May I please introduce Katrina

My wonderful wife has decided to post an entry in my stead. I find it difficult to write about the mundane details of daily life, so I will permit her to do so instead.

Buona Sera! Mi chiamo Katrina. Since my husband has not updated his blog in awhile, I decided to take matters into my own hands, and when he sees how awful my attempt is, he will realize to never let me touch his blog again. Like when washing dishes you accidentally break a few so that you won’t be asked to do them in the future.

I am here to give an update to what we have been up to. Our typical day is pretty relaxed… wake up around 9 or 10- have make some café (espresso) with latte (milk), head to the market to buy food for lunch and dinner — buy prosciutto, provolone and focaccia for lunch — and consider buying various meats for dinner until you give up and just buy sausage because it is easier to count the number than figuring how many kilograms of meat to to get — then to the outside portion for vegetables, each vendor having their own way of doing things, and always the two-toothed old man chasing you with a large knife with a small piece of mozzarella on the end as a free taste.

No market trip is complete without our stopping by the wine shop (Baccas Nudo) and have them fill ‘er up. They have large jugs of various wine along the wall and you pick your variety, give them your bottle, and they fill it, cork up, and charge you €2 — can’t beat that deal! Then we go home for lunch or stop somewhere for pizza, Chris works, I read.

About threeish we usually hit the town, wandering around piazzas, exploring outside the center of the city, or going to Piazza Santa Croce to people watch — kids playing football (soccer), mothers taking children out for walks, and teenagers hanging out with a Frisbee, soccer ball, or maybe even an accordion. Then its home for dinner and a bottle of wine.

Afterwards perhaps gellato and a walk to Piazza Republica to see the street performers play an up beat tune that involves abusing an acoustic bass, or a Charlie Chaplin like man who draws a crowd by teasing his volunteers and making a child do obscene hand gestures — always funny 🙂 Then back home to bed, to do it all over again. Yeah, its a rough life.

We have broken out of the routine by visiting Fiesole — a hill-town that overlooks Florence with museums and an extensive array of hiking trails — or going out to dinner at a place that is next door- incredibly cheap, but I am confident it is run by “the Family” if you know what I mean, but I can live with a little Don for €3 tortellini. (As a side note to Mom, I hope this satisfies your blog craving, I will be sure to write again soon!)

Below are a few selected pictures there are so many Sante Croce ones because we spend a lot of time there — it is only 3 blocks south.

A sample from the Market.

Hanging in the piazza on a lovely day.

From the hike in Fiosole along the Etruscan walls.

Countryside in Florence.


Questo addatore é no bene!

Before leaving for Italy, I double-checked to make sure that the power adaptor (brick) was capable of handling European voltages. Sure enough, the good people at HP have furnished me with a power supply capable of accepting 100-240V at 2A and 50-60Hz, which covers most of the world. What I did not have was the adaptor necessary to convert the North American square, slender prongs into the round ones used in Italy. Italy also has two different sizes: picolo and grande.

No problem. My dad has been overseas quite a bit, and he even has extra ones because not all of his trips have been as well-planned (or packed) as they could have been. So, I borrowed pair of adaptors which, when used appropriately, can get me plugged-in just about anywhere.

There’s only one problem: they’re dual-pronged instead of tri-pronged.

One day maybe a year ago or so, as I was sitting on Brian’s balcony, enjoying the first few warm days of the spring. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t see my own laptop screen… I wasn’t intending to get any great amount of work done that day. Brian has a pair of outlets on the balcony, which was nice, because our laptops can’t stay alive very long with the wireless network in constant use. So, we were plugged-in. Brian happened to be using an extension cord from inside the house and I was using my laptop on one of the external outlets, with one of those “grounded outlets are for suckers” electrical adaptors that simply eliminate the ground line (my laptop has a 3-pronged plug, and the outdoor outlets are dual-pronged).

Occationally, I felt like I was being bitten on the inside of my forearm by a small insect or something. It seemed strange that an insect would be situating itself directly between my arms and my laptop, where I was resting my wrists on the keyboard. Yes, it’s not very good posture, but I’m pretty well-insured.

It seemed to be getting worse. I was scratching my wrists and trying to locate the bug, which I assumed was too small to see. Then, the biting stopped. I concluded that the bug was either dead or gone, and I didn’t care which. So, I continued with my work.

I was about to get up to go inside for something to drink, and I put my stocking feet down on the floor and was biten again, this time, very sharply. I immediately took my feet off the floor and the biting stopped. Eureka!

The mystery was solved: without a ground plug, my laptop was grounding itself through me: a nice briney material connected more directly to natural ground — the concrete, in this case — than anything else. So, I was shocking myself over and over. With my feet off the ground, I was safe from the circuit created by Brian’s outlet, my foot, and the ground.

In a house full of tech gear, this was easy to fix; not so in Italy.

So, I have been to many stores to try, in broken English, or broken Italian, like this morning, to describe what I want. It is very difficult. I can communicate that I’m looking for a 3-pronged adaptor (addatore electrica), but asking for one with a continuous ground line is proving to be nearly impossible. I told one woman this morning that I was being shocked by my computer with my current adaptor. She said she understood, handed me two adaptors that didn’t seem to connect the ground lines, and said “no shock”. So, I said “okay”, and bought one of them, since I already had one that matched the other.

At home, I tested it out and shocked myself. Molto grazie, signorina.

