Happy Thanksgiving

Approaching Chicago Via The Dan Ryan Expressway

Approaching Chicago Via The Dan Ryan Expressway

Some consider travel a hassle.  For me, getting there is half the fun and maybe more.  I’d travel literally all the time if my economic or employment circumstances allowed it.  So I count myself fortunate to have been able to get away for the week of Thanksgiving again this year.  For $10, plus 32,500 Delta SkyMiles, I was able to fly from my home airport in Connecticut to one Midwestern city, and return from another at the end of the week.  And while spending time with family, I was able to do a number of things that could be of at least mild interest to a tech-geek like myself.  I’ll try to focus on those things here.

Caterpillar Visitors Center
Early in the week, I found myself among a party of six at the new Caterpillar Visitors Center in downtown Peoria, Illinois.  The tour starts in a movie theater built into the bed of a life-size replica of Caterpillar’s largest dump truck, the 797F.  The real truck weighs 1,375,000 pounds and probably has a price tag to match, making it impractical to place the genuine article in a museum setting.  Caterpillar does have several pieces of actual current and past equipment on display as well.  The kids among us weren’t the only ones who enjoyed climbing on these machines.

John Hancock Observatory
Following a minivan ride to Chicago, I found myself at the 94th-floor John Hancock Observatory on the north side of downtown.  The weather was bright and clear, allowing some of the best views of Chicagoland.  I noticed that I had decent cellular reception up here this time.  When I lived in Chicago during the late 90s and twice again during the early and mid 2000s, I recall cellular service up at the top being spotty at best.

We walked down Michigan Avenue as far as the Chicago River and the relatively new Trump International Hotel & Tower® Chicago.  While now the second-tallest building in town, somehow I hadn’t noticed it on any prior visits.  In fact, I still remember it as the location of the Sun-Times building.  I guess I’m getting older.

LEGOLAND® Discovery Center Chicago
Later the same day, we headed out I-90W past O’Hare, before turning south to Schaumburg to visit LEGOLAND® Discovery Center Chicago.  This destination was strictly for my niece and nephews, and in fact, adults must be accompanied by kids in order to gain admittance.  Of course I remember playing with LEGOs when I was a kid, including what were then called Expert Builder sets, now know as LEGO Technic.  Were it not for my youngest relatives, however, I probably wouldn’t be aware of the extent to which LEGOs have exploded in popularity in recent years.  They have series to match several of the recent big-budget movies, such as Star Wars.  Speaking of Star Wars, LEGOLAND® Discovery Center Chicago has life-sized replicas of R2-D2 and Darth Vader built from LEGOs, and smaller but very detailed scenes from Naboo and Tatooine.  The center also has several 3D movies, a ride and a playhouse for the kids.

PC Repair
I imagine that very few professionals of any type can go back home without their expertise being called upon at least once, regardless of discipline.  I spent my Friday afternoon trying to get a working computer running Windows XP with an M-AUDIO Delta 44 sound card, my dad’s preferred combination for working with software-defined ham radio.  His daily-use PC that we hand-assembled together in 2009 would no longer power on, so I began working on loading up an even older Dell Dimension 2400 circa 2004.  If you’ve installed Windows XP recently, you know how long it takes to download all the Windows Critical Updates, even over a robust Internet connection.  And Frontier DSL is anything but robust in farming country.  The day ended late with no guarantee of success, but he’s had some luck with some subsequent steps since.

The Return
The journey back was largely uneventful, at least until I ran into holiday traffic on the drive back from Bradley International Airport.  My good ole Garmin GPS called out, “Severe traffic ahead; recalculating,” and sent me on a route where I was able to mostly maintain the speed limit right to my front door.  You’ve gotta love that.

And now, as I relax today prior to resuming work tomorrow, I realize that I’ve certainly got a lot to be grateful for this holiday season.  Here’s hoping that you do as well.  Happy Thanksgiving.

New York Auto Show

I’m a fan of cars.  A car fanatic, if you will.  Not in the mechanic sense, forever tinkering under the hood.  Instead I’m more the Top Gear-watching, Motor Trend-subscribing kind of car fanatic.  Every year I go to the closest major auto show.  For my twenties and early thirties, that meant a yearly drive to Detroit for the North American International Auto Show.  But now I’m in southwest Connecticut.  And the closest major auto show is the New York International Auto Show at the Jacob Javits Center in Manhattan.  So that’s where I went on Saturday.

