Three Years

Three years ago, I started the first full day of my post-IBM life. I had vague ideas of taking a few months off, then finding a new job.

I got the first part right.

In the intervening three years, I’ve had major heart surgery, gotten very involved in Toastmasters (I’m standing for Division Governor for 2013-14), taken some interesting trips (with more on the agenda), and have rarely found myself bored.

Does that mean that I wouldn’t go back to full-time employment if the right opportunity arose? Definitely not; there are advantages to having a real job, but it would have to be a very good fit.

Stay tuned!

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Launch Services did it!

For quite a while, I’ve noticed an odd pattern whenever I open Activity Monitor on my Mac – something was writing to my disk every 2 or 3 seconds, at a peak rate of 4.5MB/second. Over time, the total data written would climb into the terabytes (far exceeding the total data read from the disk) – but my free disk space wouldn’t diminish. Looking at the system logs didn’t enlighten me, and nothing was obvious in Activity Monitor. I’d shake my head and ignore it.

This morning, I noticed the pattern again, right after rebooting the system, and I decided to try to find out what was causing the I/O.

First step: ask Google. In particular, I asked it what process is doing i/o mac and found many potentially-useful pages. The one I chose to pursue was an Ask Different question: Which process is periodically writing to the disk? because the screenshot in the question matched mine almost exactly.

The accepted answer to the question led me to try iotop(1), but I kept getting errors from DTrace (even though I ran it as root). So I tried what looked like the next best answer, using fs_usage(1):

sudo fs_usage -w -f filesys -e grep  \
   | grep -i ' write ' > /tmp/iouse.txt

and then looking at iouse.txt showed me that a process named lssave was doing a ton of I/O. A quick Google for lssave led me to this Stack Overflow page, which led me to this macosxhints discussion, which made it clear that I needed to rebuild my Launch Services database. I used Onyx to do the job, and voilà Рno drumbeat of writes!

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Doing without

I had an interesting experience at Next Step Toastmasters today. I had signed myself up to “Sell a Product”, which was supposed to be a 10–12 minute talk. I decided to sell a real product, 1Password, which solves real problems for me.

I verified that a projector would be available, and I built a copiously-illustrated PowerPoint deck, even including a short screencast demonstrating how to log in to the Toastmasters member site using 1Password. I was set.

Until I arrived at the meeting, when I found out that getting a projector and screen from the venue would cost the club $150 (yes, we meet in a hotel!), and that it wasn’t going to happen. I decided to press on anyway, and got up to speak as scheduled.

Needless to say, I had to rework my talk substantially; instead of relying on slides, I had to paint pictures in the minds of my audience. That meant that I had to use magic words like “imagine” and “consider”, instead of showing them exactly what I meant.

And then, long before I expected it, the timer showed the green light, indicating I only had two minutes to go. I sped up my delivery and got through my critical points, leaving the audience with a call to action just as my time expired. I left the stage to applause (as expected – everyone gets applause at a Toastmasters’ meeting!) and sat down.

At the break a few minutes later, the timer apologized to me; he hadn’t noticed the “10–12 minutes” on the agenda and had given me the green light in accordance with the timing for a normal speech, at 5 minutes, not 10.

I was surprised when my evaluator said that I’d met all of my objectives, and that I’d convinced him to buy 1Password, even though he didn’t know he had a password problem before my speech! And several other people told me they were going to buy it, too. One person even praised me for spending so much of my time looking at the problem rather than focusing on the product I was selling; she said it made me more effective and more believable.

The time I spent putting together the PowerPoint presentation wasn’t wasted; it forced me to think through my material. But I was better off not being able to use it – that forced me to connect with my audience instead of hiding in front of my slides. And doing without 5 minutes of my time slot made me step up my game in real time – though if I’d been using my slides, I would have been in trouble.

Next time, though, I wouldn’t mind if things went according to plan.

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Things I may regret finding

I’ve just discovered what may be the most addictive Internet radio stream available: Just A Minute. I am strongly tempted to use this format the next time I’m the Table Topics Master at my Toastmasters club.

We were in Tucson last week, and the hotel gave us the Wall Street Journal. I managed to avoid the Opinion Pages (and so my blood pressure stayed in three-digit territory), but I did discover “The Numbers Guy“, and have added him to my RSS feed. Very interesting, and so far, not politically slanted.

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Summer’s almost over; it’s time for the fall garden update

It’s been a while since I reported on the garden (or wrote anything else here, for that matter!). The fall garden is started, though the summer garden isn’t quite finished, so it seems like a good time for an update.

