Van Morrison, Cleaning Windows

Play Cleaning Windows

It’s Music Monday once again, that time of the week where I discuss organised audible emissions. Today, Van the Man regales us with his times working in IT support:

What’s my line?
I’m happy cleanin’ Windows™
Take my time
I’ll see you when my love grows
Baby don’t let it slide
I’m a working man in my prime
Cleanin’ Windows™

I made decent pocket money in high school doing this. That and downgrading people’s Windows Vista machines to XP or 2000 (and one to NT 4.0 if you can believe it), and replacing bloated AV with Avast and Lavasoft Ad-Aware. I might be dating myself more than I care to admit.

Moondance is by far my favourite Van Morrison song, but jokes aside I always thought this tune was especially optimistic and fun.


Fun with online ECC memory shopping

Allan Jude famously quipped that OpenZFS without ECC memory is still more trustworthy than any other file system with ECC. This is true, but given the choice I’d still prefer to strategically deploy both.

Except, try typing ECC into a search engine or online store, and you get this:

Kingston […] Non-ECC
Kingston […] Non-ECC
Kingston […] Non-ECC
Crucial […] Non-ECC

eBay sellers were infamous in the late 1990s and early 2000s for doing this on purpose. You’d see a listing conveniently saying it wasn’t something, presumably to piggy-back on legitimate search results.

Entering -"Non-ECC" is also an interesting online store test. Some sites return only ECC memory, others don’t return anything.

Small homes out of trucks

I’m fascinated by the idea of small homes. My parents always had large houses and condos, and Clara and I now live in a studio that would have fit in my bedroom growing up in Singapore. There’s something about making super efficient use of space, having just a few treasured possessions, and taking advantage of lower power costs, rent, and maintenance.

I also love watching small home engineering videos, such as people living in a converted shipping container out in the tundra somewhere. But now I’ve gone down the rabbit hole of looking at camper vans and mobile homes; nothing I’d buy personally, but I love seeing the design process and the owners get excited building their dream rigs. Is that the right word, rigs?

Play Exceptional Engineering | Offroad Caravan Monsters | Free Documentary

This episode of Exceptional Engineering followed teams in Germany building two very different camper vans: a brand new one for a prince in Qatar, and the other from a reconditioned 1980s German firetruck. One of the engineers on the latter explained why they use thirty-year old engines:

Although it’s nearly thirty years old, this beauty runs like it did on the first day. No matter where I am; in China, in the Balkans, or Africa; this truck is no stranger. You can get it repaired everywhere. That’s not the case with the new trucks which contain a lot of electronics […] that doesn’t apply to the old models, they always work. And if something snaps, a blacksmith will repair it and off you go again.

I could appreciate the Qatari prince’s gigantic setup from an engineering perspective, but I’d go for this cozy home on the reconditioned firetruck:

Interior of the camper section of the firetruck, showing the bedding area, couches, table, and the edge of the kitchen.

Worrying out loud about EOL

Software is considered End of Life when the vendor no longer supplies updates and security patches; either overtly with strict timelines, or through abandonment. It can be frustrating as an end user or system administrator, but it’s necessary given teams have finite engineering resources, and they’re under pressure to release new versions.

But these economic realities, for want of a better phrase, apply equally to end users. An upgrade of an OS, or rewriting code against a newer framework version itself takes resources. This isn’t to excuse administrators who run outdated software; feasibility studies must factor in ongoing maintenance, or a project shouldn’t be considered. But circumstances change.

So at what point should software be considered too big to fail?

Take PHP 5. We all read the stores about its pending EOL status, but a year later and 60% of the PHP web still uses it. This is terrifying. Some OS vendors have taken it upon themselves to support it for another year, but there’s every reason to believe it’ll still be in wide use after this. Then what?

There are two options. We ignore the problem, shift the blame onto end users, and abandon old software. The temptation is there, but consider the users of those insecure sites, do they deserve to have their data leaked? I suppose one could say it would encourage people to only do business with reputable sites, but even they’ve been caught with outdated software.

