Earth Day and Things

I have a couple things to say tonight.  First of all, happy Earth Day.  It was a pretty nice day today, and I’m looking forward to the weather getting springier and springier.  It’s a nice environment, let’s try not to go too far out of our way to destroy it.

Second of all, if you run or work at a restaurant, please, please avoid having wobbly tables.  It is annoying, especially when you’re risking getting a bowl of soup in your lap.  Tweak the table, call a fixit guy to come look at it, or even stick a matchbook or two under one of the legs if you have too.

DIY

If you’ve flipped through my previous posts here, you’ve probably seen that I am a bit of a renewable energy buff.  I like messing with solar power, for a variety of reasons.  I like the idea of not blatantly stabbing the environment and contributing to global climate change*, but I also like the idea of making your own power and being independent – electricity is something most people in this country are addicted to without realizing it.  There’s the idea of a quiet, easy source of portable power for fun and for emergencies, and then there’s just the fact that it’s cool.

(*Note: Please don’t start a holy war in the comments over the climate change thing.  There are plenty of places on the Internet you can go to debate/argue/flame for and against this, and so it does not need to happen here.)

Now, some time ago I came upon a magazine called Home Power – I think I may have been in middle school.  This magazine is a journal dedicated to small scale renewable energy, mostly residential.  Its founders purchased land off the grid in the 70s, and turned to solar as a way to not have to run a lawn mower engine to power the car tail light bulbs they used for light.  Because the small-scale renewable energy (RE) industry (responsible for the sale and production of photovoltaic panels, wind generators, control electronics, etc.) was in its infancy when they started publishing the magazine (late 80s), a lot of the articles focused on DIY.  Sure, small operations started creeping up where people offered installation and consultation for RE, but nothing like what you can find now.  A fair amount of progress was made by people playing around with the equipment on their own, sometimes even building their own.  And the Home Power articles often reflected this.

I thought this period in the magazine’s history was awesome.  I loved learning about the various problems these early pioneers had, and how they went about solving them.  I liked seeing what some people did with small systems, and the big systems others built.  It was awesome to see these people working toward solutions to some of the problems faced in the world (and which we still face).

Sometime in the early 2000s the magazine’s tone changed, however.  It was focusing less on the DIY aspect, and more on the ‘turn-key’ aspect – more and more of the systems showcased were belonging to people who didn’t fully understand the technology nor have the desire to.  Rather, due to factors such the cost (and reliability) of electricity in their area, environmental benefits, and maybe the presence of tax incentives, they paid a professional to design and install a system on their homes.  (Note that the last factor I mentioned may also provoke flames; see my climate change note above.)  Not much of a DIY aspect is present anymore.  In fact, it seems that quite a few articles in recent issues are not written by the system owners themselves, but by the system installers/designers, or even third parties.

Now, the truth is that I don’t have anything against people who simply want to make use of RE and don’t want to worry about designing and wiring their system, hoisting panels onto their roof, etc.  Honestly, it would be hypocritical of me.  I mean, I’m a Linux user, and even use Gentoo on my desktop.  And yet I also love Ubuntu for the fact that it presents GNU/Linux as an alternative for normal computer users who don’t care about recompiling their kernel.  (I’m actually typing this on an Ubuntu laptop right now.)  I guess I just miss the old format of the magazine, the one I kind of, well, grew up with.

Now, Home Power is still a good magazine; it’s not like you won’t learn about renewable energy from reading it.  In fact, it’s usually pretty descriptive even if it doesn’t discuss all sorts of homebrew solutions.  You’ll learn about solar power, and if you don’t get as in depth as you’d like you’ll have a good jump-off point for learning more.  They’ll respond to your letters if you have questions, too.  And, their magazine is just well-produced: it’s easy to read, no advertisements in the middle of articles, etc.

What I do encourage you to do, however, is go the extra step.  Yes, you don’t need to be an electrical engineer to use renewable energy, or do anything with electricity.  But there is value in going the extra step and being aware of what is going on with your renewable energy system, or anything.  And guess what: most of the information is out there.  If you’re curious, just go Google-crazy.  Buy some parts or system components, and experiment.  You never know what you might learn.

Back to Gentoo

When I first started on Linux, my distribution was RedHat 8.0 on our old HP Vectra.  After installing it I found that I couldn’t get X to start, and so I had to navigate the system from the command line, without the GUI.  It was a good learning experience, and I think I ended up breaking the system a few times.

