Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Book Seven


Recently, a fan site I occasionally visit held a contest to write the opening to Book 7 of the Harry Potter series. I had just finished Book 6, thought it was the best of the lot, and was at the time looking for more things in the Harry Potter universe. So I wrote my opening.
I'm not a Potter nut. I could not tell you the titles to all six books, or name more than two or three spells, or more than the main characters. I like what JK Rowling has done simply because it's good fiction, and it's encouraging more kids to read.
It was fun writing the little peice, but I didn't win, place, or show. Drat. So much for a new broom or wand to display in the office. It would have went nicely with my Darth Vader coin bank, my Iron Giant, and my Munch blow-up statuette.
Here's the peice, if you interested (or even if you're not):
Hogwarts Express came to a stop in a whirl of steam and noise
at platform 9 3/4. Harry, Ron, Ginny and Hermione looked up at
each other for the first time in miles and miles. They hadn't
spoken much along the way. Ron and Hermione slept, and Ginny held
onto Harry, in one way or another, knowing that this was the last
time she would get the chance for awhile. Harry pretended to
sleep, but his mind was awash with visions of Snape, and
hoarcruxes, and R.A.B., and most of all Dumbledore, hanging
suspended beneath the Dark Mark.
"How long will you be staying? At the Dursley's, I mean?"
asked Ron.
"Depends," Harry answered. "As short as possible. Overnight,
maybe. I'll have to talk to your mum."
"I wish you could just come to the Burrow straightaway," Ron
said.
"One more time back to the Dursley's," Harry said.
"Dumbledore at least made that much clear. Then after the wedding
I'm off to Gringott's, then Headquaters."
"Headquarters?" asked Ginny.
"I guess I should say... my house, now." Harry answered.
He really needed information, everything the Order knew about
Voldemort and his followers, every spell and charm and jinx that
they could think to teach him. More than a home, that's what he
needed.
"Coming, then?" Ron said. While Harry had been woolgathering,
the rest gathered their things and were prepared to leave the
train.
They stepped out onto the platform. It was crowded with
parents and students, but without the usual joyous noises as they
greeted each other. There were hugs and tears to be certain, but
they were of gratitude for a safe return. Heads turned and
followed them as they walked down the platform, looking for the
Weasleys.
"Harry!" a voiced called from behind them. "Wait up!" They
turned and saw Neville Longbottom running towards them.
"Listen," Neville said, catching his breath, "I want in. I
know you're planning something, and I want in. I want to help."
"We're not planning anything," Hermione said, looking at the
others.
"C'mon. It's obvious, don't you think? There's a fight to be
faught, and with Dumbldore gone we'll have to fight it."
Harry looked at the others, thinking of Neville's parents in
St. Mungo's, and the Death Eater Bellatrix Lestrange that put them
there. "We don't have a plan, Neville. I'm not sure what is going
to happen. I've still got a lot of things to work out."
Neville looked Harry in the eye, not dejected but
determined.
"But if there's a chance, and time, we'll make sure you're
there." Harry said. "You deserve that much."
"Yes," Neville said, nodding. "Yes I do. Thanks, Harry."
Neville walked on ahead of them. "And good luck!" he called out
over his shoulder.
"You'll let him help, then?" asked Ginny.
"I have to. You know. He stood with us, him and Luna. They
were the only two. The both deserve to help, if that's what they
want."
"There they are," Hermione said, nodding ahead. Harry looked
down the platform and there was Mrs. Weasley, waving. Beside her
stood Petunia Dursley.
Harry blinked, and shook his head, and looked again. Still
there she was.
"Whose that with Mum?" Ginny asked.
"Don't know," Ron and Hermione said in unison. They all
looked at Harry.
"It's my Aunt Petunia," Harry said. They could not have been
more shocked to see Dumbledore or Siruis standing there. In fact,
Harry thought, I would expect them MORE than this.
"Right then," Mrs. Weasley said as they approached. "Everyone
got eveything?"
They all nodded, still too shocked to speak. Petinua stood
mute, wringing her hands.
"Harry, I had to let your Aunt know what happened, why you're
back early. She asked me to bring her here." Mrs Weasley and
Petunia exchanged glances. "To meet you."
Harry met his Aunt's gaze for the first time. "I have to come
back," he said. "You know that."
"Yes," Aunt Petunia said. "I know. I know you don't want to.
I can't say as I blame you." Harry wanted to go on about what the
Dursley's had done to him, and how they had treated him. He wanted
to tell them everything that Dumbledore told them the last time he
saw them, all over again. He wanted to tell her how terrible an
Aunt she was, how terrible a sister she must have been. But he
somehow didn't have the strength, or the energy, or the real
desire. I'll be shed of the Dursleys soon enough, he thought.
"I am dreadfully sorry about your Professor Dumbldore,"
Petunia said.
"You couldn't possible begin... you didn't know him." Harry
said. Why would she care? He didn't understand. Dumbledore gone
would only mean one less wizard mucking about in her affairs.
"I know he thought highly of you. I know what an honor that
must have been. And I know Lilly thought the world of him."
At the mention of his mother's name, Harry looked up.
"Right, then," said Mrs. Weasly. "Off we go! Harry, we'll see
you at the burrow whenever you're ready to come." There were hugs
all around, and Harry gave Ginny a quick kiss, feeling awkward
under the eyes of her mother. He was still reeling from seeing
Petunia standing there, reeling more from her demeanor.
Then Harry and Petunia were alone.
"I'll have to hold on to you to get back," Petunia said.
"Muggles can't pass."
Harry held out his arm.
"Where is Uncle Vernon? And Dudley?" he asked.
"I've sent them on holiday," Petunia said, stepping towards
the brick wall. "Come, we have much to discuss." She stopped,
looking back at Harry, who hadn't budged. "If you'll let me."
Harry thought about years under the cupboard, about being
treated as a servant and not as a nephew. He couldn't bring
himself to move.
"I was only trying to protect you," she said. "The best that
I knew how."
And together, they stepped through the brick wall and into
London.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Feature Bloat

