Synaptic Makes Apt A Snap

I’m still hacking away on Red Hat 9 as a desktop OS for my home PC, even though Red Hat’s CEO says that’s a dumb thing to do. However, one thing I ran into pretty quickly with Red Hat is the limitations of the RPM package management scheme. There’s RPMs out there for just about anything you’d want to install, but going through the process of finding the ones you want, resolving dependencies, and so on is a royal pain.

Debian users have it much easier, thanks to apt, the package management solution they use, which automates a lot of this nonsense. So, I grabbed a copy of apt for RPM, which brings that tool to the Red Hat world; but apt is a command-line tool, which means it still doesn’t have the utility of something like, say, Windows Update.

You can fix that, though, with Synaptic, a slick GUI front-end for apt that makes it just as pointy-clicky as you could ever want it to be. Once I got Synaptic up and running, things that used to be daunting — like, say, updating from GNOME 2.2 to 2.4 — became a breeze; just find a repository with RPMs of GNOME 2.4 (I used Nyquist’s), double-click to update gnome-desktop to 2.4, and then watch as the gazillion packages that GNOME requires are all seamlessly updated without a hitch. It’s pretty impressive.

The only hitch from the end-user perspective is finding the right repositories; apt-for-RPM is a niche solution, so packages are more limited in availability than they are for Debian’s format. Still, this is a nice stopgap solution until I figure out which distro to settle on as my Linux Desktop of Choice.

I Suppose This Is “Innovation(tm)”

After insisting for months that Internet Explorer wasn’t going to be updated until the release of Longhorn, the next version of Windows, in 2005, they’ve now backtracked and announced a new Service Pack, slated for the first half of next year, that will add pop-up blocking to the browser.

Wow, pop-up blocking built right into your Web browser! What a great idea — and not a moment too soon. After all, it’s not like you could just download a fast, free browser with built-in pop-up blocking from anywhere else…


I’ve inducted the terrific ZIP-file handling program FilZip into the Big List O’ Quality Software. If you’re looking for a free program to let you open and create ZIP files that won’t bug you with annoying nag screens or demands that you shell out cash, FilZip is the product you’re looking for.

White House to Hill Dems: Go Pound Sand

Well, this is certainly an interesting development…

Apparently, the White House is finding it tiresome to have to answer so many questions from those annoying Congressional Democrats on thorny issues like exactly who paid for that “Mission Accomplished” banner that President Bush stood in front of when he spoke on the USS Abraham Lincoln back in May. So, they’ve developed a novel way of dealing with those inquiries — from here on out, they’re going to ignore them:

The Bush White House, irritated by pesky questions from congressional Democrats about how the administration is using taxpayer money, has developed an efficient solution: It will not entertain any more questions from opposition lawmakers…
The director of the White House Office of Administration, Timothy A. Campen, sent an e-mail titled “congressional questions” to majority and minority staff on the House and Senate Appropriations panels. Expressing “the need to add a bit of structure to the Q&A process,” he wrote: “Given the increase in the number and types of requests we are beginning to receive from the House and Senate, and in deference to the various committee chairmen and our desire to better coordinate these requests, I am asking that all requests for information and materials be coordinated through the committee chairmen and be put in writing from the committee.”
He said this would limit “duplicate requests” and help answer questions “in a timely fashion.”
It would also do another thing: prevent Democrats from getting questions answered without the blessing of the GOP committee chairmen.

So in other words, elected Members of Congress have been told they can’t communicate directly with the White House anymore — if they want their questions answered, they have to ask permission from their GOP committee chairman to have their question passed along.

What a slap in the face! The Administration might want to step back and consider that, if it’s being overwhelmed with questions about its actions, the problem might be less with the process for submitting the questions and more with the actions themselves. This kind of Keystone Kop authoritarianism doesn’t help matters; it only tarnishes an already tarnished record.

Fairfax County’s E-Voting Debacle

Well, Tuesday was Election Day, and that means it was Fairfax County’s first chance to try out their brand-spanking-new touch-screen voting machines — the ones I railed about a while back.