When I finally got a more powerful machine, I tried RedHat again, then Fedora Core, then I think Suse, and then back to Fedora…  At first it was motivated by some driver problem that made the system freeze (I never figured out what it was, but it did just stop at one point), but later on it was just to get exposure to the different distros.  And there were (and are) a lot of nice ones.  However, I wanted to tinker.  And then a friend introduced me to Gentoo.

My first install on that machine, a dual AMD MP 2800 took three days.  I think I did a Stage 1 install (no longer supported), in which the entire system is compiled from source.  I ended up reinstalling a few times after, but in the end Gentoo was what I stuck with.  I liked it, it was fast and gave me a lot of things to customize and tweak.

Sometime a little more than a year ago this computer had a power supply problem, and I decided I might as well just upgrade as it was kind of outdated anyway.  So I went with an Intel Core 2 Quad system, and it’s been good.  But, I had also been doing some recording on Linux, making a low-latency kernel necessary.  I had patched it here and there on Gentoo, but I started to take an interest in Ubuntu Studio, as it takes care of a lot of that for you.  Also, while I still liked Gentoo I still had a few incidents in which I updated the system only to have some package like X or Gnome broken, and my desktop gone.  On top of that I had been starting to recommend Ubuntu to other people, after hearing about its supposed user-friendliness.  So, I went with Ubuntu Studio on my desktop.  I had actually been running normal Ubuntu on my laptop, and it was alright.  I was really impressed with Ubuntu Studio, though.  Doing my audio stuff was easy, and performance was decent.  Overall, I was happy.

Now, in an earlier post I mentioned how my laptop only ran at 600 MHz despite a supposed speed of 1.4 GHz.  Well, that was my primary reason for switching to Ubuntu on that box, though having everything configured out of the box was nice too.  I figured I just didn’t want to do all the compiling Gentoo entailed on such a slow machine.  Well, I fixed the bug (it was hardware related), and the performance jumped.  It was great for a while.

Now, I still run Ubuntu Studio on my desktop, despite some annoyances with 8.10 version’s low latency kernel not supporting multiple processors, and thus only running on of the cores on my processor (I don’t use it unless I need to record).  Now, another annoyance, and one that I especially noticed on my laptop was the bloat present in Ubuntu.  After deciding I didn’t feel like putting up with it anymore, I relented and did a Gentoo install this weekend.

And so far it’s been great.  Even with the speed bug fixed compile times can be long, but thanks to Ice Cream I can distribute some of the compiling to my desktop.  (Most packages are fine with this, some don’t seem to like it so much.)  I got Gnome installed, got power management and CPU frequency scaling working, along with suspending to RAM.  So now I have a zippy Linux install on my laptop.

Gentoo is a bit of work, but it’s worth it, in particular if you want to learn about how your system works.  I recommend it.

A Pacifist in the War on Christmas

Christmas is not far away, and I’m excited.  The family being together, good food, gifts, and the prospect of going home for two weeks are all nice things I’m looking forward to.  Hopefully we’ll get some snow, and our Christmas lights will look nice.

And then of course someone, usually somewhere on a cable news network brings up the age old dilemma of the War on Christmas.  You hear about things like people being outraged about the manger scene in a government building, or about how stores tell their employees to say ‘Happy Holidays’.  And of course there are the extrememe views that this country is a ‘Christion nation’ or about how the government should stay out of this sort of thing completely.  (Well, you hear more about the former view it seems to me.)

To me, this whole issue is another thing that satisfies people’s collective need to be pissed off at something.  I’m not extremely religious, but I do celebrate Christmas, and I do say ‘Merry Christmas’ to friends and family.  It does not bother me to hear ‘Happy Holidays’, and in fact I may even have said it a few times to people just in passing.  I’m not sure I like the idea of government (tax) money going to something like a manger scene in a public building, which is obviously linked to Christianity, at least more so than a Christmas tree necessarily is, but unless it’s absolutely huge I generally don’t care.

It doesn’t really matter what religion you are, or if you even fallow one.  There are so many things in this world that take your mind off of your family and other loved ones.  Now, sometimes in small doses that is a good thing.  But every so often we get opportunities, like Christmas time, to cast that aside and be happy.  Decorations and gifts are nice too, and I’m not saying we should give it all up.  I just think we let controversy take too much control over ourselves sometimes.  After all, having someone say ‘Happy Holidays’ to you won’t kill Christmas, unless you make it.

