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Yesterday the Linux Mint people announced that the RC of Linux Mint 17, called "Qiana" because not all that many women's names start with "Q" and end with "A", is available. Heck with the RC, updates will turn it official soon enough, so I installed it on a partition on my laptop that previously housed a prior version of Mint. Version 13, I believe, because I keep about four earlier versions of Mint on my laptop for no other reason than because I can. There's also an installation of Windows 7, but it has decided it's no longer going to boot so it really doesn't count.

Anyway it took about 2-3 hours, which was really a fresh install. I keep all my data files on a partition separate from the programs so I can just pave a partition, install the newest version, and add any additional programs I need to do the stuff I like to do. In this case that included Flash. For some reason the Flash player wouldn't admit to its own existence on Mint 17, even though apt said it was installed. Five minutes' work and I was able to work the puzzles I like to do, pretending they keep my mind sharp.

Then, since Mint is based on Ubuntu, "Qiana" is a rebranding of Ubuntu 14.04 (Trusty Tahr) with a different user interface. Since Ubuntu trusty has been out for about a month and it's a long-term release that will be supported for several years, I went ahead and installed it, but I haven't decided yet whether I will keep it until the next long=term release in 2016 or whether I'll just update every six months with the interim Ubuntu/Mint releases.

Since trusty has been out for a month now and looks like the rough edges have been smoothed, I went ahead and put Xubuntu 14.04LTS on my desktop server. It seems to be working just fine as well, apart from the same Flash issue I saw in Mint.

So what else have I been doing today? Napping. Listening to some Internet streams Snacking. Napping some more. And counting my many, many blessings that I've been back to work for two weeks and will be going back for a third on Monday.

Speaking of which, I brought my laptop home with me yesterday but I haven't unpacked it yet. I don't have anything I have to do. I just brought it home to test out work's VPN. Maybe I'll just do that on Starbucks on Monday.
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Today is Mother's Day, and in reading through a bunch of my posts from last year I found the one I put up exactly 364 days ago for Mother's Day 2013. I don't really have anything to add to that, so I'll just put up a link to it here. (If you're reading this on LJ, it'll point you to the Dreamwidth version. Actually it'll do that if you're reading this on Dreamwidth too.)

So Happy Mother's Day again.
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When I was a kid we had a Peanuts coffee-table anthology that I enjoyed reading, even when I didn't always get the jokes. I distinctly remember one story line where, after going crazy for a week trying to find an overdue library book, Charlie Brown finds it in the refrigerator. He goes off celebrating down the hall, prompting Schroder to remark, "There's nothing quite like the feeling of being let off the hook."

I know exactly how he feels.

About two weeks ago I was this close (holds his index finger and thumb about a millimeter apart) to having to make some extremely unpleasant choices stemming from my prolonged inability to find a job. That day I got an email from a recruiter in Florida. Usually I ignore those because many of them seem to think I live somewhere near the Washington on the east coast, or that I'd be interested in leaving Seattle to go work a three-month contract doing Java development in South Carolina (wrong, wrong and wrong), or some such thing, but this guy worked for a company I'd had an excellent contracting experience with before, and the job description sounded like something I both could handle and enjoy, so I pinged him back and asked him to tell me more.

After a brief phone conversation, on Monday he sent me a link to a questionnaire designed to assess my skill with computer concepts in general and Linux in particular. He said there'd be about 30 questions and it'd take a couple of hours. OK, I enjoy doing that sort of thing, so I started and answered the first question . . . and the next . . . and the next . . . and the questions just kept coming and coming, and for the most part I kept answering them and kept answering them. Four hours later I had provided answers to 55 of 59 questions, everything from "How do you list the files and folders in the current directory, including hidden ones?" (very easy) to "Have you ever compiled your own Linux kernel? What are the steps to do so? Why would you do it?" (moderately technical). I sent the questionnaire off and went back to job hunting.

This was on Monday afternoon. That evening the recruiter called me, told me the client had been impressed both with my answers and the way I answered them (conversational yet in some depth, and indicating I had had experience with the topics rather than just reading about them), and wanted to know if I could meet him for a face-to-face interview the next day.

Ummmm . . . yeah.

So my daughter drove me to Redmond and hung out at the library there while I met with the client. We hit it off well and the next day I had a job offer. I just finished my first week of work, and I am very, very happy.

Want to know how happy I am? A couple of weeks ago the good people at VCon invited me to be a panelist this year. I'm glad they did, because for a couple of years I've had to decline for budgetary reasons (couldn't afford to go) and I was afraid they'd think I'd gafiated or was mad at them and wouldn't invite me back. So since I was still unemployed at the time, I told them I'd be glad to attend if I could afford to, and would know more as we approached October.

I just reserved a hotel room for VCon. That's how happy I am.

I am so happy to look forward to leaving the SNAP benefits (food stamps) behind for others who will need them more than I will.

I am so happy that I'll be able to spend $10 to buy a fellow filker's CD. Actually, I'm happy I can consider paying $10 to buy a CD without worrying about whether I should keep that money for bus fare.

But above all I am happy that finally someone, somewhere, has decided my skills and experience are valuable and has said so, both monetarily and verbally. I am happy that I'm not being forced into retirement with no assets to speak of, because I know what lies at the end of that road, and I'm not ready for that yet.

Did I mention I work less than five minutes away from a Coldstone Creamery? (Yeah, I know, I have no business stopping there very often, either calorie-wise or money-wise. But when my first paycheck comes, I'm gonna splurge just a little. Maybe a milk shake.)

Did I mention that I wrote a new song not long ago? It's only a first draft and needs major revision, but it's the first one in over six months.

Did I mention that my lead told me I was doing well so far and I wowed him with a script I wrote that did an inventory of some of the systems we monitor? That might be the best part of all.

OK, enough of that. I'm going to bed with a smile on my face.
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Fans of Terry Pratchett's Discworld series may recognize that phrase.

Granny Weatherwax, a powerful witch, has the ability to Borrow. She can move her consciousness into the body of an animal and see the world through its eyes, literally and figuratively. She hears what it hears, feels what it feels. She even once did this with a swarm of bees.

