Thursday, December 29, 2005

Further thoughts on India

I've been back from India since Dec 17 and have gotten swept up in holiday activities. A comment from somebody calling him/herself paliopolis today asked if I was back. So, without further ado, here are some thoughts on my trip: My flight to Mumbai eventually pushed away from the gate in Frankfurt at 15:40, just over four hours late. Some of this additional delay was caused by a passenger who had been on the plane from Chicago to Frankfurt but was now missing. Since her checked luggage was not missing, there was understandable concern. Ground staff were paging her through the airport, gate staff were walking the aisles on the plane double-checking and the security teams were minutes away from removing her luggage from the hold – when the missing passenger arrived, strolling back onto the plane laden with bags from the duty free shop. My under-standing of the possible security concern did no transfer to the reality of the situation.

Like every long international flight I’ve taken, this flight showed a real time map of the plane’s position and path. What makes this different on Air India was the periodic disclaimer slide:

Physical features map only.
No political borders depicted.
The plane landed in Mumbai at 3:40 am, India Standard Time. Add immigration, baggage claim, customs, driving to hotel, checking in and minimal unpacking and the end result is that it was nearly 5:30 am before I went to sleep. My wake up call was at 7:30 am.

While in India, a scandal erupted in which some fifteen members of Parliament were caught on camera accepting bribes. That was the headline on Tuesday’s paper. The top story in Wednesday’s paper ran the headline “Netas, babus take sting off spy cameras”. That’s two new fun words: “netas” are politicians and “babus” are bureaucrats. The other fun thing is that the substance of the article was about options for detecting and disabling spy cameras. The message seems to be that the only thing they did wrong was getting caught.

I spent most of the week in meetings -- fascinating meetings, but meetings nonetheless. Still, just being there I got a sense of the vast difference between American and Indian culture. Bangalore has clearly progressed much from the influx of IT activity, but the base infrastructure hasn't kept up. Our hotel was about 10 miles from the office, but we allocated an hour and a half to get there each morning. The food was amazing. I've always liked Indian food and everything I ate there was wonderful.

Bangalore isn't much of a tourist center. I saw one interesting temple and visited a botanic garden (with only one tree in bloom). The best statements of the modern Indian culture were two visuals. The first was a flight attendant dressed in a traditional saree, standing on the tarmac, and punching out a text message on a cell phone. The second was an ad on the back of a bus in Bangalore reading "The first ISO certified saree showroom in Karnataka." I'm not really sure how one certifies a saree showroom.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Colored bubbles

photo of blue bubble Yesterday morning NPR aired an interview with the inventor of Zubbles - The World's First Colored Bubbles!. They'll be available this Spring, so I expect we'll be having these at my kids' birthday parties.
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Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Quotes from home

I'm in Bangalore now and have more thoughts on India, but haven't put them together yet. I was talking with my wife and she shared two wonderful quotes from my 4.5 yr old daughter:
We were leaving the house and she saw the reminants of rock salt and asked what it was. I said we put salt down when it is icy because salt melts the ice. She thought a minute and said, "Mom is the sun made of salt?"

We were driving to school and I had the radio on. They were playing some song and then some commercials came on. I was not listening at all, but it must have been some jewelry add because she suddenly said, "Mom, does gold make you feel special?"

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Stranded in Frankfurt

I'm en route to a business trip in India. I arrived around 7:00 am and expected to depart at 11:35, but the Air India flight coming from Chicago was delayed. Seriously delayed. Projected departure time is now 15:05 - three and a half hours late. I'll get into Mumbai around 3:00 am and will be ready to go to meetings at 8:30. I plan to sleep on my flight since I won't be able to sleep much at the hotel tonight.

Other random thoughts about this:

  • Frankfurt is not a wonderful airport to spend a long layover. There are not many comfortable places to sit, the power outlets are few and far between and the food offerings are limited. On my last visit to Europe, I changed planes in Amsterdam. It was a much shorter layover, but it seems like it would be a better place to hang out. Unfortunately, I'm scheduled for another long layover here on my way back.

    At least there's WiFi available.

  • In addition to the typical electric carts used for carting around those who need help getting from gate to gate, some airport employees ride bicycles through the hallways. No, they don't carry the disabled on the back of their bikes. I think these are either managers checking in on different gates or maybe just errand runners.
  • My understanding of circadian rhythms is being reinforced. The first few hours here were exhausting. Now that's it's around 8:00 am at home, I feel much more energized.
Stay tuned, I'll post more thoughts from India during the week. If not during the week, then next Saturday when I'm back here in Frankfurt.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Retro handsets

From an article in the New York Times, retro handsets from Hulger which plug in to cell phones (complete with spiral cords) or connect wirelessly via bluetooth.
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Thursday, December 01, 2005

New Firefox tricks

I've been using Firefox for well over a year now and I'm still finding new tricks. Below I discuss using keywords for easy, fast custom searches, the nifty foXpose extension, keyboard shortcuts, and my current list of installed extensions.

Keyword search shortcuts
The absolutely coolest, most useful new trick is the ability to easily assign a keyword to a search. For example, go to Wikipedia. Right-click on the search box and choose "Add keyword for this search...". You'll get the "Add Bookmark" window: The name will identify this search in your list of bookmarks, but that's not important here. The "keyword" field is the fun part. By assigning the keyword "wik" to this bookmark, I can now search wikipedia via the address bar of my browser. So, I hit Ctrl-L to go to the address bar and type "wik heavy metal umlaut" and I'm taken to the wikipedia search result page (or directly to the article if the search is precise enough). So far I've added searches for technical documentation (Oracle, Python), technical help (, news ( and other reference searches (wikipedia,

Firefox does have a pretty good collection of searches available for the search box, but this is an easier way to add a custom search and it's easier to do these searches without using the mouse to change search engines

foXpose Next is the new Viamatic foXpose extension. Derived from the Macintosh feature, Exposé, this creates small images of all currently open tabs and displays them for the user to choose from. The image to the right shows my browser with tabs open on blogger, gmail, bloglines and Note that this extension won't work with Firefox prior to version 1.5

More keyboard shortcuts
I mentioned above that it was necessary to use the mouse to change search engines. That's what I used to think, but I was wrong. LifeHacker posted a nice article detailing keyboard shortcuts in Firefox -- including how to switch search engines. So, for the record, to search (the old way) without using the mouse: hit Ctrl-K to go to the search box, then Ctrl-Up/Ctrl-Down to get to your search engine of choice. There are many additional search engines which can be added to this search box. I still think it's easier to add a keyword for the search as described above.

