Monday, December 29, 2008

Apple Hates Me

I'm not sure what I've done to Apple, but whatever it was it must have been something major. They either really, really hate me or iTunes is just a piece of garbage. Heck, it could be both.

For Christmas, the kids, my wife, and I all got new iPod Nano's - the 16 GB Gen 4 variety. These are pretty sweet little devices. I think Apple pretty much knocked it out of the park on the hardware for these new Nanos. However, the software is another story. In fact, the software is abysmal. (Even the OS on the Nano itself isn't perfect as the Nano locked up on me after about 15 minutes of use). The real problems didn't start though until I wanted to actually PLAY some music.

I already had 146 albums on my computer organized in Windows Media Player in pretty standard fashion as Artist \ Album \ Song. Many were MP3, but a few WMA's accidentally snuck in there too. I installed iTunes 8.x and told it to import the C:\users\GIL Dude\Music folder. It complained about the WMA's and said it would convert them (all other players I have used handle WMA fine). It seemed like this worked. The operative word is seemed like. I went ahead and synched my new Nano and that worked fine. I tried the new "Cover Flow" and saw just silly "Music Symbols" and no album art. Funny, every single album there has a folder.jpg, albumartsmall.jpg, and zunealbumart.jpg - iTunes could have taken its pick. But, nope, it just wanted to show silly little music symbols.

Next, I told it to go get album art. This requires signing into the Apple Store (which I did). This also brings up how my kids are supposed to get album art on their machines. In order to create an Apple Store account it requires a credit card. I am NOT giving my card to 12 and 14 year olds. Sorry Apple, another strike. So, it retrieves the album art (supposedly). It turns out that Apple only lets you download the album art for albums that it sells. (No other music software I have used has this restriction). It further doesn't identify some albums well, so you end up with something that looks like this:

What Cover Flow

Looks like it got 10% of the album art. So, I had to learn to right click the album and hit "Get Info", then drag and drop or paste the album art (that is already in the folder with the album damn it) into a little box, and then iTunes goes and rewrites the mp3 with the JPG file inside it (a huge waste of space since it should only need one copy of it, not one copy per song). So, I go through that, and sync the Nano again. Now the cover flow works! Sweet!

I had helped the kids and my wife get this far too and it was time to take a trip to my Mom's house. We took the Nano's with us. On the trip, we find that many of the MP3's won't play. Generally it was entire albums. It would play 1/2 second of the song, then immediately display that it was at 8 seconds of the song and then stop. If you hit the "rewind" (back) button it would actually then go and play the song. But there was no way to just listen without fiddling and hitting back all the time when it would stop playing. When we got home, we noticed that iTunes had a similar problem with the same files: it would play 1/2 second and then skip to the next song. There was no way to get them to play at all in iTunes.

Jack the Ripper

I had to test each album and found that about 1/2 - about 73 of them would not play. I spent some time searching the Apple support site. I spent more time with Google. I found reports of this on all types of Apple hardware dating back to 2005. Many folks had tried "fixing" their ID3 tags, etc. but there wasn't a consistent fix. I went ahead and used a stripper (no, not that kind - an ID3 tag stripper) to remove the tags from some sample songs and they still wouldn't play. I then resigned myself to re-ripping all 73 albums using iTunes to do it. Remember, these songs played fine in Media Player, fine on Zunes, and fine on a Creative Zen Micro. Only Apple (did I mention they hate me?) wouldn't play them.

So, I start the re-ripping. Apple is really helpful there. You get some strange dialogs like this:


As far as I can tell, this mean exactly squat. If you want me to pick between two options, at least show something unique about them. iDorks!

Another issue I kept hitting is the accuracy of the CD database being used by Apple. It did have some songs and album names correct that Windows Media Player had gotten wrong - but overall it was far worse than Media Player. Apple's DB had typo's galore, as you can see here:

Exciteable or Excitable2

(The correct entry is left there after I copied the iTunes ripped versions.) I had a lot of manual correcting on things like this. Other times, the software just up and did a WTF. For example seemingly randomly renaming items like this:


This last were some of the WMA files it "converted" and nicely jacked the numbering all up.

As if that wasn't enough, I couldn't find some things at first after the re-rip. Then I realized that it decided that both "Night Ranger's Greatest Hits" and "ZZ Top's Greatest Hits" were "Compilations" and should go under "Compilations\Greatest Hits" (yes, the album name was just "Greatest Hits". It actually threw both artists albums into the same folder:


As I said, WTF. As in WTF were they thinking when they built that? So, more manual corrections. In fact, I spent HOURS on manually correcting this junk - all because Apple can't be bothered to play 1/2 of my MP3 files that work on all other hardware.

