Farewell Aperture, for now.

At least this houseguest cleans up after itself!

My 30-day Apple Aperture trial expired. I ended up deciding not to buy the software though. Why?

$199 seems steep for an application that runs like molasses on my fairly well-spec’ed machine; a MacBook Pro 2.53GHz with 4 GB of RAM. I like Aperture’s RAW editing features. Once I got the hang of them that is. But… damn this application is slow. This was with a library of less than 100 photos. I note that iPhoto bogs down once its library exceeds 5000 images. Aperture was dog slow right from the very first image.

Every once in a while I would see some moment of brilliance, and think I was falling in love with the software. Then it would smack me with a spinning cursor and drive me away. I would hope that a trial period would show you all the reasons to love a new product, but in this case it just drove me back to using iPhoto + Photoshop.

I’m open to being convinced otherwise, so feel free to chime in if you have a differing opinion.

A Truck Load of Salt

I took my son Nicholas to see his favorite musician, Jonathan Coulton play at the Moore Theater in Seattle last night. We drove down from Arlington, with a stop at Seattle institution Dicks for a bite:

Mmmmmmm. Says Nick. on Twitpic
The opening band was Paul & Storm:

(and yes, panties were thrown at the performance last night… seven of them in fact.)

Nick acquired a “Skullcrusher Mountain” T-shirt and stocked up on so many nerd hit points that I’m certain he’ll dominate the next D&D match he plays.

There was really only one downer for the whole night. A few rows behind us was seated a guy who was not only really loud, but also cracked wise at every pause in the show. Paul & Storm strongly encourage audience participation and this guy took the bit and ran with it… non-stop.




Literally not a minute of the show went by without this guy hollering a punch line, or wisecrack, or just something stupid. One or two of his remarks/heckles/outbursts were quite funny. Three or four of them were picked up by the performers and made for funny moments. But the other eighty six of them were just tiresome, annoying, and several times threw the performers off their game. We ALL paid good money to see this, and more importantly HEAR this event, but at literally every quiet moment this yahoo became a bellowing distraction.

Like spice in a well-prepared dish a bit of audience participation is a wonderful thing. Had the audience last night all sat like cadavers, it would have been pretty dull (though one song demanded that we become zombies!) However too much is just too much. In this case a pinch of salt would have been perfect, and this one guy in the audience (let’s call him “Richard”, or “Dick” for short) arrived with a dump truck loaded with sodium chloride, backed up (beep… beep… beep… beep… ) into the auditorium, then dumped two tons of salt all over the show.

Really? Don’t be that guy.

Book Review: The Art of Racing in the Rain, Garth Stein

When my boys were very young a near nightly ritual was for me to read to them. This occurred either on the living room couch, or at their bedside. We started with “kid books” such as Dr. Seuss’ One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish (Christopher’s first non-parental related word was “fish”) and culminated with reading long literary classics such as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings over a period of months. One book I read between those, when Chris was maybe three or four was Crow and Weasel by Barry Lopez. One particular quote, spoken by the character “Badger” from that story has stuck in my head since that reading almost two decades ago:

The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each other’s memory. This is how people care for themselves. One day you will be a good storytellers. Never forget these obligations.

There is so much truth to that bit of wisdom, since as human beings most of what we truly learn comes from what we hear, read, and are taught from others. For example, we take for granted the Thomas Jefferson’s authorship of the Declaration of Independence, and bonding of hydrogen and oxygen to make water, but how many of us have directly observed those facts? The ability to learn from secondary sources is in many ways what separates us from other species.

It is ironic then, that this particular story is told entirely from the perspective of a dog.

I’ve been aware of this book for a while, as it is has been endlessly pimped by the guys over at Cold Track Days, I just never bothered to pick it up as my reading tastes these days trend away from fiction. Sue on the other hand reads nothing but fiction, as her work-enforced reading is all facts, and all tragedy (she’s an attorney who works in cases where parental rights are being terminated.) She likes to read fiction and tears through books twice as fast as I do. I was surprised to find this one in her pile of completed books that she was returning to the friend she borrowed them from. I snagged it for myself and set aside the others I was reading to dive into it.