My current extensions
Last but not least, here are my currently installed extensions. These are shown in three tiers, with the most frequently used in the top tier and the least used in the bottom tier.
  1. Digger - for chopping off chunks of the current URL. This is a successor to Diggler which I wrote about last year. The most recent version of Diggler doesn't work under Firefox 1.5 and seems to be a stagnant project.
  2. IE View - quick, easy context menu option to load the current page in IE.
  3. Tabbrowser Preferences - adds some extra preference options for controlling tabs.
  4. Aardvark - Again, something I've written about. It's still useful for nicely printing non-print-friendly pages.

  5. Yahoo Companion - only for easy access to my Yahoo bookmarks.
  6. LiveLines - provides an easy way to subscribe to a site's RSS feed into my bloglines account.

  7. Web Developer - I'm not doing a lot with actual development lately, but when I need to explore CSS, table layout, etc., this is the best tool. Aardvark can help with layout analysis, but Web Developer is better.
  8. Viamatic foXpose - discussed above, too new to decide just how useful it will be.

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Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Football only?

For no good reason, I was looking at the stadiums for next year's soccer World Cup. The first photo of Frankfurt's new stadium has the caption "FIFA World Cup Stadium Frankfurt: football-only temple." But doesn't it seem a little ironic that on the Official Site of the World Cup, a few of the photos demonstrate that the American interpretation of "football" has made it to Germany?
photo showing stadium with goal posts and lines for American football

Monday, November 28, 2005

Ronaldinho's latest nike ad - real or fake?

Irakli posted a link to an incredible video showing Brazilian soccer star Ronaldinho demonstrating some amazing skills with the ball (and some new Nike shoes). The most amazing thing is that he kicks the ball into the crossbar from 18 yards out and it bounces right back to him -- four times.


The soccer site has a long discussion as to the validity of this video. Some people have Ronaldinho quotes saying it's real, but then there's also a post allegedly quoting Nike's communications director for North Europe saying "It's a shame to reveal it, but where he hits the bar four times we played with some digital solutions."

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Friday, November 25, 2005

How to bypass phone menus

Bookmark this (or send to A frustrated and enterprising geek named Paul English has published a cheat sheet on how to bypass phone menus and talk with an actual human. As of today, there are 108 companies listed.
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Friday, November 18, 2005

Free e-book of Scott Adams book

Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, is offering a free PDF download of his book God's Debris. The blog entry says a little about why he's doing this, but he put it a little better in the most recent edition of his newletter, "I’m giving it away because I found out that most people who read it end up either recommending it or buying the paper version as gifts for other people." This is not a collection of Dilbert cartoons or even one of his books on business. As he says in the blog:
The hard cover version of God's Debris was a solid financial success. But it's such a strange little piece of work that it was hard to market it. People don't even agree about whether it's fiction or non-fiction, religion or science fiction or philosophy or just a good old fashioned mind-%*$#.
I happen to think that PDF is a workable format, but it's not ideal. It's probably the best choice, today, for mass distribution of a cost-free publication, but there are formats which offer smaller file sizes and perhaps more features.
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Monday, November 14, 2005

Minor blog changes

I've enabled a couple features introduced by Blogger over the past 6-12 months -- comments and backlinks. Comments are configured to allow anybody to post, but I've turned on word verification (aka captcha). I've heard read too many stories about comment spam hitting blogs -- even blogs with low traffic like this one. If you don't like it, don't comment.

You're always free to send email to me, though. (image created at

How Tom manages his email

Tom Kyte, of the extremely useful Ask Tom Oracle help site (and column), has been travelling a lot lately and writes in his blog that he's now All caught up...:
Most importantly – the scroll bar is gone from my inbox! I have 14 emails in my inbox. 12 of them are to-do items – so maybe I’m not all caught up, but I’m not that far behind anymore.
The post discusses in more details how he manages his email. I currently have 2188 messages in my Inbox -- that's only going back to the beginning of August, I have many more archived. I think if/when I decide to try something along the lines of what Tom does, I'll probably archive more regularly rather than delete or file by subject or recipient. With a good desktop search tool, searching the archive is quick and easy.

On a related note, I tried Google Desktop and found it weak when compared to X1.

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Thursday, November 10, 2005

Custom Yahoo Maps

Justin Everett-Church demonstrates how the new Flash-based Yahoo maps can be customized with images, colors, and borders. He gives as examples pirate and radar themed maps.
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Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Sniffing Passwords is Easy

The most mind-blowing article I've read all week... Bruce Schneier quotes from an InfoWorld article in which a woman describes using a network sniffer at security-professional conferences and discovering that computer security professionals don't practice good security practices.
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Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Searching the Deep Web

Lifehacker has an interesting article about tools for finding the stuff on the web that Google's spiders don't index. In addition to links to helpful sites, the bit that I'll remember is to add "database" to my search queries to use Google to find relevant databases of other information.

Friday, September 30, 2005

Geeky Friday: Little known vim "feature"

Earlier this week, a co-worker asked for my help diagnosing a problem on one of our sites. Some pages just weren't working in Internet Explorer, but were working fine in Mozilla Firefox.

Odder still, the HTTP status code returned was 199. Normal returns from a web server have status 200, errors are 500, redirects are in the 300 range, 404 is for missing pages. I've never heard of 199. I searched Google and a couple forums for the various software tools that could be involved and found nothing.

So, I went to the source code. Using "find . -mtime -2 -print" to identify all files which had changed in the past two days, I focused on a file I had been testing with the night before.

The extent of my test was adding something along the lines of:

if (some condition) {
    print some debug information to the log file
I considered this to be safe testing code. It didn't modify any variables, make any database calls, or call other procedures (other than the command to write to the log file). I got the debug information I needed and then edited the file again back to the was it was before. Or so I thought.

