Book Review: The Last Christmas by F. Paul Wilson

June 17th, 2019

Cover Art[Note: I was given an advance review copy of the upcoming Repairman Jack novel, The Last Christmas by F. Paul Wilson (hardback available for pre-order). Here are my thoughts.]

This book takes a while to get going, but once it does, it’s as good as any Repairman Jack novel, and better than many. The author, as usual, manages to insert unexpected plot twists and stuff that you don’t see coming but that just make sense in hindsight. Fans are given more information about Madame de Medici who was briefly introduced in the short story Infernal Night.

The story takes place in December of “year zero minus one” of the Secret History, 2½ years after the events of The Tomb and five months prior to the end of the series in Nightworld. Jack has lost all of his family and his unborn daughter Emma, and is in a depressive funk. He reluctantly takes on two repairman jobs, and over the course of the novel comes back to life.

Job #1 involves a stolen relic. For those familiar with the Secret History, the relic is one of the Seven Infernals and the owner believes it can cure his terminal cancer. The thief is Madame de Medici, and she hires Jack to keep it safe until the man dies. The owner hires an unusual private investigator named Tier Hill who turns out to be quite interesting and is a challenge for Jack to deal with.

Job #2 involves recovering an escaped genetically-engineered wolf/ape hybrid for two government scientists. And while the associated plot twist was obvious well before being officially revealed, the rest of the story afterward was intriguing and at one point quite literally had me in tears.

Both jobs end up becoming intertwined, leading to a satisfactory resolution. Fans will get a good dose of the Secret History, while others will experience Jack at the top of his game—if they can hang in there long enough to get past the slow start.

At the halfway point of this book I didn’t have high hopes for a good review. But the last half more than made up for the slow start. I give 5/5 stars. Recommended for fans and non-fans alike.

[SOLVED] logrotate: error creating state file /var/lib/logrotate.status: permission denied

June 14th, 2019

TipWhile there are many possible reasons for this error message, here’s why I was getting it. The logrotate utility writes status data to a state file. By default it writes to /var/lib/logrotate.status. My account was on a shared web host, and I didn’t have permission to modify that file. The solution was to specify a local state file via the ‘-s’ parameter. Problem solved.

[SOLVED] logrorate error: lines must begin with a keyword or a filename (possibly in double quotes)

June 14th, 2019

TipUsing logrotate for the first time, I was baffled as to why I was receiving this error. Looking at the config file, it was clear that the filenames were there. After trying a bunch of things, I finally figured out the problem—I’d created the file under Windows and my FTP program hadn’t converted the newlines to the Unix format. A quick ‘dos2unix’ call later, and the problem was fixed.

So You’re Going to Compete on Forged in Fire?

April 3rd, 2019

[Note: This list was originally compiled by me then posted on /r/forgedinfireshow, where I made significant changes based on comments from other members of the subreddit.]

Regular Forged in Fire viewers are all too familiar with statements like these:

“I’ve never used a welder before.”

“This is the longest blade I’ve ever forged. I’m going to have to make a bigger quench tank.”

“I’ve never used a coal forge in my life.”

The Forged in Fire producers enjoy throwing unusual situations and obscure techniques at their smiths. And learning new techniques during the competition is a sure path to failure. The following list is based on actual mistakes made by contestants:

Practice the following techniques beforehand:

  • Canister Damascus welding
  • Using a coal forge with a manual air pump
  • Forge welding, especially with (1) different metals and (2) a thick piece of cable

Mistakes that have actually happened:

  • Give the Liquid Paper time to dry before adding anything else to the canister
  • You need -both- the red and the blue epoxy containers
  • They supply 5-minute epoxy and 24-hour epoxy—choose wisely
  • Some extremely well-made blades have been eliminated because they didn’t meet parameters
  • If the judges tell you something should be fixed, don’t convince yourself there’s not enough time to fix it

General weaponsmithing:

  • Never quench in water unless you have a very specific reason for doing so
  • For larger blades, the judges take balance and weight very seriously
  • When forge welding, first clean the surfaces that will be welded together
  • Be extremely careful bending hardened/quenched steel, and never hammer it
  • Pro tip: it’s much easier to drill/drift holes before you quench
  • Pro tip: quench a test piece of steel and then break it to see what the metal looks like after quenching.

