mom's sketch of our new house

My mother, already one of the most creative people in the world, took up sketching not too long ago and then added watercolors to the mix soon thereafter. This weekend, Shannon and I went down to DC to get some painting done in the house, and our parents joined us; in between helping tape off rooms, my mom took breaks by retreating to various spots with her sketchbook. Happily, one of her first drawings was of the house, and I can’t wait to frame and display it just inside the entryway!

Wowzers, I had no idea that Amazon is offering a $100 rebate on the new Apple MacBooks (that’s the 2.0 GHz model, but the same rebate’s available on the 1.83 GHz one, and on the black MacBook). That puts ‘em at the same price as is available under an educational discount, which is pretty amazing. I’ve started to hear good things about the MacBooks from a few people I trust who grabbed them as soon as they came out; it makes me think that as soon as I’m no longer able to tolerate my 12” PowerBook, I might know what my next machine wil be…

Today, my kid sister and her family moved to London, for at least the next two years. She has a great husband and two awesome kids, and even though they lived in New York City up until now, we’ve gone down to visit a ton over the past few years and have had a blast watching the kids grow up. So, needless to say, the idea of the whole bunch of them being so far away makes Shannon and me pretty sad, and we’ve been putting a lot of time into figuring out the best way to be able to video chat with them. When we’re just talking about us — Shannon and me chatting with Rachel and her husband and kids — things are simple, since we both have Macs with iSight cameras, and iChat couldn’t make things any easier. Of course, it’s now grown into more than just us; my parents and my brother and sister-in-law would also like to partake in the chats, and all of them are on Windows-based PCs. And as things turn out, it’s much more difficult to setup a Mac-to-PC video chat, and for it to match the quality of a pure Mac/iSight chat.

We started out by buying my parents a Logitech Quickcam for Notebooks Pro and installing AOL Instant Messenger. (We’re thinking about a Creative Live! Voice webcam for my brother and his wife.) I figured that things would just work fine, but quickly learned that that was an idiotic assumption; my first sign that there would be problems was when I noticed that the latest version of AIM, AIM Triton, is an enormously bloated bit of crapware that shares almost nothing in common with the application that we all know and tolerate. After getting through its painful setup process and ignoring all the entreaties to sign up for new services, I found the instant messaging component of Triton and added my sister to the buddy list. And despite being in the same house — and on the same network — as my sister’s Mac, I was unable to establish a video session between the two computers… because it turns out that Triton breaks all compatibility with iChat. Sigh.

Next, I tracked down and grabbed the older (and more compatible) version of AIM, and installed that. It had no troubles using the camera and establishing a video connection with my sister’s Mac, but the quality was middling at best (remember that we were even on the same network!), the video window was tiny, and there was no way to enlarge it. Double sigh.

Finally, I remembered that Trillian Pro, the alternative Windows instant messenger multi-client, had video chat abilities, so I downloaded and installed it. (Fortunately, I still have a license from back when my primary laptop was a PC.) It too was able to set up a video connection between the PC and Mac, and while the quality was equally middling, the window could be resized so that at least my parents didn’t have to squint to see that video. After a bit of optimizing the camera settings, we got a usable connection set up, so for now, that’s the solution we’re going with for all the non-Mac users.

But this begs the question: what are we missing? There have to be better options out there. For now, Skype only offers video on its Windows client, so that’s out. There are a couple of free video chat apps that work on both PCs and Macs (SightSpeed and Yak have been mentioned here and there), but I have no idea if they work any better than AIM’s offering. Likewise, there are a couple of commercial cross-platform clients (iSpQ, iVisit), but I’d have to know a lot more to recommend spending money on either to my family. And most importantly, any other solution needs to be reasonably easy to set up and to use when starting or accepting video chats.

So, does anyone have any thoughts?


Check out this very clever set of Flickr favorites; it’s one of those “I wish I had thought of that first!” kinds of things.

Wow — Vonage raised $531 million in its IPO today, and then promptly lost 13% of its value. That’s a far cry from the tech IPO days of yore, especially given that Vonage has a service it’s offering, and a business plan that involves collecting actual money from customers in exchange for that service. Then again, TiVo’s perennial profitability issues demonstrate that that’s not all you need; hell, TiVo has an outright droolworthy service (one that most cable companies haven’t come close to replicating in their own DVRs), and it has problems getting enough subscribers to stay afloat.

