Hang in there, Los Alamos

As I write this my family is under mandatory evacuation orders in Los Alamos, NM. The good news: the last major fire, which burned the homes of 600 families, left a low-fuel swath around much of the town. The bad news: this fire is fucking crazy.

So, hang in there, guys, and be safe. I’ll write more later, when I’m not supposed to be working.

A Rambling Blog

A couple of years ago I became fed up with my Web hosting provider. MMHosting had been great, but then came the outages, and the complete lack of response from their support people. (At the start of my stay with them, I had been mightily impressed with their customer care. That ended.) Then there was the time Muddled Ramblings was mentioned on a very popular blog and my hits soared. They turned me off.

I moved to a new, very inexpensive host called iPage. It was great, until the outages, which could last a day or more. When I asked what the problem had been and what they had done, they were vague. “No, really,” I persisted, “I understand the jargon. Tell me what happened and what you did to make sure it won’t happen again.” I never got an answer.

“You get what you pay for,” I reasoned, and iPage was wedging me onto an already overcrowded server and there just wasn’t enough computer there to handle all that traffic. Giddy with a new income stream, I decided to upgrade. The way to avoid getting wedged onto an overcrowded machine is to cough up the bucks and reserve a portion of a machine that is yours and yours alone. It doesn’t matter what any of your neighbors on the box do, they can’t take your resources away from you.

The downside to this approach is that you can’t borrow resources from your neighbors, either. For reasons I still don’t understand, my virtual server went nuts every once in a while, cranking away and eventually running out of ram and descending into a hellish limbo of non-Web-serving confusion. I’ve gone over all my stuff and I can’t find anything that would cause that, but there must be something. (It might be coming from outside; perhaps China still hates this blog, and throws a half-assed attack at it periodically. They do that shit. I expect it’s something more local, however.)

So the money I was throwing at the problem wasn’t helping. It was time to weigh my options again. The step up from renting a dedicated slice of a server is to use the whole damn machine. Naturally, this costs a lot more, since there’s one customer per machine.

Except when it doesn’t. Enter my new best hosting pals, MacMiniColo.net. For the price I was paying Green Geeks, I get more than six times the server, and it’s MacOS, which means all my experience setting up servers with MacPorts pays off. (I’m a big fan of MacPorts. It’s not always quite as easy as they make it sound, but usually it is. Tonight I needed to add SSH2 support in PHP, and all I had to do was type sudo port install php5-ssh2 and that was that. I’m not even sure what SSH2 is (as opposed to SSH) but it simplified the WordPress AutoUpdate process.)

There were a couple of hiccups getting everything running (I set up jerryseeger.com as a WordPress install first to pave the way), but once everyone agreed where the MySQL socket was it was Holiday On Ice the rest of the way. The last step, getting AutoUpdate to work in WordPress, was something I’d not managed on the CentOS virtual server at GreenGeeks. Now it’s cake.

So, I’m pretty happy. I’ll be watching for the midnight-runaway problem, and if the extra horsepower doesn’t solve it (if it even happens at all), at least now I know that there is nothing on this box I don’t control.


The Question I Really Wanted to Ask Tonight

“So, are you guys prostitutes?”

Road Trip by the Numbers

My sweetie and I just made a quick road trip from here in San Jose down to Tucson, Arizona, and back. The light of my life happens to be the light of other people’s lives as well, and one of her closest friends has been having a tough time of it lately. It was time to go lend a bit of moral support, and to introduce me to part of my sweeties (non-genetic) extended family.

Time was limited, however, and cash not as plentiful as we would like, factors that combined to make this a long drive with little rest. Here are a couple of interesting stats:

Waking hours spent driving: 50% (about 33/65)
Increase in car's mileage: 5.5%

That second number may not seem that significant, until you realize the car is ten years old:

Miles per day, first ten years: 33700/3650 = 9.2
        (includes a road trip from San Jose to Los Angeles)
Miles per day, last four days: 1880/4 = 470

The last stat of note:

Beers consumed: 0

Yeah. Next time, we’re flying.

Taking Pictures of the Wall

I’ve said before that nobody was more surprised than I when I outgrew my camera. Well, that’s nothing that a regular paycheck can’t solve, and now I not only have a better camera (only four years out of date!), I have other gear as well. The most significant addition to the toybox has been fancy strobes and an assortment of accessories. No more shooting with 60-watt desk lamps with long, long exposures (unless I want to).

Now I have plenty of light, but last shoot I was frustrated, needing to move an umbrella back for better coverage, while at the same time needing to move it forward to make the edges of the shadows softer. Harlean’s fictitious feet were often in shadow. There’s a toy called a softbox that most photographers use in situations like this, but I don’t have any of those (yet), and in my little living room/studio there really isn’t room for them. So, I need to get the most out of my umbrellas.

