Wednesday, January 10, 2007


Take thrice the daily intake of caffeine, a frustrating problem at work that needs some back-burner cogitation, and a recent revisiting of eBay, and that’s all that’s needed for a seriously long stint of late night web browsing for the purposes of collecting.

I would expect there’s a coincidence of collectors among people who write code, largely because I believe that both are ventures that jibe well with people who are “detail-oriented,” which is my polite way of saying obsessive-compulsive. In my case, I’ve gone through several iterations of collecting, starting with an aborted attempt at stamp collecting back when I was maybe 10. To some extent, it seemed to me that collecting was just a specific form of being a careful pack rat–you take care of your belongings to help them to last, even if you don’t need them at the moment, just because someday you might–a last vestige of handed-down Depression-Era values.

I switched over to collecting coins, but not expensive ones… just some interesting U.S. coins I had come across. One of my favorite finds was a glass jar of pennies that my father had saved when he was a kid. I was so excited to find some “seriously” older coins (e.g., from the ‘50s rather than the ‘70s or ‘80s).

I have since taken to dumping my pocket change into jars: one empty Glenfiddich metal canister for the quarters, aka laundry money, and one empty plastic jug that formerly contained olive oil for all the rest. Maybe someday my kids might find it as exciting, if these containers survive that long. The first attempt at this involved storage in an empty poster tube, and during the Nisqually quake, the tube herniated and broke; my wife (then girlfriend) decided to “clean up the mess” by taking all the coins to Coinstar! Coinstar of all things! Not only did I not even get to see six years worth of savings churn through the machine, but I get to pay 8.9% for the privilege! AIEE!

Ultimately, I didn’t do much in the way of collecting coins as a kid. I just kept a few dollar coins and some examples from various years. Another short-lived collection was that of Star Wars trading cards (even as a kid I eschewed sports-related things); I don’t even think that lasted through a full summer before I traded them away for something else.

In college, though, I started collecting for real. I fell victim to this newfangled idea–a card game where you collect the cards. This was, of course, Magic, the Gathering™, around the Alpha/Beta transition, and before I had even heard of the CCG acronym. My college roommate, Naval, would purchase boxes of card, sell the packs, and then trade with the people as they opened their packs. Well before Kyle MacDonald hit the trading scene, Naval turned one island into a Shivan Dragon. I did my own purchasing and trading. Even now, I have a Fleer binder of nifty cards and a white box of extra cards in my office, for lack of a better place for them. My friend Brian, who has alternative names for most everything, refers to Magic as cardboard crack. I’m pretty sure I was addicted or close to it while in college; any extra money I had from my computing jobs on campus would go into it. Later, I’d try out Jyhad and Middle-earth, and to a lesser extent Dr. Who, Star Wars, Star Trek, and BloodWars, before I ultimately swore off investing in any new CCG.

After college and after collectible card games, I got found myself back into coins by what I would have considered to be an unlikely source for me buying anything, Shop At Home TV. I usually just tell my TV to omit those shopping channels when setting it up for the first time, so I’m not sure exactly how it was that I came to be staying up, late at night, watching the Coin Vault. Somehow I got drawn to buying a whole slew of silver coins (mostly brilliant uncirculated), and only later discovered that there was a hefty markup. Nonetheless, it piqued my interest again, if only mildly, for numismatics. I certainly enjoy getting each year’s silver eagles for depositing into my Dansco album.

In addition, my prediliction for Zeppelin1 paraphenalia, which is a collection2 in its own right, bled into coins with regard to the 1930 three- and five-reichsmark coins, which feature the dirigible and laud its 21-day circumnavigation of the world in 1929. I have to say, it’s pretty difficult to find those coins on this side of the water. With some rusty college German, I can partially navigate some internet sites and eBay sales. Ron, of, has been a good resource, both in terms of coins and how to bridge the gap between US gradings and German gradings. One of my early morning tasks today is to perform my first international wire transfer, to pay for a recent winning auction bid for such a coin.

