Technical Difficulties from on Top of the Mountain
  The strange world of eBay
I've been buying a few things on eBay, and some of the lots can only be described as interesting. It started with a nail gun I needed to help build the workshop on the back of my garage. Now a new one is over $300, and I knew the exact model and brand I wanted (in fact I still had nails left over from building the garage), and it turns out that Hitachi nailers are the preferred brand online as well. There's quite a few sellers and buyers for it.

Now most items were going for $120-$150 (with some variation due to reputation, shipping and "AS IS"), but it also turned out that labeling had an impact. Not clearly labelling an item gained you less buyers, and mis-labeling could really sink you. See there's the NR83A full head nailer, then the NR83AA clipped head nailer (avoid), and the NV83A coil gun nailer, NR83A2 (newer version of the 83A), NR83A2S (newest version with single shot safety--double nailing with the original gun is something you have to practise to avoid), NR90AC2 strip nailer, NV50AP roof nailer, etc etc. You get the idea.

So one listing was for a NV83A and didn't have a picture in the category list, but the picture in the item listing itself was clearly a NR83A. Needless to say, I was all over it. When the dust settled, I had a used nail gun for $73. Not bad if you don't count the week of surfing and sniping.

So, having gotten my toes wet, I decided to check out other items online and see what I could get. Right about this time, Max had a birthday, and one our friends gave him some LEGOs. Now these things are expensive (I should know, I have a bunch from when I was a kid), but I thought to myself, here's another opportunity for eBay. Turns out they have a lot of LEGOs on eBay. Like thousands and thousands of items for sale (ranging from ten cents to thousands of dollars--some people take this LEGO toy stuff pretty seriously). Anyways, I narrowed my search down to just bulk bricks and lots. Here, Items range anywhere from a few speciality bits to hundreds of pounds of bulk LEGOs.

My first buy was great, I started small with a lot of six pounds. It was a great little lot with lots of cool pieces, tires, etc. Very happy. My next set was 16lbs and not as nice. A lot of knockoff blocks and a lot of bent pieces, about 3/4 of a pound. I groused to the seller a bit about it, but decided to just let it be.

Moving up the scale, my next set was 30 pounds.

The LEGO pieces were in pretty good shape (in comparison to the previous lot), but as I started sorting through the pieces (to remove really tiny bits that Zakary was likely to try and eat), what was interesting was not the quantity of non-LEGO bits, but the variety of things I found. My junk pile ended up including:

Now, Max is allergic to peanuts, so I'm glad I went through all these pieces. Am I upset about all the junk? I think sellers could do a better job, especially dreynold who took the time to lay this whole set out in detail and take pictures of the pieces. But its probably an unwritten rule that large lots come with 5-10% junk, and you just live with it. Besides, Max actually liked a bunch of these extras, and added them to his treasures colleciton.

So is that it? I mean, there's over 55 pounds to play with at this point (its a little trick to dig through all of them). Well, no. There's another 60lbs on the way from Atlanta, if they ever get around to shipping it. Another unwritten rule of eBay is 1 out of 3 times the seller will be plunged into the middle of some family emergency right in the middle of your auction. Its kind of like the rule that every time I apply for a mortgage, the adjuster (or his supervisor or someone else who has to sign off on loan) goes on vacation for two weeks right in the middle of my application being processed. Max will just have to get by with what he has for the time being (poor guy).

So what could you possibly need hundreds of pounds of legos for? Well there are LEGO clubs out there, like Lugnut and rtlToronto who do things like build entire train layouts and LEGO cities. And there's the annual BrickFest convention where you can get even more crazy ideas. Some of these guys must have thousands of pounds:

(Select view image for larger version)

  I want a new Treo 650
My current Sprint phone does just enough data services to show me that it would be useful if it worked, but on regular handsets its worthless. Fixed width fonts on a 130x120 screen. I get about 16 characters across (maybe), and for some stupid reason when I'm reading email it only downloads 256 bytes at a time (then you have to press <next> and load the next nibble). Chris had a Treo 600, and it worked much better. There were rumors about a hires one from last January, but the same thing happened the year before with the original Treo. They hype led the actual product by >9mo.

So at one point I talked myself into getting one. Searched around (unfortunately the really good rebate plans were already gone), but I found a vendor on ebay that could sell me the phone for $400 and no activation. Called up, ordered it, got a call back the next day--sorry we can't do that deal in Arizona. Dang I hate it when God tells me I have to wait.

