• feneric

Massachusetts Dropping Microsoft Formats

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has announced that it will be embracing open formats in an effort to improve interoperability and help future-proof documents.

Some may find it somewhat surprising that as part of this effort, support for the popular (albeit proprietary and "closed") Microsoft Office formats is being dropped; support for the open OASIS OpenDocument is being added in its place, and support for the PDF (which has always been there) is being continued and expanded.

This actually won't affect Saugus much at all for a variety of reasons. Basically Saugus and the state are thinking along the same lines. Saugus.net in particular has been using open formats (including PDF specifically) since 1998, and adopted the OASIS OpenDocument format back when it was first approved as just a first Committee Draft in 2003.

The OpenDocument format has several advantages over the MS-Word DOC format it's replacing. There are minor advantages like the fact that it tends to be more efficient and thus (on the average) takes less disk space. More importantly though are major advantages like being open and based on clean XML unencumbered by restrictive patents. Pretty much anyone can get at the contents of an OpenDocument file without having to purchase any special software. Furthermore, developers are free to write their own software to work with OpenDocument files without having to purchase special licenses.

This last bit has already resulted in widespread support for the OpenDocument format in multiple applications ranging from free software solutions like OpenOffice, KOffice, & AbiWord to more conventional commercial software solutions like StarOffice and IBM Workplace. It also means that entities like the Town of Saugus and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts are free to make their own solutions that optimally address their specific needs; they aren't forced to deal with any specific vendor for limited canned solutions.

The Commonwealth is expected to be fully compliant by 2007; Saugus should be there well before then.

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    optimistic optimistic
  • feneric

Three Quick Unrelated Things

I just have three quick unrelated things to mention today.

The first is that the RSS feeds mentioned before for all the Saugus discussion groups are now fully functional, so try them out and let me know about any problems that you may encounter.

The second is that I've added a fourth installment to my beginners' guide to using the Internet; this one covers searching for information on the Web.

The third is the most interesting; it's an exciting bit of news about the movie Outta Control. Have you ever heard of it? It was released back in 1990 straight to video, and although it used to be available for rental locally it is so obscure that even the mighty IMDb doesn't currently have a record on it. It relates to Saugus because the vast majority of it was filmed in town (apparently there are a few minutes of Revere and East Boston footage in it as well) as its storyline involves terrorists in Saugus. It even includes coverage of one of the Saugus Fotomats being leveled by a bulldozer.

Even though none of the (scarce) online reviews of the film are positive, I've been trying off and on to get more information about Outta Control for years just for the historical interest. Unfortunately none of the regional video stores that definitely used to have copies (except for possibly the City Video in Provincetown which supposedly still has at least one copy -- I've not bothered to drive all the way down to confirm it) still do, so it isn't a simple matter of just renting it and watching its credits.

The exciting new bit of info is that I found someone who thinks he has a copy and will be sending it in to the Saugus Historical Society. Hopefully then we'll be able to learn more about it, including everyone who was involved with making it.

If anyone does know anything about Outta Control (or has even just seen it), please comment...

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    optimistic optimistic

Saugus Usenet Regional Hierarchy

I've been a little remiss in not blogging about this sooner; it's already been mentioned a few times on Saugus.net, the first time way back in June but also more recently as features have been added to it.

So what is it already? you ask. The technical answer is that Saugus now has its own Usenet regional hierarchy much in the way that places like Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, Milwaukee, Ottawa, Philadelphia, San Antonio, San Diego, San Francisco, and San Jose (as well as who knows how many others) already have. In fact, we tried to incorporate the good things from most of those other places into the design of the local hierarchy while trying to avoid the bad. Likewise the naming scheme is relatively vanilla Usenet.

Of course as Usenet is seemingly rapidly fading into obscurity it may not be immediately obvious why this is all that interesting. The reason it's interesting is also the less technical form of the earlier answer, and it's not just something like Usenet is cool (although many argue that it is). It's really that Usenet is an established, mature, capable, and flexible technology, and this Usenet hierarchy isn't just a Usenet hierarchy accessible to the digerati -- it's also a group of forums accessible to the masses through the web, and may even soon be a group of forums accessible to the masses through RSS (I've got the code about halfway there now).

Being an established technology, Usenet already has a lot of stuff going for it. There were already free high-quality frameworks to both turn Usenet newsgroup into web forums and allow team through-the-web moderation, and we've modified both to suit our needs (even adding Picon support to the web interface).

