Archive for February 2005
The hotel was cheap, at least – £35 per night, which is remarkable for London, but that rate was part of a “getaway” rate I found. I paid the price in other ways, though. The hotel was in Harrow-on-the Hill, which looked accessible, but I hadn’t been aware that the main Tube line there was subject to disruption, as I have described already. At least Harrow has another Tube station, Harrow & Wealdstone on the Bakerloo line, which was operational if slow.
I can’t see me going back there, however, for a few reasons. First, it’s an old hotel with paper-thin walls and creaky floorboards. When any of my neighbours in the horizontal or vertical planes were up and about there was not much chance of sleep. On Saturday night the bar below played disco till midnight – no later, thankfully – after which my neighbour crashed into his room. How do I know it was a man? No woman I ever met, or would want to meet, wields such a basso profundo snore. At least the TV had a headphone socket, which kept me sane until I was so tired I didn’t care about the noise.
I’m flying back later tonight, loaded with luggage that is holding a surprising amount of computer components for its size. Packing that lot was a bracing intellectual exercise for a Monday morning. The cleaners were rapping on my door before 8AM, and breakfast was annoying. The waitress interrupted me to ask “is everything OK”, which is a moronic thing to do. (If there’s a problem, you’ll be the first to know, girlie. Go back to terrorizing that gentle old lady: so what if the table is “set for lunch” before 9:30AM, why does she have to move around just to save you a little work?) I told the receptionist about this as I was checking out, though I doubt you’ll hear about it – I’m just a grumpy old man who has spent too long in “customer service” to expect any consideration from anyone. Right?
Luggage means there’s not much wandering about to be done today, which makes the easyEverything internet cafe a fine place to be at £1 an hour (a promotional offer at the Trafalgar Square branch). After I finished blogging on Saturday night it became a little hairy; bottles of vodka were being passed around, and before long a few of them nekulturny Bolsheviks were falling-down drunk, no exaggeration necessary. Climbing over the tables, singing folk and metal songs (think “Beserker” from Clerks) and looking like they were about to assault other customers; I walked out before too long. I could handle myself against a couple of drunk Russkis, but the best way to win a fight is not to get in to one in the place, that would have been totally pointless and a massive inconvenience.
Saturday Night in London, and here I am at the easyEverything Cafe, blogging. Not to worry, this won’t take long, before I head back out to do something more interesting. Or not. The local Russian mafia are holding a loud meeting just behind me, and I have no idea why they might choose this venue, apart from the fact that it’s open to the public and
is was quiet. A couple of mohawk-ed punkski have just joined them, to even louder greetings and salutations. I can hear talk of Rammstein and other metal bands, so it’s probably more social than familial.
This is what I might call an expensive day: I haven’t quite totted up the damage yet, but I have the guts of a new computer to carry home with me on Monday. It starts with a Asus A8N SLI motherboard, AMD 64 3200+ (socket 939) CPU, and a MSI NX6600GT graphics card, and 1GB DDR400 (PC3200) RAM, followed by a 200GB Maxtor DiamondMax 10 SATA HDD, a new PSU, and a front-mounting card reader with audio ports. I needed a new bag to carry some of it home in, and also a camera bag, so I have a new LowePro Computrekker AW to boot.
The motherboard is bleeding-edge, but the other parts are not: I could have paid a lot more for extra performance, but I was seriously shocked by the prices of the NVidia 6800-based parts. It takes a serious gamer to pay more for the graphics card than for the rest of the PC, and a serious gamer I am not. It’s a SLI board, meaning that I can pick up another identical graphics card later, when the prices drop, to gain 50% extra performance. If I feel I need it.
After visiting a few computer fairs, I was surprised to find the parts I wanted at sensible prices in a shop on the Tottenham Court Road: I went in to a couple to check prices, and came out of one with the main parts (motherboard, CPU, graphics). I could have shaved a few pounds off by shopping around some more, but it wasn’t worth it, and the shop had the advantage of secure credit card facilities (Chip + PIN).
There is some bad news, on the other hand: I appear to have done some damage to my new camera. It was probably before I left, when I was charging batteries: when I finished charging one set I yanked them out the charger and put them in the camera, and started charging the other set. They were still hot, and it seems that one or more of them expanded in the confined space. The heat warped the battery cover a little, so now I can’t open it to check or replace them.
The electronics are still OK, the camera powers up with a “low voltage” warning. Further inspection will have to wait until I get home, but a few attempts with some cheap jeweller’s screwdrivers have done nothing, and I’m not prepared to do any more damage without the proper tools. I can always send it back to Pentax for repair on my own tab, since I probably violated the warranty by using hot batteries.
