Blog: 2006-04

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LA Times Nails Michael Hiltzik

The Los Angeles Times has taken action against Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Hiltzik, after his pattern of blogging under anonymous names was exposed this past week.

—"'L.A. Times' Suspends Hiltzik In Blogging Controversy," Editor & Publisher, 2006-04-30

The LA Times is a real newspaper.

BigTime: Full-Featured Time Objects in Scheme

Someone just asked about my work on a Scheme "SRFI-19 replacement" time library, and I realized I'd done a bunch of work not yet documented anywhere.

The new, unfinished, library is called BigTime. It used to be called iso8601.scm before the purpose of the library was changed from being a full ISO 8601 implementation to being an end-all-be-all library for time representation and operations. It is not at all like my simple rfc3339.scm library.

A few blog entries about early work on BigTime are: 2005-04-24, 2005-03-28, 2005-03-21, 2005-02-15, and 2005-02-13.

Since then, I've also worked on efficient and scalable representations, and timepoint arithmetic at arbitrary resolutions.

I'm making releasing this library a high priority, but no guarantees on when that'll be, as I'm also doing full-time job-hunting.

Network Neutrality

MoveOn.org is launching a site on Network Neutrality -- SaveTheInternet.com

This is an extremely important issue.

Good Deal on Used Canon EF 80-200/2.8L

Want a deal on a Canon EF 80-200/2.8L? E.P. Levine, a reputable camera shop in Boston, has added to their home page:

Take 20% off every used equipment purchase this month. Just enter promocode HOLIDAY at checkout

Their used equipment includes a "USED CANON 80-200/2.8 L EF Condition:MINT-" for $699. At 20%-off, that's $559.20.

Which price is close to $300 less than KEH wants for an "EX"-grade. (It's also the B&H price for a 70-300/4-5.6 USM IS.) The two recent completed eBay auctions for 80-200/2.8 were for $680.00 and $875.01.

I strongly suspect I'd buy it myself, had I not just spent about half that on a 70-210/3.5-4.5. (See 2006-04-21.) I don't feel comfortable upgrading a lens before I've figured out its practical limits.

Of course, you need to do your own due diligence before buying. I'm mentioning this because it seems like a great deal thus far, and I hope someone else can have success with it, but I've not done enough research that I could recommend unequivocally that you -- yes, you, charming reader -- buy it.

Free USAF 1951 Resolution Test Target in PostScript Format

Finding a free printable version of the USAF 1951 resolution test target took more Googling than it should've, so I'll link it...

Thanks to one David Jacobson, you can get a good approximation of the pattern in PostScript format from: http://www.photo.net/learn/optics/USAF1951.ps

LeMessurier Citicorp Tower Story

I spent years reading about engineering risk, yet somehow missed this article:

The weakest joint, he discovered, was at the building's thirtieth floor; if that one gave way, catastrophic failure of the whole structure would follow. Next, he took New York City weather records provided by Alan Davenport and calculated the probability of a storm severe enough to tear that joint apart. His figures told him that such an event had a statistical probability of occurring as often as once every sixteen years--what meteorologists call a sixteen-year storm.

—Joe Morgenstern, "The Fifty-Nine-Story Crisis," The New Yorker, 1995-05-29

Fox News: Bush at 33%

Never thought I'd be linking Fox News:

President Bush's approval hits a record low of 33 percent this week, clearly damaged by sinking support among Republicans.

—"Gloomy Economic Views; Bush Approval at New Low," Fox News, 2006-04-20

'New' Lens: Canon EF 70-210/3.5-4.5 USM

I just received the Canon EF 70-210/3.5-4.5 USM that I'd ordered used from KEH.

I occasionally need to go longer than my 17-85, I wanted a zoom, I didn't want one of the cruddy (non-IS) 75-300 models, and I wanted to pay around $200 (rather than the roughly $600 that 70-200/4L, 70-300 IS, or 75-300 IS would cost).

The 70-210/3.5-4.5 is not to be confused with the inferior 70-210/4, and is also harder to find than that one.

