Random Life, Data Hoarding, Pictures

The Random Life project is running out of steam, which is fine. I have posted 100 videos, and I’m about out of footage. They’re scheduled to come out one a day for the next month. 81 are live as of this second. I might get bored and post all of them in one big deluge. I’ve pretty much scoured all of my old tapes and what’s come out of my digital cameras. Maybe a second pass through the old Hi8 would reveal more, but I think doing more on this involves me leaving the house, which won’t happen any time soon.

I had some vague idea that I’d take all of the footage — I’m not sure how long it is, maybe an hour? — and glue it all together and make one long “movie” out of it. There are a few problems with that, most notably that that aspect ratios of things differ. The other is that iDVD was the perfect software for making a nice version of this, and it died a few years ago. Also, I thought it would be neat to list it using CreateSpace, and I could order DVDs on demand, but they stopped doing that a while ago. And I don’t know how I would even play a DVD anymore, without digging out an old external drive. The other issue is that with no plot or linear story, people wouldn’t “get it,” which is probably why the project has mostly gone nowhere. But I’m sure in a year or two when this is completely out of my head, this will seem interesting again.

* * *

So, I’ve had FreeNAS installed on my data hoarding server since maybe 2014, and never updated it. The machine itself is a Lenovo TS-140, which is great because it’s low-power but also supports server-type stuff like ECC memory. I threw FreeNAS on it and set up a ZFS pool with three drives in it, which gave me something like three or four terabytes of redundant storage. I run Plex on it and it can transcode videos on-the-fly, which is good because every time I have an AVI or something and I need to watch it on a real TV, I don’t want to have to google the entire history of video compression to figure out how to view it. The server is also a black hole of large PDFs I will never read. There’s about a half-terabyte of government PDFs about UFOs, and I now have zero interest in that, but I can’t just delete them.

Anyway, I had a drive fail in that pool in 2019? or so, and it was an easy and fun process to replace it. No data loss, because of the redundancy. I bought a larger drive, swapped it out, and it “resilvered” it with the stripes of redundant data from the other ones and magically healed itself. The pool size is calculated based on the smallest drive in the pool, and that thing had two 3TB drives and I replaced the dead one with a 4TB, but didn’t have the cash or will to buy three new drives. I replaced the 3TB with a 6TB, and that expanded the pool to 5TB. If I was smart, I’d do the math and come up with some schedule where I rotated out the oldest drive with the biggest I could afford at some regular interval, but I’m too lazy to figure this out.

Felt a need to upgrade this thing, because I’m sure it’s full of security holes, and my TV started complaining it needed a newer version of Plex, and the NAS wouldn’t upgrade it anymore until I upgraded the OS. I thought maybe I’d do incremental upgrades, like go from 9.0 to 9.1 to 10.0, etc etc. I did the first minor upgrade and it bricked the machine. So I needed a different plan.

I’d heard the new versions of TrueNAS (they changed the name from FreeNAS for some damn reason, probably money-related) kill USB thumb drives, which I was using to boot for the last 7 years. I’m surprised that one lasted as long as it did. So I bought a small SSD drive (120GB) for thirty bucks, and installed that in the box as a boot drive. Then I got the latest TrueNAS installer, booted from that, and did a fresh install. Imported the old pool, installed a fresh Plex install, added an AFP share so my Macs see it, and done. I ran into zero kinks in the install, and the web dashboard looks all shiny and new.

I just realized nobody will care about the last few paragraphs. I run into that a lot. Why do I even do this anymore? I think someone famous said “I write things down so I won’t forget them.” Or maybe that was the marketing slogan for a hipster notebook. I didn’t write it down, so I forgot.

* * *

Oh yeah, Shuttle photos from the trip are on Flickr:

Also, I have a ton of pictures of NAS Alameda that need to be sorted and labelled and organized, but here’s a raw dump of all of them:

I don’t know who still uses Flickr, if anyone. I noticed my last photo dump was my Vegas trip right before the pandemic started. I’m not sure if that’s because of the lack of travel, or my general apathy about sorting and organizing photos.

* * *

I have to drive to the dentist in a minute. I’ve already covered this earlier, but I still go to the dentist I had in 2008 when I lived in South San Francisco. The drive stinks, but he’s a good dentist, and he’s open Saturdays. His practice is attached to a rapidly dying mall, and there are all of the usual ghosts from living there way back when. Oh, and he’s got to drill up two teeth, and I have to pay for it.


The Death of the Good Internet

I’ve been meaning to write a post about this forever, but someone else at The Ringer did such a great job of it. Check it:

The Day the Good Internet Died

The one thing I find interesting about this article is the thought that maybe it wasn’t that the death of Google Reader killed off blogging, but that the death of blogging killed off Google Reader. It’s true that we all devolved into social media doom-scrolling instead of actually reading, but another factor is that Google was pushing people into Google Plus, and the asinine assumption that people would rather find what they wanted to read by scrolling through eleventy million messages rather than going to a list of exactly what they wanted to read. (What Google actually meant was that they wanted you to scroll through eleventy billion messages, with every fourth message being an ad someone paid them to run.)