Microsoft Office 12 is around the corner.
Yes, that's right, yet another version of Office. For those of us in the corporate world still running some legacy apps that link into Office, that means another round of testing. For the home user, it means another glut of useless features.
Office 12 promises to be the first complete re-design of the user interface, using a context sensitive "ribbon" to access drop down commands rather than the old menu system. There are also enhancements to visual productivity, collaboration and management of documents.
The new Office will include some server-side components as well, to hand document rights management and work flow.
All I see, unfortunantly, is a huge learning curve for my end users, and an increase in features that they won't use or won't know about.
For home users, I haven't been recommending office since after Office 97. Anyone today that just needs the 'normal' home user office products is just as well off with Openoffice, which is free, compared to the nearly $300 that Micro$oft wants for office.
I've been using OpenOffice for years now, across several versions. It's my main Word Processor / Spreadsheet / Presentation software of choice. I don't even have Office loaded on my laptop anymore (thereby saving the company a little change, anyway!) and haven't had an issue reading anything that anyone sends me. And I can send documents and spreadsheets out in Office formats, so no big deal there.
Users and corporations will continue to buy Office, and be forced into upgrades by Microsoft. It's their bread and butter. But for home users, there are free products out there that do the job just as well for much less.
For my main writing machine, I have an old laptop running DOS 6.5 and VDE (Visual Display Editor). I can go from power-off to writing in 15 seconds. I get everything I need, including spell-check. It looks old and goofy, but I find it priceless. I'm writing more, because I don't have to wait for Windows to boot (or shut down when I'm done), Word to load, and document to load. I put the current document I'm working on in the autoexec.bat command line, and I'm there on boot. I don't need to draw, or insert tables, or link to anything, or open web pages. I just need to write, and that's what it does well.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Steve Martin


