Get off my lawn.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

For want of a better name

I saw this big sign in Joplin on the way to pick my son up from camp in OK this morning.

The sign doesn't say "F46" or "FA6", it says "FAG". It was at the entrance to a factory complex, and the main building bore the same name.

FAG is a bearing manufacturer for the automotive industry.

I wonder what it's like to work there. There are probably some conversations that go like this: "Where do you work?" "FAG." "Whatever, jackass."

Microsoft employees are called "Microsofties". Google employees are called "googlers". What are FAG employees called? "Faglets"?

Does FAG hand out hats, t-shirts, etc. at trade shows? Is there a NASCAR team sponsored by FAG?

Is there a "FAG Employee Handbook" that talks about behaviour expected of a FAG employee? Is there a FAG dress code?

Go ahead and chuckle. You know you want to.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

A drive in the country

I had a great time this afternoon. My 10-year-old son has been asking a lot of questions about how to drive, so I took him out on a country road in my pickup truck and let him have a go at driving it.

The truck is an old Mazda pickup with a 5-speed transmission, and no power steering. Over the past 13 years, it has proven to be pretty durable. That, and its combination of low power, easy-to-find gears, and low value made it a good vehicle for a student driver.

Since we started out sitting still with him in the driver's seat, the first lesson was "how to get going". He did very well, launching it the first time without killing the engine, or spinning the tires, on gravel. That's better than I did when I was a kid!

As soon as we got going, I showed him how to bring the truck to a stop, which he also did perfectly.

Periodically, just to make sure he was paying attention, I would yell "Stop!". I had told him that he always needs to be ready to stop quickly, and that I would be quizzing him occasionally. There were a couple of times when he forgot to push in the clutch when he stopped, and killed the engine. But for the most part, he did great.

One of the best parts of this exercise was sitting in the passenger seat with my son at the wheel. He's craning his neck to see out the windshield and saying "This is awesome" every few minutes. We never got out of third gear, and I think we hit 25mph once. But to look at his face, you'd think we were burning up the road.
He said "Today, I'm not going over 20. That's plenty."

Overall, we covered probably 15 miles, saw some cool places out in the country, stopped and threw rocks into a creek and harrassed a snapping turtle, and did some power slides around some curves (I was driving).

It was just a simple drive in the country, but I bet I remember today for a long time.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

This just in! An electric car for heterosexuals

Tesla Motors today unveiled the Tesla Roadster. It runs on several thousand Lithium-Ion batteries, has a 2-speed gearbox, and goes from 0-60 in 4 seconds.

Several things differentiate this car from the typical electric car.

First and foremost is its appearance. Most electric cars look like something designed by a bored boatbuilder. This one looks sleek, like a cross between a Saleen S7 and a Lotus Elise.

Another kind of important thing is its range and charge time. Most electric cars have something like a 90-mile range, and take 12 hours to charge up. These specs are known in the industry as "laughable". The Tesla's range is a more-respectable 250 miles, with a 3.5-hour charge time. That's a lot better. Tesla achieves this by using lithium-ion batteries instead of lead-acid or ni-cad or alkaline batteries.

It has a nice interior. It has a heater. It uses regenerative braking. It has traction control. It also has a computer that detects when you've driven it off into a lake, into the side of a building, or other undesirable situations, and disconnects the battery so it won't blow up.

What I don't know is how well it handles. Electric cars are usually pretty heavy. I don't know about this one. I hope they were able to keep its weight somewhere below that of the typical electric forklift.

I don't like some things: The name, for example. "Tesla". Good brand names typically don't draw attention to low-level technical details, or to the nature of a product. It makes them seem too much like a pun. In this case, "Tesla" refers to Nicolai Tesla, the Serbian guy who invented alternating current and argued with Thomas Edison. It's supposed to make people think of electrical things, apparently. Thus "Tesla" is a dumb name for a car in much the same way that "Metallica" is a dumb name for a band. (Come to think of it, "Tesla" is a dumb name for a band too, but probably not as dumb as a car named "Metallica".) They should have called it the "Shock-n-Awe 9000".

Another thing I wouldn't like about this car is the fact that it's completely silent. Most people (me included) expect a car that looks like this to bark and snarl as it goes along. This one probably goes "zzzzzzzzzzzz" or "mmmmmmmmm", which is likely to throw people off. How thrilling can it be to get in a car like this, nail the throttle and hear nothing as your head is being torn from its mounts? Not very, if you ask me. Perhaps they could include a set of loudspeakers on the back and play a loop of a big v12 really loudly through them, at least until people get used to the idea of a silent car.

Anyway, I like it. It's cool looking, it was designed and manufactured by a Silicon Valley startup, and it seems to have given the whole electric vehicle industry a kick in the bottom.

So, if you have $80K to spend on a car, don't mind a $7000/month electric bill, and aren't bothered by a car that sounds like the fan on the bottom of a laptop, you should go get one.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Customer Service

I went to Back Yard Burger the other day to get lunch. It was somewhere around noon, so the place was packed. There are two drive-through lines, one on either side of the building. Both were full. It was also hot. I was also in a car shaped like a magnifying glass with a black interior.

