It's a blog.
I was really pretty worried when I saw people quoting what they referred to as a comedian on the subject of the attacks in Boston. I wasn’t ready for someone to joke about it. But I took a look anyway, and I realized — comedians don’t just tell jokes. Sometimes they are absolutely fucking brilliant.
If you haven’t already read it, you really owe it to yourself to read Patton Oswalt’s Facebook post. Seriously. Read it. Now.
As a commentary on the bombings of the Boston Marathon, it’s absolutely brilliant. And that’s why it was written. But it’s not just about that. It’s about life, and the world we inhabit. It’s a credo for life:
But the vast majority stands against that darkness and, like white blood cells attacking a virus, they dilute and weaken and eventually wash away the evil doers and, more importantly, the damage they wreak. This is beyond religion or creed or nation. We would not be here if humanity were inherently evil. We’d have eaten ourselves alive long ago.
So when you spot violence, or bigotry, or intolerance or fear or just garden-variety misogyny, hatred or ignorance, just look it in the eye and think, “The good outnumber you, and we always will.”
It’s a thousand times more eloquent than I could have put it, and it’s such a great message to keep in mind in a world where sometimes horrible things happen.
When I traveled to London last year, I stayed in the Premier Inn at London County Hall. It was a great hotel in a great location.
But I just got this email from them:
Dear Premier Inn,
If I don’t hear from you by 17th March, I’ll assume you’re happy for me to regularly mail you expired food from my refrigerator regularly — and to kick things off, I’ll send you some expired fish very soon.
See? That’d be patently unreasonable. (But immensely satisfying.) Why is theirs any different? If I actually wanted their “special offers,” how about letting me ask for them, versus informing me that they’re going to start sending them to me until I demand they stop?
When in London, stay somewhere else!
I’ve used Gmail for ages, but have historically been less than impressed with its appearance. I’m all for a simple interface, but simple and ugly don’t have to go together.
I’ve changed through their themes over time, never quite happy with the options. But more recently, I discovered that they allow “custom” themes. (Quotes around “custom” since your choices are just “Light” and “Dark” with a configurable background.)
But that turns out to work pretty well:
There’s a great selection of really nice backgrounds to choose from, including the ability to use your own photos. But thus far I’ve been so happy with the options that I haven’t tried to use my own photos. You really owe it to yourself to try out.
(No word yet on whether the monkey in my background is Darwin or not.)
When I traveled to Europe and back, I switched through timezones a lot. I went from Boston to London. When in London, Boston switched off of DST. Then I moved from London to Brno, forward another hour. Then back to London, then back to Boston.
Not wanting to lug my heavy Thinkpad around, I brought my MacBook Air on the trip. (And was appropriately ostracized by coworkers for bringing a Mac to a meeting at a company best known for its Linux distribution.) And it did something that kind of intrigued me — it automatically adjusted to the local timezone.
Now, this shouldn’t be possible. My clock is synchronized using NTP, which exchanges UTC time, deliberately ignorant of timezones or DST. And even if NTP did use local timezones (which would be a huge disaster), it still wouldn’t have worked, because I had hardcoded some local clocks.
Investigating a bit, I found this. This is seemingly a new feature, and it uses the operating system’s location service to find your timezone. My computer doesn’t have an onboard GPS, of course, so it’s doing one of two things — GeoIP, and/or looking up the access points I can see against a database.
This is really neat, but it’s also pretty damned creepy. Here is what I see when I visit that setting:
I’m willing to bet it knows exactly where the closest tinfoil hat shop is, too.
Since people have been asking, I thought I’d share a bit about my journey to the Czech Republic. The Aeolus Project (what I do at work) is having a meeting here, as a substantial number of my colleagues work here.
I haven’t travelled internationally much. Back in 2007, I visited Mmofra Trom in Ghana. The Czech Republic would have been the second country I ever visited, keeping an inadvertent trend of only visiting places less geographically-savvy people couldn’t find on a map, if not for a brief stop in London. (I figured that if I was flying to Europe for the week and had never been, I might as well spend the weekends sight-seeing.)
