Monday, January 31, 2005


I took the afternoon off work today with the intention of completing my PCV valve replacement saga.

The first order of business was to pick up the part I had ordered yesterday at Bumper-to-Bumper. Having learned my lesson, I checked out the part before waltzing out of the store to go install it. It is a good thing I did, because the part didn't look anything like the PCV valve I had removed. The guy got sort of snotty when I questioned the size of the part (it was about 1/2 inch longer then the old one, with three extra ridges in the center). I got a bit mad, being sensitive to being given the wrong parts, so I made them give me my money back and went down the street to the dealership instead.

Looking back on it, I decided it is basically a no-brainer in this case just to pay the premium for the dealer part, and know that it is going to work right. Especially since it is such a huge pain to get to the part (and we are only talking $15 for the more expensive part).

The rest of the afternoon was a blur of painfully slow reassembly, partly because I got nervous halfway through and took a bunch of stuff back apart to make sure the lower plenum gasket had been put on the right way. The problem was I had gotten overzealous on a couple screws that I couldn't use the torque wrench on, and apparently didn't know my own strength.

That caused the first panic of the afternoon, as I dropped the wrench down into the bowels of the engine while I was cranking on the bolt trying to get it to come off. Whoops. After 10 panicked minutes, I eventually found the wrench wedged in the transmission.

When I finally got all the bolts removed, and went to remove the lower plenum again to check the gasket direction, I realized that I could actually just barely make out the identifying mark without removing anything. Duh.

Everything went reasonably smooth from there on out, and I was able to get things put back together. The engine started right up, and after a little test drive, everything seems to be working just fine.

So I am declaring the whole thing a success, as I learned a lot about how my engine is put together, which was pretty much the whole point of the exercise. I also proved that I can follow diassembly directions nearly as well as the next guy.

Read the whole post.

Repair Metrics

We have been focusing on bean counting at work lately, as the big push is to find metrics to show what the DBAs are accomplishing, and where we are spending our time. In that vein, here are some interesting numbers related to the whole repair:

Total Days3
Total Hours10-12 (approximately a half-day each day)
Trips to various stores before repair4
Trips to various stores during the repair5
Bolts and nuts needing to be removed26
vacuum tubes and hoses12
Nearly disastrous dropping things into the engine4 (including the same pliers, twice, working on the same clamp)
Coolant accidents2
Distinct tools needed~13 (not counting various sized sockets)
Part total$61 ($15 for the PCV valve, the rest in gaskets)

Read the whole post.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Murphy's Law

Today commenced round two of the car repair saga.

It started out well, as I was finally able to loosen the last remaining hose on the upper plenum enough to get it detached. Removing the upper plenum gave me access to the lower plenum, which had a mere 2 hoses connected.

The catch was that the lower plenum had a few normal bolts, but two support brackets. The rear one was labeled in the Haynes manual as 'Access is difficult, be patient'. After all the really hard to get-at parts I had dealt with, the rear support bracket was the only thing with the distinction of that label. True to their word, access was difficult. Impossible actually, with a rachet. You see the bracket was less then 1/2 inch from the firewall, so there wasn't enough room to get even my 1/4-inch rachet and 12mm socket back there.

The obvious solution would be to use a wrench instead. Except that I don't own a metric wrench set. Or I should say, I didn't. I had to buy one today to get the bolts off. Except that when I discovered that, Linzy happened to be gone (with the other car) so I had no way to go get a wrench.

Luckily, Linzy didn't decide on an all-day excursion, and when she returned we went over to Menards, which is much closer then Sears.

With the new combination wrench, I was able to get the bolts removed (it was a bit of a struggle though), and the lower plenum came off pretty easy after that.

At this point I was feeling pretty good, thinking I was on the home stretch. The PCV valve replacement is easy, just pull it out and put in a new one. Except the new one didn't fit. It wasn't the same as the old one.

Originally I was going to get one from the dealership, but they wanted $19.86 for one, and Checker Auto Parts had a Fram one for only $2.99. Being cheap, I opted for the $3 part instead. But as it turned out, the computer was wrong on which one fit.

Being Sunday, of course the dealership isn't open, so I drove to Bumper-to-Bumper on a last-ditch attempt to get this car repair back on track. They were able to find a different Fram part in their computer, which looked correct in the picture. Except they don't stock it. They have to order it, but assured me it would be in by noon on Monday.

So for the second day in a row, my car sits in pieces in the garage, as everything that could have gone wrong, did.

The lower plenum. The hard-to-reach rear support bracket was on the back left corner and had two bolts, one hidden, one visible.

The engine with the throttle body, and upper and lower plenums removed.

The PCV valve, in its handy location under half the engine. A lot of trouble for a $7 plastic part.

Read the whole post.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Pathfinder 2 - Steve 0

Today was the day I was going to use those parts I have been waiting three weeks for (the last of which arrived Wednesday).

Except that I am a sucky mechanic.

I was going to start with the fuel filter because that seemed easier. Except that I couldn't figure out a way to squeeze both a jack stand and floor jack under the same side of the axel at the same time. There are some extra brackets that get in the way of where I would have to place the floor jack.

So I figured I would leave that for now and instead work on replacing the PCV valve.

As I mentioned before, that in itself would be easy, except you have to take out a significant portion of the intake system to get at it. And the more you look at how interconnected everything is, the more parts that have to be removed. I spent hours disconnecting hoses, removing bolts, unplugging electrical connections, dripping coolant all over the floor, and generally making a huge mess of my engine. After hours of careful work I am down to one last coolant hose connected to the bottom, back of the throttle body. And it will not come off.

Eventually I got frustrated, and it was time for dinner so I quit for the day. So, of the two mechanic tasks I set out to complete today, I got zero completed.

Read on for a few pictures, if you are interested.

Everything connected to the upper plenum (large silver tubes in the center) and throttle body (to the right of the plenum, where the air duct is connected) has to get disconnected.

The throttle body, before I started.

Everything was going well on the upper plenum.

Then I got to the last few things on the lower throttle body. There is one hose that I still can't get disconnected, which is nearly unreachable so not visible, but below and to the right of the air duct.

Read the whole post.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Diamond Gates

I was driving home from work today through Apple Valley and noticed a new sign for one of the senior apartments they are building.

It was called The Diamond Gates.

I instantly associated that with the "Pearly Gates", which I suppose was their intent. But it seemed a bit wrong to name your housing for 55+ seniors after where they will be headed in not too long.

Maybe I was reading too much into it.

Read the whole post.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

High Fashion

Lately, Linzy has found a new favorite show in Project Runway.

It is Yet Another Reality TV show, in this case pitting a dozen unknown wannabe fashion designers against each other for some sort of prize (exposure and some seed money it looks like).

Each show the contestants have to design clothes and they have models, err, model the clothes for the judges at the end of each show. There is usually some sort of theme the clothes have to be designed for. The theme is abstract, for example 'envy' was the theme one week.

As you might expect a lot of the designs are pretty bizzare.

In the case of 'envy', one designer (Nora, I believe) designed a dress with tumors on it. As in cancerous tumors. The amusing part of that episode (or at least the parts I saw) was that in that episode they were surprised by being told to try to promote and sell their clothing at a silent auction. So the lady was stuck trying to explain a dress with cancerous tumors all over it to potential customers.

One of the interesting things about the show I think (and usually the only part I watch) is how they handle letting people know who is eliminated.

After all the outfits have been modeled, the judges ask questions and they make the designers defend their work. Then at some point they cut the group in half or so. The first people who are sent off make the cut. Those remaining out in front of the judges are both the 'highest' and 'lowest' performers.

This seems like a suspense killer, until you consider it is Haute Couture, so you really don't have much of an idea who's design is good, and who's is bad.

