Monthly Archives: October 2008

Quote of the Day

“There are three things I’ve learned never to discuss with people: religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin.”

— Linus

Road Trip Report: Home Again

After spending some time with family in northern Florida, we headed west again through New Orleans (still a mess, although the Cafe Du Monde’s beignets were terrific), Texas (amazingly vibrant, and home to some of the best barbecue I’ve ever had), Roswell, New Mexico (exactly like the TV series set, sans actual aliens), Flagstaff, Arizona (where I finally saw the Grand Canyon!), Las Vegas (mind-blowing, especially taking Neil to see the Blue Man Group at the Venetian), then finally… home.

31 days on the road, over 9,000 miles, more cities than I can count, and more amazing things seen than I’ll be able to process for a long, long time. I took over 2,200 pictures during that time, shot a boatload of video, and heaven knows when I’ll ever be able to organize or edit it all down to something reasonable.

A vacation is meant to take you away from your daily life, with all its cares, and let you see something new and refreshing. This vacation certainly did that.

This is an amazing country, and every part of it has something special to offer. I know I spent a lot of time daydreaming about what it would be like to move out to different states, whether that meant soaking in the fresh air, open land, and beauty of Wyoming; living in the midst of the rush and excitement of Manhattan; or setting up my own spread outside of Houston.

But maybe the most unexpected insight I had this whole trip was that Silicon Valley may be exactly where I ought to be. There’s a lot of things about the Bay Area that drive me crazy, and a lot of things that I miss from when I lived in other places I’ve lived, and envy about the places I’ve seen…but as a whole, for me, for this point in my life, I think I’ve chosen a pretty good home, all things considered.

And for now, at least–even with piles of laundry, and hundreds of items in my In Box, it’s good to be home again.

Road Trip Report: A Tale of Two Cities

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.

I was in Orlando Florida, having just spent a Bickford-family-record of 1 gerzillion bucks for for a set of two day passes to Disney World, and a 1 day pass to Universal Studios. “Sure, I may wind up in debtor’s prison with expenditures like this” I thought, ”but at least the kids will have the time of their lives…and I’ll finally get to see Space Mountain!”

So, early on Thursday morning, we jumped out of bed and drove, shuttled, and monorailed our way to the Magic Kingdom. And it really was magical: random chorus lines debarked from street cars to perform impromptu musical numbers; fireworks went off in the distance at random intervals; lines were short, and I’d even succeeded in grabbing my FastPass to ride Space Mountain—the ride that had eluded me on every trip I’d taken to Disneyland since I was a wee lad of 8. It was a really terrific day.

Then, as I headed over to Space Mountain to slide into the express line with my FastPass, my cell phone rang. It was Mark, back at the office. “Hey… I just got in and the web site seems to be down.”

“Well, try restarting the server”, I said, thinking some random glitch may have caused things to seize up since I last checked on it some eight hours earlier. I held the line, waiting for Mark’s “All Clear”. But it wasn’t to be.

“Uh… I’m getting a message here on the server about not being able to load the OS…”

“Could you read that too me again?” I asked, not quite believing what I was hearing.

He read it again.

“That’s bad. ” I said, and the warm Florida day suddenly got a lot colder.

What followed was a long series of phone calls while Mark and the crew read cryptic message after cryptic message to me, while I suggested a number of increasingly more complicated troubleshooting steps, all of which failed. The only good news was that we had multiple, current backups of the server.

By the time I got back to the hotel room, we’d essentially ruled out any troubleshooting measure short of a full system restore. But even that ran aground. (Retrospect folks: we really gotta talk about your “disaster recovery” feature…). Shiaw-Ling acted as my hands and ears from afar, working long into the night, while I remoted in to try to get the machine on its feet.