Summer Garden Results

The first cucumber showed up on July 5th, a little under two months after planting; I think it was a “Slice Max” (rather than a “Diva”), but I can’t be sure. We’ve had a steady stream of cucumbers ever since, and there are still a few to come. I expect to plan cukes again next summer.

The red peppers were very tasty and fairly productive, though they took longer than claimed; the yellow peppers were also tasty, but far less productive. Both pepper plants have given up the ghost; I suspect it would have been cheaper to buy peppers from the supermarket or at the farmers’ market, but it’s fun to grow them, and I’ll do it again next year.

We’ve had a good crop of tomatoes (both the Early Girls and the cherry tomatoes), and they have been delicious. We harvested some today, and a few more may ripen, but the end is near if not already here…until next year.

Watermelons were not as successful; we had a bunch of 4" melons, many of which were completely white inside. We did get four or five edible melons, but they were tiny and not terribly sweet. We took the last melon today, and I’ve ripped out the vines and repurposed the EarthBox.

Fall Garden Plantings

We didn’t do anything with our actual dirt garden patches over the summer, but we planted lettuce seeds there today (after adding a half-bag of planting mix to each patch).

We sowed one patch with about half a packet of “Chef’s Gourmet Spicy” mesclun mix; the other patch has the other half packet, plus a full packet of “Asian Salad Greens”.

And the EarthBox that hosted watermelons over the summer now has six arugula seedlings; I kept most of the dirt, but did add a bit of new potting soil at the top.

I’m not sure what we’ll do with the other two EarthBoxes when we take out the last of the cukes and tomatoes; we’re not really big pea eaters, which is the obvious thing to plant. I’m thinking of putting strawberries in one of the boxes in hopes of an early spring harvest, but maybe that’s foolishly optimistic. On the other hand, it would be really tasty if it worked!

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Back to IBM, no visitor’s pass required

My friend Sam asked me to help with a Geocaching class on Sunday; even though I’d looked at the maps, I hadn’t realized that the trail was on IBM property until I got to the trailhead. Fortunately, no visitor’s pass was required for access.

Trailhead Sign - IBM Easement
Trailhead Sign - IBM Easement

There were about 40 students and 8 docents. After a short lecture and a group discovery of the first cache, we broke into small groups; I had two families in my group, with children ranging from 4 to 10 years of age. Since one family had brought a stroller, I decided we’d take the steepest part of the trail first (uphill).

The views from the trail were interesting, but not picture-worthy. I did find some nice California poppies on the way, though I suspect they were a pale remnant of what I would have seen earlier in the spring.

California Poppies
California Poppies

The second cache was only a few hundred yards up the trail; it was easy to spot, not least because there was another group at the cache when we got there! We waited a few feet away until they re-hid the cache, then turned the kids loose to find it, which only took a few seconds. Everyone was happy.

The happiness didn’t last, though. The trail to the third cache was long, uphill, and full of switchbacks, and enthusiasm flagged. About the only high point was this flower, which was blowing in the wind so hard that I had to steady it to get the photo.

white flower
Mariposa Lily (thanks for the info, Sam!)

After we collected the third cache, things got better – we were more than half-way through the trek, and it was mostly downhill from there. And the caches were more closely spaced, too.

In fact, the fourth cache was only about ten minutes away. On the way, I confirmed that I was, indeed, very near my old stomping grounds at IBM Almaden Research

B-Wing from the trail
B-Wing from the trail

and found one more interesting flower, “Farewell to Spring”.

Clarkia amoena
Clarkia amoena

The fourth cache required some exploration but the kids found it without resorting to the hint (“Troll”).

The fifth cache was slightly off-trail in a field of high grass…well, except for the grass leading directly to the cache. The kids found it immediately.

Cache number six was made obvious by the trampled grass, too; cache seven took a little longer but yielded to determined seekers.

We were on the home stretch now; the last cache was one of the hardest to find, but still only took a couple of minutes before one of the kids got it (far sooner than I would have seen it, I must admit!).

And then it was a quick jaunt back to the assembly point, where my charges returned their loaner GPSes. I’d be interested to know if any of them continue caching, but I’ll never know unless I happen to see them at a cache or a get-together.

I’ve created an EveryTrail map of the hike.

Thanks, Sam, for inviting me along!

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The 2012 garden is planted!

I suspect this posting will interest me more than it does most of you; I wanted to document what I planted this afternoon in hopes of remembering it next year and choosing appropriately, based on the success or lack thereof of this year’s garden.

