Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Bolot Kerimbaev, Technology Commando  

SO many of you (where many is defined as N greater than or equal to one) may remember that the Wiki was down for "security reasons". Well, this wasn't that someone had hacked the site, trashed the data or even just spammed the comments pages: it was, more literally, a security issue with my web hosting provider, which tightened its security provisions on script hosting and killed OddMuse, the wiki engine I was using. Fortunately Bolot Kerimbaev, a friend from Taido class, uses the same wiki engine and the same service provider, and he told me that the use of semicolons rather than ampersands in the URLs was causing the problem. A simple fix, really.

Well, not so simple.

I worked at it for a while, but found that other features were broken on my site as well ... because semicolons were EVERYWHERE in URLs in the OddMuse code. At first I tried changing them individually, then, as the problem got more complex, decided to try to abstract out the separator character into a $SEP variable that I could change and control. That worked well ... for a while ... but eventually the OddMuse instance I was working on became unstable, then stopped working entirely. Because I'd been futzing around with vi on a local directory and uploading the Perl script to my web site rather than using proper source control (for shame!), I couldn't even roll things back successfully without losing all of my changes.

SO I called Bolot for help, and we got together at Atlanta Bread Company at Perimieter Point to take care of the problem. This Atlanta Bread Company (one of their best stores) is right next to a Starbucks Coffee, which kindly provides T-Mobile Wi-Fi. So we logged in and tackled the problem, and after a few minutes showing Bolot what was going wrong, he took over the keyboard to fix it.

And a whole lot more.

First, rather than laboriously editing the files locally and uploading them with FTP, Bolot suggested we use SSH and edit the files in place so we could see the changes immediately. This point is so important I'm going to follow it up with a separate post, but that's another blog for another day. Now, apparently I got through thirteen and a half years of Georgia Tech without using SSH extensively (I almost always relied upon remote X Windows logins prior to my Windows/Cygwin days) so this option never occurred to me. Bolot, however, was able to do it almost instantly:

ssh -l username hostname

Moreover, we found that using the Cygwin instance on my laptop, we could not just SSH in to the site ... but could actually use VIM, the enhanced VI editor. And with a few quick commands, he had syntax highlighting and color schemes working - remotely, via SSH, in the bash window already set up in Cygwin on my machine. Other than the window title and the lack of a toolbar, it looked identical to the gVIM I frequently use on my machine.

   :colors darkblue
   :set nu

(Note tab completion actually works on setting the colors!

After finding and fixing the first and most important of the problems, we then went to test. Bolot immediately became frustrated with my Internet Explorer installation and turned to my copy of Firefox instead, which was hopelessly out of date. Within moments, he showed me why people use Firefox: within moments he was able to painlessly install gesture support, web developer tools, a variety of search tools, flash blocking, ad blocking, and a host of other applications which made the Firefox experience almost palatable, despite the fact that its interface is still slower, clunkier and uglier than IE. Shortly thereafter, Bolot was able to find and eliminate the rest of the problems in OddMuse, realizing that the problem was not semicolons in URLs in general, but the presence of the string ";id" in the URL. By the time he was done, he had not just corrected the problems in OddMuse itself, but also other problems with my installation which were interfering with stylesheets.

SO: an improved browser, web site, method of connecting to the web site, and a whole host of other tools. All delivered straight to my brain in less than an hour.

Lessons learned: Be dogged with your tools. Find out all they have to offer you. Use them as they were best intended. And be dogged about eliminating problems in your way. Make it possible to get feedback on changes instantly, so you make many small changes safely and feel free to experiment. Then, you will be able to work far faster than you ever thought possible.

More thoughts on this later .... but, until then, hats off to you, Bolot Kerimbaev, Technology Commando.

-the Centaur



Ugh. I remember hearing it. It's the second error listed on Oddmuse’s List of Errors. I can't believe this is meant as a serious security improvement. :) But what can I say. I think I heard this stopped some kind of common-place PHP attack. Oh well, nothing I will be adding to the core, though.
# posted by Blogger Alex Schroeder : 2:10 PM
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Tuesday, May 24, 2005

new fanu fiku - chapter 0 concludes  

Well, after 8 months, the zeroth chapter of fanu fiku has come to a close.