Handles:

  • A great blade with a bad handle will almost always lose
  • Functionality and quality of construction are far, far more important for a handle than how good it looks
  • The judges put significant emphasis on how comfortable a handle is and how well it fits their hands
  • Do not get fancy with your handle in an effort to impress the judges—this almost always does more harm than good
  • Knife handle shapes that don’t prevent the user’s hand from sliding onto the blade -must- include a guard—failing to do so is an automatic disqualification
  • Nothing in the handle should have -any- possibility of digging into or cutting the judge’s hand—a bleeding judge significantly increases your chances of being eliminated
  • Round or heavily rounded knife/sword handles look nice but fail to perform
  • The burn-through method of creating knife handle holes is risky and should be avoided unless you’re hard-pressed for time and have no other option
  • The tests apply significant stress to the handle—epoxy alone will not hold a handle together.
  • Pro tip: note the judges’ hand size when you shake hands with them at the beginning of the competition, and craft your handle accordingly

Know the following skills:

  • How to use a magnet to check for proper heat treat temperature (also, bring a magnet with you)
  • How to use a MIG welder
  • How to use a spark test to identify an unknown metal
  • How to use a belt grinder like the ones on the show, and especially how to change the belt
  • How to use a gas forge like the ones on the show, and especially how to adjust the temperature
  • How to correct a post-quench warp without breaking the blade (hint: hammering or bending in a vise rarely works)
  • How to construct a friction folder knife

Regarding your home forge:

  • Before you leave, triple-check your equipment to ensure it’s in perfect working order
  • Equipment failures happen—be prepared
  • Some of the weapons you have to make are unusually long or wide—you may need a bigger forge and/or quenching tank, so obtain the materials for that beforehand

General philosophy:

  • Stick to the basics; don’t try to be fancy and impress the judges
  • Stick to what you know; this is not the time to be experimenting
  • Stay calm—getting rushed affects your decision-making and is the best way to be eliminated
  • Many, many contestants have been eliminated because of poor time management
  • When things are going badly, it’s often better to just abandon what you’ve done and start over
  • No matter how bad you’re doing, there’s always the chance that someone else is doing worse

ELI5: Bitcoin Mining Explained

November 9th, 2018

MoneyThings I learned about bitcoin mining today:

  1. All bitcoin transactions are recorded via a system called Blockchain. The “mining” process you hear about is something you must do in order to add new blockchain entries (blocks) to record the transactions. This cannot be done by the casual user—adding an entry is very, very computationally intensive. So there are dedicated bitcoin miners who do it for you.
  2. Successful miners are rewarded with a number of bitcoins in addition to any transaction fees they charge. Currently, however, the bitcoin reward is so lucrative that transaction fees are typically less than a dollar.
  3. About every 4 years the number of bitcoins you get from mining a block is cut in half. Right now it’s 12.5. It’s been at that level for about 2 years and is expected to drop to 6.25 in the 2020-2021 timeframe.
  4. Eventually the system will get to the point where mining bitcoins won’t provide enough of them to be cost-effective, and the miners will get their profit solely from charging transaction fees.
  5. The maximum number of bitcoins that will ever exist is about 21 million. Currently about 17.5 million have been mined (~ 85% of the total).
  6. The difficulty level of the bitcoin mining calculations is adjusted approximately every two weeks to account for changes to the amount of processing power applied to the system. The goal is to make it average 10 minutes per block. So the system adjusts for advances in hardware or increases in the number of computers used, and the problem is just as time-consuming today as it was 5 year ago, and will be the same 5 years from now.
    • Note: For the technically inclined, the mining computations just require you to generate a hash code that, when interpreted as a number, is less than a specified value. So the hash must have a bunch of leading zeroes. Normally you will have to run the hash algorithm many times before you get a value that meets the criteria. The adjustment that occurs is to simply change the target number.
  7. In December 2017, a miner using poorly-written custom mining software had a situation where his software neglected to tell the blockchain system to give him the reward. He mined the block, inserted it into the blockchain, and got nothing in return. At the time, the 12.5 bitcoin he lost was worth about $200,000. These bitcoins are lost forever, as effectively as if they’d been physically destroyed.