It's worth mentioning at this point that I was using vim instead of emacs, my usual text editor.

When I looked at the source code today, I looked at the line immediately following where I had inserted and removed the debug code. It was a line to return (programatically) a web page to the user's browser. One of the arguments to the command is the status code. Instead of the usual "200" I saw "199".

I was bewildered. Clearly this was my fault because the mistake was right where I had been editing this file, but there was no reason for me to have changed this return code. How did this happen?

I fixed the code right away, but I had to know what went wrong. My first guess was that vim had some keystroke shortcut to decrement a number -- it seemed reasonable since the new value was exactly one less than the correct value. So, I googled for "vim decrement" and I was right.

I laughed heartily, especially because the key combination for this is Control-x (C-x) which is used as the beginning for many emacs commands. Most notable, "C-x C-s" is used to save the current file. Clearly what had happened was that my well-trained fingers knew it was time to save the file after I had removed the debugging code and hit "C-x C-s". Unfortunately, the cursor was placed on the number "200" when I did this and vim did what it was programmed to do when fed C-x. My brain kicked in and saved the file in a vim-approved way but I didn't notice the error.

As for the discrepancy between Firefox and Internet Explorer, I wouldn't say that IE did the Wrong Thing, it just did things differently. Firefox looked at the content of the information returned, which looked like valid HTML data, ignored this odd status code and displayed the page. IE, on the other hand, decided that if the status code wasn't 200, it would display an error page. Ok, maybe that is Wrong, it's certainly less elegant and less helpful.

Lessons learned (or rehashed):

  1. There's no such thing as safe testing code on production servers.
  2. Always test changes in more than one browser.
  3. Be extra careful when using an alternate editor or simply stick to one editor

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Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Geeky Friday: Complaints about gaim (and sourceforge)

I've been using gaim as my primary instant messenger program for around five years now. With one program running, I can connect to AIM, MSN, icq, Y!, IRC, and more -- and yes, I have used all of these, although I use Yahoo chat mostly for notifications of new Yahoo mail. Additionally, it logs all conversations so that I can use my desktop search tool (currently X1) to find that code example sent by a co-worker or the phone number I need to call to order something. It doesn't handle voice or video chatting, but that's ok. I use those rarely enough that I'll just launch Skype or Google Talk when I need something like that.

Gaim works well most of the time, but once every 2-3 months, one of the major IM services will tweak something and non-official clients (such as gaim) will not work. If such a tweak is persistent, the gaim team will usually push out a fix within a few days.

Just some thoughts. My complaints all revolve around communication about what's going on. I'm ranting today because I've not been able to log in to AIM for the past couple days -- with an exception late last night. Maybe AIM changed something, maybe the server I connect to is overloaded (and gaim doesn't know how to switch), maybe it's something else. I'd like to know more.

The gaim team could post something on the blog-style front page of their site. But, perhaps I'm in a small minority of gaim users who are experiencing this problem. It would be nice to communicate with other members of this small minority to discuss. There's a gaim forum on the sourceforge project page but it's slow and the user interface is severely dated. I could file a bug report, but similarly, the user interface is lousy and I have a difficult time getting a sourceforge login cookie to stick around from the time I log in to the time I get to the page to file a ticket. (I would try to tell sourceforge about this problem, but that would involve filing a bug report using the same system).

It would be relatively easy for the gaim team to address these sort of problems with freely available services. There are many options for improved forum software any one of which would be easy for the gaim team to install. But forumer offers "100% free hosting" for IPB and phpBB -- I'm not familiar with IPB, but I know that phpBB would be a significant improvement over the sourceforge forum.

For bug tracking, I've been pleased with Atlassian's JIRA. Atlassian has a nice progressive view towards open source projects -- providing their software at no cost and, in some cases, hosting or maintaining the software for the project.

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Thursday, September 08, 2005

Hilarious Domain Name Mispronouncings

Maybe it's just because I've been working too hard for the past few weeks, but this blog post had me laughing out loud.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

A man who doesn't like his phone

"It's the suckiest phone I have ever had. It sucks so much it should have been a vacuum cleaner." Read the description of a "really nasty mobile phone" for sale on eBay . Actually, it isn't necessarily for sale, "You have a choice, you can bid for the phone or you can bid for a homemade DVD of it's slow demise. I plan to use a vice, a drill, possibly an angle grinder, some flamable liquids, a blowtorch and finally a sledghammer."

Monday, August 08, 2005

Would you trust his directions?

Owners of TomTom GPS navigation systems can buy John Cleese's voice to guide their way. Hmmm.

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Friday, August 05, 2005

Geeky Friday: Extended bash completion

I've been working with the bash shell under linux, solaris, and cygwin for some five years and I've just now discovered that bash has support for tab completion of more than just file names. Not only that, but somebody has done a lot of hard work for me and put together bash completion code for many commonly used programs.

It does seemingly obvious things, such as offering known host names when using ssh or sftp (taken from config and known_hosts files in ~/.ssh) or offering the valid command options that follow the cvs command (e.g. commit, update, log, etc.). Here's a big list of what commands it will expand arguments for.

I think people who do more systems administration than I do will probably benefit more than I will, but at least I can now reduce how many times cvs complains about the invalid command "cvs udpate".

According to its page at this has been around since 2001. As distributed for cygwin, the file is now nearly 9000 lines long plus another 1700 lines in an associated subdirectory (bash_completion.d). This seems a tad monolithic. I think it'd make sense for these completion functions to be split up and packaged along with the executable itself. This is an extension of what is currently done. Regardless of the installation packaging system (rpm or apt on linux, fink on mac, cygwin for cygwin), the package already contains not just the executable, but also configuration files, manual pages, other documentation, and often custom shell settings to be placed in /etc/profile.d -- perhaps these completions should just be added into the files placed in profile.d since the contents are just bash commands which add information to the current session.

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Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Did Hell Freeze Over?

Apple introduces a mouse with more functionality than just one button, the Mighty Mouse. An early mac ad touted the benefits of one button, "Some mice have more than one button. The Macintosh has only one. So it's extremely difficult to push the wrong button." Now I'm afraid I'll push the wrong button.