Yesterday, I found a guy who had precicely what I was looking for. It was €8,50, and I told the salesman that I’d look for a better deal. Today, I was back in his shop, and after I asked him for the addatore electrica, he went right for the one on which we had settled the day before. I am currently sitting, barefoot, with my wrists resting on my keyboard, typing this post.

I am not being shocked.

Far from Routine

It’s been almost one week and I’ve only had a single emergency at work. (skip the technical details). Apparently, an unscheduled reboot of our intranet server irreparably hosed our LDAP database, which needs to work in order for everyone to use our intranet web site, including some of the software demonstrations that we have available, our on-line DAV-based file server, and our bug database.

Fortunately, the last time something terrible happened to our intranet server, I actually took the time to schedule regular backups of everything we have, including major databases such as our LDAP directory. I just had to take the time to figure out what was going wrong. I thought that restarting the LDAP server process would help, and so I did that, and I was about (I think) to get into our intranet web site. I must not have used HTTPS because I found out later that it was still broken. Of course, when I only check my email twice a day, and only once while anyone in the States is awake, it’s hard to find out that things are still broken.

Fortunately, most problems in a UNIX operating system are fixed by this short and sweet process:

  1. Murder the process
  2. Delete the files (in this case, the database)
  3. Re-start the process
  4. Re-load the database from a backup

That took me about 45 seconds to do. Too bad it took my 24 hours to figure out the problem. At least I didn’t do the opposite and use a 45-second investigation to effect a 24-hour solution 😉

Having not been disconnected from the umbilical cord I typically maintain between myself and the Internet for quite some time, I’m still getting used to the idea of doing things offline. For example, I don’t want to write these blog entries while sitting in an Internet Point, because it costs me money to do so. Therefore, I write them at home and then upload them quickly. There’s a way I can send an email to wordpress to post the entry for me, but I haven’t set that up, yet, so I have to use good old metapad to write them, in HTML. I started out using, but then realized that, although being great for writing normal documents, I can’t easily export it to HTML — at least not HTML without tons of junk in the resulting document.

Sending and receiving email is also strange, since I end up just syncing everything when I connect, and then leaving to go somewhere else. I read the email at my leisure, and write back when I read the message and have something to say. The next time I connect, everything gets sent, and a new batch of mail comes in. On top of that, my first trip of the day occurs at about four o’clock in the morning on the east coast of the US, so nobody’s going to read anything anytime soon. I find myself having difficulty phrasing some things, especially when time is involved. If I have to say “I’m about to do [whatever]”, then, by the time the recipient reads the message, whatever it was will likely be done. So, should I say “I’ve already done [whatever]”? Probably not, because, as I write the message, I haven’t actually done whatever it is that needs to be done.

Now I know why there are all of these obscure kinds of cases in languages. Describing the past in the future tense is bizarre. “By the time you read this, I will have completed the task I am about to start.” It’s a head-scratcher.

It’s still somewhat cold here in Florence, so we have to make the most of the time when the sun is available for warmth. That means that we get up, have an espresso, and then get out into the city to do whatever. The past few days have been spent going to markets to get food for a single day. We come home and Katie makes something to eat for lunch while I do some work so I can keep my job. Then, we try to go out and do something enjoyable in the city. Usually, it’s nothing more exciting than a stroll, which is actually quite nice.

For at least two reasons, I find myself in the unexpected position of not wanting to go into any of the classic Florentine historical sites. Katie and I hit most of the big ones when we were here on our honeymoon: The Uffizi, Bargello, and Academia galleries, most of the basilicas, the Palazzo Pitti and attached Boboli Gardens, and most of the piazzas where people mostly hang out and try to sell you sunglasses and prints of famous works of art. Around Easter, my parents will be coming to visit, followed by my sister and brother-in-law and my new nephew, Joshua. During their respective visits, I’m sure we’ll play Florentine host to them, taking them from one point of interest to the next, so there’s really no reason for me to do all of that, now. The real question is how to convince them that they don’t need to see the big sites, but that they should help us fill-in the gaps that we missed in the past…

After our stroll, where we try to wander aimlessly through the city, especially in, around, and into places we’ve never ventured. For example, today we went across the Arno (the “left” side) and then west to see Santa Maria del Carmine. My mother was interested in the frescoes there, so we wanted to see how long it would take and if it was a nice walk. What she doesn’t realize is that you can’t walk 10 meters without seeing a fresco!

With the afternoon waning, we return home and I generally work from then until dinnertime. Another trip to the La Ch@t for an email refresh (this time, while my colleagues are actually awake!) and I return to work. It helps me keep my mind off the fact that it’s still pretty cold.

There’s a warm front coming in, and it rained this morning, so hopefully things will be warming up somewhat soon. I’d rather not wait for Easter to roll around before I can wear fewer than 3 shirts plus my jacket when I go out.

Octopi and Brains

Today, we went to an open-air market to buy food for today. Yesterday, we ate every meal (except breakfast) at restaurants, and now it’s time we started buying food and cooking at home.

We were more than a little intimidated walking into the market. We had no idea how a transaction was even supposed to go. We tried stalking a few people to see what they would do. There was a lot of critical evaluation of fruit, vegetables, and other goods, but not too much buying. Any time we saw someone actually paying for something, we only saw the money exchange, and not the transaction, start to finish. We decided to wander around and decide what we might want to buy before we dove into the process of an actual purchase.

