Build-a-bear cake pan

I bought a Build-a-bear cake pan from Williams-Sonoma for Christmas. This was meant as a Christmas present for my wife, however because I do the baking it's really the CAKES that are the present, and thus we tried making one of these cakes over the weekend to give it a trial run before Christmas.
Things didn't start off well because the cake pan was defective. The pan's finish wasn't properly applied and had a big crack, and part of it was flaking off. I recommend that anyone planning to buy one of these carefully examine it in the store. The boxes can be opened without destroying them so the store staff shouldn't mind.

After exchanging the pan, I followed the recipe on the back of the box. The box comes with a recipe for a bundt cake that is quite easy to make. The cake tasted great, although you can use any recipe you want, as long as the cake is dense enough to stand up on its own. My only complaint is that the recipe is printed on the box, when it should be a paper insert instead. Now I have to transcribe it. I've noticed this defect with every Williams-Sonoma cake pan. I guess it saves on packaging, but please, these pans aren't cheap. At least give us a sheet of paper!

Assembling the 3-D bear isn't hard at all. After the cake has finished baking, you cool it for a few minutes in the pan, remove it from the pan, cool it some more, then put it back in the pan. This process takes a few hours in total. When the cake is fully cooled, you put it back in the pan so that you can cut off the extra that rises above the pan. Then you spread icing on half, and put the other half on top, then pop it into the fridge so that the icing can set. We had a slight problem: the cake didn't come cleanly out of the pan the second time, so one half of the bear was decapitated. Luckily we were able to repair it with some icing and skewers; in the end the damage wasn't noticeable.

Decorating the finished cake is the hard part. I had a lot of difficulty applying the glaze and the brown sugar which simulates the fur. The Williams-Sonoma website has a how-to video which shows a woman applying the "fur". I notice that her cake doesn't look as good as the one on the box (though it is far better looking than mine). In the end the fur was so difficult that I think my next cake will just use a glaze or icing fur. My "furry" bear appears to have some kind of odd patchy disease. Maybe next time I'll try to make some fondant to clothe the bear; at least then you don't need to put as much fur on.

Despite the bear's poor appearance, it was a lot of fun to make and delicious to eat. Hopefully in a couple weeks I'll have perfected my technique.

The man from Williams-Sonoma eventually did mail me the Santa Template. Stay tuned; next Christmas I'll try it out. Also, I eventually did make a new bear. It turned out better.

Fedora 10

I recently installed Fedora 10. I had to because Fedora 8 stopped working for me: the Fedora 8 kernel stopped working with my network card and then a recent update broke something to do with permissions, so I could no longer use my soundcard or cdrom using a normal user account, I had to use the root superuser account. This was extremely annoying. Since Fedora 8 was end-of-life, I decided to upgrade to the latest shiny toy.

Fedora 10 supposedly has a lot of improvements, including flicker free boot (the boot process normally switches video modes a lot and blanks the screen a handful of times), faster performance, more up-to-date software, and lots of systematic improvements. Many of these improvements are true improvements but I have run into some issues.


Installing Fedora 10 was rather annoying. For some reason the installer kept crashing just before it finished putting the packages on the disk. I suspect the notebook was overheating, which I blame on insufficient power management software during the install. It could be related to the graphics driver used by the installer, but I couldn't verify this since you can't install a graphics driver for the installer and I couldn't figure out how to enable text mode. I was able to complete the install by selecting fewer packages and by propping the notebook up so that there was more airflow underneath it. Not a good first impression.

Hardware support

It seems that my hardware works better now with Fedora 10 than it did before. In Fedora 8 I had endless problems with the Wireless networking, but it seems to be working reliably now. It still crashes (just the wifi driver) but the system recovers fairly quickly and reconnects to the network. Better than Fedora 8, for which 90% of kernels wouldn't even CONNECT to my WAP.

The free nVidia driver that ships with Fedora works too, which is also better than F8's, which didn't work and caused the notebook to hang. But I use the binary driver anyway, so that's not a problem.

Software Installation

Fedora 10 comes with a new software management tool, PackageKit, which replaces whatever was there before. If only it worked! The KDE version, kpackagekit, is completely broken. I can't get it to do anything, it just hangs and (if running from a terminal) prints garbage on the screen. So I had to use the gnome version, which isn't fun in KDE because there's no icon, and you have to just know that the magic incantation isn't gpackagekit but rather gpk-application. Naturally! Anyway, the Gnome version works... sorta. When you are installing packages, you click a checkbox to say "I choose this to install", but if you search for more packages you can't tell what packages are queued for install. For example, let's say you search for "mp3" to find the mp3 codecs, and pick a package to install. Then you search for "media", to find a media player. If your codec package is in the media player list, it appears unchecked even though you have selected it already. There doesn't seem to be a way to see what you have selected to install. This isn't a big deal until you want to deselect something... I had hundreds of packages selected to install when it told me "oh, this package conflicts with another one you already have..." and there was nothing for me to do but start over.

One improvement in the software update area is the taskbar notification. Now you are notified about what updates are available and you can choose to install security updates or all updates. Only after choosing which updates to install are you prompted for the root password.

Synaptics Touchpad annoyances

I had a heck of a time dealing with the touchpad. For those of you who don't have a notebook, you can't understand what an irritating thing a touchpad is. It's like a trap waiting for the slightest touch of your finger to wreak havoc on your careful typing. In Windows the touchpad driver usually disables the touchpad while you type. Such functionality is available in Linux too, but for some reason doesn't seem to be enabled by default.

In days of yore I used ksynaptics to control the touchpad. It's a nice graphical tool which lets you customize the touchpad's behaviour, and it can also turn the touchpad off while you type. For one reason or another it doesn't work in Fedora 10 (even though it's part of the distribution, it's completely broken). I followed these instructions to enable ksynaptics but then was stymied by some version mismatch between ksynaptics and the synaptics driver. Doubly broken! Luckily, there was another web site which explained an alternate method of disabling the touchpad: run a program in the background. I had to set up this program twice, once for me and once for my wife's login session.... sigh. This should be default behaviour! It should be configurable! Tools which ship with the distro should work! But given KDE's second-class-citizen status in Fedora, I guess I'm not surprised.


Fedora 10 ships with KDE 4.1.3. This is the latest bleeding edge KDE release, with all the cool new stuff. Unfortunately, KDE 4 is in my opinion a major regression from KDE 3. There are lots of new things and I'm sure lots of imnprovements somewhere, but sweet ginger chicken are there ever a lot of problems.
First, the Desktop has been totally neutered. Ever since the days of Windows 95 normal humans have stored files on their desktop. All kinds of files, from icons for starting programs, to downloaded files, arranged in any way you like. KDE 4 has no such feature. For some reason they decided that the desktop wasn't a place for files. But because people complained they made an applet (called a widget) which shows you the contents of any folder. Guess what? I have a folder called, gee, Deskop? and I want it shown on my Desktop? except this looks like crap and did I mention it's SLOOOOOOOOOOOOOOWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW? Clicking on an icon in this file-viewer widget brings my dual-core, 2.2 gHz, 2GB RAM machine to its knees, where it promptly faints. What the heck is wrong with these widgets? And why CAN'T I just have files on the desktop? Ok, the concept of widgets is cool, and I like how KDE does it better than Vista, but PLEASE! I want to put files there!

There are several other major problems with KDE4. Some of these are, I'm sure, integration problems because KDE is always an afterthought for the Fedora developers. They just cram it in next to Gnome, spit on it, then wipe it with a snotty handkerchief to shine it up a bit. Gnome is Red Hat's precious child, a relic of the days when KDE had licensing problems, and thus always gets preferential treatment from the Fedora devs. But I digress: I was ranting about KDE.

The main problem is that the file management widget was completely changed and is now very hard for me to use. It used to be you clicked on a file to select it, and double-clicked to activate it. Not anymore: now you click on it to activate it, and... well, I'm not sure how to just select it. I guess nobody needs to do that? Oh wait... I do. And there doesn't seem to be any option to customize this behaviour. KDE 1.0 had single-click activation, back when MS did the same in Windows 95 + IE 4.0, but there was an option to turn it off and the default became double-click not long after. I find that I need to activate files in the file manager far less often than I need to select them. Thus the KDE file manager went from being awesome, in KDE 3, to useless, in KDE 4. Plus they replaced Konqueror with Dolphin, which I'm not sure is an improvement, but anyway Konq has the same stupid file manager component, so even it has the dumb single-click "feature".

Finally, overall it seems that lots of KDE bits have lots a lot of features. The panel used to be very customizable, now it isn't. For one thing, I used to be able to specify how wide the task-manager applet was, now I can't. There are other examples I can't think of at this time. I used to be able to set a wallpaper to fill the screen according to its maximum dimension; now that feature is gone. I used to be able to configure a bunch of things, but now the configuration options are missing. I used to be able to store files on my desktop, but I've already discussed that. Still bugs me though.