By morning, it looked like we were nearly there, but I still knew I’d have to spend the rest of the day, at best, working on it. The kids (and I will be eternally grateful for this) decided that they didn’t want to do our second day of Disney without their Dad, so they wandered around Orlando while I—having slept all of 50 minutes or so that night—tried and tried to get the server working again from my remote connection.

Alas, I failed in my efforts and, exhausted, I decided around 8 pm that I *had* to get some sleep. I was just no good to anyone. Worse with the weekend ahead of me, there was nobody to reach on the West Coast to do hardware swapping and other such work.

In the morning, I tried a few ideas I’d had overnight, then did the only reasonable thing I could think of: I set the site to forward to a “System is Down” page, and went off to spend the day with my family at Universal Studios.

Universal Studios was also a delight, and the Simpsons Ride alone was almost worth the cost of admission. I’d never been to Universal Studios before, so I had no idea what to expect from any of the attractions, all of which added to my amazement when they all turned out to be so well executed (with the possible exception of the unintentionally hilarious “Twister”). Toward the end of the day, I called Shiaw-Ling at home and asked if she’d be willing to help out from the California end with another go-round at a system restore that night. To her eternal credit, she said yes.

That night, we labored well into the morning and actually succeeded in rolling back the server to precisely the point it was before all the trouble. The only thing missing which prevented us from resuming full operation was the need to get new SSL certificates from our Certification Authority. We put in the request for this, but the CA wasn’t working until Monday. Once again, there was nothing for me to do…so I went back to Disney World and had a great time with the family.

On Monday morning, there was still no word from our CA, but I managed to reach the CA and get the new certificates installed while riding in the passenger seat on the road up from Orlando. Other than a few mail hiccups, we were finally back on our game, after a nervewracking shutdown of almost four days.

So it’s hard to say how I feel about that leg of the trip. It was full of thrills and adventure in the theme park cities; and full of frayed nerves and dismal depression while I worked from an Orlando hotel room by modem to try to restore a machine on the other side of the country. We even contemplated aborting the whole vacation and having me jump a plane to get back to California to get the bloody server back up. I’m glad as heck it never came to that, but for a time, it felt like a near thing indeed.

And in the end, it all worked out. My terrific family stuck by their stressed-out Dad in his time of need (they even found me Dunkin Donuts and coffee for my late night work shifts), my daughter got to meet new BFF Minnie Mouse, and I finally, finally, got to ride Space Mountain with my son. And yes, the ride was everything I’d ever hope it would be. We even got to see the offices of the Daily Bugle and ride along with Spider-Man as he battled the Sinister Six at Universal Islands of Adventure. All’s well that ends well, I guess.

Highway Star: The iBox2Go


I’m travellin’ down that open road, Highway 95 in this case, just south of the Lynard-Skynard Line that separates the Rock states from the Southern Rock states. We’ve left the land of Bruce Springsteen behind some days ago, and are swinging south through Virginia toward the land of .38 Special. Strangely, I’m typing this on a laptop from the passenger seat while the car flies down the road at 65 miles an hour, with the Tom Tom GPS guiding the way toward tonight’s destination in Chapel Hill, and a steady internet connection provided by a fabulous little device called an iBox2Go.

We discovered the iBox2Go about a year ago when we were searching for a way to avoid paying outrageous internet connection fees when we go on the road to trade shows. Normally, 4 days of internet in a convention hall can run well over $1,000 — for a wireless connection!. Additionally, you’re expectetd to shell out another $100/computer for each additional computer that wants to be able to access the net simultaneously. Since we normally go to shows with at least 5 machines, it can add up to a heck of a bill.To avoid this, we’ve tried everything from PC laptop cards to phone or wireless tethering, usually with terrible results. Then we discovered the iBox2Go and our trade show life got a heck of a lot better.