We took several laps around, mostly because almost everything looks like something we’d want to eat. There were a lot of things that I had never seen at a market before, probably because I’ve never gone down to Eastern Market in D.C. to poke around, and my trips to New York have never included a trip to a market. There were piles of fish, both salted and non-salted, just laying everywhere. Actually, the fish area was the most interesting because they had stuff like whole octopii, squid, and something that I didn’t exactly recognize, but was vaguely like an octopus, because it had large tenticles with suckers, but not much else. Perhaps the rest of the body had been hacked-off because it took up too much room on the display table. They had some kind of fish that looked like a shark about 1 meter long, with smooth, grey skin. I couldn’t see the head, which probably didn’t make much of a difference because I couldn’t identify the thing unless it had a sign on it, anyway. And then, it would probably be in Italian, and I wouldn’t know what it would be called in English.

Suprisingly, it was the non-fish-related tables that had things that seemed a little less appetising to me than the fish tables. Some people don’t like liver, so I suppose they don’t like looking at it. Then, there’s trippe (tripe), which doesn’t really look bad, but you’d have a hard time getting me to eat it. In Italy, tripe is, I guess, a delicacy. As we were leaving the market, we passed a tripperia cart, selling boiled-tripe sandwhiches and small cups of wine. Maybe some other time.

You could also buy the heads of various animals, such as pigs and chickens — including the neck. It was suprising to me to see such items, but only because I am not accustomed to seeing them. I guess Americans don’t like using all of the animals that they slaughter, or at least they don’t want to see the recognizable parts. The closest thing I’ve ever seen in a supermarket was pig feet, but those aren’t particularly vivid in terms of images of life. The head is much more compelling.

The only thing that I had to turn away from was brains. I’m not sure what kind of brains they were, but they were certainly brains. And not just one or two brains. There were at least 5 brains on a plate inside a glass display case, and they were covered in blood. It looked like the scene in Hannibal where Ray Liota’s skull has been sawed open to reveal his brain, and he and Anthony Hopkins were eating it together.

We had to force outselves to think about a single meal so that we wouldn’t be overwhealmed with the variety. We certainly didn’t need to buy an entire rack of lamb, dozens of sausages, thick cuts of beef, etc. all at once. I decided that, since we are pretty bad at numbers, we should pick things that have very well-defined quanta, like sausages. You typically don’t purchase fractional sausages, so we can simply ask for one sausage, and see how much it costs.

Fortunately, we stick out like sore thumbs linguistically, especially because I’m sure we speak slowly and methodically, indicating that we’re trying way to hard to pronounce things correctly. It’s kind of liberating, because that indicates to them that they should speak very slowly, but continue in Italian. I would prefer that they don’t switch to English, because then that will make me lazy. I really do want to be able to conduct this kind of discourse in Italian.

The first purchase was, in fact, the sausages. The vendor was nice, and produced a receipt with a printed price when I asked him how much it cost. I would have preferred him to repeat the cost over and over while I tried to emulate what he was saying, but it didn’t happen. Perhaps as time goes on, they’ll make an exception for us. On the other hand, I should probably spend some quality time with a language book instead of making the market vendors teach me Italian.

The vegetable dude was much more forgiving. He repeated the price while holding up his fingers. Of course, I have forgotton what he said and how many fingers he was holding up, but I’ll get better over time.

For loose fruits and vegetables, it turns out that transaction protocol was very easy. You simply say hello and they hand you a bag. It’s pretty much all downhill after that.

We’re back at home, now, eating lunch. Tomorrow, we’ll go back, a little bit wiser and hopefully more effective.

Changing money is a dirty business

Yesterday morning was tough.

We had until 13:00 to convert traveler’s cheques worth USD 2000 into Euros. The first bank we went to, recommended by Lucilla, had a USD 400 limit on currency exchanges. This was going to be a long morning.

After leaving the first bank, I was sure that, by the time we had converted half of our money, the guardia di finanza (fraud squad) would be trailing us around the city. By the time we had 15 minutes left, we decided to cut our losses and go to a bank on the Piazza della Signoria in the center of town, where we knew we’d get ripped-off. At least they were willing to exchange any amount of money.

After paying Lucilla, we went out for lunch. Unfortunately, we didn’t have breakfast because we wanted to have time to convert our money. It’s still pretty cold outside, so we headed for Piazza di Santa Croce to see what we could find. Although Santa Croce is a tourist attraction, it’s still a little bit out of the way, and therefore not as expensive as some other parts of the town. We actually decided to eat outside, because the sun was beating down and warming us up. The wind had almost completely died out, so it was a very pleasant meal.

We took a stroll for about an hour and wandered through some of the wonderful sights of Florence — the enormous Duomo, the square below the Uffizi gallery, and the Piazza della Repubblica, before returning home to plan the evening.

Before dinner, I returned to La Ch@t and signed up for Internet access and posted yesterday’s story. We had a wonderful dinner and decided that we can’t afford to do it all that often. Time to start working on making food in our flat.

My 36-hour Day

Today started like any other day. I got up earlier than Katie and started to clean up the place. Even though this is my usual routine, today was not to be a normal day. We had company coming over, and not the kind of company where you can simply stash everything in your bedroom until they leave. Serious company. Jay Gelman was coming over for a rather long stay, and there was nothing we could hide from him. Actually, Jay wasn’t coming today, but rather tomorrow, which, as you will see, are not entirely distinguishable from one another.

