Space Shuttle Discovery’s retirement flyover D.C.

Here are some of the photos I captured today of Space Shuttle Discovery flying over D.C. today on board its 747 carrier. The shuttle circled around D.C. a few times before heading for its final resting place at the National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center next to Dulles International Airport.

Astrogeeks and photographers: Look eastward this weekend

Moonrise over D.C. in winter Moonrise on Feb. 28, 2010

The full moon will rise this weekend at nearly 90 degrees azimuth for those in Washington, D.C. That means the moon will be almost directly to the east. Since the National Mall and many of its famous monuments and buildings align along an east-west axis, the astronomical phenomenon promises stunning moonrises from places like the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Netherlands Carillon as the moon slowly rises behind or next to the U.S. Capitol. If the expected clouds abate on Friday and the weather holds out, that is.

As you can see from these photos of near-90 azimuth moonrises last year, the moon looks great near the horizon when looking east across the Mall. Here are the stats for the weekend:

On Friday, the nearly-full moon will rise in D.C. at 6:23 p.m. EDT at 89 degrees azimuth (source). On Saturday, the full moon rises at 7:39 p.m. at 97 degrees azimuth.

And if the full moon due east isn't enough to pique your geeky astronomical interest, this weekend's moon will be a big and bright moon. Saturday, the full moon is at perigee -- its closest approach to earth. This perigee is the closest the moon will get to the Earth for all of 2011: 221,575 miles (356,575 kilometers). That's 31,064 miles closer than the moon was on March 6, according to EarthSky. EarthSky says Saturday's full moon will be its closest encounter with the Earth since Dec. 12, 2008, and the closest it will be until Nov. 14, 2016.

For photographers interested in capturing the event, outside the Lincoln Memorial and the Netherlands Carillon should be good places to set up your tripod. (Tip: You might want to get to the Carillon early to stake out an unobstructed spot for your tripod. It's a popular place for full moon photos. Note that the path in front of the bronze lions is a popular one with joggers, bikers and pedestrians, so get your siteline set up with that in mind.) As far as weather goes, the current forecast calls for partly cloudy Friday around moonrise with a slight chance of rain. But sometimes a low cloud layer can make for great photos if the clouds aren't dense. Saturday also promises to be partly cloudy with some rain possible in the morning. But the clouds are supposed to clear by moonrise. Saturday promises to be the better day for weather but with the 97 degrees azimuth, perhaps less-stunning photos (more like the one below).
Moonrise over D.C. on Aug. 25, 2010 Moonrise on Aug. 25, 2010
I'm looking forward to some beautiful moonrises this weekend. Share the moment with someone you love -- but hey, take the camera. If you grab some good photos, please send me a link in the comments.

Working around ddclient’s “bad hostname” and “network is unreachable” problems

I have had continuing problems with ddclient being able to connect to the network and make an http call to check my current IP address. If you use ddclient and also see this problem, this workaround might work for you, too.

The ddclient bug exhibits itself with two errors I would see in the system log and also kindly emailed to me by the ddclient daemon itself:
WARNING:  cannot connect to checkip.dyndns.org:80 socket: IO::Socket::INET: Bad hostname 'checkip.dyndns.org'
or the more generic error:
WARNING:  cannot connect to 192.168.0.1:80 socket: IO::Socket::INET: connect: Network is unreachable
The issue seems to be that ddclient, a Perl client that talks to dynamic DNS services like dyndns.org, has problems either making network connections or perhaps caches a bad address at system start when networking services might not yet be up. This problem with ddclient seems longstanding, with a bug filed in 2003 on the Debian list and a bug filed in 2009 on the Red Hat list.