The iBox2Go comes in a little aluminum spy-style case containing the various parts. Basically, it’s a wireless router (with 4 wired connections as well) which uses a USB wireless modem to connect to Sprint’s high speed network from anywhere in the country. Setting up the thing couldn’t be easier: we just plug everything in, stick the included extension antenna someplace, and we’ve got an instant wired network with internet access at near-T1 speeds from most places we’d ever need to exhibit. Flip another switch in the back, and we can extend the network to be wireless as well, letting us share with WEP or WPA security with our laptops. It works like a charm at trade shows, and the $299 we paid (plus $59.99/month internet charge from Sprint) is more than paid for in a single use.

Since we didn’t have any shows coming up on our calendar, I thought I’d borrow it to take along on this trip. Any email, blogging, or forum posting you’ve seen from me in the past two weeks has been thanks to this device. Until now, however, it’s mostly been from hotel rooms–I never tried using it from a moving car until just now when I passed the keys to Carolyn and decided to try catching up on some work while she drives.

Since Neil’s been using his laptop in the back seat to pass the time, this was also the first time we tried plugging in both laptops and the iBox2Go at the same time. Word to the wise: don’t do this–at least not while using the little Black and Decker power inverter we had on hand. The load of two powering-up laptops immediately blew the inverter’s fuse, leaving us with no way to plug in the iBox2Go (which uses a conventional power plug–not an auto-style DC plug).

As a long shot, I tried grabbing the iBox2Go’s USB modem out of the router and plugging it directly into my laptop. I knew that even if it did function as a standalone modem, there was virtually no chance of it working, since my laptop didn’t have the necessary drivers. Best case, I figured, was that I could get back to my hotel room where I could plug it in properly, download the right drivers from the internet, then transfer them to my laptop for later use. But what the heck, let’s try it anyway…

To my astonishment, the iBox2Go’s modem also acted as a USB drive, carrying the proper drivers for installation! Whoever thought of doing that over at Novatel, drop me a note and I will definitely buy you a beer–that was great, great thinking!

So yes, the iBox2Go gets my strongest possible recommendation. I know there are other ways to accomplish some of the same tricks, but the iBox2Go just plain works. It’s been a lifesaver for our company at trade shows, and for this vacation, it’s a real highway star.

Road Road Trip Report: The International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C.


The last several days have been spent with my parents and family in the Pennsylvania and Maryland. We also used Maryland as a home base to launch the Bickford invasion on Washington, DC over the Columbus Day Weekend.

I’ve never seen DC looking so beautiful (which, if you’ve actually been to DC, can be a shocker of a statement itself–the area outside the government buildings is infamous). But for us, it was nothing but blue skies, perfect weather and–gasp!–free street parking within blocks of the Smithsonian!

We hit the major monuments the first day, including the new World War II memorial (grand and worthy, but a bit of a hodgepodge), and the National Gallery and Smithsonian Air and Space Museum the second (awe-inspiring!). We also got a chance to check out a new addition to the Washington scene: the International Spy Museum.

I’ll admit up front, I was a bit dubious about this one. Admission was $18 for adults and $13 for Neil (Kelly got in free), and there was a separate, similar admission if you wanted to take part in “Operation: Spy”, a sort of in-person spy thriller game (LARP for my geek friends). Moreover, I’d seen a news piece on the place right when it opened, and it seemed to threaten to be just another “look at the cool spy gadgets” museum in a somewhat sterile environment. Nevertheless, Carolyn and Neil really wanted to go, so I caved. I’m glad I did.

In a perfect mix of museum and entertainment, the Spy Museum begins with you entering what looks like a secret, high-security elevator which transports you (amidst appropriate sound effects and lights) to the third floor. There, you’re given a briefing on covers and legends, and encouraged to select one from their dossiers to use throughout your tour of the museum. At various points, you’re quizzed at interrogation computers, and if you pass, are given a spy assignment of your own which you also must memorize.

