December 2, 2007

Laptop Contortions

Posted in Life at 9:35 pm by mj

How do you sit with your laptop?

I’ve never felt “at home” with a laptop. Always felt like I was contorting myself to fit the machine.

Over time, I’ve gotten used to sitting on a medium-soft sofa, laptop on my gonads, spewing all the right radiation to turn my (still hypothetical) future children into Super Mini-MJs.

But the bed has always proved an obstacle.

I had a roommate a few years back who’d never work anywhere other than her bed. Seemingly never in the same position/pose twice. I guess it pays to be ultra thin and flexible.

Then recently, Mrs. MJ surprised me with a gift from, of all places, Ulta.

It’s a wooden make-up holder/tray, designed for the young girl not on the go. (I guess girls like to put on makeup while laying in bed?) It has a nice soft bean bag on the underside, which not only makes it comfortable, but automatically enables convenient adjustment.

It’s the right height, right size, and right slope. (Slope being most important.)

Now I find working (who am I kidding? reading blogs) from bed feels perfectly natural.

And all for $5.

Who knew?

November 30, 2007

A Random Thought On Human-ness…

Posted in Life at 11:17 pm by mj

…if there were only two things we could say were true about human beings, they would be:

  1. we hurt the ones we love;
  2. we can find/make happiness from any situation

It’s great to be human.

September 18, 2007

Bad summer for motherboards

Posted in Life, Me at 12:56 pm by mj

Back in June, I blogged about the motherboard on my Dell PowerEdge going out.

Last Wednesday, my GE refrigerator/freezer went out. The fan was still blowing, but the air wasn’t near cold enough.

Most of the food in the freezer unthawed before we even realized there was a problem, and the refrigerator was above 45 degrees.

We tried our best to eat all our still-fresh-smelling recently-thawed meat, and bought a bit of dry ice and regular ice to help with the refrigerated stuff, but I wasn’t going to take a chance with most of the food. Replacing $300 of food is less painful than throwing up for 3 days. (No, I don’t need to scientifically verify the fact, thankyouverymuch.)

Today, the friendly GE repairman came and isolated the problem to… the main control board (motherboard). The battery had burned a cute little hole straight through the board.

Unlike the Dell, he replaced it within 15 minutes and was gone. No need to reinstall an OS, even.

Of course, the fridge is several times more expensive and the extended warranty was $80…

July 8, 2007

Managing my feeds

Posted in Life, Me at 9:09 pm by mj

I’m not dead! Woohoo!

Since moving to Google Reader, I’ve realized just how much stuff I’d been missing doing things manually all this time. And, as with everybody who starts reading feeds, I’ve found it’s completely overwhelming–and trying to read too much is counter productive. (I’ve tried to share interesting posts on my link blog, but original thinking and writing has suffered.)

I knew this, but it all came to a head a few days ago when Scoble started putting LOL Cats and other crap in his link blog. Now, that in itself isn’t too bad, but one big problem with subscribing to the RSS feed of a shared Google Reader account is you don’t know whose feed you’re reading. You only see the name of the original blog and original author. So I spent an hour trying to track down if maybe Google had messed up, or some other feed was spewing trash, before I realized it was Scoble.

And that he was posting, on average, something like 20 stories a day.

And some of the blogs I thought I was already subscribed to were really coming from Scoble’s feed.

And many other blogs he linked to I was already subscribed to. (Call it osmosis.)

In other words, I didn’t have a handle on my feeds.

So, since I was already feeling miserable this weekend due to my allergies blocking up my ears, I pruned my feeds. Post too much? Gone. Low signal to noise? Gone. Have to click 2 or more times to get to mediocre content (ahem, Artima)? Gone.

I feel so much better about it, and I think I’m down to a reasonable enough traffic that I can at least get through the software, industry analysis, and humor blogs every day. And, while I didn’t completely unsubscribe from all partial feeds, I have segregated them to their own folder, which I will check far less often.

The diff on my OPML file is ugly. I’m keeping it for future reference.

I’m also abandoning Google’s “sort by auto” feature, which prioritizes feeds that are updated less often. It gives a false sense of how much progress I’ve made.

I have in mind a few interesting (to me) things to write about, and with my feeds now under control, and feeling better about things at work, I should get to them in the coming weeks.

