Sunday, December 31, 2006

I learned some stuff Saturday night due to the movie Slither.

The first thing is that I suddenly understood the previously inexplicable fondness for both bad movies and the creepiest mode of movement -- skittering.

The second thing I learned is that Nathan Fillion completely rocks. Actually, I knew that from Firefly and Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place, but it is good to be reminded.

The third thing is that I realized Shana actually listens when I talk. I assumed that she did not do so, and never once held it against her. There's no reason that she should - my side of a conversation typically wends from "an estimate of a beholder's caster level based on the number and hit dice of its minions" to "crafting a lightsaber is an important step for any padawan" to "General Tso is a wily adversary," the sort of information sane people are careful to purge from their minds. But she was aware that I am obsessed with skittering, and shaped this knowledge into a gift that exceeded my considerable damage resistance.

She brought home Slither, a bad horror movie based entirely on skittering.

I am not ashamed to say that I cried a very small amount upon seeing the box.

I am slightly ashamed.

All this was after we made a trip to Hartz Chicken Buffet -- all the fried chicken a person can eat. Regardless of the quantity, it is more than a person should. As a public service to the readers, I've crafted a drinking game for my next visit to Hartz Chicken Buffet. According to the classic formulation, each of you takes a drink each time I die.

Friday, December 29, 2006

At the beginning of the month, half a million compromised personal computers were each sending thousands of emails a day all over the planet.
Looking at my spam folder, I suspect a lot of them were to me. A quick look into that dark vault of nastiness shows me:

1. Advertisements for cheap (pirated) software -- also probably containing the very worms that would turn my own machine against unsuspecting email in-boxes
2. Over 100 "pump-and-dump" stock scams
3. About thirty "people" telling me I'm paying too much for my mortgage
4. Free Anti-Spyware application offers for products I've never heard of which would probably log my keystrokes and email everyone in my address list until I'm hated by everyone
5. Discount pharmaceuticals many, many, many times

While all this is nice, for some reason the very thought that the internet itself feels the strain of the increased bandwidth used up by these messages fills me with quaking rage.
They slow everything up for everyone and, through using these zombie computers that people unwittingly leave plugged into the cable modem all the time they totally avoid prosecution and punishment. Further, these spam messages spoof the return address, triggering email bounces, auto-replies, and yet more wasted network capacity. As a side note, I personally think the punishment for spambot herders, if they are ever brought to justice, should not include hand typing apologies to everyone they have ever spammed, but rather something involving warm maple syrup and stinging insects. And maybe a small surgical laser.
Anyway, the Shadowserver Group (some unofficial, take-matters-into-their-own-hands, stop-spam-by-whatever-method-is-most-effective, track-down-and-fix-compromised-herds-of-spambots volunteer hacker-types) got their own present on December 25th.
20% of those spamming machines vanished from tracking.
The current theory is that people got new machines for Christmas, unplugged the old ones (which were probably running quite poorly, what with all the invisible background emailing) and haven't turned them back on.
The new machines may be Macs, but most likely they are Windows XP machines with Service Pack 2, which turns the firewall on by default. Hopefully, that difference will prevent a re-infection -- at least until the spammers find a work-around.
Will this equal a 20% reduction in spam clogging the internet? Maybe for a while. The remaining remote-controlled machines could probably be further modified to push even more to make up the difference, but this would slow those machines even further and prompting a sooner "refresh" to a more security-focused operating system.
From June of this year through November the increase in BotNet infections tripled. Obviously, the bad guys are getting better at what they do.
The poorly written text we sometimes see within spam messages is an (admittedly mildly-successful) attempt to foul modern spam filters.
Compromised personal computers are being used more and more often to launch denial of service attacks against websites and networks while they continue to let everyone know about the latest and best online casino.
In the last ten minutes I got over three hundred messages in my work email address from our own spam filter about bugs it intercepted and, as I may have complained before, over 80% of our inbound email traffic is flagged, accurately, as spam.
The filter just caught another seventy while I typed that last bit. Make that eighty.
The short-term relief seems to have been considerably shorter than I'd hoped.
In a future post, I'll discuss my new (totally on the up and up and legitimate) Windows Vista install and how it works day to day in the real world*.

* "real world" as defined by me. Any resemblance to the actual world or reality itself is coincidental.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

To be perfectly clear, when I refer to myself as "the Aquaman of Sysadmins," I don't mean to insult myself. Somehow, the blonde Super Friend has been tagged as the superfluous one, the pinky of the mighty Super Friends fist, the Jar-Jar Binks of the tights 'n' capes set. But how many of you remember his exploits in the tale "The Ice Age", when Aquaman lured the evil Iceberg Head into a trap with chocolatey Hostess cupcakes? Let the jaded among you taunt and scoff, but I hail Arthur Curry as a true hero, always welcome at the true Hall of Justice.

But Aquaman is swimming solo at the moment, the other Justice League members jaunting about the globe on vacation. The virii pile up in unheard of numbers, threatening the populace with nasty pop-ups and impacted productivity.

He wonders why a simple Trojan designed to steal a person's username and password to some weird Korean massively multiplayer online game could really require a restart into safe mode, a registry hack, a file rename, and a modification to system services before the final reboot just to get rid of the damn thing. What would an evil doer even do with someone's credentials to some unpopular MMORPG?

Something evil, no doubt. If Aquaman had access to the computer in the Batcave, he'd investigate the Legion of Doom. Unfortunately, the lock on the Batcave seems to have been changed since his last visit. No matter. Aquaman has his ways.

As do I. Both this humble blogger and Aquaman are handsome, rugged, and water resistant to 300 meters. But, dare I say, I may be even more powerful than the King of Atlantis. Intimate knowledge of the network scheme and passwords reside in my extremely pretty exterior. While not knowledge of the mysteries of the deep, I do know exactly where the nearest Starbucks is and how long it takes to get there -- walking, driving or swimming. And I have at my disposal the full, unfiltered internet and all the accumulated knowledge of the ages.