This mouse looks cool. It all makes sense now. Apple didn't want to release just another two-button mouse with a scroll wheel. They've done quite a bit more. Update: Russell Beattie has a hands-on review of the Mighty Mouse.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Geeky Friday: Running Windows with No Services

From the good folks at SysInternals, " Running Windows with No Services" in which the author discovers to his own surprise and to the surprise of Microsoft's VP of the Core Operating Systems Division that Windows XP can actually run without any services running. You can even surf via Internet Explorer. There are some little things that are impossible -- like logging out. Don't try this at home without dong a backup first.

"The bottom line is that this stripped-down Windows configuration is not practical..." but some of the readers' comments point out possible practical applications such as providing a more certain method of cleaning up infected computers.

If you haven't already known about SysInternals, they provide some top quality, free utilities for windows computers for monitoring TCP ports, process status, file status, etc. The kind of stuff that linux and mac os x come with for free but windows seems to be lacking.

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Wednesday, July 27, 2005

I'm witty

Via borklog, I took the The 3 Variable Funny Test and according to the results my humor style is
the Wit
(60% dark, 8% spontaneous, 16% vulgar)

your humor style:

You like things edgy, subtle, and smart. I guess that means you're probably an intellectual, but don't take that to mean you're pretentious. You realize 'dumb' can be witty--after all isn't that the Simpsons' philosophy?--but rudeness for its own sake, 'gross-out' humor and most other things found in a fraternity leave you totally flat.

I guess you just have a more cerebral approach than most. You have the perfect mindset for a joke writer or staff writer. Your sense of humor takes the most effort to appreciate, but it's also the best, in my opinion.

Also, you probably loved the Office. If you don't know what I'm talking about, check it out here:

PEOPLE LIKE YOU: Jon Stewart - Woody Allen - Ricky Gervais

Ricky Gervais? Oh, that Ricky Gervais... from the BBC serices "The Office"... which I haven't seen, but I've been told more than once that I'd probably enjoy it.

Monday, July 25, 2005

John Stewart Recapitulates The Rove Leak

In case you aren't following the story about Karl Rove allegedly leaking the name of a CIA operative, John Stewart has a nice review of the story -- it's quite informative, it's funny, and they managed to work in a video clip of monkey cleaning a cat.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Geeky Friday: Attacks on Film

A few months ago a computer I deal with had an uninvited visitor who got in with the help of a weak password and installed a bunch of nasty stuff -- including a program called "vadimII". I googled for this and found a discussion in which a user said:
Ok. Your goal will be to reformat your drive and then reinstall Linux from scratch. Sorry, ain't no other way.
Eventually, the machine did have to be completely rebuilt. Since then I've had a heightened interest in how these things happen.

Last weekend, slashdot had an article linking to a story on brute force ssh attacks. While we guessed that this was what had happened to us, one user's comment showing an excerpt of attempted logins convinced me that our guess was correct.

Driving home the issue even further, via TinyApps.Org's blog, are these movies (flash) demonstrating how quickly and easily these attacks work. I've only watched a couple of these and for linux/unix geeks, it's spookier than anything Hollywood could produce. You see one step then another and then you realize what's going to happen and there's nothing you can do to stop it.

p.s. These movies demonstrate the Whoppix/Whax tool. If an admin of this site has found this post, please take a moment to add a brief "About this tool" to your site. It wasn't until I googled my way to that I learned that

Whoppix is a stand-alone penetration-testing live CD based on KNOPPIX. With the latest tools and exploits, it is a must for every penetration tester and security auditor. Whoppix includes several exploit archives, such as Securityfocus, Packetstorm, SecurityForest and Milw0rm, as well as a wide variety of updated security tools.
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Saturday, July 16, 2005

Geeky Friday: Nightmare recovery story

I think there are some lessons to be learned in this story of recovery of a server that was down... not only down, but down for a couple hours before it was noticed.
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Friday, July 01, 2005

E-books and corrections

My recent post on the comparative size and weight of digital versions of Amazon's Penguin Classics collection, got a nice mention over at TeleRead. Apparently the bloat in the Adobe Reader file format is nothing new.

I'd never seen this blog before, they cover ebooks in pretty good depth. There are more articles there about the Librie I mentioned, but the big gadget hype seems to be about the forthcoming Nokia 770

Also a reader of TeleRead pointed out that I had some math problems in my file size table. I've recalculated and included links to the sources. There are duplicates of some of the Palm file formats -- MemoWare has two separate pages for The Pickwick Papers

Format Total Per page
MS Reader 0.72 0.87
iSilo 0.74 0.89
iSilo 0.80 0.97
Doc 0.85 1.03
PalmReader 0.85 1.03
TomeRaider 0.86 1.04
Doc 0.87 1.05
ASCII 1.72 2.08
Adobe Reader 3.17 3.83
Note that the table is now sorted by size. The full half million pages of the Penguin collection would range from 0.41 - 1.83 GB.
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Thursday, June 30, 2005

Sightseeing with Google Satellite Maps

Seen a while ago on the Unofficial Google weblog, Sightseeing with Google Satellite Maps. One of my favorites is an airplane taking off from Atlanta that can be seen three or four times as you scroll the maps

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Monday, June 27, 2005

700 pounds of Penguin Classics -- portable?

Bork posted a link to Amazon's sale of The Penguin Classics Library Complete Collection, an impressive (and expensive) collection of 1,082 titles weighing over 700 pounds. Interestingly, the top three titles browsed by people also shopping for this are (emphasis added):
  • The Portable Beat Reader by Various
  • The Portable Mark Twain (Penguin Classics) by Mark Twain
  • The Portable Sixties Reader (Penguin Classics) by Ann Charters
People shopping for "portable" books are looking at a 700 lb. monster collection? But wait, maybe this could be portable. Wikipedia says "A megabyte stores roughly one book." 1,082 books averaging one megabyte each is 1,082 MB or approximately 1.06 GB. That still leaves lots of room for my music collection on my iPod.

