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December 31, 2003

Perl Logging Options

For the first time in my Perl career I'm digging into Perl logging packages. It's not that I haven't written a significant amount of Perl, just always had Apache to lean on for logging or was able to get by with something simple like a print to filehandle.

This time the Perl module I've written is being used both in Apache requests as well as in a command-line tool. The module interacts with the Tufts LDAP service. Not only would logging the bind attempts and results be good, the University Systems Group requires a log be kept. I cringe at not using Apache logging, especially in our mod_perl production environment.

You know what . . . no more exploring. Writing this post made me think clearly. The command-line tool will rarely be used and will always be by members of my team, not so important to log these command-line transactions that we need to introduce a new logging mechanizm into production.

Well, that feels good. Faced with a decision and found a path that made the decision unnecessary.

For the next time I'm faced with finding a Perl logging tool it appears that Log::Log4perl is a fairly comprehensive package. Got a nice write up at perl.com.

Posted by mike at 2:37 PM

December 30, 2003

Comments on Aggregators

Something I posted on an internal forum about RSS:
Have been using NetNewsWire Lite for several months now. Have mixed opinions about RSS Aggregators in general.

In theory the aggregation of information saves time because you don't have to go probing around the web to see what's been updated. In practice, I find myself spending significantly more time reading news because NetNewsWire tells me I've got umpteen new articles every hour (and I just know they are important). I guess a part of this is discipline as well as fine-tuning of the RSS feeds.

A news aggregator also abstracts away other elements of a user's weblog or site. You get a different experience when actually visiting my weblog that you would via an aggregator, for this reason I flop between using the aggregator and actually clicking down the list of weblogs on my "Weblogs to Watch" list.

Last, I'd like to see the ability to post comments to a weblog entry via the aggregator. Supposedly the full version of NetNewsWire can handle posting to my own weblog but I haven't purchased the full version to see how extensive it's posting abilities are.

Posted by mike at 2:37 PM

I think I'm Missing the West

Between the combination of not being with family for the holidays (videoconference was excellent, but not as good as being there) and finishing up Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose (which mostly takes place in Idaho) I guess I'm looking forward to the next trip out west into the wide open spaces.

Thanks to SignMaker for the graphic.

Posted by mike at 11:50 AM

December 27, 2003

Cost per CD at Music Clubs (Columbia House and BMG)

I've been a part of Columbia House Music Club on more than one occasion, but it's been awhile. Every so often I consider joining to pump a bunch of music into my collection. The last couple of times I've looked into it the selection has been pretty poor so have passed.

Today, curiosity got the better of me and I decided to work out the cost figures. The standard package is 12 free CDs, with a commitment to buy 5 more over 2 years. All CDs (free and purchased) cost $2.79 to for shipping and handling, and purchased CDs run $15+. On the standard package a person gets 17 CDs and pays a total of $123.48, or $7.26/CD.

There are ways to get more mileage from the club. On some months the purchased CD gets you two free (still pay the $2.79 for S/H). If you buy all 5 of the full-price CDs on months with the "get 2 free" deal you end up getting 27 CDs and spend a total of $151.38, or $5.60/CD.

There is yet one other way to enhance the cost per cd ratio. If you've been a club member in the past and still have an active account you can "sign up a friend" and get an additional 5 free CDs. The trick is to sign yourself up so you get both the 5 free CDs as the club member as well as the new membership. I'm not sure what the rules are, but I've signed myself up at the same address (using a slight variation on the name) without any problems. If you can pull this off you end up getting 32 CDs and spending a total of $165.33, $5.16 per CD.

I should also note an alternative, BMG Music Service. BMG offers 12 for the price of 1. Am not sure what the shipping charges are, but if comprable to Columbia the total investment for the 12 CDs would be around $52, or $4.33 per CD.

I've poked around on half.com and it's hard, with shipping, to get current CDs (even old) at club prices. Of course you have to understand that from music clubs you can never get the newest releases and the selection is typically only what's popular, which means a good chunk of what I'm looking for can't be bought through the club. Today's searching on both clubs came up mostly empty, will look elsewhere for now.

