Posts in Category: Personal

Silent Running

It’s been over a month since I blogged or tweeted. Aside from this post, it’ll be probably another month before I do so again. I’d especially like to apologize to the people looking for help with Shashin and my other plugins, as I have not been responding to support requests (for my plugin users, please see this post).

As I mentioned back in the Spring, I’ve been leading our web team’s transition to scrum. Since then we’ve been working with Agile/scrum training coaches Bob Hartman and Darian Rashid, and they’ve done an amazing job helping us make the transition a successful one.

Before starting with scrum we had poor visibility into our future work – planning was extremely difficult. Now we’re getting better visibility, and it’s something of a “be careful what you wish for” situation. I’ve been working nights and weekends for the past month, getting a handle on all our projects and our schedule, so I can manage expectations for both my team and for our stakeholders. Work is the first thing I think about when I wake up, and the last think I think about before I go to sleep at night. It’s going to stay that way for at least a few more weeks (possibly months), as we get through this transition.

We have several goals: improving quality, teamwork, etc. But our first is to improve our planning: to align our workload with our actual capacity, establish a sustainable pace, and create reliable expectations for our stakeholders. With scrum’s velocity measures and other metrics, my ultimate goal is to clearly demonstrate to our stakeholders what our team already knows: that we do an incredible amount of quality work with a very small staff, and that if we’re expected to do even more, we need more people.

Introducing Kai’s Candy Company

Kai's Candy CompanyKai’s Candy Company

Kai's Candy Company


My blog has been quiet recently, as I’ve been focused on creating and launching the site for my new business, Kai’s Candy Company. Our goal with the company is to seek out the most unusual, fun, and tasty candies from around the world, and sell them! We’re starting with Obama and McCain candies that we’ve made especially for the 2008 Presidential campaign. The candies are hand made by artisans in Japan, using traditional kumi ame (rolled candy) techniques.

We also have a Halloween candy poll that’s waiting for your vote! Your votes will help us decide which candy designs to pick for our Halloween candies.

Data Salvation

Last week I made a grumpy post, containing a litany of complaints about a bunch of stuff that all went wrong in a short span of time. Now it appears that some cosmic balance is being achieved, at least in my corner of the universe.

The data recovery for my broken hard drive was going to cost $1500. Too rich for my blood! I got the impression they’re used to dealing with large companies (as opposed to sorry individuals like me), who don’t even blink at that kind of number. So I got my broken hard drive back, and in the box were two DVDs with all my data. I went online and checked my credit card balance, and they haven’t charged me (I had given them my credit card number for the initial $100 evaluation fee, which they haven’t charged me for either). So it looks like the rep I was working with took pity on me. So he gets a very big THANK YOU! I will preserve his job security by not mentioning his name or his company’s name.

Soon the new hard drive will arrive for my laptop, and I can start getting things back in order. One thing that will be different is this: I will back up my data. I will back up my data. I will back up my data.

This means I can finish my Japan travelogue, complete with pictures. For now I won’t backdate the entries, so they won’t get buried in the blog history. I’ll put the original date in the text. I just posted one new entry, and next week I’ll make the entries for the last few days of the trip.

One of Those Weeks

I just had to delete 119 spam comments for a blackjack site. It’s time to invest in upgrading to the new version of Movable Type, which will give me greater control over who can post comments and who can’t.

After work yesterday, I spent most of the day struggling with reviving Maria’s old laptop (I need something, since my computer has died). Installing the network card required access to the CD drive and the floppy drive at the same time, but it has swappable drives, and you can only have one in at a time. I ended up with a corrupted installation that I couldn’t uninstall, and it corrupted all of Microsoft Networking as well. I eventually straightened it all out, but it took hours. Time to buy a Mac.

The grass I’ve been diligently trying to grow in my front yard got washed out in the “1,000 year” rain storm we had Monday.

When I got on the plane to RI, I had to “surrender” my cool Leatherman mini-pocketknife to airport security (I completely forgot I had it on me). It was a gift from Jay when I was best man at his wedding.

Sunday night I flew back by myself, as Maria and Kai are staying in Newport for the week. I ended up being stuck in the airport for hours, as the car battery was dead (the lights weren’t on or anything – I think it’s just reached the end of its lifespan). No one was willing to engage with a single white male trolling the airport parking garage late at night, looking for a “jump.” So I went to the Information desk for help and was given the number for Parking Assistance. I had no change for the pay phone, and all the shops were closed, so I bought a $20 phone card from a vending machine (at $.50/minute – apparently airport phone cards are priced just like airport food). I called only to find the number was disconnected. I went back to the Information desk and this time got the right number, and help arrived…eventually.

Today I mail out my broken hard drive. The rep I spoke with told me the data will either be unrecoverable, or it will be recoverable at a price between $400 – $1800. Basically, ouch, or ouch.

My new answering machine has suddenly decided that from now on it will hang up on callers after 5 seconds.

And I have a painful sunburn, but at least that’s something I can blame myself for.

Bad News, and Good News, and Some Bad News

A technician came to my house yesterday to check out my hard drive. In very general terms, there are two possible causes of this kind of failure: something in the hard drive fails, or something in the computer that interacts with the hard drive fails. Unfortunately, it looks like the former. He said there isn’t anything you can do if the drive is bad, but I did some Googling and found a number of companies that can recover data from bad drives. Iomega is probably the most well known among them. The downside is – with “prices starting at $300” – it’s probably going to cost a pretty penny.