All told I spent over 30 hours on this (mostly with the corrections - it doesn't take that long to do the rips). So, you get to decide - does Apple hate me or does their software just suck? It's not an exclusive or either, so you have three options:

  • They hate me
  • Their software (iTunes) sucks
  • They hate me and iTunes sucks.

I'm leaning towards the latter.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

How green is too green?

It seems you can't pick up a computer or IT related magazine without having the word green somewhere on the cover - generally accompanied by an article about what vendor xyz is doing to increase the 'greenness' of their product or service or by what provider abc did with their data center to lower the carbon footprint. In general this is great. We get devices that suck less power, operating systems (like Vista) where sleep works better and interim power states save more power, a cleaner planet, etc. That's gotta be a good thing? Right?

That's where my concept of 'too green' comes in. I'm not talking about 32,255,7 although that is too green to. Just like how you can have wood that is 'too green' to burn right, you can have something that is just 'too green' for its own good and doesn't really work right. (In this sense, you can just about think of green in both the 'earth friendly' and 'new' terms and you come out about right - almost like a puppy dog; trying to please but not necessarily doing it right). In fact, that is the topic for this post - we'll call the example today:

Stupid notebook tricks - or the green that was too green.

Take a nice new notebook - say a Lenovo T400 series machine. A nice box certainly. And some of the things I mention here will reproduce on other machines like current HP ones. However, I have personal experience with some stupid T400 tricks, so I will call them out in particular.

Build your T400 with a nice corporate image of Vista Enterprise Edition, complete with the latest drivers in the driver store. Place it on a port replicator and connect it all up. Sign in to your favorite Instant Messaging program (we're still using Office Communicator 2005). Walk away for a meeting. When you come back, the screen is blank. Cool, that's green! Move the mouse to wake the screen up and you notice you are no longer signed into your IM program. If you look quickly enough you see the little 'network' icon in the system tray shows that you lost your network connection momentarily. Hmm. Time to check into that you say? So did I. Next, I set the screen to turn off after just 1 minute. Started up a ping from another machine so I could watch the responses (either ping -t or a custom tool). I also stuck a mirror behind the T400 port replicator so that I could see the indicator lights on the NIC connector. Sure enough, when the screen blanked the NIC lights went out for a second then back on. The PING application noticed - it showed a couple of failures before continuing. Move the mouse, and the lights go off again. The PING fails again, and then comes back.

Now try this same thing when you are undocked (maybe in a meeting using Netmeeting or something similar). In this configuration - undocked - you notice that when the screen blanks nothing changes. That's good, right? We stay connected. But, then you move the mouse to get your screen back and then it disconnects and reconnects. That's got to be the stupidest thing it could do. Leave the network running great while the screen is blank but when the user wants to do some work - let's shut it down and restart it. Did you notice you lost your Netmeeting?

After you start looking into this (I needed a couple of peers to help), you find it is some new 'green' built into the latest Intel networking chipsets and drivers. It only works on Vista, because it relies on being notified by the opeating system that the screen is blank. It's called ''System Idle Power Saving" or SIPS. You can read about it in this PDF from Intel. (It claims that it 'renegotiates' when the screen blanks and again when it comes back on - but you can test this and it only does that in the docked state: when undocked it only bothers when the screen comes back on.) Looking at the charts they provide, it shows that it could go from say 22 mA to 4 mA in certain scenarios. Sounds good until you realize you lose your network connection. What if you were on VPN? How about a WebEx or Netmeeting?

I checked the event log, and like the documentation says it does renegotiate to the slowest it can. When connected to my 1 Gbps hub, it renogotiated down to 10 Mbps. So, if I were to - for example - connect to my machine using Remote Desktop from home and attempt to build a new image and copy it to a network location it would do so at 10 Mbps (because the screen is still blank). That nice new 4.8 Gb Vista image copying at 10 Mbps? Epic Fail.

Now, to be fair - I haven't yet tested what happens when you are on VPN or NetMeeting. I do know that the Intel documentation claims to only do this if the network is idle. They don't seem to define what idle means to them. What it certainly does NOT mean is that 'there are no TCP connections' - because it definitely doesn't seem to care about that. It drops you. Hence the signed out IM program. It may have some arbitrary packet rate that it is figuring 'less than x per second means idle' or some such. Whatever it is doing to calculate idle, I'll call it 'Fail'. It's just too green.