Getting Help With Linux

Typical open source *nix distributions open up quite an array of possibilities.  Using one you can easily set up a Web, Email, Database or whatever server.  You can do it with anything from an old PC you have laying around to a brand new server type machine too, on either a fast connection in a datacenter or your residential broadband connection.  And, if you’re new to these operating systems, setting up a server is a great way to learn.

Although the task of say setting up a Web server for a site like this is not very hard, for the new user it can be kind of intimidating.  Just as knowing how to use Microsoft Office does not automatically qualify you to run a Windows Web server, being familiar with say Ubuntu GNU/Linux as a desktop OS does not instantly mean you’re ready to set up Apache.  If one wants to learn to set up some sort of service, there are of course places to turn, namely the program’s Web site.  Google is also a great reference; just typing in something like linux apache php mysql yields numerous tutorials, for Linux and other systems.  Different distributions also have guides and tutorials.

Now, obviously a tutorial is only so helpful; at some point you’ll probalby need to ask a question.  Forums, mailing lists, and IRC channels are all great for this, and just about all Linux distros have these associated with them.  And so begins the major point of contention new *nix users might have:  You ask a question, and you’re told to go and RTFM (read the fucking fine manual).  Maybe there are more swears in there, or something else very rude.  This no doubt leaves new users with the impression that open source/Linux people are arrogant, elitest pricks.

Well, here’s the thing.  Arrogant, elitest pricks are everywhere; they exist in the open source movement, in businesses, at school, in the government, everywhere.  I won’t deny that you may very well talk to someone like that, and that they may very well waste your time.  It’s one of the risks you take when you interact with people.  But to say that all of us are like that is a rampant generalization.  Now, this is a hard thing to hear when you’re in the process of trying to get your new file server up and running, but you should really think about how exactly you ask the question.

Usually, people who get responses such as those mentioned above do so after asking a balnd, general question.  “How do I set up Samba?” is one such example.  As I mentioned, there are plenty of documents and guides for doing this.  Most of the time, this is just going to annoy people in a forum who are already aware of such guides, and figure that turning to say Google or the distributin’s home page should be blatantly obvious.  Sometimes, people will be nice and point you to a favorite guide they have, or will maybe give you a general response that probably won’t be all that useful (Do sudo apt-get install Samba, edit /etc/samba/smb.conf, add Samba users, and then do sudo /etc/init.d/samba restart.) to you as a new user.  And then some people will tell you to f*** off.

Again, there are assholes, and you will run into them.  But also remember that using only text it’s quite possible for emotions to be misinterpreted or even lost completely.  And, many users of open source are just that: users.  They are hanging around on forums on their own time, which they don’t like to waste.  So, a user may come off as an asshole anyway.  How can you minimize this and not make everyone think you’re an idiot n00b?  Well, it’s simple:

  • Try use Google or applicable documentation first.  Try to get whatever it is working on your own the best you can.
  • If you’re just not sure of something, ask about that specifically in say a forum rather than “How do I configure xyz.”  As long as you give some indication that you actually tried to read and understand available material so the other members don’t have to regurgitate it, you’ll probably be fine.
  • Take note of any errors, or strange behavior, and ask specific questions using this information.  Get comfortable going through things like system logs also; they can provide helpful information for people who really know what the program does and can thus provide the best advice.
  • Search the forums for similar issues; someone else may have had your problem and solved it.  If not, you may be able to get an idea of how to tackle your problem, or what information to provide the community.
  • Finally, along with the above say you’re a newbie, and that you’re doing your best to get your machine running.  Remember you’re interacting with people, not a machine like with Google.  Be polite.

Now, before I go on, I would just like to point out that this does not give experienced users the right to be jerks at the tip of a hat.  Some people will troll, and just try to annoy, but if someone seems genuinely confused, but maybe not accustomed to the community support model a forum provides, the appropriate response is to politely inform them to go through the proper channels.

Well hopefully this will clear some things up.  Just remember that a lot of what response you get depends on how you ask the question.  So, take a moment, and make sure you’re holding up your end.

Politics

Well, just thought I’d do a little rant.  Gotta love election year, plenty of things to argue about, especially online.