Back to my routine, I am on the computer, allegedly finishing things up. That’s when Katie usually gets up and starts making coffee, and today is no exception. The fact that I don’t get my customary hand-delivered cup is of no consequence. I’m really trying to finish “something” up very quickly, and pretty permanently. Today, I’m actually going to turn off some computers.

As per usual when I am either working on my computer or cleaning up the house, I become distracted many times over, each task left unfinished as I see something else that needs doing. These are the actions of an unorganized, rushed spirit. I am anxious. Very anxious.

Katie joins in voluntarily with the house-wide tidying. I finally complete my work on my computer and shut it down for the first time in a very long time. I also shut down Katie’s computer because neither machine will see much use for a while. I have neither lost interest in computers nor been fired from my job — not yet, anyway — and yet, here I am, shutting down the computer that I use every day to make my living. I’m disconnecting the umbilical chord. Leaping into the unknown with quite few unheroic looks over my shoulder. Katie is taking the entire process in stride.

The awkward dance is interrupted by hunger — another fixture in our daily routine. We generally do not consider food until it demands consideration of its own accord, and introduces a certain amount of disorientation along with its growing immediacy. We call Brian and Heather, who accept our offer for a quickie breakfast at the bagel shop. The errand turns into a much more complex outing than originally anticipated, but ultimately results in placating the beast for the time being. We return home, worried that our preparations will require time that we simply do not have.

We complete our tasks early, and are surprised that we have time left over, and we’re not sure what to do with ourselves. Best not to get there too early, because then we’ll be saddled with another form of anxiety — just as bad but at the same time much worse, because we’ll know we’re that much closer to our next big adventure. We load up the car and take out the mountain of recycling material down to the bins in our parking lot. We decide that we cannot sit around any longer doing nothing, and decide to leave.

Brian and Heather drive us to the airport after we call Jay to tell him that the house will be empty whenever he is ready. The adventure begins.

There are mundane details regarding our airline travel. We never received our tickets in the mail. We still haven’t paid the taxes due on the tickets purchased using frequent-flier miles. The in-flight staff is very gruff, and I’m pretty sure that a woman was thrown off the plane before it took off because she was questioning the authority of the airline gestapo.

The gentleman next to me reminds me of a G.I. Joe character and requires the overhead air stream to be pointed directly at my right ear, pushed to the upper limit of its output. To my constant detriment, I am plagued with a complete and utter avoidance of any kind of confrontation with people who are unknown to me. A reasonable person would turn to their neighbor and calmly ask “Pardon me, sir, I am very cold. Would you mind terribly if I changed the aim of your air hose slightly, as well as turned it down just a hair?” In a moment of triumphant pride, I seize the opportunity to turn it down myself while Sargent Slaughter is in the aft lavatory.

The airline food is not very good, but that’s to be expected. Knowing full well that becoming dehydrated is a recipe for jet lag, I carefully plan my trip’s intake of liquids and juicy solids including the moist, but poorly seasoned chicken cutlet in front of me. I have bet on the fact that if I drink a lot of other things, a few mini bottles of Scotch will help me sleep and not cause me too much dehydration. Sure, a semi-inebriated sleep isn’t as restful as normal sleep, but at least it’s sleep. I must fall asleep or tomorrow is really going to suck.

Alcoholic beverages turn out to be five bucks a pop. Helpfully, they’ve also provided our European friends with a price in their home currency — four Euro each. Thanks. Already, there’s a 30% exchange rate markup on Euros, which means that it would really cost me $5.20. I bought these Euros two years ago when the rate was lower, so I could make out slightly on top. But, I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for booze on an international flight. It’s downright barbaric to charge for liquor on a transatlantic flight.

Sgt. Slaughter finally gets tired and cold and turns his air hose off of his own volition. Slow and steady wins the race. At least I tell myself that. Hell, it only took three and a half hours plus a clandestine kamikaze run during his trip to the head. Most of the lights in the cabin are extinguished, and the only really disturbing light is coming from the projection screen 6 rows up. It’s Pay it Forward, which is a pretty good movie. Fortunately, the airline has decided that my particular seat did not require a headset, and who am I to argue? I have to sleep anyway. Yeah. That’s the ticket.

Besides, why watch a movie when I can hum along to all the mindless boy-band-like songs that I heard on the radio earlier today while on my dump-and-chase romp through the house trying to pretend to a guest that I’m not one of those people who ends up being found by the police weeks after dying when one of the tunnels through their hoarded possessions collapses because there wasn’t enough structural integrity within the section of wire hangers and junk mail to keep the roof up. Modern rock my ass. Oh, man. I traded liquor for tea. It was a calculated move. I had rejected coffee — even decaffeinated — for tea because coffee is a diarrhetic. Foolishly, I hadn’t asked for decaffeinated tea. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Speaking of stupid, why can’t I get this stupid song out of my head. Maybe if I really concentrate, I can get another one, one that doesn’t suck. Wait. Nope. That one sucks, too, and it’s got a faster beat. Maybe if I concentrate on Mozart, I can slow down the pace of my brain and drift off to sleep. No dice.

I open my right eye to see Haley Joe Osment getting the crap beat out of him by some school bullies. I switch eyes and Katie has her earphones on and is watching the movie. She must be in the same boat I’m in. The Colonel next to me is also watching it. We’re all screwed. I know they’re showing three movies on this flight, and the second one is almost over. This doesn’t look good for me. Time to really concentrate on falling asleep. Have you ever tried that? Does it work for you? Yeah, me neither.

