RIP Burt Reynolds

Yesterday, legendary actor Burt Reynolds died. The star of Smokey and the Bandit, Deliverance, and other films was 82.

I got the chance to briefly meet Burt when he gave a pre-game speech to Florida State alumni on November 10, 2001 when N.C. State was the visiting team. He was of course mobbed by FSU well-wishers that day but kindly took a moment for me to take a photo of him with my starstruck mother. Meeting him meant a lot to my mom but what always struck me about the photograph is that Burt truly looks like it meant a lot to him, too. It wasn’t a faked smile, or a pained look like he had somewhere else to be. He truly seems like he enjoyed the moment, like he had known my mom forever.

You often hear of celebrities who seem nice in public but turn out to be jerks when the cameras aren’t around. Burt Reynolds was exactly who he seemed to be: just a funny, kind, down-to-earth guy.

Rest in peace, sir.

Brain scans in the name of science

Yes, I do have a brain.


I took the day off yesterday to travel to Boston University to participate in a Gulf War Illness research study. The study is looking to identify biomarkers that might indicate Gulf War Illness. It cost me a day off of work and paying for my travel expenses but I was able to add my information to the pool of data so that it might help other Gulf War veterans.

Part of yesterday’s tests included a structural MRI, after which I was sent home with a copy of my imaging data. Being a data nerd, this thrilled me and I couldn’t wait to check out what was on my CD. While the typical image tools available for Linux like GIMP were able to view the images, it wasn’t until I installed the MRIcron application that I was able to view my imagery in three dimensions. MRIcon converts the DICOM files that the MRI generated into an open format that can then be manipulated by MRIcron.

Pretty cool, although a bit disconcerting to realize I’m looking at tiny slices of my own head. There’s a strong part of me that keeps thinking “man, you’re not dead yet! You should not be seeing your brain!” Coupled with my image data, MRIcon is a really captivating tool for exploring the structure my brain (and my head as well).

Looking closely at the third image you can clearly see that my eyeballs are shaped completely differently. This probably accounts for my unusual combination of nearsightedness and farsightedness. Good times.

Down the memory lane rabbit hole with BBSes

I’ve been reading through Adam Fisher’s Valley of Genius book and got to the chapter about The Well, one of San Francisco’s first online communities. It reminded me that I, too, was online as early as 1982, dialing up BBSes from my family’s 300-baud modem. I think the first BBS I called was run by a guy at the University of South Carolina.

Of course, a few years later in 1986 I had set up my own BBS in Great Falls, VA called the Basement BBS. At its peak it had 350 members, two high-speed (19.2 Kbps!) modems, and an early consumer hard-drive (10 whole megabytes!). Good times.

Valley also reminded me of my occasional hobby project of figuring out how to get the Basement back online here in the age of the Internet. This has proven to be more challenging than I expected, because:

1. DOS is a strange world, indeed, with lots of obscure drivers, configuration files, and confusing syntax.
2. I have forgotten 90% of the DOS secrets I once knew.
3. Modern virtualization systems were not designed with DOS virtual hosts in mind.
4. Virtualized DOS systems run far faster and with far more memory than their 80s era computers ever had, which causes problems.

Building a virtualized DOS environment is akin to assembling a ship in a bottle. You’re building a replica of an ancient artifact using very limited tools. All this, and I haven’t even gotten to the magic of modem emulation that will connect my BBS to the larger Internet.

This is the perfect geek project, though: a completely useless exercise in technology exploration. I hope, though, that at the end of it I have something to show for my trouble. But if I don’t that’s okay because I will have learned something anyway.

If I’m quiet, I must be busy!

As usual, I’ve had a ton of irons in the fire, squeezing as much out of the waning summertime days as I can. That hasn’t left much time nor inspiration for blogging but I’m hoping to get back on track with this.

Major stuff I’ve been doing around in my free time includes replacing the falling-apart wooden steps on my back deck with composite decking. This project took two sweltering Saturdays to complete but I’m very pleased with how the steps came out. Next up is the deck surface itself which, frankly, will be easier than the steps since there’s far less cutting needed. After that I’ll have to dream up a good plan for replacing the wooden railing but I’ve got a little time to figure that out.

