Archive for May, 2006

New IP Address

Saturday, May 27th, 2006

I manage my own co-located dedicated server, which runs this site, and about 15 others, including Shields Around the World (more on this in another post). I do this mostly because I’m a geek, but also to keep up with the times, and to have a server for trying out infrastructure technologies on my own. I have hosted with since they had a tiny back room in Mountain View in 1998. At the time, they seemed to be a couple of ex-Netscape guys who had bought some old networking equipment. During the bust, they acquired tons of great gear for pennies on the dollar, and even picked up a couple of fully built-out hosting facilities for incredibly cheap. They seem to be doing very well, and I’m extremely pleased with the service.

Recently they sent me an apologetic note explaining that they had to assign me a new IP address block, because the one I was using eventually needed to be recovered. They are promising this will never happen again, since this block is one they own. It was something of a PITA, but I got through it in a couple hours. If you aren’t interested in the tech details, skip the rest of this post.

My server runs FreeBSD, and I grew up with SunOS, so it’s pretty similar. But I’ve used enough different Linux machines, etc, that I always have to find where things are. I found the rc.conf where I set up the aliases to listen to the new IP addresses. That’s where I made my big mistake – I changed the primary IP address to the new one, but I didn’t change the default router. Oops! As I later found out, packets could get in, but they couldn’t get out.

Fortunately, meer has a nice virtual console feature. Unfortunately, my SSH key was at work, and once I retrieved it, I found I had forgotten my passphrase. Incredibly, they have the ability to update your public key through their support web site, so after generating a new key and updating it, and waiting a few minutes for the servers to sync, I was on the console. While I was on the support site, I figured out that I had to change the default router, and found a couple of other changes – the DNS hosts, and the NTP hosts – that I had to make.

Of course, when the machine came back up, it found some back blocks on one of the disks, so I had to deal with that. Then I changed the default router, rebooted, and everthing worked again. Whew! It’s a bit nerve-wracking to have your main server down for an hour while you try frantically to fix it.

After that, it was easy to change the DNS in resolv.conf, and update the hosts file. When I checked my server logs, I kept getting “ntpdate: no server suitable for synchronization found” in my logs. I checked cron with “crontab -l” but there was no ntpdate. Finally, by chance, I found an /etc/crontab, which had the offending line. I still don’t know why /etc/crontab doesn’t show up when running crontab -l as root.

The remaining tasks were a little tedious, but easy. Apache needed to be reconfigured to listen to the new IP addresses for the virtual hosts. All the DNS files needed to be updated. For this one, I was a little more conservative. I updated the DNS for and one other domain, but have held off on the rest for now.

So, if you had trouble seeing the site for a few days, you know I screwed it up – DNS problems always seems to take days to straighten themselves out. But if you are reading this – you know I fixed it!

Cool Password Management Tool

Monday, May 22nd, 2006

Just ran across an incredibly cool password management tool. Basically it uses a “master” password and the domain name of the site you are visiting to create a unique password for each site. The best part: it is calculated (using a modified MD5 hash) in the Javascript – so no web refresh, no transmission of your master password. And it runs entirely from a bookmarklet, with automatic discovery and fill-in of the password field. Or you can use the mobile version to gen a password on the fly. The only minor issue I can see is that if your master password is compromised, then the attacker could get access to all your sites. But that’s not really a problem, because most people use the same password almost everywhere anyway :-(.

Thanks to JohnK for the pointer.

Singularity Summit

Tuesday, May 16th, 2006

I really enjoyed the Singularity Summit last Saturday. I didn’t go as an official blogger, and I didn’t bring my laptop, so I only have a few basic notes on key ideas that I captured on my blackberry. I went and stood in line with the other “singularians”, a new word I learned that seems to denote far-out folks that think they will live forever amid super-intelligent machines. Much more complete conference coverage can be found at Dan Farber, Down the Avenue, Responsible Nanotech, and Chaos Manor.

