Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

The Thinker

Solar absorption

Two months after starting our solar project, our solar panels are online and producing clean and free energy.

Installation day (June 16) was a big deal for us. It certainly was for our cat Cinnamon who was freaked out by all the noise and strange people inside our house and quickly ran under our bed for the duration. Direct Energy Solar sent four trucks with two guys to do the roof work and two to do the electrical work. The roof work required attaching rails to our roof to hold the panels. Before the panels were attached inverters were placed next to the rails. The inverters convert the direct current (DC) from the solar panels into alternating current (AC) used everywhere. Meanwhile two electricians crawled through our attic, laying cable. This required putting a hole in the roof to carry wires from the solar panels into the house. A hole was also needed on the side of our house so the cables could attach to the outdoor electrical junction box but also into the basement to our circuit breaker box. Only then did the crew on the roof haul up our twenty panels and put them in place, connecting them to the inverter box just underneath each panel.

Installing rails and inverters

Installing rails and inverters

It all went quite speedily, taking about six hours, one of which was spent waiting for the city electrical inspector to show up. However, having solar panels on the roof didn’t mean we could actually use them. Any attempt to do so would have caused a major problem, as we were not yet wired to put electricity back into the grid. So for a week the solar panels adorned our roof while we continued to draw power from the grid.

Wednesday found a man from the power company unexpectedly at our door. He came by to replace our meter. We needed one that would report power we contribute to the grid, i.e. one that would go backward. Happily this was simple to do: the old meter was unplugged and the new one plugged in. It took about five seconds, but it did shut off everything in the house. Still, I was reluctant to lift the switch that would start the flow of this green energy. I figured another inspection was needed first. Thursday night I finally heard from our project manager who said it was safe to turn the system on, which I did first thing Friday morning.

All done!

All done!

We’re not quite done. A building inspector still has to sign off on the project. In addition we are promised some tools. The Enphase inverters report on electricity produced but we need an account with them established so we can see real-time usage and get reports. We’ll have our own webpage and we can monitor our system in real-time anywhere in the world where there is Internet from the convenience of an app on our smartphones.

This time of year we are putting surplus energy back into the electrical grid. What we give back in electricity will count as credits during the darker months when days are shorter. If the engineers who planned our solar system are correct everything should even out. So unless we start adding power-hungry appliances we may never have to pay an electric bill again.

Of course nothing is free. Back in April when I first wrote about this venture, I detailed the costs. Our system cost $21,432.25. Subtracting healthy federal and state tax credits, our net cost is $14,002.58. With Solar Renewable Energy Certificate (SREC) income payable over ten years worth $9,262.50 the true net cost is $4742.08. In effect we are paying only 22% of the system’s cost.

How long would it take you to use $4742.08 in electricity from your power company? Electricity is expensive around here, averaging about 22c/kwh. This is actually good for justifying this investment. For us this is about 21,500 kwh which based on our projected usage suggests the system will pay for itself in four years. After that aside from minor maintenance that may be required, electricity should be free.

Once your system is up and running, it apparently fails to entertain. They tend to be very reliable and as they are solid state, so it’s rare for problems to occur. But I do plan to post updates from time to time, perhaps a year from now after we have some experience and metrics to look at.

 
The Thinker

Getting solar panels for your house is (usually) a no-brainer

I recently wrote about my father’s death in February and my thoughts on what to do with his inheritance. On the latter, I opined I might just give it away. It didn’t seem like something I needed to worry about, as we saw a copy of his will. It left everything to my stepmother, provided she did not die within thirty days of his death. In that event we were to get five percent of the estate. My stepmother’s will was similar so providing she didn’t change it, it looked like it would be some time before we would receive any portion of the inheritance, if any at all.

So I filed away what to do with the money as an academic exercise. A couple of weeks after my father passed away I got a call from my sister. “We have a problem,” she said. Dad had made me and each of my siblings (there are eight of us) beneficiaries to the money in his Merrill-Lynch accounts. This consisted of a money market account and two Roth IRAs. And this trumped anything in his will.

The problem was: do we take the money and run? Or do we honor what appeared to be the intent of his will and give our share to our stepmother? Regardless we each would get an eighth of the amount, and it was a considerable sum. We’d all have to voluntarily agree to give our share to our stepmother. After much discussion we figured that this was likely not an oversight; our father probably intended us to get this money, possibly to respect our late mother’s wishes for his estate. There was still something like half a million dollars in other assets that our stepmother could draw on. It was strange though that Dad did not communicate these details with us before he died.

So now we are assembling forms to try to claim our share of these accounts. As you might expect it’s a hassle. All inheritances are tax-free. Dear old dad had at some point paid a bunch of taxes to put much of his money into Roth IRAs, which made his withdrawals tax-free. If we moved our share of these funds into our own inherited Roth IRAs, we could let these funds accumulate tax-free. It’s almost like having a tax shelter but not having to go to the Cayman Islands!

Thus my hypothetical thoughts on basically giving the money away now turned more concrete. First of all, the amount of money was more than I expected. My dad turned out to be a good investor, which meant that he found a financial adviser he trusted and he turned it into a pile of cash. (Much of the startup money came from his parents.) Second, it made me think of what I might actually want to spend the money on. It turned out that only two things mattered and there would still be money left over to give a lot away.