The Red Hat bug was closed May 29 with a fix (ddclient-3.8.0.2) posted to update sites for Fedora 11 and later. But if you have not or cannot update, or still see the bug, here's my workaround: Instead of using ddclient's built-in web client to connect to your dynamic-DNS service, call a shell script that uses curl to make the network call. Specifically, I replaced this line in my /etc/ddclient.conf configuration file:
use=web, web=checkip.dyndns.org/, web-skip='IP Address' # found after IP Address
with this line:
use=cmd, cmd=/home/tom/bin/checkip.sh, cmd-skip='IP Address' # found after IP Address
Here is my checkip.sh shell script, stored in my home "bin" directory:
#!/bin/sh
#
# A script to fill in for what ddclient
# can't seem to do: reliably connect to checkip.dyndns.org.
curl http://checkip.dyndns.org/
That's it. The only extra steps you need to take are to ensure the user that runs your ddclient daemon (typically user "ddclient") has access to the script. That means in my case making sure the script itself is executable, e.g. chmod 755 ~/bin/checkip.sh, and that my home directory and bin directory are world executable, e.g. chmod --recursive o+x ~/bin/checkip.sh

When I eventually upgrade my system and use version 3.8.0.2 of ddclient, I look forward to seeing if this longstanding networking bug really got fixed.

The Lost Symbol: Nix It From Your Christmas List

Let me start this review of Dan Brown's latest novel by saying I read Angels & Demons and The Da Vinci Code and thoroughly enjoyed the stories and the storytelling. Second, although The Lost Symbol was at times painful to read, I do not join other critics who point out the preachy, moralistic ending. Sometimes we need a reminder to return to the basics of our morality. Finally, I plan to reveal minor details of the book here but I won't disclose any plot twists or surprises.

The Lost Symbol reads as if Dan Brown had been kidnapped and tortured by the Masons, just like one of the characters in the book is kidnapped and tortured by an evildoer, and forced to write this book under duress. Each chapter, while revealing frat-boy antics committed by the Masons during its rituals, also includes what seem to be apologies to the reader for those antics. Brown constantly reminds the reader that Masons have included the geniuses of history, the rich, the politically powerful -- including, he says, most of the high-ranking members of all three branches of the U.S. government. Whenever a character in the book criticizes a Masonic activity, the hero of the book reminds us how warm and cuddly the Masons really are to the point that the subtitle of the book could have been, "Hug a Mason Today."

The constant apologies for the Masons is not why I thought this book was a Brown dud. I actually learned what I hope are facts about Masonic history from this book, which I thought were enlightening and interesting. No, the worst part of this book is the amateurish writing and the forced, silly narrative. Brown wanted to ladle so much history and symbology onto the pages that the hero of the story, Robert Langdon, has to constantly stop and lecture one or more of the other characters in this book on the history of Freemasonry and all the wonderful contributions the world has received unto it by a Mason. We're 30 seconds from the clutches of the bad guys, from whom we are running so we can save someone's life, but wait, let's stop a moment so I can explain in historic detail a particular symbol, or show you this nifty, magical number sequence and spell out in detail why it pertains to our rescue mission. Those stop-and-explain moments clue the reader in early that the tension the author is trying so hard to build must not be really all that tense if the main characters have so much time to marvel over history while being hotly pursued.

To add to the amateurish narrative, the characters, all portrayed as very smart and world-wise, are shocked, shocked! at every predictable turn of events. The characters actually exclaim, quite regularly, "Oh my God!" when something occurs that the readers will have predicted 5 pages ago, pandering to our egos so we can constantly pat ourselves on the back on how smart we are. Langdon, who is surprised the most, has evolved from a savvy, likeable university professor in The Da Vinci Code to a naive, gullible idiot savant. What? You mean this secret package as heavy as a bowling ball, the one my good friend and mentor (and, gasp, a 33rd degree Mason) told me years ago to keep safe and guard with my life because evil people across the entire globe would kill for it, and for which I got a mysterious phone call this morning telling me to bring this vital package to Washington, D.C., this heavy package I have been carrying over my shoulder, which I completely forgot I was carrying even though my shoulder is aching from the weight, might have something to do with why my friend and mentor has been kidnapped? Oh my God! How could this be? I'm shocked! Shocked! And sadly, I'm not exaggerating.

