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July 28, 2005

Nothing To Say

Been reading an inordinate number of posts this morning spinning artful variations on “I have nothing to write about.” Here's mine. Unfortunately I have nothing artful to say about having nothing to say.

Is it the heat, or what? Maybe it was, but the temperature has dropped almost twenty degrees in the last 12 hours since a gusty front passed through. Yesterday was probably the hottest, muggiest day of the summer (at least I hope so). Naturally, the air conditioning in our department failed. Portable fans were brought in to circulate cooler air from other parts of the building. Frankly, the breeze was a relief from the normally frigid temperatures. I pitied the poor repair crew laboring up on the roof.

Today is delightful. Like Maine, even.

July 26, 2005

“More Notes, Less Feeling”

Thus spake John “Flans” Flansburgh at one point during the They Might Be Giants show at Penn's Landing this past weekend. Funny to me, because the opposite advice is what makes for musical success (Kenny G being the exception that proves the rule). There was no shortage of feeling during this show. I even caught John Linnell, the less demonstrative of the two Johns, jumping in place at one point. Heck, I even clapped my hands once or twice; I was “getting into it.” What I like best, though, is not their rock-and-roll energy or the exquisitely-crafted song structures or the engaging, poppy melodies, it's those funny lyrics. Flans' patter was pretty entertaining as well. In introducing one song, he told the audience, “In this song, 'The Man' is a code word for... The Man.”

I was hoping that because of the beautiful weather and WXPN's All About the Music festival across the river in Camden, attendance might be light. I was wrong. Well, the Great Plaza wasn't packed, but it was full to capacity. We arrived around 6:00 right after Adrian Belew, so all the seats were long gone. We wanted to see, though, and were able to find a view of the stage by wedging in right next to the sound booth. In that position I should have been hearing the same mix as the engineers, but the balance was a little light on vocals. That was a shame, because I don't know all their songs by heart, and as I mentioned, I love their lyrics.

Unlike the last time we saw them, this was an adult show, although they did perform one number from Here Come the ABCs, “Alphabet of Nations.”

Afterward we met up briefly with Scott. He had two cameras with him and blogged the show as it happened. I had no camera. Me. Mr. Camera Geek Photographer Guy. I had read on the Penn's Landing web site that among the banned items were professional cameras and backpacks, so I left all my gear at home. Of course, there were backpacks, professional cameras, and other forbidden items in abundance.

After bidding adieu to Scott and his friends, we tried to score a foam finger. Flans said there were zillions (at one point in the show, he doubled the legal foam-finger allotment from one finger “per face” to one finger “per hand”), but we couldn't find any. We did get a pre-autographed copy of The Spine, their latest release, however. While the Johns were probably on their way back to Brooklyn already, we did observe longtime bass player Danny Weinkauf and relative-newcomer Marty Beller at the edge of the stage signing foam hands for the rabid fans. This made the lack of fingers a doubly bitter disappointment.

Dinner was taken nearby at the Continental, a place I knew only by reputation. Highly recommended, although it was so crowded and noisy we could hardly talk. Or maybe it was all that loud music still ringing in my ears.

July 22, 2005

Birdhouse in Your Soul

On the way to work today, I saw one of those posters for PECO in which PECO employees are pictured uttering various bromides. This one was “I believe a little light can chase away the biggest monsters.” Pictured was a nightlight straight out of “Birdhouse in Your Soul.” Or so I thought because that's what I was listening to at the time. Spooky. Except I think it was a duck instead of a canary. Still.

I was priming for the free They Might Be Giants show at Penn's Landing tomorrow. Also appearing will be Adrian Belew and Time for Three. My wife and sister-in-law can't make it, so I will be sallying forth solo, although I am hoping to meet up with Scott and friends. Looks like we will have gorgeous weather.

July 18, 2005

Trading Spaces

Apple II desk

The Apple II desk festooned with some essential accessories: a stuffed lobster and “They Might Be Giants” coffee mug. Admit it, you're jealous.