Well this is indeed a story to be given away when needed as Badger instructed Crow and Weasel. Filled with pathos, every character in the novel learns valuable lessons from life, and we learn right along with them. What I found refreshing was the specifically, and completely male perspective of the story, be it by man, or dog. Perhaps that is why I enjoyed the read so much more than Sue did.

But then, she doesn’t like to drive either.

It is an excellent, and well-told story, and plays out in a wonderful cinematic fashion, strictly however from the point of view of a mutt named Enzo. I’ve heard that it it being considered for a movie, but I can’t see how a visual re-telling will work from the canine perspective. We’ll see I guess. Certainly a challenge for a filmmaker!

The tale takes place right in my former hometown of Seattle, (in the mid 80s, until I met Sue and moved to Ballard I shared a house with two other guys in Mt. Baker near the old 1-90 Bridge) and so many of the places and names were as familiar and comfortable as an old pair of slippers. Leschi, the CD, Capitol Hill, downtown & Mercer Island. A wonderful scene takes place at Pacific Raceways in Kent, and is described by the narrating dog in such a perfect way to capture the essence of being at that track as a spectator. The contours and curves of the track described only as one hears it by exhaust note… very well done.

So if you’re a guy in need of a story more than food to stay alive, you might find this as enjoyable as I did. Give it a read (before Hollywood screws it up.)


Product Review: Harbor Freight Hydraulic Scissor Lift

Note this is an article I’m developing for another website. Feel free to comment with suggestions, observations, or corrections.

Having lead a life of high adventure in my youth, scaling pinnacles of rocks and ice, I never imagined that I’d meet my end, flat on my back crushed beneath a falling car. My life was flashing before my eyes as I set a new land-speed record for butt-shoulder-shuffling my way out from under the creaking, swaying mass of steel in the form of a 1999 Volkswagen New Beetle suspended above my body on my tried, and until-that-moment trusted ramps and jack-stands. There I was, staring death in the face in the form of my wife’s “cute bug” looking like Damocles’ Sword, or Poe’s Pendulum, my garage floor playing the Pit. The tremor ceased as my head cleared the oil pan, and the Beetle had stopped making the horrific creaking noises as the jack-stands stopped wobbling. I cleared the bumper and leapt to my feet in a single motion, and relief swept over me like the expected post-quake tidal wave should. “Damn, I’m still alive!… in fact I’m completely unharmed!” Running into the house I yelled at the family: ‘Did you guys feel that?!” … only to be met with a non-chalant: “feel what?”

In retrospect the tremor which scared me out from under the car was only a barely-rattle-the-china 3.2 on the Richter Scale, but it drove home an indelible lesson to this DIY mechanic living in a region where three tectonic plates meet: I gotta get a lift!

The scene of my near-death experience almost a decade ago.

With kids heading for college in a few years, the budget was tight, but the family’s financial committee agreed that my life and future earning power were worth an investment of about a thousand bucks or so. Armed with that vote of confidence I perused the web for advice and good deals on a better platform for the home mechanic to raise his car off the ground. Most of the work I do on my family’s cars involves basic maintenance: Fluid Changes. Tire Rotations. Brake Jobs. Occasionally tasks are a tad more involved, especially with my hobby car, a vintage British sports car, which always seems to have some little thing, and occasionally a big thing wrong with it. Major engine overhauls and complete restorations however are out of my league, so in reality the lift I required could be a light-duty model. Sure, I’d love a deluxe two- or four-post lift, but at the time I was shopping I really had no place to put one, and they were all priced out of my budget. Scissor lifts however seemed to be a good compromise: small, semi-portable, usable in a small garage, and far safer than ramps & jack-stands, while being reasonably priced.

The solution.