So wait I have, every once in a while checking the search engines for more news. Well last month there was a little news and a scratch picture. But yesterday someone got their hands on a working one, fired it up and Posted the results. (See pages 5 and 7.) Now the last time treocentral had pics, Palm made them take them down, so here's a copy in case they disappear.

Thanks to WeeBitObsessed who was apparently a good source of early information on the original Treo 600 as well.

  Create your own niche
Say you worked in a big candy factory, one that made candy canes, and well, sometimes the candy canes get broken. The staff can only eat so many, so pretty soon you have pounds and pounds (or tons and tons) of it on hand. Hey, maybe somebody would buy those broken ones. Maybe you could even start your own business, just selling broken candy canes. Sound crazy? Well somebody did it.

The perfect thing for that sweet tooth in the family: A 30lb case of broken candy canes. Or if you're cooking and need them crushed (like for deserts or ice cream), they're also available in bits.

  Just too funny
At Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About, Mil tries to survive life, despite the difficulties he's taken on, like a girlfriend that is dangerously insane. Examples:
Margret thinks I'm vain because... I use a mirror when I shave. During this argument in the bathroom - our fourth most popular location for arguments, it will delight and charm you to learn - Margret proved that shaving with a mirror could only be seen as outrageous narcissism by saying, 'None of the other men I've been with,' (my, but it's all I can do to stop myself hugging her when she begins sentences like that) 'None of the other men I've been with used a mirror to shave.'

'Ha! Difficult to check up on that, isn't it? As all the other men you've been with can now only communicate by blinking their eyes!' I said.
Much later.
When Margret had left the house.

After I cleaned up from laughing so hard that milk came out of my nose, I ventured further.
I know from the emails I get that a fair number of you are holed up in Wyoming basements surrounded by automatic weapons, livestock and racks of cassettes filled with analysis of the Book of Revelations you've recorded off talk radio. If you have a moment, go and look in your freezer. That's how Margret stocks our freezer too. She doesn't buy one of anything. She waits until she finds it, 'Buy Two - Get One Free,' and then she buys nine. Moreover, she can't manage to suppress an indulgent smile - as though I'm a father telling my teenage daughter that her skirt might give boys all the wrong signals - when I suggest that checking to see how full the freezer is before she starts buying extra stuff for it might be a good idea. Beyond the simply obvious - they'll have terraformed Mars before our family runs out of oven chips, for example - there is another consequence of this. The sheer volume of food that needs to be crammed into the freezer means it's only possible at all because Margret employs various ruses.

The first is brute force. Basically, she just hammers things into the drawers with the heel of her shoe. Which works, but at the expense of horrifically deforming whatever she's storing. We're all used to this now, naturally. Jonathan pretty much expects his turkey dinosaurs to be a collection of misshapen body parts: they're turkey dinosaurs, as modelled on the scenes of carnage the day after the comet hit Earth. It really only becomes an issue when he has friends round, asks them if they'd like an Cornetto ice cream and is then bemused by their expression of stark horror when he returns holding something that looks like it's been trampled by horses.


True love, what a mess.

As I've said before, the secret of a successful relationship is to become irretrievably embroiled in a bitter struggle to the death. -- Mill Millington
  Managing well
Dave has been looking at the tragedy of the commons and wondering how it can be prevented. While a ruined field, or a poisoned pond is a problem, we're on course to do the same thing to the whole planet if we can't find some answers. I've looked at a lot of communities (both real world and online), and there are definately scaling problems once your general population reaches a certain point.

John Saul was a big fan of representational government. Perhaps larger projects could be managed by representatives of their constituency. The key is to engage people in problem solving in selfless ways, with policy and mechanisms that create the expectation of participation and feedback mechanisms (like social and moral pressure) that keep us in line. (Everyone has their weak moments.)

When Toyota had a key supplier destroyed by a fire in 1997 and only a three day inventory of parts, it wasn't Toyota's large size that saved them. It was hundreds of vendors, individuals, and line managers at Toyota, working together on a common goal in a decentralized fashion that solved the problem and new parts were being created by other suppliers in three days, with full production volume reached in a week. The problem was broken down, information was shared, and the pieces of the answer were crafted in a thousand different ways, but in the end it all came together.

Like Pollard, I am optimistic about the future. We need a thousand new solutions to move us forward, but we do need grand challenges and big goals. Saving the planet is a good idea, but most people don't understand that it has all gone horribly wrong. Like Kennedy's call to his generation, our leaders (ok maybe not the current ones, but maybe some future ones) need to step up and call on people not to make their own lives better, but to make the world better for their children and their children's children. By succeeding at that goal, we can look back on our lives with a sense of accomplishment and hope for the future.

