The Boston Diaries

The ongoing saga of a programmer who doesn't live in Boston, nor does he even like Boston, but yet named his weblog/journal “The Boston Diaries.”

Go figure.

Monday, October 07, 2002

Lessons learned

I ended up learning the hard way that the water pressure here at the Facility in the Middle of Nowhere does not have the pressure required to drive an industrial strength water hose nozzle; nothing is more pathetic than a dribble of water from a nozzle when one is expecting a rushing tourrent.

Okay, maybe a wet cat is more pathetic, but not much else.

Next time, get the non-industrial water hose nozzle.

A small karmic payback

I know what it's like being stuck in the middle of nowhere; 5½ years ago I found myself in the middle of Georgia in a car with a seized up transmission. Being 500 miles from home is bad enough.

It's worse when half-way between Christmas and New Years Eve.

On the weekend.

But due to the kindness of quite a few people I didn't know (like the tow truck driver who never did charge me for towing) and quite a few people I didn't know in person (some friends I met over the Internet drove the three hours south from Atlanta to pick me up) I was able to enjoy the rest of my vacation and get home (I arranged a ride with a couple down to Disney; from there I was on my own, which is a story for another time).

Chuck didn't have it quite as bad.

Chuck, a high rise window washer (which made for some interesting conversation during the drive) who hails from Ohio, found himself stuck in Miami, having missed the last Tri-Rail train. My friend Greg found him there (as he too, missed the last Tri-Rail train out of Dodge Miami). Chuck needed to get to the Tri-Rail station serving the Ft. Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport so the two of them shared a taxi (which Greg expensed to his company, since he was down in Miami on business).

It was from there that I met Greg and Chuck to give them a lift.

Actually, I was only expecting to give Greg a lift.

But to save Chuck from riding his bike nearly 10 miles, at night, up hill all the way (okay, so maybe not up hill) I gave him and his bike a lift.

Wednesday, October 09, 2002

The Leap

I've been playing around with the digital camera the past couple of nights trying to find the optimal settings for digital night photography. I was outside in the court yard when I snapped a picture of Spodie leaping to the top of the gate.

The gate (and the surrounding fence) is as tall as I am; I find it amazing that he can jump up that high.

Then again, I found it amazing that he could balance a bowl on a pot handle.

The $95,000 check

A few years ago I came across the story of Patrick Combs depositing a fake check for $95,000 and having it actually clear but at the time he had yet to finish telling the story.

Time passed. I lost the link. Couldn't find it again, until now. I was reading the journal of Amanda Robbins (who is the girlfriend of my friend Kurt, the high school English teacher turned plumber) when she linked to it!

Of course, the story is now finished—he ended up giving the check back to the bank, but only after they furnished him with a latter detailing their mistake in cashing it and apologizing to him. And I suspect doing such a stunt today wouldn't work.

random thoughts

Yes, I'm actually updating the journal. Yes, it has been a while since I last updated. And yes, the past few entries where made today (okay, so I predate entries occasionally … ahem).

I haven't felt much like writing the past week or so (I'm updating! I'm updating!) and I can't quite pin down why … perhaps it was the rather horrendous week I had. Or it could be some negative feedback I've had about The Boston Diaries (and for the record this is entry is not about blogs or Google; nor is it too techincal)?

It's not like I have a huge audience.

Vocal, yes.

Huge, no.

I really don't know. Perhaps I should make a concerted effort to write at least one entry per day. And avoid the batch posting like I've been doing the past few weeks (usually a weeks worth of posts posted once a week).

On the other hand, it has been rather nice getting out while the sun is up (my sleep schedule is way off lately—primarily because I may be syncing up with Spring who works third shift), sitting in the court yard making entries. The weather here in Lower Sheol is getting nice again, which means that traffic is going to get horrible but that's the trade-off one makes living here.

Good Humor

I've lived here in Lower Sheol for over twenty years and this is the first time I've seen an ice cream truck.