First, I wanted us to be debt free again. We would get there in a year or two but with a windfall it seemed like a sensible way to spend Dad’s money. There is about $18K on the new mortgage. We actually were debt free for a few months after we sold our last house and waited for the new one to be constructed. It was surreal. I wanted that feeling again.

Second, I wanted to reduce our carbon footprint even more. Basically, I wanted solar panels. Our house is new and super tight, so it’s energy footprint is already minimal. We already pay extra to get our electricity through renewable wind power. But if we went solar we would probably pay nothing for electricity, once we paid for the cost of getting a solar system installed. Besides, about a third of the houses in our subdivision have them already so we are feeling the social pressure to go green.

So I started dialing around. It was strange that our condo association cares about your doorknockers but not solar panels. No permission was needed. If you have the money, solar tax credits make going solar a no-brainer. Uncle Sam will give you a 30% tax credit and the state of Massachusetts (where we live) will give a $1000 tax credit. Moreover there are the SRECs (Solar Renewable Energy Certificates). Basically the power company will give us money for our solar system because they must show that they are getting an increasing amount of their power from renewable energy. The credits expire after ten years, but the first year we will earn $1635 from our SRECs, which will taper down to $545 by the tenth year. (SRECs are not available in all states. See if you qualify.)

The estimates were all pretty close pricewise. We ended up signing with Direct Energy Solar mainly because they seemed the best capitalized. It turns out that we don’t need to cover the entire southern facing side of our house with solar panels. Based on our usage we need them just over our garage, twenty altogether. It’s actually counterproductive to generate more solar energy than you use because you end up with a credit you never can fully spend.

Not every house is ideal for solar panels. Lower latitudes certainly help. You need a roof that faces south and if there are trees in your way it probably won’t make financial sense. You don’t necessarily have to buy a system to go green, like we are doing. There are companies that will let you lease solar panels they put on your roof. You still pay for electricity, but usually at about five cents a kilowatt-hour less than what you would otherwise pay. If you run the numbers it makes a lot of sense to own your own panels. You can in theory take them with you to your next house if you want. We figure that our system will pay for itself in about five years. And we’ll get a cool app that will show us in real time how much electricity we are generating. Direct Energy Solar will even guarantee that we will generate the energy we need and will pay us in the unlikely situation that we don’t.

Going solar is really a no-brainer and probably worth taking out a home equity loan to finance it if necessary. You will get tax credits if you buy your system, earn income from SRECs that you will sell (if your state allows it), reduce carbon pollution and minimize your carbon footprint. Since these systems tend to cost $20-$30K to install, the only question is why builders don’t offer solar panels as an option for every house where it is appropriate.

The only downside I can find to solar is that you can’t get it quickly. A whole lot of coordination has to happen between various parties. We expect to have ours installed and turned on in 90-120 days. There is likely much that could be done to hurry up this process but the power companies don’t make it a priority and worry about whether all this “net metering” will stress out their power grid. They would like to charge solar customers for costs to maintain the grid. There is a bill to this effect in front of the Massachusetts legislature at the moment.

I’ll let you know how it goes in future posts.

 
The Thinker

The art and value of meeting up using meetup.com

Meetings once consumed my life. It was hard to get actual work done because I was too busy attending meetings. Shuffling from conference room to conference room all day drove me nuts since so little of the conversation was productive. Over time and mainly due to changing jobs more of my meetings became virtual. There were still plenty of meetings but they mainly involved conference lines and Webex sessions while you sat at your desks. Teams stared at virtual shared screens, where usually someone was pasting notes, but often we were off to look at websites collaboratively. When we were not in meetings there was continuous email and instant messaging streaming back and forth. You tried to work while all this was going on.

Mostly this went away when I retired. At first it was welcome but over time it felt weird. I am not wholly retired. To keep myself busy I started consulting part time. My work happens from home but my clients are all over the Internet. Mostly I use email, but occasionally when I need some face time I will kick up a Skype session with a client. POTS (plain old telephone service) works too for my clients who are less technologically fluent. My instant messaging service now is just Skype and it’s mostly with family.

Meeting in person is becoming a lost art. But when you work alone, as so many of us do these days in our new telecommuting universe, too much alone time is not good. You want to meet new people but it can be hard. There are the neighbors. Fortunately I live in a very social 55+ community, so there is plenty of neighborliness to be had, including a monthly guys-only dinner night and various social events. There is church but I’ve been slow to reengage in Unitarian Universalism since I moved. There are people you might chat with at the store, on the bike trail or at the park, but these are ephemeral. So mostly I talk to my spouse and my cats these days.

Being introverted it doesn’t particularly bother me to be somewhat socially isolated, but I did miss communing with fellow tech-heads. It used to be I lived in a nutrient-rich tech universe during my working hours. Now I can read stuff online but it’s not the same as direct person-to-person exchange and collaboration.