How did it go? Um, not so well:

The new machines, meant to simplify voting, made the tallying of the votes more problematic. More than half of precinct officials resorted to the old-fashioned telephone to call in their numbers or even drove the results to headquarters, elections officials said. A handful of precincts went back to paper ballots.
County elections officials said it was the slowest performance in memory for counting votes on election night. The problem came when precinct workers tried to electronically send results from the 953 new machines to election headquarters, unexpectedly overloading computer servers.
When the electronic system of sending results over telephone modems failed, precinct workers tried to call in the results but got busy signals. Many decided it would be quicker to drive.

Yeah, you know you’ve got a well-designed system on your hands when it’s faster to put the ballots in a car and drive them to the board of elections office than it is to use the system to upload them. And remember that this was an off-year election, which usually have very low turnout — imagine how much worse things will be if these machines are in use next year, when people turn out to vote for President, if these machines choke on uploading the results of a few races for the state legislature.

And, we find out today that performance wasn’t the only problem — it turns out that Fairfax’s voting machines don’t know how to count, either:

School Board member Rita S. Thompson (R), who lost a close race to retain her at-large seat, said yesterday that the new computers might have taken votes from her. Voters in three precincts reported that when they attempted to vote for her, the machines initially displayed an “x” next to her name but then, after a few seconds, the “x” disappeared.
In response to Thompson’s complaints, county officials tested one of the machines in question yesterday and discovered that it seemed to subtract a vote for Thompson in about “one out of a hundred tries,” said Margaret K. Luca, secretary of the county Board of Elections.
“It’s hard not to think that I have been robbed,” said Thompson, whose 77,796 recorded votes left her 1,662 shy of reelection.

Now, my friend Oscar said on his blog that I saw all this coming, but that’s not really true. What I was concerned about was the potential for people to exploit the weak encryption on these machines’ wireless connections to either spy on people’s ballots, or actually change them — that seemed like the sort of technical detail that election bureaucrats would be likely to overlook. I never imagined that they wouldn’t have tested the devices to see if they could do simple tasks like count votes or report totals! And yet, that seems to be exactly what occurred.

This raises three obvious questions:

  • If the Fairfax County election supervisors didn’t even bother to test the machines on these basic functions before shelling out $3.5 million of the taxpayers’ money for them, what testing, if any, did they do? Or did they just cut a check to the first company with a slick PowerPoint presentation to blow into town?
  • The problems we’ve heard about so far — erroneous counts, faulty connections, slow uploading, etc. — are all problems that are immediately evident. However, the problem I originally pointed out — someone hacking the wireless link — would happen silently, without any obvious signs to the untrained eye. Now that the citizens of Fairfax know that the WINVote machines are flawed, do they plan on asking the elections supervisors to audit the election results to prove they haven’t been tampered with, as well?
  • And the big question: How big of an incompetent do you have to be to lose your job in the Fairfax County government? These people blew millions of taxpayer dollars, threw several elections into disarray, prompted lawsuits out the wazoo, and potentially blew the confidentiality of people’s ballots wide open. Why those of you who live in Fairfax aren’t calling for their heads, I have no idea.

Deflating Salon’s Draft Paranoia

There’s been a lot of buzz floating around the Web about whether the draft is coming back, thanks to a recent article in Salon that explored the subject. The Salon article was prompted by the appearance on (a Defense Department site) of an announcement seeking volunteers to staff 2,000 local draft boards; these boards would be the critical institutions that would implement any functional draft. Salon’s Dave Lindorff takes this as the jumping-off point to declare that the Bush Administration is trying to “bring the draft boards back to life” on the sly.

However, a close reading of the Salon article and the sources Lindorff cites indicates that he’s pretty much off base. Lindorff cites three major developments to make his case that the Administration is quietly doing the groundwork to bring back the draft:

  • The DefendAmerica announcement, which he takes to indicate a sudden need for volunteers
  • The introduction into both houses of Congress of bills to reintroduce the draft
  • An unsourced citation of “local draft board volunteers” who “report that at training sessions last summer, they were unexpectedly asked to recommend people to fill some of the estimated 16 percent of board seats that are vacant nationwide.”

Let’s take each of these in turn.