Chinese input

At last it becomes relatively easy to set up Chinese input for all programs. The SCIM tool finally works reliably in KDE and GTK apps. You can install SCIM and the SCIM-QT bridge, log out and log back in, and you can enter your Chinese characters. It doesn't work as well as the Windows Vista Chinese IME (which is awesome) but it works fairly well. This is one thing I am really pleased to see. I have typed a couple of documents in Chinese using OpenOffice and there have been no issues with the input. For some reason, though, OpenOffice printed my Chinese document as a nice page of little boxes. Hm.


Fedora 10 (KDE mode) is clearly a beta-quality release. Much of the blame here has to be laid at the feet of the KDE devs, who have released an immature product as if it were ready for prime-time. It is not. But there are so many other glitchy problems with this Fedora release that I wonder how I'd fare in Gnome-land. Is this solely due to the difficulty in packaging KDE 4 for Fedora? Some of the problems, like the synaptics driver and the package-kit problems are clearly infrastructure related, and KDE is not to blame here. Overall I am disappointed with Fedora 10's quality but I am pleased with its goals and feature set. I hope the quality issues can be resolved with some updates and maybe Fedora 11 will fully meet the expectations everyone had for this one.


It's funny that Stephen Harper prorogued Parliament today so that he could spend a few weeks doing damage control, while claiming that the Opposition were behaving undemocratically. The problem with his argument is the assumption that people vote for the government. Sorry, they don't. They can't, in fact, because they only get to cast one vote and that's for their local MP. Given that, if a bunch of MPs form a party, and that party forms the government, how is it more or less democratic if the party is one of the "standard" parties, or is actually a coalition? All those MPs were elected democratically.

What's undemocratic is having the Governor General decide to suspend parliament. She did this at the request of the PM, but that's not democracy, unless you can prove that the majority of the MPs currently sitting in parliament supported proroguing. I'm not too surprised that Michaëlle Jean sided with Mr. Harper, but I am disappointed. Here we have a chance for real democracy, even if it's unconventional, but she has decided to instead waste time and give Harper an undeserved reprieve.

Bias alert: I voted against Harper and generally don't like him or his party. That said, I don't have a lot of confidence in the Liberals either, but Dion is on his way out, so that should help. I don't know whose approach is best for the country, Harper or Dion Ignatief Rae. But I feel that a coalition government is as valid as a normal government, and Mr. Harper should do the right thing and step aside.

Another politician proves a total lack of understanding about copyrights

It's common to find that politicians don't understand copyright. Copyright, along with other "Intellectual Property", is a government-granted monopoly on some sort of intangible concept like a name, or idea, or representation of an idea. Trademarks protect names (and other distinguishing marks like sounds or the appearance of a mascot or logo) for businesses; patents protect ideas, and copyright protects the (artistic) expression of an idea.

But Robert Lutczyk, who sits on both the Oshawa and Durham Region councils, as proven that he doesn't understand the funamental difference between these things. He has "Copyrighted" the name of a local school and sued newspapers to prevent them from printing the name in their papers. If you think this is odd, consider that names can't be copyrighted. Anyone who claims otherwise is simply wrong. So this coucillor needs to consult a lawyer before making an even bigger fool of himself.

The people at the school in question aren't sure what Mr. Lutczyk is trying to achieve with these hare-brained actions; maybe he wants the school to change its name or maybe he wants to extort money, who can tell? Mr. Lutczyk isn't talking. But I hope any newspaper that he sues takes the lawsuit to court and drags it out as much as possible. Copyright, trademarks and patent laws are already misused enough as it is, we don't need this jerk making things worse.

Eternal sunshine of the innocent mind

Photo copyright The Rat BatWell, India has set itself a goal of being the most screwed up country in the world, and they are well on their way to achieving that goal.

This is the country where monkeys invaded a city, and the city people couldn't kill the monkeys because other people worshipped them, so they hired bigger monkeys to take care of the smaller monkeys.

This is the country where a girl was force to marry a dog in order to lift a curse.

So I shouldn't be surprised that this is the country that did an MRI of a defendant in a court case, and based on the results concluded that she had committed the crime, and sentenced her to life in prison.

And I thought breathalyzers were potential problems in legal cases... this goes beyond everything.

The way this device supposedly works is as follows:
  1. They strap you in
  2. The prosecutor reads to you what they think the crime was, in "first person voice" (i.e. "I went to the store", "I bought the arsenic")
  3. They watch the MRI to see if your memory lights up, indicating that you remember the event, and thus must have been there.

Does this make sense to you? Me neither. First of all, if I wanted to beat one of these things I'd just ignore the prosecutor and think of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Or if I don't want to destroy the world I'd just do multiplication tables in my head or write code. Since there's no way to know if the person is actually listening (the subject isn't allowed to speak), there's no way to know if they're NOT listening either.

Also it's quite notable that the research which led to the invention of this device has not been peer-reviewed. There was someone in the article who was impressed by the device but he is a polygraph expert, among other things. Anyone who believes in polygraphs would believe in this thing.

It's important to be skeptical. It's critical, in fact, to doubt things, because only doubt can lead to truth. So I hope this device remains in India for ever; but if some reputable people can validate the results I'll change my mind. I won't hold my breath.

The importance of transparency

An Arizona defendant was recently awarded the right to examine the source code of the breathalyser used to provide evidence against him. I discussed this a few months ago with some family when the same issue arose in Florida. I think it's critical that Arizona force this issue on the makers of the breathalyser and the police forces that use it, because to date the company that makes the breathalyser in question has never provided the source code and consequently racked up $1.2 million in contempt of court charges.

This is a serious problem in the court system.

The courts need to know that the evidence they collect is accurate. This is the most important thing is a fair court because inaccurate evidence leads to bad results. Guilty people can go free and innocent people can be jailed. These are not desirable consequences. In the case of a breathalyser, especially this one, which is reputed to give odd results from time to time, a person's freedom and life are at stake if the machine doesn't work properly. Thus the court needs proof of the accuracy of the breathalyser, and the only way to know that is to examine the device and its code.

Now, as I've discussed in previous posts, I hate drunk drivers and have no respect for them. I wish the courts were harder on drunk drivers, especially repeat offenders. I'm thinking first time means 5 years in jail, second time means 10 years and lifetime driving ban, third time means we amputate your legs and hands so you can never drive again. But I can't condone sentencing people when there's a chance that the breathalyser isn't working properly, especially if that is the only hard evidence for a DUI.

Every jurisdiction should require this of the breathalyser manufacturers: the design of the device must be fully documented; the source code must be available; there must be a way to determine which exact version of the source code is on which devices; and there should be QA of randomly sampled devices as selected by the state/province/etc. Manufacturers who refuse to comply will simply have their devices returned to them or the devices won't be purchased at all.

It's telling that CMI, the producer of the Intoxilyzer 8000, has never given over their source code even when their clients demanded it; they also refuse to sell the device to anyone but police forces, and the machine also failed to meet precision and accuracy testing in Tennessee, so law-enforcement agencies there are prohibited from using it. The only solution is to allow the defense attorneys to examine the devices and argue before the courts about any defects found. This is the only way we can ensure that the drunk drivers do go to jail, and those who weren't drunk don't.

What is the harm?

Recently I posted about a psychic who caused real harm to a woman with an autistic child. Now, thanks to the Bad Astronomy blog, I've found a site that collects evidence of the harm of psychics and lots of other superstitions. They also mention Colleen & Victoria Leduc's story, and also dozens of other stories about actual harm caused. This kind of resource is invaluable because many people deny that this harm even exists, never mind how widespread it is.

The only downside to a site like this is that a collection of anecdotes are not statistically significant because you don't know how many times these things happen. But the goal of is not to make people believe or not believe something, but rather to get them to think critically. And once you know that your naturopath's detox program might kill you, you have more information that you can use to evaluate the situation and you can take the next, important, step and learn more about what you're facing.

A Night of Knives

I just finished reading Ian C Esslemont's "A Night of Knives", which is set in the Malazan Empire. Esslemont is the co-creator of the world but the other creator, Steven Erikson, has already written several huge novels in this series. Erikson's novels are excellent and thus Esslemont's work invites comparison.

You may have noticed that I very recently posted about another book I just finished reading. This is not a coincidence: A Night of Knives is a very short work. This is very obvious when you look at the trade-paperback; it's a tiny sliver compared to the huge tomes Erikson writes. For the regular paperback the publishers decided to use thick paper, large print and wide margins to make the book fatter. Frankly I wish they hadn't, as this just makes it bulkier for no good reason. So be warned: it is a short read.

