Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Cat's In The Cradle

Back in the 70s, Harry Chapin performed a song called Cat's In The Cradle, that seems to have many listeners in tears when they hear the song. The song is still resurrected from time-to-time as a message for parents to spend more time with their kids.

There's another, more subtle, message: By the song's end, the man's grown son becomes (paraphrasing) just like him, where he recognizes that his son has essentially followed in his footsteps. This is the important message that parents today seem to lose sight of. I frequently hear adults griping about things that "the kids today do." They complain that the kids are spending too much time "texting" to their friends. They're aloof to what's going on in the world. They smoke. They drink. Why in the world would they do this?

Instead of sugar-coating the answer and putting it to song, the answer is that they learn it from us -- adults. However rebellious kids are (or not), deep inside they are longing to emulate the attributes of adults that they find to be "cool." They look at how we behave in movies, on TV, and most of all, in real life, and emulate that behavior. Likewise, if the relationship between parents and their children is strained, the kids may effectively take the antithesis of the parents' behavior, learned through what they see around them as providing the attention they crave. (side note: it's not the TV's fault, it's the relationship with your kids that needs attention...)

If we want our kids to behave better, then we have to do better ourselves. If your entire life is spent acquiring material things to give your kids everything you couldn't have, then your kids are probably going to equate your love and guidance with acquiring things, and will behave in kind as they become adults. If you spend your life on the cell phone or Blackberry interrupting family events to communicate with your friends and coworkers, then don't be surprised when your children follow suit. If you smoke and drink, and you want your kids to respect you, then you're encouraging them to do the same thing. In essence, in order to raise children to be polite, productive, happy, and nurturing people, as parents, you need to act in that way. You need to be a role model for your kids. If your philosophy is, "Do as I say, not as I do," then you'll find your offspring being as you are, not as you say to be. You can never tell your kids how to be. They will be what they are. They need good role models to develop their individual traits in a positive way.

Now those of you who have read what I've written over the past few years already know I'm not a parent, and never plan to be one. "So why," you ask, "do you have any right to say how I, as a parent, should raise my kids?" Even better, "What do you know about raising kids? You've never done it and never will!" I've never been a parent, but I have been a kid. I also have a knack for seeing things that are happening around me, and noticing trends. I encounter adults and kids every day, and the actions of parents is exactly what I'm seeing in the kids. If you don't like how the kids today are behaving, consider them a mirror to adult behavior, because that's what it is. Maybe you didn't have Facebook or twitter or cell phones when you were a kid, but really those are all just technological doodads, and we all had our own versions of those technological doodads as kids. My generation tied up our phone line talking to our friends, while my parents had to share a "party line" with several families when they were kids. The thing is, though, that everything got to where it is not because kids hired an attorney and brought about a class action lawsuit demanding that their parents provide them with cell phones and other sundry things. It got this way because they were emulating what they saw adults do, they took it to the next level, and as parents you condoned it.

My point? My point is that I see adults behaving badly every day. When a lane of traffic ends, there are people who purposely get into that lane and cut in front of the patiently waiting traffic. There are people who walk through the supermarket with their cell phones and/or MP3 players completely ignoring the person they are about to walk into. There are adults who walk slowly across the street or through a parking lot ignoring the oncoming traffic with the attitude, "They won't hit me." I see adults in restaurants completely ignoring the people they have joined for lunch/dinner and talking on their cell phone or punching buttons on their iPhone. Congratulations -- this is the role model you've established for your kids. If you find an excuse to be this way, then expect your kids to do the same thing, even better than you do. You may not think your kids see you being this way, but they do, and they're learning. I don't have to be a parent to see that.

The reason why I come back to Cat's In The Cradle and how parents behave is that, when all is said and done, no matter what, kids watch their parents very, very carefully, and are constantly learning from them. The things you do/value and the results obtained from those things are what leave the most lasting impression on your children. While it's still a good idea for people without kids to act in a courteous, considerate, kind, and productive way, at the end of the day the parents that are most important.

Think of this, too, the next time you hear that song...