I’m old enough to remember the first wave of blogs and interesting/time-wasting web sites, because I spent a lot of the late 90s and early 00s paging through them while I was at work or sitting at home without cable TV. But in that pre-Reader era, I did it by having folders of bookmarks. I’d go to my “daily” folder and sequentially click through each bookmark, trying to remember where I left off the day before. This was a great way to waste time, but not user-friendly, and it required me to remember where I left off. (I still had a memory then, which did help.)

Compared to this, Google Reader was amazing. I could keep track of everything in one place, and read the things in order, with counts of unread articles, and indications of what I already did see. All of this was possible because of RSS, which was a perfect example of the interoperable web. The closely-related iGoogle also had the ability to make a widget based on a web page’s RSS feed, and RSS was very integral to the advent of the podcast. It was so mind-blowing and vital at the time, that I hacked together a script that would output RSS for the pre-WordPress version of this blog, which was hacked together with a bunch of homebrew shell scripts, emacs extensions, PHP, and gaffer’s tape.

After the death of GR, I went on to Feedly, but every blog I read either died a high-profile death, or stagnated with no new posts. I keep hearing about these revival of blogging things and people saying Medium or or Longreads or Substack or whatever the hell else is the next big thing. And no matter what it is, it devolves into people selling Tony Robbins-esque bullshit classes on how to get rich in real estate. There are still a ton of people blogging, but “blogs” are now the things hanging off the side of dentists’ web sites and posting daily listicles about proper gum care to increase their SEO.

I used to bitch about how the money people and con men would fuck up the web long before the web even existed. I started throwing letters into this void (ala usenet) before AOL’s Eternal September started. In 1995, at my first real job. I was writing docs for one of the first web browsers that added SSL, while a marketing drone stood in front of my desk barking about how they needed to ship this immediately so they could sell fifty-dollar t-shirts on the web for the first time ever, and I thought this is not going to end well. And it didn’t.

And now, every time Google drops a vital service or Facebook decides they want me to look at stuff in a new inconvenient way, I always have a first thought: maybe I’m just too old for this stuff, and when I lose my shit because I’m forced to watch a TikTok video to figure out how to change my refrigerator’s water filter, I’m doing the same thing my parents did in 1987 when they had an aneurysm and started screaming about the Japanese taking over because channel 16 suddenly moved to channel 34. But then I always remember: follow the money. Google Reader got killed so we could be forced to watch more ads. The Facebook algorithm is set up to force us to watch more ads. Amazon stopped putting the names of products in their receipts because Google was using them to sell more ads. Everything is because of money. I was right. The money people ruin everything.

Baker’s article brings up an old Alex Balk article, which says the following:

Here I will impart to you Balk’s Third Law: “If you think The Internet is terrible now, just wait a while.” The moment you were just in was as good as it got. The stuff you shake your head about now will seem like fucking Shakespeare in 2016.

This is so fucking true it hurts. I blogged almost every day in 2010-2011, frequently wishing blogging was as good as it was in 2004, which is when I was bitching about how much better personal journals (the predecessor to blogs) were back when I started this stupid site in 1996. Now I wish things were as good as 2011.

I always wonder if there will be another era of Good Internet, or if we’re in the middle of it and I don’t realize it. All I know is blogging is still important to me, because I know as long as I keep paying my bills, I can still keep my stuff here, even if nobody can find it anymore.



Ode to a Mid-2010 MacBook Pro

My MacBook died yesterday. Shit.

It wasn’t a full-on, catastrophic death, the kind with no backup and fire and smoke and no hope. It was more of a long goodbye. I replaced the battery last fall, the third battery in its almost five years of heavy use. It looked like the battery was holding a full charge, an app saying it had low cycles and high milliamp-hours. But it would lose a few percent per minute, and then would get down to about 20% and power off with no warning.

I thought this was one of those background-process-sucking-power things, like some damn Adobe vampire lurking in the shadows, constantly pinging home and scanning every file on the hard drive. I tried killing everything imaginable, and then tried a fresh install, zapping the NVRAM, resetting the SMC. After a 24-hour marathon of file copying and reinstalling, it died on 90% battery.

I bought this computer in 2010, in the spring. I jumped on board right on the first day of the new model, when the first i7 Macs appeared. I remember this well, because it was right after I switched jobs and left Samsung, so I worked in Palo Alto. I was in a funk, writing-wise, trying to pull back out of a long stretch of not doing anything except writing every day about how I could not write.

I drove to the Apple store in Palo Alto on my lunch hour to buy the computer. They had them in stock, and $2500 later, I had the top-of-the-line 15-inch MacBook Pro. I took it back to my cube, unboxed it, snapped photos, and took a quick look. Then it sat on my desk while I stared at it, waiting until the end of my shift for my long commute back to the house. Then I plugged it into my old Mac, and did the eternal wait for the migration assistant to slowly slurp all of the files from one hard drive to another.