Basically, I’ve come to the conclusion that politicians exists to give people something to bitch about.  I see it all the time, on Slashdot, Fark, whereever.  People argue about someting, and then they pick a side, they join a horde for some particular candidate or philosophy.  Then something comes along, like the thing with Obama voting for the FISA bill, and all of a sudden you have people changing their loyalties and arguing endlessly again.  Maybe you get someone talking aobut how our rights are being eroded and that no candidate is protecting them or, my favorite, how maybe we should overthrow the federal government.

The funny thing is, there are valid issues in there.  For me, the FISA thing is troubling, and I am concerned about my rights as an American citizen.  However, it just seems like there’s so much crap that goes back and fourth between the two extreme sides of each issue.

We have to worry, we have to be conscious of who we put in office and what he or she is going to do.  We have to be worried about how it will affect us, the economy, the environment, health, etc.  But I think people have the tendency to take all the pent up rage from their everyday lives and concentrate it into a good-old political quibble online (or in real life).  I know I have.  Okay, to be fare maybe the term “rage” is a littel too extreme, but you get the idea.

We deal with a lot of shit with politics.  It comes from all over the political spectrum, all over the country.  I personally believe that things tend to work themselves out.  While some things may get bad, the people aren’t stupid enough to let it get too far.  Yes, this is optimistic, and I don’t mean to sound apathetic.  But quite simply, I don’t think we’ll be needing to call everyone to arms for a while.

Port 25

Well, it happens to be another weeknight and again I find myself writing about my DIY Web/Email hosting saga.  Well, the latest development is specific to my mail server, which I run at my home off of a Verizon FiOS connection.  Well, used to.  You see, it’s down.

The server had an issue, and I’m in the process of setting up another one at home (a machine I had doing something else; it will be a temporary server until the other one is up again).  However, I ran into a snag.  You see, Verizon never blocked port 25 inbound in the past. But now they do.  They just started to.

It kind of makes sense.  I mean, there are so many zomby PCs out there, with virus acting as mail servers (and thus listening on port 25 for spam to forward) that blocking the SMTP port is a good way for ISPs to be responsible and limit spam.  Not to mention that an intentional but poorly configured mail server could also relay spam (mine didn’t).  So I guess it’s a good thing then.

But it still aggravates me.  I mean, we pay for a certain amount of bandwidth on that connection.  Why shouldn’t we be able to do what we want with that bandwidth, within the confines of the law and general decency?  Yeah, they oversell.  But guarantee that that mail server hardly used any bandwidth compared to my family’s normal Internet habits (which is mostly just surfing the Web).

The other thing that sucks is simply the fact that we’ve had to resort to this, what with viruses and such.  I suppose it was bound to happen, but it’s still sad that we have limited connections due in part to general Internet crap.

But you know what?  Verizon offers a business package for more money that has no ports blocked.  And you get a static IP.  And presumably, that IP is not blacklisted as being a source of spam (something I ran into a lot).  Even if they didn’t need to block ports to limit spam and the spread of viruses, I could see them doing it anyway to justify charging more for the next size up.  Truthfully, it’s not even that much of a problem.  I have plans to host my Email on a different box in a datacenter in Rochester, and until then, there’s this.  And hey, I guess there’s no reason to fuss about it too much, as most people only care about being able to surf the Web.

Scientology Protests, New Job, and the Weather

Well, it’s warmer today, in the mid 40’s. Pretty nice. The snow is still here, but it’s metlting, as you can tell by the dripping roofs and occasional streams running into storm drains.  Just a few more weeks and it’ll be pretty nice out.

On another note, I am taking a break from school and working.  No, I haven’t dropped out; my school requires that I do a certain amount of work in my field of study.  The company I am at is in Rochester, and it’s pretty nice.  It’s a good job for me, and it’s not too far from where I’m living.  I’ll be working through the summer, so this year should be a bit of a different experience for me.

Now, for a final note.  Today is L. Ron Hubbard’s birthday.  For those unaware, he was a science fiction writer as well as the father of the Scientology religion.  Said religion is not in the greatest favor of the Internet community and has as a result sparked some turmoil.  The religion (or cult, as some would say) has had its Websites attacked, phone lines jammed, and now its offices protested.