  Technical Difficulties with Nature
August is monsoon season up here and so we get a lot of rain and lightning this month. It was heavy enough a couple weeks ago to knock out our power for a few hours. Unfortunately, whatever bandaid they applied didn't last long, and yesturday the storm knocked out the power again. Now last time the UPS kept running everything in the basement just fine (if you don't mind a high pitched annoying whine from the alarm), and I ran my laptop for another hour before my ears started bleeding and I decided to take a break. This time however, things were not fine.

I had not been downstairs at the time of the strike since a delivery truck had just dropped off 16 pounds of legos and Max had dragged me up to check it out (he had patiently waited all week for this latest addition to his growing collection). When I checked back in a few minutes later, every open socket connection on my laptop had failed (both local and remote). I still had a link light on my laptop, and all the other local servers, switches, and routers were still up, but I couldn't talk to anything. I tried routing through a different switch, but then I noticed that the switch link to the router was dark, and my laptop couldn't sustain a connection when plugged straight into the NAT box (it kept blinking on and off).

None of the servers could see each other or the internet either, but by now the stupid UPS alarm was getting on my nerves, so I shut everthing down and went back upstairs to play legos some more. Finally, several hours later, they got the power fixed (again), and I went to survey the damage. Things still weren't working right off so I notched things up to the next level. When multiple things are suspect, its best to seperate out the tests by either trying things out individually (which in the case of a network is a little hard to do), so the next best thing is to bring in other equipment. Luckily I had a spare hub and laptop upstairs which wasn't plugged in at the time of the strike, so it was more likely to be working.

Step one was to plug my laptop and the test laptop into the test hub and see if my laptop was still working at all. Success number one was that the two laptops could talk to each other. This was a relief, as a spare mini-PCI card is not something that can be picked up locally in Flagstaff. I could also talk to the netgear box which was a relief, as previously neither my laptop nor the 3com switch could talk to it. For some reason one of my servers would show up on the 3com, but the others wouldn't, so I wasn't too hopeful about it working. I linked the hub and the switch together, and I could talk between the laptop and the one server, but the other one wouldn't turn up. When I plugged one of the other servers into the hub it worked ok, so I'm still not clear where the problem is there.

I tried plugging the one that was working in the switch into the hub, but it wouldn't work in the hub. Strange. Then I tried switching ports on the hub and it did work. Oh great, my working hub has a bad port on it too. Well, there's enough working slots that I can get my critical servers and laptop up. I'll have to tackle a long term solution when I'm more calm.

  Radical ideas for C++
I tend to get the most millage out of C++ ideas when they're really out there. Like combining smart_ptr's and iterator's, I use that all the time now and it makes iterating through sets two or three lines of code. Tonight, however, I reached my limit on writing the same old:
  if (p) p-> func() ;
There's got to be a way of making a NULL safe pointer. You can already delete NULL if you want to, no harm there. How about letting us deref NULL or call it: NULL-> func() which of course would do nothing. Fine, there's some implementation details to work out, like what's the return type for * NULL, but if I can just cut out 90% of my
  return (p) ? * p : NULL ;
I'll be happy. Time to put the old thinking hat on.
  Very clever junk mail
I don't get a whole lot of junk mail in my home email box because I try to be careful about giving out that address (I have yahoo accounts I give out instead), and my ISP does junk filtering. Occasionally some get through, and the vast majority get picked off few a few choice filter words like prescription. Once in a while one gets past even that, and since only six people email me on a regular basis, its pretty obvious that there's something strange. Like the email I got tonight from "Jeanette Ellis".

So, standard operating procedure is to engage a level five containment field, and then "view source". I've already got javascript disabled in email, but viewing source makes sure no images are loaded or any other actions taken. It also shows me all the tricks that spammers try to play with white text and font size=0 nonsense. At least it usually does.

This email was masterfully crafted. Better than a soft pitch, this was an email worded kind of like I would, were I sharing something interesting:

I got this forwarded to me from a friend of mine, thought you might want to see it.
link deleted
You can download [stuff] and there's no restrictions, and there's a helpful section that explains how to transfer it to a CD or your portable device. Drop me a line once you've checked it out, let me know what you think. Its pretty cool...
All text, no HTML tricks, no graphics. Heck I read the whole thing. No way I'm clicking on the link, but it was pretty impressive. There's just no way to filter for this kind of attack because its indistinguishable from normal human correspondence.
  HerdThinners faces blogging
Herd Thinners has been examining a little bit of the social issues one faces when one starts blogging. Among them, getting over the difficulty of exposing ones own thoughts to complete strangers. Finally the character Lindesfarne took the plunge and opened up her blog. Her reaction was explained thus:

I'm sure she'll adjust. The rest of us seem to.