This was both exciting and sad. I had an unusual attachment to my first Macbook, one of the 2007 white plastic not-Pro Macbooks. I wanted a new laptop bad, but wasn’t working that summer. I was sitting on a bunch of junk after we moved to Denver, though – things I could easily dump on eBay. There were years of bachelor-mode acquisitions ripe for the picking: collectible coins, old electronics, DVD and CD box sets, and a bunch of barely-used gadgets and trinkets. I spent the first part of the summer unloading all of this on eBay, making sales and watching auctions and driving to the Denver post office to ship off boxes and packages to far-off buyers around the country. The PayPal balance grew, and by the end of June, I got within target, and orderedd my new machine. I then watched the tracking number, as the machine left China, went to Anchorage, and then jetted down to Colorado. I loved that machine, and it went with me everywhere. It also represented that odd, brief period of 2007, a period of nostalgic landing I always want to visit again.

That machine got quickly retired for its more powerful aluminum unibody sibling. And by the fall of 2010, I started working from home, and got a lot more serious about writing. I can’t thank the machine or the schedule, but launched into a new mode of writing and publishing. And that machine was at the center of all of it. Since I got that MacBook Pro, I’ve published five books (plus republished another) and probably written a half-million words, easy. I also used it for a lot of photography, video, music, and other work. It’s been a real workhorse, and I’ve become very attached to it over the last four and a half years.

That Mac has held up well, all things considered. It did have the dreaded NVIDIA curse, though. That was the first model with a discrete video processor on the logic board, a second GPU that it could switch to for heavy processing, or shut back off for better power use. And a lot of the machines had bad failures. Mine started to crap out a few months in, and ended up getting two logic board replacements, along with a battery replacement because of a recall issue. I doubled the memory, and moved to an SSD. But otherwise, the machine ran well, and lasted longer than any other laptop I’ve had.

I managed to bring that thing everywhere, too. It went to Europe twice; the Midwest a bunch of times; work trips to New York; Hawaii; a bunch of trips all over California. I got a lot of writing done on the road, because I used it as both my desktop and portable. It got scratches and scuffs, but that aluminum case kept it together, and still looks decent.

The battery thing was the kicker, though. I don’t even know if the battery itself was bad, or if it’s another logic board flake-out. It’s still a decent machine, CPU-wise, although the lowest-end MacBook Air now benchmarks higher than the 2010 top-of-the-line. It didn’t have USB3 or Thunderbolt, and had the slower SATA bus, so the SSD drive didn’t work at full speed. I also could not increase the RAM any more than 8GB, and it would not mirror its display to an Apple TV. I seemed to get in at exactly the wrong time, when all of these technical innovations were showing up. It was a great machine, but it was starting to show its age.

After yesterday’s death, I gave up, ran to the Apple store, and bought the latest MacBook Pro Retina. I went down to the 13-inch model, which feels insanely light and small compared to the old one. I’ve spent the last day porting things over, and it’s such a huge improvement in speed. Plus it’s got USB and Thunderbolt, and gigabit ethernet, and the Retina display is insanely nice. Most importantly, I’ve been working for an hour now, and the battery is just down to 97%.

So, start of a new era.  And PSA: BACK UP YOUR MACHINE. Go get a CrashPlan account, drag your important stuff to Dropbox, and get an external drive.  Get two, they’re cheap.  Now, on to the next era of writing with this new toy.


Ode to a busted cell processor

God damn it. It is broken. Again.

My PS3 is in a shop somewhere in Missouri, getting the yellow light of death beaten out of it. It went south in November and got all of the solder stripped away, the whole mess ultrasonically cleaned, then reflowed. Or something. Now it is dead again.

I am at an deadlock with this new book. 100,000 words and I don’t even know what it is about, what order things should happen. I feel like that scene in the Naked Lunch movie where Ginsberg and Kerouac show up in Tangiers and Burroughs is strung out on junk, unaware that his apartment is filled with notes and routines that would later become his most popular book, but it’s this fucked mass of scribbles and jumbles.  I wish I had a Ginsberg that would show up and unfuck this book.  I keep at it though — it will eventually make sense.

This is the time where I would fire up Black Ops and walk away for a bit, let things ferment.  This is what’s staring at me when I want to do this: loose cables and a controller hooked up to nothing.

I would go out and buy a new PS3 slim, but that’s basically paying $300 to not write.  $300 when a PS4 is months away.  And it wouldn’t even play my old PS2 games.  I’d have to pay another $100 to get a PS2 also.

I have this sick attachment to this PS3, a heavy nostalgia, because back in 2007, when S worked 80 hours a week and I was jobless, I spent hours and hours writing this book I never finished, and working for a friend’s startup for free.  But then as day became night, I would fire up this PS3 and play it for hours.  I formed this stupid emotional bond for a piece of hardware that would someday become obsolete, someday die.  I sometimes fall in these deep nostalgic k-holes for the recent past and think about Denver a lot, and one of the top five things in those memories involve this black monolith of a video game system, which is why I struggle to keep it alive and UPS it to some dude in Missouri to get it re-repaired.