And this brings us to another point: moderation. All of these new forums are moderated. They're not moderated for reasons of censorship -- they're modified for reasons of spam rejection. We've worked some pretty sophisticated automatic spam rejection filters into the moderation system, and trustworthy users can be whitelisted, so in practice very few messages actually have to be viewed by a human for manual approval or rejection. We're also trying to get at least three moderators per topic (if you'd like to be a moderator for anything just let me know) so there will be negligible work required for each moderator, and messages will hopefully still be processed quickly.

Quite a few topics are already available, and we'll add more based upon user feedback. Some of them may prove quite interesting. Do you want to start a big face-to-face game of Risk or Diplomacy or an online game of Counter-Strike or Quake and don't know if anyone else around would be interested? Try posting a message on the Saugus games forum. Do you want to sell some stuff that didn't move in the yard sale? Try posting a message on the Saugus for sale forum. Do you just want to randomly chat with past and present Saugonians? Try posting a message on the Saugus talk forum.

Most modern e-mail clients have support for Usenet built in. If your software can handle Usenet links, you should be able to access the Saugus Usenet regional hierarchy from here. If not, you can access the Saugus Forums (or should that be Saugus Fora?) from here, or download a more modern e-mail client like Thunderbird.

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Foxes in Saugus

I thought that other Saugonians may find my recent experiences with foxes in Saugus interesting. Many perhaps don't even realize that we have any foxes in Saugus, but I can testify that they can be found not only in Saugus but more specifically in my yard.

I've not bothered to do too much yard work as of late. It's really hard to get enthused about yard work when the space just beyond one's yard is all torn up after literally years of blasting and construction and looks like a quarry suitable for filming an old-school Doctor Who episode. Anyhow, after just a couple months of fairly heavy rain sans mowing, the yard has become well-suited to foxes and it appears a family with five kits has moved into a pile of rubble and underbrush that the developers left behind.

Early morning is playtime, and this morning my wife was quick enough to bring me a camera while we watched them, and I got a few pictures of the kits playing. The pictures are far from ideal as the foxes weren't interested only in playing and not in getting their pictures taken. Still, I was surprised that I was able to get the screen of the window open to take pictures with the kits just a few yards away.

They behave a lot like young human children and many of their games are quicky recognizable. One amusing antic (which never grows old) features a hidden fox doing a four-legged vertical leap with the goal of startling and/or tackling a sibling or two. We watched them play for quite awhile this morning and although their mother herded them away when my twenty-month old daughter started frantically waving and saying "hi!" to them, they were back after a fairly short time to resume their games. It'll be interesting to see if they'll return tomorrow morning.

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    amused amused

The Curious Case of the Saugus Public Schools Web Site

Amazingly the Saugus Public Schools web site has been getting a lot of negative attention lately due to the fact that it was cracked and a weird "Red Eye" message left at its topmost level. In fact, a couple of weeks back Dr. Manville and I were informally discussing it (prior to the library benefit that we both participated in), and he mentioned that he'd even been recently contacted by a local reporter with regards to it.

I don't find it amazing that it's getting some negative attention; what I find amazing is how long it took. It was first cracked back in late 2003 or thereabouts, and prior to that in the early fall of that year the main page had accidentally been cleared out. The cracker, when he or she went in, did not do too much more than add a new page that just so happened to be sitting in the default location for the Saugus Public Schools web site, and most of the subsidiary pages were left intact (although quite a few of them became more-or-less unreachable). Later maintenance dropped quite a few of the unreachable pages, but didn't fix the defaced main page. The last time real information was available on the site was back in the summer of 2003. Note that I've linked to archived copies of each of the site's mentioned states (as recorded by the Internet Archive) so you can see them all for yourself. The key thing to observe here is that this is old news. Saugus.net was averaging two messages per month about it being "strange" or "down" or "wrong" the entire time it was messed up. We have no access to it, though, and we'd always have to tell people that we were willing to help but couldn't do anything about it unless we were given access.

The Saugus Public Schools web site is itself hosted by MECnet (Saugus is affiliated with the MEC), and it's not clear how the cracking was achieved. Site connection though (at the moment, I'm told that within a week or two it'll be made more secure) is limited to FTP, an inherently insecure protocol. Quite possibly the password was sniffed. It's also possible though that any one of a number of other little holes (presumably all now mostly fixed) were utilized. The information listed on the defaced site is associated with Brazil; in particular, it lists a Brazilian domain name so it's assumed the cracker comes from Brazil. It's just another example of how every web site and every computer is a potential target for crackers.

