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January 24, 2001

CTDATA Finally Implements Monitoring on its Internet Services

Last week, CTDATA took a major step toward improving customer service by implementing a series of network monitoring tools to alert our staff to Internet service outages 24 hours a day. This will allow us to quickly identify problems that affect our key services, particularly hardware failures, connectivity problems, mail server, web server, and database outages.

Over the first 10 days of monitoring, we have achieved 99.82 percent accessibility to our most important servers: ctdata.com, gcf-inc.com, rcnj.org, and aaharefs.org. The servers themselves have been up and running continuously. The 24 minutes of downtime that we show on our reports are Quality of Service outages. In other words, server responses took longer than they should have.

We hope that our servers continue to run this smoothly, and that there are no serious data communication problems ever again. (Yea, right. As if....) But, if outages do occur, we believe that we are in a much better position to address them quickly than we have ever been before.

NPR Program Discusses Self-Organizing Web Communities

Dave Aiello wrote, "An article on Slashcode pointed out that a National Public Radio program called The Connection devoted a program to a discussion of self-organizing Web communities. I was impressed with the program, which had Steven Johnson and Jon Katz as guests. The concept of self-organizing Web Sites strikes me as a fairly esoteric topic to discuss on the radio, but they managed to create a coherent hour-long radio program around it."

"I was glad to hear that they devoted the largest percentage of discussion to Slashdot and Plastic, two of the most important community sites that exist today. These are both examples of the communities where self organization has worked extremely well. This is particularly good news for Plastic, considering how brief its history is."

Dave Aiello continued:

I take slight issue with the amount of time that they devoted to Epinions. While I see the architectural similarity between Epinions and the news-oriented community sites, I think Epinions is more of a reference site than Slashdot or Plastic is.

If this hour long episode of The Connection is any indication of the typical quality of this program, then this is a program that most Web developers should be listening to on a regular basis.

January 19, 2001

Goodbye, Mr. Clinton

George Kuykendall passed along, without comment, a copy of Bill Clinton's statement regarding his settlement with Independent Counsel Robert W. Ray. In his statement, Mr. Clinton says, "I tried to walk a fine line between acting lawfully and testifying falsely, but now I realize that I did not fully accomplish this goal...."

So ends the most ethical administration in history.

So, Where's the Wedding?

Carolyn Lange recently wrote, "Great web site on the wedding and you are already registered!!! Wow. You two are efficient. So, where is the wedding?
(Philly, NJ?)"

Dave Aiello responds, "Thanks for the compliment on the Web Site. I spent about 5,000 hours of programming time creating this Web Site framework, so I try to use it as often as possible."

"To answer your question, we are getting married on July 7, 2001, at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. This is the church where Kathleen and her family are members. She and I attend services there regularly, when I am in town."

Dave Aiello continued:

The location of the wedding is now reflected on the event calendar.

By the way, you may be interested to know why I always point out that admission to the events discussed here is by invitation only. (Kathleen always chuckles when I point this out.) The reason is that we are posting this information to a Web Site that is available to the general public. Therefore, I feel a certain obligation to point out that no public events are planned in association with our wedding.

NY Times: Microsoft Rehires Former Employees Who Tried Their Hand at Dot Coms

Martin O'Donnell pointed out this New York Times article, in his finest "over the transom" fashion. In Microsoft Proves a Lure After Internet Stints (registration required), the company is depicted as more than willing to rehire its ex-employees who have tried their hand at working for competitors or Dot Com companies.

Martin emphasized the following quotation, attributed to Glenn Pascall, senior fellow at the Institute of Public
Policy at the University of Washington: "The fear and loathing of Microsoft as too big and too dominant is found
almost everywhere but Seattle." This is a recurring theme of all Microsoft media coverage during the second term of the Clinton Administration, to be sure. One has to wonder, however, whether this sort of sentiment is on the verge of becoming a cliché.

You may recall that the original demonstrators of much of the fear and loathing were venture capitalists and entrepreneurs trying to launch new technology ventures. These people have made and lost a great deal of money in the last five years. But in the process, perhaps the lesson most consistantly learned is that the creation of a viable business model is a lot more of a short-term challenge than the implicit threat of Microsoft depriving a new venture of oxygen.