Cue up Captain Kirk and Scotty:

Capt: Scotty, emergency beam out!
Scott: Captain, I canna do it; the transporter system's gone into power save mode. It'll take two minutes to get back ta full power if'n it doesn't blue screen.

You see? Too Green!

Monday, November 03, 2008

The case of the Irritating Ibex

This past weekend I decided it was time to do maintenance and updates on my test systems. Both the notebook and the desktop are setup dual boot with Ubuntu being one of the operating systems. Both were running 8.04 which had been upgraded from 7.10. The 7.10 -> 8.04 upgrade had gone flawlessly on the notebook, but on the desktop (after an over the network upgrade), Ubuntu decided that my wired Ethernet adapter did not exist. After RTFM'ing noob (searching the internet) I had resolved the problem. I figured this time it would have to be better.

(For those that don't know, Ubuntu's current practice is to name releases in alliteration with animal names. Hence the 8.04 release was "Hardy Heron" and the 8.10 is "Intrepid Ibex").

I started by reading the upgrade readme available here. It seemed that I was going to be OK going to 8.10, as my video card is an nVidia FX 5500 which is not on the list of cards for which support for 3D was mysteriously withdrawn. It claimed that my card would be upgraded to the 173 or 177 driver (whatever the hell that meant). So I started both the Desktop and the Notebook upgrading. There was a simple, well documented procedure to tell the 8.04 LTS version that it was OK to upgrade to a non-LTS new version, and they were off and running.

Painless, right? Ubuntu has a fairly well deserved reputation as being easy to install and working on a lot of platforms (as they are not obsessed with not shipping non-free binaries - hence they have a 3D driver for nVidia included). However, this upgrade was worse than the last one. It installed that new "173" driver for my nVidia card, then promptly told me that it wasn't working.

So, be sure that there is a supported nVidia GPU in the system. Check - I did that before installing. Duh! Like I would wait until after the install to check that. OK, next - ensure that the nVidia device files have been created properly. Great! We'll do that! Uhm, how do we do that? Now, I know that on Linux and Unix IO is almost always to a file but what the heck am I supposed to do to check that they were created correctly? Maybe this should offer to fix it for me? Oh, wait - they have a link to the nVidia Readme. Or not. Instead just a vague reference to consulting the nVidia Readme and not a link. Where is this mystical file? Wait, this was just a less snotty way of saying "RTFM noob" wasn't it?

Even worse, on my system I could not even read the dialog as it was positioned off to the left so far that half of it was not even on the screen and it could not be moved (sync problem - it would not sync properly to my 20" 1600x1200 panel). I had to use a different screen just to read the message. Once I clicked OK, it would then show me some options. One of them was something about fixing the problem and reconfiguring. Great! I figured I don't know enough to boot to a console and go edit or some shit, so I would let the GUI do it. That worked great if what I was looking for was a blank screen. However, I was figuring even the normal drab brown Ubuntu default desktop would be better than a blank screen.

I gave up, and decided to try a different video card (an nVidia 6800 GT I had laying around). After finding that the new card took more power than my supply would put out (yes, the power supply actually emitted an over current alarm - a loud screech!), and finding out that the only bandaids in the house were some Disney ones (I always get cut plugging and unplugging molex connectors), I put the old card back in. I figured - I will just update the Windows XP partition and give up for now and re-install Ubuntu from CD (which I had downloaded).

I had already set XP to "standard VGA" in preparation for swapping cards. Since I didn't really end up swapping I just updated XP to the latest driver for the 5500 FX from the nVidia site. That was easy, just run setup. I then thought, well - one last try for the current Ubuntu install. Wham! It came up correctly. No warning about video not working, checking for supported GPU's or running sudo someshit.conf. It's up!

About this time I decided to check the notebook. It had survived the update pretty well. It has no sound now, but otherwise it worked. In fact, it has "some sound". The Ubuntu "enter your ID" sound works, and so does the login sound. But no apps can play sounds. Flash can't, and even the audio configuration applet only plays beeps. I give up on that one for now.

I then wanted to compare round-tripping some docx and xlsx files through OpenOffice with the latest Ubuntu. Whups! 8.10 comes with the 2.4.x branch and not the new 3.0.x series. I went to go upgrade, but Ubuntu won't upgrade it until 9.04. So I thought, the Backports - that'll have it. Apparently I am too early for that. So I went hunting on the internet and found this. Read it and weep. Weep for the "setup.exe" that I downloaded and installed in moments on the Windows XP partition. Apparently to install this Deb package I need type about as much text on the command line as this blog. I think I'll just go play with Open Office on Windows, Ubuntu had sapped enough productivity already this last weekend.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Comcast - royal screwups or just criminals?

