Our belated leave

Trying to disconnect for a while up at my dad’s place. It’s doing us good :).



Rubenerd Show 413: The Wheaty 2021 episode

Rubenerd Show 413

Podcast: Play in new window | Download

13:57 – Jim Kloss returned to the Whole Wheat Radio airwaves again for a chat! I was not prepared, and even started typing over it towards the end when work pinged me, but I couldn’t let this moment of Internet audio history go unrecorded.

Recorded in Sydney, Australia. Licence for this track: Creative Commons Attribution 3.0. Attribution: Ruben Schade.

Released January 2021 on The Overnightscape Underground, an Internet talk radio channel focusing on a freeform monologue style, with diverse and fascinating hosts; this one notwithstanding.

Subscribe with iTunes, Pocket Casts, Overcast or add this feed to your podcast client.


That one specific spammer who can’t pad

There must be a package out there that generates random names for spammers, or they have a list of first and last names they concatenate and blast out. Nah that sounds too much like work, there’s probably something on npm, along with a way to pad between the names.

But someone’s scripts must not be working, or their source files have been clobbered by single names. Cassandra Smith has appeared almost weekly for the last six months, and she has a penchant for selling customer lists for users of SalesForce, Azure, and Nutanix. I only ever see her when I’m doing a weekly trawl of my spam folder, and she always ends with:

Best Regards, Cassandra Smith Marketing Campaign |Demand Generation Coordinator

Looks like someone else needs help with string padding.


That distinctive ALCO engine rattle

Have you ever had a specific sound from your childhood that you’ve never been able to place? Then years later you realise what it was, but you can’t feel like you can tell anyone because it’s so niche that nobody of a sound mind would understand or care? That’s what having your own blog is for.

I had a few railway photo books as a kid, one of which predominately featured an early generation EMD diesel operated by Australian National (ne. ANR). These bull-nosed cab locomotives are easily the most distinctive and recognisable trains of the time period, and I thought looked especially fetching in the green and gold livery of AN. Years later I’d find myself studying in Adelaide just outside one of the yards the former AN used.

I also had a few VHS tapes about Australian steam locos, one of which I distinctly remember being photobombed by the same EMD diesel I saw in that book. I was struck at the time how distinctive it sounded; almost like a rattling kettle on a stove. Was it supposed to sound like that? Was it just old? I never knew, and wasn’t in a rush to find out given I thought I was only interested at steam and commuter rail at the time.

Years later I started learning about dieselisation. Just like the conversion of ocean liners from coal to oil firing; the shift from steam to diesel was nothing short of revolutionary… if the engines had been Union Pacific turbines. That was an engineering pun I’ve wanted to make for years. It shook up the entire industry, and coincided with the introduction of containerisation that’s the hallmark of rail freight today.

General Motors’ Electro-Motive Division weren’t the first to make diesel electric locomotives, but they had the biggest impact during this transition period from the 1940s. I read up about their F and E units, and how they’d been built under licence in Australia for various railways. But they didn’t have a monopoly; A.E. Goodwin also built Alco locomotives in Australia, some of which bore a similar, if boxier, resemblance to these EMD units. Compare the above cab photos of a EMD F7 by Roger Puta, with this preserved ALCO PA-4 taken by Steve Morgan.

Then it dawned on me this year: the loco I saw in that grainy, worn VHS tape might not have been an EMD at all, but an Australian-built analogue to the Alco FA or PA. RailPictures.net has a few domestic examples taken from the 1970s and 80s.

So I did some digging on YouTube, and found an Australian video with that exact sound I remembered from my childhood! I’m by no means the first person to think these locomotives sounded distinctive and unusual, given the comments and description on the video. YouTube is full of people discussing these locos, and seeking them out around the world from India to Argentina.

Play Alco Action (!) Alco fans

If there’s anything better than wandering deep into the weeds of an obscure hobby to answer a childhood question, I don’t want to know. Rattle rattle.


