Diary of a geek

January 2006
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Andrew Pollock

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Sunday, 29 January 2006

Got wheels

Finally, we have gotten our mits on a Prius. It was a bit of a battle, but due to Sarah's resourcefulness we were able to source the exact car (colour and options) that we wanted at another dealer in Tracy (about an hour's drive away), so yesterday we went and picked it up.

It's very cool. Now, if I can just figure out how to reconfigure the climate control system to talk Celsius instead of Fahrenheit, we're laughing...

I think I'll have fun hacking this car.

[08:41] [life] [permalink]

Tuesday, 24 January 2006

Asterisk and Engin, continued

So, given my earlier musings, I went ahead and signed up for the $10 a month Engin account (man it's hard to suppress adding an "e" on the end every time I type "Engin").

They finally approved the account today (took about a week or so I think), and I have a Brisbane telephone number. I've also bought the O'Reilly Asterisk book (yes, I've also downloaded the PDF for free, but I feel I should support the author, and I like reading books in dead-tree format).

My next challenge is to obtain a couple of entry-level SIP handsets (recommendations welcome) and to actually get Asterisk up and running, talking to Engin. The pièce de résistance will be to get a TDM card with a couple of FXO modules to plug the standard POTS line and the output of the Vonage ATA (unfortunately Vonage doesn't appear to play well with Asterisk, so I'll have to do this crazy conversion) and have everything terminating in Asterisk.

Of course this is up there with the MythTV box I never got around to building back home, but at least Asterisk is packaged for Debian, so all I have to do is get the handsets and configure Asterisk appropriately. Oh, and maybe actually stay at home for a couple of weekends.

[21:59] [tech] [permalink]

Monday, 23 January 2006

Making like a tourist

Had a busy couple of weekends with Rick visiting and us doing much sightseeing. I've been too busy to blog.

The weekend before the one just gone was a long one on account of Martin Luther King Day on the Monday. We spent Saturday in San Francisco, Rick and I at Camp Sysadmin, as previously mentioned, and Sarah pottered around on her own (photos here).

On Sunday, Rick and I went for a reasonable (28 kilometre) bike ride around the part of the bay accessible from the Stevens Creek Trail in the morning, and in the afternoon we all drove into the hills to check out the Lick Observatory.

You can see the observatory as a little bump on the top of the mountains on a clear day, but it's deceptively further away than you think, because it's actually on top of the second line of mountains, not the first. We didn't expect to find ice and snow or for it to be zero degrees (Celsius) at the summit. We made it up just before 5pm, which was closing time, so we'll have to go again earlier in the day (and more appropriately attired) to check it out more thoroughly. Some photos here.

On the Monday, we did a bit of a group outing with a few other people from work, including Tanya, who is visiting from the Dublin office and also in extreme tourist mode. We took a Caltrain in to Millbrae, and then switched to the BART for the remainder of the journey. Finally, we took a cable car from Powell station over to Fishermen's Wharf, where we wandered about for a bit, and then had a nice $11 cruise on the bay for an hour and a half, which went around Alcatraz and under the Gold Gate bridge. After that we caught another cable car back downtown, wandered around for a bit, and then met up with a few more people from work for a beer, and then had dinner at a nice Irish pub that we found. Photos from that outing here.

On the Saturday of the weekend just gone, we drove to Monterey, mainly with the aim to hire Segways and fang around on them. Mission accomplished, and it was very affordable too. I think we'll definitely do that again. We also need to visit the aquarium. I really liked Monterey. It reminded me a lot of Berry, on the New South Wales south coast. Photos here.

Finally, on Sunday (i.e. yesterday), we drove back to San Francisco, where Sarah, Rick and Tanya did the Alcatraz cruise/tour thing, and I spent most of the time riding the cable cars and street cars. The $10 day pass purchased on the cable cars is great value, as it seems to be valid on all of the San Francisco Municipal Railway (affectionately known as the "muni").

In the afternoon, we all went on a bus tour of San Francisco (the same one Michael and I did in July, but with a different driver, and slightly different route).

Finally, we had a really nice dinner at an Afghani restaurant a few doors down from the backpacker's hostel that Tanya was staying in. Photos from the day here.