For example, the week of the cancerous tumor dress, I don't believe Nora was actually eliminated. I think she ended up being eliminated a few weeks later for making (what I thought was) a nice looking wedding dress. The judges thought it was too mainstream, even though that was what her client had requested she make. Another designer who made some crazy horrific-looking 'punk-rock' wedding dress survived the cut.

Anyways, it just seemed like a twist that really wouldn't work for many competition shows.

Read the whole post.

Flying Pigs Sighted

Xbox is profitable.

All it takes is three years for the parts prices to come down, and a 6.4 million copy seller.

Looks like Bungie was the bargain purchase, compared to Rare. Where are all those hit Rare games that were supposed to be coming down the pipe anyways?

Read the whole post.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Reading Variety

Since my ramblings on Chainfire yesterday got so long-winded, I ended up not mentioning what book I started reading now: Jack: Straight from the Gut.

This is a pretty sharp departure from my usually rock-steady diet of fantasy books and the occasional science fiction book for recreational reading. But I've been trying to be better about making sure I am learning new non-computer-related things, or at least reading things I normally wouldn't. Basically trying to widen my tall-skinny-skyscraper of computer knowledge.

Several years back I started reading the business section of the paper every day (instead of just the front page, comics and sports). At some point I got a free subscription to Money magazine, and started reading that regularly too (and even paid $9.99 for a 2-year subscription renewal). Last winter, I read several tiling books in preparation for when I put in a new ceramic tile floor. More recently there is the whole I should learn more about car repairs kick, so I've been reading lots of car-related stuff.

Anyways, the point is that I've been thinking I should also try to intersperse some more variety in what I read for recreation at night. So when we were in Half-Priced Books a few weeks ago and I saw Jack Welch's book, I thought it might be something a little different and interesting to read.

Now, I do realize that the book is basically just an autobiography, not some sort of business bible. But it seemed like a reasonable starting point before I start trying to read things like A Brief History Of Time, How To Win Friends and Influence People, or something similarly off-the-wall (for me) for 20 minutes before bed.

Finally, I am not claiming that this will be the end of the fantasy books in my reading list. Just that I am going to try to at least occasionally read something else.

Read the whole post.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Books: Chainfire

Last night I finished racing through Chainfire, the 9th book in Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth series. I bought Chainfire a few weeks ago, just before I finished the last book I was reading. Since that book polished off a trilogy, it seemed like a good time to read a single book, before I started in on another series.

Terry Goodkind books and I have an interesting relationship. His early books in the Sword of Truth series (henceforth referred to as 'the series', since he has only one) were very good. Or at least books 1 & 2 were extremely good. After that, things get a bit fuzzier. Some of the next books were good, some, not so good, and to be honest I can't recall the specifics. When the books were good, they were just that, good. Not fantastic, not spectacular, but better then a lot of the crap I read. When the books were bad, they were pretty bad. Oh, not The Dark Remains bad, but very predictable, with lots of forced coincidences.

Then Terry came out with Faith of the Fallen (book 6), the pinnacle of his series and one of the better books I have read. Since then the books have been consistently decent. Not living up to the legacy of book 6, or even books 1 and 2, but also not sinking to the level of some of books 3-5.

So, you might ask, given Terry's relative inconsistencies as a writer, why do I rush out and buy his books in hardcover right when they are released?

That brings me to one of the things I like about Terry Goodkind. He's prolific.

Wizard's First Rule, the first book in his series, was written in 1994. So in 11 years he has put out 9 books, or one about every year and two months. That is impressive for a fantasy writer pumping out ~600-700 page books.

Compare that to my favorite whipping boys of slowpoke fantasy authors, George R.R. Martin and Robert Jordan. Martin has written 3 books since 1996 (and hasn't put out a book since 2000). Jordan has written 10 books in the last 15 (and has slowed down to >2 years per book recently).

With Terry Goodkind, at least I have a chance of being able to remember characters, events, or places. With some other authors by the time the next book comes out I spend the first half going "Who is that character? What did they do?".

So, while I wouldn't claim Terry is the best author around, I like his books and his writing style (that is, speedy).

Anyways, back to the point of this post, Chainfire.

For the most part, the book follows the traditional Goodkind formula. The book begins with some sort of crisis, magical or otherwise. In one book it was that the Boxes of Orden were put into play (his term, not mine), and the main character was (of course) the only one who could stop them from destroying the world. In another book, a chime was let loose because of actions in a previous book, and was going to destroy all magic in the world (or something similar, I don't exactly recall that book's plot). Frequently the books start with a kidnapping or other separation of the two main characters (I'm serious, he's used that storyline at least three times).

Once we've established the crisis, Goodkinds books inevitably follow the characters as they try to resolve the situation or figure out how they can defeat some creature that looked invincible at the beginning of the book.

In every book that I can recall, the central storyline's riddle is resolved by book end. There may be some bigger crisis still looming, but the initial riddle/problem is solved.

Chainfire makes a sharp departure from this plan at the end, when the main storyline's problem isn't resolved. In some ways this was a nice change from expecting a nice and tidy wrap-up at the end of each book. In a lot of other ways it made the book feel like a 700 page prequel for the next book, because not much was resolved.

So I am really torn about my opinion on Chainfire. While I was in the middle of reading the book, I enjoyed it. It was reasonably well written and not too packed with silly coincidences and moralistic preaching (something Goodkind has a wee bit of a problem with). But then when I finished it and realized that the really good stuff was yet to come, I felt a bit cheated. Especially considering I have at least a year to wait for the next book.

One reason I think Terry is diverging from his normal style a bit is that there is light at the end of the Sword of Truth tunnel. That is, it is thought (at this point) that Chainfire is the first of three books that will complete the series.

So I believe that a number of the things that are going on and/or started in Chainfire will be building right up until the last book. That doesn't bode well for book 10 being a nice tidy wrap up of the current storyline, but so be it.

Overall, I thought Chainfire was good, and once the last two books are out, I might feel less annoyed by the unfinished nature of the book.

Read the whole post.

Monday, January 24, 2005

PS3 Cell Processor

I spent a while yesterday evening reading through a really in-depth, interesting article on the PS3 'Cell' processor. It was linked on Slashdot on Saturday, and is speculation based off the cell processor patents filed by Sony/IBM/Toshiba.

In some ways it is a continuation of what was started with the PS2 (from what I know about PS2 architecture), except generalizing what were in the PS2 rather special purpose secondary processors. With the Cell technology, you get a large number of cores that can each operate independently.

What I don't understand is who they think is going to be able to program these things. Back in June, I thought the XBox Next leaked specs looked complicated to program. Little did I know that Sony was going to take things to a whole nother level.

If the speculated PS3 architecture is correct, with 4 Cells on two chips, that is 32 attached processing units (versus 6 parallel threads in the XBox Next). And that isn't even counting the GPU.

Oh, I know that graphics programming is thought of as an 'infinitely parallelizable' operation, but you still need to be able to feed data and a consistent world state to each of your processors in order to produce something coherent. And keeping 32 processors of this performance-level busy very long is going to require massive amounts of memory bandwidth.

To be honest, the 6.4GB/s IO bandwidth doesn't sound high enough to keep all those processors busy. That isn't that much more then what you can get with overclocked DDR2 memory on the latest Intel chipsets. Then, when you consider that those vector instructions are SIMD, you are going to be touching even more data, requiring even more bandwidth. It's hard to animate a model if you are waiting to read the bone data out of memory.

The other big problem seems like it is going to be figuring out how to efficiently parallelize dependent operations and calculations. Hand-tuning assembly sounds like it is going to be in the future of the poor next-gen console programmer. Michael Abrash is probably drooling at the mere thought of the possibilities.

On the other hand, to some extent once you have designed an engine to be multi-threaded and your various algorithms to be parallelizable, there isn't really a significant difference in having 6 threads and 32 threads. If you have to synchronize a data structure, it will be just as synchronized with 6 threads, as with 32 threads.