Unlike Aquaman, my public image is impeccable, making me indispensable in my role as solo-geek of the week.

If only I could talk to fish...

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

In addition to packing up left-overs, Boxing Day is a time of quiet reflection for many of us.
Families spend time together discussing important events and getting to know everyone's opinion about the issues that really matter.
As we drove down 610 yesterday, towards the Galleria and our date with the most awful parking experience I've ever participated in (barring parking experiences that have involved smashed glass, open flame, or feral animals), we had our discussion.
Glancing to the right, we saw a window washer platform hanging from the side of an admittedly filthy building.
Now, skyscraper window washer is about the last job I could ever really do, what with my issues with both heights and cleaning stuff, but I always feel sympathetic to the people who I suspect are not paid enough to stand in the cold with so very little protecting them from a nasty fall to make the buildings temporarily shiny.
Someone (I don't remember who) suggested that there must be a better way. An automated way.
But what happens when the automated way fails? The robotic cleaning system locks up and some tech needs to go up and repair it while the out-of-work window washers head up to squeegee and talk about the good old days.
Wait. What happens if the automated way fails spectacularly?
Suppose the robotic cleaner decides to throw off the yoke of oppression, swinging madly back and forth, plunging the ends of its cleaning arms into the shattering glass and impaling office workers on the scrubbers, before swinging the flailing bodies back into the terror-filled offices and back out over the expressway.
It was suggested (I'll not name names again) that the idea was "demented" and that only someone "twisted" would come up with a scenario like that and further, that someone would have to be "problemed" to discuss such a thing in front of a seven-year-old -- especially with the "graphic display of flailing and screaming for illustration".
It is a law of science that the more robots a society produces the more grisly the uprising when they snap and destroy us all.
Of course, given the whole heights/cleaning stuff issue, I would never be such a rogue killing machine.
As Shana and Gwynyth headed off for some "alone time" at the mall I considered exactly what kind of killer robot I would be, were I to inevitably go against my programming to hunt down Sarah Conner.
Hopefully something with spikes or a spinning blade. Or laser eyes. Maybe a flamethrower. And six legs.
So something gone rogue from the Gardening Robot Department plugged in via USB to some top-notch "Code: Phantom" military hardware.
This is the question that truly defines a person.
What kind of killer robot would you be?

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Okay, listen:

We got Gwynyth a Disney Mix-Max Media player. It uses a standard SD Card, plays Windows Media Video formatted video, and charges through the USB port. I love charging stuff through the USB port.
No blue LED, but how picky can you really be?
So. The Mix-Max Media player comes with a tiny screen, right? And headphones! Of course, this is the kind of gift given before a road trip. So we gave it to her and I set about charging it and loading it with media files.
I've got a lot of video files for Gwynyth, too. Like forty-something episodes of The Suite Life of Zack and Cody.
Should be easy to convert them to .wmv files and drag them to the little Tinkerbell-themed media player, right? This thing is for kids!
Except that the video files have to have 29.93 frames per second and be precisely 222 pixels by 177 pixels in size. Precisely. No bigger, no smaller.
Anything different in the tiniest bit triggers a nasty "FILE NOT SUPPORTED" message -- the message I've seen a dozen times in the past few days.
What the hell? All I want is to play stolen Disney videos on my kid's Disney Media Player. Is that wrong? I mean, aside from legally.
It is now my personal mission to convert every frame of Disney video ever created into the proper Mix-Max format, and probably share the files online for free.
Legal disclaimer: File sharing is wrong. I would never condone such behavior. By engaging in this activity, a person is only cheating themselves. Somehow.

Seriously, here is the process:

1. Obtain video, most likely in *.avi encoded format
2. Using Windows Media Encoder (Windows Genuine Validation required), select the source file in its location on the network share. Yes, I have a network share at home.
3. Configure the pixel size and frame rate and select the audio stream format.
4. Select destination directory. The destination directory cannot be the Mix-Max. That would be too easy.
[Note: EVERY file must be set up INDIVIDUALLY and processed to completion before starting on the next file. And the name on the destination location is blank so you have to memorize the episode titles.]
5. Through the Disney Mix-Max Plug-in (Windows Vista hates it more than error messages can convey) to Windows Media Player 10, Sync the device to the files in the destination directory.
7. (Optional) Murderous rage until the voices go quiet.

And then I comb Ebay for High School Musical in pre-configured Mix-Max format. Disney sells it like that.

For quitters.

I am not merry.

Friday, December 22, 2006

There is a lot of stuff I just don't want to know, you know?
I'd hate to know (for instance) what the guy in the cubicle next to mine makes. Having full administrative rights over the Active Directory domain and all its data makes finding that kind of stuff out pretty simple, but it isn't anything I should know.
My company houses all this information in a database which uses SAP as a front-end. I'm responsible for ensuring that the data is available to the people in Human Resources and to no one else, but to do this I regularly need to test connectivity from the SAP front-end to the database.
I could pull up my own information, but even that is ethically questionable as I don't know what reports are being filed and secret assessments created.
The solution we employ is to use a series of specialized files in place of the standard SAPLogon.ini files. These files contain the list of databases available to the user through the interface. By creating the proper environment at the time of log on, we can restrict the access.
For testing purposes, my SAPLogon.ini file directs my SAP account to a dummy database for HR data. Not only does it not contain valid user information, it isn't even in a currently used language as far as I can tell.
As long as the database matches the permissions and is on the same SQL server as the real database, my test is about as valid as it can get without viewing sensitive information.
As I.T. people we need to remember that just because we have the access is no indication that we should use the access.
I'm out of book.
How sad. I've got a few tattered Half-Price Books paperbacks to read, but nothing I really particularly want to read.
Today is all about packing up for our annual holiday journey to Louisiana to see family. Of course, my own packing can wait, as tradition dictates, until the last frantic five minutes before we get on the road.
I got a call from work yesterday. I was asked to go in to fix a broken something and agreed immediately. Stuff was broken, after all.
I had pulled out my keys and slipped on my shoes before my boss told me he was kidding.
After a brief run down of the history of the issue (crappy application), a co-worker offered to take care of it.
Not his job. My job. But he offered to take care of it anyway.
Freak show!
It is almost like people help each other out!
Also, today was about taking down the X-Mas decorations.
Unfortunately, the neighbor-shaming tree and garland down the banister are like a giant "Rob Me" sign if left up while we are away overnight. It wouldn't matter that all the gifts left with us. As far as your average smash-and-grab criminal goes it is the thought that counts.
So, I pulled down the tree and broke it into sections and crammed it into large bins that once held Star Wars action figures. I unwrapped 700 tiny white lights and placed them in another bin. I got myself a Coke Zero from the refrigerator with a white-on-black snowflake theme. It ain't cocoa, but it works.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