It’s a shame that photography is prohibited, since the interior of the museum is a real delight, with lifelike displays and rooms depicting everything from Berlin tunnel spying to the rise of the KGB, as well as special displays focusing on spies in everything from the Civil War to movies (and in Hollywood itself–who knew Marlena Dietrich worked for the O.S.S.?). You can even crawl through ductwork at one point and listed to electronic eavesdropping! Videos and computer screens positioned all throughout the museum alternately instructed and quizzed the wannabe intelligence agents on various elements of spycraft, and the whole thing was a total blast.  If I lived anywhere near DC, I might even consider getting the family membership (and now that I’ve gone, I’ll admit I’m curious as heck about Operation: Spy).

Road Trip Report: Pete vs. the Computers of Gettysburg

After weeks on the road, averaging more than four hundred miles a day, it was a relief to pull in my folks’ driveway in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania for a record-breaking 4-day stay. The highlight of all this (and indeed the excuse for the whole trip) was being able to spend Neil’s birthday with his grandparents.

For the past four days, my Mom and Dad have showed us a grand time in Gettysburg: amazing battlefield tours, gorgeous Pennsylvania scenery, and enough fabulous, home-cooked meals to leave us all several pounds heavier as we prepare to hit the road.

But all of this hospitality came with a price—one familiar to anyone who’s the geekiest member of their family. Suddenly, I was Pete the Tech Guy, troubleshooter of everything from wonky printers to the labrynthine connections of their living room entertainment system.

And, as it turned out, I had become a serial killer, preying on my parents’ old computers.

My first victim was an old eMachines tower which had once been “The New Computer” back when my folks first moved to Las Vegas the better part of decade ago. Now, it was hopelessly glitchy and outdated, wheezing when asked to do even basic email and web browsing. For the past year or so, it had been gathering dust in my parents’ study next to the computer which had replaced it, but with nobody daring to send it on to the great beyond, for fear that perhaps some crucial file had not been copied from its ancient hard drive. Having had some recent experience in dispatching machines that had fallen on hard times, I gutted the old beast, stripped its hard drive for safety’s sake, then dragged the rest of My Computer to the Trash—the real trash—and emptied it.

Victim #2 was an old PowerBook 140: a computer that had been cool during the first Bush administration. Now it was cooling its heels in the back of my Mom’s closet. The 16 MHz processor emitted an unearthly scream when we attempted to boot it up, but Its black and white screen never showed us that famous smiling Mac startup icon. After a few more bizarre electronic shrieks, it joined the eMachine in the garbage bin.

By now, I’d managed to kill fully half the computers in my parent’s home, but my worst was yet to come. At last night’s dinner, my Dad has been desirous of a newer machine to replace the old Compaq laptop I’d loaned him as a replacement to his now-dead eMachine. Without even USB 2.0 support, the Compaq was decidedly long in the tooth, but my frugal father had decided to wait a while longer before replacing it. The wait ended just a few hours later when, after attaching a portable drive to it in an attempt to get it backed up—the machine stalled out during startup and wouldn’t allow for even a forced power shutdown. I eventually had to turn the machine on its side, press in a hidden reset button, then restart it. it came up again, but failed on the next reboot when the backup drive was attached. Another press of the reset button followed… and then it refused to do anything except blink for a moment when the power came on, then immediately shut off again. And nothing would set it to right. Ever.

A rattling sound from within the long-suffering laptop told the tale: the laptop literally had a screw loose — one which shifted from its previous, innocuous location to a new one which direct shorted out part of the motherboard when I had turned the machine over to press the reset button. Yes, I’d actually managed to kill a machine simply by flipping it over.

Three computers down; only my Mom’s “cheese grater” G5 PowerMac remains. And my Mom had been complaining that that one was getting a bit old…

…perhaps it’s best that we’re moving on tomorrow…

Road Trip Report: N.Y.C.


Today was our whirlwind tour of the Big Apple. And though there’s no way you can do justice to a city like New York in a day—or even a month or year—Carolyn and I were determined to see as much as we could of the city in the short time we had.

