Four fried chickens and a Coke

I’m in Chicago to put signs on doors. No, really.

IBM is setting up a swanky new customer briefing center, where major customers are given custom presentations, attend hands-on technical demonstrations, and are shown proof-of-concept systems. Outside each room will be a video screen. The plan is for each screen to show the room number and name, the title of whatever event is happening at that moment (or starting soon), the times of the event, and the name and e-mail address of the IBM contact responsible for the event. There may also be a need to put custom logos, screenshots, clip art or animation on the screens.

There are turnkey systems for doing this sort of thing, but they cost a ton of money and are a pain to administer. So, we’re building one in-house. Or more specifically, I’m building the software, a colleague is installing the (Linux based) hardware. Each room will be driven from a central Domino database, which can be managed by any authorized user, and is integrated with the system used to book meeting rooms. The screens will show a web page, implemented in XHTML and CSS, and displayed using an embedded version of Firefox (I hope, or else I’ll have to do some extra work to downgrade the web design). The page will simply refresh every N minutes.

The hardware only arrived on Friday, so everything was booked at the last minute. I picked the closest hotel to IBM that had broadband. It turned out to be the Hard Rock Hotel in downtown Chicago, on the north edge of the theater district. The current IBM office building is a short bleary-eyed zombie-like morning walk away, and there’s a Starbucks across the street from the obvious route, so that works well.

Also just down the street is the Seventeenth Church of Christ Scientist. Until now, the only Christian Scientist church I had seen was the one in Boston, labeled First Church of Christ Scientist. I had thought that that was just the full brand name of the church, like the First National Bank. It hadn’t occurred to me that they actually number the things. Thank goodness Starbucks didn’t take that approach, or they’d have problems fitting wide enough signs on the stores.

This evening I walked to the original Pizzeria Uno. Just down the street someone had started an independent pizza restaurant called Pizzeria Due, with a very similar logo. I thought this was pretty amusing, and would have eaten there, but there was a queue almost as long as the one in front of Uno.

I’m sure I heard something about Chicago having a tough economy; yet someone is clearly doing well, as downtown is infested with condo developments. Many local businesses have recently shut down, and often have “Coming soon: more condos!” signs on the windows. A condo here starts at $200,000 or so.

Further evidence of selective richness: I saw a shiny silver Lambourghini downtown. I think it was a Countach. I love the design of the Countach, and the name—it turns out it’s the Italian equivalent of “Holy crap!”. The car got that name because when people living near the Lambourghini plant saw the test car being driven, they tended to say something like “Countach!”. A security guard was standing looking at the car. I’m not sure whether he was a guard from a nearby store taking a break, or whether it’s possible that someone is rich enough to hire a guard to stand and watch his car.

There’s also an enormous Apple Store. It’s just like one of the stores in the original Grand Theft Auto—the one where there’s a special stunt jump that involves driving through the plate glass windows and up the glass staircase.

If you like Art Deco, Chicago is the city for you. It’s everywhere. The hotel is in a historic building, and has some beautiful metal elevator doors on the ground floor. It also has an authentic deco mailbox set into the wall; or rather, something which used to be a mailbox. It doesn’t have a slot any more.

Vegas Day 2: The Strip

We wake up early, partly because of the 3 hour time zone shift, and partly because our room faces south and gets a spectacular view of the sun rising over the desert hills. We find the café on the casino level: Starbucks coffee, and the biggest bearclaws I’ve ever seen. Once we’re awake we return to the hotel room to get ready for the day. Sara turns on the TV to find the Weather Channel, and the first thing it blares out is that erotic movies are available on demand. We collapse into laughter. The weather turns out to be moderately warm, and the hotel gleams golden in the sunlight.

The big casino hotels are nearly all located along Las Vegas Boulevard, colloquially known as The Strip. The old Las Vegas downtown district is at the north end of the strip. Mandalay Bay is one of three hotels on The Strip which are owned by the same company, and linked by a monorail. We travel to The Luxor, which is a large Egyptian-themed casino hotel shaped like a huge black pyramid with a sphinx on the front.

The main pyramid is filled with hotel rooms; all have windows on the outside of the pyramid, and doors which open onto balconies which overlook the enormous open space inside the building. The casino is on the ground floor, and on top are some assorted buildings and an obelisk “carved” with glowing heiroglyphics which shift and pulsate.

Also on the upper level inside the pyramid is the museum of King Tutenkhamen’s tomb. It contains painstakingly crafted replicas of items found in the real tomb; to add to the appearance of authenticity, they’re presented in glass cases as if in a museum.

