Archive for October, 2010

Things you wish you hadn’t done, and what they can teach you.

October 31, 2010

I think that all of us have times we look back on and think “How the Hell could I have been stupid enough to do that!”. I recently had an opportunity to be reminded of one of those instances in my own past.

This is a bit of a complicated tale, and it begins over twenty years ago. It started with something that still holds my interest, space, and how I found I not only could write, but that I enjoyed writing. But it moved beyond that quickly, and even now I look back in amazement that I could have been the fool I was then.

You see, like many of my interests, I thought it would be A Good Idea if I tried to share my interest in space with others. Back then, in the late 1980’s, the Web wasn’t around and blogs like this weren’t even fantasy. If you wanted to get your words out, then, you did it the old fashioned way: you printed them. So I started writing a small newsletter about space and, on my own dime, I published and distributed it. I started small, a few copies that literally were typed on an old-fashioned type writer ( a Remington that weighed enough to anchor a small boat) before being xeroxed for distribution. The places I put the newsletter up, like the local library and the science building at the local university, were intended to get the most attention from those who were most likely to be interested. Then someone contacted me and asked if they could get a copy for themselves….then another person did the same thing. Then someone who was working on a similar effort asked if they could get a copy and possibly use some of what I’d written in their newsletter. Eventually I was mailing out a couple dozen copies, plus putting them up in the usual places (and a few more I’d found since I started). It was fun, and I had a blast because I was writer, reporter, editor, and everything else, so I didn’t have anyone looking over my shoulder to tell me what I could write about or anything.

As with the biblical story of Eden, though, all was not perfect in Paradise.

After I’d been writing for a while, I heard of a group that sounded like it might be interested in the same things I was. It called itself the National Space Society, or NSS for short, and one of the groups that had asked if they could borrow content off of me was one of it’s “chapters”. Eventually, I was in contact with several of these chapters, smallish groups scattered around the country, and they were using my material. Then one day I heard that one of the Apollo astronauts would be appearing near me, at a gathering organized by another chapter of the NSS, so I decided to call and see what details I could find out about the meeting and if I could go. The person I contacted was happy to tell me where the meeting was, and much to my surprise, when I arrived, I was met by someone from the sponsoring group and conducted to the front row. After the speech, even more to my surprise, I was asked to stick around and meet the astronaut who had spoken. I also met several other people who were involved in the NSS, and that is when I got an even bigger surprise: I was asked if I, who was at that point not even a member, would like to attend one of the meetings they occasionally had of their leadership. Looking back, some part of my should I think have known that something was not right, but I agreed and a few weeks later, attended the meeting.

The meeting itself should have been enough to convince me to avoid the group like the plague. Idiotic, ideologically-driven “plans” were put forward, each one seemingly more insane than the last one. But interspersed in all that damn-foolishness was a fair amount of praise for my efforts, and also many requests for me to supply more copies of my newsletter to even more chapter publications. So rather than listen to my head, which was screaming at me that I should run like hell for the door, I listened to my ego, which found all the flattery gratifying after working with almost no acknowledgment. So I started supplying the NSS with my writings, and I started going to more meetings, and I even joined it (the most-damned-fool thing I did of them all!). I stayed in for several years, being invited to more and more important gatherings, and at every one, seeing even more insane and just plain fucking stupid ideas floating around and believed like they were gospel. I did meet a few other folks who thought as I did, but the majority of the membership was as far off the Right end of the political spectrum as you could get and still be this side of an insane asylum.

At first, I let myself believe I could effect the policy, the thinking, of the NSS. As time passed, though, it became obvious to me that I would never be anything more to the NSS than a potentially very effective mouthpiece, someone who could write and speak about space with conviction. As my doubts grew, other events in my life conspired to bring me to the point where I had to make a choice: I could either dither around and wait for the NSS to decide to listen to someone who didn’t need to be fitted for a tinfoil hat, or I could make a break and walk away. So I left.

