It’s the little things in life.

Having hordes of LCD monitors around makes for some amazing lint-and-yuck gathering capabilities. It only takes moving your laptop into bright light to realize amount of junk that’s managed to accumulate on your screen.
How do you clean it, though? Images of melted laptops and innocent users with some vicious chemical glass cleaners crop up everytime I think of trying to clean these things.
Long ago someone introduced me to ‘wet/dry’ wipes. These things are perfect for folks who use LCD screens constantly. They’re double-packets of wipes – one is a small ‘wet’ cloth that has just enough alcohol and other goodies on it to wipe down maybe 2 largeish monitors (I managed to stretch mine to do 3 screens, but it was pretty grungy by the end of it), and the other is to clean off the excess material – a lint-free cloth for that added polish.
Staples carries these things for about $6 for 10. I think they should be standard equipment for any desk or laptop station.

The James Randi $1 Million Challenge Forum

I’m a pretty regular reader of James Randi’s weekly column. It’s a neverending story about what sort of noise is flying around the world masquerading as paranormal claims and magic.
One of my more recent addictions though is watching the claim forum. This is a log by the head of the claims group at the JREF that processes claims for the $1million challenge. There’s a very specific and detailed process for the challenge that offers a million dollars to anyone who can demonstrate, clearly and without ambiguity, some form of paranormal ability or event. After years and years of this challenge being public, no one has ever passed the preliminary test.
But folks keep trying. Check out the forum logs for characters like Prophet Yahweh – Master UFO Caller, Sylvia Browne, and other wonders of the world, all of which have applied for the challenge, most of which could not even agree on what ability the person was trying to prove. Dowsers, mentalists – all are welcome to the cash, if they can prove they can do what they claim to do. Not a single one has.
The forum logs all exchanges between applicants and the JREF, and it gets pretty interesting. A good read, and something to check in on every once in a while.

Of Laptops, XP, Debian etch, device drivers, and GPG signatures.

Well that was a fun adventure all around. My laptop ‘hunter’ is back up and running, pretty much at the level it was at just as it tumbled off the table last wednesday evening. Perversely I had to leave Thursday morning to go visit ${client} down in New Jersey, and really wouldn’t have the time to do all the reinstall fun until I got back.

Nonetheless, I was able to sort of limp along through Thursday (even managed to watch a movie on it at the hotel that night), and into Friday where I was able to swap out the main drive, re-install XP, and get at least the base installation of ‘sarge‘ re-installed. Total time on this was perhaps 3 hours of watching CD’s spin. Really, all in all, for 2 entire OS installs from scratch, it wasn’t too shabby.
Of course, neither installation was not without its twitches. The XP install came up on the laptop with -zero- network connectivity. The device manager SAW the 2 PCI network devices, but couldn’t initialize them because, naturally, I didn’t have the ‘driver’ disc. This is a laptop, it’s not like I have a shelf full of CD’s at hand. So the XP install, while technically complete, was really non-functional. No network connectivity means I couldn’t get the drivers I needed, so I had to pretty much shelve that install for now.
The Debian install went better. I had the IT chap burn me a CD of the Sarge ‘netinst’ cd. This is a small (100meg) image that contains the kernel and enough software to boot, partition, format, and install the ‘core’ Debian system. It assumes you have net connectivity available, and sets it up as part of the install. Once connectivity is established and you’ve selected what installation type you want (developer, gnome, databases, etc), the installer starts fetching the packages necessary.
For my install, the entire ‘fetch, unpack, install’ process from the time the installer said “I have all the information I need, go away” to completion took about an hour and a half on a mediocre DSL line.
Once done, it was a matter of getting back home, restoring my backed up home dir, and re-installing packages I was missing that I needed. I find it somewhat ironic that my Debian install -happily- came up with all the network device drivers in place, configured, and working, and I was able to continue my install, while the XP system is dead in the water with no network, requiring me to find an external source for the drivers needed to simply get online.
But moving along.
After that, we’re pretty much into normal sarge -> etch install mode, but I keep getting an annoying message from apt-get on the upgrade:

W: GPG error: etch/security-updates Release:
The following signatures couldn't be verified because the public key is not available: NO_PUBKEY 946AA6E18722E71E
W: You may want to run apt-get update to correct these problems

This was a new one on me. Apparently versions of apt-get past 0.6 now check the GPG signatures of packages before downloading them by default. This means you need to have the public key of the ‘offering’ host available in your local GPG keyring before pulling the file. (You can turn off signature checking, but checking the authenticity of a package before downloading is a good idea anyway).
The answer to this is to add the public key into your GPG keyring. Note the long hex number in the error message. That’s the ‘key id’ that uniquely identifies the entry in the keyserver. The first step is to query the keyserver for the public key. This should be run as the user who does most of the system maintenance, as it’ll be added to _THEIR_ keyring. Don’t run this as root.