Borrowing, however, has its side effects. One fairly obvious one is that her conscious functions are out there soaring through the air or hunting for nuts, so when she Borrows the only things her body does are autonomous functions like breathing and heartbeat. She can't move, and I gather that her breathing is shallow enough that there's some question about whether she's still alive. So, the last thing she does when she gets ready to Borrow is to put a hand-lettered sign across her chest that reads I ATEN'T DED. Just in case anyone comes by and thinks otherwise.

Well, I aten't ded, but I haven't been around for a while. In fact it would be kind of hard for me to argue that I haven't dropped out of filk, even though I don't feel like I have. In 2012 I attended four or five filk and SF cons, including my Interfilk gig in San Diego. Last year? One. And I am in danger of not being able to go to that one this year.

The problem is simple. 2013 was a disastrous year for me financially. I only had work five months out of the year. I've had to strain my credit to the breaking point. So far I've managed to stay in my house, feed the family and pay the bills, and thanks to the ACA I have the medications I need to function properly. but it's a near thing and while the wolf isn't quite at the door yet, I can see him coming down the track. At this point conventions are a luxury I simply can't afford.

I do hope to get back to work soon. There's a market out there for people with my skill set, and I'm doing my best to create my own market. But it's tough. Think positive thoughts for me, and I hope to have better news soon.
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I suspect I've gone a bit overboard in installing apps on my new phone. At least I'm occasionally getting messages saying I have "insufficient storage" to download and install an update. Of course the message helpfully doesn't tell me what directory or item has insufficient storage so I can go fix the problem, and I am left to various spells and incantations like "clear all of your caches" (fortunately there's an app for that).

I don't suppose I strictly need three chromatic tuners, after all, especially since I really like one of them. Pitchlab was very easy to set up for my banjo and even has several alternate tunings besides the standard gDGBD. Once running it displays five lines representing the strings, and in the background is an annulus that reminds me a little of the Stargate. If a string you are tuning is off by a considerable margin you'll see a bowed line above or underneath the representation of the relevant string with a message, "TUNE UP" or "TUNE DOWN." Once you start getting close the bowed line superimposes itself on the string line and dots start rotating on the annulus. When the rotation stops you see a message that says "IN TUNE" and you're ready to go to the next string.

This beats the snot out of the Snark tuner I clip to my peghead. Not that I think the Snark tuner is bad (it's actually quite good) but I've broken at least one and lost another, I forget to take it off the peghead, my grandson decides to play with it and run down the battery, and on and on. I tend to always have my phone with me, and try to keep it charged, so access to it isn't a problem.

So last night once I got the banjo tuned and had run through a song or two, I decided to try an experiment. The banjo, like the violin and unlike the guitar, has an adjustable bridge. Unlike the violin, it also has frets. That means that due to the physics of how strings make sound, you have to position the bridge close to twice the distance between the nut and the 12th fret for the frets to sound the right notes as you go up the neck. Exactly how close is more art than science; you have to fiddle around and adjust to get it right.

The physics of how the strings produce sound also mean that, due to the tension of the strings on the bridge and the thickness of the strings, the point at which a bridge should be in order to produce an octave at the 12th fret is slightly different for each string. There is a type of bridge called a "compensating bridge" that is designed to compensate for this differential, and that's the kind I have. (I also have a standard, non-compensating bridge somewhere in my banjo junkbox.) Since Pitchlab was working so well to tune the banjo with open strings, I decided to see how well the compensating bridge compensated.

The results were surprising to say the least. The third string came out right on pitch, an octave above the open string, but Pitchlab said the first, second and fifth strings were too high, and the fourth string was too low. Now comes the guesswork. Is the bridge really that far out of adjustment? Did I put it on backwards? Would the straight bridge work better?

Or is Pitchlab just blowing smoke and telling me that the strings are in the wrong octave?

I said at the beginning that maybe I didn't need three different chromatic tuners, but I suppose I should try using them to tune up and check the bridge to see what they say. But if I do, how will I know which of them if any is right?

Maybe I should just get a pitch pipe and tune the darn thing by ear.
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I do a lot of job hunting, so it's only prudent to belong to LinkedIn. I get to see what my friends are up to career-wise, I can keep track of what recruiters are looking for, and occasionally they have some decent career advice. I also belong to a couple of LinkedIn forums in areas that I'm either interested in (Perl, Science Fiction) or want to get more involved with (Green Energy).

LinkedIn has a "Skills and Expertise" section where you can post your skill set. Other users can then "endorse" you for those skills. This isn't limited to technology. You could claim skill at Thai cooking if you wanted to, or public speaking, or any of a host of other skills. (If you're on LinkedIn, you already know this. If you're not, sorry for the boring exposition.) When I first joined and set up my profile I added all of the technical skills I could think of that I had picked up in in mumbledy-three years of working with personal computers, including over a decade with Linux. In addition to my m4d c0mpVt3r sk1llz I added "Singer/Songwriter at Independent Musician" as a second, ongoing job title and plugged in a few skills related to that aspect of my life.

I'm always pleased when someone endorses me, but recently I got two endorsements that just left me tickled pink. Dara Korra'ti, who's been a friend for several years and who I've worked with at most of the last few Norwescons, endorsed me for Linux and banjo.

Then, just recently, I got an email telling me, "Alexander James has endorsed you!" That caught me by surprise. I hadn't thought of Alex Adams as the type to spend much time on LinkedIn, but it makes perfect sense when you think about it. After all, I listed my "Singer/Songwriter" information in case anyone wanted to contact me about doing a set.

So I logged in to LinkedIn, and got a double surprise.

First, Alex also endorsed me for Linux. We've talked a few times at cons and I don't remember either of us ever mentioning Linux, but hey, maybe that's an indication that he reads my posts.

Second, he endorsed me for songwriting.

Now let that sink in for a minute. Alexander James Adams, who is responsible for songs like "Fresh Hops And Hemp," "Churn Down Columbia," "Creature Of The Wood" and of course "March of Cambreadth" – and too many other songs to list – endorsed me for songwriting.

