Archive for August, 2008

Another Buffalo News Article

Sunday, August 31st, 2008

There was an interesting article in the Buffalo News this morning about the varying tax rates by town and school district here in Erie county. It’s a bit offtopic, of course, but there’s a nice city-vs-burbs flamewar going on the News site forums. See if you can spot me.

Education Gender Gap

Saturday, August 30th, 2008

From this article in this morning’s Buffalo News:

“Statewide, 73.4 percent of girls graduated in 2007 after four years of high school, compared with just 63.9 percent of the boys. The gender disparity cuts across racial and ethnic lines, but it is even more pronounced among blacks and Hispanics.”

Perhaps years of cutting back on physical education, vocational and shop classes, and actively pursuing female student participation is finally starting to catch up with classroom performance?

I know that a lot of politically correct education theorists don’t want to admit it, but boys and girls are different biologically and cognitively. They learn differently. And attempts to remove the hands-on component from education and “feminize” it just makes male students more restless and uncomfortable. Combine that with an urban culture that rewards athletic prowess and thuggery and punishes academic achievement, and of course students are going to leave in droves.

I went to an all-male high school (McQuaid Jesuit, in Rochester, NY). And it was a very different culture than the coeducational public schools that I went to earlier. I wonder why public schools are so resistant to the idea of segregating classrooms by sex?

Ancient Hardware Find, Redux

Friday, August 29th, 2008

So I needed to find something to do with the Monitor /// I found the other day in the science building. As I was vulturing my way through the “to be recycled” pile at work, I found some old Pentium 3 laptops with TV-out. To be specific, Gateway Solo 5300s.

My typical weapon of choice is Debian, so I installed the current version on the laptop. All I needed was the base install, xserver-xorg, wmaker, and xscreensaver. The Solo 5300 has an S3 Savage video decelerator in it, so I was able to use the linux utility “s3switch” to push the output from xscreensaver through the TV output and display it on the monitor. Now I’ve got an awesome green screen monitor sitting on the shelf in my cubicle, playing random screen savers. It’s Geek Art.

Biking in Canada

Thursday, August 28th, 2008

Just about every Wednesday night, I get together with the other guys from SAPS and go biking. We rotate whose turn it is to “host”, since we all live in fairly different environments. That means that we get to check out something substantially different every week, from city riding in my neighborhood to a more rural experience at Kevin’s place out in Elma. It also means that a different person is responsible for sating our gluttonous hunger after the ride each week, which is good. Our collective appetite could bankrupt a small nation.

This week, Kevin invited us up to a cottage that his in-laws were renting in Fort Erie, just across the Canadian border from Buffalo. How close is it? Well, here’s the Buffalo skyline from where we were:

I’m not gonna lie, the city actually looks pretty nice from a distance.

The area that we were in, called Crescent Beach, was one of the summer resort towns that wealthy Buffalonians would retreat to in the summer months back in the early 20th century. As a result, there’s a whole bunch of ruins of what used to be outdoor pavilions and such. We rode along a retaining wall for the old casino, and then across what had been an outdoor dancefloor and bandstand:

(That’s Mike in the picture. Hi, Mike!)

After we were done exploring the ruins we hopped back on the bike path, rode over to the Peace Bridge, and then up to Ridgeway. It was a nice ride, about 23 miles altogether.

We even found a trampoline.

Tramampoline!

Generating Accounts in Debian

Tuesday, August 26th, 2008

I’m working on a script to automatically generate student accounts on a small departmental server at work. The useradd program, which is full of command line switches and thus ideal for the task of creating accounts from a script, requires that the password be in crypt(1) format.

Unfortunately, as I discovered after reading a ton of man pages, the program crypt as supplied in Debian is not what you want to create the string. The program in question is mkpasswd; that will take a string and return the properly hashed and salted crypt.

Hopefully, someone will find this note on Google and not waste half a morning like I just did.

First Day Of Classes

Monday, August 25th, 2008

As always, the first day of classes (today) was a madhouse. About midway through the afternoon, several of us IT nerds were in the break room, sharing “stupidest thing I’ve heard today” stories. Dave won.