gpg --keyserver --recv-keys 946AA6E18722E71E

The next step is to add that new key to root’s keyring. Since you’ve already accepted the key locally, there’s a higher level of safety in simply copying the key from your personal keyring to root’s keyring (rather than writing the key into root’s keyring directly) :

gpg --export 946AA6E18722E71E | sudo apt-key add - 

Once those are done, apt-get should behave normally and update the local apt cache files without any complaints. If the security server for Debian packages should get compromised, it is nearly impossible to duplicate the private key used for signing packages and end up with the same public key, so if the key signatures match, you can be fairly sure it’s a valid package to install.
There are many other stories on bringing ‘hunter’ back from it’s near fatal plummet, but suffice to say that due to the magic of package management systems and opensource software, and a back up of just my home directory (which has most of my user configurations and the like), I was able to get back up and running from ground zero in perhaps 8 hours of work. Much of that time was simply watching a progress bar move as packages were downloaded and re-installed, primarily without me needing to do anything.
There is a way to even tell apt to make a ‘snapshot’ of all the installed packages so you can ‘replay’ the entire install to get all your installed packages back. I may explore this in a future article.

A note to tool engineers.

A computer is not an AI. It is not a living, breathing, thinking being, has no internal thought processes of it’s own that reflect it’s mood. Even more to the point, a SCRIPT is not a being. If a script or a program or a computer or an application has a problem, it should NEVER report said problem in the first person, because there is NO first person to make the statement. “Well it adds personability and comfort to the user experience” – Bull. It adds ambiguity, confusion, and makes the whole interaction more surreal. I offer as evidence the error message I just got:

I cannot start the X server (your graphical interface). It is likely that it is not set up correctly. Would you like to view the X server output to diagnose the problem? [Yes] [No]

Don’t anthropomorphize computers. They hate that.

And then the other shoe dropped

… well, not necessarily a shoe, but gravity was definately involved.
Today through Saturday I’m down in NJ visiting ${client} and doing their X-mas party thingy. What better way to start a visit to your best client than.. to drop your laptop the night before leaving.
Yup, ‘hunter’ took a 3′ dive onto the floor on Wednesday night. Nothing immediately apparent broke, but I’m getting sporadic HD errors now – and fscking is not fixing them (so it’s most likely a calibration fault on the drive now). Generally, I have to consider this drive suspect, and swap it out asap.
In the meantime, linux is not booting cleanly, so I’m forced to use XP to at least do some blogging. A call to Lenova is scheduled for tomorrow to get a new drive sent out for me. I do have a clean backup of $HOME, so there should be no ‘loss’ other than time and productivity, but gosh what a pain in the buttski. Paraphrasing Rod Rescueman here… “bleah! ptui! feh!… I just upgraded this thing!”

Our gig last Friday


Originally uploaded by eidolon.

Well, this was our first ‘full’ gig – 3 1/2 hours of music on the day of the biggest snowstorm this year so far. Oddly, we all made it (eventually), and there was a decent crowd. We didn’t suffer any major equipment failures, and we only lost track of where we were in the songs… once or twice…

But in the end, it was just fun. At times I could feel my bass thrumming in my hands as I kept the low-line on songs, and I knew the rest of the band was in tune with it and just running. My amp was right next to me on the floor, and I could feel the vibration from it pounding out low E’s and G changes that just held the songs true. A bass guitar is almost part of the rhythm section. With the drummer, we keep the beat and the pace of the song. I work pretty well with our drummer, and at times I stop thinking about how 6 months ago I was dreaming about how much I wanted to be in a band and making this kind of music, and just settled into what we were playing.

It was a good night.

A tale of Debian upgrades to etch,, and laptops

Long time readers will surely now be familiar with my trusty IBM Thinkpad T40 ‘hunter’, that of the Debian install fun from the beginning of this year. I had installed the ‘sarge’ release (which later became Debian stable), and had been pretty happy with it. However, the time had come to jump distribution versions again, which meant going to Debian ‘Testing’, aka ‘etch’.

A major distribution upgrade is never something to be undertaken lightly, but after some preparation, I took the plunge.