Aside from the length, I don't have much to complain about. This book is well written; you can tell it isn't written by Erikson but Esslemont's writing style is decent. The only thing that annoyed me about the book was the way the story seemed simultaneously written for people who'd never read Malazan and for people who'd read all of Erikson's works. Basically I found some things under-explained and some things over-explained. Given that it'd been almost 10 years since the first Malazan book came out, I think a certain familiarity with the world could be expected, and thus certain aspects (such as the magic) didn't need to be so "mysterious". We already know how it works! On the other hand, for new readers certain story points could have used more explanation.

Overall the book is a good addition to the Malazan world. It may be better if a new reader reads it part way through the Erikson series; somewhere between books 1 and 2 or 2 and 3 would be ideal. Otherwise the book doesn't really advance Erikson's plot at all, but rather explains some back story. The story is interesting on its own but not crucial to your enjoyment of the main books. (Sorry Ian; you may be co-creator but you're late to the writing party... your book is an accessory).


I just finished reading Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn. I picked up this book because this writer is the man who will be taking over for the late Robert Jordan. Those are big shoes to fill and I was curious to see how this writer would fill them.

Mistborn is a pretty good book but not particularly noteworthy, in my opinion. It was enjoyable to read but the basic premise wasn't as exciting as it could have been. In a nutshell, you've got slaves, an immortal god/ruler, nobles who can perform magic, and renegade slaves who can also perform magic. Naturally you expect that some of the renegades will work to subvert the government and the Lord Ruler's rule, and they do.

The book follows several of the typical fantasy theme: young misfit who, it turns out, has latent magical ability (and is really strong at it), a band of renegades with witty banter, cheesy accents/dialects for some characters, and unsurmountable odds for the heroes of the story.

The book had the feel of a first novel, written when the author may not get around to writing the rest of the series (it's a trilogy). I don't want to give away the ending but things happen very quickly at the end and a lot gets wrapped up almost too easily. Nevertheless the story was fun to read.

What struck me the most about this story is its potential as a video game. Potential spoilers follow. The way the magic is structured is that there are several magical abilities, and most people have no magic, but some people have one ability and a rare few have all the abilities. These abilities require the consumption of various kinds of metals which are "burned" and thus used up. Burning metal uses it up, and burning it harder gives more effect but uses it up faster. Also, two of the magical abilities lend themselves to interesting opportunities for a videogame; the magic users can use nearby metal objects as anchors to push themselves or pull themselves around. For example, if there is a coin on the floor they can stand above it then push themselves up to the ceiling. This leads to very well-defined but complex physics which could be awesome in a video game. Even the way the charaacters in the book are organized leads to good opportunities for a player to fight increasingly difficult "bosses". The beauty of this magical system, as opposed to those of other fantasy realms (like Tolkein's or Jordan's) is that the magic has very clear boundaries and rules and thus you can easily model it in a video game.

In the end, I recommend this book to anyone who likes fantasy; it's not groundbreaking but it was entertaining. I will definitely read the rest of the trilogy (I'm a sucker for finding out what happens... I've been slogging through every stupid Terry Goodkind book for years now) but I don't regret picking up the first book. I have reservations about how well Mr. Sanderson will handle the Wheel of Time but since that story is mostly written I don't think there will be a major problem.

Comment usability

Here's something that many blog readers know about: comments. Most blogs allow comments to be posted and now even newspapers like The Toronto Star allow comments on articles. But so many blogs and other sites fail when it comes to usability in this regard.

One big drawback that most sites have is they don't allow replying to comments where the reply is shown with the comment. This means you have to read through all the comments to find replies to the interesting comments. But some blogs are even worse: they post all the comments in descending order by date. This means you read the replies before you read the comments themselves. The Dilbert Blog is one such blog where I stopped reading the comments, since I have to read the page from top to bottom. This, combined with Scott Adam's philosophy of moderating all the comments at once makes it hard to follow conversations as they develop.

The Star's commenting system is even dumber. For one, comments can be voted on but the votes appear to be useless except to indicate that someone, somewhere, agrees or disagrees with the content of a post. Posts are moderated so you can't tell if a reply to a post is pending before posting your own reply. Posts are in reverse chronological order so you either read them backwards or go to the end and work your way back to the beginning. Finally, the posts are PAGED, so you can't actually see them all on one page. You have to click on links to go from page to page, but when you click the link it replaces the content of the current page with the comments from the previous page, but doesn't move you to the top of the list. Try reading the comments on an article with several pages, such as this one, and you'll see that it's basically impossible to navigate these comments without losing your mind. Plus The Star's policy about comments is even worse, because sometimes comments get deleted and comments are shut off for certain articles very quickly, which prevents real discussion.

The commenting system on Blogger, which I use, is primitive but at least it shows all the comments and in their proper order. It's such a simple thing but so many sites get it wrong.

Ben Franklin's advice

Everyone knows Benjamin Franklin invented the United States, and electricity (or, self-electrocution or something). But did you know he was also an expert about having affairs? Thus he gives his list of reasons why it's better to have an affair with an older woman.

This list has to be read to be believed, but frankly the part that amused me the most was the bit about "all cats are grey in the dark". You can fill in the rest.

I can only imagine the field day the media would have if a modern politician wrote such a letter.

Spice Containers

Club House spice containers are not what you normally think about when you consider the usability of a product. They're quite basic: a little container with three openings: one for sprinkling, one for a spoon, and one to pour the spice. But the newer containers do have a major flaw in their usability: the name of the spice is no longer printed on the side of the package. This means your spice drawer or rack is full of indistinguishable orange boxes, and you have to look at each one individually, potentially going crazy trying to find the cloves. The old package was much smarter: the name of the spice was on the side of the package, making it easy to spot what you need. Such a simple thing, yet some graphics designer somewhere went ahead and ruined it for everyone.

Tira2 and Lirc

I converted my old workstation into a media pc. What is a media pc? Also known as a home-theater pc (HTPC) it's basically a computer hooked up to a TV. This lets me play my MP3s over my stereo system as well as watch digital videos on my tv. I can also theoretically play games on my TV but I don't do that (yet). There was nothing to this setup as my video card automatically supported the TV-out. All that remained was to add remote-control support, so that I could skip to the next MP3 using my trusty all-in-one remote.

My remote is the Pioneer AXD7381, which is a learning remote that came with my VSX-1015TX system. In order for this remote to send signals to the computer, however, I needed an infra-red receiver. Since I don't believe in classic serial ports, I opted to buy a USB IR device called the Tira, from a Toronto-based company. Lirc (the Linux infrared program) claimed to support it and so I figured I'd spring for the $50.

I'd hoped it would be trivial to get this thing going, but I severely underestimated the Lirc documentation. I don't know if I've ever tried to read a less helpful doc. The documentation assumed that you already knew how to set up Lirc, that you were using a serial device (is anyone still using serial devices?), and that you were installing lirc from source. None of those things were true for me, but I managed to get things working after much weeping and gnashing of teeth.

In the end, all I needed to do to get the Tira working was tell Lirc to use the Tira driver. On Fedora 8 you edit the /etc/sysconfig/lirc file and specify the -H Tira command line parameter:


Easy enough, but the lirc documentation doesn't mention Tira other than to say it supports it. Specifically it doesn't tell you that Lirc won't need any of its usual device nodes, which means you don't need to waste time writing udev rules like I did. I wasted a lot of time because for some reason the Tira would sometimes be recognized as USB device 1, and Lirc refuses to work unless it's device 0 (/dev/ttyUSB1 vs /dev/ttyUSB0 for those of you who understand what I'm talking about). Once I unplugged/re-plugged the Tira a few times things magically started working.

Then I ensured that Lirc started with

/sbin/chkconfig lirc on
/sbin/service lirc restart

Anyway, the executive summary of Tira is thus:

1. It's a USB device that shows up in the kernel as a serial device.
2. Lirc supports usb serial devices but the documentation doesn't seem to want to admit it.
3. Once Lirc starts talking to your tira you need to set up some kind of action to take place. I did this using KDE's IRKicker, a niceadequate gui tool which lets you do things when you press a button on the remote. Unfortunately the tool is more complex than it should be. I've been thinking about this for a few days and I think making the tool easier to use would be a lot of work, but it's still pretty important work. But it's an acceptable compromise, for now.

Now I have another problem, which is that a universal remote control and a universal device (such as Lirc) don't really get along; the remote doesn't know what to say and Lirc doesn't know what to do. Since both devices speak any language, they need to be made to agree as to which language they should be speaking to each other. My remote was originally programmed to control (among other things) a CD Changer, which I no longer use, so I told Lirc to answer to the CD Changer's remote. But that makes it annoying to control things because, among other things, the CD remote doesn't have separate play and pause buttons. At least now it's just a matter of making the right thing happen when you press a button.