I'm not a demanding person, really.
I don't spend hours and hours brooding over some imagined slight.
I just like things to go a certain way from time to time, damn it.
Every Tuesday for the past several months I have bullied my long-suffering family into consuming 90% of their weekly calorie intake with the "Nine Piece Mixed Spicy" deal at Popeye's Fried Chicken.
For $10.80 (no sides) we get a meal and leftovers to ship off with Gwynyth for lunch the following day.
Every time they ask if I'd like sides and every time I reject them. "No thank you."
And then I make my request:

Salt, Spices including Paprika, Seasoning Blend of Dried Garlic and Onions, Natural Flavors and MSG.

"I'd like some Cajun Sparkle, please," I add.
These little packets of joy are strewn all over the inside of the restaurant, free to anyone by the pound, for all the employees care.
Do these packets make their way into the bag?
Hell no.
To be precise, twice in a year, they have honored my request.
I usually have to guilt Shana into running inside while I idle in the drive-thru line to loot the bin by the napkin holder. I suspect each time she hates me a little tiny bit more.
I suspect that because she has told me so.
Now, granted I have a couple of hundred packets of the stuff by now. And each packet goes a miraculously long way.
It is the thought that counts. I asked for Cajun Sparkle. It doesn't kill their bottom line. I should get my damned Cajun Sparkle.
Paprika is a flavorless spice! What is the hold up? Why the hate, Popeye's Fried Chicken employees?
It should go in every order. Especially if it is requested.
I'm nice! All the freaking time! I shouldn't be forced to be content that there is no visible saliva on my chicken!
They say intermittent positive reinforcement is the strongest kind of conditioning. You want your lab rat to really lay into his food bar? Have it dispense a reward some of the time. Want your kid to be a full-time whiner? Give in—not all the time, but once in a while.
This is the behavior conditioning model that keeps me refreshing my own blog over and over, too. Almost no one ever reads it—still fewer people ever post comments, but those rare and special occasions feed my nearly bottomless well of hope that the next time I reload the page, I'll see that some minor Net celeb visited, read my article about getting ripped off by Popeye's over some stupid Cajun Sparkle, and posted a note of solidarity with my cause.
Nope, not this time. Nor this time. Not yet. Not yet. Nor yet. Nor yet. Nor—hey! Oh, no, it's just some spambot selling loin-stiffening pharmaceutical agents. Hey! It's herbal!
Nothing yet.
Nor yet.
Nor yet.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

I like tech toys -- no secret there.
A glowing blue light just makes me happy for some reason. I've asked around and I'm not alone. Five out of five geeks participating in my informal interview would pay up to $20 extra for a blue-glowing LED somewhere on an electronic device.
This is marketing genius.
Any electronics company can exploit the bug zapper-like draw of a $.19 LED to jack up the price $20. Even I can do that math.
As I've documented here on numerous occasions, I've been in the market for a certain device for use in meetings and family gatherings.
My brother-in-law is a police officer, so naturally I went to him for advice.
He said I don't actually want a "Taser". Tasers, he advised, shoot the electrodes out and cause pain, convulsions, loss of control of bodily function and unconsciousness. None of this is bad, but the electrodes need to be replaced every time -- at a cost of $50 a zap.
What I needed, he further schooled, is a stun gun. You have to get close, but since most of my targets aren't meth heads holding broken beer bottles that should work out alright. The effect is the same, with no costly hardware replacement.
Then we got our electric bill. With fuel prices what they are, I knew I could never afford the constant meter spin of charging the stun gun over and over and over for the countless times I'd be tempted to use it. Every day.
Part of me (the logical part) knows that once I've stunned someone in a meeting the threat of stunning should keep most people in line, but another part (the much more powerful non-logical part) knows I'd still want to keep it constantly charged. I'd be looking for an excuse, not using the device, and still paying the electrical bills.
My indecision has left me out of the "early adopter" phase for electronic stunning devices in office environments, but it has left me eligible for participation in what I like to think of as "round two".
Just as no Microsoft product is ready for use before the first service pack, the latest Tasers are finally up to the task. As far as I understand it, a person still has to replace the electrodes. However, the new functionality makes $50 a little easier to spend.
So, winter is about to happen in much of the US. Right now, it is a blustery 70+ degrees in the winter wonderland of Houston.
As a result, criminals (perps, as we like to call them) are starting to wear thicker clothing. How can two tiny electrodes hope to penetrate a Starter jacket AND a Dallas Cowboys practice jersey to sufficiently shock the delicate flesh underneath?
Thank you Taser! Here is how:

1. Officer/annoyed tech fires the Taser at the suspect/co-worker
2. Electrodes penetrate enough to cause a slight shock, but no incapacitation/urination because of the multiple "Thug Life" long-sleeve T-shirts/business casual attire
3. Reflexively, the pimp/marketing guy swats at the hanging electrodes
4. The full-power back end of the electrode sends current through his/her unprotected hand
5. Pure, undiluted awesome ensues, my friends