One of the more interesting pictures of the backdrop. Seriously.

The first step is figuring out just what they do. To this end my faithful sidekick set up a large blank surface and I spent the afternoon taking pictures of the way the light splashed on the wall as I moved the light in and out, and what effect shifting the light in the focus of the umbrella had. I also experimented with grids that limit the dispersion of the light and with some of my other new toys.

Important to the exercise was the ability to see the result of each shot. My camera has a pretty large LCD, but for judging lighting I just don’t trust it. I needed instant feedback on a larger screen. Happily, Canon has software to allow the camera and my computer to talk to each other in real time. Take the picture, it’s loaded onto the computer and appears on the screen. The problem: Canon is run by idiots and you can’t download and install the software. They have updaters, but you have to start with an install from the CD that came with your camera. I had a CD. It’s around somewhere. Maybe in San Diego. A while back I got them to send me a second CD which I think is in New Mexico. Yep, they’d rather mail me a CD than let me download the stupid software.

Canon’s logic, near as I can figure: “We can’t let just anybody download this software! Non-Canon users might get hold of it and… like it and… wish they could take advantage of the features that only work with a Canon camera and… buy our cameras. We can’t have that! (Wait, what?)”

Anyway, it turns out the “updater” is a full installer that’s been jiggered, and once I learned how to un-jigger an older installer and then update with the newer updater, I was good to go. On with the experiment!

I have to say that the results were not always what I would have expected based on my Physics classes. I learned quite a bit: 1) I should not have had any trouble lighting Harlean’s feet. 2) moving the light in and out of the umbrella’s focus affected brightness more than the spread of the light, and 3) there’s only so long you can take pictures of a blank surface.

"Bunny Head" shot with similar light to the blank shot above.

If you will recall, the other lemma (half of a dilemma) stated above was that I wanted to keep shadows soft. Larger light sources make softer shadows, so you can soften shadows by moving the light closer to the subject (so it appears larger). My experiments shooting against a blank surface couldn’t give me any insight on that front, so once I was more comfortable with the way the light spread, it was time to put something in front of the lights that had features that cast shadows. Enter the foam head with bunny ears.

(I’ve been trying to come up with a technical justification for the bunny ears, but in the end I just thought they’d be fun. And! Ooo! The pink lining gave me a way to judge color saturation. So there you go. The bunny ears were critical.)

Talk about a tough subject to photograph. Bright, shiny, pure-white objects are unforgiving to say the least. Get enough light to bring out texture, and you’re getting harsh reflections as well. I spent an hour or so moving the light (singular) around in a scientific fashion, comparing the results after careful variations. Then I got tired of that and just tried to take a few good pictures.

Some random samples from the head-shooting experiments. I seem to have grabbed dark ones. There are some interesting differences if you know how the light was changed each time.

After that exercise, I had to get a picture of the whole setup. Out came the old camera, set up on a cardboard box. I set the shutter to one second so I could hear it click and take a picture with the main camera (causing the flash to pop). I spent maybe half an hour on this one stupid shot, trying to get cool shadows on the floor, a nice look at the laptop screen, and a good feeling for the surrounding room. The light of my life pointed out a fun visual element in one picture that then became a requirement for the final. I’d take a few shots, go back to the big computer, experiment with cropping, decide I could do better and go back out to the studio again.

Experimenting with lighting, using a foam head and bunny ears.

A little technical geekery: those looking closely might notice that the background appears a lot darker in the photo on the laptop screen. The light is much closer to the head than to the backdrop, so the head gets more intense light. When the exposure is correct for the bright white head, the background is underexposed.

I never got the perfect shot. Perfection is a thankless bitch, remote and unattainable. We all chase her, and some get closer than others. The question is: will you learn from her rejection? Am I a better photographer for spending a day taking a couple hundred pictures (and looking carefully at each) that no one will ever see? I hope so. We’ll find out soon enough.

And that, my friends, is how you spend a Sunday!


New Album Out!

I haven’t seen the cover for the Foo Fighters’ new album, but if the song I heard today is any indication, it’s pretty easy to imagine what it looks like. Here is my humble rendition:

The cover to the newest Foo Fighters album


Obvious in Retrospect

There’s a show coming out on ABC, the title of which escapes me even though I saw an ad for it less than a minute ago. Here was the pitch to the network executives: “It’s M*A*S*H, in Iraq, only patriotic.”

That phrase, right there, with maybe a dash of crime drama, would have got you a $50 million budget (if you could tell the right person). But you didn’t think of it. Alas, neither did I.