I have all of these dumb games for the iPad, but that’s just tapping on a screen.  The PlayStation creates these immersive worlds I get lost in for hours.  Back when Vice City came out, I would play it for hours, like it was my full-time job.  I’d come home from work on a Friday night, order a pizza, and fire up the machine, just to wander, to get a motorcycle and drive through neighborhoods and try to jump off of stuff, watch the people walking, find secret entrances or ways to climb on rooftops.  This was after I finished Rumored, when I was in a funk about dating and meeting people, when that postpartum depression after finishing a big book really kicked my ass.  I’d hole up in my Astoria apartment for entire weekends, at the DualShock controller.  It wasn’t healthy, and it wasn’t productive, but it was.

I can’t do that anymore, but I sometimes wish I could.  I should probably ignore this and get back to this goddamn book.


Dropping computers

My Mac is back in the shop.  It has TS4088.  When it switches GPUs to save power, if the computer is hot enough, it crashes.  It’s common on this specific make and vintage, and it’s the problem with buying a computer on the first day of a major revision.  I complained to the right person, and Apple agreed to swap out the entire logic board for free.  Now I just have to wait.  I’m using S’s computer in the meantime, which is much faster than my 2007 MacBook, but I only have my most vital of files on it, like my new book I’m writing.  Maybe this will make me get more done.

My computer is now just shy of three years old.  Once it is back, I am swapping in an SSD drive, which is currently sitting on my desk.  It’s still a good computer, fast and light and well-constructed and all of that.  The logic board thing is unfortunate.  I hope that when it’s replaced, I can get another year or two out of it, although three years is about the right timespan for upgrading.  The only thing I miss having is that the newer models can mirror their entire screen to the Apple TV, and mine can’t.  I don’t know what I’d use that for, especially since it’s easy enough for me to mirror any movies on my computer to the TV.

I went to the Apple store to drop it off.  I drive down this ghetto back road that is barely paved, like an Indiana road.  I hit a pothole and one of my wheel covers came off.  It rolled like a Tron deadly disc and went right under a moving semi truck.  Now my car looks weird, with three silver wheels and one black.  I went online and the official Toyota wheel cover is $80 each, or I can get a set of four generic ones with no Toyota logo for $30.  I ordered the generic ones.

As I was walking down from the second floor above me, there was a woman walking in front of me.  She looked sort of like that woman from Cagney and Lacey who was later on Nip/Tuck, the kind of woman that still wears 80s pantsuits with the giant padded shoulders.  She was trying to carry an airline roller bag down the stairs and somehow became discombobulated and fell dramatically, half-flinging the bag, which slammed into the metal hand rail, then bounced and hit the stairs hard, falling down a dozen steps to the landing.  The fall was so stupid and awkward, I was certain she triggered it from some kind of brain aneurysm.  I stopped and asked her if she was okay, and she said she was, but papers from the bag were everywhere.

I’ve been noticing more weird episodes like this every time I leave the house.  Like almost every time I go to a store, someone is in a shouting match with a clerk.  I went to the drug store last week, and this woman was screaming at the pharmacist.  HIPPA rules probably prevent the public disclosure of prescription information, but this woman was screaming the entire episode over and over, so I know what it was.  The pharmacist called her doctor to check on something, and it turns out they could not fill her vicodin prescription for two weeks because she just filled her methadone prescription.  It seems like everyone around is on massive amounts of oxycontin, and can’t sleep at night without valium, and takes a dozen of those five-hour energy drinks every day.  And then when they go to a store, and a clerk is just doing their job, they scream at them like the CIA just called in a drone strike on them because someone misspelled their last name.

The last time I picked up a computer at the Apple store, this happened.  The system is simple: you make an appointment, they help you with your computer.  So they brought my computer out, and set it down in front of a cashier, and all I needed to do was show her my ID, and she would hand it to me, and say “have a nice day” or something.  But in that heartbeat between the guy handing it to her and me showing her the ID, a guy comes up, no appointment, broken phone, “I DROVE TWENTY MINUTES YOU NEED TO HELP ME WHERE IS YOUR FUCKING MANAGER.”  I just needed to flash my driver’s license, take the computer 18 inches from my hands, put it in my bag, and he doesn’t even give her a chance to speak, just continuing over and over “I DON’T UNDERSTAND I DROVE ALL THE WAY HERE FROM WALNUT CREEK AND YOU GUYS CANT JUST LOOK AT MY PHONE I DONT WANT AN APPOINTMENT NEXT TUESDAY I JUST DROVE TWENTY MINUTES.”  And so on.

I used to work in retail.  We’d have customers like this.  It wasn’t every day, maybe once or twice a week.  Is it worse?  Is my timing just bad?  Does everyone think they are the center of the universe?  Has the internet made us hate big companies?  Is the quality of everything so shitty now, with everything outsourced and nickel-and-dimed to the point of nothingness, that everything always breaks, with no recourse?  Are we all just cynics because we can’t believe anything anymore?