Another example of the irritating writing packed inside The Lost Symbol is that nearly every chapter begins with a retelling of what has occurred up to this point -- just in case the previous section had lulled you into a deep case of neurasthenia and you lost all memory of the previous dozen pages. Why Dan Brown felt he had to constantly summarize previous events is a mystery. If you ignore my suggestion to pass on this book, you will remark to yourself each chapter how you haven't seen such great recapping of events since watching the first three minutes of Batman reruns from the 1960s where they summarize the previous week's cliffhanger.

As the final reader irritation (especially to us in Washington, D.C.), Brown gets some of his D.C. geography, details and landmarks wrong. Here are some of the more obvious factual indiscretions:
  • His limo driver takes him from Dulles Airport to the Capitol via an unlikely route: the Dulles toll road to the beltway to the George Washington Parkway, then finally over the Memorial Bridge. Unless I-66 was closed, the limo driver would not have taken the beltway.
  • The book says the trip from the airport took a half hour. Not by taking the GW Parkway to the Memorial Bridge it doesn't.
  • When Langdon's limo crosses the Potomac, Langdon looks to left of the Lincoln Memorial to see the Jefferson Memorial. Didn't Brown check a map? Or did his researcher mistake the Kennedy Center for the Jefferson? The Jefferson is way over to the right.
  • Langdon enters the Capitol Visitor Center on a Sunday and sees tour groups inside the Rotunda. The visitor center is closed on Sundays. There are no public tours.
  • Langdon crosses the street from Freedom Plaza and enters the Metro system to get away from the bad guys. The closest Metro station to Freedom Plaza is a couple of blocks away, not across the street.
  • When the bad guys try to arrest Langdon as the Metro train pulls into the station, the train conductor is driving from the third car. Metrorail conductors always drive from the first car.
  • The metro conductor exits the car without opening the doors. I guess he could have squeezed out the side window, but I think Brown would have included that contortionist trick in the narrative.
Those are a few of the errors a D.C. resident, regular visitor or observant tourist would notice. Since I mentioned a few of the book's D.C.-centric errors, to his credit, Brown does have Langdon notice the hum of the limo's wheels change as he approaches the Memorial Bridge, a sign that Brown knows the road is cobblestone between the Parkway exit and the roundabout approaching the bridge.

Since Brown's previous two books were so much better, I have to ask, What happened? That's why I had to conclude from reading The Lost Symbol that Brown must have been kidnapped by some group intent on rehabilitating the public's view of the Masons after Brown's previous books made these types of secret societies look evil. The real lost symbol of the book is hidden in plain sight. The words on the page, those everyday alphabetic symbols, are Dan Brown's way of crying out to the reader: "Can't you tell from this stilted writing and my obvious mistakes of D.C. geography that any tourist would pick up on that I've been kidnapped and forced to write this? Help me!"

If indeed Dan Brown has been seen in public since the book's publication in September, and he isn't a prisoner of the Masons, the only other reasons I can see for this book being so bad after two previous entertaining novels are:
  • The Lost Symbol was a contractual obligation book. Maybe the book was motivated by Doubleday reminding Brown of the $5 million advance and the promise of another $10 million upon delivery of the manuscript.
  • This book reflects Dan Brown's actual writing ability, and he got in a major tiff with his editor. The Lost Symbol is the editor's revenge.
Overall, if you still feel compelled to read this book, do like I did and buy the ebook version. At least no tree would have been required to share your suffering. My plea to the Masons: Free Dan Brown before he writes another book.

Impressed with Manning’s marketing push and discounts

For the past few months, tech publisher Manning Publications has impressed me with its marketing push by offering quick-strike discounts on print and ebooks. Until Manning's recent marketing and discounts, I was buying a Manning book maybe once a year, and I almost never bought it directly from the publisher. Instead, I'd usually check sites like BestBookBuys to find who had the title I was looking for at the best price. But with its steep short-term discount offers, and my newfound fondness for ebooks, I have purchased Manning books in recent months on Groovy, Grails, Spring and Ext JS, almost always buying the ebook version for $10 to $15 -- a great price for a tech book.