I can't tell you how incredibly jazzed that makes me. It's like Guy Fieri telling people I know how to cook a burger. It's like Bill Nye endorsing my knowledge of physics. It's . . .

It's totally awesome, that's what it is.

Somewhere in the back of my head I know I can write songs, and once in a while one escapes that's pretty darn good. But that part of the back of my head still takes a back seat to the part of my head that's excited to hang out with so many talented people who are so good at what they do, and that I get included in that circle from time to time.

It's enough to make a fellow pronoid, I tell ya.
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If you go to the Bing front page today (and you should because the picture is great), one of the quotes they list is from Oprah, who says, "Biology is the least of what makes one a mother." I have to agree. My wife and daughter are both mother to three of our grandkids just as much as their birth mothers are. Maybe more. Happy Mother's Day, Sharleen and Tina.

And happy Mothers' Day to all of you mothers out there. The ones who take on foster children who would otherwise be lost in the system. The ones who gladly shoulder the burden of raising grandkids or nieces and nephews for whatever reason. The ones who sit outside at a Starbucks watching the crowd go by and wondering, is that the child I had to give up for adoption when I was too young to handle motherhood? And yes, to those dads who are mother to their kids as well because their wife is no longer there. And of course to all the traditional mothers who are doing the best they can with the tools they have at hand to raise kids that are happy, healthy and well-adjusted.
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When I first got a Windows Phone 7 right after they came out I did what every new phone owner does and set out to customize it. There weren't all that many apps available, but one that had been ported over from either Android or iOS was simply called "Backgrounds" by Stylem Media. It was (still is) an ad-sponsored app that presented possible backgrounds for your phone. Most are pretty but mundane, some are funny, some are spectacular. As I was leafing through the collection and trying a few out, this one caught my eye:



I never got past that. It was so perfect. I made it my lock screen wallpaper and there it stayed for over two years.

In setting up my new Android phone I of course installed Backgrounds in the hope of finding it again. I still haven't found it there (although they do still have some very nice backgrounds and it's fun scrolling through them), but a quick Bing image search found the penguin with the banjo out in the wild. It is now in its place of honor on my phone's lock screen, and while all might not be right with the world, that little portion of it certainly is.

The only minor drawback is that I have a message that scrolls across my lock screen, telling anyone who happens to pick up the phone if I've left it behind in a lavatory or something similar: "If you find me please call my owner's wife at (206) xxx-xxxx". The message is white text against the off-wite background of the picture and a bit hard to read, but not so much that it becomes useless. I'm going to see if I can change the color of the text, but it's not a huge issue.
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I was barely aware of Google Voice before yesterday when my sister told me she was using it. It's a service that assigns you a telephone number that in theory will ring through to any set of phones you assign to it. So, I call her Google Voice number and it rings through to her cell phone and her house phone. There are also a bunch of other cool services like caller ID and call blocking. Nifty.

So, I decided to check it out, since I already have a Google account that I'm using for a buncha other things. I go to the Voice web page, answer a bunch of nosy questions, and it offers to either port my existing number, or let me choose a phone number by area code, or zip, or location, or by searching for a word.

Fair enough. I want to keep the cell number I have now, so let's give searching a try, since that is after all supposed to be Google's strength. Give me a 206 (Seattle metro) number, I request.

"No results returned for this search."

OK, how about Seattle?

"No results returned for this search."

Oof. Um, King County?

"No results again, fool."

What about Washington?

That produced results; unfortunately they were all for the other Washington.

Let's search for a word then. How about "Creede"? Nope.

Wait a minute. What about . . . "banjo"?

All right. Now we're getting somewhere. Voice returned a set of five numbers, all of which were of the form 50B-ANJ-Oxxx. Not really what I wanted. I was more looking for something of the form (xxx) xxB-ANJO.

So, on to the next page . . . and I hit pay dirt. The mother lode. Option number three, a phone number in the greater Los Angeles area code, is a keeper. I need to get it on business cards and pass it around to all my friends:

The world can now reach me by dialing 3-2345-BANJO.

(OK, that's really 323-452-2656, but I'm never going to remember that, and neither are you, and neither is anyone else.)
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So, after all the excitement of the weekend about transferring files, this morning I get to work, plug the phone into the Windows machine and up comes the file system in Explorer. I can move files, copy files, delete files, pretty much anything I would want to do. I look at the phone and it's just looking back at me like, "What??"

Let's see what happens after the next reboot.

Oh, and a podcast pro tip: Unless you have a truly unlimited data plan, don't blindly set a bunch of podcast feeds to update while connected to your provider's network. I managed to pull down over 800 megs of data somehow on Thursday, which is going to cost me a few dollars. It's not going to break the bank or anything, but it's still a dumb rookie mistake. I now have the podcast app set only to update when it's connected to a power source, since if I have a power source I'm likely to have a wi-fi connection, and I don't get dinged for using wi-fi connections.

And now for something completely different: It's amazing the things you remember. For instance, from 1972 I can't remember the name of the German professor who would have failed me in a 20th-century German literature class if he hadn't been going on sabbatical so he couldn't force me to retake the class. I can't remember the name of the girl I went on a double date with to a basketball game who scowled through the entire game, never said a word and didn't even say goodbye afterward. (Actually that one might be just as well.) I don't remember how the football team did. I don't remember the name of the kid in the next room over who played bluegrass banjo, although I remember he was from Lompoc, California.

But I remember this:



I found it on YouTube this morning and my Monday immediately improved. Sent my sister the link and she told me it brightened her day right up too. Maybe it'll do the same for you!

And yes, they really did have commercials like that back in the day. Dumb!
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Android phones are little handheld Linux computers, so you'd think it'd be a breeze to move files back and forth between a Linux machine and an Android phone, right?

Ha ha ha ha, silly you.

Well, you'd think at least it would be easy or maybe possible to move them back and forth between an Android phone and a Windows machine, since Windows is only the most popular operating system on the planet?

Ha ha ha ha, silly you again.

