July 2003

How not to write a job description…


…1995 Edition. This is what happens when your senior sysadmin leaves, and there’s no one left with even a tiny grasp of what the job involves. It happened to OSU-CIS; don’t let it happen to you!

more...

Now that’s a smart debugger!


Got a report today that a certain featured news article wasn’t displaying correctly on our boxes, due to some kind of Javascript error. When I read the details, I laughed out loud.

The article was titled “Sexless Marriage.”

The debug output from the box was “missing builtin member.”

Fun with iTunes Music Store


The LXG soundtrack sounded promising enough that I decided to support the iMS exclusive release of it. There was some other stuff sitting in my shopping cart, so I bought it all, synced the iPod, and drove to work.

You wouldn’t think that LXG, Dean Martin, Liz Phair, John Philip Sousa, and Ray Brown would make a good driving mix, but it worked.

“Hey, is this thing on?”


So, after months of benign neglect and minor catastrophes, I’m updating my web sites again. We got the old munitions.com server back intact, I’ve upgraded the machine to OpenBSD 3.3, and I’ve moved this page into Movable Type. I’m even reasonably happy with the layout.

I’ve got lots of abandoned projects to resurrect, the most popular of which is of course my photo archive. I think I still get at least 20,000 hits a day from people who want it back, but the hate mail has tapered off.

Why I’m not a Switcher


I own two Windows machines that I rarely turn on any more. Even at work, the only thing I use Windows for is handling expense reports and accepting meeting invitations. I own two Macintoshes and an iPod (well, two, but only ’til I find a home for the old 10GB model), and I’ll almost certainly buy a dual 2GHz G5 later this year.

I spend most of my time using Macs these days, but I insist that I am not a Switcher. Why not? Because the Switch ads aren’t about technology; they’re about validation. For years, Mac users have been the whipping-boy of the mainstream computing world, and they’ve responded with a “cold, dead hands” attitude and a cultlike devotion to all things Apple. The Switch ads play up to that.

more...

The Passing of Tom Emmett


[excerpted from John M. Browning, American Gunmaker, by John Browning and Curt Gentry. © 1964 by the Browning Co. and Curt Gentry.]

The Brownings depended on Tom Emmett for all odd jobs, either at the store or in their homes. He professed no specialized skill but would tackle any job and get it done. On this day he was up on a stepladder near the ceiling of the shop, by the line shaft, taking measurements. His job kept him near the shaft for so short a time that he did not ask to have the power shut off. Nobody paid any attention to what he was doing, except John. He remarked to Ed, “Tom shouldn’t be working up there with the power on.” Ed looked over his shoulder and said, “Oh, he’ll be through in a minute, and I need the lathe.” It happened just then, while John was looking straight at Tom.

more...

MTRoundRobin


Simple little MT plugin, created as a generalized alternative to FlipFlop.

Given a list of keywords to be substituted into the template, each call to returns a different item from the list, in order, wrapping back around to the beginning when it hits the end. Examples follow.

more...

trollbridge


Teresa Nielsen Hayden of Making Light has a charming way of dealing with obnoxious commenters: she disemvowels them. This seems to be far more effective than simply trying to delete their comments or ban their IP addresses. She apparently does it by hand, in BBEdit. Bryant liked the idea enough to make a plugin that automatically strips the vowels out of comments coming from a specific set of IP addresses.

I don’t have any comments to deal with at the moment, but the concept amused me, and I wanted to start tinkering with the guts of MT, so I quickly knocked together a plugin that allows you to mark individual entries for disemvoweling. While I was at it, I included another way to molest obnoxious comments.

more...

D20 initiative cards


A lot of folks track combat order in D&D with index cards. I don’t know who the first person was to think of making custom index cards with a pre-printed form on them, but I first saw it at The Game Mechanics web site (great people, unfortunate choice of names).