All of this came back to me recently when I opened a Facebook account. I’d opened the account to stay in touch with a woman I know, but I also knew some of the people I’d once liked in the NSS were there too. So, like a fool, I contacted a few of them. Time changes us all, they say, but what I found in those people I’d once thought of as reasonable was more amazing that I’d ever expected. It was like stepping into a time warp, the same insane “Everything that’s wrong in the world is because of The Evil Big Government!” attitude prevailed, if anything, even stronger than I’d remembered it. If that weren’t bad enough, now I’ve got a fool who seems to think he can “prove” his ideas are the only right one, which is a lot of shit I really do not need to have to wade through each time I log on there.

The moral of the story: sometimes your original conclusions were the right one, sometimes you’re better off remembering the bad and ignoring the good, and most important of all, avoid right-wing nut crews like the NSS!

I am beginning to HATE Linux!!!

October 29, 2010

Right now, I’m in the middle of an assignment for my Linux class. The assignment is to do two shell scripts. One seems simple,  just asking you to print out the name of whomever runs the script (from two separate sources), print the name of the script, and list all the people currently logged onto the system. All that is moderately straight-forward. What had me setting, for the better part of a day, feeling like I couldn’t find my butt with both hands was the requirement that you print out the date and time. Now there is a command for that in Linux (date), and there is a page you can access from right inside Linux that will tell you all the details of how to use different “options” to get the result you want….and, yes, this was a special format you had to set up yourself. The problem is, if you look at what’s normally considered the “main” source of information on the command (the “man” or manual page), it gives you a set of directions that, if you use them, don’t work….or at least, not the way you think they should. I went back, again and again, trying to figure out what the hell I was doing wrong, and I just could not find clue one there to tell me what my mistake was.
Talk about frustration!!
So, as I’m going over the page one more time, I notice a reference to a second informational page, known as “info”, at the bottom of the “man” page. Now not every Linux command has both a “man” and “info” page. More to the point, you would not think that there would be any difference between what you find on one page and what you find on the other.
Within a second of looking at the second reference, I knew what I had been doing wrong: the string of “options” needed to be enclosed in a series if single quote marks so you could put space and other punctuation between the different parts. This is not shown ANYWHERE on the “man” page, and seeing as how both were authored by the same individual, that seems extremely odd, to say the least.
In the end, it was just another ‘glorious’ day learning Linux.
Damn, am I going to be glad if I get through this with my sanity and a passing grade!

“Vote for ‘None of the Above’!”

October 14, 2010

Well, the election is nearly here… which all I can say is “Thank God!!!”.

As a resident of Illinois, I haven’t had to endure the shame of having someone like Sharon Angles or a Christine O’Donnell running in my state, but that does not mean this election cycle has been enjoyable in any way. Our own Senate race, to fill the seat once held by Barak Obama, is being campaigned for by Mark Kirk and Alexi Giannoulias. Giannoulias is a former banker, which should say a lot about how people feel about him. Kirk, on the other hand, is a Republican member of the US House who used to be a moderate to even (gasp!) liberal member of his party. Since beginning his run for the Senate, though, Kirk has changed his position on nearly everything he once said he stood for, often with nothing in the way of a reason for the shift given. Worse, he’s been repeatedly caught lying about his military record and other details about his past actions. So Illinoisans have been left with the choice of a liar or a potential thief to fill our vacant Senate seat.

The race for the governor’s spot is the only race that makes the Senate race look good. On the one hand we have Pat Quinn, former consumer advocate and then lieutenant governor under Rod Blagojevich, who was impeached and removed from office. Quinn’s leadership since taking over the top spot has less than impressive. Facing him from the Republican camp is state senator Bill Brady, a real estate developer who is a millionaire, a serving state senator, and surprisingly enough, a man who’s managed to avoid paying any taxes for over two years. Bill’s ‘grand plan’ is (no surprise) to cut taxes. How he plans to fix the Illinois state budget, which is currently somewhere in the neighborhood of $13 billion in the hole, is one of those things he seems to want the citizens of this state to take on faith.