Microblog, week 3 of 2021

We’re into the third week of 2021 already, though confusingly this is only the second week of my Twitter break. Here are my accumulated microblogs for the week:

  • I have the uncanny ability to injure myself just before a big house move. Last time it was a multi-day migraine. Today I stubbed my toe so hard it swelled up. Yay!

  • “You don’t ring true, so please stop calling me”

  • Hey look, Zendesk logged me out. It must be a day that ends in Y.

  • The guy at our local coffee shop knows me by name and my order now. I like that if I fell off the edge of the world tomorrow, there would be people who’d wonder where did that awkward guy go?

  • Aiyo, I miss Singapore hawker food.

  • Clara’s and I now have a non-studio apartment for the first time since we moved in together! Having a bedroom sealed off from the work and kitchen areas is a game changer.

  • What would we have done stuck at home if not for the joys of homelabs, vintage Hi-Fi, Hololive, and Minecraft?

  • Unscientific experiment tallying when people are rude to me in public (queue jumping, not holding open doors or saying thanks, etc). Gen Z: 0. Millennials: 1. Gen X: 1. Boomers: 14.

  • Bumped into the American guy on our floor again. He’s still desperately trying to figure out how he can bring the rest of his family over. “It’s all fucking nuts”.

  • Should I post this silly entry about the sound of a diesel locomotive? Ah, screw it.


You can just pay more taxes/wages/etc!

I had a nightmare last night where someone argued that the safety of a train shouldn’t be improved, because you can just drive a car instead. Yes, even my dreams have weird interests. Yet that line of thinking is very much real.

When wealthy people advocate for higher tax rates, they’re told they can just pay extra. When a restaurant owner advocates for higher minimum wages, they’re told they can just pay their staff more. When someone falls off a cliff, they’re told they can just avoid being pushed off next time.

They’re absolutely true, and absolutely miss the point. Absolutely! The opportunity to lift all boats isn’t challenged by just lifting one. It’s basic arithmetic, though it eludes armchair economists.

I’m also starting to become wary of the word “just”. It’s a sign that someone’s about to belittle or downplay an issue. That’s not very just.


Many of my software icons are green

Speaking of colours! Most OSs tend to favour blue in their icons and interfaces, presumably because it’s the world’s favourite colour, and it’s perceived as calming. But I recently had occasion to look through my Applications folder and noticed green slowly encroaching on blue’s space:

Icons for FaceTime, KeePassXC, LibreOffice Calc, Line, MacVim, Excel, Minecraft, and ScummVM

It reminds me of those silly Twitter colour wars in 2007, back when that platform was fun. And speaking of keeping things fun: the inclusion of an application here says nothing about whether I want to use it or not, so please don’t email me. It won’t stop the regular stream of rude (and therefore counterproductive) messages I get now and immediately delete, but the rest of you can at least admire my optimism!

I also love that there’s still sufficient differences in their shapes and design that one can pick them out at a glance. The trend in interfaces towards uniform squares is such a bad idea for accessibility; it’s one of many, many reasons I’m holding off on Big Sur.

Colours are fun! I miss having chats about them with my mum.


A 1980s PBS documentary about early diesels

This is how I spent my morning while packing for a house move. The 1980s music, the people they interviewed, the VHS artefacts; everything was amazing.

Screenshot from the documentary showing a Baldwin centre cab diesel locomotive

But I’m sure other rail nerds would especially appreciate this zinger at 37:30:

Besides the Minneapolis, Northfield and Southern, six other roads owned centre cabs. In fact, Baldwin designed the unit for the Elgin, Jolliet and Eastern; a beltline around Chicago owned by US Steel. EJ&E’s centre cabs continued in service into the 1970s after most of the others were scrapped.

The secret? EJ&E replaced the Baldwin engines with EMD.