Rick flew out tonight, and hopefully had a good time while he was here. We're certainly feeling a bit weary from all the sightseeing, but having visitors is always a good excuse to get out and do it.

Next weekend, our friend Brett is visiting from Canada. No rest, I tell ya...

[22:13] [life] [permalink]

Sunday, 15 January 2006

First outing on the train

We caught the Caltrain to San Francisco yesterday, and it was our first train ride so far.

I have a bit of a childhood interest in trains, so it is always fun for me to compare and contrast the differences in rail systems that I see around the place.

Ticketing

There are these huge ticket machines, where you purchase a ticket before boarding the train. Fares a calculated on how many zones you travel in. So you have to consult a map of the line (it's just a single line) and work that out first. The machines take cash or a credit/debit card, with the usual disturbing lack of authentication for the latter.

The tickets themselves are just a piece of card. There's no magnetic stripe or anything. The 10 ride tickets are also just a piece of card, from what I could tell. You "validate" them before riding by putting them in a gadget the essentially chops a portion of the side of the ticket off.

The trains themselves

I can't remember precisely, but I don't believe there were power-lines over the track. I'm pretty sure we had a diesel-hauled train. The engine on one that went in the opposite direction was certainly big and noisy.
The cars are double-decker. Upstairs is pretty unusual. They are single-seats on either side of of an open void through to downstairs. There's a stainless steel shelf that runs the length of upstairs at about chest-height for putting luggage on, and below that you can see right through to downstairs. (I later discovered that this allowed a ticket inspector to walk down the aisle downstairs and view everyones tickets on both levels).
The seats were all high-backed. The whole thing had a "long-distance" feel about it. There was a baggage car. You could take your bike on board (so, like the light rail, I think we'll do some cycling tours of places further away than what we'd directly cycle to).

Ticket inspection

Speaking of ticket inspectors, on the ride in, there were none (though there did seem to be hoards of roaming Caltrain employees wandering up and down the train), and on alighting at the station, no one checked our tickets on the way out, and there were no barriers or anything. You just wander in and out of the station as you pleased. Frankly, I was quite amazed. We did have a very diligent ticket inspector on trip back.

Speed

Definitely not the fasted thing in the world. We had all-stops trains both ways, and it took about an hour and a quarter. But it was fairly cheap, compared to driving and parking: $10.50 for a "day-pass" (what I'd called a "return").

[08:52] [life/americania] [permalink]

Camp SysAdmin

It's a very unfortunate name for something held in San Francisco...

Yesterday, Rick (who's visiting for a week or so because he has an interview) and I went to Camp SysAdmin in San Francisco. I didn't really know what to expect, but it was free, and it had two names I recognised: Eric Allman of Sendmail fame, and Ethan Galstad, author of Nagios. That was good enough for me.

It was a fairly unstructured event. We arrived a bit late because we just missed the train we planned on catching, and the next one was an hour later. We seemed to have only missed the welcome, and everyone was just starting to break out into smallish discussion groups.

The groups were just round-table discussions about various topics, with the discussion leaders working through some stimulus material.

I'm not quite sure what the objective of the day was. I think Splunk, who were the main organisers of it, were using it as a gentle sales pitch for their product, which was cool, because I'd not heard of it before. They make a logfile correlation tool, of which there is a free version. It was kind of good timing, as I'd just spent a couple of days munging log files at work, so I'll find time to look into their product further.

I didn't directly gain a lot from the day (I attended the "Ops Collaboration: How data centre gurus work together when problems cross different domains" and "Troubleshooting messaging systems" discussions, however it was interesting to just listen to the discussions, and hear what people had to say. A lot of people were working at small start-ups (seems to be par for the course in the Bay Area) where they were the sole sysadmin for the entire place, which is a concept at the complete opposite end of the spectrum to what my job is like.

It was a good informal networking session, it wasn't too crowded, the food was good, and most importantly, it was completely free. I even scored a t-shirt for completing an anonymous survey.

The event was held in a wine-bar/art gallery place, which worked reasonably well. They had a wine and cheese social networking session at the end. The whole event was run very well.

[08:32] [tech] [permalink]

Sunday, 08 January 2006

Hell yeah

We are so doing this. Blows away these guys on cost.

