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Winter Driving

On an unplowed highway. At 417 in the morning. With just enough traffic that you can't go slowly, but not enough so you can deduce road conditions from the car ahead of you. Do not like.

I took J and C an B to the airport to catch a 6AM flight to see their grandmothers. Can't rightly say it was a white-knuckle trip because I've learned that gripping the steering wheel too hard pretty quickly loses the feeling in the last two fingers of my right hand (sequelae of an old dance injury). But the rest of me was not relaxed. Boys were chatting/arguing in the back seat about everything from which stuffed toy B would lend C to whether winter weather in Louisiana was warmer than summer weather in Vermont, I was in continual "So is this dark strip I'm aligning my tires with pavement or black ice?" mode. (Mostly pavement, except by the stoplight  at the intersection of Industrial Drive and Rt 2.)

A few miles from our exit we came upon what turned out to be a couple of plow trucks in loose formation, driving very slowly.  They sported very bright yellow blinkers, not synchronized, which was seriously disorienting , because my eyes kept trying to reconstruct the positions and outlines of the trucks from the blinkers, and assigning any given blink to a particular truck did not work. (Pro tip: that slightly smaller blinker that looks like it might be an escort vehicle behind the truck is attached to the upper right wing of the plow.)

On the way back I went by state road. The gas/coffee station I'd been counting on just past the south burlington box-store district wasn't open at 5 on a sunday morning, alas. And the only other vehicles on the road were plows. I say "road" advisedly, because new drifts and old plow berms had consumed the shoulders, but not in even bites from both sides. So I'd be steering a course on the right half of the cleared area and suddenly see a double yellow line emerge from the snow on my passenger side. Or hear a rumble from really old frozen slush. A few times on the wide flat areas I'd have to slow down and ask myself seriously "Where the $#% is the %$@#%ing road anyway." Not helping: the fact that the state road sometimes meanders next to the (also meandering) highway, so that headlights appearing to your left may be several hundred yards offset from you, or may suddenly switch to your right.

Eh. About 45 minutes going, hour and a half coming back. Came home to a text from J that they'd been bumped to a flight through boston for several hundred dollars each, crawled back into bed with the cat, slept till the time we normally wake up on weekends.
No, really. I don't spend enough on i-devices, I use them in unprofitable ways, I'm getting too old. Which is fine if they want to focus their efforts elsewhere, but now I really need to think about what's going to be on my desktop soon (in the basement, it's already linux boxes all the way down.)

I upgraded to Yo%#%@#% because yet another piece of open-source software I use stopped supporting 10.6.8, and I think I would be able to stand it if it just made every possible user-interface decision in a way opposite to how I use my desktop computer. And unfixable. Or if it let me arrange my desktop and programs the way I like at the cost of being unreliable. But crashing several times a day and every bleeping time undoing what tiny fixes I was able to make. Not really worth it.

Also: crashing. What is this crap. The whole point of building a modern operating system is that the OS is supposed to be stable and keep functioning when individual programs or services crash. If the apps and services work fine but the OS takes everything down and loses all your open work, then we might as well be back at Switcher, which is where I came in.

Or maybe the machine restarting every few hours is just their way of telling me to save often and take a break from the keyboard.

Happy New Year, all.

Maybe they just lied

Years and years and years ago, I got a shuttle xpc, and it didn't work worth a damn. Wouldn't install anything till I just took a working disk out of some other machine and booted with it. Wouldn't recognize one of the two RAM sticks it shipped with. About half the time it wouldn't boot at all unless I turned the power-supply switch off, waited about 10 minutes, then came back and booted it back up.

But. It was rock-solid once it did boot, as opposed to so many of the other machines I have in the basement. So a few weeks ago, while I was ordering some other stuff from Newegg, I figured I'd order enough RAM to upgrade it to the full 8GB it's supposedly capable of taking.