First, the DefendAmerica announcement. Yes, the Selective Service System is seeking volunteers to staff the local draft boards. But, contrary to what Lindorff seems to assert, that’s nothing new — they are always seeking those volunteers. That’s because they have to maintain a skeleton crew for each of those local boards that they could quickly staff up in case of emergency. So, they keep a minimal number of volunteers — currently, about 11,000 — on the rolls, and give them some simple training every year. Now, that’s not nearly as many volunteers as they’d need to actually carry out a draft, but what matters is that they have an ongoing need for volunteers, so it’s entirely possible that this announcement is just routine and actually signals no policy change whatsoever. Lindorff found no Defense Department or Selective Service official who was willing to say otherwise, so unless he’s got some other information he’s not sharing I can’t see how this is a big deal.

Next, the bills to reintroduce the draft. These were dropped in the hopper back in January — on the House side as H.R. 163 by Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY) and on the Senate side as S. 89 by Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-SC). Note that both these gentlemen are Democrats — that’s your first clue that these bills are not what they seem. January was when the run-up to the conflict in Iraq was first beginning, you see, and Democrats were looking for ways to dramatize the potential costs and risks of Bush’s little war. These bills, rather than serious pieces of legislation actually intended to reinstate the draft, were pieces of political theater — bills meant to get people thinking about what war really costs. I think Rangel and Hollings would be as shocked as anyone else if these bills ever actually came up for a vote. So, this is a pretty weak reed to base an argument on, too.

Finally, there’s an offhand mention of volunteers who say they’re being pressed to find people to fill the rest of those unfilled volunteer slots I mentioned before on the local draft boards. Now, if that’s true, that would be news, since it would be a clear sign of a change in policy — but Lindorff only mentions it in passing, and doesn’t have any quotes confirming it, even from anonymous sources. He makes the assertion and then never proves it, which is odd since it’s the only real news in his story.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I think there are certainly people in the Pentagon who are anxiously sweating over the idea of a draft right this minute — and if the Bush Doctrine stays in place, I think within the next five years we’ll see a for-real-no-fooling proposal to bring it back, it’s the only way we’ll get the manpower we’ll need for all our commitments abroad. But this article is shoddy journalism and plain old fear-mongering. Salon ought to know better.

Faces of the Fallen

If you want to get some sense of the human cost of our intervention in Iraq, take a look at the Washington Post’s Faces of the Fallen site — it shows photos and biographical information (including how they died) for every American soldier killed in Iraq since the opening of hostilities in the spring. Keep in mind, too, that these are just the soldiers who were killed in action; the site doesn’t include the thousands more who have been wounded.

More Fun With Spam

Yet another Actual Spam found in my inbox today:

Spam from the Anal Team, whoever that is

I was just impressed by who it was from: the “Anal-Team”. It sounds so, I dunno, official. Who are the mysterious Anal-Team? Are they like the Superfriends? Do they fight evil masterminds bent on keeping people from ever trying anything other than the missionary position?

(We CUT to a darkened bedroom somewhere in a great American metropolis. Two figures lie in bed, talking.)
JILL: “Honey, I’m not sure if I want to try that.”
JACK: “Why not?”
JILL: “I don’t know… I’ve never done it before, and it just seems wrong somehow. You know?”
JACK: “Now where would you get an idea like that — ”
(Suddenly, the wall is blown open, and THE ANAL-TEAM flies in!)
JILL: “Oh my god!”
JACK: “It’s the Anal-Team!”

… who proceed to save Jack and Jill from the evil mind-control rays of the nefarious Doctor Lieback.

Wait, on second thought, forget I ever mentioned this — I bet I could get a fortune for the movie rights.

Get Out and Vote

Today’s Election Day across these United States, kids, so make sure you take the time to get out and vote!

Remember the next time you read the paper and wonder how things got as screwed up as they are, that the biggest reason is because people don’t take part in the political process. That leaves the field open for anybody with a special interest to hawk or a bag of money to throw around. So, go cast your vote and help get this country moving in the right direction again!

Longhorn To Open the Era of “Replace and Defend”?

Jon Udell has an interesting piece looking at some of the recently-released specs of Longhorn, the next version of Microsoft Windows (planned for release in 2006), and what it means for the rest of the technology world. He also gives a link to another article by Joe Hewitt, which looks at XAML, Longhorn’s new language to let developers write applications in XML (hmm, where have we seen that idea before?). Hewitt sums up Longhorn’s ambitions thusly:

I think the bottom-line of XAML is that it is equally useful for creating both desktop applications, web pages, and printable documents. This means that Microsoft may be attempting to simultaneously obsolete HTML, CSS, DOM, XUL, SVG, SMIL, Flash, PDF.