I had just gotten back from a con where we’d run a four-party adventure with a total of five DMs, 24 players, and umpteen monsters, and the freeform index cards we used just weren’t good enough. I didn’t like the actual layout of the TGM cards, but the concept is great, and the rotate-for-character-status mechanic really improves the flow of a large combat.

My response was, of course, to come up with my own layout, adding fields and spot color to make them more useful. Along the way, I decided to increase the size from 3×5 to 4×6, greatly increasing the available space. TGM’s original cards, along with instructions on how to use them, can be found here; their forums also have several lengthy discussions on the subject.

My latest version is here. Several people have argued for a double-sided 3×5 version, and I’ve prototyped one here.

Printing Note: Acrobat has two settings that can make it annoying to print odd-sized documents: “shrink oversized pages” and “enlarge small pages.” Turn them both off if you want the cards to come out the right size.

Custom RoboRally boards


I think everyone who ever played RoboRally has toyed with the idea of making their own boards. Indeed, a quick Google will turn up dozens of sites devoted to fan-made boards and editing tools. I tried using a few of them, but the tools were clumsy and the results uninspiring.

So I did it in Adobe Illustrator, and my first original board looks like this.

more...

Adventures with NAV


It’s been about eighteen months since I bought my new car, a Lexus RX-300. It was basically a storage-and-comfort upgrade from my eight-year-old Camry, but what technophile could resist upgrading to the DVD-based GPS navigation system? Certainly not me.

It’s an interesting mix of pros and cons, features and limitations, but on the whole it’s proven to be both useful and entertaining.

more...

By their threats shall ye know them


Hey, what’s a web site without fraudulent threats of legal action? There’s a guy out there who has bullied and blustered his way into a business running pay web sites for Playboy models under various names, primarily “Alpha Interactive” (no links provided; after all, my goal here is to convince you to spend your money elsewhere).

This is old news, but I couldn’t resist the urge to yank his chain by reposting his threats and explaining his motive in making them.

more...

Mystery Hill on the level


It happened in 1980, I think. My father and I were vacationing in Michigan, in the general vicinity of Manistee, when some of the local kids told us about a special place they were calling Mystery Hill, where if you put your car in neutral, it would roll uphill.

It’s a fairly common optical illusion that often results in the creation of a cheesy tourist trap. By happy coincidence, on the day we went out to see it, my father had a toolbox in the back of his truck. It contained a carpenter’s level. We set it down on the allegedly-uphill road and let the universe reveal the truth of the matter.

Attack of the killer ants!


Brian Tiemann has an ant problem. No surprise there; I think it’s on the Universal New House Checklist, right after “otherwise quiet neighbor with yapping dog.” What surprised me, though, was that he was willing to accept their presence in the house as long as they didn’t get too aggressive.

Not me. Slaughter-and-sanitize is my motto, and their right to life ends with the very first bread crumb.

more...

Foods nature never made


No, not the genemod stuff. Frankly, if I could find a grocery that sold produce that was guaranteed genetically modified, grown with artificial fertilizers, sprayed with pesticides, and then irradiated, I’d shop there every day. Modern technology has done wonders for the quality and safety of food, contrary to the claims of people who confuse natural with safe and healthy. Don’t even get me started on their abuse of the word organic.

No, I’m talking about the single-serving can of fruit I’m holding in my hand. The label reads “raspberry-flavored peaches.”

What were they thinking?

Backups? What backups?


A.J. was worried. For several months, he’d been growing more and more concerned about the reliability of the Unix server backup system that he operated every day. He was just the latest in a long string of junior contractors paid to change tapes, but he actually cared about doing a good job, and something wasn’t right.

He had raised his concerns with the manager of Core Services and the Senior System Administrators who were responsible for the corporate infrastructure, but they assured him that any problems were only temporary, and that he should wait until they had the new system in place. A.J. resigned himself to pretending to do his job, and grudgingly agreed to stall for more time whenever a restore was requested that he couldn’t accomplish.

And then the system just stopped working.

more...