Getting back to the article's larger point, that Microsoft is willing to hire back its prodigal employees. What's so unusual about that? Many industries are "small worlds".

The bulk of CTDATA's work has been in the financial services and consumer goods manufacturing businesses in the Northeast. We have seen both service providers and individual employees cycle around among two or three large clients. An employee who works at Kraft Foods takes a new job at Unilever, then returns to Kraft two or three years later. A consulting firm does a project at J.P. Morgan, exits the project after two or three years, and returns to work on another project a year or two later.

If the largest and most successful companies in America, like Microsoft, know anything, they know that leveraging the productivity of talented individuals is the key to their future success. Because their is still a shortage of dependable people in most industries and regions of the world, the most bankable currency is a person who has already proven they can do the job.

January 18, 2001

California's Long Dark Night

Dave Aiello wrote, "Rolling blackouts finally hit Northern California yesterday, and perhaps now the consumers will adopt a more realistic attitude toward all of the players in the electricity market debacle. The people of the State of California must look in the mirror this morning when trying to find someone to blame for spoiled food, stuck elevators, and all the other inconveniences that were theirs yesterday and perhaps for days to come."

"But, I would be foolish to say these things smugly because many of us take for granted that what happens in California is a harbinger for the entire United States. We must begin, today, to build the electric generation and transmission capacity that will be necessary to fuel our nation in the year 2010. We must do so in the cheapest and safest way possible-- not necessarily in the way that makes individual consumers feel most comfortable, and certainly not in the most politically correct way."

Dave Aiello continued:

When you get done reading all the information that exists on the Internet about the electric power situation in California, you will inevitably find that Californians successfully defeated attempts by the utilities and third parties to build electric power plants that, if they existed today, would take this crisis off the table. All of the scientific sounding but baseless scare tactics were used in pursuit of the goal: no more smoke stacks or cooling towers within site of the average taxpayer.

The fatally flawed deregulation plan, which allowed for unlimited wholesale electricity prices but capped retail electricity rates, simply exacerbated the problem that was created by not building enough power plants to meet projected future demand. As any business person knows, you cannot operate a business at 99 percent of its productive capacity forever, especially if you must serve an increasing demand for a commodity.

But, politicians seized upon the fears and flawed dreams of the consumers and created a plan to deregulate the retail electricity market. In the future, electricity would be cheap and plentiful because the local utilities would be in charge of delivering electricity generated elsewhere. Consumers would be able to influence power producers by buying power that was produced in "clean" ways and by not buying power from coal or oil-fired, or nuclear power plants.

When the market failed to develop as they expected, the politicians aligned themselves with community activists. They demonized the local utilities in California, using rhetoric worthy of Marx and Engels.

Now, the consumer blames Pacific Gas and Electric and Edison International for cramping his lifestyle and increasing the stress in his life. These companies are teetering on the brink of bankrupcy. And, many employees and investors in these companies stand to lose, in the immortal words of Dick Cheney, "big time".

I would think that the average consumer would be at least as upset with Governor Gray Davis for this mess, and his complete mismanagement of the problem to date, as they were with his predecessor for pursuing government policies that were considered anti-immigrant. So far, this has not been the case. Perhaps they will realize the magnitude of the problem when companies begin relocating facilities and jobs to areas with more reliable sources of power.

The rest of America need not repeat this disaster. But, we must begin to build now. We have waited too long already.

January 12, 2001

Fixed Bug in Slash 0.4 Comment Submission Mechanism That Blocked Posting of Longer Comments

Earlier this week, John Cloninger one of the authors on rcnj.org, reported that his web site was displaying SQL errors when he attempted to post a response to a posted story. Eventually, we determined that users of sites running Slash 0.4 with Microsoft SQL Server 6.5 were experiencing this problem if they attempted to post comments that were more than 2k in length. As far as we can tell, the problem never affected sites running Sybase 11.3.x and later.

We have modified the SQL logic in comments.pl and this appears to have fixed the problem. This should result in a better user experience on the following public Web Sites:

Please contact your site's Web Master if you receive any runtime errors of this or any other nature.

