Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Net Neutrality

22 December 2010

The FCC promulgated new regulations pertaining to Net Neutrality today. As with most compromises, few people were totally happy.

I believe that the use of networks should be neutral for anybody, from an access standpoint. I don’t have a problem with “last mile” providers, as in traditional ISPs, from charging varying amounts for bandwidth provided.

A typical example of this might be St. John’s paying Cox Cable $120/month for 20Mbps up and down, and yet charging me $30/month for 6Mbps down and 2Mbps up. To really overuse a cliche, the number of lanes of your on-ramp to the Information Superhighway drives the amount you pay for it.

But once your data is flowing back and forth, it should compete equally with all the other traffic. I think that the concept of a business getting money from third parties for a particular protocol or data type on the backbone to shove other packets aside is (1) not very fair, and (2) is not terribly democratic. You would start running into situations where people running VoIP might get crappy signal because someone else paid money to get priority for streaming advertisements.

I see the internet as one of the few remaining bastions for equality. There are far too many corporate voices in the media already, exerting political and editorial control over viewpoints. The internet can help level that out somewhat.

So the FCC did the right thing by demanding and requiring network neutrality. They need to go farther and place the same restrictions on wireless carriers (of course, unfair competition from other wireless carriers using anothers infrastructure can be prohibited).

But the public should not be crowded out by corporate money on the internet.


Some Dual-Boot Weirdness, XP and Linux

19 December 2010

My very cute and computationally intensive roommate has a fairly beefy Dell dual-core machine. She does a lot of graphics work, and collects music and videos. Her machine had a 160GB drive and 1GB of memory, and we determined that an upgrade was in order. She also wanted a Linux distribution to get some experience with.

I did a short amount of searching, found that prices for the components I needed were pretty much the same, and chose a 1.5TB Seagate drive, and four 1GB DDR2 sticks from TigerDirect. Total price, about $160 including shipping. I was amazed at the low price. The stuff arrived at the house a day earlier than the four-day shipping promised.

So yesterday, I started off by installing the memory sticks first (and got the 32-bit Windows limitation of only showing 3.7GB, in spite of the BIOS showing all 4GB. Really, you would think a big-time outfit like Microsoft would fix that).

Next, I installed the 1.5TB disk into the chassis as the first SATA drive. Dell recognized it immediately.

I booted the computer with my trusty System Rescue CD v 1.6. It started up just fine. At the command prompt I did an fdisk -l and it showed both disks. Here I made two small errors. I executed my favorite cloning command dd bs=256 if=/dev/sdb2 of=/dev/sda. First error, there were a couple useless partitions on the 160GB disk, and I just wanted the XP partition, so I thought to copy it over and grow it to the full size later. Second error – a “bs”, or blocksize of 256 bytes, so it made for the least efficient transfer. This second error meant it took about four hours to do the cloning operation, and the first error meant that the clone would fail. Fortunately, because I had not changed the original disk, the errors were no-impact.

The second time I did it right. I executed dd bs=256K /dev/sdb /dev/sda. This time the 160MB cloning took about 40 minutes. One thing – when I clone drives at school, it usually takes about 40 minutes to clone a 40GB disk using IDE. The two SATA drives have rated throughput of 1.5GBps and 3.0Gbps, and that speed shows!

Once I got the disk cloned, I booted the 1.5TB disk and watched Windows thrash around a couple minutes to deal with the new disk and the moved disk. Then, I rebooted into System Rescue CD, and used gparted to (1) delete the two useless Dell partitions (getting back another 3.5GB of disk), and then grew the XP partition forward and backward to make it about 1.4TB. I rebooted the computer again, XP came up, and disk usage had gone from about 90% to 10%. Very cool. I’m running the 160GB disk as a secondary disk for a while, then I will go clean XP off it, and use it as a backup disk.

So I started the second part, putting Linux on. When I grew the XP partition, I created two other partitions at the end of the disk, one 5GB partition formatted as FAT32 (which both Linux and XP understand), named “Shared”, and one 50GB partition named “Linux”. I did this out of habit. XP doesn’t understand any disk format except for Microsoft-developed stuff. Linux has understood NTFS as read-only for a while, and for read-write more recently. I have usually dealt with this by creating couple GB of partition formatted as FAT32, mainly so that if I needed to share a file between Windows and Linux, then using FAT32 is a common format both understand. I need to get out of that habit, and start just having Linux mount the Windows partition every time, using ntfs-3g or whatever the distro supports.

I had given some thought as to the Linux distro to install. I am partial to Fedora, which I use for the wide variety of tools, the fact that it is the same as I use for the school server, and it has multiple software development environments. Raegan needed much less – editing (OpenOffice), graphics (The GIMP), Internet (Firefox and Opera), and media (audio and video). Given that, and the fact that I use Ubuntu on several of the student computers at school, and the fact that Fedora has to be hand-configured with a lot of video and audio tools (that I rarely use), I decided to get her Ubuntu.

I downloaded it on her new disk, and burned the CD, and then booted the computer from the CD, and… major problem. Ubuntu seemed to hang for a looooong time, then I got an error “Ubi-language crashed” or something like that. It was consistent across several tries at loading. I looked the error up on Google and got very few references to what caused it. So after thinking about troubleshooting versus a known good route, I said the heck with Ubuntu and went to Fedora 13. [Quick update later this afternoon: I popped the Ubuntu 10.10 CD into two of my machines, and it booted all the way up just fine. One is a Dell Dimension 4600, and the other is my cranky HP 6930p. I say cranky because it needs a particular driver for both XP and Vista and W7 installs, and even a special parameter for a Fedora install. But it ran Ubuntu just fine.]

I pulled my F13 live CD (which I knew had an install-to-disk function) and fired up her computer with it. It started just fine, and so I told it to install to disk. I had told gparted to format the partition intended for Linux as an ext3 filesystem, and F13 found it just fine when I told it to select existing Linux partitions and use it for the installation.

The installation went very quickly, and eventually it asked me about the bootloader. It detected the XP bootloader on the first partition (which is called /dev/sda1). I used the editor to rename the XP description from “Other” to “Windows XP”, and changed the Linux description from “Fedora” to “Fedora 13”). Looking good so far.

The next time I rebooted, there was a bit of a delay, but no Grub boot screen. I seemed to remember that when I did a F12 installation at one point, that the Grub had been set to not show a menu (why, I don’t know, that seems stupid for a multi-boot computer). I tried to force my way into the boot menu by hitting the space bar during boot a number of times, but it only annoyed Windows as it booted each time.

I did some research and found away to boot using Linux rescue mode from the full Fedora 13 DVD. This quickly showed me that the Grub menu had indeed been set to not display. I changed that using “vi” (I had to dredge up the editing commands from a memory long ago and far away – I am not a vi fan) by commenting out the line that said to not display the menu, and then changed the time before starting the default from 5 seconds to 15 seconds.

Restarted the machine, and damned if XP didn’t come up again! At this point, it was about 2300, and I said the heck with it and went and did other things.

My general feeling is that it was just too hard to install Linux (rather, it was easy to install Linux, but making it work with XP is too hard)! I have thousands of OS installs under my belt, including hundreds of Linux installs. When I did my first dual-boot installation (I think it was Windows 2000 and Fedora Core 2), the FC2 built the dual-boot configuration automatically. The last couple duals I have done required me to use System Rescue CD to fix things, something that is easy for me but impossible for 99% of people. That is not a good thing for Linux.

I’ve found some rather detailed things to try (including changing the XP boot loader to find the Linux install), but that is low-priority to other things I’m doing around the house, so it will be a while before I get Raegan up on Linux also.

The Internet, Advertising, and “Do Not Track”

15 December 2010

A week or so back, USA Today had an editorial exchange on the merits of a proposal by the Federal Trade Commission to give Internet users an ability to disable cookies that some companies require you to accept, in order to provide a means of tracking which sites you visit, to allow advertising companies to target their advertising. This might be called “Do Not Track” (DNT).

BTW, the source of the article is:

First of all, some ground assumptions:

  • I do believe that companies have the right to advertise.
  • I do not believe I have to give up a right to some privacy, to help companies advertise more efficiently.
  • I do not believe that companies have the right to collect information about me. We might come to some agreement, but that’s my general feeling.
  • To its credit, the USA Today editorial board supported the DNT concept. There was an opposing view (included below), that I read. Now, the author Mr. Sullivan is clearly biased to advertising regardless, and he is entitled to that opinion. But some of his commentary is just ludicrous from a logic standpoint, and I’m going to pick those out here.

    The Internet is a series of interconnected websites
    that work together to bring us a personalized Web
    surfing experience.

    Not really. The Internet and the websites that make up part of it are not interconnected, unless the website owners collaborate to make it so.

    That same customization, applied to advertising, is
    the economic foundation of the Internet, wherein
    consumers share a limited amount of non-
    personally identifiable information in exchange for
    relevant content from publishers.

    I do not think he is right that advertising is the economic foundation of the internet. And while he uses the keywords “limited” and “non-personally” in the same sentence, one of the goals of advertisers is to make that collected information to become attached to a person, in order to help the advertisers be more efficient.

    Consumers who participate in a Do Not Track
    solution could soon find themselves the targets of
    cheap and irrelevant advertising.

    Sorry, we are already the targets of cheap and non-relevant advertising. How many Viagra ads do I see every day? By the way, “irrelevant” is not a word, even though it is used as such.

    Furthermore, sites
    could impose a paid subscription model on those
    consumers who opt out for the same content
    everyone else would receive for free.

    And those sites that have a broad enough customer base can make that happen. The market would decide.

    But when so-called privacy
    advocates call for a Do Not Track list, what they’re
    really calling for is less consumer control of the
    content they receive.

    Sorry, “so-called privacy advocates” are really advocating for my privacy. Just because it conflicts with your business model doesn’t lessen the need for privacy advocates. The advertising industry is not a privacy advocate.

    And the comment about putting yourself on a DNT list means less consumer control is just BS. I would ideally want *no* content.

    And to register for the service,
    consumers would actually have to give up
    anonymity. Then who would track those consumers
    who put their personally identifiable information on
    this multimillion-person registry, the government?

    Ooohhh, the GOVERNMENT. A BOOGEYMAN! So the choice is between some advertising firm that does not have my best interest at heart getting my information for their own purposes, or a government agency that would be required by law to protect my information (like they do with my phone numbers now for the Do Not Call list). I’ll take the government in this case; they don’t have a vested interest in selling crap to me.

    His argument is classic canard-ing. I don’t think that the advertising industry is any more entitled to know about me in order to target ads, than a billboard maker is entitled to know who drives down a particular stretch of road.

    Opposing view on
    the Internet: Avoid

    Updated 12/6/2010 6:48 PM

    By Steve Sullivan

    Over the past decade, we’ve benefited from an
    explosion of innovation that has created the most
    engaging experience of information and entertainment
    in history — the Internet. It has
    changed our lives, overwhelmingly for the better,
    and it would not have been possible without the
    advertising that supports it.

    Recent calls for a theoretical “Do Not Track”
    mechanism to stop online data collection might
    resonate with the public because of the apparent
    resemblance to the National Do Not Call Registry.
    But the two are similar in name only. Simplistic
    comparisons between Do Not Call and Do Not Track
    fail to consider fundamental qualities of the online

    The Internet is a series of interconnected websites
    that work together to bring us a personalized Web
    surfing experience. When we visit our favorite news
    site, for example, the lead story might be a live feed
    from the AP, with local weather provided by weather.
    com, and our stock ticker from Dow Jones.

    This seamless customization of content provides
    immense value to consumers, yet requires a level of
    “tracking” by multiple parties in order to deliver the
    rich, relevant experience we have come to expect.
    That same customization, applied to advertising, is
    the economic foundation of the Internet, wherein
    consumers share a limited amount of non-
    personally identifiable information in exchange for
    relevant content from publishers.

    Consumers who participate in a Do Not Track
    solution could soon find themselves the targets of
    cheap and irrelevant advertising. Furthermore, sites
    could impose a paid subscription model on those
    consumers who opt out for the same content
    everyone else would receive for free. This result is
    very different from the positive experience
    consumers get when they add themselves to the Do
    Not Call list.

    The interactive industry strongly supports
    consumer privacy and meaningful choice, having
    built a strong self-regulatory program (www.iab.
    net/self-reg) that empowers consumers to exercise
    control over their information online (www.iab.
    net/privacymatters). But when so-called privacy
    advocates call for a Do Not Track list, what they’re
    really calling for is less consumer control of the
    content they receive. And to register for the service,
    consumers would actually have to give up
    anonymity. Then who would track those consumers
    who put their personally identifiable information on
    this multimillion-person registry, the government?

    Steve Sullivan is vice president, digital supply chain
    solutions, of the Interactive Advertising Bureau.

    Making a DVD With Pinnacle Studio 10

    12 November 2010

    I bought a Pinnacle video capture card a couple years ago, and have used it as a DVR in the time since. I haven’t done much of any editing with it, until this week. The software to do the editing is called Studio, and it is version 10.

    A program I was really interested in was on National Geographic Channel. I used the Pinnacle PCI card to capture the video and audio to a couple GB of MPEG video. Then I brought up the editor.