Sunday, March 21, 2010

at&t - Just Say NO

Well, just when you thought things couldn't get more stupid...here comes at&t to make sure they're ahead of the curve.

If you haven't read about my great new VPS service, now may be the time to read about it, because this involves that service.

The first thing I noticed when I started doing my own DNS again is that at&t hadn't removed references to my domain since I stopped being their customer several years ago. By several, I mean five. I sent a kind message to the address in their whois contact information. This should have been completed when I terminated service with them, but I guess their system administrators aren't as diligent as I am...

Today I tried to send e-mail to a friend...who happens to have at&t's Internet service. Guess what? I can't send e-mail to her. Why? Because at&t thinks my new mail server on my new VPS has been used in abuse/spamming incidents. The first thing I thought was, "Oh, crap! Did I screw-up my mail server configuration?!" My log files say, "No." Whew. So now I sit wondering why at&t would block mail from my server...and I came up with two reasonable excuses (explanations?):
  1. Someone in the same block of IP addresses that my VPS is on was actually involved in some kind of abuse of the 'net, so at&t decided to block all the IP addresses in that range, instead of just the offender. That is really bad practice, but people do it.
  2. When I sent in the report to at&t about their DNS problems, they erroneously considered that some form of abuse, and blocked my mail server. When I said I sent a "kind" request, I mean it was very polite and professional. Seriously.
Now both of these excuses demonstrate plain crappy system/network administration skills on at&t's part. It also is a perfect example of how a large company can use abuse their power. At&t provides a web page where you can get your address removed from their blacklist (see http://att.net/blocks). When you're done submitting the request, they tell you they will respond within two business days. TWO BUSINESS DAYS?!

Dear Mary: I can't respond to your e-mail for the next two days because fscking at&t decided to block mail from me. Love, CPU.

So you're probably wondering, "Why in the world did you leave at&t as a customer?" Glad you asked (my apologies to those who've heard this already)...

Back 5 years ago, I was an at&t DSL customer, and at that time you had to have a phone line to get DSL.

When I ordered the phone line a couple of years earlier, I said that I didn't want long distance. "I use my land-line very little, if at all, because I mostly use my cell phone," I told the person taking my order. She convinced me that having a long distance carrier may come in handy, and that they had a plan that would have no monthly fee. "Okay," I said reluctantly, and that was that...

Over the next year or two at&t changed the terms of that plan at least TWICE, making it have a $5/month charge whether you used long distance or not. Each time, I had to call at&t after finding out that a charge started appearing on my bill, or because they actually warned me about it ahead of time (they don't always), and change to yet another "no monthly charge" long distance plan.

Either way, the last time I said, "I don't want long distance. Please just remove it from my line." Two different customer service reps told me they couldn't do that without charging me a $6.75 change fee. The final time I called I said, "You can either waive the charge, since you keep changing the terms of my long distance plan, or you will lose all of my business because I will cancel my service." They said, "Sir, we can't do that for anyone. These are the charges we have."

So I canceled my DSL and phone service with at&t, got RoadRunner from Time Warner Cable, and haven't looked back...much... Oh, and when I did call to say I was canceling my service, the at&t rep asked me why. I explained about the $6.75 charge and said, "It apparently was more important to bill me the $6.75 change fee than keep the $80/month service I had with you." She said, "Well, we could have given you a 'courtesy credit' for the change fee." I said, "Well, it's too late now."

When I started having issues with Time Warner, I was really thinking about going back to at&t. Aside from the fact that my cable modem connection generally works pretty well, here's the reasons why I won't ever go back to at&t:
  1. Because of what they just did to me (blocked my e-mail, and wasted my time by doing so)
  2. I'm still not over the $6.75 change fee story
  3. They require Internet Explorer to activate DSL service now
  4. A friend of mine was nearly in tears last week over a billing dispute that they said was resolved. I don't like it when a bunch of corporate thugs pick on my friends.
  5. This was after that same friend had a DSL modem that went bad right before the warranty expired, and at&t insisted it was a problem in her house wiring, ran out the clock on the warranty, and when she finally consulted with me we discovered it was really the DSL modem.
To be fair, I have had some issues with RoadRunner blocking e-mail from my mail server when I had DSL (they made an assumption that I was not permitted to run a mail server on that service, when in reality I paid at&t extra money so I could). That too, really pissed me off. However, RoadRunner's decision actually came closer to being legitimate than at&t just blocking an IP for the hell of it.

