Archive for January, 2010

Visting my high school’s grave

Friday, January 29th, 2010

A few years after I graduated from high school, the school was slated to be moved and renamed, with the campus I had attended to be torn down. I was still in high school when the proclaimation came down. Everyone was all atwitter about it, but I didn’t really care one way or the other.

The year it was supposed to close came and went. For a while it was rented out to a grade school, then I think it stood empty for a year or two. Around the time I moved back to San Diego, a fellow alumnus mentioned that it had been torn down. I made a mental note to go enjoy the ruins. I expected to be moderately amused, but I was wholly unprepared by how overwhelmingly giddy I felt witnessing that blight upon the earth obliterated.

A couple days ago, my friend (and fellow alumnus) Who was in town. We happened to be in the neighborhood of our alma mater. Based on the peals of laughter I heard coming from the passenger seat as we drove by, I think it’s safe to say it had the same effect on him.

Tow away sign indicating high school parking only I am a pile of dirt

We used to be a high school. We are much improved as piles of dirt.

Vegan Wiki and Spam

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

Much to my chagrin I’ve disabled anonymous editing on VeganWiki because it was getting too much spam. I’m the only non-spammer who has ever edited it, but account creation is easy, in case any of you non-spammers want to give it a try.

Speaking of spam, the latest link spam on this blog made me giggle, “If I were you I would like to share such hot stuff referring to this good post utilizing the article submission service.” Very true, Ruby31yZ, very true.

A primer to blocking advertisements in Firefox

Tuesday, January 19th, 2010

Before I instruct you on how to block ads, I feel compelled to point out that many web site derive their revenue largely or exclusively from advertisements; if you don’t download the ads, the web site doesn’t get paid. Some see ad blocking as theft. I don’t. But I would be remiss in providing these instructions without providing enough background for you, the reader, to make your own educated choice in the matter.

I will cover two lines of defense against advertisements in Firefox: Adblock Plus and custom stylesheet creation. Each has it’s own strengths and weaknesses. I believe Adblock prevents advertisements from being downloaded, which saves you bandwidth (the tubes don’t get clogged with stuff you didn’t want in the first place) and, as indicated above, the web site potentially loses revenue. With a custom stylesheet, you still download the ads, but Firefox doesn’t show them to you, so the site still makes money off you. I haven’t benchmarked it, but I’ve read that a sufficiently large custom stylesheet will slow down your browser. Slower than an equally large set of Adblock filters? I don’t know.

Once you’ve installed Adblock, you can click on the Adblock Icon. Mine appears in the bottom corner of your browser, but I’ve also seen it next to the search bar. You may have to look around. Click on the icon, wherever find it. It will give you a list of the blockable items on the page. I don’t have any idea what any of them represent, and I don’t know of a speedy way to find out, so I like to block conservatively by scrolling through the list of URLs till I find one that looks like an ad server. For example, on Facebook, the only three of the blockable items with URLs suggesting advertisements all started with

Click on the URL will make it appear in the “New filter” prompt across the bottom. Because it seemed pretty safe to assume that anything in the directory ads3 is an advertisement, I added the following new filter:*

The asterisk (*) at the end tells Adblock that it should block anything starting with the given URL.

That blocked all the advertisements’ images, but the text of the ads remained visible. I searched for how to set up a custom stylesheet and manipulate a div on an entire domain, only to find that someone else had already created a much more robust file and installation instructions. Its worth noting that this will download the ads, so the sites you visit will still get paid, and you don’t have to see the ads.

There are couple other ways to block ads, but they require more detailed configuration than I expect the average user to be comfortable with:

  • My favorite is NoScript. It prevents the browser from executing Javascript unless you explicitly tell it to on a site-by-site basis. This breaks most web sites, so it’s not for the faint of heart.
  • Both Windows and Linux (and presumably Mac) have a file listing where to look for certain servers (or hosts). If there’s a domain name you never want to reach again, you can block it in the hosts file. It requires you to add each domain name automatically, so it can be tedious. There are several pre-made hosts files available for download, but I haven’t looked into them to know if they’re any good. I believe the syntax is the same for Linux, Windows and Mac, so if you develop a hosts file you really love, you can take it with you if you change operating systems.

Dance of the Gods by Norma Beishir

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

I’m something of a connoisseur of bad romance novels: the worse the better. I started out with the incest-liciousness of V.C. Andrews and eventually moved on to Barbara Taylor Bradford’s A Woman of Substance books (and movies!), all interspersed by the occasional isolated book.

During my recent bout of computer trouble, I did a lot of reading. Dance of the Gods by Norma Beishir (not to be confused with a book by the same name authored by Nora Roberts) has made my mental hall of fame as being one of the rare books that’s so bad, it’s bad. There was not enough silly to redeem it.

Pages 1 through 4 set up a mystery, pages 5 through about 450 give us the back story, and the last 40ish pages resolve the mystery. I solved the mystery in the first tenth of the book. I kept reading because of the possibility that I was way off base. I wasn’t. I suspended judgment until about page 350 when it suddenly dawned on me: I was reading a terrible book.