Posted by mike at 12:15 AM

December 22, 2003

40% Overhead to Work on Multiple Projects

According to this Software Development article, if you are trying to work on three projects, 40% of your time is wasted on non-task activities. The article suggests that it takes a more time than we think to switch contexts. That overhead is more than I would have ever guessed. This is a good article to have on hand for those times when I've got 20 things on my plate.

Posted by mike at 6:12 PM

Exploring Project Management Knolwedge

I've been in the work force since mid 90s, had a couple of jobs that were pretty well defined but somehow all of them have seemed to morph, expand, grow into something bigger, different . . . better? I would guess it's because I'm not content to just do what's outlined on the job description. This has gotten me into trouble, but most of the time the results have been praised.

I guess I'm driven to explore the unknown, both physical and mental. I crave a road trip to a new place as much as a new technology.

My job at Tufts is no exception, was hired as a programmer but more and more I'm doing less and less programming and more decision-making, management of processes and external resources etc.

The most recent request was to explore what it might mean to "open source" our code. We've shared it with a few organizations and have had some other requests for the code. For me this raises a lot of questions . . . which is not the point here. The point here is that we've got three programmers writing code and an exteremly low amount of effort going into overall technical management.

So I'm exploring sources for project management information . . . trying to answer questions like:
1) How much value (for others or for us) is there in making our code open source?
2) How much time overhead is necessary to manage documentation, update scripts, database schema versions etc?
3) How will we package up the code?
4) What kinds of changes are necessary in or develoment environment to make our project usable in another environment?

So I'm starting a "project management" category and will most likely be posting interesting findings under that category.

Posted by mike at 6:05 PM

What colors are available in xTerm?

Last week I poked around at customizing xTerm. I had some customizations set up in the past but been living with generic since reinstalling X11 after Panther. I did a cursory search on Google to see if there was a place to find the list of available colors in my X environment and could seem to track down a reasonable answer. Asked at the office and after a few days got back this pointer:


A file which contains rgb color definitions, 3 values and a name on each line. Should help in getting the exact terminal settings I'm looking for.

Posted by mike at 9:54 AM

December 19, 2003

Make Doc Icon Transparent for Hidden Apps

Found this in Jan 2004 Macworld. I don't spend a ton of time customizing OS settings but think this might come in handy. Configured the dock to grey out running applications that have been hidden (Apple-H).

defaults write com.apple.Dock showhidden -bool yes

On the other hand might just be another meaningless trick in the thousands of OS X hacks.

Posted by mike at 3:58 PM

December 18, 2003

A Few MT Tweaks

Have been wanting to add a few things to the weblog index page, mainly for my own use.

1) List of technologies I like to keep my eye on . . . in an include file so I can change without regenerating index. This is helpful to remind me to be up to date on what's going on with things I regularly use.
2) Reorganization of right bar sections, move least interesting links to bottom (archives), most used items (weblog lists) to the top.
3) "Listening to Now" section with album or two currently getting attention (also in an include file for quick update).

It's good to have a little fun every now and again . . .

Posted by mike at 11:53 PM

December 16, 2003

Background Image Makes iTerm Slooooow

Have been scratching my head over this one for awhile. Ever since I upgraded to Panther and got new versions of the core applications have noticed that iTerm shell is really slow, serious delay in keystrokes. It didn't seem to happen in xterm or emacs on connections to the same server so I suspected something with iTerm.

I customized a few of my iTerm bookmarks and got rid of the background image, which significantly improved the keystroke response. Stick the image back on and we're slow again.

iTerm 0.7.8 (B) has a background image on by default. Unless you are trying to simulate the modem-users experience I recommend turning off the background image.

Posted by mike at 4:50 PM

Trying a Different Alternative Work Schedule

For the past 2.5 years I've been working an alternative schedule. It was part of the agreement with HR when I came to Tufts that I would work three long days in the office and be at home Wed and Fri, working a few hours, available for conference calls etc. It was important to establish a formal arrangement (as opposed to general flexibility).

