To flip the coin over from my suboptimal service experience last week, I feel like I should relay the fantastic experience I had this week with PowerBookResQ.

This past weekend, I decided to pull my iBook (the laptop I used before treating myself to a 12” Powerbook last year) out and install all of the available updates, clean off all my old documents, and finally deauthorize it from my iTunes account. I hadn’t used it in over six or eight months, but when I put it into storage, it was running perfectly well, and had only been retired because of my craving for a smaller, more powerful laptop. I turned it on, got through all the OS X updates, and then started hearing a little metallic noise coming from the hard disk. The noise started increasing in frequency, and then about ten minutes after it started, the computer crashed and refused to restart. After a bunch of diagnostic steps, I gave in to the obvious — the hard disk had died, and if I wanted to keep the machine around and usable, I’d have to replace it.

Opening up an iBook to replace a hard disk is notoriously difficult, but I still contemplated it for a while. I decided to see what companies were offering to replace hard disks in the machines online, too, and found the folks at PowerBookResQ. According to their website, they offer a 72-hour turnaround on hard disk replacements, and after a conversation with them, I decided to give it a try. On Tuesday, I called them around 4PM and placed my order for a 60Gb drive, and Wednesday afternoon, a custom laptop shipping box appeared on my doorstep. I put my laptop in, sealed the box, called DHL to arrange the return trip, and by 7PM on Wednesday, DHL had come to take the computer away. Tracking it, I saw that it arrived back at PowerBookResQ yesterday (Thursday) morning, and then when I got back from work today (Friday), it was waiting for me on the landing outside my apartment. That’s a less than 72-hour turnaround, and the machine works perfectly.

While there are plenty of companies that do their job well, it’s rare for me to be totally stunned by the service that I receive. This is one of those times, and I can’t recommend them enough.

It’s a testament to how well Shannon knows me that she sent me this link to a post on Defense Tech about cool Area 51-related satellite images in Google Maps. This is my favorite, mostly because it’s fun to think about the work that went into making it…

In the past 24 hours, it looks like we’ve lost power at our house in Brookline four separate times. Two of the times, the power was out for long enough to deplete the battery backups I have running on my rack of computers; for some reason, the Windows 2003 Server machine decided not to turn back on both times the main power was restored. Seems odd!

Later today, expect a few outages here and there in QuesoLand as I test things out and get the battery backup system tuned up.

Update: it looks like the battery in my UPS is dead, so even a very brief power outage is enough to bring everything to a screeching halt. I still don’t get why the Win2K3 machine isn’t restarting on its own when the power comes back on, but at least I can replace the battery without much muss or fuss.

I’ve generally been of the mindset that it’s hard to hold compulsory service in the Nazi Youth or the German Army against Pope Benedict XVI, but I’d say actively petitioning for covering up the growing number of priest sex abuse allegations is a whole different ball of wax for the supreme leader of the Roman Catholic faith.

I think it’s outright amazing, and a testament to the design and implementation skills of the people at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, that the Martian rovers are still operating 465 and 445 days into their respective missions on the surface of the Red Planet. (Remember, these little guys were only designed to last for 90 days!) Spirit and Opportunity long-ago eclipsed all of their original performance goals; for example, Opportunity has driven over three and a quarter miles, and Spirit has gone over two and a half miles, when the initial expectation was for both to max out around three-eights of a mile. (To be fair, partial credit for the unexpected longevity of the little robots rests with what NASA calls “cleaning events”, or unexpected winds that have periodically blown dust off of the rovers’ solar panels and boosted their ability to recharge their batteries.) No matter the cause, it’s all reassuring enough to NASA that the agency extended support for Spirit and Opportunity for 18 additional months, which (hopefully) means a lot more neat discoveries and cool pictures over the coming year and a half.

Browsing through the images that are new since the last time I hit the mission website, there are a few fascinating movies that are worth watching: the first 343 days through the eyes of Spirit, and the first 323 days through the eyes of Opportunity. Two weeks ago, Spirit also captured a few pictures of dust devils scooting across the surface of Mars (which wasn’t the first time, but certainly was the closest and clearest view of them). And two months ago, Opportunity paused long enough to snap a true-color shot of the impact and debris of its own heat shield. Around the same time, both rovers snapped self-portraits (images that must have caused the JPL engineers to just beam with pride).

I can’t wait to see what the rovers share with us over the next year!

In response to an irritating problem I’m having with my two new Mac servers, I called Apple for support today, and have to say I’m less than impressed.