I think I may have slept for 20 minutes or so. I ended up watching the last 45 minutes or so of Taxi, whose only redeeming quality was that Jeff Gordon makes an appearance at the end. That gives you some indication of the quality of this film. Finally, I get the only good news I’ve heard or thought up, or thought up hearing, since the flight began. We’ll be landing in 45 minutes. That’s about the time when the entire population of the 747 decides that they’d better get in line for that bathroom right now because otherwise they’ll have to use the facilities on the ground. Horrors. It’s amusing to me that some people end up standing in line for almost 25 minutes before being shooed back their seats by the in-flight enforcers.

Frankfort is a cool airport. A bit retro while being completely modern. I suppose this is how a lot of Germany feels. The Germans are supposed to be supremely stylish, but I don’t know enough to know the difference. One big problem in my opinion: too much smoking. In the US, it’s almost a crime to smoke cigarettes, at least in the Washington D.C area, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that personal freedom was one of the next to go. Frankfort Airport, in sharp contrast, has smoking bars. I’m not talking about a joint where you can get a pint and smoke a cigarette or cigar. I’m talking about an elbow-high counter-top, with nothing else around it, practically in the middle of the corridor in the terminal. And it’s not just one… there are dozens of them. Just a few short hours earlier, I recalled walking past the “smoking room” at Dulles International Airport as four or five people walked in, each holding the door for the next. I commented to Katie, “sheesh, they need an airlock on that thing because it just lets the smoke billow out of the room,” and here they are in Germany, puffing away in the middle of the terminal. What struck me was that these smoking bars exist in places which are clearly sanctioned by the airport (they have signs and everything), but no attempt of any kind of ventilation has been made, leaving the smoke to just hang around in the air. The constant eddies inadvertently produced by travelers serve to evenly distribute the smoke to every corner of the airport. I really believe that people should be allowed to smoke. I just really don’t want to have to breathe it. Especially not for five hours, which was exactly how long my layover was.

There’s an art to avoiding madness during an airport layover. You can take the easy way out and sleep in the boarding area until your plane is ready to board. Or, you can do what we did and tour the airport, wandering aimlessly in and our of duty free, travel electronics, and magazine stands. After trying to head-off the hunger beast at the pass by suggesting a bite to eat, we decide that we really should get some food. Unfortunately, 5 hours is just enough time to strand yourself in a city by missing your plane if you foolishly leave the airport. So, we decide to stay and endeavor to ferret out some authentic German cuisine. I suggest brats, sauerkraut, and beer. Katie points out that it is eight o’clock in the morning, and I acquiesce. There’s really no need for sauerkraut this early in the morning.

After trying very hard, we find a place willing to charge us 17 Euro for two coffees, two eggs and 4 sausage links. We return to the boarding area where Katie tries to keep her eyelids open with her pinky fingers. I tell her to just go to sleep. I’m pretty sure that it was at the exact moment she lost consciousness that the gate attendant announced that we’d be boarding immediately. We travel mit dem bus to the regional jet, which, from the length of the bus ride, probably departed from Zurich.

The Alps are absolutely breathtaking. [Update 2005-03-12: photo]

We passed over Zurich(?) and the terrain immediately transitioned from rolling hills and farmland to endless miles of show-capped peaks. Actually, the entire range was bathed in snow, as were the aforementioned hills. But, snow-capped peaks has a nice ring to it. I definitely have to go skiing here. Soon.

Unfortunately for Katie, the descent into Amerigo Vespucci Airport was less than smooth. I thought she was kidding when she backhanded me after a mock-vomiting incident in her lap. But the immediate opening of her air hose to full-blast-in-the-face after a sudden drop of a few dozen feet made me feel bad that I had joked about being queasy. I’m usually the one eying the steel-belted, quadruple-ply bag in the seat back in front of me, although I’m fortunate never to have required its services.

Getting out of the plane, I catch a glimpse of a rather high hill out of the corner of my eye. I had never really noticed that Florence is nestled in between several very majestic, green hills. Being outside the city offers me a new perspective that I hadn’t appreciated during our first trip, hundreds of digital photos now a blur in my mind. I snap a picture and the colors immediately begin to run.

It was June when last I laid eyes on fair Florence. It is way colder than I expected it to be. I’m sure it was only 50 degrees or so (11 in the local system) but it was windy, especially on the airport runway which we had to cross to get to the terminal, which is reminiscent of my trip through Central Wisconsin airport, except without all those gates.

All bags accounted for — let’s find a cab. We retrieved the second-to-last bag on the carousel, and were pretty close to the end of the line leaving the airport. I’m sure it only has a single runway, so I’m skeptical about the popularity of the Florence Airport for taxicabs. We jump directly into one and were on the road in a minute or so.

As we left the airport, I mentioned to Katie that we should see how much it would cost to rent a bicycle or even a scooter for a day. By my count, scooters outnumber people three to one in Florence. Scooters line the streets for blocks and blocks. If Ford Prefect had first researched Florence instead of wherever he did, I’m sure his name would have ended up being Vespa.

The ride to our flat took ten minutes, and probably should have taken fifteen or twenty. We almost ran several vehicles off the road, including bicycles, and had our fair share of close calls with pedestrians. I can honestly say that whatever desire I had to take any kind of wheeled vehicle on the streets of Florence has evaporated completely. After all of the weaving, honking, and near-death experiences, we made it to our destination near Santa Croce.

