December, 2008:

Home For The Holidays

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Until this year, our closest friends could always count on their family being together for the holidays. Their kids (our godchildren) went to school in the vicinity, or at least were guaranteed to choose home (Richmond, VA) for the school break at the holidays.

Now, things aren’t as guaranteed. Laura is married and living in NYC. There will always be the possibility that she will choose (or need to be fair and accept) to spend a holiday with her husband’s family (the other coast entirely). David is in Birmingham, AL, and may not even be able to take time off for some future holiday (e.g., he was unable to get away for Thanksgiving this year, and Lois and I spent it with him in Birmingham).

Thankfully, the kids (yes, yes, they’re fully formed adults in all respects now, but they will always be kids to us!) were able to come home for Christmas this year. Laura and Chris will be out in CA next week so they’re not cheating his family out of the pleasure of their company, just delaying it by a week.

The Kids

The Kids

Lois and I felt blessed to be part of the festivities this year. Not only did that include the seven of us spending a lot of quality time together, we also got to see quite a number of dear Richmond-based friends as well. That included being part of the annual extended family get-together on Friday afternoon. Not only are all of Bob’s relatives a joy to be around, they all bring special food creations for the rest of us to enjoy.

Some random shots from the various gatherings:

Brother and Sister

Brother and Sister

Proud Grandpa

Proud Grandpa

Friends Drop By

Friends Drop By

Dave and Hadar

Dave and Hadar

Who cares if I gained a ridiculous amount of weight in the past few days. It was worth it! Aside from Bob’s always-groumet meals (he made a spectacular Thai dinner for nine on Saturday night), Nancy brought over an artichoke dip that kept calling me back. While I singled out the artichoke dip, every single thing that I sampled was unbelievable.

This photo is too fuzzy for you to appreciate how good the food looked, in addition to the above-mentioned great taste:

Fuzzy But Delicious

Fuzzy But Delicious

Laura created little droplets from heaven, otherwise known as homemade dumplings (with Hoisin and Soy sauces for sweet and savory dipping):

Homemade Dumplings

Homemade Dumplings

Bob has been known to share with Sally on more than one occasion. This year, he raised sharing to an art form. In the first photo, he’s inconspicuously reaching over with his telescoping fork, and in the second, he’s successfully snagged a piece of Thai Chicken. It’s only fair, since he went to all the trouble of cooking it in the first place. 🙂

Telescoping Fork

Telescoping Fork

Caught Red Handed

Caught Red Handed

Good food, good conversation, great laughs. Who could ask for anything more? Well, we didn’t ask, but we indeed received more. 🙂

A year ago, I wrote about the best gift-giver in my personal circle. One of the many amazing gifts he’s given me was my first (and until now, only) GPS, a Garmin StreetPilot 2620. When I got it, in May 2005, it was the top-of-the-line Garmin GPS. It has served us extremely well over the years, but on occasion, it also acts up a bit. Of course, it typically acts up when I need it the most, so it can be quite frustrating at times.

Lois has complained to me for months that we should just break down and buy a new one. I kept resisting, as the old gal still has some good life in her, and it pained me to kick her to the side of the road prematurely.

Well, the decision was taken out of my hands (thankfully!). Our friends (including David, Laura and Chris) bought us a Garmin Nuvi 265WT. It’s so cool, I encourage you to check out the features at the supplied link. But, here are a few of the things that it has that our old gal doesn’t, aside from the obvious svelte figure. 😉

  • Battery-powered portability (with pedestrian and bicycle modes)
  • Bluetooth that turns the Nuvi into a hands-free speakerphone for my Treo!
  • Ability to download Google Maps addresses (with notes and phone numbers)
  • Real-time traffic reports (free, but ad-supported)

We love it, so thank you very much for the amazing gift, and the perfect timing for it.

We’re not the only ones who enjoyed ripping into our gifts:

Ripping Open Gifts

Ripping Open Gifts

If you’re curious as to how gifts arrive in Richmond, the answer is obvious, just like they do elsewhere, via Santa Claus. Sometimes though, Santa has his normal sleigh in the shop, and he arrives in Richmond in style:

Santas Alternate Sleigh

Santa's Alternate Sleigh

Lots of other things to be thankful for this holiday season, and we are indeed thankful for all of them.