I’m trying not to let things like this bother me anymore, trying to give people the benefit of the doubt, trying not to lose my cool when it takes someone too long to do something.  I was at the post office the other day, and they were training a new cashier, and I had to mail a book to New Zealand.  The 2-minute transaction took about 7 minutes.  I think 80% of the people in Oakland would have fucking ended that trainee right there, cut off his head with his own chained-down pen and fucked his windpipe as the blood gushed out of his severed arteries.  I just smiled, and let him learn.  He’s a trainee.  It’s a post office job, and if he doesn’t lose it six weeks from now, it’s a good job and he’ll have a pension that hopefully won’t vanish soon.  He could be out stripping the wiring out of houses and selling it for meth, but he’s learning to work at a vital position so he can feed his kids and pay taxes that might someday repave that fucking road that ate my wheel cover.  I’ll give him the five minutes.

So I sit down at the Genius Bar, show the guy my paperwork, he starts to run tests on my MacBook.  Right next to me sits down the Cagney and Lacey woman.  She pulls out her MacBook Air that just fell down two flights of metal stairs.  It has a cracked screen.  “I have no idea what happened.  It must be defective.”



No patience for technical support

I had to go to Target at 8:30 last night and buy a new wireless router.  Okay, “had” is a strong word, but I got to the end of my patience, and was fortunate enough to recognize that and throw this stupid Netgear piece of shit I just bought a few months ago into the garbage and start fresh with new gear from a different vendor.  This is typical behavior, and the reason why I don’t spend any free time screwing with Windows machines, because I simply don’t have the patience to fuck around with reconfiguring IRQ interrupts and re-flashing BIOSes every time I want to print double-sided pages.

My own tech support flowchart typically goes like this:

  1. Power it off and then on.
  2. Unplug everything but the bare minimum of what needs to be plugged in.
  3. Check the power supply and that I didn’t plug it into one of the god damned outlets that are connected to a wall switch and/or start flipping wall switches that don’t do anything.
  4. Do whatever you have to do to reset the whole fucking thing to the default factory configuration.
  5. Throw it in the garbage and buy a new one.

And this is the point when half of you start in with the “huh huh, I have a perfectly good router I found in the garbage,” and other various comments about how I’m a dumbass for paying someone else to change the oil in my car blah blah blah.  That’s not the point.  The point is, I used to change my own oil and spend way too much time screwing around with my /etc/modules.conf file to get it so my soundblaster card wouldn’t crap out every time I triple-clicked my mouse button, and now I don’t.  Even more, I used to answer the phone for people who would call me because they couldn’t find the “any” key on their keyboard, and spend hours trying to walk them through how to use the vi editor over the phone.

How the hell did I ever do that?  I mean, I remember first getting a job as a computer consultant, and it wasn’t because I had an innate desire to help people.  It was because I knew some amount about computers, and it beat my previous campus job, which involved scraping uneaten food off of cafeteria trays and wearing a hairnet and a stupid smock probably manufactured by inmates at an insane asylum somewhere north of Indianapolis.  Making fries at McDonald’s paid $4.25 an hour, and answering people’s questions about WordPerfect 5.1 paid $6.10 an hour, so it was a no-brainer.  And once I got my foot in the door, the goal was always to get better at it, or at least good enough that I could take another baby step up the ladder and find another position inside the UCS system that involved more computer and less people.

But in between my departure for Seattle in 1995 and my very first consulting gig in 1990, I must have burned through several lifetimes full of patience.  I mean, at IUSB, we had these stupid piece of shit Leading Edge Model D PC clones, which even in 1990 were so behind the curve, I think the main campus had sold them for scrap and the South Bend campus quickly put them back into service.  We’re talking a Daewoo-manufactured machine that originally came out in ’85 as a low-end clone, with a 4.77 MHz 8088, 256K of RAM, and a built-in video card that pushed out 640×200 video.  Our units didn’t even have hard drives; they came with a set of two 5 1/4″ floppy disks, which lead to many stupendous problems as a consultant.

First, a machine with no hard drive can’t boot, unless you put a bootable floppy in the A: drive.  We had a vague system of letting people check out bootable WordPerfect disks to people. Or when you took C101 or whatever, your instructor would probably format one of your disks (or most likely, your only disk) so it would boot.  These were the days before Windows, or at least before this campus would see it, so re-formatting a disk wasn’t a matter of right-clicking or just inserting a blank and clicking OK when it asks you if you want to format it.  It involved booting into DOS and doing a FORMAT /S.  More importantly, it involved every third question out of people being something like “I PUT A BRAND NEW DISK TAPE IN THIS MACHINE AND TURNED ON THE POWER AND IT WON’T START.”

Anyway, nobody at IUSB knew anything about viruses.  When I was at the IUB campus, they ran Norton or whatever, and when you booted from the hard drive and put in your floppy, it got scanned.  Here, you had everyone booting from their own floppy, or booting from one of the lab’s boot disks with WordPerfect on it.  So one genius brings in a floppy with whatever virus was new in 1990, and it’s suddenly spreading across every damn person’s boot floppy like HPV in a Thailand whorehouse.  I printed up a bunch of signs telling people to stop booting from their own disks and let me scan them on the consultant’s computer, and when that didn’t work, I called someone at the student newspaper (this 8-page free thing they handed out in the cafeteria) and dictated to them verbatim this diatribe about how viruses were all over the god damned place, and if you didn’t stop booting from your floppy, a computer like the one from WarGames was going to swoop in and launch every nuke at our own cities and blame the whole thing on your good buddy George HW Bush.  (I think the reporter misspelled or misquoted every seventh word, so I’d love to see this piece of journalism today.)  This eventually slowed down the spread of the virus, but it also meant that instead of spending my four-hour shifts telnetting into different BBSes trying to pick up chicks (that were probably morbidly obese dudes) in Iowa, I had to sit around and scan everyone’s floppy disks on the consulting machine, and it wasn’t like I could just minimize my telnet window and email window, because this was DOS which didn’t have windows, and you’re talking about a machine with so little memory, loading the text of a shopping list would cause a meltdown.

