Archive for October, 2007

Not Dead

Just crazy busy getting stuff together for the Dorkbot haunted mansion and Introvert Intercommunicate…will post some updates soon.

In the meanwhile, digging up my potatoes in the backyard I came across this rusty old buried canister, marked only with a weird symbol and a string of numbers. So I cranked it open with a pipe wrench, and here is what was inside. It tried to grab my finger but I managed to contain it in a pop bottle.

Warning to Verizon cuss-tomers

In about 30 days, Verizon will begin selling your calling records to marketing companies, unless you call their opt-out number. (Yeah, this does sound like some kind of bad chain letter, except not.) This information (CPNI, or customer proprietary network information) includes the numbers you call, how long, how often, and how much it cost you.

In a letter supposedly being sent to Verizon customers (I didn’t receive one… at least, not yet – I had to read it on Slashdot), customers are told to dial 1-800-333-9956 and follow the prompts to opt-out. (I just did it; an automated voice welcomes you to the Verizon CPNI opt-out center, asks for your number, billing zip code and the last 4 digits of your SSN, then yet another confirmation to opt-out (apparently picking up the phone and dialing the OPT-OUT NUMBER still leaves your desire rather ambiguous).) Luckily* you don’t actually have to jaw with a live human.

The Skydeck blog digs deeper into the privacy notice, noting at the bottom of Page 8 dealing with sharing CPNI with ‘affiliates’ to deliver targeted advertising right on the phone as you use it. The mailing seems to suggest that the only way to “opt out” of this is to not use the phone. Verizon’s defense? That they’re not actually violating the law. “[Verizon] Spokesman Jeffrey Nelson insisted the new policy adheres to the FCC’s rules, but declined to address specifics.”

Call records (you know, those things people get in a tizzy about Uncle Sam having a look at) are not something one should have to take specific action to “opt out” of every Tom, Dick and Harry willing to pay a nickel having access to. If I wasn’t stuck in a 2-year contract, I’d consider opting-out of Verizon too.

* for me and for the human.

Computers Internet Blog (welcome to my access.log)

Welcome! You can probably guess what three things this entry is about. When you already know about computers, the Internet and blogs, this is of course the first thing you’d feel a desperate need to Google for, of course! Err…wait, Magic 2^16 Ball is telling me you just found this phrase in your serverlogs and got curious just WTF it is. And why all these people are searching for it (in fact, so many that a nonzero number of them are clicking through to your blog, which goes under a completely different name and may be only tangentally related to any of these topics, if at all), and yet this hotly sought-after site has somehow managed to fly under the radar of every major search engine.

Rude bot business cards
Computers internet blog
in my server logs

Many Web stats programs (including Analog, which I use) have this feature where they parse the referrer field for hits from major search engines, and list the top search queries people used to find your site. I’ve been seeing the phrase pop up in my blog’s stats semi-regularly lately, sometimes upwards of 25 hits a day. So tonight I got curious, pulled the logs and had a closer look. - - [10/Oct/2007:05:34:16 -0700] "GET /?p=365 HTTP/1.1" 200 26307 "" "Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 6.0; Windows NT 5.2)" - - [10/Oct/2007:05:34:17 -0700] "POST /wp-comments-post.php HTTP/1.1" 200 84 "" "Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 6.0; Windows NT 5.2)"
    [...] - - [10/Oct/2007:13:54:26 -0700] "GET /?page_id=342 HTTP/1.1" 200 36704 "" "Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 6.0; Windows NT 5.2)" - - [10/Oct/2007:13:54:27 -0700] "POST /wp-comments-post.php HTTP/1.1" 200 84 "" "Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 6.0; Windows NT 5.2)"

Notice a pattern? These blog-seekers must not be happy that this isn’t the page they were looking for, because they sure seem eager to post a comment. In fact, they dive immediately for wp-comments-post.php within a second of page load, a superhuman feat if you ask me. (As I write this, WordPress cheerfully reports that it took 0.855 wall seconds on my shared server to generate one of those pages.)