I've heard nothing but bad things about Comcast customer service. I generally haven't had to call them for anything the last few years, so I had no real experience of my own to go on. However, we recently got really tired of having two seperate accounts - one for cable TV and one for internet access (which started way back when it was ATTBI). It wouldn't have been a problem having two accounts, but Comcast's online systems seem incapable of accepting automatic monthly payment when a phone number has two accounts associated with it. We could get on account on auto, but not the other. We just had a simple request - here are our two account numbers that match our phone number and address. Please merge them so that we can automatically pay. Sounds like a 5 minute request, right?

Well - you'd think so anyway. My wife called them and after a few minutes of wading through the phone trees, told me that our internet access would be down for a few "moments". I then heard her let the Comcast agent go. Red Alert! Battle Stations! I told her, "you don't let them off the line until it works because they usually do something wrong and I hear they are clueless." Since I was planning to work from home the next morning, internet access was going to be important. Well, we stopped for dinner and an hour later - no access. We rebooted the cable modem - no access. We could ping Comcast's DNS servers, but not get out to anywhere else. So it was some sort of software block - some blockhead in customer service twiddled the bits wrong.

My wife called them back and got another agent. This agent told her that the people in "billing" went home and there was nothing she could do. We called back. Got a helpful person this time. It took 20 minutes, but he got our access back. Had to refresh the DHCP address in the router - but then it was working. However - open Outlook, and get prompted for a password. Shields Up! Arm Photon Torpedoes! That's right - they deleted all of our accounts as part of this. No more master account (can't logon to to the web pages, can't access email) and all 4 of us had our accounts / access deleted.

Now, we are back on the phone again. The next rep's computer "wasn't working" so she transferred us (it must have been time for her to go home). We are now on the line with YACI (Yet Another Comcast Idiot). I'm sure we will be told that there is nothing they can do and that the people who can do anything just went home. I just can't understand how such an inept company can be in business. It must cost them a bunch to take extra calls (hours now!) when their agents don't handle simple calls without cutting off their customer's accounts. I guess it must just be due to their area monopolies (I am 15,000 feet from a DSL CO). Otherwise, I can't explain it. I'd leave if they weren't the only game in town.

Who knows? I've even heard that you can't get your email addresses back. Maybe I'll end up being after this. In fact, I had a picture of myself on my profile that showed up on this blog. It is now gone - it was hosted at I'm leaning towards criminals.

Update - after that last call the accounts were all restored from backup. So we got our correct email addresses back and even my photo for my profile here on Blogger came back. So, hours later we are back up. A simple request to customer service results in this. I can't even imagine how long we would have been down if we didn't work in technology. For example, if my Mom had this happen - when would she have noticed that her primary account had been deleted and her email didn't work anymore? Maybe the next day or the one after that? I still need to decide the main question though: does Comcast just hate their customers or are they just incompetent? I know, I know, "Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity". But still - it makes you wonder...

Friday, June 20, 2008

Global Accounts Infrastructure Deployment Council

Wow, that title is a mouthful. It's also where I've been for the last several days. That said, the rest of this post is under NDA. That's right: all two of you who read this can't tell anyone what you read here. Wait - that must have just seeped in from the last several days of presentations - all of which started with some NDA slide or another. After a bit you get tired of hearing about Nonsense Dispersal Agreements anyway. We all know that conferences spew nonsense: no need to have slides about it.

So, this was another conference that tires you out to no end. Reception the first night, then up at 5:00 to do email before sessions, sessions until 5:45, then back on the bus and a dinner from 7:00 until 10:30 then finally back to the hotel and to bed. Next day, up at 5:00 to do email before the sessions and sessions until 5:45 then a steering committee dinner from 6:30 to something late. About the same the third day. At least the stuff is all interesting - it just gets to be tiring after awhile. All that said, I wouldn't change it: we need all that time to get everything in.

