Downtown Dallas Disappearing

I attended my cousin’s wedding which was great! It was a wonderful ceremony, a couple great partys, lots of good food and it was really great to see family that I don’t see nearly enough of. I wouldn’t trade my family for any other I have ever met… and my great family just keeps getting bigger with more great families. Congratulations to John and Kate!

While we were in Dallas for the wedding, the missus and I stayed at the Hotel Lawrence. The “main” wedding hotel was across the street at the Hyatt but the missus and I love to venture out and find new and interesting places. Lawrence is trying to be a “boutique” hotel. They aren’t yet quite there, but they are getting close. We enjoyed our stay there, but it could use just a teeny bit more polish before I would call it complete (you can tell they are trying hard, though).

Both the Lawrence and the Hyatt are in the “convention” area of downtown Dallas. This is adjacent to “West End” and a couple miles from “Deep Ellum”. I lived in Dallas for about a year during college and both West End and Deep Ellum have a special place in my memory as fun spots for shopping and night life. I took the missus to both a few years ago when we were in Dallas and we went back this last weekend to see them again. Sadly, both West End and Deep Ellum are both all but gone. With the exception of just a small handful of restaurants, everything is closed. This is so sad to me.

Happily, we were able to take the TRE train (almost) from DFW airport practically to the door of our hotel (it took a couple buses to get to the train, but they were both DFW buses and it was really easy). Coming home wasn’t quite as nice as the TRE train we used to get to the hotel doesn’t run on Sunday. How stupid. Just as stupid, the TRE only seems to run about every 90 minutes on Saturdays. We were going to take the TRE west to do some shopping (since there isn’t any shopping near our hotel since West End Market is now closed) but since we just missed the TRE train, we wouldn’t have time to catch the next one and be back in time for the wedding. Oh well. We looked at taking one of the other trains, but their guides don’t do a good job of telling you what trains stops are convenient to what shopping the shopping trip was pretty much a bust. Dallas folk just haven’t even remotely gotten the hang of public transportation. Sure, when I lived in the southwest I had a car and never used public transportation for anything but now that I use the subway, buses, and trains for almost all of my everyday needs, I am sad whenever I visit a city with a bus and/or rail system that just doesn’t do what it should. Other cities really need to take more notes from NYC, DC, and Boston.

DNS Alive Again. My FIOS story.

I had Verizon FIOS a few years ago when we lived on Roosevelt Island and I loved it. It is considerably faster than DSL or Cablemodem. When I learned our new apartment could get FIOS (for Internet / TV / Phone) I decided (well in advance of moving) to get it. There was a slight mishap with the installer not showing up, but that was probably because I changed the order somewhat late (adding TV, Phone to the order). Oh well. The installation went pretty smoothly (although several days late). The service worked, as advertised, right from the outset giving me almost 20 megabits down and 4 megabits up (which is pretty fast).

The problems appeared a couple days later about 10 minutes after I hooked up my desktop PC and changed the wireless settings to a more secure configuration. I didn’t appear I was getting any Internet traffic at all. I determined there must be an outage so I called Verizon tech support. They had me go through the normal steps (reboot, etc.) but we determined pretty quickly the problem was at the router. While there was connectivity, my router wasn’t passing DNS. A hard reset of the router solved the problem. I hoped it was an isolated incident.

Not long after this I determined that this problem occurred (the router losing the ability to server DNS) 1 – 20 minutes after I connected my desktop PC (a specific computer). Highter internet traffic seemed to make the problem occur faster. The router would happy talk to the Internet, but it just wouldn’t resolve names (so I could go to the web site but I couldn’t go to  It was definitely something that only occured when my desktop machine was connected and fixing it required a hard reset of the router. This happened when the desktop machine was connected to the router on absolutely any port and with any Ethernet cable.

“Just in case” I did full virus, spyware, etc. scans of the desktop machine but I firmly believe there is nothing the computer should be able to do to make the router stop passing DNS. I have since talked to several Verizon techs (and network folk in general) and they all agree on this point. For what it’s worth, my PC got a clean bill of health.

