Monthly Archives: August 2011


The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.

— G. K. Chesterson

I saw this quote for the first time last night, and I love it.

Quick Lion Update

Mac OS X version 10.7.1 came out a few days ago, and I updated. It didn’t solve any of my problems, at least not any of them that I directly tested for. Mail was still crashing on the daily junk mail summary and the Safari rendering engine was still crashing on many internal websites. I didn’t try adding the IMAP server or the 802.11x profile.

But this morning, I ran across this new (though undated) notice, which is being prominently linked on some campus websites. I applied the proposed fix, and now most of my problems seem to have disappeared. The mail crash is gone, and Safari is no longer barfing (or infinitely redirecting) on internal VT websites. The fix makes me a little uneasy, as it disables some certificate trust protocols, but from what I hear about some of the root certificates that are trusted by all major browsers, I’m not sure any of us should be sleeping that well at night regarding SSL security, anyway.

Seeing that those two critical items were fixed, I tried to switch my email to IMAP (which requires adding a new IMAP account and then deleting the POP account) so that I could reactivate access via my phone. When I entered my email address into the auto-discovery form it didn’t crash…but it found the campus Exchange server, which no longer hosts my mail. Sigh.1 After turning off the WiFi, entering the server details manually, and then turning WiFi back on, though: Success!

All that’s really left is to get 802.1x working again. But 802.1x is a mess on a good day. So, I think I’ll save that one for later.

Update: 802.1x is working now. I can’t tell, actually, if there was an actual bug before or if I was just doing it wrong. The trick, though, which I found on another university’s website, was to follow instructions designed to get 802.1x authentication working with iOS, rather than trying to follow instructions for getting it working for Mac OS X 10.5/10.6.

  1. I still have an account on the campus Exchange server, though, unlike the vast majority of VT users (i.e. all of our students). So, I’m curious as to what auto-discovery is finding for them. But not curious enough to test and see. 

Complex Systems Quote

I ran across the following quote today. I think that it is applicable to the kinds of systems that I encounter in my research: the internet, mobile ad hoc networks, and dynamic spectrum access networks. I also think it has something to do with my nascent sabbatical project, although I haven’t quite worked out what.

Systems that are both tightly coupled and highly complex, Perrow argues in Normal Accidents (1984), are inherently dangerous. Crudely put, high complexity in a system means that if something goes wrong it takes time to work out what has happened and to act appropriately. Tight coupling means that one doesn’t have that time. Moreover, he suggests, a tightly coupled system needs centralised management, but a highly complex system can’t be managed effectively in a centralised way because we simply don’t understand it well enough; therefore its organisation must be decentralised. Systems that combine tight coupling with high complexity are an organisational contradiction, Perrow argues: they are ‘a kind of Pushmepullyou out of the Doctor Dolittle stories (a beast with heads at both ends that wanted to go in both directions at once)’.

— Donald MacKenzie, “How to Make Money in Microseconds,” London Review of Books, vol. 33, no. 10, pp. 16–18, May 19, 2010.

Update: In my haste to post this, I forgot to include a link to the original essay, which is quite fascinating. The link has been added. As far as I know, Donald MacKenzie is no relation of mine. (However, I have several close relatives on my father’s side that I have never met. So, who knows. Donald MacKenzie is a professor in Scotland, though, and most of my unknown relatives are American and Canadian.)

Lion Makes Me Cry

For previous major releases of Mac OS X, I’ve generally waited until the 10.X.1 version was released, as the 10.X.0 version is often a bit buggy or unstable. But somehow I got a little too hyped about Lion (10.7) and installed it (10.7.0, that is) within the first couple of days. This was a mistake. There are many things that I like about Lion, and I think ultimately it will be a another great release of a great operating system. This is not a post about that. It’s a post about my woes, since upgrading.

To summarize the woes in a single sentence: I crash and Safari’s rendering engine at least once a day, and, to prevent additional crashes of (which would occur so frequently as to render it completely useless), I’ve had to change my mail setup in a way that makes it impossible to interact with my main work email account from my iPhone.

Luckily, according to Wikipedia, the last three major versions of Mac OS X have had their .1 releases out within a month, and usually their .2 releases out within a couple months after that. So, I’m hopeful that things will resolve fairly quickly. I hear that 10.7.2 has already been seeded to developers. (So, I presume that 10.7.1 will be forthcoming soon.)