For a variety of reasons, including hewing to the requirements of the new Higher Education Act, we took action to block certain peer-to-peer networking protocols this year. One of these, which we chose because it’s a conduit for spyware and other nastiness, is the Gnutella protocol. If you see a student machine that’s totally destroyed by trojans and malicious code, it’s guaranteed to have a Limewire icon on the desktop.

So now, Limewire doesn’t work. Apparently Dave was working on the Help Desk this morning when a student came in and got in his face about it. Apparently she paid the licensing fee for Limewire “Pro” yesterday, and didn’t realize that the application is useless on our network. She actually had the audacity to look him in the eye and say “Well, now where am I supposed to get free music?”

I’m old enough to remember trading mp3 files on IRC and on FTP sites, and the original Napster. I suppose I always assumed that the students on our network who I have to hunt down for attracting the RIAA’s attention at least knew that they were doing something illegal, no matter what their opinion on the morality of it. Apparently I was wrong. Sharing copyrighted material has become so brainlessly simple that students think of it as an entitlement and a basic part of their network connection, like library journals and email.

I’ve got a feeling that we’ll be hearing a lot about this as the semester goes on.

Death Race

Sunday, August 24th, 2008

I went to the Elmwood Regal this afternoon to catch a matinee showing of Death Race with Erik T. By which, of course, I mean a _seven_ _dollar_ matinee showing. When did those get so expensive? I guess the days of two movies, a newreel, a cartoon, and a bag of popcorn for fifty cents are long gone.

Anyway, Death Race pretty much delivers what the title suggests. Sure, there’s a few thin scraps of plot, but there’s big enough holes in it to drive one of the titular race cars through. Something about the prison system of the future being run by private corporations, who use prisoners as mechanics and drivers for a Spy-Hunter-meets-Mad-Max-meets-Wipeout-XL murderous race. There are a few clever moments, but it’s pretty much just things blowing up for an hour and a half.

Jason Statham plays Jensen Ames, a wrongly convicted ex-racer who the warden forces into the Death Race. He gets to really stretch his acting wings in this production; he often gets to glower, scowl, and menace all in the same scene. If you’ve seen either of the Transporter movies, it’s pretty much the same character, an inexplicably effective killing machine who likes doing pullups with his shirt off.

Natalie Martinez plays Case, his “navigator”, who is supposed to help him with strategy and steering during the race. That never really happens. Rather, her main purpose seems to be jiggling in slow motion in a series of tight tank tops and tossing her hair as if she were starring in one of those Garnier Fructis commercials. That’s okay, though. Erik T and I are both pretty sure that the gratuitous nudity that’s missing from the movie will involve her on the Unrated (“Too hot for theatres!”) DVD that’s sure to come out.

Ian McShane does an excellent job as the leader of Jensen’s pit crew, but it’s sort of sad watching such a great actor making the best of such dreadful material. It’s a bit like the total crap that Michael Caine sometimes stoops to. But maybe I just think that because of the accent, who knows.

Anyway, it’s a pretty brainless popcorn flick that’s fun to watch and delivers plenty of gratuitous violence and explosions. What’s not to love?

BPD Bike Auction

Saturday, August 23rd, 2008

As I mentioned earlier in the week, there was a bike auction at the Buffalo Police Department headquarters downtown this morning. Every so often, they decide to have a public auction and clean out a bunch of the crap that’s clogging the evidence room. This time, it was bikes only, which I thought would diminish the crowd a bit. It didn’t.

(Incidentally, the proceeds go to the “general fund” for the BPD. Which I imagine is kegs for the softball team and other law-enforcement staples.)

Kevin, the team mechanic for SAPS, and I headed down at about quarter of nine. The auction rules were “no preview”, which basically meant that there was a cop on a table in the front of the room holding up a bike, and you had to bid on it. Do the brakes work? The derailer? Are the rims bent? Who knows, you don’t get to check, just buy it or pass. It was an interesting experience.

And some of these bikes were damaged in ways that strained credulity. There was one nice Diamondback cruiser with two tacoed rims and a crank that was actually bent so far it was inside of the rear frame. Several had rims so badly bent that they couldn’t roll. One had the handlebars pop off when it was being handed up to the fellow displaying them.