Follow-up about FreeBSD jail advantages

The first Ukrainian reader to email me—Pryvit!—asked me to clarify what I meant here in my introductory post about FreeBSD jails:

Much has been written about the potential security benefits of isolating processes, but I shamelessly use them foremost to keep my ports clean. My Plex jail has everything for video encoding, the Minecraft jail is the only one with a JDK runtime. Conflicts aren’t an issue, they’re simple to update without unintentionally breaking something else, and it keeps individual attack surfaces small.

I’ll admit I ran a lot of justifications together into a single paragraph because I wanted to get to configuring the jails themselves. They’re also, by and large, not specific to FreeBSD’s flavour of containerisation, though I still think it’s easily the most elegant implementation. Sometimes the simplest solution really is the best one.

But let me address something first. People were surprised at how cautious I was qualifying security as a “potential” benefit. There’s a stubborn industry perception that containers negate or reduce the need for other standard security practices; that somehow wrapping a service in a container intrinsically renders them immune to security problems. The Docker and Kubernetes crowds weren’t the first to push this, but they’re the highest-profile. Inappropriate application of these technologies have created entire new classes of security issues, and it hasn’t helped that the tools themselves have also introduced critical bugs.

But back to FreeBSD! Jails—and process isolating tools in general—are great for security if configured with the same maturity and care as a new host, such as user management, permissions, configuring services to only listen on specific ports, system updates, and so on. A jailed environment is a great additional layer of security, but it absolutely does not absolve a system administrator’s responsibilities elsewhere. If I sound like I’m being overly cautious or critical, it’s only from reading these glowing posts for many years and being concerned at the direction the industry is taking!

With that in mind, jails let you do some cool stuff. They let you expose only the portions of the host’s file system the service is supposed to see, which can even include hiding specific binaries or system tools. They hide their processes from other jails, but you can also hide them from the host itself. Jails let you create specific users, groups, and permissions unique to that environment. And you can build the base system and packages specific for what a service needs, while removing unnecessary components that might introduce bugs or security problems. More on that in a moment.

FreeBSD jails run atop ZFS add a whole suite of extra tools that make building and maintaining jails easier, without having to learn an entire extra set of over-engineered tools or complicated configuration! You can snapshot and roll back a jail’s running state before a large upgrade or change. You can create a base jail and clone off it to create new ones. You can even backup and ship them elsewhere.

Which leads us to my comment about “keeping ports clean”. I still subscribe to Einstein’s Paraphrased Law of Package Management: install the fewest packages you need for a system, and no fewer (this is why I don’t consider tools like bash cross-platform, despite the hand-wringing that generated from a specific person on Twitter before my current break from the platform). Jails let you install only the packages you need for a specific service. Poudriere itself even uses jails to build packages for you for this reason! It helps with potential package conflicts, and makes managing packages easier.


Difference between 19200 and 19200R ECC RAM

This whole time I’d been assuming that both these SKUs of ECC DDR memory were equivalent. Rod Bland sorted me out at RamCity:

DDR4 modules can optionally [b]e “registered” (“buffered”), which improves signal integrity (and hence potentially clock rates and physical slot capacity) by electrically buffering the signals at a cost of an extra clock of increased latency. Those modules are identified by an additional R in their designation, e.g. PC4-19200R. Typically modules with this designation are actually ECC Registered, but the ‘E’ of ‘ECC’ is not always shown. Whereas non-registered (a.k.a. unbuffered RAM) may be identified by an additional U in the designation. e.g. PC4-19200U.

It never occurred to me that -R stood for registered/buffered. The Supermicro board in my new homelab machine only showed unbuffered memory compatibility, so I guess it’s just luck I didn’t accidentally pick up the wrong type.

ServeTheHome also has a great article.


Random article: The Circus Building

I love hitting the Wikipedia random article link and seeing what comes up. Today we got the Circus Building which is:

… an exhibit building at Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vermont. It houses a collection of circus posters, Gustav A. Dentzel Carousel animals, and elaborately carved miniature circuses, including those by Roy Arnold and Edgar Kirk.