We had made excellent time, and the property manager was not scheduled to meet us for another 45 minutes or so. We decided to look around for a bank, because we were going to need to convert our traveler’s cheques into euros. On the way, I saw an Internet joint, and decided to poke my head in. I call them Internet joints because I don’t know what else to call them. In the US, I would probably call it an Internet Café, because most places that have fee-based Internet access also serve overpriced coffee and pipe Williams Sonoma’s Play and they will buy CDs all day long. I could also call it an Internet Access Point, but that term implies wireless access point to me. Ergo joint.

The woman behind the counter reading a novel is young. Very young — probably around my age or a bit younger. Maybe a college student. This is fortunate, because she is likely to speak very good English. Despite my willingness to both speak Italian and to simultaneously butcher it, this is a conversation that definitely needs to be conducted in English. Trying to explain that I have my own laptop that I’d like to use to connect to the Internet on their network is something that I cannot even begin to describe in Italiano. It turns out not to be as expensive as I had feared. If I pay in advance, I can get a pretty good deal since I will be using fractional hours each time I need to connect. I need to shop around a little bit, but if you are reading this, it probably means that I went ahead and made the deal.

One block away from La Ch@t, we find a bank. Banks in Italy have single-person cylindrical tubes that allow one person to enter at a time, and scan you for large amounts of metal such as a gun, samurai sword, or bag full of padlocks. In order to enter, you must push a button on the outside of the door, which then rotates open. You step in, wait a moment, and then the inner door opens — like an airlock. We were attempting to master this new type of door when we realized that it will not open no matter how much we try to outsmart the device. The bank is closed. We read the sign on the door which seems to indicate that it will reopen in 20 minutes. This is a perfect time for espresso, which we have been desperately needing since we stepped off the plane in Frankfort.

We haul all our bags, which are still carrying around with us, into the café across the intersection. A very friendly old man — probably the owner — comes over to serve us. He looks disappointed when we order two café lattés, so I order a 5-inch pizza along with our drinks. Yep. Coffee and pizza is just as good as I had remembered. We relaxed for a few minutes before Katie decided to return to the bank. I stayed in the café, since there was no better place for me to wait with the bags. There is no way we were going to get those bags into the bank, so I’d have to wait on the street otherwise. But, we had paid for the table, so I felt entitled to continue to sit.

Katie returns after about 4 minutes, which I figured was a world record in terms of currency exchange. Unfortunately, this particular bank does not exchange traveler’s cheques, so we will have to visit another bank. By this time, we need to meet the property manager, so we return to the flat about 3 blocks away. On the way, we stop at a Bancomat and withdrawal as much as we can.

We enter and meet Lucilla, who is very young and speaks excellent English. I’m sure that’s why she manages this property for the owner, Isabella. We tell her apologetically that we have been unable to exchange our cheques, which we got for the express purpose of travelling with large amounts of cash. She says that she completely understands, and that her associate, Mauricio de la Muerte, will stop by first thing in the morning to collect the balance. Seriously, though, she plans to return the next day or two days later to collect the balance. I give her my cell number so that she can call and set up a collection time. She knows of a bank in the Piazza della Repubblica that will do currency exchanges, and shows us on the map where they are. Feeling like an idiot, I start the tour of the flat. Thirty-five seconds later, we’re standing in our living room, again, saying goodbye to Lucilla.

I have a conference call scheduled for four o’clock, and I have 15 minutes. I send a text message to one of my colleagues that I’m ready to go, and Katie and I step out the door to explore more of the surrounding area. My phone rings after a few blocks and I stop paying attention to where we’re going — Katie is doing all the driving. For the next 13 minutes, I followed Katie around the back streets of the east end of the city. When I was finished, we were emerging into a piazza with a post office and supermarket. I believe Katie was trying to find the supermarket, so that we would know where it is. I decide to enter, because I will want something to eat for dinner. Katie stays outside with her bottle of water, no wanting to attempt to explain to the employees why she’s drinking it and doesn’t intend to pay for it on the way out. I browse around, discovering that it’s pretty much like an American supermarket except that I only recognize every fifty brand. I can usually tell what is contained within any given package, because it’s mostly food and there are pictures. I decide that a baguette, parmasean cheese, and wine makes a great meal. I grab these things and then wait in an enormous line to pay.

The woman at the checkout rings up my items and says something to me in Italian as she considers the bag in her hand. I look at her and proudly state “Non parlo L’Englese,” which prompts her to change the look on her face from partially blank to completely blank. I quickly straighten up and say “I mean… non parlo L’Italiano!” She holds the empty bag up a little higher, and Katie mutters to me “she wants to know if you want to buy the bag.” Feeling like an idiot, I decline the bag and we walk out with a bottle of wine and a cartoon-style brick of cheese stuffed into my coat pockets while Katie wields the baguette as protection from marauding wine-and-cheese thieves.

Fortunately, the supermarket is only 2 blocks from our flat, so we go home to rest. It is about 5 degrees in our flat, so Katie situates herself on the couch while I prepare the food. There’s a bottle-opener in the kitchen, which is fortunate, because otherwise I would be forced to resort to using the swiss-army-style knife that we brought with us. Using a swiss army knife to open a bottle of wine is about as easy to do as cleaning a fish with the same knife, which leads me to question the usefulness of the whole swiss army knife concept. By the time I have the wine open, Katie already has her eyes closed. I decide to skip the cheese, and break-off a quarter of the baguette and sit down on the couch. We toast to our first day in Florence and finish the bread.