[SOLVED] Why is my Uploaded YouTube Video Such Poor Quality?

November 6th, 2018

Video CameraI’ve recently been uploading videos to YouTube. Usually I’m waiting to send the link, so I upload the video then immediately view it on YouTube to ensure it’s good. Often I find that the video quality has been significantly downgraded, sometimes to the point where it’s unwatchable.

When researching this I found a large number of potential causes and solutions, but the actual answer is quite simple:

  • Just wait for 30-60 minutes.

When YouTube first publishes a video it does everything it can to quickly make the video viewable and, as such, does the least amount of processing possible and starts with the format that can be watched on any device. So the initial format is the lowest resolution and bitrate. After publication, however, YouTube continues to perform processing in the background and subsequently adds higher-quality versions of the video. If you wait for a bit and then refresh the page, you’ll get a much better version of the video as the default.

Carbon Nanotubes May Not Be the Wonder Material After All

June 13th, 2016

NanotubeThere have been great hopes that a carbon nanotube cable could be used to create a space elevator, providing easy access to orbit. According to recent research, however, that may not be possible for the foreseeable future. Even atomic-level defects in the nanotube will greatly reduce its strength, and current mass manufacturing techniques are quite error-prone.

Link: https://www.newscientist.com/…

What are Enterprise Social Networks and Why Should I Care?

November 1st, 2015

Social NetworkIt’s now possible to set up a closed social network, a la Facebook, for a limited group of users such as a company. Sort of like how some companies have a private internet (called an intranet), they can have a private Facebook (called an enterprise social network). You get the benefits of collaboration, networking, custom business apps, etc. It’s sort of like what Lotus Notes did back in the day.

Enterprise social netowrking is not hypothetical—the linked article discusses how the Royal Bank of Scotland is deploying Facebook at Work for 100,000 employees. And most notably, it’s an opportunity for Facebook to make money selling a product, versus selling advertisements.

Link: http://www.techrepublic.com/…

How to Fix Windows 7 Unable to Create or Find a System Partition on an SSD

October 30th, 2015

Windows LogoMy primary hard drive died, and I decided to replace it with an SSD to help speed up my system. When I tried to install Windows 7 on the new drive, however, I kept getting this error message: “Setup was unable to create a new system partition or locate an existing system partition. See the Setup log files for more information.” (<RANT>And just WHERE would these log files BE?!?</RANT>) Most of the “solutions” on the web dealt with correctly configuring the disk partition. I had used the Windows installer to set up the partition, but just to make sure, I booted into Linux and set the boot flag for the partition. Didn’t work. So I used DiskPart from the Windows recovery console. Didn’t work either.

Finally I came across an article that mentioned BIOS settings, and that did the trick. The SATA Mode (that’s what it’s called in my setup program but it varies) was set to IDE and needed to be AHCI. After making that change the install went smoothly. The article also said that you should not use Intel® Smart Response Technology, which is another BIOS option.

Windows 10 to Get Its First Major Update

October 30th, 2015

Windows LogoSince Windows 10 was released with its free upgrade offer, I’ve been telling people to delay upgrading until after the first major update—which will happen sometime in the next week or so. It’s pretty much a no-brainer to take advantage of the free upgrade, and most of the major issues should be ironed out after this update, so I say “go for it.”

Link: http://www.pcworld.com/…

Windows 10 Has a Native Print to PDF Function

September 22nd, 2015

MicrosoftIn a move that is long overdue, Microsoft has added a “printer” to Windows 10 that will generate a PDF file of what you’re printing. It will show up in your printer list, just like the XPS Document Writer has for all those years, but this will be much more useful.

Link: http://www.techrepublic.com/…

Stupid Criminal Stories #21

October 10th, 2014

ThiefThis one is absolutely mind-numbing in the amount of stupidity shown. A man burglarized a house, used the victim’s computer to log in to Facebook, and didn’t log out. The homeowner posted his phone number on the burglar’s Facebook page, in the hopes that someone who knew the burglar would contact him. Instead, the burglar himself texted the homeowner and arranged to meet so he could pick up some clothing he’d left in the house. He actually showed up, so the homeowner called the police and the burglar was arrested.

Link: http://minnesota.cbslocal.com/…
(via Kim Komando)