    The Pinnacle editor went into “scene detect” mode, and divided the captured video up into about 100 scenes. That was pretty cool. I reviewed everything, and decided what the logical sections were. These are “chapters” in DVD-speak. Then I went to each of those, selected each grouping of scenes, right-clicked, and chose “combine scenes”. I ended up with 10 chapters, plus another four chapters that were commercials. Each non-commercials chapter was dragged in turn to a timeline on the bottom half of the screen. That was the easy part! I made a list of the chapters and the timeline numbers.

    Next, I made a title screen. There are a bunch of pre-populated titles. I ended up selecting a nice JPEG I had to use as the background, and then used the text tool to put a title and the air date. Finally, I selected how long the title is displayed (I chose 10 seconds, the default is four). Then I dragged the title screen into the timeline. Cool! Except that it threw off my nice chart of chapters and the timeline. Fixed it.

    Next task, I needed an menu page. This is where you can jump directly to a chapter or scene. I had my list, so this was going to be easy, or so I thought. I created a menu page, and dragged it to the timeline right after the title screen. There went my nice list again. Fixed it again.

    So now, aside from the hour I spent capturing the video when I watched it in the first place, I have about 30 minutes of time with Pinnacle. The rest of this took me almost three hours, to get the menu done.

    A menu is like a title, except that you can interact with it. You interact with it via buttons.

    So there are some observations I made about the Studio software. Now, I was using version 10 (10.5, specifically, so there may be a later version that is easier and has the one bug I noticed fixed).

    I had the menu/title editor up, and while working in it, I clicked in the File menu bar item on the parent window. Pinnacle went to electric lala land. This was a repeatable bug. The work I had been doing, I had just saved about five minutes before, so I didn’t lose anything. It was darned annoying, anyway.

    It took me almost 45 minutes just to figure out how to justify and align things. There are two icons on the screen for doing this:

    Once you have some items on the menu/title, these two are enabled. The Justify function is not terribly useful. It shows a tic-tac-toe grid, and if you click, say, the upper left quadrant of the tic-tac-toe square, the item you have selected is moved up to the upper left part of the window. The Align is useful, but it has weird functionality. First of all, the popup:

    I waved the damn mouse all over the text of the popup, with no effect. The text was the problem. Eventually, I moved the mouse over one of the icons to the left of the text, and behold I got a reaction. Now, the other things about this. I ended up doing the following to get the menu items to line up:

    1. I put the first button towards the top of the menu, and the last button towards the top of the menu. Then I selected the buttons from the bottom up, and did a Space Even Down.

    2. I did an Align Left on the buttons.

    3. Repeated 1 and 2 for the second group of buttons on the right side of the menu.

    When you want to do an alignment, click the thing to align “to”, last. So if you have some buttons that you want to align left, move the (for example) top one to where you want it. Then, click the next item to be aligned, the ctrl-click the others (this does multiple selection), and last, ctrl-click the item that is the align “to” button. Then click the align button, get the menu, and click the icon next to Align left. All of the items except the align “to” should jump into place.

    The Group button on the menu/title editor is odd. You can group two or more items together to be able to move them together (say, a button and the text that describes it). Problem – when you do a grouping of a button and some text, Pinnacle removes the button functionality and turns it into a graphic image inserted into the menu. I found this out when I did a group for each one of my 10 menu items, and when I got to the last one, Pinnacle informed me that I was deleting the last button, was that OK. Of course, there was no Cancel function. And Undo, didn’t. My advice – don’t use the Group function on any menu items. Title items, fine. Menus, no.

    The other thing, I don’t know if this is a bug or intended functionality that I could not turn off. I wanted my menu to have the 10 buttons aligned like this: Buttons 1-6 would run down the left side of the menu in a column, and 7-10 would be in a second column to the center-right of the screen, like this:

    Button Text Button Text
    1 Blah 7 Blah
    2 Blah 8 Blah
    3 Blah 9 Blah
    4 Blah 10 Blah
    5 Blah
    6 Blah

    Now, I dragged the buttons from the tool bar to the menu in the order 1..10. Pinnacle “helped” me by actually numbering the buttons like this:

    Button Text Button Text
    1 Blah 2 Blah
    3 Blah 4 Blah
    5 Blah 6 Blah
    7 Blah 8 Blah
    9 Blah
    10 Blah

    So this is odd behavior.

    Once all of the buttons and text was aligned and in the right place, and numbered correctly, you go to another editor and assign scenes to the buttons as a chapter. You do a right-click on the menu in the timeline and select Properties, and then you have to click each button on a small preview, then click a scene, then click a small icon to assign the scene to the button.

    Given that Pinnacle zorched my buttons a couple times until I figured out why, it took a bit to get the menu put together. I checked the button assignments repeatedly.

    Finally all, was OK. I had to move some files around to make enough room on my primary drive for the DVD image to be created. I didn’t use Pinnacle to burn any images since my DVD writer will write CDs, but not DVDs for some some reason. I move the ISO file over to R2s computer, and used Roxio to burn a test DVD.

    The DVD worked pretty well, both in DVD-ROM equipped computers, and in the DVD player we have here at the house. Pretty well, but there was one problem. The 10th button would not work. In fact, it was not even there. When I bring up the Pinnacle Studio project on the computer, button 10 is still there, but on the DVD, not so much. I guess this is a bug.

    So I had a good time with this project. I made a cool DVD of a program that I like, and learned a new skill. There was some weird behavior, but now that I know those quirks, the next time should go pretty fast.

    Electronic Voting Is Not Safe For Our Elections

    22 October 2010

    I have written previously about electronic voting machines and how they should be verified extensively prior to use.

    The District of Columbia (DC) has been pushing to develop electronic voting. A trial last week was halted as reported on here.

    Any voter should care deeply about this. A voting system should have a couple of key characteristics shared with systems that process classified information: availability, non-repudiation, and integrity.

    Availability is pretty easy. Have multiple voting stations in each precinct, which is probably the case.

    Non-repudiation is as simple as providing the voter with a unchangeable record of how they voted. A printed receipt will do that.

    Integrity is the technical part. The team that infiltrated the voting machines in DC were able to do so in a short period of time, and were able to change every vote in the system. They were able to do this with NO access to the source code of the system.

    It was reported, but hasn’t been commented on too much, that the infiltrating team noticed attacks in progress on the DC voting system from China and other overseas locations. It was mentioned in passing that the team changed a router configuration and changed the password on the unit (presumably because it was the default password shipped with the unit from the manufacturer) to hinder the attackers.

    I continue to maintain that any system used for electronic voting must not be deployed without a through review of the system (to include computers, networking equipment, interfaces, and software) by an independent and technically qualified team not related to the vendor. An independent review would likely catch both configuration problems (like a default router password), and deliberate inside attacks.

    Many people would tend to discount the threat of inside attacks. But look at this code:

    vote = whatever_the_user_chose
    if vote=republican then republican_total++
    if vote=democrat then democrat_total++
    end case

    Now what about this:

    vote = whatever_the_user_chose
    if vote=republican then republican_total++
    if vote=democrat and rnd()>0.01 then democrat_total++
    end case

    This is one way to throw an election. It does not count 1% of votes for the democrat. That’s enough to throw a close election. You cannot find this insider attack unless you have access to the source code, and have a technically savvy reviewer.

    Whether you are a Republican, a Democrat, and Independent, a Green, a Libertarian, a Socialist, or any other party, you should be interested to know that votes cast for you are credited to you. A vendor (like Diebold) should not be allowed to hide behind the “proprietary” claim. This sort of inspection is required to be performed for software and systems that are used to protect classified information, and they work well.

    Are our elections any less important?

    The Next Technology Revolution

    13 September 2010

    The more I read about tablet and pad computers, the more I believe that they are the next technology revolution.

    I have been using a BlackBerry for about five years. I got a 7105t first, and now use an 8220. I am able to do most of my web surfing and almost all email work using that little screen (I measured it today, about 1.8″).

    I have handled a couple of the pad computers recently, including some of the single-purpose e-readers like the Kindle. I am looking hard at buying a pad in the 7-8″ range. My list of requirements include wifi, USB input, either GPS or an RS-232/USB serial input for getting GPS into the thing, the ability to read MS Office files and display them, a touchscreen (and on-screen keyboard) and the ability to connect it to my Blackberry to use that phone in tethered mode (for when wifi is not available). A camera would be nice, for both photos and VTC.

    Something like this would be usable in a car for email and navigation; you could hang it on the dash. I would use a moving map function, with overlaid weather and traffic information.

    Given that there are pads in the 3″ – 4″ range that sell for less than $100, I think that we are going to see them everywhere in the next year.

    Using GPS to Track People

    7 August 2010

    The Washington Post had an article yesterday about an appeals court ruling:

    The case involved a guy suspected of something (the article does not say what). The police put a GPS tracker on the guys car, with a warrant approving doing so, but left the device on after the warrant had expired.

    The key thing here is the warrant. The police have to have a reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed before doing unlimited surveillance, and if it was that important, they should have been able to make the case to the judge to extend the warrant (I think there is a lot of judicial rubberstamping going on as it is).

    While the police argument is that they could have just tailed the guy around, and the GPS is just like another officer, that argument is specious. The GPS device could have been removed and put on another car for a period of time without the police knowing. It could even have been tampered with to put different data into it (you have to be able to download the data, and if you can download, you can upload as well).

    My bottom line on this, if the cops can track a suspect for weeks or months without a warrant, they can do it to anyone. I would question what value the GPS device brings anyway. They don’t work well in cities, parking garages, under thick trees, tunnels, etc.: the accuracy of the device degrades quickly as the number of satellites it can see drops.

    If a crime requires that a person be tracked, better to put a set of training eyeballs on the job instead of a piece of electronics. Our protection of liberty demands no less.

    An Amazing Disk Drive Price

    27 July 2010

    While we were in Omaha last weekend, we had to run across the border into Council Bluffs to buy a new phone for Ian (his had failed, and for some reason no one in Nebraska sells T-Mobile phones, but they do in Iowa). We went to a Wal-Mart there first, then to the Best Buy across the parking lot. One note: in OKC, the el cheapo phone that he uses is $16, but there at the Best Buy, it was $25.

    But the cool thing was while we were in Wal-Mart. They had a display of external disk drives – there were about 70 of the things there, and they were not even locked up. They were 320GB drives, in a USB external enclosure. And they were only $59, not even on sale.

    That’s an amazing price point. The SATA drive I just installed as my useful disk is only 160GB (I split it 80GB each for Windoze and Linux), reused from another computer that had died.

    I would recommend that every person who does not back up their machines buy that drive and back their stuff up on it. It’s the right thing to do!

    So, I FINALLY Have A Dual-Boot Laptop Computer Again

    25 July 2010

    I keep two disks for my work laptop. One is the original disk that came with the computer (this one has Vista on it), and is locked down, tight. I keep another disk that I call my “useful disk”. It has various tools that I use in my job, but can’t be loaded on my Vista machine. It has software development tools for the several software packages I support, tools that I use to perform security testing on various networks, and utilities and tools.

    Keeping a separate disk avoids me from having to get permission (which would be denied, anyway) to run and use these tools, and it keeps me from lugging two laptops around.

    So when I got my new HP 6930p, I went out and bought a SATA disk for it, popped it in, and started off by loading XP (which I have licenses for), or rather, TRYING to load. I got BSOD after BSOD. WTH? I then tried loading Fedora 10 (followed by 11 and 12), each of which crashed. I finally got System Rescue CD to boot and run with no problem.

    Off to research. I quickly found out that the Intel IO processor in the 6930p uses a BIOS setting that screwed the computers head into the ground. A bit of research showed that adding the boot parameter “intel_iommu=off” allowed the Fedora installation to complete and run. So I was halfway there.

    I now knew what the problem was. It could be corrected with a BIOS setting, but the BIOS was locked with a password (those AF sysadmins have NO sense of adventure). There were hints that if a certain replacement driver file was used in a certain way, then the install could be completed. Problem – can only be installed from diskette. So I bought a USB diskette drive, loaded what I thought was the right driver file, and tried again. And again. And AGAIN. No luck.

    I got a Windows 7 evaluation disk that I was given by Microsoft at a conference and tried it; surely it would have the right driver. Wrong-o. I got other Windows XP CDs and tried them same result. I perused the forums on the HP website, and online. Nothing definite.

    I finally posted a message on the HP business forum, and got a link to the exact file I needed to download, put on diskette, and load. Still got BSODs a couple times, but finally got it narrowed down to the Intel(R) ICH 9M-E/M SATA AHCI Controller, one of about 20 devices addressed in the driver file. So the load was completed, but it wiped out my Linux Fedora 12 installation since Windows only cares about Windows.

    I reloaded Fedora to make the computer a true dual-boot. I did have one problem, Fedora did not carry the “intel_iommu=off” from the installation into the GRUB boot file, so I had to reboot the computer with System Rescue CD, make the addition to grub.conf manually, and finally, it worked!

    This whole process was the most difficult OS installation I have had, with the exception of Solaris 9. I had no help from the existing Vista installation on the machine, and I am really surprised Win 7 had the same problem. Even the normally-smooth Fedora installation was too hard, and failing to carry the required obscure parameter over to the GRUB file, well, that made it way, way too hard for a casual user (who carries a bootable rescue CD around? I do, but I’m an Alpha Geek).

