Happy Birthday!

This is a big Happy Birthday to an entity near and dear to all of our hearts. One year ago, we brought boomer online. It has been running without fault ever since. Boomer provides web, mail, chat, database, and other services to over 30 users, handling 5000+ mail messages daily, on a 1.6gig AMD Sempron with 512meg of RAM and a pair of mirrored 80gig drives.
(In reality, it was brought online in September or thereabouts of 2005, but a power-nudge caused a reboot one year ago. It’s been up ever since)
20:09:11 up 365 days, 3:28, 20 users, load average: 0.11, 0.30, 0.34
Yay stable, long running, dependable Linux boxes!

Nokia N800 – So close!

I was just reading a cool review of the Nokia N800 written by a Sean Luke, an assistant professor at George Mason University, and fairly serious Apple Newton Hacker. In the article, he runs down how much better the N800 is over the Newton Messagepad 2100, but also really lambasts the UI designers for making abysmal decisions on decisions.
nokiaI have to side with the Sean on a number of points. There seems to be a mindset in the Linux community that GTk is the be all end all of UI’s, and it’s simple to just adapt it to whatever machine or environment you’re running it on. But in reality, GTK is a badly designed environment. The widgets are painful and inconsistent, they, as Sean says, borrow some of the worst ideas from Windows, and apply them poorly.
In the case of a handheld PDA-like device, these metaphors break down even further. Desktop processes for managing applications, tools, and workflow simply do not work in a handheld, pen based environment. This has been proven time and time again with the success of the Palm line of products (an environment that has nothing to do with windows), as well as the Newton line itself (also has no desktop equivelent). Both these environments were designed from the ground up to work on a small screen, doing basic tasks, interracting with just a stylus. I believe that many of the issues with the WindowsCE line come from this basic poor assertion. Windows isn’t a great GUI to begin with. Adapting it to a handheld device just by making it smaller doesn’t work, and even now, 10 years after the original version, the UI is difficult to work with and notoriously inconsistent.
I think the only ‘open’ environment that has come close to tackling this problem has been the fine folks at Trolltech, with the QTopia handheld environment. They’ve taken the QT environment and re engineered it to work on an embedded platform. The very first iterations of this, running on the Sharp Zaurus were functional, but still had that ‘first time’ porting problem. Trying to fit an Xwindows based environment on a small handheld screen, without a mouse.
Later versions have reached a high level of stability and functionality. Why doesn’t Nokia use this environment? The best I can think of is “Because it’s QT! Not GTK! Not real Linux!” Which makes me sad. This argument has been going on for years now, and frankly it’s time to bury the hatchet. But while the linux world continues to back GTK and Gnome, while ignoring the (IMHO) technically superior, more consistent, and better designed QT based environment, I feel that Linux UI’s will stay in the also-ran category, never considered a serious alternative.
Having said all that, I still find the N800 sexy as all get it. It does take things to the next possible level of Ubiquitous Computing, with it’s wireless capability and long battery life. Closer and closer.

DVD Sorting and cataloging

DVD Shelves
What’s a cool thing to do with your son on a nice lazy Saturday morning? Why, it’s time to finally sort all the DVDs and bring the inventory listings up to date! Yay!
Doesn’t sound like much fun? Actually, it was a blast 🙂 Zach and I went through all the DVDs, sorted them, and got them back up on the shelving in the proper order. Then we went through my incredibly outdated inventory list, and found what discs were missing (about 15), and what ones were not in the inventory (about 80).
I updated my flat HTML file with all my movies on it, noting in italics the ones that are missing (anyone have these?), but also took a look around the net for a possible inventorying tool.
I played around with DVD Aficionado a little, and I sort of like their “bulk import” function. I was able to paste in my listing, and it matched it up with ‘best guesses’ for what movies I was talking about. It got it right about 80 percent of the time, letting me go back and re-choose ones that didn’t match.
Unfortunately, the database is missing a ton of entries. Of my 210 or so movies, 15 weren’t in the database -at all- (no entry for ‘Animal House’? Cmon!). I know the DB can be updated, but I just wanted to do a quick crack at it.
So here’s my listing on dvdaficionado. It breaks down what I entered by category and links to IMDB and all that. I may try and keep it up to date, but really, my videos.html file is the definitive source.
Next project will be inventorying the laserdiscs. Oh my.

Chilly in Boston!


Originally uploaded by eidolon.

Yes, that display really does say ‘9 F’ – 9 degrees fahrenheit. That was at 10pm tonight, on the way back from band practice. It seems to be holding there, the thermometer here at home is showing 10 degrees outside.