It still seems a little crazy to be trying to guess whether or not an online vendor is trying to gouge you (and by how much) without a price reference guide, or even without necessarily many vendors selling the same items. It makes for some hefty search sessions (and my browser tabs increase to the point where you can only see the first three letters of the title of the page), and even then, it still sort of feels like jumping off the deep end, especially in the realm of coins, where you’re trying to double-check the quality grading by inspecting a grainy submitted picture, that isn’t particularly zoomed in. Nonetheless, I’m trying it out, and we’ll see how well it all turns out.

1 The airships, not the band.
2 I had always been a fan of airships, as long as I can remember. But it was only during the collecting of some material for a game of Nobilis–entitled Means and Ends, it had a chancel which was a modified version of Seattle Center circa 1962 during the World’s Fair–that I branched out from Life magazine copies and into Zeppelin books. Of course, the geekery doesn’t stop there; I’m also a member of the Lighter-than-air society, and I regularly wear a Save Hangar One t-shirt in the hopes they don’t dismantle Moffett Field’s historic hangar.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

iPhone envy

Well, I was wrong. My friend Jon asked me what was going to be offered up this morning, and I said, “Whatever it is, it isn’t going to be an iPhone.” This because Cisco owns the trademark to it… In the back of my head, I was really hoping for a phone/iPod combo, not just because it would be cool, but because my i-Mate SP3i Smartphone is starting to drive me crazy, and I am looking for a replacment.

This isn’t to say that the SP3i wasn’t nifty at one time. When I was willing to spring for the $20 extra a month it cost for insanely slow wireless internet service, it synchronized nicely with my Exchange account at work, which was pretty much the only way I ever used its connection. Trying to do anything other than load an extremely simple page (usually one written to be displayed on a Palm) (1) took forever and (2) required scrolling all over tarnation with the dinky joystick of intermittent operation. Said joystick came out of the phone multiple times, and could never quite be put back in correctly, and right now I’m operating with the plastic stub instead. Still, the difference between me knowing I had a meeting to get to and/or to look up where it was or what someone’s number is in my 400+ contact address book was huge.

On a parallel note, the implementation of as-needed-synchronization in Windows Mobile™ 2003 Second Edition’s Pocket Outlook depends not on the ultra-slow network that I paid $20 a month for at all. Instead, the Exchange server sends invisible SMS messages (ones that don’t show up in your text message section) that get interpreted by Pocket Outlook to let it know there’s something new to synchronize. I didn’t have a text plan when I first got my smartphone, and after two months of $150 charges in text messages that I had no idea where they were coming from, I finally switched to mode of synching to just every 30 minutes. My comrades in Windows Mobile ultimately changed the behavior of this in a later edition of Windows Mobile™, which is great, but unfortunately, they weren’t willing to upgrade my phone (they were OK upgrading the SP3, but the SP3i was just too… something… (new? freaky?) And as far as I can tell, the manufacturer won’t upgrade it, presumably because it was already an older model.

As time went by, I gave up on the Internet connection, trying to settle on desktop-synchronization. Unfortunately, it was about this time that I played Good Microsoft Employee™, and dogfooded beta candidates of Vista, for which there was no ActiveSync. Now that Vista has released to manufacturing, there’s now an ActiveSync, but it doesn’t sync contacts or events anymore. “The synch status is on the device.”, only it’s not. Add all of this to the device no longer responding to right button clicks, and taking on the order of 5 to 20 seconds to respond to left button clicks when it hasn’t been used in a while (is it paging things in?), I’m starting to take a hard look at new cell phones.

