Growing Affinity for Hand Tools

I bought some kind of special edition magazine about using hand tools in the shop. As usual, I read it cover-to-cover in about an hour, and I’ve a few articles over since then. I also purchased a really cool book called “Choosing & Using Hand Tools”, which just completely rocked my world. I also have been checking out articles on the internet and some newsgroup/mailing list postings, and the more I read, and the more pictures of old tools I see, the more I like the idea of focusing on using hand tools. Not to the complete exclusion of power tools, of course, but I’d like to *not* be dependent on these machines to do my work, for the most part.

There are a couple of reasons for this, some good, some completely stupid. One good reason for using hand tools is that a lot of them are nearly silent, or at least much quieter than their powered counterparts.  This is important because most of my work is done after my wife, Natasha, goes to bed. Quiet is a requirement. It’s also nice to have quiet tools anyway so you can listen to the radio while you’re working, and you don’t have to wear hearing protection. The second good reason to use hand tools is to reduce (if not eliminate) airborne dust clouds. Hand tools produce a negligible amount of dust, saving me from having to wear any kind of breathing apparatus, which is key because I wear glasses, and they fog up if I wear a mask, which sucks when you’re working wood and really need to see.

There are a host of other decent reasons that people have cited for using hand tools, but the only other one that matters to me is described a million different ways. I’ll just say that it’s a more organic craft using hand tools. Maybe I feel closer to the wood or something. Maybe it’s a Zen thing with me. I don’t know. But I like using hand tools.

The rest of the reasons are stupid. The first one is that I just think hand tools are really cool-looking. Some of the really old tools look like they were forged by hand. They’re crafted pieces themselves, nevermind what you’ll create with them. The second stupid reason is because it would be really, truly hardcore to point to a piece of furniture and say (even if it’s to myself) that I made it without plugging anything into a wall.

Yet another blog service

This is my first post in my WordPress blog. I signed up at wordpress.com and got one. My first blog was at blogspot.com, which is run by blogger.com. That was my first taste of blogging, and it took me a long time to get used to the idea of jotting down my thoughts on occasion.

Shortly after I signed up there, I realized that blogging could create really interesting interrelationships and distributed dialogs… but not with the blogger service.Blogger doesn’t support trackbacks, which means, essentially, that aside from comments people make locally to your blog, it’s a pretty one-way service. The only other interaction a user might have with the site would be to use a feed aggregator, or find my post on some aggregated site. Dave Harding (blog link on the right) recently asked if he could put my blog feed on gnujersey.org. I don’t care where my blog winds up, so I gave him the go ahead. Then I realized that even though I don’t care where my thoughts land, Dave probably didn’t want me talking about my pathetic pool game on his primarily-Linux-oriented site.

The solution to this problem? Categories! Just create a category called “Linux”, put all of your Linux posts there, and then send Dave the link to the feed for that category. Easy, right? Again, not with the blogger service. It doesn’t support any notion of categories. So finally, after almost 18 months of blogging, I’m making a slightly more educated decision about the blog software I use, and I’ve chosen wordpress.

Don’t get all happy. WordPress is no dream either. It’s taken forever just to get this post to go live and have it look like it’s supposed to. Instead of using paragraph tags, paragraphs are defined using div tags, which apparently doesn’t imply anything about spacing between paragraphs, because there were none at first. Also, categories, which is what I switched for, didn’t work right either. After mucking around between last night and this morning, I finally happened to stumble upon a working category configuration. I’m scared to death to add another one, though. More features… more bugs.

My conclusion with regard to blog software is this: All blog software packages suck, some just give you more features for putting up with their suckiness.

Moodle Course Management: Extending the Moodle base

That’s one of my current projects at work. We were using a home-grown course management solution in the Computer Science department, because the faculty here (and elsewhere, I hear) aren’t fond of Blackboard, and they also know that there’s a good bit of in-house PHP knowledge, so we built our own at first. Unfortunately, they wanted it kinda quickly, so we (again, unfortunately) hired a student to code it. The result was not pretty, and from the very first semester we used it, we were looking for a ready-made alternative.

Around September I started playing with Moodle. Around mid-October I started hacking it, and by mid-November I had most of the required features for our department working. I had to add a new assignment type that allowed professors to specify a list of files to be associated with a given assignment, mark them as optional or not, and then accept/manage uploads of these files from the students of the course.

The learning curve involved in getting to know moodle is a little bit steep at first. It took me about a week, full time, to get to where I was comfortable that I was not only getting things to work, but that I was doing it “the right way”. Thanks to Moodle’s really nice API and uber-modular design (not only are assignments modules, but each type of assignment is yet a separate submodule, for example), my new type is able to be completely isolated from the rest of the system, while at the same time doing just about everything using only API calls.

Moodle isn’t the fastest or most feature-packed app I’ve ever seen, but the API allows for such simple extension of the base functionality that I went with it just based on that. I’d recommend it to a friend.

First LUG meeting I’ve been to in years

Well, the title isn’t 100% true: I went to a couple of LUG meetings for the University where I work, but you don’t get the same kind of diversity in applications that you do when you just walk into a public meeting at the local library.

At the university, there’s diversity in terms of department: people in physics, math, psych, genomics, molecular biology, and of course computer science all use Linux – but it’s basically all research/scientific computing, really. There’s nobody there with a corporate mentality who measures downtime using dollars or anything like that. There’s also no mainframe COBOL developers, for example, because departments in the university generally don’t have their own mainframes. In fact, I believe the last mainframe was retired at Princeton in 2004 or 2005.

Anyway, the meeting was great. They had all the essentials: coffee, and cookies were there. They had a real projector for use by a real speaker. They had a place to hang your coat, as well as a nearby restroom. It’s a nice meeting place. And the talk was great — RSS, ATOM, OPML, and all that stuff. And the meeting had some degree of organization. Very nice indeed.

The last meeting I went to for this particular LUG was in probably 2001. There was an overhead projector, about a dozen attendees, no snacks or refreshments that I can remember, and the talk was about the finer points of the “cut” command. I kid you not. Having traveled over an hour to get to that meeting (I live about 10 minutes away now!), I felt somewhat jipped, and this is the first time I’ve been back. I’ll be returning for sure.

Just back from Cancun

I just returned from my honeymoon in Cancun, Quintana Roo, Mexico. Natasha and I got to practice our Spanish a lot, we swam with dolphins, rode horses, and did a whole lot of relaxing on beaches, at bars, and at pools all over the area. You can see pictures here.

I remembered a lot more Spanish than I thought I would. I took 3 years of it in school, and then I moved to Texas, where some of my friends spoke Spanish in their homes, so I had a pretty good exposure to it. Maybe I’ll do s’more brushing up and translate my articles into Spanish as well. I’ll probably butcher them horribly, but it’ll be fun to try to decipher the angry Spanish emails telling me how much I suck at Spanish ;-)

Well, no rest for the well rested — the minute I got back I ran to the office to pick up the part I had ordered for my broken dryer, and I got that all put back together yesterday, and it seems to work like new! School starts next week, and I have some water valves to replace before then so that my washing machine doesn’t take (literally, I’m not kidding) 3.5-4 hours to finish a load of laundry.

Wish me luck!