I learned a couple of things. One, nobody in this city has any idea how much a bicycle is worth. Huffy and Schwinn models that you could get new for ~$75 at any Wal-Mart were selling for more than a hundred dollars, even with obvious wear and tear. The one bike that I bid on, on the other hand, was a nice Specialized mountain bike, and it ended up going for $70

Also, the whole “bidding as a competition” phenomenon is not unique to eBay. More than once I saw two people get into a bidding war over a totally crap bike that wasn’t even unique to the auction. Some Murray or Roadmaster K-Mart special, one of a dozen of the same model, would go for eighty or ninety bucks because two bidders got their backs up. Amazing.

I didn’t end up coming away with anything (The Spec. was too small for me, but I figured if I could get it cheap I could resell it or give it away), and neither did Kevin (he got outbid on a couple as well) but the people watching made it worthwhile. I’ll definitely go back next time; hell, they might even have something I’ll want.

Ancient Hardware Find

Friday, August 22nd, 2008

On any college campus, there are departments that get all of the technology budget and invest it in flashy new toys, and there are departments that will wring twenty years of life out of a piece of gear because they have to. Here at Canisius, the physical sciences are the Keepers of Ancient Hardware. All of their capital money tends to go to expensive lab equipment, so their computers are often a mishmash of hand-me-downs and finds from other, more financially sound departments.

So, it was with some amusement that I noticed that Physics had dumped some old electronics out in the hallway for the maintenance people to pick up. After all, anything that these guys were letting out of their grasp had to be dreadful. Sitting in the middle of the pile, and now sitting on a shelf in my cubicle, was an Apple Monitor ///. That is to say, a monitor from an Apple ///.

Most casual computer users don’t know this, but there were a couple of grave flops for Apple between the successes of the Apple ][ (which my entire generation used to run Bank Street Writer in grade school) and the first Macintosh. One of these was the Lisa, a computer so far ahead of its time that it cost eleven grand and couldn’t even use the same floppy disks as anyone else. The other was the Apple ///, which was supposed to be the business computer successor for the ][ for serious users of Visicalc and the other software that made the “fruit company” the toast of the business world.

The Apple /// was so unreliable, and so prone to overheating, that the manual suggested dropping it a few inches onto a hard surface to re-seat chips that had wiggled out through thermal expansion. This was one of its less notable engineering problems, if that gives you any indication of what a horrid device it was.

I’d never seen one of the monitors before, and so I grabbed it up and put it in my cube. I plugged it into a power outlet, and it lights up with no problems. It looks like it takes a standard composite video connection, and I’ve got some old laptops kicking around with RCA-out on them. I’ll have to come up with something fitting to do with this little bit of history that the Nerd Fates have dropped in my lap.

AMC Night

Thursday, August 21st, 2008

Two summers ago, the local radio station altered the format for their summer cruise night. Rather than having a general car show, they started featuring a particular brand of car every week. The initial schedule did not have any week designated for the fine products of the American Motor Company.

As an owner of an AMC product, I was a bit perturbed by this, and so I sent an email to the station. To make a long story short, I was laughed at, but they added it to the schedule. I’m going to count that as a victory.

Last night was AMC night, so I brought the Matador out to the newly-renamed Dunn Tire Raceway Park to show it off. The turnout among my fellow owners was pretty thin; there were four AMCs and two Ramblers (Rambler was the name of the company formed when Nash merged with Kaiser, and then they changed it to AMC in the late 60s), counting my own. But it was still a good time. The best thing about owning an odd car like a Matador Coupe is that everybody is excited to see it. Sure, it’s not really “show car” quality, but people would rather look at a slightly battered Matador than yet another perfectly restored Camaro or Chevelle. This doesn’t make the GM owners any happier, though, watching their $40k ride get ignored in favor of something they think is inferior.

This was my first trip to the racetrack since 103.3 moved the cruise night from the Summit Park Mall, and I gotta say, it’s an improvement. The best thing is the drag strip; for five dollars a run, you can take your vehicle out on the eighth mile strip. There’s a bunch of other contests as well, and food, and tons of cars and car people. The weather was nice, for once, which was a pleasant change from the rainy summer nights we’ve been having this year. All in all, it was a good time. I have to agree with the guys at rodnpiston.com, this is definitely the best cruise night in Buffalo these days.