January 11, 2001

SportBrain: An Intriguing Combination of Fitness and Wearable Computing Technologies

What if I told you that I found a $99 device that helps you to electronically measure the exercise you get doing your "everyday" activities? Would you be more interested if I mentioned the fact that the device contains a cheap, low power personal area networking technology that compares favorably in some respects to Bluetooth?

I may have found such a device in SportBrain, a little fitness-oriented gadget that I received from my brother and sister for Christmas. I had not heard of the product before I got it as a gift, so I set out to find reviews of it on the Internet. As RFCoC said on October 20, "This little device is actually a fascinating example of Convergence (the coming together of computing, communications, content, and
consumer electronics), as well as a demonstration of how commoditizing one product (making it inexpensive) may open the door to
a wide range of unintended consequences."

I have been using Sportbrain for about 10 days. That's long enough to find out how far I walk in my typical workday. The basic pedometer unit also comes in handy as another way of documenting my distance running and providing some measure of my progress to friends and family.

I ordered the optional heart rate monitor, primarily as a way to experience the personal area network features of the system. I have not receieved it yet, but I hope that it also provides some insight into the amount of exercise I get when I officiate an ice hockey game. Although skating has a similar motion to jogging, the SportBrain documentation says that the pedometer itself cannot accurately measure distance, speed, or effort associated with ice skating or cycling.

This product might also be a reverse-engineering dream come true: Another set of electronic technologies packaged in a consumer-oriented (read: closed) manner. The manufacturer would probably generate some favorable buzz among the tinkerer and software developer community if it published its APIs, but I don't think that has happened yet.

I will attempt to provide more in the way of personal experience with SportBrain as I continue to use it. I did not expect its use to be as intriguing to me as it has proven to be.

January 10, 2001

Rudy Project Sunglasses Recommended for Outdoor Sports

Dave Aiello wrote, "About the time I competed in the Cape May Biathlon, I bought a pair of Rudy Project Kerosene sunglasses for myself. I bought them primarily because I was frustrated with the reliability problems I had experienced with Oakley M-Frames, but also because I was looking for a single pair of sunglasses that I could wear in races and in everyday use."

"I first saw Rudy Project sunglasses when I started watching the 'Spring Classics' cycling races on The Outdoor Life Network. It took a little while to find product information about them on the Web, and much longer to get see a pair in a store here in the United States. But, they looked like the most durable sports sunglasses I had ever seen. Once I got a pair, I found that they performed better than I expected."

Dave Aiello continues:

Rudy Project sunglasses combine the durability that I came to expect from fashion eyewear brands like Serengeti, Ray-Ban, and Maui Jim, with the aerodynamic properties of brands like Oakley and Bolle. Wearing a pair of Kerosenes on the street may get you a second look from people who notice unique sunglasses, but you will not be subjected to the endless stream of Terminator / Arnold Schwartzenegger jokes that seem to follow every Oakley M-Frame wearer.

Rudy Project advertises its frames as more durable and its lenses as more scratch-resistant than other technical eyewear, and I would tend to agree with that. Amateur athletes who have worn sunglasses in sporting events in the past may not realize how gently they have treated their sunglasses up to now. But, with Rudy Project, I found that I could wash them off with water, wipe them off with a hand towel, and generally, treat them a lot less gently than the Oakleys that I had been used to wearing.

It frustrates me to have to constantly compare Rudy Project to Oakley, but these comparisons are inevitable given Oakley's massive adverstising budget. I have a great deal more respect for Oakley since I read Lance Armstrong's book, It's Not About the Bike, but still I find their plastic and composite-framed sunglasses a poor value, due to their tendency to break. The metal-framed Oakley sunglasses, on the other hand, are simply too expensive for most amateur athletes.

Rudy Project sunglasses are much more durable and a better value for the money. The Kerosene model that I wear contains a high percentage of metal parts, and this has resulted in far greater durability, in my opinion. They are also less expensive than comparable sunglasses from other manufacturers.

My experience with Rudy Project in comparison to Oakley is not unlike my experience with New Balance in comparison to Nike. Both Nike and Oakley have some durable products in the product lines, but many of their products are not durable. For the money they charge, all of their products should be quite resilient.

So, in summary, I highly recommend Rudy Project sunglasses. I hope that in the new outdoor sports season, they are easier to find in retail stores in the United States. But, they are available from many specialty optical stores, and worth the investment.

