Wednesday, 29 November, 2006

Spanking North Korea

In one of the dumbest moves I've seen yet, the Bush administration in its role as incompetent world parent is going to punish unruly child North Korea by taking away its iPod.  Yes, you heard right, we're banning shipments of iPods, plasma televisions, Segway scooters, cognac, Rolex watches, and other luxury items that Kim Jong-Il likes to give as gifts to his 600 or so closest friends.  The theory, I guess, is that denying him these items will somehow bring him around to our way of thinking.  Yahoo has the full AP story here.

I've never raised children, but even I know that taking away an unruly teen's iPod just makes him sullen and apt to lash out.  Remove enough of a kid's luxuries and he'll find other ways to amuse himself.  Kim Jong-Il, like his father before him, doesn't even care that he can't feed his own people.  Why the Bush administration thinks he'll care about not being able to give some trinkets to friends is quite beyond me.

U.S. foreign policy ever since the end of the Cold War has been inconsistent, incoherent, and mostly just plain wrong.  It's like we're trying to be the World's daddy by using those wrong-headed "be your child's friend" parenting techniques from the 80s that nearly turned a whole generation into sniveling, whining, ambitionless brats.  All these little countries that give us trouble know that we have no power.  They know that if we raise our hand to give a spanking, all they have to do is call Child Protective Services (the U.N. or just the ever-powerful world opinion), and the U.S. is severely chastised by the rest of the children.

If we're going to play daddy--and I'm not saying that we should--we need to use a firm hand, tell the rest of the pissant little ankle biters to behave, and use all the tools at our disposal to implement the changes that we want to see.  If we're not going to do that, then we need to back off and let the world handle their own problems.  This pussyfooting around makes us look weak and stupid, and causes way more problems than it solves, if it solves any at all.

Sunday, 26 November, 2006

Long weekend activities

In the past 20 years, Thanksgiving for me has always been a four-day weekend. Prior to that I was working in a bank and, since federal banking regulations prohibit a bank from being closed more than three days in a row (something about depositors wanting to get their money, if you can imagine), Friday would find me ensconced in the computer room banging away at the keyboard. I guess that was okay because my wife at the time was working retail and you can bet she had to work on the day after Thanksgiving.

I tried the "Black Friday" shopping thing once and decided that it wasn't for me. Shopping makes me jittery on the best of days. The crowds on the Friday after Thanksgiving scare the heck out of me. Can you believe stores were opening at five in the morning yesterday? What kind of craziness is that? I can just imagine the employees and customers at each others' throats because they didn't get enough sleep and haven't had enough coffee. Most people I know don't even know that 5:00 AM exists. If they do, they're convinced that there isn't any air in the world that early.

For me, the Friday after Thanksgiving is a day of rest. An entire "me" day for lazing around, maybe watching a movie on DVD, puttering at the computer, and generally being a wholly unproductive member of society. I get very upset if somebody tries to make me actually do work on that day.

The next two days, though, are usually spent on some home project. One year it was replacing a dishwasher and a few other minor chores. This year I'm hanging doors in a room that we're remodeling. There's a trick to hanging doors--especially the double closet doors that I'm working with (two sets of double doors). I'm hoping that I don't have to hang so many doors that I figure out what the trick is. Both sets of closet doors are up now, as is the hallway door--a 30-inch pre-hung door that was very easy compared to these double door units.

I've done a lot of remodeling in this house over the years, including turning the garage into an office, laundry room, entry way, and pantry. I've come to the conclusion that doing your own home repairs or remodeling saves you money only if you don't count your time. It's taken me a whole day (spread out over two days) to install those two closet doors. Somebody who does this stuff for a living would have had both doors installed and perfect in about three hours, tops. And I'll bet the trim would look better than mine, too.

So why do I install these doors rather than pay somebody? Because sometimes I like doing something completely different. I sit behind a computer all day long, thinking and pounding out code or writing articles. It feels good to get out the tools and build something physical from time to time.

Wednesday, 22 November, 2006

Installing Ubuntu Server

Last month I downloaded Ubuntu version 6.06 (Dapper Drake) for two reasons:  to install a desktop machine for some quick testing, and to build a 'permanent' development server.  The only thing painless about the process was downloading the ISO image.  My HP DVD/CD burner, which had been acting a little flaky, completely crapped out and the built-in DVD ROM/CD burner in my laptop had trouble until I lowered the write speed.

It didn't help that this was the same day I rode home in a downpour and discovered that, although my backpack is water resistant, it is not water proof.  My laptop got wet and I was sure I'd fried it.  I left it to dry overnight and everything seems to work okay.  But I digress.

The Ubuntu Live CD ran fine, but installing from that CD failed after a few input screens for no apparent reason.  I poked around a bit and found the answer:  use the "alternate" install CD, which installs in text mode.  After that, things went very well and I was quite pleasantly surprised by the ease of installation and the uncluttered desktop.  I ran the online software update and was again pleasantly surprised at how painless the update was.  We did our desktop testing quickly and then it was time to build the server.

