Nu, a Jew

My officemate, long-time friend, and good colleague David Blatner was interviewed along with his rabbi co-author in the Seattle Times about their title, Judaism for Dummies. I gave David a lot of grief about the title, marking it as the height of oxymoronism (due to the heritage of learning, not our smartypantsness), and he took it good naturedly. It's a great book that I'm still working through and learning from. (Follow the link to the book for the table of contents and description as well; they also have Joy of Jewish dot com.)

David's book was published by Hungry Minds Press. This was the renamed IDG Books, a long-time publisher of computer bibles and Dummies titles. It was a wildly successful firm. Then they acquired the Internet training firm Hungry Minds at a huge cost, renamed themselves, and within a year found themselves massively in debt. I know several Dummies and IDG authors who found themselves suddenly cut loose just as their books were published: massive layoffs last spring, marketing budgets slashed or cut entirely, and delayed publication dates.

Finally, John Wiley and Sons purchased the Hungry Minds titles and will restore some sanity. Wiley has produced some great Internet titles over the years, more on the theory and analysis side of marketing, technology, and measurement, rather than on specific software. It's a good fit. But, of course, I now know other authors whose next edition revisions of Hungry Minds titles were cut as part of Wiley's careful look at the bottom line.

I sometimes don't know why it's worth writing books. And then I get email from someone who tells me how they got a job because of what they learned from a book I co-wrote, or how they put up a Web site about their family using techniques they learned, and it seems very rewarding.

That's Hedley!

____ ______ writes:

Two years ago today Hedy Lamarr died. She was a bombshell and an inventor. My grandfather's cousin. Never met her. We shared some genes.

I salute her! She was one of two people who developed the early concept of spread-spectrum transmission, which was a technological advantage during dub-dub two, and is the basis of most kinds of short- and long-range data and voice transmission now, including my fave, Wi-Fi.

Oddly, my grandfather also had a remarkable cousin I never met: Irving Jaffe, a medal-winning speedskater. Jaffe competed in 1928 and 1932. He quietly had a first marriage and a daughter that the rest of the family was unaware of.

After the divorce, he remarried, and saw the daughter once again before he died. Her mother died young, in her 50s. She didn't know anything about the rest of her father's family.

In 1998, an article on him appeared in the New York Times; his daughter, a psychologist, had told her story to one of the great sportswriters at the Times, and he wrote about her and her father. Our family was astounded, and many of us got in touch. I was able to meet her on a trip to Ann Arbor that year. She and her husband are terrific, and somewhat overwhelmed at all the Fleishmans that came out of the woodwork.

Oddly enough, a few months later, my first article appeared in the New York Times, about using the Internet to research and deal with my cancer that I was successfully treated for that year. The Times: bringing families toghether?

Henry Norr Reads My Mind

When people have asked me about how cool the new iMac looks in person (and a good question, given they may not ship until February now), I have to tell them that they're kind of horsey. This provokes the response: what do you mean horsey? I have to explain how in person, the base dominates the design, and makes the screen and neck seem like a scrawny top to a brutish bottom. They're not bad looking at all, and it's a nifty way to solve a lot of different problems and integrate the electronics and fan. But the proportion isn't right. I note that Henry Norr had the same observation:

Besides, the iMac's proportions strike me as a little out of whack -- the base unit, though only 10.6 inches in diameter, just looks too big (not in the photos, but when you see it "in person").

The photo point is good: because the monitor extends forward, a typical wide-angle lens that a photographer would use to shoot the iMac for a print publication makes the base foreshorten and look much smaller. I wonder if Apple has carefully been posing the unit with the neck far extended to emphasize that? They can't plan that much, and the screen is too easy to position. No, it's just an accidental side effect.

Once You Go Mac...

David Coursey of AnchorDesk is trying a unique experiment: he's switching to a G3 Mac for a while to see if he can stand it, or if he has to revert to a Windows XP to get things done. Given his list of fine print and other details, I'd be surprised if he can't make a clean OS X transition with a few minor exceptions. He thinks that running an emulator is cheating, but I'd say it's simply employing tools at your disposal. If you buy a fully loaded portable laptop with a decent processor and memory running Windows XP and buy extra batteries to match the iBook, it's hard to imagine that costing less than an iBook (6 hours with the new larger version because of a bigger battery) plus $150 to $250 for Virtual PC for OS X.

Making FTP Work in Red Hat

I apologize for the overly technical cast of this note, but in restoring my Linux systems yesterday, I found two FTP problems that were easy to fix, hard to find.

When you enable FTP on a new Red Hat 7.2 installation, by default, FTP is disabled. This is great! The default install of Red Hat 7.2 is very secure compared to earlier systems. Coupled with their up2date system (subscription fee simple software updates by package, or free for a limited time when you purchase full copies of server and workstation software), it's probably the best general Unix distribution ever for an install-and-walk-away solution.

To enable FTP, you have to change two settings which, if they're not changed, you don't get reasonable error messages to fix the problems. This is a typical Unix/Linux issue: software fails to do something and it fails to note that it failed to do it.

