It’s the little things in life.

26 12 2005

Having hordes of LCD monitors around makes for some amazing lint-and-yuck gathering capabilities. It only takes moving your laptop into bright light to realize amount of junk that’s managed to accumulate on your screen.
How do you clean it, though? Images of melted laptops and innocent users with some vicious chemical glass cleaners crop up everytime I think of trying to clean these things.
Long ago someone introduced me to ‘wet/dry’ wipes. These things are perfect for folks who use LCD screens constantly. They’re double-packets of wipes – one is a small ‘wet’ cloth that has just enough alcohol and other goodies on it to wipe down maybe 2 largeish monitors (I managed to stretch mine to do 3 screens, but it was pretty grungy by the end of it), and the other is to clean off the excess material – a lint-free cloth for that added polish.
Staples carries these things for about $6 for 10. I think they should be standard equipment for any desk or laptop station.

The James Randi $1 Million Challenge Forum

21 12 2005

I’m a pretty regular reader of James Randi’s weekly column. It’s a neverending story about what sort of noise is flying around the world masquerading as paranormal claims and magic.
One of my more recent addictions though is watching the claim forum. This is a log by the head of the claims group at the JREF that processes claims for the $1million challenge. There’s a very specific and detailed process for the challenge that offers a million dollars to anyone who can demonstrate, clearly and without ambiguity, some form of paranormal ability or event. After years and years of this challenge being public, no one has ever passed the preliminary test.
But folks keep trying. Check out the forum logs for characters like Prophet Yahweh – Master UFO Caller, Sylvia Browne, and other wonders of the world, all of which have applied for the challenge, most of which could not even agree on what ability the person was trying to prove. Dowsers, mentalists – all are welcome to the cash, if they can prove they can do what they claim to do. Not a single one has.
The forum logs all exchanges between applicants and the JREF, and it gets pretty interesting. A good read, and something to check in on every once in a while.

Of Laptops, XP, Debian etch, device drivers, and GPG signatures.

20 12 2005

Well that was a fun adventure all around. My laptop ‘hunter’ is back up and running, pretty much at the level it was at just as it tumbled off the table last wednesday evening. Perversely I had to leave Thursday morning to go visit ${client} down in New Jersey, and really wouldn’t have the time to do all the reinstall fun until I got back.

Nonetheless, I was able to sort of limp along through Thursday (even managed to watch a movie on it at the hotel that night), and into Friday where I was able to swap out the main drive, re-install XP, and get at least the base installation of ‘sarge‘ re-installed. Total time on this was perhaps 3 hours of watching CD’s spin. Really, all in all, for 2 entire OS installs from scratch, it wasn’t too shabby.
Of course, neither installation was not without its twitches. The XP install came up on the laptop with -zero- network connectivity. The device manager SAW the 2 PCI network devices, but couldn’t initialize them because, naturally, I didn’t have the ‘driver’ disc. This is a laptop, it’s not like I have a shelf full of CD’s at hand. So the XP install, while technically complete, was really non-functional. No network connectivity means I couldn’t get the drivers I needed, so I had to pretty much shelve that install for now.
The Debian install went better. I had the IT chap burn me a CD of the Sarge ‘netinst’ cd. This is a small (100meg) image that contains the kernel and enough software to boot, partition, format, and install the ‘core’ Debian system. It assumes you have net connectivity available, and sets it up as part of the install. Once connectivity is established and you’ve selected what installation type you want (developer, gnome, databases, etc), the installer starts fetching the packages necessary.
For my install, the entire ‘fetch, unpack, install’ process from the time the installer said “I have all the information I need, go away” to completion took about an hour and a half on a mediocre DSL line.
Once done, it was a matter of getting back home, restoring my backed up home dir, and re-installing packages I was missing that I needed. I find it somewhat ironic that my Debian install -happily- came up with all the network device drivers in place, configured, and working, and I was able to continue my install, while the XP system is dead in the water with no network, requiring me to find an external source for the drivers needed to simply get online.
But moving along.
After that, we’re pretty much into normal sarge -> etch install mode, but I keep getting an annoying message from apt-get on the upgrade:

W: GPG error: etch/security-updates Release:
The following signatures couldn't be verified because the public key is not available: NO_PUBKEY 946AA6E18722E71E
W: You may want to run apt-get update to correct these problems