Sometimes it’s not the network


My job was Unix support for Corporate Services, which basically referred to everything in the company that wasn’t related to developing, selling, or training customers how to use our products. In practice, though, it usually just meant MIS, because HR and Legal were composed entirely of Mac people, who had their own support team.

The oddest exception started one day when an HR manager asked me to help him set up a beta-test of a Lotus Notes-based applicant tracking system. The application was being developed on OS/2 servers and PC clients, but we wanted to test it with a SunOS server and Mac clients, since that’s what we had.

more...

Pissing in your whiskey


Han shot first.

We never saw Newt’s family.

There was no World War II scene.

The government agents had guns.

Think of your favorite movies, the way you remember them. Pick them up on DVD, and there’s a disturbingly high chance that the movie you see will be different somehow. Maybe it’s subtle, adding a few minutes here and there that were originally chopped out for runtime or ratings issues. Maybe it’s dramatic, restoring huge chunks of material that were arbitrarily slashed away by a clueless studio. More and more often, though, it’s the result of a director revisiting his earlier work and simply changing his mind about how best to tell the story.

I call this “pissing in your whiskey,” because the director is insisting that the best work he could do ten years ago has soured in the barrel, and needs an infusion of mature creative juices.

more...

Unrepentant sinner


Undergrads love free Internet porn. This is not news. Undergrads will go to great lengths to hide their porn collections from the sysadmins. This also is not news. Sometimes they outsmart themselves. This is just plain fun.

more...

Sanitizing Apache with PF


About 45 minutes elapsed between the moment that I first turned this server on and the arrival of the first virus/worm/hacker probes. It was obvious that most of them were looking for Windows-based web servers, so they were harmless to me.

Still, I like to review the logs occasionally, and the sheer volume of this crap was getting annoying. Later, when I raised munitions.com from the dead, I discovered that it was getting more than 30,000 hits a day for a file containing the word “ok”. Worst of all, as I prepare to restore my photo archives, I know that I can’t afford to pay for the bandwidth while they’re slurped up by every search engine, cache site, obsessive collector, Usenet reposter, and eBay scammer on the planet.

Enter PF, the OpenBSD packet filter.

more...

Annoying habits


/dev/audio: Breathless, The Corrs

Next to my casually-held belief that Bush actually won the election — something that I’ve thought of as a dead issue for quite a while now (and hooboy, how wrong I was!) — I think my worst habit is a certain selective deafness when it comes to music.

No, not the part about listening to utter crap, although I do that, too. See the song mentioned above? It’s been playing on repeat for more than six hours today. Just the one song.

I didn’t notice. It’s a nice song, but is it that good? No, it just falls into that category of music that fills the background pleasantly without ever attracting my attention.

I have a large collection of such songs, although obviously I could get by with one or two. This repetition isn’t usually a problem, since I live alone, but I’ve heard some grumbling when it happens at the office, and it was once taken as a planned insult by my college roommate’s live-in girlfriend. She simply couldn’t believe that someone could play Debbie Gibson’s Out of the Blue album for seven hours straight without noticing, and she was sure I knew that she hated it.

The funny thing was that I hadn’t realized she was in the apartment in the first place.

Live Munitions!


The most popular content from munitions.com is now back online: my large photo archive, consisting mostly of fully-clothed Playboy models. It’s in serious need of a complete overhaul, including rescanning every image to get rid of the worst mistakes that my flaky LS-2000 inflicted, but it’s back.

Of course, the whole collection was apparently posted to Usenet again last week, and I’m sure that a bunch of the pictures are being fraudulently sold on eBay this week, either as “real prints from the negative” or “copyright-free image CDs.” This, however, is their home, and having it back online makes it easier for me to file copyright infringement claims with ISPs.

Topless, lifeless


I want to like Page3.com. Viewing attractive young women who are wearing little or no clothing is a hobby of mine, one I’m unlikely to give up any time soon. And, indeed, some of the pictures work just fine for me: pretty girl, nice smile, healthy body, real breasts, no piercings, few or no visible tattoos.