    So I am in the process of loading my tools onto the two OSs on the dual-boot disk. My original equipment disk still works also. This all took almost THREE months! There are enough 6930ps on the market I am really surprised it took so long.

    But I’m rolling now!

    Anonymity and Privacy, and Courtesy

    25 July 2010

    This last week, I read an article on, “News sites reining in nasty user comments”. The article is here. The issue addressed is that some people commenting on-line to news articles are going overboard with invective and rhetoric. Since I have used the “comment” feature on many news sites, including CNN, WaPo, the Muskogee newspaper (or rather, web site), and others, I would tend to agree.

    It seems that several news sites are not only requiring registration, but some are also requiring that you identify yourself as well, and some even go so far as not allowing screen names. Just to show were I stand, I always have my real name in posts like this; at most, I use a variation if someone else already has that name (so at many of the sites, I am BillHensley, and at another (for example), I am BillHensleyOKC). Other people use non-identifiable names.

    So I am of several minds on this. On the one hand, a site is controlled and paid for by some organization, and they have a right to control what is displayed on their site, if they want to. But I am also of the opinion that the freedom of anonymous speech is a critical right. I also believe that the vast majority of this type of speech should be courteous, and all of it should be truthful.

    So when I read the article at CNN, I did a little counting exercise (this was Thursday). There were about 300 comments on the article. Of those, here are some rough numbers: about 150 of the comments were what most people would think of as polite, and the rest were NOT. Most of the impolite comments were directed at people who had commented, as opposed to the concepts addressed in the article. Note that this count was not of who supports anonymous posting vs. registration vs. identify verification; it is only tone of the comments.

    I think that in general this is related to the problem that it is easier to be nasty when you don’t have to look the person in the eye, or if you do not know them personally. I see this far too often. I also have been known to participate (I called Shaun Mills a clueless idiot or something like that).

    So I think that when you make comments, you ought to have the cojones to associate them with your real name. I also think that you ought to exercise truthfulness in your commentary. I think that courtesy should rule these interactions.

    I also think that we should have some way to preserve anonymity when it is needed. The anonymous flyer was needed in the Revolution to pass news around. That was an important role, but while the need has diminished over time, our media need to be able to ascertain who is providing information in some cases in order to validate it, but should also have the responsibility and the ability to hide that identifying information from Authority (the government, big business, organizations) when needed.

    Vista “Sleep Mode” Weirdness

    18 July 2010

    I have power issues with my work laptop. I have had problems with my work laptops for years taking forever to boot, especially when not connected to the work network (one thing I documented was the boot process trying to download updated boot loader stuff EVERY time the machine started, and waiting a huge amount of time for the un-accessible login server to respond for each file; it meant the machine took 20+ minutes to start).

    So my ops concept has been to hibernate the machine, or put it to sleep. The sysadmins have disabled hibernation on this machine, so I am left with sleep mode.

    In several cases, I have put the machine to sleep, put it in my backpack, and headed somewhere. Several hours later, the backpack would be very warm, and I would open it up to find the machine running and hotter than heck. The power switch is inside the lid, so it’s not getting physically pushed, and so the machine is waking up for some unknown stimulus.

    The latest thing is last week. I had put the machine to sleep when I left the office, and didn’t do any work that evening, so I didn’t even open my backpack. I was working offsite the next day, in a place with no network or wifi access. It seemed to be a bit warm when I got the machine out of the backpack. I turned it on, it came out of sleep mode, and logged in. I noticed that I had left Outlook up. That’s when I noticed that there were two messages that had been downloaded at 0405 and 0410.

    So somewhere around 0400, the machine woke up in my backpack, was up long enough to connect to my home wifi network, Outlook was with it enough to hit its Exchange server, and it downloaded the messages. Then the machine put itself back to sleep again.

    This is strange behavior. I can’t think of what might be making it wake up. I have noticed one case – if you have an external USB mouse plugged in, put the machine to sleep, and then pull the mouse, it wakes up again (annoying). So maybe some related glitch is causing the wake up.

    Here’s One Way To Do Solar

    30 June 2010

    Ran across this article on the CNN site:

    I addressed the need for a national energy policy recently:

    These SolarCity guys are doing it right. Their business model keeps costs low for the homeowners. I would hope that if they do enough installations, then demand increases, and production ramps up, and costs should drop, perhaps enough that the subsidies can go away.

    This is the kind of forward-leaning green energy that governments at all levels should be encouraging.

    Microsoft Outlook, In At Least One Way, Sucks

    24 June 2010

    I have to use MS Outlook 2007 for work. It is, undoubtedly, a powerful program, and has some neat features.

    But there is one way it really, really sucks, and it’s in a way it could be most useful. When I have my laptop on the work network, Outlook works OK. Not spectacularly, mind you. It whines a lot (“The connection to Microsoft Exchange is unavailable wah wah wah”). Now you can ping the Exchange server, so there is a good path there, and Outlook itself reports “Connected to Exchange Server”, so there must be something so sensitive in the protocols that either Outlook or Exchange just looses some part of it’s collective mind.

    But it is really bad when you hook it up to some other network. Even my rock-solid connections at home or at St. John’s just cause Outlook to have positive vapours. And try a hotel… I’ve ended up many times just shutting down Outlook and running the webmail instead, which of course means that I have no access to any of the stuff stored in the PST file.

    So while the other internet applications run happily along (Internet Exploder, usually), or especially the software update function, Outlook just puts it’s virtual feet up as it rolls onto its virtual back, and twitches. Why can’t a big time outfit like MS get that right – we do want to take our laptops with us and do useful things with them.

    Just to show, I brought up my laptop from a cold start this morning, and it connected to my home wifi and out the cable modem and on the internet fairly quickly, for Vista. But after starting Outlook, it took 10 minutes to download eight messages with a total reported size of about 4MB. And then, to re-send one of those messages with a changed attachment (43KB), took another 15 minutes while Outlook whined about no connectivity, while the Outlook web client connected and ran just fine, along with other connections via IE.

    Come on, Microsoft…

    Privacy and City Streets

    17 June 2010

    There have been two stories involving the concept of privacy in the news this past week.

    First, some politicians are heaping poo over Google for capturing images of houses as part of the Google street-level mapping program, and also the characteristics of WiFi hotspots.

    Second, the cops in Maryland arrested a guy for a video he took of a traffic stop (the WaPo story is here). They used a Maryland wiretapping law for this, saying that the police were recorded without their consent, and that the police have an expectation of privacy while doing traffic stops.

    Some observations about this. I wholly subscribe to the concept that we should each be as private in our homes and businesses as we want to be. Some people might want 14-foot picture windows between their bedroom and the street, and some might want a 14-foot privacy fence. Right on to both.

    But the public street is by definition a public street. A homeowner can’t control who walks on that street, and if they take pictures of the house and yard, that’s kind of too bad if you don’t like it. The same goes for stuff that radiates out of your house – sound or music or wifi. You do not have an expectation of privacy for the street. If you don’t want people on the street to see you, put up a fence. If you don’t want people on the street to hear you, build a berm, or talk quieter. And if you don’t want people on the street to record your wifi, turn the power down or otherwise shield it.

    This is related to the Maryland incident. To summarize, a guy who likes riding his motorcycle also has a camera attached to his helmet to record some of his rides, including audio. He got stopped, and got a ticket, and then later posted the video of the incident to YouTube. Shortly thereafter, an early morning raid on the house he lived in resulted in the cops carrying away computers, drives, etc.

    The Maryland “authorities” claim that the guy broke the law when he posted the audio of the incident, since it’s illegal there to record someone without their consent.

    Some observations:

  • Maryland State Police have dash cameras and audio to record all interactions with the public – without their consent. Lots of other police agencies do as well. And ambulances, and fire trucks, and ordinary people. Why should police have an advantage?
  • If you can run a camera and audio on a public street at any time, the cops have no leg to stand on. They have the same expectation of privacy that an ordinary citizen does – NONE.
  • The property and tax assessor people here in Oklahoma County, OK (and others I’ve seen) have photos of most of the properties in the country, on-line, accessible to the public, taken from the streets, going back five years or so. Want to see my house, but you live in New Zealand? You can. They also routinely run photo-recon operations of the county from the air (as do the fed, agencies ranging from the Geological Survey to NASA.
  • News media record people constantly without their consent. If you go to a football game, you can be recorded shouting “Go team” or whatever, without your consent.
  • Most importantly, why should a police officer, who can use anything you say against you in court, and who routinely record people in interrogations, not be subject to the same sort of check?
  • I do not think that the Maryland law passes Constitutional muster. I do think that places with an expectation of privacy, such as telephone conversations, could be subject to such a law. But a city street, I do not think so.

    A couple other observations, unrelated to privacy (you have to read the story for context):

    Why did the officer, in an unmarked car, and in plain clothes, jump out of his car with a weapon drawn, for a traffic stop? That is wrong, the officer seems to have acted in a reckless manner, and could have shot an innocent person (to include the motorcycle rider). Speeding and popping a wheelie does not justify a cop drawing a weapon on a citizen. There was no indication that the rider was doing anything threatening, to anyone.

    Why did the cops use the old pre-dawn raid on the house, and then cart away everything that was computer-related, except out of an attitude of punishment? The video was on YouTube, and that was all the “evidence” they needed. And why not just send a guy to the door and ask for stuff. This was a non-violent “crime” (and there is no victim, either). The motorcycle guy/victim wasn’t going anywhere.

    This sort of thing makes me wonder if the prosecutor is up for re-election.

    President Obama and the Space Program

    16 April 2010

    I made some comments (here) about the President cutting the programs to put us back on the Moon.

    Today the President outlined his program for the space effort. He made the argument that we had been to the Moon already (it has been more than 30 years), and that as a great nation, we should not aim for the Moon again, but should press on to Mars. I can see his point. We should already have the technology to get back to the Moon.

    But the thing I don’t know: where are we as a country with booster and space travel technology? The areas of life support and computer technology, I think we have covered.

    If we have to rely on Saturn V class rockets (i.e. brute force), then stopping at the Moon on the way and staging supplies there (or storing a cache there) would seem to make sense.

    Today on a program I was listening to, some guy (it may have been Buzz Aldren, but I am not sure) reported that there is at least one company that is developing a rocket that could go from Earth orbit to Mars in (again, I think), 39 days. Given that I have always heard that an Earth-to-Mars transit would require six+ months, 39 days would be much better.

    So if we have the technology, perhaps it would be better to go directly to an asteroid and/or Mars.

    Regardless, we, as the human race, and as Americans, need to be in space.

    Please Permit Me A Rant About A Blackberry Bug

    16 April 2010

    OK, it’s not often that a handheld screws up a rare opportunity.

    Our daughter Erin went on a field trip to the Myriad Botanical Gardens and Crystal Bridge today. They were having a special program on ladybugs.

    While there, Erin was interviewed by Channel 9, KWTV here in Oklahoma City. The interview was not very long, but we thought it was cool.

    I do not have a working VCR, and my DVR won’t record over-the-air TV. So I whipped out my Blackberry 8220, turned on the video camera, got it lined up with the TV, and found a steady place to hold it for a good picture. When Channel 9 started the segment with Erin in it, I pushed the start button and we were off!

    Unfortunately, seven seconds into the segment, I got a Blackberry calendar reminder pop up. I clicked Dismiss, and the video was still being shown, BUT IT WAS NOT BEING RECORDED! I watched the segment with Erin through the Blackberry LCD, not knowing it was not being captured.

    After a few shouted words that were of the unpleasant variety, I did a couple controlled tests and found that this behavior was consistent. Once the reminder pops up, the video recording stops. I think this is a bug in the Blackberry 8220. I will report it to RIM as such.

    Kansas Cosmosphere, Hutchinson, KS

    21 March 2010

    I had heard of the Cosmosphere over the years, and always wanted to visit it. Our family decided to check it out over this years Spring Break. We stayed in Wichita, and drove up to Hutchinson; it’s about 50 minutes.

    Pulling into Hutchinson, we noticed that it was a larger town than I would have thought. It has a busy mall, and all kinds of the various hotels like Hampton Inn. I did find out later that even if we had tried to stay in Hutchinson that evening, we would have been out of luck since the NCAA Junior College National Basketball Championships were being held there.

    We got there, and the first thing you see when you get into the building is an SR-71.

    The outside part of the building was built around the SR-71.

    We bought admission to the Air and Space Museum part of the Cosmosphere. You can also get admission to the IMAX theater, a science lecture, and one other thing. We just got the Museum.

    The Museum is divided up into sections, such as WWII, the Cold War, Apollo.

    They have a V-1 and a V-2 there, along with interpretive materials on how the Nazi’s built the weapons with slave labor, and how the manufacturing facility in Germany was moved underground.

    There was a nice exhibit pertaining to ejection seats, and the rocket sleds used to test human reaction to the force necessary needed to eject from a jet. Erin modeled a seat.

    The Cosmosphere has a Redstone/Mercury and Atlas/Gemini as outdoor displays.

    The Freedom 7 Mercury capsule was on display here. Ian is in the picture for scale.

    I’m amazed that the capsules were so tight. I am always amazed at the courage of the people who allowed themselves to be put on top of a missile, and shot into space.

    There is a full-size Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) in there as well. TRW made the lower descent engine! They also have a Lunar Rover test article, which was used for Apollo missions 14-16.