Two reasons:
1) I like to be with our two kids and want to be responsible for a chunk of their week (1 and 3 yrs)
2) Heidi wants to keep her career going (even if only part-time)

It worked pretty well. Everyone at the office got used to Wednesday and Friday being days to get things done as there were rarely meetings etc. I liked having days at home.

There were some drawbacks though:
1) It's hard to keep momentum going on a project if you don't have a good series of days to work on it. By Monday morning it was hard to get back into what I was working on Thursday (sometimes remember).
2) The days at home became more stressful than the days at work. Particularly when there was a pressing issue and I was trying to code/sysadmin while kids needed me.
3) Heidi got a promotion, becoming a decision-maker which put pressure to be in each day.
4) Being with the kids one day, and then not seeing them for two didn't really do a ton for our relationship.

We've decided to try a new approach. It took a bit of exploring to figure out what might be a better arrangement. In essense I'm now working the "late shift". Heidi gets up early and heads off to work. I get to hang with the kids, have breakfast, get some light administrative work done from the breakfast table. At 10:30 we go down to the train and I swap with Heidi, who's been in the office for 3+ hours. I'm in the office by ~11am and work until ~6pm (Tufts has a 35-hour work week).

The nice thing about this arrangement is that getting to work 11 isn't unusual for some of the team members, so I should be in the office before things really get going.

This is the first week of the arrangement, so am just starting to see if the theories work in practice.

Posted by mike at 4:22 PM

December 15, 2003

2 Hour Gentoo Install

Somewhere out there I'm sure there is a record for fastest Gentoo install, and I bet I don't hold it. I was moved to care about how long it takes to install Gentoo a week ago when I attended a meeting of Tufts IT folks. The subject of the meeting was along the lines of "who's using Linux, for what, how can we collaborate." A chunk of the meeting was spent talking about the Linux supercomputing cluster (32 nodes) which is based on Gentoo.

There was some good discussion, heavily geared to sway users to consider Gentoo. Two big concerns were 1) degree of difficulty to install and 2) time to build.

There currently isn't any way around the difficulty of the Gentoo install. If the user is only technical enough to boot from a CD and click through the install (ie RedHat) then Gentoo is probably out of the question. I happen to find the documentation clear and complete, but it does mandate some fdisking and a nano of hosts/fstab etc which is beyond reach for some people.

There are some options when it comes to the length of install time. Gentoo offers 3 different stages, each requiring less compiling than the last. The ultimate in quickness can be found in the GRP (Gentoo Reference Platform) cd, which is a 2-CD set of pre-built binaries (some would say you violate the essense of Gentoo by installing pre-built binaries).

I wanted to give the GRP a shot and see just how fast I could be up and running. Not counting the download and burn time for the GRP CDs, it took just under 2 hours, most of which was waiting for things to build, copy etc. The longest part was compiling the kernel which took ~30 minutes.

It was an interesting experiment, and will be the last time I install from GRP . . . if I have any say. As soon as I had the system up and running I began finding packages that needed updating, many of the pre-built binaries were older and I spent a good chunk of time rebuilding libraries and applications.

I should note, the machine is a P4 1GHz with 256M ram, a few years old.

Posted by mike at 11:13 PM

Someday I'll have a Squeezebox

A friend at the office pointed out the squeezebox, offered by Slim Devices, creator of the SLIMP3.

Squeezebox is a network music player.

I can't justify one of these right now. It would be fun to fiddle with, but I don't listen to music enough at home to make it worth it. Maybe someday the price will come down or my needs will change.

Posted by mike at 11:55 AM

December 9, 2003

MySQL Conference . . . I Want to Go

Oh how I'm wishing I could get to the MySQL Conference in April. They haven't started to post the sessions yet, but looking at last years leads me to believe this years will be really good.

Will have to keep my eye on the sessions, as they are announced I may find my resolve to attend strengthened.

I feel like I've asked for so much recently at work. Still got a few months, maybe will get an opening. It wouldn't be terribly expensive to go. Would also need to make sure that going in April wouldn't bump OSCON 2004 off the list.