Okay, so it's more of an ice cream van than a truck. And it's not even a custom cooled ice cream van—a regular mini-van with magnetic signs on the side. And a speaker mounted on the outside to blare the very annoying childrens' tune.

But it sells Good Humor Ice Cream treats munch munch.

Near Death Experience (or at least getting somewhat hurt)

Okay, maybe sitting out here in the court yard of the Facility in the Middle of Nowhere isn't such a good idea. This tree that's lording over me just shed a branch and it came this close to beaning me on the head.

Bad tree! Bad tree!

Thursday, October 10, 2002

Not bad for $56 …

Last summer, Kalman was asked to come up with ideas for a New York City design show built around functional elegance, He was struggling when he accompanied his children to the shoe store and a clerk pulled out the device. There it was, exact and symmetrical, unchanged since the days when Kalman used it as a boy.

“Perfect,” he says. …

Most shoe stores don't get rid of their Brannock Devices for 10 or 15 years, until the numbers finally wear away from so much use. While Charles is guarded about production—he says the company makes “tens of thousands” each year—that total could be more. It would require switching to plastic, which would guarantee that each device would quickly crumble into ruin.

Via utopia with cheese, Brannock Device foot measuring device

I've never really given them a second thought. Every shoe store I've been in has them; I don't think I've ever seen an alternative to the Brannock Device, and I think it's wonderful that the company makes a device that will last years and won't scrimp on quality just to make a quick buck.

Alas, if only more companies would follow suit …

Friday, October 11, 2002

An overheard conversation between system administrators whilst at lunch in a local bar and grill …

“I caught another customer spamming. Very annoying—took me nearly fifteen minutes to figure out how he was doing it before I could stop it.”

“I thought your company was friendly towards spammers?”

“I don't care what corporate says; if I catch someone spamming through our system, I'll cut them off. Of course, I couldn't just delete the account though.”


“But it did get sent to Abuse, and I nearly blocked their IP address from our system.”

“You didn't try mounting their drives and reformatting them?”

“That goes way beyond my ethics.”

“Even just wiping out their WINDOWS directory, assuming they are running Windwows?”

“Nope, wouldn't even do that.”

“What about changing their IP stack?”

“In what way?”

“So that, say, only localhost reponds?”

“Hmmmm, I might have to give that some consideration.”

“Or seeing how the minimum IP header size is 20 bytes, changing their MTU to oh … say … 10 bytes?”

“Would it even work then?”

“I don't know, actually.”

“Would that even crash Linux?”

“You know, I don't know how any TCP/IP stack would deal with an MTU that small. A receiving host would probably just toss such a packet a way as being corrupted or just bad.”

“Yes, but what about the sending side?”

“Might be worth trying on the next spammer … ”

A question of power

Friend and reader Steve Crane send the following to me in email:

Hi Sean,

I recall reading in your blog a while back that you were dissappointed with the battery life of your new digital camera. I came across this article today that might give you some ideas on improving it.


Well, since then, I've found that the Rayovac NiMH rechargable batteries seem to work wonders in the camera as I can get hours, nay, days, of use out of these batteries in the digital camera. I had attempted to use the Rayovac Alkaline rechargable batteries in the camera (since I found they work great for the Newton I have) but they lasted all of maybe five seconds, if that.

But the NiMH ones work beautifully, and I can use the same recharger for both these and the Alkalines.

Sunday, October 13, 2002

The Usual Suspects

[The Usual Suspects]

The usual suspects grilling the usual hamburgers at an undisclosed location in South Florida. Approach with caution as authorities state they are technically proficient and will install free Unix-like operating systems on unattended PCs.

Monday, October 14, 2002

The Universal Sense of Humor

A few weeks ago I received a check for a considerable sum of money. It wasn't from a company that I recognized and there was nothing within to indicate what it might be for, I assumed it had something to do with the sale of Condo Conner. I of course deposited the check and forgot all about it.

Until today.