This is why Umberto Eco loves Vegas—we’re touring a fake museum in a fake Egyptian pyramid, looking at fake artifacts. Still, the presentation is nice, and the objects look very ornate. In fact, they look rather more impressive than the real things, which as I recall are in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

The gift shop is quite tasteful too. As well as the obligatory Luxor T-shirts and ankh baseball caps, there are genuinely scholarly offerings such as a serious book on Egyptian heiroglyphics. There is also the “Girls of RA” calendar, “RA” being the Luxor’s nightclub, which apparently attracts women who like to take their clothes off. Still, I daresay Tut wouldn’t have tut-tutted over a few tats and titties…

Which brings me on to the subject of breasts. They seem to be a major source of fascination in Las Vegas. You take an otherwise tired concept like a bunch of women dancing on stage, add a sprinkling of tits, and magically you have compelling entertainment.

I notice that one of the shows has two versions. During the day you can see the clothed edition, which is billed as suitable for children of 5 and up. In the evening, there’s the topless version of the exact same show, which you need to be 16 to see. From this I deduce that young American children will be traumatized if exposed to the sight of human breasts; presumably they are all bottle-fed, which would also explain their later fascination with watching Vegas showgirls.

The other strange entertainment in Las Vegas is inserting money into metal boxes. The boxes have various lights which flash, and sometimes reels which rotate. Every now and again they eject a small portion of the money you’ve inserted, slowing the process somewhat. People find these machines endlessly fascinating.

I guess gambling is one of those things that you either get or you don’t. I don’t. I’m too much of a mathematician; I understand the statistics involved. It strikes me that there’s probably a link between gambling and smoking—in both cases, the people doing it are convinced that they can beat the odds.

We walk through to the third casino in the family, Excalibur, featured in a recent episode of “South Park”. It has a vaguely medieval theme, and is obviously aimed much more at families with children than the other two. My donut radar goes off, and I walk around a couple of blind corners and find myself outside a Krispy Kreme. I file away the location for later.

We emerge blinking into the sunlight. It’s now a beautiful warm sunny day, and I realize the fleece jacket was totally unnecessary. We continue up the strip to New York New York, the next casino complex on this side of the street.

I’m still not sure how much of the skyline is actual buildings (presumably hotel rooms), and how much is fake. The replica Brooklyn Bridge is a nice touch. Nobody attempts to sell it to us, but a friendly woman does try to interest us in a timeshare. They’ll give us free tickets for a show if we attend a presentation. It sounds quite tempting until they reveal that it’s a 2 hour presentation! Ridiculous. I do my best to skip any presentation over an hour at work, so I’m damned if I’m going to spend a couple of hours of valuable vacation time plus transit listening to something I think it’s very unlikely I’ll have any interest in.

Further still, we find a Moroccan bazaar, or at least something which would be a reasonable facsimile if Moroccan bazaars had Gucci stores. For lunch, I have a strange salad of field greens, walnuts, strawberries, goat cheese, salmon, and raspberry vinaigrette. Somehow it works.

As we head further north, we start to see older, cheesier establishments amidst the glitz. I suppose you might call this the “real Vegas”, if that’s not an oxymoron.

I get a look at the kind of cheap motel we’ve stayed at in other cities. Not this time, thankfully; once again I think good thoughts about the luxurious bath waiting to ease my tired muscles when we get back.

The older casinos look just like you’d expect: darkened rooms, deep red carpeting, faded gold decor, stained and frosted glass, and old people sitting around faded green baize tables, chain-smoking as they play card games.

The Fashion Show Mall has an Apple Store; I buy a replacement for my stolen iPod cable. The mall has Christmas decorations with a Vegas showgirl theme.

We attempt to get a bus back down the strip to our hotel. The traffic is completely insane; it seems obvious to me that what the city really needs to do is build a big monorail that goes all the way up and down Las Vegas Boulevard in a big loop. However, Nevada is one of those states that believes in the magic of the free market, to the extent of having minimal property taxes and no income tax. So the bus is expensive when it eventually arrives ($2), and we sit in traffic for 45 minutes.

By the time we get back to the hotel I’m exhausted. The huge bath is worth every penny, and I sleep like the dead.

Linux and Mac hassles, and Disk Warrior

I’ve got a Linux box running at work now, so I can start doing some DB2 and WebSphere development. It’s a big black cube the size of a hotel mini-bar. It’s only 200MHz, but makes up for it by having four CPUs and three hard drives.

I’d forgotten how much I hate RPM. I’m surprised nobody seems to have made a really simple terminal front-end for the damn thing.

It constantly amazes me that things that are conceptually so simple can be made so unnecessarily complicated. I mean, go read the RPM manual page for example. I think it’s the worst piece of documentation I’ve ever seen on a UNIX system, and as you can imagine the competition for that award is pretty tough. If you’re feeling really daring, read the table of contents for the next version of Maximum RPM. The first edition of the book was 450 pages. Four hundred and fifty frigging pages, and all it does is install and remove software. You’d think we were talking about kernel programming or something.

In contrast, yesterday I saw a rare example of some utility software that’s really well designed. However, I have another bijou rant-ette to get through first.