As I write this, I've only shot a couple test shots out the front window. The copy seems good thus far, with no surprises: AF is fast and accurate, a little soft at the long end, some fringing, major zoom creep. I'm on 1.6x crop, so not worried about vignetting. True to reputation, when KEH says "EX" grade, they mean it: so far, I've noticed only light scuffs on the lens cap edge, and the smallest amount of dust behind the front element.

I'll take some real photos and do a 70mm and 85mm shootout with my 17-85 this weekend.

Photo of the Day: George Bush Hard-Sell Hu Jintao

That's gotta be some kind of faux pas.

At least Junior didn't vomit on the Asian leader.

SICP in Texinfo Format version 2.neilvandyke3

New version of SICP in Texinfo Format adds a missing Lisp example. Courtesy of Pedro Kröger, via a patch submitted quite some time ago.

Ghirardelli Squares 75% Off at Target & Cubicle Trail Mix

A vast amount of Easter candy was on sale for 75% off at the Target in Somerville (Massachusetts, USA). This would not be noteworthy, except this includes bags of Ghirardelli Squares chocolates, normally $2.99/bag at Target, for 74 cents a bag.

If I had a cubicle or office at the moment, I'd buy $10 worth, and keep a candy jar stocked for coworkers.

Early in my career, I provided free trail mix from a candy jar just inside the doorway of my cubicle. Raisins, peanuts, and sunflower seeds was a simple and popular mix. The usual pattern was that someone would walk into my cube, grab a handful from the jar, and start talking with his/her mouth full.

Gasoline Price Increasing

Spotted a gas station employee raising gas prices at Hess in Inman Square, with Premium now $2.999/gal.

Further oil company profiteering will be necessary before the gallon closes the gap with Marlboro.

Cleaning Exhaust Fan on HP LaserJet 5/5N Printer

If left on for a long time, my HP LaserJet 5N with JetDirect card would display the message, "58 FAN MOTOR FAILURE, CALL SERVICE". This would coincide with the fan making noises sounding closer to rattling than whirring.

Not knowing much about this model, naive theories include fan bearings getting old, fan dirty, faulty thermal sensor, faulty fan speed control or feedback, or loose connector.

The replacement part seems to be "Exhaust Fan FM1," HP part number RH7-1178-000CN. At the moment, it can be had from at least a couple of sources for around $15 shipped.

I couldn't quickly find a free service manual or even a parts explosion diagram, so I opened up the LaserJet to see whether or not the fan simply needed cleaning, and how easy replacement would be.

To remove the fan (don't do this unless you're experienced in this sort of thing and you promise not to sue me):

  • Turn off power switch, unplug power, and beware of capacitors.

  • Remove the right panel, by loosening captive screw in rear upper-left (facing rear) corner, sliding panel towards rear an inch or two, and levering panel out to side from rear til it comes off.

  • Partially remove top panel by removing two screws in upper corners behind rear door, removing one screw beneath top door (on the right), levering panel up a few inches, and using flat screwdriver tip to pop the two latches beneath top door (in front), lifting the top panel a few inches, and setting the top panel down a few inches to the left of its usual position on the unit. Note: The Top panel is effectively tethered by wires running to the the control panel, and the connector appears easily damaged.

  • Locate the fan (this is not difficult). It's a DC brushless muffin fan atop the unit, in the right rear corner, with shielding.

  • Remove the one screw that goes through the shielding and fan and case.

  • Lift up fan (holding shielding in place with respect to fan), levering fan up from right side, and using fingers or tool to pop the two springy tabs holding fan from left side.

At this point, I saw no obvious way to get at the alleged header connector to which the three wires from the fan led. I decided to clean the fan and see how that worked before I invested a big chunk of time in tearing the printer apart and ordering a replacement part.

If you happen to have a service manual, or otherwise know how to easily get at the fan connector, I'd appreciate an email.

OpenWrt ipkg upgrade Corruption and Failsafe Recovery

I feared I bricked my OpenWrt-based WRT54GL this morning, when, while about to install SNMP support, I did a ipkg upgrade. The upgrade ran out of space, yet proceeded merrily along, corrupting the kernel, uclibc, and other key components. It was still routing, I had an open SSH shell, and could run shell builtins, but programs could not be execed, and new LAN-side connections were rejected.