What is the Technical Gear & Sports Equipment Section of ctdata.com?

CTDATA believes that regular exercise is vital to the well being of everyone. We also feel that the average knowledge worker sits at his or her desk too much, thereby increasing the risk of the diseases of sedentary life.

The Technical Gear and Sports Equipment section of ctdata.com is the place where we plan to discuss the stuff we use in our recreational activities. Based on the interests of our current employees, articles will be focused on sports like:

  • Running
  • Cycling and mountain biking
  • Biathlon and triathlon
  • Ice hockey

January 8, 2001

Slash 0.4 Finally Reconstructed Inside VMware Client OS

Dave Aiello wrote, "After only 10 weeks, I finally got Slash 0.4 (CTDATA's customized Slash distribution) running inside a VMware virtual machine. This was much more difficult than I expected, although the actual installation of Slash on the VMware client OS only took about three and a half days."

"Of course, life would have been infinitely easier had I sized the laptop hard drive correctly. I thought I could get away with using a 12 gigabyte hard drive. I thought it would be easy to upgrade to a larger hard drive. As you know from some previous stories that I've posted, I thought wrong."

Dave Aiello continued:

Nevertheless, it looks like we are going to start making progress again. It's about time.

I haven't done a clean installation of Slash 0.4 in about 3 1/2 months, and this installation cycle exposed the deficiencies of the documentation I did at that point. We absolutely need to document our installation process better.

For the record, this is a major milestone in a plan that was devised 10 1/2 months ago. I feel like we ought to be able to celebrate at this point. But, we've got a backlog of Slash modifications and Web Site configuration changes that need to be made. So, I ought to get back to work....

January 6, 2001

How The Cluetrain Manifesto Will Influence ctdata.com

Dave Aiello wrote, "I recently had the opportunity to listen to the audiobook version of The Cluetrain Manifesto. I am glad that Simon and Schuster decided to publish this recording, otherwise I never would have had time to read it, and I would have continued to assume that there was nothing more to the book than a rhetorical expansion of the 95 Theses that were originally posted to the Web Site."

"Although there is a substantial amount of hyperbole contained in the book, there is no question that there is also a good deal of valuable insight. I think two theses are particularly important and will influence how we operate ctdata.com in 2001. Read on for a discussion of what they are and why they resonate with us."

Thesis Numbers 3

Conversations among human beings sound human. They are conducted in a human voice.

Thesis Number 4

Whether delivering information, opinions, perspectives, dissenting arguments or humorous asides, the human voice is typically open, natural and uncontrived.
Dave Aiello continues:
The book spends a great deal of time focusing on the negative effects of writing in a corporate tone. They are right to focus on it, because most Internet users will not provide substantive feedback on information written in an official voice.

This is important to CTDATA in that we have tried to use a corporate tone in many of our articles. In retrospect, this is probably incompatible with user expectations of any site that looks like a Weblog. Also, the world simply does not need another Wall Street Journal Editorial Page. I love to read it, and I'm glad that Opinion Journal exists, but you are never going to confuse anyone at CTDATA with Robert Bartley or John Fund.

I will probably elaborate on the impact that Cluetrain Manifesto has had on my thinking. But, I want to get these basic thoughts out on our Web Site so that people can see them and react, if they are so motivated. Let me know if you think we are headed in the right direction.

January 5, 2001

UI Improvements that VMware Needs to Get Closer to Perfection

Dave Aiello wrote, "Many of you know that CTDATA is now running Linux wherever possible. I personally use a laptop that runs VA Linux's 6.23 distribution (a slightly modified version of RedHat 6.2). To do my pure PC work, I run virtual Microsoft Windows sessions on VMware."

"I decided I wanted two different configurations, a 'state-of-the-art' Windows 2000 workstation, and a Windows NT 4 instance to emulate our last Windows NT production server."

"Building and operating two different virtual machines under VMware gave me some ideas of how to make some slight improvements in VMware's performance. Read on for my ideas and let me know if you agree or disagree."

Dave Aiello continues:

Better Handling of the CD-ROM

It's great that VMware makes using the CD-ROM in the client operating systems so smooth. But, there has to be a better way to manage the process of loading and ejecting CDs. I find myself configuring the CD-ROM drive (aka device ide0) to start up disconnected.