One of the funniest happenings was the network there at the Executive Briefing Center. Anyone who has been to Microsoft's Redmond campus lately has probably gotten a print out of an ID and password for accessing the "MSFTGUEST" wireless network. You try to open say and get redirected to a place to logon - similar to how most hotel networks are setup. Nothing new there. However, in this case - for the first two days - Internet Explorer wouldn't display the site. Firefox would work fine! Now, as embarassing as that must have been for the hosts, it does show that Microsoft does not make web pages that only work in Internet Explorer. It happened to be on Firefox download day, so I needed to use FF 2.014 to connect to the MSFTGUEST network so I could download FF 3.0. That just sounds wrong when you are on an MS network. Worked fine, but then VPN wouldn't work. Its amazing how one of the largest and most successful software engineering firms can't run a wireless guest network that - well - works. Most people using classic VPN solutions such as Cisco, Nortel, or the built in MS VPN L2TP could not connect. Only the people using SSL VPN's or RPC over HTTP (which my company doesn't allow) could get their mail. I finally got in part time by using a Citrix connection to remote desktop. At one point that wouldn't work either and I had to use OWA. I guess they had to take the folks who would normally create a working network and devote them to fixing Vista?

Other than the wireless snafu, the rest of the conference was engaging and fairly interesting (as usual some sessions more so than others). Thanks to Paula, Joseph, and Karen for making the conference a successful and interesting experience.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Tech-Ed and the Case of the Powerpoint Poisoning

As you know, I attended Tech-Ed (IT Pro version) last week in Orlando, Florida. I made it back, my luggage made it with me, and the airline somehow avoided breaking my three Pat O'Brien's hurricane glasses. Friday night after the sessions a couple of us went to the Hard Rock Cafe out at Citywalk and then over to Pat O's piano bar. My voice is still recovering. I think after the second hurricane and the free MGD that the Miller Lite girls gave us (thanks Rochelle and Kelly!) I had decided that I sounded pretty darn good (which called for the 3rd hurricane). I think the other patrons would probably dispute that assessment however.

This year I was disappointed in that very few of the Microsoft folks that I know were there at Tech-Ed. Even one person who was on the agenda for a couple of break outs was a no show. This seems to be getting worse each year as people either take different positions or leave Microsoft entirely. One thing I wasn't disappointed in was the shuttle buses. Somebody did something right there and we never had to wait long at all. In fact, last year many of us had to wait over an hour at the evening event to get a shuttle home. This time, there were several of each route sitting waiting for us. The ones to and from the conference sessions were likewise very available. That part was well done. The weather cooperated this year too and only managed to rain and thunder while we were in sessions. At one point on the third floor you were hard pressed to decide whether there was a lot of clapping next door or if the thunder was just right overhead. This beat last year again, as last year we got completely drenched at the evening event out at Universal.

I did end up with a case of PowerPoint Poisoning though. It was either that or alcohol poisoning, but I'm going with the PowerPoint as my story. The way this works is they feed you a bunch of food, stick you in a darkened room with an often monotone speaker, and flash slides which are often devoid of any interesting content. It's no wonder that half the room nods off from time to time. I know I did, and I saw a lot of other people in the same boat. There were of course the normal stock of superlative speakers who keep the audience engaged. Folks like Mark Russinovich, Steve Riley, and Mark Minasi - no sleeping in their sessions. Well done!

I also went to a few sessions that seemed to be covering some fairly important things but were very lightly attended. One example was Michelle Abrahams talk on Windows Search 4.0. This session was only a level 200, so it wasn't very technical. However, it covered the just released update to Windows Search that makes the Vista Instant Search feature tons more stable (it used to corrupt itself fairly often if you had a high volume of email). Perhaps people stayed away from the level 200 sessions or just didn't think this was important but it was their loss: this is something they should be deploying - now.

Overall, the sessions were pretty good but I did get a lot of repeat information that I've probably known for years as a veteran of several TAP programs. For instance the same guy was there talking about building Windows XP images and how to replace the HAL - same thing as last year and the year before (fortunately I didn't attend this time, but one of my coworkers did). I thought that both Chris Jackson and Aaron Margosis did a good job with their respective sessions on app compat and LUA issues. My notepad does have a couple of nuggets that I picked up from some of these sessions - so the PowerPoint Poisoning was worthwhile.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Tech-Ed bound

It's become almost an annual ritual - heading off to Tech-Ed. I got up early this morning to do online check-in to make sure I have the 2nd exit row aisle seat, print out the sunset, civil twilight, etc. from this handy site, print out the weather forecast, my BitLocker recovery password, hotel confirmation number, Tech-Ed bar code, map of the Orange County Convention Center, and more. Did I mention that I'm a geek? Or did you just figure that out yourself?