Here’s another funny floppy thing that happened that demonstrates that at one point in time I had way more patience than I do now.  I’m helping a real professor teach one of those intro to business computing classes, where you learn how to run the spellcheck in WordPerfect and how to print a spreadsheet in Lotus 1-2-3, and some middle-aged housewife on the forever plan came up and told me she put her disks in the computer and they vanished.  (The forever plan: when someone takes one class a year with hopes of finishing their bachelor’s degree about two years before the sun supernovas, which I think is going to happen six billion years from now.)  So I go to investigate, and there are no floppies in the machine.  You can’t just put floppies in the machine and have them get “eaten” in the back, because the back of the drive is sealed or something.  And then I take another look and see the problem:

She had crammed two floppy disks into the narrow crack between the top and bottom floppy drive, turned on the power, and then sat there for 45 minutes, wondering why the hell her spreadsheet didn’t load.

I’m not typing this from prison, which shows you I had an infinite amount more patience back then.  I think I even managed to somehow MacGyver a couple of paperclips into the narrow gap and pull out her disks, because of course the machines were all security cabled down and I didn’t have an awesome tool set like Jeff Spiccoli’s TV repairman dad.  And something like this happened pretty much every day I consulted, so five years of that shit is infinitely more trying than a piece of garbage Netgear router that inexplicably refuses to acquire an IP address anymore on day 91 of a 90 day warranty.

The new router’s nice.  It says “best in class” on the box, so I’m hoping it lasts me at least until Christmas.


The Death of Emacs

I’ve been too busy to do anything over here, too busy and slightly sick for a few days.  I’m trying to get caught up on 19 things today, and of course it’s a beautiful, sunny day out, and I think I’ve left the house once all week, so that’s beckoning me.  But I thought I’d take a second to brain dump on a few things before then, as I listen to some Black Sabbath (Master of Reality) and sit on the couch with my recently-returned MacBook Pro.

Ever since I started writing in 1993, I pretty much used emacs for everything.  Emacs is a text editor that originally gained fame on unix systems, although that’s misleading, because it’s a million things in addition to just a text editor, and it runs on pretty much every system you could thing of, aside from just unix.  It is infinitely extensible, using its own dialect of the lisp language, and I used a bunch of extensions in it to read my mail, read usenet news, write code, write books, write the earlier version of this site, keep a dream journal, and catalog all of my CDs.  I wrote all of my books in emacs, using it as a text editor and keeping track of various outlines and fragments and notes in a bunch of text files.  Right before publication, I’d usually move the files over to Word or FrameMaker, but the bulk of the work was in emacs.  I’d also use unix tools like wc and grep and find and sed to do all of my various slicing and dicing and counting and finding.  It wasn’t the best system in the world, but it worked.

I even made some money on emacs, tech editing a book for Sams on emacs.  So my brick-and-mortar book store debut on the printed page was actually back in 1999, although I wasn’t a primary author, and reading about how to write elisp config files is probably less entertaining than any of my more recent work.

But as cool as emacs was, it also sucked.  Every time some idiot in Norway suddenly had a great idea on how they thought tabs should work in a document, they would change the whole thing and I’d spend 22 hours straight poring over source code diffs trying to figure out how the hell to write a shim or workaround to duct tape to the side of the thing so it would work again.  Long lines and line breaks were also a huge pain in the ass, which takes some explaining, so hang on.

When you write a paragraph in Word or any other modern word processor, you generally don’t type return at the end of a line; you just type and type and when you hit the edge of the window, the word gets pulled to the beginning of the next line, and you keep going.  The only special character is a paragraph break, which comes when you hit return once or twice at the end of a block of the text.  In emacs, what happens is that when you reach about the 72-character mark in a buffer, it drops in a carriage return and goes to the next line.

That means when you type a file in emacs and bring it into Word (or WordPress, or FrameMaker, or an email message, or anything else not designed in like 1974) you have all of these extra carriage returns, and you have to do something stupid like write a script or do some search-and-replace to replace all of the single carriage returns with spaces and all of the double carriage returns with paragraph breaks, and hope you didn’t do any weird indented text or source code snippets that will be monumentally fucked by your search and replace.

And yes, there are some workarounds in emacs, like some long-line mode, which is totally not documented, or at least not documented well, and would involve me taking two weeks off of work to completely re-engineer the whole fucking universe and probably reinstall emacs 19 times and recompile it from source and install 2834 different libraries and twelve different versions of XCode.  And the second I would get it working, some college freshman in Sweden or Germany would add a fix that would completely break my system.