Now, for the gory details. I’ll mention Safari’s issues first, because they are easiest to explain. And one of them may be the root cause of most of my problems.

  • Whenever I visit any of a number of secure websites (https) maintained by my employer, Safari’s rendering engine crashes or, in some cases, I get infinitely redirected between http and https versions of a page until Safari gives up and presents an error page. I suspect that this has something to do with the fact that my employer uses a self-signed root certificate to sign all of our other SSL certificates, because I have seen rumblings on the internets that this causes problems under Lion.1 But in any case I have “trusted” this root certificate in my Keychain, and regardless this should cause an error or warning, not a crash. Also, it doesn’t happen on every https site with a self-signed certificate (e.g. I can use webmail), just many of them. I’ve been working around this problem by using Firefox to interact with the sites in question, but usually not until after I’ve crashed the rendering engine again. It is possible that this self-signed root is the ultimate cause of other problems, too.

  • An issue too minor to list in my one sentence summary above: I can no longer login to my campus wireless network automatically with 802.11x (which depends upon a local certificate I have, signed by the aforementioned self-signed root). Instead, I have to sign in using a web interface every time I wake my computer from sleep.

  • Every day, I get an email from our campus’s spam filtering service, summarizing all of the mail that it has filtered.2 Every day, I click on this in Mail, or move to it automatically when I handle another message, and, as Mail tries to render the junk mail summary, it crashes.3 My current workaround is to view the message using webmail, and then to remove it from the inbox in Mail without allowing it to be rendered.4

  • I can’t use webmail to delete the junk mail summary message, or anything else, and I can’t use my iPhone to manage mail for this account any more, because I’m now using POP (which I haven’t used regularly since about 1997) to download my mail. I’m using POP because attempts to access the campus IMAP server result in Mail crashing every time. 5

  • And I finally moved my mail account back to our campus’s POP/IMAP mail solution because attempting to get mail to access our campus Exchange server also resulted in Mail crashing every time. (I’ve been planning to move my account off the Exchange server for years, though. Nice to finally have an excuse, I guess.)

  • In fact, even adding the POP server to Mail was no piece of cake, because Mail no longer provides a way to add a manually configured mail account until after it attempts to configure an account automatically. And (surprise, surprise) attempting to automatically configure mail accounts on my campus resulted in Mail crashing every time. So, I turned off the internet, let automatic configuration fail without crashing, fixed the default settings that remained, and then turned the internet back on.

With workarounds, none of these are complete productivity killers. But they are pretty annoying.

In addition to seeing how quickly Apple manages to address some of these problems, it will also be interesting to see how fast our campus computing support team can address them. If it were any other time of year, I’m sure they’d just recommend that people not update to Lion yet. But in the next two weeks we’ll have hundreds of students coming to campus with brand new Macs on which Lion came pre-installed. So far, though, not a peep out of them about Lion.

  1. I think I heard we were transitioning away from the self-signed certificates, but I am unsure of the status of this migration. 

  2. Which, I might add, is an order of magnitude better than shuffling it into a folder that I never get around to looking at, which is what happens with me and most spam filtering solutions. 

  3. Interestingly, Safari can render the message using the webmail interface. So, this is not exactly the same mechanism as whatever is causing the Safari rendering engine to crash. 

  4. If you drag a message other than the one currently being viewed out of the active mailbox in Mail, then Mail never tries to render it. 

  5. For reasons that I don’t understand, the iPhone has stopped even downloading new messages from this account. It was downloading them for the first couple of days after I switched to POP (although, of course, marking them all unread, as POP doesn’t support setting mail status on the server), and then it just stopped. I haven’t really investigated though, because with no ability to archive mail or even mark it as read, I figure I’m better off waiting until I’m at my computer to look at it. 

In Which I Take a Short Vacation

Last weekend, we took a short beach vacation. We left on Thursday afternoon, arriving in Myrtle Beach, SC late Thursday night. We drove back on Monday afternoon, after enjoying three and a half “beach days” with the kids. I had a wonderful time, and I think we’re going to make the beach vacation a summer tradition.