June 10, 2007

Back on Fedora

Posted in Life, Linux, Me at 11:45 am by mj

I’m kicking myself for not thinking of this earlier–fastboot!. This allows me to boot my old FC6 system, which allows me to be productive and hold off on configuring a new system (I’ve concluded Kubuntu is just broken, too many things didn’t work for me). I don’t get to take advantage of the new 64-bit system, but I can get some work done. Which is more important?

On the off-chance somebody else may find themselves in a similar position someday, searching Google or Technorati for an answer at 4AM, here’s essentially what I did to get up (granted, I took the scenic route). Remember, on the system with the fried motherboard, I have an old IDE primary HDD, but the new system only boots SATA. I also bought my new PowerEdge with 2x160GB SATA drives (“for free” if you believe Dell’s special offers). This means:

  • Disk A. Old primary IDE HDD, with working system and no dependencies on secondary drives.
  • Disk B. New primary SATA HDD.
  • Disk C. New secondary SATA HDD.

If I only had a single new primary SATA HDD, I probably would have bought a cheap IDE-to-SATA adapter from Fry’s to see if the new system would boot it that way. But I try to avoid Fry’s if I can, especially the one in Milpitas.

Step 1. Install new Linux distro on Disk B. Doesn’t really matter which distro at this point, since you’re not going to use it.

Step 2. Copy an image of Disk A onto Disk C. Be sure to connect disk A before booting. In my case, it meant disconnecting the CD-ROM and sitting the old drive on top of the case. Your command might look like this:

$ dd if=/dev/sda of=/dev/sdc

This will, undoubtedly, take a while (I got 18.1MB/s for 80GB data–for a total of 74 minutes). It doesn’t matter if disk A is smaller than disk C.

As above, an IDE-to-SATA adapter might have worked. But this way, whatever happens to your data as you’re messing with it (including the remote possibility of a poorly-wired new system that fries all your components), you’re just working off a copy.

Step 3. Reboot. This is the only way I know to get Linux to refresh its view of the volumes on disk C. There may be other ways.

Step 4. fsck your new volumes manually. Just to make sure they’re OK.

$ e2fsck -f -c /dev/sdc1
$ e2fsck -f -c /dev/sdc2

Step 5. Disable init-time fsck. I think the problem with e2fsck failing during init has something to do with moving from IDE to SATA, with the device view switcheroo that entails. Never really figured it out.

$ sudo mkdir /mnt/sdc2
$ sudo mount /dev/sdc2 /mnt/sdc2
$ sudo mv /mnt/sdc2/.autofsck /mnt/sdc2/NO.autofsck
$ sudo touch /mnt/sdc2/fastboot

Step 6. Disable disk B and boot into disk C. In your BIOS, turn off SATA controller 0, or else it’ll never boot disk C.

You should now see the GRUB (or LILO) boot menu from your old system. I tried passing various kernel boot parameters to the system (GRUB allows you to edit the command before booting), but no hint I provided the kernel about the root device or root filesystem prevented the e2fsck failure. Hence, the need for fastboot.

Your experience and results may vary. I’m just excited to be able to get some work done.

June 9, 2007

Frustrated with Kubuntu

Posted in Life, Linux, Me at 4:23 pm by mj

This is just a rant, nothing more.

After my motherboard died, I decided it’s still OK to continue patronizing Dell, and bought their PowerEdge 840 with a “special offer.” And I decided to try out Kubuntu.

This is the first time I’ve run a Debian-based distribution since Debian 1.3.1 in 1997! That was my first Linux distribution, and, aside from the cool package management UI, I was not satisfied with some of its configuration choices. I know the version because I still have the 9 floppies I used at that time.

Debian is also where I learned to pronounce “Linux”–incorrectly! So, I happily went around for a year sounding like a total fool (some would say I’ve sounded like a total fool for the last 30 years, har har). Update: Actually, it was probably the Linux FAQ at with the pronunciation guide for “Linux”.

So far, I am less impressed with Kubuntu than I expected. Sure, it boots fast. But several things that worked out of the box with Fedora, just don’t in Kubuntu.

For example, SCIM/SKIM. I’ve futzed with that for hours, and still no love. Comments on various forums and blogs lead me to believe this is a long-standing problem with Kubuntu/Ubuntu, since everybody’s concluded it just won’t work with KDE. But, that’s patently untrue. FC guides me through a wizard at install, and it works the first time I log in. I’ve spent more time on this than I should. Sure, it’s not a core tool I use–I use it for practicing Chinese and doing a quick sanity check of how well my applications support international input, both of which I could do in Windows–but it’s still irritating.