One of them is the family dog. He’s 16 years old, which is pretty darn amazing. On occasion, he still has some pep in his step. Whenever he gets groomed, they put a bow on him. It looks silly, but no one takes it off. Since this was a holiday, they put on a colorful kerchief instead. Lois couldn’t stop calling him The Sherrif of Nottingham every time he trundled by. It was definitely cuter than the bow. We probably should have gotten him a tiny cowboy hat to go with it, though he probably would have growled when we tried to fasten it… 🙂

Sheriff of Nottingham

Sheriff of Nottingham

Here’s hoping that we will all have the opportunity to spend many more holiday seasons together!

Cable Woes Resolved

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On December 13th I wrote about my long-standing cable Internet woes. At the end of that note, I mentioned that I would update everyone if my solution worked.

Today is the first day that we are back in the apartment, and I can now report that we’ve had zero drops in the past six hours. That seems to point the finger squarely at the old Netgear FVS318 ProSafe VPN Firewall. While it was working, it was also flaking out unbelievably.

Here’s a big bonus: the WAN port on the FVS router was a 10Mbps port, even though the eight LAN ports were 10/100. The Netgear WNR854T N router that I replaced it with has a 100Mbps WAN port, and GigE LAN ports (purchased re-certified for $40!). So, my download speed was topping out at around 8Mbps on the old router (when it wasn’t dropping packets), but the current one is reliably downloading at 18Mbps! Awesome!

The upload speed is still a very pokey 490Kbps, but you can’t have everything, at least not all the time. 😉

So, I’m now back to 60/40 as to whether I prefer the house to the apartment. Purely due to the Internet connection, I was closer to 90/10 for the past six months!

How little it takes to make me happy. 🙂

Vista speech recognition

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I’ve been fascinated by speech recognition for a very long time.  I used a program called Simon on a NeXT computer back in 1992. I have toyed with every version of Dragon Naturally Speaking since v2 (now owned by Nuance). I keep upgrading my copy of Dragon Naturally Speaking (through v9, I haven’t done v10 yet), even though I never actually use it for anything real beyond checking out how much better each version has gotten.

The primary reason I don’t dictate more is that Lois and I work two feet apart 99% of the time. That makes it awkward to be speaking to the computer, from a number of perspectives. Still, I remain intrigued by the concept.

Vista has built-in speech recognition. My new laptop also has Realtek HD Audio built in, including a very high quality microphone next to the webcam, at the top of the monitor. As an example, I tested it with Skype the other day, with no headset, and there was no echo on either side of the conversation, and the other person said I sounded fine.

That made me think about the extra convenience of being able to dictate without scrounging around for headset, or wearing it for extended periods. I decided to play with the speech recognition just to see.

Basically, it works pretty well. Far from perfect. In fact, I’m not sure that Dragon 10 wouldn’t be better. That said, it’s built in, and feels much lighter weight (starts up instantly, shuts down instantly, doesn’t shift application windows around to put its toolbar up, etc.).

It took me a while to get it to work with my USB headset. Basically, you don’t tell the speech recognition program which device to use. In order to use it with the USB headset, you have to set the USB headset to be the default microphone on the system, and then the speech recognition program automatically picks it up.

You might be asking why I wanted to use the USB headset? The simple reason is that my headset has a microphone mute button on the cord. That’s very cool for speech recognition. If the phone rings, or Lois wants to talk, I can just hit the mute button, and speech recognition is off, even though the program is still listening. It simply can’t hear anything. As a bonus, in theory, the recognition should be better, but for now, I don’t care too much about that.

Here’s one annoyance. It was my intention to dictate this entire post, including all of the actual production of it (clicking the save button, publish, etc.). Unfortunately, I gave up after five minutes. I tend to write my posts in Firefox, right in the admin interface of WordPress. Even with Allow Dictation Everywhere set on in speech recognition, it doesn’t think that Firefox is a normal input program (though it recognizes that I’m in a text area).

So, every phrase gets put up in a dialog box for me to confirm. It got them all correct, but I couldn’t just speak the post. I could have dictated into Word, WordPad, NotePad, WindowsLiveWriter, etc., and in the future I might just do that, but for now, I’m typing this post…

Using speech recognition in Command Mode works reasonably well. I can switch applications easily, select menu items, switch folders in email (Thunderbird, which obviously isn’t written by Microsoft), etc. Yesterday, while eating lunch with both hands, I had an IM conversation with someone by speaking my responses and saying Enter after each one. The concept was very cool, even though I had to correct a bunch of words (I wasn’t using the USB headset at the time).