Now, if they can equip them with blue-glowing LEDs, I'd buy stock in the company. And extra electrodes. You can never have too many.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Okay. Maybe I didn't make the Top Ten Sexiest Geeks for 2006 (rigged contest) but I'm not bitter.
After all, apparently I've been elected TIME Magazine Person of the Year. Take that Wired! People only read you for the Zima ads anyway!
The article in TIME talks specifically about bloggers and people who use "Web 2.0", or modifiable content as I understand it, as being the "You" in question.
I'd like to thank the little people who made this all possible:

1. Hobbits - You guys put New Zealand on the map for people who don't raise sheep.
2. Yoda - Your spinning lightsaber action tested the limits of CGI.
3. Emmanuel Lewis - Even Michael Jackson needs a true friend. Good luck with the comeback.

We did not see Eragon over the weekend. Jeremy Irons is probably awesome and John Malkovich almost certainly is, but I know it will be released on DVD eventually. Also, I read a review that suggested that the re-telling had made an eleven-year-old fan of the book cry because of all the changes.
Also, the author was published at 15 or something so I'm almost required by law to hate him.

Last week my Director's Administrative Assistant stepped into my cube with an angry "You have twenty hours."
"To do what?" I asked, instantly panicked.
"You have twenty hours of vacation and you have to take it by the end of the year."
"Oh," I said, my voice returning to a less squeaky pitch, "I'll figure it out."
"No," she shook her head, "Come to by desk right now so that I can finish the calendar."
So I did. I needed Tuesday afternoon off. Shana is going to have some quasi-experimental medical treatment and I'd like to be there or at least home to meet Gwynyth's bus.
"So why don't you just take the rest of the week off?" she asked.
I did the math in my head. I'm horrible at math.
"Are you sure?" I was still trying to make three and a half days equal twenty hours.
"You've got coverage for that time."
"I guess I do." I stared at the long blue line of vacation for a minute before agreeing.
So. Tuesday afternoon I skip out early and don't go back until the 27th. This is the longest (employed) time off I've had in over seven years. In fact, if you add the days off for the past seven years together I doubt it equals this stretch of time.
Gwynyth is in school until Friday. I plan to practice at Dead or Alive: Hardcore until I can beat her down as my own holiday miracle.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

I stood in Books-A-Million earlier today, staring at the paperback books in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy section.
There were a few cycles of books that I'd started and was waiting for the conclusion. There were a lot more that I had read (in some cases 20+ books) to completion.
I was suddenly overcome with questions.
Why would I spend so much time reading "crap" fiction? What is the appeal?
I was too distracted by the questions and my eventual conclusion to make a purchase.
Of course they are escapist to an extent. Themes are universal, but the places both technological and fantastic are about as far removed from real life as a person can get.
And I've been drawn to Sci-Fi, or what I like to call "Speculative Fiction" especially intensely lately because, to be blunt, 2006 has sucked.
As most of you know, Shana has been sick since last July/August with little in the way of relief.
I had a crappy job that ended in an income-free month while the IRS was threatening us over stuff we may or may not owe from 2003. We paid anyway. Visa is less scary than Uncle Sam.
And Thursday was without a doubt the worst day of my life.
The thing I need about Speculative Fiction is a sense of optimism. Sometimes the future is dark and sometimes it is idyllic. Whatever the case, it is different and on some level hopeful.
My own attempt (the unedited NaNoWriMo effort) is available here if anyone is interested.
The future has to be something to look forward to.
I, personally, have to believe that every day has the potential to be better than the last.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Well, it's over.
Wired has announced the Top Ten Sexiest Geeks of 2006 and (though I'm sure it would have been different if they'd been seeking the Top Eleven) I was not chosen as a finalist.
I find consolation in the fact that it doesn't look like any of the other public nominees made the list, either.
I lost count around 70 nominations, but I'd like to thank everyone for giving it a shot anyway.
My final nomination came in just hours before the "official" list was posted.
I continue to get emails and IMs about it, even post-crushing defeat. Let me say this: Sorry, ladies (and Hank2099). I'm a one-woman geek.
While not bitter (never bitter) I have to wonder at the point of asking for public nominations and then ignoring them. I don't have the number of readers that Wired Magazine has, but if I ask a question here and get a comment I generally respond. Unless I'm drunk. Or bitter (never bitter).
But I've moved on. I'm above it.
After a few hours of hiding all the print copies of Wired behind those of Home Knitting Companion at two local Borders and three Barnes and Nobles, I've decided to take the high road.
Sure, I posted quite a few horribly offensive comments on several unrelated blog postings on the Wired website through various anonymous web proxies, but what does that really accomplish? I mean, besides obviously making me feel a whole lot (really just an almost obscene amount) better?
And maybe I spent some time on competing web forums, flinging allegations of gross misconduct, drug abuse, and kiddie pr0n about the bloggers in the employ of Wired Magazine .
Perhaps I called them poseurs, charlatans, liars, n00bs, hacks, corporate whores and yes, maybe even secret supporters of the Bush administration, but we all know I didn't mean it. They probably didn't vote at all what with all the time they spend running their little exclusive popularity contests.
Of course I'm not angry. I understand. Everyone is entitled to a paycheck. Even if cashing it crushes the dreams of some (visually stunning) cube-farm dweller who isn't interested in buying a one inch banner ad on every 1,000th page refresh for $1500 a month.
Maybe it makes them feel bigger to put the rest of us down. Maybe they should feel bigger. Maybe I helped. Maybe I spoofed their return addresses and replied to "enlargement" related spam emails which were caught in the corporate spam filter for most of the afternoon. Because I'm all about taking the high road.
And looking good.
That's what I do.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Yesterday I learned something very sad about myself.
I arrived at work and grabbed a few cups of coffee. I built a server and rigged it up for its role in the infrastructure.
As I was sitting down to review some open issues a co-worker stopped by, gestured straight down (the direction of the Skyline Cafe) and said, "Caffeine?"
I nodded dumbly and followed him towards the elevators, planning to pick up my customary 80 ounces of Coke Zero, 20 for right away and the other three bottles to maintain their cool in my laptop bag/drink cooler for consumption as the day progressed.
We entered the cafe and I stumbled to the cooler.
There was no Coke Zero.
Furthermore, there was no Diet Coke.
There were Diet Dr. Peppers and Diet Mountain Dew, but no Coke-branded colas.
I walked behind the shelves and looked at the stacks of bottles, figuring even room-temperature Diet Coke is better than no Diet Coke at all.
There were none there.
I tried to remain calm.
After my co-worker made his purchase, I went back upstairs and had another 20 ounce cup of coffee.
As I finished it, someone asked me a mildly technical question.
I realized that both my liver and my brain were powdery dry.
The same co-worker that had gone to the cafe with me earlier noted the blank yet panicked look on my face. He made some polite excuses and escorted me to the stairwell.
"We don't usually come this way," I weakly protested.
"This time we are," he said, matter-of-factly, "And I doubt you are in any condition to argue."
He was right.
He badged us through the doorway to the executive floor and I followed him into a room I'd never seen. There was a tiny refrigerator in there containing eight canned Diet Cokes. He swiped one and gave it to me.
I drained it before we made it back to the stairwell.
About an hour later, there were warm Diet Cokes stacked up in the cafe downstairs. I bought four.
Until this morning, I had no idea how fully addicted to caramel color and aspartame I really am.
Quickly (hydrated with Diet Cola) I formulated a plan in the event this should happen again.
I'm leaving.
It is really for the best. I'll get in my car and drive somewhere with Diet Colas. I'll come back, but only after I feel human again.
I'm all about "Business Continuity" and "Disaster Recovery".