Also, for some reason, Kubuntu does not install all KDE components. I’m not talking about the games and edutainment, I’m talking about adjusting your monitor resolution. I had to manually install all the KDE components just to do simple configuration tasks. (I do give Kubuntu credit for correctly detecting my widescreen monitor, which I was afraid wouldn’t work given the specs for this on-board video card. Still, I prefer not to run at full resolution because it hurts my eyes.)

Speaking of manual package installation–the whole “desktop” versus “server” downloads for Ubuntu tripped me up. Kubuntu is only the “desktop” option, and there doesn’t appear to be any metapackage that allows me to install all the “server” packages. I’ve tracked down a number of packages–emacs, mysql client, etc., none of which I really consider “server” software–but still have more to install.

I do really love Adept and Synaptic, though. Really slick.

The disheartening thing is all this futzing is in addition to the normal upgrade woes. I’ve grown accustomed to removing the god-awful gcj and so on. That takes an hour or two anyway.

This is really why I try to avoid clean installs, and why I tend to stick with the same distro. Upgrades put you through enough pain, but complete reinstalls make it even worse.

I tried booting my old disk, but the new PowerEdge won’t boot IDE disks, grub won’t even see IDE disks for chain loading, and copying the disk image onto a SATA drive results in a phantom boot-time e2fsck failure (despite manual e2fsck runs working just fine). So much for trying to save time until I can truly spare a few days to configure a new system.

Now I’m starting to remember why I considered never buying from Dell again. That motherboard is the first time I’ve had any computer die on me in 20 years. I wouldn’t even be surprised if it caused a chain reaction, perhaps starting with this 9-year old Pentium II sitting around collecting dust, whose (sentimental) disk contents I still haven’t backed up…


Looks like I still have a weekend of configuration to do, then a week of quiet meditation, then maybe I can get some real work done.

April 24, 2007

MySQL Conference: Who’s that idiot in the pool?

Posted in Life, Me at 9:46 pm by mj


I have done a lot of embarrassing things in my life. At least two every day, I think. (OK, three.)

But none as odd as falling off into the Hyatt pool during the MySQL conference lunch on Tuesday.

Didn’t see it coming.

Didn’t even realize it was happening until I saw the plate breaking in my hand as I sank into the water.

Had to ask myself whether I was dreaming.

“Yes,” I lied.

The Hyatt people took care of me, dried my clothes, and pretended that these things happen. Something for them to laugh at at office parties for years to come.

(I couldn’t tell if the liability guy taking my statement was trying to suppress laughter or trying to avoid accusing me of planning the whole thing.)

Yes, the laptop survived. My Targus backpack, in fact, didn’t let in any water, as far as I can tell. The laptop and all my papers were dry.

My cell phone, on the other hand… it works, but the screen is blank. I hope it can be repaired.

March 10, 2007

Do Ionizing Air Cleaners Really Work?

Posted in Health, Life, Me, Psychology, Science at 9:22 am by mj

Recently, you-know-who came home with a Bionaire PERMAtech(tm) ionizing air cleaner from Costco. She did this because I’ve been having the sniffles brought on by the elevated Bay Area attack of the trees (or is it dust?), which is always compounded by my preference for sleeping with the window open.

If you know me, you know I’m a big-time deep-in-my-bones skeptic. I might not always know exactly the right questions to ask, or be able to tell exactly what psychological forces or fraudulant pseudo-science is at play, but I am always skeptical. Marrying a Chinese girl was a big change for me, because Chinese are much more accepting of alternative medicines and anecdotal evidence than us poor Westerners. (Despite my skepticism, I have discovered several Chinese herbs and concoctions that work for me for various ailments, including, as far as I can tell given my limited capacity for controlled testing, my persistent nausea.)

The first red flag was thrown a few minutes into reading the brief manual, which offered this doozie:

You may also note after extended use, that dust may have collected around the grills or front panel. This is from the ionization affect caused by the negative ions exiting from the air outlet. This is additional evidence of the air cleaning effectiveness of negative ions.

Um, OK. By that logic, any normal fan has the same effectiveness, because they’re always accumulating dust around the grills and front panel. Not to mention the average computer. (“But, love, I have to keep a full rack of servers in our house…they’re purifying the air!“) I digress.