I love my new phone, even though it has a couple of minor cosmetic annoyances. It's a second hand phone, and the screen needs to be replaced, but the cosmetic defect is minor enough that it's not normally noticeable when you're using the device unless you know it's there and are looking for it. I can live with that for now. But it should be possible, if not necessarily easy, to move files back and forth between a server or desktop computer and a phone intended to be a media device.

Yet for reasons unknown Linux 13.04 (the latest version, just upgraded today) doesn't properly transfer files from Android. I can connect the phone to my computer, I can see the files, but (for instance) when I go into the media library on my phone and try to copy an MP3 to my desktop, I get a file with a numeric filename (e.g. 174.mp3) of the proper length but no content, no tags, won't play, nothing. Obviously not helpful.

This however is marginally better than on Windows, where the phone won't connect at all. It's apparently a driver issue with 64-bit versions of Windows 7, which at the moment is all I have access to. I tried over three days to get it to connect and managed to hook it up, once, long enough to get the firmware updated to the latest version of Android (I'm now running Jelly Bean). Since then, nothing.

So I found a solution in the Android Market, err, Play Store that says it will let me transfer files back and forth over wi-fi using a browser. Sounds good, right? A nice OS-independent solution. I have a good strong wi-fi signal so this should be a piece of cake.

Ha ha ha ha, still silly you.

I'm now going on about 45 minutes of trying to download one MP3 album so I can fix the tags and the track names will show up properly. I keep getting errors, and of course there are no helpful error messages. I don't want to have to go in, pull out the SD card, load it up on the laptop, transfer the files to the desktop where MP3Tag (a Windows MP3 tag editor but the best one out there by far in my experience) can fix them, then transfer them back to the laptop and finally back over to the phone.

I really think it should be easier than that.

Ha ha ha ha, silly me.

UPDATE: I finally got the files downloaded, edited, and sent back to the phone. I was so tired out I took a nap afterward while the phone's battery charges. In the process I found that somehow I had put two copies of Led Zeppelin IV onto the phone. Hey, I love "Stairway To Heaven" as much as the next child of the sixties, but once through at a time is sufficient these days.

Oh, by the way, the album that was giving me all the grief was The Duras Sisters' Rubenesque. Totally worth the effort.
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I got home from work too late to see the oldest granddaughter appear in her play's premiere, so I took the evening off, had a little somethihg that closely resembled supper, and pulled out the banjo and the microphone to see what they could do. You'd think I would have run through one of my own songs, like Crossroads or Dark Lullaby, but I didn't. For reasons that completely escape me Taj Mahal's Fishin' Blues has been my earworm of late, so I did a few practice plunks to figure out a couple of the chords, turned on mic, and away I went.

Here are a few impressions off the top of my head:

1. Damn, the kid is good.

2. Damn, the kid needs to get back into practice.

3. All things being equal, maybe I should not be singing this song in G. The highest note in the song is right at the top of my range and I was straining to hit it. Then again I'm out of practice, I wasn't giving myself the singing support I should have, blah, blah, blah. The song is a natural in G, and I suppose I could capo up the neck to play it in an open C or D, but that has its own problems. Maybe a different tuning? I dunno.

This sound could be perfect for a Seeger-style long neck banjo, which plays in E if not capoed up to normal banjo tuning. However, I have not even researched what such a beast would cost, because (1) buying it for one song would be ridiculous, (2) my wife would probably kick it and me out of the house, and (3) I don't have the money anyway.

(Pete Seeger once told Lee Hays, "Lee, I've got one too many banjos." "Yeah?" said Lee. "How many do you have?" "Two.")

4. You know how your voice sounds different when you listen to a recorded version than the voice you hear inside your head? Yeah. That.

5. Oddly though, the banjo sounds different to me when I listen to a recording of myself playing than when I'm actually playing it. If I was at all worried about it having a sufficiently plunky sound, I need worry no more. Is it because I'm hearing the sound coming out of the back of the banjo rather than what's heading out toward the audience? I dunno.

6. From what I can tell this microphone sounds like it does a pretty good job of accurate sound reproduction. This is good, because – and here's a little secret just between you and me – I've never practiced in front of a microphone. I have very little idea what I sound like to someone sitting out in the audience. Maybe now that I have a mic I can play with my voice a little to see what it can do.

7. The recording has already been deleted. It wasn't worth saving. I didn't even keep the electrons to recycle in future projects.

8. All that being said, the kid has some potential.

9. One of these days? Bandcamp. Maybe. I hope.

Pronoia

Apr. 26th, 2013 11:43 am
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Yesterday I came home from work and found a package waiting for me. I expected a package – I'd ordered a high-capacity battery for my new phone. This package was much larger than you'd ship a battery in, though, unless it was a car battery.

The return address was cryptic. "The Conflikt Fairy, c/o Conflikt" with a PO box number here in Shoreline. Curiouser and curiouser. I had no idea why I would be getting anything from Conflikt. I don't have any official affiliation with the con and hadn't won any trophies or anything.

So, I opened the box, and . . . oh my flying spaghetti monster. The box contained a Blue brand Yeti model USB microphone.

About three weeks ago Woot.com featured one of these on their Tech page. I liked the look of it. It looked like a throwback to the big bullet-shaped microphones from the Golden Age of Radio. It looked like R2-D2 on stilts. The specs were pretty sweet, and Dara Korra'ti (who knows these things) said it was a pretty nice microphone. Certainly much better than the condenser microphone I blogged about a year or so ago. The price was a bit steep, though, so I figured I'd just wait until I had a better handle on the rent and the bills and could afford to buy one the next time it came around on Woot.

And here it was, in my possession, ready for me to hook it up and start recording.

There was a note attached, telling me the microphone was a gift from the Conflikt Fairy, who did not want to be otherwise identified. Actually, I'm fine with that. Anonymous giving is one of those things that makes the world go 'round. I did want to say "Thank you," though. This is something I would never have dreamed of, and it is a beautiful gift, and I thank you, whoever you are.