Nuh-uh. In oh so many ways, including not even working when restored to its original configuration. The best I could get it to do was hang on the BIOS splash screen with 8 GB installed. So I read around, and saw a lot of people pointing out that the supposed 400-watt power supply is actually crap, and that they had similar hang-on-boot until they disconnected everything nonessential that might possibly draw power. I ripped out the old power supply, balanced a conventional one on top of the frame, and darned if the thing didn't start booting reliably in its previously-working configuration. Even the LEDs on the motherboard looked brighter.

But boot with 8GB of RAM, like the documentation says it should? Not a chance. BIOS splash screen and then nothing. So I still have an underpowered, annoying box, but at least I can turn it on and off without worrying if it will ever come up again...

I'm almost beginning to think I should get something reasonably fast next time.


As I write this the tent parts are drying in the sun, and I'm drinking iced coffee with extra milk. The other night was C's school's fall campout. I'm not complaining that much about how bleeping cold it was (30s and windy) but about just how much stuff we packed and unpacked for 12 hours of being a few miles away from home.

Four sleeping bags, all of which had to be unrolled for use, rerolled for sotwage. Four mats ditto. C's tent/fly/groundcloth/pegs. The tent/fly/pegs for the rest of us. Flashlights for all. Extra clothes. pillows. folding chairs. C's stuffed dog. B's stuffed monkey. Toothbrushes and like paraphernalia. The car was pretty much full to the gills. And that's before the potluck stuff.

So should I just get used to the notion that there's so much stuff for even the shortest camping trip? I'm not sure offhand what I would cut out. How do other people do this kind of thing?

Peter, Pan Jr

Took B to see the local musical theatre camp's production of Peter Pan (C is en route to visit his grandmother -- first flight as an unaccompanied minor, wow) and it was pretty good. It was billed as an abridged version (about 90 minutes, no flying, very much mashed up) and to my mind very well thought out. B really liked the crocodile and Captain Hook and seeing his brother's schoolmates (the girl playing Tinkerbelle did a star turn as Beaker in a recent school production). I watched the completely manic kid playing Peter and considered that Barrie's audience would have been much more attuned to the classical reference in his name. Noticed the ways that the dramaturges had done their best to play with the underlying racism/sexism/social darwinism/everything else of the original. (If you read Peter Pan and Mary Poppins at all carefully, it's easy to see the essentially dickensian underpinnings, only without nearly as much hope.) Enjoyed seeing the ongoing evolution of some of the kids who I've seen around since they were aging out of toddler playgroup.

Couldn't help thinking about a mainstage production of Peter Pan I worked on during one of my junior years, a dark version in which Peter was much more the child-stealing fairy of older folklore, tormented as much as enlivened by his eternal present. I remember inflating the gazillion balloons that floated down through the spotlights, and having words with the technical director about his bodged-together flying harnesses. It ended (book-accurate) with the adult Wendy weeping in her own empty nursery. (Yeah, I started tearing up in this latest production when the kids came flying back. Go figure.)

And couldn't help thinking of Eddy, the schlubby old guy who rented dimmers and lights and equipment to all of us, whose blowzy, bespectacled wife handled the business side of the enterprise. His term of endearment for her was always "Tink", and none of us young ones could believe it. She went from smoking behind a desk to an oxygen cannula to a tent during my time as a lighting designer, and then my senior year Eddy took a couple months off when she died.

OK, so I'm obvious, even if that wasn't really where I intended to end up. But I noticed the other day taking the kids to IHOP that there's a whole big section of the menu devoted to meals for the 55-plus crowd.

Oh, and I also remember at strike how much fun and how loud it was wading thigh-deep in balloon across the stage and popping every damn one of them.
Unless you want to confirm listeners in a particular opinion of you.

To your 12ish son whom you suspect of cheating in the volleyball game you have organized between him and his much younger brothers: "I'll come right out on that court and whup your ass! You are embarrassing me [in front of the other guests]!"

