Saturday
Jan212012

Length of Hypercritical episodes

As a devoted 5by5 and Hypercritical fan, I have been enjoying the recent increase in the show length. There are not many podcasts I could listen to single episodes for 2+ hours, but Hypercritical is one that always leaves me wanting more. For my own amusement I decided to graph the length of each episode:

I suppose it tells a lot about me that this is the sort of thing I do for fun. In any case, what I find interesting is that although there is a high degree of variability in the length of the Hypercritical show itself, recently there is less of a variation the total length of the conversation (the show plus the After Dark). There’s also a trend towards longer conversations: episodes #46-#50 plus their After Darks are all all more than 2 hours long, and the most recent episode, #51, is just a minute shy when combined with its After Dark.

In contrast to John’s statement in the latest episode (#51) that he wants to “tighten up” the length of the shows, I’m also hoping that Dan and John will continue to do these long shows, and maybe do some that are even longer. The increased time allows John to go into more detail in both setting up the premise and in articulating his point. In the phenominal episode on the history of game controllers John had to describe half a dozen game controllers in order to demonstrate his thesis, and it simply could not have been done in a show that was limited to an hour. Yet the episode was in no way long-winded or boring. As evidenced by the amount of followup in the following episode, many listeners both really enjoyed it and thought that John should have included even more controllers. The people have spoken, they want more Siracusa (no ‘z’). Let’s make it happen, Dan.

Thursday
Dec082011

Annoying Alfred usability issue

At the risk of my blog further becoming a place for me to do nothing but complain, I want to mention an annoying usability issue with Alfred, the application quick launcher for Mac OS X.

For starters, Alfred has the annoying habit (at least for me) of changing its mind about which app it wants to feature as the first choice:

Click to read more ...

Wednesday
Nov302011

Don't log to the same bucket in Amazon S3

I’ve been investigating using Amazon’s S3 service to host and serve media files for my existing and potential future podcasts. To that end, I’ve been looking at S3’s logging capabilities to ensure that they adequately capture the data that I’d like them to - date and time of request, IP address, HTTP response, bytes sent, and so on.

For simplicity’s sake, I first tried putting the logs directly in the bucket root. Well, as it turns out, S3 loves to spit out hundreds of log files with only a few lines in them (in my testing at least). This is less than ideal as I’d love to have a single log file like Apache produces, but it’s something that I can conceivably work with. To avoid cluttering up the root of the bucket, I created a folder within the bucket and sent the logs there. I added a few sample files, issued some sample queries, and shortly went to bed.

I woke up today to find, once again, hundreds of log files. Strangely, the times on the files indicated that they had been written on a regular basis throughout the night. I downloaded them and opened them up to find lines that looked like the following (I’ve omitted some fields for brevity):

[30/Nov/2011:14:26:36 +0000] 10.118.17.24 71A3D26E8993B42A REST.PUT.OBJECT log/2011-11-30-14-26-36-9FFC7B797E7F436B "PUT /my-bucket/log/2011-11-30-14-26-36-9FFC7B797E7F436B HTTP/1.1" 200 - - 386 25 9 "-" "Jakarta Commons-HttpClient/3.0" -

Basically, it’s logging that it wrote a log file. Writing this line to a log file triggers another log, and another, etc. Fortunately S3’s logging isn’t in real-time - it seems to only write a few hundred files per day. But these logs of logs, at least to me, are completely useless.

Anyway, the solution is to log to a separate bucket, and not to log that bucket.

Friday
Nov182011

I've run out of patience for Linux

Because I currently manage several blogs (and may be managing several more in the future) I’m looking into moving them all, including this one, to a single platform. To that end, I’ve been evaluating many services and software offerings. I wanted to evaluate Wordpress more thoroughly, so I tried to download and install it into an Ubuntu VM I’ve had kicking around, but I couldn’t even get Apache to talk to PHP.

I’d removed and reinstalled the apache2, php5, and libapache2-mod-php5 packages without success. For some reason unknown to me, it’s just not working.

Perhaps this is betraying my ineptitude at running and managing Ubuntu, but this is a common theme for me. Very often whenever I try to do something that I think should be trivial on Linux I run into roadblocks, with the only symptom being that whatever I’m trying to do just isn’t working. Again, I expect that if I were more experienced with the system I could dive in, identify, and fix my problem.

But I’m not that experienced. Even though I ran Linux for years before I switched to Mac OS X, and even though I ran a VPS instance running Ubuntu for over two years, apparently this is not enough to have even basic competency when it comes to diagnosing problems like this. And I’m at the point where I just don’t have the patience to play these little games anymore; having to mess around with various configuration files and verifying that things have the appropriate owner and permissions. I’m tired of it all.

One big reason that there is such a problem is that the Linux filesystem is a mess, and incredibly stateful. Install one package and thousands of files are scattered across hundreds of directories. And if the wrong one gets misconfigured or messed with somehow the entire thing comes crashing down. When it does, you have the choice of spending an unknown amount of time attempting to track down and fix the problem or throwing up your hands and just starting over from scratch. I’m tempted just to toss my VM, get the latest Ubuntu ISO and reinstall from a known-good state. But again, you can only do this so many times before it becomes tiresome.