    This was an amazing artifact: the Apollo 13 Command Module.

    I was amazed at the aft end of the spacecraft. The ablation marking from re-entry is impressive.

    The Cosmosphere has a moon rock.

    As we left, I looked up and exclaimed something to the effect of “Holy crap, there’s a T-38 up there!”.

    I was really impressed by the Cosmosphere. It was more than I expected. They have a collection of artifacts that they can be proud of. I would not mind going back again at some point. Even the gift shop had some really cool things in it; we bought some posters for Raegan’s classroom.

    A Minor Website Fail – for Blackberry

    16 March 2010

    I travel a bit, and I use the site from my Blackberry more and more. Overall, I find it to be highly useful. The site recognizes the Blackberry browser, and does a good job of showing a site optimized for it.

    One thing bugs me a bit. My last Blackberry was a 7801t. I also used it with One of the things I used it a lot for was doing seat changes.

    My current Blackberry is an 8220. It works with the entire site, except… it won’t let me change seats. The available seats show up, and the cursor changes to show I should be able to click that seat as a link, but it doesn’t. Other images-as-links work just fine.

    I’ve emailed the support folks twice in the past three months or so, but haven’t even had a response from them. I am going to try again tomorrow. It’s a bit annoying.

    Something Cool In Edmond

    27 February 2010

    Today, as Erin and I left a gas station in Edmond, she noticed this:

    Wind Generator in Edmond, OK

    The tower on the right is a vertical wind generator. It was spinning at a pretty good rate this morning in the 5-10mph breeze. The tower looks to be about 70ft tall.

    This is very cool, I think. Right now we largely have a distributed power generation and distribution system. I have thought for some time that the generation function should be as local as possible. Something like this would be a good thing for a business, or a neighborhood.

    I did a little Googling. The business is Eco Express Car Wash. The generator is a Windspire wind turbine, which is a 30-foot tall (has to be just the spinning part) vertical-axis wind turbine, which produces about 1 kilowatt, and costs $9-12K (retail), not including a 30 percent federal small wind tax credit.

    XM and Sirius DJs

    21 February 2010

    Please permit me this small rant:


    This is mainly aimed at the DJs on XM/Sirius. One calls himself “Motormouth”, and that’s an apt enough description.

    I think that the perfect DJ is a man I’ll call Jay Russell. This guy happens to be a host on KVPR, Valley Public Radio ( Jay queues up music, and tells something about it, but then let’s the music play. He does not speak over the music. This makes him the perfect DJ – you can find out what’s playing, and maybe learn something about the music, and then hear it play.

    I contrast this to whatever idiot was mouthing off on XM 6 (the 60’s channel) this afternoon around 1450 Central. Petula Clark’s version of “This Is My Song” came on, and the DJ blathered on inanely right over the first few bars of her singing.

    To whoever that DJ is: It’s the 60’s MUSIC channel, not the inane DJ channel. I pay good money to XM for the privilege of MUSIC, not TALK.

    If I want talk, I will listen to the rap channels, or one of the talk channels. Now, I understand that a couple of the channels have commercials, and that’s fine. I have the fastest channel changing finger in the west, and I have no less than four of the six buttons on my car radio set to music channels.

    The Broadway show tunes channel on XM used to have a good DJ on in the mornings. The guy was a fount of interesting facts and anecdotes about various shows. The deal was that he would tell something about a tune he was about to play, every three or four songs, then he should stop talking, and play the piece.

    I’ve emailed XM repeatedly about this, and only had the courtesy of a reply once. I bet if the listenership was polled, they would not want the blabbermouths on the music channels. People like Cousin Brucie or the Motormouth can be on commercial radio all they want, but I should not have to (1) pay part of my subscription fee for them to be obnoxious, and (2) get less MUSIC for my subscription due to their blather.

    And if XM/Sirius has to keep these guys around until their contracts run out or something, then tell them to SHUT THE HELL UP when there is music playing, at either the start or the end of the songs! And please confine your blather to stuff related to the music; tell us something about the time you watched some star a a party in 1962, but I do not want to hear about the Carbuncle of Doom you found on yourself.

    Security Software, Webcams, and Privacy

    21 February 2010

    I first heard about the case of the Lower Merion School District using built in webcams to spy on students a couple days ago, and my initial reaction was a bit of anger.

    Today, I read a more in-depth article about the incident, and my anger was somewhat lessened.

    The Washington Post article is here:

    The parents of a student, and the student herself, talked in the story (I think it was on NBC national news, but I cannot be sure), that the webcams in the computers were turned on at random by people hoping to spy in the houses of the student who had the computers in their houses (and so possibly in bedrooms or other very private spaces.

    The WaPo article reveals that the computers were actually suspected of being stolen, or taken without permission, from the school district, and that the ability to turn on the webcam was used to attempt to find out where the possibly purloined computers were located.

    Some comment was made in the article that the presence of “security software” was not disclosed in something like a user agreement. That is a reasonable objection, but I do not think that a lack of disclosure of the presence of security software, on a computer that belongs to the school district, is grounds for the probably inevitable lawsuit.

    One example, the laptop that I carry is issued to me by the Air Force. Every time I log on I have to acknowledge that the computer is subject to monitoring. Now, the Air Force does not tell people what they do to monitor a computer, but merely perusing the task list, or watching the packets flow over the Ethernet port from the computer to the authentication server, can tell you precisely what is being “phoned home”. I also have to sign a form every year that tells me that the computer isn’t mine, and it belongs to the Air Force, and I can’t put my own software on it, and I can’t put non-mission things on it, like music.

    The worst part of this is probably the idea that using a webcam is really needed. I suppose that the idea was to be able to see the users face and so ID the thief/unintentional borrower. I submit that in the case of a true theft, the face of the user likely is not going to be a student, but a person who was given or bought the purloined machine (although the face could be captured for later identification). So the system administrators would be better off with some gathered forensic data.

    They should already know the machines MAC. That would be tied to the IP address, and that takes you to the upstream router, and that tells you the ISP (who in almost all cases are perfectly willing to rat out a customer). In most cases you get login information (a lot of SMTP logins are in the clear), so that gives you a name and a billing address and/or a phone number. A keystroke logger could be activated to get similar information.

    The fact that only two system administrators were able to enable the webcams is good, as long as there are procedural safeguards (administrative and technical) to ensure that randy admins operating “off the books” can be found out.

    So it comes down to who owns the machines. If the school district owns them, then they can basically do what they want with them, and the users can choose to not use the computer if the security requirements are too onerous. And instead of using the webcam, the distract can also DOS the machine for internet use, or something similar, by zorching the Winsock DLL or something similar.

    A New Nuclear Power Plant In Georgia, Maybe

    17 February 2010

    Today the Obama Administration announced that they will guarantee some loans to allow a new nuclear power plant to be built in Georgia, USA.

    I think this is a great thing. Loan guarantees are not expenditures by the Government (although the guarantees could become expenditures if the loans are not repaid), and so are better than grants or earmarks.

    But more importantly, the act of helping get a new nuclear power plant built is good for the country. Nuclear is not fully renewable (it is somewhat renewable via fuel purification), and it produces radioactive waste (but in far smaller quantities than a coal plant), but it is a tremendous source of electricity with no continuing production of greenhouse gases.

    It was reported today on several outlets that it has been more than 30 years since a new nuclear plant came online in the United States. That’s far too long.

    The technology for SCADA has improved tremendously in the past several decades, and the quality of the components of safety systems (pumps, pipes, etc.) has also improved in the same timeframe. That’s a bonus to ensuring a high level of safety and stability for the nuclear plants.

    I think that a great deal of our short term energy needs for transportation should be shifted to electricity – it’s something we can make here. Nuclear is relatively clean, coal is cheap and plentiful but dirty, and natural gas is another possibility. If we can convert short term transportation (cars for local travel) to electricity, we can largely eliminate imported oil.

    So kudos to the firms trying to build the new nuclear power plant, and also to the Obama Administration for guaranteeing the loans.

    Cutting the Space Program

    13 February 2010

    I think that President Obama is making a mistake by ordering that NASA cut the program to send humans back to the Moon. I think that the nation should use a Moon/Mars program to kick start an ambitious technology development program in the areas of solar and related energy development.

    And in general, space travel is cool! And inspiring.

    I didn’t think much of it when President Nixon stopped Apollo in favor of redirecting those funds to Shuttle development. And I like the Shuttle, I’ve even been to a launch (at 0400, and anyone who knows me knows it takes a lot to get me up then), and to several places to see the shuttle being ferried back to Florida. I think we should have continued the Apollo program AND the Shuttle programs.

    So we ought to be able to keep a Moon/Mars mission focus. I hope that the President and the Congress find some way to make that happen.

    Something I Wonder About – Super 80 Landing Lights

    13 February 2010

    I enjoy flying MD Super 80s. They are comfortable, powerful, and very importantly, they feel stable at altitude. I’ve been in maybe one Super 80 that seemed to be really out of trim, I could feel the airplane corkscrewing between OKC and DFW. I’ve been on enough Super 80s that every noise is familiar.

    That all being said, there is something I’ve always wondered about with regards to Super 80s.

    At the end of each wing is a clear fairing, on the very wingtip. There are two lights under this clear fairing. One is the running light (red for the left wing, and green for the left, or maybe I have those reversed).

    A landing light is also in that fairing. You can see that the landing light is on when the airplane is approaching the runway threshold even during the day. So the question that I have is: why does the Super 80 landing light pivot up and down?

    What I mean by this: it makes sense to me that a landing light shines forward. But for some reason, the Super 80 wingtip landing lights swivel to point down when the light is not turned on. When the flight crew turns the light on, the light comes on and then a motor or something swings the light from pointing pretty much straight down, in an arc to point ahead. When the light is turned off, it cuts off immediately and starts going dim, and then swings from pointing forward to pointing down.

    Since there is no need to illuminate the ground right under the wingtip, it seems to me that the motor drive for the light is pretty useless; one more thing to fail (really, two more, since there is one on each wingtip).

    I need to remember to ask a flight crew the next time I fly, or maybe post to Flyer Talk.

    Internet Gambling, and Gambling in General

    9 February 2010

    I read an article in The Washington Post addressing “Internet Gambling”. The article is here.

    Warning, the Libertarian in me comes out at times like this.

    The Bush Administration and the Republican Congress labored to pass a bill to try and disallow any gambling over the Internet (as a side note, this from the “less government” crowd, or the “less government unless we can get into peoples personal and intimate lives when we can” crowd). The law was to take effect recently, but was postponed due to concerns about how it will be enforced. There are those in Congress trying to get the law repealed. I agree with repealing it, and let me go a bit farther.

    There is nothing inherently wrong with gambling. In a real sense, we are gambling every day, as we weigh the odds of getting across the highway safely, or whether that cig will kill us too much, or if we will be killed for annoying Angela just a little too much! There are various laws affecting this kind of gambling that really annoy me, and are anti-American (for example, helmet laws and seat belt laws).

    The difference here is in gambling for money. Now, I know that there are those who think that their holy books say that they should not gamble, but those are not relevant, since the Constitution trumps their holy book. Why shouldn’t we be allowed to gamble? If I want to bet my buddy $5 on the outcome of the local cricket match, why should that be illegal? And why should some aspiring mogul not be able to build a casino and try to make some money? Free-market rules, I thought.

    I think that business-related gambling should be regulated and taxed. It works in Vegas, I think, why not here in Oklahoma? I do not think the religious argument is valid on it’s face; why should someone be allowed to use their holy book to bind me? Family-type arguments (gambling breaks up the family, it might be done by kids) are not valid either, please let me take care of my family and my kids. It’s not the responsibilty of some church or some government type, unless I want it to be. There are plenty of other things that break up families; somehow I don’t think that gambling is in the top 10. The internet gambling ban is also supported by certain big business like the NFL; they want to protect their turf.

    So hooray for Mr. Frank for trying to get the stupid anti-gambling law off the books. Then let’s work down the list and remove the rest of the anti-gambling laws as well.


    3 February 2010

    I do not often just rant and gripe, but I would like to say that I dispise LodgeNet.

    For those that don’t travel, LodgeNet provides pay per view movies, and I think TV channels, to various hotels. LodgeNet has a high penetration in the market, but I just don’t like them.

    I prefer to stay in hotels that have full cable. I do not ever order PPV anything, and can even easily do without HBO or any other pay movie channel.

    Most, but not all, hotels that have LodgeNet typically have a small subset of TV channels. For example, the Embassy Suites that I am in right now has only 46 channels. Of those, it breaks down into these:

  • A Russian-oriented news and entertainment channel (in San Diego?)
  • Nine useless hotel/PPV/barker advertising channels (Really, NINE!)
  • A channel for showing how pretty HDTV is
  • HBO
  • MTV
  • Four sports channels
  • Four news channels
  • CNBC
  • Ten network channels (this includes the analog and HDTVs)
  • 13 random channels like USA, TNT, and the like
  • The Weather Channel
  • But no SciFi, AMC, etc.

    BTW, I will NEVER stay at the DoubleTree in downtown Omaha for a couple reasons, one of which is that their LodgeNet has only 12 channels, and four of those channels are hotel barker and PPV advertising.

    I do not understand why this is. I have had discussions with hotel managers that the number of packages offered by LodgeNet is limited, but I can say with certainly that I have stayed in hotels with LodgeNet and all 100+ cables channels.