Found out that my car insurance was cancelled (and today was the last day of coverage) and that the check I received some weeks ago was the balance remaining on my now cancelled insurance. In talking with my insurance agent it turns out my account was cancelled because of a speeding ticket I received in April of 2001.

Which, if you do the math, is over one and a half years ago!

Seems they took exception to a speeding ticket at 18 miles per hour over the posted limit over one and a half years ago with no tickets since and felt they no longer needed my business.


I'll skip the rants about the racket known as “insurance.”

Now, last week I received in the mail (postal mail, not e-mail) notification that I am potential “Settlement Class member” of a class action suit against my previous car insurance company and that if I elect to participate and that insurance company loses the suit, I get back $10 per six-month policy period (which for me, would mean a whopping $20—woo hoo).

Guess who's the only insurance company that gave me a quote?

The universe has a bizarre sense of humor.

It bites tadpole of the wax

What happens when an English phrase is translated (by computer) back and forth between 5 different languages? The authors of the Systran translation software probably never intended this application of their program. As of April 2002, translation software is almost good enough to turn grammatically correct, slang-free text from one language into grammatically incorrect, barely readable approximations in another. But the software is not equipped for 10 consecutive translations of the same piece of text. The resulting half-English, half-foreign, and totally non sequitur response bears almost no resemblance to the original. Remember the old game of “Telephone”? Something is lost, and sometimes something is gained.

Via Mr. Barrett, Lost in Translation

It's a neat little application that uses BableFish to convert to and from English five times and produces some rather amusing translations. We have years yet before anything remotely close to a universal translator is invented.

Oh, and the title? That's what you get when you translate a transliteration of an American company into Chinese through the above application.

Tuesday, October 15, 2002

“An Era has ended. The wise have moved on.”

Last weekend, I decided to do something I've always dreamed about. Travel. Alone. Unrestricted and for an indefinite period of time.

I will sell or get rid of most of my posessions. and keep one trunk of important stuff here in the States as well as my golf clubs and sailing gear. The rest will go. I need to do this in two weeks so I can get out of my expensive apartment.

Via an email from Ken, Steve Smith's Livejournal

Steve is a friend from college who moved up to Boston several years ago. He was (and still is) quite the character—he lived in his office at FAU for an entire semester, moving in when he couldn't afford either a dorm room nor an apartment (granted, living in Boca Raton isn't cheap).

But now that Boston is no longer the place to be (apparently), and without a job (it isn't clear whether he was let go or quit) he just up and decided to see the world. I wish him well.

Friday, October 18, 2002

MSN nearly killed my Linux box

And not because I tried dialing up to MSN either. It was a referer string, from their search engine, that nearly killed my Linux box.


A while ago I wrote a program to go through the web log files, pulling out referers from search engines (more or less). It wouldn't quite run through an entire log file before quitting on some input it apparently didn't like. It hasn't bothered me that much until today. So I figured I would run it under the debugger, see what it doesn't like and fix the program.

It's amazing what garbage you get from search engines.

The spec for query strings is pretty straight forward—a series of name/value pairs separated by ampersands—“&” (except perhaps for the last pair) and each name/value pair is in the form of name “=” value. Pretty easy, right?

AOL/UK's search engine was sending a query string with two consecutive ampersands. Fixed that, go on to the next problem.

The dreaded referer string from MSN.

Usually when a variable that has no value is sent, what you get is:


Basically, the name, then the equal sign, and either the end of the query string, or the start (signified by the ampersand) of the next name/value pair. But not MSN.

Nope. You get:


And it was in the process of testing my work around that my Linux box seriously went dead.

Okay, so technically MSN didn't nearly killed my Linux system, my program did.

But still … it's an accessory to attempted murder!


Back to the drawing board.

Monday, October 21, 2002

Long dull posting about site construction, reconstruction, reformatting, XML, XSL, XPath and other alphabet soup

One of the reasons (okay, possibly the reason) I don't update my personal site all that often is that it's a pain to update. Just to add a new portrait involves editing two pages (sometimes three, depending upon the format of the image), and creating a new page. Between the creating, editing and testing it takes something like fifteen to twenty minutes before I'm done, and that's fourteen to nineteen minutes too long.