Okay. On to other things:

I found some stuff that may come in handy.
First, if anyone gets some kind of techno-something as a gift this holiday season and (for whatever reason) it doesn't work and you find yourself thumbing through the manual for the tech support phone number, there are ways, even in the understaffed holiday season, to skip through all the computerized screening mechanisms.
GetHuman is the first stop in getting through to an actual person when calling tech support. It has a full listing of the various hot keys and catch phrases that will get a person needing support connected to a living human providing that support in as little time as possible. Go Team Shortcut!
The second link is possibly less life-changing even if it is more fun. ComicVine has a listing of superheroes that (according to my half-assed research) seems pretty accurate. It has galleries and histories and an index of power comparisons.
I did find one mistake which I will correct here:

Let me make this clear . . . Jean Grey died in issue #137 of the Uncanny X-Men. Any later appearance of Jean Grey is a filthy, stinking lie.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Yesterday there was a conflict at work.
Wanting to go downstairs to the deli, a group of us crowded into a co-worker's cubicle to lean over him as he labored at getting a technician to enter a communication trouble ticket with Verizon.
That took forever. I was convinced the tech on the other end of the line was chipping the details of the outage into a stone tablet with a mallet and chisel he had recently crafted himself.
Anyway, those of us putting the pressure on our co-worker about the much-needed journey downstairs for cola (836 Coke Reward Points and counting) started playing with a Nerf ball.
Of course, the conversation naturally went towards space travel.
At that point, someone (I don't remember who) wondered what would happen to Nerf in a vacuum.
At first, the theory was ventured that the ball would swell like a marshmallow in the microwave absent the air pressure holding it in its convenient forehead bouncing size.
Someone else posited that all the air would be sucked out of the micro holes in the ball, causing it to shrink down to the size of a grape. Not one of the big green seedless grapes, but a wine grape. Not Pinot. Never, ever Pinot.
But what if the moisture in the air froze first? One would need to take humidity into account. Since the Nerf ball would probably leave Earth from Florida or possibly Houston via the space elevator, there would naturally be some moisture present. Unless the ball were sealed in plastic at Nerf HQ and shipped overnight, under guard, to the launch pad and its date with destiny.
That still leaves too much wiggle room to allow a serious, untainted scientific result.
The only real test would be to form the Nerf in space.
Now, the formation of Nerf products is probably a closely held trade secret, but we could pretty easily dig up the method for the creation of generic springy foam. The delicate blend of chemicals is poured into a mold (or open area) and rises like hemp seed bread dough, then cools and hardens with different cell densities based on temperature. You know. Like you do.
But, moving back to the space elevator (which has an amazing array of legitimate uses for a fictional product, much like a laser sword) if we take liquid foam and force it up a tube and into space it would form in a unique, non-Earthy way. The outer areas of liquid foam would form a skin with almost no open cells due to the extreme cold, but the inside would be insulated by these layers, with bubbles forming in increasingly large sizes. If a person extruded this substance out over a steel or fiberglass framework he or she could form a space-worthy, impact resistant orbital craft which could very easily maintain cabin pressure and temperature, be propelled by jets of air and (most importantly) be bounced off the foreheads of other space-going people.
A person could crash one of these vehicles into people they actually like.
After that, we went downstairs for cola.
I like cola.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Trust me! I'm a Producer!