This year, Microsoft (in its infinite wisdom) cut Tech-Ed into two pieces: a developer focused track (which is over now) and an IT Pro focused track (which I am heading off to). That's right, they broke Tech-Ed. Broke as in "borked". Someone must have decided that everyone has a tidy little job title like "senior developer who writes code and doesn't need to know about infrastructure" and "IT Architect who specifies SQL Servers and Active Directory but doesn't need to know anything about .Net or C#". Living in the real world, I tend to do a little of both. Actually now that I accepted a Team Lead job, a large portion of my time is spent in meetings and managing people / processes, but I still am able to spend some time creating images (IT Pro) and developing code (Developer). Perhaps Microsoft didn't really want to split Tech-Ed out into two: maybe they didn't have enough hotel rooms in the area to fit everyone? Or maybe Universal Studios couldn't stomach the thought of 15,000 drunk geeks walking around taking pictures of the T-Rex just as they went over the edge in the Jurassic Park ride (yes, last year that was me!). Either way, the sessions I will be attending are surprisingly bereft of titles like "Best practices to make your code multi-lingual" (I think they decided that with so much outsourcing half of the dialog boxes in the code we get are English-as-a-Second-Language anyway). Gone are the "Programming for the new Network Stack" sessions - they must have been last week.

Fortunately, they still have the "SOA358 Publishing and Extending Business Rules in Mainframe (CICS and IMS) and AS/400 Programs Using Microsoft Host Integration Server" session which, according to the really nice "session demand" graph appears to have one person attending it (with two speakers no less - I feel sorry for Paul Larsen and Ricardo Mendes). It's funny how I whine and complain that they don't have any of the coding sessions, when one look at my online schedule shows that I have double and triple booked most time slots. I'm actually down to where I must pick between "CLI360 Tricks of the Windows Vista Masters" and "SEC355 Privacy: The Why, What, and How" by seeing which one is being done by Steve Riley (an awesome speaker by the way). I also had to make sure when looking at sessions like "CLI369 Building the Perfect Master Image" that they aren't being done by Johan Arwidmark - a nice enough and very bright guy, but his "ya, I'm here from Sweden to tell you about the Windows PE" just gets annoying. Sorry, that quote is much better when I can deliver it out loud and mimic the voice and delivery.

After all of that going through the schedule and all, I still had several time slots where I have two or more sessions and I will have to decide at the last moment which one to go to. Probably the one by the least used restroom. Speaking of restrooms - have you ever been to Tech-Ed? Geek conferences like Tech-Ed are the only places on the planet where there are lines outside the men's bathroom and not the women's (as the male/female ratio at Tech-Ed is something like 20 to 1). I often find myself leaving sessions 10 minutes early to be first in line - like lining up for "Indiana Jones and the Last Urinal Available". At least they don't sell tickets... yet. If you are coming to Tech-Ed IT Pro in Orlando, maybe I'll see you in line for the John. I'll be the one wearing whatever Windows Mobil Hat, Server 2008 Pin, etc. supposedly will win me a prize.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

DC - a Powerful Place

I recently returned from a successful trip to Washington DC as a chaperone for an eighth grade class trip. Despite my initial thoughts about how I may decide to throw some of the louder ones off of the Washington Monument or push them in front of a bus I actually made it through the trip pretty well. It was one of those regimented, over scheduled, jog through the sites to say you did it kind of trips - the ones that leave you wondering where you actually went by the time you get home and look at the pictures. We left on a Saturday morning at 3:15 AM and returned back on the following Saturday at 1:14 AM.

If you looked fast, you saw basically everything there was to see in Washington DC, and parts of Virginia and Maryland. If, like me, you like to actually READ the placards on the displays and study the fine detail in objects then you would either have to come back on your own or miss the bus. This was the one hour and twenty-five minutes at the Air and Space Museum, one hour and thirty minutes (lunch included in that time) at the Natural History Museum, jog up the stairs to the Lincoln Memorial (at night no less - the pictures suck as we didn't have tripods), the blitzkrieg tour of Gettysburg, etc. Did you get a picture of the Iwo Jima memorial? No, my flash wasn't charged before we had to run back to the bus. The downside of course was the incredible rush to get from place to place without spending any time to really enjoy them while we were there. The upside is that we can say, "been there, sprinted through that" about most of the things in the area. Let's see, my list shows that we saw:
  • National Air and Space Museum
  • Museum of Natural History
  • Newseum
  • Lincoln Memorial
  • Jefferson Memorial
  • FDR Memorial
  • Washington Monument
  • White House tour
  • Capitol Building guided tour
  • Gettysburg battlefield guided tour
  • Gettysburg visitor center and museum
  • Mount Vernon tour
  • Monticello tour
  • Vietnam Memorial
  • Korea Memorial
  • WWII Memorial
  • Busch Gardens (yes, a whole 6 hours there riding roller coasters!)
  • Water Park
  • Hauntings Tour
  • Colonial Williamsburg tour
  • Jamestown tour
  • Attended President Bush's speech at Arlington Natl Cemetery on Memorial Day (in the Amphitheater - had to get there at 8:00 AM)
  • Dinner / Dance cruise
  • Yorktown tour
  • National Archives
There may have been more; those are off the top of my head. Anyway, it was a bit strange being a "kid herder" (no, not the little goats). We had to make sure they didn't touch the walls or display items in Monticello, hit each other and be loud at the President's address at Arlington, fight about the time to go to sleep, shine laser pointers in people's faces on the bus (yes, they did that on the bus back to the airport - teachers, if you want names, call me) - all the stupid and sometimes evil things 14 year old kids do when they are awake.