I pulled up to the microphone and ordered lunch. "That's $5.27" came the response.

Then I waited. And waited some more. I got bored after about 10 minutes, and listened to some music. I estimate the total time I spent waiting in the heat at about 15 minutes.

When I got to the window, a girl leaned out, and said "$4.96." I handed her a $5 bill, thinking "Fine. I ordered something different, but if I end up with someone's grilled chicken and orange juice, I don't care. Just get me out of this car."

A couple of minutes later, the same girl, now looking confused, appeared. The following exchange took place:

She: Did you order a burger with pepper jack cheese?
Me: Yes.
She: You gave me the wrong amount.
Me: I gave what you asked for, and I'm expecting 4 cents change.
She: Well, that's the wrong amount. It's $5.27.
Me: Here you go (handed her another $5 bill).
She: Well, heh, that's wrong too. I need more.
Me: Since I already gave you $5, the additional $5 should just about cover it.
She: Well, okay... (looking at me like I was mistaken and stupid) (closes door)

(30 seconds elapses, girl reappears)

She: (clutching the bill to her chest) What's 26 + 6?
Me: 32, but I'm thinking you're more interested in the sum of 27 + 6.
She: ...uh...
Me: 33.
She: ...mmm...
Me: Give me the $5, and you take this (handed her 27 cents).
She: (hands out food and $5) Thank you (closes door).

You could reasonably call this an example of poor customer service. It's just a burger, nothing to get excited about. But:

  1. A customer was kept waiting.
  2. A customer was trifled with regarding their money.
  3. A customer was treated as though they were wrong, even though they weren't (it's theoretically impossible for a single customer ordering food for themselves and paying for it with cash to make a mistake).
  4. A customer got to watch a company representative get stumped over a problem that some 4-year-olds are able to solve in seconds.
I wonder how many times this happens per day, and what causes it? Is that girl actually unable to compute 26+6 without the aid of a calculator? Was her environment so chaotic that she became confused? Or was it my striking beauty that threw her off? Or the fact that I run Ubuntu on a laptop, and not SuSE?

The burger was pretty good.

I think it's more funny than anything, but funny in a "Wow you're pathetic" sort of way. BYB, I'm laughing at you, not with you.


I finally got around to installing the latest version of Ubuntu on my laptop. This latest version is 6.06, code-named "Dapper". Dapper is getting a lot of press lately for its ease of use and overall coolness.

Linux has had a long uphill climb to being a usable desktop OS, and it's by no means at the top of the hill yet. I've been messing with it for 5 years, and it was a really crusty desktop OS back then. The applications were a joke. Hideously ugly, and prone to crashing and being difficult (at best) to use. Things have been evolving at a steady rate since then. KDE is now a glossy, glamorous sort of Uber-Windows desktop environment, while Gnome is a little more Mac-like. Both are totally usable now, and pretty nice looking. There are a lot more applications available now, and most of them actually work!

So I'd say that, while there's some distance left to go, Linux on the desktop is starting to look like a possibility
for non-technical users in the future. Ubuntu is known for making great strides in usability with each release, and Dapper is another leap in that general direction. It's easier to use than the previous version. Out of the distros I've used (RedHat, SuSE, and Ubuntu), Ubuntu has annoyed me the least, and is easy to use. It kind of reminds me of the BeOS for some reason.

SuSE is another well-regarded desktop-ish distribution. I've always been impressed with the appearance of SuSE. It's probably the best-looking OS I've seen on a screen. The latest version, SuSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10 ("SLED10") is supposed to be pretty sweet. I'm sure it's nicer-looking than Ubuntu. However, since SuSE is mainly used by turtleneck-and-crocks-wearing dipsticks named "Joel", I stay away from it. (I may not be a Mac user, but my image still means something.)

Anyway, back to the review. Installation is a matter of booting from the Dapper CD, and double-clicking on the "Install" icon. It asks for your name, time zone, and some other basic info, partitions the disk, and starts copying files. While it's installing, you can play games, surf the web, send e-mails, and basically use the system while it installs. (It's kind of like test driving the car you just bought while it's being built at the factory.) Once the installation finishes, it reboots, and there you are.

The first thing I do to a new Linux installation is get the video going. I installed the ATI video drivers, and muckedaround with the xorg.conf file, like I did with Breezy. I couldn't get it to work. The screen kept freaking out. I messed around with it, off and on, for several hours, and never did get it working. Then I looked at the original configuration file. Ubuntu had set up the right video driver for my chipset, and there was basically nothing to do. If I had left it alone, it would have been basically 0 minutes to set up the video.

When I installed Breezy earlier this year, it took me about 10 minutes to get hibernation (aka "suspend to disk") working. I had to create a symlink, /etc/acpi/, linked to /etc/acpi/ It worked flawlessly. With Dapper, it worked flawlessly with no effort. Well, other than picking "Hibernate when the lid closes" in the Power Management applet.