One of the most annoying things about bar phones, IMNSHO, is the requirement of locking them. Yes, I know it’s not a strict requirement, but I put the things in my pocket and then they auto-dial someone in my contact list. I’m still waiting for an accidental call to 911 to happen. Strange things happen when it is locked though. If I get a reminder, sometimes I cannot dismiss it because it wants you to unlock it first, but the reminder is on top, so you don’t get the unlock UI. There might be some kind of lock timer I could use, but that doesn’t preclude me pocket dialing people, and I don’t always remember to lock it. I was thinking I would have to go to some kind of flip or clamshell phone to avoid that nuisance. I spent some time over the holidays looking for a relatively cheap phone (since I’d have to buy it as an “upgrade” through T-Mobile or get a compatible unlocked phone, as I already have a contract), but hadn’t come up with anything.

And then Steve Jobs shows off the new iPhone.

Something tells me the Exchange support might not be all that great. As it stands, has never once been able to synch with the Microsoft Corporate Exchange servers. (In the past, that’s meant that I’ve been even more tied to Entourage and/or Outlook, and had a vested interest in fixing/reporting bugs in those products.) I somehow doubt that the iPhone is going to do better than But still the idea is alluring. The iPod I got as a ship gift for shipping Microsoft Office 2004 ended up going to my wife who lives for her podcasts, and her old iPod had ended up with battery issues. (NB: She recently got it re-batteried and now I have an ancient iPod that I really should load up with some tunes.) Having a newer model iPod that can show video and call folks and can fit in my pocket sounds great. And maybe I can even leverage Entourage’s Sync Services integration to get my info onto the phone…

I guess I’ll keep an eye on it, and if/when it comes out, figure out whether it’ll be worth switching to Cingular or whether it could be purchased unlocked for use with T-Mobile. Until then, I’ll live with my ailing smartphone.

P.S., What would be really cool, would be if it had a slot for not just a SIM card to enable the device, but extra SIM cards to serve as generic smart cards. Then you could use it as your physical token for authentication on machines. Can you imagine walking up to your machine and have it auto-negotiate credential sharing, and have a keychain show up on your box?

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Intel inside / Herring v2

Time seems to get away from me when diving into new work. It’s been a few months since my last speculative post, and since then, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, the Core 2 Duos are now in the MacBook Pros. I bought mine the day it came out. But like the rest of my old machines, it wasn’t so easy to part with my old Titanium. First, it was a matter of not having brought everything over (like some applications who keep data in strange places and as such didn’t get copied over when I copied my home directory and data drive), and secondly, for the first time in a long time, I had some PowerPC-only work on my plate!

Digging out the old 601 manual and peering through its pages, I realized that I missed dabbling in assembly. I say dabbling because I know just enough to be dangerous, and not enough to wring the performance you’d want from, say, an optimizing compiler. Fortunately, all I had to do was play with stack frames and arguments placement. Mmm… Nothing like screwing that up and getting a completely broken stack trace at the point of a problem. Well, anyhow, as it turns out, whereas it’s possible to use my new shiny MacBook Pro to do this work, it’s quite difficult to debug in Rosetta, and Rosetta seems to not be too happy about programs generating their own code (it quickly runs out of memory—perhaps it doesn’t know where the data ends and the generated code begins?). Thus, my old PowerBook was going to have its one last hurrah over Christmas, so I could work during downtime while visiting family.

I greatly overrated the downtime, which ultimately didn’t matter, as for some reason gdb on my PowerBook wouldn’t load the symbols of the code I was debugging, so it was even more difficult than it was going to be back at work. I gave up on working over Christmas and focussed it on my and Miller’s family.

As an aside, it seems that around my birthday, Miller and I “spawned a new process”. I don’t think it’s Intel inside there, but according to the doctor, it’s set to release in late July ‘07. Both of our families are quite pleased.

Now that the last vestiges of a reason to keep the old workhorse is gone, I finally used the photos I snapped of it several weeks ago, and put it up on eBay. <shameless_plug>If you’re looking for an old MacBU warhorse, replete with a Moby sticker, bid away.</shameless_plug>