Double-checking that book size rule of thumb, I visited Project Gutenberg for ASCII (plain text) files, MemoWare for various PalmOS e-book formats, and browsed further on Amazon for Adobe Reader and Microsoft Reader formats. Here's some sample data on Charles Dickens' The Pickwick Papers (848 pages in the Penguin Edition)

Format File
Size (MB)
ASCII 1.72 2.1
Palm Reader 0.85 0.49
iSilo (Palm) 0.78 0.45
Adobe Reader 3.17 3.83
Microsoft Reader 0.72 0.87

In summary: compressed formats for the Palm and Microsoft reader are much smaller than straight ASCII and Adobe Reader's format is huge. [How did Microsoft manage to add in the DRM and compress at the same time while Adobe exploded the file?] Multiplying this per page size by the "nearly half a million pages" in the Penguin collection (rounding up to exactly a half million pages), we get total collection size between 0.45 GB - 1.51 GB.

That is portable.

The tricky part now is getting a small device with a sufficiently high resolution screen. I'm watching for the "insanely crisp and clear" e-ink technology used in the Sony Librie to move further into the market.

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Friday, June 24, 2005

Geeky Friday: Conkeror, aka Firefox for emacs weenies

As my co-workers know, I'm an incorrigible emacs weenie and since I started using it in 1990 before it supported basic mouse features common in modern editors, my fingers are very used to getting around emacs quickly.

So, a couple weeks ago, my fingers were aching from the awkward stretch to alt-left arrow to go back a web page and I knew that if the more industrious emacs users of the world had been working diligently that there would likely be an extension for Firefox to map keys from the main part of the keyboard to do this and other simple things. A google search for "emacs firefox" led me to the conkeror project. "Conkeror is a mozilla based web browser designed to be completely keyboard driven, no compromises. It also strives to behave as much like Emacs as possible."

There is indeed is a simple keystroke for moving back to the previous page and all links on the page show a number for quick navigation. The trouble with the tool is that more and more sites try to do more for you --'s editor steals C-b (control-B) to put text in bold when my fingers want C-b to move back one character. Gmail's standard mode doesn't seem to respond to the numbered link requests. Gmail does have a basic HTML mode which works fine under conkereror.

I may play with it on and off, but I don't think it'll become my standard browser yet and it's definitely not for anybody unfamiliar with emacs. And people more serious about emacs than I am may end up doing their browsing from within emacs using w3

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Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Instant Computerized bookshelf

Danny Gregory writes about a nifty mac tool called Delicious Library that displays your book, movie, music, etc collection. You only need scan the bar code with a "quicktime-supported digital video camera" (e.g. iSight). I will say no more, because the screen shots on Gregory's blog or the product's page say more than I could.

(Save as reference for when I have my own mac)

Thursday, May 26, 2005

DDOS for Non-Geeks

A couple weeks ago, I posted a Geeky Friday story about a successful defense against a distributed denial-of-service (DDOS) attack. Today I've come across a BBC story in which they describe on video how a computer can become infected. It's not nearly as technical and I think it's a pretty accessible explanation about what can happen to your computer if you're not careful.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Shooting In My Neighborhood

I just heard that a shooting happened in my "exclusive D.C. neighborhood" this morning -- see coverage from a local news station. It's kind of spooky. The good news (for me anyway) is that the suspect is a relative of the victim and it's not a random act.

The video does have some nice shots of how nice my street looks covered by the foliage of the 60+ year-old willow oaks lining both sides.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Right and honorably

Following up on my most recent post, I googled for "wavigo skype" to see how other people compared Skype and Wavigo. I found the quote "Wavigo is Skype done right and honorably" (or "the honorable way") a few more times (here, here, here, here, etc) and all done by a user calling himself (herself?) Bohdana.

In fact, of the top ten results in the "wavigo skype" search, all either have this phrase or are on the same site as one of these other top ten. Is Bohdana working for Wavigo or is s/he just very happy with the service?

I'll be approaching Wavigo cautiously.

(Searching google for "Bohdana wavigo" presents some results in Czech. If anybody out there reads Czech, I was wondering how to say "right and honorable" in Czech.)

Skype and system resources

Via TinyApps blog, Marc Eisenstadt writes a lengthy blog post on how Skype can monopolize your computer's resources. This borders on the sort of thing I usually save for a Geeky Friday post, but I think the content is at a high enough level that it shouldn't scare you away. Better yet, Eisenstadt quotes from (and links to) three source, one "highly technical article", one "less technical article" and one "in-depth discussion" (actually the slashdot comments on the "highly technical article").

It's worth a quick read and there are two things I'll do now:

  1. Make sure that I only run Skype when I'm actually going to call somebody (corrollary: if you want to call me, ping me by IM or email first)
  2. Investigate Wavigo, a comment on this article referred to Wavigo as "Skype done right and honorably".

Friday, May 20, 2005

Geeky Friday: ipodder and ITConversations

I've been using iPodder for about six months now to explore some of the many podcasts. One of the best I've found is IT Conversations. As the title suggests, they podcast interviews, speeches, presentations, etc about information technology subjects. It's all well and good, but they're too prolific for me -- in the past week they've published eleven shows for around six hours of listening. I don't have that kind of time.

To deal with this, I sometimes visit their archive page, use Firefox's Aardvark extension to print a nice copy of the descriptions of recent shows, go through these with a red pen and identify which I really want to listen to and which to remove from my iTunes/iPod using ipodder's cleanup pane. Since this is a little too much work, I've come up with two ways to change this process, one that I can do now and one that requires a change to ipodder.

The one feature that ipodder lacks which would make this process easier is a way to show the text associated with each feed entry. IT Conversations includes a paragraph with each describing the speaker and the topic, Coverville includes a playlist. With this, I could designate which shows to cleanup from within ipodder. Alternately, I could designate which shows to download in the first place.

Since this feature doesn't yet exist, I'm going to opt for the other option -- don't download IT Conversations podcasts with ipodder. Instead, I've subscribed to their RSS feed in bloglines and when I see the description of a show I want to hear, I will click on the "enclosure" link and save it using iTunes. I fear that this won't be a simple as I think it could be, but I'll try it for a while.

(Yes, this is another case of a user of an open source product whining about a missing feature that I could probably add myself if I put myself to the task. However, I don't have the time to do so this month. I promise to donate to the project if it gets added by another person, though.)

