Older blog entries for steve (starting at number 102)

What's for lunch today?

Everywhere I've worked, a common problem has been that of deciding where to eat lunch. After a while, everyone has tried all possible restaurants and the process of choosing one becomes tedious. "I don't know where I want to eat, where do you want to eat?". Quite a few years ago, I devised the perfect solution to this but only in the last week has that solution been implemented and given a real-world trial. My solution? The Food Wheel. The Food Wheel is a wheel upon which can be placed the names of all the nearby restaurants. Someone spins the wheel. It comes to rest on a restaurant and that's where you eat lunch. Spinning the Food Wheel takes just a fraction of the time taken by the typical "where do eat" discussion.

But until a week ago, my idea was just vapor-ware. Just an idea that got repeated until someone would say, "so, build it already". Last week, Susan took the initiative and turned the Food Wheel into reality. She bought a small lazy-susan (which spawned a few jokes of its own), and used the Dymo labeler, which normally generates little sticky labels for our servers, to put the names of a couple of dozen nearby restaurants on the wheel. And, I'm pleased to report, it actually works. It has been used several times and came up with an acceptable solution every time.

In a strange coincidence, Freshmeat carried an annoucement for a Java applet called "Wheel 'O Yum" this Wednesday which is based on the same idea. It's probably not as much fun as having a physical wheel to spin but it's still pretty cool.

The demise of Red Hat Linux

We've run Red Hat Linux on our servers since version 5. Now we're contemplating what distro to use in the future since Red Hat has announced the end of Red Hat Linux. They will continue to make their high-end Enterprise Linux but it'll cost $1500 - $2500 per server per year. And they're using security updates as a sort of legal loophole that lets them get around the GPL and prevents you from buying one copy of the software and installing it on multiple servers. Supposedly, you can still download the source but if I wanted to compile a whole GNU/Linux system from source, I wouldn't be using a distro like Red Hat in the first place.

I installed Fedora on a test box to evaluate it but it's clearly not intended for serious use in a production environment. It's intended as a bleeding-edge distro for "enthusiasts and developers" only. From what I can tell, it's just a new name for Red Hat's beta distro, Rawhide. Even if someone wanted to use it on a server, it would be impossible - each release is only good for about three months before it's replaced by a new one and support for the old one is dropped. We don't even reboot our servers every three months and I sure don't want to be reinstalling the OS every three months! And then there's the issue of Red Hat trying to trademark the Fedora name and essentially steal it from an existing project.

The only good news on the Red hat front lately is Fedora Legacy, a project that will attempt to offer security patches and support for Red Hat Linux 9 after Red Hat abandons it in April. Looks like we'll stick with that until we can find a new distro. And if some new distro springs up to take it's place, I think they're going to be a lot of takers. I know a lot of folks in the same situation we're in who relied on Red Hat Linux. It's really hard to believe Red Hat did something this stupid. They've effectively found a way to do what none of their competitors had been able to - reduce Red Hat's market share drastically...

mod_virgule and UTF-8 weirdness

I'm seeing more and more UTF-8 related issues pop up in code lately for some reason. Much of the debugging work I've done with the ODP XML dumps has been tracking down illegal XML characters and invalid UTF-8 byte sequences.

Now I've run across a related bug in mod_virgule. The trust metrics on robots.net stopped working a few days ago and today I took some time to track down the reason. It turned out to be an interesting little issue with the way mod_virgule handles the storage of data in the XML database. I've implemented a temprorary work-around that has things working safely again but I think a longer term fix is needed.

I posted to the virgule_dev mailing list about the problem but it's been pretty much dead for the past few months. Basically what happened is a foreign user posted some data to their user profile using a funky non-UTF-8 compatible character set. The result was a corrupt profile.xml file for that user account. That, in turn, led to Apache segfaulting during each subsequent attempt by mod_virgule to process the trust metric. Because of the segfault there was no error reporting to alert anyone of the problem and it took several days before anyone noticed that something was wrong.

The root of the problem seems to be that mod_virgule is simply taking whatever raw data a user puts in a form and passes it directly to xmlSetProp(). This works great as long you only give it valid UTF-8 data but it's not designed to work on anything else. It seems to me that four things need to be done to fix this:

  • Pages need to explicitly specify UTF-8 as the doctype
  • All form data needs to be validated before passing to libxml
  • Invalid data needs to be converted or rejected
  • The trust metric code needs some additional error handling
If anyone has any thoughts on this or has had a similar experience with mod_virgule, I'd be curious to hear about it.