Anyway, I recommend playing around with speech recognition in Vista if you work in a room alone, or have a spouse (or co-worker) who would be amused by your ranting at the computing out loud. 😉

Welcome Back Courier-IMAP

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When Matt was maintaining this server, starting back in 2001, he installed Courier-IMAP for our mail service (both IMAP and POP). It worked extremely well for many years. At one point, IMAP folders started taking a long time to open. Once they were open, performance was excellent. I think this was due to not enough simultaneous open connections allowed from the same IP address.

I’ve been maintaining this machine for a while, but I didn’t bother to do anything with Courier-IMAP even though it had started annoying me. Over 18 months ago, I switched to a new server. I decided to build it from scratch, correcting some legacy problems along the way. One of them was the above-mentioned IMAP hangs (not always, but annoying nonetheless).

After some research, I chose Dovecot as the new POP and IMAP server. I was impressed with how easy it was to install and configure. While there were tons of options to choose from, all of them are controlled in one dovecot.conf file, with extremely clear descriptions of what each choice entails. Once installed, it worked perfectly, and I was very pleased with my decision.

This joy lasted for more than a year! Then, at some point (possibly after my server was physically moved from one data center to another), a few times a day (typically 1-3 times), Dovecot would think that the system clock had moved backwards in time (it never does, and no other program every complains about that). Dovecot sees this as a very bad event (understandably) and exits automatically.

After noticing this a few times, I installed a monitoring program called Monit. I am running a 5.0 beta version, but monit has been flawless in every respect, even in beta. Since I installed monit, every time that Dovecot would quit, monit would restart it within 30 seconds, and email me that it just restarted it. That’s how I know it’s a daily event, sometimes multiple times a day.

I’ve lived with this nonsense for way too long. Each time, I assumed that the next version of Dovecot would magically fix my problem, even though it started on a version that had worked perfectly for months before the problem started! As much as I like everything else about Dovecot, I finally gave up.

This weekend, I installed Courier-IMAP (a much newer version than the one we used to run). I made sure to allow more concurrent connections from the same IP address (both Lois and I always come across as coming from the same IP address). I had a few hassles with the configuration (even though there are way fewer things to choose than with Dovecot). After about an hour of messing around (probably all my own fault, over-thinking some of the choices), I got it working.

There was only one side-effect to the change. Under Dovecot, my IMAP folders were shown in the mail client as follows:

INBOX:

———>XXX

———>YYY

———>ZZZ

After switching to Courier-IMAP, the structure in the mail clients was:

INBOX:

———>INBOX:

——————–>XXX

——————–>YYY

——————–>ZZZ

We can all live with it, and no mail was lost. It’s a minor nuisance.

I tested on a separate port, and when POP and IMAP were working, I turned Dovecot off and restarted Courier-IMAP with the correct default ports.

I then wrote an email to all of my users (all four of them). 😉

However, when I went to send the email, the send failed with a SASL authentication error. Ugh. I have saslauthd on the system (it wasn’t running, because Dovecot was performing that service as well). I started it up, but even though I played around a bit, I couldn’t get Postfix to authenticate correctly through it.

After looking at the top of the dovecot.conf file, I saw that by changing one line (which protocols Dovecot should handle) to “none”, it would run in SASL authentication mode only. That worked. So, now I still run Dovecot for authentication (since I didn’t have to change anything), and Courier-IMAP for mail fetching.

So far, the system has been running for a little over 24 hours, with no exits on the part of Courier-IMAP or the Dovecot auth daemon. I also haven’t had any hangs on opening an IMAP folder. It’s still very early, but the Dovecot IMAP server would have died at least once by now (guaranteed), so it’s already a win.

Here’s hoping that this will be a permanent change…

Update: First, so far so good. No exits in 4+ days! More important, I just stubmbled across a post that gave me the answer to my nested mailbox problem above. Apparently, Dovecot repeats the .INBOX in front of each sub-folder in the Maildir folder. In other words, .INBOX.SPAM is the SPAM folder, directly under the main INBOX in Dovecot. Courier-IMAP expects it to just be .SPAM in the top-level Maildir folder, in order to be considered a direct sub-folder of the main .INBOX.