So I have been meeting up instead. In the 21st century this means going to meetup.com and finding events worth attending where you get to sit down with people who are essentially strangers and chat about something you have in common. Locally there are all sorts of meet ups I could attend, some of them pretty weird. For example, there is a Dr. Who meet up that I’ve encourage my wife to go to, since she is a Dr. Who fan, which I am not. There is a group for polyamorous people. For you unenlightened, this means people who feel pulled to having more than one intimate/romantic relationship at a time, ideally in the same household, and often with different genders, where ideally no jealousy is happening. Okay, whatever, not for me. Looking at my local meetup.com calendar I find that there are all sorts of stuff going on. Local atheists are meeting tomorrow night to take on Scientology. Guided mediation and shamanic drum journeying is happening on Tuesday. There is a Yoga & Beer meet up on Wednesday. I don’t know what they could possibly have in common.

Still, you go to meetup.com to find people like you. Given that I’m a techie I’m interested in techie meet ups. Surprising there is quite a bit of this stuff out here in Western Massachusetts. At first I found the experience a bit nervy, since I’m not the type to go into bars and talk with strangers. But to go to a restaurant or a meeting room in a library and talk with a bunch of tech people, well, all-righty then!

It started last summer when I ventured to a “Webdive”, which is basically a bunch of tech people (usually just guys) meeting at a watering hole in downtown Northampton, Massachusetts. There they drink beer, eat bar food and yammer on mostly about technical stuff. The bar food didn’t impress me but the quality of the technical conversation did. There was quite a buzz about AngularJS, a Javascript framework, and its many virtues. I was still in the jQuery world. It was useful to know this is where trends were going in many instances. Without the meet up, I likely would never have known.

Still, it’s hard to hold a meaningful conversation in a noisy bar. I didn’t need the calories either, although it was useful to find out how much tech was actually going on here in Western Massachusetts, where it seems hidden. So I started attending another meet up in Easthampton, Massachusetts. There in an old industrial building I met others in a startup’s office interested in “full stack” development. This turned into a much more interesting meeting, as the topics were topical and relevant. Wednesday night found about a dozen of us watching a demonstration of Travis, software used to continuously compile, test and deploy complex software systems. It’s neat stuff.

Last night I was at yet another meet up, this one across the Connecticut River in Amherst, on search marketing for websites. I happened to be friends with Roger the organizer, who I did some work for. While not particularly technical it was fascinating to learn how search engines (Google in particular) rank websites and what you can do to make your website more noticed by search engines. There is a lot of misinformation out there. We all found it relevant and useful. Not one of us walked out. We were so immersed in the stuff that we almost missed the library’s closing time.

Meet ups, principally facilitated by meetup.com are turning out to be important to me, both to meet like-minded people but also to keep up my technical prowess. There is also a lot of marketing going on between attendees. You learn not just to bring a notebook and take notes but also to bring business cards, because someone or more will probably want one. Curiously, these business cards come in handy. I got a query from a local network of technical people who needed some fast turnaround on a WordPress job. I was swamped, but I pulled out the business card of a guy who gave me his at a meet up. I recalled that he had the skills this person was looking for. He got some work and he sent me a little thank you note afterward.

So meet ups can be both interesting and profitable. There is no substitute for face-to-face encounters, particularly if you work alone. Meet ups are an easy way to market yourself and to keep up your skills, as well as meet other people you might want to collaborate with on future projects. You will often learn about local opportunities or listen to some interesting suggestions on markets in the area that need to be filled.

All this, plus I feel less socially isolated. I guess I’m a meetup.com kind of person after all.

 
The Thinker

I, Roomba

The future hasn’t worked out quite the way I envisioned it. I’m old enough to have grown up watching The Jetsons, which kind of modeled my thinking on what the future should look like. In the Hanna Barbara cartoon, people flew around in little personal airplanes that didn’t seem to need a runway and they could park on the balcony. No one had cell phones but there was this Skype-like thing at the house and on their putt-putting airplane that provided visual communications. The Jetsons did have a robot, Rosie, who did the cleaning, most of the mothering (Jane had other things to do) and occasionally dispensed pills.

In 2016, I have a smartphone, high-speed Internet and many awesome technologies that the Jetsons never imagined. But some things I do remain doggedly old fashioned. Cleaning is one of them and it usually involves brooms, scouring powder, detergents and washrags. No one has invented Rosie the robot yet, but it’s not hard to imagine that within twenty years she will get invented. Until then we at least we have a Roomba.

A Roomba is no replacement for Rosie. Our Roomba won’t make beds, clean bathtubs, dispense pills or give me any sass. A Roomba simply sweeps floors and carpets. The product, pioneered by iRobot, now has plenty of competition. We acquired our low end 600 series model at the local Costco for $359. It wasn’t my idea. As usual my wife spent months petitioning me for one of them and I kept putting her off. I don’t mind sweeping floors. As retirees we get little enough exercise already. But I don’t have a bad back like my wife and I’ll tend to procrastinate sweeping until it’s noticeable. We do have two cats that constantly leave their playthings on the floor, not to mention their dander and fur. And we have a lot of hardwood floors, which can be a pain to sweep. Roomba to the rescue!

Our Roomba is not a particularly intelligent robot. It doesn’t (at least this model) respond to voice commands. It can’t climb stairs or jump onto sofas, but at least it’s smart enough not to fall down a flight of stairs. It does have a couple of neat tricks. Perhaps the most impressive one is to slide under sofas and other furniture and pick up the stuff underneath that we typically uncover years later when we have a reason to move furniture. And it can usually find its way back to its charging station, which has to be butt up against a wall.