We finally watched Cheaper by the Dozen, a 2003 family movie about a couple crazy enough to produce twelve children. It wasn't on my radar in the theatres because I was certain it would be a stinker. That, and I'm sick to death of remakes. But, we did find it at the dollar store for $1.99, so my wife could not pass it up.
I ended up enjoying it. Not a great movie, but it said something to me about family, and kids, and how hard it is to do something so basic as raise a child in today's society.
But what struck me the most was Steve Martin. Just how did this crazy guy go from being The Jerk to America's Dad? From Parenthood to Father of the Bride (another remake I liked anyway) to this, Martin has become the quintessential goofy Dad: struggling to balance work and family and his own neurosis. Back when he was playing banjo onstage with an arrow through his head, who'd of thought?
I think it started with Plains, Trains, and Automobiles, one of the funniest movies of the 80's. Here Martin plays Neal Page, an everydad on the road just trying to get home, stuck in unbelievable situations with bad company. It's a fairly straight role, with bits of Martin zaniness thrown in, and it worked well.
He went on to mine the same shaft in Parenthood, Father of the Bride, and now Cheaper... and their sequels. We relate to Martin because he's aged with us. We remember him, as we remember ourselves, in his goofy days, when he was a wild and crazy guy trying to make it. In a large sense, we root for him because of the chances he's taken. Can you imagine if Plains... had bombed? The critics would have had a heyday, telling us the Martin strayed to far from the arrow through the head. But it didn't, and he didn't. His "everydad" movies show us that we can all have a zany, nutty core to our caring, committed exterior.
Martin continues to succeed in most ventures he tries. Playwright, novelist, screenwriter... Ok, he's still not above the occasional stinker (can you say Bringing Down the House ? Sgt. Bilko?), but by and large he makes things that resonate with today's culture.
I'd like to find some actor out of the past to compare him to, the way people say the Tom Hanks is "our Jimmy Stewart", but I can't really think of someone who has succeeded on as many levels as Steve Martin has.
Having said all of this, my wife still won't sit through "The Jerk" with me. But we've sat through the "Father of..." movies a dozen times. Go figure.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Approaching Fourty


In late summer of last year, I pulled into a gas station here in town. Gas was pushing it's way towards $3.00, and I felt the same powerless anger that most Americans felt at the time... pain at the price, and helplessness while paying it. And I still feel that way at $2.35 today.
There were two college kids on bikes outside the store. They took turns going in, so one would always be with the bikes. They were outfitted for a trip, but their bikes were nothing special. Not road racers with front panniers or rear saddlebags, or anything like that.
At that time I was returning to my love of the bicycle. I grew up as what passes for poor in America, I guess, in that I didn't have a car until I bought my own. I detassled corn to buy my first ten-speed (a Huffy, thank you very much) that I rode into the ground. A year and countless lessons learned about cheap bikes later, I built my next one from a frame I was given and put decent parts on. That thing I rode everywhere, and it never failed me. I have great fond memories of cleaning and sanding that old frame, hanging it in the garage and coating it with about five layers of Krylon High-Gloss black spray paint, then hand trimming the brazing in gold.
Seeing those guys -- college men, they turned out to be -- standing there, ready to ride off in whatever direction they chose, go where they chose, get there when they chose, I was transported back in time. I was eighteen again. I had to talk to them.
I approached the one guy who was with the bikes as the other walked out.
"You guys look like you're in it for the long haul," I said. "Where'd you take off from today?"
"We started in Champaign this afternoon," one said. "We go to the U of I."
"Do you know where you're headed?" I asked.
"Washington," said one.
"D.C.," said the other.
At that moment, a light breeze would have knocked me over.
A couple of years prior to this meeting, I ran into a group at a different gas station that was taking one of the many 'planned' cross country bike rides. You sign on with a company, they provide the route, the food, a place to stay, and a support van along the way. I thought at the time about how conveinent it all was. Where was the adventure? Where was the risk?
Now here were these guys, heading out over the 690 miles from the flat cornfields of Illinois to the nation's capitol with a couple of maps, water bottles, probably credit cards that were nearly maxed, and some prayers.
"Let me go get my bike," I said. "I can be ready in fifteen minutes."
My wife came out of the store right then. It's a timing thing that married women have. She looked at me. I looked at her.
"You guys are living my dream," I said. I gave them my card. "Let me know how it goes. Call me if you need something I can help you with."
I walked back to the car. Got in. Started it up. Went home, pulled the bike down off of the pegs in the garage, made sure the tires had enough air, and took off for a while. My wife, who loves me anyway, didn't say anything when I got back.
I never heard from them. I plotted some routes from Danville to DC, and I watched the weather. They certainly got wet. And cold. And I know it was all worth it.
Go read "The Memory of Running" by Ron McLarty if this appeals to you. More on bicycling, and my love for it, here in the future.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Linux to Go