Microsoft may very well have the right idea by emphasizing their middleware XNA product. If they can put together an easy-to-use framework it could go a long way in recruiting developers to their platform.

Especially when the alternative is a ridiculously complex and (likely) temperamental beast like the PS3 or whatever cooky next-gen console Nintendo has up their sleeves.

It will be interesting to see how the next generation of consoles pans out.

Read the whole post.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Hard Drives

What is with the price premium for Serial ATA hard drives?

The basic mechanics of the drive are identical, spinning platters and a head for reading the data. The only difference is really the power connector and the interface connection, both of which are probably just a different circuit board.

The Comp USA flyer this week advertised a Hitachi 250G IDE drive for $99 after rebates. Circuit City offered a 250G IDE Western Digital drive for $109 after rebates.

The exact same 250G Western Digital, 7200RPM 8MB cache SATA drive from NewEgg is running $148 for the OEM drive only.

That's a 36-50% price premium because of a different circuit board.

I'm not really all that worried about the performance improvement of SATA over Parallel ATA, I just don't want to buy a new drive that might not work with my next computer.

Currently we already have a 160G SATA drive, and a 120G IDE drive using an SATA adapter card. Since both drives are virtually full, I wanted to get a bigger SATA drive so I could get rid of the bulky adapter card and move the 120G drive to the IDE chain with the DVD burner.

But I have a hard time paying 50% more for basically the same thing.

Read the whole post.

The Power of the Paragraph

Today I followed a link to a blog, because the teaser text sounded like it could be interesting. Alas, I will never know because I couldn't make it though even a single entry. The problem? Every entry was written as a single giant paragraph.

I'm sure everyone has seen the 'Stream of Consciousness' style of writing before; this wasn't the first blog I've run across like it. It was just frustrating because it sounded like there could be some interesting posts buried in amongst the humongous blocks of text.

The first post was 471 words according to Microsoft Word, and looked to take about 3/4 of an 8.5x11 inch sheet of paper with solid text. The second entry that I looked at was 432 words, and took over three full screens in the narrow column format the blog was displayed in.

Now, I am not claiming to be a grammatical genius. Heck, I've been known to write up whole posts calling a book by the wrong name, so I certainly can be plenty lazy. But I'm not so lazy that I don't stop to take a breath and hit the Enter key.

The bizarre thing about this particular blog, and the reason that I was inspired to write about it, was that the author teaches English in a foreign country.

Read the whole post.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Movies: The Aviator

Linzy and I made a snap decision while we were out this afternoon, that we should go see a movie. We showed up at the theater randomly at a little after 1:00, having no idea what was showing when.

As luck would have it, The Aviator had just started 5 minutes before. That happened to be one that I would've wanted to see, if we had planned things.

We both liked the movie, myself a bit more then Linzy. It was a bit on the long side of things (almost 3 hours), but for most of the movie things moved pretty well.

I didn't really know much about Howard Hughes going into the film, other then the usual broad generalities. So I found it very interesting to find out more about him and what he did, even if it was the 'made for the movies' version of his life story.

Leonardo DiCaprio deserves all the acclaim he is getting for his performance, he did a fantastic job. His portrayal of a visionary slowly descending into madness, knowing full-well what was happening to himself, but unable to stop it, was brilliant.

All-in-all, I thought it was a very good film.

Read the whole post.

Hardcore, or just Obsessive?

Did you see the new keyboard targeted at those hardcore World of Warcraft players? Check out the 28 key pad on the side, with shortcuts for all the WoW functions.

I thought it was funny that they even labeled basic functions on the standard keys, as if a player of WoW that is hardcore enough to want that keyboard would need reminding that 'S' is used for moving backwards.

It's not as crazy as the Final Fantasy XI Clock that Brenden found long ago, but it is up there.

Read the whole post.

Friday, January 21, 2005


I was shocked, shocked I say, to have to call Nissan this morning to find out about my parts, only to find out one of the gaskets was backordered.

So when it is supposed to be coming? The 23rd. Somehow I doubt that it is going to be showing up on a Sunday.

For an extra kick in the pants, I discovered this morning that the microfilter they gave me for the Altima was damaged.

I was also glad to find out that the 6 screws which were documented in the instructions as holding the glovebox frame were actually 7 screws. The seventh is not visible because it is hidden behind another piece of the dash, which has to be removed first. How that has slipped through quality-assurance all this time boggles the mind.

Incidentally the Haynes book is just as wrong, saying there are only 6 screws. They show a picture of a dash that looks like it only has 6 screws. It just isn't the same dash as is in my car.

Read the whole post.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

What is that flavor?

Yesterday I went with three friends from work to a relatively new mom-and-pop Mexican restaurant near work called Mexway.

Linzy and I had noticed it when we were going into the Davanni's that was right next door, and then I mentioned it to a friend at work. He and his wife checked it out a few days later, and a group at work decided to try it for lunch.

Mexway is really small, even as mom-and-pop Mexican restaurants go. As far as I could tell there was one server and one cook working.

The server was very friendly and quickly brought out a basket of chips and two containers of salsa for us. Interestingly the salsa was served in real stone dishes, instead of the usual plastic ones.

The chips looked strangely oily, but everyone grabbed one and swept up some salsa. After that first chip, I looked at Mike and Mike looked at me.

"What is that flavor?"

"You noticed it too? It tasted sort of metallic."

"Yeah, and gritty".

Don and Phil professed not to have noticed anything, so they were coaxed into having a second chip and reporting the results.

Don goes "Oh, yeah...I taste it now that you mention it...ewww."

Phil goes "Hmm, yeah, I taste it too." and then added the soon-to-be classic line:

"It reminds me of when I worked at Embers long ago, and we would 'forget' to change the oil on a regular basis".

We didn't finish the chips.

Read the whole post.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Car Parts

So when the Haynes Book says something generic like 'Replace the upper plenum gasket', or 'Place a new lower plenum gasket on the studs', how would you go about acquiring those gaskets?

Since I know virtually nothing about car repairs, I decided just to go with what I thought would be the easiest (although not necessarily the cheapest) and call up the dealership parts department and try to order them. In theory I knew what I needed: the gaskets for the upper and lower plenum on the intake manifold for a 3.5L V6 in a 2001 Nissan Pathfinder.

In my mind I was thinking (hoping?) this would be relatively easy to order, especially from the dealership, as they have all sorts of experience with the engine and access to complete assembly information.

When I called 11 days ago, everything seemed to be going smoothly. The guy running the phones sounded pretty confident in knowing what I was talking about and didn't have to spend a long time on the computer looking up the appropriate part numbers.

It happened that the gaskets were out of stock (as was a new in-cabin microfilter I wanted for Linzy's car). They would order them, and in a few days they would be calling to say my new parts were in stock.

I'm sure you can see where this is going.

Flash forward to Monday the 17th. Originally I was planning on doing the repairs that day since I had the day off work. Except that I had not heard word-one from the dealership. And it was supposed to be like 5 degrees, which was hardly weather I wanted to be crawling around in the un-heated garage in. So it wasn't a difficult decision to put off the planned repair until Friday.

But I still thought I should call the dealership and find out what was going on. After several calls to them, getting promises of callbacks and hearing nothing back, I eventually found someone who tracked down the order. One part was backordered, but theoretically coming in this week.

On Tuesday I got the call the parts had come in, and I stopped there today to buy them.

The first surprise was when I was handed three gaskets, and I was only expecting two. The guy was nice enough to print up an assembly diagram and showed me which three gaskets they were. Except the paired gaskets were shown on something that had a right and a left side, and I while I knew I had an upper and lower plenum, it didn't really seem like the sort of thing that would be drawn as a left and right side.

But at this point it was completely hopeless for me to do anything but nod my head and go "here's my credit card", and then go "How much? $178? Seriously? For 3 pieces of rubber and 2 pieces of plastic and cloth? Damn".