Our Roomba doesn’t listen very well, but it does talk from time to time, only when it needs your attention. You can program it to talk in your favorite language, providing it is English or one of fifteen other popular languages. Mostly though it doesn’t so much talk as whirr, and it’s reasonably loud. You will know when it is on.

It’s also (if you have pets) it is something of an amusement and/or torture device. There are plenty of pet videos you can watch on this theme. One cat watched with it with interest from across the room. The other ran under our bed. Running under our bed is not a great idea, because it won’t stop a Roomba, so cats will learn to climb for safety instead. After a couple of days though the Roomba became just another piece of furniture, just one that moves. Cats don’t do much talking but it would give them something to talk about. In a few more days I expect they will sleep through its work cycles.

Our Roomba is not a particularly intelligent robot. It won’t pick up objects off the floor unless very small and lightweight. It seems to move in a haphazard way but there is actually some intelligence built into the way it pings off walls or (if a floor is particularly dirty) moves in swirls. It does a pretty good job of avoiding obstacles. It doesn’t usually tip over the cat’s water bowl and does a decent job of picking up stray cat litter around the litter box. It can be agile. We have carpet runners down the hallways, sometimes with creases in them due to cats madly dashing around, and it usually manages to clean them anyhow. It “steps” onto and off of carpeting pretty well.

But it’s hardly autonomous. It needs our help. It needs us to pick up larger stuff off the floor first. If there is an area we want it to avoid, we have to put down a battery-operated device that essentially says, “stay away!” You have to empty its cleaning tray after each job. And periodically it requires more serious maintenance: brushing its brushes or replacing them as well as cleaning and replacing its filter. Actually though these defects aside it probably does a better job sweeping and vacuuming than I would. I won’t go under furniture and I tend to miss certain spots with the broom.

So it is at best a modest step toward a robotic future but actually quite a useful tool not to mention cat pal/torture device. It’s starting to feel like a member of the family. Perhaps we will give it a name in time. And Rosie will come along one of these days, and I’ll happily let her do those chores I really don’t like, like cleaning toilets and bathtubs. She can even dispense my medications, as I’m already old enough to forget when to take them.

Meanwhile, the Roomba will do.

 
The Thinker

The libertarianism in the Internet

It can be dangerous when politicians open their mouths. In the case of Donald Trump, it’s because he spews hatred and racism and has gathered support from a lot of dittoheads for doing so. But in one way both he and Hillary Clinton have something in common: they don’t really understand the Internet. It would have been wise to defer saying anything at all when you really don’t know what you are talking about.

Trump’s mistake was saying that he was open to closing parts of the Internet as part of the war on the Islamic State, a war that has never been officially declared. I can give Trump only half a demerit because he was prompted by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer’s question, which asked if he would do this, and it’s really a trick question. If Trump knew what he was talking about he’d have said, “Well, of course that’s not possible.” Hillary Clinton opened her mouth a bit too wide in last Saturday’s debate she said that some sort of Manhattan-like project could allow the government to decrypt messages while ensuring everyone’s privacy. But at least she said, “I don’t know enough about the technology”. So a point to her for honesty.

If you want to kill the Internet, kill all the people. Even that won’t work immediately. All those routers would still be moving data around, but no one would be around to read any of it so it would effectively be dead. Why is this? It’s because the Internet was designed to be resilient and effectively unstoppable. What secret communist organization was responsible for such a nefarious deed? Why, that would be the United States Department of Defense. More specifically, it was DARPA: the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, known back in the 1960s when it was creating the Internet as ARPA.

And it made sense. At that time, the Internet was not envisioned to be a global network for just anyone, but it was designed to make sure that defense establishments and universities doing defense work could chat with each other electronically and move files around this way. The architecture that was designed ensured that if one path between sender and receiver was down or slow, some other path would be chosen instead. The message had to get through. On the plus side, at least in its initial phases, the Internet was all plain text. Encryption was not a worry because it was not a classified network, but where it was a worry secure lines were leased from the telephone company.

Today’s Internet is basically the old ARPANet’s infrastructure from the 1970s open to everyone. Everyone used it because it was the only model out there but also because it was noncommercial and standards-based. Some private networks from the distant past you may remember tried to do something similar: Compuserve and AOL were two that discovered it could not compete with the awesomeness of the real Internet, once people could access it.

We can’t shut down the Internet on the Islamic State. We can certainly make it more difficult but alas, as the Internet has evolved, so too have the ways to transmit and receive signals. In the old ARPA days I’m pretty sure the only way was to lease lines from AT&T. Today the Internet goes across virtually all data networks. Shut down the Islamic State’s landlines and they will use cell towers. Take down cell towers and maybe they will use microwave relays or satellite dishes. Take down the dishes and they can use portable satellite phones. In any event there are plenty of IS-related terrorists not actually in the Islamic state and they can chat between themselves, it’s just that they will have an easier time of it than those in the Islamic State.