I talked to Verizon again on Thursday and we came to the conclusion it was either an inherent problem in the Actiontec router or it was a problem with that specific unit. He over-nighted me a replacement router. The “new” router appeared last night and it quickly exhibited the same problems. I called Verizon and that tech strongly doubted the problem was the router and insisted it must be my machine, despite the fact that that machine worked correctly for years with my Linksys WRT54G router.

Knowing (from previous conversations with Verizon) that I could have Verizon switch the FIOS ONT (Optical Network Terminal, where FIOS comes into the apartment) from passing Internet on coaxial cable (the FIOS default) to Ethernet, which would allow me to remove their Actiontec router from the mix and allow me to use my own Linksys router, I started investigating the Ethernet wiring that existed in my apartment. I did a bunch of reading on Cat5 cables, the specific wires in the cable that were required, and how the jack in the walk should be wired and inspected the patch panel in the closet. I determined that the Ethernet jacks were wired to the patch panel, but the jacks themselves were wired incorrectly (silly installers). I re-wired the jack (at the wall) and then attached an Ethernet cable to the patch panel and tested that the wiring in the wall was now passing from my new cable to the jack in the wall. I was all set.

I called Verizon again and asked them to switch my FIOS ONT Internet from coax to Ethernet. This took about 15 minutes. After a bit of fuss (and double checking some of my wiring) the FIOS Internet was now running through the wall to my Linksys router, the FIOS TV was running on coax (still), and I didn’t need that stupid Actiontec router any longer because my TiVo HD uses cable cards (I don’t use a Verizon Set Top Box).

I’ve now been running with FIOS via my (5+ year old) Linksys router and it is both faster and passes DNS traffic without a hitch. I am so happy to be free of that stupid Actiontec.

I wish I knew what the desktop machine was doing that the Actiontec didn’t like, but it doesn’t matter anymore.

M-O-O-N. That spells Moon.

Yesterday was the first I heard about the new movie Moon. It was described as sci-fi, a bit like 2001, which sounded interesting. It was directed and the story written by Duncan Jones, the son of David Bowie. I looked it up and discovered that it was out in limited release and was showing in New York City. As I had some free time last night (the missus was at the ballet with a friend) I went over to Times Square and saw it.

The comparisons to 2001 are appropriate – if you see Moon and don’t feel it is reminiscent of 2001, you need to have your head examined. While I don’t want to give anything away, I will say it moves slowly but deliberately. It is an interesting story that unfolds nicely and the goal, unlike lots of sci-fi, isn’t to scare you – this is sci-fi not sci-fi-horror. What it is missing from 2001 is the acid-trip ending (while I like 2001’s ending, it is probably a bit out there for most). The music, done by Clint Mansell, it is (not surprisingly)reminsiscent of The Fountain.  I was going to attach a tailer for the movie, but I think the trailer gives away too much. Resist the urge to read about the movie or see a trailer and just go see it.

Busy busy busy

The week before the move I went to the JavaOne conference in San Francisco. It was a fun week, I learned new stuff and reinforced other stuff I already knew.

The missus did some packing while I was gone. After I got back, we boxed and boxed and boxed. We had most of it done but the last odds and ends always take longer than expected and we didn’t finish until the wee hours of the morning before the movers came. The movers arrived a bit early (which is nice) and they did a good job – I would recommend them. They must have used a CASE of packing tape – those guys go crazy with packing tape and moving pads (which is great). We now have a cube of boxes in the living room ready to be unpacked but the furniture is in place, which is nice.

Our new place is considerably larger than the previous three places we loved, which we love. The train is much closer and noisier and will take some time to get used to, be it is already fading into the background for us. I didn’t even notice the trains the last two nights, for the most part.

Saturday night the missus and I went and finished cleaning the old apartment. She is shampooing the carpets this morning (thank you, missus!). By mid-day everything should be done at the old place.

The FIOS guy came on Sunday and installed my super-duper-fast Internet (about 20 megabit). I had FIOS a couple years ago and have missed it. The FIOS TV seems as good or better than Cablevision and the channel layout (SD vs HD) is more logical, I think. I’m happy with it so far. I tried to just use an antenna to get over-the-air HD channels, but it wasn’t stable enough for our TiVo habits.