I want to go back out into the city before it gets dark. It is only six o’clock or so, leaving us with at least forty five minutes of daylight left. Katie declares that she is both tired and cold, and will not be going out again. I’m freezing, too, but my thought was that we would warm up hiking around the streets. Not wanting to go out without her, I take a very hot shower and get ready for bed. Katie is nearly asleep when I climb into bed with my laptop. Normally, she would complain that I wasn’t going to sleep after getting into bed, but tonight, she doesn’t care one bit. Finally, Sunday is over. Wait. It’s Monday. How did two days go by that quickly? Oh, well. I’ll figure that out, tomorrow.

Just 3 days to go…

The original plan was to for Katie and I, along with some other friends, to expatriate ourselves to Italy — specifically Florence. The plan was to leave on January 20th, or maybe even the 19th, and stay there for several months, if not years. You should have heard us. If the US re-elects that chimp, we gotta get the hell out of here.

But now, reality has set in. GWB was re-elected. Heather got a job (amazingly, in this economy … but then again, she actually has marketable skills). Everyone else flaked out for one reason or another. But not me. I’m committed.

On Sunday, Katie and I will be leaving for Florence, never to return. Er, okay. So, we’ll be coming back in May. But if we can get someone to continue to live in our condo while we’re gone, we might stay longer, or even just cancel our return flight altogether.

That will mostly depend on Internet access for me. Since I’ll be continuing my job from abroad, I need a pretty decent connection. Our research thus far has led us to believe that residential broadband in Florence simply does not exist. We’ll see once I get there.

Fortunately, I was able to get a GSM phone from a co-worker and purchase a SIM card from TIM, which apparently works. I’ve been able to send and receive text messages, and I got a call from a friend which seemed to work out okay. The phone is bluetooth-enabled, so I can allegedly use GPRS to get online from my laptop, when appropriately equipped with a bluetooth card.

My dad braved the new world of SMS messages and sent me a message, which I was able to use to call him back. Other attempts to make calls from my phone have failed. I wonder if that’s because the SMS message contained some info that I wasn’t providing when calling out with a normal phone number. I did discover that making a call from the phone required me to act as if I were in the US, rather than acting as if I were in my home calling area (Italy). I thought that’s what the whole “+” thing was supposed to accomplish. Oh, well.

I’m looking forward to whiling my day away at a caf�, leisurely attending to the needs of my software development team. I’ll have almost a solid month abroad before I have to do a product release. Hopefully, I’ll have Internet access by then 😉

Nice Rack

In an effort to reduce the physical volume of computer hardware that I keep in my home, I have decided to convert my servers from towers to 1U racks. I don’t need anything too powerful, so 1U racks are large enough for my purposes.

So, where does one start when one is going to start replacing their army of towers with an army of racks? Ebay, of course! I located a (working) machine for sale on ebay which ended up costing me about US300 after shipping. It was an AMD Athlon 1700+ with 256MB RAM and a 40GB hard disk. Not too shabby, given that lots of stuff on ebay are barebones 4U Intel boxes for $250. I was quite happy with my purchase, particularly because the seller sent it quickly and the machine was as advertised (which was as-is, but hey, at least it booted!

The first thing I noticed after I had started it up to determine it’s DOA status was that there was a tag hanging from one of the case handles. It read: “W2 Memory Bad”. Sure, the machine booted (into a basic install of Windows XP), but that’s no indication that the hardware doesn’t suck. So, I got out my trusty memtest86 CD and checked out the machine.

I’m not sure exactly which test was running when the machine died, but this was the result:

Hosed Memtest86

Wow! That’s crazy. The machine was totally hosed, too — not just the display. Since I have 4 machines around that have similar processors (AMD Socket 462’s) as well as compatible RAM (PC2100 and PC2700 DDR SDRAM), I had some hardware to use for a process-of-elimination game. The easiest component to check is the RAM, so I put the possibly bad RAM into another machine with known good hardware. Memtest86 says everything’s okay. 😦 So, I put known good RAM into the failing machine, and memtest86 indicates that things are no good. 😦

In this way, I tested a total of four components: RAM, CPU, CPU fan and motherboard. Sadly, it appeared that the motherboard was the problem. Good thing for me, I was planning to install the operating system from scratch, so I could pick pretty much any hardware-compatible motherboard. The plan was to get something as soon as possible at the lowest price.

I’ve lived in Arlington, Virginia (USA) for more than four years, now, and I have yet to locate a computer shop that sells components — i.e. not just off-the-shelf brand-name systems. Other than the occational “computer show and sale”, I rarely go anywhere to just graze among the available hardware to see if anything interests me. Back in Gaithersburg, though, there is a place that has all that: The Computer Place. TCP has suppliedmy computer hardware habit a number of times, both in and out of travelling computer shows. Their stuff is a touch on the expensive side, but always rock solid quality.

They have a store in Falls Church (just west of Arlington), but I had other things to do last night and the Gaithersburg store was more convenient, so I decided to drop by. I had identified a motherboard that met my specifications (AMD Thoroughbred1700+, DDR memory, built-in VGA — it’s a rack, remember?): the ASUS A7V400-MX. It even physically fit into the rack: 24.5cm per side.

