It’s the Fourth of July — and it’s raining like hell. That’s the bad news from an early season Hurricane Aurthur (see the nearby NOAA radar image for an idea of what it’s been like today). The good news? I don’t have to grill until tomorrow, which is forecast to be glorious.
So, what’s a water-logged Fourth of July geek to do? Why, change the theme on his blog and fall in love with WordPress yet again (for what must be the umpteenth time). I’ve been repeatedly burned by Drupal but WordPress never disappoints.
The new theme here is the WordPress 3.9.1 default theme. And that’s big news. Used to be, the WordPress default theme was only useful to check installation.
And that’s what I originally used twentyfourteen, as the new default theme is called, for. I set up a prototype for a client at thevortex.guru using the default theme just to slam some content into the blog to show them how it looks in a blogroll.
But with almost no effort, I was able to create a blog that not only had some classically snarky content but was surprisingly attractive. And since the WordPress default theme is a showcase for the interaction between system functionality and how content is displayed, I discovered that twentfourteen is massively capable. For example, on mobile devices it is just spectacular, or as the current jargon has it “mobile responsive.”
I wondered whether or not I could use twentyfouteen with a WordPress blog that has been online since 2006, like yobyot.com. (BTW, “yobyot” is toyboy spelled backwards.) As you can imagine, that’s a lot of legacy stuff to bring forward.
You are looking at the results of about three hours’ work. Much of that was getting rid of the NextGen gallery plugin which the WordPress measurement plugin P3 identified as a big-time performance hit. And I spent an hour or so futzing with the sidebars and, especially, featured images.
One of the first things you need when you start managing multiple Windows Server instances is a really good Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) client.
To its credit, Microsoft has been on a tear lately with RDP clients, shipping an excellent Mac client (though they inexplicably removed the search functionality in the latest release) and, best of all, an iOS client that just works beautifully on my iPad mini tablet. With the iOS client, I can make emergency changes anywhere — it’s amazing how empowered you feel doing that. And it’s one helluva time saver. Just carry a cellular tablet with you on the weekends and never have to rush home again.
But the 600-lb gorilla, kitchen sink, does everything and washes dishes RDP client is Devolutions’ Remote Desktop Manager.
No blog post can adequately describe all that this product does. It’s so functional that RDM’s geyser of capability can daunt users. But the target audience isn’t end users; it’s deep-geek Windows admins who have lots of Windows instances, more than a handful of Linux machines and a password repository or two to contend with.
But what I like most about RDM is that it’s unapologetic about its complexity. This is an old-style “specialist” product. If you need it, it’s a great fit. If you are an occasional RDP-using admin or end-user, you will hate this product. And you should: it’s a total mismatch for your needs.
I use RDM with over 30 EC2 instances. I can log into any of them using LastPass credentials. It runs ssh sessions to Linux instances and contains built-in SFTP (or, if you prefer, it can integrate with Filezilla). It is database-driven, can template complex logins using Remote Desktop Gateway, manage RDP sessions in a hierarchy and more. Increasingly, I “live” in RDM each day at work. And that, I think, is the product’s design objective.
A couple of weeks ago, I noticed that Devolutions had a Mac client in the works (I run RDM on a Mac in a Parallels virtual machine…Sing after me to the tune of “Yellow Submarine:” We all live in a virtual machine, a virtual machine, a virtual machine…)
Of course, the Mac version is late and buggy. I sympathize with the Mac developers, one of whom wrote me in response to a bug that I reported that they were trying to catch up with “five years of development in the Windows version.”
And then, just to keep me in the fold, they sent me an extended license. Nice touch.
So, if you are doing some serious Windows Server administration using RDP to remote cloud instances (or you are still stuck managing physical servers — you poor shlub), try Remote Desktop Manager. It’ll quickly become indispensable.
I’ve always loved the Back Bay. But it’s been years since I’ve worked there.
On the way to work this morning, I was reminded of why I love it and how important architecture is to one’s sense of happiness and well-being.
Today, April 4, 2014, is opening day for the 2014 Red Sox — a minor holiday in Boston. It is also a classic spring morning in Boston: cool with a breeze than means you still need to zipper the jacket all the way up. But the big difference between late March and early April is the strength of the sun. It’s higher in the sky and, in a promise of sweaty July weather to come, warmer. Around here, the only sure way to know spring is on its way by this tease of warmth from the sun.