The xinetd services manager, which replaces the harder-to-configure inetd ubiquitous in Unixdom, has a folder /etc/xinetd.d/. Inside that directory, a file called wu-ftpd has the default socket-based communication information for FTP connections. I disallow anonymous FTP (using the ftpaccess and other configuration files), but to let users with accounts in, you have to edit the wu-ftpd file for xinetd. One of the lines is disabled[tab]on. Comment this line out (with a pound sign at the head), delete it, or change it to off. Then you restart xinetd: service xinetd restart.

The next problem is for users who you don't want to have login permissions to an account but who have FTP access. A file called /etc/shells lists legal login shells. A binary called /bin/false is a fake shell that doesn't allow someone to login. If /bin/false isn't in the /etc/shells list, FTP always fails without a good error message to the user or the system.

This information (and this page) should be invaluable to a number of people someday. I can't tell you the number of hours I've spent over the last four years remembering those two facts when I install a new box.

I'm Back

I'm back from both California and a horrible hacker/hard drive problem. Because of a variety of reasons, we didn't have a good backup of our main Web/mail server. Hackers got in because I somehow had 1.2.27 instead of 1.2.31 of the openssh software running (I now have the very latest Red Hat built release installed). I beat the crackers out (I think it was just a script creating a zombie) and then accidentally trashed the drive. When I got back into this office this morning (after having restored email via forwarding over the weekend), I was able to run some Unix utilities and recover most of what I needed. Fortunately only the root partition was toast and it had just a handful of configuration files I was able to salvage to avoid rebuilding. The other partitions, with more useful stuff, were intact.

At some point, I'll even get back to work. I have a lot of work to do and the week spent at Macworld, while fun and useful, wasn't productive.

Retail Entropy

Every retail store will suffer an entropy-related heat death unless care is taken to fight the slow sucking sound of wear and tear and ever-less motivated employees.

I visited the Metreon shopping center (they call it something else) near the Moscone Convention Center last night with my cohort, Jeff Carlson, and saw how the mighty have fallen. Metreon is in the middle of the official derelict and panhandler district in San Francisco. There must be a union: each street corner is limited to one person (or they work it out as an anarcho-syndicate.)

The Meteon was obviously envisioned as an upscale playpen which would pull this part of SF, known as SoMa (south of Market St.), up to a chi-chi-er level. It has movie theaters upstairs (but you buy your tickets downstairs), an interactive gaming level, and an enormous Discovery Store. It also had the first, only, and last Microsoft Store, and a Sony Store.

In the couple years since it opened, I've seen it during each Macworld. It's gotten seedier and seedier as the SoMa revolution stalled and broke. The dotcoms that had filled warehouses and other originally cheap office space around here are gone. Metreon and the businesses in this district obviously haven't been able to form a neighborhood business district patrol/cleaning squad (perhaps against SF's rules), so the area feels gritty, smelly, and dangerous, although I believe it's actually quite safe.

Inside the Metreon, the missing founding stores like Microsoft's have been replaced by various downmarket alternatives, like simple bookstores or other shops. Eventually, they will have T-shirt stands, the last refuge of a worried landlord.

The Sony Store is pretty awful, and a good demonstration of why Apple opened its own outlets (not that Sony sold Apple gear). Although one piece of every kind of digital gear (consumer and computer) sold by Sony is on display, there's not much you can do with any of it. One computer had a missing A key. A white sofa in a DVD viewing area had a large, old stain on it. As you entered this high-end store, there were racks of DVDs for sale (from Sony Pictures, one imagines). Jeff asked if he could get an Aibo demo and the salesman didn't want to do it; they had regular times they demoed, apparently, and even though the store was pretty empty, no go.

The equipment itself isn't inspiring when it's just sitting there. The salespeople made sure to not make eye contact and to wander off when you walked in their direction. There was nothing exciting about the place. There was nothing to do there but push buttons.

Sony seems to have already forgotten how retail works. Maybe this is just a bad or neglected store, but in an environment where you're selling expensive toys and work gear, everything should work all the time. The floors should not be full of scratches. The salespeople should be motivated. But they're not. It's a Radio Shack from the 80s.

Day 2 of Macworld Expo

Yawn. Tired. My hotel room is in the luxurious Mosser Victorian Hotel. I'm only slgihtly joking. It's a neat hotel with bijou (read: tiny but pretty) rooms about two blocks from the Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco. My single room costs $79/night plus tax on special; a double is about $90/night. Their regular rates are $10/night more. They renovated the hotel in the last year (just finishing up now, obviously, with some new carpet being put down on the steps), and the renovation makes it an unbelievable bargain.

The downside: thin walls, a bit too much noise. The transom above the door to my room is unshaded, meaning that when I turn the lights off to sleep it's still quite bright. I bought a sleep mask yesterday and always travel with earplugs. But still, it's the only flaw in a cheap, clean room with a great shower and bath.

Why am I spending all this time talking about my hotel room? Because the show is dull as dishwater. Frankly, Apple could have put out a press release saying, "G4 chip in a small form factor and a connected LCD for $1,299 to $1,799" and that would have summarized the whole event. Companies are widely demonstrating new OS X versions of software. It's definitely a celebration of the coming of age of OS X.

But plain news can be boring unless you're involved in that specific industry (like 3D or video editing) or having a specific problem (like not being able to back up your OS X volumes via Retrospect).