Okay, so it’s some stupid comment-spam script leaving its calling card. What to do, what to do? Well, mod_rewrite is installed by default on many servers, and can be used to give different users different pages, depending on such things as their HTTP_REFERER. I recommend the output of /dev/urandom, or better yet, a redirect to a hefty Microsoft Service Pack download (assuming the bots support redirect).

(Obviously, I can’t implement it here now, because I’ve just posted about the ever-mysterious “internet blog” and drawn legitimate search traffic.)

mod_rewrite examples: Just add this to your .htaccess file (create if necessary)

# Plonk this stupid bot with a 403 Forbidden:

RewriteEngine on
RewriteCond %{HTTP_REFERER} search\?q=computers\+internet\+blog$
RewriteRule (.*) - [F]

Or, if you prefer dickhead A to go and waste the bandwidth of dickhead B…

RewriteEngine on
RewriteCond %{HTTP_REFERER} search\?q\=computers\+internet\+blog$
RewriteRule (.*)$ [R,L]

In both cases, the RewriteCond line checks for the fairly malformed Google URL used by the spammer script (a real Google search query will have other junk before the “q=…”, so we let them slide), and the RewriteRule sends it packing.

Have fun! is for sale…

Want to own one of the hottest Web properties? Be prepared to pry your wallet wiiiide open and dig deep however – the bidding starts at 10,000 EUR (about 14 kilobucks).

Long-overdue vacation pictures!

OK, finally cleared some space on the ol’ computermachine, dumped the pics and deleted the really crappy ones. This trip started in Vegas, then onto Zion Nat’l Park, Bryce Canyon, Glen Canyon/Lake Powell area, a quick excursion to the Grand Canyon, then back to Vegas, with some random desert stops along the way. I’m not much for hookers or the blip & bloodle of one-armed bandits, but aside from that the trip was pretty nifty :P

[Big Photo Album]

(And if you can’t be bothered to dig through the whole thing, at least check out the Bryce Canyon hoodos (beginning on p4) and Antelope Canyon (starting on p9).)

Just another day, you and me in paradise

So, today I did this massive circuit board layout for our big Shaft Seal test fixture controller. All right, I mean, I really meant to. Honest.

Oh, and got on about half the company’s shit lists within a few days. It’s not everyday you can piss off two entire departments by accident.

Anyway, last Friday one of our Mechies CC’ed the EEs on an email about product development, and why a certain (halfway-developed-sitting-on-the-shelf*) electronic product of ours isn’t on our web site as a product, with some well-intentioned suggestions on how to get it there (such as license it to our huge competitor, who already has a product line of these things). I replied to it with an explanation of what would be involved in getting it there and unwittingly set off this whole firestorm. As previously mentioned, “List it on your own website and wait for Google to find it” does not a marketing strategy make. Sure, this strategy (along with qDot pimping it heavily at conferences, and links in The Register and a print magazine) made sales of the Drmn’ Trance Vibe soar to over 6 a month at one point, but in a Real Company, 6 sales a month does not brisk business make. (My company’s energy harvesting product, using the same “marketing strategy” (minus qDot), has comparable sales volumes.) Anyway, this did not go over well – our Marketing Department (webmaster), miffed that his mighty HTML efforts had gone underappreciated, shot back with some product placement suggestions of his own.

Now today, Production (2 guys) announces that the high voltage amplifier they’ve been borrowing in ELAB for the last year or so has been relocated to Production for the time being. Knowing why this is the case (they broke theirs a year ago and have been using ours rather than pay the upkeep on their own equipment), I wrote back a reply privately asking why they haven’t replaced their own yet, noting it isn’t really fair to push their operating costs off onto other departments. Crap, ‘nother firestorm.