What would make this whole process a lot easier is if there were 1. A better installer/auto-detection for IR devices; 2. A standard way of mapping remote buttons, so that if the remote has a "play" button it "plays" the current application, such as a movie player or music player; Also it would be really nice if the Lirc mouse/keyboard control mode was better integrated with standard lirc and programs like IRKicker. But now I can play my mp3s and skip to the next song without getting up and pressing a key. And my music sounds GOOD on my stereo... I never knew how bad my computer speakers were.

PayPal sucks

PayPal are supposed to be the be-all and end-all of payment systems, at least they'd like you to think so. And their feature set is fairly compelling and relatively easy to use... until you decide to integrate an ecommerce application into their system.

PayPal's biggest value is that they make it easy for any random person to implement a basic web store without needing a merchant account for credit-card processing. This, plus the fact that they are the "trusted third party" makes them attractive to every Mom-and-Pop Internet T-Shirt shop out there.

However when you try to use PayPal's system to do any real ecommerce work using your own pre-existing ecommerce solution, you find the limitations in their system fast.

First, they have a multitude of slightly different products and offerings, each with slightly different features and slightly different names. Then they have lots of different ways to accomplish things: for one thing they have two different ways to make your ecom system talk to theirs: SOAP and NVP (name value pair) API. Why two? Who knows!

Then they pay lip-service to important things like testing: they have a "Sandbox" where you can create fake merchants and clients and process fake transactions, but the Sandbox is broken as often as it is working, and lots of things about it are dumb. For one thing it requires a valid-looking phone number for the merchant account setup, and other valid-looking data, even though the data is useless and doesn't factor into the testing at all. But on the other hand, important things like chargebacks can't be simulated through the Sandbox because... well, nobody knows why not.

Then there are lots of other weird glitches; parts of their system accept all character sets and other parts don't, leading to problems when dealing with foreign languages. In this day and age they should be able to use the character-set that the other end of the connection reports, but for some reason they can't. Luckily there is a workaround: you configure your PayPal account to ALWAYS use one character set (the user-interface for this is terrible) and then it works, as long as you never need any OTHER character set. If you don't know what a character set is, you're either lucky or you've never dealt with anything other than English/Spanish/French and you get away with the "Default" character set.

Another problem I had was that, when my code wasn't including the flag to indicate "partial" or "full" refund their system told me the amount was wrong. Well, the amount was right but it turns out something else was wrong... as a programmer I can guarantee you that it's trivial to get these kinds of error messages right, yet somehow they manage to screw it up; this cost me several hours of time trying to figure out what was wrong.

Also I found that there is a bug in their software (exposed through their mis-handling of character sets). I am using the PayPal SDK (software development kit) to interface my system with theirs; but when THEIR server crashes, THEIR sdk ignores the error and does something nonsensical. So I filed a bug, and their response was "use the SDK". I replied that I WAS using it, and eventually they admitted that their system was dumb and that the SDK was broken, but they didn't fix the SDK nor did they fix their system. In the end I had to fix the SDK myself. Not much point in using and SDK if it can't even get these simple basic things right.

Most vexingly is their inability to grasp that other development teams have processes and standards to maintain. My team, for example, works on an isolated test environment that isn't reachable from the outside. One of PayPal's features is that their system will contact your system whenever you have a transaction (this is called Instant Payment Notification or IPN). However for this to work (in testing) I have to have my IT guy open the firewall so that their system can reach my test system. PayPal doesn't seem to understand this and they are reluctant to publish the addresses that their test servers use; we need these addresses so that the firwall can allow them through. PayPal says "use the DNS to find the address". A better solution is to use DNS and reverse-DNS so that you can validate that the address and name match, however, PayPal fails on both of these. Their documentation states that the Sandbox IPN server uses one address (something .110), and their DNS also says this, however in reality it's something.33. And the reverse-DNS for something.33 fails, so there's no way to verify that this is the Sandbox IPN server. When my IT guy opened the firewall for something.110 the IPN failed, naturally, because it was blocked. I didn't know what address it should be so I contacted PayPal. They gave me the run-around, saying, essentially, "your system is wrong" and "don't use a firewall". They refused to admit that they had a problem and wouldn't tell me the true address of their server. I eventually discovered it through another means, then TOLD them their own address, and asked why the documentation didn't match. Their response was to close my support ticket, because now that I had the real address everything worked. Thanks for nothing, PayPal!

Anyway, it's frightening that such a poorly run company is in charge of so much money. Yet people (regular customers) trust them, so vendors need to support them to make sales. I guess in the end it's irrelevant because banks are no better.

Chinese Perapera-kun

I've recently discovered a great new tool to help me learn Chinese: a firefox addon which displays pinyin and english translations for Chinese characters. It's pretty nifty: it shows the translation and Pinyin for the character next to the cursor and, if that character is the start of a common compound word or phrase, it shows the translation for that phrase.

For entertainment purposes only, must be 18 IQ points or fewer to call

This is slightly stale but I've been busy lately.

I read this article about the mother of an autistic child accused by a psychic of sexual abuse on the Bad Astronomy Blog. You have to read it to believe it but in a nutshell a mother nearly lost her child to Children's Aid because a psychic determined that a child (whom she never met) was being abused. The psychic's client, a teaching assistant, reported this to the teacher, who reported this to the principal, who called Children's Aid.

You read that correctly: a random person told someone that a child was being abused, based on no information, and this report was taken seriously.

The Children's Aid is required to investigate all "credible" reports and thus, when a principal called them, had to investigate. Thankfully they had the wit to understand that there was no chance this child had been abused. But what would have happened if the mother didn't already track her daughter with a GPS device that records audio? This woman could have easily lost her child to the authorities and been branded a monster. The psychic in this story is guilty of causing real harm to this innocent mother and her child. Yet because our society tolerates psychics under the guise of "entertainment" the true monster is allowed to continue to spread dissent and lies to gullible people.

Frankly I think it's also frightening that someone who believes in psychics is helping to teach at schools and raise children. But given our society's poor ability to train and hire competent teachers, that isn't surprising.

Sandworms of Dune

So I finally read the final chapter in the Dune saga, brought to you by Kevin J Anderson and Brian Herbert.

A more clumsy work I have never read.

If you read the Dune books and wondered what ever happened after Duncan Idaho and his no-ship fled the old man and old woman, or who the great Enemy is, you probably wanted to read "Hunters of Dune" and its sequel, Sandworms of Dune. Let me tell you right now: you are better off not knowing. Because no matter what grandiose vision you had for Kralizec (the final battle for the fate of humanity against the great Enemy), you will be disappointed.

First off, the writing in the book is even less subtle than Hunters of Dune, with several scenes put in place seemingly for the sole purpose of spelling out what was blindingly obvious already. Then we have the completly boring and unrealistic battle in the lair of the Enemy. (I'm trying to keep this spoiler free for those of you who plan to disregard my advice and read it anyway). If you know already who the enemy is, you're probably wondering what purpose this enemy would have with a lair, and also wondering how you fight said enemy once you are in his lair. Well, Kevin and Brian don't disappoint, in that they painstakingly spell out every single step of this improbable conflict.

The book is full of side plots that go nowhere and people behaving irrationally, much like a cheap action movie villain, who wants to take over the world but can't just kill the hero outright, he has to contrive some elaborate trap which ultimately fails.

Then there is the question of the Enemy itself, which to me feels like a cheap way for Brian and Kevin to tie in their prequel work with the original series. I'm still wondering if this is anything like what Frank Herbert had in mind.

At least the mystery of why Duncan Idaho was resurrected so many times was revealed. But if you thought there was some deep meaning, it turns out there wasn't. So don't get your hopes up.

Maybe after I feel ok about revealing spoilers I'll go into detail about what was really wrong with this book, including how I think it could have been made 10x better. But basically, considering the nature of the Enemy and the characters involved, a better author could have written a gripping tale that incorporated the best themes of sci-fi from the last few decades and the ideas from the Dune series. Instead we got lousy action scenes, bad dialogue, and a terrible plot.

But at least now I know how the story ends and I don't have to read any more of these books. Now when I finish reading Terry Goodkind's series I can put all the bad authors out of my reading list.

Elevator Action

Some people are just too stupid to use elevators.

The other day I was at a mall waiting to use an elevator. It was a long wait because there were several people ahead of me and only one elevator. An elderly couple (the man using a walker) was waiting, along with two mothers, each with a stroller and a bunch of walking kids. Unfortunately the old gentleman hadn't pressed the button (his eyesight must not have been good, he was pressing the keyhole under the button) so we missed one one elevator. But once he pressed the button that's when the shenanigans began.