At the suggestion of more than one like-minded cheapskate wrench-turner I settled upon the “US General” 6000lb Scissor Lift from Harbor Freight. (Item #46604) It is likely the lowest-price lift on the market. Using a Triple-Word-Score combination of coupons, online specials, and shipping discounts the total price came to about $850 in 2003. I live in the boonies 60-some miles out of Seattle and due to the size and weight (~750lbs) of the lift Harbor Freight would only use a freight forwarder for shipping. This meant I had to pick it up at a loading dock in Seattle in my battered old farm pickup. It arrived in two pieces: a large wooden crate, with a cardboard box containing the hydraulic control unit strapped to the top of it, which fit right into the short bed of the old Dodge. I borrowed a neighbor’s tractor with a backhoe to unload the bulky unit from the truck’s bed and set it on the concrete floor of my garage. A few months later I relocated it to our barn, which became my workshop after the last of the domestic livestock were moved to better accommodations elsewhere. Moving the whole unit around is unwieldy, yet once upon a concrete slab it is very easy for a single person to maneuver the lift around an open space due to the magic of leverage and physics. The Control unit is essentially designed as a wheeled lever, and the lift is equipped with sturdy rollers at one end, and a lever-eye at the other end.

The lift fully retracted.

The lift fully raised.

First, the bad news: Two minor parts failed almost immediately. The original plastic wheels of the control unit are just not up to the task of holding the weight of the lift when used as a lever. They literally crumbled after a few tries moving the lift around. I replaced them with sturdier units from my local hardware store with actual bearings in them. Secondly the control unit is very top-heavy and with the broken wheels it tipped over, falling right onto the fitting for the hydraulic pipe, breaking it. At first I tried calling Harbor Freight’s customer service department to have the pipe replaced. Eventually I gave up that fruitless exercise and had a new pipe fabricated at my local NAPA store. Both repairs have held up for almost six years.

The lift's simple safety lock mechanism.

The hydraulic control unit, being used as a lever to move the entire unit around. Steel wheels are at the other end of the lift itself to facilitate movement. One person can pull or push the flat lift around on a concrete slab for repositioning or storage.

The good news: It is simple to operate, safe, and makes common automotive maintenance work a breeze. Low clearance cars such as my vintage Jaguar require help getting over the folded lift, so I have collected some long 4×4 & 4×6 lumber to arrange around the lift for that purpose. Vehicles with more ground clearance can just drive over it. Moveable arms with adjustable rubber-topped pads provide the lifting surfaces under the car. The pads are scored with right-angled grooves to mate up to the body work of cars like VW, who use flanges as lifting points. The lift has several pre-set ratcheting safety latch points as it goes up, providing safe, stable levels to perform work. To raise the car you operate the hydraulic pump, which runs from a standard household electrical outlet, with a push-button. To lower the car you must hold two levers, one retracting the safety-catch, the other slowly releasing the hydraulic fluid.

Works for all manner of vehicles, provided they are under 6000 pounds.

Oil changes, tire rotations, and brake work are now super-easy, and so much safer and faster when performed on the lift. Instead of spending lots of time raising, lowering and fiddling with jacks and stands, you can now get right to work. However, since the lift itself is positioned directly under the car working on things like transmissions or exhaust can be problematic depending upon the car. For these applications a traditional lift would be much better, but for the home mechanic on a budget this small lift is a wonderful luxury. I’ve used it countless times for oil and filter changes, and when it came time to sell the New Beetle I was able to do it right with numerous photos of every nook and cranny to put it on eBay Motors.

Had that tremor in 2003 bloomed into a genuine 6.0 or larger quake I might not be here today to enjoy life. Even if you don’t live in a “geological entertainment zone” like I do the peace of mind provided by such a simple and safe working platform is well worth the cost.

Published: Five fallacies of cloud computing

Five fallacies of cloud computing.

My article about cloud computing fallacies was recently published over at Tech Target. The cool part for me has been seeing people reference it in Twitter posts. Big thanks to my college buddy Richard Puig for asking me the question that set me off on this rant. 😉

Unlike past articles I’ve had published there this one does not have a comments sections, so I can’t see the feedback. I’ll have to ping my editor and see what sort of cranky emails he’s been receiving .

Four Book Mini-Reviews

What I've read this autumn.

I’m usually pretty good about updating my site here with goings on in my life, but I noted that I’ve neglected to update my “what I’m reading now” links over there ->
…since late summer. It still has the book I stole from Christopher after our road trip. I finished it a long time ago and have since plowed through three other books in my rare snippets of free time. I mostly only find time to read on my lunch hour, which is a shame. I love to read, and always have a book or two that I’m into at any given moment. Though I carry them around more than I ever am able to clear my mental decks and dedicate time to them. Lunches during the work week are like a brief oasis for me. I grab a bite, then sit down and pore over the printed word for 30 to 45 minutes. It is as refreshing as a nap in many ways. It allows me to forget about work, deadlines, projects, whatever else is happening and absorb more abstract things.