  Going to siggraph
So, I managed to arrange my schedule to give me an excuse to head out to siggraph this year.

Its been a long time since I was last at siggraph, at least seven years. Long ago, I was a devout follower, attending every show from 1987 to 1995. Whether it was in our backyard (Anaheim, LA), in the scorching desert (Las Vegas), or on the other side of the country (Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, Orlando), I was there by hook or by crook. Sometimes just taking the sights in, othertimes trying to be a part of that crazy thing called the computer graphics market. Knowing some of the big names in the industry was helpful (Jim Blinn, Jim Kajiya, Al Barr, John Schneider, Dave Kirk, Tim Kay) and through them, rubbing shoulders with just about everybody else...

Eventually I developed additional contacts over on the business side of the industry (Mark Sylvester, Wavefront; Kim Davidson, SideFX; Joe Alter, 4Dimension; Chris Walker, Modern Cartoons; Bill Konersman, Disney; etc.), and it was good to go see what all my old friends were up to. Maybe, if I'm lucky, I can drum up more CG business.

  Most memorable launch
The kids had a ball with the Rocket Launch, and after a little while started getting creative. Now the nose of the rockets was paper, and after one or two launches, the paper was completely wet and was no longer a cone, but rather a wet soggy mess. While no longer providing much aerodynamic value, there was still enough structural integrity to the paper, that it would hold together, and could even possibly provide some passenger space (for the right kind of passenger).

Now the kids had been going fishing the last two days in the mornings. They hadn't caught any fish, but one kid had caught a crawdad (a real ugly sucker), and for some reason it was onhand. So crawdy became our first test pilot and was loaded onto the rocket.

The flight was beautiful. The rocket shot straight up, lost its speed at apogee, released its passenger and dropped back to the ground. The airborne crawdad spun lazily and tumbled back to the ground, all eyes glued to until it hit the gravel road with a satisfying thud. The crowd cheered mighily for what was probably a state record of the highest altitude attained by a crawdad flying solo on a rocket.

  MacGyver would be proud
When Greg picked me up to go to camp, while loading several tons of welding equipment and scrap metal, I noticed that he had more than thirty 2L bottles of soda tucked away in the back. Seeing that, I was thinking to myself, this is my kind of road trip.

Turns out, all that soda wasn't just to keep me happily carbonated. Instead, it was sprung on me that I would be responsible for constructing some kind of launcher for soda bottle water rockets. Now it turns out that there are tons of web sites and plans for the rockets and the launchers, but mostly these sites are mostly by people with way too much time on their hands, who have created extensive launch systems and constant redesigns of their rockets. Having neither time, nor much hardware at my disposal, I instead needed to think more like MacGyver. What I needed to build was the world's simplest two liter bottle water rocket launcher.

So at camp, the first thing I did was finish drinking a 2L bottle of soda, and then go looking around to see what parts I had at my disposal. Luckily the camp has a fair collection of random lumber, electrical and plumbing supplies; so after passing over boxes of PVC (hey, I'm here to weld, remember?), I collected up an assortment of various kinds of metal pipe. There was some electrical conduit that was small enough, but joining it to anything was going to be a pain. There was some copper pipe, but I suck at brazing, and I didn't see any fittings. Finally I found some black pipe (which wasn't black anymore), that it just happened to fit inside the 2L bottle (very snuggly in fact). There were various lengths, with threads on each end, and a couple of elbows. I also found an odd collection of adaptors that actually hooked up an air-compressor fitting to a 2" pipe. After taking most of the adaptors apart, I had a perfectly good air fitting to half inch pipe adaptor for the other end of my pipe.

(Click for larger version)

What you see is what you get for the most part. The pipe sticks up into the bottle (hopefully a little above the water line), the pipe goes down to the elbow, to another short section of pipe (which was chosen only because it was it already attached to the elbow), which then connects to the adaptor where the air fitting is screwed in. The air compressor hose is attached to this.