First, two women appeared out of nowhere and went up ahead of everyone to stand right by the doors. They clearly jumped the queue (well... flock) in the most inconsiderate way possible. They weren't even carrying anything, let alone pushing a stroller (as I was) or using a walker or cane. Yet somehow they felt they should get on first. Maybe they were VIPs or gods or something, or maybe they had a "Get on the Elevator First" pass-card.

Then the doors opened and people started to get off. This, however, conflicted with the goals of the two mothers I mentioned (they were travelling together), who had herded their strollers and children into a half-circle wall, thus closing all gaps and preventing anyone from exiting the elevator. I guess they were trying to get on, but simple common sense would tell you that you can't get on a full elevator if nobody gets off. Not only that, but their aggressive tactics didn't stop the two inconsiderate women from getting on first anyway.

So the elevator was crowded: the older couple, the two VIPs, and then the first mother and her children all got on, but there was no room for anyone else. Ok, no problem, we'll take the next one. Except the one mother who made it on the elevator didn't get off at her stop; she rode the elevator all the way to the bottom, then back to the top, so she could be reunited with her friend! This means that when the elevator finally arrived at my floor again there STILL wasn't room for me to get on, as the woman's friend got on and that left no room for me, my stroller, and my wife. I tried asking the woman why she didn't get off the elevator but she just stared blankly at me while the doors closed. Maybe she didn't even know.

People who think they're more important than everyone don't surprise me anymore (though I do hate them) but I am always amazed at how few people grasp the concept of "You can't get on without letting others get off first".

If only it were true

Natural Health Food vendors are up in arms about a new law that will more tightly regulate their industry. They claim that "natural" products should be regulated differently than drugs, because they are safer and have demonstrated benefits.

Sadly, that's just not true.

For one thing it's a complete fallacy that something natural must be safe. Mercury, for example, exists in nature. As do many toxins: cyanide, arsenic, etc. Asbestos occurs in nature as well, and has many beneficial properties, but, oh yeah, it causes cancer and lung disease. Whoops!

The other problem with natural products is that, until the new law is passed, they have not had to prove that their product actually contained the active ingredient, nor that it has any effect at all. And this is what the real issue is: the new regulation will (gasp!) mean that, if you claim your product helps headaches, it must actually help headaches. If you claim your product contains ginseng, it must actually contain ginseng.

The problem is that the government and the public have differing notions about what constitutes a drug and the health food vendors slip their wares right into that huge gap. The public sees a bottle of pills at Shoppers Drug Mart and thinks "This will solve my arthritis problem!", when in reality it will do nothing except lighten your wallet. The manufacturer, meanwhile, doesn't have to sell you a real product; they can sell you silicone dioxide in a gelatin capsule, call it glucosamine, and you can't tell the difference. The placebo effect takes care of the rest. The government let this go because the pills were "harmless" "supplements" and if you want to buy junk it's your problem. Since most people are woefully ignorant of biology or science or statistics they can't make informed decisions about their health and happily buy the products which do nothing.

(Another part of the problem is drug stores selling these health foods; this only adds to the supplements' credibility. Some pharmacies claim that a trained pharmacist can steer you to the real drugs which DO work, but I only know one pharmacist who does this, and she's been told by her superiors to try to INCREASE sales of the natural products. The real motive is that gullible people will buy these things no matter what, so the drug stores want a piece of the pie.)

Review: Philips Avent baby monitor

As my previous post alluded, things are very different in the Shiny & New household. One thing that has changed is the need for constant surveillance of our entire condo; so we installed closed-circuit TVs in every room so that we can always watch the new baby. In the spirit of openness this video is being streamed live to the internet at http://just.kidding/about_the_video. Ok, so there's no CCTV but we did buy a baby monitor.

Make that several baby monitors, each of which we returned to the stores because they were totally unusable. The problem is that no matter how cheap or expensive the monitor there was always interference. Even with no sound transmitted from the baby's room, the parent-unit invariably made a hissing, screeching or buzzing sound. This makes the monitor useless since you can't sleep with that racket. Even well-recommended monitors like the Angelcare monitor, which monitors movements was useless when it came to the signal-to-noise ratio. I despaired of ever finding a monitor but did a search for "interference-free monitor" and came across a boingboing article about the Philips Avent monitor. This article sold me and so I went out and bought the monitor.
The Good:
This monitor works as advertised: it is interference-free even in this wifi-, cell-phone- and cordless-phone-infested metal-frame building. The model I have (not the same as the picture) is a no-frills model but it works. Most of the time, when the baby's room is quiet, the parent units are totally silent. When a noise louder than a certain threshold is detected by the baby unit it begins transmitting to the parent units. This means you can sleep better during those rare times when the baby sleeps.

The package I bought came with two parent units, which are cordless and portable. These came with batteries included and the setup was trivial: put in the batteries and press the power button to link it to the baby unit. The monitor I bought also has a convenient talk feature, where you can use the parent-unit like a walkie-talkie. It's handy but in a 2-bedroom condo it's not really needed. Still it saves us from shouting sometimes.

The Bad:
The biggest downside is that this monitor was the most expensive monitor available. But given that the others were completely useless for me it hardly matters. Aside from that, it'd be nice to get movement monitoring. The only flaw I've found is that when the parent unit activates (because the baby unit detected a sound) the parent unit makes a clicking sound. This is a bit jarring.

I recommend this unit to anyone; if you can get away with a cheaper monitor go for it but this monitor worked for me where nothing else would. Now if only the baby would stop crying so I could sleep...

The definition of "turning your world upside down"

It's not a secret to my real-life friends but on my blog (which usually has a minimum of personally identifiable information on it) this has not yet been revealed: for the last 8-10 months I've been preparing for the arrival of a new roommate. I wasn't sure who this roommate would be but I knew approximately when I could expect to meet him or her. Finally the day passed and last week I was there when she arrived: my new daughter.
I was there to "help" with the delivery but all things considered I'm not sure I was any help at all. But I didn't faint and I didn't sleep in and I did help my wife eat ice-chips between pushes. And I took the baby girl's first pictures :)

It was an incredibly odd feeling when she was born. Despite my initial aversion I watched as the head came out and seemingly 20 hands reached down to clean her face, but when they pulled her out and said "It's a girl!" the moment achieved its total impact on me and I cried a little as my old world melted away. The doctor who was delivering her offered for me to cut the cord but I don't do that sort of thing and so he did it, quickly and efficiently, as he did everything. I had only met this man a couple hours before but I could see his true professionalism as he went about doing his thing. Meanwhile a veritable pit-crew of people descended on the little girl as they cleaned her up and checked her out. Within minutes she was on the weigh-scale and someone was saying "Dad, do you have a camera?" It took me a few seconds to realize they were talking to ME. But it turns out I DID have a camera and so I ran over and snapped a couple pics of my new most important priority. Then they handed the girl to my wife (Mom!) so the two could have skin-to-skin contact (which helps the baby regulate her temperature and breathing).

Since then life has been a blur. But holding this tiny little person in my hands makes me realize that I can create something beautiful; that I have an opportunity unlike any other. Many people want to leave the world a better place than how they found it; this is my chance.
I'd like to take this opportunity to thank the good people at the North York General Hospital. They were very professional and pleasant to deal with and even though my wife's ob/gyn wasn't there (at NYGH you get whichever ob/gyn is on call) the doctor on call was extremely good and we have no complaints about the people at all. Usually hospital visits are characterized by waiting around for surly people to grudgingly treat you. At NYGH, in the labour/delivery and mom/baby units all the staff were pleasant and helpful and professional. Giving birth is a wonderful but extremely stressful occasion but these people made it much easier.

Earth Hour: Do nothing, and feel good about it

Pat yourselves on the back, Toronto! You've done it: absolutely nothing. Well, you did turn the lights off for a few minutes on Saturday. But overall it accomplishes nothing. The Toronto Star's article has the key facts and figures:

2,738 MW: The lowest demand for the hour
5% : the percentage drop from the previous hour
8.7%: the difference between the lowest demand of Earth Hour compared to the average for a typical late March Saturday night.
8:54 PM: The time at which that lowest demand was reached.

So way to go! You managed to reduce energy usage for about 5, 6 minutes. Because, as Toronto Hydro supervisor John Fletcher said, "People will forget to put out the lights ... but they won't forget to put them back on." And sure enough, when the giant clock jumped 21:00, then 21:05, the numbers rose as surely as they dropped.

