Category Archives: geek-out

The Great Date Debate

I was all set this morning to do a long rant on why we should be using this date format:

2007/05/22 (or 2007-05-22 in situations where the “/” is inappropriate)

Looks a little weird, I know, but no matter what culture you’re from, there’s no doubt what date that refers to. I didn’t even have to tell you that it’s YYYY/MM/DD–because what else could it be? My personal reason for adopting this format over 10 years ago was that it sorts well in plain-text data–like in the file system on a computer. It continues to sort well even when followed by a similarly-standardized time (like 16:22:03).

Anyway, the reason I don’t have to do a long(er) rant is that a fast Google Search reveals a lot of other people thinking about this:

And perhaps the most solid recommendation in the modern era, and what got me thinking about this today: Google uses it. It’s right there at the bottom of the Gmail advanced search options.

And if Google does it, it’s got to be good, right?

Amazon EC2: Virtual Hardware as a Service

I’m not sure how I missed this, or how long it’s been available, but as the next logical step after their “storage as a service” S3 solution, Amazon has come out with with the Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2). Essentially this combines server virtualization (which if you’ve worked with me, or heard me talk about work, you know I’m all about lately) with the massive server farms at Amazon via an ever-expanding web service system. Basically you build or choose virtual machine images and run them on an arbitrary number of virtual servers at Amazon. It’s “dedicated server” hardware co-location without the hardware. The idea is you can create an entire “data center” by interconnecting these images–for example, running several web servers, against a couple of database servers. And if you need to double the size of your data center, it’s a batch copy to invoke more servers–just pay for the “instance hours” you use. This is heady, brain-baking stuff. They even have a pre-built Window 2003 Server image running under Fedora Core 6 via Qemu (itself a virtualization environment). Hey, wasn’t I just talking about turtles all the way down?

So, how much does all this cost? The short answer is, you pay for the flexibility–it’s more than root access co-lo for a single-server setup. The long answer is, to run a web server, it’s about $100/month (1 CPU @$73 + 160GB storage @$24), plus bandwidth (where you can really get killed). Compare this to, say, the $100/month root server plan over at 1and1, which comes with two terabytes of transfer (maybe… many ISPs will throttle or boot you if it even looks like you’ll approach the max on your plan). All things being equal, that transfer would cost you an extra $300 at EC2.

A Compiler, Debugger and Software CPU in 50K

This is an amazing JavaScript virtual machine for 6502 assembly language. In one JavaScript file (under 50K) they managed to include a compiler, debugger, software CPU, and graphics sub-system. I use virtualization software every day, but not since reading The Diamond Age have I seen such a compelling demonstration of the fact that any computer can act like any other computer through software alone. This is exactly the kind of turtles-all-the-way-down metaphor that gets us things like The Matrix and the domino computer. It’s tempting to think of the logic gates in the CPU as the bottom rung of the computing process, but in essence those silicon pathways are there to reverse-virtualize (realize) the logical rules of computing. The CPU is in fact an interface to those rules, and by extension to the brains of the engineers and mathematicians who designed the rules. And what are rules but software? The only place this breaks down is inside the human brain–we don’t know the rules that govern in there–so while you can emulate a computer with your brain, we can’t yet emulate our brains on a computer. But outwardly our participation is governed by rules so effectively we’re part of the machine.

Cheap Remote Power Control

web power switchThe best-kept secret in remote, web-based power control is the Digital Loggers LPC Ethernet Power Controller. Don’t let the hilarious 70s porno background music and voice-over complete with GIANT ANOUNCER VOICE put you off. This is simply the only cost-effective multi-outlet power controller for home office use. For about $100 shipped you get a web-based, eight-outlet controller that’s built like a tank: wall-mountable metal case, built-in cooling fan, “real” heavy-duty wall outlet receptacles. In a year of use I’ve never had it unexpectedly change the state of an attached device, and I’ve never had to reboot it. If you’re really hard-core, it’s even controllable via code (see PDF manual for example PERL script).

Though I have been completely happy with the unit, there are a couple of quirks. For one, I’ve sometimes been unable to log in remotely using Internet Explorer, especially over public Wi-Fi. Continued attempts will cause a temporary security lockout. The workaround is to use Firefox (before the lockout!), which has never failed. The only other complaint I’ve had is noise. The tiny, high-speed case fan makes this the loudest device in my office (always on, of course), except on the hottest days when the processor fan on my P4 maxes out.

One of the nice things about the big metal box school of design employed by Digital Loggers is you’re somewhat encouraged to crack the case. Once my warranty is up in June I’ll probably drill some holes and replace the fan with a larger, slower one. I’m also going to investigate the possibility of splitting half the outlets onto a separate power supply, thus allowing for some UPS-protected outlets and some unprotected ones. Theoretically the supply side of the relays should be independent of the switching side. I probably wouldn’t even consider this kind of mod on a more expensive or injection-molded plastic unit.

For server rooms, Digital Loggers also offers an intriguing upgrade unit, the EPCR2. This ads extra outlets (though still eight circuits), dual power supplies and power cords, metering and monitoring, front-panel override switches, and backup dial-up access via serial ports–all in a 2U rack-mount chassis. I almost bought this one, but the $300 price tag was a little much for home use.

A note on customer service: Because I was working on a deadline (leaving for vacation), I ended up ordering by phone to discuss expedited shipping. Digital Loggers is a small company, and they keep it old school–hand sending email confirmations and seemingly remembering your name between calls. I had not experience that level of customer service since having a personal sales rep at CDW in the 90s (and I was spending a lot of corporate money with them to get that). Quite refreshing.