As I walked north on Clarendon Street from Back Bay station towards the nondescript 1940’s building in which I work (the former New England Insurance building, now tastelessly re-labelled “The Newbry”), I passed the John Hancock Tower entrance and admired its entrance and the way it sits angled to the street. On the next block, I walked past the amazingly beautiful Trinity Church — such an important building in American architecture that a recent PBS series listed is as number two in a list of the “Ten Buildings That Changed America.”
All of a sudden, I noticed I was bathed in a blue light with a hue you might see during a soliloquy on stage. Only this wasn’t a narrow spotlight…it filled the entire width of Clarendon Street and was cast several blocks away, at least to Commonwealth Avenue . The rising sun, reflected by the John Hancock building down Clarendon St, lit up the sidewalk, street and, on my left, Trinity Church with almost theatrical effects.
It stopped me dead in my tracks. The more I absorbed it, the better it made me feel. The Hancock tower once had a reputation as the world’s tallest plywood building. This morning, however, it was the world’s tallest spotlight on the Back Bay.
I’ve tried to capture the moment with the lousy iPhone photo nearby. The photo is overwhelmed by the sun’s image on the tower. But you can, if you look hard, see how the building transformed sunlight into stage lighting. It was truly an (uplifting) lesson in the power of great architecture to affect the way people feel.
Many of you know me as a high-tech (mostly software) marketing executive.
But before that career, I was a geek. I was a software developer, a sys admin and a network architect well before many of you were born. Today, I can look out from my office in downtown Boston and see the building in Cambridge that used to be the IBM Cambridge Scientific Center, in which virtualization was invented.
About mid-career, I decided that tech was for young people and believed that my bona fides in technology made me a more compelling marketer of high technology. After all, I argued with myself, tech ain’t soap — if you wanted to market it well, you had to know it intimately. So, I spent years working in companies where, frankly, my technical skill and knowledge out-classed many of the techs but where the marketing folks were just an acquisition event or change in fashion away from being tossed out like trash.
But in fact, in my last few jobs, I was the IT guy out of necessity. There wasn’t any money for a “real IT” guy, so I just did it. And I learned two things. First, you don’t get additional appreciation for being the IT guy who’s also the marketing exec. Second, as I migrated first a Java app and then a Windows Server app to Amazon Web Services (AWS) (originally to save money in the broke-ass startups I was working in) I found myself more and more drawn to the work of implementing and managing cloud infrastructures.
You probably know that Amazon has, over the last couple of years, built a big business out of providing “infrastructure as a service” using technology it built to support its retail website. But what you may not know is that AWS is a brilliant combination of technologies that were interesting separately but when combined are much more than the sum of the parts. And what underpins all of it? Nothing less than the virtualization I was so smitten with on mainframes in the 70s.
So, I set about to reinvent myself as an AWS architect and administrator. It took a couple of years, but I am pleased to say that I finally feel like I’ve succeeded. Today, I am working on a ginormous AWS implementation that is using some very advanced techniques in EC2 and VPC. We are implementing a near-realtime system with stringent performance requirements and multiple terabytes of data stored in S3 and archived in Glacier. The VPC network design alone is the kind of thought experiment that true geeks love to turn over and over in their minds.
In short, I am more fulfilled and happier in my work than I have been in at least a decade. And it proves that one can move between disciplines in a career if only one has a plan and can tolerate some risk.
A long time ago, cable TV started as a way to improve reception in hard-to-serve areas. Then, it blossomed into one of the most consumer unfriendly, blood thirsty for cash businesses on the planet. My two year contract with Verizon ends at the end of the month and I’m (gleefully) cutting the cord. VZ wanted more money to renew — and has been deliberately slowing Netflix. So, for us, the future is streaming video and over-the-air (OTA) broadcasts.