Sobering stuff for anybody who cares about the continuing viability and openness of any of those standards.

Life Imitates Art

So I’m at the grocery store this evening picking up a few things, and on my way through the cereal aisle I notice an interesting product: Harmony, “A Low-Fat Nutritional Cereal For Women”. The implication being of course that it’s chock full of estrogen-ey goodness, or something.

I couldn’t help but laugh. A few years ago, I did some work with an improv/sketch group here in D.C. called Tangent Improv. One of the other members of Tangent was Will Knapp, a buddy of mine from my Montgomery Playhouse days and one of the funniest people on and off stage I know.

Anyway, Tangent’s show was a mix of improvisational games and pre-written sketches, and Will and I both helped out in the writing of the sketch bits. One recurring type of sketch was a short piece for just one or two actors, designed to give the rest of the cast a moment to catch their breath between improv games and get props and so forth moved on and off stage. Frequently these pieces took the form of commercial parodies, since commercials fit the time target so closely.

So one show, we were ginning up these sketch bits, and we decided that the short pieces would all be parodies of cereal commercials. And Will comes back with this bit that absolutely floored me, it was so funny:

“Multiple O’s: The Cereal For Women”.

The bit itself was very simple, just a man and a woman at the breakfast table. The woman tells us how much she LOVES her O’s, she can’t get ENOUGH of them, she’d have BOWL after BOWL if she could. The man isn’t paying attention at all, he’s reading the newspaper. Annoyed, she tries to get him to try it, but he won’t go near it. Finally, she gets him to take a taste, and he puts one spoonful in his mouth and announces “YUM! That was GREAT! Well, that’s it for me, I’m done,” and gets up and leaves the room.

Well, maybe you had to be there 🙂 But I still remember it as one of the funniest bits we ever did. I wish I still had the script! What made it funny was the way it had two different jokes in it — one about the sexual politics between men and women, and another about the sheer ludicrousness of a “cereal for women” (pure marketing, they’re telling you who their target customer is rather than what’s in the product). And now it’s actually on the shelves! God bless America…

Into the Tunnels

Dervala Hanley has written a great post reminiscing about a trip she made into the Cu Chi tunnels, from which the North Vietnamese fought the U.S. Army. It’s very insightful stuff.


I saw Eddie Izzard’s new stand-up show, “Sexie“, at the Warner Theatre last night, and it was freaking hilarious. (The review in the Post gives you a good sense of what went down.) If you’re in a town where “Sexie” is due to land, and there’s still tickets available, grab ’em while you can — you won’t regret it. If you’re not, or if you’ve never heard of Eddie Izzard and are wondering where to start, check out “Dress to Kill”, a recording of a 1999 concert tour he gave that was his first real breakthrough into the American comedy scene. Dress to Kill is probably one of the 5 most brilliant stand-up performances I’ve ever seen — start there and you’ll see why so many of us are members of the Cult of Eddie.

Now They’re Not Even Trying

An actual screen shot from my inbox:


No subject, and the sender is “SPAM”???

Man. There’s no excuse for that — that’s just lazy.

MT-Blacklist 1.5 out

The comment-spam-busting wonder MT-Blacklist has been updated to version 1.5.

Since installing version 1.0, my comment spam has dropped from 5-10 spams a day to zero. If you run a Movable Type server, what are you waiting for? Go get it!

The Air Force’s Shameful Tanker Deal

There’s a great story in today’s Post that finally explores in detail an issue that’s been simmering on the Hill for many months now — a deal between the Air Force and Boeing for the procurement of new refueling tankers that seems fishy, to say the least. Some members of Congress (most notably Senator John McCain) have been trying to get this sweetheart deal torpedoed for a while now; it certainly deserves to be, if taken on the merits.