To your 7ish sons, who have not yet internalized the principles of zone defense and have lost a point in the volleyball game by both going after the ball: "If you do that again I'm going to stop the game and you're going to spend the next two hours practicing math."

To your 6ish daughter, who has just asked if she can sleep in the big room with two beds: "No. That's the room where I'm storing my bicycle."

Glad I went on vacation, glad I'm back.

One of those days

Really, it started yesterday afternoon when no one delivered C back from day camp. All the carpooling had pretty much been arranged by email before I was added to the cc list, so I thought, from some vague discussions I'd overhead, that he might be at the municipal pool with some friends, as he had been on Tuesday. Cue me driving over to the pool. Nope. So maybe he just got delivered late. Drive home. Nope. I suddenly thought, maybe the email I sent confirming that I was driving all the kids to camp thursday morning had really said I was picking them up thursday afternoon. Nope, they weren't still at camp, although one of the teachers commented that they'd been picked up late. Home again, to see the light flashing on the answering machine (did I mention there's apparently no cell service at the camp, even though it's the regional high school?)

Two messages from C, neither of them saying where he was or what number he was at (although that was OK, because he was with somebody, at least.) Caller ID gave me the number, which I called, and exchanged profuse mutual apologies with the parent who had indeed interpreted my message to mean she was off the hook for pickup. Oh, and she mentioned that she had dropped C off at an empty house, was he OK? At which point I did actually hear a small voice calling "Hello? Dad?" from the other end of the house.

So for decompression we decide to go into town and have sushi. Parking in front of the library there's a crunching noise and the tire pressure light goes on. Yep, left rear seems to be soft. But that's the one that had a leak before, so I think little of it. We eat yummy sushi, talk about Scratch and Doctor Who and suchlike, then walk back to the car. Then we walk the mile back home uphill.

This morning I get C off in the carpool and trot back downtown with a bike pump in tow (did I mention that while I was looking for C a friend came by to borrow my compressor) on the off chance I could pump the flat up enough to drive it to the tire place. A big old bearded local in farm clothes watches me from across the street, shaking his head. "Yeah, I know," I say, "but if it works it's faster than putting on the spare." It doesn't. So I put on the spare, chatting with acquaintances walking to work in between jumps on the tire iron.

Walk back downtown from the tire place. Runaround from the people who sold us tire damage coverage. Meeting with marketing person who works in the next office about rebranding myself. Text from J saying she's stuck in traffic near Baton Rouge and might miss her flight back. Call to tire place confirms that the hole in the tire (piece of slate) is too big to repair. Sudden realization that not only don't I have a car to get to C's last-day-of-camp presentation stuff, I don't have a car to get him home. Send out email to carpoolers.

Eat lunch, get ride, watch C showing off his e-waste video game, look at similar games by a lot of other kids, including a couple who were in one of the Scratch courses J and I took (a small tear of pride). Get ride home. Relax for a while, then realize there's almost no unfrozen food in the house. Too bad.

While we're eating dinner, text from J who is boarding her second leg in Atlanta. C and I finish up, then settle down to watch Tom Baker and Elizabeth Sladen do battle with robot mummies.

And I wonder that I don't get anything done.

It's all a learning experience

This week, for reasons that may not make sense in retrospect, I'm running a lego robotics camp at the local library. We borrowed a bunch of NXT bricks from the university extension service, and I've got 9 kids in the 8-12 range more or less learning how to build robots and make them do things. They range from ubergeek to a couple of kids I've known since they were this high whose mother signed them up without telling them to a shock-haired little something-or-other whose parents really wanted him out of the house for three hours every morning.

So I've learned a lot.  One thing is that Lego Technic kinda sucks. Its appearance promises way more than it delivers, and to make things hold together you have to throw on all kinds of cross-bracing and perpendicular locking bits. The NXT bricks have holes to fit Technic couplers, but when you actually try to attach stuff like motors or sensors, all the clearances are wrong, so you have to put in bunches of spacer bricks, which makes things less rigid and more likely to fall apart when you turn the motors on and start moving. Sure, you can work around all of that, but it's another layer between the kids and just building stuff.