The other option is to acknowledge this software is too big to fail, too much of the web depends on it, and do what we can to support it. Maybe we need an independent, industry-funded organisation that adopts abandoned software, even if just for security patches. Then software can be retired if and when it becomes technically infeasible to maintain it, not when an arbitrary deadline has passed.

(Some would claim, perhaps only half-jokingly, that the Apache Software Foundation is just this. Fair enough I say, throw money at them!)

The challenge then would be to convince the industry its in their interest to support such an organisation. It’s awash with cash, but maybe we can do better than what happened with OpenSSL.

Australian broadband adventures, Q3 2019

Australia’s mediocre Internet used to come as a surprise to people overseas, but it continues to make headlines for all the wrong reasons. Iain Morris summarised it well for Broadband World News:

When the NBN idea was originally floated under a previous government, the intention was to extend full-fiber networks to most Australian properties. After a subsequent administration balked at the likely expense, NBN embarked on a rollout using a mixture of access technologies. Just 17% of homes are being covered by fiber, with cable, copper, mobile and satellite networks serving the remainder. It does not sound like the most future-proof system.

I remember a university tutor saying wireless would solve everything too. But unsurprisingly, this hodgepodge has now cost more, in part because economies of scale couldn’t be realised, the existing HFC networks were shockingly not fit for purpose, and because of political lies and spin. Spending more now to future-proof the system would have been worth it, but we don’t even get that.

This week we got these fun stories:

  • Telstra’s CEO claimed Australian Internet would have been faster and cheaper without the NBN. People won’t understand things if their pay cheques depend on them not understanding it, but it was a fun observation nonetheless.

  • Rural customers are being told to not expect fibre connections anytime soon, because their needs are less than those in cities. This from the same minister who said moving to the bush was the answer to housing affordability, but that people need to move back to cities because of failed drought policy and lack of jobs in part due to poor connectivity.

  • NBNco, staffed with the current Government’s pricks—that was supposed to be picks but I’m keeping it—are so fed up with how poorly their network is faring, have released their own broadband rankings in which we outperform Germany and France. Problem solved!

One of those stories was fake. If you live overseas, try to guess which one before clicking any links.

Lessons from hours screaming in a metal tube

An article from the Singapore Financial Times has given me the confidence to share some travel stories of our own from Clara’s and my recent Singapore and Kuala Lumpur trip. I’m not sure what we did to enrage the travel gods, but each leg of the trip was an adventure.

The flight from Sydney to Singapore was, in retrospect, the better one. We were seated towards the back of the cabin, but two shrieking infants close to the bulkhead fired on all cylinders continuously for eight hours. It was the most blood curdling crying I’ve ever heard, and it hit just the right note to trigger anxiety attacks, like I was overhearing someone being tortured and that I was next. I didn’t get any sleep, but the poor parents looked far more exhausted as I walked past them to get some exercise (not necessarily to avoid DVT, moving just does more to calm my nerves than anything else).

Between Singapore and KL on an Aeroline coach, we were sitting behind a tour group who were enjoying themselves so much, they had to shout all their stories between each other for the rest of the cabin to hear. In French, for four hours. We had brief respites when a few of them would take a nap, but a rest stop or food time would wake them all up, and they’d start again. I quantify it as shouting, because you could still hear them on the lower deck.

The worst was the bus trip back, where a small child who had learned enough words to speak a few sentences screamed them at his parents. I feel for the pain and stress parents must be under, but these ones were actively encouraging him the entire time. Again, fine for a bit, but by the four hour mark it had worn thinner than an appropriate analogy I would place here.

And then, who could forget the flight back, when a woman sitting in the row in front pulled out her phone and started playing movies with the external speaker. Not to be outdone, the woman sitting next to me began talking loudly to herself about inconsiderate people, in between racist slurs. This emboldened the woman with the speaker phone, and Clara and I were caught in the crossfire.

There are a few lessons here. The most obvious, I need to be less sensitive. The world is full of inconsiderate, obnoxious people who will never change; I can let them get to me, or I can become water. Two, I need some industrial-grade, noise-cancelling headphones. And three, I need to be more assertive.

I think the noise-cancelling headphones will be the most likely.