This weekend, I installed an antenna in my garage (pictured nearby), ran an RG6 cable to my basement where it connects to the coax already in the walls. Result? 31OTA channels, with the major networks’ signals so gorgeous on my 60″ 2013 F-Series Samsung LED that I am sorry I didn’t do this earlier. (No matter how good the picture on cable is, it’s compressed. With a good TV, you can actually see the difference between networks that broadcast in 1080i [CBS, NBC among others] and 720p [Fox, ABC]). Even the audio sounds better. It may seem old-school, but broadcast over-the-air TV, with a little work and some experimentation, is still better than cable. (I tried Aereo via a Roku to my Samsung; the pictures were terrible. I’m a football fan and Aereo’s pictures were so pixelated a pass to a receiver would look like a blob was being thrown instead of an oblong ball.)
Cutting the cord isn’t hard — but you have to be a bit adventuresome. This post offers a list of tips that I discovered as I cut the cord in my suburban Boston home. We are about 15 miles due west of most of the transmitters in this market. City dwellers and people further away might need simpler or more elaborate solutions. YMMV.
The gospel about whether or not you will be able to get good OTA signals are the custom reports you can generate for your address at www.tvfool.com. You can see how to aim the antenna and there are detailed instructions on how to calculate signal loss due to cable runs. Stores that want to sell you an antenna suggest using the color-coded suggestions from antennaweb.com. Feh. Use tvfool.com’s reports.
Buy the biggest, baddest antenna you can afford or fit. Weather, time of day, even sun spots can interfere with reception, so make sure you overcompensate for these issues. I started with a stupid little Wal-Mart “attic” antenna. That was a mistake because…
…Aiming the antenna using the tvfool.com magentic north coordinates is crucial. If you use an under-sized antenna like I did to start, no amount of aiming will bring in all the channels you might be able to receive. You need an antenna with the ability to deliver more off-axis signals because you can’t point the antenna directly at every transmitter. That means bigger is always better.
One more antenna tip: mount it where you can get to it easily, at least for the first few days. You are going to be turning it this way and that as you find the sweet spot for your location. As you can see from the picture, I decided to use my garage instead of the attic. At first that was driven by a shorter cable run but I quickly realized that it was much easier (at least in my home) to get at the antenna in the garage rather than in the attic.
If you have long cable runs, get a distribution amp. I used a Channel Master CM3414 which works well for me.
Check your TV’s vintage. I have a 2004-vintage Sharp 32″ LCD TV for which I paid dearly as an early adopter. It’s tuner apparently has a lower sensitivity, meaning that it has trouble with one channel. OTOH, my new Samsung has no issues with the same signal. Remember: your TV’s OTA tuner is a digital processor so the latest and greatest is more likely to handle weaker signals. The ATSC tuner in my early Sharp is the issue on that TV, not the signal.
Get a DVR targeted at cord-cutters. I’ve ordered a Channel Master DVR+. The one thing the cable company had I will miss is the ability to timeshift and skip commercials. There are alternatives to the DVR+ like TiVO, but the idea of cutting the cord is to be free of permanent indentured servitude to service and/or box rental fees. If it does the job, the DVR+ will free me from buying the set-box from Verizon over and over and over and over again.
This may seem daunting, but the exhilaration of being free of the cable companies is worth it, trust me.
Update, February 28, 2014: Today, I moved our Internet connection from FiOS to Charter. There’s an important lesson I learned: it doesn’t matter how fast the speeds your ISP says its delivering to you are. If the ISP is slowing things (as Verizon is doing with Netflix, much to my annoyance) in its backhaul, you could have gigabit connections to the ISP’s network and still crawl along like it was 2002. That’s why now Netflix streams in 1080 “super” HD on Charter’s puny 30Mbits download speeds when my 35Mbit download speed on FiOS only delivered 384 SD streams. FiOS is deliberately slowing Netflix to extract payment from Netflix and to favor its own programming.
Plus, I’d forgotten how technically clumsy FiOS is. Sure, it’s fiber. But to get you Internet, voice and video on that fiber, FiOS has made a deal with the complexity devil. FiOS has this mega stupid ONT on the outside of your building, a big bulky, battery-backed terminal on the inside…and a Rube Goldberg network to split the three services out. Internet comes in on either RJ-45 or (unless you squeal) coax, which is split at an Actiontec router on which Verizon opens ports on to spy on you (how NSA). In order to provide the video guide (via Internet) and VOD (IP streams), the Actiontec bridges coax and Ethernet networks with an internal MOCA bridge. When you stream HD VOD, QOS is used in the Actiontec to temporarily increase your fiber capacity so as to not steal from your provisioned data bandwidth. (Got that?)