Those of you out there wondering what a libertarian world might look like can see it in the Internet. The Internet excels at fast and disparate information sharing. It also excels in being able to get its messages through come hell, high water or terrorists. No one back in the 1960s could project what the Internet would morph into, but it was all based on protocols that from day one were open and designed to move data quickly. These protocols can be changed, but only in an evolutionary manner if they become a consensus adaptation. Even so, the old protocols will continue to traverse the Internet and all that is needed is the software to send or receive Internet Protocol (for packets) and Transmission Control Protocol (for a message made up of packets). And TCP/IP protocol is built into virtually every computer that communicates with another computer, not to mention all the switches and routers between sender and receiver.

Obviously this architecture has some problems, which are not problems if you are a libertarian. You want the free flow of information and you don’t want government controlling or monitoring it. The good part is the enormous amount of information sharing that occurs that makes our lives such much more interesting and rewarding. The bad side is it empowers terrorists, child pornographers and general criminals to do the same thing.

As for encryption, this is not something where you can have your cake and eat it too. The NSA cleverly put in encryption backdoors into products sold by most of these encryption devices. The encryption industry is now onto this. Tech savvy criminals have already found solutions like OpenPGP, which can likely keep the NSA from eavesdropping, at least in real-time. The government is getting better and faster at decrypting messages by throwing massive parallel computers to decrypt them. Moore’s Law is making it possible to decrypt almost any message without waiting for days, months or years for an answer. Obviously the NSA needs to be pretty selective when they throw these sorts of resources onto decrypting a message.

There is no “let’s have our cake and eat it too” solution to decrypting intercepted messages in real-time. The NSA with its private-key backdoors already tried it, but that’s not an issue if you use devices that don’t have these backdoors. Like it or not, the Internet is must-have technology and it will be used for purposes both good and bad. There is no tech fix to these problems.

However, a social strategy will help somewhat. Encouraging good citizens to rat on their fellow citizens they suspect of illegal use of the Internet is probably the only pragmatic way to address this issue. In that sense, the libertarians, courtesy of the U.S. Department of Defense, have already won.

 
The Thinker

Your blog deserves a great Content Delivery Network

While I do a lot of blogging, I suck at marketing my blog. Oh, I do look at who’s viewing my blog and check my statistics daily, and often more than once a day. Google Analytics provides a wealth of data on my web hits, and StatCounter is useful to see what was recently read. Aside from dressing up my blog’s sidebars with marketing stuff and making sure my content is easily accessible as a newsfeed, I can’t seem to be bothered to do much else.

Part of the problem is that my blog serves principally to keep me amused and to stave off boredom. If readers find an occasional post worthy of a Facebook Like or a Share, that’s nice, but I don’t lose sleep when they don’t. You would think that as a software engineer and someone who spent ten years directing the management of the largest web site in the U.S. Department of the Interior, I might find this web marketing business pretty easy. But one thing I learned early on is if you have great content, the marketing kind of takes care of itself.

In that job I simply worked to make the content more readily accessible and to make sure that the data was easily consumed. I spent much of my ten years there leading an effort to make the site’s data accessible as a set of web services. In this sense I do know marketing. When I left these new web services constituted the third most accessed site for my agency, in spite of not having existed just a few years earlier.

On this blog though my traffic is pretty anemic, particularly during the summer. There are things I could do to get more hits: shorter posts, more topical posts, turn it into more of a stream of consciousness blog and link ruthlessly to posts in other blogs, which seems to be the way blog aggregators like Tumblr work. Doing this though would ruin blogging for me. It might be successful, but I wouldn’t care. I’d be bored with my own blog.

During one of the recent Net Neutrality debates I mentioned that the Internet was already not net neutral. If you can afford little, you may (shudder) use an Earthlink dial-up account and watch web pages slowly draw themselves like they did in 1995. If you can afford $100 a month or more for Internet, or live in a place like Kansas City where you can get Google Fiber, you can cruise the Internet at 100MB per second or more. Some people have 1GB/sec connections.

If you have your own web site you also have some factors that limit the speed of your website. That’s the case with this blog. I host the site on hostgator.com, which is a really good shared web host. What’s not optimal about Hostgator is that while it can reliably serve most content at $5 or so a month, getting the data between its servers and your computer can be like going through every traffic light in town to get home from work as opposed to taking the expressway. It typically took eight or more “hops” to get my blog posts to my computer. A “hop” in this case means a router, which is effectively a traffic light as it routes parts of web pages from one place to another. According to Google Analytics that it took about ten seconds to load one of my web pages. Most of that was due to all those routers that had to be traversed.

So it finally dawned on me that this was probably a significant reason my traffic is declining. Google is looking at the hassle factor at getting content from my site, and is probably lowering my search rankings because of it. Aware of the problem for several years I have used CloudFlare to try to speed up the serving of my content. CloudFlare is a content delivery network or CDN. It specializes in reducing the number of traffic lights and making sure that my content goes through crazily fast connections, usually one physically close to where you are. Hostgator (and a lot of web hosts) offer CloudFlare for free to its customers. CloudFlare like every CDN sells a more expansive service for those with deeper pockets.

I had outsourced my CDN to CloudFlare, but I never really went back to look to see if it was doing a good job. There are probably things I could do to cache more of my content on CloudFlare’s servers (probably for money) but mostly I stuck with its defaults and ignored it. However, when I looked at Google Analytics, my average page load time was still stuck at around ten seconds.