Anyway, we made it back - and didn't leave anyone behind. We did have a few stragglers on a couple of occasions - mostly the parents if you can believe that. I guess the worst items were:
  • Hotel changed the keys from the credit card shaped magnetic ones to an RFID wristband lock during the day and we had to all get new keys.
  • One hotel's magnetic key lock failed and a person couldn't get some of their items out of the room and we got delayed by 30 minutes (plus the items will have to be shipped back).
  • Kids fighting with their roommates because many are irresponsible and won't go to sleep and insist on watching TV at all hours of the night.
  • A couple of kids got dehydrated on the dance cruise and caused a bit of a scare (but they are fine).
On the plus side, tour guides Richard (Bus 1) and Beth (the "cool" bus) did an excellent job with the limited amount of time we were able to spend at each venue, contributing their unique blends of solid historical information and light humor to keep the kids engaged and paying attention (as much as that is possible). The teachers (Bob, Jacey, Shoba, and Pam) did a good job of organizing and keeping the chaos to a minimum although I think maybe a bit more communication with the chaperones so that we can help more would be an improvement for next time. Looks like I'll need to go again in two years when my other kid is in 8th grade.

Here's the President's address at Arlington:

Here's the WWII Memorial:

Here's the Washington Monument shot from the side of the Jefferson Memorial:

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Washington DC - how worried should I be?

I'm scheduled to chaperone a middle-school (8th grade) field trip to Washington DC soon. I've already had trepidations about this as I figured by the end of the week I'd be more likely to push the kids in front of a train than actually try to round them up and ride herd on them. I was thinking that they'd probably be noisy, unruly, and just a bit rude - after all, they are 13 and 14 - the age where they start thinking that they know everything and adults are silly old farts who "just don't get it.".

As if that wasn't enough to think about, now I see that there was recently a scandal on another school's trip to DC. No, the president and the senate left the kids alone. TSA didn't take their iPods or steal their other toys. They didn't get mugged or hit by a car. Instead, the kids allegedy had sex. Damn! I didn't think that I would have to worry about that until 10th grade! Here is the CNN video on the recent brouhaha. There are plenty of sites and bloggers who will tell you all about that trip and what went wrong. I'm more worried about my kid and other charges and how to keep things from going wrong for them. After all, I wonder what happens to an "unsuccessful chaperone"? Banned from the chaperone circuit for life? Expelled from the bus? Registered as a sex offender? More likely, you go down in history as the second doofus to make CNN headlines as your charges also get expelled and people talk about how terrible you must be at your volunteer job.

Anyway, it's an eye opener for me as I didn't think I'd have to be checking the bathrooms and closets on the dance cruise or making sure that there aren't two people under one towel at the hotel's water park. Raging Waters meet raging hormones. We'll be going to the usual places like the White House (Bill's gone, so they should be safe), the various memorials, Arlington National Cemetary (kids - out of the crypt, now!), and everything else all in one week. After a quick visit to some place out of American history, we climb back on the bus and count heads - have to make sure there aren't two in the bathroom!

Well, if anything this news has given me food for thought. Wait: speaking of food - have to make sure the seafood place isn't serving oysters - can't be having the kids exposed to even rumored aphrodisiacs on the trip. Hopefully the kids will return from the trip tired, sore (from walking - what were you thinking?), and chaste - no belts required. If we are lucky they might even learn something that doesn't involve birds and bees.

Update - May 19th, 2008. What was that about a crash? Well, I can't tell you much as the site this comes from says in its copyright notice that material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed (I guess they didn't realize they published it!) - however it appears another DC trip had their trip end with a tragic tour bus accident (here). As if I wasn't worried enough already. Now I'll have to walk around the bus inspecting the tires before getting on each time.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Yosemite - Vernal Falls Trail

On Saturday May 3rd, we went to Yosemite National Park. I highly recommend that you don't go there as you might annoy me by making it too crowded. As always, Yosemite was beautiful. It was beautiful before you were born, and it will be beautiful after you die. The pace of change there for the granite, water falls, and forests is on a timescale so far outside that of a human that it seems eternal. The ethereal beauty is likewise timeless.