Shannon and I are switching to Vonage for our phone service when we move down to DC, so I’ve been watching the company’s IPO as a way to see how the market feels about the whole voice-over-IP thing, and about Vonage’s offering in particular. I’ll be posting my thoughts on our service as we get it running and start using it; I’m also going to be penning a review of the Vonage setup process as soon as I iron out the last remaining kinks in a new weblog I’m going to be starting up (hint hint).

From the Department of the Totally Batshit Insane: the folks over at Move America Forward have an ad currently running on CNN trying to drum up support for somehow censuring Jimmy Carter. Ummmm…. what??!? Of course, it’s really not as odd as you’d think, given that Move America Forward is the thinnest-of-thinly-veiled Republican Party fronts, and claims as its “chief strategist” a man who was convicted of a $200,000 fraud. It’s hysterical to think that things have gotten so frantic within the GOP that they’re now haranguing Democratic ex-Presidents, and funnier still that Clinton isn’t really available to them as a punching bag these days.

Well, f#@%.

My friends can be so weird.


OK, these are just genius: the laws of the Old Testament as retold and illustrated using LEGOs. From the kosher laws to slavery and the rules about marrying your sister-in-law, the LEGO people are there to help you understand your Levitican duties. The series is part of the larger “Brick Testament”, and there are even printed books and custom LEGO characters available. Awesome. (via The Morning News)

An incredibly astute truth, from Raymond Chen: “Regular expressions are probably the world’s most popular write-only language.” Anyone who’s ever come across a complex regular expression in someone else’s programming will understand that perfectly.

flesh-eating bacteria

Oh my god, I love GIANTmicrobes! They’re little stuffed plush representations of various bacteria, viruses, and other microscopic causes of illness; my sister-in-law (who’s deep in the thick of her own medical training right now) passed on the link last night. My favorites have to be Giardia lamblia and E. coli (the latter reminds me enough of the Sentinels that you gotta wonder if the Wachowski brothers used a bad case of food poisoning as inspiration for that part of The Matrix). I’m pretty sure that these are going to become my go-to gifts for kids in the family…

new house!

Things returned to quiet here for a few days, but I promise it was for a good reason: Shannon and I went and bought our first home! That picture is Shannon sitting on our new stoop, a mere hour before we signed a metric ton of paperwork in which promised that we’d pay the mortgage, keep the property in good condition, and each surrender a kidney and a lung in exchange for the house. (And the thing is, we both felt that it’d be cheap at twice that price!) So, I guess it’s now official: at the end of June, we’ll be moving from Brookline, Massachusetts to Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Our new place is a narrow little attached rowhouse, with two finished stories and an unfinished basement. It has two bedrooms, a little half-room that will make the perfect office, a half a bathroom more than either of us are used to, a small wood deck, and a little plot of dirt in the backyard in which Shannon and her mother are already mentally placing pavers, flowers, and little trees. And best of all, it’s ours to do with what we please!

Unlike a lot of what we saw in Capitol Hill, the house was already in nearly move-in condition; we only had to get a small boiler problem corrected and replace the floor in one room. We also chose to put in a new hot water heater and set up replacing all the windows in the front of the house (since all seven of them are the original, 100+ year-old sashes that are single-pane and have warped enough to make them hard to use). Otherwise, we have a little painting we want to do, a few other small pre-move-in projects that appeal to us, and then we’ll start the long journey of homeownership!

And today, TPM Muckraker presents a big, huge, gargantuan reason why it should now be obvious how foolish it was that Congress was willing to allow U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to testify about the NSA wiretapping policy without having to be sworn to an oath of truthfulness. From details that are now leaking out of the NSA like a sieve, it turns out Gonzales was lying the whole time.

It’s particularly saddening to note that this news hit on the same day we’ve learned that our Department of Justice has dropped its investigation into the NSA wiretapping program because the government refuses to grant high-enough security clearances to the DOJ lawyers. It’s fascinating, really — we now have a government which has implemented programs in direct contravention of the rule of law, and is willing to use its ability to grant or deny security clearances as a way to prevent a lawsuit into that program. Exactly how far does this all have to go before the other branches of government put their collective feet down and say that this has clearly crossed the line?

matt dances in front of the parthenon

I’ve been avidly keeping up with Matt Harding, the nomadic soul who quit his job three years ago in order to travel the world (and who has made a point of trying to get a video clip of himself dancing in nearly all his destinations). He’s landed at a roster of the most exotic places I can imagine, and each of his journal entries is a new chance for me to get lost in another culture for a few pages of exploration. His most recent posting, from Athens (as in Greece, not Georgia), is a great one — he actually got detained by the Athenian police for dancing in front of the Parthenon.