The day began before 7am when we hustled the kids out of bed and into the car for a harrowing rush hour drive down to Liberty State Park to take the ferry over to the Statue of Liberty. Lady Liberty was looking terrific—exactly like I remembered her from my own visit some 30 years ago. Unfortunately, just as then, it was impossible to go further up than the base of the statue: a long list of safety concerns appeared on the wall as reasons no one was allowed to go up to visit the crown any more. (30 years ago, I’m not sure if the reason I never saw more than the pedestal view was because it was off limits, or whether my parents, being somewhat sensible, didn’t want to weather the 3-4 hour wait to ascend and descend those stairs). Despite the lack of altitude, it was a beautiful day and made for spectacular views across the harbor to Manhattan.

“Hey! I saw that charmeuse first!”

Once we got back from the park, we hopped a bus to midtown Manhattan and saw the heart of the city. We began at Mood Fabrics, famous from the show Project Runway. Despite its appearance on the show, there doesn’t actually appear to be any sign marking the store, and it’s lucky that Carolyn remembered its address inside a huge high-rise. Inside, an actual elevator operator let us out on the 3rd floor and into what has to be the most insanely complete fabric store on the planet. Carolyn and I gaped at the thousands of bolts of fabrics of all descriptions, and Neil and Kelly even reenacted the “quick, choose your fabrics!” scene that’s key to seemingly every episode of Project Runway.

Giving lie to the New Yorker stereotype, the Mood folks were ridiculously helpful and friendly, and seemed pleased that Project Runway fanboys and fangirls had traipsed all the way from California to ransack their store.

Kelly checking out Tripwire in Midtown Comics’ Magazine Section

Kelly checking out Tripwire in Midtown Comics’ Magazine Section

Making our way uptown, we next encountered Midtown Comics, an absolutely terrific comic shop in the heart of Manhattan. No matter what your tastes are, these guys have you covered, in a friendly, brightly lit store filled floor to ceiling with cool stuff.

ComicBase Pro and Archive Edition at Midtown Comics

ComicBase Pro and Archive Edition at Midtown Comics

As witness to this, I even spotted copies of the terrific British comics magazine Tripwire, as well as stocks of ComicBase Professional and Archive Editions right under the checkout counter. Awesome!

But it got even better: no sooner had we crossed into Times Square and started taking pictures than we were set upon by members of the Microsoft Windows street team who’s been running huge “I’m a PC” advertisements on the giant video screens of Times Square featuring various folks and the things they do with their computers.

“I’m a PC” Ads in Times Square

“I’m a PC” Ads in Times Square

“Want to be in a commercial?” they asked me, pointing up to the big boards.

No dummy me, I had to think this over for some time before answering.“Some time” in this case was precisely 0.00001 seconds, after which I cheerfully answered, “Absolutely!”

Pictures were snapped, arcane legal agreements were clicked through, and sometime tonight, the horrified visitors to Times Square will be greeted with my sixty foot tall mug accompanied by the following legend:

I’m a PC
…and I make the world’s biggest comic book database.

Road Trip Report: Neil Visits MIT


Neil, Carolyn, and Kelly at MIT

Neil, Carolyn, and Kelly at MIT

When I asked Neil which part of the trip he was looking forward to the most, his answer was clear: “MIT! MIT! MIT!” And who could blame him? Thanks to the great folks at MIT’s Lifelong Kindergarten lab, Neil actually had a meeting set up to meet with the makers of Scratch, a fascinating programming language he’d been working with for the past few months to make everything from an adventure game to a Lorenz Attractor simulator. Saying Neil was excited about this is like saying I’d sorta enjoy finding a near mint copy of Marvel Comics #1 in my attic.

