August 2006
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Month August 2006

Autumn approaches…

Autumn was palpable in the air this morning. I came downstairs and made coffee, sat on the deck watching the wind make patterns out in San Juan Channel. For most of the day, the channel was filled with tiny whitecaps, and although it was sunny and clear, the overwhelming feeling was one of approaching cold weather. It’s getting darker earlier, of course. Eight o’clock feels much like nine o’clock felt a few weeks ago, and that’s the only thing I really lament. Cold, wind, rain, all of these are fine. The lack of light is what will soon be a major factor in our lives, here in the Northwest.

In the city it’s less of a problem: you go into a building in the morning, you spend time in front of the computer and in conference rooms with people, and then you get in the car and go home, and it’s dark both directions. At least it will be after Thanksgiving and before the seasons turn again. But here, where my days aren’t marked by buildings and conference rooms and whiteboards, this autumn and its shorter days will be a bigger adjustment, I expect. But a couple of cords of firewood, and perhaps an adjustment to my schedule — up early to catch the sun — will help.

This coming weekend is Labor Day, and I’ve got guests. Tomorrow I’ll start preparing the guest room, washing sheets and cleaning the house in general. My contractors are finishing up with painting and some miscellaneous work, and I suspect within a week or two the house will be “done” and quiet, perhaps even my books will be unpacked and the garage able to house a car, rather than my library.

It’s looking like I won’t go back to school until Winter Quarter, mostly because of timing issues in getting my Ph.D. committee re-formulated and getting all the gears and cogs at the University to do their thing for readmission. That’s fine — at this point I’ve only got one free weekend between now and Thanksgiving, so a quarter “off” after finishing the house and before getting serious about my dissertation is just fine. The move and the house has taken longer than I expected — “island time” — but the end results are nice and cozy, without ostentation or over-decoration. This fall I expect to enjoy the quiet weekdays, studying a bit in review for Winter, and having good weekends full of friends visiting from the city, or heading down there myself for social events, and of course my fortieth birthday. Which I haven’t planned at all, but is looming closer by the day…

iTunes drives me crazy sometimes

OK, so I’m suffering iTunes woes. I’ll leave aside the DRM issue: the frustration of having music I can play on my iPod and on my computer via the iTunes app, but not via my Slim Devices Squeezebox, for example. Sucks, but at least I understand why that issue exists.

My biggest issue with iTunes is that it’s simply inadequate for maintaining a serious music library, especially when you have multiple devices and perhaps a centralized home file server. In my case, I’m trying to consolidate all my music and media onto an Infrant ReadyNAS NV storage server, which sits on wired gigabit ethernet at the house and should offer streaming access to a variety of devices throughout the house. The storage part works just fine, of course; it’s the management functions that suck.

I used to have two iTunes libraries, because the sum of all my music files were bigger than both my 12″ Powerbook and my 20GB iPod could handle. So I kept one library with everything in it, and a library on my laptop which was small enough to leave me some free disk space and fit on the iPod. Fair enough. Managing these subsets, however, becomes a real pain in the butt. Issue #1: Merging and subsetting two libraries has virtually no support in iTunes. Basically, you copy the underlying files and then import or “Add to library…” which works fine, until there’s overlap. iTunes is brain-dead in terms of duplicate management. I know, newer versions have a “Check for duplicates…” function, but if you’ve used it, you know it’s pretty bad. Leaving aside how bad the duplicate management function is, why should this be a problem in the first place? A wide variety of methods are capable of detecting whether you’ve got the same track. Starting with filenames, you can move on to CDDB data, id tags, all the way to some of the acoustic “fingerprinting” algorithms. It’s not an insoluble problem, but Apple must not have any “power user” personas in its use-cases.

This would all be much less of a problem — basically restricted to situations where you really need to merge two disparate libraries together — if iTunes had a better way to deal with server-based libraries and local system-resident libraries (Issue #2) Why should I have to manually copy and manage separate libraries on a server and my laptop? I don’t really want two libraries — I want one, resident on the server, which I have a copy or a cache of on my laptop. And as long as we’re building some kind of snapshot or cache, let’s handle the use case where I’ve got a large library on the server and only have a smaller free space on the laptop. I should be able to specify how the “subset snapshot” is taken and maintained: examples might include choosing a space limit and then filling it with “most played tracks,” “highest rated tracks,” “most recently added,” “by genre,” or adding specific playlists (and their underlying contents) and then using one of the other algorithms to fill the rest of the space. Again, creating rational subsets of the total library doesn’t seem like a hard problem.