I moved the folder names, unsubscribed the old one and subscribed to the new ones, and my folder hierarchy is now sane again. Whew. 😉

Update: It turns out that the fault lies not with Dovecot, but with some bad code in the Linux Kernel for certain hardware configurations (obviously, mine included) that causes the system clock to jump a few times a day. There is a long thread about it on the Dovecot mailing list, which points to a very long thread on the Linux Kernel maintainers list. So, while the problem definitely affected me, it’s not Dovecot’s fault, which correctly notices the jump, and decides that it’s safer to exit than to guess. Perhaps a future kernel update (I just applied one today) will solve the problem. I don’t feel like hand-patching my kernel, or Dovecot…

Sister Hazel at Fillmore NYC

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We own two Sister Hazel CDs. In the pre-iPod days, Lois used to bring 20-30 CDs along whenever we took long drives. One or both of the Sister Hazel CDs made it into that pile nearly every time.

In the last few years, even though Sister Hazel is on our iPod, they didn’t get much play. A few months ago, Lois played them, and we fell in love all over again. That made me look to see whether they were touring, and indeed, they had a concert scheduled for NYC last night (December 13th).

It was at the new Fillmore at Irving Plaza, a venue we had never been to. Pretty close to our apartment. I wasn’t crazy about the 9pm start time (we’re old) but we were reasonably excited nonetheless.

We rarely purchase tickets for a show unless the seats are reasonably good, it’s first come first served (so we can line up early), or it’s Girlyman. 😉

The Fillmore is either owned, or exclusively run, by Live Nation. When I purchased the tickets, they were Row 9, Seats 31 and 32. Sounded reasonably good, so we were happy.

We drove from the house to the apartment and spent the day there. At 8pm, we headed to the Fillmore. When we walked in, we were completely disoriented. No seats at all. Everyone standing up (scrunched in near the stage), in a cavernous room with a big screen showing videos covering the stage. A bar in the back. A very young crowd, looking for a great show, but also a ton of drinking and dancing.

So not our scene I can’t even tell you. We asked a few people where the seats were (I honestly thought this might be a staging area, before the concert started. A few people pointed us up to the balcony. There were some small round tables with bar stools, but more people were standing up there.

We went downstairs to the main entrance and asked about the seats. We were told that it was a standing up show, general admission. When the manager came out, he showed us on the tickets that it said Section GA, which we were supposed to understand meant Section General Admission. Huh? GA, but with an assigned Row and Seat?

He said that the row and seat were purely for accounting purposes. Wow, how nice of them to account for where I might have been seated.

Lois asked for a refund, and he refused. After a bit of arguing back-and-forth, he said that he would do what he could, but that I would have to take care of it back on the website that we originally ordered the tickets from. He took down some information from me and said he would submit the info on his side to make the transaction smoother for me.

I’m very skeptical as to whether we’ll get our money back, but we were glad to leave anyway, even if we lose our money. There were two opening acts, so Sister Hazel wasn’t going to be on stage before 10pm, likely between 10:30 and 11pm! That meant that we could be standing until 1am or later.

It simply wasn’t going to happen. As a bonus, instead of spending the night in the apartment and returning to the house in the morning, we hopped a bus back to the apartment, grabbed our stuff, and were home by 10pm. At least the evening ended smoothly…

Cable Internet Woes

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A long time ago (I can’t remember when), we had a stable, reliable connection in the apartment (provided by Time Warner Cable). It was never super fast on the download (when it was stable, it was roughly 3Mpbs downstream). It was always pokey on the upstream (used to be roughly 360Kpbs). Now, it’s typically 7-8Mbps down, and 490Kbps up.

Unfortunately, while both up and down have gotten faster, the experience has deteriorated. I wish I could point the finger directly at Time Warner, but I can’t. Not because it’s not their fault, but because I have no idea, and that’s been hugely frustrating…

I may be slow to fix things at times, but I’m typically pretty good at diagnosing. I’m completely lost at the moment.

It’s been bad for such a long time, that I’ve come to accept it on some levels, and that’s just silly on my part.

Here are the symptoms: regular disconnects from the Internet. Those drops can last between a few seconds to a minute. The most sensitive applications (the early warning systems) are IM clients (Digsby for me, Trillian for Lois, but Pidgin used to behave identically before I switched to Digsby). Email clients hang if they are fetching or sending at the moment of the drop. When the drops last a bit longer, ssh connections are lost, but not on the short drops. The Poker client disconnects every 20-30 minutes.

Here’s my setup. I had (more on that in a moment) a seven year old Toshiba cable modem (provided by Time Warner). I have a Netgear FVS318 ProSafe VPN Firewall that connects to the cable modem. Years ago, I used it in VPN mode to connect to the office, but now it’s just a plain old router. Connected to that are three devices: an Asterisk server, VoIP ATA (Sipura) and a WiFi router.