Read the story, it’s got all the details — but here’s the basic issue. The Air Force maintains a fleet of planes that are essentially airliners with the passenger seats ripped out and replaced with giant fuel tanks, for other planes to hook up to in mid-air and re-fill their tanks from. These are un-sexy but highly necessary aircraft, since they allow the Air Force to reach targets from bases thousands of miles farther away than they otherwise would be able to. (Consider that during the recent hostilities in Iraq, many of the bomber missions that hit targets there were actually launched from places like Colorado — there’s no way our bombers could make it from Colorado to Iraq and back without taking on fuel from tankers.)

The controversy comes in because of a deal that aircraft maker Boeing has cooked up to replace the Air Force’s existing tankers with new planes. Boeing, you see, has a bit of a problem. The mainstay of their product line for awhile now has been the 767, a workhorse commercial jet. However, orders for new 767s have tailed off of late, due to a fall in air travel after September 11, and due to tough competition from Airbus Industrie, which persists in building better airplanes for lower prices than Boeing does (damn Europeans!). This meant that Boeing had to find somebody who wanted to buy 767s, since that’s what they had to sell.

So, they approached the U.S. Air Force with a proposal: replace the Air Force’s existing fleet of tankers (KC-135s, which are converted Boeing 707s) with shiny new converted 767s. After all, those KC-135s were sure old, right? And wouldn’t it be nice to have some shiny new planes instead of those boring old ones?

Sure, said the Air Force brass. The only problem was, they couldn’t afford it — there wasn’t room in the budget to buy a whole new tanker fleet, since the existing tanker fleet was doing fine (even an audit from Boeing’s own consultants estimated that the KC-135s could serve until 2040). So Boeing got extra-creative and came back with a twist on their idea — don’t worry, they told the brass, we’ve figured out a way to fit it in your budget. You’re not going to buy the planes, you see — you’re going to lease them.

Yes! This was the big idea — that Boeing would sell the tankers to a shell company, who would them lease them to the Air Force, rather than the Air Force just buying them up front. Now, think of the times when leasing things makes sense in your own life. Generally, it’s when you’re acquiring something you’re pretty certain you’re going to give back in the near term — something like a car you want to trade back in three years later, or an apartment in a city you’re not sure if you’re going to live in long-term. But tankers? Does anybody think that the Air Force is not going to end up keeping these things? And since it’s a lease, it has all the drawbacks of a lease — including a much higher total cost than if you just bought the item outright. So, in other words, we taxpayers are going to be stuck with an enormous bill from Boeing somewhere down the line, so that the Air Force doesn’t have to go through the bother of reworking its budget to fit in its new toys.

I probably don’t have to tell you that the Air Force neglected to do any competitive bidding on this contract, either. Or even to test whether 767s would make particularly good tankers. They’re just gonna take Boeing’s word on the whole cost and suitability-to-task issues.

What a mess. Boeing claims now that they ginned up this whole deal to save jobs, so they wouldn’t have to close the 767 assembly line. (How noble!) But defense contracting isn’t the channel through which to be disbursing welfare payments. If we’re concerned about the assembly-line workers, let’s just pay them their salaries to stay home, like we do farmers. That way we can cut out the middlemen and save on all the executive salaries they’d be skimming. Makes sense to me.

This deal deserves to be taken down hard. Here’s hoping Senator McCain gets the support he needs to make that happen.

The Big List O’ Quality Software

This post is a long one, and I’m going to pin it to the right nav bar, because it’s going to become an evergreen feature here at Just Well Mixed: The Big List O’ Quality Software.

The purpose of The Big List O’ Quality Software is to help you get useful stuff done with your Windows PC. Windows users face the opposite problem from users of alternate OSes; those folks look far and wide for software that does what they want, so when they find good stuff, word travels fast. In the Windows world, however, there is just so darn much software floating around that it’s possible for even very good stuff to get lost in the clutter. So I decided to throw together this little guide, to share with you some things that I have found very useful in the past.

See, I’m a professional geek — an Alpha Geek, if you will. In my work, I spend a lot of time futzing with software. And that means that I’ve seen a LOT of software, most of it unremarkable, but some of it very good. Over the years, I’ve developed a kind of kit of useful “go-to” programs, tools that I reach for over and over again and that I recommend to others. That’s what these programs are: think of them as programs that have my personal seal of approval, that I’d tell you about if you sent me an e-mail asking me if I’d seen anything useful out there lately.