So, the road ahead is clear – unpack, unpack, unpack and wedding, wedding, wedding (three more weddings in three different states this summer). Maybe sometime in there we’ll get a couch or love seat for our new larger living room -I’m looking forward to that!

Star Trek and Gun

I am a Star Trek fan since, well, forever I guess. My formative years were the seventies and eighties and I remember watching Star Trek the original series (ST:TOS, as re-runs) all through elementary school and junior high. I have always enjoyed Science Fiction but ST:TOS holds a special place in my heart.  Even as campy as Shatner was as Kirk, you have to love the character – heck, in ST:TOS there was not a bad character in the bunch (except those darn red-shirters – kill ’em all!).

Star Trek: The Next Generation (ST:TNG) came along during my high school and college years. While the show started somewhat weak, after a season or two it really got surprisingly good. Many people would say ST:TNG is better than ST:TOS but I consider them equals in most ways. ST:TNG is generally less campy and Picard is a great captain, but hey, Kirk was a bad-ass and a ladies man to boot.

In my post-college years I watched some of the other Star Trek series on and off, but they never held a candle to other sci-fi like Firefly. Sorry ST:DS9, ST:V, and Enterprise, you just didn’t do enough to capture my love (or maybe I didn’t give you a fair enough chance).

When it comes to Star Trek movies, everyone knows that the “Odd / Even” rule strangely applies… odd numbered movies are pretty bad and even numbered movies are pretty good. Or it did until now! I saw Star Trek (J.J.  Abrams reboot on the series) on IMAX on Saturday morning and for the 11th film (odd) it was amazingly good. Heck, I think even non-Trek fans will have to agree it is a really amazingly well done movie. I won’t tell you much about the movie (go see it! it is a big-screen movie if ever there was one) but I think the character casting was spot on perfect (especially Kirk and Spock). My only character complaint was casting Anton Yelchin as Chekov. I generally like Yelchin but the character didn’t seem as smooth as the others. Oh well. Did I mention you should go see it? Close the browser, go see it!

If you are still reading, I guess you’ve already seen it or your back from the theater. Welcome back.

The other thing that consumed my weekend was a game called Gun. Gun came out in late 2005 for every gaming system imaginable, although I played it on the Xbox 360 (because I love achievements). Gun is a “western” game set in the 1880’s. The style of game is Grand Theft Auto with Horses (Grand Theft Horse?). It is an open world game with a main story and lots of side things to do which you can do in whatever order you like (or skip them all together). It is a somewhat short game – I probably finished the main story and all side missions in less than 15 hours – but it does nearly everything right. The graphics are nice, although a little dated. The control is spot on and the story is well developed. All of the actors that do the voices are top level talent, almost all voice you will recognize. Unlike the GTA games, they even have mid-mission checkpoints so playing the game never gets frustrating. If you enjoy GTA-like games, I can recommend it very highly. You can easily find a used copy for $15 or less.

Bully and Packing

We spent part of our weekend packing. We aren’t moving for over a month, but we are hoping to have most of it done early so the move is less stressful. We are going to hire movers to do the actual loading and unloading, but we’ll do all the boxing ourselves.

I started playing Bully: Scholarship Edition about two weeks ago and finished it up this weekend. It is made by the same folks (Rockstar) that make the Grand Theft Auto (GTA) series and the game style is the same – it is an “open world” where there is a story backbone to the game, but much of the order in which you do things is up to you. To a degree, this is an illusion as new tasks don’t open up until you complete certain tasks (to keep the story flowing) but there is lots of “extra” stuff that you can do (or avoid) at your own pace. The GTA games are all M (mature) rated, and deservedly so. Bully is a T rated game and you can tell they carefully crafted it for a younger audience. It isn’t a “kiddy” game by any means, but the violence is much less brutal, nobody is killed, there is no blood. Even when you beat somebody up, they will be up and walking around in no time. You might think from the title that your character is the bully, but it is actually quite the opposite. Your goal in the game is to stop the other bullies and bring unity to the school. It isn’t all just peace and flowers, thought – you always tend to beat the bad guys into submission. Bully was originally a PS2 title and while it uses a newer “game engine” on the Xbox 360, you can definitely see the PS2 roots showing throw. The graphics are good but not spectacular. The voice work, music, and story are all top notch. If you enjoy the GTA series I can absolutely give this a recommendation. It is a much smaller, tighter world and story than Grand Theft Auto, but there is enough variety to keep the player interested and amused. I “completed” the game (getting 1000 gamerscore including the 100% “Perfectionist” achievement) in about 30 hours which is probably pretty normal. If you just powered through the game and weren’t worrying about the Perfectionist achievement, you could probably do it in more like 20 hours or possibly even less, I would imagine.