I suppose I should answer the expected question of why I'm using the term cracker in lieu of the more media-popular term hacker. The reason is simple: in computing circles the latter refers to one highly skilled in the art of computer science. Within the computer subculture a hacker is a little like what a gunfighter is in an old Western; in both cases it's a skilled person, and the title implies neither good nor evil. In fact, the terms white hat and black hat are often used for hackers just as they are for old Western gunfighters. A cracker on the other hand is someone who breaks into systems; being a cracker does not necessarily imply a high degree of skill, either, as there are semi-automated tools that can do much of the breaking for even fairly basic users.

The site briefly changed again this weekend, and was set to point directly to the Saugus High School site. This of course is also wrong, and just adds to the confusion for people looking for other schools in town. This change appears to have been executed by someone within mecnet; perhaps it was due to the recent attention the site has gotten.

The site changed again today. As part of a Teaching American History Grant project, Saugus.net is working in conjunction with the Saugus Public Schools and the Saugus Iron Works to make lesson plans related to the concept of teaching with historic places generally available to whomever wishes to use them. I had asked Dr. Manville if he wanted me to temporarily copy the old archived circa 2003 information back in place (so that it at least has the proper links to the proper places) on the side while I was working on the grant site. He agreed that it was better than what had been there, and so earlier today I copied the old information back, being careful not to overwrite any of the newer information that has been uploaded since then (there are a few new pages scattered within). I did a quick search for out-of-date links and removed a few (I'm sure there are still some left) and made a couple of minor updates. The bulk of the material in there is out-of-date and I haven't (at this point, anyway) updated any of it. Likewise, the actual coding of the site smells of the mid-'90s, and the whole thing needs to be introduced to modern concepts like XHTML, CSS, and RDF. I didn't have the time today to tackle that job, though; I'll wait and see what the School Department wants to do with it before I do anything else on it. There is talk of redesigning the whole thing and making the effort to keep it current. Hopefully it'll happen, but of course in this age of rabid budget cuts do understand that it isn't necessarily the highest priority item on the School Department's agenda.

I suppose I should also mention one other point of confusion for many people: there are many ways to enter the Saugus Public Schools site. In fact, all the following work; take your pick:

The first two listed should never change; they reflect the fact that the School Department is a part of the Government of the Town of Saugus and a part of the public school system of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts respectively. The last two listed are both reflective of the fact that the Saugus Public School's site is physically hosted through MECnet in Billerica; if the MEC were to change at some point those addresses could conceivably change along with it. Thus, the first two are to be preferred.

  • Current Mood
    amused amused

Time and the River

Do you have any interesting stories or photographs related to Saugus? The call has been made for content to be submitted for a new book about Saugus. It's being made by the same team (myself included) that created the original A Gathering of Memories: Saugus 1900-2000 and will be fairly similar in concept. As with the earlier book, proceeds will go to a scholarship fund.

The deadline for new submissions is just a couple of weeks away. While we'll read over anything we receive in that time period and possibly include it in the final book, we're particularly looking for content related to topics that were not well covered in the first book. We'd especially like stuff related to (in no particular order):

  • The Saugus lobstering industry.

  • Parks and playgrounds, especially some of the smaller neighborhood parks.

  • Any clubs and non-profit organizations not covered in A Gathering.

  • Saugus-specific products. (Anyone remember Alwinol?)

  • Random curious events like the time a helicopter had a forced landing behind Child World, or the time the military was blasting the Golden Hills underbrush with flamethrowers, or whatever.

Again, anything received in the next couple of weeks will be considered, but time is of the essence. The plan is to get the book out early enough for holiday shopping, and once the stories have been selected there's still a long process of layout, image processing, editing, proofing, printing, assembling, and finally delivered for local distribution. The first two steps are my tasks (through Saugus.net). The next two steps will be performed by a team headed by John Burns and Tom Sheehan. The next two steps will be handled by the Jostens company. I don't know yet who'll be doing the shipping.

Any stories that arrive too late simply can't be considered (regardless of how good they are) and this will probably be the final book project undertaken by this team. A Gathering sold out two printings and is now being considered for a possible CD release; it is expected that this book will also be pretty well received. If you'd like to see your words in print in a hardcover book that'll be read for generations, you have just a short time to get them organized.

P.S. if you haven't figured it out from the title of this article, the current planned title of the new book is Time and the River (not to be confused with Time and the Rani).

  • Current Mood
    optimistic optimistic

Library Benefit

As was noted elsewhere, I performed in Mystery, Maestro, Please!, the benefit at the Saugus Public Library held this past weekend. My part was that of a disfigured recluse director who generally did his best to avoid other people (with an obvious nod toward Phantom). In spite of the rainy weather, the attendance wasn't too bad; ironically in fact lots of people purchased tickets the night of the performance, but lots of people who had prepurchased tickets didn't show.