As part of its marketing push, Manning offers daily and weekly discount codes on its website and Twitter feed. Discounts are often 50% or more from its regular price. Tuesday, for example, the Ext JS In Action ebook for which I paid about $15 a few weeks ago (on discount from $27.50) was on sale for $10. (The book, not yet in print by Jesus Garcia, is a great introduction and explanation on how to use the Ext JS 3.0 component library and the only book I found available at the time covering version 3.0.)

In addition to the book discounts, following Manning's marketing message won me an additional $300. In one of Manning's emails in August, I learned that Manning was holding a monthlong technology quiz in September. Manning posted a question daily on a technology topic related to one of its books, with a $300 grand prize to the contestant who could answer the most questions correctly. The tech quiz was great marketing because it brought me and hundreds of others to the Manning website daily. As a quiz incentive, Manning gave away two ebooks every day to two contestants and offered a daily discount on one or more of its books. After answering 30 technical questions, on topics as diverse as features of ActiveMQ, Clojure and Silverlight, I'm proud to say I walked away as the grand prize winner. The competition was stiff. Manning said it had 1,500 contestants. Toward the end of September, there were still about a dozen people with perfect scores with just days left in the contest. After the final question, only two contestants remained with perfects scores, me and Belgian developer Renaud Florquin. I was lucky to be randomly selected as the grand prize winner. (Thanks again, Manning.)

In addition to improving its marketing and pricing, Manning also has impressed me recently by expanding its ebook file formats. Previously, Manning offered its ebooks only in PDF format. Earlier this month, Manning announced it will begin offering its books in the mobi and EPUB file formats. That's great for me because I like reading books in the mobi format on my BlackBerry using the free Mobipocket reader. Ebooks have won me over from the paper version of tech books because of their searchability, the ability to cut and paste code, and their ultra portability by being on my phone and laptop when I visit customer offices. The mobi format is also supported by the Kindle, while the EPUB format is popular with devices like Sony Reader, the nook and the iPhone.

Keep it up, Manning. If you keep offering good technology books at great prices in flexible formats, I will continue to be a regular customer.

A pre-dawn visit to Thomas Jefferson for the Cherry Blossom Festival

Jefferson Memorial at dawn with cherry blossoms
Jefferson Memorial at dawn this morning during the D.C. Cherry Blossom Festival
The bloom of the Japanese cherry trees in Washington, D.C. is at its peak, so Renee and I went over to the Tidal Basin at dawn this morning to watch the sun come up behind the Jefferson Memorial. We got some nice photos.

I was surprised at how popular the Tidal Basin was at 6 a.m. During the Cherry Blossom Festival, D.C. has turned Ohio Drive SW into a one-way street going north, with parking available on the west side along the Potomac. By sunrise at 6:47 a.m., there almost wasn't a parking spot left. There was a plethora of photographers lined up along the Tidal Basin walking path, all prepared with their tripods and telephotos. Renee set up her tripod near one tree, while I roamed around shooting hand-held, which made for a lot of blurry photos in the pre-dawn twilight. I shot at ISO 800 initially, then switched to ISO 200 in the hopes that it would let me blow-up the photos extra-large without as much graininess. Still, I was shooting at 1/30 of a second and slower for a lot of the early photos. That's what I like about shooting digital: I deleted about 60% of my photos with no thought to all the "film" I wasted.

Visiting the Tidal Basin before dawn to enjoy the cherry blossoms was a good idea. The area around the basin was packed a couple of hours later, with the usual gridlock traffic on Independence Avenue SW and the Memorial Bridge entering the district from Virginia. If you're in D.C. and plan to visit the cherry blossoms on Sunday, definitely arrive early. I saw a lot of cars idling along the Memorial Bridge, slowly crawling toward D.C. -- and probably not finding a close space to park.
Jefferson Memorial at dawn with cherry blossoms
Framing Thomas Jefferson through the cherry blossoms


I uploaded several of my photos from today and from last weekend to Picasa Web Albums.