I watch people allow themselves to be bullied in this way time after time by companies like at&t. I can understand, though, why they do it. I have tried many times to step up and say, "No, you will not treat me like that." In return, all I succeeded in doing was becoming very irate, wasted a lot of time, and in the end accomplished nothing. Well, almost nothing. At least I'm not giving any money to at&t anymore.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

The past couple of weeks have been quite active, although I'm not sure if most of it is terribly newsworthy.

Good: New Hosted Virtual Server
I had a minor technical issue with my domain disappearing from the Internet for a day or so because of an IP address change oversight by a good friend who was hosting my DNS records. While it created some panic for a bit, I can understand the oversight. It happens. It did give me some motivation to move forward with an idea I started over a year ago: Get a server system of my own outside of my normal residential Internet connection.

Unless you're running a business and have a need for a dedicated computer system in a data center cabinet it's hardly worth paying upwards of $250/month for the privilege of having a server. This is for several reasons: Rack-mount computer systems are expensive, physical computers break and need servicing, and most individuals (including a nerd like me) doesn't require the amount of computing power and other resources of a dedicated system. An inexpensive alternative that has been gaining a lot of momentum is the advent of what is being termed "Virtual Private Servers" or VPSes. VPS providers take a high-end server and run software that allows multiple people to have what appears like lots of private computers, but in reality everyone is sharing the same server. Provided you have a VPS provider that knows what they're doing, this is a very cost-effective and efficient use of resources.

I spent about a week looking at all the VPS options available in the $10-$20/month range. For this price you typically get a VPS with about 10 GB of disk space, 100-200 GB of network transfer per month, around 256 MB of memory, and a pretty damn fast processor (generally you'll be sharing a multiprocessor system of some kind). Now you're probably looking at this and saying that this is significantly less computer than you can go out and buy yourself, and you'd be absolutely right. What you can't seem to get at home for any reasonable price these days is a fast Internet connection (upwards of 25-30 Mbits/sec both ways) with a static IP address and that doesn't have a draconian acceptable use policy (like "you can't run your server software here"). So you're not going to run your normal everyday stuff on the VPS, but those specs are plenty good for running a DNS server, a web server, a mail server, and several other things, which is exactly what I want to do.

My shopping ended with purchasing an account with linode.com. They were not the cheapest price (at around $20/month, pretty much my upper-limit) and they don't keep backups of your virtual server. These negatives were offset by an excellent set of documentation explaining exactly what you could expect from your service and how to use it effectively. This was a serious departure from other services that I'm sure probably would have worked fine, but they gave no indication of how to do something as simple as get access to my virtual server's console when I screwed-up the firewall configuration and locked myself out. Instead they were trying to push "control panels" that allow a person with no experience with Linux to run a Linux-based server (to me, this isn't the reason you get a VPS). It is obvious from looking at linode.com's service, the community around it, and the attention to some technical details, that their priorities and vision of this service is the same as mine. I was especially impressed by the fact that they had movies of how to use the service that were both useful and did not require Flash. This was a breath of fresh air to me. I was able to set-up my Gentoo Linux-based server at the revision I was looking to do in about a day. Those who use a more general Linux distribution like Ubuntu, CentOS, or Debian would be able to get working even more quickly. So far I'm really impressed with their service, and that's even after their VPS server crashed earlier this evening (but they did keep me up-to-date on what happened). Take a look at their web site for more information about the services they provide. Basically, linode.com is a UNIX OS enthusiast's VPS service.

Ugly: Austin Humane Society's new web site
I knew it was bound to happen, but here we go with the Flash stupidity again. Yesterday I tried to go to the AHS web site and got nothing but a very weird "Page Not Found" message from their site because I purposely don't have Flash installed (they have since corrected that, but it isn't much better). Obviously this site is now being maintained by someone who has nothing better to do than mess with Flash and make the site less compatible with Internet standards. Further, it screams, "We didn't think anyone would be using their computer for anything other than looking at our web site," because they designed the site to require your browser to have the whole computer screen, and navigation is more bells-and-whistles than quick and easy to use. The various pages are way too busy, clearly designed with what I'd call an "A.D.D. Web Design Philosophy."

