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 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'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, 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.

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