One thing this does remind me of is how important a house that has a decent building envelope is. Right now our (rented) house leaks like a sieve. I durned near froze my tootsies off last night as our room temperature probably hit the high 40’s overnight. My fingers were -cold- when outside the blanket. When I finally dragged myself out of bed this morning, the in-house thermometer in the hall happily said ’58’, and this after the sun had been up for 2 hours.

Today Catya picked up a couple small ceramic room heaters – much as I hate using electricity to heat, the alternative was unacceptible.

Fortunately, Mosaic is building things with a very GOOD building envelope, so even on the coldest days, we’ll be able to keep up. This house has a perfectly fine large oil heater in the basement, and baseboard heating all throughout, but that furnace cannot keep up with the amount of heat loss poor (I’m suspecting _ZERO_) insulation, and badly designed structures allow through.

I can’t wait to move.

Spam fighting and whitelisting. What’s the correct path?

Well, it’s hit that point. With the astronomical increase in spam lately, it’s getting quite obvious the problem will not abate on it’s own. The open-ended ‘we trust each other’ process of mail delivery is now in it’s death throes, it’s time to look at other solutions.

According to my spam report, my personal inbox is getting 450-650 caught spams a day. Unfortunately, that is only my Stage One filter. I also use Thunderbird as my email client, which has excellent spam filters of it’s own, and that catches another 100-150 messages there. I have monitors showing me the total mail I receive daily, and it’s in the 1500 messages range, of which 500 or so are mailing list messages. That means one out of every 100 messages I receive is legit. And lately, the filters have occasionally gotten things wrong. Mail intended for me is marked as spam, and I never hear about it.

In 12 hours of operation on our only mail server, here is an account of the volume we move:

Grand Totals
4801   received
5413   delivered
173   forwarded
79   deferred  (434  deferrals)
230   bounced
484   rejected (8%)
0   reject warnings
0   held
0   discarded (0%)
45428k  bytes received
49843k  bytes delivered
1416   senders
1092   sending hosts/domains
334   recipients
148   recipient hosts/domains

In the past, it was okay to occasionally go through your spam box and see if there’s anything legitimate in there. That is simply not possible in todays climate. It may take an hour to go through a days worth of spam, and is mind numbingly tedious. There’s a good chance you’ll miss something just because it -looks- like spam.

So what are the options? This is where I’m asking for help. I’m speaking not only for myself, but also for the greater Homeport community. I maintain user accounts for 20-30 people, and they’re all under the same attack as I am, maybe to somewhat of a lesser degree, but it’s still hurting.

I’ll note for the record that we are currently running Amavisd, with Spamassassin, all through Postfix. Amavis is happily removing -all- virii from our mail, so that is not an issue. SA with some filter tweaking is doing an admirable job considering the masssive load it is contending with.

  • Option A – A commercial filtering service
    There are several vendors that offer commercial filtering. Many of them are simple ‘mail accounts’ that you can POP your mail off of, letting them handle the filtering. Others will forward a specific mail address in and out of their system. Are there services that will filter an entire domain? I’d be willing to pay for a service that maintains its filters, rulesets and RBLs in a respectable fashion.

  • Option B – Fiddling my own configuration
    I’ve been doing this for quite a while. It’s tedious, it’s time consuming, and it’s never ‘quite right’. It’ll work perhaps for a few, but how do you really know if it’s working correctly? I’m probably going to do one major wash-through to enable the various Postfix standard rules, but in reality, unless someone wants to take over being Spam Master for Homeport’s servers, this is not a task I’m keen on doing much longer.

  • Option C – Massively restrict received email
    I like the idea of using some form of sender authentication. I’d be willing to say “If you PGP sign your message, I will accept it”. This is something that’s available to most mail users, and is easy to enable. It makes tracking easier, and I can rank accepted mail by if I’ve accepted their PGP key onto my keyring. The drawback to this is that not everyone I communicate with will have PGP set up, and while it will help with authenticating known users (everyone I bludgeon into using PGP), I still run the risk of missing important mail from people I have not corresponded with.

  • Option D – Whitelisting
    This is probably the easiest to implement, but gets the most grief as a poor solution. I know the list of people who I correspond with regularly, I know they are not spammers. There is a slight risk a spammer may forge their email address in a From line, and therefore get through my filters, but in reality, I have seen NO spam of this type ever in my mailbox. Ever.

  • Option E – Give up on email altogether
    No, not give up in this whole concept. But give up trying to run my own server. Gmail and Yahoo both have excellent mail clients, and they are available to remote clients. Why fight this anymore? Everyone should just get their own accounts on gmail, and be done with it.

So that’s where I am. I invite folks to chime in with ideas or suggestions on where to go from here. I know this discussion is happening all over the net right now, but wading through that is tedious and rarely productive. I also invite the members of the Homeport community to chime in with their suggestions, observations, or thoughts on how the systems are running now, and where things should go.