This was especially disappointing to me as I volunteer there and would like to point people to their web site, but until they do something about the overwhelming amount of forced Flash stuff on the site, I can't do this in good conscience.

At one time, the North Shore Animal League was doing this same thing, but they have since corrected this problem -- no more Flash on the front page, easy and clear to navigate, and while there is a LOT of information on their front page it is easy to view and find what you're looking for. I would still like to see them eliminate the need for plug-ins like Flash or hide Flash content from non-Flash-enabled browsers without the pretentious "you could view this if you'd buy a MacOS or Windows-based PC and install the unsafe and proprietary Flash plug-in to your browser, you idiot" message that usually gets displayed...

Bad: Skunk City
The Skunk From Hell™ returned to my house on Saturday night while I was watching a DVD I rented and decided to spray underneath the deck at the back of my house. For 3 days my house smelled like skunk, no matter how much I tried to air it out. Following the initial "spray," the odor was so bad in my living room that I practically had tears coming from my eyes. Neither me nor my neighbors can figure out why the skunk decides to spray around my house every time it comes around, but I am finally at the point where either the skunk goes or I do.

I did some work on Sunday that I hope will keep the skunk away. There was a loose section of fence on the side of my house that was easily pushed by an animal, allowing them to slip past. I have fastened it again with a good lag bolt. I put some "chicken wire" type wire mesh along the bottom of the sections of fence where the skunks have been generally coming into the yard (I buried part of it underground and put bricks on top). While a persistent skunk could come back by digging under the fence in some other place, I suspect that the work I did will discourage the skunks and other wild critters from setting-up shop in my yard. The wire mesh looks tacky, and I hereby officially apologize to my neighbors for this, but unless they can come-up with something more effective I'm afraid the wire mesh stays.

I was talking to a Home Depot employee after the purchase of equipment to do the work on my fence, and mentioned what I was buying all the stuff for...and he confirmed that what I was doing is the best possible solution. He said that remedies like coyote urine crystals and the like are ineffective. I don't want to hurt the wild critters, and I realize we kind of kicked them out of their space, but unfortunately I need a place to live too, and skunk odor isn't something I can live with.

Good, Bad, and Ugly: I'm another year older
Well, it was inevitable...I'm now officially another year older. As they say, "It's better than the alternative." I have to thank all my friends for getting together and joining me for a week of binge eating (haha, not really that bad!). As I have said in the past, I'm not much for the birthday stuff. For me, it's just another day. It is a good excuse, though, to take a break and get together for a fun dinner. This year the Austin Childfree group went to Cannoli Joe's (a cool Italian all-y0u-can-eat buffet), at work we went to lunch at a Chinese buffet we visit once in a while, and a few of my friends with kids got together at County Line BBQ. Also at work, I brought Krispy Kreme doughnuts and shared them with whoever came by my office (my one Homer Simpson style addiction...doughnuts). Last but not least, someone I have a serious admiration for brought some homemade chocolate/coconut cookie-type things (they're really good) for me.

While I did enjoy everyone's company, the passing of another year does cause me to reflect on the fact that I'm basically traveling solo on the boat of life. The past few weeks with various problems, including Smokey's illness, makes me feel as though the watercraft is sinking. The more I see of failed relationships, game-playing, and other interpersonal ugliness, the more I doubt that there is the right person for me. The world isn't designed to accommodate single people very well, nor are we as a species. This isn't a plea for pity...really. It is simply a painful observation. The "cookie gal" mentioned above is a nice person, but our priorities and the things that we're passionate about are different and, in some cases, in conflict, and quite honestly I don't see her as "emotionally available." I figure in about 5-10 more years we'll both figure out that we're a perfect match and never recognized it in all the years we've worked together...and pigs will start to fly.