Current ThinkPads with HiDPI

Sometimes I window shop MacBooks and ThinkPads for FreeBSD, even if I have no intention or money to buy one yet. I’ve been spoiled by MacBook Retina screens for photos and shells, but most ThinkPads don’t have an equivalent. That’s fine though; MacBooks don’t have an equivalent keyboard… oh snap.

These are the current models that claim to have a minimum 2× HiDPI display option. Some I clicked through every single SKU and still couldn’t customise them with the display they claim to have; but they seem to change fairly regularly.

13-inch, with 3K

14-inch, with 1440p (Retina-ish)

15.6-inch, with 4K

17-inch, with 4K

  • P73: 4K: Quadro P620, T2000, RTX

Consolidating all the things, also watches

As American scientific chef extraordinaire Alton Brown always said, “don’t use a unitasker”. This idea can be fraught with peril in software, but I’ve come to internalise this so much in the physical world. Some examples:

  • I use a FreeBSD tower at home as a router, jumpbox, NAS, VPN end point, virtualisation sandbox, build server, PleX transcoder, glorified peripheral charger, and more.

  • My vintage Pentium 1 tower is a chimera of sorts, with parts from my parents’ original and long since dead 486SX tower, and a few parts from my second-ever machine. It boots DOS, Windows NT 4, Red Hat Linux 6.3, and NetBSD 8.1. I get my retro x86 computer hit from a single beige box that with hindsight I’ve spent more money refurbishing than when I built it new as a kid.

The only unitasker in my kitchen is the fire extinguisher

  • I forgo (oh yah) a bit of interest and slightly higher fees to have multiple accounts in the same bank or brokerage. The fewer logins that stand between me and my weekly spreadsheet reconciling the better.

  • My daily carry, as we say now, has a small pouch with essential cables and other IT gear. One of these is multiheaded with adaptors, rather than having discrete cables for everything.

  • I avoided getting a dedicated rice cooker, until I realised you can steam stuff, cook oats, and make other unreasonably tasty vittles. I had to look up how to spell vittles.

  • I used to have more than a dozen blogs. Almost all of these have been merged into this one, including my silly podcast.

The key advantage of consolidation is fewer things to maintain for the same amount of output, which if done well translates to time and energy savings. This does mean you potentially lose more in one hit if there’s a problem, but the problem domain is smaller, and presumably you maintain it better because you spend more time with it.

So we come to smart watches. I wear a $20 quartz Casio with a white analogue face. It’s the best watch I’ve ever owned: it’s clear, it never needs charging, it weighs nothing, it has a tiny complication for the date, and it looks minimalistic. But now I’m looking at tracking fitness again, and every single wrist thingy today has a clock. I could wear both, but they have redundant information. I also prefer the Casio’s clock to anything on a fitness tracker.

I gave up on the original Apple Watch because the constant visual notifications and haptic vibrations did more to trigger my anxiety than any other technology I’ve ever owned. (Don’t email me with any suggestions, I tried them all).

So it does mean I’ll probably end up getting a separate device. But just like I feel guilty now when I buy more stuff, splitting a single device into two also feels wrong.

When you book hotels online

Clara and I booked a hotel for the Singapore arm of our recent trip through a well-known travel site. These were the emails I got, in chronological order:

  • Confirmation for Booking ID $NUMBER
  • Confirmation for Booking ID $NUMBER
  • Would you recommend $HOTEL to a friend?
  • Would you recommend $HOTEL to a friend?
  • Would you recommend $HOTEL to a friend?
  • Your stay at $HOTEL
  • Would you recommend $HOTEL to a friend? [ed: chill, people!]
  • Reminder: Reminder - Your stay at $HOTEL

I’ve since been opted in to a bunch more stuff from this travel site. Why would I want junk mail about other places I could stay in a city I just left?

Contrast with the email I got from booking a hotel in Kuala Lumpur directly:

  • Reservation Confirmed
  • Thank You !

David Hodges was an audio visual

Speaking of CSI, from episode seven of season twelve:

Hodges: Some people are visual… others are audio.
Hodges: I happen to be both…
Hodges: …audio visual.