Fortunately, recovering in failsafe more was easy (after readying on my laptop the files I'd need if I had to use the TFTP hack): I powered the router off and on, waited for the DMZ light, held down the reset button for two seconds, waited, telnet'ed from the laptop (which conveniently still had an Ethernet interface up) to the router, run firstboot, rebooted, telnet'ed in again, fetched the new RC5 firmware, did mtd -r write openwrt-brcm-2.4-squashfs.trx linux, and rebooted. The NVRAM preserved the important configuration from my corrupt RC4 installation.

Luigi Colani Canon 5 Systems

Luigi Colani's 1983 "5 Systems" Canon design concept cameras.

Conceptual speculation is fun. Innovation comes as much from evolution of ideas, as you see concepts through to finished systems.

Background Blur and the Canon EF 17-85 IS

With the weather nice enough yesterday and today, I carried my new 17-85 (see 2006-03-24) with me on errands, and found the out-of-focus blur is OK. Two demonstrative shots are of MIT Building 68 in biological bloom and a sign that Homer is a dead end.

The bokeh isn't nearly as good as that from my Canon EF 50mm/1.4, but it's good enough for photojournalism. This gives me less reason to upgrade from the 17-85 to the 24-70/2.8.

Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) and Typing

I've heard a couple people complain in the last week about hand and arm pain that they attribute to working at their computer. I used to have some trouble with that, so, for what it's worth, here's some notes on my own experiences...

About fifteen years ago, I was working as a young software developer on a team where the developers were dropping like so many flies that have been strapped to wrist braces. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS) and other RSIs.

As I recall, two of our software engineers -- both female, one with a Master's in CS and the other an EE -- were eventually told by their doctors that they couldn't type again, or they'd lose all use of their hands. The management brought in typists for them. The majority of the other developers on the team ended up wearing wrist braces. I myself never got the ceremonial programmer gauntlets, but for a while the discomfort from my arms and hands did make sleeping difficult.

Here's a stream-of-consciousness spewing of things that that seem to have let me consistently use a computer for 80-100+ hours a week without discomfort ever since:

  • Remember: Feet flat on the floor, back straight and supported, neck straight, eye level even with top of display, upper arms relaxed at your sides, forearms parallel to floor, wrists straight in line with forearms (as viewed from the side, and preferably from the top as well).

  • Adjust chair height and remove armrests from the chair if they encourage bad posture. Get a new chair if current chair cannot be adjusted. I think most HR people in industry settings nowadays will have the wisdom to spring for a new chair. (I did once accidentally alarm an HR person or management by pointing out a faulty HVAC that I'd discovered had been aggravating the allergies of me and at least one other employee, and asking simply that it be tested and fixed for that reason. In hindsight, if I were, say, asking for a new chair due to RSI issues, I might simply ask for a new chair without saying exactly why, to spare any delicate sensibilities.)

  • Adjust keyboard height. I'm a big fan of lowering desktop rather than using a keyboard tray. Every cubicle I've worked in can have the desktop lowered to the desired height. The large white-laminate tables I had in one office at MIT I lowered by finding a large table and a small table in the Lab with interchangeable legs, then swapping the legs and taking the large table. (There was quite a variety of these tables throughout my lab, which might have helped.)

  • Manage stress, if only so that you aren't tense and thereby more prone to injury. This is often hard to do, and cannot be summed up in a blog entry, nor even a book nor five-part TV miniseries. Some general suggestions that apply to many people: quit coffee (really!), create good work situations, try to get a solid sleep every night, regular exercise, healthy diet, the usual. Hear me now and believe me later.

  • Use tools and practices that obviate a lot of the typing. For example, programmers should use an editor that automatically indents code, can automatically reformat block comments, has sophisticated ways of navigation, etc. If you code in Scheme, consider using Quack and enabling the Smart Open-Paren option. Different programming processes and languages can also help by, e.g., letting you reduce typing of things that can be generalized in a more concise manner.