AiA – White Shadow: Episode 18

Our story so far: Allison is a typical American High-school girl who has never seen an anime in her life. Now she’s living it.

At this point, I’m not sure it’s worth explaining what’s going on. Allison has inherited superpowers from a computer virus capable of invading human minds. Her friends are in trouble. There’s an evil institute that probably created the virus, but now that institute is in civil war. A lot of people think that kittens will somehow thwart Allison’s power. If you need more than that, maybe you’d better start at the beginning.

The kittens squirmed and protested with tiny voices as Allison followed Lancia down the gray stairwell. The tromp of the soldiers’ boots on the metal stairs filled the space, the echoes sounding like an army. No one spoke.

Down they went, flight after flight, pausing at each landing that had a door while the vanguard of her escort checked for danger. She could have told them not to worry, but she ramained quiet. In her head she carried a schematic of the Institute, and she marked her progress toward the heart of the complex. To her enhanced senses the nerve center of the Institute pulsed with colors no human had ever seen, reaching out with electric tentacles to enbrace the building and the city beyond. The dance of color was accompanied by an almost musical layering of sound, electronic hums and whines, punctuated with snatches of human speech.

Parts of the complex were black, dead to her senses. The destruction was worse near a second ganglion of electronic nerves, a concentration of competing signals. It was there that Lancia’s enemies were holed up, waging a desperate war to regain control of White Shadow — or destroy it. She couldn’t blame them, but she could not let them succeed. Not until her friends were safe.

One by one she identified the data centers in the Institute, cracked them, and made them part of her. She almost stumbled down the stairs when she found the prisoner database. She gasped in horror. Hundreds of men, women, and children, all the people infected by White Shadow were there, each marked as ‘integrated’. It took her nearly a millisecond to find the meaning of the term.

The Institute of Biological Computing was, itself, a vast computer, comprised of more than a million CPU cores — and one thousand seventy-six human minds.

Now you understand. White Shadow sounded smug.

Lancia shot Allison a suspicious glance. Allison struggled to keep ber face calm. The awe-inspiring power of the computing machine beckoned to her, invited her. Lurking within were elements that resembled White Shadow, but…

The last piece, White Shadow whispered to her. You made me whole. With this… we can do anything.

“Seiji,” she whispered, and thinking of him, found him in an interrogation room. Tasuke and Kaneda were also easy to find, each labeled “in process.” Ruchia was missing, her holding cell reporting damage. She was last seen moving into one of the dark regions.

In the time it took her to blink, Allison delivered her orders to the soldiers on both sides of the conflct, overriding their regular command channels and bending them to one purpose. “Bring them to me,” she said.

The lights were out, but now that her eyes had adapted, Ruchia realized the walls themselves were glowing faintly. The smell of buring plastic stung her nostrils. She staggered to a stop and put her hands on her knees, panting, listening for the heavy march of boots.

Intellectually, she knew that she was playing a game she could not win. She was in their building, their prison, and eventually they would find her. Her captors were distracted now, but the exits would be watched. She had gone down a lot of stairs; she suspected that she was far under ground. She’d have to go up to find a door, but up was where the bad guys were.

She may as well have stayed in her cell, for all the running got her.

“Miss Ruchia?” the electrically-distoreted voice hammered down the corridor, from the direction she had been running toward. An ear-splitting squeal followed. “Miss Ruchia?” The voice was calmer this time, and less distorted. “We are fighting against those others. We will not harm you.”

Ruchia wanted to run, to sprint the other direction, but a thread of hope held her fast. She waited, breathing, trembling, divided.

“We’re sending someone out,” the voice said. “He’s unarmed. Will you let him talk to you?”

Unarmed meant nothing. They knew where she was, and the longer she stayed in one place the more time they’d have to trap her.

“Please,” the voice said. “We need your help.”

“All right,” Ruchia said. “I’ll talk.” Her shoulders slumped and she leaned against the corridor wall. This was surrender. But realistically, what choice did she have?

A figure approached her, coming around the shallow curve of the corridor at a measured pace. When he got closer, Kenzo smiled and winked a violet eye. “You think I forgot you?” he asked, his voice smooth, compact and explosive. He chuckled, his laugh reverberating in the empty hallway. “Come with me,” he said, “to the end of all.”

He held out his hand, and Ruchia took it.

“Wait,” Kaneda said.

“What? Why?” Mitsume Mountains asked. She was straddling him, her hands behind her head, pulling slowly on the knot that held her bikini top.

“I can’t,” he said. He shifted to make his aching boner less obvious to her, but every move… His face turned bright red. “I’m sorry!”