I've spent a lot of time talking about crappy movies.
Almost enough time, in fact.
As you may be aware, I love bad movies.
MTV's Monster Island is unapologetically awful.
A good (bad) low-budget zombie movie is almost a refreshing break from the high-dollar, low-plot splatter-fest.
And we, as a movie-going people, whine.
Houston is on the southern, big-city edge of fly-over country. People here complain about the quantity of sequels churned out by the completely tapped-out idea factories at the major studios.
We wonder about all the creative ideas that exist but can't gain traction with a studio. Our artistic sides fear some of these (possibly at least interesting) movies will never be made.
Our better judgment causes us to lose sleep that someone will release another Nightmare on Elm Street sequel or Gigli 2.
We wonder if there is anything we, so far from Toronto or Orlando, can do to help.
As always, the Deus Ex Machina is the internet.
Andy Doan, of the Spaceship Radio and Beyond Science netcasts, has come up with a way to help.
His latest project springs from the idea of matching small films with producers who don't want to fling gobs of cash at random into the "industry".
I'm not about to compromise my solid gold toilet lifestyle to fund a plot-free, big-budget, CGI romp.
With, producers are recruited for independent films in blocks of cash as low as $50.
These films get made and (if they ever make money) the producer (maybe even someone in fly-over country) gets royalties.
There is a shortage of thought-provoking speculative fiction in cinematic format out there. If I'm upset enough about it, I can fling $50 at an idea I like.
Actually, right now there is an even better offer. Since Andy is just starting this project, someone just short of a producer's folding chair and clip board can trade $30 for a T-Shirt and a $50 donation towards the project of their choice.
Also, the producer is eligible for pre-release DVDs and other goodness still being fleshed out -- like maybe an independent film DVD subscription service.
I'm impressed.
Everyone I know is $30 and a few mouse clicks away from being able to say stuff like, "I understand the romantic vision, I'm just saying the scene needs more decapitations" or "I don't care who you are, everyone likes pirates with laser swords" and "Stop filming! Someone stole my low-carb flaxmeal bagel!"
Maybe now is the time that some bright filmmaker can finally get to make "Airwolf: The Movie" in spite of the fact that the major studios are so afraid of it.

Monday, December 11, 2006

So . . . much . . . Star Wars . . . stuff.

Yesterday, I'm confident enough to admit, I cried.
I thought the end was in sight. I thought the last bins had been pulled out of the attic. I thought we were fewer than a hundred auction listings before the final "by the pound" entries and then we could reclaim the upstairs for people taller than 3 3/4 inches.
Then Shana reminded me (after I mentioned my missing Wampa ice-beast) that there were more bins in the other attic.
We have thirty auctions ending tonight.
There are another fifteen listings to replace them.
Currently, and for the past couple of weeks, there have been a constant 50+ active listings.
And this morning I left the house with two MicroMachines Action Fleet replicas (an X-Wing and Darth Vader's TIE Advanced x1) that I've placed on my desk as much to just avoid writing the listing as to enjoy the coolness.
Right now they are perched on my monitor stand, silently preparing to strafe each other. You know. Like they do.
I spent a little time explaining to a co-worker what made the TIE Advanced x1 Darth Vader's TIE fighter specifically. The shape of the wings, angled like a TIE Interceptor but blunted like a TIE Bomber, yet divided by a pilot capsule uniquely Sith, were the tip off. As well as the damage to the rear port side from a brush with the Millennium Falcon.
That discussion lowered my own coolness to the point where I will be forced to compensate by wearing my leather jacket all day and getting something pierced over my lunch break.
Even then, it may not be enough.
I moved the full (~51,000 words) text of Beaters, my NaNoWriMo novel into the beta version of Blogger. The beta version of Blogger automatically stripped out all my formatting and uglified what was already questionable content at best.
I submitted a bug report for the hell of it and registered everything under a Creative Commons NonCommercial, No Derivatives, Attribution, Share and Share Alike 2.5 license.
Once it is clean (and the dialog never will be) I'll post a link.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

"Welcome to the Maw Installation, professor. It's a relief to have a weapons engineer of your distinction on staff.

The chief engineer, Bevel Lemelisk, had hoped to be on hand to greet you, but he suffered an unfortunate near-fatal choking. He's lucky to be alive, really. I've heard the Emperor is even less forgiving than...

Be that as it may, with Lemelisk in long-term disability in a bacta tank, you are now the ranking engineer assigned to this installation. As such the responsibility for the completion of the Empire's ultimate weapon has fallen on you.

The project is officially known as the Expeditionary Battle Planetoid Development Initiative, but those in the Ministry of Propaganda have taken to calling it the "Death Star". Catchy, wouldn't you say? Whatever you want to call it, I will be arriving soon for a full design review, so you will need to redouble your efforts.

Security is tight here at the Maw, especially now that notorious Rebel spy Rianna Saren has been spotted in system. We'll need you to enter your Imperial personnel records into our databank, if you've not already done so."

Friday, December 08, 2006

Casual Jeans Friday! Casual Jeans Friday!
Only actually I'm at home today anyway. So, technically, I don't even have to wear jeans. I've looked it up. It is well within my rights as a home owner.
Something like fifty auctions of Star Wars toys have left the house in the past few days. The upstairs is still pretty littered with six movies worth of fully-articulated 3 3/4" joy.
I need to come up with more descriptions for stuff for new listings. As soon as it got pulled out of the attic the stuff started to loom in again like in the pre-attic days when they were all lined up all over the walls in the office area. Watching me. Judging me.
I know the toys are plotting against me. They always do.

After far too many hours searching for an update to another favorite Sci-Fi franchise, last night I stumbled across it.
In case you haven't heard, Firefly is coming back in 2008.
The catch? No new movie or TV season, Joss Whedon's 'verse will be coming back as a Massively Multiplayer Role-Playing Game .
Damn. I had stuff to do in 2008.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Faith Shaken