The accompanying photo by John Phelan may be my new work desktop background for this month. The colours almost perfectly match my blog colour scheme too, which hasn’t gone unnoticed.


“You wrote about X, can you link to me?”

Manton Reece microblogged this phenomena last October:

I’ve fallen behind on support email again, and getting more spam isn’t helping. So tired of those “I see you wrote about Topic X, can you link to my blog post too?” emails. (Except for other people’s blog posts and conversations on Micro.blog, not even my own posts.)

This spam is a new scourge, and you know they’ll respond with “did you get a chance to review my last email?”.

My favourites are ones that inform you that Netscape Navigator or Limewire that you wrote about in that nostalgia post are… wait for it… retired and no longer maintained! But did you know you can use their tool instead?


Abandoned blogs as time capsules

Blogs I stumble across today are almost always abandoned. Occasionally they’ll make a reference to moving on in their last post, but the vast majority will just end abruptly with their last train of thought. I can’t help but think what happened to them; I hope they’re doing okay.

Blogs have existed online for a sufficient enough time that it’s feasible for them to have been abandoned for a decade or more. It’s interesting seeing the stratification from abandoned Blogger sites, then WordPress, and that brief blip of Octopress. The topics are time capsules into what people were thinking about, and their themes and layouts are a product of their time.

I spent at least an hour yesterday reading through Travel Thru Time, written by a Malaysian about attractions and places to eat in Kuala Lumpur and the wider Klang Valley. I moved to and lived there not long before the blog started, so it was such a nostalgic joy seeing all those familiar places exactly as they were in late 2009. The writer even used the same Blix theme that I did at the time!

(Many of their earlier posts were around Putrajaya as well, which we spent a lot of time in because my sister had a friend who lived in the area. Their specific post about Alamanda sent me right to that Starbucks where so many of my early blog posts were written).

View inside Alamanda shopping centre in Putrajaya

I’ve lamented the decline of blogging here for a few years now, more in terms of an industry trend. Writers are being pulled to incomprehensible Twitter threads, Medium, and Facebook to share their extended thoughts, and blog platforms are pushing people away by branding the exercise as a business activity. But on a personal level I understand people come and go; their lives take on different priorities, or they believe—erroneously!—they’re not interesting enough. It’s still a shame when they let us glimpse their creative energy and potential, only to have it vanish.

I may or may not have immediately downloaded the site on account of being a digital hoarder archivist. I usually exploit the fact WordPress exports a sitemap.xml which I can parse and feed into fetch to download, which is more precise and reduced the spam that blunt site mirroring tools generate. Blogger ones are a bit trickier, but I’ve got a function in my Perl Swiss Army Knife to parse and download content.

I have a WordPress install running in my homelab that just consists of these imported blogs. Copyright means I probably can’t share it—I think?—but I’d say well over half the sites I archived have vanished from the public web. Submitting to the Wayback Machine is about the only other hope I have of preserving these thoughts in a public capacity. I feel a responsibility to keep these thoughts, ideas, and snapshots of life alive.


A royal pain in the toe

There’s no metaphor here, no commentary about the state of the word, no analogies or comparisons. This really is just about my big toe, and the ensuing pain that ensued! As opposed to ensuing pain that didn’t ensue? I already read ensue as ensuite, which should be spelled as on suite. Or on sweet.

I slammed my aforementioned left big toe into the side of a table leg during our current house move. I yelped and commented on my lack of spacial and situational awareness, then proceeded to put weight on it to finish this aspect of packing. The little guy swelled up and turned red, then a shade of purple.

Turns out I’d impacted the nail into the side of the toe. Gruseome details aside, the resulting infection was painful and unpleasent; as if the former didn’t already indicate the latter. It reminded me of my busted ankle at a smaller scale; like the skin around the toe was too small and tight for the stuff inside. Wait, I said I was leaving the details aside.