Charter comes in with a single coax to an integrated MTA for voice and data; splitter is used if have video (I don’t).
In short, FiOS is a heavily-marketed kludge that was fast before it became popular. There are better, more elegant options.
Or, should I say, Volvo dealers maintain it. Or they are supposed to for the next 2.5 years as part of Volvo’s “Safe+Sound” program. S+S was an extension of Volvo’s warranty and included maintenance for the first five years. (I don’t think they offer warranties or maintenance for that long any more.)
Several weeks ago, I noticed that the headlight housing on the passenger’s side was loose. You could move it vertically a couple of inches up and down in its opening. By contrast, the driver’s side was held tightly in place. When I opened the hood, I discovered that the housing is held in place by two flimsy looking stakes that are driven down through the headlight housing into a bracket attached to the body. The stakes, in turn, are held in place by clips at the bottom of the stakes. (See nearby photo.)
The dealer who sold me the car is nearby here in Southborough; that’s the reason we gave them the order. We thought it’d be convenient to have a dealer in our town service the car for the next five years. But I’d had a series of terrible service experiences with Farrell Volvo, so I’d been taking the car to what was Lee Volvo, now known as Volvo of Wellesley. For this issue, I figured I’d give Farrell a chance to redeem itself. The hack job on my dash and the four visits it took them to update Sensus in July 2012 were long-ago events and maybe, just maybe, they’d gotten their act together.
No such luck. When I called for an appointment a few days ago, Alex didn’t confirm a specific appointment time. When I arrived and asked Alex to come take a look at the problem, he wouldn’t go outside (it was snowing). I overheard him give the tech the problem description — which was unspecific and identified the wrong side of the car. Lackadasical is about the most polite thing I can say. No changes there — Alex was at the center of the Sensus update disaster over a year ago.
30 minutes later, I got the diagnosis: the headlight housing is (get this) removed to change the oil and “someone” must have broken the stakes and/or clips when doing an oil change. Since only one of the three oil changes the XC60 has had under S+S was done at Farrell, it must have been someone else who did it. Turns out there is a repair kit for this problem. (Volvo engineers: did you fix this after the fact or did you design this with the car?) But Farrell wanted me to pay for it since it was “impossible” that they were responsible for the issue.
“Well, it seems to me that you could be at least 1/3 responsible, no?” I asked playfully.
“No. Do you want us to order the part or not? You have to pay for it,” Alex replied humorlessly. Dour doesn’t describe this dude. And, believe me, he looked like the happiest dude in this sorry store.
“Well, would it be covered under the Volvo warranty? Seems to me it’s a bad design and since there’s a repair kit, it’s also a known issue.”
“No. My boss also says, ‘No.’ ”
“Well, can you call Volvo and see if they would cover it as goodwill?”
“No. Here is your remote,” said Alex-a-thousand-times-no.
“Well, can you at least print the repair order you opened for me?
This generated a I-want-you-to-go-away-because-I-hate-your-questions look, followed by tense silence until Alex wrote their excuses on the RO, printed it out and wordlessly handed it to me.
Cut to my conversation with Steve at Wellesley in which I describe the problem and tell them Farrell Volvo is sure Volvo of Wellesley “did it”:
“Let me call you back in 10 minutes.”
10 minutes later: “I called Farrell, got the part number for the repair kit and we’ll take care of it.”
Moral of the story? Don’t change the oil in your “60 cluster” Volvo with the T6 engine unless you don’t mind a) your headlight bouncing up and down over bumps; b) car dealers who are supposed to know how to do oil changes breaking a flimsy system for holding those headlights in place and blaming someone else or c) a plus b.
As a kid, I was heavily influenced by Michael Shamberg’s Guerrilla television ideas. Those early influences convinced me that a free state can only exist with a citizen-enabled media. Most of what Shamberg wanted has happened, thanks to the Internet and mobile devices.
Yet, “TV” (as in the relatively high production value television we all continue to consume) has remained stubbornly out of reach of the citizen media. Locally produced, cable system funded programming remains the best way for citizens to produce media that has the flavor of “big time TV.” Combine higher production values and more compelling content than is typically associated with amateur Internet video plus cable, mobile and Internet distribution and it is possible to achieve many of the aims of a citizen media.