One of the things I like about Ubuntu's package management system is that, in addition to using it from the GUI, you can also use it from the command line via apt-get, which is a front end to dpkg and a bunch of other stuff I frankly don't want to know about. So installing everything I want is a matter of making a list of everything I have installed on my old installation like this:

dpkg -l | awk '{print $2}' > my-packages

...and then feeding that to apt-get on the new installation like this:

while read line
apt-get -y --force-yes install $line
done <>

...and going to bed.

I restored a backup into my home directory, and that's it. I'm off and running with a completely new install.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Goat Tech

I made a tray to put on the back of my camper, to add some room for coolers and stuff when we go camping. It was kind of a fun project, and it turned out pretty well.

I used one of those receiver hitch trays for the back of an SUV and welded sections of square steel tubing on each end of it, width-matched to the frame rails on the camper. Another set of similar mounts are on the camper's frame rails, but they are clamped instead of welded.

Between those mounts are two sections of smaller square tubing that telescopes inside the larger stuff. This allows the tray's position to be adjusted, as well as making the tray attachable to the SUV and the camper (although not at the same time). The telescoping tubes, once adjusted, are held in place by pins.


I took the tray and the tubing to my brother's farm, and went to work. He has a chop saw, blowtorches, a drill press, a MIG welder, and all kinds of other stuff which makes this kind of work pretty quick. [About the welding I mentioned earlier: I didn't actually do it. My total lack of welding ability brought my progress to a halt before too long. Fortunately, my brother showed up and graciously offered to weld the tubes on the tray for me. He did a good job.]

I cut and drilled 8 small plates from 1/4" flat stock to make some big clamps. They look cool and hold the whole assembly on the camper with monster-truck force.

I actually did do some welding myself. I welded some plates on top of the front mounts to help position them on the frame. I wish now that I would have videotaped that process. It would have been hilarious to watch. I was wearing a t-shirt, tennis shoes, and shorts. I took a couple of hits from hot slag, and hopped around.

I lack a certain... competence in welding. It's hard to do. A MIG welder, unlike a stick welder, doesn't involve a disposable welding rod that arcs as soon as you touch the work. It feeds a fine copper wire through a small nozzle called a "contact tip", then through a cloud of argon gas, onto the work, when you pull a trigger.

So what happens is that you touch the work with the wire, get ready, pull the visor down on the welding helmet, and pull the trigger. That's when it arcs. Instantly, the wire vaporizes, and you're suddenly wrestling a small electric eel that's crapping molten metal onto your feet. You need to be precise and move the tip in some kind of deliberate fashion, but it's kind of hard to in all the confusion and pain. I ended up welding the tip of the welder to the piece I was welding, then welded the contact tip shut. I also welded the vise grip to the piece that I was welding, but the quality of the weld was so poor that I was able to break it off. Finally, I got a little better feel for the process, and actually welded my pieces together. Badly. It's a good thing no one's life or property depends on the integrity of these welds.

Some agressive work with a grinder made the welds look a little less like a pile of metallic vomit, and after I painted the pieces, they looked pretty good. I put the whole thing together this evening. I tested it by jumping up and down on it, and it seemed to hold up pretty well.

So I guess I now need to load it with something and go camping.

Saturday, July 08, 2006


I got a chance to play with Xgl, an up-and-coming window manager on Linux. It's pretty cool. It's an X server architecture layered on top of OpenGL, to form a hardware-acclerated compositing window manager.

To the uninitiated, I'm sure that sounds really sexy. What it means is that a Linux desktop can now have the same cool/weird graphic effects as those in MacOS X and the (always in-progress, never finished) Windows Vista. You get:
  • Semi-transparent windows and frames
  • Fading/flexing/flopping window and control surfaces
  • A mouse cursor that leaves watery "ripples" as it travels around the desktop
  • Other cool and wild effects
It's pure eye candy, and it serves no useful purpose. I like it! All the little effects add a new dimension to normal desktop usage. When you grab a window with the mouse and move it around the screen, it flexes as if it's made of warm jello. The faster you yank it, the more it stretches out of shape. You can "fling" the window to another spot on the desktop, and when it stops moving, it wiggles a few times. Press F12, and all the windows on the desktop arrange themselves so you can see them all, and they scale themselves so they look in proportion. I think I saw a Mac do that once, and it's pretty slick.

Probably the coolest thing is the desktop switch: When Xgl is active and you switch between virtual desktops, the whole desktop zooms away a bit, exposing a cube, which then twirls to the next face of the cube, and then zooms back in. It's a clever effect, and if you hold down on the "desktop switch" keys, the cube twirls at about 400 rpm until you release the keys.

Xgl was probably put together to provide an alternative to the desktops of Mac OSX and Windows Vista's Aero interface. I think they did a good job. The picture I provided (not a picture of my desktop, by the way) doesn't really do it justice. A normal desktop set up with Xgl is much nicer looking.

The Xgl effects, along with the usability improvements that have gone into the latest version of Gnome (on Ubuntu "Dapper") makes for a pretty darn cool desktop environment.