Breaking my arm was less of a barrier to finishing the story than trying to teach a class at the same time I was prepping for a Mars trip. Life lesson: you can only do so much.

Since the comic is already a month behind my self-imposed schedule, I plan (ha! ha! good one) on rolling into the next issue without delay. fanu fiku issue 1: manifestations will begin next week.

-the Centaur



Sunday, May 22, 2005

Obi-Wan Kenobi is Redeemed  

Ok. Sith made 50 million in its first day, and by now almost 1 in 10 Americans have seen it, so we can proceed without spoiling anything for anyone:

At last, Obi-Wan Kenobi gets to kick ass.

For almost the entire Star Wars saga, Obi-Wan gets pantsed by everyone he encounters. Sure, he lops off arms in bar-room brawls, bats blaster ricochets into legions of droids, and even kills Darth Maul, but outside that, put him toe-to-toe with a Jedi or trained bounty hunter and he falls to pieces. In the Phantom Menace, he's basically a young punk who can't even keep his lightsaber charged - Qui-Gon carries him through the whole movie until whacked by Maul, which apparently energizes the young Kenobi enough for him to pull his weight. But by Attack of the Clones Obi-Wan had devolved into a pompous, dismissive arrogant twat that Anakin carried through the whole movie.

Now, don't get me wrong - I thought it was stone cold of him to leap through that window onto a fleeing assassin droid to try to track it back to its master, and thought he held his own pretty good against Jango Fett while being fired on by an entire starship. But one of my good buddies put it best: in the end, he loses just about every fight. The bounty hunter picks him off at a quarter mile, after which he's rescued by Anakin. Then baby-faced Boba Fett gives him the Slave II smackdown. Finally he gets schooled by Count Dracula - excuse me, Dooko - only to get saved by, yes, you guessed it, Anakin - who in Attack of the Clones can't pull his weight either, requiring a Muppet-ex-machina save by Master Kermit - excuse me, Yoda - and his newly energized CGI powers.

Now, Sith starts off the same way. While he does well against legions of the can't-shoot-straight stork droids, Obi-Wan still can't fly, gets re-schooled by Dooku and then literally carried out by Anakin. But almost immediately he starts showing signs of maturity. He credits Anakin for his hard work and derring-do, rather than smacking him down, tries to help him cope with the Jedi council's duplicitous ways, and ultimately flat-out tells Anakin how much he admires him before hurling himself into the forefront of the war.

Where. He. Kicks. Ass.

Unlike the reckless Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan is shown to think carefully about his moves, even the boldest of them: leaping straight down into an enemy army to call out Grievous. For the entire rest of the movie, Obi-Wan out-fights, out-thinks and out-plans all of his foes, smacking down Grevious' troops, slicing up Grevious himself, and even outwitting his own clone troopers when they turn on him. In the final climactic battle with the newly minted Darth Vader, Obi-Wan excellently plays above his weight, staying toe-to-toe with someone More Powerful Than Any Jedi while at the same time constantly manipulating the battlefield to his advantage. Like Darth Maul luring Qui-Gon before him, it's Obi-Wan that lures Anakin out onto catwalks and platforms where his sheer power can no longer help him; it's Obi-Wan that keeps an eye out for lava around them, and it's Obi-Wan who maneuvers himself out of danger, always with an eye for Anakin's sword as he's doing so. In contrast, Anakin whacks away at Obi-Wan like he's trying to cut down a tree, and is constantly suprised when he finds himself dodging lava or trying to escape from a sinking platform while Obi-Wan is waving at him from the high ground.

At first I was disappointed that Obi-Wan had to use the terrain to defeat Anakin - as the same friend said earlier, the cool thing about the fight between Qui-Gon and Darth Maul is that Maul didn't throw sand in his eyes or make him slip on a banana peel: Qui-Gon just got beat by a superior opponent. But upon reflection, that's the point. Obi-Wan saw how Qui-Gon went down, and knew how he took Darth Maul out with Maul standing on the same high ground he now held over Anakin. He had experience. He distilled it into wisdom. And when Anakin came a-chopping, Obi-Wan held him, thought him off, and struck him down.