I know this might seem all late-1960’s, hippie, power-to-the-people to you. But the power of big media hasn’t diminished since the 1970s, has it? And control has consolidated, no? (Think Comcast.) And local programming is relegated to local broadcast TV producers’ vapid “Let’s do a morning show from nearby ZIP codes” ideas.
To put put purpose into action, I’ve been volunteering my time on the board of a new nonprofit in Southborough that is gearing up to produce public access programming. Today, we announced that we have appointed a talented executive director to help bring my ancient, mildly socialist ideas to fruition. The press release is below.
Update January 15, 2014, The final chapter:Citi called today and the best explanation I could get was, “We had an identity theft concern.” They didn’t exactly apologize — but they did offer that someone didn’t follow their internal procedures. But they did reinstate the account — meaning I can top up my purchases to get the original mileage offer. It’s a good, if not entirely satisfying outcome.
Update January 14, 2014: Citi was all apologies, concerned and “wanting to make it right” yesterday after I posed this blog entry. Here’s their reply on Twitter:
Well, I DM’ed them as requested…and whadda think? That they called? Dream on.
Original post, January 13, 2014: I’ve known for a long time that Citicorp isn’t among the most consumer-friendly companies in the country. (Nearly five years ago, in one of the better epithets I’ve coined on this blog, I called it the “Bank of Kafka.”)
The bank was too big to fail during the Great Recession, receiving $476.2 billion — with a “B” — from TARP. Now, they’ve paid it all back, are healthy and can get right back to treating customers like dirt.
I have recently been reminded of how good they are at throwing sand in customers’ faces. Here’s my New Year’s Eve encounter with Citi.
We have a tradition: Chinese food while we watch the ball drop. There’s something about juxtaposing the stupidity of the ball drop with overly-salty, fatty Chinese food that always makes for a good time. (Interesting fact: Tricia and I have been in Times Sq. twice for the ball drop. And not in the post-“Friends” Disneyland version of NYC you see today. We were there in early 1980s, when NYC was more filthy, more dangerous and much more real. And oh so much more fun!)
We called in our order as usual and when we went to pick it up, my Citi AAdvantage MasterCard was declined. No problem. I just paid with another card.
On the way home, I called to find out why it was declined. I was told it wasn’t just declined — it had been cancelled at the bank’s discretion. I was told an explanation would be forthcoming. It’s now almost two weeks later and, surprise!, not a word from Citi.
Well, I have an explanation. See, we’re good credit risks. We pay on time — and in full. A couple of months ago, Citi mailed me a come-on for an AAdvantage MasterCard: spend a certain amount in 90 days and get a boatload of miles. And the first year of the card is free. Well, they must have known my plan: spend the amount needed, get the miles and then cancel the card before the renewal.
IOW, they knew they wouldn’t make any money from me. I don’t pay usurious credit card rates. (Citi’s are among the highest and their method of computing interest is the most expensive the law allows.) And they probably could predict that we wouldn’t renew a credit card that costs, I think, $95/year when so many other cards are free. In short, they didn’t want to make good on their offer — and, no, no, no!, they’ll never admit that. But if the shoe was on the other foot, would Citi let me let me walk away from a commitment without an explanation? I don’t think so. In fact, even with an explanation they’d sue my toochis off.
How far away were were from cashing in on the offer? About $57. It’s just too coincidental to be an accident.
You’d have a hard time convincing me that their offer was anything other than a come-on from the beginning– the kind of come-on you get from robo-callers offering to reduce your credit card rates. The difference is, Citi gets to do it with taxpayer money (Yes, yes, they paid it all back. But would they even be here if they hadn’t been rescued?)
I wonder if American Airlines, whose brand is damaged by Citi’s actions, is wise to the trick. AA gets paid by Citi for those miles — and I presume they wouldn’t like it if they knew what Citi was doing.
Well, it’s just another life lesson: Citi is too big to fail — and too big to do right by its customers. I hope readers of this post will keep that in mind the next time they get a credit card offer from Citi.
Here’s a post from the “I wish I’d noticed this before I bought the car” file.