To make up for my lack of updating, I’ll write up mini-reviews of all these books:

1. P. J. O‘Rourke on The Wealth Of Nations

On the back cover is a blurb, which sums up this book best: “P.J. O’Rourke reads Adam Smith so you don’t have to”.

I have a great admiration for the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, especially David Hume and Adam Smith. In many ways their eminently pragmatic philosophies were an inspiration to the contemporary generation of intellectuals here on this side of the Atlantic, who sought to apply those philosophies in the construction of a new sort of system of government. Smith in fact, as a recognized intellect was asked by the British government what to do about the break-away colonies and provided the ultimately pragmatic advice (which of course took a few generations to be heeded) which basically said: Let them go, and then trade with them. It was so simple really. Low cost, with a high return. Rarely do we have the courage to take such simple steps like this, so we end up killing one another at a very high cost and low rate of return.

But actually reading Smith’s work? That is tough. It is written in Eighteenth Century English, and makes many references to many instances of then-recent history and culture, much of which are lost on a Twenty-first Century reader. Further, Smith paints paragraphs with such minutiae that reading his great works “Theory of Moral Sentiments” and “Wealth of Nations” is akin to watching Barry Lyndon, one frame at a time on your DVD player. Sure it is beautiful, artful, and intricate, but you’ll burn up a year of your life doing it.

P. J. O’Rourke is a lunatic. One I’ve enjoyed reading since my college days when he was writing for National Lampoon in their heyday. He does a fantastic job of creating a sort of Cliff’s Notes of Wealth of Nations filled with humor, insight, and examples from our lifetimes to illustrate how perceptive and prescient Smith was in his philosophies. Best of all O’Rourke does this in under 200 pages. It is a quick read and thoroughly enjoyable.

While I have always believed that the Chinese invented Capitalism, (how they became Communists is baffling to me) it was the Scots (mostly Smith) & Dutch who stripped it of all the trappings and encumbrances of Monarchy, Mercantilism and Religion; codified it within a moral framework, and gifted it to society. It would do well for people who claim every market down-cycle as a “failure of Capitalism”, or that Capitalism lacks a foundation in morality to give Smith a read. If plowing through a few thousand pages of Eighteenth Century English is too laborious, then grab this quick, witty summary and laugh your way through it.

2. Flyboys.

I grabbed this book off our bookshelf at home when I misplaced “Go Like Hell” for a few days. Within a page or two I was hooked and quite literally could not put it down. I chewed through it in a matter of days, often reading it as I walked to and from my car at work. Author James Bradley (“Flags of our Fathers”) uncovers and reveals the previously un-told fate of a handful of US Navy & Marine pilots shot down while bombing a Japanese-held island during WW2. The Island is Chichi Jima, which lies between Iwo Jima and Japan. Not a site of an epic battle like Iwo, it nonetheless was a critical outpost and serves as a microcosm of the larger conflict and the societal and personal impacts of that war. Using previously classified documents and first-hand interviews with survivors from both sides of the conflict it tells a gripping tale of the toll of total war on all the participants. Bradley admirably lays out facts of horrific brutality, from all sides.

3. Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari, and their battle for speed and glory at Le Mans.

The “Ford” and “Ferrari” in the title refer as much to men as to marques, as this book is as much about Henry (the 2nd) and Enzo as it is about the machines from Detroit and Maranello. It also covers other legendary men such as Ken Miles, John Surtees, Phil Hill, Carroll Shelby, Lee Iococca, Bruce McLaren, Masten Gregory, Dan Gurney, Luigi Chinetti, Walt Hansgen, Dennis Hulme, Mario Andretti, and many more. The star of the show though is the legendary Ford GT40 and its rise from concept to champion at the pinnacle of sports car racing history: The 24 Hours at Le Mans. Ferrari famously snubbed (at the last second) an offer to buy his company by Ford, and “the Deuce’s” response was to hit Ferrari where it hurt the most: on the racetrack. A. J. Baime’s book is a thrilling read for any motorhead, as it recounts the tale of this rivalry at Le Mans throughout the 1960s. This was a time when the technology of speed was being refined and cars evolved at a shocking rate, as did the shocking carnage as it has taken safety technology decades to close the gap. A good number of those drivers named above did not survive to their old age, most famously Ken Miles and Walt Hansgen whose deaths are directly linked to their GT40s.