There are now many "Live CD" versions of Linux out there, but one of the first is still the best : Knoppix. At version 4.02 now, it's too good not to play with.
Often my first weapon of choice against a drive that 'won't boot' is Knoppix. I can quickly boot to a GUI interface, map a drive to a Windows (or Linux or any SMB) share somewhere on the network, and copy data off of the 'bad' drive (yes, even NTFS data). I can also mount another drive in the system and copy data over that way. I can even create an image of the 'bad' drive.
And that's not even the tip of the iceberg as to what this thing can do. Need to RDP into a windows box? Host a terminal session? Surf the net? Knoppix includes recent Linux software and desktop environments, including such applications as OpenOffice.org, Abiword, Gimp, Konqueror, Firefox, Apache, PHP, MySQL and hundreds of other quality open source programs.
Want the entire list? Take a look here. Prepare to be impressed.
And all this comes before what may be Knoppix's biggest asset, which is giving Linux newbies a chance to play in a fully functional Linux environment without having to install a thing, and without hurting anything (unless it's really on purpose!)
It's a long download for the CD, and the DVD is longer but has even more stuff. Go get it and play. You'll find yourself depending on Knoppix before you know it.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Revisiting Old Friends


How did we get along before EBay?
I've been buying up books I loved before but couldn't afford in hardback, and EBay is a great place to start. I've managed to pick up all of the Brains Benton books, I'm beginning to get the old Alfred Hitchcock Three Investigator's Series, and my greatest acquisition so far has been the 50th Anniversery boxed editions of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Both are very nice, even though they were mass-market editions and probably will not appreciate much in value. I picked them both up for less than $75.
I recently started collecting the Tad Williams Osten Ard trilogy Memory, Sorrow and Thorn. I've picked up fine editions of the first and last books, and am waiting on a decent one of the second to come to a close.
I just finished the first volume, The Dragonbone Chair, and found it to be a mixed bag of memories, revaltions, and disappointments.
The Dragonbone Chair begins with the birth of Seoman, clearly someone important who we'll hear more about later. Then we pick up his life as a teen, stuck as a kitchen worker to the taskmaster Racheal. He wants adventure and swordplay and travel.
That's the first 200 or so pages.
Yeah, it takes a while to get going.
Then the King dies, mysterious things start happening, there is evil afoot. Simon's mentor is killed, and off he goes, turned out to the wild to find his fate.
There are the requisite fantasy creatures here: trolls, giants, fairies (although Williams calls them Sithi, we know what they are) and wizards. There's ancient evil, and a land with a long history of great import.
So it was slow going, but once Simon leaves the Hayholt (the castle he grew up in), things get better. There is the occasional expository segment by someone wise to fill us in on history we should know. Williams has the annoying habit here of occasionally throwing in bad dialogue attribution (he smirked, etc), but mostly the writing stands up well from a structural standpoint and sometimes soars.
At 765 pages (hardback) and containing appendices of names and places, it's a daunting read. But it is well worth the effort, as Williams weaves a brilliant world here, full of rich history, characters and mystery. On to book two, as soon as I win it.
Once I'm done with this series, I think my next purchases will include the Williams's Otherland series. Longer and more complex than the Osten Ard trilogy, but more creative.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Here's hoping Vista is better

For the love of God, is it too much to ask from Microsoft to get an error from Windows XP that MEANS SOMETHING?
A friend got stuck in XP endless reboots. He could boot in safe mode, but that was it. He used it as an excuse to get a bigger hard drive. Well, when trying to install XP on it, it just hung. Sat there at 'starting Windows' and did nothing. No errors, no reboot, just... nothing. And this on a machine that was running XP the previous day.
So being the nice guy I am, I took a look at it. Hard drive installed correctly. Hmm. ACPI / Video settings? Cache? SMART drive settings? Nothing worked. I fdisked, formatted, copied files to the drive and ran the install from there... same thing. Stripped the machine down to the bare bones... same thing. Sure, I found a lot of info about the problem, but not much in the way of real help.
So, cursing Bill, I put the old drive in and started to look at it. A quick cleanup and virus scan courtesy of the Ultimate Boot CD, and I dug in. Quickly determined that it won't boot with networking enabled. I uninstalled the last Windows Update patch, and up she came.
Now, we install the second drive as a secondary, fdisk and format, move his My Documents over, and let him use it as a data drive.
Rumor has it Vista is going to be far more stable... as long as you have decent hardware to run it on. Here's hoping.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Cell