Back at home, after a while spent comparing the pictures in the Haynes Book (which are of an assembled engine, so somewhat less then useful for determining where gaskets are) to the assembly diagram, I was pretty sure I didn't have the right parts.

So I called back the dealership, and eventually walked the parts person through what I had gotten, what I thought I needed, and which parts I needed.

The biggest complication was the fact that each part has multiple and completely unrelated numbers.

First, we have the assembly diagram numbers like 14040E, or 14010A, or 14010AA. But those aren't part numbers. What it says on the box is 14032-4W000. Or for extra fun 14010A is really 14033-4W000 and 14010AA is 14033-4W100. No chance of confusion there.

Oh, and the other problem was that one of the parts (that I was sure I needed because it was explicitly pictured in the Haynes book) was labeled as a 'gasket-adapter', not a gasket. So unless you studied the assembly diagram and knew what you were looking for, you wouldn't have found it just searching through a list of gaskets. Interestingly that gasket adapter was the only part I got, that was really what I needed.

Anyways eventually I talked them through what I needed, as scary as it was that I would have a better idea of what I might need.

They are ordering the parts overnight, so I was assured they would arrive on Friday morning. Let's just say I am not going to be disassembling the car until they are in my hand.

The only good news was that the two gaskets I don't need were $35 a piece and the other two gaskets that I do need are a mere $5.56. A bargain in the high-priced world of gaskets.

Read the whole post.

Safecracking for the Computer Scientist

I read Matt Blaze's paper on safecracking a few days ago after Bruce Schneier mentioned it.

I thought the paper was very interesting, particularly the analysis on the actual usable combination space, compared with the 'advertised' space. The arguments raging between outraged locksmiths and the rest of the world are pretty interesting too.

Read the whole post.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Post-Mortem Oracle Sysdba and NTS Authentication

Ever wondered how to tell just from a Windows Eventlog message how someone was able to authenticate to your Oracle database with sysdba privileges?

Probably not, as I never did either. Until we had a database that suddenly failed to startup on one node of a failsafe cluster, and no one was able to figure out why.

When hands were thrown up and it got turned over to me to investigate, I did some background investigation to be able to recreate what had happened based on the logs available (which basically included only the Eventlog since the database wasn't even starting to the point of logging in the alert log).

So, if you are in a similar situation, maybe this will save you some time. Or, more likely maybe Google will help me find it the next time I need to look it up.

Note: These messages may apply to Oracle 9.2 only. I didn't take the time to verify them with any older versions.

There are a number of formats that the ‘connect’ audit eventlog message appears to be written in, depending on the particular configuration. In all cases I was specifying “connect sys/ as sysdba”:

NTS On, Not in ORA_DBA group, Correct password:


NTS On, Not in ORA_DBA group, wrong password:


NTS On, In ORA_DBA group, correct password:


NTS On, In ORA_DBA group, wrong password:


NTS Off, In ORA_DBA group, correct password:


NTS Off, In ORA_DBA group, wrong password:


It is interesting to note that you can differentiate between connections where you were authenticated through NTS (where user=’/’) and connections where you authenticated with a password (where user=’sys’).

Also note that when NTS is not enabled, only the base username is printed, not the full domain\username and the tilde in the username is inexplicably turned into a question mark when NTS is disabled.

Read the whole post.

Son of Checkout Fun

Several weeks ago Linzy and I were in Target picking up a few things.

In fact, it happened to be the time we noticed the storage tub display.

Anyways, we had just a few items (5) so we got in the 6-item or less express lane checkout. As soon as we stepped in line, we realized our mistake; The lady in front of us had a cart full of product.

Usually this wouldn't surprise me, Target is one of those places where it is hard not to walk out with $40 worth of stuff you had no idea you needed when you entered the store. But this was the 6-item express lane.

As fate would have it, the lady had just gotten up to the conveyer belt affording us the unresistable opportunity to count all 27 of her items as she piled them on the checkout.

Then we watched as the wheels completely came off.

First, there was apparently a requirement that three items be rung up separately.

Okay, so far so good, the cashier rings everything else up, carefully setting the 3 items to the side.

Then, the customer wanted to pay for her items with a gift card. Except, whoops, not the whole gift card, just a portion of what was available on the card. So the cashier had to back out that action and do some other button-pushing magic to get everything back the way it should be.

Then the customer wanted to pay for the rest of that purchase with a check. Which she wrote out from scratch while everyone watched.

Whoops, the cashier notices the check is wrong. She hands the check back to the lady, who has to write out a second check or do some serious repair work on the first check (I couldn't tell which).

But we aren't out of the woods yet, because we still have those other three more items to ring up. Another transaction is started, and at this point apparently a light went on in the ladies head like 'Oh! It's 2004, we have this new fangled technology called Credit Cards. I should use one of those.'. Except she can't find said credit card. Hunting through her suitcase-sized purse ensued.

Meanwhile customers are literally streaming through the 20-item checkout lane next to us where, apparently, they have figured out how to pay for things in a timely fashion.

Oh! The lady found her card, swipes it through the machine, and we are done. Or are we?

Nope, no one is in a hurry in this lane, so feel free to chat up the cashier about the cosmos, tax-evasion, our food stamp program, or whatever you want.

Eventually social hour was over, and we were up.

After the previous customer left, the cashier apologized to us. I asked her 'So what is the biggest batch of 6 items you have ever seen'. She laughed and said 60.

Apparently some doofus brought 60 items through the checkout, but thought it was OK since he had broken then into two batches of 30. As if 30 items in the 6-item lane was any better then 60. Oh, and he wanted to pay for them with the same credit card too, basically making it a single purchase again. I'm pretty sure no one caught onto that trick.

I thought that was pretty funny, but then again I wasn't behind him in line.

I do have to wonder though why they aren't even pretending to enforce the item limits on the express lanes. It doesn't really bother me unless I am really in a hurry (which I wasn't this day), but 60 items, or even 27 seems a little ridiculous.

Read the whole post.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Looking Good...

The one-year stock chart from my employer, The Company That Must Not Be Named.

Chart courtesy of Moneycentral.

Read the whole post.

The Kaplan Thaler Group

I was reading an article in the paper this morning about how US Bancorp chose an advertising agency for their latest marketing campaign, The Kaplan Thaler Group.

Normally this wouldn't interest me all that much except for some interesting facts the article had about Kaplan Thaler:

  • The lady who founded the company got her money from writing the music and lyrics to Toys R Us' jingle "I don't want to grow up"
  • Kaplan Thaler created the Herbal Essances 'Organic' ad campaign
  • They also created the Aflac 'duck' ad campaign

Just with those two campaigns alone, I imagine they could be sitting around using desks made of nothing but $100 bills.

Read the whole post.

Thunderbird 1.0 Progress Bar

I finally got around to upgrading to Thunderbird 1.0 yesterday. It seems to work just as well as the previous versions did for me. Except that the 'working' progress bar never seems to go away down in the status bar.

In previous versions the progress bar only showed up when it was downloading messages, or otherwise working. Now it is always there cycling.

Anyone else having the same problem?

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Sunday, January 16, 2005

Video Games: Dark Cloud

A few nights ago I finally finished Dark Cloud. Although I was initially really enjoying the game, by the end of the game I was really tiring of some aspects of it. So much so that I almost didn't finish the game, and chose not to play the bonus 100-level dungeon after finishing the main story-line.

I really started to get disappointed by the time I reached the halfway point of the game, as initially it looked like it was really shaping up to be a great game. Eventually though some serious flaws in the game design started showing.

As I mentioned previously, Dark Cloud ostensibly features two types of gameplay. The main part is a Zelda-style dungeon crawl through automatically generated levels. The secondary part is town-building, using parts (called georama parts) that are found in the dungeons.