I was a little surprised to see Steve Jurvetson on the stage. If I had known, I might have hit him up to get in to the VIP lunch. He did a good job trying to moderate a Q&A session that was a little too wide-ranging with too many panelists.

Ray Kurzweil was first up. I enjoyed his book, and had listened to his speech at Accelerating Change via IT Conversations. This talk was pretty similar, but still stunning in the amount and depth of detail. He was the only person at the conference with facts and figures at his fingertips, and it gave him an aura of credibility that nobody else matched. I would have loved to hear someone argue with his facts and conclusions. Unfortunately the only real dissenters in the group (Douglas Hofstadter and Bill McKibben) just had vague unease with Ray’s conclusions, and no solid numbers or logic to back them up. Douglas was downright petulant, and it was a huge disappointment for me, since I have been in awe of him since I read Goedel, Escher, Bach back in high school. Ray nicely eviscerated Doug’s comments in his wrap-up.

Sebastian Thrun was inspiring and hilarious in his presentation of the features Stanley needed to win the DARPA Grand Challenge. Particularly funny were his video clips of the “autonomous motorcycle” – allegedly from Berkeley – that kept falling over. One interesting question is whether these kinds of approaches are like “climbing trees to get to the moon” – i.e. seemingly in the right direction, but ultimately never going to reach the goal.

Eric Drexler was fabulous, on his usual theme of “atoms are becoming like bits.” He sees a future where manufacturing has the same economies of scale and replication as information technology. I don’t know much about this, but it sure sounds great. I read Engines of Creation a long time ago, but I need to get back up to speed.

Max More was talking about the Proactionary Principle, which I didn’t quite get, but subsequently looked up. He also talked about ensuring that super intelligence equals super wisdom in these intelligences. I submitted a written question during his talk, wondering which, if any, of the human emotions would need to be replicated in such a machine to enable it to effectively communicate with humans, and further if any of those emotions would be required to succeed in a super intelligent, super wise society. I didn’t get picked, though, and I couldn’t stay for the entire Q&A session, so I guess I’ll have to wait until the next one to ask.

Eliezar Yudkowsky had some interesting ideas to share. In particular, the idea that intelligence is the most powerful force we can deploy to improve our world, and that therefore the question for super intelligence gives us the most leverage. Reminds me of a talk by Bill Joy I heard back in 1987 or 1988 about the almost inconceivably powerful Sun 9 (they had just released the Sun 4, we named our first one “speed” because it seemed so fast). He said if you had a program that would take a century to run on the Sun 4, just wait 15 or so years for the Sun 9, and run it in 8 hours.

Bill McKiibben talked a lot about how less is more, and the journey is its own reward, exhorting us to slow down. Of course, when Ray asked him exactly how to do that, he didn’t have any good answers. This talk reminded me of a series of award-winning short stories called Kirinyaga by Mike Resnick, where a group of African tribesmen try to preserve their culture by moving to a different planet. Ultimately, progress wins out, and you only have utopia for a fleeting moment that you rarely appreciate while it is happening. Bill wants to save the environment, but doesn’t seem to get that some of this progress is in advanced energy sources and manufacturing techniques that will be much better for the environment.

I came away pretty impressed with the caliber and the depth of the thinking that has gone into this issue. One of my goals is to find the time and resources to contribute to this conversation.

IT Conversations is great

Sunday, May 14th, 2006

I had been pooh-poohing the whole idea of podcasts for some time. I downloaded a few, listened to them, and decided they were just amateur radio shows, and not very good ones at that. Who needs that? To be perfectly honest, I generally prefer performing music to listening to it, and in my car I usually listen to KCBS or NPR.