Now I don't want to rain on everyone's parade, but let's look at this Earth Hour thing objectively:

1. No changes will be made because of it:
  • businesses will still leave their lights on even though nobody is in the office
  • Stores will leave exterior lights on unnecessarily
  • Yonge+Dundas Square is still filled with light pollution from those retarded ads
  • Nobody did anything about the dozens of power-wasting devices in their homes, such as DVD players, cable boxes, TVs, stereos, computers, and AC/DC converters that are wasting power even when you're not using the device
  • No politicians saw all the lights go out and decided "I'm going to support pro-environmental legislation, now that I know how serious the people are about this!"
2. It didn't even save any energy, in the big picture:
  • 8.7% is a lot, except it was for one hour
  • Oh wait, not even an hour, we only saved 8.7% for 6 minutes
  • Even if we had saved that for a WHOLE HOUR, that's still only 1/24th of a day
  • which adds up to 1/8760 of a year, or 0.01% of the energy used in a year
  • That is, it would be 0.01% of the year's energy if Earth Hour had happened during peak usage, which it didn't.
I think we should be glad that people want to chip in and help the environment, but we need to focus because this is not a small problem which can be solved by stunts like this. Instead we need to demand that manufacturers report things like how much power their devices waste when not in use. We need to demand that businesses install motion sensors or other features to enable better use of lights when they aren't needed as much. We should demand that politicians legislate about light pollution: light pollution is wasted energy, and it harms migrating birds and makes it impossible to see the stars. Why shine a light into space when you can shine it only where you need it?

Let's do SOMETHING about energy waste. Let's turn those lights off and KEEP them off.

Shopping Hours

Toronto City Council voted to continue to force stores to close on holidays, thus ensuring that pointless laws continue to be upheld. This sort of law goes back to religious laws which prohibit certain activities (typically working) on certain days. These days, especially in a city like Toronto, not everyone is the same religion (or even religious) and these types of laws are silly and antiquated.

Frankly there's no reason why stores shouldn't be allowed to be opened all day, all night, every day. Shoppers Drug Mart is already open every single day; why are they allowed to keep their doors open when Chapters is not? There is simply no good reason to force stores to close. Workers can be protected by laws allowing them to have a certain number of days OFF WORK (not just "off work or paid extra") and or laws allowing them to have a certain number of religious holidays at specified times. Some people I know didn't work Sundays even though everyone else on their project was working 14h/day every day, because these people asked for a religious exemption. There's no reason the same sorts of things can't be done for everyone. If you want to protect workers, fine, but let the workers take part in their own protection.

Lots of people don't mind working Christmas day (or Easter or any of the other mandatory holidays) because they want the extra money. There's no reason they should be forced to not work, because someone in the government feels everyone should have a "day off".

The other argument against allowing all of Toronto to be open for all days of the year was that other municipalities don't have the legal authority to enact the same law. Guess what? The Ontario government can't fine the whole province, and if every city enacted the same bylaw allowing stores to open whenever they wanted, the provincial government would cave.

(Note: I originally wrote this when the article was fresh then forgot to post it, but was reminded when I remembered that the Eaton Centre was closed Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Those are two of the only three days in the whole year that it closes. However other stores in the city don't get to be open even that long. Not to mention that many places have restrictions on what HOURS a store can be open. This doesn't actually ensure that everyone gets the night off, though, because lots of store have night-staff that work all night getting the store ready for the next day.)

Beijing's Olympic Inside Joke

The 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing feature a set of nauseating mascots called Fuwa (福娃). The basic idea is alright (one mascot for each olympic ring) but I find the art style they used to be not to my liking. I suspect millions of Chinese children love these critters and millions of Chinese parents hate them.

But the funny thing about these mascots is their names. Beibei (贝贝) is the Fish, Jingjing (晶晶) is the Panda, Huanhuan (欢欢) is the Olympic Flame, Yingying (迎迎) is the Tibetan Antelope and Nini (妮妮) is the Swallow. (I just noticed that the official web page for the Fuwa explains the names and the joke but I'll explain it again here). If you take each name's character and put them together (贝晶欢迎妮) you get "Beijing huanying ni". Which sounds like "北京欢迎你", or "Beijing haunying ni", which translates to "Beijing welcomes you". This is a nice sentiment but only people who speak Mandarin can see the joke; if you speak Cantonese or some other dialect the words "贝晶欢迎妮" are meaningless and the pun is lost. And if you don't speak any Chinese at all you obviously won't see the hidden meaning either.

Bad programming

The Toronto Star has an article about how some computer systems are programmed so badly, they choke on some people's last names. The article is about people with apostrophes, spaces, or hyphens in their names, and how some incredibly bad computer systems don't allow these characters. The article mentions that some systems interpret apostrophes and spaces as commands when storing them in the database. If it sounds incredibly dumb to you that a computer would interpret your last name as a command, you're right, it is incredibly dumb. But the Star is right on in this regard: there are a large number of systems that are vulnerable to this and it's a major problem, called SQL Injection.

Basically what happens is an apostrophe in the data is treated as the marker which indicates where the data ends and the commands begin. The problem is worse than mangled last names, though, because the stuff after the apostrophe is (as the article said) interpreted as a command and executed as such. Imagine writing a cheque for two hundred dollars. If you didn't write "Two Hundred Dollars" but instead wrote "Two Hundred", the recipient of the cheque can insert "Thousand Dollars" on the cheque. This would be bad for your bank account. Similarly if a person were to were to type into the last-name field of a website "Shiny'erase all data", the computer will think the last name is "Shiny" and treat the rest as instructions to erase all data (the SQL is paraphrased). Anyone could attack the system and manipulate the database in ways they wouldn't normally be allowed. The XKCD comic strip has a good comic illustrating this issue: little Bobby Tables. The comic is a little nerdy but it's completely accurate.

Frankly there is no excuse for such bad programming. Frankly there is no excuse in 2008 for most of the common computer flaws we see, but companies don't want to spend money doing proper development, QA, or usability testing. The problem with apostrophes, however, is worse than customer inconvenience. It's often a sign of a major problem with the system.

Money for Nothing

Charlie McCreevy, the EU Commissioner for the Internal Market, has proposed extending copyright for recordings to 95 years. His reasoning:
"If nothing is done, thousands of European performers who recorded in the late 1950s and 1960s will lose all of their airplay royalties over the next ten years. These royalties are often their sole pension." People are living longer and 50 years of copyright protection no longer give lifetime income to artists who recorded hits in their late teens or early twenties.

I wish I could have income for ever based on the work I did in my teens or twenties. Oh wait: I can, in the form of saving for my retirement.

LEGO's prices do them in

Looks like I'm not the only one disgusted with LEGO's prices in Canada: Walmart has decided to stop carrying LEGO. I can only hope that this brings LEGO to their senses regarding the ridiculous prices. Either the US prices are artificially low or the Canadian prices are artificially high but Canadian customers deserve the same good deal the Americans get. I'm not usually a big fan of Walmart but I applaud this move.

Gift Registries done wrong

Someone I know has a gift registry at Sears, a major Canadian retailer. Now a gift registry is an idea of marketing genius: convince your customer to make a list of everything they want, all in one place, to ensure that their friends/relatives buy everything from you. Wonderful! It works because it is convenient for the customers too, and it's a totally one-sided affair for the business.

However, in this day and age a gift registry must be as easy to use as possible. The stores already use technology to their advantage; if you are in the store you can add items to your registry by walking around the store with a barcode scanner and scanning barcodes. You can edit the quantity or scan an item multiple times if you want two or more. Easy as pie.

However, Sears makes three major blunders with its registry. First, their website, catalogue and retail stores don't all have the same inventory, and what they do have may not always have the same price. This is confusing to the consumer. Howerver the gift registry compounds the problem because it doesn't show the up-to-date price for anything! The price shown is the normal price when the item was added. There is no excuse, in this day and age, for the price being out of date. At the very least it should be accurate as of 24 hours ago. But even worse, as a result of the separate inventories, some things are not available except when you buy by a certain method. I can understand that the catalogue doesn't contain the entire store's inventory, or that the stores don't stock certain items, but you should be able to walk into a store and order a special order item, and the website should contain every product, and should allow delivery of any product. Anything less is simply bad service.

Second, the gift registry doesn't give you the most up-to-date website price when you click "buy now" (I should also note that the registry pages look so bad I couldn't find the buy now link at first). Instead, if you find the item at a lower price on the website, say because of a sale, you have to add it to your cart on the product's page, not on the registry page. WTF? The registry has a big scary warning "explaining" this:

Please note: Prices shown below were in effect at the time of registration. Our current selling prices may be higher or lower at the time you purchase. For retail store purchases, you will be charged the price currently in effect in our retail stores on the day you make your purchase. For catalogue orders and orders placed online from this Gift Registry, you will be charged the lowest current price in Sears printed catalogues on the day you place your order. Items that can be ordered online are indicated with 'Buy Now'. IMPORTANT: Some of these items may be offered at lower prices elsewhere on this website, but you must ‘Add To Basket’ directly from the website item page in order to receive the website price. Sears cannot guarantee that all items in this registry will be available at the time you shop.
It's simply bad customer service in 2008 to offer a product at one price but only if the user clicks a certain link, because your other link doesn't support the current price. Basically the warning message is saying "don't use the registry to buy items".