I installed the beta Palm Desktop software on my Mac. It helpfully installs a kernel extension which is designed to pre-emptively grab the USB ports when you start the Classic environment. This is so that if you run the Palm Desktop software under Classic as well as under OS X, Hotsync still works.

Now, maybe I’m missing something here, but why in the name of sanity would anybody run Palm Desktop under Classic inside OS X if they have the OS X native version installed? Presumably this is some misguided attempt to provide back-compatibility for people who have old Mac OS conduits that they’re not willing to recompile for Carbon.

Well, I wouldn’t mind the unnecessary kernel extension if it worked, but unfortunately it fails to release the USB devices properly when the system tries to shut down. The end result is that shutting down causes a kernel panic, if (and only if) you’ve run one or more Classic applications. Nasty.

So I ripped out the kernel extension. Unfortunately Palm had been‘clever’. The main Palm Desktop software has an extra copy of the kernel extension which it silently tries to install, whether you need it or not, next time you go to look at your calendar or address book. So it’s hey ho, another totally unexpected kernel panic.

This new phenomenon of ‘self-repairing’ software bugs the hell out of me. Microsoft’s software similarly spews dynamic libraries all over the system folder, even if they’re already available in the Internet Explorer folder and hence unnecessary. Microsoft has decided that it wants you to keep IE’s crap in the System Folder, rather than in the application folder where it belongs, so tough luck if you disagree.

In this case, the ‘self-repairing’ code made the software self-breaking. Not only did it introduce the kernel panic extension, it also stopped the Palm Desktop software from working if the extension wasn’t there already. Maybe it’s just me, but I feel that if the user goes delving into the depths of the system and explicitly removes an extension, the user probably has a damn good reason for doing so. Particularly on Mac OS X, where you currently need to boot in single user mode and use sudo from the command line to do it. We’re not talking about the kind of file a naive user is likely to trash by mistake. What naive user goes casually strolling through the system library directory to browse through a list of several hundred kernel extensions to start with?

So anyway, I ended up with some disk corruption courtesy of Palm’s lousy software. Apple Disk Utility noticed—it said I had a problem with a missing thread record and an invalid B*Tree header. It also said it couldn’t fix it. I fired up TechTool Pro, which reported the same errors, plus a bad system wrapper. TechTool rated these problems as very serious, but also said it couldn’t fix them. It helpfully suggested that I should reformat the hard drive and start again.

Needless to say, I didn’t fancy doing that. So I went to the Apple Store and picked up Disk Warrior from Alsoft, which I had heard good things about. I fired up Disk Warrior, and was rather startled by the interface. It has three controls. The first control is a simple drop-down to select which disk to look at. The second control is a “diagnose” button, which looks at the disk and draws a diagram illustrating how badly sorted the B*Trees are on the disk. The third control is the “fix it” button.

I sat and stared at this for a little while. I was so used to tools like TechTool Pro and Norton Utilities, not to mention Windows 2000 and RPM, that I initially thought I must be looking at the splash screen or an “about” box. Finally I realized this was the actual control interface. I pushed the “fix it” button.

After a few progress bars I got the results screen. A short document summarized the various things wrong with my hard drive. Well, actually it was a long list. There were literally hundreds of errors that the other utilities had missed, including errors in things they claim to check but apparently don’t. Under the summary there were three more buttons. The first produced a more detailed list of which files had been touched in some way. The second mounted “before” and “after” versions of the disk on the desktop, so I could browse through it and verify that the “after” version looked good, and all my data was still there. The final button was an “OK, go ahead” button.

Now that’s what I call an interface. It even passes the “mom test”: I think my mother could understand and use Disk Warrior. Someone obviously sat down and asked what people actually need to know, as opposed to what it’s possible to tell them. Added to that, the fixed disk really does seem to be fixed, in as much as the other utilities all now give it a clean bill of health.

Epilog: OS X boots and runs fine. I used to recommend that if people could only afford one utility, they should get TechTool Pro… but I think I’m going to revise that.

Mac OS X

Well, the Apple Store finally opened in the CambridgeSide Galleria. I decided I couldn’t resist the temptation any longer, I had to have MacOS X.

First, though, I had to have more RAM. Apple charge about four times as much for RAM as the going market rate; however, the store was honest enough to admit this. I checked on the web, then headed for Best Buy, which turned out to have 512MB of PC133 RAM for about the same as it would cost mail order.

My upgrades to OS 9.21 a while back paid off—OS X installation was absolutely painless. I’m a little disoriented by the new way of arranging things, but I think I can live with it once I spend some time rearranging my files. The dock seems OK so far too.

There’s something indefinably better about the graphics in OS X. Everything seems sharper and smoother. It must be something to do with using the Quartz imaging engine rather than crufty old QuickDraw. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it for myself.

Speed seems fine. In fact, QuickTime Player and iTunes fire up significantly faster under OS X, and QuickTime plays more smoothly.