I should also mention that emacs has slowly been losing favor here, as far as alternative uses.  I got the Mac in 2005, and at some point switched to using full-time.  That also meant ditching BBDB, the emacs address book thing, and going to the Mac address book.  CDs are a distant memory, thanks to iTunes.  I gave up on my own blog system and moved to WordPress.  Usenet is deader than dead.  So it pretty much just came down to daily writing for emacs.

Another big issue for me is keeping track of stuff, especially in bigger writing projects.  I’ve used two different approaches to books.  When I wrote Summer Rain, each chapter was in a text file, and there was a sea of text files for notes and pieces and outlines and whatever else.  This book took a huge amount of research and planning over the course of five years, and by the end of the book, I worked off of a paper outline that summarized the main points in each chapter.  I made heavy use of grep to search for things within each chapter.  When I needed to do a global search and replace, I would use emacs and dired, which worked, sort of.  Dired-mode is powerful, but good luck remembering all of the key combinations if you don’t use it on a daily basis.  Printing out the book for review was murder, not only because of the length, but because it typically involved catting all of the files together, dropping it in Word, and doing the carriage return/paragraph break shuffle.

When I wrote Rumored to Exist, I put the entire thing in one file.  That made it easier, but it also meant a hell of a lot of scrolling around.  It also made it absolutely impossible to do stuff like move around chunks and keep track of what was where unless I printed out every damn page and spread them across every surface of my apartment like I was on some William S. Burroughs kick and about to shoot my wife in the head and write some Serious Nonlinear Fiction.  (My apartment did have a lot of bugs, which was a plus.)  Around the time I moved to New York, I decided I needed to start over, and put the entire book in a file called rumored-seattle.txt, then opened a blank file and started copying over only the good chunks.

Thinking back on it, writing Rumored was such a fucking disaster.  I had all of the content done in a couple of years, but then it took a couple more years of rewriting and moving things around and adjusting things.  I printed out every page, then cut everything up and glued it to index cards that I tried to rearrange and sort and move around.  I tried writing outlines; I tried putting everything in excel one time, with thoughts of color-coding or sorting it.  I thought about writing a PHP/MySQL app to manage everything.  I tried using the emacs outline-mode.  Nothing fucking worked.

I eventually kicked my way through it, and got everything in one file, then sat in the Kiev restaurant with a red pen and a bunch of pierogies and went through the whole god damned thing and marked up every mistake and typo, and had a total and complete draft that if I got in those corrections, would be ready for the press.  Then I walked home and got caught in a god damned typhoon, and when I got home, I had a ruined pair of dress shoes, and a clipboard of pulp and pink pages, everything completely ruined.  I was pissed as fuck. That was on September 10th, 2001, and let’s just say things got put into perspective the next morning.

So I’ve been looking for new system.  Someone has figured this out, right?

I have tried a bunch of systems and software packages, and I think I have one that works.  I also realize that I’ve written for 1300 words, and haven’t even gotten into it yet.  So I should probably make this a two-parter and tell you about the software itself next time.  And I should probably wrap this up so I can actually go write with the damn thing and work on this book.


XEmacs annoyances on the road

Every time I rely on something on a new computer and take it on the road, said computer/system throws a pain-in-the-ass problem at me.  And the difficulty of said problem is inversely proportional to the availability of either time or internet access.

Case in point: I do a lot of my writing on my home computer, which is a Macbook, but which I did not want to bring on my current trip because of size, and mostly because it’s my main computer, thus is not as easily replaceable in case of theft or damage.  Instead, I transferred over my current book project and installed a copy of XEmacs onto my netbook, which runs Windows XP and doesn’t include such niceties as a functional emacs, or pretty much anything else.

I get to my destination, and suddenly find a neat problem: the M-q command, which fills the current paragraph, does not work.  “Filling” a paragraph, to you non-emacs types, takes a paragraph that has a bunch of uneven lines, like say a first line with two words, a second line with 100 words, and so on, and rejustifies it so it more or less fits in a standard page width, which is I think 72 characters by default.  But when I would do this in a paragraph that began with a tab, it would indent the entire paragraph one tab.

There is no clear documentation on how to fix this, or even how to explain why it happens.  I remember that ten or twelve years ago, this inexplicably started in GNU Emacs, and after a lot of head-versus-wall bashing action, I found some magic elisp to fix it.  But that was ten or twelve years ago, and more importantly, the same code did not fix XEmacs.  Was this a Win32 issue?

I don’t know, but I found another oddity: XEmacs insisted on creating a ~/.xemacs/init.el file when I picked the Options > Edit Init File menu option.  And it could not create that directory.  And if you’re in file explorer in Windows, you can’t create a file that starts with a dot.

Tip #1 and the long way around:  go to where you installed XEmacs (probably c:\Program Files\XEmacs), go into site-packages\lisp, and add your code to site-start.el

Tip #2 which didn’t dawn on me until days later: go to a dos prompt (sorry, “command shell”) and simply do a mkdir .xemacs, and it works.