Unfortunately, my alternatives aren’t any better. BSD and Mac OS X both have very similar stateful filesystems, and I’d never consider running a Windows server. I guess I’ll just have to deal with the reality of the situation - but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

Wednesday
Oct262011

Why most hotel wi-fi sucks

The deplorable state of hotel wi-fi is a recurring joke. Over this past week I’ve heard Merlin Mann complain about it on his Back to Work podcast, saw Richard Stallman devote six paragraphs to making sure that the hotel he stays at has some way to access the internet in his speaking rider, and I even saw a tweet by Chris Ziegler from The Verge about how he had to drive to McDonald’s to upload something because the hotel internet was unusable.

There was also a piece by Joe Sharkey on The New York Times’ website about how this is the fault of the iPad: how the surge in iPad popularity, especially among travelers, has overwhelmed the networks of many hotels. While there’s no doubt that the hotel networks are completely overwhelmed and mostly useless, the fault lies mostly with the hotels.

I’ve worked the front desk at two hotels. The first was a budget hotel with less than 80 rooms. It was owned by a couple, the nicest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working for. Though there wasn’t much in the way of amenities, the rooms were clean, there was breakfast in the morning, and the prices were reasonable. When I started working there, the wi-fi wasn’t great, but it was decent. It was a series of wireless access points strung in series along the length of the building connected to a Time Warner Cable business-class internet connection. As the owners were nearly always on the premises taking care of guests and other things that needed doing, one day I approached one of them and told them that I wanted to improve the wi-fi in the building. They agreed, and I purchased three high-powered routers from Newegg, flashed them with DD-WRT, and had the maintenance guy set them up in the attic. They worked brilliantly.

I installed three Buffalo WHR-HP-54G routers. They worked amazingly well.

In contrast, the second hotel I worked at appeared to be a higher-end place to the observer. There were over 130 rooms on 3 floors with an elevator. The entire place was smoke-free. And yet, the wi-fi was truly and utterly terrible in every way.

First off, when you connected to the wi-fi, you would get the terms of service page. And it wasn’t just the first time, either. Every 4 hours you would be kicked off the internet and have to reconfirm the terms of service. If you were watching a streaming video or downloading a file it would appear to stop loading for no apparent reason, and you’d have to reload a browser page to see that you had been kicked off.

Second, the actual wi-fi access points were utter garbage. At any given time, about a third of them just did not work; you could see the SSID and maybe even connect, but you’d never get an IP address. Regular guests knew which floor and side of the building to stay on to get the best wi-fi, and which hotspots to avoid even trying to connect to. And yes, each access point had its own SSID instead of using one SSID for the entire hotel.

Third, though the wireless itself was free to use, in a pathetic attempt to make some money there were ads on the terms of service page and occasionally injected into the pages you were viewing. Yes, they actually intercepted the HTTP response and injected their own ads. Seriously.

And finally, these 130+ rooms and the front desk shared a single T1 connection (~1.5Mbps). In fact, there was an “upgrade” to the front desk system that switched from a desktop application to a web application. So we would be trying to check in guests on the same super-saturated network that had slowed to a crawl for everyone in the building, causing much delay and embarrassment as you pleaded with the system to let you check people in.

An actual photo of the floor where everything was hooked up. Seriously.

All in all, completely terrible. Everyone that stayed there and everyone that worked there knew it. Unfortunately, everyone, including the general manager, was powerless to fix it.

Instead of being owned by a couple like my previous job, this hotel was just one of many hotels owned by an out-of-state corporation. So instead of having the individual hotels install and manage their own internet and pay-per-view systems, they contracted it out to (presumably) the companies that put in the lowest bid. And as long as guests tolerate the system enough not to revolt or write nasty comments on hotel review sites about it, they don’t care how bad it is.

Admittedly, my experience might not be typical, but given how pervasive the complaints about hotel wi-fi are, I suspect it is. It’s not because suddenly people are bringing iPads with them, it’s because the companies that own the hotels absolutely do not care how good their wi-fi is. The only thing they care about is their not spending a penny more than they think they have to, and they don’t care how bad it is as long as people continue to rent rooms.The ironic thing is, I’m sure that whatever they were paying the company to manage the network was much more than it would have cost for Time Warner Cable internet, some networking equipment off Newegg, and a few hours for me to set it up.

However, there are a few hotels out there, like the first one I worked at, that do genuinely care about providing a good experience. The sad thing is, it’s impossible to tell which ones they are by looking at online reviews or star ratings - you have to actually go there, or know someone that went there, to really tell. I tend to think that you have a greater chance of finding one if you look for smaller, budget hotels, but unfortunately you also have a greater chance of finding a truly dreadful one, so be careful.

1: In fact, back when I first started there, we had a room that was out of commission during a very busy season because the TV broke. Management couldn’t just go out and buy a new TV from Walmart - they had to wait until the corporation placed another batch order so that it could save some money on the cost. Yet the cost of the TV could have been paid for many times over by renting that room for the month it was off market.

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