I don't know if this is the best approach or not. But, when I start the virtual machine with the CD-ROM connected, I usually must escape the virtual machine and use the VMware session controls to disconnect the ide0 device before I can eject the disk.

Of course this is the way UNIX operating systems typically handle the CD-ROM device (first unmount it, then eject it), but VMware needs something that is less violative of a Windows user's expectations.

Single Keystroke Method to Put Focus on Virtual Machine and Resume Full Screen Mode

It's great to be able to operate a Windows virtual machine in Full Screen mode. On my 650mHz Pentium III with half a gigabyte of RAM, you absolutely cannot tell the virtual machine is not the primary OS if the it's in Full Screen mode.

Exiting the Full Screen mode is easy, just hit [Ctrl][Alt][Esc]. But there is no equivalent keystroke to put you back into the VM and zoom it. There should be. It would make user context switching a lot faster and smoother.

These are problems that most users would consider minor. Perhaps this shows how well VMware is already implemented.

January 4, 2001

Upgrading a Linux Laptop: Days and Days of Fun

Dave Aiello wrote, "I bet everyone is wondering what happened to cause us not to post anything to the story flow on ctdata.com for almost two weeks. Over the holidays, I decided to upgrade the 12 gigabyte primary hard disk on my Dell Inspiron 7500 to a 25 gigabyte model."

"Had I originally opted for a laptop running Windows 98, 2000, or NT 4.0, this would have been easy. But, I was planning to upgrade the primary hard drive on a system that was, at the time, running Red Hat Linux Version 6.1. This turned out to be a large project."

"I learned a lot in the process, but I wonder how much of the work I did will actually turn out to be expertise that will benefit CTDATA clients."

Dave Aiello continued:

Products Available for Windows that Would Make Laptop Upgrades a Snap

Windows laptop users have a few very good tools at their disposal to upsize the boot drives of their laptops. For example, Apricorn makes a product called EZ-GIG. EZ-GIG is a combination of new hard drive, software, PC card, and transfer cable which automates the process of cloning the data from the old hard drive.

Dell would have sold a 25 gigabyte hard drive to me with the EZ-GIG apparatus. The problem is that the EZ-GIG software does not understand how to deal with native Linux file systems. The vendor acknowledges this, but they do not think that the market justifies the R&D necessary to make EZ-GIG compatible. Software like this is vital to any effort to make Linux a mass-market operating system, but no one ever thinks of this when they discuss what is required for Linux to be true alternative to Windows.

The Approach I Chose: Backup Key Files and Rebuild

The alternative to using EZ-GIG, of course, is to back up the irreplaceable files on the laptop, and rebuild the system from the ground up. After considering a few other options, this is what I chose to do.

On the other hand, rebuilding from the ground up had a number of advantages:

  • New version of Linux

    This gave me the opportunity to move from RedHat Linux 6.1 to 6.2, the most stable, production-quality release of RedHat Linux.

  • New version of XFree86

    With the RedHat 6.2 upgrade, I got an updated version of XFree86, the OpenSource X-Windows toolset that most Linux users have installed. The version I upgraded to is more compatible with VMware Workstation, the product I run to create virtual Windows sessions for those applications that have no Linux equivalents.

  • New version of VMware

    I was also able to upgrade my installation of VMware. After the installation was done, I was finally able to run virtual machines with SVGA resolutions of 1024 x 768 x 16 bit color depth on the full screen. This was impractical under RedHat 6.1.

Linux Disk Partitioning

Every time I make a major configuration change under Linux, I seem to find an aspect of the configuration that I did not understand. This time, the stumbling block was disk partitioning. Legacy BIOS compatibility dictates that a hard drive be limited to four primary disk partitions. It turns out that the PC industry saw this as a stumbling block years ago, and came up with the concept of "extended partitions". These are physical partitions that serve as containers for virtual partitions within them.

Without going into how experienced Linux users recommended I partition my new 25 gigabyte hard drive, I learned over a man day that I could not configure the drive without using extended partitions. The issue then became exactly how to create these partitions.

The Linux administration and installation books that I have generally assume one of three things:

  • You are building a Linux machine out of a repurposed Windows PC.
  • You are carving out a space for Linux from within an existing Windows PC.
  • Your machine is already configured and running a popular distribution in the base configuration.