    The LodgeNet remote is, in a word, lame. It has very poor response. You have to push the channel and volume buttons repeatedly to get a response to the TV. The remote also consistently changes channels very… slowly… all… the… time… For a constant channel surfer like me, it’s infuriating. The remote is good for ordering PPV movies (which I never do), but it is also limited and will not control a couple of the TVs functions, in particular for HDTVs, the aspect ratio (this will set the best picture for standard definition channels).

    If you are a hotel manager or executive, please take this into account. I also invariably rate hotels down when they have LodgeNet and limited TV choices. As an example, one of the reasons I prefer the Hampton Inn in Bellevue, NE, or the Homewood Suites in downtown Omaha is the full cable.

    Credit Cards and Coke Machines

    28 January 2010

    Today I was visiting a large airplane manufacturer in Wichita, KS. We had to leave Oklahoma City early to make a 1000 meeting there, so I was feeling the need for something cold to drink. The Coke machine in the break area took coins, one- and five-dollar bills, and… credit cards.

    I had some bills, but this I had to try. First I pulled out my bank debit card and swiped it. No approval. I tried again. Same result. Plenty of money in the account, hmmm…. Then I pulled out a pure VISA card and swiped it. Approval!

    I pressed A-1 and got my Coke. The display showed something to the effect of “That’s $1.25, dispense something else or press the Finished button”. I pressed Finish and the display reset.

    I speculate the the debit card, even though it is branded as a MasterCard, was not accepted since it usually defaults to a debit card, and there was no keypad to enter a PIN.

    That was pretty cool. I wonder if the machine uses cellular comm or a wifi link. I may have to research this at some point in my copious spare time.

    Another Linux Win

    11 January 2010

    Had another Linux mini-win this weekend.

    A friends laptop computer crashed due to a bad power supply. She needed the files, and I am happy to recover them if I can. So I pulled the drive; it was a SATA drive. I looked for an external drive carrier, they are more than $75, too expensive; I needed to move the files to DVD. I tried mounting the drive into my main desktop, since I had found some SATA data cables and we had had a standard four-pin Molex to SATA power connector donated, but the inserted SATA drive screwed up the drive mappings in my GRUB and so the computer wouldn’t boot. I played with ways to change the drive mappings with no luck. My very cute but computer-using roommate has a computer with a SATA drive, but she is constantly on and the machine is hard to get at, so that was out.

    So I thought a little bit, and decided to take my SATA laptop and use it. I pulled the “native” drive out, put the drive to be recovered in, and booted from my System Rescue CD. The laptop booted and we were off. SysResCD mounted the NTFS SATA drive with no problems. It started the laptops built-in wireless and connected to my home network. I had to set a root password, and then I went to my desktop and fired up my open source FileZilla GUI client. FileZilla went to the laptop via Secure FTP, and I was dragging and dropping the files with no glitches.

    Well, three glitches. Two were unusual – the house WiFi access point lost it’s mind twice during the transfer process. I had to repower-reboot it (note, I wonder why. It was still working for the two computers hard-wired into it, but it would not talk to the two computers connected into it via access point. I wonder if it was a data volume issue, or a buffer problem). The cool thing was that FileZilla remembered the stuff I was trying to transfer but was still in queue, so I didn’t lose anything. The first WiFi croak was also a bit fortuitous in that I was starting to run out of disk space on the machine I was recovering to (there was about 20GB of stuff to be recovered), so I took the opportunity to copy a lot of the stuff off to DVD using the open source CDBurnerXP Pro.

    It did take a while to transfer all that data over the house WiFi link between the computers – about eight hours total. Fortunately, I was doing stuff around the house, so it wasn’t like I was sitting there the whole time watching the display.

    So all the stuff was transferred and burned off to five DVDs. I was writing this and feeling very happy with the results, when I… realized I could have done it much faster, or at least more directly.

    This is how I should have done it. Mount the SATA drive into my main computer (which will not boot using the installed disks and GRUB), but boot the computer from the System Rescue CD directly. Then, mount the SATA disk, and use the DVD burner program on the SysResCD to write the data directly from the SATA disk to the DVD. I probably would have been done in an hour that way.

    Live and learn. Linux Rules.

    A Minor Website Fail

    3 January 2010

    I use the Air Force Material Command Microsoft Exchange webmail quite a lot. In general, it’s a fairly reliable service; it usually works even when my Outlook client has a temper tantrum (which is distressingly often). The webmail client doesn’t support digital signatures or encryption for some reason, but hopefully it’s being worked.

    One funny thing it does is on logoff – the webserver consistently returns a page that tells me I am not authorized to view the logoff page:

    I think that whoever set up the permissions for this page just didn’t fully think the security permissions part all the way through. I’ve identified this to the webmasters for the page, but no response yet (it’s only been about a year, though).

    The Times Have Changed…

    24 December 2009

    Just got word – FIRST – from Facebook that services at St. John’s are canceled tonight due to the snowstorm. It even beat the TV stations.

    ISS Passes Thanksgiving Week

    23 November 2009

    There will be some very bright International Space Station (ISS) passes this week. The Station is especially bright since construction has made it larger, and the Space Shuttle will be attached to the ISS most of the week. The Station is also a lot lower (roughly 122 miles above the Earth) than it usually is (typically around 220 miles).

    The data below is from Heavens Above, a site that tracks lots of satellites (not just the ISS), and is as of 22 Nov.

    ISS – Visible Passes | Home | Info. | Orbit | Prev. | Next | Help |

    Search period start: 00:00 Sunday, 22 November, 2009
    Search period end: 00:00 Wednesday, 2 December, 2009
    Observer’s location: Edmond, 35.6530°N, 97.4780°W
    Local time zone: Central Standard Time (UTC – 6:00)
    Orbit: 336 x 344 km, 51.6° (Epoch Nov 22)

    Click on the date to get a star chart and other pass details.

    Date Mag Starts Max. altitude Ends
    Time Alt. Az. Time Alt. Az. Time Alt. Az.
    23 Nov -1.0 18:07:48 10 N 18:08:41 11 NNE 18:08:57 11 NNE
    24 Nov -2.0 18:28:42 10 NNW 18:30:52 25 NNE 18:30:52 25 NNE
    25 Nov -3.2 18:50:30 10 NW 18:53:02 66 NW 18:53:02 66 NW
    26 Nov -2.1 17:37:58 10 NNW 17:40:23 24 NE 17:42:47 10 E
    26 Nov -0.8 19:13:06 10 W 19:15:20 21 SW 19:15:35 21 SW
    27 Nov -3.5 17:59:41 10 NW 18:02:33 85 NE 18:05:24 10 SE
    28 Nov -0.7 18:22:09 10 WNW 18:24:28 22 SW 18:26:46 10 S
    30 Nov -0.5 17:31:05 10 WNW 17:33:29 24 SW 17:35:52 10 S

    The key values in this table are magnitude (brightness), the first time, and the direction. Look for a very bright star that is moving (and doesn’t have red or green blinking lights). For magnitude, the smaller the number the brighter; -3.5 is far brighter than -0.8 (most stars are positive magnitude, and so are dimmer).

    The pass on the 27 ought to be spectacular. -3.5 is the brightest value I think I have seen, and the 85 degree angle is virtually overhead (remember the horizon is 0 degrees and 90 is straight up). So that pass is horizon to horizon from the NW to the SE.

    You can check updated pass information at Go there, enter your location using the “From Database” link.

    Hooray for Google

    17 November 2009

    I’m at OKC waiting to board for my latest trip. This is one of the airports where Google is footing the bill for people to use wifi for free through the holidays.

    Wifi ought to be free at the airports anyway. More enlightened airports have provided it for a long time (COS, SMF, TPA, and MCO come to mind).

    So hooray for Google. Maybe increased usage here will get the airport authority to offer it for free for those of us trapped in airports often.

    InnoTech, Oklahoma City

    6 November 2009

    A friend who works for Sprint got me a couple tickets to InnoTech 2009. I must confess, I had not heard of InnoTech before this. When I looked at the conference tracks on the website they looked interesting.

    I signed up online and marked the date in my Blackberry.

    I was not interested in the two keynote addresses, so I decided to show up about 0900 for the first thing I was interested in (moving websites up in the search engine rankings) at 0915.

    I got there in good time. There were four computers, two for pre-registered people, one dedicated to exhibitors and speakers, and one for un-registered people. Neither of the pre-register computers recognized me, which I find highly annoying. That meant I had to go to the end of a line of about 20 people who were either un-registered or were in the same boat I was in, having their pre-registrations LOST. I didn’t get through that line and get my badge until 0945; the track I was interested in was winding up as I got there. So that was a huge waste of time, so far.

    I went to another on deployment of alternate desktops at the OU Health Sciences Center. That was interesting and I learned a couple things about mobile desktops and virtual machines.

    Unfortunately, that was the end of the stuff I was interested in. I went to the exhibits area. There were a number of interesting things to look at there.

    I saw a number of people that I had not seen in a couple years, including a number of people that used to work for either my Large Defense Contractor employer or one of the Slightly Smaller And Eaten Defense Contractors that had been bought by their larger competitor.

    I think that InnoTech needs a couple more computers to check people in. It would be nice if they would not lose pre-registration information.

    I like the fact that they have some software developer tracks in the conference. I hope that this kind of practical knowledge will be expanded on in future conferences.

    Open Source and System Rescue CD: Really Cool

    1 November 2009

    I have written before about how cool it is to use Open Source software to Get Stuff Done. This is somewhat related to a couple other things I have written about, namely my quest to replace my computer-based DVR function.

    I have a 250GB disk that came out of a Dish Network DVR that had been used for recording (but not paying for) movies. I wiped it and used it in the school server for file serving, but I was the only one who ever used it, and the roughly 10GB of space I had on the main server disk was only 20% full. So I pulled the 250GB device.

    The computer I want to use for my DVR has an 80GB primary disk with Windows on it. I have a 20GB disk that came out of a failed laptop a couple years ago; it has a GRUB boot partition and a Linux partition on it. I had recently upgraded the Linux partition from Fedora 5 to Fedora 10; all my personal files I have on DVD from the backup that I did before the installation.

    My idea was to put the 250GB disk into the computer, and image the 20GB over to it, then stretch the Linux partition out to 40GB just for some extra room (the 20GB Linux partition is only about 25% full, but you can never have too much disk space, right?). Then I would take all the extra space on the 250GB, make a partition, and format it for NTFS (the theory here being that Fedora talks to NTFS, and Windows talks to NTFS, but Windows can’t talk to a Linux ext partition). This way, both Windows and Fedora can share the big space.

    So I put the 250GB drive in, pop in System Rescue CD 1.4, do an fdisk -l to make sure it sees all the disks, and then use dd (Disk Duplicator) to copy everything on /dev/sdc to /dev/sdb. dd runs in about 20 min, and for the first time since I started using it, I had some errors reported during the copy process. Hmmm, thought I.

    I shut down, pulled the System Rescue CD from the drive, pulled the 20GB drive, and moved the 250GB drive to that slot on the IDE bus. Booted both Windows and Linux, so good there. No problems from the reported errors.

    A short detour: When I upgraded my Linux partition to Fedora 10 from Fedora 5, all of a sudden I could not boot ANYTHING. I used System Rescue CD to boot the system, mount the Linux partition, and change the boot drive from the default of (0,0) to (1,0). This allowed GRUB to find the operating system commands. But for some reason, the OS selector menu wouldn’t show. If I hit the up arrow key a number of times, then enter, then Linux would boot. Down arrow (or let it just set throught the default timeout), and XP would boot. I looked online a bit, but this evening I figured it out: the “splashimage” command was pointing to disk (0,0) also. I changed it to (1,0) and we were off again. Whatever was setting GRUB up in the Fedora 10 installation was figuring out where the various OS’s were, but didn’t put them back into the right place in grub.conf.

    So now I have a 250GB disk with a 20GB Fedora 10 Linux installation. I go back to System Rescue CD, and fire it up. I go into the Linux GUI and start Gnu Partition Editor (GPartEd). It sees the two disks, but it does not recognize the OS on the 250GB drive. Hmmm. I check the version number. I then reboot to the Fedora, and load the latest version of GPartEd using Yum, and run it. It reports that the parition type is Linux LVM, which is correct, but it also informs me that LVM isn’t supported yet.

    So I create a new partition in all that free space, and format it as FAT32, so both Windows and Linux can read and write it safely. I was planning to do this as NTFS, I seemed to remember that FAT32 would not support more than something like 120GB, but when I identified the space for formatting, FAT32 was an option, and the process was successful.

    I booted into both the Windows and Linux partitions, and they worked, and could read and write to the FAT32 partition, so overall success.

    So my basic requirement is accomplished: I imaged my existing Fedora 10 and boot partitions from a 20GB to a 250GB disk. I have a HUGE amount of space to store DVR data. I was not able to stretch my Fedora partition, but I will go and see if there is a schedule for GPartEd or some other Open Source tool to support LVM.

    Open Source wins again: Linux/Fedora, GPartEd, Grand Unified Bootloader (GRUB).

    A Microsoft Outlook Oddity

    30 October 2009

    I run MS Outlook since my employer and my job require it. I actually think that some of the functions provided are pretty cool (the Calendar, for example).