Here is an obligatory photo from London:
(It’s a HDR composite done with Photomatix – the net result looks a little unrealistic, and yet it’s what it actually looked like.)
London was great, though outrageously expensive. And English accents are even more awesome than you might expect. The Underground, besides having an iconic logo, puts the MBTA to shame. I knew that they drive on the “wrong” side of the road, but I didn’t think it would impact me as a tourist who wouldn’t be driving. What I realized is that it’s terrifying as a pedestrian, especially at multi-way intersections, because you have absolutely no clue where cars will be coming from.
We took a WizzAir flight from London to Brno, a large city in the south-eastern part of the Czech Republic. Yes, “WizzAir” is a real airline, and yes, I was hesitant to book a reservation on it based on the name, but it was a nice enough budget airline.
The hotel has absolutely terrible Internet. Here’s what happens when I ping the wireless router:
--- 192.168.2.250 ping statistics --- 49 packets transmitted, 45 packets received, 8.2% packet loss round-trip min/avg/max/stddev = 4.035/593.420/2627.601/702.471 ms
(Note that 593ms average latency, and the 8.2% packet loss, on a LAN.) This is entirely the fault of the hotel, though — in my company’s office, the Internet is just fine. We’re apparently only about 125ms away from Boston here.
The official language here is Czech, a West Slavic language that sort of seems like Polish to someone generally-ignorant about languages like me. I’ve come to realize that I’m rather afraid of being in a place where I can’t communicate, even though I’m surrounded by bilingual coworkers. It’s rather isolating. The good news is that many people, especially those in customer service venues (and people under perhaps 30) seem to speak some English, so I can get by when I’m at McDonald’s. (More on that soon!) Of course, my coworkers here all speak excellent English, so it’s not as if I’m really stranded not speaking the language. But that doesn’t stop me from worrying about it.
Last night, some friends and coworkers (thanks Tomas and Imre!) took us to a local (indoor) rock-climbing place and gave us training. It’s worth noting that the place served beer, though no one was actually drinking and climbing (or belaying).
I’ve never climbed before, and am deathly afraid of heights. So if someone had told me a few years ago that I’d one day find myself at an indoor climbing facility in the Czech Republic, I’d have thought they were insane.
And indeed, my first time up, I did chicken out after about 6 feet. My second time, I made it up perhaps 10-15 feet before I looked down. But the third time, I had the courage to make it to the top. (I really have no idea how high it was, but I’d guess perhaps 30-50 feet.) The photo of me actually at the top is… not flattering… but here’s a slightly less embarrassing photo of me midway up (exhibiting rather poor form, but hey, it was my first time…):
It might be interesting to note that the place had a small bar. This observation did not exactly help calm my nerves, though it ended up being a non-issue — the only people I saw drinking were chatting over a beer when they were done climbing. My fear that drunk people would be falling from the walls turned out to be entirely unfounded.
And speaking of fears of tolerance leading to mass chaos being unfounded, the country apparently has relatively lax (read: sane) drug laws.
None of us were particularly sure what this stuff was (a hemp hand cream was our best guess), but it led to an interesting discussion about drug laws here. Apparently, possession or use of small amounts of drugs (not just Cannabis) is decriminalized, though the general sale is not. (Which leaves me moderately confused about whatever this display case was.)
At first, it seems mildly insane that small amounts of LSD or cocaine (!) are legal. But it reminds me of something I saw on TV once, which was a (real-life) look at a city police department doing a drug sting. They had an agent sell small bags of cocaine to people, and a cadre of heavily-armed police agents would then swarm and tackle the buyer to the ground. As if this wasn’t appalling enough, there was a clear trend among the drug buyers in terms of race and socioeconomic status, and these people can face years in prison. (And time in prison, in turn, significantly reduces their odds of ever getting a decent job, causing what’s probably a vicious cycle.)