There was one passage that really got my attention. In a romance novel, it’s often a given that the happy couple wants dozens and dozens of children together. As stated on page 392 of this book, “The ultimate expression of a woman’s love is having her lover’s baby.” Women who are infertile, don’t want children or are lesbians obviously don’t love their partners. Our hero mentions a few times his desire for children (which is a discussion I wish they’d started before the wedding, but since everyone in romance novels wants children, why would they bother?). This is one such conversation (page 392):

His hand lingered on her stomach. “I for one would like a large family.”
“You just want to see me get fat,” she said, keeping her voice playful.
“Not fat, ripe.”

At first I was so disgusted that I missed his whole point: cannibalism! He wants a large family for the same reason he wants a well-stocked refrigerator. Of course, his wife is the one getting ripe, so maybe he’s going for some kind of human turducken. If only there were a way for their baby to get pregnant in utero.

Woe to computing woe – an ode to Roberta

Sunday, January 10th, 2010

After my last post, I was not sanguine about the fate of my favorite tower. Having swapped out four live disks, three optical drives, two hard drives and two memory sticks, that meant the problem could only be the motherboard or the processor (there’s also the power supply, but this really doesn’t look like a power problem). Either way, it’s more work than I’m willing to put into this tower when I have two other theoretically-intact towers.

The first runner up is an Dell I got interning in a scrap shop. It’s 2.6 GHz with like 256 MB in memory. I consoled myself by saying that with a memory upgrade, it’s almost as good as my favorite tower – a 2.6 GHz Pentium with 1 GB (before memory woe) and a bus speed of 800 MHz. I don’t know the bus speed on the Dell, but I surmised it was at most half that. After waiting a good 10 seconds just to get past the bios screen, I decided the bus speed was probably about 2MHz.

I had no idea what was on the hard drive, or even if I’d left a hard drive in there, but I wanted to see if it it ran. I don’t remember what it did, but it didn’t work, so I took the optical drive out of my favorite tower and put it back into this one (from which I’d originally stolen it). I put in one of the disks and waited. I don’t remember what the error was, but it was different than it had been on the other tower, which was encouraging. After a couple more live disks failed, I gave up on this tower and moved on to my last resort: Roberta.

Roberta: 566MHz with 64 MB RAM.
Roberta was my first computer. She was a gift from my mom in 2000. I thought I was just keeping her for sentimental purposes, but I dug her out of the closet and out of retirement. I laughed when I saw her “Designed for Windows 98” sticker on the front. I laughed again at her hardware as I plugged things in: the dialup modem wasn’t integrated; I remembered somebody from ResNet installing the network card during first semester at Humboldt. The funniest – and slightly worrisome – observation was that she only had one USB port. I had a vague recollection that it had never worked quite right, but I didn’t know if that was because she ran Windows 98 at the time or if there was something defective about the hardware.

I didn’t remember what – if any – operating system I’d left her with. The sounds she made as she booted were like nostalgic music. I looked in my hardware drawer and noticed the piece of metal that cradles her hard drive, conclusively answering my question: no, she did not have a hard drive. I grabbed it and the first hard drive off the stack. As I fit the drive in the metal, I noticed the label I’d affixed to the hard drive years ago, “Roberta’s O.” I took this as a sign that all was coming together well, and I’d soon be cruising the information superhighway at 566 MHz.

I booted again to see if I’d left an operating system on her hard drive. I had not. It occurred to me, as I selected the install disk to try first, that none of the operating systems I had on hand would run on 64 MB of memory. Even Puppy and Damn Small Linux require twice that. But I went forward in the name of adventure.

She showed me something interesting: she had all the same error messages as the first tower. The only thing in common was the four disks – all of which were burned from my spindle of CD-RWs that I’ve been burning and reburning for years, then burned on my laptop.

I got out a brand new disk from my CD-R spindle, slapped Debian on it and rebooted my favorite tower. Two hours later I was moving my data from the external hard drive on to my brand new Debian install.

Getting DVDs to play is always my least favorite part of a new Linux install. While contemplating keeping the old Fedora 9 installation, I spent hours fruitlessly trying to get it playing DVDs. Fortunately, there is a Debian multimedia repository. Fifteen minutes later I was watching my latest Netflix disk while my files copied in the background.

I am SO happy to be running Debian again it makes me squeal out loud. I haven’t been this giddy since the library finally filled my hold on Breaking Dawn. It feels like being reunited with an old friend – all thanks to my even older friend, Roberta.

Computing woe

Saturday, January 9th, 2010

I hate golf. I hate golf. Nice shot. I love golf.

Goes for computing too

My laptop has been on death’s door for some months. The screen turns off randomly. I attached an external monitor, and that solved the problem for a little while, but eventually it stopped sending signal to that monitor also. It’s probably a really simple fix, like a loose wire, but I can’t figure out how to get at the relevant innards. The laptop has been a good little friend, but its probably not worth the investment of having it fixed. My plan was to just keep using it as long as its usable, then use my old desktop after it died.

