Ten Years

Ten years ago this month, I quit my job in order to go to seminary. Here’s what I used to work on:


My job was to figure out how to avoid paying to fix them when they weren’t broken.

Software Update

In the mid-1990’s I worked for a telecommunications firm that was trying to make a set top box for interactive television. (This was even as the internet was exploding. Read Michael Lewis’ The Next Next Thing to find out what the “B Team” was working on.) One of the things I spent a lot of time on was “software update.” We needed a way to securely update the operating software in the device, and we wanted to do it while connected to our network, because the cost to roll a truck and have a technician do it was prohibitive.

A few years later, I was working for a different company trying to innovate in the electrical power industry. (I know, it was hopeless. But I was young and naive.) Anyway, we had the exact same problem: securely updating the software in a networked device. It’s a problem that’s fraught with difficulties.

As it happens, both of those ventures flamed out, so I never got to be part of solving that problem. But this morning, as I was eating my oatmeal, I saw that someone else seems to be doing it:


Not only solved, but untethered. Yay Apple.

Brief Internet Outage

There’s no such thing as a brief internet outage! What did people do with their time 20 years ago?

Ours lasted from sometime last night until late this evening, and it was caused by the stupid way our ISP does tech support. They aren’t bad, they just won’t be reasonable, unless you know the secret word. Which I do–it’s “shibboleet“–but I wasn’t home all day.

Anyway, it turns out the problem was that the “modem” reset itself to factory defaults and quit working, because the factory defaults are incompatible with the network. Very clever of the ISP to design their firmware that way, don’t you think?

Anyone have a Hi-8 camcorder?

Does anyone has a Hi-8 camcorder I could borrow?

I’ve got some old tapes I’d like to convert to DVD. Our Hi-8 camcorder is busted, so there’s no way to play the tapes back, and that’s step one of any conversion.

I don’t want to pay a service to convert them. I’d rather borrow a camcorder and do it myself. I’d even buy one, if the price weren’t too horrible.

If you can help, comment on this posting. (You’ll have to set up an account, but then you can comment on any posting.)

Linux to the Rescue (Again)

My secretary’s machine blue-screened a couple of days ago with a STOP 24 message, which tells you (or rather, doesn’t tell you) that either the disk or the filesystem is broken.

Crash 1 - Windows PC

Fortunately(!) we’d just gone through a couple of weeks restoring everything after a virus infestation, so there wasn’t much on it of value, except for the Quicken bookkeeping data.

I spent awhile learning about Windows recovery disks, and made a WinPE disk that I ought to have been able to boot off. But for whatever reason, I couldn’t, and — honestly — I don’t have time to figure out how to route around Microsoft stupidity.

Today, finally, I had a half hour to spare, so I extracted the hard drive from the Windows box, slapped it into an external USB housing, and connected it to my linux backup server. (Elapsed time: about 10 minutes. That’s too long, but I didn’t have a good phillips screwdriver and had to use my leatherman. Also I was flummoxed briefly by the easy-to-open case on the Dell Dimension 3000.)

Sadly, it didn’t automount on my desktop. I run Ubuntu 9.10, and have become accustomed to it “just working” no matter what I need doing. But apparently support for NTFS USB drives doesn’t come in the out-of-box configuration.

No matter. I hit the internet (specifically, I did a single Google search for “ubuntu external drive ntfs“) and found out I needed to install ntfs-config. The search and subsequent installation took about 2 minutes. I cycled the power on the external drive, and — voila! — there was the drive. I popped into terminal, ran a quick find|cpio, and Bob’s your uncle.

Blue Screens

Man, I’m sick of Windows. The secretary’s machine at church got infected with something a couple of weeks ago. I was only able to get rid of it by reinstalling Windows. I got an antivirus solution set-up and spent, well, a couple of hours, but it seemed like a month, uninstalling all the crap-ware and getting everything down to the bare minimum. My next project was to make a Ghost-type image, to avoid all that work the next time. But I don’t know how to make a Ghost image on Windows, so I put it off until I had a couple of hours to figure out what to do.

That was a bad decision. Today, we got this:

Crash 1 - Windows PC

The infamous Blue Screen of Death

And we got it every time we rebooted, early in the boot process. So early, I don’t know any way past it. So now I need to come up with some kind of recovery media and boot off that, and save all her data.

Then I need to migrate us away from using Quicken and replace it with some kind of cloud-based Web 2.0 service in its place.

And, honestly, if I get that far, then we’re replacing Windows with Linux, because Quicken is the last Windows-only app we use.

One less Linksys WRT-54G in the world

Well, actually, no. We still have it. But it’s unplugged. At the next garage sale, we’ll get rid of the carcass.

I replaced my Linksys WRT-54G wireless router with an ASUS WL-520GU. Out of box, the ASUS is a better deal with far superior features. These include using static IPs, so I can permit individual machines rather than allowing all my neighbors to crack my WPA key at their leisure. Another useful feature is meaningful logging. The Linksys and my Westel DSL modem don’t work well together; I have to reboot the pair of them about 2-3 times a week. If the Linksys had logs, I could tell whether the problem was in it or in the Westel modem. Now I can find out.

But that’s the out-of-box firmware. The ASUS router also works with Tomato, an aftermarket firmware upgrade, that provides a slew of additional features. There are similar projects for Linksys routers, but all the Linksys routers I’ve ever found are cost-reduced emasculated versions too lacking in RAM or Flash memory to work with any of the replacement firmware.

So. I’m a happy ASUS customer for three reasons: better out of box features, the potential for even more features when or if I get around to upgrading the firmware, and (best of all) I get to retire a blue Linksys router. What’s not to like?

Why is Scanning So Crappy?

Lileks recounts the fun of getting a new scanner for Christmas. There’s really nothing new or novel about it though (except that he took time to make screen captures of all the dialog boxes, so he could mock them). The fact is, all scanners suck.

I have ready access to scanners (all-in-ones, actually) made by HP, Epson, Brother, and, at work, a monster Konica-Minolta printer-copier that also scans. Every one of them is a disaster. The printing software is good and the scanning software stinks.

The hardware may be awesome, but the software is horrible. And bad as it is on Windows, it’s worse on a Mac. (Objectively worse; subjectively it’s worse by far, because the majority of software on a Mac is beautiful.) My personal theory, which I developed while working for one of the companies I just named, is that scanner software is written by electrical engineers instead of computer scientists. EE’s may be great with resistors and capacitors, but I haven’t met one in years who was a more than passable programmer. (But these are rants for another day.)

Anyway, my advice to Lileks and anyone else is twofold:

  1. Where possible, don’t use a scanner. Just take a picture of the document with your digital camera. It’s a lot quicker. (Consider this DIY book scanner the end-result of this line of thought, but you can start with something more practical.)
  2. If you must use a scanner: use one that will write to a USB drive. Do all your scanning to the USB drive, then use sneaker-net to move the resulting files onto your computer, where you can use photo-editing software to crop, etc.

More Car Troubles…

Today’s problem can’t be fixed with WD-40. Or even a can of brake fluid. It’s some kind of clutch trouble. At 115K, I suppose it’s due. But these repairs are getting tedious.

Later: well, the guy at the shop bled the lines, then (garbled) then bled them again. Now he wants me to drive it for a few days and see if that fixes it. No charge, so far. He’s trusting me, I guess, to come back and pay him when I decide everything works.