The trip to the Focus 2005 camera show is off, at least by train, since there won’t be any for half the day, due to engineering works. I’ll try the coach station, to see if I can do it by road, but I don’t expect much. Oh well. I have plenty I can do tomorrow. There’s a Joseph Beuys exhibition at the Tate Modern, which will be a start.
At least today went well, and this evening I treated myself to a Chicken Teriyaki Bento at the Tōkyō Diner, but I should be getting back now. My head hurts and there’s no Tube to Harrow-on-the-Hill this weekend, because of the work on the new Wembley Stadium complex, but at least there’s a main line train today, which is less frequent but much faster. They won’t even have that tomorrow, but they might be running the train into Paddington, rather than Marylebone. There will be buses too, which might work on Sunday’s less-crowded roads. Ah, London. ‘Night.
Welcome to the new home page: stereoroid.com is being reorganized around the WordPress content management system.
WordPress is best known as a Blogging system – though that’s not all it can do – but this change is a tacit admission that the Blog has become the heart of this site, and will remain so in the future. WordPress appealed to me because I could implement it at the top level while retaining the static content that this site is also known for, especially the MPC1000 pages.
Technorati link: the stereoroid.com blog.
How technology has moved in the last few years gives me some pause for thought today, along with the effect imposed by the way technology is packaged.
I’m off to London early Friday morning, on a RyanAir flight that costs less than one night in the hotel I’ll be using, and it’s not exactly an expensive hotel either. As I like to do, I’ll be hitting the “computer fairs” on Saturday, on the prowl for cheap parts. I have a list of my own, but also a request from a colleague to pick up an USB2 external HDD, something friendly like a Maxtor OneTouch II, not the pile of parts I would choose for self-assembly. If I read the prices right it will be about £120 for a 250GB drive in a package with software, a little more for the 300GB model. I might even pick one up for myself too.
Doesn’t sound like much? When I was a lad… I wasn’t feeling this old. It’s the “OneTouch” aspect that appeals to my colleague: hit the button on the box and the supplied backup software kicks in and backs up your data. I saw one in action last year and can confirm it does work as advertised. There’s some initial configuration to do, but could the user interface be any simpler? This is what I mean by packaging: making things accessible.
I would say that we, as a technological race, are emerging from a particular phase in our development: one where the technology itself was the driving force, where the aim was to get functionality out there to everyone at a low cost. We can do that now, way beyond our wildest dreams, we don’t need more power. My Compaq notebook PC is heading for the three year mark, and the hard drive has just been replaced, but it’s still incredibly powerful. (The new Western Digital hard drive slotted right in. At first I thought it had failed to start up; it was just beautifully quiet.)
Current mobile phones are a case in point. They can be miniaturized to a point where they are unusable; my last phone, before I gave up on them three years ago, was so small the microphone was halfway up my cheek, and I was moving the phone from mouth to ear during a conversation. The keypad was so small that two of my large fingers could hardly squeeze across a row of three keys, text messaging was not something I used too much. I’m not alone in worrying about cellphone usability, and so the flip phone, with the microphone in a better position, is becoming more popular. Even Nokia are doing some now, after swearing they would not. A few even have usable keyboards for email work.
I may come back from the UK with parts to revitalize my old PC, to take it from the current Pentium II 450MHz to a firebreathing AMD 64 3500+ with 1GB or more RAM and a PCI Express interface to a powerful NVidia 6800GT graphics card. (The latter might be a bit too expensive, so a 6600GT will suffice.) Do I need this much power? Of course not; it will be a total luxury to run games such as Microsoft Flight Simulator at maximum resolution with all the graphic enhancements enabled, which I can’t do at the moment. New games such as Doom III require this level of power, even though I’m not a serious gamer by any stretch of the imagination.
The point is that I can afford to do this now, and it’s a good time; a few months ago the hardware situation was far more volatile, with many new product introductions muddying the water with unavailable or pricey configurations. (“Q: Should I wait a month and pay £100 more for a 20% graphics performance improvement on some games?”) Now that the Xmas rush is over, things are looking more sensible. I’ll need to carry the suitcase and the rucksack this time, as well as my credit cards.
I have been rather lax on some aspects of this site, and one of those is the Font I use. Time for a rethink, methinks.
Until now I’ve liked the Courier (New) style, because it fit the “workaday” style of the site, but the addition of the Image Galleries, and this Pivot-based Blog, have made it a little more complicated and interesting. One requirement I have it that the fonts are cross-platform, covering at least Windows, Linux, and the Mac, and while Courier fit that bill nicely, I think it’s time I paid a little more attention to the aesthetics of typefaces.