Another is that worse can be better for learning. There's an option for letting sensors fire while the motors are moving, but kids who are just learning to program stuff need to know that execution proceeds from left to right (it's a graphical language where you plunk down parameterized blocks to do things) and that in general one operation has to finish before the next one starts.

But the biggest thing for me has been remembering that this is a camp. It's not a course or a workshop or a warmup for one of the fiercely competitive lego robotics leagues. So when the shock-headed kid comes up to me and proudly shows how he's put a coupler in every hole of six long Technic beams, I congratulate him and let him build ten more. When the ubergeek and his friend waste time they could be spending on learning switch statement and parallel execution driving their bot slowly across the length of the entire room, that's OK too. If all that some of them get out of this is five mornings of fun and not having busted anyone else's bot, then I've succeeded.

So far, they're all telling their parents and the librarians that they're having a good time. They're even sorting all the fiddly little parts back into bins like they meant it. And a couple of adults have asked me if I teach any workshops where they can learn to keep up with their kids.

fscking ubuntu

Just wasted two days with a stupid upgrade problem (because apparently "Long Term Support" doesn't mean "We will keep libraries up to date so that newly-built software will run on your machine while you get to keep your configuration). Exacerbated by a combination of Canonical's "we know way better than you" policies and the Autopilot Failure Problem.

The latter is something that flight-safety people have been trying to fix for decades to no avail: when an autopilot decides it's stuck and decides to return manual control to the pilot, that usually means there's some kind of emergency in progress. An emergency the pilot is not fully informed about because, well, the autopilot was flying the plane and the pilot wasn't paying full attention. Oh, and doesn't have a full set of tools to address.

In this case, borked windowing system because of course that video driver that's the only #@%@# one on the planet that works with this old hardware should be discarded in favor of the minimal free one, which doesn't support 3D effects, which are no longer optional, so let's just start up the 3D subsystem anyway and see what happens when crucial parts of it hang.

There are tools to fix this (maybe) but I can't have them because part of the 14.04 installation process involves turning off all software sources not absolutely needed for the upgrade (because you're supposed to use Ubuntu Software Center. Except it won't work if anything goes wrong). Including proprietary drivers (natch) and also community-supported software like, say, synaptic or the configuration manager for the windowing system. Which I could turn back on from a text terminal if I knew where Canonical had decided to stash the info this week, which I can't easily find out because it's hard to run a browser without a windowing system.

It turns out that if I middle-click on the nonworking desktop I can open up a borked wallpaper chooser, which can in turn be converted to a borked preference pane from which I can get to the pref for software sources and turn damn-all everything back on. At which point I can download the stuff I want, switch to a working driver, reconfigure compiz and unity to have the crap I need and not load the plugin that always hangs. And now I can download the new copies of the software I need to use.

Oh, and someone please remind me to reset the baud rates on all the USB connections to integer multiples of 9600, because apparently there's a component that crashes if you use numbers like 250000. (I found that out on my office machine, where the upgrade otherwise went swimmingly but the control software for my 3D printer kept turning itself off.)

Helpful household hint

If your toilet is clogged (as for example by a 5-year-old using way, way too much toilet paper) and the plunger and the snake have already failed, you might want to consider enclosing the head of a toilet brush in a sturdy plastic bag (say, a 1-quart freezer ziplock, filling the bag partially with water, and then sealing the end of the bag tightly around the handle with a rubber band.  The resulting balloonlike thingy makes a much better seal against the interior of the waste channel than does a plunger, and a few dozen back-and-forth pressure/suction cycles might just loosen the obstruction.

If I had come up with this idea first thing on being awakened this morning, the day would have been much more pleasant.



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