But just as there weren’t any drunks falling from the climbing wall when beer was served in the facility, I haven’t seen any drug addicts in the streets of Brno, or even been had reason to think drug use was a problem. Instead, it seems like the police are free to focus on crimes that have victims, and people with addictions are now able to seek treatment with legal impunity.
Apologies for the accidental political rant. Perhaps it is time I closed with a picture of the city, from my hotel balcony the other night:
I’ve noticed this interesting tendency of people to evaluate things based on all the wrong metrics.
A new Android phone came out the other day, and one of the reviews I read was praising its hardware specs. It had a quad-core processor and 2GB of RAM, or something like that. Its battery life was expressed in mAh and was a pretty high number.
Even though I’m a huge dork, I really don’t care about any of that stuff. I don’t want to overclock my phone. I want something where the apps run fast, and I don’t have to charge the phone every night or wake up with a dead battery. I want something where the interface feels polished, and there are lots of good apps. Oh, and I want it to not drop my calls all the time. I bet this is part of the reason why Apple has such a great market share for the iPhone — they promote the iPhone’s functionality and polish, not its tech specs.
Cameras are similar. If you’re comparing two cameras, what do you look at? Most people seem to care about which has the most megapixels, which is a pretty meaningless measure. (Case in point: I’ve actually turned down the resolution on my camera because the default was needlessly large. I think I’ve mentioned before that I have a high-quality 20×30″ print from a 6-megapixel camera?) The blame here doesn’t really lie with consumers, though. It’s something camera makers promote, and something stores go along with. They hype the metrics that just don’t matter.
I just happened across an ad for a hosting company, and forgot what a crazy industry that has become. It’s oversold beyond belief. Want 100GB of space and 5TB of bandwidth? There’s a line of companies that advertise stuff like that for a couple bucks a month. And then, when they reach rock-bottom prices, they start adding extra. 100GB of RAID 10 storage. 100 GB of RAID 10 storage on SSDs.
These, too, are the wrong metrics. For one, I bet most of them will cancel your account for vague reasons if you actually upload 100GB of content, or start pushing several terabytes a month of bandwidth. They bank on people not actually using any of it — but if you need to host your 3MB website, would you rather the company that gives you 5GB of storage, or the company that gives you 50GB of storage on striped SSDs?
It’s a trick question, of course. You’d rather the company that had a fast network, kept the load on its servers low, and had a responsive customer service department. (“Fast network” meaning that it has low latency and plenty of headroom, not that they advertise their “100GB network” as if they actually have 100 Gbps of transit.) But good luck finding anyone advertising those things.
This is apparently a legitimate medical thing, although they said that about trepanning in the past, too. But the fact that it’s a real medical thing will not stop me from having nightmares tonight about being tortured with this thing.
The picture sort of makes this look like a large wooden club with a huge metal blade sticking out of it. But that’s not what it is. Rather, it’s a large polypropylene club with a huge metal blade sticking out of it. Wood is too breakable. Enough said.
There’s (presumably) nothing illegal about owning handcuff keys. There are maybe even legitimate reasons for wanting one that was concealable. (Though, short of being a magician, I’m having a hard time thinking of any.) But a legitimate reason for needing your concealed handcuff key to be non-metallic?
The only reason I can think of for making a knife non-metallic would be (a) you need to perform surgery on someone inside of an MRI machine, or (b) you need to get your knife through a metal detector.
If I ever need surgery performed inside of an MRI machine, I’m hoping the surgeon doesn’t use a $7.08 knife from Amazon.
One comment happily proclaims that it won’t set off metal detectors. Two (though one is clearly in jest) talk about how effective it is on severing flesh.
This seems to be targeted at medical students, and the related items make it look like there are fake arms for practicing on. So this one is entirely legitimate.