My role suggested fairly heavy makeup. Actually, I had briefly toyed with the idea of making one really understated scar, as that would have been quite funny when played against the lines provided, but I chose to go in the other direction instead and tried for the literal heavy scarring described. When I was fully dressed for the part, I did in fact look quite a bit different from my normal self. How different? Well, when I first emerged from the bathroom with just the wig and glasses, my eighteen month old daughter wasn't too sure how to react to me (she got used to it though and didn't have any further difficulty when I later added the fake scars and the rest of the costume). My own mother and a couple of my siblings who attended the show (and who didn't have any advance warning of how I'd be dressed) also didn't recognize me until they got fairly close; in fact, when she first saw me my mother thought I may have been the new library assistant director. Thus anyone who had read my writings here or there or anywhere else and wanted to attach a face to them was perhaps out of luck.

On the whole (at least so I'm told) the show went well, and people seemed to like my makeup job. I got quite a few queries regarding how it was done, so I figured I'd describe here the techniques used.

The clothing that the script required consisted of a velvet smoking jacket and related attire as would be appropriate for an old-style director. I managed to find a velvet jacket that more or less fit me in a local thrift shop, and my wife modified it to be a little more fancy. She also modified a shirt for me to add frills to both the sleeves and collar, and fashioned an oversized bow tie to top it off. Shined leather boots and an old pair of gray dress pants completed the outfit. The overall effect was of something the third Doctor might wear (in fact, the modifications my wife made to the velvet jacket were inspired by one of the good Doctor's own jackets).

With regards to my face, I started by first buzzing my hair down to just a quarter of an inch or so and shaving off my sideburns. This enabled me to believably wear a wig, and my wife had inexplicably acquired the perfect one at a yard sale some years earlier. It was long, dark, and unkempt looking. She helped me fashion it into a quick ponytail and it ended up looking greasy and unwashed, but surprisingly real. It also helped hold the broken glasses that I had to wear in place.

The scarring was a little more time consuming to get right. My wife and I combined various ideas that we had and the end results seemed to work out. We started by liberally applying a base to one side of my face. Wy wife's skin is significantly darker than mine, though, so her base makeup didn't match my skin color. We compensated (and thickened the mixture in one swoop) by mixing in white toothpaste. This not only helped the color more closely match, but it left my entire face minty fresh. We then stretched little bits of cotton and placed them more or less vertically onto the base, and covered them with more base makeup; the combination does a pretty good job of mimicking the texture of old scar tissue. We used a blow drier to speed up the drying process; amazingly even at full blast a few inches from my face it didn't feel hot -- in fact without the drier the toothpaste actually made my face feel really cold. Finally when it was dry, we carefully dabbled blush onto it all to blend it in with my real skin. We were both pleased with the overall results.

It held up quite well through the performance, but didn't look too good after getting rained on afterwards. Most of it peeled off pretty easily, although I had to use some of my wife's special makeup soap to get rid of the smell.

If anyone who attended has any comments (good or bad), I'd be delighted to hear them.

Also, on a completely unrelated note, I added I've added another installment to my beginners' guide to using the Internet. This one covers some of the basics of using a modern browser. Future articles will go into more detail. I've not been too fast in getting these installments posted; if anyone who is reading them regularly would like to see them come out more quickly, please let me know and I may be inspired to pick up the pace.

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    pleased pleased

Couple of Quick Things

I wanted to mention a couple of quick things today. The first is a slight elaboration on something already mentioned in the Saugus Community Events Calendar: today from 10:00 AM to noon GBA medical will have an open house in their mobile oncology unit. The mobile is used for treating cancer in patients; when a hospital needs more short-term treatment facilities (say while they're building a new section or revamping an old one) they can rent this unit to temporarily increase their capacity. While a virtual tour of the GBA mobile medical unit has been available on their web site for a long time now, watching a video is not quite the same as seeing something for real, and since this is just the first time the mobile has been back home in Saugus in the over five years that GBA has had it and it's scheduled to go back out of state shortly, there probably won't be any more tours of it in the near future. If you've ever wondered what it looks like inside the trailer across from the Essex Street Fire Station or what it's like inside a medical mobile unit, you have a chance to see first hand today. Note too that this is indeed the same medical trailer mentioned back on February 6th.

Secondly I've added another brief blurb to my beginners' guide to using the Internet. This one covers how to upgrade an existing Firefox installation to the newest available version.