Ten seconds is a long time to wait for content these days. So I figured I was probably losing a lot of readers because they lose patience and go elsewhere, particularly mobile users. We want every web page to load like a Google web page: fully dress itself for our eyes in a couple of seconds or less.

But not my blog. It was like a horse-drawn milk wagon compared with a racing car. Actually, this describes a lot of sites on the web, particularly Mom and Pop affairs where the owners know little or nothing about web architecture.

I decided to put on my software engineering hat, and started researching CDNs some more. There’s a lot of competition in the market, mostly aimed at well moneyed corporations. I’m just a little blog, however. And this blog runs on WordPress. What options do I have for a swift CDN that won’t cost me an arm and a leg? CloudFlare was free but it clearly wasn’t doing the job.

After some research I settled on MaxCND.com. For about $9 a month it will serve my pages quick. Of course if traffic increases a whole lot it could get a lot more expensive. But if I am content to use principally their servers in Europe and the USA (which is most of my readers) and I expect a terabyte or less of bandwidth a month then $9 a month should be fine. I can afford that. My pages seem to load in about 3 seconds now. A lot of the sidebar stuff comes from elsewhere, so that slows things down a bit. But the main content, if it is cached, takes about a second to load. That’s pretty impressive for $9 a month. And this fast speed might draw in new readers.

So far it’s looking good. Today’s traffic is roughly double what it was two days ago. Over time Google may take notice and rank my posts higher in their search engine. Here’s hoping.

Does your blog or website need a CDN too? It can’t hurt if you can afford it, and it can’t hurt to do your research and see which CDN is best optimized for your kind of content. MaxCDN has a plug in that works with WordPress to facilitate sharing. It was a little tedious to get it configured but the instructions were clear enough. Some of it is kind of wonky (how many people know what minifying is anyhow?) but the more technical you are the more you can fine tune things.

Please note you don’t need a CDN if you are using a blogging platform like Tumblr, BlogSpot or WordPress.com. They are already effectively CDN platforms as well as blogging sites. But if you host your own site and you want to increase traffic, integrating your site with the right CDN may be the most cost effective way to go.

I’ll be watching my metrics and perhaps reporting success or failure in the months ahead. So far the signs look good.

 
The Thinker

Ashley Madison stupidly lets itself get pwned

So I have been streaming Mad Men on Netflix. It’s a strangely compelling series about the world of Madison Avenue in the 1960s. It’s a world of constant drinking, endless cigarettes and infidelity. The principle character is Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm), the creative director for the advertising firm Sterling & Cooper. As we quickly learn, Don was previously Dick, he is a deeply messed up man, and he also happens to be one hunk of a guy. Don’s a liberal drinker, a liberal smoker and a liberal bed hopper as well. He does this while somehow staying married to his ultra pretty and slinky wife Betty (January Jones).

It takes a few seasons but Betty eventually figures out Don’s infidelities. They divorce but Don keeps bedding the women, often inappropriately, including his secretary. Yet Don is hardly the only character in the series with his pants down. Most of the characters are involved in an illicit relationship or two. I have no idea how close any of this is to real life on Madison Avenue, but from what I’ve read it was not too far off the mark. Most of the men are caught between who they really are and the roles they are supposed to play. How they manage all this screwing around in these pre-Ashley Madison days is kind of mysterious, but likely all that booze helped reduce inhibitions.

Yesterday of course the infidelity website ashleymadison.com quickly went dark after hackers posted a dump of its database on a number of websites. While bad for cheaters out there, what it said about Ashley Madison was even worse. First, its security system was laughably bad. Second, even after the hack they could have taken down their site and saved their forty million members embarrassment, but they didn’t. They kept collecting fees right up until they went dark. In short, they gave the online infidelity business not only a moral stink but in an unexpected way: they were so busy chasing short term profits that they were willing to throw its forty million customers on mercy of their spouses. Doubtless the hackers provided samples to prove they had hacked the good stuff, including apparently seven years of credit card transactions. AM was hoping they would blink.

Doubtless too that marital counselors and divorce lawyers are going to get a sharp increase in business. It would not surprise me if their phones were ringing off the hooks. As for AM, I wouldn’t blame its customers if they arrived en masse to torch its offices. Cheaters of the world, unite! Anyhow, fifty years after Mad Men, there are still plenty of Don Drapers out there that are mostly hooking up online. Until a couple of days ago apparently Ashley Madison had the lion’s share and then some of this market.

What interests me is not that AM brokered infidelity. As disgusting as most people at least claim to view infidelity and those that aid them, there are far worse things on the Internet, with ISIS beheading videos coming immediately to mind. Some entities like AM are to be expected in our electronic age. What’s interesting and more than a little appalling is how bad a job they did in keeping their clients’ information confidential. As a software engineer, but also as a guy that is currently getting paid to ghostwrite articles about data security, AM gets an F.