I just finished Cell, Stephen Kings new book. In it, everyone carrying a cell phone goes mad when they answer a 'pulse' that is sent out through what we assume is the entire cellular network.
When I first heard of the plot of King's newest novel, I immediately thought of it as a Bachman book. For those who may not now, King wrote several books as Richard Bachman, both to prevent a 'glut' of his work on the market and to publish some of his back - list stuff that he wrote around the time of Carrie. Once his pseudonym came to light, he wrote a few more as Bachman, and they tended to be the ulta-violent, go for the gore type of novel.
I was not wrong. Here, King certainly does not avoid the blood. Bodies fly apart, humans munch on each other, and the 'pulsed' zombies rule all.
One thing I had a hard time doing initially was throwing away my disbelief. Most horror novels have some kind of premise where the reader has to think 'yeah, that could happen." In this case, I never did. I never bought into "The Pulse", and I never bought into the final climactic scene between the main characters and the "Pulsed" zombies.
However, King drew me in anyway through his hallmarks of characters I cared about thrown into extreme situations. In this case, King is dancing on the end of the world again, and it works. Not because I really believed anything, but because I cared about the people that were stuck in the mix.
The action in this novel is relentless, moving the plot along at a rapid pace. There are the obligatory "And now we pause for exposition to explain of few things" moments, but they are fewer and farther between than in other King novels.
Just when I thought I had things figured out, King did a good job of throwing in a twist that I had not foreseen.
There's quite a bit of controversy over King. Is he our Dickens, or a hopeless hack who merely appeals to the masses? Or perhaps both at once? The bottom line for me is that the masses don't care. King is our treasure, for our time, and that's what matters.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

iPaq HW6510


I've had about a month now to play with the iPaq HW6510 from HP, and the best that I can say is that the reviews are mixed. It's a decent PDA, although the screen could be a bit sharper and the battery is certainly no champ at staying alive. I find the keypad cumbersome at best. The layout on the new Treo series or even some of the Blackberry / phone combos is much more intuitive, and has a better feel.
I do like the fact that does a decent job at recognizing Graffiti, since I've had five Pilot PDA's, beginning with the Pilot 5000.
It comes with Windows Mobile 5, so you can use Active synch to connect to your Exchange 2003 server in near real time. This works really well and was fairly painless to set up, on both ends.

We are currently testing 'push synch' software from Good Technologies. It works well, but is a huge memory hog. The first thing I'd do for your new 6510 is max out both memory slots, and redirect as much as you can to go there. Initially the Good software reeked all kinds of havoc on my phone, eventually to the point that it would not boot and I had to hard reset. Removing Pocket Streets seemed to clear up enough memory to make things happy again. And the Good software seems to work well across a wide variety of devices.

And speaking of phones, it's a fairly good one. Reception is good with few dropouts in my area, a noted problem with other pda / phone combos. It could be the Cingular network that I'm on now, too.

It does make a great MP3 player, being bundled with Windows Media Player. With headphones the audio quality is actually very good. The external speaker is about what you'd expect.

It does come with a built in camera, which is useless in low light or close up.

All in all I likely would by the new Windows Treo if I had my druthers and was spending my own money. But when the boss is buying, I'll take what I get.

Crimson Editor

I come today to sing the praises of Crimson Editor, the best FREE text editor I've been able to find.
I found Crimson Editor several months ago when I had several MRTG scripts to edit and update. It will search and replace across many files, does syntax highlighting for HTML, C/C++, Perl, Java, and other languages. You can even create your own custom syntax files. It also does spell check and supports macros.
Crimson Editor loads in a heartbeat, and has so far been compatible with everything I've loaded it on, from Win98 to Win2K3 server. I've been using it for four months now, and couldn't live without it. Ok, I could live without it, but I wouldn't be happy.
While we're on the subject of editors, who remembers Multi-Edit, from back in the days when it was the best DOS editor around? It's still out there, and is still the hands-down champ if you're a little more willing to fork over the dough for it. But then again, if you're a heavy duty programmer that needs something that powerful, then you can't afford to be without it. Too much for the little that I edit, but recommended for hard-core programmer types.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The End of an Era