$650 Registration (early)
$200 Flight
$400 Hotel (3 nights)
$1250 Total

Posted by mike at 9:51 AM

December 8, 2003

Using Thunderbird for Work Mail

I recently decided to switch over to Thunderbird for my work mail client. For a long time I was using Netscape, and then switched to Mozilla when the spellchecker was added.

Why switch from Mozzilla mail? Because Thunderbird is the same thing, whithout the browser etc. But why switch if they are the same thing? Because now that Apple got application switching (apple-tab) right in Panther, I don't have to be annoyed that I can't tab between browsing and mail.

Now if I could get an X-based tabbed terminal. iTerm is good, and X11 is good. I end up running iTerm to avoid all the xterm windows, but have to run X11 for emacs.

Posted by mike at 9:57 PM

How Mt. Dew Keeps You Addicted

Last week I ordered pizza, which came with two free sodas. My choices were Pepsi or Mt. Dew, easy decision to make . . .

Both of them were "winners" in they had a buy-one-get-one-free lid. It's not really that much of a win, but I can't pass up redeeming them.

For each of the two winning caps, and one of the redeemed caps I scored another winning cap, meaning I'm on a run of 5 winning caps. Assuming I don't get any more winning caps that makes a minimum of 12 20-oz bottles of Mt. Dew.

2 bought - 2 winning caps
1 bought, 1 free - 1 winning cap
1 bought, 1 free - 1 winning cap
1 bought, 1 free - 1 winning cap
1 bought, 1 free - ???
1 bought, 1 free - ???

When will it end?

Posted by mike at 9:09 PM

December 3, 2003

Afternoon Working with Pete (via iSight)

My iSight arrived yesterday so Pete and I broke it in by spending an afternoon "working" together. I think most times when people video conference it is for a limited time and focused on a specific purpose. Our idea was to set up videoconference with no purpose or duration, just to have on throughout the day while we worked. More like we wanted to see what it would be like to share an office.

At first it was like other videoconferences I've done because I had some pressing networking questions that I wanted some help with. Very direct and active interaction. Was interesting to be talking to Pete and have people stop by his office to add comments or say hi. After the networking dicussion we went back to our respective work and periodically would make comments about things. I've spent very little time at Pete's office, but have heard a lot through stories. Was pretty cool to see it in action. The only question mark was what people within earshot thought of the random laughs or comments coming from my office knowing I was alone at my desk.

I have fiddled with video conferencing before using a small Phillips Vesta camera and a variety of different conferencing programs on Windows, none of them comes close to the quality of iChatAV. For most of the afternoon I kept the screen small to keep the resources free for my work. Excellent audio quality and clear video. Full screen was a little choppy and distorted but looked pretty decent from a few feet back. Full screen is too much when sitting right at the machine.

Looking forward to more conferencing, got a plan to do a virtual family holiday party which should be good.

Posted by mike at 10:43 PM

Understanding 1928 Steam Heating

The cold weather and a lot of prodding got me interested in solving a heating disparity in our home. We have steam heated radiators throughout the home, but for the past three winters (since we've lived here) 50% of the radiators get 100% of the steam and thus only 50% of our house is warm.

I've had several theories about the heating problem but wasn't until today's extreme cold that I attempted to test any of the theories.

Each radiator has a small valve/dial on the side opposite the steam entrance, numbered from 1 to 10. My theory was that as steam rose from the furnace each radiator valve would regulate how much/fast the steam came through by allowing air currently in the radiator to escape making room for the steam. Radiators with closed valves would make very little room for steam and not get warm while radiators with open valves would get hot quickly.

The theory seems to be true. Each radiator that was getting no heat either had a closed valve or the valve was clogged. I pulled each valve off and blew air through until it flowed easily through. Within just a few minutes of the valve opening or cleaning the "poor" radiators became hot.

Will continue to monitor over the next week to make sure we've got valves set correctly to heat the house evenly. Going into our third winter here it feels really good to have this solved.

Posted by mike at 9:43 PM