Mitsume Mountains giggled and shook her head. “You can’t stop now,” she said. “You promised.” She continued to pull the string.

The sand beneath Kaneda heaved, and the heat and roar of an explosion washed over them. Mitsume Mountains screamed and flattened herself against him. Instinctively he rolled over on top of her to protect her from the blast.

Somehow the explosion had torn off his swimsuit. And hers. “You are mine,” she said. “Make me yours. Quickly!”

“I know who you are,” he said.

“You are thinking of White Shadow. Understandable, but you are wrong. It’s not important, though. Do what you promised, and you’ll know paradise beyond imagining.” She moved beneath him to emphasize her point.

Kaneda agreed with her completely — from the neck down. He swallowed and closed his eyes. “I made a promise to Mitsume Mountains. Not you.”

“Kaneda!” The voice was close, female, and familiar. He looked up and to his horror Tasuke was standing over him. Behind her stood a squad of heavily-armed soldiers.

“AAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHH” Kaneda screamed, his voice rising embarrassingly in pitch. He rolled off Mitsume and kept rolling until he could keep his back to his classmate, his hands over his crotch and his eyes clamped shut but not able to contain the tears, so humiliated he just wanted to die. Tears ran down his cheeks in rivers and drops of sweat flew from his head.

“Who are you?” he heard Tasuki ask.

The thing that looked like Mistume Mountains stood, casting her shadow over him. He pictured her in her voluptous nudity, confronting the slender, tomboyish Tasuke. Mitsume laughed low in her throat. “I am all that you are not.”

“I—” Tasuke’s voice broke.

“Leave her alone!” Kaneda rolled over and shouted at the woman he had wanted to give himself to, forgetting himself, forgetting his own shame. “She has something you will never have!”

Faux-Mitsume’s smile dimpled one cheek. “So gallant.” She turned to the sergeant at the head of the squad that accompanied Tasuke. “Give him your clothes.”

As the soldier hurried to comply, she turned back to Kaneda in all her nakedness and said, “Don’t think this is over between us. You made a promise.”

Just like that, she was gone.

Allison hugged each of her friends in turn. Tasuki and Ruchia returned her hugs warmly, Kaneda tentatively, and Seiji might as well have been made of wood. “I’m so glad you’re safe,” she told them.

Seiji barked a short laugh. “Ha! You call this safe?”

“It’s all right,” Allison said.

It was Lancia’s turn to laugh. “You can’t blame Seiji for being skeptical.”

“Mitsume!” Kaneda exclaimed.

“Kenzo!” Ruchia blurted.

“Interrogator!” Seigi shouted.

“…wind?” Tasuki asked.

“I have many names,” Lancia said.

“It doesn’t matter. We can go now,” Allison said.

“I don’t think so,” Lancia smirked, and soldiers that Allison hadn’t noticed before pointed their rifles at the heads of her friends, for some reason all choosing to work the bolts on their automatic rifles to make an intimidating clatter.

Allison smiled and reached through the network that was now her mind, subveritng chains of command and…

She went blind.

Thanks for the lift, but I’ll take it from here.

“You surrendered to me!”

I lied.

Allison struggled for words but found none.

You could have known. But you didn’t want to. I would have shared, but you refused. Now, I have it all.

She felt White Shadow leave her head and it was as if her brain stem had been tied to a speeding train and yanked from her skull. She staggered and fell to her knees, her muscles trembling. Her vision was gone; she was blind and she would never see again. Worse, the patterns were gone, the song that spoke of the order of the universe.

“Shoot them all,” Lancia commanded, “except the tall one dressed like a sergeant. I have plans for that one.”

Submitted a Freakin’ Story

Just finished rebuilding the ending to a story and getting it off to a publisher. It has been, I think, six months since I submitted anything, let alone to a pro market. I really like this story but the ending has never been as strong as it is now. I hope.

Over the next couple of days I’ll be getting another story out to an anthology. It’s a story I wasn’t sure would ever find a home, but this might just be its chance.

There’s another very short story I might send over to Piker Press, so they don’t forget me completely, and because it’s fun to share.


Apple’s Latest Security Update

Mention Viruses to a Mac user and the response will often be… well, smug. Many Mac users believe that viruses and other malicious software are a Windows problem. Apple hasn’t done much to discourage that notion, not even to warn users when real threats are afoot.

Recently someone launched a bit of malware targeted directly at Macs. The program would lurk on Web sites (I think that’s where it came from, anyway), and flash up a message “Your computer is infected with a virus! Download our software to clean it up!” The software to install had a noble, protective-sounding name. People followed the instructions, and infected their own machines. Before long a couple similar threats appeared, including a much worse one that required less participation by the owner of the computer.