First, to explain the problem: both of my machines are wired on a network, and while the network has the capability of serving up IP addresses via DHCP, I have to configure the addresses manually on these two machines. (They both require specific addresses that are mapped to specific hostnames, and the networking people currently don’t provide a way to make sure a certain machine gets a specific IP address via DHCP. I know, it’s stupid, but alas.) Since setting up the machines, I’ve noticed that every attempt to resolve a DNS name takes between five and ten seconds, which makes surfing the web painful. I debugged the problem as best as I could, which included running tests using every single nameserver that exists on our network, manipulating the Ethernet link settings using every possible combination of options, and setting up a packet sniffer to see what what happening at the network level, all to no avail. The last thing I did was (temporarily) switch to DHCP for getting an address, and lo and behold, everything worked beautifully. I changed back to using a manual address and everything broke again; I again switched to DHCP and the problem evaporated. I then switched to manually entering the exact same settings that I obtained via DHCP, and name lookups took forever, and I was stumped. (It turns out that a lot of people are stumped on this one — just visit Apple’s discussion forums and search for “slow DNS” to see what I mean.)

So, I called Apple and got a first-line support rep. He quickly — within about 90 seconds — recognized that he had no idea what I was talking about, and about five minutes into my call, he transferred me to an “upper-level support rep” who would be able to further help me. This upper-level support rep, though, turned out to know absolutely nothing about networking, and started to spout total fabrications at me faster than I could even write them down. My three favorites:

  • “It sounds like the problem is in looking up names from the network, and as you know, this is something that doesn’t have anything to do with what an operating system does. We just provide the software that is on your computer.”
  • “When you use DHCP, you’re using a technology that is much more complicated than ‘regular’ DNS, and you should expect things to work differently.”
  • “This behavior is by design, sir — looking up host names takes longer via DHCP because it uses an entirely different technology to do so.” (This was my #1 favorite, and led me to ask him if my car should drive any different when I fill it with gas versus when a station attendant does the filling. He didn’t get it.)

Throughout the phone call, I kept trying to find ways to remind the rep without being rude that I’ve been working with networking technologies for almost 15 years and that he wasn’t making any sense. He just kept reiterating that it was “unfortunate” that I didn’t like his answers but that that “doesn’t make them any less true.” I finally asked to speak with the next level of support, and this is where he sealed his fate — he said that there wasn’t anything beyond him, and that while he’d be happy to “note in my help ticket” that I was dissatisfied with his answer, there was no further level of support available to me. I suggested that that was unlikely to be true, and he said that it was again unfortunate I didn’t like his answer. At that point, I verified my ticket number and said a polite goodbye.

Those of you who either know me or have read QDN for any length of time know what I did next — I promptly looked up Apple’s corporate number in Cupertino (it’s (408) 996-1010) and called. It was immediately answered by a polite woman who listened to my 20-second blurb and put me directly into the “escalation department” queue, and under a minute later I was speaking with someone who was quite apologetic. He took my information and got me to a network support engineer who actually did know what he was talking about, but didn’t seem to believe that my problem was an operating system-related thing until I pointed out all the discussion forum threads about the issue. Even then, it wasn’t until I decided to disable IPv6 on one of the machines — and saw a brief name resolution speed increase — that he was willing to entertain the notion that OS X could be part of the problem. We agreed that I’d continue to test things out over the weekend and that we’d touch base again next week with an update.

In the end, it was only my willingness to continue to push (and to make a long-distance call to Apple HQ) that put me in touch with a support engineer who knew his ass from a hole in the wall. Given that fact, I’m certain that for every person like me there are 50 others that don’t get beyond a clueless rep who’s unable to admit his own ignorance and unwilling to grant access to the next level of support. In the end, it’s sad, because Apple’s left with customers who are frustrated, tech reps who continue to dish out bad support, and operating system bugs that remain unfixed — the worst of all possible outcomes.

I’m keeping this post as a running list of the applications I’m running on my Powerbook that might need to be updated when I install Tiger (OS X 10.4) next week. Truthfully, it’s a list of the applications that I use on anything more than a once-yearly basis, with information about whether the author has released a Tiger-related update. If anyone has more information about anything listed, or I’ve noted something that isn’t correct, feel free to leave comments!

How cool — Brookline looks like it’s going to go wireless! Of course, there aren’t any guarantees that the plan will succeed; attempts by other cities to provide universal wireless access have met with intense objection from the telecommunications providers that would actually have to start competing for business, providers that carry a lot of weight in the various state legislatures. (For a hilarious look at the view telecoms take of cities moving to provide WiFi access, read this account of Verizon’s CEO losing his mind during a conference call when he was asked about San Francisco’s plans to blanket the city with wireless.)