Some stinging Dettol foot baths and awkward propping up of my leg later, and he’s on the mend. Which is good, I’m rather attached to him. He comes with me on walks, and is a source of great stability in my life. Don’t we all crave that?

It shoes just how one small, seemingly inconsequential action can have such a dramatic impact on your life. Shoes in that sentence was a typo for shows, but it’s too delightful to fix.


We might have a Hololive FreeBSD problem

Art of the Hololive En girls by Ina.

The hostnames on my machines were always Star Trek ships, then they were anime characters. Now this has happened on Clara’s and my new homelab server, and weirdly I have no problem remembering what each one was for.

holo$ sudo jls
==> JID  IP Address  Hostname              Path
==>   1  10.8.8.81   gura.holo.lan         /var/jail/gura  
==>   2  10.8.8.82   ina.holo.lan          /var/jail/ina
==>   3  10.8.8.83   kiara.holo.lan        /var/jail/kiara
==>   5  10.8.8.84   cali.holo.lan         /var/jail/cali
==>   9  10.8.8.88   ameliaWATSON.holo.lan /var/jail/ameliaWATSON
    
holo$ ssh gura
==> Heh heh hyuh hyuh! A!     
    
holo$ ssh ina
==> Ina Ina Inaaaa~    
    
holo$ ssh kiara
==> Kikkeriki!    
    
holo$ ssh cali
==> ... guh?     
    
holo$ ssh ame
==> Amelia, a-WAT-SON!

Art was by Ina herself!


Rejoining, or losing Scotland

From The Economist last Saturday:

Brexit cuts Britain’s long-term growth potential, reduces its influence in Brussels and Washington, and strains the bonds of the United Kingdom. [..] “Which is the more likely, I’m asking myself: that we lose Scotland, or that we rejoin before we’ve lost Scotland?” says Michael Heseltine, a former Tory deputy prime minister, who thinks Brexit is a disaster.


The SS Martin Mullen

The SS Martin Mullen was a Canadian freighter that started plying the North American Great Lakes from the turn of the century. This photo was taken in 1906 by the Detroit Publishing Company, and I haven’t been able to stop looking at it. The smokestack lets you know you’re dealing with a steamer, but somehow the scene looks oddly modern.

Photo of the SS martin Mullen being loaded, in 1906.


The joy of music collections

I’ve mentioned on previous Music Mondays that I’ve gone back to maintaining a music collection, in lieu of using streaming services. It’s been such a rewarding exercise, and the tea ceremony of maintaining and using a proper Hi-Fi system has been a lot of fun! Streaming services made music disposable, but doing this made it tangible and real again.

Clara and I have all the music we want between LPs, cassettes, CDs, Minidiscs, and a large file server. We jump to sites like YouTube if we want to preview music, then we buy it from Bandcamp, ZDigital, or Apple iTunes… while dodging the latter’s incessant ads for their own streaming platform.

Drive space is cheap, and you get so many benefits:

  • Artists you care about make orders of magnitude more when you buy their album compared to streaming. This is especially critical during Covid times where concerts are difficult.

  • Nobody can revoke your music if you buy it DRM-free. You licenced the right to listen to it by getting it on physical media or as a file, and that’s the end of the transaction.

  • You have the final say on metadata. A specific streaming service had so many mistakes in album text, or had missing translations, or the wrong cover art. Maintaining a collection lets your type 1 personality shine!

  • Potentially higher quality. Streaming services are pretty good now, and I don’t have equipment good enough to tell the difference between most high-bitrate AAC files and ALAC/FLAC. I also play pre-recorded, type 1 cassettes and LPs! But well-sampled albums like Esther Golton’s Aurora Borealis absolutely sparkle with that extra headroom.

I’ll be doing some more reviews of music software and tools for organising in the coming months.