I re-watched True Romance and it was as good as I remembered (I first saw it in the theater in college). If you want a high powered action / shoot-out fest, it is a must watch.

The SMS Scam

The missus and I have iPhones and we love them. Our “family” plan has the minimum number of shared minutes possible which we never reach – our “rollover minutes”  pile grows every month. With our plan we get “unlimited” calls to each other and “unlimited” calls to anyone during night and on weekends. AT&T requires iPhone owners to carry an “unlimited data” plan as well – we can transfer many megabytes of data every month via web surfing and email for no additional cost. It’s fun to be able to watch YouTube videos on the train.

Apparently, though, AT&T doesn’t consider SMS (“text messages”) to be “data”. SMS messages are tiny little messages (up to 160 characters). SMS messages have the advantage that they (generally) appear quickly, often just seconds after being sent, but one pays 20 cents per message to send and 20 cents per message to receive them (or you can pay $5 for 200 messages (sent or received) per month, $15 for 1500 messages, or $20 for an “unlimited” number of messages per month). I can call the missus and have a 15 minute phone conversation on my way home for no extra charge (“unlimited mobile to mobile”) or I can send her an email for no extra charge (“unlimited data”). If I sent here even a short SMS (such as “518”, indicating I am my way home on the 5:18pm train) they will charge me 20 cents to send it and charge her 20 cents to receive it even though we are on the same “family plan”.

After we each went over our 200 messages last month, mostly because we sometimes were using SMS like IM (having back and forth conversations during which you can chew through 200 messages quickly, one per each message you send one for and each message you receive), I considered getting us larger SMS plans, but the next step is $15 each for 1500 messages which seemed like quite a jump. I did some searching and discovered an iPhone (and iPod Touch) app called TextFree. TextFree is free for 15 messages per day and $6 for “unlimited messages” (not $6 per month, $6 one time). I went ahead and paid the $6 (which lets us run TextFree on both phones).

TextFree is sort of an odd mix of IM and SMS. I can use it to send an SMS message without the AT&T charge to anyone, even people with non-iPhone phones, even non-AT&T people (probably USA only, though). If the “other person” is a TextFree user (even the free version) it will go directly to their TextFree application instead of being delivered as a normal SMS message. Right now, this means they either have to have TextFree running otherwise it will send a notification of the message to their email which will contain the message but will also prompt them to run TextFree to get the message. I am hoping this summer with the iPhone OS 3.0 TextFree will support “Push” so I will get “instant notification” of an incoming TextFree message much like what I get with SMS today.

I would say TextFree has (for a one time $6 fee) solved the majority of our SMS issues. The missus has elected to keep the 200 message SMS plan for now, as there are other people she exchanges SMS messages with, but without our long conversations she should come well under the 200 message allotment. We can still have those conversations, we just use TextFree for them (or heck, we could use our “unlimited moibile to mobile” and actually talk to each other).

Our Weekend

We knew we had to decide about our lease renewal at our current apartment by the middle of this week, so we’ve been calling and visiting apartments in the area that are convenient to appropriate transportation. We had a goal of gaining space and/or saving money and preferably both. We had decided if we couldn’t do either, it wasn’t worth moving.

We’d largely ruled out New York City because we don’t generally like the neighborhoods (that we can afford), NYC parking is difficult, and NYC taxes are very high. We had also ruled out Yonkers because they also have additional city taxes. Long Island and New Jersey were ruled out because commuting into Penn Station is far less convenient than commuting into Grand Central Station since I work on the east side of Manhattan.

