2008-02-29

SOFI says...

Visit SofiSaysA while ago, I was commissioned to create a number of illustrations for an online psychological test site. Today for some reason I have remembered it, and behold, it went live: www.sofisays.com

It is a cool feeling to see something you've created being used in a customer-facing environment like that. It has been my desire for a long time to help readers/users experience content more immediately through my illustrations, and here it is! Wow.

The picture on the left is called "Double life" and is one of my favourites from this project. Click on it to see a list of all tests I illustrated.

2008-02-25

Impending doom

Motor mountI might or might not have mentioned a loud metallic rattling noise I was getting whenever letting off the gas entirely in 5th, at 4000 and 3000 RPMs. Well today Bonnie was due for an oil change and I mentioned this to the attending, and about half an hour later we knew what the problem was.

Now I am not so sure I wanted to know that badly that my driver-side motor mount is as good as gone.

The good news is, it's a 20 dollar part. The bad news is, I suspect they'll have to pull the engine to get to the said part.

The picture manual to pulling the engine is using a 1st-gen Miata, but you get the idea. I am not sure this is something I would like to practice my mechanical skill on, so it'll have to be another astronomical bill.

Guess I'm doomed.

On a less gloomy note, installing a new horn seems to be a relatively easy task, so when it gets warm enough to work outdoors without freezing the fingers to the metal (North Carolina winters can be harsh) I will get a nice loud horn and try to install it.

Why?

I have finally had enough of SUV drivers not hearing my Miata's--let's face it!--wimpy horn after they have failed to see me and are about to drive me off the road. So I want to upgrade to something more formidable that will make them forget that cell phone call and drop it (along with their sandwich) and pay some attention.

2008-02-24

Michael Clayton

So I went to see In Bruges, quite apparently didn't get enough cinema for one day, and popped Michael Clayton into my DVD player as soon as I got home.

That actually turned out to be a very robust film.

Quality film-making, great acting, and a solid cast more than make up for an utterly predictable plot. All in all, a very well-made picture.

In Bruges

After having missed In Bruges during my last week's travels, I decided to watch the movie today. It was only showing in one location in the whole of Triangle, a tiny theater in a Chapel Hill strip mall.

After a delightful 55-minute drive through some country roads, I caught the matinee show. Not without an adventure, as they did not accept plastic, making me run to the drug store in the mall to buy a bottle of Coke to get some cash back.

All's well that ends well.

The film turned out to be a decided meh. Not too bad or anything, and it had a few good laughs, but it could have been sharper and faster at times. Having driven to see it for as much time as the movie itself lasted, I wouldn't say it was a waste of time, but it could have been better.

2008-02-19

Gone baby, gone

Watched "Gone Baby, Gone" and found it thouroughly underwhelming. Not to say bad, just not sweep-you-off-your-feet good, like "Mystic River" was.

Reviews on Netflix said it was of the same caliber, so I had high hopes.

Shame, actually.

2008-02-14

Only human

Hate travel. Love airports. They're great places to observe humans.

I, for one, am in geek heaven right now. Terminal where I sit has free wireless, so I get to sit here, do my email, chat with friends, listen to my fave interweb radio station, and post to the blog. Sweet.

I have camped out near a power outlet. There are six outlets available, only two have juice though. Over the past hour, I have seen a number of people come and plug in their laptops into dead outlets only to discover (sometimes much later) that their batteries are not being charged.

This is interesting because one would think that laptop computers provide enough feedback as to their power supply: a glowing symbol on the body of the computer and a symbol in the system tray/panel. However, this must not be obvious enough.

2008-02-13

Alcohol: Making travel bearable since... forever

So my boss sends me to Florida to attend a conference on short notice. He's the boss, so I go. My flight is an hour late, and flight attendant declines to check the connecting flight status for me, so I have no idea whether I'll be stranded in XYZ airport, because my connecting flight is the last one out. This did little to improve my already cranky mood.