Getting There
Unlike some other auto shows, the New York International Auto Show is most easily accessible to those outside the city by train rather than by automobile.  My morning began as I climbed aboard the Metro North New Haven Line at 7:35 AM, bound for Grand Central Terminal.  This early on a Saturday, the train car will fill to no more than one quarter full during the length of the run.  I’ve got the seat to myself as I listen to Adele on the white earbuds from my iPhone 4.  And I look out the window.

Soon I’m rolling through Bridgeport, CT, where I see what appear to be several abandoned factories or warehouses, likely having sat idle for decades now as the US continues to deindustrialize.  And while I’m on my way to a rich city to see a convention center full of the latest shiny automobiles, I worry for a moment that those abandoned buildings in Bridgeport may serve as a metaphor for America.  It’s not all doom and gloom, of course.  The official jobless numbers have continued to come down throughout President Obama’s first term, leaving some of his critics to suggest that he hasn’t turned the economy around fast enough.

And soon I’m moving on, taking the time to dash off an e-mail from my iPhone as I’m reminded in Stamford of an old CIO that I used to work for.  She left Chicago to do a stint in Stamford before heading out west.  Having grown up in the generation before ever-present e-mail, I pause for a moment to reflect on the convenience.  This, despite the fact that I now receive several hundred messages a day that are generally the bane of my existence.  Soon that too is behind me.

I arrive at the Javits Center just in time for the auto show to open.  I pass quickly through security and purchase my $15 ticket from an automated kiosk without waiting in line.  And then I walk on in.  About the first thing I see is a white Lamborghini, followed closely by a $1.7 million Bugatti Veyron Grand Sport in white with a black hood.  This is not to be confused, of course, with the $2.7 million Bugatti Veyron Super Sport.

Lamborghini and Bugatti

White Cars
My friends are well aware that I’m a fan of white cars and that my personal vehicle is white.  This aesthetic preference was born out of science, as I observed that darker paints fade faster in the sun and keep cars hotter inside during the summer.  Also – and I have no data to back this up – it’s been my experience that a well-maintained but non-ostentatious white vehicle seems to be largely invisible to the Highway Patrol.  This auto show proved to be a bonanza for people who share my preference.  Infiniti, in particular, had more than half of their cars on display in white, and frankly I could have gone around snapping photos of white cars all day.

Favorite Car
Every year I pick a personal favorite.  More often than not I pick something that I could conceivably afford as my next car, or imagine myself affording without first imagining a Powerball jackpot win.  This year I identified my favorite car fifteen minutes into the show.  No, it wasn’t the Veyron.  In fact, it was the 2013 Ford Fusion!  My iPhone photos definitely don’t do it justice, so I recommend visiting Ford.

2013 Ford Fusion

The previous Fusion (2006-12) was a largely forgettable car from a styling perspective, that frankly never measured up to the Honda Accord or Toyota Camry as far as I’m concerned.  There was nothing wrong with it, as, say, a weekend rental car, but I couldn’t imagine plunking down years of car payments for the privilege of owning one.  All that has changed with the 2013 Fusion.

The new Fusion is longer, wider and taller than the outgoing model, with styling that is a complete departure from its predecessor.  It feels like a large car standing next to it.  Larger than the original Taurus that I remember from the 80s.  And the styling is – to my eye – fantastic.  (Again, don’t judge it from my iPhone photos.)  I saw one Tweet that described it as a smooshed Maserati (in a good way).  Personally, I feel like it’s not hard to imagine it as a smaller sibling to the current Jaguar XJ.  At any rate, I could easily see myself buying the 2013 Fusion were I not so satisfied with my current 2010-model-year vehicle.

Last Year’s Favorite
This year I finally got to sit in my last year’s favorite, the Range Rover Evoque Coupe (in white).  With my 6′ 4”+ size, I wondered whether I’d fit under the Evoque’s sloping roof line.  The good news is that I fit just fine, especially with the extra headroom provided by the panoramic roof.  The bad news is that I’m unlikely to ever buy a vehicle that starts at $43,995 in today’s dollars and can go way up from there.  Range Rover also brought a concept Evoque Convertible out this year that looks pretty great with the roof down.

Range Rover Evoque

Quick Mentions
Always curious about fit, I find that I can sit in the driver’s seat of the diminutive Fiat 500 with no issues.  In fact, I don’t even need to move the seat quite all the way back.  The manual shifter feels smooth when cycling through the gears while parked.  Of course I’d want to go for the Abarth edition.