We're all familiar with the idea of paranoia, the thought that someone is out to get you. Less well known is the idea of pronoia, the opposite of paranoia. The idea that someone, somewhere, out there wants to do good things for you and make your life better. Today, I am feeling very pronoid. They really are out to help me!
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I was going to post a big long Kilroy about how I upgraded our cell phones, but then I realized that nobody really cares about us upgrading our cell phones. Everyone over the age of 14 in most of the world has already had at least one cell phone upgrade. It's not all that exciting.

So I'll talk about my grandson, Igor the Younger, instead.

When I was shopping for phones our provider's site advertised their phones as "Wonderful little handheld computers. Some of them even make phone calls." Cute, and very true. As someone tweeted not too long ago, "My phone has more computing power than all of NASA in 1969. They put a man on the moon. I shoot birds at pigs." It should come as no surprise that Igor the Younger enjoys borrowing my phone, and one of the considerations when I chose my new phone was what games I could load up for him to play with. If anyone has suggestions, send them along. Among others, I'm considering installing a game based on one of his favorite cartoons, a PBS learn-to-read effort called Super Why. And yes, Angry Birds is already there.

Meanwhile I still have the phone I replaced. It no longer has service and says "Emergency Calls Only," of course, since I ported my number to the new phone. I considered selling it, but the market for Windows Phone 7 devices that can't be upgraded to WP8 is pretty limited.

Then night before last as I was plopped on the bed setting up the new phone Igor was plopped next to me playing with the old phone, listening to a song by Trout Fishing In America and playing some game or another, and I realized that it's still a wonderful little handheld computer, it just doesn't make phone calls anymore.

So the next time he left it unguarded I hooked it up to the Zune software that manages the music and apps on the device, and everything worked as expected. I didn't try installing any apps, but I was able to update and delete music off the phone and the software recognized all the apps I had installed.

Now Igor the Younger wants to know if he can keep the old phone in his room. I'm sort of inclined to let him, after I turn off the Wi-Fi and uninstall anything that could cause damage or cost me money. He likes having music when he goes to sleep, and he seems to sleep better when he has his music when he's going to sleep (the soundtrack to Kung Fu Panda is a big favorite).

This kid is absolutely fearless when it comes to technology. I think of modern technology as a lever, an extension of my mind or body to allow them to do much greater things than they could do without it. He's going to look at technology as an ocean, an environment he lives in and navigates through, and pay about as much attention to it as a fish does to water, and for many of the same reasons. And he's going to look back at today's phones – excuse me, handheld computers – the same way I look back at the black-and-white TVs and five-tube radios that were common when I was his age: interesting relics of the past that foreshadowed an ability to do so much more.
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I wasn't going to buy anything on Friday. Honest I wasn't.

In case you haven't guessed, I'm one of those contrarian types who is opposed to shopping on Black Friday. It's as much an unwillingness to go out and drop a bunch of money on stuff I don't need as it is just not want to go out and fight my way through a bunch of crowds to do it. Throw in a huge dose of "I have no money for anything this year" and you've got a pretty good handle on my situation.

But then one of the mailing lists I subscribe to came out with a super tempting deal, offering a year's free top-tier membership to Treehouse (ordinarily $600) for $99. The catch was, they had 12 deals lined up on Black Friday, and each one was only good for 2 hours, so I had basically between 12:00 and 2:00 on Friday afternoon to take them up on it.

Perhaps I should explain what Treehouse is and why this was such a tempting deal. Their stock in trade is video instruction. They break down the subject – whether it's Javascript, CSS3, Ruby programming or starting your own business – into strings of short videos, anywhere from 3 to 15 minutes long, where they present a code sample that illustrates what they're teaching. There are about 120 "badges" you can earn in these subjects, and more coming down the road all the time.

As you probably know I have been trying to learn Ruby lately with an eye toward branching out into Ruby on Rails development. I had been going through instruction books and the few free resources I could find, and was learning a few things but not enough. So when this offer came along – a year's worth of drinking from the instructional firehose – I started agonizing over it. I still had the contrarian streak, still had no business spending any money, and it was still Black Friday, but this looked like such a useful way to learn, and $100 for a year's instruction is cheap.

At about 12:15 my wife came into the bedroom and we were talking, as we often do these days, about money. I told her about this deal and how I thought it would be useful, but I really had no business taking them up on it when we had so many other places for our limited means to go.

She thought about it for a second. "Well, I can think of one reason why you might want to do it," she said.

"What's that?"

"Every dollar you've spent on education in the last 20 years has come back to us many times over."

My wife is a very wise woman.

About ten minutes later I pulled out the credit card and signed up.

This was an extremely good move.

It's been a little over 150 hours since I signed up and I've completed all of the Ruby Foundations badges, everything from explaining what variables are (for the real beginners in the crowd) to writing tests for your programs as you go. Actually, writing the tests before the programs.

It doesn't hurt that Treehouse has a somewhat whimsical sense of humor. The "Hello and thanks for signing up" video involved a very steampunkish airship and a guy with an eyepatch setting out for Treehouse Island.

So what did I do today?

OK, I'm going to admit to doing something dumb. A while back I managed to wipe my desktop clean, as in "rm -rf Desktop/". (I mean, who hasn't, right?) There was a bunch of important stuff on that desktop, including my ham radio logbook spreadsheet and a folder with all of my electronic QSL (contact verification) cards. I found a random post out on the Internet from a guy who wrote a program to download all of your QSL cards from eQSL.cc, the website that handles the service. The problem is, he wrote this program in some kind of oddball Windows scripting solution that I'd never heard of.

So, I decided to write my own. I started looking for ways I could do this and came across the web documentation for Ruby's Mechanize gem, which allows you to write scripts to load web pages, fill out forms, keep track of cookies and the like.

After about seven hours I had a working program that not only downloaded the eQSLs, changing one variable would determine whether you downloaded all of your eQSLs or just the ones you hadn't retrieved yet, and gave them sane names as opposed to the indecipherable string of digits eQSL saves them as. This is probably less time than it would have taken to go in and download all 200-something of them by clicking on them one by one, and certainly less boring.