On this trip, we took the Vernal Falls trail to the top. You can read about the trail here. It rises 1,000 feet over about 1.5 miles, although you actually walk about 1/2 mile from the parking area just to get to the trail head for a round-trip approximating 4 miles. I'd previously been up Vernal falls 13 years ago. At that time, there were a couple of factors that made this trip really, really hard. Back then, it was a wet year in the park and the water was running down the stairs on the "Mist" trail. It was enough to make you think they "Missed" the naming on that trail and should have called it the "feet are under 3 inches of water, drenched to the bone, watch your step trail". Also, I was out of shape on that trip. It was like climbing the face of Kolvir - those of you who have read Roger Zelazny will know about Kolvir. Anyway, this time I was in much better shape and there was a lot less water. You still got wet, but not drenched, and you could keep your feet dry if you were careful. I still needed to put my camera in a large zip-lock bag, but otherwise it was great. This time the trail seemed relatively easy even though you climb 600 granite steps and 600 feet in elevation over the last quarter mile.

What a spectacular view! Yosemite never fails to humble and amaze.


As usual, there were some free-loaders there in the park. It's a $250 fine if you feed them - but enough people must risk this fine that the animals get a lot of handouts. I imagine they don't try to fine the squirrels, and so they swarm all around you and even on you.


Anyway, as long as it isn't a day when I will be there, this hike is strongly recommended. On my days there, you need to stay home!

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Lenovo T61 and the "Oh Shit!" moment

I've used Lenovo ThinkPad notebooks for quite some time and am a member of the team that does hardware evals and image design for a large company that uses Lenovo (currently the T61 and X61 models). My brother-in-law recently bought a T61 15.4 inch model and wanted me to "de-crap" it and set it up for him. Believe it or not, this took about 4 hours of uninstalling the foistware like "90 days" of Norton Internet insecurity, Windows Live toolbar, Office 2007 "trial" version, and several of the "ThinkVantage" tools. Some of the ThinkVantage tools are great - but loading ALL of them really is overkill.

There was a bunch of other stuff to remove as well, and then updating the various "security challenged" and badly designed software like Sun Java (who ever heard of LEAVING versions with known security holes on the system and accessible to code that specifies it when installing a new version. In fact - these jokers from the JRE team don't understand the team "patch" and only do "new versions") and Flash - which seems to have an exploit of the month, and Adobe Acrobat (which puts out security patches and you get to choose between a version that loads files fine, but has security issues and a version that has no known holes but crashes on large files), etc. Also in there was the hour to install Windows Vista SP1 (if you haven't done this - you should: Vista isn't usable without SP1, but once you have the Service Pack it is not too bad).

Finished all that, then realized I had not flashed the BIOS yet. This machine had an older version. So I went to the Lenovo site and grabbed version 2.14 with an April 2nd date. At least I tried to grab it. The site claimed it was there, but just gave an error when you tried to download it. This persisted over night. Today I decided to just grab it from work over VPN as we had started using it the other day. Burned the ISO and booted from CD. Went through all the prompts (yes the computer is on AC power, yes the battery is charged, etc.) It finally said something like "remove the CD and press enter to complete". I did that, and...

It showed a "Lock symbol" on the screen where it would normally have done the POST. This machine didn't have a boot password, didn't have a supervisor or BIOS password, and definitely did not have a hard drive password. What the hell? It didn't like just enter, didn't like just a space, and Lenovo wasn't a good guess either. Where did this password prompt come from? I went to Google and found a few minutes too late that other users are having this same problem. Great! Maybe that's why there was an error downloading the thing: perhaps Lenovo pulled it. It would have been better if they had a "do not use" as then I wouldn't have grabbed it from work. So, after some hair pulling I finally found this on the Lenovo site. I checked the graphic - and sure enough it was the "Power On" one from the very bottom of that Lenovo link.
So, I had to remove the battery and remove the palm rest and the keboard. Lift up some tape, and unclip the system battery leads and remove the system battery (what happened to those "watch battery style" ones with no leads!!!). Put the keyboad and rest back on and power it up like that. This cleared it as the site said it would. Then put it all back together again. Nothing like doing some surgery on a notebook computer on a Saturday morning for NO REASON. Nice QA job on that BIOS release Lenovo. You owe me an hour back.