Believe it or not, the Kia Optima SXL in snow white pearl with white leather interior was my second-favorite car of the show.  The vehicle looked and felt good inside and out.  At $34,900 as configured, however, I’d have a hard time with the Kia nameplate and the pre-conceived notions that come with it.

The cute little Hyundai Veloster that everyone reports as stylish but woefully underpowered has a turbo variant coming out for 2013.  Good for them.  I hope that the paint job on the display model doesn’t make it to production.  It was a silver that seemed to have no clear coat on top, as if it were painted using spray-cans.  Curiously, I saw one other car on display that seemed to suffer from the same malady: a bluish BMW M3.  I hope that this isn’t some dastardly new trend in paint that I’m just seeing for the first time.

Perhaps the coolest part of my day was the Camp Jeep ride-along out in front of the Javits Center.  I was a front-seat passenger in a Jeep Wrangler Unlimited as we traversed thirty-degree sideways inclines, drove over significant obstacles, and climbed and descended a hill that felt as steep as a standard staircase.  If the open-topped Wrangler Unlimited doesn’t sell itself on a sunny day like this, certainly it does after powering up a steep summit and then automatically managing the descent on the way down.  If I ever move to a warm climate, I’m seriously considering one of these.

If you’ve never been to a car show, you’ll no doubt be shocked to learn that sometimes attractive young women are used to promote cars to male buyers. Who’d have thought!? Anyway, I felt that it was only polite that I give these ladies introducing various cars my full attention. In light of the fact that most recent Dodge vehicles look like they’ve been bathed in testosterone, perhaps it’s no surprise that Dodge – and the Chrysler booth next door – had the most consistently attractive female spokesmodels at the show on Saturday. It was almost distracting. Seriously. Good job, Dodge.

Robert with the Dodge Model

Souvenir photo provided by Dodge.

As this is a tech blog, we’ve got to focus on technology at least briefly.  Not surprisingly, many of the static information signs next to individual cars have been replaced by computers or iPads this year.  The electronic displays were pervasive enough that Subaru – who just displayed their cars’ window stickers – felt by comparison as if they were a relic of a bygone era.  iPads and similar tablets were in the hands of many of the car representatives working the show as well.  And, for the first time ever, I actually saw a guy using an iPad to snap photos in place of a regular camera or camera-phone.  Yes, he looked awkward.  At the same time, he probably should have sold ad space on the back of that iPad.

Jaguar on iPad

Not Tired
Now in the past I’ve worn myself out when suddenly spending a day on my feet at one of these conventions, as my usual routine involves spending my days in front of the computer.  But having walked farther than Connecticut is long since mid-March, I found myself not tired at all this time around.  It never occurred to me that routine exercise would make a car show more enjoyable, but apparently it does.

Homeward Bound
I arrived back at Grand Central on foot just in time to catch a jam-packed 4:07 train back toward New Haven.  This time around, every seat was full and a few stragglers were left standing.  I cranked up some Lupe Fiasco on my white earbuds for the ride home, thinking about words I never said.  All in all, it was a pretty enjoyable day of seeing the latest that the auto industry has to offer.

The 2012 New York International Auto Show is open to the public through Sunday, April 15th.

Back Home Again

To borrow from an old jazz standard dating to 1917, I was recently Back home again in Indiana as I  began writing this.  While this post is perhaps seemingly self-indulgent, it’s also for Denise, our good-humored IT Project Manager, and the rest of my peers at the office.

Just after noon a week ago Thursday, I arrived at the Indianapolis International Airport, having changed planes an hour earlier in Detroit.  I quickly picked up my checked bag, which, incidentally, I’d checked for free thanks to my American Express Delta SkyMiles card.  Up one escalator and down another, I was at National Car Rental, where I picked up a silver Chevy Malibu with only 185 miles on the odometer.  Within twenty minutes of deplaning, I was on the road.  I’m going to have to fly on Thursdays more often.

I drove east from the airport through Indianapolis and beyond via I70, which bisects the state horizontally.  Seventy miles after leaving the airport, I arrived at what remains of the family farm.  For the next 72 hours, I was back home.

Old Farmhouse

The core of the original farmhouse at the left above was built around the time of America’s Civil War.  There’s a framed photo on the wall of my great-great-grandparents with a date on the back, though I don’t recall the exact year from memory now.  This is the first time that I recall seeing only one grain silo instead of the usual three at the right, though I feel like one was added during my childhood.  The last remaining silo will be taken down before I’m likely to return again.