But I’m still going to have nightmares tonight that, while suspended in the neck-hanger in #1, my torturist (is that a real word?) begins suturing my arm at random.
I usually get my hair cut every 4 weeks. And while I don’t want to sound like a crazy person who measures time by haircuts, I’ve noticed that my haircuts are feeling more and more frequent. For whatever reason, it just seems like time is flying by with incredible speed, and the fact that I feel like I see my hairdresser all the time is just one way it’s particularly apparent. And I’ve been of mixed minds about this. In some ways, it seems like time only drags by slowly when I’m bored, so it can’t be all that bad. But at the same time, there’s a sense that life is passing me by. Has anything noteworthy happened since my last visit that I can talk to my hairdresser about? Am I better off than I was last visit? And what about my next visit — will anything be different then?
Tonight I happened to read about something interesting, arguing that the best way to make a change is to take baby steps. And as someone who can sometimes have a lot of half-finished projects, this notion, although simple, seems appealing for a few reasons.
Most simply, baby steps force you to take steps, versus sitting idly by thinking about bigger steps later. I’ve been trying to start to exercise more often for most of the year. The problem is that, for a day, I’ll be all into it. The next day I’ll be hurting pretty bad, and the day after that I’ll think “I wouldn’t want to rush things.” Then the next day I’m just busy, and the day after that I forget. And a few weeks go by before I try again.
Suppose that I vowed to do 5 pushups a day, every day. That’s almost embarrassingly easy. But it means that, in between haircuts, I’ll have done 140 pushups. That’s still nothing overly impressive — but the point is that it’s probably about 120 more than I have done in the past 4 weeks. The baby-steps approach keeps me moving, and eliminates the “I don’t think I have enough time/energy today” excuse. Even if I’m really run down, I can find the time for five.
But the other thing I like about baby steps is that it’s easy to go beyond your goal. Why stop after five? There’s a sense of inertia. I suspect it’s the same reason we get sucked into continuing to pay for stuff after our “free trial” runs out — the hard part’s getting started, but once you’re going, you might as well keep at it. My problem with working out isn’t that I have a hard time keeping up, but just that I have a hard time actually doing anything. But it’s hard to say no to the “C’mon, it’s only 5 pushups!” voice, and once I’ve done 5, I might as well just keep going until I’m tired. And soon I’ll have tricked myself into actually exercising every day.
I also have a whole stack of books I’d like to read, and some more that I’d like to buy and add to the stack. But it has the same problem with getting started. I want to read them, but hey, I only have 45 minutes right now, and I might as well wait until I have more time. (This, incidentally, is why I don’t like watching movies: I have to agree to sacrifice several hours of time without knowing if it’s worth it.)
But what if my goal was to read 10 pages a day? (I’d much rather something like “A chapter a week,” but I think it has to be a daily goal. Otherwise, I can put it off until tomorrow.) That’ll take me what, 20 minutes? (Depending heavily on the book — the RSpec book I’m trying to make myself read is much slower going than, say, a paperback novel, since it requires some degree of concentration.)
Ten pages a day isn’t that much. But it means that, next time I see my hair dresser, I’ll have read 280 pages. And, like with pushups, I imagine it’ll be hard to stop after 10 pages. So many nights, “ten pages” might turn into “a chapter or four.”
When you combine this with the sense of time flying by that I’ve been experiencing, I think it’s exceptionally valuable, because the little bit a day will add up fast.
Of course — lean in close, because this is the secret — this isn’t really about setting low goals for yourself. It’s about tricking my sometimes-lazy habit into developing routines. I suspect that, once exercise or reading become something I actually reliably do every day, the goals can get adjusted upwards pretty quickly. But if you ask me to commit to a chapter a day or 20 pushups a day, I’ll make up excuses why I can’t. But five pushups? Ten pages of reading? Even at my laziest, I can’t argue against that.