I bought the board and took it home. Immediately, I noticed that there was a problem:

Audio Header is Too Tall

The audio header sticks up almost 1cm above the case opening. Just in case you hadn’t guessed, this is a major problem. If the motherboard doesn’t fit, it’s pretty much a failure. Taking the motherboard back wasn’t an option: they’d charge me a 15% restocking fee, which I’m not about to pay, given that the board is perfectly good. I’d at least craigslist it and recoup the entire cost. However, I was in a hurry. I want this machine running now
because it’s going to be replacing all the network services running on a machine destined to be a holiday gift for someone in the family. It’s got to be now.

I had a plan that was just stupid enough to work.

Motherboard soldering [1 of 4]: preparation Motherboard soldering [2 of 4]: close-up of the pins to be de-soldered Motherboard soldering [3 of 4]: header cover removed Motherboard soldering [4 of 4]: audio header completely removed

Now, this isn’t going to win any IEEE awards in…

  • The good idea category
  • The steady hands category
  • The well-ventilated room category
  • and certainly not
  • The safety equipment and proper use thereof category

But, this was a pretty successful hardware hack if I do say so myself. I give myself an enormous amount of credit for this mini-project due to the following considerations:

  1. I haven’t held a soldering iron in my hand since I was about 12 years old.
  2. I did not burn down my condo, let alone the entire building.
  3. I did not inflict any permanent and/or unsightly injuries to either myself or my wife, who was willing to hold the board at an angle for me for several minutes before losing interest and moving on to other things
  4. I soldered neither myself nor any other object to the board in any way (which, sadly, I cannot claim regarding previous incidents involving “hot-glue” and other objects)
  5. I did not solder any two parts together on the board that were not intended to be connected.
  6. The motherboard still works (except for the audio plugs, of course)
  7. and, of course
  8. The motherboard now fits into the rack case

Motherboard sans audio header: a perfect fit

I finished my game of operation this afternoon and I’m writing this entry in homage to my ‘1337 h4x0rz 5k331z. However, there’s more to the story. I’m also trying out a new Linux distribution: Gentoo Linux.

My favorite all-time distro was Red Hat Linux, but they switched over to their “Fedora Core” product which isn’t ready for prime time, yet. I liked Red Hat because of their super-easy package management. I would have stuck with Red Hat Linux 9.0, except that Ximian’s red-carpet feed stopped making updated packages available. I’ve also had experience with debian‘s package manager, but I have to say that I found it overly complex and usually out of date. Gentoo looks like it’s got pretty good package management, and they’re relatively up-to-date with versions, etc. The only problem is that the gentoo folks are all about two things:

  1. More voices and more choices (or is that Ralph Nader?)
  2. Compile early, compile often (this must be a distro based in Chicago)

Now, I love a good all-day-compile as much as the next guy (that is, not at all), but this “everything gets compiled specifically for your unique processor” stuff may not be for me. The first painful compile I’ve had to endure (that would be the one that’s still compiling) is mysql. But, you can’t really do anything about that: mysql is just huge.

Anyhow, I’ll be happy when I’ve got the system to the point where I can stash it at the back of the closet where it belongs.

PC Tablets

My company provides software to pediatricians to improve pediatric care. The doctor) use our software during patient visits on PC tablets which have pens to capture text input. T-‘incurrent (y i up.s,.,,….of a tablet that F am testing so I can have experience with take tablets themselves.

I am writing this entire post using the pen input device. As you can see, the first part of the message was quite successful but things went awry when I tried to say “I’m currently in possession…”. I thi nkt hat’ she cause I was trying top u-i too much in the little handwritin, input box; plus, I have awful handwriting, so the tablet should actually be applauded for being able to read my chicken-sc rate h in the first place. (I’ve decided not to correct any of the mistakes made by the recognition system so you can see how well the system works, and where it fails).

So, my analysis is that the handwriting recognition on the tablet is pretty darned good. However, there’s a lot more than hander writing recognition necessary to make a pen-based interface work. Sometimes, the white space needs to be tweaked. When that happens, the pen-based interface breaks down. Also, if you screw-up the strokes of a letter and change your for mind, then there’s no recourse other than resorting to the keyboard or using a small number of buttons to the right (armed to return to the mistake and correct it using “bksp” and “del” buttons that you can tap with the pen–it acts just as a mouse in that context.

I’ve usedadi iferen.itablet in the past (this one is an HP, and I’ve also used a Toshiba) which had a be double -ended, Jen. The other end let you erase your strokes, which helped quite a bit. This one does not seem to have such a feature, which I miss.

Simply entering tee* seems to work relatively well, but when there’s something to be done that’s not handwriting -related,” the process gets bogged-down with exception cases.

Another problem that I see with the handwriting interface is entering passwords. Since are deal with medical data, which is very sensitive, most of our applications have password authentication. Entering a password using the pen can be done in two ways: by writing on the screen and using the handwriting. recognition system, or by switching to an oh-screen keyboard, where goa can enter your password, hunt-and-peck style, into the password field. Both choices make it painfully easy for someone to serrepticiorsly view the password being entered-i either by simply reading it off the screen, or by watching you type-in the password trey-by-key. Both of these options pretty much suck.

All in all, the technology in use here is pretty sexy. I’m hoping th a-ii in-‘.’me, th chard w.: l, any System will get better and be able to understand any chicken-scratch I can throw at it. -l-also hope that the non-handwriting stuff gets better, as well as’ the ways that sensitive information is entered (such as passwords).

Wow. The HW recognition system finally gut a pair of parenthesis right. Things are already getting better!