Continue reading “A tale of Debian upgrades to etch,, and laptops”

MythTV Gaming – Happy Happy Joystick Luv

This weekend saw some serious exercise on the Myth box. Because of a fairly major snowstorm, we spent a fair amount of time indoors, trying not to get on top of each other and stave off cabin fever. The Myth box came in very handy as (at least in Ben’s case), it was the instrument of recall to his Super Bomberman days. This game, ancient though it is (the SNES version we’re running is 12+ years old), is still outstanding.
What really made it tasty was we got 3 joysticks + the keyboard working on the box. Two of the sticks are the Thrustmaster gamepads I mentioned earlier, one was a Logitech Rumblepad I had frankly forgotten I owned. These all come up on the USB bus under linux as /dev/js0 through /dev/js2 respectively. More on this shortly.
The game ran perfectly via the ZSNES emulator managed from the Myth front end. With 3 adults and 1 7 year old playing, it was quite the bit of fun.
But of course, there has to be at least one hassle. The USB hookup I’m using has a tendency to reset for no reason. We’re not sure if this is the hub, or the cabling, or the connectors, or what. The issue is, when it resets, the joysticks tend to be renumbered. If I’m running /dev/js0 and /dev/js1 gamepads, and the hub resets (from just moving around on the couch or the like), BING, those joysticks are now /dev/js2 and /dev/js3. Nice that it resets and reloads, not so nice in that now the main joystick I use for selecting games and controlling the Myth box is unavailable. I could use some input (so to speak) on this problem. Linux geeks may have suggestions on how to better control the dynamic device assignment in the USB system. Its workable when you have unique devices (Camera goes to /dev/camera, etc etc), but when you have multiples of the -same- device (say, 4 gamepads), I’m not sure if it’s possible.
The other good toy added recently was a wireless keyboard and mouse courtesy of This has helped a lot as it’ll allow us to push the box back under the shelving by the TV (the keyboard cable was VERY annoying to deal with). Next will be a USB extension cable to bring the joysticks nearer the players.
All in all, I continue to be fascinated with this machine and all it represents.



Originally uploaded by eidolon.

Why yes, we did get a lot of snow, why do you ask? This was a remarkable storm. I had to drive for several hours in it, and there was lightning, thunder, and almost zero visibility. At 3pm in the afternoon. At around 6pm, it just… stopped. The front moved through like a knife, and we had a beautiful sunset under rapidly clearing skies. Remarkable.

I’ve driven some in some horrible weather, but this was one of the heaviest snowfalls we’ve ever had. In broad daylight it was treacherous. I can’t imagine what this might have been like at night.

The forecast was for 6-10 inches. I think we ended up with about 14″ here in Natick.

For other pictures of the sunset, click on through to my flickr account, but also check out some of the pictures Diana posted (she’s about 15 miles north of me)

Deluded Blues gig this Friday

This friday (12/9/2005), my band, Deluded Blues will be playing at the Cottage Street Pub (Map ) in Franklin, MA between 9pm and midnight-ish. Folks are welcome to come in, grab a table and listen in and/or say hi. It’s a very informal setup, and the pub itself is not what you would call a high society venue, so be prepared. I do guarantee the music will be good and plentiful!
Hope to see some folks there!

Seti@Home backlogged

Just as we were getting ready to kick those silly corporate folks out of the top slots in the seti stats, the seti@home project reports that things have backlogged in the mechanism for handing out new work and collecting completed work. This means many of the compute machines in our team have been idle a lot for the last 24 hours.
I don’t feel too bad, because that means that all the OTHER folks doign Seti@Home work are also idled, so our standings shouldn’t drop off. I have been having fun looking at how we’re holding up in the ‘world wide statistics’ system. When we started out a month ago, we were at the bottom of the heap. Since then we’ve climbed through over 2/3rds of all the teams, and now stand somewhere around position 9000. We’ve completed more work than almost 80% of all the teams in the project, and our current ‘work unit per day’ count is high enough that I think we’ll move into the top 1000 within a week or two.
This live banner comes from the BOINCstats site, and represents the current status of our team. Click on it to go to our team statistics as compiled by BOINCstats:
If you haven’t joined the team yet, and have a machine that is idle any length of time (say, a desktop machine that stays on when you go to work, or a work machine that stays on when you go home), please join our team!.
Update: Fixed some broken HTML. Sorry bout that.