Things went poorly from the start.  I carried the computer back to my office and plugged it in to my spare monitor, booted the alternate CD and told it to install the server.  Yes, I could have gone through the effort of adding server stuff to the desktop installation and removing stuff I didn't need, but it just seemed cleaner to start over.  But after a few screens of data gathering, the monitor went blank.  I don't know why. 

I finally figured out that it was the combination of video card and monitor that was causing the problem.  Why Ubuntu needs to change the video mode in the middle of a text install--especially when building a server that doesn't have a GUI--is beyond me, but there it is.  I've since installed a second server on a different computer that uses that monitor with a different video card.

Finishing the server install doesn't give you a very functional server, and for some reason the default install makes it difficult to get some packages.  Probably for security reasons.  After struggling a while, I found that I had to modify the /etc/app/sources.list file to include the 'universe' and 'multiverse' repositories--something that was not very well documented a month ago, but is explained very clearly now for Ubuntu 6.10 (Edgy Eft).

What software did I have to install manually?  Open SSH, Apache web server, PHP, MySQL, the Java JDK, and the JOE editor because vi sucks rocks.

I'm now in the middle of learning PHP while creating a large Web application.  The server has been very reliable, and I'm beginning to think that I might yet get the hang of this Linux thing--at least as far as servers go.  I still have questions about using Linux on a desktop, but that could change if I can make the time to sit down and play with it.

Thursday, 16 November, 2006

Now that's an adventure

In June 2004, a team of three people left Vancouver on their bicycles.  They returned almost two years later (720 days), after completing the first human-powered circumnavigation of the Earth.  They cycled, skiied, canoed, hiked, and rowed around the world.  This incredible adventure included, among other things, a completely unsupported five-month rowing across the Atlantic from Portugal to Costa Rica.

One book about the adventure, Beyond the Horizon, will be released in March 2007.  It's on my list. 

Tuesday, 14 November, 2006

Have you given anybody flowers today?

I was privilegedl this evening to hear a new member of my Toastmasters club give a speech entitled, "Have you given anybody flowers today?" The title caught my attention, and she kept my attention throughout her five minute talk. I can't recite her presentation from memory, but I did manage to get the gist of it.

When we're young we're taught that "sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me." It's a nice thought. As we grow older, we learn just how terribly hurtful words can be. There are people who are quite adept at applying verbal sticks and stones. Friends and lovers know all of the most tender spots and can injure with carefully selected words. It's probably not the words that hurt so much, but rather the idea that somebody I love and trust would hurt me on purpose.

If hurtful words are sticks and stones, then what do we call compliments? R (the speaker) put forth the idea that we call them flowers--verbal flowers. Verbal flowers can delight and let another know that you really do like and appreciate him or her. A smile and a sincere, "you look nice today" can brighten somebody's day and maybe help erase the pain of the verbal sticks and stones that we're inundated with on a daily basis. Yes, your partner should know that you love her (or him), but it's so much nicer to hear not only, "I love you," but also, "you look beautiful," or "I enjoy the sound of your voice."

Verbal flowers don't have to be limited just to friends and lovers. Everybody responds positively to compliments. Is it so difficult to say to somebody, "you did a great job" or something similar? In our increasingly critical world, verbal flowers are more welcome than ever.

In the 18 months or so that I've been involved with Toastmasters I've been continually impressed at how quickly a new member can go from literally getting sick at the idea of speaking in front of a group to presenting an idea with aplomb. R. is a beautiful woman in her mid 20s who attended her first Toastmasters meeting just two months ago and was visibly uncomfortable speaking. Tonight she was poised and confident, presenting a wonderful idea with grace, humor, and feeling. It was a joy to watch and listen, and she gave me something that I'll remember forever.

Tuesday, 07 November, 2006

Broken HTML

I've been head-down here the last couple of weeks installing a Linux server and trying to get up to speed with some PHP scripting.  I have a lot of notes that I'd like to turn into diary entries, but time to do that is pretty scarce right now.

I ran across an odd one today, though.  My new login script contained this line of HTML:

<td<input type="text" size="32" name="loginUsername" /></td>

That line is obviously broken because the closing brace is missing on the td tag.  The weird thing is that I'd been working with that for a couple of days and didn't notice because Firefox rendered it just fine.  Internet Explorer, when I tested with it this afternoon, failed to show the input box.

I'd make the argument that Firefox is in error here, but seeing as how browsers are unreasonably expected to render horribly broken HTML, there are probably very vocal people who would disagree with me.  I can't help but wonder how much more robust and how much faster Web browsers would be if we could somehow force Web authors to create well-formed HTML.

More as I learn a bit about this stuff.