Most of the time, though, I find myself wondering if I’m looking at a woman or a RealDoll. The blank stare! The static pose! The aftermarket accessories! It’s like those giant inflatable liquor bottles: great advertising but no substance.

more...

Mass walkout in progress?


This afternoon, I was harassed and verbally abused by a total stranger who called me at home. Since the Caller-ID info identified him as a telemarketer, the only reason I’d picked up the phone in the first place was to chant the familiar litany, “please place me on your do-not-call list.”

I never got the chance. He refused to identify himself, refused to tell me the purpose of his call, called me offensive names, and gleefully repeated my responses to the other people working at his call center. I could hear them in the background, saying similar things to other people.

Then I said, “you know, this phone has caller-id, and I know where you’re calling from.”

click

I’m currently waiting on a callback from his manager.

Pacesetter Corp, 916-364-3900. Apparently they sell window coverings and other home-improvement products.

Online music done right


Just for amusement, a list of the albums and songs I’ve purchased from the iTunes Music Store since it went online.

Complete albums:

  1. A Wonderful World, Tony Bennett & k.d. lang
  2. Jazz Cello, Ray Brown
  3. The Best of Ray Charles: The Atlantic Years, Ray Charles
  4. In Blue, The Corrs
  5. Count Basie's Finest Hour, Count Basie
  6. Getz for Lovers, Stan Getz
  7. Stan Getz and the Oscar Peterson Trio, Stan Getz
  8. Best of Al Jarreau, Al Jarreau
  9. B.B. King: Anthology, B.B. King
  10. Late at Night with Dean Martin, Dean Martin
  11. The Best of the Moody Blues, The Moody Blues
  12. Confirmation: The Best of the Verve Years, Charlie Parker
  13. Blues Etude, Oscar Peterson
  14. Tracks, Oscar Peterson
  15. We Get Requests, Oscar Peterson Trio
  16. With Respect to Nat, Oscar Peterson Trio
  17. Oscar Peterson: Stéphane Grappelli Quartet, Vol. 1, Oscar Peterson & Stéphane Grappelli
  18. Liz Phair, Liz Phair
  19. The Dynamic Duo, Jimmy Smith & Wes Montgomery
  20. Great American Marches I, John Philip Sousa
  21. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Trevor Jones & The London Symphony Orchestra

Individual Songs:

  1. You've Made Me so Very Happy, Blood, Sweat & Tears
  2. Do You Wanna Hold Me?, Bow Wow Wow
  3. Takin' It to the Streets, The Doobie Brothers
  4. What a Fool Believes, The Doobie Brothers
  5. Radar Love, Golden Earring
  6. The Day Basketball Was Saved, Jackson 5
  7. I Think It's Love, Jermaine Jackson
  8. Laura, Billy Joel
  9. Beth, Kiss
  10. Detroit Rock City, Kiss
  11. King of the Night Time World, Kiss
  12. Shout It Out Loud, Kiss
  13. Head to Toe, Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam
  14. Insanity, Liz Phair
  15. Don't Stand so Close to Me, The Police
  16. Every Morning, Sugar Ray
  17. Macho Man, Village People

Color combinations for web sites


I’ve stumbled across two interesting tools recently. The first is the Mac application ColorDesigner, which generates random color combinations with lots of tweakable knobs. The second is Cal Henderson’s online color-blindness simulator, designed to show you how your choice of text and background colors will appear to someone with color-deficient vision.

I decided to try to merge the two together into a single web page, using Mason and Cal’s Graphics::ColorDeficiency Perl module. It’s not done yet, but it’s already fun to play with: random web colors.

Right now, the randomizer is hardcoded, but as soon as I get a chance, I’ll be adding a form to expose all of the parameters.

Death Manga


I’ve been away from the comics scene for a while now. Indeed, I just dumped most of mine into my storage unit because I hadn’t opened the boxes in years and had other uses for the space. I still wander into a comic shop once every few months, but there’s very little that I want to buy.