[23:41] [geek] [permalink]

We're currently a rabbit foster home

As previously mentioned, Sarah is doing some volunteer work at a local animal shelter.

Somehow a baby rabbit arrived at the shelter. Rumour has it that it was the offspring of a stray, but that still doesn't explain how it ended up there. Anyway, apparently there was a sign up in the tea room or something, asking if anyone could take it for a few weeks until it got big enough to be re-homed.

So we have a rabbit for a few weeks. I don't mind rabbits, but give me a cat any day. We babysat our Canberra neighbours' pet dwarf lop on a number of occasions. Three weeks will probably be long enough for the novelty value to wear off having this one, though. Rabbits just aren't interactive enough. They don't vocalise. Being prey, they're genetically flighty at the best of times. They also tend to chew cables, so you have to supervise them when they're out of their cage.

Anyway, we've named her Maybelline, because she has panda eyes, as if she's had eyeliner on and it's run. She's very small and cute. She's rapidly becoming more used to us, and tolerating being patted and handled.

Maybelline the rabbit Maybelline the rabbit

[23:31] [life] [permalink]

An outing on the light rail

Today, we took a day off unpacking and ventured to San Jose on the light rail, of which Whisman station is an easy walk from our place.

It was quite a fun outing. An adult "single trip" ticket cost $1.75, and was a good 2 hours travel. So technically, if you could get to where you were going and back again in 2 hours, more power to you.

The light rail itself is like a hybrid tram/train sort of thing. It's two cars long, and sometimes goes onto the road, and other times is separate to the road (but always on rails). It stops only when required to pick up passengers, or when a passenger on board indicates they'd like to get off, so presumably this makes the timetable as variable as a bus. On the way to San Jose it didn't stop at a lot of stations.

It also has cool bike racks on board. You stow your bike vertically, hanging it from the front wheel. I foresee a few further-afield cycling excursions in the future.

The trip to downtown San Jose took about 50 minutes each way, and took us through a real who's who of Silicon Valley. We saw so many names...

In San Jose, we popped into The Tech, just to see if it was open next Monday (Martin Luther King holiday), as we will have a guest with us, and discovered that today had free entry as SBC was paying for everyone to come in, so we thought we might as well go in, being free and all.

There seemed to be a few more exhibits on line compared to last time I went with Michael, and Sarah enjoyed herself. We also had the obligatory Segway ride, and then headed home.

[21:45] [life] [permalink]

Saturday, 07 January 2006

Secure APT and the new archive key

I think it needs to be more widely publicised that you need to do something like:

apollock@icarus:~$ GET http://ftp-master.debian.org/ziyi_key_2006.asc | sudo apt-key add -
gpg: no ultimately trusted keys found
OK

to get APT to continue to be able to verify packages.

[22:10] [debian] [permalink]

Arooga! Potential feed disruption coming soon

I think tomorrow I'll reconfigure Blosxom's idea of what timezone my posts are in from Australia/Canberra to US/Pacific. Carnage and mayhem will undoubtedly follow on the odd few Planets that I am aware of being aggregated by.

[21:11] [tech] [permalink]

Quotable quote

From a comment on a LWN article:

It's gratifying that Canonical has been able to find so many brilliant people, in part because it means Google hasn't snapped them all up yet, and in part because with Canonical pushing from the east and Google from the south, Microsoft might get pushed into the frigid north Pacific Ocean and drown.

[08:36] [humour] [permalink]

Friday, 06 January 2006

I don't think we're in any danger of running out of Vegemite any time soon...

Vegemite bottles of various sizes

Somehow we've managed to accumulate a variety of Vegemite bottles. So many, that we should have enough to last us until next time we get a chance to restock.

[23:07] [life] [permalink]

Thursday, 05 January 2006

Gadgetry arriving en masse

Today our new DVD player arrived, as did the Linksys thingy to connect us up to Vonage. Nothing worse than having two new things to play with at once.

The DVD player is cheap and nasty (you can flex the drawer) but it plays all regions and converts from PAL to NTSC, so it'll play all of our DVDs. It also does composite video, as does the cheapish and nasty LCD TV we bought, so it's all good. Minor wrestling with the TV and DVD player had them both agreeing to fill the entire screen (or thereabouts) with a movie.