This was a new one on me. Apparently versions of apt-get past 0.6 now check the GPG signatures of packages before downloading them by default. This means you need to have the public key of the ‘offering’ host available in your local GPG keyring before pulling the file. (You can turn off signature checking, but checking the authenticity of a package before downloading is a good idea anyway).
The answer to this is to add the public key into your GPG keyring. Note the long hex number in the error message. That’s the ‘key id’ that uniquely identifies the entry in the keyserver. The first step is to query the keyserver for the public key. This should be run as the user who does most of the system maintenance, as it’ll be added to _THEIR_ keyring. Don’t run this as root.

gpg --keyserver --recv-keys 946AA6E18722E71E

The next step is to add that new key to root’s keyring. Since you’ve already accepted the key locally, there’s a higher level of safety in simply copying the key from your personal keyring to root’s keyring (rather than writing the key into root’s keyring directly) :

gpg --export 946AA6E18722E71E | sudo apt-key add - 

Once those are done, apt-get should behave normally and update the local apt cache files without any complaints. If the security server for Debian packages should get compromised, it is nearly impossible to duplicate the private key used for signing packages and end up with the same public key, so if the key signatures match, you can be fairly sure it’s a valid package to install.
There are many other stories on bringing ‘hunter’ back from it’s near fatal plummet, but suffice to say that due to the magic of package management systems and opensource software, and a back up of just my home directory (which has most of my user configurations and the like), I was able to get back up and running from ground zero in perhaps 8 hours of work. Much of that time was simply watching a progress bar move as packages were downloaded and re-installed, primarily without me needing to do anything.
There is a way to even tell apt to make a ‘snapshot’ of all the installed packages so you can ‘replay’ the entire install to get all your installed packages back. I may explore this in a future article.

A note to tool engineers.

17 12 2005

A computer is not an AI. It is not a living, breathing, thinking being, has no internal thought processes of it’s own that reflect it’s mood. Even more to the point, a SCRIPT is not a being. If a script or a program or a computer or an application has a problem, it should NEVER report said problem in the first person, because there is NO first person to make the statement. “Well it adds personability and comfort to the user experience” – Bull. It adds ambiguity, confusion, and makes the whole interaction more surreal. I offer as evidence the error message I just got:

I cannot start the X server (your graphical interface). It is likely that it is not set up correctly. Would you like to view the X server output to diagnose the problem? [Yes] [No]

Don’t anthropomorphize computers. They hate that.

And then the other shoe dropped

15 12 2005

… well, not necessarily a shoe, but gravity was definately involved.
Today through Saturday I’m down in NJ visiting ${client} and doing their X-mas party thingy. What better way to start a visit to your best client than.. to drop your laptop the night before leaving.
Yup, ‘hunter’ took a 3′ dive onto the floor on Wednesday night. Nothing immediately apparent broke, but I’m getting sporadic HD errors now – and fscking is not fixing them (so it’s most likely a calibration fault on the drive now). Generally, I have to consider this drive suspect, and swap it out asap.
In the meantime, linux is not booting cleanly, so I’m forced to use XP to at least do some blogging. A call to Lenova is scheduled for tomorrow to get a new drive sent out for me. I do have a clean backup of $HOME, so there should be no ‘loss’ other than time and productivity, but gosh what a pain in the buttski. Paraphrasing Rod Rescueman here… “bleah! ptui! feh!… I just upgraded this thing!”

Our gig last Friday

13 12 2005


Originally uploaded by eidolon.

Well, this was our first ‘full’ gig – 3 1/2 hours of music on the day of the biggest snowstorm this year so far. Oddly, we all made it (eventually), and there was a decent crowd. We didn’t suffer any major equipment failures, and we only lost track of where we were in the songs… once or twice…

But in the end, it was just fun. At times I could feel my bass thrumming in my hands as I kept the low-line on songs, and I knew the rest of the band was in tune with it and just running. My amp was right next to me on the floor, and I could feel the vibration from it pounding out low E’s and G changes that just held the songs true. A bass guitar is almost part of the rhythm section. With the drummer, we keep the beat and the pace of the song. I work pretty well with our drummer, and at times I stop thinking about how 6 months ago I was dreaming about how much I wanted to be in a band and making this kind of music, and just settled into what we were playing.

It was a good night.

A tale of Debian upgrades to etch,, and laptops

13 12 2005

Long time readers will surely now be familiar with my trusty IBM Thinkpad T40 ‘hunter’, that of the Debian install fun from the beginning of this year. I had installed the ‘sarge’ release (which later became Debian stable), and had been pretty happy with it. However, the time had come to jump distribution versions again, which meant going to Debian ‘Testing’, aka ‘etch’.

A major distribution upgrade is never something to be undertaken lightly, but after some preparation, I took the plunge.

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