I hope the whole project will be done by fall. Then I’ll combine the scrap wood from my deck with the scrap fencing from my fence job and haul it all away for a clean yard again. Yay!
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Firefox downloads mysterious dbsync file

Yesterday I pulled up some websites using Firefox on my Android phone and I was surprised to find two notifications on my phone that a file called “dbsync” had been downloaded. I do not download files without having some idea of what they are, so needless to say I was surprised. The files were zero-bytes, however, so I didn’t think they would pose much of a threat.

I later did some Googling which led me to this reddit page discussing the issue. Several others have had this happen to them. Some linked to dubious “virus scanner” software which would remove it, though this cure looks more dangerous than the disease.

I chalked it up to some fluke until I was reading the website of local TV station WRAL.Com from my Ubuntu desktop. After a while I had a Firefox prompt asking me to download dbsync:

dbsync


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Alcohol Independence Day

I had my first drink in six weeks yesterday, in honor of achieving a goal I had set before Memorial Day to give up drinking until the Fourth of July. My dry spell wasn’t brought on by anything in particular. My VA doctor had before suggested that I cut back on alcohol, though I averaged less than a single drink a day so my drinking wasn’t excessive. Mostly the challenge was just to see how easily I could do it and if it benefited my health in any way.

My results? It was far easier than I anticipated and, well, I do think my health is somewhat improved but the results aren’t all that dramatic (probably because I didn’t drink much to begin with).
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Stand-up kids

Lost dog spurs action

Last night we had an unexpected guest as a dog followed Hallie home from her neighborhood run. It was a pitbull-looking dog named Dexter who turned out to live at a home just down the street.

When we first were presented with Dexter, the excited pup was all over the place, barely sitting still for me to take a photo. His excitement was contagious, it seems. As I scrambled to photograph the dog and then to ask the neighborhood for advice, both Hallie and Travis were excitedly barking out suggestions for what we should do.

I had to ask them to stop so I could think clearly but this morning I began to appreciate how awesome this really was. We were presented with an emergency event – a strange dog needed rescuing – and both kids jumped in right away with ideas for what to do. I’d seen them do this before – that time when Hallie jumped into gear when a classmate had a seizure, for instance – but it was great to see it demonstrated again.

The world won’t change unless there are people willing to change it. I’m super-proud that I’m helping raise two who won’t pass up the opportunity.

Reading about Ulysses S. Grant

I’m spending less time at the keyboard lately and more with good old-fashioned low-tech entertainment: a book! I checked out Grant, Ron Chernow’s biography of Ulysses S. Grant, back in November and have been working my way through this 1,000+ page tome. Yes, it’s way overdue back to the library but I can’t put it down and – good Lord – who can finish a thousand-page book within the skimpy time frame that Wake County Public Library provides its borrowers?

I’ll have more to say about the book and Grant when I finish it but so far I like how Grant faced failure after failure in life until the war broke out and he found his place.

So, if you wonder why I’m not busier here at the moment, you know I have my nose in a book!

Forty-nine trips around the sun

Birthday volunteering at the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina

Yesterday was my 49th birthday. I spent it being celebrated by my family, catching up on well wishes from Facebook, eating a birthday brunch with Kelly at 18 Seaboard, and going on a fun bike ride with Kelly and Travis down to Lassiter Mill dam and back. A sunny, spring-like day warmed to 65 degrees and rapidly melted away the last piles of snow from last week’s snowfall.

As part of my birthday weekend, the whole family and I volunteered for four hours at the nearby Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina, where we sorted potatoes along with about 30 other volunteers. It felt good to help out, and Kelly and the kids enjoyed it, too.

Life at 49 is pretty good, I have to say. While my body is starting to show some signs here and there of being ancient, overall I’m in excellent health. I’m loving my family, enjoy my job, and have countless friends near and far whom I’m honored to call friends. While my life isn’t perfect I am learning how to enjoy the things I have and to help others as well.