Dynabook screens

You know the drill for me now; whenever I see a cool new new PC laptop I head to the technical specs page to see how pedestrian the screen is. Today’s is the premium Portégé X30L-G:

1920×1080, 165 ppi

The 13-inch MacBook Pro has 2560×1600 with 227 ppi, almost 30% higher. And has for a decade.

I know I sound like an old record now, but why don’t PC companies care about their screens? Why do they include gimmics like touch but not something that would actually make their computers more usable, especially for photographers or sysadmins that need lots of tiled windows?

All I can think of is the graphics are underpowered, or they think their customers don’t care. They must be right, given how the tech press never mentions this elephant in the room. Once you use 2x HiDPI, 1.5 scaling is nasty.

Please, PC laptop makers, give Apple some meaningful competition! Dynabook were once Toshiba’s legendary laptop line; if anyone could do it, it’d be them.


The best laptop bag I've ever owned

Laptop bags have a special place in my life and memory. They’ve always been there during tough times, when I was studying overseas, when travelling, going to work, or even just making my daily trips to coffee shops to write. I haven’t had that many bags, given my odd attachment to the ones I end up getting.

The first bag I ever remember carrying daily was a beautiful brown and white wool backpack my dad brought back from India. I didn’t have a laptop at the time—those were still unusual and expensive in the 1990s!—but it hauled my books, tapes, Little Bear, my monochrome Palm III PDA, and my Australian Geographic all-in-one gadget with a ruler, magnifying glass, and kitchen sink. It was usurped by my official school bag when I started year 7 and needed to carry textbooks all the time.

I used a large orange Crumpler shoulderbag after graduating, because it could fit my then-new 15-inch MacBook Pro. It was durable and copped a lot of abuse, especially when I started studying in Adelaide and basically lived out of it. There are probably photos of me from 2006-ish here with that bag on a Starbucks table, or an airport waiting room. My right shoulder twitches at the thought of how much weight I used to subject it to, but having it slung on one side did mean I could easily grab stuff out of it while I had it it.

The bag I’ve probably used the most is a smaller High Sierra backpack I got on special, right before Clara’s and my first trip to Japan. It was a boring black and grey, but it was solidly built and has withstood being stuffed to the point of bursting. I still have it for smaller laptops.

Photo of my new laptop bag! Not the green shopping bag next to it, mind.

Which leads me to my current Arena Tote Backpack I bought specifically for Covid times. I wanted a bag that could tolerate being regularly washed when I have to take the train, just as I do with my clothes. This one was heavily discounted owing to being discontinued, and the fact it was designed for the rigours of chlorine water boded well for my very specific use case.

It’s already my favourite laptop bag I’ve ever used!

It’s hard to tell from photos, but it’s made of squishy wetsuit material, like a swimsuit but thicker. The lower quarter has an additional layer for repelling water and not absorbing nasties, which will be good for sitting on train seats. You can also use the straps that hang from the front to use it as a tote bag. I also love that it’s a bit more of an unusual design, which makes up for its otherwise boring colours.

But the most important consideration: it’s super comfortable. I mean it, it feels like I’m being hugged as I walk around. It starts out flat, unlike my High Sierra bag which is still chunky when empty. The shoulder straps are thick and well-padded with plenty of slack for tightening around your back. It sits flat against my back with a 16-inch MacBook Pro or a ThinkPad T550 stashed in what I’m using as a laptop compartment, and it has a few other waterproof pockets elsewhere for my little Ricoh GR III camera and my daily-carry pouch of adaptors.

Thus far my only complaint is there isn’t much padding on the bottom, so you have to be careful putting it down if you have a laptop in it. I’m thinking of adding a bit of my own inside just in case.

It’s a shame Arena don’t make this bag anymore, all their new ones that I can see just look like regular, boring, non-descript chunky backpacks. But this experience has taught me to venture out a bit more when looking for things like this; I wouldn’t have expected in a million years for my favourite backpack to come from a swimming store! Who knows, maybe the next one will be from a Korean barbecue chain, or a place where you get couches reupholstered.