After playing with the VIA Technologies Mini-ITX board for the robots.net review, I decided to buy one and put together a system for NCC to try out as a Linux server. I immediately ran into a problem - it's hard to find anyplace to buy one. We normally buy our hardware through Tech Data, a large national distributor or through ASI, a somewhat smaller distributor that specializes in hardware produced in Asian countries. Neither carries VIA Technologies products. I tried a number of local hardware distributors without luck and finally ended up with the local Frys store as the only option. Frys is fine for some things but it's not a place I like to buy anything mission critical like a server motherboard. But I convinced myself it couldn't be that much of a risk and picked up a Mini-ITX M10000 board at the Irving Frys Wednesday morning.

Immediately upon opening the box, I realized I was in trouble. The motherboard was not in an anti-static bag and didn't have the pink anti-static mat under it like the demo we reviewed, it was just lying in the bottom of the cardboard box. It was missing assorted jumpers and a few other parts. And the bottom of the board had several discolored areas of the type caused by severe overheating. I was pretty sure it was toast but connected it to a power supply and monitor to make sure. Yep, it was dead.

Upon further examination, I noticed a couple of square white stickers on the outside of the box that looked like some sort of Frys quality control info. They had handwritten dates and several paragraphs of fine print about manufacturers warranties and such. A couple of lines into the first paragraph of the second sticker was the phrase "this product may have been returned". Yikes. Someone had bought this board, toasted it, returned it to Frys, and they'd put it back out on the shelf with the new products.

Back at Frys, I attempted to return the board and get an actual new, unopened, unreturned, untoasted one. It took a little work to get them to take it back. At first they said I couldn't return it because I hadn't brought back the anti-static bag and the CD (I hadn't even noticed the missing CD until now). I pointed out that it was also missing some jumpers and was completely dead. The Frys' return clerk decided to check another box from the shelf and see what was in it. Interestingly, the box he pulled was missing the CD, the ATX back plate, and the cables. Turns out he did exactly what I did. He grabbed a box from the shelf thinking it was new but it had the well-hidden "this is a defective return product" blurb on it. This convinced him to give me a refund.

I checked the shelf but all four of the remaining M10000 boxes were returns. Yesterday I drove out to the really big Frys in Arlington and they had about ten VIA Mini-ITX boards. I found a total of four M10000 that weren't customer returns and bought one of them. I looked around at some of the other motherboards and it looks like it's SOP for Frys to mix defective customer returns in with new products on the same self. Most reputable stores have a special section where they offer customer returns at a discount.

Anyway, the new board was just like the demo we reviewed; well packed, anti-static bag, all the parts were there, and it fired right up the first time and ran beautifully. In the end, I guess there are two morals to the story. 1) Be careful when buying motherboards at Frys and 2) VIA Technologies needs to work on getting their product into normal distribution channels like Tech Data and ASI.

I've been catching up on my ToDo list the last couple of weeks. Most of it was boring work-related stuff. But among the fun things, I finally got the review of VIA Technologies Mini-ITX board posted on robots.net. The board will now pass on to the DPRG where it will hopefully end up in a robot or be put to some other equally creative use. I liked it so much, I think we may buy a couple of Mini-ITX boxes to try out as Linux servers at NCC. If nothing else, they make a lot less noise than our new Dell 1750 does.

I also managed to put a few more fixes and patches into my fork of the mod_virgule code and released a new version today. The libxml2 patch has been in place since the last release and has working pretty well. I added some minor cosmetic fixes today to make the XML output nicely formatted again. I also incorporated a patch from James Henstridge that add RSS link elements for diaries.

To get away from the computer for a while this afternoon, we went to an exhibit of Martha E. Simkins paintings at the Irving Arts Center.

I seem to have fallen into a groove of only posting news updates once a month so I guess it's about time to sum up the exciting events of September. Let's see...

Susan and I went to the Joan Mitchell exhibit at "The Modern", the new Ft. Worth museum. Mitchell is by no means my favorite artist but it was very interesting that you could look at what appeared to be just a big Jackson-Pollock-like mess of colors on a white background and get the impression of a city or snow-covered trees and then find out 1) that the other people standing around got the same impression and 2) that the fine print on the plaque describing the painting confirmed your impression and she had actually painted what you thought she'd painted. You can find a few samples on Google Image Search.

We also made an early visit to the State Fair of Texas. We usually don't make it until October but managed to get there on Monday, Sep 29th this year. I think that's a first for us. And going on a week day is always considerably less crowded than weekends. All the usual things were seen and done. Eating corn dogs and tornado potatoes, checking out all the new concept cars in the automotive exhibits, watching the bizarre variety of farm animals being prepped for contests, the weird craft exhibits. One of the high points this year has to be the very nice rendition of the USS Enterprise (NCC-1701) created from a toilet seat and assorted plubming components. A few things were missing this year though; no butter sculpture, no shooting Bin Laden with a paintball gun contest. And while we didn't take in the Birds of the World show this year we did check out the nifty Texas Garden Railway that was added to the Texas Discovery Garden Center.

