Archive for May, 2005

Power!

May 28, 2005

Our power was restored at 3:30am this morning. We’d been on partial power (see earlier blog entry) since Wednesday evening due to the storm.

Given the storm and the labor strike, I think NSTAR did a great job. First, we were made to feel like they were paying attention to our problem even if they couldn’t fix it immediately. They did this by periodically calling to check our status. This may have been a side-effect of reduced communication between their field people and the office staff–I don’t know. Whatever the reason, we appreciated the calls.

Second, they used a two-tier repair approach the way hospitals deal with emergencies. A team of two people (we guess an NSTAR employee and a contract electrician) visited the house yesterday afternoon to assess the situation. Once they determined the problem was NSTAR’s and that they couldn’t fix it, they scheduled the line truck. That’s a smart use of a scarce resource.

I tried to take a shot of the line truck down on the street. In this long exposure you can see the lights of the truck, their seachlight, and the moon. I somehow messed up the focus in the dark.

[nstar line truck]

Great Blue!

May 27, 2005

Look who showed up in my yard this morning and stayed long enough for me to shoot about 100 photos. I’ve seen Great Blue Herons from a distance, but never up close like this. The last photo is my favorite. The light wasn’t great so I was shooting wide open (f4) for 1/60″ — long enough to blur out the body feathers as the bird fluffed them up.

For scale, each of those white-painted pieces of wood is 3.5″ tall. This is a big bird.

[heron, neck in]
[heron, neck out]
[heron, fluffy]

Lost a leg

May 27, 2005

We lost power at home during the recent nor’easter here in the Boston area. But it’s a strange sort of power outage so I thought I’d post some details.

We lost part of our 3-wire, single-phase service about 36 hours ago (and counting–service not expected to be restored till late Saturday evening.) I can’t find consistent terminology to describe what we lost. Is it a phase? A pole? A leg? Normal residential electrical services comes to the house on three wires–two hot and one neutral. We’ve lost connectivity on one hot line. Which means we have 120 volts in parts of the house, no 120 in other parts and no 240 volt service at all.

The outage started with a large spray of orange sparks in the yard from the general direction of our electric service connection point. At first I was quite concerned because I’d never seen a partial outage before and was worried we had a dangerous situation. I was also mystified because none of our breakers had tripped.

I talked to my friend Jamie (after trying to reach two electricians and the electric company) and by correlating what was and was not working with the layout of the distribution panels in the basement, we deduced that I’d lost a hot wire. Here’s how to tell.

In the US, residential distribution panels are laid out as shown below. Again, “phase” means phase/leg/pole.

Phase Breakers
X 1 2
Y 3 4
X 5 6
Y 7 8
X 9 10
Y 11 12

I could see that we’d lost power on every other circuit, which was strong evidence that I’d lost one hot wire. To be safe, I switched off all of those breakers and switched off all 220 circuits. For a nice explanation of distribution panel layouts check out Answers.Com.

We’ve had our electrician out and he verified that half of our service is missing at the meter and that there was no damage between the meter and the service connection point. So now we wait at the bottom of NSTAR’s repair list since only a single home is affected and we do have partial power. As outages go, this one is very civilized–our heat works, the computers are up, and I can run an extension cord to power anything I really need.

As an aside, yes, I did mention heat above. It’s been in the 40s all week, 30s with the wind chill. Not a very welcoming Spring so far. This robin was in our backyard yesterday, with what I imagine to be a somewhat forlorn look about the weather.

[robin]

Twenty Questions: 20Q

May 25, 2005

I just bought a 250,000-connection neural network that fits in the palm of my hand. $10 at the local WalMart.

The Radica 20Q is an implementation of Twenty Questions. In this case, you think of an animal, vegetable, mineral, or “other”, and the 20Q will guess the object based on your answers to questions it poses. While it isn’t going to pass a Turing Test, it will surprise you.

[kk's 20q photo]

The 20Q contains a boiled-down version of the neural network the web community has been training since 1995 by playing the game on the 20Q website. The network has actually been learning since 1988. For more details on the history and technology, check out Kevin Kelly’s Cool Tools blog.

My wife teaches ESL (English as a Second Language) and has used it to help students practice reading in a fun way. The text scrolling speed can be adjusted, which makes it useful for students with a range of skill levels.

Here are two games I played with 20Q. Its questions are shown with my answers.

GAME I: (I am thinking of a window)

  1. Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, Other? Other
  2. Is it flat? yes
  3. Do you use it at work? yes
  4. Do you hold it when you use it? no
  5. Does it bring joy to people? sometimes
  6. Is it something you bring along? no
  7. Is it heavier than a pound of butter? yes
  8. Does it come in a box? no
  9. Does it break if dropped? yes
  10. Is it used by the police? yes
  11. Can you switch it on and off? no
  12. Would you find it on a farm? yes
  13. Can it be stolen? no
  14. Can it be used for recreation? no
  15. Do you clean it regularly? yes
  16. Is it outside? yes
  17. Can you open it? yes
  18. Can you buy it at a store? yes
  19. Can you put something into it? no
  20. Do you open and close it? yes

It’s a window? yes

GAME II: (I am thinking of a drum)

  1. Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, Other? other
  2. Is it flat? no
  3. Would you use it daily? no
  4. Does it have a hard outer shell? yes
  5. Do you use it in your home? sometimes
  6. Is it usually colorful? unknown
  7. Can you open it? no
  8. Would you give it as a gift? sometimes
  9. Is it heavier than a pound of butter? yes
  10. Is it straight? no
  11. Does it require specific knowledge to use? yes
  12. Could it be found in a classroom? sometimes
  13. Does it weigh more than a duck? yes
  14. Does it make sound? yes
  15. Was it used over 100 years ago? yes
  16. Is it larger than a microwave? sometimes
  17. Do you hold it when you use it? sometimes
  18. Can it be washed? no
  19. Does it use electricity? no
  20. Does it shine? no

I guess you are thinking of a drum? yes

Solaris 10 laptop installation

May 24, 2005

I killed it. Actually, I killed both of them. The Windows and JDS/Linux partitions on my laptop. Done with premeditation prior to installing Solaris 10 on my Tecra M2. Read on for the details.