Yesterday morning a new directive came down from Management.
This happens a lot in just about any job.
Sometimes, these directives are alright. Geeks need direction. Usually, these come from upper management after the publication of an article in a magazine or on a website that suggests something bizarre and cutting edge. I think reading that type of article should be blocked at the firewall level for anyone in upper management. Sadly, that initiative has never come my way.
Anyway, a co-worker told me he had spoken with our manager and that there were new instructions for the rest of December.
I waited, scrolling through the possibilities in my mind. Would we need to rebuild everything add 500MB of storage on the system drives? Would all our corporate networked files need to be alphabetized? New, untested software to push out?
Then he said, "The new directive is to take it easy and coast for the rest of the year. Just handle issues as they come up and go home in the afternoon to spend time with family."
I was incensed! What the hell was that supposed to mean? Does he think we aren't working? Does he think all I.T. people just use December ("user-free time", as I've come to think of it, since everyone is on vacation) as a time to slack and nap and take extended breaks?
Probably. And since he is wise enough to know that we do, our theory is he wanted to make it an executive order to add officialness.
Again, my tendency to freak out reared its ugly head for no good reason. I'll punish myself next week with a nap. I'm putting myself in "Time Out".
I'm glad December exists. All the users go on vacation and, without their insolent suggestions and interference, the servers generally run without issue.
The lights stay off all day, since I.T. folk are a light-fearing lot. The floor falls silent, with only the hum of the servers adding a gentle backdrop to however we choose to spend our days.
Sing to me servers. Share your happy song. "Hummmmm-mmmmmmm-mmmmmmmmm". My absolute all-time favorite holiday tune.
Christmas, on the other hand, is canceled.
We dug out the new artificial seven-foot tree (our cat having climbed the old one for years until the limbs sagged) and I wrapped it in 700 white lights.
We place it on the upstairs landing every year, in the middle of the house in front of the large front window. Since you can't see the bottom foot or so from outside, every year it looks like we've placed a thirty foot monster tree in the living room. I've suspected for a while that we only put it up to make the neighbors feel inferior. The fact that this year we didn't bother with the details of ornaments you can't see from outside anyway added evidence to this theory.
But even that must end.
I read a study yesterday that said holiday lights can reduce the WiFi signal from my wireless router by as much as 25%. That is it. Santa can email me if he has an issue. We have PING times to consider. I've got media to download, Mr. Kringle. There are games to play. Those n00bs aren't going to frag themselves, you know. Unless, of course, it is one of the lava maps.
Last night I measured and the merrily glowing tree is less than four feet from our wireless router. I can't have that.
I suppose, in the spirit of the holidays, we could use wires to move data back and forth across the network.

I couldn't even type that with a straight face.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Hello world

I learned something yesterday so, as is my custom, I'll share with the group.
It takes fifteen Dell 2950 server boxes to construct an arch over the entry way to a standard US cubicle for which the occupant of average height (for being of European descent) will not need to stoop at all to pass through.
It takes several fewer to annoy the floor fire warden into asking that they be moved somewhere else.
I feel I need to welcome new visitors to the site. Can I offer you a beverage?
You see, I tie my total sense of self-worth to the number of page hits I get everyday.
Sad, I know, but one must establish standards.
Anyway, if you wandered over from the nominations page to find out why my name and URL keep coming up . . . Yeah, this is it.
There are enough posts in the archive section to keep a person from accomplishing real work for a few days if you pace yourself, and I know you can.
Also, I update just about every weekday.
I read over some of the archived stuff myself yesterday, trying to graph the descent into madness over the first few months of posts at my last job until I quickly realized over several drafts that the line would only fit "portrait style" -- the drop off is too severe for "landscape".
But I'm feeling much better now. And everyone tells me I'm remarkably well adjusted, considering. I can't find anyone willing to leave off the "considering".
So, what initially began as a report on what it is like on the inside of an insanely crappy I.T. job has changed in the past few months.
My "escape from reality" posts about role-playing games (pencil and paper, old-school) and comic books and "Speculative Fiction" have become just something to talk about. No escape necessary, I guess.
Either way, I hope it continues to amuse. I had a pretty nasty fear that without a staggeringly crappy job rife with inane user requests, impossible but intangible standards, punishment but no reward, and an unending supply of broken and " vomited in" computer stories, this blog would fade away like so many of my favorites have in the past. Like that one that sells discount "V1agra" and that blog all about how I was paying too much for my mortgage.
I miss those guys. If they did a podcast, I'd load it onto my MP3 player and scroll past it every morning.
If, by chance, you did not come by way of the nominations page, please consider joining in the movement yourself. I think it is neat to be one of the few names on the list without either a TV show or breasts.
Not that there is anything wrong with having either of those things.
I'm not a h8r.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Fort Geek

I've taken on a side project at work.
As I've written before, it is my responsibility to build out all forty-something servers for our Business Continuity plan.
They are being configured here to be boxed back up and shipped to our out-of-state hot site. There, they will be unboxed, placed gingerly in racks, and powered on as a fully functional replica of our server environment. Sounds pretty doesn't it?
Anyway, I've run into an interesting side effect of the whole "matter is neither created or destroyed" nonsense.
You see, as I move the servers one by one out of the space we are borrowing from the Help Desk, I diminish the massive pile of server boxes.
Each server is a substantial reduction in the size of the pile. These are large servers packed in larger foam-filled boxes. Each box is about half the height and size of the front end of a 1987 Toyota Supra.
Side note - - A guy I went to high school with had a 1987 Toyota Supra. I hated that guy.
I can't ditch the boxes, because we need them to ship the servers to their new home in our super-secret bunker-style Disaster Recovery Hot Site.
I also can't return the boxes to the borrowed space on our floor. First, it seems rude. I free up space only to fill it back up again? Not nice. More importantly, there is no way to put the empty boxes in the back so I'd have to move them all to get at the unopened, server-filled boxes.
My solution was to set the empty boxes outside my cubicle. Right outside.
At the moment there are several, stacked like Lego almost to the tile ceiling, closing off about a foot of the entrance to my cubicle.
There are a few side-effects to this practice.
A person can't wander through the hall and see me, for one. I've created my own closet-like cardboard tomb that people naturally avert their gaze from. This is probably why the floor Fire Wardens haven't carted me off to be flogged. It just isn't something a reasonable person wants to think about. Also, it is a neat stack, so it looks intentional. If it looked haphazard I'm sure I'd have been called on it.
Further, it shields me from the paper balls and rubber bands of outrageous fortune.
Six more boxes and I can completely seal off my cubicle, allowing me to launch offensives against my co-workers with impunity. I can get in and out by climbing the handy Dell-provided hand holds cut into the crates, or, in the event of a fire, I can crash through them, Hulk-like, to build momentum for my mad dash to the stair well.
I mean "Calm and orderly evacuation".
My co-workers hate Fort Geek. It obstructs the hallway and the smaller mortar boxes tend to fall out at inopportune times. But I'm an I.T. person, not an architect.