Otherwise, most of my time seems to have been spent on work-related things. I didn't manage to get some time in working on robots.net and the robotics category reorganization project at ODP. The data dumps from ODP have started showing UTF-8 errors again but there's a good chance the source of the errors has been found and will be fixed soon. Meanwhile, the webcam situation at the DPRG lab is improving. We've run a camserv relay live at the last couple of RBNOs with good results. Hopefully we'll have the second camera online soon.

Sobig.F fun

The W32/Sobig.F worm seems to be creating transient email logjams all over the net today. Even though we're running Linux and not directly affected by the worm, we've seen a lot of really strange email traffic the last couple of days. Periods of no email at all will be followed by a huge burst of traffic as if the mail servers at other ISPs are alternately crashing from the load then being restarted.

Robots

Tuesday evenings these days are being spent at the DPRG warehouse, helping with network administration and doing robot-related software work. The debate about what to call the warehouse continues. I'm still in favor of just the "DPRG warehouse" or maybe the "DPRG lab" but a few folks prefer calling it the "clubhouse". That word brings to mind old episodes of The Little Rascals more than cutting edge robotics. Meanwhile, we held the vote for moving the DPRG to an official 501(c)(3) non-profit group and it passed. So we'll be working on getting the final tweaks to some new bylaws and other documents soon.

The Pacman OS

I ran across a Freshmeat.net announcement for Alpaca today. Alpaca is a multitasking OS that runs on Z-80 based Packman arcade boxes. Probably useless but it has a very high cool factor.

Time for an etoy-style SCO counter-attack?

This whole SCO thing is just getting out of hand. I'd like to see a much more organized opposition to SCO. The attempt by SCO and their lawyers to lay claim to code that isn't theirs is very much like the attempt by etoys.com to lay claim to the etoy art group's domain. The etoy counter-attack came very close to putting the company out of business and forced them to drop their lawsuit. Imagine a site that could act as a command and control center, organizing a counter attack against SCO designed to put them out of business. Planners could develop attacks which might include convincing SCO employees to quit, educating SCO ISVs and customers about better alternative products, organizing protests that coincided with SCO marketing events, and providing information like 800 numbers and fax numbers of SCO offices for those who wished to express their opinions to SCO directly. Volunteers could sign up for specific tasks and report back on the results.

It's been busy and I've fallen behind on posting anything new lately. It's been a mixed month of good news and bad. The bad news was hearing that Ray Rainwater had died. While not totally unexpected, one never likes to lose a friend. In this case a friend Susan and I knew only through the Internet. Our paths crossed doing genealogical research on the Rainwater family and we've corresponded with Ray frequently over the last couple of years. We'd talked about making the trip to Alaska to meet him and he had hoped to make the trip to Dallas at one point as well. Neither happened in time.

He used to send me reminders when I hadn't updated my weblog in a while (it's always nice to know somebody actually reads this thing!) and often offered interesting, related anecdotes from his life. When I wrote about my feelings the morning after 9/11, he was reminded of his reaction to the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. Whether discussing current events or the specs of the latest digital cameras, there was always something interesting in his emails. He and Susan frequently discussed genealogical mysteries. He will be missed.

There's been some good news this month as well. Business continues to pick up and there really do seem to be signs of an economic recovery going on. In what spare time I have, we've started a major reorganization of the ODP Robotics categories and have already double the size of the category. Meanwhile, after a week or so of downtime, ODP finally installed the new servers for the public side of the site. The new server for the editor site is also up and this week they're replacing the server that runs the internal forums. The new ODP servers run Linux instead of Solaris and the proprietary forum software has been replaced with GPL'd software. So we're one tiny step closer in the quest to run the Open Directory Project on Open software.

I submitted a question for a recent Don Davis interview on the Music from the Movies website. Unlike the occasional interview questions I submit on Slashdot, this one was actually used. I asked about the similarities between his music for The Matrix Reloaded and recent Philip Glass compositions (in particular his soundtrack for Naqoyqatsi which also had some Matrix-like visual effects). He didn't think there were any similarities but then went on to say his work was more like that of John Adams or Steve Reich, two other well known minimalists. So I think that means he admits to being heavily influenced by minimalism but he doesn't want his work to be seen as being derivative of Glass, who also does a lot movie soundtracks. There are some other interesting questions in the interview but roughly half of them are just variations on the question of whether or not it was easy for a modern composer like Davis to work with a techno/electronica group like Juno.

As I write this, my skin cells are dying by the thousands and their cellular contents are being digested by the excretions of hundreds of larval trombiculid parasites, or, as we call 'em here in Texas, chiggers. I can't say exactly what kind they are because they're too small to see and most of the hundreds of known species can be found in Texas. We have a lot of other fun critters here, like killer bees and mosquitoes carrying West Nile virus. I don't mind them so much - at least you can see them coming and take a swat at them or run away.