After working great for years, when the trouble started, I suspected the wireless router (at the time, it was a Linksys WRT54G). I swapped it for a US Robotics spare that I had sitting around. The US Robotics device exhibited different problems. It went for longer periods without drops, but then would drop for longer periods (rebooting it seemed to always work). Since it was a bit older, and only a B router, I bought a Netgear WNR854T (an N router). I bought it re-certified.

It behaves just like the Linksys did, more frequent drops, but of shorter duration, that always auto-correct. I know, it’s re-certified, but still, three WiFi routers in a row? Yesterday, while at the house, enjoying my fantastic Verizon FiOS connection (30Mbps down, 5Mbps up), it occurred to me that the only thing all three WiFi routers have in common is the port they share on the FVS318 router.

I was actually excited to have a theory to test. When we got to the apartment mid-morning, I fired up the laptop, and swapped both the cable and the port that connected the WiFi router to the FVS. No Internet connection at all! What? We were just here on Wednesday, and it was working (albeit with the stated problems).

Rebooting the cable modem indicated that the cable modem just decided to die. I marched to the Time Warner service center. The one thing Time Warner does extremely well (and, unfortunately, I’ve taken advantage of this good service way too many times!), is staff a service center and swap devices quickly, with no questions asked.

I got there at about noon on a Saturday, and there were roughly 15 people working the service desks. It took less than five minutes to have my number called, and less than two minutes to swap the cable modem. 15 minutes later, I was back in the apartment (at least I got a bit of exercise). The new cable modem worked right away (still using the new cable and new port from the WiFi to the FVS).

A quick speed test gave me the sense that all of my problems were done. I got 8Mbps down and 492Kbps up, but with no jerkiness in the numbers. A smooth connection, it seemed. All joy died about 20 minutes later, when I had my first IM drop out.

So, in theory, it could still be the cable modem (or the cable company, at the head end). But, I left out a major detail which makes me believe that this is not the case. All of our phone calls are VoIP, so they use the cable modem as well. Whenever we experience a drop on the IM client, if either of us is on the phone, there is no drop on the call. At least, it’s not discernible (which doesn’t mean that a packet isn’t dropped along the way).

I am at my wits end. I have two things that I can try. One is to bypass the WiFi with a PowerLine connection (the cable modem is not in the room where we work). That will work, but if there are any drops, it won’t be clear that it isn’t the PowerLine adapter. The second thing is more painful. I just did the second one this minute. I reprogrammed the WiFi router to completely replace the FVS318. Since we’re leaving now, I won’t know until the next time we’re back whether this will solve the problem. If it does, then it means that the FVS was flaking out in general, somehow.

While it’s possible that three WiFi routers in a row are all bad, in a similar (if not exact) way, somehow, I doubt it. It is ironic that the cable modem just up and died, but the new one is exhibiting the exact same problem, so I don’t think it’s the problem either. For completeness sake, I should report that we are both using brand new laptops, with built-in N WiFi cards. Before that, we were each using Netgear N Cards. Before that, we used different model B and G USB-based WiFi adapters (with the old Linksys and US Robotics), all with the same drops, so it’s most definitely not the client devices!

If any of you have any suggestions out there for what else I can try, I’m all ears!

Welcome WordPress 2.7

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I just upgraded to WordPress 2.7. It was super simple, no glitches whatsoever.

Earlier in the day, I noticed that there was an updated version of the Simple Tags plugin that I use, clearly stating that it worked with 2.7. I upgraded that while still running 2.6.5.

Then I upgraded WordPress to 2.7 on my laptop, running XAMPP. The only complaint I got was about Simple Tags, which I hadn’t upgraded on the laptop (and I updated it then). All other plugins just worked, and the new theme, PrimePress just worked as well.

I hadn’t installed any betas or release candidates before, so this is my first real look at the new admin interface. I’ve seen screen shots, and it’s crisp, clean and reasonably intuitive.