When we moved to a new house two years ago, we agreed that we should consolidate our hitherto separate offices into one room. That has worked out really well; neither of us needs isolation to stay focused, and we can just pipe up whenever we want to share things we find on the Web or help each other with problems. Frankly, I never get tired of her company.

Recently, we decided to move our office to a different room. The new office was a little smaller, and that presented us with some “opportunities” as we decided how best to pack all our stuff into tighter quarters.

The one big change for me is the desk. I've been using an Anthro-Cart for years, which I liked not only for its industrial chic, but also because it was so comfortable to work at. I only use a laptop now, so I don't need such a big desk anymore. Besides, Anne never liked the “industrial chic” aspect of the hulking putty-gray Anthro-Cart.

Since switching rooms involved disassembling the giant Anthro-Cart, we went into a huddle for alternatives. We decided to move the Anthro-Cart to the “ham shack” in the attic (for that far-off day when we actually get ham licenses), and I am now using the desk in the picture.

Sure, that desk looks like some mutant IKEA knockoff, but hey, I made it myself. Although it looks brand-new in the picture, I actually built it almost 20 years ago for a friend with an Apple II. After many years with his trusty Apple, he bought a PC which wouldn't fit on the desk, so he gave it back to me. ::sings:: “Reunited and it feels so gooood. Ooooh.”

Now aren't you glad this isn't a podcast?

July 17, 2005

Missed Another Jazz Festival

Thank goodness we forgot to go to the jazz festival at Cliveden today. I would have hated to have been caught in all that rain! What a shame.

It's been a bad year for jazz festival attendance. We also missed the Main Line Jazz & Food Festival last month, and we're going to miss the Jenkintown Jazz Festival in September (vacation plans). That's not to mention the bigger festivals we didn't even plan to attend: the Clifford Brown in Wilmington, the Mellon in Philadelphia, and the Cape May in, um, Cape May. That's a lot of unheard jazz, and a lot of uneaten food. I enjoy the food almost as much as the music. We'll make it up next year somehow.

July 16, 2005

Stranger on a Train

Last week I went to hear Phil Roy in concert at Pastorius Park in Chestnut Hill. Phil who, you ask? Well, you probably know who he is, but I was ashamed to admit I had never heard of Phil until a few months ago.

I was riding SEPTA's R5 train (rock stars always take the R5 when their limo's in the shop), and there was this guy sitting directly across from me taking care of some business on his cell phone. Normally I can tune out this sort of distraction, but some key words piqued my interest, such as “Morningstar” (a recording studio in Springhouse) and “tour dates” (he was asking someone to update his web site).

Of course I flushed with shame for eavesdropping, but he was talking right in my ear! I feigned a sneeze so I wouldn't hear the password to his web site. Phil, dude, too much information! Later I asked a friend who actually knows something about music who this guy was. While not a household name as a performer, he has had his songs covered by a slew of big-name performers and included in movie soundtracks.

It was a beautiful summer night for a concert, and the audience was quiet and attentive during the sensitive numbers when Phil practically whispered the words accompanied only by his guitar—except for the dogs barking, that is. Phil's Golden Retriever Travis was part of the act, and I enjoyed his contribution as good-will ambassador almost as much as the music. While Travis knew not to bark during the music, the other dogs in the park weren't so respectful.

Phil did a lot of new tunes as well as his hits, such as “Melt” and “Undeniably Human.” He was accompanied by a band called Dr. Ketchup that included Hooters’ guitarist John Lilley. I guess John can pick and choose his projects since that chain of restaurants was so successful...

July 15, 2005

Stumbling Upon Cats

Do people still do that cat blogging thing on Fridays? I never did; after all, every day is cat-blogging day at mere cat; I don't have to wait until Friday rolls around. My best pictures are always available up on the masthead.