Hedonistic Uber Widgety

I must admit, when we bought our new Saturn relay, I was particularly astonished by the vast number of geeky widgety thingies it can do. DVD player, heated seats, FM radio with data feed, powered side doors, 110v outlet in the back, etc etc etc. One thing I thought was over the top was the remote starter. You do a particular little series of buttonpushes on the keyfob, and the engine starts.
Now, in the middle of summer, this didn’t seem like that big a deal. But buddy, lemme tell you how, as it’s now getting colder, giving that extra 3-4 minutes of warmup time before you even get in the car is mighty tasty. We’ve figured out you can start the van from the kitchen in the house, so we look out the window, do the keyfob buttonpushing, and the lights go blinkety-blinkety-blinkety-steady. One running van. By the time we walk out there, it may not be -warm-, but at least it’s not simply recycling the already frigid outside air.
Other things have squirmed their way into the “Okay, I could get used to this” category. For instance the little display whoozie on the dash has a bazillion settings in it, including a compass, outside temperature, 2 trip odometers, a ‘current’ and ‘average’ mileage display (watch that puppy go to single digits going up hills!), and other handy bits like how many miles are left on your current tank of gas.
It’s a fun vehicle for what is essentially a minivan. The All Wheel Drive has already come in handy with our obscenely steep driveway. We’ll see how the rest of the winter goes.

MythTV Update – Of joysticks, remotes, and keyboards.

I’ve been struggling with the concept of a ‘controller’ for the whole project. It’s easy to think of the Myth box is just like another audio/video component – something that sits in the rack, and you switch / control it via a remote to do, well, audio/video stuff. Watch TV, listen to music, record things.
But really, the machine is an entertainment center. A conglomeration of all that is ‘fun’ on a modern computer. It plays music from a library I configure and update. It is infinately expandable with low-cost off the shelf hardware. It plays games. It integrates with television and cable. It runs Linux. In it’s spare time, it processes Seti@Home data (NB: Not a function of MythTV :).
So given the system’s sort of multifaceted position in the ‘home entertainment’ circle, what’s really the best way to interract with it? It’s not a ‘computer’ in the sense that you’d sit in front of it and type all the time, so a traditional keyboard isn’t really appropriate. On the other hand, there are times when you do need to interract with the system in more detail… searching for music, updating configurations, even websurfing… where a keyboard is really needed. But for the most part, just something that does up/down/left/right, go, and cancel is sufficient.
I also use my Myth box for gaming via XMame and snes9x, two outstanding ‘classic’ emulators (I know of several folks who have a dozen or more emulators configured into their system(s)). This necessitates having a joystick or two connected up pretty much full time. At the moment I’m using a pair of ‘Thrustmaster‘ gamepads (CompUSA, $9 each) hooked up via USB. They work like a champ, and we can play multiplayer games without a problem (aside from jostling the USB hub, which tends to force the USB bus to reset, which may renumber the joystick devices when it re-inits a second or so later – oops, /dev/js0 and /dev/js1 are no longer your joysticks. They’re not /dev/js2 and /dev/js3. Eee!). My problem has been that the various emulators require interaction with MythTV to start or select games, currently handled by my keyboard, then we jump back to the joystick to play the game.
MythTV has already addressed this problem. The MythTV distribution comes with a joystick configuration file called “joystickmenurc.example”. Copying this file into ~mythtv/.mythtv/ (or wherever your root is for your myth user) and restarting the myth front end enables joystick navigation in the Myth menu system. After setting this up last night, I can tell you it changes the whole tv viewing experience. There’s something about controlling your television via a game controller that just tickles me. I can pause viewing (which starts Myth spooling up the current show into the ring buffer), skip forward or back, change channels, as well as navigate the myth menus. I’d like to add some other button triggers to the joystick definition file, but for now, this is a major win.
I think in the end, for my particular setup, I’ll end up with a wireless ‘gamepad’ controller with a bit more functionality than the Thrustmaster simple gamepads. That will fill the need for a ‘remote’ for controlling the tv, a game controller for playing games, and remove some of the need for a wireless keyboard.

Google Pedometer – Another cool Google Maps hack

Yesterday while out here in Pittsburgh, my friend Barbara and I took a nice long walk around the park and streets around CMU, (pictures are here on Flickr). We were out for about 2 1/2 hours, walking through Schenley Park and parts of the campus. Naturally after we got back, I was curious how far we had actually walked.
Barb sat down with with the Gmap Pedometer and cranked out this course, which shows pretty closely the route we walked. Total distance? 4.35 miles. It seemed like longer, but as many have noted, Pittsburgh is hardly flat. We did a lot of up and down traipsing.
The Pedometer site is fantastic, though. I can see using this for planning out bike trips, hikes, measuring distances, anything you can point at a map and say “I walked from HERE to THERE!”.
Just for chuckles, since we tend to take sitewalks on our property in Berlin, I measured how long a walk from the road to the top of the property and back was. Answer: 1.25 miles. A nice walk in the woods 🙂
Yay Google toys!