This left us with Westchester and possibly Connecticut. On Friday, we spent the most of the day in CT. We ruled out one of the complexes we really liked in Norwalk, CT because transportation was going to be too large of an issue (too far from the train station, too few trains). We found a place we thought would be perfect in Stamford, but they didn’t take cats (oh well!). Then we found a couple other places in downtown Stamford which we were really hopeful about – we absolutely loved downtown Stamford. We were close to actually signing a lease at two different places, but ultimately decided that the commute just wasn’t worth it (but we were SO tempted!)… But ultimately, spending an extra 60 – 90 minutes a day travelling just wasn’t worth the great neighborhood.

Friday night I did some more looking and found a place in Yonkers that looked appealing. I re-ran our 2008 taxes as if we lived in both NYC and in Yonkers for the year and learned that while NYC does have incredibly high taxes, Yonkers aren’t that much higher. On Saturday, we got an early start and visited the complex in Yonkers. The apartments were really nice and the immediate neighborhood is fantastic. The train is very close and it is right on the Hudson river. I looked at a few more places, but ultimately we decided it was where we would next call home. We returned on Sunday and put in the application. Assuming all goes smoothly, we’ll be signing the lease this week and moving in mid-June.

Duck’a Duck’a Duck’a

Lately we’ve been having duck on special occasions. We had it this last Thanksgiving and Christmas. We get it from the Grand Central Market. It is a very tasty “marinated duck breast”. The missus picked up a couple for our Easter dinner.

Previously I had been grilling it, which came out nicely, but I decided to try something different. I took the duck breasts and scored the skin / fat both directions at about half in spacings. I placed the meat, fatty side down, in our cast iron skillet and turned the stove on medium low (actually quite low since we have an electric stove – like 2 or maybe 3). The goal here was to render off almost all of the fat without actually cooking the meat. I periodically spooned out the extra fat (duck has an amazing quantity of fat in that fat layer). This process was somewhat time consuming (taking 30 minutes or more). I probably could have done this more quickly, but I was being careful to not cook the meat. After the fat had suitably cooked off, I transferred the meat, again fatty side down, to a broiler pan and cooked the meat in the oven for 10 minutes at 350 degrees (internal temperature of 165F) using the oven’s broiler element (but I don’t think that really made any difference vs just normal baking).

The duck came out very nicely and I think I will repeat the same method next time we have duck. The slow fat rendering took a fair bit of extra time, but it really was worth it. When I grilled the duck before the fat caused frequent “flame ups” and not nearly enough of the fat rendered off during cooking.

We discussed that we’ll get marinated rabbit next time.

GIT’er done

I run several websites. About a year ago I setup a backup scheme to make sure my websites were backed up to my local computer once a day. This backup includes the databases and files on the hosting provider’s server. I use rsync (SSH) to reduce the amount of data that I have to copy. I then keep two copies of this data on my local system here. I felt pretty good about this scheme and have proven that I have enough data in my backup to ensure I can recover after hosting crashes, moving to new hosting providers, etc. but what I didn’t anticipate was what I would do if a hacker defaced my site and I didn’t catch it quickly enough. The answer is the modified files would be sent to my local backup overwriting the good data. I wasn’t keeping any sort of history – what I was storing locally was always the latest. I know this isn’t a terribly good practice, but I have yet to find a backup system that does incremental backups how I would like them keeping history without consuming a ton of space and still being “quick” to backup.

Recently, a friend’s website got defaced and fortunately they had “enough” data backed up and the defacement was simple enough that recovery was not a major issue, but it easily could have been if the hacker had been more malicious. This made me start to really think about what I need to be doing for website backups.

For version control at work, we use Subversion – which is really nice. I decided to try to implement something like Subversion at home for my website files / database backups. I started to setup Subversion until I discovered Git. In its simplest form, you can create a Git repository on a single directory and it can very easily and quickly handle the version control (much to the level of Subversion) on the files and directories within that directory. For my situation, I believe Git is the best choice. With just a few commands I created the repository and added the existing files to that repository and by adding two commands to my rsync backup script all new files are now automatically added to the repository (and deleted files are removed form the depository — but they can be recovered if need be). I plan to setup daily “tags” for the data so if the worst happened I could easily obtain the site as it was on any particular day with very little effort.