As usual, I planted three EarthBoxes with seedlings purchased today from Summerwinds. We waited longer than usual to plant this year for two reasons – first, because our Master Gardener friends told us to wait, and second, because we wanted to plant after coming home from Europe.

The first EarthBox is on our porch, and it has:

  • Diva Organic Cucumber, claims to be ripe in 58 days (July 8)
  • Slice Max Cucumber, “mid-to-early maturing”
  • Red Bell Pepper, ripens in 60–80 days (July 10–30)
  • Yellow Bell Pepper, ripe when it’s a rich yellow.

In past years, I’ve tried planting three peppers, but no more than two have ever produced, so I decided to see how only planting two works. I completely replaced the soil in this box, since the old soil was two years old.

The second EarthBox is out in the sun, with tomatoes. This year’s choices:

  • Early Girl, ripe in 50–62 days (June 30-July 12)
  • Large Red Cherry, ripe in 70–80 days (July 20–30)

Last year was not a good year for tomatoes – we got a fair number of yellow cherry tomatoes but only a few of the larger ones. I replaced half the soil in this box, since it was fresh last year.

The third EarthBox is also out in the sun, with watermelons. I planted two of the same:

  • Sugar Baby, ripe in 72 days (July 22)

Last year, I planted four melons in the same box; we got a few small melons, but nothing exciting. I replaced half the soil in this box, too, since it was fresh last year.

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Amsterdam Dos and Don’ts

Amsterdam Dos and Don’ts

We recently spent a week in Amsterdam before taking a river cruise through the Netherlands and Belgium; I will eventually post photos from the trip, but in the meantime, I wanted to share some possibly-useful tips for others travelling to Amsterdam and environs.

Money

  • DO tell your credit/debit card companies that you will be using your card in the Netherlands and when you’ll be there.
  • DO get money from ATMs rather than buying it before you leave the US; there are ATMs at the airport and all over town and you’ll get a much better rate.
  • DO expect to find some shops which only accept cards and will not accept cash.
  • DON’T get the Travelex “Cash Passport” Chip and PIN card – the exchange rate is hideous and they demand your Social Security number.
  • DO expect to be able to use your US credit card when you are dealing with people – even though the Dutch all have Chip and PIN cards, every credit card machine I saw in a shop could also accept a US magstripe card. [1]
  • DON’T expect to use your US credit card if you’re dealing with an automated kiosk (such as the ticket machines for the railway)
  • DON’T take the option of paying in US Dollars using your credit card. The rate is probably not as good as your card company will give, and if your card has a surcharge for international transactions, you’ll have to pay that surcharge even if the transaction is in US Dollars.
  • DO carry a few Euros in change with you at all times for small purchases and toilets – many public toilets charge between 20–50 cents for access.

Getting into town from the airport

  • DO take the train unless you’re staying far from the city center.
  • DON’T wait until you’re at the airport to buy your train ticket.
  • DO buy your train ticket in advance from Belgian Rail; print it at home and bring it with you.
  • DO have Euro change in pocket if you need to buy your train ticket at the airport, or go to the ticket window if you need to use currency or a US credit card. The machines ONLY take change or PIN cards.
  • DO buy Second Class tickets for this trip unless you have a lot of luggage or can’t manage four steps up or down stairs.
  • DO know that the trains to Centraal Station leave from Schiphol platforms 1 and 2.
  • DON’T get on a “FYRA” train at Schiphol – it will cost you! You want to get on an “IC” train. The trains are marked on the sides of the cars; both use the same platforms.

Getting around town

  • DO walk if you can – the touristy part of Amsterdam is small, and everything of interest is within a 45-minute walk (mostly less). Take public transport only when you’re in a hurry.
  • DO watch out for bicycles and motorbikes, especially when crossing a bike path (and every street has bike paths). Treat them as you would any other fast-moving dangerous vehicle.
  • DON’T be surprised by motorbikes (or bicycles) on the sidewalk, either, though they are usually going slowly there.
  • DON’T worry about having exact change on trams; the conductor gives change. I don’t know about busses.