I’ve never had any experience with civil disobedience. I think of myself as a spineless wimp and I guess I imagined I’d fold pretty quickly, so it was nice to learn that I can withstand a little intimidation when the matter at hand is truly ridiculous enough.
I don’t know how I would’ve held up if there’d been anything serious at stake, like life or liberty. This was just about the pursuit of happiness, which trails a distant third for most of us.

The sad thing about the whole story is that while it’s easy to mock what feels like a provincial police response to Matt’s dancing, in today’s increased security throughout the United States, I’d bet anything that there are a million similar stories of other goofy tourists being unnecessarily detained by American security and police forces while shooting pictures and home videos in front of our famous buildings and monuments. (Just ask Thomas Hawk, who’s done a bang-up job documenting his own troubles.)

Update: did you think I was kidding with that last bit? (via Boing Boing)

In his NBA column over at Yahoo Sports, Dan Wetzel says that ABC and the NBA got what they deserved for scheduling the worst playoff game yesterday during the best television time slot. Because of the Pistons and the Cavs getting the prime 3:30 PM slot, the Spurs and the Mavericks were relegated to a 1 PM tipoff; this meant that much of the country wasn’t able to tune in to see two 60-game-winning teams (one of which is the defending champion!) facing off in what was predictably a great game, and another chunk of NBA fans were able to turn on — and quickly turn back off — a total blowout of a contest in a series that nobody’s predicting will last beyond four or five games. Alas.

pushing prerelease software down the pipeline

Wow, do the folks at Microsoft have some balls. My Windows XP desktop box alerted me about a high-priority system update today, an update which turned out to be a new version of the Windows Genuine Advantage Validation Tool. I’ve been asked to install updates to the tool a few times in the past, but this was the first time I’ve also been asked to read and consent to an end-user license agreement. I guess I was teased by the novelty of a license for Microsoft’s anti-piracy tool, so I read a little bit of it, and noticed that it prominently proclaims to be is pre-release software. What the f*@%?

It turns out I’m not the first person to notice this — over at InfoWorld, Ed Foster picked it up and turned it into a Gripe Line post last week, and found a lot of other problems with the license as well, including a ban on users uninstalling the software, and a clear statement saying that Microsoft will not provide any support for the software. Looking at the Microsoft Knowledge Base article about the update, there’s no mention of it being pre-release software, and the Windows Update installer never notifies users (in a way other than buried in a EULA) that this is an optional installation of less-than-adequately tested software for which users will receive no support and no uninstallation capabilities in the case of problems. I find this all — the pushing of pre-release software out as a high-priority Windows Update, and the inclusion of terms in that software which make it hard to stomach — pretty odd and incredibly sleazy.

david blaine's hairless parts

I wasn’t aware that CNN was now also trying to cater to the porn fetishists out there…

Doesn’t that just figure — on the day that I post about a network outage at Six Apart, my own network connection decided to become fiercely flaky.

t1 bandwidth graph

It turns out that responsibility for my digital line is a bit tricky — I pay my ISP for the line, and they subcontract with two different telcos for different parts of the line (the part that goes from our house to the local central office is managed by Verizon, and the part that goes from the central office back to the ISP is managed by MCI Worldcom). After everyone came into agreement that the problem was on Verizon’s portion, the tech came out this morning and isolated it to a single span of wire that failed during yesterday’s rainstorm here in Brookline. He switched out the span, and now that it’s testing clean again, we should be back in business. Sorry for the spotty outages!

There was quite a bit of teeth gnashing across the web throughout the evening yesterday as TypePad, LiveJournal, and all the other hosted Six Apart websites went dark; we learned late in the night that the cause was a “sophisticated distributed denial of service attack” against the sites. Digging a little deeper, though, it doesn’t look like this is a particularly accurate description of what happened — but instead of this being a case of the folks at Six Apart trying to cover up some internal issue, it instead looks like they’re being far too gracious in not revealing more about another company, Blue Security, which appears to have been responsible for the whole disaster. An explanation of this requires a slight bit of background.

Blue Security is a company which has recently garnered a little bit of notoriety on the ‘net due to its unorthodox method of attempting to control the problem of spam email. Last summer, PC World publshed a reasonably good summary of Blue Security’s antispam efforts; a charitable way of describing the method would be to say it attempts to bury spammers in unsubscription requests, but a more accurate description would be that the service performs outright denial-of-service attacks on spammers, and does so by convincing people to install an application (Blue Frog) on their computers which launches and participates in the attacks. Without a doubt, Blue Security’s system has generated controversy from the perspective of both unsolicited emailers and regular ‘net citizens alike, so it’s not all that surprising that the spammers recently began fighting back. One of the methods used against Blue Security has been a more traditional denial-of-service attack against the company’s main web server,, an attack which was effective enough to knock that web server offline for most of yesterday.