There are a few other races where the selection is equally “good”, but I will not detail them all. What I would like to do is to propose something I once wrote about several years ago: that the people of this nation need something better than choosing the ‘lesser of two evils’, we need the option to be able to vote for “None of the Above”. If people aren’t happy with the people running for office, and feel they have no real choice they like, then the odds are that they’ll either not vote, or if they do, they’ll just make a mental coin toss to make their decision. The idea I had was a simple one: if the majority of voters choose to vote for “None of the Above”, then all the candidates on the ballot would be dropped and a special election held that they would not be allowed to compete in. The parties would have a limited time frame to come up with new candidates, a second round of voting would take place, and if the outcome were the same, all the candidates from the second round of voting would have their names put in a literal hat and the winner would be chosen by a mutually-agreed-to impartial individual by drawing a name from said hat. We might not get a good candidate, but the object lesson the the different parties could not be clearer: select someone we, the people of this nation, want to vote for, not the faithful-few who vote in your primaries want.

Sounds silly, doesn’t it? Does it sound less silly that voting for someone you don’t like because the alternative is even worse? Think about it.

(Mis)Adventures with Linux

October 4, 2010

A while back, I wrote about getting on MySpace and how I was wondering if it was worthwhile.

I am beginning to think it was.

I’m back in school now, trying to learn enough to help me get a job. I’m hoping that job with be in computer networking, and one thing that became clear to me was that, at least as far as servers and the hardware that keeps the Internet going, the Linux operating system has a major presence. So, I figured, if I’m going to have to deal with this stuff, at least a little bit, it might be a good idea if I learned something about this operating system.

There are times when I just ain’t too bright, and I am beginning to think this is one of those times!

Linux, at least at it’s base, is a “command line” operating system, or OS. For those of you out there who, like me, are old enough to remember back before Windows, back when, if you wanted to make a computer run, you usually ran DOS, Linux is kinda like that…..only a whole lot worse! Linux is obscure, multi-layered, confusing and just generally hard as hell to get your head around. I am slowly beginning to get some sort of a feel for it, but it’s more like I can feel the rope sliding through my hands and I know there’s not a whole lot more of it left than like I’ve got a firm grip on things.  Linux has another oddity to it, one that might help you understand why it hold such a place in the operations of the Internet: it’s free. You can Google the word and come up with a long list of places where you can go and download all manner of different “distributions” of Linux (think various versions of Windows, each with slightly different characteristics). I was even given a CD of it last year by an instructor, which should tell you how cheap it is. This is because Linux is considered “open source”, software that is written, debugged and supported by the users. It’s a powerful idea, and the OS is supposed to be rugged and fault-tolerant (meaning it doesn’t curl up it’s toes as easily as Windows can still do from time to time).

The above statement comes with a proviso: when it’s properly installed!

Actually getting Linux up-and-running is not an easy thing. Many of the distributions need detailed information on the machine they’re being installed on, things like the precise specifications of the CPU, or the way that the mother board talks to things like USB devices, or even what chipset is used in your video display system. Some make it a bit easier, with installation software that can (supposedly) use the same internal software in your computer to find out all the information it needs to get up and running. It’s the details, however, that can come around and bite you in the ass, and believe me, they bite hard and have good teeth.

When I decided to load Linux onto my desktop machine, I used the Ubuntu distribution, to be precise, the 9.04 version. I’d had it setting around for several months, though, and in the meantime, Ubuntu had come out with a newer distribution, 9.10, and the first thing my older version did when it installed was to tell me that a newer version was available, and to suggest I upgrade. Well, the software is free, I’ve got the speed now to make it so that the software would actually download this year, so what the hell, let’s DO it. Once I gave the okay, the software said it would take a couple of hours to download the new OS, clear away the current version, and get everything all installed, so I let it run and got doing other things.