iAmsterdam card

  • DO buy the iAmsterdam card.
  • DON’T buy it at the VVV office at Centraal Station – there are long lines. If you must buy it there, use Line 6, not the “full-service” lines.
  • DON’T pre-purchase the card over the Internet, which means picking up the card in person at the VVV office – in that same long line, of course.
  • DO buy it at one of the other locations; if you plan to start with a canal tour, buy it at their counter (you’ll have to go there anyway to get the ticket that’s part of the pass).
  • DO be strategic about the time of day that you activate the pass. It is valid for 24/48/72 hours, not 1/2/3 days. If you activate a 24-hour pass at 11am on Wednesday, you can use it all the rest of that day and then enter a museum before 11am on Thursday and stay there the whole day. This works best for major museums, like the Maritime Museum or the Van Gogh, of course. If you’re really hardcore, you could go to the Maritime Museum at 10am on the last day of your pass and get a ticket, immediately go to another nearby museum and see it, then return to the Maritime Museum because your ticket is good for the entire day.
  • DO realize that the museum pass and the travel pass are completely separate after you buy them; you need not activate them at the same time (or even on the same day).
  • DO realize that the discount offers in the booklet are valid even after your card expires (I think they go to the end of the year); you just need to bring the card and the booklet.
  • DON’T plan to go to the Rijksmuseum or the Anne Frank House on the iAmsterdam card.

Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll

  • DON’T be afraid of walking through the Red Light District (of course, be aware of your surroundings, just as you would anywhere else).
  • DON’T take photos of “red rooms” or the women working in them.
  • DON’T go to a coffeeshop for coffee.

Eating and drinking

  • DO expect the inside of restaurants to be non-smoking (both kinds of smoke).
  • DO expect a lot of [tobacco] smokers just outside of a restaurant.
  • DON’T expect free refills on coffee.
  • DON’T expect free tap water.
  • DO expect service charges to be included in your bill; round up to the next Euro or two if you’re especially pleased. I ran into one restaurant where service was marked as “Not Included” on the bill and tipped about 10% – I have no idea if that was right or not.

Staying connected

  • DON’T use your US cell carrier’s international data plan, even by accident. AT&T’s price is $20/megabyte; other carriers are similarly exorbitant.
  • DO consider using iPhoneTrip.com if you have an unlocked device or are on AT&T. I paid $17/day for unlimited data anywhere in Europe and used about 50 megabytes/day, which would have cost $1000 on AT&T.
  • DO look for “Free Wi-Fi” hotspots; many small restaurants offer free Wi-Fi. One near our hotel gave us the password when we stopped to look at their menu and told us the service was available 24/7. We wound up having breakfast there four times!
  • DO look for free Wi-Fi from free-hotspot.com if you’re near a fast-food chain like McDonalds, Burger King, or Subway.

    Language

  • DON’T expect to need to know much (if any) Dutch. All tourist-oriented businesses are completely English-friendly, and almost everyone in the Netherlands seems to speak and understand English.
  • DO try to sound-out written Dutch if you need to figure out a sign; it looks unlike English, but I found it fairly easy.
  • DO say “Dank U Well” (“thank you”).

  1. I did find one ice cream shop which said it would only take PIN cards or change (no bills) – I don’t know if their machine would have taken a US card or not.

     ↩

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I never could get the hang of Tuesdays….

There’s nothing like having the phone ring early in the morning, unless it’s looking at the caller-id and seeing it’s your credit card company. Needless to say, the person on the other end introduced herself as being from the Fraud Protection department.

I probably should have been properly paranoid and called them back, but she had enough information to convince me that she was legitimate (either that or a very good scammer). After we’d established mutual bona fides, she asked me the big question:

“Did you use your card to pay 399 South Korean Won for a website named ‘First Date’?”

Nope. And neither had my son or my wife.

And actually, neither had the thief – they’d tried, but “Verified by Visa” kicked in and they were unable to answer the question it asked, so the charge was declined and activated the fraud prevention system, leading to this morning’s call.

Naturally, this was the card I use for all my automatic payments (so I’m careful not to use it at gas stations or other places where skimmers are likely to live); fortunately, I have downloaded copies of my last few statements handy and can update all my accounts when the new cards arrive. It’ll make a great excuse not to do something more productive.

On a brighter note, the first thing I saw when I logged onto Facebook today was a congratulatory post to Luba Cherbakov (one of my peers in my last group at IBM) on her appointment to IBM Fellow; when I looked at the press release, I found that Ron Fagin, a fellow member of Shir Hadash, had also been appointed as an IBM Fellow. Well-deserved congratulations to both of them! (I wonder if the food at the ceremony was Kosher for Passover.)

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A break from 24/7

For the last few weeks, I’ve been turning off my iPhone on Shabbat from the time Torah Study starts (about 9:30am) until services end (around noon). Today, I took it a step further, and kept the phone off through lunch, a play at San Jose Rep (God of Carnage, recommended), and even through dinner with Diane at Il Fornaio.

It was amazingly restful.

The phone is back on (I needed the GPS for our evening walk), but I intend to be more mindful in how I use it during the coming week. And it’s worth remembering that airplane mode works on the ground, too.

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