Anakin never really had a chance. When he intoned, "This is the end for you, my master," and leapt over Obi-Wan onto the platform, Obi-Wan could easily have nailed him in the back. Then when he landed, he stumbles, and Obi-Wan actually waited for him to get his footing and to bring the battle back to him, rather than press the advantage.

In reality, Obi-Wan was stringing him along - because he couldn't bear to kill hisfriend. But in the end, he did what needed to be done.

Obi-Wan Kenobi, you're my hero.
And you kick ass.

-the Centaur



Friday, May 20, 2005

And The Force Struck Me Like a Physical Blow  

I saw Sith at midnight on Thursday, and while I decided to wait to comment on the *content* of the movie to avoid spoiling it for anyone, I find I cannot remain silent about the *effect* it had on me.

I enjoyed Sith, recognizing both strengths and weaknesses. Some moments we'd waited twenty years for: other, unexpected moments gave the original trilogy new resonance. But the real effect came the next day. My whole body felt like I had taken a physical blow. I was tremulous, hearing lightsabers and blasters echo through my head. Minor comments by characters stayed with me again and again, and my senses were finely tuned towards commentary by others around me who had seen it. Now, a day and a half later, I still hear the sabers clashing.

In short: George Lucas's patented sensory overload worked. The force was strong with this one.



Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The Day "Star Wars" Beat "Star Trek"  

Now, at last, after decades, we know the truth:

Obi Wan Kenobi can kick Captain Kirk's ass.

Speaking as a long-time Star Trek fan, the evidence is unavoidable. After almost 2 continuous decades on the airwaves, Star Trek finally bowed out last Friday with the season finale of Enterprise. And tonight, after almost three decades, a rejuvenated Star Wars brings its *latest* trilogy to a close with a flourish, just as new TV series, games and countless comics spring to life.

It's not that Star Trek and Star Wars were ever *really* in competition. As I see it, Star Trek laid the groundwork for the particular brand of space fantasy that George Lucas later capitalized on and perfected in his myth-making Star Wars franchise, just as Star Trek rejuvenated itself with a movie franchise after Star Wars changed the rules for movie blockbusters ... and just as the current Star Wars TV show owes its roots to a renaissance of science fiction television that began with Star Trek: The Next Generation. But this give-and-take, while it made the careers of new science-fiction auteurs like Whedon and Strazynski possible, cannot sustain itself forever; and now, Star Trek has petered out.

Not that I don't expect Star Trek to be reborn eventually. Doctor Who was resurrected, after all, as was Hitchhiker's, Lord of the Rings and even Star Wars itself (not to mention Batman, Superman and a host of older properties ... even House of Wax is a remake of a remake). But I think it will take some time for Trek to find its way again. Why?

Certainly NOT for the reasons that the fanboys will pop forth with on their latest self-serving conspiracy theory sites and www.WhyTrekFailed.org blogs:

"They violated too much continuity" --- oh, grow up. Star Trek has been self-INconsistent since the first handful of episodes and that's not going to change now. The writers are telling stories, the best they can, and care about the continuity a hell of a lot more than you do --- after all, they made the career decisions that made it possible for them to be writers on Star Trek, and you're still stuck in your parent's basements.

"They had too much time travel" --- oh, shut up. Time travel has been one of the strongest elements of the new Star Trek over its last twenty years and if you're complaining about it, you obviously haven't been watching it, at least not as a fan. And if you were watching it not as a fan --- that is, watching in the hope it would fail --- then just shut the fuck up.

"Rick Berman is the spawn of Satan" --- well, maybe you have a point. I've heard some pretty bad stories about Mr. Berman from people who would know. But every artistic and technical success that I can think of off the top of my head had some quirky overbearing figure at the top --- The Macintosh's Steve Jobs, Star Wars' George Lucas, Titanic's James Cameron --- who makes bad decisions from time to time, but makes up for it with his incredible vision of what's possible to be achieved and his skill at pulling it off.