I’m officially a fan, even though I clearly haven’t exercised it in any meaningful way yet. 🙂

P.S. First glitch, the Preview link gave me a 404, so something isn’t being put where it should be. Can’t find an obvious cause, so I’m punting for now, and just publishing. I’ll track down my preview problem over the weekend…

Update: I just did a test of Preview on the laptop, and it worked fine. So, there isn’t anything wrong at the WP level. I am now quessing that something about the URL scheme for Previews changed slightly, and my own rules at the NginX level are failing (the equivalent of Apache rewrite rules). When I’m sure, I’ll update again…

Solution: This morning, I discovered that if I override the permalink in the preview URL and use the old-style ?p=NNN format, the preview worked. That allowed me to search with more detail. That turned up the following patch. Ironically, the patch was just posted yesterday, so I wouldn’t have found it on Friday anyway. I don’t know if it works (because I haven’t made a new post since I applied the patch), but at least I can preview by using the old-style URL if need be…

Vista Hotsync Success

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I’ve written numerous times about the fact that Palm doesn’t support (nor intend to support!) Vista x64. I have also noted that many people claim to have success with Bluetooth Sync (and Phone-as-Modem as well).

I recently reported getting Phone-as-Modem to work over BT, but have had zero success with Hotsync over BT.

Following the instructions in this forum post, I have finally successfully sync’ed the Treo 755p with Vista x64! The technique uses a Network Hotsync, using the Sprint Network. I couldn’t test it until today when I got home and could put the correct port forwarding comnands on my router.

It worked instantly. The first sync was extremely painful (in length) because the machine correctly noticed that it was a first sync, and that the Treo had previously been syncing with another machine. In total, it took 80 minutes and drained 1/4 of the Treo battery in the process. Still, it worked with no errors or timeouts!

The second sync picked up on other things that were left out of the initial sync, and it took about 20 minutes. The third sync became a more normal sync, and took roughly two minutes (not too bad at all!).

I don’t sync all that often, so I don’t really care about the speed. Even with the cable, I was syncing roughly once a month.

This will be workable for the forseeable future even if I never get BT sync to work. The only downside is that I won’t be able to sync when traveling, because I won’t be able to control the port forwarding to the laptop. I tried doing something clever with a reverse SSH tunnel, but I think there might be some UDP packets involved, and SSH is only forwarding the TCP packets.

Either way, I’m back to being a happy camper, even if Palm didn’t help.

Also, just for the record, I am running the Sprint version of the Palm software, installed off of the Treo 755p installation CD that came with the phone. That CD claims that you need to visit Palm for an updated Vista version (which also runs on my machine). But, as I have noted before, everything seems to run fine on Vista x64, now that SP1 is out, including the Palm software that isn’t supposed to work.

Now if they only wrote a USB driver, I’d be all set!

Semi Bluetooth Success

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For those who read this space regularly, you know that the one thing I’ve struggled with on my otherwise perfect new laptop is getting my Treo 755p working with Vista x64. The USB Cable option simply isn’t available, as Palm is too busy dying to support an up-and-coming version of the most popular operating system in history…

But, many people report success using Bluetooth to sync (and dial up I guess). I wasn’t able to get either working, even though I was able to pair the phone to my laptop (it has a built-in BT radio). I admit that I didn’t kill myself to get it going, but I tried many things.

Today, I decided to try again (given the hassles that I had on our trip this past weekend to Birmingham, where I connected through Lois’ old laptop using ICS). I found instructions on the Palm website for connecting Windows DUN via Bluetooth to a Treo 755p.

When I tried it, I got the same error that I did previously, “modem already in use”. This time, I had a clue (last time I didn’t). In messing around today, I deleted the original pairing, leaving myself without a device. Somehow, that hung Hotsync Manager. When I killed and restarted it, it said that it couldn’t connect to Serial Port COM41, but would connect automatically if it became available!

Aha, that was the clue I was missing, that somehow, Hotsync Manager was successfully grabbing the Serial Port, even though it wasn’t correctly syncing! After re-pairing (not repairing) 😉 I quit Hotsync Manager, and then did the normal DUN dance on the PC (with Sprint, you dial #777 with no username/password). I pay for full Phone-as-Modem (PAM) from Sprint, but on XP I use their Sprint Broadband Connection Manager application (which won’t even install on Vista x64!).

Voila, it dialed and authenticated right away. I had a semi-pokey connection, 341Kbps download and 105Kbps upload, but hey, that’s infinitely better than no connection at all!

At least now we don’t both need to share one connection. That’s not the big win though. At some point, Lois might actually want to switch to her new laptop (don’t hold your breath, I stopped holding mine!) 😉 and when that happens, we wouldn’t have had any Treo connectivity. Now each of us will be able to use our phones via BT if/when necessary. I continue to hope to never need such a connection, but at least I’m not as likely to cancel the insurance premium just yet, now that I know it works.