I've got some thoughts to post about other podcasts I'm listening to, in the meantime, if you'd like to see a list of what I'm grabbing, see the "Podcasts" portion of my blog roll.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Twenty Questions

This completely blew my mind. is a neural-net based game of twenty questions which has been building its knowledge base for something like 17 years. I've played it three times and it successfully guessed what I was thinking of each time ("shoelace", "juggling club", "pacifier"). My jaw dropped and I spun my office chair in awe.

I found this via Kevin Kelly's Cool Tools blog where he shows off the portable version of this game. The Cool Tools site is worth following, it only has 2-4 posts per week and the write-ups on the tools are good reading.

The Cool Tools piece gives more history of 20q than I could find on the 20q site itself. However, when I googled for the creator's name, Robin Burgener, I found this article which gives some more details.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Muppet Radio

If you can slog through the advertising and work around the blocked pop-ups and still launch the player, you can listen to Muppet Radio on (via

Friday, May 06, 2005

Suggesting a feature to Gmail

The Unofficial Google weblog writes about a new feature in gmail (not yet publicly announced) that give you an option to always show the images from the sender of the message you're reading. This is a lot more convenient than having to click "display external images" everytime you open your "Daily Dilbert" every day.

Speaking of new features for gmail, in case you haven't already discovered this, Gmail's suggest a feature page has 15-20 checkboxes for specific features. I assume these are the most frequently requested features. I'd guess that the number of votes for these is included in their prioritization discussions.

So, click on the link above or from gmail, click "Help", then "Contact Us", then "Suggest a feature" and vote for your favorites.

Geeky Friday: Whiz Kid vs Online Extortionist

Seen on slashdot, How a Bookmaker and a Whiz Kid Took On an Extortionist — and Won. If you like gripping, readable yarns like this sort, you'd probably also like The Cuckoo's Egg by Clifford Stoll, but you've also probably already read it.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Monday, May 02, 2005

I'm Linked In

Last week a co-worker mentioned to me, referring to it as somewhat like friendster, but more professionally oriented. It sounded intriguing, but I didn't actually sign up until I read Fred Wilson's post on his "A VC" blog that I grokked? how this site could be of more use. Fred finds it useful for reference checks for potential hires, due diligence, etc.

Anyway, I'm linked in and now have 185,500+ people connected to me by 1-4 degrees of separation.

Friday, April 29, 2005

Geeky Friday: Hack this!

Possibly an urban legend, but somehow I doubt it, the story of a "Dangerous Hacker!."

I wish somebody would track down this idiot by his IP address and ISP and find out what happened after he disappeared offline.

Geeky Friday (part 2): Aardvark Firefox Extension

Just when I had recently discovered how easy it is to edit the CSS of a web page using the Web Developer Extension for Firefox, I discover the Aardvark which does much of the same stuff -- but more easily when all you want to do is to print just the main content of a page (without the navigation bar, ads, etc.).

Click through to the Aardvark page and click on the "run the demo" link at the top to see how it works without even installing. (Out of curiosity, I loaded the page in IE and the demo didn't work. I didn't really expect otherwise, but I just had to try.)

Monday, April 25, 2005

T-Mobile service maps

T-Mobile now has a "Personal Coverage Check" site which shows signals strength on street-level maps. I've already determined that I'll have decent coverage when I go to my cousin's wedding this summer in Nebraska.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

How to get that perfect shave

Via LifeHacker, "How to get that perfect shave", a long how-to article which tells you how you can get a perfect shave. The most amazing thing for me is that the author felt the need to keep your face wet "with plenty of hot water before, and during, the entire shave." Is that why I know people who have trouble shaving? I thought this was obvious.

Monday, April 18, 2005

The Same (New) Story

Did you hear that Adobe is acquiring Macromedia? As I wrote about back in January, I can keep up-to-date on more news sources because I use an RSS aggregator. The downside to following more news sources is that they sometimes repeat the same story. So far, I've seen this headline from MetaFilter, OSNews, Slashdot, NY Times, Ika's Weblog, Scripting News, and The Server Side.

(Want something more substantive in this post? I didn't link to any of the above sites because I now have an automatically updating list of my bloglines subscriptions viewable at

Thursday, April 14, 2005

More on the Unitarian Jihad

So I posted my Unitarian Jihad name, but it wasn't until Bork reposted that link that I actually bothered to read the article. I can't say that I don't support their cause, especially when they promise that "Pockets of reasonableness and harmony will appear as if from nowhere!" and that "We will require all lobbyists, spokesmen and campaign managers to dress like trout in public."

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Mobile Wikipedia

Finally found a mobile-friendly interface to Wikipedia. Palm/Treo users can start here (this is just a light HTML version so you can load it in other browsers as well), or go to their list of other starting pages for other WAP or HTML devices.

It's not clear to me if this is a dynamic interface to the live site or if they've downloaded a snapshot of the wikipedia database.

[Later... after using this site to look at a page I edited today, I am fairly certain now that this uses a weekly snapshot, but it appears to be the latest as I found articles updated as of April 6, 2005]

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Unitarian Jihad

Two words that you just don't see together very often ever: "Unitarian Jihad".

My Unitarian Jihad Name is: Brother Howitzer of Looking at All Sides of the Question.

Get yours.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Improv Everywhere

Last weekend I heard most of an episode on the NPR radio show "This American Life". Act 2 was about a group called Improv Everywhere that "causes scenes of chaos and joy in public places." This includes stunts such as repeating the same 5 minute scene twelve times in a Starbucks (prompting some patrons to ask if they're in a time warp), or entering subway trains without pants and pretending it's normal. In addition to these, the radio story dives deeper into a couple which are arguably more disturbing to the beneficiary/victim of the "mission".

Friday, April 08, 2005

DCist on Spring in DC

On, Mike Grass waxes eloquently about spring in Washington DC. He includes a nice quote from Alistair Cooke's discussing DC's seasons including a comparison of DC's summer to "those outposts on the Persian gulf where bad vice-consuls are sent to rot".