On the basis of this and some other scripts I've written I feel confident enough now to put Ruby on my resume. There are a lot of positions and recruiters looking for Ruby, sometimes as a standalone skill but more often as a way to work with Ruby-based tools like Rails, Chef and Puppet.

And that's what I've been doing for the past week.

And yes, I think this sort of thing is great fun. Beats sitting around moping while I look for work.
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I've been playing with my new computer to see what it can do. Short answer: a lot. Right now I'm running two virtual machines on it, one with Windows 7 and my favorite ham radio programs, one with XUbuntu 12.10 running some server software. That, and the native Linux apps I'm running on the main machine like chromium and thunderbird. I've even launched Portal in the wine Windows emulator a couple of times, and apart from my graphics card running hot, it runs very nicely.

The virtual Xubuntu machine is where I've been putting my efforts the last couple of days. In connection with learning Ruby and Rails I've decided I wanted to get a handle on nginx (Engine X), an alternative web server to Apache or IIS. I see it crop up more and more in job announcements, so I figured it would be worth a look. After a situation where I got two different versions of nginx running, I removed them both and started from scratch. That's when I discovered that the instructions for installing one of the components had carefully documented steps 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6, leaving out step 4 entirely. Google helped me figure that one out. Then I found that the configuration for a different component had changed in the last year, making one of the tasks I was trying to accomplish (getting a PHP information page to show) completely wrong and driving me nuts for two hours because I couldn't connect to a process that wasn't running the way they said it should be. Everything got sorted out sometime after midnight last night. Good thing I had that extra hour of sleep last night.

Today I installed a package called phpmyadmin that acts as a web interface to my database running on the virtual machine. That's one of the last pieces of the puzzle I needed before I could get Rails up and running. Oh sure, I could have done it on the command line, but the web interface is faster and makes it easier to see what's going on.

Next up, I need to decide on a project to work on to learn Rails. I have a couple in mind. Maybe I'll do them both, one after the other.
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A couple of posts ago I mentioned my brand new development box, workstation, computer, toy or whatever you want to call it. I've been tinkering with it since that post and it is still the bee's knees. As of right now it's running a browser (chromium), an email client (Thunderbird), an instance of Windows 7 running in a virtual machine (virtualbox) that's busy running some ham radio software and the Zune music software, an IRC client (xchat), and somewhere down there in the silicon maze are daemons for apache and mysql and other things that come to think of it don't take up a lot of resources. I even kicked up the CPU clock speed to turn it from a 3300MHz processor to a 4000MHz processor, and it's not even heating up significantly.

This is sort of like when I bought my banjo almost 10 years ago now. I wasn't absolutely sure at the time that I should be spending the money on a toy when there were other things I could have been doing with it, but I've never looked back, and look at the friends it's helped me make and the fun I've had doing it. The only regret is that I didn't do it many years ago, and I could have been having all that fun this much longer.

Similarly, when I'm out of work it seems a bit foolish to spend about $400 on a new computer. But I don't look at my computer as a toy. (Well, not entirely, OK?) I look at it as a tool. Computers are how I make my living, and like I said before, the old one was driving me around the bend because it was so underpowered. I can do things on this computer I can't even do on my laptop (a dual-core 1.8 GHz machine from when Windows Vista walked the earth), much less the old single-core 1.3 GHz machine. With any luck at all this machine will last me another 5-6 years, or until software starts outpacing the hardware again. But running today's software on XUbuntu 12.10, it is great.

One of the things that a blazingly fast computer doesn't help with is doing the actual programming. Someone once said that most of a computer's time is spent waiting for you to do something, usually type in a command or click a mouse. That's true as far as I can tell. The browser comes up fast and the mail is pretty quick, but if I'm writing a program it still takes me the same amount of time to type in the code or debug it. I get the results faster, but for the stuff I'm doing now, imperceptibly so. Then again there are the times I had to wait for the old computer to play catch-up in some other process before I could get back to work, so I'm glad I don't have to worry about that at the moment.




While I'm knocking around the house looking for work I have been working on improving my skill set. Part of that is learning new languages and new technologies. I was once labeled a "one-trick pony" by an interviewer; fortunately I got that job since the one trick I knew (Perl) was the one they wanted. I'm trying to shed that these days by learning some new skills, languages and technologies, or at least getting an idea of what they're about so if someone says they want a guy who knows something about Hadoop, Nagios, Nginx or Puppet I can discuss them semi-intelligently rather than saying "Nope, no idea" or, worse, something dumb.

To that end I've been working on learning Ruby. Ruby is sort of similar to where Perl was 15 years ago, a hot scripting language that's making its presence known as an engine for creating interactive web pages. It's a typical open source success story, similar to the one behind Linux itself. In 1993 a Japanese programmer named Yukihiro Matsumoto (known to one and all as "Matz") decided that the scripting languages available to him left something to be desired, so he set out to create his own that was "more powerful than Perl and more object-oriented than Python." I don't know if it out-muscles Perl, but it is certainly object oriented. Everything in Ruby is an object, including what would normally be simple primitives like integers.

Ruby was first released in Japan at the end of 1995 and interest was pretty much confined to Japan for about four years, when the first English-language Ruby mailing list started up. It gained a modest following, but really took off in 2003 when David Heinemeier Hansson was developing an application that would eventually become Basecamp. He was working on some web scaffolding for Basecamp, and realized that with a little work he could create a general purpose web application framework, which he released under the name Ruby on Rails. (Again, this is similar to the history of Perl, where Larry Wall realized that a one-off script to do some text parsing could be expanded into a general purpose Practical Extraction and Reporting Language.) In some ways Ruby on Rails is Ruby's killer app; it does a lot of the heavy lifting involved in creating an interactive web site, and it does it all in Ruby. "Ruby on Rails" is one of the most common desired skills I've been seeing while doing my job search.

Before I dive into Rails I want to do some general purpose scripting in Ruby to get a decent grounding in the language. To that end I've been rewriting some projects I've done in other languages in Ruby. For instance, I have an application I wrote that sends a bunch of tweets at regular intervals. It's written in Java, in part because I wanted to say I had written a Java program. It took me about three days to get everything written, tested, debugged and functioning, and even so it still isn't working 100% right (in part because I don't have my class path set to work properly from a cron job . . . but I digress).