A friend pointed me at IT Conversations. At first, I resisted, because I usually don’t like listening to spoken words, like audio books. This may be because I read much faster than I listen, so I get bored and distracted. I get most of my technical knowledge from reading on the web, and couldn’t imagine really learning anything by listening to talks.
However, I saw a session by one of my favorite thinkers, Ray Kurzweil, so I decided to give it a try. Now I’m completely hooked, and I think there are a couple of reasons. One is that these presentations are designed for a listening audience, so the cadence and the style are very different from an audio book. Of course, they sometimes have slides, which I obviously can’t see, but I still get most of the good stuff. Another reason is I can “attend” conferences without actually traveling anywhere, or missing any days of work. I know I’m missing out on all the valuable networking, but some conferences actually have interesting content, and IT Conversations seems to have most of them.

I have since recommended IT Conversations to a number of friends, and all have found valuable sessions there. A few of my favorites:

Conferences include O’Reilly Emerging Technology, Web 2.0, Pop!Tech and OSCON. Worth checking out.

Airborne unmasked

Thursday, May 11th, 2006

David Cowan, of Bessemer VC, systematically and lucidly shows how misleading claims can still sucker a huge number of Americans into buying stupid products.

Who Has Time For This?: CREATED BY A SCHOOL TEACHER!!!!!

Form Factors

Thursday, May 11th, 2006

David Pogue had an interesting article in the New York Times recently about the uselessness of Microsoft’s Ultra-Mobile PC (UMPC) idea (also touted by Intel). I agree completely. And it reminded me of some thinking I did recently about my ideal form factors.

Basically, I want one device, I can carry in my pocket, that can do everything a pocketable device is good for. If the device doesn’t fit in my pocket, then it might as well be a 15″ ultraportable laptop, because I’m going to have to carry a bag to put it in. I don’t see anything in between making sense for me.

My ideal pocket device has a bright VGA screen about 2.5″ across. It also has a qwerty keyboard (I’m spoiled by my Blackberry). To fit in my pocket, the keyboard likely needs to slide out. It can take high-res photos and videos, and play and record mp3s. It works as a phone, and I can hold it up to my ear as well as use a headset. I don’t care about WiFi, because I’ll have EVDO or EDGE, and that’s fast enough for the limited surfing I’ll do. I want email, with the ability to file messages on the server. I want GPS and basic driving directions. Obviously it needs to sync with my desktop and web services for contacts, appointments, and todos.

For just about everything else: heavy email, spreadsheets, powerpoint, photo editing, etc, etc, I will use a laptop. Don’t try to shoehorn these things into my pocket device, please.

We are getting pretty close. Some of the new HTC phones seem pretty cool. But I’m still waiting…

New Logo and Theme

Saturday, May 6th, 2006

I decided it would be worth some time to make my blog look a little distinctive. As an engineer by background, I usually consider aesthetics superfluous, but I have learned over the years that a few flashy graphics go an awfully long way, especially in first impressions. Unfortunately, I also have very little skill in this area, so I turned to the internet for help.

I started by looking for a theme that I liked. After downloading and installing about ten that I found on the Theme Viewer, I tried them out on friends and co-workers. We settled on Limelite, which is basically Kubrick with different colors. I didn’t like the fact that the permalink pages didn’t have the sidebar menu, but that was easily tweaked.  I also fixed the archives to have entire entries instead of just excerpts – again a one-line fix.  Gotta love well-written code.

Next, I needed to get rid of the lime in the header, and replace it with something really unique. Because of the name Oxyfish, and its derivation, I had the idea that a fish talking on a cellphone would be interesting. Enter Elance.

A friend of mine (who works there) told me some great stories about simple projects he had contracted Elancers to do, so I thought I’d give it a shot. I posted a logo design project, and within a day or two had 24 bids, at an average price of just over $100. Even more impressive, several sent me mockups based just on the description of the project. I shortlisted a few that looked good, and finally awarded the project to betterHalfDesigns in Puerto Rico who had sent a great mockup. After minor modification, I had him put it in the header you see above.

Some of my friends really like it, some think it’s cheesy, but all agree, it’s pretty unique. Mission accomplished, thanks to the internet.