I've been a Novell CNE since the days of Netware 3.x. You remember, back when you could set up a server, config it, and forget about it? Granted, we didn't ask them to do much back then, but they just ran and ran. I stayed loyal to Novell while expanding my knowledge as the various iterations of Microsoft servers and directories came out, and indeed re-certified up until Netware 6. I was excited by the news of Novell buying Suze, and still think they can turn the corner and be a player that matters again.
However, in the company I work for, Novell is becoming more and more irrelevant to our day-to-day business model. We have a CTO that wants to standardize on a platform, and that platform is going to be Microsoft. I can't fault him too much for that. Application integration is the driving factor behind many decisions today, and not just from the IT perspective. I'm also an MCSE on 2000, and the upgrade to 2k3 shouldn't be too painful.
So as we make plans to re-build our AD (does your AD tree have an Empty Root?), pull out NDS, and shut down all of the venerable Netware servers, I'll do so with a measure of chagrin, wondering what might have been.
Black armbands all around.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Stumble Upon


I'm addicted. I found the Stumble Upon toolbar add-in for FireFox, and I'm hooked.
Haven't seen it? When signing up you select a range of websites in different categories, such as Activism, Science, Philosophy, etc. Clicking on the Stumble button that's now embedded in your Firefox toolbar takes you to a site randomly selected from your lists. If you see a site you like while browsing, you can click the "I like it!" button, tell Stumble Upon a bit about it, and add it to a category for others to see. Likewise, you can vote thumbs down on a site.
I've Stumbled Upon an amazing array of things, from Libertarian Quotes to a Reporter's Desktop to instructions for building a true to scale Solar System Model, complete with spreadsheets.
Granted, many of the sites fall under the whimsical category, and occasionally you wonder why in the world other people liked a site. But for the most part, Stumble Upon provides a fascinating glimpse into the Web that really hasn't been available for years. It a truely democratic web catalog, and it works.

Lesson Learned That I Already Knew

Over the holidays I decided to install a nice Christmas tree screensaver for my wife. She likes that kind of hokey stuff, and it looked pretty innocuous. So I downloaded it and installed it, and politely told it NO every time it wanted to load this other thing, and that thing, and this third thing, and what is my email address, and fifteen other things.
So finally I've got it installed, and it looks nice, and my wife likes it. But immediately, my Mcafee Anti Virus did not like it. Mcafee said it was a Potentially Unwanted Program, and I should get rid of it. I did a quick scan of running services, saw nothing suspicious, and decided to let it run it's course. My wife was happy, and that makes me fairly happy.
Until I check my Gmail account.
I always give out my gmail account to any web site, program, or registration that simply must have an email address. Prior to installing this software, that account had stayed relatively spam-free. Now, the day after installing this harmless little screensaver, I had fifteen spam messages. The next day, thirty. It's leveled off some in the ensuing weeks, but rare is the day I get less than ten.
At the office we sit behind Postini, which works so well I had almost forgotten what thirty spam messages a day is like. Now I know again.
In the long run, the brief days of happiness over a screen saver are worth the pain. I knew I'd be paying a price when I clicked OK on the "free" download, and Gmail does a fine job of quarantining spam. Now I just have to give it a quick glance to make sure nothing important is in there.

A New Begining

I started this blog over a year ago, with the intent on making pithy comments on the current political and social climate. That turned out to be too daunting a task; in the political world I'm still a consumer of content.
So today I delete all my old posts (lonely little things they were, too!) and begin anew.
I've been in the Information Technology business for over twelve years. I've got a bunch of certification initials after my name on my business card. In some cases this means I knew enough to pass the test for the hour it took to take it. In others, I know much more. What I hope to do here is bring to light some daily issues that guys like me deal with (can anyone say 'users from hell'?), and the new technologies we struggle to adapt to and deploy. Along they way, I may keep a running blog concerning books I am reading, some of which are tech-oriented, and some of which are not.

Time

There’s never enough. Particularly when you are trying to put together the best show possible, with actors and tech folks (and a director) t...