Monday, April 04, 2005 review echoes reality

We rented Closer this past weekend. I wish I had been more up-to-date in reading my weekly mailings from If I had read the newsletter from March 25, I would've read this review:
"CLOSER" (2004) (Julia Roberts, Jude Law) (R)
Drama: The lives and loves of four strangers (including Roberts & Law) become hopelessly intertwined as desires, deception and self-centeredness drive them into unexpected directions and relationships. Based on the popular London stage play of the same name, the film comes from director Mike Nichols ("Working Girl," "The Graduate") who knows a thing or two about character relationships. While his work, the script and especially the work from the four leads is solid to terrific, I just wish that their characters and the overall film didn't leave such a bad taste in your mouth and/or lead to the urge to shower after watching it due to all of the ugliness that's present.
The boldface part describes perfectly my thoughts about this film.

If you don't already know about Screen It!, try it out. They have fuller reviews the "Our Take" and a full description of everything you might not want your kids to see (or might not care -- they're not judgemental). For example, the description of profanity used in Saved starts with "At least 1 "f" word, 1 "s" word, 1 possible slang term (that's mostly drowned out) using female genitals...".

Thursday, March 31, 2005


While doing quick research to see if I can drive my hybrid car solo on Virginia's HOV lanes (I can't because my car isn't registered in Virginia), I learned that there's another attempt to get HOV privileges that won't work either:
Q: I'm pregnant. Do I count as one person or two?
A: In the HOV world, you're one person. However, babies of any age count as a person.
(from VDOT's HOV FAQ)

Friday, March 25, 2005

Geeky Friday: Scoring NeXT's Predictions

(Ad images from a gallery of Apple and NeXT ads at

I first encountered NeXT machines when I was an undergrad and the chair of Vassar's CS department was on NeXT's academic advisory committee and NextStep was at version 0.8 (and before its subsequent case changes to NeXTStep or NeXTSTEP). Around 1989 or 1990 NeXT started promoting their computers with the ads above. They proclaimed "In The 90s, We'll Probably See Only Ten Real Breakthroughs In Computers. Here Are Seven Of Them." Now that about 15 years have passed, how did they do with their prognostication?

Read about the predictions and my analysis of how they stood the test of time.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Destroying the Earth

"This is not a guide for wusses whose aim is merely to wipe out humanity. If total human genocide is your ultimate goal, you are reading the wrong document. There are far more efficient ways of doing this, many which are available and feasible RIGHT NOW. Nor is this a guide for those wanting to annihilate everything from single-celled life upwards, render Earth uninhabitable or simply conquer it. These are trivial goals in comparison.

This is a guide for those who do not want the Earth to be there anymore."   -- "How to destroy the Earth"

Monday, March 14, 2005

Nifty Firefox trick

Via Lifehacker, in Firefox "Ctrl-Enter when entering web addresses in my browser’s address bar as it automatically adds “www.” to the front and “.com” to the back of whatever I typed in. Saves me at least 1,000 key strokes a week. "

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Geeky Friday: Thinking Music and Creating White Noise

While researching ways to make life in cubicle farm more productive, I found a wiki page about "Good Thinking Music" with links to mp3 streams. Another page on the same site gives arguments against listening to music while trying to think. The geeky part of this all is one proposed method of creating white noise for unix/linux users:
  $ dd if=/dev/random of=/dev/audio # or /dev/dsp on Linux

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Post yourself on the internet

Just like the TRON Guy did.

Bono, World Bank chief?

The L.A. Times has suggested that Bono could be the next head of the World Bank ( story). What might this mean for Washington? U2 concerts twice each year for the big meetings? Mandatory wrap-around sunglasses for K Street lawyer?

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Bored and broadcasting

Here's what happens when the guy doing the play-by-play for a cricket match really doesn't want to be there. It's pretty humorous and if you know nothing about cricket, you can skip the bits where he actually describes the action and still enjoy. (via Critical Section)

Friday, March 04, 2005

If he were alive today...

On my way to work this morning, I passed a taxicab with the owner's name printed on the door: "A. TILAHUN"

Monday, February 28, 2005

"Known Hole Aided T-Mobile Breach"

There have been a bunch of stories in the techie and gadget press lately about a security breach at T-Mobile. Wired News has an article that it all stemmed from a known hole in BEA's WebLogic application server that had been discovered 18 months before the suspect in the T-Mobile breach was arrested.

The lesson is obvious: patch your production systems.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

"Can I Switch" marketing application idea

So as my nostalgia trip of a few days ago probably demonstrated, I'm more than a little tempted to get a mac. But, could I get by in with a mac in my non-mac work world? There are two ways to answer this question. I could just jump in and see, or I could identify all programs I'm now using at my job and do the appropriate web research to see what's available for the mac. I don't have the time or patience to do the research nor do I have the time just to jump in and try it now either.

There's a better way. And I think the marketing types at Apple should pester some of their techies to make it happen.

I want to install a new program on my work computer (running WinXP Pro) that will track every program I run for two weeks or so. At the end of that period it should report to me how much of what I ran is available under Mac OS X.

I've written more details on this, but some key points are that it can show alternatives even if the same program exists (e.g. Office), it must be open source, it must be honest about the mac capabilities (e.g. "program X will work for most users, but may not be compatible with a corporate server environment because of blah blah").

Of course, this might work to convince people to switch to a linux desktop as well, but the linux desktop has bigger issues to cover than just application compatibility.

Friday, February 18, 2005

My next keyboard?

Real Programmers don't need to look at the keys. So why not get a blank keyboard?
Blank key top happy hacking keyboard

Geeky Friday: An Illustrated Guide to Cryptographic Hashes

Via Tiny's blog, "An Illustrated Guide to Cryptographic Hashes". I've used md5sum directly to verify big downloads and I had a basic understanding of how hashes are used to store passwords in plain text files. The author addresses something I've wondered about: "it seems obvious that many input streams are available that can produce any given hash." (also known as a collision). He goes on:
If so, this seems to undermine the whole premise of cryptographic hashes until one learns that for industrial-strength hashes like MD5, nobody has found a collision yet (well, almost nobody, but we're getting to that) .