Newer House

Situated diagonally across the road from the old farmhouse is the newer house where my sister and I grew up.  It was here that I stayed while visiting.  I noticed several times throughout the stay that the only sound I could hear was birds chirping.  The grass was just beginning to grow for the Spring, and my mom mowed it for the second time while I was there.

Out back

Both houses are surrounded by farmland as is typical of the area.  While this setting might look unusual to those who have spent their life in urban congestion, it’s important to remember that an acre of land out here typically sells for less than you’d rent an apartment for just one month in Manhattan.  This is a world away from the East Coast.

Getting Down to Business
Now this is a tech blog of course, and the purpose of my trip was actually technical in nature.  My dad uses two computers in his combined business / hobby of ham radio.  The first is a Lenovo ThinkCentre PC running Ubuntu Linux, which he uses for e-mail, web surfing, and most other activities related to his business.  This system is about as stable and impervious to viruses and other support issues as he’s likely to find.  Dad’s second PC is a diminutive Mini-ITX sized, Intel Atom-based PC that he and I put together from components and which runs Windows XP.  He uses this system to perform the computing aspects of software-defined ham radio.  And as is often the case with Windows machines after awhile, this one needed help.

The little Mini-ITX PC had issues both hardware and software related.  The CPU fan had died, and the system was going into a thermal shutdown mode with extended use.  Dad had resorted to firing it up when he needed it, and shutting it down immediately afterward.  The system also had a Windows virus that I was unable to clean reliably in the limited time available on my last visit, but which dad was willing to live with for awhile.  So I’d come prepared to deal with both issues.

Dad and I began by swapping out both the CPU and case fans in a matter of minutes using new Scythe 40x40x10mm fans that were a direct replacement for the originals.  In the days that followed, this proved to completely resolve the thermal shutdown problems and the hardware has been solid since while running around the clock.  After replacing the fans, I got started on the slightly more complicated software side of things.

Software Work Begins With Backup
Knowing that dad relies on this Windows machine extensively to test and validate new ham radio kits that he’s assembled for customers, I wanted to guarantee that I could get back to a working configuration regardless of what I encountered in the next two days.  I’d make two different types of backups before doing anything else.

I began by creating an image of the PC’s internal hard drive as-is by booting from a Clonezilla CD and writing an image copy to a portable USB external hard drive.  If need be, I could always return to exactly where I started by restoring this image.  This is a technique that I use frequently at work, though less so recently with virtualization.

Next, I wanted a copy of the individual files so that I could later scan for viruses and selectively restore data independent of any executables.  For this, I simply booted the PC from a Linux live CD, connected my USB hard drive again, and copied the entire contents of the internal hard drive to a directory on the external one.  Now I was ready to begin cleaning up the machine.

Software Reloaded
Before I re-installed Windows XP from scratch, I wanted to be certain that there was no boot sector virus in place that would survive a regular re-format.  Typically I use DBAN to wipe a disk clean before re-installing an operating system.  Dad’s machine wouldn’t play well with DBAN, so I resorted to clearing the existing partitions and partition table using the Linux utility GParted from the same Linux live CD that I’d used to copy files earlier.

Installing Windows XP was a breeze, as I’d done it roughly 100 times previously.  Immediately following the basic installation, I took these additional steps:

  • Copied the i386 directory from the source CD to the hard drive and adjusted the SourcePath variables in the registry as appropriate.
  • Downloaded and installed the various system drivers from Intel’s web site.
  • Installed all available Windows Critical Updates.
  • Installed antivirus software, in this case Microsoft’s free Security Essentials.
  • Turned on the Windows Firewall.
  • Unbound File and Printer Sharing for Microsoft Networks from the network adapter.
  • Removed well-known, default Windows accounts such as Administrator and Guest.
  • Scanned the backed-up data files for viruses, and then copied them back to the system.
  • Re-installed dad’s software, which in this case included circuit board layout software, ham radio software and related drivers.

While it sounds simple enough, I spent a portion of Thursday afternoon, the majority of Friday, and a portion of Saturday ensuring that everything was configured properly and working to dad’s satisfaction.  As I post this summary a week later, he hasn’t reported any problems with the PC, nor any missing applications or files.  I count that a success.

Back to Reality
I returned to my apartment in southwestern Connecticut on Sunday night at 10:15 PM, just in time to turn on the TV and discover that President Obama would be making an announcement shortly regarding an operation in the Middle East.  I’d soon learn with the rest of the world that Osama bin Laden was no longer with us.