Yes, AM kept a record of all its credit card transactions for the last seven years! It’s such a mind boggling, stupid and reckless thing to do, particularly given the profitability of the site. It would have made much more sense to give in to the hackers’ demands and quietly establish a new site under a new name, oh and fix those security problems too. Doubtless they had the money to do it. Forty million customers, figure 30 million of them men, figure each putting out at least $50 each, that’s at least $150 million in revenue. Since they’ve been in business fifteen years, it’s likely a lot more than that. Likely their overall revenue likely exceeded a billion dollars, not that we’ll know for sure. They aren’t publicly traded, although maybe their successor or whoever buys the brand (Vivid Entertainment?) will be publicly traded, and doubtless do a better job at security.

If I had fewer scruples and more money I might create the next AM site, one that its dubious clients could actually trust. Of course there are always risks in anything done over the Internet. AM’s clients now understand that. The next AM is bound to arise from its ashes, and probably sooner rather than later. Here are some actions items for whatever entrepreneur wants to sail in these turbulent waters in the future:

  • Do not keep records of credit card transactions. Just don’t. Purge these daily, if not more often, from any internal databases. Don’t journal them on backup somewhere.
  • Do not collect any privacy information from your customers, you know like their real names, address and phone numbers. Instead, let some third party act as your broker. Your client gives the broker some money and the broker provides some electronic token identifying the payee that doesn’t actually identify them to your company. The future AM should never collect anything that could identify their clients.
  • Accept more discreet ways of payment. There are lower tech and anonymous ways to pay fees confidentially: wire deposits and money orders, for example. I’d say accept BitCoins but BitCoins are hardly anonymous.
  • Don’t use cloud hosting. Use your own data centers that only you can access and control.
  • One person can’t do this in his basement. So find employees who have a history of being trustworthy, very talented, and discreet and pay them very well. Give them incentives to be discreet. Make their bonuses contingent upon their contributions to improving the business’s security.
  • Retain security experts. To get AM’s entire database required a whole lot of bandwidth. This can be monitored. The tools exist to cut off suspicious behavior already.
  • Do regular vulnerability testing of your website and applications. The tools are out there. Of course fix any vulnerabilities found quickly.
  • Hire a CISO, a Chief Information Security Officer with of course the right credentials.
  • Don’t store obviously sensitive information, like a client’s IP address. Passwords should be encrypted in a MD5 hash in the database.
  • Tell your customers what your security plan is. Get an annual (or more often) security audit from a trusted security auditor and publicize the results for your customers.
  • Provide your customers security tips, like clearing your browser history. I can think of another one. Figure out a way for clients to share pictures anonymously. I’m pretty sure it could be done with Instagram.

As for AM’s clients, those who are not on their way to marital counseling or divorce court, you might consider picking up strangers at bars again or just plastering them with lots of alcohol in the privacy of your office. It sounds cheaper and faster. It worked for Don Draper.

 
The Thinker

Ghostwriter (or the art of tricking Google)

All my life I wanted to be a paid writer. Being a writer sounded quite glamorous. You are paid to create and if you were good enough or wrote for just the right mass audience you could be wealthy like Stephen King.

Life didn’t work out that way for me. It’s probably for the best because most writers are starving writers, which means they do it as a hobby and not for much real income. They have other jobs that pay the rent. Moreover most writing is not glamorous, even when it pays well. Most writers dream of writing popular fiction. What most writers actually do is write articles for magazines or trade journals, or the local newspaper. They adhere to editorial guidelines. Their writing is not very creative. It’s about putting a number of facts and quotations on paper or online in a way that may be interesting enough for the reader to make it to the end of the article. These days even publishers don’t care if readers read the entire article or not. They are looking to serve ads. They care about whether your article attracts a lot of ad views. Whether it gets read is not that important, unless they are going for some sort of award.

So if you can find a writing job it is likely to pay poorly and be demoralizing to you and your self-esteem. And if you do manage to get a book published, it’s likely to sell a hundred to a thousand copies, with extras ending up in a discount book bin or just shredded for pulp for the next book. For the vast majority of creative writers, writing does not provide close to a living wage. Most editors will refuse to acknowledge your brilliance.

Recently though I did get paid to write. I was paid to ghostwrite. So in a sense I have become a published writer, although I think the content is going strictly online. Essentially, I’m being paid to influence Google’s search engine. Yes, I am writing for a set of algorithms! I’ve become something of a slave to the computer!

Google of course is the king of search engines. Getting high or higher on its search index is important. For many businesses it’s the difference between life or death. The only question is: how to get ranked higher than your competitors? Google is not telling, although it does give some hints. Needless to say there are plenty of companies out there that claim they can get your company ranked higher.

Most of these outfits are selling snake oil. There are lots of obvious things that can be done which don’t hurt, such as having URLs with meaningful information about your article, providing a sitemap.xml file and removing bad links. In the trade this is called “search engine optimization” or SEO. Everyone with the means to do so is already doing SEO. What you really want is for your company to appear in the top page of Google’s listing, ideally at or near the top for a given search phrase. These are links that people will click on.

One of my clients has made a business of SEO. I’ll call him Dick (not his real name). He’s hired me for odd jobs maintaining his forum, generally because he’s too busy making real money to mess with it. Dick has a reputation in the SEO world of getting results. That’s why Dick sought me out to be a ghostwriter.