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(no subject)

for all interested parties, there is a writeup about my brother eric's saugus lj community in the lynn item today. i am namechecked twice (once by name and once by lj username), and rob's sister is mentioned, as well.

and i thought the full color spread of me playing an early ochmoneks show at st. john's in the advertiser would be the extent of my local media coverage.

i'm skipping owen's class today. i haven't missed it yet, and i feel like i've earned a day off.
  • Current Music
    Failure-Another Space Song

The Sincerest Form of Flattery

It seems that these past couple months have been big "copy Eric" months. Besides the typical cases of rapscallions copying the computer terms and filename suffixes from Saugus.net without permission (there's an amazing number of these in spite of the fact that we generally freely grant permission to educational, government, and non-profit institutions who ask first) there have been a few others recently of note.

I almost never see these things right away. In fact, normally other people see them and write in to let me know. Oftentimes quite a few people will write in, depending upon how blatant the copy.

The first unusual case that people contacted me about concerned the Saugus General By-Laws. I was of course the volunteer who first converted them into electronic format, and I finished the task nearly eight years ago. In fact, I converted not only the general ones, but also the Zoning By-Laws, the Subdivision Rules and Regulations, the Housing Authority By-Laws, and basically everything that I could get my hands on at the time. In fact, I first started converting such documents back in around 1995 when I was on the Saugus Planning Board and doing occasional research on OCR, and after Saugus.net was founded I worked with the Town Clerk to finish converting everything and make it all available for free to the general public.

A few weeks ago one of the local papers was reporting that the by-laws (just the general ones, mind you) had just been converted to electronic format for the first time ever, and by someone else at that. Seeing as how the by-laws had been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times since 1998, quite a few people seemed to think this was curious and wrote in / phoned in to ask me about it.

The full story is that when the gentleman who was mentioned in the newspaper decided to make a computerized version of the by-laws, he contacted Town Clerk Jean Banks who sent him to me. He explained to me that he wanted to reconvert the by-laws from paper, and asked whether or not I'd be willing to check them and make corrections (seeing as how I was arguably one of the most familiar with the documents in question and I'd gone through the process before). I actually tried to talk him out of it; after all, it was work already done. Nonetheless, he proceeded, and I proofread his results and applied corrections. Thus he became the second person in Saugus history to convert the General By-Laws to computerized format, not the first as was reported in the paper. Was it a worthwhile or useful exercise? Probably not, but he at least really did some work. The next case is a straight rip-off.

Shortly after I got the messages about the by-laws in the newspaper I started getting messages about by-laws on another web site. Of course, I found it odd that after eight years of little notice the by-laws were seemingly getting all sorts of attention. I got a message from someone who was surprised to see an event they'd posted on the Saugus community calendar listed incorrectly on another calendar on another site. While I didn't get as many messages about this site as I had gotten about the earlier newspaper article, I decided to follow up on it. What I found was truly amazing: a web site that (aside from advertisements) basically consisted of content that it had "borrowed" from other web sites including not only Saugus.net, but the official Town of Saugus Government site, the now largely defunct Town of Saugus Assessors' Office site, the Saugus VFW site, the National Park Service Iron Works site, plus some local sports associations and the official Commonwealth of Massachusetts' site to boot. The site had neatly removed the source web sites' copyright information and replaced it all with its own. Stranger still, this site was getting promoted by the Saugus Chamber of Commerce (who apparently never bothered to look at it).

To add insult to injury, this site had apparently made the copies a few months ago and hadn't bothered to keep them up-to-date with the originals. This site is not only trying to collect advertising revenue on other people's work (if anyone deserves advertising revenue from the Saugus VFW site, for example, it's the Saugus VFW, not some random person who is just ripping off their work) but it is displaying outdated incorrect information to boot.

This one is still in progress; I tried contacting the site's proprietor via the contact information listed in the Chamber of Commerce flier and managed to speak to him briefly. He essentially threw the blame on someone else, promised to call me later in the afternoon, and I've not heard from him since. As he's apt to be reading this article, I'll again ask nicely to remove the purloined content.

I won't help this site out by linking to it; if you want to find it you can check with the Chamber of Commerce. I'll post updates here later.

The third case is more amusing. It's about the article posted on this blog last month on February 6th titled Dog Mines. The reports started coming in yesterday about how first one, and then two, and then three different newspaper articles were suddenly reporting about a minefield in Breakheart. Tonight I even got an e-mail saying how it was now being discussed on one of the local radio stations. You know where it appeared first...

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and it's good to know people are reading my work.

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    contemplative contemplative