The third blunder is that the registry page itself is a fossilized relic from 1994; we're talking a plain, ugly HTML table, in monospace font, without a colour or graphic to be seen, but worst of all, without any links to a product description or picture or anything. Sometimes even the name of the product has been truncated so you can't tell what the item is unless you already know what it is. Great design, Sears.

Sears, do yourselves a favour, update your registry system. Maybe more people will use it, and you'll make more money?

I don't want iTunes

For some reason Apple seems to really really want me to install iTunes. I don't have an iPod and I've never installed iTunes, but I did make the mistake of installing QuickTime. When you install QuickTime it installs Apple Software Update, which is good because there have been serious security bugs in QuickTime, but Apple uses the software update to try to force-feed you iTunes, so that they can maybe con you into buying their DRM'd products.
Please, Apple, stop trying to force me to install iTunes! Installing unneeded software on a computer is bad; it can make the computer slower or less stable, it can be a security risk (what if Apple Update stops working? now I have an insecure QuickTime AND and insecure iTunes), it can confuse users by changing their settings (gee, WinAmp used to load when I clicked on an MP3, now it's iTunes?), and it wastes disk space and clutters the Start Menu.

Equally annoying is that all the benefits iTunes supposedly bring me are tied to other Apple products: the iPod (don't have one), the iPhone (not available in my country), Apple TV (don't think it's available here), the iTunes store (music locked to your account, can't be easily backed up or sold or played on a non-iPod device)... iTunes doesn't really bring anything good to the table; it's more of a necessary evil if you use one of those other things. Which I don't, which is obvious to Apple because I don't have iTunes installed. If I needed iTunes, it would be there already.

What's worse about this situation is that Apple does two sneaky things to try to con you into installing iTunes: first, it calls the package "iTunes + QuickTime", which is maybe confusing because people think "Oh, I do have QuickTime, maybe I need this update", and also they prompt you to install it even if you've already declined before.

Apple lets you "ignore" updates, which makes them disappear from the list, but irritatingly they pop back into the list whenever the updates are updated. This means that even though you repeatedly tell Apple to screw off, they still insist that you install iTunes.
I've searched on Google and haven't found a way to stop this spamming short of shutting off automatic updates of QuickTime (and any other Apple software I might have, like Safari). I guess I'm stuck denying them again and again. Or maybe I'll just uninstall QuickTime and Safari and banish Apple from this computer entirely.

Judge shows common sense in face of insane prosecutors

I'm glad to see that there are still judges in the justice system who understand that crime needs to be punished. The recent case of a woman in Halifax who was beaten by three teenagers is one example: Both the Crown and the defense argued for short sentences for two of the girls, but thankfully the judge showed some good sense and imposed a stiffer penalty. Unfortunately this penalty doesn't go far enough but at least it's better than nothing.

A Strange Week in the Copyright World

Last week two interesting things happened in the realm of copyright. First the owner of the copyright of a particular piece of Free software advised the world that he was withdrawing that software from the GPL; he instructed people to delete any copies they have and remove the code from any systems that might have incorporated it.

I've wondered when we would see this particular event occur, since I recall the copyright laws being somewhat vague about this sort of thing. The problem is the owner of the copyright already gave people permission to use the source code under the terms of the GPL, which does not allow for revoking the license. The issue will need to be decided by a court which will determine whether a "gift" can be "ungiven". Some comments on Slashdot suggest that there may be something else at play here; such as a legal restriction which prevents the owner of the copyright from distributing the code under the GPL, and which would render the GPL invalid for this code. However the author did not indicate this and it remains to be seen what will happen.

The other odd thing that happened was that a US judge found that a cease-and-desist letter is copyrightable. That means that if a lawyer wants to bully you into doing something, and you want to tell the world that you are being bullied, you are not allowed to post a copy of the cease and desist letter on your website. In theory this would mean that you're not even allowed to make photocopies of the letter to pass around to your staff (assuming you have staff).

Frankly this is a frightening ruling. A cease and desist letter is clearly not a work of art, but rather a simple communication. The only effect that can be had from suppressing the publication of such a letter is that more lawyers will be able to bully people into getting in line with their clients' wishes. This is often what happens when someone's activities are embarrassing to a corporation. Suppressing this kind of speech can only have a chilling effect on freedom.

Amputee Runners

The Star has an article about Oscar Pistorius, a runner who has two artificial legs. Mr. Pistorius has been barred from running in the Olympics because his artificial legs give him an advantage over normal runners.

It seems an ironic, possibly unexpected situation, where a person born with no fibulas, who had his lower legs amputated at 11 months old, could have the advantage in a running competition. But the truth is the artificial legs were designed for only one purpose: running. They are not suited to any other task, and their structure is optimized for what they do. As a consequence they allow a runner to run more efficiently.

It's unfortunate for Mr. Pistorius, who has trained hard and overcome obvious limitations in order to be a possible Olympic athlete, but if his prosthetics provide an advantage over normal legs then I have to agree with the ban. The Olympic games are supposed to be a narrowly-defined contest and things like steroids or prosthetics fall outside those limits. This is especially true of running, where almost no technology is used; compared to, say, skiing where the skis and poles are extremely advanced.

One day there will be a sport where people can use artificial limbs, or maybe the poor availability of unmodified athletes will moot the discussion. Or maybe the normal runners can have shoes made that mimic the prosthetics. Until then, the disabled runner is just too good for normal runners. And that is possibly the highest compliment that can be paid to the runner and the people who made his running legs.

LG R500 Notebook

I bought my first notebook computer, an LG R500. Previously I'd resisted getting a notebook because they are very expensive compared to desktops; I'd rather spend the equivalent on a desktop and get twice the machine. But this time I needed the portability so I had no choice.

I chose the R500 because
A) It had a 1680x1050 screen
B) It was fast enough, otherwise, and
C) It was on sale for a reasonable price.

This last point may seem silly but it's important because most notebooks are woefully under-spec'ed when it comes to display resolution, unless you're willing to go for the ultra-high-end. In Toronto this means spending over $2000 for a notebook. I'm past the days of spending over $2000 for any computer, so I had few choices in the under $2k range. Almost all notebooks have pitiful resolutions, with only 900 or 800 lines. Maybe I'm a snob but those notebooks just don't cut it.

After getting the LG home my first task was to verify that all the hardware is working, because there's only a 14-day money-back guarantee (there's a warranty, but that's not the same thing). Once I was certain that everything worked (I tested WiFi by connecting to the various unsecured access points in my building... tsk tsk, people, lock down your WiFi!), it was time to re-install the OSes according to MY requirements.
My most important requirement is Linux. Unfortunately this notebook came with the OS pre-installed, and more unfortunately it's Windows Vista (Home Premium). I've heard nothing good about Vista, bug after giving Vista a look I decided that I like the UI changes, even though they'll take some getting-used-to, and we'll have to see how the performance is.

Thankfully for me, LG provides a "restore CD" which installs the OS for you. Unfortunately it erases the whole hard drive first (not a problem as this is a fresh system), but at least the CD is available out of the box (Some notebooks don't ship with a CD, you have to burn it yourself - ridiculous, if you ask me). More fortunately the restore CD lets you specify how many partitions you want to use. This means I won't have to mess around with disk-resizing tools and risk corrupting the file-system; it can be "right" from the get-go. The other downside about the rescue CD is that it installs some rescue files in a separate partition on the hard disk, which eats up one of the primary partitions. Luckily I can make-do with just 3 partitions: one for Windows, one for Linux, and one for data.

In the old days my data partition was FAT-32 because that was the common-denominator between Windows and Linux. Back when I started messing around with Linux I even had to compile my own kernel because the kernel that came with RedHat 5.0 didn't support FAT-32. Ah, the olden days, when you had to compile the kernel... that takes me back. Anyway, more recently I stored all my data on a remote server, and thus didn't have to worry about the filesystem, because Samba took care of it. But with a notebook you can't rely on a network share and so your two OSes will need to play nicely together on the same disk. I will have to investigate the various NTFS drivers for Linux to see what I can do.