Some cherry tree facts: There are 1,678 cherry trees around the Tidal Basin, with more surrounding neighboring roads and parks. Trees originally were planted around the Tidal Basin in 1912 as a gift of friendship from the people of Japan. About 400 of the present trees were propagated from the original 1912 trees. The health of the trees often suffers as a result of their beauty. The crowds who visit the area often tromp around the base of the trees, compacting the soil. The drainage in the area could use some improvement, too, as you'll notice when you have to walk around some of the flooded areas along the Tidal Basin path -- forcing you to compact the soil even more around those trees. New trees need to be planted regularly to replace the suffering ones, which is probably one reason none of the trees you see there are ancient.

If you are interested in planting a Yoshino cherry tree at your home like the ones along the Tidal Basin, the non-profit American Forests sells them online. My "green" plug for the planet.

Finally got Tomboy working in Fedora 10

After installing Fedora 10 last month, I finally got the Tomboy note-taking application working. I began using Tomboy in Fedora 8, and have several notes stored in Tomboy notebooks. When Tomboy broke in Fedora 10, I put it on my to-do list to figure out how to get it working. I figured the fix would be as easy as re-installing Tomboy. It wasn't.

Fedora 10 was released three months ago tomorrow. That's why I was surprised to find that reinstalling / upgrading to the latest Tomboy from the Fedora repository didn't fix the bug. Before I fixed the problem, trying to run Tomboy would give me an error like:
** (Tomboy:4816): WARNING **: The following assembly referenced from
/usr/lib/tomboy/Tomboy.exe could not be loaded:
Assembly:   Mono.Addins    (assemblyref_index=8)
Version:    0.3.0.0
Public Key: 0738eb9f132ed756
The assembly was not found in the Global Assembly Cache, a path listed in the
MONO_PATH environment variable, or in the location of the executing assembly
(/usr/lib/tomboy).
Until I saw the error, I didn't even know Tomboy was a .NET application running under Mono. I searched around for a solution to the problem and found the bug has been reported three times to Red Hat Bugzilla, but still no one has solved it. The solution, fortunately, was pretty simple, and was mentioned by Austin Acton in a bug comment. The solution also was mentioned on this blog post by Mark Ito (I'm assuming that's his name from the subdomain).

The solution is to install mono-addins from the 'fedora' repository.
sudo yum install mono-addins
For such an easy fix, you have to wonder why this 5-month old bug with high severity is still open. Tomboy comes as part of the standard Fedora 10 install. It must not be as easy as making the tomboy package dependent on the mono-addins package.

Independence Day in D.C.

Yesterday saw another great celebration on the National Mall in Washington of our nation's declared independence. Two hundred thirty-one years ago, the Continental Congress adopted Thomas Jefferson's draft of the Declaration of Independence.

'Jefferson' and 'Franklin' read the Declaration
"Thomas Jefferson" looks on as "Benjamin Franklin" reads the Declaration of
Independence on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
We began the morning at the National Archives, where the original Declaration of Independence is stored, for the annual dramatic reading of the document by men portraying three of the original signers: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. Last year, the last couple of paragraphs were read by two men of our armed forces who were wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan. One of the men suffered head injuries, and his reading was stilted and slurred, yet he bravely read through the document. It brought tears to many in the crowd assembled on the steps outside the archives and spilling out onto Pennsylvania Avenue.

This year, they brought a veteran of World War II to read the last part of the Declaration, and filmmaker Ken Burns talked about his upcoming World War II documentary, The War, which recounts the war from soldiers who fought it. I heard no mention of any active war going on, or of any of the men and women fighting in it. Iraq already seems like a war we're fighting to forget.

'Jefferson' and 'Franklin' read the Declaration
Rockets red glare light up the boats on the Potomac River during the
fireworks finale.
We watched a little of the Independence Day parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, walked through the exhibits and listened to music at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the Mall, then returned home in the afternoon to watch the fireworks from our balcony.

At around 5 p.m., a lightning storm prompted police to evacuate the open areas of the Mall and the Marine Corps Memorial. Officers asked picnickers and others staking out seats for the concert and fireworks to seek shelter in the various museums and memorials. The storm passed through after about an hour, and the 8 p.m. concert at the Capitol began on time, as did the fireworks an hour later. Last year we watched the fireworks from the Lincoln Memorial. This year, we were able to enjoy the view from our home in Rosslyn.