Needless to say, none of these scenarios applied to me.

I started searching around the Web for partitioning information. A lot of what I found was how big to make partitions. That's useful, I guess, but no two sources agree on how big the partitions should be for a given application. Nor do many authors and administrators agree on which portions of the file system actually deserve their own partitions. In this vein, perhaps the best on-line documentation is the Linux Documentation Project, Creating Partitions for Linux. But, again, nothing there about the tools to create the partitions, and some referenced documents apparently missing.

A missed opportunity in the LDP is the Upgrade Your linux Distribution mini-HOWTO. This is a document that looks valuable in hindsight. The problem is it's just an outline.

Wouldn't it be nice if we all knew what to search for and where to search before we solve our problems? Now that I'm done partitioning my new hard drive, I found the Large Disk HOWTO. This looks like the most useful of any single document for my purposes. However, it didn't appear in my hundred different attempts to find "the answer" using Google.

For those of you who desperately searching for a solution and don't have time to read the referenced documentation, the technique that finally ended up working for me was:

  • Use fdisk or cfdisk to create a /boot and swap partition. Don't make the mistake of creating a single swap partition that is as large as your RAM-- swap partitions over 128M appear to be underutilized.
  • Use fdisk or cfdisk to create a third primary partition. This partition should be of the extended type, so it can contain the other partitions that you plan to create for your Linux file system.
  • Create the rest of your partitions inside the extended partition.
  • Map the partitions to mount points using a tool like Disk Druid (included with RedHat).

Please note that this approach is only appropriate for laptops with a single hard drive that are running Linux exclusively. YMMV.

PC Card Services and the 3Com 3CCFE575CT NIC

A problem that has bothered me in three Linux laptop installations is PC Card Services. Each time I have installed RedHat on an Inspiron 7500 with a 3Com 3CCFE575CT, I have had to upgrade the pcmcia-cs driver set. In case you did not know, pcmcia-cs encapsulates Linux PCMCIA Card Services.

I was lead to believe that the reason I had to upgrade pcmcia-cs in the first two cases was that I was trying to run RedHat 6.1, which does not have very good support for PC Card Services out-of-the-box. But, when I upgraded to RedHat 6.2, I found that the 3Com 3CCFE575CT did not work initially either. I do not know if this means that RedHat 6.2 also does not have great support for PC Card Services, or if my installation procedure is flawed in a way that causes the NIC to fail to be activated automatically.

An Inexplicable Video Configuration Glitch

The Dell Inspiron 7500 I was upgrading had been shipped with RedHat 6.1 installed. One of the nice things about the way Dell did it was that they included in a 15 page pamphlet in the documentation called Additional Information for RedHat Linux 6.1. (I'd like to point to it on Dell's Web Site, but I can't find it.) Pages 8-15 of that document discuss reinstallation of Linux from the RedHat distribution CD that was included with the laptop when it shipped.

My upgrade plan was to install the new hard drive, partition it according to these instructions, and then install RedHat 6.2 instead of 6.1. This process eventually worked in every respect except for the text mode display settings called for in the Dell RedHat documentation.

The relevant portion of the documentation says:

Login as root and then do the following:

  1. Edit the /etc/lilo.conf file by adding vga=791 to the top of the file and then save.

  2. Run the lilo command.

    The following message appears:

    Added linux #

  3. Reboot the system.

    You can run the reboot or init 6 commands or press to reboot your system

    Your system should boot to Linux from the hard-disk drive. A picture of Tux the penguin appears on the top left of your screen, indicating that the vga line was inserted and that lilo installed correctly.

The procedure listed above works fine in RedHat 6.1, but not in 6.2. I have no idea why. The problem I witnessed in 6.2 is that the display goes black immediately after passing the LILO: prompt.

The backed out of the configuration problem by doing the following:

  • Boot using the boot floppy created during the RedHat installation process.
  • Remove the vga=791 line from lilo.conf.
  • Re-run lilo.
  • Reboot

The interesting part of this problem is that not having vga=791 on this system results in lower resolution in the text mode, but no apparent effect on X Windows. So, I consider a workaround to improve text mode display resolution to be a "nice to have".