Once in XYZ, I discover that my connecting flight is two hours late, and so not only will I be catching it (w00t!), but I will even have time to have a snack and a drink before boarding starts.

I race to the nearest in-terminal restaurant, plop myself on a stool at the counter and ask for a beer and any food they can get me in the next 10 minutes. The barkeep gives me options, and I settle on a Bass and a quesadilla. While she's taking my order, I perceive an accent and ask her if she speaks Russian. She does!

We start talking in Russian, and she says that I can have a shot on the house. Wow! That is way nice. I ask for a tequila, and seconds later, there it is, twinkling at me from a shot glass. I down it, bite the lime, and immediately the world starts turning into a better place.

The food arrives, and it tastes great! I have no idea if it was objectively great, but I was hungry, and this quesadilla seemed like the finest food I ever tasted at the time.

The bartender and I chat some more, then I head for the gate with a grin on my face.

Once again, a proof that there isn't a situation which cannot be improved with addition of alcohol.

2008-02-10

Sweet Arts 2008

Volunteered at the Sweet Arts fund-raiser of the Durham Art Guild last night. Was working the drink station all night, even though my shift only was the second half. But it was more fun to actually do something instead of maintaining deep intellectual appearances on the show floor :)

Even without mingling in the crowd I met a few people who asked for a link to my art site, so maybe I'll get a commission out of this. To be honest, I did not go there to network, just wanted to help out a friend who was organizing the whole thing. So anything that might come out of it in addition to free drinks and fun will be a bonus cherry on top.

2008-02-09

Bonnie goes open source


About 10 days ago, gregdek had a great idea that I should use my Bonnie car to promote Fedora at autocross events. With the next event only three weeks away, I immediately ordered some magnetic signs with Fedora artwork.

Now all I need are a few dozen DVDs or live CDs of the latest release to distribute at the event, and we're all set!

2008-02-07

Customs officers "are trained to protect confidential information"


Having had to cross US border recently, and seeing more international (and domestic US) travel in my future, I felt like my worst fears were confirmed by this Washington Post article.

Well, I think thin clients are the way to go then...

2008-02-04

Tax return time

Filed my taxes today, and discovered that my mortgage interest and property tax substantially increased my tax return. I guess it's not all bad then.

H&R Block's software is pretty straightforward, but I find the pricing a mite overblown. Paid $19.99 for federal tax return and $29.99 for state return, which simply imported my federal return data.

Oh well.

A place to hang your hat...

I am hearing that Red Hat Training and Certification organization is looking for a number of instructor positions to fill around the world.

The positions currently open are in the Linux System Administration area as well as in JBoss Middleware.

You can check out the worldwide job openings here: www.redhat.com/careers

2008-02-03

Winterlude / Bal de neige

Snow.

Actually, the last time I have seen as much of it as in Ottawa was when I was in second grade. As the saying goes, there is no bad weather, just wrong attire.

When I made my way to the airport, it was pretty clear that there would be delays and cancellations, but with a new visa safely in my backpack I felt nothing would spoil my day anymore. Well maybe a car accident... So I was concentrating on getting my ABS-less, all-season shod Grand Prix to the airport without colliding with anything.

Took me another hour, for what my nav estimated to be a 15-minute drive, but I made it. Found Enterprise car return, which was conveniently sheltered, and went to return the car. The nice clerk asked me just how sure I was I wanted to return the car, since so many flights were canceled, and offered to check the status of mine. Turned out canceled.

Did I still want to return the vehicle? Oh you can bet your ass I did! No more driving in the snow, that was all I cared about!

Well, it did not hurt that Rick, a colleague from the reseller office I was squatting at, offered to pick me up at the airport if I was stranded and to stay with his family overnight. So yeah, I was sure sure.

Responsibility for two tons of GM iron off my shoulders, I floated to the check-in hall, to be informed that the earliest flight they can get me on is in exactly 24 hours after my originally scheduled one. Okay, so be it.