Nonetheless, it looks like there are a few factors that might make Brookline’s attempt more likely to take root. First, it seems that Brookline is looking to deploy wireless as much for city use as for public use; reading the Wireless Committee minutes and looking at the various presentations the committe has requested makes it clear that the police and fire departments, the parking enforcement department, and the various divisions of Public Works all are looking to invest heavily in using wireless communication. (And for those of you who’ve spent any time in Brookline, you know that the most important — and lucrative — one of those groups is the parking enforcement one, which very well might be able to pay for the wireless infrastructure itself!) It’s unclear whether the telecoms would have enough juice to fight a battle against such a strong interest.

Second, in my time here in Brookline, I’ve gotten the impression that the town has an incredibly strong ethic that resists bending to corporate interests. When I had an ongoing problem with my cable service, a Brookline ombudsman was able to put me in touch with a senior corporate representative of our cable company pretty much instantly, and shared with me the fairly restrictive contract that Brookline signed with the company detailing expectations of service and responsiveness. It’s vigilance like this — possible because of the small size of Brookline — that’ll probably work against any efforts by the telcos to oppose wireless plans here.

Only time will tell, but it’s neat to think that Brookline’s going to go forward with this!

It might be an oft-repeated thing, but it’s true nonetheless: a poorly-designed website makes your customers angry.

Tonight, Shannon and I were booking our honeymoon flights, and found that Air France had the best flights and prices. Little did we know how much suckage awaited us, and how much the website made me wish that we could find our tickets on another airline. Four examples of poor design that were memorable from the purchasing experience: it doesn’t even try to translate written-out locations (like “Malaga, Spain”) into airport codes but rather throws an error up and makes you find the link to pull-down menus full of locations; the seat selector doesn’t work in Firefox or Mozilla but also doesn’t offer you any other way to choose your seats and won’t let you proceed; when asked for a phone number, it throws up a cryptic error when a dash is included, but offers no guidance about the format it expects; and the “create an account” form claims that Shannon’s (completely valid) passport number is invalid. And while it was possible to work around the first, third, and fourth problems on my Powerbook, the second problem made us abort the purchase entirely and restart everything on a PC, a luxury that many other people might not have and that might lead them to just give up and go to a competitor.

Apparently, what happened with the Bolton nomination in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee today was astounding even to those who spend their lives watching the goings-on of our government. (Seriously, when I got home from work tonight, Shannon was all atwitter about it! It’s what I love most about her — she’s as much of a foreign policy dork as I am a technology geek.) What happened, as I understand it, is as follows (summarized as much to make sure I understand it as to help others do so):

  • Despite some hope that two more moderate Republican Senators would see the idiocy in Bolton becoming the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, there seemed to be a firm Republican lock on getting the nomination voted onto the floor of the Senate for confirmation.
  • Democrats, concerned that there is still pretty important evidence that hasn’t yet been produced to the committee, considered objecting on the Senate floor to the Foreign Relations Committee continuing to meet while the Senate itself was in session, a move which would have forced the Committee to defer its vote on the nomination.
  • Aiming to prevent this, Bill Frist (still likely to be the only Majority Leader in the history of the Senate who illegally acquired cats from the pound and killed them to become a better surgeon) moved to shut down the United States Senate until the Committee vote could occur, and proposed that the shut down occur without a vote.
  • Harry Reid (Democratic Senator from Nevada) refused to allow that, demanding that any motion to suspend business be voted on by roll call.
  • An agreement was reached between both parties wherein the Republicans would withdraw the motion to cease Senate operations and the Democrats would agree not to object to the Foreign Relations Committee meeting.
  • Just when it looked like all was lost, George Voinovich — a Republican member of the Committee — declared that he had heard enough to be uncomfortable voting for Bolton, something which caused an out-and-out silence in the meeting.
  • With that surprise, the Republicans recognized that there was no way they were going to push Bolton’s nomination out to the floor of the Senate, and agreed to a delay to continue investigating his fitness for the position.

According to Fred Kaplan over at Slate, there’s nothing but bad that will come of this for Bolton. At a minimum, every day that goes by brings more damaging information about the man’s past; beyond that, it now appears that Bolton perjured himself in front of the Senate, and that there are members of the Cabinet who don’t really want to see his nomination succeed. We’ll see where this goes! (There are others far more qualified than me following this; Laura Rozen, Steve Clemons, Kevin Drum, and Eric Umansky are doing fine jobs of it.)