This happened a while back, with the Internet group “Anonymous” announcing plans to blast Scientology off of the Internet.  The issues had to do with Scientoloy rasing legal action against leaked proprietary videos posted on sites like YouTube.  It was further feuled by reports of actions taken by the religion that led to people dieing.  (Search for this on Google; it has been explained many times already.)

This whole thing has interested me to an extent.  Overall, I like to think of myself as more of an outside observer.  I am for religious freedom; practice whatever you want so that long as you respect others (and the world) and don’t force your beliefs on anyone else.  (That’s a simplification of what I think, but it’s the gist.)  So, as far as I’m concerened, if someone thinks that Scientology may have something that can help them out in life, all the power too them.  I can also respect an organization wanting to keep their intellectual property safe.  However, I also wonder as to whether or not Scientology has crossed the line and caused harm; obviously there are reports, and obviously a religion will have the crazy minority which gives the entire group a bad name.  But are the protests justififed?

Maybe, but I’m not getting involved.  I can commend Anonymous for making a stand, and brining attention to the issue.  But at the same time, it is something I am not sure I want to involve myself in too much.  Not really because I am afraid, but because it seems like a waste of time.   Sometimes you just need to step away.

Back to Snow Again

I must take a brief moment here to tell you about something you may already have noticed: I talk a lot about the weather.  Well, let me elaborate a little, as I’m sure I’ll do again sometime in the future when this post is buried somewhere in the vast abyss of a MySQL database I’m building up.  You see, where I’m from, Buffalo, we get made fun of a lot for the weather.  Particularly snow.  We don’t get a lot of it overall, either.  Sure, we’ve had some huge snowfalls (eight feet back in 2000).  But on the whole there are plenty of places where they get it much, much worse (I’m looking at you, Alaska.).  Even in the same state.

I guess it’s because we make noise about it; I can recall a couple times when a state of emergency has been declared because of the snow.  But the truth is  that the snow isn’t that bad.  Contrary to what some may believe, it does melt up here.  And, in the summer time it can actually get hot.  We’ve got a pool in the backyard, and it’s a life saver.  We hardly ever heat it.  We’ve had heat waves up into the 90’s before, and a cold pool is great.

Now, to get to the point, my frequent posts about the weather are important to me for the simple fact that they affect me.  I love the outdoors, and currently reside in the suburbs.  Because I don’t always have the opportunity to go off into the woods (deep woods, not just the lot a few streets down), I end up scrutinizing other aspects of the natural world more closely, namely the weather.  And it’s important to me; not so much “good” or “bad” weather in particular, but just that I’m aware of it.  Of course, whatever kind of weather it is can and does change my mood a bit, but mostly I just like it.

Ironically, I don’t have any pictures for this post to contrast from a previous one in which I noted 63 degree weather and vast ponds, but I will say that things have taken a turn.  We’ve got about a foot of snow, nice, wet spring snow.  It looks great, but it makes travel kind of hard.  And, it’s cold.  But it won’t be long; this is probably our last snow of the season.  I like winter, but after a few months of it I’m eager for spring.

So How Was Your Day?

I had mixed feelings about today.  Teusdays and Thursdays are longer days for me, often keeping me on the academic side most of the time.  It can get tiring.  Today doesn’t seem so bad, though.  I mean, you get used to it, but I don’t feel horribly drained right now.

On the other hand, I may end up withdrawing from a course.  In fact, probably.  At the beginning of the quarter I figured I’d have to, but I did hope I could pull through.  Well, it’s not offered again for a while (until next year), but whatever.  I might end up with a co-op in spring anyway, so it won’t seem so bad.

So I’m torn.  I mean, tonight Lost returns, which should be interesting (even though I’ll probably watch it later).  But then there’s the realization that I might have to shuffle my academic status around…

You know what?  I’m going to try not to think about it.  How was your day?  How are you feeling?  Good?  Bad?  Happy?  Angry?  Who cares.  It’s good to feel something.

On another note, I think I may try out being a vegetarian soon, or at least eating less meat.  The reason is that I have from others who’ve tried it that it just makes you feel better.  So, I might give it a shot.  (I suppose ethics play a role, but that’s another topic.  I don’t have a problem with eating meat in general, though.)

So there you go.  Oh, and I plan to order the parts for my new computer today, too.  More on that later.  Right now I either post from my laptop or, if possible, a Pentium I running NetBSD (that one actually needs a bit more work, but I’m going to try to use it as my desktop until the parts for the new box come in).  So that should be neat.