This, however, I could not pass up. Death of The Endless, already the cutest goth chick in the known universe, in a breezy manga-styled graphic novel. And it’s as good as it sounds.

HTML forms suck


It didn’t shock me to discover this, but it was one of those things about the web that I hadn’t really played with seriously. Then I started trying to expose all of the parameters for my random web colors page, so people could tinker with the color-generation rules.

Not only did the form add 24K to the page size, it increased the rendering time by about an order of magnitude.

more...

“How could you not know?”


As airport-restaurant dinners go, it should have been one of the best. I was sharing a table with three friends, two of whom were former Playboy centerfold models. Good people. Reasonable food. Interesting conversation.

Then the topic turned to astrology.

more...

Landscaping


As a happy suburbanite, I like having an attractive yard. As a mostly-nocturnal, white-collar kind of guy, though, I don’t like actually going out there and doing the work myself.

I just met with my favorite landscaping contractor (Richard’s and Adan’s Landscape - Maintenance, serving Monterey County, CA) yesterday to have him trim, weed, and replant my front and back yards. Fairly basic stuff, but the jasmine is taking over the sidewalk, one of the trees is growing so well that it’s tearing itself apart in the wind, the weeds grew four feet high while my back was turned, and about a third of the plants front and back have died from my benign neglect.

more...

Munitions go boom


Well, actually it’s just the DNS server, which I have no control over. It looks like the caches started timing out around midnight. IP address for munitions.com is 209.81.13.66.

Multiple-choice gun safety


I finally got around to acquiring California’s new Handgun Safety Certificate, one of the pointless bureaucratic hoops the state makes you jump through before you can buy a handgun. There’s still the ten day waiting period and background check, the mandatory trigger lock, the safe-storage requirements, the one-a-month purchase limit, and, of course, the limited selection created by ineptly second-guessing the manufacturer’s ability to create a safe, functional product.

No one has been able to demonstrate even a tiny benefit to society from any of these laws, but then again, who would have rationally expected one? There is very little overlap between “people who obey gun laws” and “people who commit crimes with guns,” after all, and legislators who vote for gun-control laws know this.

more...

Tales From The Help Desk


E-mail exchange between user and sysadmin at OSU-CIS, long ago and far away…

User: I was wondering how to send mail to someone on the VAX systems.

Sysadmin: Which ones?

U: It’s the VAX 386 systems. I know the three unique letters to identify this person. Thanks.

S: That doesn’t help. Perhaps I should instead have asked whose VAX systems.

U: It is the VAX at BF Goodrich in Avon Lake, OH. Hope this helps.

S: (crycrycry)

Why I Love Users, a parable of hacking


(based on a true story from my OSU-CIS days…)

User A notices that the department has installed a new sprinkler system. He immediately proceeds to find out everything about how it works, what it can do, and how reliable it is. People are astonished at how much he knows about it, and he basks in the warm glow of praise. One day, he uncovers a serious implementation flaw that no one knows about, and makes veiled references to it for several months, never to the people who are in a position to fix it. Finally, he decides to show people how bad the system is, and sets fire to the building. He’s careful to make sure that no one gets hurt, and that the damage is minor. When the fire-fighters approach him with blood in their eyes and axes in their hands, he smiles quietly and says, “I told you so; you should have listened.”

This being just a story, I feel compelled to permit the fire-fighters to hack the little toad to pieces, shouting “LIKE HELL YOU DID!”

The moral of this story is a variation on the Golden Rule:

"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, because they can do unto you a lot harder."

Who thought this was a good idea?


I like Dean Martin. I picked up one of his albums on the iTunes Music Store recently, and I’m glad to see that Capitol Records is actively promoting him once again. But what eagle-eyed halfwit thought that “light gray on white” was an appropriate color scheme for body text, especially at a size as small as 9px?

I apologize in advance to anyone who follows that link. Especially anyone old enough to remember Dino.

“Need a clue, take a clue,
 got a clue, leave a clue”