Catastrophic Failure

Just as I was putting the finishing touches on my Japan trip entry “Things You Don’t See in the US,” my hard drive failed amidst cringe-inducing whirrs, clicks, and even a few thuds. So I need to find a computer service center, but since it’s a holiday weekend, it’ll have to wait until Tuesday. I haven’t backed up my stuff since we moved to PA last June, so I desperately hope the data is recoverable. I had actually started making backups onto CDs just the night before (I started with some old pictures) – I guess I should have started sooner! Since all the Japan trip photos and my blog drafts are in there, finishing my travelogue will be delayed at least a few days 🙁

The Job

It’s dawned on me that I haven’t said much about my new job yet. One of the major downsides to leaving California was giving up my job at HighWire, but I’m happy to report that I like my new job at U Penn’s School of Medicine even better. I’m in the Information Services group. I don’t have as much customer contact as I did at HighWire (which I miss), but on the technical side, there is a much greater breadth to the work. Instead of having a primary focus on just scripting, I’m doing a lot of application design and database development. My current projects are a web-based email account application system, and revamping the Med student online application process. All the tools used here are new to me – PHP, Oracle, Smarty, and some home-grown tools – so that also helps keep things fresh. I’m working in a small group of about a dozen very likeable people, so I’m making new friends too. Unfortunately, my position is funded for only one year. It looks like there’s a good chance it’ll be extended for a second year, or made permanent, so I’m crossing my fingers. I’ll find out when the budget is finalized for the next fiscal year, which will happen around the end of the summer.

The application architecture that’s been deployed here is the best I’ve seen. A typical architecture for web applications consists of a database backend, Java or CGI scripts as a middle “application” layer, a templating system for the front end, and maybe a security layer (typically handled through the web server or the application layer). The architecture here has 4 layers: 1. the database (Oracle) back-end; 2. the LDL (Logical Data Layer), which provides role-based access to the database (you define your queries in XML, along with column and row based access rules, and it’s then compiled for better performance); 3. the “WI-Engine” which serves as the application layer, written in PHP (it allows you to design your pages in an object-oriented fashion – using “panels,” “subpanels,” and “dialogs” which can communicate with each other); 4. a template layer, using Smarty.

The WI-Engine took the most getting used to, as I had to orient myself to thinking of all the page components as objects. Once you get going with it though, it’s very efficient. The LDL is cleverly constructed. Since the applications we design are for use within the School, you always run into issues such as what a student can do with an application vs. what an administrator can do with it. All those access rules are clearly defined in one place, and it’s sitting just above the database itself, so it’s quite unlikely that someone could hack through any loopholes in the application layer.

The Mike Toppa Archiving Project

I’ve begun work on a daunting task: the Mike Toppa Archiving Project. I have many shoeboxes full of floppy disks: Commodore 64 5 1/4″ disks, old PC 3 1/2″ disks, Zip disks, and a few Mac disks. These contain research papers, correspondence, software (including programs I’ve written), games, and lots of data. With my current PC, I obviously can’t access the C64 disks, and I can’t read about half the data on my old PC and Mac disks due to file format incompatibilities. For current versions of MS Office, Microsoft no longer provides filters for my old Ami Pro (word processor) and Quattro Pro (spreadsheet) files.

Aging computer files are actually a very serious, worldwide problem, as described in this excellent Technology Review article: Data Extinction. “The layman’s view is that digital information is more secure, when in fact it’s far more ephemeral…We know how to keep paper intact for hundreds of years. But digital information is all in code. Without access to that code, it’s lost…more and more of what matters to us is digitally produced, and we can’t guarantee that any of it will be usable 100, or 10, or even five years from now.” The article describes four possible solutions (see the table at the bottom of the article) but the only one that’s practical for your average person is “migration,” so that’s what I’m doing.

I mentioned in an earlier post that I got may hands on a newly developed network card and a web server for my C64. I spent some time this weekend trying to get it talking to my home network, but haven’t succeeded yet. Once I do, I can transfer C64 disk images through its web server, onto my PC. At that point, there’s a PC program I can use that will extract files from the disk images. My primary goal is to get at text I’ve written (mainly letters and research papers – I used my C64 all the way through 1992). The C64 used a variation of ASCII, so I should be able to extract the majority of the text. It would take forever to migrate the hundreds of games that I have, and others have already migrated most of the old games anyway, so I don’t think I’ll bother (you can download C64 games to your PC from various sites and then run them with C64 emulator software).

For my old PC files, I still have the install disks for the old software that can read them. But I don’t want to pollute my PC with those programs (since they’re Windows 3.1 programs, I doubt they’d uninstall properly). Maria’s old laptop is overdue for a full re-install of the OS, so before doing that, I’ve installed my old versions of Ami Pro and Quattro Pro there. I’m converting everything to rtf and csv format, which I’m hoping are generic enough to keep them compatible with whatever kind of software we’re all using 10 years from now.

The last step is to put everything on CD-Rs. I’ll go from 5 shoeboxes of floppy disks to probably less than a dozen CDs. Of course the problem there is – despite claims that they’ll last 100 years – you can actually end up with unreadable disks in as little as two years. See The Myth Of The 100-Year CD-Rom. So I guess I’ll just have to regularly make copies of them until something more durable comes along.

Wish me luck!

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