Oh well, time to get the bucket and get the water out of the bilge. Tomorrow is another day.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Netgear WNR3500L Impressions

I recently purchased the Netgear WNR3500L wireless router to replace my failing old Netgear WG302 access point. Now that I've had it for a little over 3 weeks, I feel confident passing along my impressions of the device.

A short story: I was actually turned-onto the WNR3500 by my Mom. While she keeps crediting me with her successes, the fact is that I'm only providing her with the basic skills to find out about these things on her own. She did a good deal of research, and when she explained to me why she chose the WNR3500 (without the "L" suffix), I felt confident that it was a good choice.

The reason why both of us replaced our wireless routers/access points (WAPs) was because we were experiencing problems with the wireless signal dropping (in my Mom's case) or the connection intermittently freezing for a minute or so (in my case, what a pain when using a ssh interactive terminal session). We both tried different channels (remember: 1, 6, and 11) to see if interference from our neighbors' WAPs was the trouble. Alas, nothing helped.

The good news: The WNR3500 did help.

The difference between the WNR3500 and the WNR3500L is that the one with the "L" suffix is for use with the open source router project (I think the "L" means Linux, although I think both models effectively run Linux under the hood). Hardware-wise, the WNR3500L has a USB port that the WNR3500 does not have. The USB port can be used to attach a USB hard or thumb drive and use it as a network attached storage node. I also think that this can be used as one means of downloading different firmware to the unit.

Before I start: I wish to tip my hat to Netgear for recognizing the value of open source and encouraging experimentation with the hardware. So many hardware vendors discourage using the hardware for any purpose other than what the vendor originally intended. In this case, Netgear saw the value that open source gave to their business, and as such has encouraged further open source development using their product. Now, Netgear, please find an alternative to Flash on your web site and I'll really give you praise!

Basic Specs

The WNR3500L is a Wireless N draft 2.0 compliant wireless router. It touts...
  • 10/100/1000 Mbps Ethernet port for connection to the Internet (cable modem, DSL modem, etc.)
  • Four port 10/100/1000 Ethernet switch
  • Wireless N draft 2.0 compliant wireless radio (supports 802.11b/g/n)
  • USB 2.0 port (for use as a disk server or development purposes)
The Netgear firmware, as shipped with the unit, provides:
  • A fairly robust stateful firewall (robust in that it has some basic configuration)
  • Support for two wireless profiles: One primary, and one for "guests" that can be segregated from the primary network
  • Allows encryption using WEP, WPA-PSK (TKIP), WPA2-PSK (AES) and combined WPA/WPA2 modes. Encryption key can be entered as a passphrase or a 64-digit hexadecimal key.
  • Auto-selection of wireless channel (don't know how this really works...)
  • Can do PPPoE for use with older bridging DSL modems with providers that use PPPoE
  • Parental controls and basic content blocking mechanisms, including time-of-day blocking
  • Ability to send log events through e-mail
  • Can be converted to a wireless repeater instead of a router/access point
  • Integrated DHCP server (can be configured and disabled) and DNS forwarding
  • Bandwidth control functions ("QoS") to give priority to VoIP or gaming consoles that are delay-sensitive
  • DynDNS.org registration client (for use with the DynDNS free dynamic IP locating service)
  • Traffic metering with warning (or connection disable) when a set threshold is met (for draconian ISPs that meter usage)
  • Integrated upgrade utility that can check Netgear's site directly for firmware updates
These are all configurable through the router's web interface. Netgear has a relatively consistent web interface that they use throughout their entire product line. If you've ever configured a Netgear wireless device, you'll feel right at home with this unit. The web interface works fine with Firefox and does not appear to require Flash or any other plug-ins (just Javascript).

While I did test many of the features, I was unable to test the PPPoE support (I don't have DSL), my application really didn't give me an opportunity to explore the parental controls and blocking functions, and because I'm not using the router functions I couldn't extensively test some of the more nifty features. I can say that I'm impressed with the range of functionality right out of the box without hacking the unit and replacing the firmware. In truth, while I did like the idea of that Netgear supports open source router projects with this unit, I found the Netgear firmware worked fine for my initial applications (although it is likely I'll try some of the open source projects in the future).