Not two hours later, one of the production guys catches me at lunch with Yet Another Router Emergency. I had to ask him if he was serious at least twice, thinking ProdGuy2 copied him in on the shitstorm and he was dicking me around as payback, but I come downstairs to humor him and sure enough, the router is juddering around like a freshly-swatted hornet in response to any attempt to command it to home position. The problem only manifests right when it gets to the optical home switch (after which it fine-tunes its position using an index wheel), so it looks like an open-and-shut case of hosing some dust off the index wheel and going back upstairs to get some real work done.


Okay, how about changing out the indexer for a spare. Get into the storage room, and find that someone threw away one of the spare CNC routers, along with its accompanying sound-proofing dust hood. Not eBayed, not Craigslisted, not taken it home… put it out next to the dumpster without asking anyone, because it was taking space. What. The. Fuck. (Granted, this machine was non-functional due to previous part pilferings, but these machines go for about $50K new, and with some creativity, suitable replacement parts would have run less than a grand.) (Had I known, that shit would be safely in my basement, carving me some furniture right now.) Anyway, there was one indexer left and by the time 5:00 rolls around I’ve found the actual source of the problem, after changing out the indexer just made things worse (machine just sits there with the jitters). It was a worn-out control box connector; plugging it out and in to add wires for a ‘scope caused the machine to unfail, in true heisenbug fashion. Yeah, now I feel like an idiot, but a vaguely angry one at that.

* Hardware-wise, the device is developed, in the sense that there are working prototypes; we’re even using them in the lab and they blow the pants off of Futek’s boards and any of Omega’s anonymous little black shitboxes. The initial design was completed literally in two days during an oh-shit-emergency-we-need-this-yesterday installfest at a customer’s site. However, the other 90% needed to actually make a product of it — characterizing it over an entire range of temperatures, input voltages and other conditions, qualifying it, coming up with guaranteed specs, making a datasheet and user’s manual, idiotproofing, design-for-manufacture and setting up a production run, to say nothing of all the ass-kissing / gladhanding / marketing dollars needed to get it exposed — weren’t in the cards.

The answer to the question

The flag for my house is done and installed! Actually, Kr* did most of the work. I had to relearn how to use a sewing machine and did a few of the easy parts. The house number is 42, so the Hitchhiker’s Guide theme was a no-brainer. :-)

Also, the clear-bubbly knob on the end will eventually be lit internally by blinkenlichten (the flagpole is hollow to accommodate power and data wires), foretelling tomorrow’s weather by slowly changing colors.

Let'(s) talk Sex Offenders!

A Xerox of a crudely hand-written note appeared in front of my door* the other night, along with the doors of every other house on my block. It reads:

##-A ##### ST.

(Spelling is as on the original.) Currently, all states are required to maintain a registry of sex offenders, which is in many cases publicly available (sometimes with some effort). So I can’t really fault anyone for wanting to notify the neighborhood that there’s a registered offender in the area (e.g. talk to your kids about it), but the way this was publicized is just plain brain-dead on a number of levels, starting with flagging the exact door to form the lynch mob at. Now, without sounding like more of a socioeconomist/racist/statistician than necessary**, this is a zip code where you don’t want people going around inciting lynch mobs, because they might be easy to incite. Medford’s registry only discloses the name and address of a "level 3" offender, i.e. deemed a high risk of offending again. At the time of this writing, it lists 45 "level two" offenders and one "level three" (not nearby).

I haven’t filed the paperwork to find out if there is actually a sex offender at ##-A (or this is someone propagating a rumor they heard somewhere, or pissed about a parking space, etc.), and of what severity. Although some Googling around reveals hundreds of web sites ready and waiting to scrape your state’s Registry and redisplay the output to you (along with a heaping helping of adverts), nothing I could find actually makes the effort to say what a sex offender actually is. Obviously, rape and molestation fit the bill, but I’d like to know the other ways a person might end up on this list. From what I can gather, these ways could include pissing in an alley after a long night at the pub (public exposure / exhibition), two consenting teenagers having sex before their 18th birthdays (even Clinton sex)***, or quite possibly telling one’s secretary she has a hot ass one time too many. Without this information, I (nor anyone else on the block) have no idea how seriously to take this. (Personally, I’m going to say "not very" until I see some proof of actual nastiness, the spectre of gross Coors Lite pee puddles notwithstanding.)