So, how did this sorry state of affairs come about, you may ask. Susan and I were at Campion Trails trying once again to get the perfect macro photograph of a Civil Bluet Damselfly. This particular damselfly is less than an inch long, so getting any sort of shot at all requires one to get pretty close. We ran across a lot of Civil Bluets and Brown damselflies in one particular spot off the main trail near the river. For about five minutes I was perched on the ground in the leaf litter.

There are two main species of nasty flesh-eating chiggers in Texas (most species eat things other than humans, like crops). One prefers grassy areas and leaf litter while the other prefers swampy areas and decaying wood. I was in an area that both species would have loved.

One thing you need to know about chiggers is that they hang out together in small clumps by the thousands, commonly called "mite islands". I don't think anyone knows exactly why and there's a shortage of acarologists to study such things these days. If you enter the mite island, your luck runs out, while a person standing right next to you will remain completely unscathed. As you've probably guessed, I was kneeling in a mite island. Susan, standing a few feet away, remained completely unscathed.

At the time I didn't notice anything unusual. The little alien parasites are too small to see even when they're hundreds of them walking around on you. They have to get between your skin and something to push against (like socks or an elastic waistband) in order to get enough traction to jam their head through your flesh. Once in place, they start injecting digestive fluids that disintegrate and dissolve skin cells. But it can take hours before there's any noticable sensation.

Usually, a photo expedition to the wilderness of Texas would be followed by thorough decontamination procedures; showering, washing clothes, looking for blood-sucking parasites, etc. But Campion Trails is a local rollerblading and bicycling trail where the only danger would normally be tripping over an armadillo or being hit by a startled mourning dove. So we drove home and had dinner. I watched Futurama and spent an hour or two coding while I had two socks full of chiggers that were slowly eating their way north.

Just prior to falling asleep that night I recall having some vague notion that I must have a mosquito bite or two on my ankle because I felt a slight itch. I awoke the next morning to the realization that I had a few chigger bites. Somewhere around 100 on my right ankle, about 30 on my left ankle and 20 or so more scattered around in other locations. And, of course, other chiggers from my socks would have spread around to anything they touched and there were probably quite a few living in the bed. There was lots of cleaning that day. Washing sheets, washing clothes, vacuuming rugs.

If the presence of chiggers in Texas is a bad thing, it's partially compensated for by being the home of the best known remedy for chigger bites, Chigarid. Anyone who's had a chigger bite can tell you that those puny medicines you'd use for a bee sting or a mosquito bite won't do much to relive the pain and itching of a chigger bite. You need the atomic bomb of itch medication. Chigarid is a noxious and highly flammable combination of collodion (a dangerous 19th century photographic fluid, later used as an explosive), phenol (yes, the carcinogenic stuff phenolic resin is made from), and camphor. This bizarre combination of toxic waste basically seals the bite, and sometimes the chigger, under an airtight layer of deadly plastic from which nothing will ever escape alive.

If Chigarid isn't available, I've heard that clear fingernail polish makes a tolerable substitute. I've also heard tell that meat tenderizer, a common cure for jellyfish stings, may bring partial relief (I never quite bought into this though - the chigger is using its own meat tenderizer already and I don't see why you'd want to help it!) . Of course those who have multiple chigger bites may consider immediate amputation of the affected limb preferable to all the above.

The feeling of having your flesh digested by parasites is not a good one. But Texas chiggers don't carry any dangerous viruses like some of our other insects. So in a week or two I should be good as new.

I'm begining to think the hydrogen economy may be closer than we realized. There has been a sudden increase in hydrogen FUD lately. This makes me think somebody out there is getting scared that a conversion to hydrogen might hurt their profits. First we had the report from MIT that said vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells would have just as much green house gas emissions as traditional fossil-fueled cars, so there would be no reason to favor them - oh, but wait, in the fine print we read that the report assumes we're going to burn fossil fuel to make the hydrogen to put in the fuel cells that power the cars. The whole point in converting to hydrogen is so we're not burning fossil fuels, of course.

And now we've got a Caltech study that tells us using hydrogen will damage the ozone layer - oh, but wait, in the fine print we read that the report assumes that 20% of all hydrogen produced will accidently escape into the atomosphere. So, are we supposed to believe this would cause worse damage than if 20% of all crude oil leaked out of oil tankers into the oceans? I'll still go with hydrogen thank you very much. Also in the fine print of the Caltech study, you'll discover that it's all just based on guesswork and no one really has any hard data that proves even the massive hydrogen emissions they hope for would cause any damage.

Next, I suppose they'll be telling us hydrogen is dangerous because, unlike safe fossil fuels, it might catch fire or a that a switch to hyrdogen would result in more people being run over by hydrogen powered cars. It all makes one wonder who's paying for these loony anti-hydrogen studies all of the sudden though...

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