When I reconnect my laptop to the appropriate network server, iTunes ought to sync the two (issue #3): stuff I rip on the laptop or purchased from the iTunes store, or eMusic, ought to be copied into the server library, and stuff that I need from the server library (perhaps added from a desktop machine) ought to be sync’d to the laptop. We know Apple knows how to do this because that’s what it does between the iPod and the computer-based iTunes library, so this is just extending the same idea out another level, between two “computer resident” iTunes libraries.

Today, solving each of these use cases involves manual copying of files, puttering around with Applescripts, trying out buggy freeware, or just suffering through libraries chock full of duplicate tracks. If there’s a good commercial application which handles some of these use cases, I’d buy it. But ultimately, this is the kind of thing that I expect Apple to solve in the core product, since they don’t have to cruft up the non-power-user scenarios in order to do it. People who don’t care about each of the three situations won’t even know the functionality is there — iTunes would just work like it does today. But those of us who are trying to build a serious multi-computer media center, and have mobiles devices as part of the mix, would sure appreciate the new features.

Please?

An unexpectedly quiet weekend…


  DSC_0015.JPG 
  Originally uploaded by mmadsen.

This morning’s farmer’s market had some terrific produce, including a selection of tiny melons.  Pictured is a minature variety of musk melon or canteloupe (I’m not sure which it is, actually) but it’s barely bigger than my cell phone and fits neatly in the palm of my hand.  The stem end has a pungent cantaloupe aroma, so I think it’ll be wonderful for breakfast tomorrow.

I got my voter registration card in the mail yesterday, allowing me to vote in San Juan County.  This will make Stefan Sharkansky and his slightly paranoid ilk at Sound Politics happy — one less Democrat voting in King County.  But it also means one more Democrat voting in a rural Washington county, which I did intentionally since I’m pretty sure Jim McDermott doesn’t need my vote as much as, say, Rick Larsen does.  Since I still own a home and plan to split residence between the island and Seattle, I guess I could have chosen to keep my original registration, but I figured for national and state-wide races it doesn’t matter where I am, and for districted races I can contribute more outside of Seattle, which is Democrat-safe for the moment (though Stefan and his crowd are undoubtedly working assiduously to change this). 

Originally I was supposed to be down in Seattle this weekend, but I needed to switch some things around and find myself up here without guests or any pressing appointments.  Which is really nice.  I finished Dsc_0001_2my pickling project yesterday as well — 36 pints of green beans and kosher dills.  Today, I’m eradicating the fine sheen of evaporated salt which has settled out fom the steam and condensation induced by processing the jars. 

It’s back to unpacking and arranging things for a bit, before I head into town for dinner and chamber music — Mozart at the San Juan Community Theatre, which I’m looking forward to.

Dinner and a Sunset


  DSC_0018.JPG 
  Originally uploaded by mmadsen.

It was another truly stunning sunset tonight, after a cold and windy night last night. 

In truth, this picture isn’t tonight’s sunset, but the one from Monday evening.  I missed snapping a picture of tonight’s "peak" sunset because I was stir-frying Sui-mi ji  out on the deck while the light held.  The dish in question is Szechwan chicken with peanuts, cabbage and red pepper strips, and was incredibly delicious. 

I used the recipe from Robert Delfs’s book, "The Good Food of Szechwan," out of print but available from Amazon and other used book stores pretty cheap.  The book was recommended by my friend Bryan, who writes the blog Soup Noodles, and has immense expertise at Chinese cuisine and cooking methods. 

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The dish went together fairly quickly — it is, after all, just stir fried chicken (marinated in a cornstarch, soy, wine sauce), shredded green cabbage, chopped peanuts, and thin strips of red peppers (dried or fresh, but somewhat hot).  To this is added garlic, ginger, scallions, and hot black bean paste.  The latter I found at Ranch 99 on my way to the ferry the other day; any specialty Chinese or Asian market will have some.  I defer to Bryan on the choice of brands, however.  I used what I found, but Bryan’s blog can advise on some of the imported choices for best results. 

I am, however, adjusting to the techniques, timing, and "moves" needed to work with the big wok on the high heat provided by the propane wok stand.  The stand doubles as a turkey frying rig and was about 50 bucks at the hardware store, and the wok a large 22" steel one, covered initially in grease but costing only 25 bucks.  I found a leather glove this trip down to Seattle, which gives me better grip on the small hoop handles on the wok than the silicone mitt I’d been using, and I think practice and better tools are improving my technique.  The dish was delicious — easily the equal of a similar dish served at "Sichuanese Cuisine" in the Sears shopping center by the Microsoft campus, and incredibly tasty.  Probably the best Chinese dish I’ve done thus far. 