Why so much editing to add a picture?

Mostly for the navigation aspects of the site. I remember, oh, this must have been in '96, '97, having this huge discussion (okay, argument really) with my friend Eve about site structure and the (at the time) lack of navigation elements on my site. I was dreading having to edit some 100 pages but her argument (“Sean, what if I show one of your pages to some hot babe and she wants to see your picture? There's no easy link to a picture of you!”) finally convinced me to dive in and edit over 100 pages to add navigation links. While I was at it, I also added <META> and <LINK> tags as well.

Painful process, that.

And it's maintaining the relationship between pages that consumes so much time when adding a new page (not to mention that I technically, should add new pages to the sitemap but haven't, and that only one in six links on my gratuitous links to people I know, or just like their webpages still work, leaving five out of six broken but that's another issue right now) that is a complete drag on updating the site. Years ago I thought of writing software to maintain the pages in one form, then feed them through a template engine to generate all the navigation and meta-information but never really got around to it, although I still have the notes floating around somewhere on my harddrive.

So now here it is—October of 2002 and my site hasn't changed its look since at least 1998, possibly longer (I want to say 1996, but that might be too early). I'd like to convert over to using CSS, and improve the navigation links (mostly by taking advantage of the <LINK> tag) but that means I have to edit 145 pages.

If I'm going to be making such drastic changes, I might as well rethink how the site will be generated while I'm at it. And what I had originally wanted in a templating engine seems to exist in XSL. Nice if my pages are in XML but right now, they aren't. So as long as I'm editing them anyway I might as well convert.

And converting I have. And I've found some rather odd aspects about XSL and XPath (which is used to reference portions of an XML document). I'm building the navigation links within the template, so to generate a link to the next page I have:

<xsl:if test="position()!=last()">

Basically, following-sibling::column/child::title gets the following column from the input file and extracts the title, and following-sibling::column/attribute::filename gets the filename of the following column. Pretty straightforward. To get a link to the previous column, there's a corresponding preceding-sibling:

<xsl:if test="position()!=1">

Easy, strightforward and hopelessly wrong.

That kept generating a link to the first column. Now, since the phrase preceding-sibling::column returns all the columns preceeding the current one, the engine looks like it is returning the title to the first column. So I thought that selecting the last column of the preceding columns would do the trick:

<xsl:if test="position()!=1">
<link rel="previous"

Nope. Still getting the last column. Hmmm … check up on preceding-sibling:

All nodes that precede the context node and are contained in the same parent element node in reverse document order.


So let's see what happens when I return the first column of the preceding columns:

<xsl:if test="position()!=1">
<link rel="previous"

Okay, that works!

Very intuitive, that.

So, outside some wierdness like that, the conversion process is slowly making progress.

Jumping off a bridge, since everyone else is doing it

I was going to attribute this to the blog I first found it on, but since every blog I've viewed today already mentioned it I figured what's the point in doing that today? (for the record, I first found the link on Camworld).

But in any case, since everyone has decided to link to the Doonsbury cartoon where he lambasts bloggers, I decided to throw caution to the wind and present the actual comic here. I'll claim fair use and hope that the lawyers don't swarm all over me on this.

Tuesday, October 29, 2002


‘It's long,’ said the Knight, ‘but very, very beautiful. Everybody that hears me sing it—either it brings the tears into their eyes, or else—’

‘Or else what?’ said Alice, for the Knight had made a sudden pause.

‘Or else it doesn't, you know. The name of the song is called “Haddocks' Eyes.”’

‘Oh, that's the name of the song, is it?’ Alice said, trying to feel interested.

‘No, you don't understand,’ the Knight said, looking a little vexed. ‘That's what the name is called. The name really is “The Aged Aged Man.”’

‘Then I ought to have said “That's what the song is called”?’ Alice corrected herself.

‘No, you oughtn't: that's quite another thing! The song is called “Ways And Means”: but that's only what it's called, you know!’

