I Got Nothing

Sorry folks. Nothing much has been happening recently. I haven’t been to the range in months, haven’t taken new shooters out in a while longer, have been about a month behind the times when it comes to gun-related news, have fallen behind in reading other blogs, etc.

I’m alive (at least for now; I’m going to be skiing all next week), excited about having gotten into graduate school, and generally getting along fine.

As an aside, if you haven’t played the video games Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2, you’re missing out. I was a bit skeptical of a third-person shooter/RPG, but I was wrong. They’ve seriously been the most-bang-for-the-buck entertainment that I’ve had in years (since Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic which, interestingly enough, is made by the same company as Mass Effect). Tons of replay value, too.

“Proprietary” as a positive selling point?

Why is it that companies use the word “proprietary” as a selling point?

For example, a big shipping company has a partnership with the US Postal Service to provide various package-management and expedited-delivery services1 and, as part of the list of things they claim make their service better, they mention “proprietary software”.

Other companies mention proprietary formulas, methods, etc.

Do people usually think of this as a positive thing? Maybe it’s my background in science (essentially all discoveries go through peer review and are published for all to see) and being a bit of a free software geek, but I don’t see proprietary things as a good thing.

  1. Mostly by moving the package through their own network to the post office closest to the recipient, then handing it over to the post office for last-mile delivery. Why this is better than sending something entirely by UPS/FedEx or entirely through the post office, I don’t know. []

“Enterprise-class”, my ass

The university has licensed a particular brand of anti-virus software for all students, faculty, staff, etc. The department I do IT work for (my day job) has a central console that allows administrators to monitor the status of the anti-virus software on all the computers on the network.

I know it well, as I was the one who set it up.

Unfortunately, it’s a piece of crap and is two major versions out of date (the university only got the newer versions a short while ago). It’s also not going to be supported soon, so we had to upgrade it.

Most end-user software seems to handle in-place updates really well. Mozilla Firefox, Windows, even Acrobat Reader update really easily. Certain other software, like Apache, MySQL, and other such things also update reasonably smoothly.

This anti-virus console is not one of those things.

I honestly couldn’t think of something that’s more of a pain in the ass to upgrade.

It turned out to be faster and easier to simply install the newer console on a different server, configure it by hand, and then manually re-install the client software on the 200 or so desktop systems (again, by hand) than it was to try to upgrade the existing console.

The new one’s quite a bit better than the old one, but there’s still no built-in “upgrade in-place” feature, so in a few years someone’s (hopefully I’ll be in grad school by then) going to have upgrade to the next version. That’ll suck; a lot of the configuration is stored in some unknown way, and not accessible to the GUI or the configuration files. If even the tiniest thing gets out of whack (which happens on occasion), diagnosing the problem (not to mention fixing it) is a massive pain in the ass.

Compare that to Windows Server Update Services — a simple Group Policy change on the clients1 and the clients get all their Windows Updates from the WSUS server, which can manage which updates are to be deployed to clients. Quick, simple, and scalable, all through an intuitive GUI.

Say what you will about Microsoft, but they have enterprise-class management down pat. This anti-virus company, though…not so much…

  1. We don’t have an Active Directory, so we can’t push it from a central system, but have to do the changes by hand. There’s a lot of inertia and legacy systems here. Oh well. []

Musings on RadioShack

I may be only 28, but I remember when RadioShack was a place of wonder and excitement in the pre-web days. Back then, cellphones had yet to be in widespread use, and one could buy any number of electronic components from employees who were also hobbyists and geeks.

Now, it’s a glorified mall cellphone kiosk with a few token items for hobbyists, but those are tucked away in the back, seemingly out of shame.

As a scientist and a tinkerer, I enjoy getting data on things that I’m working on. As an example, if I was building a solar array that would charge batteries, I’d want to know the current voltage on the batteries in the array (to determine state-of-charge) and the current from the panels to the charge controller and from the batteries to the load.

Going with this example, I was in RadioShack yesterday with a friend (she needed a new coin-cell battery for her calculator) and asked if they had panel voltmeters and ammeters (see here for an example) for such a system.

One of the employees thought about it, and said “No, I’m afraid we don’t carry those. Sorry.” Although not the answer I was looking for, he was honest and helpful, which I appreciate.

The other employee said, “Why do you want that? Why not just use one of the multimeters we have here?”, waving at the back of the store.

Me: “I already have three multimeters, and they all max out at 10 amps, and they can only support such currents for 30 seconds with a few minutes to cool down. I’d like something that can handle 20-50 amps indefinitely. Panel meters don’t require batteries, which is a major benefit. Also, I’d like something a bit more elegant to put into a display console.”

Employee: “Why not use one of the clamp-type multimeters we have to measure larger currents?”

Me: “The ones you have here only work on AC, not DC, which is what I’ll be working with.”

Employee: “Why not power your multimeters with a small solar cell or power them from the source and mount them in your console?”

Me, suspecting this conversation has started going downhill: “Because the multimeters are not rated for the currents I’ll need them for, a solar panel would provide intermittent power by not working at night [where knowing the state of charge is important], and the source voltage is very different from what the meter requires, as the meter runs on AA batteries. Panel meters are much more appropriate, and look quite a bit nicer.”

Employee: “Why would you need to deal with such currents at all? The biggest solar panel that RadioShack sells is a 5 watt panel that sits on your car dashboard that keeps your car battery topped off.”

Me: “I have no use for such a panel at all; my project would involve an array of big panels that would charge a battery bank that could power a small house. I’d like a permanently-wired, nice looking console that would have some meters in it so I could know, at a glance, the current state of the battery bank.”

Employee: [blank look]

Me: “Nevermind. Have a nice day.”

I have no problem with an expert (or even an enthusiastic amateur) discussing project requirements with me. Indeed, they may have a better idea of setting up such a system than I, which would be very helpful.

However, I rather dislike it when someone not only makes inappropriate suggestions, but argues about basic design goals (e.g. I want a nice-looking monitoring console, not a kludge of multimeters and wires running everywhere). Yes, I could put some shunts into the circuit and measure high currents safely with a standard multimeter; such a setup would be great for testing and bench work, but not for a final product.

RadioShack certainly isn’t what it used to be.

Fortunately, the internet allows me to order the meters I want for less than $10 each, and have them shipped to me from Thailand in less than a week. I also don’t need to interact with people like this RadioShack employee.

Frustration

Google evidently has two separate account namespaces:

  • Google Accounts
  • Google Apps account

Google Accounts can be, but are not┬ánecessarily, a Google Mail/Gmail account. One can have a Google Account without having a Gmail account (e.g. [email protected]) and can use such an account for accessing services like Google Reader, Google Docs, etc. I created such an account years ago for my personal email address.

Google Apps accounts are accounts associated with Google Apps, which are separate from regular Google Accounts. Google Apps provides email service for my personal domain.

Unfortunately, this means that both my Google Account and Google Apps account had the same username, which lead to considerable confusion.

I’m just now trying to get this all straightened out by only using Google Apps for email and XMPP chat and migrating all my other services (like Google Reader, Google Voice, etc.) to a single Google Account. This is exceedingly frustrating.