I heard on Adam Carolla’s podcast that a movie is in the works based on this book. That said, I suggest that you read this book as I’m sure Hollywood will screw it up somehow.

4. Crusade: The Untold Story of the Gulf War.

Hindsight tells us that this book, published in the mid-90s was a bit premature, as in the scope of history the “Gulf War” is still going on today and remains unresolved, far more than it was when Schwartzkopf lead the Victory Parade in mid-1991. It was the presence of American soldiers in Saudi Arabia that prompted the fusion of Osama bin Laden with the Egyptian Islamic radicals into the 9/11 plotters. Of course this book is not about that forest, but the single tree of the expulsion of the Iraqi Army from Kuwait that started the whole affair. The book presents a chronology from the perspective of US military command, with occasional diversions into personal stories of minor participants. It is a worthwhile read, if only to see into that small and rarified world. Many of the people and places involved have familiar names that come back to haunt us in the following decade. My biggest complaint about this book is really one of layout and design. The maps, which are critical to diagramming text onto physical reality are all bunched in the back and are too small to be of any use.

Book Review: Road Fever by Tim Cahill

Road Fever by Tim Cahill

Oddly categorized as a “travel” book, this is really more about driving. Specifically long-distance, intercontinental driving in pursuit of a world record. This entails the raising of other people’s money (aka sponsorship), registration and verification with those in charge of keeping such records, and logistics on a grand scale. Logistics of the sort that bureaucrats dream of, and want to imprint their stamps upon. In triplicate.

The record in question was driving the length of the Western Hemisphere, from Ushuaia, Argentina on Tierra del Fuego to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, a distance of of over 15,000 miles in twenty-three days, twenty-two hours, and forty-three minutes. The distance however was not the limiting factor on this drive so much as the logistics and sheer bureaucracy of crossing more than a dozen borders, some of them hostile. The legwork required to acquire all the permissions and paperwork is touched upon, and then the actual acts of doing it is described with humor and wit. This drive was completed in September and October of 1987 by Canadian Garry Sowerby, and the author, Tim Cahill. They beat the previous official record by weeks, and the previous unofficial record by many days, therefore earning themselves a rightful place in history. If you don’t recall the record being set you can be forgiven as the nascent 24-hour-a-day news media were wrapped up in other events. Sowerby & Cahill exhibited amazing skill, but horrific timing in that upon their arrival in the USA the news media were distracted; as they arrived in Texas for a press conference the day a toddler named Jessica fell down a well elsewhere in Texas. Their arrival at Prudoe Bay coincided with the stock market crash on “Black Monday”. Literally a year of hard work and planning, followed by a month of marathon driving, all lost in the noise of other events.

They did not announce their attempt until they arrived in the USA for fear of criminal attempts to waylay them for ransom, a genuine threat in parts of Latin America. They did let various governments know ahead of time to secure the permissions required.

The book isn’t so much a travelogue as the telling of a tale. Sketches of places and events are drawn quickly and for the most part discarded as the landscape changes constantly around them. Cahill is an excellent writer and keeps your attention going throughout, frequently generating outbursts of laughter from the reader. I sought this book out specifically for a summer read as it serves as an oversized parallel to my own little drives. I’m not looking for records, but I tend to go for distance over dallying. There is a sort of bond that develops between drivers on a long-distance jaunt that is hard to capture. Cahill does an excellent job of doing so through humor, even though many of the situations and emotions at the time are anything but humorous. My only complaint about the book was the breezy fashion in which the final third of the journey was summarized. It felt as if Cahill ran out of time or up against a publishing dealine and just Cliff’s Noted the last parts of the journey. Sure the bulk of North America represents easy driving and a lack of Latin America border crossings but there is still plenty to see and experience.

It is a breezy and enjoyable read and I highly suggest any one interested in driving for driving’s sake to give it a look.