After a little research, I came to roughly the conclusions espoused on DesignTutor, and will be trying out Georgia for a while. I’ve also removed the extra Padding statements I had used – I think they were causing more problems than they resolved, so I’ll take a little time to see if they’re still necessary.
I can see there’s a little problem with the right-hand bar overlapping onto the main section – which is not common to all browsers I’ve tested – and I’m also getting “referral spam”, the fake “referral” addresses in that column. Gee, I can’t even have a referral list up without it getting abused, eh? Off it comes: referral monitoring has been the source of some amusement in the past, and it’s still in effect on the rest of this site, but if someone really links to this blog I hope they will post a comment or let me know by mail.
Money Talks, as the old saying goes. Thanks to advances in technology and inter-species communication, we understand what it’s saying. It’s a simple message: “bye….”!
How does money leave me? Let me count the ways:
- Electricity bill is due soon, covering the two coldest months of the year. Can’t wait for that one. At least €100 each.
- Rent. Our place may be small, but it’s in D4 (Dublin 4, the posh part of the city). Convenient for my job and my flatmate’s – - but not exactly cheap.€550 p.m each. She works 5 minutes away from home, I’m 30 minutes away, but I like to walk anyway.
- TV License is due for renewal. Here in Ireland the Government broadcaster, RTÉ, charges a license fee and carries commercials. Go figure. €76 each.
- New laptop hard drive. At least it’s much bigger and faster than the old one. €150.
- Camera is fully paid for: I have a credit card, but the bill got paid, in full, before it arrived: €1500.
- And finally: medical bills, an uncommon expense for me, but there’s a story attached. €140 so far.
Last summer I visited friends in Dubai; between the flights there and back, the unfamiliar bed, and trying out their vicious massage chair, I did something odd to my neck. It hurt for a bit, I was careful and it got better, and I thought no more of it. In the last couple of months, however, I’ve been getting what feels like nerve interference down my back. It’s not painful, but it is worrying. It seemed random, and it took me a while to link it to my neck, and it’s now clear the problem is when I bend my head forward.
Since I’ve moved around so much in Dublin, and only had to visit a doctor once before in my five years here, I had to go looking for a doctor, this time closer to the office. He’s baffled, and sent me for X-rays last Friday, which I should be hearing results from this week. My worst-case guess is cervical foraminal stenosis: if I’m that good I am at self-diagnosis, I’m in the wrong job, and I hope I’m wrong about this.
I wonder what will be involved in resolving this? The worst case would be surgery, but that’s unlikely, or we could be looking at a keyhole job. A more likely possibility is physiotherapy or just massage, which would be nice if covered by my health insurance. I can’t see pills or a neck brace helping, unless it’s a brace that radically realigns my spinal cord. Fitness is also a factor – as if I needed another excuse to go to the gym.
The big problem with medical services here in Ireland is that everyone wants money up front, even for X-rays. They don’t care whether you have insurance or not, as long as you pay them, all major credit cards accepted. Maybe you can claim it back later, but it’s not their problem. I’ll have to eat the cost of the X-rays because of the “excess” on my health insurance anyway, and GP fees are not covered.
If the treatment costs money, well, this is why I’ve been buying medical insurance for five years and not claiming on it at all. They will only pay up if the treatment is ordered by a doctor, so that’s one more reason to go and see one. The other is: while I know enough about medicine to take care of myself, when it comes to the neck or the spine I’m not going to take any silly risks. I don’t want to get it in the neck, if you follow me.
It’s been about six months since I ventured back onto Usenet, after essentially forgetting about it for several years. I moved to Dublin to work for my current employer, and I’ve only had limited Internet access at work. I’ve gradually learned that some of the limitations can be worked around, and some aren’t limitations at all.
A classic example is the way Telnet terminal sessions are not permitted to or from my company’s network, for security reasons. Telnet is about as basic as it gets: no encryption, passwords transmitted in plain text: no thanks. When I investigated hosting services for this web site, a few years ago, SSH (secure shell) access was on offer, and I initially ignored it, thinking it would be frowned on too… but it’s not, because of its secure functionality. I use it regularly in the management of this site, through the corporate firewall, and haven’t managed to break the server yet.
Usenet is another example, one I had no real success with when I landed here, so I gave up on it. I could have used a web gateway to Usenet, such things were available long before Google Groups cornered that market, but I had too much else going on to bother about it. It turns out that my company manages its own internally-accessible Usenet server, It doesn’t carry the suspicious newsgroups, such as those offering binary files, but I have no problem with that.