Putting the towns together turns out to be a lot less flexible then it appears at first. As you progress farther into the game you begin to realize you don't really have much control over where to put the buildings. Although you can theoretically place the buildings wherever you want, the occupants have 'suggestions' on where they would like to be placed. You have to satisfy their desires in order to reach 100% completion on the town, and in most cases there are only a few ways you can keep everyone happy at the same time. Making matters worse, in all but the first town, you have to reach 100% in order to get an item required for reaching the end of the dungeon. Meaning all your towns will end up looking exactly like the designers wanted them to look.

Running through the dungeons is fun at first, each area of the game has different architecture and enemies. But the dungeons are pretty long, as each area has around 20+ floors of dungeon. It doesn't take long before they all start to look the same. I suppose it was an easy way to increase the length of the game, since the dungeons are automatically generated.

However, the fatal flaw of the game is the leveling up system. Describing the leveling system takes forever, you can read it here if you really want, but the gist of it is that it is tedious and basically comes down to either luck or extremely time-consuming repetition.

Obviously all RPGs involve some repetition for leveling up. The problem with Dark Cloud's variation is not only that it can take hours to level a character up, but that you are tied to needing particular items in order to be able to increase some stats. Without those items it doesn't matter how many enemies you defeat, you will never be able to build your weapon into a more powerful one.

Couple that with the fact that you have to level each of your 6 characters up independently, and you have a game system that looks like it was solely designed to require a huge time investment. I would expect that sort of thing from a MMORPG, where they want to make sure you have a reason to stay subscribed next month, but not from a random single-player RPG.

Nonetheless, Dark Cloud had some good points. When you are actually able to acquire the right items for leveling up a character, and can just run through the dungeons defeating enemies, it is quite fun. And there is a certain amount of satisfaction to be had when you finally are able build-up that weapon into something that can become even more powerful.

Also, the story is somewhat interesting (if a bit bizarre), and there are a few interesting twists.

In all the game certainly had potential. If they had stream-lined the leveling up process and made upgrade items more plentiful (so that you could concentrate on fighting enemies and gaining experience points), it would have been a very fun game.

It is just too bad that the word that comes to mind most readily as a description of the game is 'tedious'.

Read the whole post.

Video Games: Dark Cloud Leveling Description

This is a long-winded explanation of the Dark Cloud leveling-up system, and why it is completely flawed. It is designed in a way that makes it completely tedious to progress each individual character (of which there are 6), and forces you to play an arbitrary mini-game.

Read on for the blow-by-blow if you are a sadist or aspiring video game designer looking for 'how not to design an RPG leveling system'

The problem with Dark Cloud is your guys don't level up. All stats and things are tied to your weapon.

Each weapon has 5 primary stats (attack, endurance, speed, and magic). Attack and Speed are obvious, endurance is used to determine how much damage your weapon takes each time you use it, and magic controls how much extra damage you do from the active attribute on your weapon. Each of the primary stats goes from 0-99, except Attack and Magic which are limited by the particular weapon, and can eventually go up to 200-300 by the end of the game depending on the weapon.

Attributes are either Fire, Ice, Wind, Thunder, or Holy. Each one has a rating 0-99, and adds damage to your attacks. The amount of damage seems to vary depending on the level of your attribute and your weapons magic power. And it depends on if the enemy you are attacking is weak, strong, or neutral to that attribute. You can only have one active attribute at a time. So having 99 Holy does no good if you are using Fire.

Then each weapon has 16 (or 20, I don't recall, but they all have the same) anti-attributes. These are 'always on', and cause extra damage against particular types of monsters (say Dragons, or Flying creatures, or Rock-base, etc). Each of those stats goes 0-99.

Ok, so when you defeat an enemy your active weapon gets some absorption points. Once you've collected enough you can 'upgrade' the weapon. That adds one to each basic stat and absorbs any attachments you have on it. Then it takes more abs points to be able to upgrade it again.

Attachments are of four different types:
Basic: These add between 1 and 3 points to one of the primary stats (Attack, Magic, Endurance, Speed).
Attributes: These add 3 points to one of the attributes
Anti-Attributes: These add 3 points to one of the anti-attributes
Gems: These add ~10 points to three or four items (say a sapphire adds +10 magic, +10 ice, +10 against sky creatures. A garnet might add +5 attack, +10 fire, +10 against rock creatures, +10 against beasts).

When you reach certain levels of stats (primary, attributes, and anti-attributes) some weapons can be 'built up' to new weapons. All your old stats transfer over to the new weapon, and you don't get anything extra. Once you've upgraded though, you might be able to start increasing attack and magic again if they were capped out before.

When you get a weapon to +5 (that is, you've upgraded it 5 times by getting ever increasing amounts of abs points through defeating enemies with it), you can status break a weapon. This destroys the weapon but creates a new item with 60% of its stats that can be attached to a different weapon.

Each weapon has between 1 and 4 attachment slots. One of these can hold synthspheres (weapons that have been status-broken) and the others are normal slots.

Ok, so if you only ever upgraded items your attributes and anti stats would never go up. Eventually you would hit the maximums for the primary stats and wouldn't be able to upgrade anymore.

So you have to use attachments. But the normal attachments don't make a dent in your stats, when you consider they are adding up to +3 to ONE of ~30 stats that can go up to 100. You basically HAVE to use gems to make any reasonable progress.

Except gems can only be found on a special section of each dungeon called the 'back floor'. But you can't just go to the 'back floor', you have to have an item. And except in one place you can only get the back floor item by randomly finding one in a chest. And they are rare. I'm talking like you go through all 30 floors of a dungeon and find ONE back floor item. And on a back floor you might find one, MAYBE two gems, and pray they are ones increasing stats you need.

So the other way to get gems is through exchanging fishing points. Which means you have to play a time-consuming fishing mini-game. Except there is no way to be 'good' at fishing, it is just time and luck. Certain fish only respond to certain bait, and each type of fish is worth a differing amount of fishing points. The best fish are 'legendary' and worth enough points to get a gem or two (maybe three if you are lucky and catch a really large legendary fish). The other fish are worth maybe one-tenth of a gem each. Of course legendary fish are rare. Like you could fish for 45 minutes to an hour and catch one or two. Translating into about say 4-5 gems.

The only other option is to find crappy weapons, level them up to +5, and then status break them. Except you can only absorb one of those at a time, so you will still need some normal attachments and you might not have a crappy weapon that supplies stats in what you need. Plus you only get 60% of the stats of the broken weapon, so chances are you are going to need LOTS of those crappy weapons.

To add more pain to the process, if the weapon is bad, it won't be able to defeat anything worth many absorption points. So you have to use your good weapon and the quick switch to the bad weapon and have it absorb the points. Which takes (I counted) 9 button presses and about 20-25 seconds. Then you have to switch back and defeat the next enemy.

It is ridiculous. And that is just for one character, now multiply that across 6 characters, and you are looking at a 40-60+ hour game for no reason other then the painfully leveling up process.

It might as well be an MMORPG the way they designed it to take hours and hours and hours for no good reason.

Read the whole post.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

The Suck

There is nothing quite like spending 12.5 hours of your Saturday at work.

I probably looked a lot like this most of today.

Read the whole post.

Friday, January 14, 2005

The Spaghetti Incident

Today I learned a valuable lesson.

No matter how funny you might think it would be to annoy your wife by grabbing a glass jar of spaghetti sauce in your left hand, and smacking the top with your right hand like a bongo-drum, don't.

Otherwise your kitchen might end up looking like this

And no, I didn't drop the jar, the glass on the bottom actually shattered from the force of sauce/air moving up and down.

Spaghetti sauce free-falling from waist-height makes some huge splashes. These pictures were actually taken after we cleaned up the left half of the kitchen. It was worse before.

Consider yourself warned.