    I keep most of my email in an Outlook data file (a file with a .pst extension). So today, I tried to drag some stuff from the Inbox to my primary data file (named, remarkably enough, Bill_Hensley.pst). Outlook put up a dialog box complaining that the pst file was full. This caused me to vaguely remember that older versions of Outlook had a maximum data file size of 2GB. I looked at the file on the disk, and sure enough it was right at 2GB.

    So I created a new pst file called Things_To_Take_Care_Of.pst. I was going to dump a couple folders of information there to “take the pressure off” the Bill_Hensley.pst file. OK, the new file was created, and I selected a folder in Bill_Hensley that had some largish items, and dragged it to the new pst. Outlook complained that the data could not be accessed because the file was full. WTH? I tried another folder. Same result. I tried to open up a couple mail items in the two folders, got the same message.

    After playing around with Outlook at bit, I figured out that any mail item that caused the expression ((pst_size+item_to_open_or_move_size) > 2GB) to become true was rejected by Outlook. Since the Bill_Hensley file was a couple MB less than 2GB, I could grab and move a couple MB worth of files to the new file. As I moved stuff to the new PST file, I could move more and more stuff. Eventually I got it done, but with a couple detours to repair the Bill_Hensley.pst file (Outlook complained that the file was damaged).

    So I do not understand why moving a mail item OUT of a PST, or opening the mail item up, would cause the PST file to grow to larger than the 2GB limit. But MS does some things in a super paranoid way (see the post on Word 2007). This paranoia cost me an hour of otherwise productive time today.

    And one other thing. When I started this, my PST file was 1,950,368,768 bytes in size. After I moved a folder of pretty big mail items out to the new PST, the new PST file was 300MB in size. After the move, my PST file was 1,948,337,152 bytes, a difference of 2,031,616 Bytes. The removal of 300MB of mail items reduced the size of the PST file by… 2MB. So moving stuff out of a PST does not really move it out. Next, I will find a compression or packing utility somewhere.

    It never ends.

    25 November 2009 update:

    I found via a simple Google search that Outlook has a pst compression function built-in.

    I backed up my big pst file (you better also, the location is on the same Advanced window, just find it, exit Outlook, go to that folder, and copy the file to anything else), and ran the tool (right-click on the folder representing the pst file, then Advanced, then Compact Now).

    It runs a bit (mine ran an hour for the 2GB file, on a beefy laptop),. I ended up with the file size going from 1,905,153KB to 1,206,289KB, a difference about 700MB. I checked to make sure I could access stuff from the newly compressed file, and then deleted the backup file. So I’m in good shape with my pst files.

    A Very Minor Website Funny

    30 October 2009

    My Very Large Defense Contractor employer uses a website from American Express for booking travel. They call it The Edge. The site overall does an OK job of getting travel booked. It has some very strange behaviors (for example, a predeliction for only wanting to display flights that depart at 0600 or after 1800). It also has a hard time finding hotels, and an even harder time finding open rooms at hotels, and an even harder time getting the Government per diem room rate. It also will rarely get a better price than the prices on the airline web sites (I know these last two, since I will fire up the or sites and browse them at the same time).

    But that’s not what this is about. This evening I needed to book travel, so I brought up the site. The front page has a bunch of travel advisory stuff and the usual screen clutter you might expect, and it has the user ID and password text boxes.

    So as soon as the site comes up, my daughter informs me that she needs to bake a cake for the class party tomorrow, and we are out of eggs and milk. Grrr, says Dad, and off to Braums I go. I got back around a half hour later.

    I sat back down at the computer, entered my login information on the website, and clicked the Log In button. The site immediately returned a page stating that my session had expired. Huh? I followed the link back to the main page, logged in, and then booked my trip. After all this was done, I logged off and navigated back to the home page, and then I went off to Facebook or something, and came back after about 15 minutes. I tried to log in again, and got the session expired page.

    So for some reason, AX bases the session on the load time of the home page, not the load time of the itenerary build page that you get after you log in. Some developer made a dumb choice here. I sent a Feedback in, but I suspect that it will meet the fate of the other Feedback I have sent to The Edge (which is to say, relegation to Oblivion).

    Wild Horse Creek Cafe, Marlow, OK

    25 October 2009

    This morning daughter Erin and I drove down to Girl Scout Camp Ekowah near Marlow. My very cute and somewhat camp-overtrained roommate had completed a weekend of camp training, and we wanted to bring her back home.

    Erin and I had a really nice walk around the camp. She had been there for summer camp and wanted to show the place to me, so we literally walked to all four corners of the camp, checked out the platform cabins, petted some of the horses (it’s a horse camp), went out on the dock, did the low ropes course, and generally had a good couple hours. We walked about five miles.

    By this time, we were quite hungry, and we stopped by Wild Horse Creek Cafe, as Marlow is the first town you come to from Ekowah.

    The server told me that their chili had beans in it, but she was wrong! It was 100% meat, and was outstanding. Taste and consistency was perfect. I loved that chili, great stuff.

    I got a chicken fried steak, with mashed potatoes and green beans. It was kind of a strange meal.

    There were a couple different kinds of green beans. They had some bacon and onion, and tasted OK, but there were what I would refer to as “good” green beans (like you would get out of a Del Monte can), and “not so good”, like you might get in a cheap cafeteria (these beans can be identified by being bright green like they are dyed, and they are tough, relative to “good” beans).

    The mashed potatoes were good. The gravy was OK.

    The CFS was another mystery. I am pretty sure it was not hand breaded there, and had been frozen, but it tasted pretty good. The taste was the taste of a pre-fab CFS. I’ve had some terrible pre-fab CFS, but this one is was better than most – call it a 5 out of 10.

    Erin got a baked potato, and it was loaded and fairly standard. She thought it needed to be baked a little longer, and needed a lot more cheese on it. Erin got a pair of warm brownies ala mode for dessert.

    Raegan got a fish sandwich, and at least part of the fish tasted bad (as in, spoiled) to her. She was not terribly hungry since they were well fed at camp, so we didn’t pursue it. She got a slice of pecan pie to get the taste out of her mouth, and it was good.

    So the experience with the Wild Horse Cafe was a mixed bag. The chili was outstanding – I can’t believe that it was pre-fab. The next time we have a chance to eat here, I will try a steak and see what they do with it.

    The place had people at four tables when we got there around 1400 on Sunday afternoon, and had about three when we left around 1450. Our check for three was $29.86.

    There is a technology aspect to this – it’s something I have Never Seen Before. The servers use handheld HP iPAQs to take the orders. The handheld runs an app that has the complete menu for the restaurant. The server uses a stylus to click each time, including notes or variations (for example, if you order fried mushrooms and you want ranch dressing to dip them in, the server can either click a standard option, or use an on-screen keyboard with the stylus to add the note). The order is submitted over a dedicated wifi link to a (computer) server, where it is displayed in the kitchen for the cooks to start working up.

    The restaurant had a couple of wifi links that I scanned with my Blackberry. One had an SSID of something like “serverlink”, and was WEP protected. I presume this was the destination for the iPAQs. There was another wifi link as well (don’t remember the SSID) that was about the same signal level, and was WEP protected as well. One of the servers said that they really liked using the iPAQs. Pretty cool stuff.

    A Random Gripe About MS Word 2007

    22 October 2009

    One thing about Microsoft Word has always bugged me, and just now, I sat almost five minutes waiting for Word to just get started.

    Down in the lower left, in a status bar, Word will display the message “Waiting to connect to a printer”. When I am remote from my office network, this happens. It’s infuriating. Word should JUST OPEN. If it wants to connect to a printer, it should start doing that when I ask it to print! Not before.

    It does display an “ESC to continue”, and this works sometimes.

    One related thing, when I use Internet Connection Sharing, Windows won’t let me turn on ICS unless there is something connected to the port I will be using. This is frustrating because I am usually getting ICS set up while the computer I am sharing for is still booting up. I know this is to help users know that the distant end isn’t there, but let me do the thinking, please.

    A Cool Linux Thing, Actually, A Couple of Things

    19 October 2009

    I got an AVI file from a camera today, it was 235MB in size. I tried VideoLAN, it would transcode from a file to a file, but it would not transcode both the video and audio (audio only). I couldn’t find a tool on Windows to convert the file to MPEG format, but there were a couple posts on a Linux board referring to a tool in Linux called Media Encoder, or mencoder. The posts both said that if you had Linux Media Player you had Encoder also.

    I switched to my Fedora 10 instatllation, and found it did not have Media Player installed. A quick “yum install mplayer” fixed that. But the command line mencoder didn’t work. I did a locate on the disk, not there. So I went back to the command prompt and “yum install mencoder” and then I was converting the 236MB AVI to a 35MB MPEG that looked and sounded just as good.

    Since Linux mounted my other XP partition just fine, i copied the file to that environment. At first, I wanted to send the converted file to my very cute and XP using roommate, but I realized that I really wanted to upload it to the HTTP server I run on the school computer.

    While I was playing around with the Windows Network list on the “Connect to Server” function (off the Gnome “Places” menu item), I noticed it had options for connecting to an FTP server, in both anonymous and authenticated modes. “What the heck”, thought I, and specified the information for my server at St. John’s.

    Now, FTP is pretty common, but in this case, instead of a command window, or a dedicated drag-and-drop GUI, a mount point appeared on my Gnome Desktop that was labelled “” (the St. John’s IP address). I double-clicked it, and it opened up a file window, just like I could see for my local filesystem! Cool, thought I.

    I drilled down to the root of the webserver document directory, and there were the files I expected. I grabbed the converted MPEG file from the Gnome Desktop and dragged it to the opened webserver directory, and a couple minutes later, the file was on the St. John’s webserver!

    The FTP icon had an Unmount item when it was right-clicked, and when I selected it the FTP session was logged off just fine. That was about the slickest FTP I’ve ever done.

    So, between mencoder to convert the media file, and mplayer to verify the file was converted correctly, and finally the very cool FTP function, Linux rules!

    Something I’ve Not Seen Before – American Airlines

    17 October 2009

    This afternoon I glanced on to the flight deck of the American Airlines Super 80 I was boarding, and I saw something I’ve not seen before on a commercial bird.

    The First Officer was following a pre-flight checklist, using what looked like a PDF file being displayed on a laptop. That’s the first time I’ve seen any commercial flight data being handled electronically like that.

    We’ve had efforts going on in the Air Force for a number of years to make technical data, including flight and maintenance manuals, electronic. I think it’s a great idea, especially if you can put the data into a handheld computer (say, the size of a large calculator).

    I will keep an eye out over the next couple months for more examples of this.

    A Minor Linux Fail

    12 October 2009

    I usually sing the praises of open source in general and Linux in particular.

    My main gripe against Windows over the years is that it’s just an operating system. It’s been hard to install, and then you have to fool with drivers. Once it is installed, you have to get or buy more stuff – Word or OpenOffice if you want to do office stuff, something else for image editing, something else to read PDFs (or any of dozens of other files), etc.

    OTOH, you can put a LiveCD of most any Linux version into your computer, fire it up, and you can do pretty much anything that you want to do for day-to-day work. If you get one of the full distros and load it, you can do anything you want to do day-to-day, and you can write software, or run a version control system, or stream video, or run a server. And to top it off, Linux is perfectly happy to co-exist with Windows; the opposite has never been so.

    So today I had a disappointment. I was doing some work on our new school server (which is going to be implemented with Linux Fedora 10 on one of our donated Air Force Gateway computers). I was working on my laptop, which is dual booted between XP and Linux (Fedora 10 also). The Linux server needed a network connection, and it did not recognize the USB-based WiFi device I tried to use (it was an older Trendnet device) (it should be noted, that wifi in Linux is better than it was, but it is still not perfect, and there are lots of wifi devices for which the manufacturers do not provide Linux drivers).

    My laptop was on the house network, and I remembered that internet connection sharing (ICS) was built into the last couple Fedora releases without the need to do an iptables configuration. I ran a crossover cable between the computers, and found the “Share This Connection” tab easily enough, but I could not get it to work. The wired port on the laptop was some odd address in the 10. Class C range, so I know something was happening. I messed around a bit and decided I didn’t have time to mess with it, so I rebooted the laptop and brought up Windows XP.

    XP already had the ICS function configured, and the server picked up an IP address immediately, and it was off. I started the update task on the server, and now it is ready (in fact, it asked me if I wanted to take it from Fedora 10 to Fedora 11!).

    So in this case, Windows did better than Linux. I probably will investigate in the next couple weeks to see if I can get it working. You can never have too much connectivity.

    Bandwidth Is Our Friend

    10 October 2009

    Today, as a result of a little bit of Facebook stalking, I ran across a site called It’s an ISP based here in Oklahoma City. NSIS has a bandwidth (speed) test on its homepage, so naturally I clicked it.

    I got a measured speed of 5.8Mbps. I tried several other times and got speeds up to 8Mbps. That’s not bad. That is a measured time from my computer, through a 54Mbps wifi link, through a wifi router, through a 100Mbps wire to a cable modem, through the Cox network, to the Internet, and then to NSIS, and back.

    I decided to see if my Blackberry would get a report. I fired up the browser, went to NSIS, and got a report back of… 85Mbps (not eight point five, eighty five). My first impression was, I think I’ll download an HD-quality movie to my handheld!