  • In Emacs, type an M- key combination by pressing and releasing Esc and then the modifed key, rather than holding down Alt while pressing the modified. It's slower, but reducing stretching the hand to hit multiple keys simultaneously seems to be a big win. I'd think you could get the same effect by having Alt and Ctrl keys on both sides of the keyboard (which is commonplace nowadays) and training yourself to always use two hands to type a modifier-- but I got happy with the Esc method in Emacs, and don't otherwise use modifiers much, so I can't vouch for that.

  • Take breaks. Actually, I'm often not good about that. There are programs you can run that monitor your typing and try to get you to take breaks. Oh, and remember to frequently look away from the monitor and focus on something in the distance, to exercise your eyes.

  • Half-seriously: be suspicious of Sun Type-4 keyboards. I don't know why a team I was on years ago seemed to have such extreme problems compared to everywhere I've been since. One theory that's more plausible than my "virus!" theory, is that the Sun Type-4 keyboards we were using lent themselves to killing wrists. More-seriously, the keyboard you're using can make a difference, and consider trying a few different ones for days or weeks, to see if one feels especially nice. (And if the keyboard uses PS/2 mini-DIN plug, rather than USB, be especially careful to have the computer hard powered off -- power cut at the PSU or unplugged, and caps decharged, not just soft off. The PS/2 interface is really bad, and I've fried components by plugging a keyboard into a PC that was supposedly powered off, yet electrons are resourceful.)

Note: I shouldn't have to say it, but I will: this is not authoritative medical or ergonomics advice, and you are not permitted to sue me. If you're having trouble with RSI, your best bet is to find a good doctor (and do a lot of background reading on your own, so that you can ask him/her the right questions).

Where are the Third-Party Lens Hoods?

I just received my nice $35 piece of plastic with two little plastic springs, the Canon EW-73B (not pronounced "ewww") lens hood for the EF 17-85 IS (see 2006-03-24). I suspect it cost 10% or less to manufacture.

I'd think someone could make a nice business on eBay, molding and selling knockoffs of Canon lens hoods for popular consumer and L-class lenses, for 1/2 of what Canons cost. Maybe 2/3, if the quality is truly comparable.

As a shopper, I definitely would've been tempted by a high-quality third-party hood for $20 shipped. There are a lot of people out there without lens hoods, or who've only sprung for hoods for some of their lenses, but who might be enticed by sane pricing to outfit the entire fleet.

I suppose that Canon might conceivably claim that the exact shapes of some Canon lenses are proprietary. But even in that case, you can derive a truly obvious hood and virtually optimal baseline shape from published specs and/or observation of a sample of the lens, then just tweak it a little for stability and/or ease of manufacture.

As a product, this'd be vastly better than those generic rubber hoods, and those free printable ones that they're trying to emblazon with advertising messages.

Voter-Verified Paper Records

Common Cause has some kind of push for voter-verified paper records, and MoveOn is helping rustle up donations:

Touch-screen voting machines rely on computers to count votes, but there's no hard copy backup in case of a crash and no way to detect tampering. From North Carolina to Ohio to Texas, votes have been lost or miscounted [1]. Common Cause's new plan is an exciting development, but they need to raise a lot of money to make it happen. No matter where you live, this is something you can do for election reform. Our goal is to raise $150,000 to kick off this effort. We're looking for 15,000 of us to chip in $10 for secure voting machines. You can contribute to Common Cause directly at: http://www.moveon.org/r?r=1629

See also: 2004-11-03, 2004-08-31, 2003-10-07, 2003-09-02, 2003-02-26, 2002-11-05, and 2002-07-20.

Book Clearance in Inman Square, Friday and Saturday

I'm posting this ad for a friend:

HUGE BOOK SALE 25,000+ books must go!
All genres, Hardcover & paperbacks.
.50 cents ea. or 3 for $1.00

Friday 4/14 5pm - 8pm, Saturday 4/15 9am - 5pm;
288 Norfolk St. Cambridge

Seymour Hersh on Iran Plans

This was posted today, though the site claims a posting date of tomorrow.