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Thursday, January 13, 2005

Ironic but Fitting

The week after Christmas Linzy and I were in Target picking out a gift for a friend. I noticed that the seasonal section of the store had already been changed away from Christmas decorations. It now held a huge variety of plastic storage tubs.

I found it amusing that a big seller after Christmas is tubs for storing away all your stuff.

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Checkout Fun

I was at the grocery store tonight picking up a handful of items that we had run out of during the week. The guy in front of me was buying a nice sized collection of food products, and paid with his EBT card (electronic food stamps).

Since I didn't have many items, I was bagged up and out the door while he was still working on his items. Later when I was outside putting my cart in the cart corral I saw the guy come out of the store.

He walked out and got into his Lincoln Navigator (MSRP $50,820+).

I'm sure glad my taxes helped buy his food.

Read the whole post.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Classic Rock

I was driving home today and heard the local classic rock radio station play White Wedding by Billy Idol. After initially going 'WTF?', I thought about it and figured it had to be pushing 20 years old.

Turns out it was released in 1982, so it certainly could be classified as classic rock. But it still seemed like something I would normally hear on the 80s station.

The station followed it up with Come Together by the Beatles, which fit exactly with what I would expect from the classic rock station.

Read the whole post.

Oh the humanity!

A little known fact I learned tonight:

There are few things in this world more deadly then trying to throw yourself into someone in the corner of the wrestling ring, missing, and hitting your head on the padded, top-rope turnbuckle.

In some rare, rare cases, wrestlers have been known to survive a vicious self-inflicted headbutt to the padded turnbuckle, but only after:

a) staggering around the ring holding their head (so you know they were really hurt bad)
b) writhing around in pain on the mat
c) staggering backwards a few steps, stopping, and then falling flat on your back
d) All of the above

Unless you are Hollywood Hulk Hogan, in which case you can just shrug it off.

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Tuesday, January 11, 2005

The Sopranos

Although Linzy and I have always had cable at home, we've never gotten movie channels (HBO/Cinemax/etc) for very long. Since this summer however, we ended up on a special promotion that included all the movie channels for less then what we were paying. It also so happened that this summer they started playing The Sopranos episodes from the beginning, 5 nights a week.

I've heard from tons of people how good The Sopranos is, I'm sure you have too. But I had never really gotten around to watching the show except for little pieces here and there.

So far I've only watched the first 11 episodes, but I've been pleasantly surprised by how much I am enjoying the episodes. Having them all ready for watching back to back makes it that much better, because if the story ends in a cliffhanger I can just go right on to the next one (provided I have 52 minutes to kill).

The only bad part is simply quantity. HBO seasons are apparently only 13 episodes long where as on regular TV (say CSI), a season is 23 episodes. So a mere 11 episodes in, and I am already practically through the first season. I've only saved 4 seasons so far, and I purposely hadn't started watching them until recently for fear of 'catching up' to the broadcast schedule.

It also happens that we don't have HBO anymore, so I'll only be able to see Season 5 if I rent it, or buy the DVD set. And the DVD set is expensive, roughly ~$80. That seems pretty steep for 13 hour-long episodes.

Still, I am enjoying them while they last.

Read the whole post.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Biosphere 2

I saw on cnn that the Biosphere 2 is up for sale.

Maybe you could buy it and use it to shoot Bio-Dome 2? I imagine Pauly Shore is available, and Stephen Baldwin too, for that matter.

Kylie on the other hand, has a prior commitment in Scotland.

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Where has all the snow gone?

I heard today that this year's winter (in Minnesota) just set a new record for the latest we have gone without an inch of snow falling in a single day.

The previous record was January 9th, 1945.

Good thing I built those shelves this summer, to make space for the snowthrower I bought in the fall.

Read the whole post.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Sock Marketing

One of the gifts in my Christmas stocking from my parents was a package of socks. They were the kind that I would consider 'dress' socks. That is, not white cotton crew socks. Interestingly the package was labeled 'Weekend socks'.

Yesterday I was running some errands, and one included going over to Target to get some money back on something they charged the wrong price on. It happened to be another package of socks, these labeled 'Traveler socks'.

When did sock marketing reach the point of needing to differentiate between Traveler and Weekend socks? For that matter, what is the difference?

From my perspective both packages contained socks satisfying the same purpose, providing non-white crew socks I can wear with our 'smart business casual' attire at work. [On a side-note, Work's differentiation of smart-business casual from normal business casual could be a subject for a whole post by itself].

The Traveler socks even had an icon of an airplane on the package. Are they somehow specially designed for airplanes? Since the socks didn't appear to provide flight capabilities, I had to assume they were somehow specially designed for airplane use. How do you even specially design socks for an airplane? Reduce the metal content?

Searching for 'Weekend socks' on google doesn't provide much information on what might be the distinction for when socks become 'Weekend' socks. Following the first result to this store appears to indicate that their standard is 'Ugly'.

Who is this sock marketing geared towards? Surely it can't be me, because I don't understand the distinction. Also, I don't tend to buy my own socks. When I do, there are two things I am looking for: Color, and Dress vs Casual. I don't even usually do much price-comparison beyond what is available on the shelf at a single store, because if the sock situation has reached such a critical level that I am out looking specifically for socks, I need them Right Now. Not next week when they are on sale.

You might think the marketing is for wives who, stereotypically, would be doing the sock shopping. Except Linzy had no idea what the difference is either. So from a sample size of 1, their marketing differentiation slipped by that market too.

How long will it be before I can buy 'Computer-Nerd' socks to wear for work? Or even a package of 'smart business-casual' socks? Will I even be able to notice a difference? I doubt it.

Read the whole post.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Books: Ship of Destiny

Yesterday I finished reading Ship of Destiny, the final book in Robin Hobb's Liveship Traders trilogy.

I was very pleased with the book, it really held up to my expectations.

As I mentioned in my post on the first book in the series, Ship of Magic, initially I was leary of how much I would enjoy the Liveship Traders trilogy. It turned out that my fears were unfounded, as the three books turned out to be some of the best fantasy books I have read recently (which really isn't saying as much as you might think because I had read just finished a mediocre 6-book series).

Ship of Destiny was very interesting. Mad Ship had left many things up in the air, as second books in a trilogy tend to do, so I was looking forward to seeing how things shook out in book three.

One of the most satisfying aspects of the books was the character development, as a few of the characters really blossomed over the course of the books. Some books try to carry so many characters that you can end up feeling like you are endlessly bouncing back-and-forth between different characters. Even though there were a lot of character in the book, Robin Hobb was very successful in the Liveship books at keeping every character interesting and distinct.

Overall I really like the trilogy, and am looking forward to starting Fool's Errand, the first book in the Tawny Man trilogy by Robin Hobb.

But first, I am going to read Chainfire by Terry Goodkind.

Read the whole post.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Disturbing Coincidence

Is it me, or is Vince Neil marrying his sister?

Read the whole post.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Books: Chainfire

After dinner tonight, Linzy and I were running a few errands. We happened to drive by the Bloomington Borders (a bookstore), and I recalled that I still had some money left on a gift card Sarah had gotten me back in June for my birthday.

That necessitated a quick detour, so I could pick up a book. I went in intending to get one book and, as is always the case with Borders, they didn't have it. One of the many reasons I don't shop there often (in addition to the fact it is no where near my house). Anyways, I was pleasantly suprised to run across Chainfire, the latest book from Terry Goodkind. I had completely forgotten that came out on Tuesday this week.

While I was waiting in line to pay, I recalled a funny story Brenden told me a while back:

Apparently back in November, they released one of Terry's books, Debt of Bones, in paperback. The same day it was released, every single copy was recalled. Why? Because the publisher Tor screwed up and put the copyright as "Robert Jordan" (another famous fantasy author).


So every single copy was recalled and destroyed. In my mind, I envision the destruction as looking something like this, except with Terry Goodkind dancing around the flames shouting curses on the responsible employee's family.