I can’t recommend this product or company enough.

The Crazy Box of Parts School of Computing

vantec cb-isatau2 parts
It’s not that often that I come upon a truly wonderful device that I never knew existed and yet have always needed. The Vantec CB-ISATAU2 is such a device. It’s a universal IDE/SATA hard drive to USB 2.0 converter.

If you’re like me, you have a stack of old hard drives sitting around. And yet it’s a little nerve wracking to open up the case on a perfectly good computer and plug in one of these mystery drives–will it have a virus? will it wreck my computer? will I disturb something else while I’m in there? No more. With this insane box of parts you can take any internal hard drive (and I mean any: PATA, SATA, 2.5″, 3.5″) and run it as a USB 2.0 external drive. Just plug in the dongle and included external power supply. It’s basically an external enclosure without the enclosure.vantec cb-isatau2 connected

And the best thing is, it just works. I had an old Caviar 120GB drive that had gone questionable at some point sitting on my desk. I plugged it in–dongle, power, USB–and immediately got four new drives (four partitions on the drive).results in explorer of hooking up the vantec cb-isatau2

As you probably know if you have any interest in a device like this… You should disable Autoplay before doing this because Windows may try to find something to run on each partition if Autoplay is enabled. Also, like any external hard drive, you should stop the device before disconnecting it or powering it down.

Got a crazy box of parts? Then you need this crazy box of parts.

"Own" a Mac for $20 a Month

Browsrcamp comes up every so often as a tip or trick for testing web sites on Mac browsers when you don’t have a Mac. The free service gives you a jpeg screenshot of what a URL looks like in Safari. For testing a homepage or template this is fine, but it breaks down in a dynamic context (for example: a site where you need to log in or where you’re using DHTML behaviors or AJAX).

But there’s also a paid service that lets you VNC into a Mac and actually watch how your site behaves in any browser (and they’ve got some weird ones). If you had a short-term project that absolutely had to look right on the Mac, this would be a cost-effective alternative to actually buying one–conceivably $20 could get you through your entire testing phase.

Given the number of times I’ve almost run out to Fry’s and bought a Mac Mini in a panic, I’ll definitely be using this down the line.

Delphi/Pascal Holding On by a Thread

Some of you might be interested to know (okay, one of you, if “you” includes me) that Borland (as CodeGear, as is still hanging in there with Win32 (non-.NET) development, and there’s even a free version now/again. You can’t find it from the real site, and it looks fake when you get there, but apparently this is legit. The product I’m referring to is Turbo Delphi 2006.

Here’s an article that goes into it a little more. I agree with the assessment that Delphi/Pascal is essentially a nostalgia project at this point (although I’m sure there are eastern European hackers shareware authors who would argue). But depending on what’s available out of the box (typically they’ve left out critical network stack interfaces in the sub-Pro versions), this is interesting to me because invoking the .NET framework (as you do automatically in Visual Studio) for a tiny helper app or test harness is computationally expensive and leads to its own version of “DLL hell.” Plus, the .NET compilers are offensively slow even with up-to-date hardware.

If I try this out and it blows me away in some regard, I’ll follow up.

Did Poor Customer Service Really Kill Dell?

This blogger believes that customer service, or the lack thereof, has been the deciding factor in Dell’s decline. He cites “low cost and high operational efficiency” as not being enough. While I’ve personally considered Dell a disappointment in terms of hardware performance and reliability, I’ve never heard anyone complain about the service (aside from having to call them all the time because the systems keep breaking). Certainly no more than I’ve heard complaints about Sony or Apple (and reliability has been an issue for these manufacturers as well).

I’d like to present an alternate theory: that rather than rebel against poor customer service, what customers have really shied away from is Dell’s “directness.” I think that increasingly consumers have been pushed (back) toward retail computer buying. There are many reasons for this. Bundling and 0% financing options are one big one. The perceived value of a free printer or scanner at retail usually far outweighs the cost of delivering it. And it’s a hell of a lot easier to wait for the “0% on all Computers until 2008” insert in the Sunday paper than it is to wade through the shady 10% coupon deals for Dell on eBay.

Proliferation of choice may also be a factor: I think consumers have become less confident in their ability to choose the right system and components online, and Dell’s plethora of models and configuration options works against them in this regard. Intel vs. AMD (how many cores do I need? 32- or 64-bit? And don’t even get me started on the “processor number” debacle), a half-dozen different kinds of RAM (DDR? DDR2? what’s PC-3200 in Mhz? and how much do I need?!), three or four generations of hard drive technology all currently available, XP vs. Vista, CD vs. DVD.

And then there’s the sales aspect–dragging people squirming and clutching their wallet that last few feet to the register. Should I wait for Vista? What if BlueRay suddenly languishes and I can get an HD-DVD drive for $50 next month? In an almost perverse reversal of the status quo, I think the geek at Best Buy and the WalMart sale flier are actually keeping the PC unit sales flowing at this point with gentle hand holding and impulse buys. Conversely, anyone confident and patient enough to shop online has been in a holding pattern for at least six months.

I wouldn’t be surprised if we see Dell making some deals for retail placement this year. Given that they already have a rivalry/relationship, WalMart/Sam’s Club is the obvious first step. Costco is always a possibility. But to really make a go of it, Dell is going to need to get in bed with one of the big chains: Best Buy or Circuit City. Or, if they want to really hit it out of the park, Target. This strategy helped pull Gateway out of the fire when their online business dropped off (which, ironically, did have something to do with customer service). Adjusted for the 21st century, it could work for Dell too.