A government consultant with close ties to the civilian leadership in the Pentagon said that Bush was "absolutely convinced that Iran is going to get the bomb" if it is not stopped. He said that the President believes that he must do "what no Democrat or Republican, if elected in the future, would have the courage to do," and "that saving Iran is going to be his legacy."

One former defense official, who still deals with sensitive issues for the Bush Administration, told me that the military planning was premised on a belief that "a sustained bombing campaign in Iran will humiliate the religious leadership and lead the public to rise up and overthrow the government." He added, "I was shocked when I heard it, and asked myself, 'What are they smoking?'"

The lack of reliable intelligence leaves military planners, given the goal of totally destroying the sites, little choice but to consider the use of tactical nuclear weapons. [...]

He went on, "Nuclear planners go through extensive training and learn the technical details of damage and fallout -- we're talking about mushroom clouds, radiation, mass casualties, and contamination over years. This is not an underground nuclear test, where all you see is the earth raised a little bit. These politicians don't have a clue, and whenever anybody tries to get it out" -- remove the nuclear option -- "they're shouted down."

—Seymour Hersh, "The Iran Plans," New Yorker, 2006-04-17

Google Search Result of the Day: Kodakgallery.com

Kodakgallery.com: "The easiest way to share your photos and get high ..."

Converting Canon Powershot SD450 Video to MPEG-4

This evening, I hacked up a script wrapper for ffmpeg that converts the video&audio format of the Canon Powershot SD450 (CanonMVI02, which presumably is also used by some other Canon digital cameras) to MPEG-4.

The MPEG-4 results in roughly 1/8 the stream size of the MJPEG-based Canon format, and should be playable on more devices. Certainly the MPEG-4 videos play in many more Linux-based players than the Canon format.

I won't be anxious to distribute the script, canonavi2mp4, until I have more experience with its use and have tested its output on more devices and players. But if someone later finds this blog entry in a Web search, please feel free to urge me to release the script in whatever form it's in at the time.

IBM ThinkPad Refurb Saga

Just received my second broken IBM-refurbished ThinkPad X30. The first one had a truly grievous pressure spot in the center of the LCD, and so was sent back. This second one locked up hard early during install-on-first-boot. After a cold boot, and pressing F11 at the IBM-logo firmware screen, it locked up again, with flickering display corruption. I decided to send it back rather than try to troubleshoot it myself and risk the reseller suspecting I damaged it.

I've asked the reseller to send me a third unit, this time factory-sealed, and to refund a portion to cover the cost of a RAM upgrade. (After the first bad unit arrived, they said that the box had not been factory-sealed as advertised because they opened the box to upgrade the RAM to the advertised 512MB. I'm wondering whether or not this second unit was given a flaky SODIMM or fried during the upgrade, so I want to rule out those risks on the third unit.) I'll report back on how that goes.

Lesson-learned in my attempt to get a reliable IBM ThinkPad X-series at a price that'd let me feel comfortable carrying the unit everywhere: I would've been better off with a "like-new" used unit from a reputable individual than a confidence-inspiring "factory-sealed IBM refurb."

Punjabi Dhaba Indian Cafe in Inman Square

Whilst waiting for Punjabi Dhaba take-out on a freak March day of freak clear skies, snapped this shot of the Punjabi Dhaba window from where I was seated. (This photo taken with the 17-85 IS, and unedited except for rotate-scale-watermark. I'll have to reshoot the older photo below with this lens.)

I like Punjabi Dhaba for the affordable food and the sign that I'd use in an intro CS class. The Indian music videos playing on a ceiling TV are the perfect accompaniment.

NSI 3000 Low-Level Carbon Monoxide Monitor Ordered

The new Massachusetts carbon monoxide alarm regulations reminded me I've been meaning to get a CO monitor with a numeric display of CO level. Based on some quick Web searching, I ordered an NSI 3000 that some guy was selling on eBay for $55 each, shipped. I'll post followup.

Entering Cambridge Rainbow

This rainbow on an Entering Cambridge sign was spotted by the girlfriend while we were stopped at a red light, and I snapped it through the car window and a few lanes of traffic.

It joins my small collection of rainbow photos -- see 2005-09-10, 2002-07-12, and 2001-12-09.

Earlier to... 2006-03

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