I settled on a bench in a mostly-deserted airport and called Rick. 20 minutes later, Rick and I were merrily on the way to his house, where I met his wife and three adorable kids, had a mite too much to drink, and watched Transformers on DVD.

Next morning right after breakfast we headed to Winterlude, Quebec side, where they had huge slides built out of snow and ice, and set up the snow blocks for the snow sculpture contest. My hosts out fitted me with snow pants, boots, warm gloves, and earwarmers, and I have to say, winter became much more enjoyable this way.

After three winters in North Carolina in my mind "snow" is firmly linked with "catastrophe"--general chaos on the roads, SUVs and trucks in ditches, people staying indoors, schools and offices closed. Now Winterlude was a different experience!

Instead of hiding and waiting out the "bad weather," Canadians were actually enjoying the snow, and were gathering in thousands at several locations where Winterlude was held!

Some were skating on the canal. I did not see it that day, but Rick told me that the city would clear off about 7 kilometers of ice and pour some water on it, to create a huge outdoors skating rink, the biggest in the world!

Hundreds others were at the Quebec-side locaton where there were the slides, an outdoors children's show with chipmunks (?) Maman and Papa Glamotte prominent characters.

I got to try a local specialty, a beavertail--a sweet pastry with cane sugar and lemon juice topping. They are made fresh on the spot like crepes and can have a variety of toppings, sweet or savory. The one I had was the traditional recipe.

After refreshments, I went down one slide, and that was exciting--and felt much faster than what I thought looking at other people slide. The kids went for at least four more rounds, watched some of the continuous show, and then all of us headed to have lunch.

My stuff was already in the car, so after we were done eating, they dropped me off at the airport, and it was about five o'clock already, so the timing was perfect.

The rest of the day was uneventful, now it's the next morning, I'm back home now, and it's 16 C outside.

I think I'll drive Bonnie "topless" today.

2008-02-02

Whew!

I got my visa. Believe it or not.

All this excitement, for a sticker and a stamp.

"So how was it?" you will ask.

"An interesting experience," I'd answer, my gentle reader. Then I'd shake my head and be silent for a while.

Okay, okay, I won't be silent. Not much of a silent type. So let me tell you from the beginning.

After I got the notification that my new visa was approved, I had to have a visa interview at a US consulate somewhere (and consulates can rarely be found within their own country's borders) in order to have the new visa stamped in my passport. I picked Canada.

Now you can't just cruise up at a consulate at any time, you have to have an appointment first. And you will get the appointment by calling a 1-900 number (yepp, 900) operated by a commercial contractor, at which point they will give you a special secret decoder case number with which you can then log into a secret web site operated by the same contractor, and schedule an appointment online. Or you could call 900 number and schedule an appointment by phone.

The first time I called them, there were no appointments in any of the consular offices in Canada. So I thought, I'll start checking the website each morning and see if something shows up. You see, each office would make appointments available for scheduling six or eight weeks ahead. Each day, the schedule would advance one day. So theoretically, each day you would have a chance to pick an appointment.

It took me full four months, checking for appointments online several times a week and towards the end multiple times each day -- and I was not able to schedule anything. All calendars were always full. So in the end I grew desperate and called the 900 number, and they had one appointment available. One.

I grabbed it. And that's why I was going to the snowed-in Ottawa earlier this week.

The appointment itself was at 8:30 a.m. -- and remembering my last appointment experience in Frankfurt two years ago, I showed up at the gate at a quarter to eight, and was promptly turned around. Apparently, the security procedure which was not followed by Frankfurt consulate was enforced in Ottawa. I went to sit in my car.

Half an hour later, I was at the gate again, and was let in. I guess "let in" is an understatement. First, I had to present all the paperwork to the guard at the gate (in a -6 C cold), after which I was allowed through a metal detector (still outdoors) and into a glass-enclosed area with power-operated doors where I could wait for another security guard to let me into the screening area.