    But the reality is, my Blackberry is actually pointed at a proxy server at Research In Motion (RIM), and so the actual test is between the RIM proxy server and the test server at NSIS. The typical link between ISPs is at least an OC-12 (600Mbps) and I’m sure that RIM uses an OC-48 (2Gbps), so 85Mbps for such a test is not unreasonable at all.

    I’ve measured the download speed of my Blackberry, and usually get around 150Kbps when I’m on the EDGE network over the cell tower (which is about the same bandwidth as three dial-up modems), but it seems to work pretty fast, since on most web pages, the RIM proxy server reformats the pages for the small Blackberry screen, including resizing the images, which are the real bandwidth hogs. It’s a lot faster when the Blackberry is connected to a wifi access point.

    So 85Mbps to a Blackberry is a dream, but it’s a good one.

    Using My Computer As A DVR

    30 September 2009

    OK, very few people might be interested, but I am going to document my computer-as-Digital Video Recorder (DVR) saga from Saturday.

    We don’t have a working VCR, but I have no less than two video capture cards in my main development computer. There was show on the “Ovation” TV channel that I wanted to record. So I thought that using a piece of DVR software would work.

    Now, I’ve got a lot of computer and digital video experience. I have a two-channel video stream that I run quite often; I use it to send video over the house network to my laptop so I can watch Dish or over-the-air TV wherever I happen to be working.

    First I fired up the WinTV2000 application. It has a VCR function. I ran it for two minutes; it only saves in AVI format, and the two minutes consumed 180MB of space. For the two-hour program I was wanting to record, it would require about 200GB of disk, and I just didn’t have that kind of space available.

    I started working the upgrade process around 1300 Saturday. I had stuff I was doing around the house and outside, so I was sharing my time between the computer DVR project and the house.

    So I knew about an application called MythTV. First I downloaded a live CD called MythDora, which is MythTV based on the Linux Fedora distribution. Since my development machine is a dual-boot XP/Fedora 5, I thought this would be a good test. I got the CD booted and MythTV started. After going through configuration, it started running. MythTV seemed to be running, but when I got to looking at the logs, it was not able to open either of my video devices. I played with it a while without success.

    I booted back into my Fedora 5 installation and downloaded a KDE-based TV app. It started showing me the output of the TV tuners right away. So those were working OK under Linux, there was a problem with MythDora.

    I decided to upgrade my Fedora 5 installation to Fedora 10. I downloaded the DVD, burned it, and started the install. That went well. It did take an hour and some change, but at the end of it I had a new Fedora 10. I immediately downloaded two TV apps and ran them, got TV! I downloaded MythTV in source form, since I could not get it via Yum or in an RPM. I started the compile. It crashed after 10 minutes complaining about a missing library.

    Next, I thought about using VLC, which is a good player and can stream. I tried to get it via Yum, but it was missing some library, and I couldn’t find the library.

    So I rebooted back into Windows XP, which has a copy of VLC for windows already installed. For some reason, it couldn’t find either TV card. I played with the inputs but the darn thing wouldn’t start streaming.

    Finally, I hit upon a solution. I would use Microsoft Media Encoder to stream the TV to another computer, which would capture and store the video stream. When I started the WME wizard, there was an option I hadn’t noticed to encode to DISK. In MPEG formats! I tried it on a short segment, and it saved the stream just fine. Then it opened up with Windows Media Player.

    I started the capture of the program. Thie program ran from 0030 to 0230 Sunday. I got to stay up and listen to the program (“Phantom of the Opera: Behind the Mask”) with one ear while I did some Internet searching that I had put off doing, so it wasn’t like I was sleeping or anything like that. The two hours of MPEG-1 recording ended up taking up 2.3GB.

    In the end, I got the program recorded, but I did it manually. I was not able to set a DVR-type timer to start and stop the recording. I also wasted a bit of time trying to get various software working, downloading and burning stuff to CD and DVD, doing installs, and the like. I got a Fedora 10 update (which I needed to do anyway, since my new school Linux server is also Fedora 10) on my development and test machine. But this was the first Linux-based Charlie-Fox that I have had. It’s kind of ironic that a freebie from Microsoft (Windows Media Encoder) got the job sort of done in place of Linux, when a lot of Microsoft stuff is barely functional.

    I’ll work on it some more later this week.

    Encyclomedia 2009

    21 September 2009

    Encyclomedia is essentially a conference of teachers that is oriented to library staff. It’s run by the Oklahoma State Department of Education. It’s fairly oriented towards use of new technology in libraries and classrooms. Since I am the IT department for St. John’s, and I’m always looking for ways to make better use of our school technology infrastructure (especially if they are free or cheap), I like to go to Encyclomedia looking for cool stuff.

    This year was pretty interesting. I went to sections talking about some free research databases that are available to Oklahoma schools (EBSCO and another one). I also went to a section that talked about how to use Smart Boards in classrooms. That was pretty cool

    I talked to a couple of the reps at the trade show. The two most interesting were the OPUBCO booth, where I found out that St. John’s was already on the authorized list for using the archives of The Daily Oklahoman, which was a full-text search going back to 1913, and a Smart Board booth.

    I got about 30 minutes of quality time with a Smart Board, and learned how the Smart Boards are set up and used. We might be able to get one or two Smart Boards via a grant, so that’s good info.

    A lot of Encyclomedia is geared towards classroom teachers, who have a skill set I do not have, so I didn’t attend those sections. I ran into a college friend, which was really nice, but I didn’t see anyone else I knew.

    My only real complaint is that the rooms were limited in attendance (due to fire code, we were told), so I rearranged my schedule to hit one of the sections I could not get into due to the limits. It seems kind of silly to only let a room be half full.

    The last Encyclomedia I went to was a couple years ago. I missed the notification about the 2007 event, and the 2008 event was held while I was on a business trip so I missed it. I hope I’ll be back next year.

    NSIS (Nullsoft Scriptable Install System) and VB6-NSIS Converter

    15 September 2009

    I just love Open Source software. I have a number of Visual Basic 6 projects that I use quite often for work and school. I move them to different computers.

    I usually use the VB6 Package and Deployment Wizard to build an install package for these. However, at least three of these VB6 packages have cratered while trying to get them to install on the target system. One time, the target system was a computer on the E-4B, and I was trying to help a guy get it to install, with little luck. The errors being reported were (1) random and not consistent, and (2) cryptic, to say the least.

    I can hand-install most any Windoze program with a little patience, but in that case I was 1400 miles away, and it needed to be installed that day!

    I searched around on the web and found NSIS. Just a bit more searching and I found a companion to NSIS that acted as a VB6-NSIS Converter. The way it works, you run the VB6 Package and Deployment Wizard. If the installer fails, then run the VB6-NSIS converter, point it at the VB6 “SETUP.LST”, and it creates a script for NSIS. Then run NSIS, point it at the converted script, and it builds a nice setup.exe file. Burn it to CD or email it to it’s destination, or copy it to a flash drive, and you are on your way.

    In every case where the built-in VB6 tool at trouble, NSIS/VB6 converter got the job done. Great stuff.

    Almost forgot:

    Edmond Memorial High School and Technology

    11 September 2009

    This evening there was an open house at son Ian’s school, Edmond Memorial High School (EMHS), so we went up there to check it out.

    We had made several visits and walked through of the building during the enrollment process, and we admired the computer labs with their flat panels, and the Smart Boards and projectors in the classrooms. However, the Open House was our first chance to talk to Ian’s teachers.

    Now, a bit of a baseline. I think that the technology infrastructure as St. John’s is pretty good, especially given that we have zero budget for technology. We have the following capabilities:

  • Every teacher and staff member for both school and church has a workstation, email, and web access.
  • Every classroom from Kindergarten on up has at least two computers with age-appropriate software. Two of the classrooms have FOUR workstations.
  • School management software and parish management software.
  • A redundant server with our own email, world-class Internet filter (DansGuardian), the school “internal” web server, a total of 10 network shared directories. a killer firewall, real-time virus scanning, and remote access. This includes an on-line grade reporting system that is fed from the teachers electronic gradebook (Fedora Linux kicks serious tail).
  • We stream two video feeds through the building; one is from Cox Cable for TV, the other is for the building security camera system.
  • So we come back to EMHS. Two of the six teachers had PowerPoint presentations, which was cool. There are seven or eight computer labs in the building, and the library has about 20 machines just there. The aforementioned Smart Boards. Most of the classrooms had overhead projectors with remote, driven by a dedicated computer. It looked like most of the rooms had TV access, and of course each had a teacher workstation. The teachers talked about what they do in the classroom. Two of them use online course management software where all the notes for the class are stored, along with all the assignments (one uses the Smart Board to capture the notes and directly upload them to the course management software). Half of the teachers use online versions of the book(s) for the kids, so they don’t have to haul paper copies of the books around. The math classrooms has networked wireless-enabled calculators (!). In fact, the math classroom has a virtual calculator that runs on the Smart Board. The cafeteria and snack bar run on what are essentially debit cards tied to a virtual account for each student. One of the teachers blogs about the daily classroom activity and assignments.

    This is all a much higher level of technology enabling than I thought I would see. I was impressed. Of course, EMHS is awash in money in a way St. John’s isn’t. They have an IT department. It’s more than one highly skilled (if I do say so) geek who volunteers as a labor of love and service.

    I am trying to put some similar capability in. Blogs from the classroom are easy – Open Source! I am modifying our Online Grades (OLG) software to track classroom assignments in a more granular way of initial assignment to final grade. If I had time this could be done in a matter of days, but I do have to earn a living, so it stretches out in the time domain.

    The Oklahoma State Department of Education hosts a yearly conference called EncycloMedia. I am going to it next week to scope out some more ideas and resources for St. John’s. We might take a while to get to the level of EMHS (in terms of capability if not population), but hopefully we will get there.

    Taking Apart a LaserJet 4000

    30 August 2009

    We have St. John’s signed up for the Computers For Learning (CFL) program. CFL is run by the Department of Defense, and is a program to get technology that is obsolete or older into the hands of schools and other groups. St. John’s has received a number of decent computers. A couple weeks ago, a number of laser printers became available. After the paperwork was completed, I took our Rendezvous over and picked them up.

    While taking the printers into the building at school, I had one of them balanced a little less than optimally, and it fell off the cart, and hit the ground hard enough that most of the plastic cover was shattered into a lot of pieces. It would not even power up. I salvaged what I could (the legal-sized paper tray), and decided to take it apart and see what was inside.

    I was kind of surprised that most of the interior of the printer was kind of simple. There was a lot of shock damage and smaller parts broken from the fall, and other parts cracked, and gears not even touching. The entire bottom of the unit was a circuit board about 14in square that was a power converter.

    The processor board was kind of surprising – there was no general purpose processor! I had expected to see at least a embedded process controller. There was a medium sized Programmable Array Logic (PAL) chip; I imagine that’s where the processor code runs.

    The absolute coolest part was the laser assembly. It’s worth remembering that the laser in the laser printer doesn’t “burn” text or pictures on to the page. The laser leaves a slight electrical charge on the paper where it hits it, and that charge attracts the powered toner to the page. A thermal fuser then melts the toner, making ink that bonds to the paper.

    Laser Unit From an HP 4000

    The laser diode sends light through some sort of lens at the six-side mirror. I speculate that the lens is a beam detector. The six-sided mirrors sides are really thin, they look like they are 1/8″ or so. The mirror is direct mounted to a motor.

    The six-sided mirror reflects the laser light through a pair of acrylic lenses. I think that the two acrylic lenses (which look like paired convex negative meniscus lenses) essentially straighten the laser beam with respect to the plane of the paper feed; as a side of the mirror sweeps the laser beam in an arc, the two convex lenses bend the beam towards the center. I don’t think that the beam is necessarily bent to hit the paper at a 90 degree angle since the two acrylic lenses are shorter than the paper width, in fact, the second one is wider than the first one, and the differing lengths, if you lay a line across them, end up about the same width as 8.5″ paper.

    The last thing the laser beam hits is a 45 degree mirror. This mirror turns the beam “down” and onto the paper passing below.

    So as paper passes through the printer, one side of the six-sided mirror is used to sweep the laser beam across the width of the two acrylic lenses. The laser is turned on and off depending on whether or not a bit of toner needs to be deposited on the paper. The paper is then advanced, and the process repeats for the next line.

    I’m going to try and get the six-sided mirror motor to spin to see how fast it goes, I suspect it is pretty darn fast. I am also going to try and power the laser up. They don’t use that much power. Of course, the motor or laser could also have been damaged in the fall.

    Very cool.

    A Bad Policy From Bush Kept By Obama

    28 August 2009

    The Washington Post reported today that the Bush policy of allowing unconstitutional searches of laptops and other electronic devices entering the United States (even those held by US citizens) will be continued by the Obama Administration.

    The Constitution specifically forbids searches without probably cause (check the 4th Amendment). The Bush policy, while in line with his apparent commitment to a tyrannical government that watches its own citizens obsessively, was completely wrong. President Obama should reverse or repeal this odious policy completely. Instead, he wants to strengthen oversight:

    Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano yesterday framed the new policy as an enhancement of oversight. “Keeping Americans safe in an increasingly digital world depends on our ability to lawfully screen materials entering the United States,” she said in a statement. “The new directives announced today strike the balance between respecting the civil liberties and privacy of all travelers while ensuring DHS can take the lawful actions necessary to secure our borders.”