Sprint will continue to get a crazy premium from me for the moment, until an Android phone that I like becomes available. Now if I can only figure out how to sync via BT (others claim it works perfectly, but my phone hangs every time, instantly)… 🙁

Giving Thanks

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Lois and I are truly thankful every day of our lives. We’ve been blessed in so many ways, we couldn’t accurately count. Near the top of any list of blessings for us, you would find our wonderful godchildren. In 2008, we were extra-blessed, when Laura got married, and moved to NYC with her husband. They now live in the same building we do, so we get to see them more often than we ever used to!

Unfortunately, while Laura came north, David went south. He is doing his first year of medical residency at UAB (University of Alabama Birmingham). It was his first choice, and he loves it, but we miss him. We hadn’t seen him since Laura’s wedding on July 5th. For us, that’s an unusually long stretch not to see one of them.

We’ve now corrected that, and were rewarded (blessed) with a near-perfect long weekend!

On Tuesday afternoon, we drove from Zope to Durham and spent the night in a Hampton Inn there. The next morning we picked up a very good friend of David’s (and for a long time, ours too, once David introduced us) and we headed to Birmingham, AL. The drive was going along fine, including a successful detour off of I85 to avoid a horrible accident, until we hit Atlanta (mid-afternoon). We were stuck in traffic for nearly two hours, for what should have been a 15-20 minute drive-by. All things considered, not that bad.

We got to Birmingham at a reasonable hour nonetheless, and after checking out David’s apartment, headed for a wonderful meal at La Mesa Cantina and Grill. It’s a different type of Mexican Restaurant. The place is gorgeous (including the bathrooms). You can check out the photo gallery and the menu if you might ever find your way there. I had three soft tacos, two with fried oysters and one with grilled skirt steak. They were excellent, but the oysters were truly outstanding. Next time, I’d probably go for three of them!

David Wes Le Mesa

David and Wes at Le Mesa

After some coffee and catching up at David’s, Lois and I headed to the local Embassy Suites to check in, leaving Wes and David to catch up (and play NCAA Football on the PS3).

Epic Battle

Epic NCAA Battle

I have chronicled my WiFi woes at the hotel in two separate posts, here and here. Without that experience, I would have described this weekend as perfect as opposed to near-perfect. 😉

On Thanksgiving day we headed to David’s mid-morning and relaxed there for a while. We then headed out for lunch and a movie. Amazingly, there were no places open for lunch near the movie theater, which was at a giant outdoor mall called The Summit. We even drove around a bit in the surrounding neighborhood, and every single place (other than McDonalds) was closed.

We decided to be pragmatic and we bought prepared food at Brunos (a supermarket near the theater) and ate it at a table that they provide expressly for this purpose). No one would confuse our lunch for a gourmet meal, but we all enjoyed it nonetheless, and it ended up being very convenient.

Brunos Lunch

Brunos Lunch

We headed over to the movie early, which gave us enough time to split a large buttered popcorn (which was indeed gourmet!) 😉 between the three guys.

Popcorn

Popcorn

We saw Four Christmases. Most of it was laugh-out-loud funny, with a few way-too-stupid scenes thrown in to ensure that it wasn’t a great movie… Seriously though, if you like comedies, there are definitely a ton of laughs. Both Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon do a great job, and the majority of the supporting cast is excellent as well. Wes and I were repeating lines from the movie for days, so it definitely hit the funny bone.

In addition to the humor, there are a few reasonably deep family/life insights, most of which are delivered cleverly or at least in an interesting way, so there is even a bit of redeeming value to the movie. 🙂

We returned to David’s and relaxed the rest of the afternoon, and mentally prepared for the big Thanksgiving meal. Finally the time arrived, and we headed back to our hotel for the event. In the lobby of the Embassy Suites is a Ruth’s Chris. We’ve all had many great meals at various Ruth’s Chris restaurants over the years, so we had no doubt that this one wouldn’t disappoint. We were right.

We could have ordered a traditional TG Turkey dinner, but the boys all went for steak. No surprise, as we had been talking about it for a few days beforehand. We also shared an exceptional bottle of Ridge Zinfandel (2006). Don’t get me started about how great most bottles of any Ridge wine are. It’s one of my all-time favorite wine makers.

Ruth's Chris Thanksgiving

Ruth's Chris Thanksgiving Dinner

We skipped dessert there and headed back to David’s, where we had coffee and some cheesecake that we bought earlier at Bruno’s. It was fantastic.