The few gripes I have are...
  1. The network time server is not configurable. I run my own time server, and the router wants to get the time from some external source. It would be trivial for Netgear to make this a configuration option. Right now my router is doing the equivalent of the stereotypical VCR "flashing 12:00" mode.
  2. The "guest network" option was enabled by default. Given the range of Wireless N, I feel that leaving any open access is very dangerous and is definitely violating most Internet providers' terms of service.
  3. The unit is light, and plugging wires into all the Ethernet ports will cause the unit to fall off a shelf or table. It would be helpful if the base had more weight.
  4. While I am only using 802.11g wireless adapters in my computers, I still am not seeing even close to 54 Mbps speeds (closer to 10 Mbps). It isn't clear why this is the case (it may not be the fault of the router).
  5. While Netgear came so far with their support for open source, their router recovery CD only works with Windows.
None of the gripes gave me that "oh, crap, why did I buy this?" buyer's remorse thoughts.

In general, I like the router. I am actually thinking about using it as my primary firewall and Internet access gateway (rather than using the second Ethernet port on my server for this purpose).

For those really hard-core hardware enthusiasts, here's what's inside:
  • Broadcom BCM4718 system-on-a-chip processor (includes 802.11n support functions)
  • Broadcom BCM53115S 5-port Gigabit Ethernet switch with two inband management ports and four per-port QoS channels
  • Two integrated EHCI-compliant USB2 ports (one on the board, inside the case, TTL-level).
  • 32MB SDRAM
  • 8MB Flash memory (approx. 5.2MB used by router firmware)
Those who are interested in hacking the WNR3500L should check out the wealth of information on the My Open Router (www.myopenrouter.com) site. In addition to a few choices of alternative (open source) firmware there are also development documentation and discussion forums.

I was able to pick-up my WNR3500L at my local Fry's Electronics for just under $100 (without tax), which happened to be the same price as the WNR3500 (without the L). Many places will charge about $20-$30 more for the WNR3500L.

All in all, I am happy with the router. There are cheaper models out there from other manufacturers (and even from Netgear). However, I think this was a good deal for the flexibility and functionality.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Feline Pancreatitis

A few times in the past several months, I've mentioned that Smokey has been experiencing some serious weight loss (he now weighs a mere 6 lbs) and hasn't been acting like himself. He went to the vet on Monday and it turns out that he has pancreatitis (inflammation/disease of the pancreas). Two very good references on the subject are at Doctors Foster and Smith's web site (http://www.peteducation.com/article.cfm?c=1&aid=334) and Mar Vista Animal Medical center's web site (http://www.marvistavet.com/html/pancreatitis__feline_.html).

It's not clear exactly what the extent of the damage that the pancreatitis has caused, but signs point that his liver is okay and the problems appear to be limited to digestion. He's now taking yet another medication...

The new medication actually has an interesting story behind it: Smokey's vet has prescribed Ursodiol to help improve digestion and and give him some relief of the symptoms. Ursodiol only comes in 300 mg doses (in this case, a capsule), and the dose for Smokey is 30mg/day. So in order to give him the medicine, I have to open the capsule, divide the white powder inside into 10 fairly equal piles, and put each pile into a pill pocket (one for each day). For someone who didn't know what I was doing, I'm sure it looked like I was preparing to do lines of cocaine!! I'm sure I could get People's Rx (Pharmacy) to compound it into a cat treat, but that would be expensive and inconvenient. This is the first time I've used Pill Pockets, and I have to say that they worked really well (the price is a bit steep at $7 for 45 pockets, still cheaper than using a compounding pharmacy). With Smokey's medicine requirements these days, I have been having bad thoughts about how I'm going to get someone to care for him if I have to leave town in an emergency. I think that the pill pockets will be my method of choice for handling this (I'll have to see if he'll eat the treat whole or just eat the treat and spit out the pills).

I know that some of this may seem a bit over-the-top for a cat, and maybe it is. I'm a firm believer (and so is Smokey's vet) that quality of life is what should be the deciding factor for whether to treat these diseases or not. Right now he still seems like a pretty happy cat.