I'm sure by now you can buy a copy of the mis-copyrighted book on EBay for a tidy little sum.

[ Update: I guess no one cares, the only copy I could find on EBay is only going for 2.99, and recently closed ones went for <$10 ]

Read the whole post.

Rotating Profile Pictures

You may have noticed a while back that I added rotating user profile pictures to the blog.

If you were curious how it was done, today is your lucky day!

Please note that I am not claiming this is the only (or even best) way to do this, or that I am the Smartest Person Alive because of it. I am sure there are millions of other people who have done it before me. But maybe there are some people out there looking to do this, but not sure where to start.

What I did was just manually duplicated the profile information, but used some javascript to dynamically generate a random image name. I would rather have just pointed my user profile picture at a cgi script which would have returned a random picture from a directory of pictures, but my cable modem-provided website doesn't allow that kind of thing.

So I went with javascript instead. It works pretty good as far as I can tell, so if you are interested, read on for the not particularly exciting step-by-step instructions.

Note, This assumes you are at least vaguely familiar with editing a blogger template, HTML, and Javascript.

Add this code to your template somewhere (anywhere before the <div id="profile-container> or <$BlogMemberProfile$> line):

   <script LANGUAGE=JavaScript>
   <!-- JavaScript begin
    var padnum="";var i=Math.floor(Math.random()*6);
    if (i<10) {padnum="00"+i;} else {padnum="0"+i}
    var img="<img width=\"64\" height=\"91\" alt=\"My Photo\"
src=\"" +
padnum + ".jpg\">";
   // end -->

The '6' in "Math.random()*6" should be changed to the total number of pictures you want to choose from. This number must be less then 1000, or the number padding part will need to be changed.

The image width and height attributes should be changed to the appropriate values for your images (which should all be the same size, obviously).

Also, change the src attribute to point to the URL for your pictures. All the pictures should be in the same directory, named steve000.jpg through steve005.jpg.

Next, you will need to replace the standard profile tag (<$BlogMemberProfile$>) with HTML code that duplicates it, but substitutes some javascript code for the picture image. I use this:

<div id="profile-container">
<h2 class="sidebar-title">About Me</h2>
<dl class="profile-datablock">
<dt class="profile-img">
<a href="<$BlogOwnerProfileUrl$>">
<script LANGUAGE=JavaScript> document.write(img); </script><noscript>
<img width="64" height="91" alt="My Photo"
</a> </dt>
<dd class="profile-data"><strong>Name:</strong>
<$BlogOwnerFullName$> </dd>
<dd class="profile-data">
<strong>Location:</strong><$BlogOwnerLocation$> </dd> </dl>
<p class="profile-link">
<a href="<$BlogOwnerProfileUrl$>">View my complete profile</a> </p> </div>

The important part is that "document.write(img);" line which writes out the random image name generated earlier. Also, the <noscript> part allows browsers with javascript disabled to see the steve000.jpg image instead of rotating pictures (or nothing, if you had excluded the noscript tag).

Next you should preview your change and verify that it works like you want. Once it looks good, save the template and republish your blog.

That's all there is to it.

You should be aware that the downside to this method is that every time you want to add an additional profile picture, you have to either replace an old one or change the template to reflect the new number of pictures and then republish the blog.

Read the whole post.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Beta Testing (pt. 3)

[ Part 1, Part 2 ]

I'm as tired of relaying this saga as you probably are of reading it, so this hopefully will be the last post about it. If nothing else, I hope these tales eventually help someone else also struggling with their DSM-320.

Last night and tonight my Dad and I have been doing still more troubleshooting of the DSM-320, and discovered the following:

... ...

Whenever you change the network configuration from wired to wireless, the unit has to be fully powered off (as in un-plugged). If you don't, even though the unit will grab an ip address it won't be able to do anything. If things get really screwed up you might even be able to ping it, but it will refuse to see the media server/media connect software on the PC.

The Media Server software can not handle sharing large volumes of videos (maybe MP3s too, I don't know). When you try to click into a folder that is shared and over a certain, unknown size, the whole unit locks up and/or refuses to play any files.

The Windows Media Connect server software has no apparent problems sharing large folders, but it can't stream video to the unit. Where as the Media Server software was able to send the movies just fine over the wireless connection, using the Media Connect software causes the unit to play a few seconds, pause, play a few more seconds, etc.

I assume this is related to a too-small buffer on the unit and less efficient sending code on the Media Connect software. Or perhaps it is sending 'correctly' in that the audio would have been synched to the video, but errs on the side of sending nothing instead of letting things get out of synch. Who knows. Probably LarryO, but I doubt he is reading this.

Still, there isn't much excuse for the unit not to be able to play videos. The wireless network is 100% 802.11G, and the DSM-320 and the router are about 4 feet apart, in plan view of each other. With a rated speed of 54Mbit/sec, and a real-world throughput of more like 25-35Mbit/sec, that which should be more then enough to play an XVid file encoded at around 117Kbit/sec.

Anyways, the moral of this long, whiny series of posts is this:

If you are thinking about buying a DSM-320 soon, don't. Go with another option; Be it a different Windows Media device, a Squeezebox, modded-XBox, whatever. At the very least, save yourself some hassle and wait for DLink to put out an updated, tested, version.

[ Update 3/9/2005: The latest firmware (1.05) seems to fix the audio/video synch problems. ]

Read the whole post.

Beta Testing (pt. 2)

When my fingers gave out yesterday, my long-winded tale of woe had reached the point of my Dad's DSM-320 connecting to a wireless network but refusing to play nicely with the other kids.

After some research on Monday, I decided the next plan would be to haul the MediaLounge over to my house, where it could have access to the Internet and there is a laptop to run Intel UPNP Device Spy on.

Lo and behold the DSM-320 worked perfectly right out of the gate on my network. Good, in terms of confirming that the box wasn't DOA, but bad because it meant several solid minutes of head scratching over why it refused to work on my Dad's (mostly) identical network.

Taking the wuss route, we decided maybe we should flash the firmware anyways, on the off chance that it would fix the problem at my parent's. I dutifully clicked the 'check for updates' button on the screen and it immediately came back saying 'No soup for you'. Say what? The DLink website is littered with messages about the new whizbang 1.04 firmware that is a panacea of all your ills with firmware 1.03.

The DLink website has a FAQ entry on how to update the firmware. Ah, I said. Perhaps we are doing something wrong, foolishly just clicking on the update button and expecting it to work. The Entry says:

Step 1: Point the remote control towards the DSM-320 and then press Setup.
Step 2: Go to Version and then press Enter.
Step 3: Highlight Check For Updates and then press Enter. You will be prompted if there is an update available or not.

Wow. So that was the problem, I wasn't pointing the remote at the unit. Oh wait, I guess that wasn't the problem.

After that ridiculousness, I got forceful.

You see, all the firmware update does is go out to, download a version file (either the US one, or the World-Wide one), and if the latest version is newer, downloads it. The problem was that the world-wide version file says 1.03 is the newest version. For unknown reasons Best Buy sold my Mom a unit with the world-wide firmware.

So, we forced the update with some trickery. I downloaded all the files, and edited the world-wide version info file to point to the 1.04 firmware. The firmware is the same, except for some online radio options being disabled in the world-wide version. Then I added an ip address to my computer of what resolved to, and routed the media lounge through my computer instead of the router. Then, when I installed an FTP server on my computer the Media Lounge downloaded the updated firmware and updated itself.

Just what you would expect an average customer to do, right?

After a bit more testing of the unit with the upgraded firmware, everything seemed to be working. So we traveled back over to my parent's house to try the unit there.

To everyone's surprise the DSM-320 worked!

Well, sort of. It still refused to work on the wired network, even when jacked directly into the router. But it was happy to stream music and pictures over the wireless network.