Did it work? Could you have any doubts? Of course it did. We'd shove the bottles on there, hook up the air hose (to a el-cheapo compressor putting out about 40lbs of pressure while leaking air through several holes, bent lines, and rotted seals), the rocket would fill up with pressure and then zip it was gone. This kept thirty kids busy for close to an hour; and threw most of these rockets up in the air over 100'. Interesting, a few times, the rocket would stay stuck on the launch pad, but just the slightest tap to the side of the rocket would be enough to send it off. We tried some smaller water bottles that had about the same size neck, but they were like 0.3mm larger and so would not stick. However we did get a fair altitude by having the kids hold onto the neck of the bottle while pressurizing (do not try this at home unless you are as crazy as these kids were).

Oh, and if you study the larger picture close enough, you will notice a flat metal plate at the base of the pipe where it sets on the stand. That plate is there because I had lots of scrap metal with me, a drill, a cutting torch, and a welder. (I was here to weld, remember?) Otherwise it is probably completely superfluous, though it made a nice stop for the bottles, and actually helped provide a pretty good seal plate for starters. If you have a welder, go ahead and put one on. Otherwise, I wouldn't worry about it.

  Human nature
So I am predicting that Bush will be not be re-elected this fall. (or rather that he will fail to be elected, again, as some people put it.)

But its not for any good reason, like his personal vendetta against Iraq, or Chenny's secretly pulling the strings behind the scene, or the gutting of environmental laws, or professing to be a Christian but not actually displaying any of the attributes of Christ, or turning back 200 years of struggles for freedom with the homeland defense big brother initiatives, or his record high budget deficits, or tax breaks for the rich, or any other of the many good reasons. These are all good reasons for thinking people, but lets face it, we're in the minority.

No, what will bring Bush down, is something that's almost not his fault. Its actually mostly a Republican issue that's gone back to the days of Reagan: not supporting energy research. They've supported big oil and massive consumption, and now its come back to bite them. We're actually using as much as there is out there (in terms of pumping capacity), and China is now trying to use more and more of it, so there's a shortage. And its a shortage that impacts everyone equally.

So, with gas prices at more than $2/gallon, people are feeling the pain, and will vote for someone new for president this year.

  One part science fiction, one part horror
Mix the three laws of robotics with the current self destructive tendancy of the republicants to support corporations and businesses over the people that they are actualy supposed to represent, and you get:
  1. A Republican may not injure a corporation, or, through inaction, allow a corporation to come to harm.
  2. A Republican must obey the orders given it by corporations except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A Republican must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Mixed up at the Whiskey Bar

Life in the middle of nowhere, remote programming to try and support it, startups, children, and some tinkering when I get a chance.

January 2004 / February 2004 / March 2004 / April 2004 / May 2004 / June 2004 / July 2004 / August 2004 / September 2004 / October 2004 / November 2004 / December 2004 / January 2005 / February 2005 / March 2005 / April 2005 / May 2005 / June 2005 / July 2005 / August 2005 / September 2005 / October 2005 / November 2005 / December 2005 / January 2006 / February 2006 / March 2006 / April 2006 / May 2006 / June 2006 / July 2006 / August 2006 / September 2006 / October 2006 / November 2006 / December 2006 / January 2007 / February 2007 / March 2007 / April 2007 / June 2007 / July 2007 / August 2007 / September 2007 / October 2007 / November 2007 / December 2007 / January 2008 / May 2008 / June 2008 / August 2008 / February 2009 / August 2009 / February 2010 / February 2011 / March 2011 / October 2011 / March 2012 / July 2013 / August 2013 / September 2013 / October 2013 / November 2013 / December 2013 / December 2014 / February 2015 / March 2015 / July 2016 / September 2016 / December 2016 / April 2017 / June 2017 / July 2018 / November 2018 / January 2019 / February 2019 / April 2019 / December 2019 / March 2020 /

Paul Graham's Essays
You may not want to write in Lisp, but his advise on software, life and business is always worth listening to.
How to save the world
Dave Pollard working on changing the world .. one partially baked idea at a time.
Eric Snowdeal IV - born 15 weeks too soon, now living a normal baby life.
Land and Hold Short
The life of a pilot.

The best of?
Jan '04
The second best villain of all times.

Feb '04
Oops I dropped by satellite.
New Jets create excitement in the air.
The audience is not listening.

Mar '04
Neat chemicals you don't want to mess with.
The Lack of Practise Effect

Apr '04
Scramjets take to the air
Doing dangerous things in the fire.
The Real Way to get a job

May '04
Checking out cool tools (with the kids)
A master geek (Ink Tank flashback)
How to play with your kids

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