OK, so why is any of this information — about a company completely unrelated to Six Apart — important background? Because according to a post on the North American Network Operators Group mailing list, at some point yesterday the people at Blue Security decided that the best way to deal with the attack was to point the hostname to their TypePad-hosted weblog, This effectively meant that the target of the attack shifted off of Blue Security’s own network and onto that of Six Apart, and did so as the direct result of a decision made by the folks at Blue Security. (The best analogy I can think of is that it’d be like you dealing with a water main break in your basement by hooking a big hose up to the leaking joint and redirecting the water into your neighbor’s basement instead.) Soon thereafter, the Six Apart network (understandably) buckled under that weight and fell off the ‘net, and over four hours passed before packets began to flow again. (And given that the hostname was still pointed at TypePad for most of today, I’d imagine that the only way those packets began to flow was as the result of some creative filtering at the edge of its network.) Judging from the outage, it’s unlikely that Blue Security gave them any warning — although who knows whether a warning would’ve prevented the basement from filling up with water all the same.

So, returning to my original point: saying that Six Apart’s services were taken down as the result of a “sophisticated distributed denial of service attack” is an incredibly gracious statement that only addresses about 10% of the whole story. The other 90% of that story is that Blue Security, a company with already-shady practices, decided to solve its problems by dumping them onto Six Apart’s doorstep, something I’m pretty damn sure isn’t part of the TypePad service agreement. I know that ultimately, the denial-of-service attack came from the spammers themselves, but it was specifically redirected to the Six Apart network by Blue Security, and I hope that they get taken to the cleaners for this one.

(I’ve just begun experimenting with the social bookmarking/commenting site Digg; as I’m clearly in favor of more people understanding how the outage came to occur, feel free to Digg this post.)

Update: Computer Business Review Online has picked up the story, and has some other details. Netcraft also has a post on the DDoS, and picked up the bit from them, but there’s not much more in either bit.

stephen is squinting at YOU!

Since a year or so ago, when Shannon pointed out my insane number of questionably old T-shirts, I’ve been on a pretty strict dire-need-only T-shirt diet. With that said, this is a shirt I’d happily add to my collection. (If you’ve been in a cave and don’t know what the shirt’s referring to, you can read the transcript of Stephen Colbert’s speech in front of the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, and even watch the whole thing. It’s way worth it.)

Holy crapVonage announced today that its premium plan now includes unlimited calls to a big chunk of western Europe! Shannon and I have been thinking about using Vonage for our phone service; with my sister and her family moving to London in a month, I think that this announcement seals the deal.

There’s been the tiniest bit of preview press given to Sphere, which bills itself as a weblog search engine and has been in soft-launch mode for a little while now. Today, the service actually went live, so I figured a little exploration might be in order. Alas, after spending a little time with it, I concluded that the folks in charge of Sphere might want to change its billing to reflect that it’s more a splog search engine — the sheer number of spam weblogs in the search returns is pretty amazing. That, combined with Sphere’s apparent indexing of quite a few non-weblogs, makes its usefulness dwindle quite a bit.

Here are a few example searches, looking at the first page of ten hits that Sphere returns:

  • razr v3c”: returns five spam weblogs, two questionable spam weblogs, one overt non-weblog, and two legitimate sites.
  • honda accord”: three spam weblogs, one non-weblog, six legitimate sites.
  • bluetooth headset”: four spam weblogs, three legitimate sites.
  • dual core intel”: three spam weblogs, one questionable spam weblog, six legitimate sites.

I don’t claim for these results to be rigorously scientific, only representative of the experience that’s led me to relegate Sphere to the bin of sites that seem to have gone live without addressing all the issues inherent in their areas of focus, and as such, aren’t really all that useful.

I’m pretty sure I’m only one of about three hundred million people who figured they’d never have occasion to utter the phrase “Anna Nicole Smith won her case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court today…” (The decision, for those who are actually interested, is here.)

Congrats to Catarina and Stewart for being named to Time’s 100 People Who Shape Our World list — they share company with the likes of Stephen Colbert, Nancy Cox, the Pope, Angela Merkel, Elie Wiesel, and Al Gore. (Since the list is technically made up of 100 entries rather than 100 people, I guess both Catarina and Stewart have been reduced to half-people — but then again, so have our 41st and 42nd Presidents, and Bill Gates too!)