Preparation

I burned four CDs using an internal mirror of the same bits available at the Solaris 10 Download page — you know, the lounging Sumo wrestler page.

I had some trouble locating the installation documents. Oddly, the Unofficial installation guide for Solaris on x86 systems, which is available directly from the download page is 1) unoffical, 2) seemingly for Solaris 9.

I suggest instead visiting our excellent online document repository–in particular, the Solaris 10 collection. A link to the collection is also on the download page — it’s here. The documents you’ll want are in the Release and Installation collection. Look at these two: Basic Installations and Custom JumpStart and Advanced Installations.

Also, be sure to check the Solaris Hardware Compatibility List (HCL) to make sure your laptop is supportedand because there may be important hints–like turning off legacy USB FDD support in your BIOS before installing. The installation hangs mysteriously on a Tecra M2 if you don’t take care of this. Check the HCL!

Installation

If you read the installation documents, the procedure is mostly straightforward. I did get tripped up on one question: Did I want to do a Networked or Non-Networked installation? I chose Networked, reasoning that a laptop is usually networked, albeit intermittently.

When the Networked installation finished and the machine rebooted, I was presented with the standard Solaris dtlogin screen. I logged in using my usual UNIX username and password. My home directory was automounted. All local printers were accessible. I could get to all of the usual set of remote file systems. Etc, etc. When we say The Network is the Computer, we mean it…the machine was totally integrated into our network and the installation procedure that got me there was quite straightforward. Kudos to the Solaris installation team!

Of course, it was pretty clear that this wasn’t the right configuration for a laptop–it was TOO integrated for a nomadic machine. So I reinstalled using the Non-Networked option.

This time when I rebooted, root was my only login option since no user accounts had yet been created. To be expected. But, man, when they say “Non-networked” they really mean NO NETWORK. 😦 Once the installation was completed, it was up to me to manually configure the machine for networking and I’m still working on fixing up the last few bits to make it usable. Thanks, by the way, to a particular expat British software engineer for some helpful pointers on network setup.

I’d like to see us apply some of our installation talent to creating a truly nomadic installation option. In the meantime, I’m getting by.

One caveat to the above story. Everything I said is true, but the subsequent problems I had configuring the Xorg server for this laptop were as bad as the Solaris installation was good. More on this at some point when my blood pressure has stabilized.

Joshpark

May 14, 2005

This is a hoot — design a South Park character in your own image. Thanks to Geoff Arnold for pointing out this South Park Studio site.

Here’s my self-portrait…

[josh park]

And it sure is shiny!

May 11, 2005

Today my wife accidentally cleaned all of our hardwood floors with furniture polish instead of floor cleaner. It’s like an indoor ice skating rink here tonight…and it sure is shiny! 🙂

We had a good laugh.

Desert Bloom

May 11, 2005

I took some vacation time a few weeks ago to visit New Mexico. Much fodder for future blog posts.

I found this cactus flower in a garden at the White Sands National Monument visitor center. White Sands, by the way, is one huge pile of gypsum sand that is migrating across the plain between two mountain ranges at a pretty good clip. Worth checking out if you are in the area. Watch out for those missiles though.

[white sands flower]

This lone tree in the park caught my eye as well:

[white sands tree]

Business Travel: Two Small Changes

May 9, 2005

I noticed two small changes during my latest business trip to the Bay area.

First, when I paid for gas using my credit card at a Chevron station in Newark, I was prompted to enter my zip code at the pump. I’m hoping this was some sort of security check (either a local check using the info on my magstripe or a remote one as part of the transaction authorization) rather than just a demographic survey by the local gas station.

And, second, I was greeted by name when I got out of my car in the Avis rental lot. I correctly deduced that the check-in person had used his hand-held check-in device to access my record by entering my license plate number. It was a nice personal touch. When I asked him about it, he speculated it wouldn’t be long before the lot would be wired to sense cars as they enter and automatically read their identity, mileage, fuel level, etc.

TAP

May 9, 2005

I attended our organization’s quarterly in-person staff meeting on Sun’s Newark, CA campus last week. We covered some of the usual things at the 2.5 day meeting, but spent a full 1.5 days on our annual TAP (Talent Assessment Process) exercise.

This year we discussed every manager and every senior staff engineer in our organization– roughly 50 people. The reviews of strengths and weaknesses were both thoughtful and frank with staff members contributing their perspectives to those offered by the presenting Directors. We spend the time because these people are our leaders, both managerial and technical, and this is important for the overall health and effectiveness of our organization.

In an industry where the Dilbertian pointy-headed boss is held up as the norm, it was good to see some counter-examples in action. I was impressed by the sincerity and care that everyone brought to the table for these discussions.