Windows Configuration
It's been a while since I installed a Windows OS so I was interested to see what would be required for Vista on this notebook. It seems that LG has opted to provide a separate driver disk for installing the custom software that ships with this notebook. The basic installation when ok, no questions were asked (after setting up the partitions) other than simple date/time questions. After windows rebooted and appeared to be started, a program started that said "Setting to System Recovery Environment". The installer had originally told me to wait until user registration started, but it's still odd that we have to wait for this program to run, and odder that it starts up AFTER the windows welcome screen shows up. Once this mystery program finished it rebooted the computer. Then I was informed that Windows was checking my system performance, and then the system rebooted again. This was a pointless exercise since there were important drivers not yet installed, so my system's performance was 1.0.

Booting seemed to take a long time and the system came up in 800x600 resolution. This is silly because Windows should know the monitor's resolution and I don't think it's too much to ask that windows know this is an LCD, and thus deduce that it should automatically use the highest resolution. At least the highest resolution was available without needing the nVidia driver installed.

Once the system was up and running, I had a nice clean Vista install with zero third-party drivers. This is both good and bad. On one hand, it means I also don't have the third party demo software or other undesirable software that I might not want. On the other hand it means there are no drivers at all. I think it would have been more professional of LG to slipstream the drivers for the camera, video card, flash-memory accelerator, card reader, and all the other devices that are built-in. This is not what happens and instead you have to resort to the "LG Intelligent Update" CD that comes with the notebook. This CD lets you install all the missing stuff, in one fell-swoop.

Unfortunately, the CD doesn't let you do a custom install, so I had to do that manually, but skipping the auto-run and running a bunch of setup utilities directly from the CD. This isn't very convenient but to LG's credit at least they make this possible. When I used to sell computers (mainly Compaq, AST (that dates me!), HP, IBMs, and Packard-Bells) it was common for a "restore CD" to auto-install everything, including tons of junk you didn't want or need. LG's approach makes life relatively simple for the novice user but not hellish for the advanced user.

That being said, here are all the software packages I had to install to get the system working in the way I wanted it to work:
  • Cardbus driver
  • Fingerprint sensor driver
  • Intel Chipset driver
  • Intel Turbomemory driver (what is this?)
  • Wireless adapter driver
  • nVidia driver (not available from the nVidia site
  • On-screen display (for volume control, etc)
  • Webcam driver
  • Touchpad driver
  • Plus run Windows update
Finally, some comments on Windows Vista. First, they've changed the Explorer address-bar/location drop-down box. This is good and bad. I like the bread-crumb navigation, which lets you quickly jump back up the folder tree. Some of the new behaviour is a little odd, though: when you click on the far-left bit of the address-bar it becomes a text input, but if you click on other places it navigates to what you clicked on. I'm not used to the behaviour and I don't know if a novice would like this or not. Then there's everyone's favourite feature, the authorization prompts. When you're a normal user it's handy that Windows lets you easily elevate your privileges to get work done, like installing software. For me, this is what I'm used-to from Linux and it's ok. But when I'm LOGGED-IN as the admin it's really, really annoying to be prompted every time I try to do anything admin-ish. I can appreciate Microsoft's predicament, and understand why they did this, but I wish they'd sacrificed more backwards compatibility in order to improve the user-experience for the new security. Oh well, they had to try something.

Linux Configuration
Linux has a disadvantage over Windows because LG took the time to support Windows but didn't do so for Linux (that I know of). Consequently there is no equivalent to the LG Intelligent Update disk which contains any third-party drivers, there is no one-stop install disk, and no guarantee that Linux will even work. But Linux usually works out-of-the-box on any modern system and I'd googled this system before so I was confident it should work.

First I had to download Fedora 8 and burn it to a DVD. Then I put it into the drive and rebooted the notebook. The system booted right away from the DVD, but the DVD drive was noisy, like an old Commodore 64's floppy disk. Since I don't use the drive much that's not a big deal. I was greeted with the Linux install prompt, which asks me to choose between graphical and text-mode installation. Unfortunately, the graphical installer just hung the machine so I had to use the text-mode installer. I haven't had that kind of problem in years, and was quite disappointed. First impressions were not good.

Things weren't better after the install was finished. I was left with a text-mode console, with no indication of what might be wrong with the graphical mode. Luckily I know my way around Linux so I was able to try starting graphical mode (it's called X, for you non-Linux users) by using the 'startx' command. This hung the machine... no wait! turns out it only hung the keyboard and display. I was able to ssh into this machine from my other computer and fix things. Amusing anecdote: years ago I told my manager about how I restarted X by telnetting into a crashed computer, thus fixing the computer. He said I'd been born in the wrong decade. Back on topic: since the console seemed to be the only thing broken when I started X, I hoped that installing the nVidia driver would fix my problems. I configured the livna repository and sure enough, installing the nVidia driver did fix everything. I even had a graphical boot screen, which was also missing earlier.

The first order of business when installing a new OS is to get the patches. I did this in Windows using Windows Update and tried runing "Pup" to do the same in Linux. Pup told me there were hundreds of updates, and asked if I wanted to install them. I clicked yes and waited. That's when the Pup window went away and wouldn't come back. Well, it didn't go away, but it became blank and unresponsive. I ended up killing Pup and running the command-line tool, yum. Yum revealed (indirectly) what was wrong with Pup (besides an unresponsive GUI): the updates were 625 MB in size! This meant I was practically downloading the whole distribution again. Not fun, but at least I have high-speed internet.

Once everything was up to date I had to get my hardware working. Almost everything worked out of the box except the WiFi, webcam, card reader, and fingerprint scanner. WiFi was actually easy to set up; for some reason the NetworkManager service wasn't running. As soon as that was on the rest worked fine. I don't know why it wasn't on, and I hate to think of what a non-expert would do to resolve this situation, but for me decades of computer nerdiness made this problem easy to solve.

More tricky was the webcam. It is supported by the uvcvideo driver, which (for some reason) isn't part of the main Linux kernel and also isn't shipped in Fedora. So I had to install this driver manually, which I did according to the instructions here. With that driver installed the webcam works fine.

I haven't installed the fingerprint reader driver in Linux (nor Windows) because I don't need it, but I should note that Fedora 8 appears to completely lack support for it.

I didn't get the card reader working. It seems Texas Instruments hasn't released information about this device and it doesn't present itself as a standard block device; each memory stick type needs a custom driver. Work is under-way to reverse engineer this so I'll hold out some hope.

The LG R500 Itself
Overall I am pretty happy with the notebook. There is one major problem, in my opinion, though: the keyboard is very odd. Now, notebook keyboards are notorious for having strange layouts and compromises, and this keyboard has its share of cramped keys. But the problem I'm referring to is the placement of the key with the pipe symbol and the backslash. Most keyboards have this key on the second row between the back-space and the enter key. Some keyboards have a huge, backwards-L-shaped enter key, and they place the backslash beside the backspace key, and compromise by making backspace smaller. Back when keyboards didn't have Windows keys you might find backslash between control and alt. All of these make sense, and my favourite is the big, two-key-wide backspace and enter, with 1.5 wide backslash in the row between them.

Why am I going on and on about this? Because the LG R500 does not follow any of these norms. It has the enter key as a weird upside-down L with the backslash key nestled-in between the apostrophe and the enter key. This means that the spot where I usually find the enter key (right next to the apostrophe) is now a backslash, and the spot where I usually find the backslash is now the enter key. To make it worse, there's a SPARE backslash key next to the shrunken left shift key, also in the spot where I'd normally hit the left-shift key. This means I have difficulty typing things because my shifted characters and newlines are littered with backslashes. I suppose I will get used to this but this is a major crime for people who touch-type. It'd be less irritating if the whole layout was different, say, Dvorak, because then EVERYTHING I typed would be wrong, instead of just my passwords (I end up typing a password as ******\) or my capital Ms (they become \m).

Aside from the keyboard, my only other problem is the card reader. Besides its total lack of Linux support, It's placed underneath the keyboard and it's very tricky to reach. But at least it's there, and it accommodates my SD cards and Memory Sticks with no trouble, so that would save me from using my USB card reader, if it worked in Linux. The rest of the notebook is good: the keyboard feels nice, I can type most things perfectly, the touch-pad works well, and all the other features I've tried have worked exactly as you'd expect. Performance on this notebook is good but I've yet to play any games to really put it through its paces.

The most important conclusion is that I will be keeping this notebook, and not exercising my 14-day money-back guarantee. As to which OS worked better; the Vista installation was definitely easier than Fedora 8, but if the installer had supported the video card out of the box I'd call it close. Fedora loses points on the lack of webcam support and the inexplicable failure to launch NetworkManager by default. I don't blame Fedora for the lack of card-reader support, however, because it's not their fault Texas Instruments are living in the wrong century with regards to supporting Free Software. Anyway, once installed the two OSes have behaved pretty much as you'd expect, and all is looking good.