The MIT Bookstore

The MIT Bookstore

We all got up early and headed over to Cambridge to the MIT campus so we’d be there in plenty of time for the meeting. Beforehand, we killed a bit of time at the Coop bookstore, where Neil scored an MIT T-Shirt, and Kelly discovered the quite delightful book “Goodnight Goon”, a Halloween-style take on Goodnight Moon. We decided the book was a keeper after she read it five times in the bookstore alone. (My personal favorite part is the “Goodnight Martians Taking Over the Moon…” page with its wonderfully lurid space alien drawings)

At 11:30, we headed over to the legendary Media Lab, where the basement was home to a LEGO learning lab, as well as the “Lifelong Kindergarten” project.

The Lifelong Kindergarten Lab

The Lifelong Kindergarten Lab

In addition to Scratch’s team lead Mitch Resnick, Neil had a chance to meet with John and Evelyn, the lead programmers. They asked Neil about his projects, how he’d discovered various features of the program, and let him in on their plans for upcoming versions of the software. It was a really great time, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Neil’s already mentally preparing his admissions essays for MIT. Of course, before we ship Neil off to Massachussetts for college, I’m going to have to insist that he at least look at Cal-Tech: it’s closer to home, and I hear awfully good things about their robotics program. Luckily, he’s got a few years to decide (and we’ve got a few years to figure out how the heck to pay the kerjillion-dollar-per-year tuition at both schools!)

Neil and the Scratch Team

Neil and the Scratch Team

Road Trip Report: PT Cruiser vs. Cows


Yesterday took us from Salt Lake City to just outside Yellowstone. After visiting Yellowstone, today’s travels were meant to land us somewhere close to Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. All that stood in our way was Wyoming.

Wyoming: Big Sky Country. Land of Wide Open Spaces. With air so fresh it was making us smog-accustomed Californians downright lightheaded. If this whole “pure air” thing had gotten any worse, I was going to have to stop every few miles to suck on a tailpipe just to restore the normal carbon dioxide level in my lungs. Really, Wyomans–how do you cope with so much oxygen in your air?

And then there were the cows. Sometime in the late afternoon, our little PT cruiser was climbing up yet another steep incline when we saw a cow standing bold as brass in the middle of the highway. I slowed to a crawl, passed around the bull, and continued up the hill only to be met by several more a hundred yards or so up the hill. More slowing. More weaving. And I was starting to feel pretty good at doing the Brahma Slalom when I noticed that the truck in front of me had come to a complete stop up ahead.

As soon as I got up behind him, I saw why: a steady stream of cows was clomping down the other land of the highway, occasionally veering to both sides of the road. “Man, I gotta get a picture of this!” I said, and asked Carolyn to hop out and grab my video camera from the trunk. No sooner had she returned to the front seat of the car with the camera than the true onslaught began: a full-on cattle drive was in progress, blocking the entirety of Hwy Alt-14 as 1200 head of cattle were herded down the road by three honest-to-God-cowboys…and a little dog.

In no time flat, our PT Cruiser was surrounded on all sides by huge cows shuffling down the hill, as well as between the cars. Amidst it all, there was a steady, unearthly wail of “MooooooooooooooooHHHHH!!!” from the cows as they moved this way and that, poked their heads in at the passengers, and occasionally doubled back on the drive. Most unnerving were the cows who’d cut between my little PT Cruiser and the weathered truck in front of us, some leaping over the highway fence as a shortcut down the hill. At the same time, I was getting more than a little nervous thinking what 3/4 of a ton of prime Angus landing on my hood would do to my insurance premiums.

Since we couldn’t see around the cows and the truck in front of us, we took to counting the tags in the cows’ ears as a way of marking the progress of the cattle drive. The highest number I remember was 973, but we found out later that there were a total of some 1200 cattle being herded along the highway by the trio of cowboys. After about 15 minutes of this surreal bovine roadblock, the cowboys managed to clear a gap so we could proceed up the hill.

As we did, we encountered another pickup from the other direction who’d been waiting for his chance to come down the hill. Out the open window, the cowboy-hat-wearing driver gave us a big grin and just said “Welcome to Wyoming!”