Vonage, on the other hand, took a bit more work to get up and going. It wasn't immediately obvious from their website what ports I needed to NAT through my firewall, and my home network is far from what they'd expect the typical customer to have, so I had to call up their support number. After about 3 layers too many of their automatic menu system, and too long on hold, I got to speak to a hard to understand Indian guy, who fortunately was able to tell me without too much prompting, that I needed to allow UDP ports 10,000 to 20,000 through. All good.

Next, I was having problems logging in to their website. I'd requested a password reset via the site a few times to no avail, so another call to their support line, and another round of the pushing buttons and waiting on hold got me another hard to understand Indian who after trying to reset my password a few more times declared he was only good for "basic" support, and needed to put me through to the "advanced" people. The advanced guy reset my password again, and swore black and blue that he could log in as me.

At this point, I twigged, and tried Internet Explorer instead of Mozilla Firefox. Worked fine. So I can't believe that

  1. in this day and age, Firefox isn't supported for some stupid reason
  2. it isn't a known issue, and they didn't ask

Being a naturally curious and networky kind of guy, I ran a tcpdump of the entire initial setup, from when I first turned the Linksys doodad on, but I'll save writing about that for another time.

[21:44] [life] [permalink]

Wednesday, 04 January 2006

In the Bay Area and want to adopt a cat?

Sarah has created a blog for showcasing cats that are available for adoption at Palo Alto Animal Services, an animal shelter she is volunteering at until her work permit is approved.

[20:07] [life] [permalink]

Tuesday, 03 January 2006

Asterisk and Engin?

Early musings, but I wonder if it's possible to sign up with Engin, and score a local Australian phone number, which pops out in the US, terminated on an Asterisk box?

It's all technically feasible. The big question is, will Engin allow me to sign up? Initially googling implies that Engin will support Asterisk, which is cool in and of itself. Watch this space. I suppose I need to get Asterisk working now.

[22:09] [tech] [permalink]

Sleep

Thanks to Grant, I discovered a couple of interesting blog posts about how to become an early riser, and about polyphasic sleep.

I'm certainly interested in becoming an early riser. I'm not naturally a morning person, but for a few years I managed to force myself into it, but then I lapsed back into being a night-owl sleep-in type person.

At the moment, when the weather permits, I'm trying to cycle to work with enough time to eat breakfast there and be operational at my desk by about 8:30am. It's just as fine to start at 10am, but I'd rather not get into that habit, and just treat it as a bit of a splurge from time to time.

This of course means I can't stuff around in the morning, and ideally I need to leave the house by about 7:45am, with appropriate flow-on affects on when I wake up and get out of bed.

It certainly takes a lot of self-discipline to get out of bed when the alarm goes off. At the moment, I tend to opt for two alarms. One to wake me up and get snoozed a lot, and one to actually get out of bed. If I was more disciplined about getting out of bed, I could just have the one alarm go off, and get extra sleep.

The extra waking hours gained by polyphasic sleep are tempting also, but I think it's altogether too disruptive to try at the moment. An interesting concept nonetheless.

So once we're a little bit more settled, I'll hopefully become more of a morning person again. I think the key is consistency. Sleeping in on weekends just buggers everything up, which is a shame. I quite like my weekend sleep-ins. Downside is you spend half your weekend asleep, when you could be out exploring a fabulous new foreign country, for example...

[21:46] [life] [permalink]

Sunday, 01 January 2006

On bootstrapping oneself in the US

So I've been in the US for just over six weeks now, and I thought I'd reflect on the trials and tribulations of bootstrapping oneself in a foreign country.

The Social Security Number is the primary key from hell

I already had a fair idea of the importance of obtaining a Social Security Number (SSN). So much so, that after dumping our luggage at our temporary accommodation, the Social Security Administration office was the first place Michael and I went to, so we could lodge applications.

We subsequently learned from another Australian who was about two weeks ahead of us, that you're apparently supposed to wait ten working days before lodging the application, to allow your immigration records to percolate through the bureaucracy that is the US Government. Our applications were duly accepted without any mention of waiting a bit, but we were sent away with a letter and a tracking number, saying that the SSA had to verify our existence with Immigration (this is despite the fact that we're standing in front of them with a passport with an I-94 stapled in it) and that it would take up to four weeks.