Those of you who know me well will probably know that I kind of have a thing for graphs. More generally, I find monitoring, trending, and logging to be invaluable. No sane sysadmin would ever set up a server without those things.
But why doesn’t my house support this? Over the winter, I noticed that my furnace was periodically throwing an error code. It worked fine, but would eventually display an error code, shut down, and start back up again. I have no idea what causes it or how often it happens. Since the error code’s description isn’t anything hazardous-sounding, and since the system operates fine on the whole, I haven’t yet considered paying someone to come out and look at it.
Meanwhile, my problems aren’t limited to heat. My air conditioner has been fraught with problems. When the technician comes, he’ll attach a set of gauges to the lines to measure pressure. A more thorough technician might also attach temperature clamps to see the exact temperature going in and out, which provides a sanity check and allows him to calculate superheat and subcooling. It’s also not uncommon to measure current of various components and see if they are within normal parameters. Of course, my system, being designed by buffoons, seems to make this stuff really hard — a decent number of measurements require disassembling the thing.
And as all of this goes on, I’ve been tempted to install this Brultech ECM1240 meter, which measures current on each circuit of your home’s electrical panel. I don’t need it, but I really have no concept of how much electricity I’m using (beyond the monthly bill), nor what uses the most.
But all of this leaves me frustrated. When my furnace hit an error, why couldn’t it send an SNMP trap, fire a syslog message, or send me an email? (Or, for that matter, send an alert to my HVAC company, which could then log in and look at electronic diagnostics, having a good idea what the problem was before anyone came out?)
When they come out to fix my AC, why do they have to bring their own gauges? Why can’t the tech just pull out an iPad and read the values over Bluetooth, getting not just pressure but a wealth of other information that the AC is already tracking for its internal operations? And, when he says, “It seems like you’ve got a leak,” why can’t we pull up a graph and see the pressure decreasing over the past week? And for that matter, why didn’t it just send me an email alerting me that the pressure had fallen below the expected range, before the thing got so low that it didn’t work?
And when I really want to troubleshoot more, why can’t I just set things to log in more verbose mode? Why doesn’t my thermostat send an INFO event whenever it kicks a zone on or off, which can just live in a ring buffer that’s generally ignored until something goes wrong? And before my smoke detector sounds the alarm, can’t it send me a warning that it’s detecting light smoke and will go off soon? (As an aside, the concept of a ‘pre-alarm’ is not a new one.) And when it does randomly sound an alarm at 4:30am, why can’t it send me a text message telling me what detector has fired, so I don’t have to run around in a panic before realizing that it’s the smoke detector in my bedroom, where there is clearly no smoke or fire? (And, for that matter, why can’t I reply “stfu” to stop it from sounding?)
What frustrates me about this is that it’s like I’m describing a futuristic, almost science-fiction world. SNMP is almost as old as I am. Ethernet has been around for more than 30 years. syslog has been around for about as long. Everything I’ve described could have been fully implemented in 1990. People have been talking about “smart homes” before then. More than two decades later, when everything has computerized onboard diagnostics already and boards that can do Ethernet, syslog, SNMP, and an embedded webserver are incredibly cheap, this is still a pipe dream. Why?!
Two great quotes from recent news, providing a much-needed infusion of common sense and sanity:
“When anyone, not least a member of Congress, launches specious and degrading attacks against fellow Americans on the basis of nothing more than fear of who they are and ignorance of what they stand for, it defames the spirit of our nation, and we all grow poorer because of it.”
— John McCain, condemning Michelle Bachmann’s assertion that Hillary Clinton’s top aide was a spy for the Muslim Brotherhood.
“As a Catholic I believe in this religion, there are amazing things about this religion, amazing moral teachings that I do believe in, but I also have to think about how we keep women alive. I believe in not letting women die, I believe in not letting babies die, and to me that’s more important than arguing about what method of contraception [is right].”
— Melinda Gates, pledging $560 million to provide contraceptives in the developing world, despite the Vatican’s opposition.