Docs directories hold program code.  Mixing program code and application data like this makes it difficult to find the data, and also forces backup programs to back up unchanging program code.  I've run into the same problem with all too many Windows programs that install in the \Program Files directory and store their data in subdirectories.  Microsoft and most reasonable Windows development shops have reformed and now are storing their data within the Application Data directory structure, which makes it very easy to locate and backup user information.  Unix and Linux systems have been doing this for years, of course:  all user-specific program data is stored in the user's home directory.  I wonder if the PostNuke development team would consider storing program data in a separate directory.  Guess I'll hop over there and suggest it.

Sunday, 13 June, 2004

Experimenting with PostNuke

I spent a large part of the last 36 hours downloading PostNuke, installing it on my Web site, and then trying to make it do what I wanted it to do.  This was a big mistake, not because of the software quality, but because what PostNuke does and what I want done are two different things.  PostNuke is a content management system for Web sites.  It's geared more towards news or blogging than to generalized content management.  At least, that's what it appears to me.  I installed it here mostly because I want to make Random Notes more blog-like, and because I want the ability to add entries over the Web rather than by modifying the HTML file here and uploading it.  PostNuke looks like it will do the trick, but the conversion is not going to be a weekend job.

PostNuke is very good software.  Download, installation, and basic configuration were simple and painless, and worked flawlessly.  I was able to add articles to my site within an hour of starting the installation.  That includes time to upload everything to the Web server.  After that, though, things got more difficult for two reasons.  First, I was trying to fit my old site design into PostNuke's blog-oriented mentality and second, the PostNuke documentation isn't very detailed.  It's a good reference guide and there are some good installation tutorials, but I haven't yet run across a good discussion of the relationships among Sections, Categories, and Topics or other ways to organize files or articles on the site.

I did download a third party PostNuke module called Static_Docs, which I thought would help me incorporate my static pages into the PostNuke site.  Static_Docs wouldn't install, though, because it expects the mySQL tables to have the "nuke_" prefix, but I used a different prefix when I installed PostNuke.  I'm sure I could have changed the SQL script that updates the tables, but by that time I had determined that the migration was going to take a while.  So I deleted the database and reverted to my old site design.

I think I'm going to get Apache, PHP, mySQL, and whatever else is required running on my Mandrake system here.  I'll install PostNuke there and experiment.  I'll either get my site running, or I'll determine that PostNuke won't do what I want done.

Wednesday, 09 June, 2004

A frog in the pool

I found another frog in the pool today.  This is by far the largest frog I've seen around here.  He's half the size of Charlie's head!  Frogs are hard to catch in the pool because they can swim a whole lot faster than I can push the net through the water.  I end up having to chase them around a bit before I can sneak up on them.  We have plenty of toads around here, but I'm always surprised when I find a frog.  It's a long way from here to the creek.  I think the frogs get washed down the ditch in front of the house during heavy rains and then find their way to the swimming pool.  Whenever I find one I scoop it up and put it in my neighbor's backyard pond.

Tuesday, 08 June, 2004

Overcommitted?

I've heard it said that a man only has time to be good at three things at a time.  For most of us two of those slots are filled by work and family, leaving time enough to do one thing well.  Or time enough to seriously study one thing at a time.  If you try to do much more, other things suffer.  Some people sacrifice their health to fit something else in, either by becoming sedentary or by losing sleep.  Others get a mindless job that takes no effort, leaving their energies for other purposes.  Still others ignore their families in order to leave more time for "other things."  I heard this some years ago and didn't give it much thought until recently when I started trying to fit something else into my schedule.  It doesn't work.  The only solution is to reduce commitments.  For me, that means putting aside for a while some things that I'd been hoping to get to this year.

It's surprising how many people get themselves into this kind of bind and then can't find a way out.  Over commitment is a major source of stress and depression.  People over commit, stress when they can't meet their commitments, and then just shut down:  unable to do anything because they're worried about everything.  They're afraid to back out of any commitments even when they realize that it's their only workable solution.  Yes, it's painful to back out, and you'll probably disappoint some people.  But do it anyway.  Your friends might be disappointed if you say "I can't do this anymore."  But they'll stop being your friends if you string them along forever.

Saturday, 05 June, 2004

Linux desktop not quite ready

It's looking more and more like this is not the year that Linux makes serious inroads on the desktop.  All things considered, that's probably A Good Thing.  Open Source developers have made very impressive progress over the last few years, but they still have a way to go before I would recommend a Linux distribution to most desktop computer users.  I know that with that statement I'm opening myself up to all kinds of scorn and accusations of FUD from the Open Source crowd, but so be it.