Since I ventured back on to Usenet, the results have been mixed. Some newsfroups* I looked at have cliques of entrenched characters who delight in the most abusive language conceivable, safe in the knowledge that the other cliquista won’t get offended, and everyone else should take the heat or get out of the kitchen.
One of the good newsfroups* is alt.music.mike-keneally, a generally safe environment with only a few nutters. (Hi Dougie!) I picked up the Mike Keneally Band’s new album “Dog” last year, and was bowled over by a few songs. “Bober”, in particular, sounded like nothing I had ever heard before: it’s what happens when technical and lyrical virtuosity are not ends in themselves, but work in the service of a larger and more emotional concept.
I allowed myself to run off at the keyboard a little, in the spirit of the newsgroup, describing what the song meant to me; not much exaggeration in there, but I’m normally more restrained about such things. I discovered yesterday that my Usenet post has been adopted by Mike as a positive review, and he’s had it posted on his official website as an endorsement of the album.
I couldn’t be happier, though I wrote to the webmaster with one slight correction to make: take off the Usenet nom-de-plume (stereoroid, of course) and put my real name on the quote. The way I put it was something like this: I don’t need to hide my appreciation of great art under a bushel. I have no problem standing up for music like Mike’s.
* Yes, that’s what I said: newsfroups. Look it up.
ps: I’ve just fixed a horrendous number of typos and grammos in this entry – think I was in a hurry when I wrote this…
Two things happened at work today that were like the sun peeking over the horizon: a sign of (hopefully) better things to come in the future.
One of those would take too long to explain, but it can be summarized as: our complaints about the processes we use, and the way some people ignorantly bypass or abuse them, appear to have landed on the right desk, and it looks like action will be taken. The problem stems from the fact that our department, which provides support services to the whole of Europe, was compensating for problems and shortages in the two biggest countries (UK and Germany), and we were doing other people’s jobs.
As for the second, well, if you look at the date on this entry and the business news headlines, you can guess where I work and why, on this inauspicious Wednesday, the cry went out: “Ding, Dong, the Witch is Dead”. Say No More.
I’ve been following Wil Wheaton’s Weblog for some time now, and it’s frankly riveting stuff. For years Wil’s been trying to leave ST:TNG’s Wesley Crusher behind, or at least step out of the shadow it casts on his resumé – stereotyped precocious child star, and all that. It was such a defining role, one that had him being called all sorts of names, that it affected his acting career, but also led to a second career as an author and speaker, neither necessarily related to Star Trek either. His Weblog tells of his life as a jobbing actor in LA, including some comedy improv, as well as his life as a writer and family man. He’s had a rough couple of weeks, with a feline illness in the family, auditions, and so on, but yesterday he started off an entry “and now for something completely different”, and I was grinning by the time I got to the end of it.
After all the drama with his cat, and the auditions, Wil had some good news to report: not only was his audition succesful, but the producers liked him so much they bumped him up in the casting order. He’ll soon be appearing on CSI, in a major role as a homeless person who becomes a primary murder suspect in an episode. Sounds meaty! It’s about time he got a break; if what he says is correct, he may have cost himself a role a few years ago by mentioning it in his weblog, after which it was reported and he was reprimanded. This time he asked, naturally.
Of course, fans of Wesley Crusher are probably not going to like this.. tough!
I’ve just seen myself on TV tonight, twice, because I spent the afternoon at the Hennessy Gold Cup horse racing meeting at Leopardstown. First up was a quick shot of my taking a picture of big race favourite Beef Or Salmon at the parade ring, then I was in a group of photographers at the last fence, watching Beef Or Salmon make a Hash of it. More photos from this day are behind this first picture.
On previous trips to Leopardstown I had wondered how I might get on to the course, seeing as all the gates were guarded by security personnel. Today I took a closer look and found that the personnel in question – kids earning pocket money – are apparently stationed there to keep the gate closed, not to actually stop anyone getting on the track. I found my way to the last fence and hung around with the “pro” photographers, the ones engaged in the Big Fast Lens Arms Race. They wouldn’t talk to me, of course, too busy telling loud stories about flying around the world at a moment’s notice and abusing their gear. If you had paid five figures for your digital SLR camera body, would it be patched up with gaffa tape and hanging off your back in the rain?
I had a chat with the St John’s Ambulance member on standby there, learning something about the kinds of falls experienced by jockeys. Some fall better than others, and it has a lot to do with experience, he said: a new jockey might find himself on the ground wondering what the hell happened, while an experienced jockey can tell if the jump is wrong before the horse is over the fence, bail out in time, and fall correctly.