Wikipedia’s entry on Ionizers confirmed my suspicions, and cited articles indicating that the ozone created by ionization may actually be dangerous, which is not something I knew.

So, this week, I performed an unintentional experiment. I turned on the Ionizer, but I neglected to turn on the Ionizer. That is, by default, the Ionizer simply has a fan. You have to press a second button to enable the high electricity necessary for ionization. Good safety precaution. It remembers whether ionization was on or off…unless you unplug it. Which is what happened in this case.

For several days, then, she commented on how clean the air smelled in our bedroom, and on my lack of sniffles, even though I’d been sleeping with the window open and the heated blanket off. I started believing that, maybe, possibly, it was worth the money, and that it really was working. I was ready to admit that I was wrong (that happens a lot when you’re married).

Then, this morning, I discovered my error. The best thing I can now say is that the filter was cleaning the air in our bedroom. Which , if true, probably makes it worth the money (I think it was 50% off), since most fans simply scatter dust and pollen and tree bombs and anti-MJ missiles around the air.

But you-know-who? Her comment was simply that it explains why last night I was still sniffling in my sleep.

I’m sure Robert Cialdini would have something to say about that.

What do you think?

February 25, 2007

Public and private life

Posted in Books, Education, Life at 2:19 am by mj

Danah Boyd on ending relationships in the internet age, and the divide between the personal and the social:

The Internet has allowed us to take the most “intimate” thoughts and ideas and perform them in a public before witnesses. This makes real every neurosis and stupid act – stuff that might simply have slipped away before. It makes it possible to be heard. But at the same time, when you know you’re going to be heard, you have to think twice. Do you really want that fleeting thought to be that real, to be that present for collective memory?

Danah is eloquent and nearly poetic as always; I did not quote the best part of her post, so be sure to click through.

The real reason this stuck out in my mind is because she quoted Hannah Arendt, who was my favorite thinker in college. I borrowed several of Arendt’s books from a professor my sophomore year, and went on from there; her densest writing would fill me with a semester’s worth of references in a single paragraph, and she’d draw connections through the centuries that I never would have made. (I’m not sure I could make it through any of her books at this point.) I can recall those days fondly now, even though I know they were far from my happiest days.

Arendt also made another argument, though, that the private life is absolutely vital to life at all. Not just to thinking (a case she also made), but to development and resilience. The case that I remember best is from The Crisis In Education, which I just tracked down:

These four walls, within which people’s private family life is lived, constitute a shield against the world and specifically against the public aspect of the world. They enclose a secure place, without which no living thing can thrive. This holds good not only for the life of childhood but for human life in general. Wherever the latter is consistently exposed to the world without the protection of privacy and security its vital quality is destroyed. In the public world, common to all, persons count, and so does work, that is, the work of our hands that each of us contributes to our common world; but life qua life does not matter there. The world cannot be regardful of it, and it has to be hidden and protected from the world.

I’ll continue on, because the next paragraph is as relevant this month as it ever was:

Everything that lives, not vegetative life alone, emerges from darkness and, however strong its natural tendency to thrust itself into the light, it nevertheless needs the security of darkness to grow at all. This may indeed be the reason that children of famous parents so often turn out badly. Fame penetrates the four walls, invades their private space, bringing with it, especially in present-day conditions, the merciless glare of the public realm, which floods everything in the private lives of those concerned, so that the children no longer have a place of security where they can grow.
It is the peculiarity of modern society, and by no means a matter of course, that it regards life, that is, the earthly life of the individual as well as the family, as the highest good; and for this reason, in constrast to all previous centuries, emancipated this life and all the activities that have to do with its preservation and enrichment from the concealment of privacy and exposed them to the light of the public world. This is the real meaning of the emancipation of workers and women, not as persons, to be sure, but insofar as they fulfill a necessary function in the life-process of society.

The last to be affected by this process of emancipation were the children, and the very thing that had meant a true liberation for the workers and the women–because they were not only workers and women but persons as well, who therefore had a claim on the public world, that is, a right to see and be seen in it, to speak and be heard–was an abandonment and betrayal in the case of the children, who are still at the stage where the simple fact of life and growth outwieghs the factor of personality.

I’m interested in whether Danah–who lives and breathes teenage culture–agrees with Arendt on this.