More Good Buzz For Tapwave

IGN got to spend some quality time with the Tapwave Zodiac, and they love it too

I Love the IntarWeb

I’ve gotten a lot of good feedback on my piece What a Libertarian Sees in Dean since it was picked up by the Libertarians For Dean blog. Some of it was positive, some negative, but all constructive and interesting.

However, this morning that post picked up a comment from a fellow named Doc Martian that wasn’t so much constructive and interesting as it was laugh out loud funny. (Unfortunately you can’t link directly to comments in Movable Type, but here’s a link to the comment thread, just look for Doc’s comment and you’ll see what I mean.) There’s too much fever-dream stuff to include it all, but this bit made me laugh so hard I snorted coffee all over my monitor:

I’ve had attack homosexuals sent at me on the chance that i’m homophobic.

Just trying to imagine what an “attack homosexual” would look like (I’m picturing the Queer Eye guys in Viking helmets, studded leather collars, and really pissed) ought to keep me amused for the rest of the day.

If you’re in the mood for seeing how the paranoid half live, I highly recommend checking out Doc’s Web site, where you will find such trenchant political observations as:

4:54 am – muh mantra fer today.
dubya is. like the wind. the waves. and yer mom. only dubya isn’t quite as smart as your mom. he has more power tho. lots more power. kind of like if king kong had all the cocaine he wanted… only instead of cocaine… it was power.


2:55 pm – howard dean: cuz leiberman’s captain wuss!
howard dean! sucking israel’s bean! a fascist machine! building fences not dreams! from the same guys that shot yitzhak rabin! and his lovely wife, dr. steinberg-dean!

Wow. Not only is he a political thinker, he’s a poet as well — it takes true artistic machismo to rhyme “Dean” and “Steinberg-Dean”. Bravo! Doc Martian, I applaud you!

Back in the day, A.J. Liebling said “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” The beauty of the blog explosion, though, is that today anybody can own a press. And I mean anybody.

“Before September 11, There Was October 23”

It passed with little note or fanfare, but today marked the 20th anniversary of the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, that killed 241 U.S. soldiers, sailors, and Marines.

NPR ran a good story about a reunion of the survivors, and some of the memories they still carry with them. It’s worth your time to listen to the story, and take a moment to honor the memory of the servicepeople who died that day, victims of a poorly planned mission, the wrong force in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The Exciting Life of Engineers

Sad but true billboard about the pathetic life of engineers

(Props to Joi Ito for finding this)

Dubya Takes A Slap — From Shrub Sr.

This is the sort of story that makes you just shake your head in amazement:

Remember the flap that got stirred up a few weeks ago when Senator Ted Kennedy started arguing that the reasons we went to war in Iraq were basically fiction?

“There was no imminent threat. This was made up in Texas, announced in January to the Republican leadership that war was going to take place and was going to be good politically. This whole thing was a fraud,” the Massachusetts Democrat told the AP.

Not the sort of remarks that leave a lot of room for doubt as to where he stands. Predictably, the White House and the GOP leadership went ballistic, with House Majority Leader Tom DeLay saying that “Democrats have spewed more hateful rhetoric at President Bush than they ever did at Saddam Hussein”.

Well, time passed and the furor died down. And then, just now, we get an announcement from the George Bush Foundation that stirs it up again. That’s not the George W. Bush Foundation — nope, it’s the charitable foundation of Poppa Bush, run out of his Presidential Library, and one of its programs is to give the “George Bush Award for Excellence in Public Service” to honor “an individual’s or group’s dedication to public service at the local, state, national or international levels.”

Well, guess who the just-announced winner of the George Bush Award for 2003 is?

United States Senator, Edward M. Kennedy, is the third recipient of the award. George Bush, 41st President of the United States, will present the award to Senator Kennedy at an awards ceremony beginning at 5:00 p.m. in Rudder Auditorium on the campus of Texas A&M University.

Yep, that’s right — George Bush Sr. is giving his award for public service to the Member of Congress who’s been most vocal in opposing his son’s decision to invade Iraq. There’s an excellent op-ed in the Boston Globe on the subject, too. Boy, I bet Thanksgiving dinner at the Bush ranch is gonna be downright frosty this year!