I'm not saying that Linux is bad, or that it never will be a major desktop contender, just that the time isn't quite yet.  Open Source developers have made very impressive strides and the major Linux distributions that I've tested (primarily SuSE, Fedora, Mandrake, and Lycoris) are quite usable if somewhat frustrating.  Functionally, they're as good as or better than Windows in most respects.  On the surface, they're "just as easy" to use as Windows.  Installation certainly is easy enough, and simple operations like Web browsing, word processing, and checking email are easy to do and reasonably well documented.  Things get a bit more difficult, though, once you go beyond the handful of applications that are documented well in the printed user guides or if something entirely unexpected happens, which is all too frequent.  The information needed to find and fix problems is available, just not easy to find.  And editing configuration files with a clunky old text editor like vi is fine for old computer junkies like me, but not for most computer users--even those who are reasonably comfortable with technology.

As I see it right now, a desktop Linux system is a good choice for computer savvy individuals, and for corporate installations that have strict controls on what software is installed on their computers.  It could be a good choice for casual users who have well-defined requirements and will not be changing their configurations often to try out new software.  I include Aunt Tillie here, who just wants to browse the Web from time to time and keep up with her email.  Provided that somebody knowledgeable installs and configures the system, Aunt Tillie will be just fine.  Better, perhaps, than with a Windows system, due to the reduced threat of viruses and worms.

In my opinion, the major thing lacking in desktop Linux distributions now is "user friendliness."  That's a hard thing to quantify.  It's improved over the five or so years since I started working with Linux, but there's still a way to go before I could comfortably install a Linux distribution on Debra's computer.  I keep looking and hoping.  I suspect it'll be a couple more years. 

I started using my SuSE Linux system for email and Web browsing on May 29.  I'm slowly adding more as time allows, but it's slow going.  So far I've been mostly pleased with the Evolution mail client and Konqueror browser, but I'm still trying to get comfortable.  If there's a way in Evolution to display the next email message (i.e. Previous and Next buttons), it's either well hidden or I'm blind.  And for some reason, clicking on a link from within an email message won't open that link in the browser--even when I right click and then select "Open Link in Browser."  Evolution seems like a nice enough email client other than that, although I'll admit that I've yet to explore the Calendar, Tasks, or Contacts.

I've had no trouble using Konqueror as a Web browser, although it's taking me some time to get accustomed to tabbed browsing.  I like it when I remember, but all too often I click on a link and then think "nothing happened" because I didn't see the window contents change or a new window pop up.  I'm also annoyed by the lack of Ctrl+D to get to the address bar.  That particular keystroke is hard-coded into my fingers in much the same way that the Wordstar command keys were 10 years ago.  It'll be a while before I can train my fingers to hit Ctrl+O instead.

Right now I'm having typical "new system" troubles, just trying to familiarize myself with the way things are done in Linux, X Window, and KDE.  I keep poking at it and learning new things every day.  It's possible that some of the problems I'm having are shortcomings of the user interface, but I'll withhold judgment until I become more familiar with the overall system.

Tuesday, 01 June, 2004

Weird email messages

Jeff Duntemann mentioned in his Web diary post for May 30 that we'd been puzzling over some strange email messages we've both been receiving.  These messages have none of the standard header fields beyond the tracing information (i.e. the "Received:" lines):  no subject, no to field, no from field, and no message body.  I've been seeing these on and off for a few months now, but they seem to be getting more prevalent.  For a while I thought it was malfunctioning SMTP or POP servers because I figured the specifications wouldn't allow such a message to be passed.  I was wrong.  SMTP servers are quite happy to pass on empty messages.  As it turns out, SMTP servers don't need any of the message header information in order to accept and deliver a message.  Everything they need to get a simple message across is supplied by the MAIL FROM and RCPT TO commands to the server.  I was able to send myself one of these blank messages, although I won't say how it's done.  Read RFC2821 and figure it out for yourself if you're so inclined.

One other thing to note is that the original messages could have contained some text in the message body, but the resulting message is badly formed (not conforming to RFC2822).  Mail clients barf when trying to parse the message.  I connected to my POP server with telnet to examine one of my test messages and found that the body text is placed in the wrong position; immediately after the headers without the intervening blank line that's required by the specification.  I have to wonder if this is a feature of the spec or a bug in some server implementations.

The more interesting question is the source of these messages.  Who would send badly formed email messages?  I'd suspect a denial of service attack, except that a dozen or so messages per week hardly represents an "attack" in my book.  My best guess is a malfunctioning home-grown mail program, most likely a spam utility, but without more information it's hard to say.  I do find it odd, though, that a spam utility would relay through the spammer's SMTP server rather than connecting directly to the target SMTP server.  I can show that this happens by examining the tracing information in the message.