The case is often made pragmatically, that your words and deeds online will be seen by your future college admissions boards and employers and lovers and, yes, enemies. But is this liberation destroying life worth living, or are we adapting and, eventually, will better understand ourselves because we (humans in general, not me, because, well, I’m a lost cause) grew up making distinctions between public and private acts that before were (arbitrarily) made for us?

Oy, 2AM. Would I were twenty-three…

August 20, 2006

My excuse for not blogging during SIGIR; or, How I Spent My Summer Half-Vacation

Posted in Conferences, Food, Life at 9:23 pm by mj

Well, I am back in my cozy (read: messy) home, and I am pooped. My plan to blog SIGIR during SIGIR just sort of evaporated. They kept us much busier than I expected. I had to sneak away from a couple of lunches and one dinner just to catch up on email from work and try to read some of the papers prior to their presentation.

Instead, I will, over the coming week, write up some of the highs and lows of the conference through my eyes. I don’t really believe in the blogging-as-stream-of-consciousness paradigm of conference blogging, anyhow. I do have quite a few notes (both hand-written and typed), and there were some interesting papers presented.

Post-conference, we spent a week exploring Washington’s Olympic Peninsula and Oregon, from the shores to Crater Lake, and visited a number of smaller towns along the way. The locals were, without exception, friendly, helpful, upbeat, and environmentally-friendly. The vacationers from Portland, on the other hand, … well, I digress.

It’s all about the meals
Boeing, Google, and Microsoft sponsored buffet-style dinners on three consecutive nights at SIGIR. And, interestingly, they all offered salmon as the entree. I like salmon (as you’ll see, sometimes I can’t resist ordering a salmon entree, perhaps subconsciosly to test how the chef treats it as an indication of how he/she treats the rest of the menu), but none of these meals were all that great. The best SIGIR-sponsored meal was probably the last lunch, which offered self-serve fajitas.

During our vacation, we’d ask the locals what restaurants they recommend. (Yes, I should have checked Chowhound first.) This turns out (not surprisingly) to be a great strategy.


  • Lunch at the 42nd Street Cafe in Long Beach, our favorite meal, and a surprise recommendation from the lady at the Chamber of Commerce. Better–and cheaper–than any other meal, including those more than twice as expensive. I had a salmon (hmm) with some kind of walnut-based sauce (and I don’t like walnuts!), while Yinghua had a bowl of clams seasoned with (I think) some kind of pesto base.
  • Dinner at The Drift Inn in Yachats. From the outside, it looks like a typical local bar/hangout with typical food. On the inside, it’s a great atmosphere with awesome food. I had another salmon (wth?) with blackberry sauce (delicious–and I don’t like blackberry seeds!), and she had a bowl of seafood chowder, half of which I ate. The live music (the night we were there, it was Richard Sharpless) adds to the atmosphere, and somehow put us in a better mood leaving than when we went in.
  • Lunch at The 3 Crabs in Dungeness, Washington. The building itself looks like a typical fast food joint, but the seafood is fresh and the wait staff (including the owner?) is friendly and fast. Of course we had a fresh crab and a bowl of mixed seafood. There’s not much room for chef-ly artistry here: it all comes down to freshness and not drowing the flavor in butter/herbs/salt the way many American restaurants do.
  • Dinner at Crater Lake Lodge. Once again, I ordered Salmon the first night (Yinghua ordered it the second night). Their Chef’s magic didn’t happen with the flavoring, but by subtly undercooking the center (and serving a huge fish). Unfortunately, their other meals–including the duck and halibut–weren’t nearly as well prepared. The other downside was the garlic butter-based sauce served with the Salmon. Trust me: just move that to the side. I’m glad I didn’t think to smother my meal with it til I was at the last third, because it just gets in the way of the juiciest salmon I had the whole time. (The butter was good, it just gets in the way of the fish.)

The biggest disappoinment to me was our dinner at Sky City in Seattle’s Space Needle. Perversely expensive and touristy, none of the food was outstanding in any way. The wait staff was friendly, the atmosphere was great, the view was good. The food just wasn’t worth it.

With that, I must prepare for my first full on-site week in a month. Between the family emergency, SIGIR, and my real vacation, I’m actually starting to miss the urine smell in downtown San Francisco. I think tomorrow I shall open my window and breathe in huge wiffs of the stuff.

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