When I came back, the OS was waiting, ready to finish the install of the new version of Linux, only needing my final approval. So I gave the okay, sat down, and watched as the install finished. Once it was done, I had to fill in things like my name for a username, plus a password (Linux is also very, very good about security), and then the new OS started up. All I could think was “WOW!!!”: a Windows-like environment, complete with mouse, icon-based control of different functions, and enough goodies in the way of accessory software to make me almost drool. I was thinking I had one sweet deal, a new OS I could use both to learn and also to actually get something done. Things were looking good……

Yep, you guessed it, now was the time when those pesky details turned around and sank their fangs into my ass. It wasn’t anything obvious, no sudden puff of smoke rising from the computer or anything quite that dramatic, but it was disturbing. I’d be working away, surfing the Web, playing with some of the neat toys (that version of Linux had a kick-ass chess program I loved!), and suddenly, with no warning, the computer would stop doing anything. The cursor would move around the screen when I shoved the mouse around, but I could click until my finger got sore and nothing would happen, nothing at all. That wouldn’t be bad, but like an ordinary Windows machine, the only way to shut the machine down is to click on the button on the screen to turn the computer off. So, here I was, with a computer that was doing nothing but setting there, making noise, using up electricity, but that was it. I guess I am lucky, I have the power strip that controls my machine where I can reach it easily, so when I couldn’t get the machine to shut off any other way, I just turned the power off to it. I was seriously tempted to just wait, to see if I could live with the odd problem and maybe figure out why it was doing what it was doing.

Here, absolute stupidity, at least on my part, stepped in.

You see, with mine being an older version of Ubuntu, developments had gone to the point were an entirely new version of the OS was available. This was not compatible with my current, updated version, and from time to time I’d get updates for my old version, along with a notice for the newer version. One of these hit about the time I was starting to wonder what was going on, and not thinking too deeply, I decided to give my computer the okay to go ahead and upgrade to the new distribution.

Mistake. BIG mistake. Okay, HUGE mistake!

When I gave the okay, it was getting late in the day and the software said it would take at least a couple of hours for the new OS to download, clean up from the old version, and install itself. With no desire to set around watching the computer chuckle to itself, I decided to let it take care of the details and I’d check the results in the morning. So I went to bed and got some sleep, thinking I’d have a nice, shiny new OS to play with when I got up the next day.

Boy, was that wishful thinking!

When I went to the computer the next day and turned on the monitor, I was somewhat amazed to find that it would not, in fact, respond to anything at all, but remained stubbornly black. After trying just about everything I knew, and swearing a blue streak, I killed the power to the computer yet-again and started it back up. What I found out was that the new OS had crashed during install, and I didn’t know enough to even begin to figure out why. Now is where things got interesting. I did the classic move in our modern age, I Googled Linux help and found a site that was supposed to be the best, There seemed to be tons of material there, plenty of knowledgeable folks, so I signed up and made an introductory post telling a bit about myself and mentioning my problem. At the same time, I also posted to the computer section of MySpace telling of my latest (mis)adventure with Linux. What followed was a lesson in how cyberspace can be deceiving. The “experts” on proceeded not to offer advice or help, but to lecture me on how ignorant I was and how I should learn more, lots more, before I even bothered to ask any question of them. At about the same time, the folks on MySpace started to reply with advice and suggestions, including a link to a blog post someone made dealing with the precise problem I’d been having with my earlier installation. It turned out that, despite reading the information Windows uses to know what hardware is present on a system, Ubuntu expected certain hardware minimums, and if those weren’t present, it would default to it’s own choice. That this would not work with certain, shall we say, older hardware (yes, like my machine) and could cause it to behave oddly is something that is not mentioned up front. So my machine loaded the new OS, tried to work with it, but eventually the incompatibility between it and what Linux was expecting caused Linux to crash. To their credit, I notified Ubuntu of the problem, and they in turn pointed me to some not-too-easy-to-find notifications addressing the problem. So I now know how to get things fixed. All credit to the kind folks on MySpace, and none to the self-described “experts” on