    Secretary Napolitano sounds reasonable, but first off, blatantly violating the Constitution of the United States is not a good way to keep Americans “safe”. I also fail to see how screening materials entering the US keeps us safe. Anything on a laptop or PDA can be sent in via the internet, even superencrypted to ensure no one can even tell what it is.

    The President should start repealing or canceling these terrible, un-American laws and policies, not just adding “oversight”.


    Getting My Dish Network Upgraded

    16 August 2009

    When my very cute but upwardly mobile roommate and I moved to our house in 1997, it was far enough “out in the country” that we didn’t have much traditional infrastructure beyond electricity and phone. We were (and still are) on a water well and have a septic system. In particular, no cable TV. We had dial-up internet also.

    After just a bit of research, I decided that a new outfit called Dish Network was the best choice for our TV. I got a dish and receiver for free with a one-year contract. For something like $26 a month, we got the same basic channels as cable. I mounted the dish on a south-side gable on a pressure-treated 2×10, ran cable through the roof and walls, got it aligned pretty easily, and the setup provided excellent service since.

    Over the past year or so, the receiver has been acting up, and needed to be tweaked periodically. I started looking for a replacement. Cox Cable was by now out to our neighborhood, but Dish was still less expensive, and Dish had also added a bunch of channels that I was paying for, but I couldn’t get without having a second satellite dish. I started looking for replacement equipment.

    I got a Dish 500 satellite dish after I posted to Freecycle – a guy in SW OKC was having his house reroofed, and was going to have the dish on top ripped off and tossed, so he gave it to me for taking off the roof. Ian and I drove down the next morning, and had the dish and about 150 ft of RG-6 coax in about a half hour. The dish had a Quad LNBF (Low Noise Block Converter Feedhorn), and could hit two satellites at the same time. Cool, thought I. I also haunted eBay, and after a bit bought two used Dish receivers for $25 (including shipping).

    I had one detour. Before trying eBay, I asked on Freecycle for a Dish receiver, and got an offer a day later. It was a Dish DVR! The DVR could handle two antennas! Perfect. Except that when I hooked it up, Dish informed me that the thing had $350 worth of PPV charges. Grrr. If I wanted to use it, I had to pay the charges. If I didn’t, the receiver could be junked. I took it apart to see what was inside, and the electronics were interesting, but the best thing – it had a 250GB Western Digital hard drive in it. That drive is now gracing the school server as a backup device, so the effort was not a total waste.

    A couple weeks ago, we had a pretty good series of thunderstorms, and the next morning, my Dish setup was completely out to lunch. I did some troubleshooting. If I had the receiver up on the roof right next to the dish, it got channels intermittently only. In the den, nothing. I decided to put my new stuff up.

    I did a little research in my attic and found a good place to mount the new dish right to the roof. I then mounted it using lag screws embedded in roofing cement. I got the dish aligned (first on the ground, on a table in the yard) and then moved it to the mount on the roof. After a bit of tweaking, I had signal on the same satellite I had before, at the 119 degrees location. But I couldn’t get the 110 degrees at the same time. I did some research, and found that I needed a “switch” to combine the two satellites (the switch isn’t really a switch, its an RF (radio frequency) signal combiner and amplifier). I saw one reference online that said that the dual LNBF had a built-in switch, but the documentation for the LNBF didn’t mention that at all, and all the diagrams I found online showed an external switch.

    So I went off to eBay, and after a couple tries bought a DP34 switch for $22 including shipping. This switch lets you combine three satellite dishes into one feed, and send that feed to up to four receivers.

    The switch arrived, so back to the roof. I spent about an hour tweaking the dish alignment while Raegan watched the signal strength meters in the house while we talked on our cell phones. I still couldn’t get the two satellites up at the same time. Finally I said the heck with it and decided to knock off for the evening, and got the peak signal for the 119 satellite. Finally, I asked her to run the “check switch” test function. It came back with a connection to… both 119 and 110! WTH? I had the receiver go through it’s bootup and signal acquisition, and suddenly we had about twice as many channels! Success.

    So the primary lesson learned was that the switch was built into the LNBF, and that alignment works best when the check switch function is used often.

    There is one new channel (to me, anyway) on the 110 satellite called Dish Earth – it’s a real time feed of a camera on the satellite that is pointed at Earth. Pretty cool. They play some random music on the audio feed, but watching the Earth change “phases” over the course of the day is neat.

    One postscript – I really looked forward to getting the Classic Arts Showcase (CAS) channel on Dish, on the second satellite. Well, I found that in late July, Dish did a satellite channel reorg, and CAS got moved to a third satellite. So now I need to get my original dish moved to point to that third satellite, and then I will be able to use the switch I bought on eBay to get that signal into my receiver, so that effort won’t be wasted either.

    So the TV situation in H&R House is in good shape now.

    BTW, Freecycle is very cool. It’s a nationwide group that is organized locally. Basically, it’s a way for people who have stuff that’s useful but they don’t want to trash to get it to people who want or need it. The only caveat is that you give the stuff away freely, and people come meet you to pick it up. Here in Oklahoma City, the Freecycle group is run via a Yahoo mailing list. Click here for the OKC Freecycle group on Yahoo.

    Java and Software Maintenance

    12 August 2009

    I am a decently talented software developer. I have read a LOT of Java, and written a fair amount.

    This evening I pulled out some Java code I had written for school a year ago to add a feature to it. I’ll be damned if I can figure out what I did.

    On the other hand, last weekend I pulled out a fairly complex Visual Basic 6 (VB6) program that I wrote in 2004 to perform audit trail analysis. I needed to add the capability to point to an input file (as opposed to having the file name and location hardwired in). I was able to figure out what I needed to do, and made the change, in about five minutes.

    I clearly need to write more Java.

    CNN Enhanced, Pretty Cool

    8 August 2009

    We’ve had Dish Network at our house since we moved here in 1997. There was no cable, so we had to get Internet and “cable” over the air.

    My Dish installation has been slowly degrading over the past couple years. I got a new dual-satellite/quad LNB dish through Freecycle, and then got two modern receivers for $20 on eBay. Last week the whole setup failed, so I put the new dish on the roof after doing an initial alignment on the ground. I got everything put where it’s supposed to be, and now we have all the channels back, and a batch of additional ones available once I get a 3×4 switch (which isn’t really a switch, but a signal combiner and amplifier).

    So this morning, I fire the system up to get a news fix from CNN, and there is a new message on the screen, “Press Select to enter Enhanced Mode”. Hmmm, I think, and so I press Select. Really cool! You get an overlay on the screen that has most of the categories from the CNN website. Using the same remote, you can scroll through the categories, and a bunch of stories appear. In the meantime, the current CNN picture is in an inset at the upper right of the screen. You can select a story and get the text, and if there is a video clip it is downloaded and played in the inset box. I really like this, for a serious multitasker like me it’s just really filling.

    I’m looking forward to finding other enhanced services on the box. I already like the fact that the Sirius and CD music channels display title and artist information while listening. I’m am really looking forward to the new switch so I can get Classic Arts Showcase as well.

    A Cell Phone Mystery

    24 July 2009

    I have a pretty good understanding of how cell technology works. That being said, there are some things that mystify me.

    I have a Blackberry 8220. My very cute and cell-toting roommate has a Blackberry Pearl. My son has a Nokia phone, the least expensive one we could buy. We are all on T-Mobile.

    We are currently in Omaha. We were at a local eatery, and I only had emergency service. Raegan had 2 bars, and was on the AT&T network. Ian had four bars, and was on the T-Mobile network. WTH?

    I put my phone right down next to Raegans, no change. I tried to manually switch networks, and it said Emergency Service only. A couple minutes later, the phone locked onto T-Mobile, but only for a minute, and then showed emergency service only.

    Very strange. When we got back to the hotel, I looked up the coverage maps, and the T-Mobile “tower” was a US Air Force water tower that was about 100 yards from the restaurant. Even stranger. I would have guessed that the nearest tower would have been far away, instead we were in the shadow of it.

    I’ve tried to bring this sort of thing up with T-Mobile, both over the phone and via email, and I have yet to have anything more than a clueless response.

    Electronic Voting Machines and Verification

    7 July 2009

    I have been reading an excellent mail list since the early 1990s, called the “Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) FORUM ON RISKS TO THE PUBLIC IN COMPUTERS AND RELATED SYSTEMS (comp.risks)”, moderated by Peter G. Neumann. This is a medium volume list with an extremely high signal to noise ratio. Also called RISKS Digest, it addresses how technology can impact human activities. It’s not just computers, it’s sensors, and communications, and also human interaction with machines.

    This was one of the recent topics:

    Subject: Sequoia Voting Systems vs DC

    Sequoia Voting Systems agreed yesterday to turn over sensitive information
    to the D.C. Council about how the District’s voting machines work and
    tabulate results, setting the stage for one of the most comprehensive probes
    on the reliability of electronic voting equipment. The agreement is a
    response to the election night chaos in the September primaries, when
    Sequoia machines tabulated more ballots than there were voters, resulting in
    thousands of phantom votes. … [Source: Tim Craig, *The Washington Post*,
    6 Jun 2009]

    As a techno-geek, the idea of electronically supported voting really appeals to me. On the other hand, my career in high assurance computing tells me that e-voting, or electronic voting machines, are not up to the job right now.

    Systems that are deployed by the DoD to process classified information have to be evaluated. Don’t just read “tested” for that, because evaluation goes much deeper. Evaluation includes checking documentation (is it correct?), personnel (are they trained and able to operate/maintain?), trust (are they cleared?), and other criteria.

    One criteria that is especially important is doing evaluations in a redundant manner. This means that more than one person, who are independent of the creator of something, should check it out in detail. Two sets of eyes watching testing increases the chance that an anomaly can be caught.

    This also applies to reviewing software and settings. I have read hundreds of thousands of lines of code in Ada, C, FORTRAN, C++, Visual BASIC and Visual C, etc. I have written hundreds of comments on all that code, ranging from missing functions, to commented out range checks, to misleading comments in the code, and dozens of other issues.

    Back to voting machines. The companies that make the machines (Diebold in particular) tend to close the source code for their systems. This means that the internal workings of the machines are wholly opaque to the users of those machines.

    Imaging this scenario. A voting machine is being used in a close race. A supporter of one of the candidate for the Free Range party accesses the voting machines as they are set up. For every third machine in the precient, a poll worker who is a supporter of Free Range presses the System Test function three times in quick succession. The System Test runs and reports all is well, except… that a flag has been set in the machine.

    As votes are cast, the 97th, 98th, and 99th votes that are NOT from the Free Range party are silently ignored, or worse, switched to Free Range votes. The closeness in the selected machines throws the election to the Free Range candidate.

    How to avoid this? The machine, it’s schematics, and the source code must be available to be reviewed by voting authorities. I think that this overrides any issues with the machine and code and stuff being “proprietary”. It would be easy to get independent reviewers and have them sign Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs). The election process is just as important as the need to protect classified information – the criteria is called “Integrity” – information cannot be changed in an unauthorized and undocumented manner.

    Another clear requirement would be to provide a no-kidding paper trail or an internal audit trail. The printer can be as simple as a paper tape reciept like used as Wal Mart. An internal audit trail would be a seperate (physically and power) computer that stored votes and audits in a nonvolatile memory that can be retrieved and reviewed independently.

    These changes will ensure that the United States voting process is free from being stolen.


    3 May 2009

    There are two kinds of spam. One, the canned meat variety, I actually like. It was a staple of camping and weekend lunches and snacks in my youth. I still have it every once in a while, fried in bacon grease or butter, and on bread (wheat bread, I don’t like white bread) with lots of real mayo. Bad for the arteries, maybe, but great for the soul!

    Then there is email spam. I am pretty lucky that I do not have to deal with it much in my various email accounts. I have started getting more of it (a couple a day) in my Air Force email work account, which is surprising a bit. On the other hand, one of my part-time volunteer jobs is the system admin for the network that is shared between the school and church, including email. Several of my users (including the very cute one I live with) have had an immense increase in spam recently. I installed a tool called SpamAssassin (open source rules!) on the server, and have spent about 10 hours that would otherwise have gone to something more productive getting SpamAssassin tuned.

    Since yesterday evening when I brought the tool online, it has detected and hammered 61 spams. More worrisome, it gave false positives to two emails (one from Scouts-List, an email list of Boy and Girl Scout leaders) and one from a legitimate mail list that Raegan is subscribed to (from an online used book seller). I had modified the tools function to save suspected spam to a file on the server, and I wrote a web-based tool to look at the subject lines of the spam, so it was easy to detect the false positives, save them, and adjust SpamAssassin to allow emails from those two via a whitelist.

    My plan is to bring the tool online for my other high-spam-plagued users in the next day or so.

    While I feel that I have struck a blow against e-swine, it annoys me greatly that I have to spend my limited free time to do so.

    On the other hand, hooray to the Open Source writers of SpamAssassin. After a little reading, installing and configuring the tool was fairly easy. I did have to learn how Procmail (another Open Source tool) works, but I have used a combination of whitelists, modification of scoring of existing rules, and a couple new rules I wrote to keep her inbox from filling with crapola.