‘Well, what is the song, then?’ said Alice, who was by this time completely bewildered.

‘I was coming to that,’ the Knight said. ‘The song really is “A-sitting On A Gate”: and the tune's my own invention.’

Chapter VIII, Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll

I feel a bit like Alice right now.

It stems from an email conversation Mark and I have had over the past few days about a new feature he's adding to Seminole which got derailed over namespaces.

The realm that Mark works in is one that is vastly different than the one I work in. His realm, for example: take the source code to the Linux kernel, add it the source code to X Windows and Mozilla and get it to work. As a monolithic whole. Under a single (read: flat) namespace (source code wise).

Okay, so that's not exactly what he does, but he does work on embedded systems and as he says, his current project with 800,000 unique names is small compared to what he's worked with before.


I would be amazed if everybody in Miami has a truely unique name, and that's a namespace of 400,000.

More on this later, when I return from behind the looking glass …


Chrysler: What is the name of this court?

Counsel: This is No 5 Court.

Chrysler: No, that is the number of this court. What is the name of this court?

Via Flutterby, High court hang-ups

Speaking of names

This has to be one of the oddest court cases I've come across. Not only did the defendant (Mr. Chrysler) steal over 40,000 hotel coat hangers, his testimony is straight from Monty Python:

Judge: Shut up, witness.

Chrysler: Willingly, m'lud. It is a pleasure to be told to shut up by you. For you, I would …

Judge: Shut up, witness. Carry on, Mr Lovelace.

Counsel: Now, Mr Chrysler—for let us assume that that is your name—you are accused of purloining in excess of 40,000 hotel coat hangers.

Chrysler: I am.

Counsel: Can you explain how this came about?

Chrysler: Yes. I had 40,000 coats which I needed to hang up.

Counsel: Is that true?

Chrysler: No.

Counsel: Then why did you say it?

Chrysler: To attempt to throw you off balance.

The transcript of the trial (it's not very long) is very funny, in that British Monty Pythonesque way …

Naming names

Well that was certainly painful.

I wrote the previous entry only to have some of it show up. Odd, I thought. It's never done that before. Of course, I had just updated the codebase to support more more <META> tags (DC.Date.Updated and WMDI.LastUpdateType if you're curious) so the code did change just prior to the previous entry, even though I did a test and it shouldn't have affected the addition of new entries (shouldn't).

Throw the code under the debugger and place a stopping point jusr prior to the program exiting, then run.

It's exiting normally. Only it's getting a partial entry.

Now, when I cut-n-paste the excerpt, it did pick up a few characters that gave my editor fits but I thought I had gotten fixed that. Check the contents of the entry (as I sent it) and it's all ASCII—no funny characters at all. I even retype the lines around where it's failing and still it's not getting everything.

And that's when I see the problem:

<class="…" href="…">

It should have read:

<a class="…" href="…">

My HTML parser was bailing out on bad input. Sigh.

Fix the text (which is easier than fixing the code) and try again. Test goes fine. When I go resubmit the entry for real it crashes.

Insert primal scream.

Think think think think think

Okay, I submit entries via email. The email system feeds the email (in RFC-822 format to the submission program. When testing, I fed the entry the same was as the email system. When mailing, I was sendind my test file, which included a duplicate set of email headers! Which my program couldn't deal with—or rather, it dealt with it by crashing.


Mispelled names

Now that all that mess is cleared up, I can get back to the original entry I was planning on writing.

When doing a search for Monty Python for the previous previous entry I mistyped the query as “Monty Pythong.”

I was amazed when I found plenty of Monty Pythong sites

Finding names

I'm reading the Slashdot article about Curious Yellow, a theoretical superworm, when I come across this post about an increase in NetBIOS probes. Curious, I decide to check the firewall here at the Facility in the Middle of Nowhere to see just how bad it is.