This astonishing fact is due to the astonishingly large number of possible hashes available: a 128-bit hash can have 3.4 x 1038 possible values, which is:    340,282,366,920,938,463,463,374,607,431,768,211,456 possible hashes

Well, now it make more sense. Even though there are so many possible hashes, it takes some serious craftiness to make sure that the math to generate the hash values don't all cluster on a small percentage of those 3.4 x 1038 values. Those mathematician types are pretty clever.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Google Cheat Sheet

Today I learned that not only does Google have a one page cheat sheet, but I also didn't know that you can search for synonyms (e.g. searching "~auto" will also find truck, car, etc) and you can search for words near each other (e.g. "red * blue" will find the words red and blue separated by exactly one word).

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Nostalgia tripping

I just spent a half-hour sitting in front of Ika's Mac Mini, exploring the Xcode and InterfaceBuilder development tools. Xcode is the modern equivalent of the old NeXTStep ProjectBuilder tool (introduced in NeXTStep 3.0 in 1992), InterfaceBuilder is amazingly similar to the InterfaceBuilder which shipped with the first NeXT computer I ever played with, running NeXTStep 0.8 in 1989.

Pretty quickly I was able to put together a very simple GUI application for converting between Celsius and Fahrenheit. This was a first day exercise when I taught five-day NeXTStep bootcamps back in '93-'94.

Of course, some advancements have been made such as alignment guides within InterfaceBuilder. There are probably many more, but I didn't find them in my 30 minutes of play time. (I also had to get used to a one button mouse.)

Monday, February 14, 2005

"Do not fail your species"

Bork posted a link to My Little Golden Book About ZOGG. It sheds new light on why my children act the way they do sometimes.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Heavy metal umlaut and other scholarly topics

From an article in the Christian Science Monitor about Wikipedia's list of unusual articles which includes a discussion of the history and usage of the umlaut in heavy metal band names which is subsequently analyzed in a movie (flash) presenting a scholarly analysis of the evolution of this page.

How can people say the Internet is full of drivel?

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Serialized Dickens (made two ways)

I learned in high school English that Charles Dickens' novels were published in weekly installments and I bemoaned the fact that he was paid by the word. Russ Beattie has brought this idea to the current day. His Mobdex site was originally created to distribute smaller chunks of novels to cell phones and other low-bandwidth mobile devices. More recently he has adapted this for RSS distribution. You can add a feed from a novel to your aggregator and get a new little bit every day. In addition to Dickens, Mobdex has many more authors and titles.

Take a look at the Discovering Dickens project at Stanford University for a different take on serialized Dickens. They are distributing reproductions of Dickens' Hard Times as it was originally published. You can download PDF files or you can actually have paper copies mailed to you. The site also has the PDFs for their past novels (A Tale of Two Cities (2004) and Great Expectations (2003)).

Friday, January 28, 2005

Geeky Friday: find, xargs, grep, and spaces

On linux/unix systems, the find command is often used along with grep to find text in a file somewhere in a multi-level directory hierarchy. Two ways to do this are:
find . -type f -exec grep "blah" {} \;
find . -type f -print | xargs grep "blah"
The second method is slightly better as the grep command will be run only once on all files found whereas the first will run grep for each file.

The second method breaks down if find finds filenames containing spaces. If, for example, there's a file named "How To Conquer The World.txt". The xargs grep part will try to search in five files: "How", "To", "Conquer", "The", "World.txt" and grep will complain that these files don't exist.

But wait, it's 2005, surely the geeks of the world have resigned themselves to the fact that some people like to put spaces in file names -- not out of malice towards linux geeks, but just because they don't know what it can do. The good news is that yes, in fact, the geeks working on find and xargs have done something about this.

Their solution is to provide an alternate file name delimiter. The new way to handle this is to do this:

find . -type f -print0 | xargs -0 grep blah
The -print0 tells find to output its list of files separated by nul (ASCII 0) instead of a space. Similarly, the -0 tells xargs to expect that its input is separated by nulls

Friday, January 21, 2005

Geeky Friday: The Daily WTF

I've had the occasion in my career to see some really nasty code. I hope I haven't written much. If you enjoy the good feeling that comes with laughing at other people's bad code, you'll like The Daily WTF (or add the RSS feed to your aggregator).

Here's a beautiful example:

    boolean exceptionFlag = true;
    try {
     exceptionFlag = false;
    } catch(Exception e) {
     if(exceptionFlag) e.printStackTrace();

    if(exceptionFlag) throw new Exception("An Error has occured");
(Sorry non-geeks, it'd take too long to explain the humor in this)

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Geeky Friday (but not as geeky as usual): Aggregator Bliss

You may have noticed the little icons around the 'net lately. They're sitting there just taunting you about a much better way to keep up to date on your favorite sites — you need to learn about and use an aggregator.

I started using an aggregator last summer and I think it's so cool that I wrote an article explaining how it has improved my surfing, what it does and how to get started.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Clever programmers

You may already know that if you search Google for a UPS tracking number, you'll get a quick link to track the package. Well, this morning I checked on a package and found that some enterprising programmer has added a lot of keywords to a porn site so that the gibberish that makes up the tracking number actually finds a page match. Caveat emptor: I haven't clicked through to that site, so I cannot vouch for what visiting it may do to your eyeballs, computer or anything else. (I also found it interesting that Google's spell-checking engine suggested an alternative spelling for "306 12".)

Friday, January 07, 2005

Geeky Friday: Make Firefox Faster

By way of Hack a day, step by step instructions for making Firefox start to load links on the page your looking at before you actually click on any of them.

Place The State

Strangely addictive geographic game - Place The State. At the end of my best turn I had an average error of only 2 miles and the only state I missed was trying to place Utah on the board for the first move. Other turns I wasn't paying attention toward the end and did stupid things like misplacing Alaska by 100 miles or releasing the mouse too soon when placing Wyoming on turn 49 (the only other missing state was Michigan).

Note that this is the intermediate version of the game. Since it keeps the states you've already placed, it becomes easier with each turn to place the remaining states. There's an advanced version of this game available at the front page of the site. In the advanced game, you have to place each state independently. I tried it once and finished with an average error of 25 miles.

Next I'll try one of the "place the country games".

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Car adapters for iPods

I got an iPod for Christmas, so I'm now noticing articles like this which discuss add-ons for it. In this case the authors discuss car stereo add-ons which allow the user to control the ipod from the unit itself. Too bad they all seem to be >$100.