The next morning (Friday), David left early for an overnight on call shift. That’s 30+ consecutive hours in the hospital, usually with little-to-no sleep. We don’t understand the point, but it’s a regular part of his life/schedule, so it’s just a fact of life at this point.

We decided to take the opportunity to create an adventure for the rest of us, which I’ve documented separately. The only thing wrong with Friday was that David didn’t get to enjoy it with us, and that we didn’t get to enjoy David’s company. Otherwise, a perfect day!

On Saturday, we headed to David’s mid-morning to hang with Wes. After a few hours, David called to say that he was headed home. Lois and I went out to bring lunch back in. The plan was Chick-Fil-A (which I’ve never had the pleasure of), but rather than go to the one Wes directed me to, I allowed the GPS to pick a closer one, which ended up being closed. We brought back Quiznos instead, which served the purpose just fine.

You can tell just how wiped David gets after being on call. He needed a slightly larger shot of caffeine than Wes did. 😉

Extra Caffeine

Extra Caffeine

Right after lunch, David napped while Wes and I watched college football and caught up with emails. I created a mini-panic when I tried to fix what felt like a flaky WiFi router in David’s apartment. We had no Internet connectivity for nearly an hour. Eventually, I got it all working again, and it seemed less flaky, but there were moments when I was wishing to have flaky back. 🙁

When David woke up, we watched more football. We didn’t want to go to dinner until the Iron Bowl (Alabama vs Auburn – Roll Tide!) was over, because we were headed to Dreamland BBQ, which we assumed would be a mob scene during the game. We had an excellent meal there (with yet another round of extraordinary service!). Also, since the menu is limited (but exactly what we were interested in), they are constantly cooking all of the available items, so it’s as lightning as fast food, but clearly as good as cooked to order.

On Sunday, we headed to David’s mid-morning again (broken record). We watched the first half of an amateur movie on DVD called The Pinecone Priority. The movie is pretty poorly executed, but it has some extremely clever lines and concepts in it. Wes is one of the stars, so we were happy to watch it, even though it was over-the-top campy… If you watch the teaser/trailer (linked above), you won’t get a sense of how the movie itself is poorly executed, but you’ll see another form of poor execution. Most of the trailer is black. At exactly the 1:24 mark, you can barely see one scene. Wes is the guy on the left in that scene.

Here’s a better picture of Wes, taken by Lois, while Wes was on the TV. This time, he’s on the right. 😉

Pinecone Priority

The Pinecone Priority

We headed for PF Changs for lunch (back at The Summit). All of us count it among our favorite restaurants. The meal was exquisite, including our first taste of the Kung Pao Scallops. David and I split an order of Moo Shoo Pork, which simply couldn’t have been any better. We then did a little shopping, including picking up a Blue Ray DVD of Tropic Thunder to watch later on.

We relaxed back at David’s the rest of the afternoon and finished up watching The Pinecone Priority, and then David, Wes and Lois headed to an evening church service. I stayed at the apartment and played (and lost) in my weekly big poker tournamet (I already reported about the crushing loss I took in November…). They brought back pizza for dinner. I called the order in to Dave’s Pizza while they were still in church. The timing worked out perfectly.

We then watched Tropic Thunder. This movie is way over the top, and was definitely not a hit with the entire crowd. That said, it had some pretty funny scenes and lines in it, and the concept was quite clever, if overdone in the delivery. It seems that no one associated with this movie ever heard of the word subtlety. Given that I am a sucker for most forms of comedy (even reasonably bad ones), I likely enjoyed it more than the rest of them, but honestly, even I don’t recommend this one to anyone. 😉

After coffee and one last slice of the heavenly cheesecake, Lois and I headed back for one last night at the Embassy Suites. In the morning, we headed over for one last hug from David, and headed on the long trek back to Fredericksburg (and Zope). We dropped Wes at Durham, after stopping in the Hampton Inn where we stayed a week ago. I had accidentaly left my Treo charger in the room, and they were kind enough to hold it for me. We had to drive back through Durham anyway, so it wasn’t as inconvenient as it could have been.

We made it back to the hotel at 8:30pm, which was almost exactly 12 hours after we left Birmingham. We had essentially zero traffic the entire way, which was extraordinary, and another thing we give thanks for on this weekend.

We couldn’t be more thankful for this wonderful visit, regardless of whether it was Thanksgiving proper or not. We’re already counting the days until we find our way back to Birmingham (and Atlanta). 🙂

And, just because Lois loves this one… 😉

Ernie Tea Cup

Ernie's Tea Cup