Under the hood on the driver’s side of my new 2013 Toyota RAV4 is one of the car’s computers, or engine control modules (ECM). It’s mounted on a bracket at an odd angle next to one of the relay boxes. Mine is labeled “Denso Engine Control” and is made in Japan. Encased in an a elements-resisting metallic case, you can’t miss it (although I did when I was shopping for the car). On the back (firewall side) of the ECM are two serious-looking (that is, large) electrical connectors that I assume deliver sensor input and transport engine control commands to the rest of the digital controls in the car.
Obviously this is a pretty important component, wouldn’t you agree? And it needs to be protected from the elements, especially the kinds of things that create electrical gremlins in circuitry — moisture, grime and exposure. Take a look at this photo, shot looking down into the top of the ECM with the hood open. The wiring from the bus connector is completely exposed. Any schnizz from the road that gets into the engine compartment is going to go directly into this connector.
So the question is, how could Toyota design, engineer and build for customer delivery a connector that exposes the top of the wiring harness of a digital computer to the elements? The answer is obvious: it was done cheaply. A few cents of electrical tape and a few seconds of assembly time are all that’s needed to protect this crucial component and improve reliability and dependability. Modern Toyotas seem to be built like 1980s GM cars — they could be well-built, but aren’t because of “value engineering” in design and manufacturing. The RAV4 isn’t inexpensive — but now we have to wonder what else was done to make it cheap.
Anyway, you can fix this yourself without getting your hands dirty. Open the hood, apply some black electrical tape to the gaping hole at the top of the ECM connector and you’re done. Here’s a shot of mine after 30 seconds of effort.
Lots of people think that if they have a cloud-based disk sharing system (I like SkyDrive), they can’t lose data.
Well, I am here to tell you it can — and does — happen.
Over the weekend, I upgraded my MacBook Air to OS X Mavericks. On this Mac, I run Microsoft’s SkyDrive client that syncs all of the files (except music and photos) that one would keep in one’s “documents” folder. I also share that OS X folder with the Windows virtual machines I run on the MacBook. That lets SkyDrive replicate the changes I make on my Mac and/or in Windows VMs to the real Windows machines I also use. Then, I simply set Office 2013’s default directories to the SkyDrive path and as a result, have a unified view of my filesystem no matter which machine I am on.
It all works great. But sumthin’, I don’t know what, caused the SkyDrive client on my MacBook Air to actually delete files more or less randomly from the MacBook SkyDrive store after I upgraded to Mavericks. By the time I discovered it, the deletions had replicated. Ouch, ouch and triple ouch.
Not to worry. Though some of my friends laugh at my retentive backup habits, this is precisely the situation in which a backup of a cloud backup is what’s needed.
I’ve been using CloudBerry for a couple of years to backup to Amazon Glacier. The way I have it set up is that CloudBerry is running a real-time backup and watching the SkyDrive folder (as well as folders on my NAS which store my music and photos). That way, as soon as a file is updated, CloudBerry uploads it to Glacier. I’ve set CloudBerry to keep only the last three versions of files and to delete what’s removed from the filesystem after 90 days. With over 150GB stored on Glacier, I think I pay about $1.50 a month or so for storage — and upload bandwidth is free. Better yet, CloudBerry encrypts files before they are uploaded to Glacier (see the screenshot nearby to see how the files being restored have “garbage” filenames on the way back down). So, the NSA can get the files from SkyDrive but not from Glacier.
With this setup you have 90 days to discover that the oldest file is missing. Why 90 days? Well, if I don’t want something in my SkyDrive, I simply move it to a folder that CloudBerry is also backing up called “Cold Storage.” That’s the stuff I really want to keep forever in Glacier.
Fortunately, I discovered that SkyDrive trashed my files only hours after the calamity-that-isn’t-a-disaster-because-I-have-a-backup.
Getting files back from Glacier is slow, as you can see from the screenshot. But the cost is so low and the convenience so high, I don’t mind waiting four or five hours to restore files.
The moral of the story: anyone who tells you they don’t have to worry about losing stuff because they have it stored in SkyDrive or Dropbox or Google Drive is simply fooling themselves. Any system that replicates changes can also replicate mistakes and probably will. That’s why you need a cloud backup of a cloud backup.