Damn, it’s been a whole week since I’ve posted anything at all! I guess that’s what happens when I’m on the second of back-to-back weeks on call, and when on top of that, I have a project that needs to be done stat at work. So, in lieu of something more focused, here are the things that I’ve enjoyed over the past week:

  • watching Brad Choate’s new SpamLookup plug-in for Movable Type fill up my logs with notices about blocked TrackBack spam. After an initial brain fart trying to install the plug-in, I got it all set up, and haven’t seen a single one slip through since. (Of course, given that I was getting about 500 spammed TrackBacks for every legit one, and was seriously considering abandoning it as a result, it’ll take a little while to know if SpamLookup is truly the answer.)
  • the National Geographic Photo of the Day. There have been some unbelievably amazing shots in the past week, enough that I’m starting to get my photography jag back. (Must remember to get the light leak in my Contax SLR fixed!)
  • the weather in Boston, which has emerged from the subarctic temperatures we had come to expect and hit seventy twice! (Must start thinking about getting the air conditioners into the windows!)
  • the completely unencumbered ease of using Ajax (or XMLHttpRequest, or whatever you want to call it to avoid meaningless religious wars) to develop web applications. The project I’m completing at the hospital is a web-based database for storing tissue specimens, and having this tool in the toolbox makes for an unbelievably more usable and intuitive interface, something that makes me as happy as the end users.
  • Will Smith’s Switch and Gwen Stefani’s Hollaback Girl; what can I say, I’m a sucker for a silly song with a good beat.

For a satellite photo-related “Wow!” moment unrelated to Google Maps, check out DigitalGlobe’s image taken above the Vatican on April 5th. In particular, zoom in on the roadway running eastward (to the right) from St. Peter’s Square…

It’s always cool to me when a member of an online community to which I belong steps out and becomes notable in an offline way — like the fact that MetaFilter member Frasermoo turns out to be Grace Beesley Fraser Moores, and he got married at Windsor Guildhall only an hour after Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles. And if having his wedding preceded (at the last minute!) by royal nuptials isn’t enough, he had the added bonus of having 25,000 well-wishers stick around to cheer him and his new wife on, as well!

my radiation monitoring badge

Today, I had a flashback moment that ended up connecting me to my parents in a way that I never would have expected.

Both my parents are physicians, and for most of my childhood, I remember being surrounded by the trappings of their work lives — white coats hanging on the backs of car seats, a stethoscope curled up on top of the cookbooks in the kitchen, otoscopes in the drawers of our buffet counter, beepers occasionally shrieking to life and prompting us all to run to see if we could catch the audio message (this was in the days before pagers displayed text messages). Nothing ever stood out as particularly representative of their work, but rather, all the stuff was as much a part of who my parents were as was their hair color or names. Since deciding to become a doctor, I’ve had a few moments that have triggered these memories, or made me better able to understand why there was so much of my parents’ physician lives intertwined in their home lives.

Today, I finally got around to taking my radiation research safety class at the hospital, and at the end of the class, the instructor handed out the monitoring badges that we have to wear whenever we’re in the lab. When he put mine down in front of me, I had a weird moment in which I flashed back to the same badge being on every single one of my parents’ white coats I had ever seen, a moment that was as much of a visceral connection as it was a visual memory. Thinking about it, both my parents had research labs in the hospital, and they’d both have had plenty of cause to wear monitoring badges in their daily lives, so that part makes total sense. What I can’t figure out is how, in my head, the badge became so emblematic of them being doctors — and how after it had, I then managed to completely forget about the association until today. In any event, the most interesting thing to me is how getting the badge made me identify more with my parents than anything else has prior, including them giving me my first stethoscope, and all the conversations I’ve had with them about patients in the past seven years. How powerful this little piece of plastic and film is!

For even more fun with Google’s new satellite imagery, take a look at this MetaFilter thread — people have posted links to a slew of awesome pictures. Some of my favorites: Death Valley, CA; the Grand Canyon; Niagra Falls; the Air Force boneyard in Tuscon, AZ; Black Rock City, NV (where Burning Man is held).


my childhood, courtesy of flickr and google maps

Matt’s walk through memory lane (courtesy of Google Maps and Flickr) inspired me to do the same; while I was setting up a new machine at work, I scrolled around my old stomping grounds using the new satellite view at Google Maps, digging up memories and committing them to screen. Here’s the result! (There’s also a new Flickr group for these images, if anyone’s interested.)

Holy crap — the new version of Adobe GoLive supports Movable Type and TypePad template tags! In plainspeak, that means that you can now use GoLive (which is a pretty powerful web design studio) to create the templates for your Movable Type and TypePad sites, which opens up all kinds of site redesign options for those who aren’t too eager to dive into hand-coding their pages.

Congrats to SixApart for this pretty astounding coup!