From September 29th starting at 6:11 am, to now, at 7:06 pm, 92% of all rejected packets have been NetBIOS probes (14,379 out of 15,563); about one every three minutes or so. Not quite twice a day as the post says, but still, not a good thing.

Reading further, it may be due to the Opaserv worm.


Wednesday, October 30, 2002

About the lack of comments around here

I've generally been relunctant to add comments to my weblog/journal even though several people have been hounding me to do so. And now there's a problem of spam hitting comment systems on blogs (see sidebar). Mark Pilgrim explains the problem into much detail, and gives good reasons why he's not adding comments any time soon.

Which is pretty much how I'm feeling about it myself.

Devil's Night

I took this picture a few weeks ago and it reminded me of what it might look like in Detroit on Devil's Night which historically has a higher incidence of arson than the rest of the year.

I've never experienced Devil's Night but I've heard about it plenty of times from family that live in the Detroit area. But in reading up on it it seems that the amount of “urban renewal” going on has dropped dramatically over the past fifteen years or so.

Thursday, October 31, 2002


Several years ago I was invited to a Halloween party being hosted by my friend Greg; his wife and kids were still in Israel visiting family so he didn't have any problems with hosting the party.

Not like we're a bunch of obnoxious party revelers to begin with.

The party starts, plenty of people show up, we have fun.

Several hours later there's about six of us still left, all male and with the exception of Greg, single. Greg gets into a mood and decides we should all watch some porn.

Now, this isn't your standard silicon-inflated video porn of today—no! This is the vintage stuff from the 70s when porn was filmed and there was still a pretentiousness of plot because, you know, it was art and stuff.

So there we were at Greg's house, about six of us, still in costumes from the Halloween party when Greg's Dad walks into the house to find us, all guys, watching vintage porn from the 70s (bwomp-chicka-bwomp-bwomp). He stares at us, a deer caught in deadlights; we turn and stare at him, caught like deers in a headlight. “Excuse me,” he mumbles, then turns and quickly leaves the house.

“Dude,” says Kurt, “That was your father!

“Dude,” says Greg, laughing hard, “this is my house!”

Breaking names

I hate it when things just stop working for no apparent reason.

DNS stopped working here in the Facility in the Middle of Nowhere. It was working fine yesturday but not today and as far as I could tell, nothing on our end changed.

At first, I thought it might be another attack on the root DNS servers but in checking outside sources proved that wasn't the case.

Then I thought maybe our Internet provider was filtering out DNS traffic or something silly like that but Spring's Linux box, which was running a DNS server, could resolve fine.

I didn't have a clue, and Rob didn't either—and both of us weren't really in a condition to think things through (he's fighting a cold; I had just gotten up).

Eventually, I was able to get it working. First, I had to remove

query-source address * port 53;

from /etc/named.conf and making that change required me to relax the firewall rules to allow all UDP in, since the name server will pick a random port to send the queries out on. I could probably specify an unreserved port for the name server to send queries and then strengthen the firewall back up.


It's still very annoying though.

Obligatory Picture

[The future's so bright, I gotta wear shades]

Obligatory Contact Info

Obligatory Feeds

Obligatory Links

Obligatory Miscellaneous

You have my permission to link freely to any entry here. Go ahead, I won't bite. I promise.

The dates are the permanent links to that day's entries (or entry, if there is only one entry). The titles are the permanent links to that entry only. The format for the links are simple: Start with the base link for this site:, then add the date you are interested in, say 2000/08/01, so that would make the final URL:

You can also specify the entire month by leaving off the day portion. You can even select an arbitrary portion of time.

You may also note subtle shading of the links and that's intentional: the “closer” the link is (relative to the page) the “brighter” it appears. It's an experiment in using color shading to denote the distance a link is from here. If you don't notice it, don't worry; it's not all that important.

It is assumed that every brand name, slogan, corporate name, symbol, design element, et cetera mentioned in these pages is a protected and/or trademarked entity, the sole property of its owner(s), and acknowledgement of this status is implied.

Copyright © 1999-2024 by Sean Conner. All Rights Reserved.