The fireworks show was great, as usual, but this year I thought it was marred a bit by two orbiting police helicopters, one to the east of the Mall and one to the west. Security was visibly tighter this year, the terror tenor of our times.

And to put another damper on an otherwise perfect evening, three men who put on the fireworks display were hurt and burned, one seriously, when unexploded fireworks went off about 15 minutes after the finale. I was still looking toward the Lincoln Memorial and saw two or three fireworks explode at ground level. May the injured fireworkers recover fully.

IBM Strikes Out in Second Life

I left the real world yesterday to "attend" a technical briefing in Second Life, hosted by IBM, on what Web 2.0 means for business. I want to congratulate IBM for experimenting with virtual worlds. But in this case, the pretend physical nature of the online briefing detracted from the message and added nothing discernable. I spent more time fighting the Second Life client application than I did listening to the IBM presenters.

My avatar attends IBM briefing in Second Life
My generically clad avatar looks at the right side of the virtual stage during
IBM's technical briefing.
The technical briefing had to begin a half-hour early to allow IBM and the two- or three-dozen attendees to work out the technical kinks, including the basics like learning to walk and sit in Second Life. For those who haven't heard much about Second Life, it is a 3-dimensional online virtual world in which everyone is represented by a (usually) human-appearing image you can move around using the Second Life client application. The virtual world allows you to see and interact with real people who also are visiting Second Life. Second Life includes isolated islands and a mainland filled with various structures and objects created by Second Life owners and visitors.

Holding a meeting in a 3D virtual world promises new tools for collaboration. You could hold a main meeting, break out into smaller groups as needed while still easily rejoining the main group, share notes, share software, demo software on a virtual computer in the virtual world, and draw on whiteboards that can be stretched to fit your needs, using colored pens that never run dry. I'm unsure what capabilities Second Life provides today to do any of these things, but I don't think talking is one of them. Attendees to the IBM session had to dial a regular conference telephone line to hear the presenters.

I say IBM struck out by holding this technical briefing in Second Life because the presenters merely talked, showed slides, and provided handouts. You don't need a 3D virtual world to do these things. The bad part was Second Life detracted from the actual content of the briefing by having to deal with virtual-world activities instead of merely listening, reading and thinking.

First, I had trouble finding the conference room. The coordinates IBM provided took me to what looked like a sand-dune filled desert with a beautiful virtual sunset on the horizon. The only other thing I could see was one or two other virtual attendees walking around aimlessly. Flapping my arms eventually got me there. You see, the presentation was held on a platform floating in space above the ground. You had to fly up several meters to see it. (In Second Life you can fly.) Strike one.

Second, the Second Life client isn't very stable. It froze and crashed while I was trying to move around. Strike two.

Viewing the IBM slideshow in Second Life
Here is me trying to view the slides in Second Life. I captured this screenshot when
the slide was in focus.
Third, it was difficult to view the slides in Second Life. I first had to figure out what keystrokes I needed to zoom my vision onto the virtual projector screen. When I mastered that skill, I discovered the slides took a long time on my (fairly powerful) PC to paint and focus. Sometimes the slide would just start to appear on my screen as the presenter moved onto the next slide, which would blank out the slide I was frantically trying to read, and then the next slide would take 5 to 10 seconds to start painting on my virtual screen. Strike three.

Fourth, Second Life forces you to create a new name for yourself while visiting. You can choose a first name, but you have to choose from a list of Second Life family names. As a result, you can't tell who the IBM speaker at the podium is without someone translating that "Foobar Frobney" (or whatever) is really IBM employee Alfredo Gutierrez. Strike, um, three and a half.

Even though Second Life's virtual-world wasn't the best forum for this technical briefing, I want to give IBM credit for trying. Virtual reality holds promise for providing better, more natural tools for online collaboration than simple slideshows and telephone conference lines. However, IBM will need to learn to use the best tool for the job. If you are just going to talk and show slides, there are more effective technologies today than Second Life.