This week I've found some pictures that put my puny collection to shame, however, thanks to a new Firefox extension called StumbleUpon. This extension lets you kill some serious time. It adds a toolbar with a few buttons on it (which do nothing until you sign up at The Stumble button connects you to a random web page selected from categories you choose. If you want, you can then vote thumbs up or down on the page; each vote helps StumbleUpon refine its picks. It does do a remarkable job of suggesting worthwhile sites, I must say. Of course, I chose Cats as one of my categories.

Herewith then, from the Things That Make You Wanna Go Awwww Department is my favorite: a cat who will clean your computer screen for free (make sure your sound is on for this one).

Don't thank me, thank StumbleUpon.

July 14, 2005

Ten Four Too

I waited a whole extra day to upgrade to 10.4.2 just to be on the safe side, and last night downloaded the combo updater. The update went very quickly, and I restarted. The machine came up with a blue screen and the spinning pinwheel, as if it were finishing the update. Macfixit had warned that on restart some users reported their Macs “hanging” for up to 30 minutes. I waited 30 minutes, then an hour, then headed for bed.

In the morning, nothing had changed, and since I could hear no drive activity, I forced a restart. Everything was just fine, so what happened? This is not a new or isolated event, either. The same thing has happened in the past on my old hardware—a minor system upgrade would render the machine unbootable. This was always easy to fix (by zapping the PRAM), but doesn't speak highly of Apple's QA. I mean, they have it easy. They make the software and the hardware, and I have a totally stock kit with no unauthorized toys. Glad to have my Mac back, though. At least I don't have to reinstall the whole OS every six months.

I've only been using the update for an hour, but have already encountered a strange glitch that occurs when waking the machine up from sleep. Normally, when you wake the machine up, you're put back in the same application you were using before sleep. After the update, waking from sleep never puts you back in the same application, but rather you're put back in the next-to-last application you used. Weyodd.


[UPDATE] The application switch after sleep doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the 10.4.2 update, although that’s what triggered it for me. Rather it’s related to setting Security to require a password when waking up from sleep or a screen saver. If you turn off this option, the application switch stops. Definitely a bug, and not a new one, either.

July 13, 2005

Reading vs Scanning

Not to belabor my problems with Spotlight last week, but I have to say Apple’s “documentation”—a few fluffy paragraphs extruded from Marketing’s pastry bag—was no help. I’m old enough to remember when Macs came with a stack of manuals. Ironically, you didn’t need any of them, Macs being all so user-friendly and such, but I fondly recall making tea and curling up with one for a good read. (Am I a geek, or what?) These days I picture the Documentation Department as one overworked marcomm intern.

Reading manuals has its rewards. When I started playing with computers, what made me an “expert” among my colleagues was that I had read the manual. (“Wow! How did you know that?!”) As I mentioned, I liked reading manuals. For one brief moment after college, I even considered writing documentation for a living. I interviewed at Computer Associates for a technical writing position, although I didn’t get the job. It’s a good thing, too, because I was saved from a life of unrewarding drudgery, not because writing documentation is boring, but because nobody reads it anyway.

But back to Apple. What’s so utterly pointless about this new style of documentation is that the text is so brief and superficial there’s nothing written that you couldn’t figure out on your own in a minute. I think the philosophy behind this Cliffs Notes style of documentation is not some kind of sanctioned corporate laziness, but an earnest attempt to craft something based on assumptions about the way people read today, especially on the Internet. Supposedly, people don’t read any more, they “scan.”

Web usability guru Jakob Nielsen wrote, “79 percent of our test users always scanned any new page they came across.” Well, yes. That’s the way people read something unfamiliar. Scanning is a strategy that lets us decide if something is worth reading. Jakob is telling us to write for the scanning reader, and implies that scanning is all you can expect of your reader. I just don’t like the implication. Scanning is a new strategy to deal with information overload, but it doesn’t mean that people don’t read anymore.