The videos were a different story. At first, when I had about 16G of videos shared, the MediaLounge wouldn't play anything. When I reduced it to about 8G it would play the videos, but only in a strange 'vertically narrow' view. Changing the video output to 4:3 letterbox mysteriously fixed the problem, which makes no sense since my parent's TV is 16:9.

But even when the video looked correct, the audio was all out of synch. It looks like a kung-fu movie, with everyone's mouth moving and then 1/2 second later they say something.

But, by that time on Monday it was again getting late. And we discovered that Windows Media Connect wasn't going to work on my parent's computer because they didn't have the .Net framework 1.1. So I left them downloading the 25M install.

Total Time Invested: 5 hours (over two days)
Total Progress Made: Music and Pictures can be played, over wireless network only

[ Continued in Part 3 ]

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Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Fantasy Football: Results

You can rest easy, the last fantasy football related post this season, I promise.

My team managed to put together a decent performance and win the consolation game last weekend. They ended up finishing in 3rd place.

If you are interested, here were the final standings:

1Mayville Cows
3Arena Football All-Stars
4Horicon Beavers
5Mama's Boys
6Duluth Dingos
7Zero Points
8Young Studs

The Horicon Beavers are Pete's team.
The Mamma's Boys are Whitney's team (Pete's wife).
The Duluth Dingos are Bill's team.
Zero Points is Brenden's team.

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Beta Testing

[ This is the other technological issue that side-tracked me on Sunday, and yesterday as it turns out. ]

Have you ever bought some sort of new whizbang technology product and while setting it up felt like it should have included a business card saying "Beta Tester/Quality Assurance - Whizbang Tech Corp"?

That's what my last two evenings have felt like, while trying to get my Dad's new DLink DSM-320 MediaLounge contraption working.

For those unaware, the MediaLounge is an appliance that lets you stream multimedia content (music, pictures, videos, etc) from you computer or the internet to your TV/stereo. This lets you do all sorts of geeky things like show slideshows of your pictures to friends, play all those CDs you ripped into mp3/wma on your stereo, and watch TV shows you might have acquired and converted into XVids.

Some people go to great lengths and/or expense to achieve this sort of functionality. Doing things like soldering mod-chips to their XBox so they can run XBox MediaCenter, buying overpriced dedicated Media PC hardware, or settling on a high-quality device with more limited functionality, like a squeezebox.

In theory these other options were less desirable then a DSM-320. The XBox has no remote power on/off ability, and the mod-chip and software are more-or-less illegal (at least with a useful mod-chip bios). The Media Center PC is $1500, and is bulky and noisy (as is the XBox). The Squeezebox only plays MP3s and has a goofy form factor that doesn't mesh well with other standard AV components.

So if someone was asked to research what sort of networked media player their father would want, they might come to the conclusion that the DSM-320 is the way to go. But what they wouldn't know, or didn't fully appreciate, was the complete lack of any sort of rudimentary testing DLink has done to the product. Apparently time-to-market was more critical then putting out a product that actually works out-of-the-box.

In theory, (have you noticed I've used that phrase a lot?) there isn't much to setting up a DSM-320. You install some server software on your PC, connect it to the stereo and TV, and plug it into your network. It should get a DHCP address, use UPNP to find the server and away you go. In Theory.

In practice, it didn't work that way, at all.

The first problem was self-inflicted, in that this was the first test of Dad's new cat-5 wiring downstairs. It wasn't readily apparent from the oh-so-helpful DLink error messages, but one of the ethernet jacks wasn't securely wired so the media lounge couldn't see the router reliably.

Once we discovered this, we decided to switch to using the wireless connection temporarily. No problem, just a few more configuration screens to go through, right? Wrong.

First, the device doesn't work with WPA-PSK networks, which is what I had configured the DI-624 to use. So, I changed it to 128bit WEP with and ASCII key. Except the DSM-320 wouldn't accept the network key, because it wasn't in HEX. So, in frustration we turned off all the encryption and the DSM-320 could finally see the router.

Next up, clicking 'Find All Servers' and the MediaLounge will magically discover the server. Except it won't. And doesn't give any sort of error message other then 'No Media Servers Found'. The software was running, the Windows XP firewall disabled, I could see it had bound the right network ports on the right IP addresses, but still nothing. I could even ping the DSM-320 from the PC so it wasn't a routing issue.

OK, so after some checking on the DLink site it looked like there was a newer version of firmware that fixed some bugs (including the ASCII WEP key problem), and supported Windows Media Connect server software. Sounded like it was worth a try. Except that the only way to upgrade the firmware is to click 'Check for new versions' on the MediaLounge. Assuming, apparently, that your network will allow it Internet access.

The flaw in that plan is the fact that my parents are probably the only people on the face of the planet who would have interest in a media center appliance, but still use a dial-up modem. So there is no Internet access from the network, and no easy way to reconfigure the PC to share the modem without likely totally hosing up the existing (working) connection.

At that point it was getting late on Sunday, so we admitted defeat for the evening.

Total time invested: 2.5 hours.
Total progress made: None (unless you count getting it to connect to a default unprotected wireless network)

[ Continued in Part 2 ]

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Monday, January 03, 2005

Sweet, Beautiful Silence

I didn't get around to posting anything yesterday because I was sidetracked by unexpectedly time-consuming technology issues.

The first actually started a few weeks ago; The computer began making a horrible buzzing noise. Well, worse then a buzzing noise really, more like a table saw. cutting sheet metal. with a dull, non-oiled blade. Right next to your head. Suffice to say it was annoying, and loud.

Yesterday I finally broke down and pulled the computer out from the corner and started trying to determine the source of the sound.

With the side of the case opened, the sound went from mildly headache inducing, to ear splittingly painful. And it was immediately apparent that it was coming from the fan on the northbridge chipset heatsink.

Now, it just so happens that we have an ABit IC7-G motherboard, which was known for having really, really crappy northbridge (or NB) fans. So much so, that they actually released a second revision of the motherboard with a newly redesigned heatsink and fan which was supposed to be improved.

When I ordered the motherboard from newegg, I specifically checked to make sure I was getting the latest revision, and they shipped the right one. The flaw in that plan was, apparently, assuming that if they went through the expense of custom designing a new heatsink and 20mm fan, that it would actually be improved. It wasn't.

After some research a second problem became apparent, ABit doesn't sell fan-less heatsinks (after all, I wasn't going to spend any money buying another one of their fans that broke in ~6 months). Also, they decided to attach their fancy-lad fan with a non-standard clip & hook system thus making most aftermarket heatsinks unusable.

Specifically, I wanted to get the Zalman ZM-NB32J heatsink (no fan required). But that one can only be used with the IC7-G motherboard (as far as I can tell) by using thermal adhesive (basically glorified epoxy) to permanently attach it to the NB chipset.

Also, Zalman heatsinks aren't available many places locally. And ordering it online would mean I would be paying $5 shipping for a lousy $7 item.

Add to that the fact that I was pretty sick of having the sound of a DC-10 landing reverberating next to my desk, and I was in a bind. Drastic action was required.

I removed the heatsink and fan from the motherboard (thus messing up the thermal grease a bit) and took it downstairs for some 'convincing'. Once it was laying on the dryer in pieces, soaking in some WD-40, we reached an understanding.

A bit of re-assembly later, and the office is now home to sweet, beautiful silence (or, relatively speaking, close to it).

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Saturday, January 01, 2005

New Year's Eve: Pictures

Tony, Vanessa, Jackie, Linzy, Me, and Gerard.

Felicia, Linzy and Dan.

The aftermath from a game of Up and Down the River.

Jackie, Dan, Linzy and Vanessa.

Gerard's doing just fine.

Linzy and Me.

Dan showing how flexible he is.

Everyone playing Moose.

Someone was a bit tired the next morning.

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