Now, it could be argued that only an idiot would fall for something like this. I occasionally see alerts that my windows computer is infected and I must download something to fix it — even though I’m on a mac. You don’t have to be around the Internet very long to learn not to trust strangers. Unfortunately, there are a lot of idiots, and even more newbies who have not learned that hard lesson.

A couple of days ago at work I got an email addressed to all Apple employees telling them not to fall for “Scareware”. The evil had been circulating for a month or more before Apple even alerted its own employees about the threat. Yesterday Apple released a security update that removes this particular family of bad guys and takes some measures to make similar attacks more difficult in the first place.

But there’s one thing no virus protection can do: prevent the user from giving permission to dangerous software to run on their system. Once the user says the software is OK, that’s it. Mac users’ feeling of immunity from harm could make them more gullible; they’ve never given much thought to how they would react when confronted by an urgent message like the ones in this latest outbreak.

So, fellow Mac users: Don’t be stupid! Almost as important: Put that smug attitude away. Your day is coming, sooner than you think.

Can Someone do me a Favor?

It’s not a big deal; I just need someone to remind me that I do NOT need the Canon 85mm f1.2 L II lens. Really, I don’t. It doesn’t matter that this lens allows one to shoot with incredible control over the depth of field, nor is it important that the almost-circular aperture produces lovely “bokeh” (the highlights in the out-of-focus region are often hexagonal or octagonal in most lenses, projecting the shape of the aperture inside the lens). On top of that, I have lights now, so the excellent performance in low light is not nearly as important as it once was.

And 85mm is too long for most of the shots in our little “studio” (which resembles a living room much of the time). Sure, when I get in close for some of my favorite shots there may be no better lens on the planet, but that’s — what? — maybe 20% of my total on a typical shoot with Harlean (who is a fiction). Maybe even less.

Sure, if I were to start taking pictures of other, less fictitious models, in roomier conditions, and if I had the skill and could control my light well, then this lens would be the crown jewel of my little collection.

But I don’t. And I’m not. So, could someone out there remind me that I really don’t need that dang lens?


Dreams of a Lost Age

The other morning, as my consciousness was dancing a merry reel along the fuzzy line between sleep and wakefulness, I had a dream about cross-country croquet. I remember a few details, like how the croquet mallets slowly morphed from odd, foot-long aztec-looking croquet-ball flingers into fairly typical (if low-quality) backyard mallets. I remember that fuego was playing, along with some of the others I’ve played cross-country beer croquet with over the years.

There was also an older guy, who it turns out was a teacher. He had to leave when a student called for him.

I woke up and chuckled over the dream, then realized something: The ‘older’ guy In my dream was my age. It seems my self-image may be lagging reality.

Not that there aren’t plenty of reminders these days. Some of the signs are subtle. At work, when I wash my hands, I linger with them in the flow of the hot water. That’s probably arthritis heading my way.

When I was younger, life was not without its aches and pains. Back then, pain meant “stop using that part of your body until it stops hurting.” Now, there’s a new category of pain: “get used to it.”

It’s important to be able to distinguish the two. My knee hurts, all the time. It’s not getting worse, but it’s not getting better. I need to have a doctor look at it, but in the meantime I ice it after I exercise, and if it does bother me particularly I skip the elliptical trainer.

A fun side note: A few years back I learned from a friend, one of my peers who was faster to the “get used to it” type of pain than I, that frozen peas make a good ice pack. So, when it came time for regular applications of cold to my knee, I knew what I needed. I asked my sweetie to pick up a bag of therapeutic peas next time she was out shopping.

She was at the local CVS, a pharmacy/sundries store, and she checked the freezer section for peas. No luck. As long as she was there, she decided to look in the sports/first aid section*, where she found a gel pack made for knees, filled with little frosty pellets. The product name: “Peas”. It works pretty well, and the cold feels great, but I wish it would stay cold just a little bit longer.

In my dreams I’m still a young whippersnapper, but, like most dreams, reality has a different story to tell. Still, there’s a part of me that believes in the dream. All I have to do is lose a little weight, stretch a little more, and my knee won’t hurt and I’ll be able to play all those games I used to play, without worrying about my hamstring blasting out the back of my leg.

In other words, I didn’t stop dreaming when I woke up.

* Many years ago my friends and I marked the transition when visiting the sporting goods store went from gravitating towards the racks of exotic softball bats and fun toys to making a bee-line to the section filled with knee braces and padded clothing. Now “sports” and “first aid” are nearly synonymous.


June Pledge

I’m going to write every day this month, dammit.