On a side note, I’m not entirely sure why these public registry laws apply specifically to sex criminals, and not, say, murderers, or violent (non-sexual) repeat abusers**** who have sent innocent people to the hospital. Hell, if there were a serial armed robber living next door, I’m sure there are people who might like to know that too…

* when I first saw it, it was folded up and only the SEX OFFENDER part was showing… for a brief moment my heart jumped into my throat, thinking maybe I’d not closed my bedroom window/blinds completely enough to some neighbor’s satisfaction during a night of sexy fun, and they were fixing to have some words over it.

** statisticians are the best type of racist.

*** or for that matter, flashing each other on a Webcam, literally hundreds of miles from actual physical contact. Also known as possession and distribution of child pornography. (As you all know, humans come with a Raging Hormones switch that gets switched on as part of an 18th birthday party ceremony.)

**** although, where you have a domestic abuser next door and the houses are close together, you probably know.

Big e-manufacturing knowledge dump coming “someday”

I haven’t really talked about the Trancevibe project in a while. With the whole moving and vacation thing it kind of got shuffled onto the back burner a couple months ago (have I really lived here that long?) and never revived. There’s also this huge uncanny valley between making and selling a couple of something on the down-low to a small-knit community, and making and selling hundreds to thousands of something, as I’m finding out (er…what is this ‘business license‘ of which you speak? Oh yeah, and the FCC and CE are both full of crap). That kind of burns because this project is the first and only time (including going on four years as a professional EE at an actual company) I’ve seen one of my projects with a clear migration path to volume production. I must say, designing widget after widget in order to build two prototypes, write a report on it, then throw them mostly-working into a box never to be seen again seems like a lot of unfulfillingly wasted effort, which gets old. I have a solidly DFM design chain mapped out in my head, a method for small-scale automated machining (for the enclosures), full modularity, automated assembly, application support in mind (beginning with OhMiWinamp, heh…the plugin SDK is still sitting gathering dust on my hard drive), and even eyecandy that’s sure to be a hit (and could be added for under $1.50 per unit).

I’m making (small, incremental…need non-people-time) progress toward picking it back up, but still not sure when that will actually finish. I’ve still got stuff to do on the whole house thing before I can even start unpacking my EE stuff, let alone set up a work bench (let further alone a production facility), and some other projects stacking up besides. Lastly, a new gf, who when I let slip about the existence of this project (which loosely translates to non-EEs as “I sell homemade sex toys on the internet!”), seemed pretty visibly squicked. She’s seeming more tolerant of the concept now, but still…

Done with people

This feeling has been steadily building, but really reached boilover this weekend or so. I kind of don’t want to see or hear any other humans, at least for a while. Nothing personal; just being around people, friends etc. – too many, too frequently and for too long – causes them in general to become unbelievably irritating and I just want to get as far away as possible. Kr* figured out the term I couldn’t fish for… “me-time”. I take that to mean the theoretical possibility of allocating a suitably large block of time and just holing up in a well-locked room somewhere, curling up with a good book (and/or a good project), with no interruptions, no social obligations and nobody monopolizing my time. In many ways, it’s great not to be alone… but once in a while I long for the days when I didn’t have any remotely close (and/or local) friends and could actually get my own shit done.

To fully describe the feeling of the moment would keep me up far too late to be useful at work tomorrow, which I somewhat need to be, so I’m going to go to bed instead… I have serious blog-catching-up to do (someday in the not-too-distant future. Probably eating a bit of my valuable no-people-time).