In the end what the fans think they like --- like continuity between episodes, as was tried with the Klingon arcs of the Next Generation and in the 3rd season of Enterprise --- end up repelling viewers. I think the real problem with Star Trek is purely pragmatic --- they did it too long, too consistently without enough of a break to rejuvenate themselves.

Say what you want about Lucas, but he works his ass off to make each and every Star Wars movie and learns after each one. Star Trek, in contrast, seems to have been caught on the endless network treadmill. It was on the wrong network in the wrong time slot with too much competition. It's blunders were big ones --- a controversial theme song, a captain miscast (or an actor misused) --- and when it changed, it changed too slowly. The third and fourth seasons of Enterprise were some of the strongest Trek since the final few seasons of Deep Space Nine, but by then the audience was draining, the show moved to a bad timeslot.

It's the curse of science fiction television: for a show to get really good, it has to have a free hand to maintain an audience. Farscape worked not just because it worked, but also because the Sci Fi Channel could fire-hose fans with entire seasons over a weekend (where I got hooked) rather than squeezed in one night a week. Stargate worked because it could find its legs on Showtime, rather than die in the network shuffle. And Firefly worked, even though it got shuffled off the network coil, primarily because the DVD was cheap enough for fans to buy it and spread the word by word of mouth, rather than try to choke down the ridiculous hundred-buck bricks you see for other series. And somehow I think the straitjacket of network TV had to have a chilling effect on the creators of Trek that perhaps made them a little too slow on the draw to make the dramatic choices they ultimately did ... too late.

So, Trek will return. But let's hope that when it does return, it returns to a place that lets it have the flexibility it needs to make it a success.

Until then, there's always Star Wars --- coming soon 8pm Eastern, 9 Central.



Sunday, May 15, 2005

When marketing tie-ins go bad  

Perhaps someone should have thought twice about this movie tie-in:



"You are so fired."


Thursday, May 12, 2005

A Remarkable Lack of Progress  

Well, time to start researching bone healing.

I dropped by the doctor yesterday for a follow-up X-ray and while my arm shows every external sign it's getting better, the x-ray shows a different story. The bone, while healing right, is showing "a remarkable lack of progress" --- everything's going the right way, but really slowly. In case the problem is that my body is simply having a traffic jam (typical Atlantan!), I've included the handy map below to indicate where the bone SHOULD be growing:

Fortunately, bone is one of the few body systems that can fully regenerate itself rather than just slapping on scar patch over the damaged area. And it is the case that "clinical healing" (what you can see externally) progresses faster than "radiographic healing" (what you can see on an x-ray). SO both I and my doctor are confident that, God willing, my arm will heal up and I'll return to throwing my head at the ground and missing soon enough. However, it pretty much kills my chances of participating in the 30th anniversary karate tournament this year.

So, God, if you're telling me I should concentrate on my webcomic for a while, I'm listening.

-the Centaur



Monday, May 09, 2005

Sharks with Frickin Laser Beams on Their Heads  

Defending the Green Zone with an anti-mortar laser.


Anti-artillery lasers have got to be the coolest Buck Rogers technology out of the labs since those jogging robots escaped last year...

Go slide-rule guys!
-the Centaur


Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Yes, I know...  

... the webcomic is grossly delayed. However, while I've been gallivanting around on Mars and teaching my AI course I've also been letting work build up ... and so now I'm prepping some software for the PHIN Conference.

So until that's done, no grading papers, no postproducing webcomics, little to no sketching, and no serious work on Sangreal or OpenAPL. And no karate of any form, though that last bit has more to do with the ongoing pain in my arm than it has to do with any degree of business. Still, grrrr....

Yeah, I hear the 10,000 tiny violins playing. "Things will be better after May 9, I swear it!" At least I'm going to have a house ...

... God willing, of course. Let's hope this one isn't going to fall on my head or anything.

-the Centaur, whiner.



Monday, May 02, 2005

I am not alone  

So at least Slava Pestov sees the rising tide of jargonitis that I do. (Of course, he's writing Factor, his own next-generation Forth (perhaps the only language as terse as APL ... almost), so you'd expect he'd be down on jargonitis).

But the point is, it ain't just me.

Clean up your act, folks. This will come back to bite ya.

-the Centaur



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