Just for funsies I decided to upgrade it to the latest version of Ubuntu. I don’t have any idea what possessed me to do something so stupid. Every time I upgrade Ubuntu, it brings me nothing but heartache, and I swear never to do it again. Their slogan is, “Linux for people.” Years ago, when we spent an evening together upgrading our laptops to Edgy and it rendered both our laptops unusable, Michael dubbed it “Linux for people who hate themselves.”

I backed up all my data on two (2) hard drives and ran apt-upgrade. It ran for several hours, first downloading packages, then installing them. Occasionally it would ask me if I wanted to clobber a config file.

Meanwhile, I turned my attention to the tower I’m grooming to take over for my ailing laptop. The plan was simple: format over Fedora 9, install Debian, copy personal data, celebrate.

It’s been about a week and I’m wondering if I’ll ever get to the celebrate step. I burned four install disks for various Debian-based operating systems. I’ve tried each one on three different optical drives. Each time I got some non-descript error about a disk error. I’ve tried enough drives to cast suspicion on the disks, but I’ve tried enough disks to make me distrust the drives. In short, I don’t have any idea why I can’t install a new operating system.

Meanwhile, on my laptop, the screen has died and its external monitor is also blank. Usually leaving the lid shut for a few hours will prompt it to come back. Sometimes you can also push the little pin that tells it if its lid is closed. Those failing, wiggling the external monitor cable can sometimes do the trick. This time, none of those worked. For lack of a better idea, I went to bed.

The next morning I still couldn’t get any kind of visual from the laptop. It’s never before stayed off after being shut that long. Lacking any better option, I shut it down. A couple minutes later I booted up and it wouldn’t boot past init 3. I ran dpkg --reconfigure -a and it picked up installing where it had apparently left off (I’m guessing it was waiting on some kind of input from me). Eventually it completed and I was able to start gnome.

Except that it had no internet. It was claiming not to have any network cards. I have no idea what caused this. There was nothing in the logs. Even if there had been, it’s not like I could have googled it, given that it had no network, its successor wasn’t booting, and the server is headless. The server was actually my best bet at that point, had I plugged in a monitor I could have googled from Links.

In replacing the optical drive on the tower, I noticed there were two hard drives plugged in. I unplugged the extraneous one and learned something new upon reboot: Fedora 9 won’t boot if it can’t mount one of the entries in fstab. Even though the operating system and all the files it actually used were on the intact hard drive, it mounts / read only, which prevents the obvious fix: edit /etc/fstab.

Fortunately, Ubuntu’s install disk is also a live disk. However, I got the same non-descript error that had prevented me from installing when I tried to boot of the disk.

To summarize:

  • I can’t boot off the hard drive.
  • I can’t boot off the live disk.
  • I can’t reinstall the operating system.
  • None of my other computers are in a condition to permit me to download additional ISOs, not that I have any reason to believe they’d do any better.

So I sucked it up and reinstalled the hard drive that fstab wanted, removed it entries from fstab, and re-removed the hard drive. It wasn’t difficult, it just seemed stupid to fix problems with this operating system when the idea was to obliterate it. However, after two days of fighting with four computers, I tired of not having a working computer.

Since Fedora’s not so bad, I decided I’d just upgrade the tower to the latest version and go on with my life. It dies toward the end of the pre-upgrade steps. I’m told Fedora upgrades are always buggy and I should just start anew from CD, Would that I could!

For lack of a better idea, I tested the memory. I was relieved when It failed, because it meant I may have isolated the source of my woe. I took out one of the two sticks and retested. It passed. Just for fun I swapped sticks again – the untested stick should fail, since together they failed, and the one I’d already isolated had passed – it passed too. Curious, I put them both into the two previously unoccupied slots. They again failed together, but passed when tested separately. I don’t have any idea what conclusion to draw from this, but it does me no practical good because I still can’t reinstall the operating system.

It would seem I’m stuck in computer limbo right now. I’m grateful to have working-ish machine, but I don’t want to move all my data until I’m happy with the machine, and I’m hot happy with this. I have two more towers, but they’re even slower than the Fedora box running at half-memory capacity.

Advair Diskus dosage reminder

Monday, January 4th, 2010

If you have trouble remembering if you took your last dose of Advair, I’ve created a little tiny set of checkboxes you can affix over the brand information in the center.

The inhaler can be separated into the disk and the shell.

I removed the exterior shell because it made it easier to fold tape around any moving parts. The exterior shell can be removed and reattached without damaging the inhaler, but you might damage your fingernails if you’re not careful. I realized too late that it’s probably a lot simpler to glue it.

You can just as easily save and print the images below, but each image links to the corresponding Gimp files if you want to tweak them. If you prefer Photoshop, you can download Gimp freely and legally and convert them to pds.

I’ve also haphazardly pasted a bunch into an OpenOffice document. This will print a 10 month supply of labels, most of which will probably get lost some time in the next two weeks. If you don’t have OpenOffice, you can download it freely and legally.

Welcome to 2010

Saturday, January 2nd, 2010

First sunrise of 2010