Back to the initial problem.  I can’t entirely explain why this worked and why the thousand other things I tried did not work, but here’s my solution.  Add this to whatever .el file you can get to start up with XEmacs:

(setq auto-mode-alist (append '(("\\.txt$"  .  paragraph-indent-text-mode)
("\\.html$" .  html-mode)) auto-mode-alist))
(setq text-mode-hook '(lambda ()
(auto-fill-mode 1)
(setq adaptive-fill-mode nil)
(local-set-key "     " 'tab-to-tab-stop)

The space between the two quotes in the second-to-last line is an actual tab character and not five spaces.

Worked for me after that.  Next lesson, if I ever figure it out, is either how to get ispell to work right on Windows machines, or how to install a hacked copy of OSX on my netbook and forget all of this nonsense.


Shell scripting will eventually kill me

I spent two hours the other night trying to hack out a shell script to import the archives into this thing. WordPress doesn’t have a simple way to just suck in a bunch of text files; you need to assemble them into something that resembles an RSS feed, and then import that. This brought up two problems:

1) All of the posts had to be on a single line in the element. This involved a bit of dicking around with awk and then sed before I finally gave up and realized I could do it faster with tr.

2) The pubdate element had to be in RFC-822 time format, and the only thing I had to work with was the filename, which was in YYYYMMDD format. It took most of the two hours to figure out the god damned /bin/date program that ships with OS X is fundamentally broken, and ALL date commands in unixes are broken, because instead of curing cancer or stopping wars, about 80% of our world’s brainpower goes to stupid pursuits like “oh, I have philosophical issues with the 87 flags offered in BSD’s date program, so I’m going to write a completely incompatible one with 73 flags of its own, but still fail to address the two or three things people need to do with a time program.”

Case in point, this DOES NOT work in OS X:

date -j -f "%Y%m%d" "20090930" +"%+"

This DOES work:

date -j -f "%Y %m%d" "2009 0930" +"%+"

But my filenames are 20090930.html and not 2009 0930.html. That extra fucking space killed me.

AND YES, I am sure I am just an idiot, and if I sat around all day writing shell scripts, I would KNOW that blah blah blah hidden flag blah blah blah run it through a perl script blah blah blah. But truth of the matter is, I write maybe a half-dozen lines of shell script every three months, and then promptly forget everything. I’m sure if I sat around all day slicing onions into cubes, I would be a god damned onion slicing master, but the truth of it is, I only need to cut up maybe one onion a week tops, and I’m not about to quit my day job just to sit around slicing up onions.

Here’s the script:

for f in ~/website-mirror/oldjournal/html/1997*.html; do
    echo "<item>"
    OLDDATE=`basename -s .html $f`
    THEYEAR=`echo $OLDDATE | cut -c1-4`
    THEREST=`echo $OLDDATE | cut -c5-8`
    pubdate=$(    date -j -f "%Y %m%d" "`echo $SHIT`" +"%+")
    echo -n "<pubDate>"
    echo -n $pubdate
    echo "</pubDate>"
    echo "<category></category>"
    echo "<title></title>"
    echo "<content:encoded>`tr '\n' ' ' < $f`</content:encoded>"
    echo "</item>"

How to upgrade linux

GOD DAMN IT I hate upgrading linux. Well, I hate it mostly because the easiest way to upgrade it is to throw your fucking computer out of the window and then hit your testicles about five or six times with the sharp end of a claw hammer and then pour everclear in the wound and spend about 200 hours trying to download a brand new distribution at teletype speeds just so you can get a system that allegedly works better than Windows. As a side note, I plugged in my new DVD burner and TV tuner card and fired up Win2000 just for shits and giggles, and in about four minutes, I was watching TV and recording video and burning DVDs and having fun. Tonight, I have invested about the last five hours into installing Debian, and I just decided to fuck that and turn around and install Red Hat 9, despite everything that everyone tells me about the big evil corporation called Red Hat. I’m sorry, but I don’t like the ass-backwards bullshit factor in Debian, and I really don’t like the fact that it has an interface that only a sysadmin would love. I don’t really like to write a sixty page paper about the internal workings of my machine every time I upgrade, and I don’t want to have to write down the numbers of every chip of every board of my computer so I can search them all on google and find out what kind of obscure module needs to be added to my kernel on its 863rd recompilation. Fuck all of that.

I got the skydiving video today, and it’s pretty cool. I’ll try to tear a few images out of it and put them on the web when I do up the Vegas trip page. I haven’t had time to write anything about it given the machine situation, but it will happen.

It is once again so god damned cold that I probably won’t leave the house for the weekend. I am reading that Po Bronson book on what to do with your life, I forget the exact title. I enjoyed his book Nudist on the Late Shift, and a few people have evangelically mentioned this new book, so I bought a copy while waiting for a plane in Houston. I haven’t thought it was anything spectacular, but I’m still reading it. I think I like the way he has interviewed a bunch of people about their lives and how he strung this stuff together. I like the journalistic sense of it, mostly because I wish I could write a book like that. But as far as being motivational or telling me how to change my life, it’s mostly dreck. But like I said, I keep turning the pages.

It’s going to take another two hours to download Red Hat 9, so I guess I’m going to bed.