Today I got out of bed at about 8:30 and decided I wanted to convert this script to Ruby. So my morning looked something like:

8:30 - get up, get showered and get dressed

9:00 - sign on to boris (my big bad dev box) and in a separate window load up sitka (the remote server the Java code is on)

9:05 - copy the list of tweet contents from sitka to boris. Close the connection to Sitka. Format the strings for use in Ruby (mostly removing the String identifiers in Java - Ruby uses flexible typing, similar to Perl)

9:30 - install the Twitter Ruby gem (package) and take a look at the documentation

9:45 - create a sample tweet with the Twitter gem and see it appear in my timeline

9:50 - Do a little more experimenting with the gem to see how tweet objects are formatted (for use later)

10:10 - Write the code for sending the tweet lists. Test it. Fix a few bugs and try it again

10:45 - Run a full simulation, not sending tweets but testing the timing

11:00 - Done. Off to answer my mail and contact some of my recruiters.

The Java original took me three days to complete. Now granted I already had the login information and the strings I want to tweet, but putting the Ruby version together took me less than two hours, and that was with breaks to look up code examples online.

My goal is to get somewhere near the expertise I have in Perl as fast as possible, preferably within a month or two. If today's experience is any indication, I may be able to reach that goal with time to spare.
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Sunday night was not all that good a night for sleeping. We packed everything up and got to bed about 11:30 and had to be up at 5:30 to meet up with our guest liaison for the ride to the airport. Six hours is usually plenty of sleeping time, especially if I can get a nap later in the day, but that night's sleep was interrupted by a leg cramp, and no sooner had I gotten that worked out and gotten back to sleep than my blood sugar started crashing. We had already packed the apple juice in checked luggage, so we had to go in and dig it out so I could get my blood sugar up. Thankfully after that I was OK until 5:30, but I still felt even less rested than I usually do.

We checked out of the airport, met up with Kate, who was kind enough to run us through a drive-through so we could get some breakfast, and made it to the airport in plenty of time. This was a good thing, because we had overpacked one of our bags and had a bit of a scramble to get the bag down below 50 pounds. Once that was done the wheelchair I had requested arrived. The assistant loaded me into the wheelchair, put my banjo in my lap, hooked the cane to the back, strapped my backpack to the back of the chair, and away we went.

I am not a big fan of the backscatter X-ray where you have to stand still for 10 seconds and make the Sign Of The Elk above your head while you do so. But, I did it anyway, got to the other side of Security Theater, put my shoes back on, loaded up my pockets . . . and then realized that I had not pulled the laptop out of the backpack before they sent the backpack through. This is a Major No-No and will subject you to a Big Time out. So, when the backpack came through, the technician informed me she was going to remove the backpack and wipe it down. No problem, right? I'm sure they are careful about electronics.

The laptop case tested positive for something. I have no idea what; the technician didn't tell me other than a vague "Oh, nitroglycerine or something." I don't take nitroglycerine and neither does anybody I know, so I have no idea how any kind of residue that could test positive for anything remotely interesting could have gotten on the laptop.

Because of this infraction I got to be the next contestant on Who Wants To Be Patted Down At The Airport. I got to stand - with no support, mind you - with legs spread while the TSA guy patted me down, up, sideways, outside and (just a little bit) in. People have said they found this experience humiliating; I wasn't humiliated so much as annoyed, at least partly at myself for forgetting about the backpack, but also for the whole stupid security theater apparatus that required me to go through this and would do absolutely nothing to keep a determined terrorist out of a secure zone.

To his credit, the guy doing the patdown was very professional and explained everything he was doing. He was also assisted by two other TSA agents; as it happens he was a trainee, and kept having to ask them questions like "Should I have him take his shoes off?" (He should, they said.) In fact he seemed like a very nice guy. He asked where I was going. I told him Seattle; he said he would like to come visit up here someday.

Finally the whole thing was over and I got to explain to my wife what had happened. We made it to the gate in plenty of time, checked in for the flight, got on the plane, stowed the banjo in its overhead compartment, and sat down to wait.

And wait.

And wait.

Do you remember the news a week ago about how Alaska Airlines' computer systems were down? Not one, but two, cables got severed somehow, cutting Alaska's computers off from the rest of the world. We got in the air in spite of the problem but were about an hour late getting off the ground. That wasn't quite so bad, although I'm glad I hadn't taken my diuretics before the flight started. Airplane restrooms are not my friend.

We landed about an hour late and walked into a scene of chaos. People were trying to catch up with connecting flights that were scheduled to leave about the time we landed. Others were at their assigned gate, waiting to find out whether the flight was still going to take off. About four flights were cancelled while we were in the airport.

And through all of this, somehow or another they lost track of our wheelchairs.

I stood in the customer service line, in part because it seemed like the easiest way to request a wheelchair (there were no attendants at the gate) but also because a simple request like "Can you send two wheelchairs to our gate?" would be a welcome relief for the overworked customer service representatives. About 20 minutes later a fellow with a wheelchair came by, and rather than potentially stick around for another 20 minutes, my wife decided to walk.

We went down to the baggage claim area, passing a huge line of people waiting to get through security. We got our bags, caught the shuttle out to Shoreline and made it home safe and sound. Tired, but safe and sound.

I had debated whether I wanted to fly to San Diego, or whether I should take my daughter up on her offer to drive me down. In the end I went with flying, as much because of the price of gas as anything else. (One convenience store we passed in San Diego on the way to the airport was selling regular unleaded gas at 5.00 fa gallon.) I enjoyed the trip, but the transportation experience left much to be desired. Someday I would love to go to OVFF< FKO or GAFilk, and when that happens, I hope to go by car. Well, actually I hope to go by high-speed rail. But I'm not sure I'll live that long.
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So as many of you know, I was the Interfilk guest at Conchord which happened about ten days ago, thanks to the sponsorship of Juliana McCorison and Kathleen Sloane and the other board members at Interfilk. Pre-con planning was a bit chaotic but we finally got all the ducks in a row, I got my ticket and off we went.