I know that if a piece interests me, my attention span lengthens appropriately, whether it’s a monster New Yorker article or just the latest megapost by drunkenbatman. As for the younger generation having an attention span whittled down by television, that hasn’t been borne out in my experience. I’ve seen kids spend hours reading books they love. I think it’s all about the writing. Give me something good to read, and you’ve got my attention. If not, I’m scanning and moving on. The point of all this is, when I find something I like, I don’t want it to end, so if anything, I am advocating writing longer pieces rather than writing for scanning. Gee, I think this piece has gone on a little too long, but hey, thanks for scanning!

July 12, 2005

Cheesy Treats

I just finished devouring the April issue of Saveur, which was completely devoted to American artisanal cheese. I was disappointed that there was no mention of two of my favorite cheeses (and I'm not talking about the Whiz at Pat's). That's understandable in the first case, however, because it's the cheese used in the Greek dish saganaki, kefalotiri. I first had saganaki (pan-fried kefalotiri) at Chef Theodore's in Philadelphia years ago and most recently at a couple of restaurants in Greek Town in Chicago. It is sensational. Check it out.

A favorite all-American cheese is a terrific cheddar called Cougar Gold that comes from the Washington State University Creamery. You can order it online, although they aren't taking any more orders until cooler weather arrives.

July 11, 2005

CD Review

Hmm. Round. Shiny. Aerodynamic. Whee!

July 5, 2005

Spotlight Problems

I finally upgraded to Tiger over the weekend and am having trouble with the new search technology, Spotlight. I was writing up my notes from the last PAASUG meeting last night, and one of the first things I went looking for was a new application called Database Events.

Spotlight could not find it.

Ho-kay, what now? It’s not like I can just use something else to find things. You can’t go back to searching the “old way.” Now there’s only Spotlight. (Actually, I used the Unix command “find” to find what I was looking for, so I found it, but sheesh.)

I thought something might be wrong with Spotlight, and I soon discovered that many people who have upgraded to Tiger (instead of installing it fresh) have had problems with the Spotlight catalog being incomplete or of indexing never finishing. I decided to nuke the index from high orbit, which was the recommended procedure at Macintouch, using sudo mdutil -E /. While the index was being rebuilt, just for fun I searched again for Database Events and found it, so I thought my troubles were over.

When indexing finished, however, I was right back where I started. Nothing found. Like someone who just lost a dollar in a vending machine, I jiggled the Spotlight controls to make sure I was giving it enough “hints.” OK, Spotlight, it’s an application and it’s name begins with "Database Events." Do I have to spell it out for you for crying out loud?!!

Finally I limited my search to the folder that contained what I was looking for. Bingo. Spotlight finally found it. You can perhaps see how this isn’t very useful.

One inescapable conclusion seems to be that Spotlight’s index is apparently sound. The other is that Spotlight just sucks. But I will investigate further.


[UPDATE] Mike Zornek has hipped me to Spotlight's default search locations in a very informative post. That explains most of my problem. I also discovered that Spotlight does not want to index the System folder, which happens to contain the item I was searching for. Knowing this, I can supplement my searches with command-line find and lobby Apple to restore filename searching over the entire drive. Other than that, Spotlight looks to be extremely versatile and powerful.

July 4, 2005

Our Forth

This morning we ambled over to the town square to watch the parade—all 10 minutes of it. It's nice living in a small town so close to the big city. Obviously, we skipped all the large-scale celebrations this weekend. Later, we had some grilled chorizo sausage with Corona and a mess of watermelon out on the deck while we watched a robin feed her young. All in all, a beautiful day. Something occurred to me today, though. Our flag is a thirteen-star version given to us by Anne's parents. We always liked it because it was a little unusual, but it dawned on me that it's the closest you can get to a flag with only the blue states on it.

Hope your Independence Day was enjoyable, too. Happy Birthday America!