So it's been six weeks, and still no sign of an SSN. Enquiries with the office are met with the same response - waiting on information back from Immigration. Apparently it can take up to three months.

It's a real shame you can't start the application process when your visa is granted or something, as in order to apply, you need to quote your "alien registration number" (I still chuckle at how the US Government refers to me as an "alien" in all their paperwork), which is the number on your I-94, which you only get when you enter the country.

So, whilst the SSN application remains pending, I cannot be paid, I cannot have my health insurance paperwork lodged by my employer, and whilst I'll be covered for health insurance retrospectively, I'm not technically covered right now, if I were to require medical treatment.

Going back to how the SSN is the primary key of All Things...

Next step is to open a bank account. We chose Citibank, because I've been told it's slightly easier to import money back into Australia with them. Fortunately we were able to open an account sans SSN, but it's called an "NRA account" (NRA standing for Non-resident Alien). We were told that we were only eligible for an ATM card until I had an SSN, yet they mailed me out a debit card about a week after we opened the account, and happily ordered one for Sarah, and a cheque book when we asked after opening the account. About the only thing it seems we can't do at the moment is transfer money back to Australia. No big deal, it's all coming the other way until I can get paid...

Driver's licence requires an SSN ideally, so that's out of the question for the time being...

Electricity, telephone and cable were all able to be provisioned with an SSN, although I think for credit-rating purposes, again, it is the primary key. We had to pay a deposit for the electricity, which is fair enough. The lady I spoke to on the phone when I got it connected said that they just treated us aliens like teenagers straight out of home with no credit history. I don't have a problem with that. It's just a shame that you can't import your credit history.

Getting a cell phone account appears to be nigh on impossible with an SSN though. It was a battle just to get a prepaid SIM card for Sarah's phone, and this makes a great story of how much hoop-jumping is required. We walked up to a Cingular stand in a shopping mall to see what we could and couldn't do. I explained our situation (lack of SSN, lack of credit history, etc etc) to the sales droid, and he assured us it wasn't a problem to get a prepaid SIM card.

He proceeded to take about 30 minutes to organise the SIM card. I watched as he entered a dummy SSN into the computer, and used his own driver's licence number. He was clearly battling the computer system to be able to do it.

When we got home, and Sarah called up to try and put some credit on the phone with our Australian Visa card, she was told they only accepted credit cards with a US billing address. (So much for Visa being accepted worldwide). So we headed off again to Safeway to purchase a prepaid Mastercard. Funnily enough, when Sarah called up to activate that, she was initially asked for an SSN, so we almost had a dependency loop that we couldn't break, just to get a US cell phone. Fortunately they could cope with no SSN, so she successfully ended up with a prepaid Mastercard, with a US billing address, so she could put credit on her prepaid SIM.

From what I can work out, a lot of the places that do request the SSN seem to using the last four digits as an authenticator, much like everyone just uses name and date of birth back in Australia, so I'm guessing for these organisations, I could probably just quote any old number that fit the pattern and they'd be happy. Just so long as they don't go trying to run a credit check against it...

Foreign credit cards

As I said earlier, a credit card with a non-US billing address is fine for most face-to-face purchases, but an amazing array of mostly telephone transactions will not accept them. Most notable was trying to add credit to a calling card for making international telephone calls. Couldn't be done. So it meant I had to forego any discounts or bonuses for topping up, and buy a whole new calling card.

Car insurance and registration

I'm not sure how this is going to go yet. Our Prius is supposed to be available around the 18th of January. I'm hoping I'll have my SSN by then, otherwise we'll have to import a heap of money to pay for it. I'm sure you can get insurance and own a car without an SSN, because you hear of people who do driving holidays across the US, buying a car on one coast, driving it cross-country, and then selling it. It might be more expensive, and I again, you can't import your driving/insurance history, so you have to start off at the bottom of the ladder again...

In summary, I think you need to have relatively deep pockets to bootstrap yourself over here. You need to be able to function without getting paid for up to two or three months, and you need to understand that credit-wise and insurance-wise, you're going to be back at square-one again, irrespective of how good you might have been in your home country.

The sooner you come to terms with these, and appreciate that you are moving to a foreign country, the sooner you can get on with enjoying the experience.

[21:03] [life/americania] [permalink]