How did the Pentax hold up? Very well, under difficult conditions. Unlike the “pros” I kept my gear mostly dry, and the pictures are not perfect, though very useable, It may be a totally new camera, but they still look mine. Still, I’m beginning to see why some people will pay a lot of money for a big lens that grants them another stop or two of light. The ironic thing is: I have a fairly fast “prime” lens which I could have used yesterday, but didn’t, thinking I would need the zoom lenses only. The extra light would have come in handy. Oh well.
It was coming: last night my notebook’s hard disk drive gave up the ghost after a 33-month life, 30 of those in my gentle care. It didn’t go with a bang, Windows XP actually made it back up into Safe Mode, but you don’t want to see a message like “Drive C: is not formatted. Do you want to format it now?”. That’s like someone going for a swim and saying “You’re stuck on the bottom. Would you like to inhale some water?”
I knew this day was coming, and have a backup scheme in place; I lost a few utilities I downloaded this week, but that’s it. My “core” data lives in four – whoops, three – separate locations. This website’s data, all of it, is in all those locations, plus on the live web server. If you consider what I do for a living, you’ll understand why this cobbler’s kids have good shoes on their feet.
Could I get the drive replaced under warranty? Probably not, and this is a good time to upgrade anyway. I’ll head to town tonight and see if I can pick up something larger at a sensible price, but if not I’ll order one, and I can wait till it arrives. I have a PC at work, customized way beyond the company specifications, so I can do work. I’m writing this on my old 6GB hard drive with Agnula DeMuDi Linux installed, which also serves to prove that this notebook is otherwise OK.
Or, why don’t I take a break from computing at home? My setup here is far from ergonomic, and I’ve got to do something about that soon. I may even have a pinched nerve in my neck, requiring treatment, or at least a massage and some suitable exercise.
Tonight I’m trying a TV show I’ve had recommended to me: Huff, a drama about the life of a psychiatrist, his family and his patients, interchangeable as they may be. It stars a veteran actor better known for his voice than his face, who also produces: Hank Azaria is behind about a third of all the voices on The Simpsons, but is also known for roles in Heat, Godzilla, and as Helen Hunt’s Husband, a series cancelled after a few seasons. His co-stars in Huff are equally illustrious – Oliver Platt, Robert Forster, Paget Brewster, Blythe Danner. The jury is still out on this one, but Wednesday night is just about the only night of the week there’s anything worth watching.
Here in Ireland, the Pope’s illness is headline news, top of the hour. That’s right, the titular head of one (1) religion catches a cold, and that’s more important than survivors of the Tsunami, the Iraq Election, a major Middle East Summit, and the IRA threatening to take up arms again. WTF? He’s 84 years old, frail, with Parkinson’s Disease. He’s not going to live forever, and when he pops his clogs his priestly abstinence means he won’t have any family to mourn him. What will the Church do? Replace him and move on backwards.
The swivel to Pivot on this blog has gone through rather well, despite a few teething problems with user IDs. Still on the topic of swiveling and pivoting: I’m in the market for a decent tripod for my new camera.
The web server program (Apache) on my server runs under an administration account, since it serves multiple clients, and that includes PHP scripts. It only becomes an issue when those scripts create files, as Pivot and SPGM (the picture gallery) do, and when they do that the user ID on those files is “nobody”. That’s better than “root”, and allows me to work with those files, but if I modify one of those files offline and upload it, that operation takes place under my own user ID. That leads to a failure of the copy at times, sometimes a good thing, since the files I’m overwriting are auto-generated, and I shouldn’t be making such changes. At other points the files are the ones I’m creating directly, where I need to overwrite them. I’ll need to be more selective with the user IDs and permissions on the directories, which will mean a little work.
As for a camera tripod: should be simple, right? Hardly: looking at just two major manufacturers, Gitzo and Manfrotto, presents a bewildering array of options, construction materials, head types, with anything as serious as my camera costing a hefty sum. I expect a truly professional photographer would not balk at such prices, saying “you get what you pay for”, but I’m definitely a light traveller, physically and financially. I’m trying to develop a “have camera, will travel” posture, but the most serious tripods are so large and expensive that they would make travel more difficult than it already is. More research is needed.
The first Japanese lesson of the new year went off fairly smoothly. I’ve retained the grammar, which is good, but I’m still struggling with the sheer amount of new vocabulary being thrown at us. Last night was just revision of last year’s work, but that still included plenty of new vocabulary, and many more words that we saw just once and never mentioned again.