The trip out was relatively uneventful, except that due to traffic we got to the airport, bags checked, through security and into the boarding area just in time to board the plane. This would not have been so bad except that we hadn't had any breakfast yet, and I was worried my blood sugar would drop. (Not without cause, as we shall see later.) I had counted on getting breakfast at the airport but there wasn't really time to do so, so I ended up having to pay $7 for a cheese and fruit "plate" to share with my wife. It and a Zone bar did the job well enough until we landed in San Diego, where we were met by Kate Evans, Conchord's guest liaison.

Kate helped us schlep bags out of the terminal and into her SUV. One of the guide rods on the smaller suitcase got bent, making it hard to roll the suitcase. It made me glad they didn't give me any grief about taking the banjo on the plane. It fit very nicely into the overhead compartment.

Fifteen minutes later we were at the Town & Country Resort. It's a very nice hotel and the staff was quite friendly, but one of the first things we learned was that it's a captive hotel. They have about half a dozen restaurants on the premises, but the prices are about what you would expect for a hotel restaurant in Southern California. After checking in and resting up a bit we decided to make the trek to a mall across the light rail tracks, where we were told there was a food court. No need not to, it was a nice sunny pleasant San Diego afternoon and we had lots of time to stop and rest along the way. Good thing too, because looking at the map it looks like we walked the better part of a mile to get to the mall's food court. We had fish tacos and a shrimp burrito at a place called Rio's (I think), after which I had a phone screen with a potential employer. They decided not to move ahead, but I couldn't complain much about having a job interview while sitting outside in San Diego, sipping a soda and watching the passers-by pass by.

The con is a bit of a blur. We got to meet Laura Reynolds, the artist GoH, who does primarily soft sculptures. Hers are much more elaborate than my wife's. We ordered pizza because it was easier and cheaper than anything at the hotel. We ran into some old friends, including Bill Laubenheimer, the guy I shared the COnflikt 5 songwriting prize with, and his wife. Blind Lemming Chiffon was there, as was Heather Dale (of course, since she was the music guest). And I got to hear some fine Southern California filk in the Friday Night showcase. One guy in particular who I'd like to arrange for a couple of performances is Tim Griffin. He does songs about science and math, mostly geared toward children, and performs them in schools. Most of his performances are around the Los Angeles area, since that's where he's from, but if I can persuade enough schools to have him in to make it worth his time, he said he'd be happy to come up. (Did I mention he does this for free? He's organizing a non-profit to coordinate his activities, and hopefully pay him a living wage.) Afterward we retired to the open filk room to run through all of the songs nominated for the Kazoo Awards (25 of them, if I remember right). By the time we got to the last one - which was Tom Smith's Seven Drunken Nights In Space, and which was Conchord's first chance to hear me sing - it was pretty late and I ambled off to bed. I don't know if anyone else stayed up for open filking.

Saturday was the big show! I got to open for Heather!!! (Oh. And Ben.) It was a good crowd and since for the most part they hadn't heard my stuff before, I'm glad they laughed in the right places and figured out to clap along with "You're A Hack." The set list went something like:

You're A Hack
Colour
Batman's Really Cool
The Loneliest Pro At The Con
Ghosts
Dark Lullaby
Roll Down The Water
Half The Battle
Crossroads

Afterward Heather and Ben were their usual awesome selves, followed by Jeff and Maya Bohnhoff, who were their usual awesome selves. It was a good show and I was happy to be a part of it.

Sunday I sat in on a songwriting workshop Jeff gave. I always learn when I go to these things, even when I'm on the panel (I wasn't this time), and Jeff broke down how he writes his parodies. It was hugely useful, and I hope to put it to good use. Ben did a guitar technique workshop; a guitar is a guitar and a banjo is a banjo, but some things cross over, and it was cool just to hear Ben talk about how he approaches their music. After the official end of the con a bunch of us got together at the hotel's steak house (the only restaurant open on the premises) and chatted and had a good time over dinner, after which we headed back to the hotel for a dead dog filk. The dog finally stopped kicking about 10:30, plenty of time for us to get up to the room, pack our bags and be ready for the red-eye out of SAN.

This has already gotten pretty long, so I think I'll continue the Ballad Of The Amazingly Annoying Return Flight Home in another post.
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I've been busy. That's my excuse, and I'm stickin' with it.

Well, actually I have been busy. A couple of the busy type things are going to get their own post, but the main order of busy-ness has been I've been out pounding the virtual pavement looking for work. Again. You would think that when you're not dedicating eight hours of your day every weekday working for The Man you'd have plenty of time to do things like post blog entries, but the truth of it (as anyone who has done so knows) is: looking for work is a full time job. It's hard and it's draining and it takes it out of you.

That, and I've been trying to improve my computer skills by learning about a programming language called Ruby. Ruby is Perl circa 1997; a hot language, the Shape Of Things To Come and the future of the Internet. Ruby by itself is a good language, but it really shines as the language Ruby on Rails is written in. Rails is a web development platform that makes database-backed applications super easy. I already have a couple of sites in mind that I want to design in Rails.

The really big items will get their own posts later, but I did want to brag on one small achievement. Last week Newegg had a nice build-it-yourself computer package for $300. Everything but the video adapter and hard drive, including the case. I probably shouldn't have bought one, being out of work and all, but the price was right and my old computer was driving me crazy. That system didn't have a bottleneck, that system was one giant bottleneck. This new one is so much faster I could just plotz. Six-core processor and 8 GB of memory. Earlier today it was running my JT65 ham radio software - which involves fast Fourier transforms and was clogging up the CPU on the old machine - and the program was purring along without breaking a sweat. I worked a ham in Japan this afternoon with it that I'm not sure I would have been able to work on the old system because of the lag in decoding the signal.

There's still a day or two of configuration coming up. For instance, I want to install Ruby and Rails on it so I can do some development work. But so far it's looking really, really good.

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