Windows Idiocies

I’m sure this will end up turning into a nice long list, but lets start with this particular rant. If you have a Windows XP installation, and you’re trying to enable or disable something from starting when the machine boots, where do you go?
Well, naturally, you right click on Start, go to Explore, look at Programs->Start menu->Startup and… hm, your app is not there. Ah, must be on the global settings. Explore all users, programs, start menu, startup… hm, not there either.
At this point, the spectre of editing up the Registry comes in, where you have to navigate ridiculously long lists of keys to possibly find the switch that may actually fix your problem.
Today I found a new one. Microsoft has decreed (jedi hand-wave here), that all Windows XP computers must start MSN Messenger when they boot. You don’t have a choice, it’s enabled by default. Sorry if you don’t actually want to use it, or you’re group policyusing some other IM system.
Microsoft, by the way, doesn’t -tell- you it’s running. It’s not in the tool tray, it has no startup screen, it’s just ‘there’. The only reason I knew messenger was running was that when I logged in via Jabber, a little popup window told me, nicely, that I had been forcibly logged out of MSN messenger because I had logged in elswhere. Afterwhich, the popup disappeared, and again I had no access to Messenger. Thanks guys.
Today I decided to finally rid myself ot this behaviour. There may be occasion to use the Messenger service, but I want to determine when I run it, and when I don’t. It would be easy to go to Control Panel->Add/Remove software, and evict the application entirely, but that’s not what I wanted to do.
Apparently there’s an alternative to this mayhem. I dug through various google results and came up with this gem:

Simply mention the word “registry” and some folks cringe! There’s a much easier way to stop Windows Messenger from starting and running in the background in Windows XP. And this can easily be done without doing any registry editing. All it takes is a few clicks of your mouse.
Go to Start>Run and type in gpedit.msc which will take you to the Group Policy and Local Computer Policy settings. Now click on User Configuration>Administrative Templates>Windows Components>Windows Messenger. Set both settings to “ENABLEDâ€? and reboot. That’s it! This will allow you to disable Windows Messenger, which will stop it from loading at start-up.
This is by far the most straight forward and easiest way to disable Windows Messenger. And should you decide to use Messenger in the future, just simply reverse the changes you made and turn it back on anytime you like!

Sounds good, and after a few clicks, lo, there’s the policy. To me this seems like yet another interface that applications under Windows may or may not adhere to, but it seems like it’s worth a shot.

Arisia is nearing its membership cap. Register!

A reminder to all my sundry friends – Arisia is this weekend. Due to the hotel change, there is a membership cap in force, and we’re getting close to it. If you don’t pre-register, there’s a very good chance you will not be able to buy a membership on site!
So in the name of all that’s good, register!
This has been a public service ranty announcement.
For those who have been asking, yes, I’ll be working registration, but this year I’m not actually heading it up. So I will have time away from the reg desk to socialize, play, and generally have a good time. Might be a first for me! Mad props to Jasra and Sarah for all their intense work.
I’ll also be helping Blk with her dealer room, where she’ll be doing custom hairbraiding, as well as showing off some of my chainmail. Stop by the room on Dealers Row.

The iPhone : Another blow to Palm

By now everyone has heard about Apple’s latest contribution to the War on Available Cash, the iPhone. What’s been amusing to me is watching the impact this has had on the Palm world. It would be foolish to assume the introduction of an OSX embedded device with more features than ANYTHING on the market won’t have an impact on what has up until now been about the best in handheld general purpose telephone devices – the Treo. As a steadfast Treo owner myself (not without my share of gripes admittedly), I found myself, like most of the geek populace, seriously lusting after the new iPhone.
But don’t take my word for it. Lets take a look around the net a bit.
PalmAddicts led off this morning with an article ‘I’m getting that nagging sensation again:

Don’t get me wrong: the iTunes compatibility is a non-issue in an era of 4GB SD cards and PTunes, and my cellphone needs are very modest. What really intrigues me, though, is that the iPhone is a real computer in a PDA format, but one that runs on gestures instead of a thumbboard. In essence, I’m seeing the iPhone as the logical successor to the T|X.

I’d also recommend taking a look at this whimsical conversatin between an owner and his Treo.
There’s also the impact of the announcement on the stock market in general, including Palm. Apple’s stock soars, all the other manufacturers tank. Granted, this is a short-term plot, but it’s telling. Apple’s stock is trading higher than ever (as of this posting, at around 95).
The excellent Treonauts.com does a side by side comparison of the iPhone vs the Treo 680. They make the comment:

the iPhone is primarily a consumer multimedia phone and not a business smartphone.