The sunset has faded into full darkness now, with only the faint lights of Vancouver and the stars to light the sky off the northern deck.  I find, increasingly, that I can’t go inside until it’s getting truly dark and I can’t read anymore.  Watching a movie or doing indoor things, while there’s still a "show" to be seen in the sunset sky seems just….wrong.  A waste of precious days where it stays light into the evening, a waste of a moment where I look out at where I’ve found myself and just start laughing at the pure amazement of it all.  How and why I’ve ended up here is a story for another evening, but one I do promise to write.  But for now, the citronella candles are making little pools of light on the deck tables, and the stars are coming out in earnest, so it’s time to step away from the computer…

Strange OS X Behavior

Yesterday morning, for no reason I can discern, my Macbook Pro started heating up again. After the 10.4.7 upgrade, my CPU temp has dropped on an average basis to the high 50’s and low 60’s for doing normal tasks like reading email and writing documents. The temperature climbs to high 70’s when playing DVDs or decoding high-bandwidth media. Well, yesterday the normal resting temp climbed to the high 70’s and low 80’s and stayed there. With all user-level apps closed.

Activity Monitor showed an average CPU load of about 40-55% (with no user apps running, remember), and much of that was simply that one of the two CPU cores was pegged pretty constantly. This didn’t show up in the process table at all, however, which I found odd. Even kernel_task was only consuming 1-2% CPU.

Eventually, looking at log files, I noticed that /var/log/samba/log.nmbd was growing outrageously, as nmbd (the Samba name service daemon) was being restarted and dying many many times per second. Somehow it was failing to start, to bind to port 137, and then launchd was restarting it virtually without any delay or sleep. I consider the latter a bug in Apple’s implementation of Windows file sharing, but whatever.

Turning off Windows File Sharing fixed the problem, and now CPU utilization and temperatures are back to normal. But it leaves a question — why, after months without such symptoms, did nmbd suddenly go wonky yesterday at 10am? Not a clue.

This wasn’t a particularly “difficult” problem to troubleshoot, but it did have very few symptoms visible in any of Apple’s utilities and apps. I found this one on the command line using the time-honored Unix toolset. So it does make you wonder how someone only acquainted with the GUI would find and fix it. We continue to build technology which requires highly specialized knowledge to deal with ordinary, everyday issues. Of course, that’s true of automobiles and other consumer technology as well, but arguably computing has a long way to go to get as reliable as the average automobile.

Of warmth and wiring…

This week finally saw some action towards finishing up the immediate house projects.  After last week’s move, this week has mostly been unpacking, at least to the extent that I can before the final painting happens and the electrical work is completed.  Those items (particularly the painting) need to happen before I can position bookshelves (11 total) around the house and begin unpacking the big bulk of boxes.  Yesterday, after what I felt was a pretty long delay (I was a bit cranky), the network wiring and video cabling began – allowing the DirecTV dish to be back up with signal (it needed reinstallation after the roofing project, which dislodged the dish), and for me to finally get the rooms wired up to the relay rack in the garage.

Much of that was finished today, except for ethernet to a couple of the less critical rooms.  Bob, the network wiring guy, had to leave midday because he was volunteering for Kiwanis at the San Juan County Fair.  Apparently they take shifts grilling and doing BBQ, so I’ll have to check that out this weekend with Scott. 

With the completion of electrical work, and the basic network cabling, I now have heat in all theDsc_0001_1
rooms, electricity everywhere needed, and my TV is back.  And just yesterday, some folks replaced the chimney on the wood stove (which was nasty), cleaned and serviced it, swept the upper chimney, and helped me get the stove positioned to code, which my insurance company insisted upon.  Today I picked up some fireplace tools and an axe, and had my first wood stove fire tonight.  It’s burning down a bit as I write this, and while the stove didn’t get hot enough to boil tea water, it got close enough so the Wolf finished the job in about 10 seconds. 

Scott arrives tomorrow to stay until Tuesday morning — his birthday is Saturday and he decided to take some time off to come up and be my first house guest.  I’m going to take him to the fair, and to all my favorite island landmarks from past days, we’ll hit a nice restaurant for his birthday, and we’ll take the kitchen out for a spin and see how much propane we get through on the wok stand.  It should be fun.  Probably not a lot of posting until Tuesday, unless we have a lazy Sunday afternoon or something, which seems very possible.  Somehow the deck makes it completely impossible to sit inside, or watch movies until it’s too dark to read or see much.