Just as an aside, here is a list of all things NOT allowed on your person when entering the US embassy or a consular office (quoting from the official security notice given to me at the time I scheduled my appointment, italics are mine):
  • food or beverages (huh?);
  • weapons or tools (I can see that);
  • backpacks, luggage, or purses (effectively forcing you to cling on to your papers at all times);
  • electronic or recording equipment of any kind, including, but not limited to: laptop computers, mobile phones, PDAs, cassette, CD, MP3 players, pagers, keyless remotes (what if your car has a remote? tough luck! luckily for me, my rental car at that time, the G5, did not have a remote-control key);
  • oversized strollers (define "oversized").

Once admitted to the screening area, I had to take off my heavy winter jacket, my other jacket, worn underneath, was allowed to keep my shoes on (!), but had to surrender all the paperwork to the guard for the time I was screened.

After I had all my things back, including the snacks I brought (why weren't they confiscated?), I proceeded to a clerk who checked my papers one more time, and said that the visa application fee I had arranged to be deposited in the Embassy's account was not enough, and I had to go on to the cashier and pay additional 31 dollars.

What fee you say? Well, in order to attend your visa interview, you have to pay the "application fee" of 100 USD, and the only option they give you for payment is a deposit at a branch office of Scociabank. Since there are none of these within the confines of North Carolina, I had to ask someone I know through work to deposit the money for me in Canada, on the condition I'll pay it back to her once I am in the country.

So turns out that the bold note in my appointment confirmation letter was not very accurate. Doubly inaccurate. Here's what it said (quoting from the official confirmation letter, italics mine again):

  • VISA APPLICATION FEE: Each applicant must pay a U.S. $100 application fee ($131 apparently), in exact U.S. currency only (coins are not accepted). This application fee is non-refundable, regardless of whether or not you are issued a visa. Effective July 1, 2007 this fee cannot be paid here (so how come I paid the difference there?) -- you must present a receipt for USD $100 nonrefundable (sic! now they hyphenate it, now they don't) visa fee, paid at any Scotiabank branch using the deposit slip available at www.amcits.com/deposit.pdf

So I paid the thirty-one bucks and proceeded to wait. And wait. 8:30 a.m. came and went and I was still waiting. At about 9 a.m. I was called up to a window and fingerprinted. Then I waited again. Good I brought a book. Helped me keep my mind off screaming children who liked the wait about as much as I did, but were more vocal about it. Their mothers probably followed the "no food or drink" rule, so the kids weren't getting any happier by the minute.

Then at about 10 a.m. I was called to another window, and after a very short interview it was all over and I was told to come back on Friday 3 p.m. to pick up my passport.

It snowed again on Friday -- all morning and all afternoon, so by noon it was clear if I wanted to get to the embassy by three, I had to get moving soon. I left at about one, and got to an underground parking lot close by the embassy at about two. One hour for a drive that would have taken a quarter that time under regular conditions!

I waded through the snow (by then at least 30 cm / 1 ft of it) to the front gate of the embassy. And was turned around again (a Pavlov's dog would have learned not to be early by now). Apparently, at three p.m. sharp, a guy would come out and give everyone their passports. Right there, in the snow.

I had some tea at a Japanese restaurant and read, and walked back to the front gate. There were about a dozen people freezing in the wind and the snow at the gate. I got in the line and turned my back to the wind.

The "guy" was late. I know, five minutes would not be bad in most cases, unless you're late to meet the Queen, but in the -12 C cold, with high winds deflecting off the menacing gray facade of the Embassy and hitting us seemingly from all angles, with snow everywhere, five minutes felt somewhat long.

The "guy" materialized, and turned out to be an unseasonably lightly dressed woman and an armed guard, and the two proceeded to hand out passports to the waiting applicants. Five more minutes, and I was on the way back to the car and to the airport, with a fresh visa sticker in my passport.