I have to disagree. The undercurrent is that the Treo is a ‘business smartphone’, and, frankly, it isn’t. The Bluetooth is so crippled as to be unuseable, the software suite is slow and painful, Wifi is a bulky and unwieldy bolt-on, and corporate network interraction is almost non-existent. It’s also hard to say that PalmOS is considered a business OS, when the alternative on the iPhone is… OSX – a fully featured, multithreaded, portable operating system.
Will the iPhone be a success? Undoubtedly. Palm has nothing in the wings to compete with it, and no other vendor has the design moxy that Apple has. I predict there will be a raft of new product announcements in the next 6 months until the iPhone is officially available as other vendors scramble to “Me Too!” their product lines, but in the end, the Treo will slide down into the also-ran territory, and the iPhone will take top slot as the preferred mobile platform for geeks and tinkerers.

Jabber: I return to the fold.

Quite a while back, I was a fairly avid user of Jabber, the XML based open source messaging system. This was mostly during the Yahoo / MSN / AIM / ICQ ‘instant messaging’ wars, where each company was trying to push their own system for the hearts and keyboards of the world.
It turned out apparently that marketshare in messaging really wasn’t the panacea they had all hoped it was, and the “YOU VILL USE OUR MESSAGE SYZTEM, AND YOU VILL LIHK IT!” approach many of the vendors were pushing has taken a back seat to other business models, like, say, making a good product.
I had no real need for a strong IM platform for a few years, as most of my communication was either done in e-mail or over IRC, but recently I’ve been spending a fair amount of time in IM with a my client down in New Jersey. As they are primarily a Microsoft shop, they naturally opted for Windows Live Messenger. With a somewhat heavy heart, I installed the Messenger client, and started using it fairly regularly.
In short, it sucks. First, Microsoft seems to be in this model of “Oh, we realize that the Windows interface is butt ugly, so we’ll redo the interface again, in sort of a hacked up interface-inside-an-interface model.” I first saw this with the Windows Media Player, which has an infuriatingly obtuse interface, while it tries to be ‘super-hip’. WLM is just as bad, but it tries to be an effective business tool (shared whiteboards, VOIP, etc) while also trying to be something kids want to play with (online games, cute icons and sounds, etc). The resulting mishmash makes me feel like I’m trying to do business over a speak n spell.
It was time to go back and see if I could use the MSN network, which my customer was wedded to, with a client that didn’t suck. A few years ago, this was problematic, as the various IM providers were occasionally blocking certain servers from connecting. (AIM is in fact still doing this for the big public Jabber servers, and Yahoo has a long history of actively blocking non-Yahoo clients.) Recently, the IM providers have backed off their rabid territorialism, and third party clients are easier to work with.
I once again considered multi-protocol clients such as Trillian and GAIM, but to me they solve the problem the wrong way. They make one piece of software that can talk all the different server protocols. Jabber does it differently. It’s up to the SERVER to connect to all the providers. You just need to run one client that talks Jabber, and the server does the rest.
My Jabber server has been running without maintenance for over a year, and I was using it occasionally for Yahoo and AIM connections, but now I needed to make the MSN gateway active as well. Fortunately, it was just a matter of apt-getting the msn gateway tools, and enabling it in the server configuration.
Now I’m back – I have a single Jabber client (at the moment I’m using Exodus, which IMHO is the best Jabber client on Windows), and it is happily showing me contacts from MSN, Yahoo, AIM, and Jabber. My old contact lists happily repopulated (they’re stored on the server, not on the client), and off I go.
It’s been pleasant to note that other services are coming onto the Jabber network, including Google Talk (A jabber system), and LJ Chat for the Livejournal folks – also Jabber.
And, as I type this note, I’m getting messages from the MSN-based folks I mentioned earlier, and Exodus is happily showing them as simple Jabber messages. Joy!
Are you on a Jabber network? Say hi! My Jabber ID (JID) is ‘dbs@jabber.stonekeep.com’.

GM gets closer to a decent EV car.

Now this is a GM product I might actually buy. And I ain’t talkin Genetically Modified.
At the Detroit Auto Show, GM has unvailed the ‘Chevy Volt’. It’s somewhere between a concept car and production, in that they’ve hired a line manager for the vehicle, but they’re having problems finding a supplier for the 100,000 mile Lithium Ion battery.
GM is calling it a ‘Plugin Hybrid’, but to me that’s a terrible misnomer. It’s an EV car with an onboard generator. It’ll run about 40 miles on full battery power, at which time the engine kicks on and starts recharging the batteries. It can plug into wall outlets and recharge in about 6 hours. The onboard gasoline / ethanol engine isn’t even mechanically connected to the wheels, it simply runs a generator.
And, it doesn’t look so bad either!