I jokingly called this my “four-days-every-ten-years vacation” in an email to a friend. This was a slight exaggeration, but less than you might think. I travel quite a bit for work, and sometimes I’m able to slip in a bit of sightseeing. Before we had kids, my wife and I were even able to tack a few pretty nice vacations onto the tail end of work trips. However, I think the last time we went somewhere completely independent of my work or a family visit was, literally, ten years ago, when we went to Walt Disney World. And, since our first child was born almost five years ago, I can only think of one trip we’ve made together that wasn’t primarily to visit family, and it was also work-related.

So, earlier this summer Becky said that she wanted us to start taking family vacations. I had already been thinking that I wanted to take the kids to the beach, because Charlie had become interested in seeing the ocean, and I wanted to show it to him. So, I looked at my schedule and found a workable long weekend, and then I started trying to find a Hilton Worldwide hotel at which to burn some HHonors points.

My original thinking was to go to our nearest beach. We only had a long weekend, after all. However, it turns out that this is basically folly, as the map shows. The circle on the map is centered on Blacksburg and passes through Myrtle Beach. You can see that even our closest beach, probably Virginia Beach, isn’t much closer. And, I found an Embassy Suites on the beach in Myrtle Beach which could be booked on the desired weekend for a reasonable number of points. So, I booked it.

Blacksburg Beach Radius

At the time of booking, I knew that we’d have a suite and free breakfast (because that’s what Embassy Suites always provides), that we’d have beach and pool access (the key ingredients for a beach vacation), and that we’d have access to whatever Myrtle Beach had to offer. I didn’t know much else.

Some further research revealed that the hotel was in a resort called Kingston Plantation with condos and whatnot, and that the resort had a “water park” that was free to guests. (At least to guests of the Embassy Suites hotel and the Hilton nearby, and to some condo guests, the distinctions between which I couldn’t really grok.) I wasn’t sure what to make of this, as my conception of a water park (formed in the late 80s and early 90s) was a place with a wave pool and lots of tall, fast water slides. I knew the “water park” at the resort would be smaller scale, but I still expected this basic formula.

It turns out that the “water park” would probably be more accurately called a “water playground.” As far as I know, these didn’t exist when I was a kid, or at least I never came across one. And, in addition to the beach, it was probably the highlight of our trip. It was basically a playground sitting in a foot of water. It had a couple of tame water slides, a giant bucket on top that dumped water on the whole place every three or four minutes, and countless sprayers, spigots, waterwheels, buckets, and chutes. And much of it was interactive. There were water valves everywhere that you could turn, ropes you could pull, and handles you could pump that would cause water to shoot from some obvious or whimsical place. It was completely perfect for my three-year-old and four-year-old, and I have to admit that it was pretty good fun for me, too. I think it would be perfect for kids up to about 10–12, but probably not so exciting for the teenage set. It’s hard to imagine a better way to beat the heat—although I noticed it could be a bit cool even in the heat when the sky was overcast. And there was a short lazy river, too, which maybe I can enjoy more when the kids are a bit older.

Splash Waterpark at Kingston Plantation

And, other than play with the kids and take care of the logistics that parenting entails, I did essentially nothing for the whole trip. I didn’t look at email or social media. I didn’t really look at the web, except to extract vacation-related information. I ignored the news. I didn’t make progress on the novel I’m reading. And this, too, was wonderful.

So, in short, we’ll be going back to the beach. And probably for a longer stay next year. If the hotel remains an Embassy Suites, we’ll probably stick with it. (We heard another guest indicate that the hotel was being sold to a different brand. But, if true, I can’t find anything about it on the web.)

The Continued Saga of Campus Physical Addresses

Well that didn’t last long. Just received a memo asking that use of the new campus physical addresses be suspended immediately. No real explanation as to why, just a statement from the Vice President for Administrative Services that “we immediately realized significant challenges with the implementation.”

A taskforce is being formed to study the issue and replan the implementation.

I suspect there will be a notice up about this on the university website, but it hasn’t been posted yet. I’ll update with a link when I see it.

(I didn’t mean to turn this into a blog about campus physical addresses. But it made sense to mention it in my directions post, and it then took on a life of its own. A blog post on my terrific vacation coming soon; that should really bring in the readers.)