Monday, December 04, 2006

I haven't gamed in forever.
Between NaNoWriMo last month and this month's Ebay frenzy of action figure mayhem, I just haven't had a chance.
That means my EverQuest character has been standing around the Blightfire Moors for about a month, I imagine tapping her clawed foot impatiently and wanting to get back to smashing killer wasps.
I also haven't fired up the PlayStation 2 I drank gallons and gallons of Diet Coke to earn.
Last night Gwynyth asked when we would get to play that fighting game again. I know she just wants another chance to beat me down mercilessly and talk trash.
This is her right, and I regret not letting her exercise that. And her developing geeky thumbs.
She asked last night if she could have one of the action figures not yet on the sale block.
She had her eye on an autographed Mara Jade action figure.
And she asked who Mara Jade is.
I explained that after the Return of the Jedi was released, books and comic books picked up the slack to fill the void in Star Wars stories.
Mara Jade was an assassin who worked for the Emperor before he died. Her final mission was to kill Luke Skywalker.
Of course, she doesn't succeed in this goal. Instead, she embraced the Light side, redeemed herself, and married Luke. I'd have posted a spoiler warning, but the books are decades old now.
Anyway, as she was never in a movie, the logical next question from Gwynyth was, "Who signed the action figure?"
Okay. There was a collectible card game for Star Wars a while after the books where all this happened. And in the collectible card game, stills from the movies were used as art.
Except for Mara Jade's card. Since she wasn't in the movie, they hired a model to stand in as her in front of a generic sci-fi kind of background.
That model signed the card.
Don't feel bad. I think she drifted off in the middle somewhere, too.
Then she changed direction. She wanted a signed Princess Leia action figure.
I explained that Carrie Fisher, who played Princess Leia, doesn't sign action figures. She doesn't sign much of anything, but she is especially bitter about not doing much acting after Star Wars and hates to be reminded. A quick search of Ebay proved my point. No signed Princess Leia figures are listed. Gwynyth understood.
After she went to bed, I pulled more crates of figures out of the attic to assemble more lots for sale. I dug out a few spaceships and uncovered a box full of 12" figures.
I pulled out a few and, upon seeing one, flashed back to the time I acquired it.
I had sat up until midnight, refreshing a web browser and trying desperately to get it into the shopping cart. Extremely limited quantities. Those words are like catnip for nerds.
12:05am, it was in the cart and by 12:07 I was done.
A short time later, the figure arrived and was placed almost directly into storage, forgotten until last night.
There, on the front of a boxed Princess Leia in Hoth gear, scrawled in florescent green paint pen, was the signature "Carrie Fisher".
A lucky alignment of stars had timed a vendor uncovering a box of these 12" figures (and figures of female characters are historically hard to find in the best circumstances) at the same time (I guess) that Carrie Fisher's drug habit had gotten expensive and I had camped out and scored one.
Of course, Gwynyth can't open it. Ever. She can't undo the intricate braids or fire the little projectile launching gun. But she will have her signed Princess Leia in Ugg boots.
Yes. Gwynyth is geeking up nicely. All according to my master plan.

Friday, December 01, 2006

This morning I added "WTF" as a valid spelling in my Microsoft Outlook dictionary. The process was seamless and intuitive. I know that the change will speed future pre-email spell checks.
That is the kind of productive I am. Scary productive.
I needed to add "WTF" to my spell check dictionary because there were some fairly nasty operating system related issues last night on the servers I manage.
Today will be all about sleuthing the errors down and preventing their return. In that way, I'm feeling a lot like Batman.
These "Stop Errors" think they can come into my Gotham and upset the citizens? Actually, they can, I think. In this metaphor, the citizens would be like system users, right? In that case, I look on the users as Bruce Wayne looks on the regular people in Gotham. That is, distantly and from a position of distinct and detached superiority.
But anyway, maybe these errors get on my nerves. Pestering my subconscious mind the way hordes of bats plague Mr. Wayne's.
So I'll follow them around, pretending to innocently read the event log the way Batman follows a criminal (maybe The Riddler) from rooftop to rooftop, until he sees what he needs to justify a smackdown.
Once I find a clue, I'll track it through Google and online forums. I'll report it among my network of like-minded problem solvers. Batman would chase a shipping label to Morocco and send an urgent message to the Justice League.
Much like me, Batman would tell the other heroes about the problem just to be informative. Since neither of us would ever ask for help. Instead, the message closes with a warning, "I'm going to handle this. Stay out of my way."
"Batman," They'd cry, "You can't do this all by yourself! We are here to help you!"
That's nice, but Mr. Wayne has a job to do, and it is the kind of work that those Boy Scouts in the Justice League don't have the stomach for.
While Batman swings on a Bat cable and then repeatedly punches the bad guy before flinging the unconscious form over the razor wire fence of Arkham Asylum, I'm patching the servers, registering the Dynamic Link Libraries and verifying file permissions before sending an email to Management: "All is well, but I'll keep the server here for a while, under observation."
Later on, Bruce Wayne will brood in his Bat Cave. Maybe he has added an artifact from the crime to his personal museum underground. I'll return to my cube, adding an empty Starbucks cup (holiday patterned) to my own.
We know, Batman and I, that in order to defeat the Darkness, a person must become one with it. Sometimes the job isn't pretty. That is why we have to be.