Dick’s success has come through building a company’s online reputation. He figured out that Google ranks higher those sites that publish honest articles. I have no idea how Google assigns an honesty rating to an article, but somehow it’s got a built in bullshit detector in its algorithms. If it doesn’t look like bullshit, it’s ranked higher. If it looks authoritative, it’s ranked even higher. If you publish lots of articles that look honest and impartial, over time it will raise the ranking of your company in Google’s search index. This is a long-term strategy and it’s a costly one as well.

So I was hired to write some technical articles in this client’s particular domain. It turns out I have pretty good credentials. First, I do information technology for a living, so I have practical and current experience along with a masters degree in software systems engineering. Second, I write fairly well. Third, I am mostly retired. And fourth, I can write an impartial article. My years in government have actually helped. Government employees develop finely honed bullshit detectors, because we are constantly dealing with vendors trying to get their products and services into our enterprise.

Dick is also kind enough to provide a few sample articles for my topic. I use these as well as my thirty years in the business to crank out these articles. Generally they are no more than 800 words and follow a format. I charge by the hour. Since most of these are survey articles, I don’t have to really do any research. I just start writing. It takes me about three hours to write an article. I bill at $30/hour (my retiree rate). So far I’ve done two articles and earned $180 ghostwriting. There will probably be more, as the client is satisfied with my work.

I have no idea where these articles will be placed, but Dick tries to get them in online publications of authoritative sites. I could probably find them online if I looked. Dick does edit what I send him, so it may appear somewhat altered. But at least I am a published writer. Some people may find my articles interesting, but the only “person” of real interest is Google’s search engine. We are basically trying to fake it out. Dick’s client is essentially renting my experience for potential future customers and an improved reputation.

I’ll probably never know how this will all pan out. Some part of me thinks I am being dishonest. I am writing honest articles, but I am doing it on behalf of a company that doesn’t have the in-house skills or the time to do it. They are essentially renting my reputation, such as it is, to add to their reputation.

But hey, at least I am a published writer now! My pseudonym? Call me Anonymous.

 
The Thinker

Hillary’s emails: what the critics are missing

The current kerfuffle over Hillary Clinton’s use of a private Blackberry and private email server for her official business while she was Secretary of State is mostly about making a mountain out of a molehill. Nonetheless the molehill makes for a pretty interesting discussion and analysis. I have some thoughts about this coming from my time as a civil servant as well as some technical perspectives from my career in information technology that I haven’t heard in the media. Hence I’m taking some time to blog about it.

There are many dimensions to the issue. You can look at it from either dimension and feel completely justified that your side is right. Let me advocate for both of them and you tell me which is right.

First, I’ll take the critical perspective. Records should be kept of official government business. The Secretary of State does a lot of official business and it impacts national and international policy. Moreover, the email threads of these historical events may provide useful lessons for the future. The Secretary of State is essentially a civil servant. She works for the taxpayers. So her email should be archived, not necessarily for instant critique, but for history and for congressional and criminal inquiries when they are needed.

However, she was not just anyone. She was the Secretary of State. I can think of few positions in the government, including the Director of the CIA, that are more sensitive. If I were trying to have a confidential back channel communication with the Prime Minister of Israel, would I really want him to communicate with me through secretary@state.gov, even if the email were highly encrypted? Or using any state.gov email address? Would any leader outside our country want anything less than innocuous content to go through such a system? There is always the telephone, of course, and the Blackberry includes a telephone. However, a telephone is synchronous. It’s a relatively inefficient way to work. It’s much better to reply with thought and nuance when you have the opportunity to do so, i.e. use email.

The reality is that the Secretary of State (and most high level government executives) has multiple channels of communications to do their business. Email is an important tool. Staff communications happens at another level and is also vital. In general, all sorts of lower level communications have likely happened before the Secretary picks up the phone or sends an email. If there are times when a confidential email is the best choice for the Secretary, an off the record email system makes a lot of pragmatic and business sense. It’s hard for me to think of myself as Secretary of State but if I was, it was lawful and I had the money I’d probably have done mostly what Clinton did, except I’d have a separate email for strictly personal use. A private email address though was pragmatic and necessary. We should trust implicitly anyone we pick for Secretary of State. If we didn’t trust her, the Senate should not have confirmed her.

Using the same email account for both personal and public use even though it offers convenience is stupid. Personal systems are likely to be less secure as government systems, although government email systems are hardly perfectly secure. One could make the business case that overall her public emails would have been more secure being hidden on a private server inside the government technical enclave. Ideally she would use a hidden government-managed email server that was patched and highly secured.

However, those who think that she should have done all of her email using a secretary@state.gov email address clearly don’t have much of an understanding of how impractical this is. If this was her only government email address, it would be inundated with thousands of emails every day, even after the spam filter removed the obvious garbage. She would depend on staff to sift through it and flag the ones that she would read. Staff are not perfect though and might potentially not flag the important ones. In addition, there are times when you really don’t want staff reading certain emails but you need to communicate asynchronously. So you need a channel for that. And the open nature of email means anyone can send email to anyone. In short, this approach is not the least bit practical for someone at her position. She needed an email system that only let in those that she needed to let in, and this could not be done through the technology of the time.

What she did was not unlawful at the time, but certainly gave out a bad odor. It feeds into conspiracy theories that the Clintons always attract. It suggests a need for rigorous control and confidentiality; something I argue is not unreasonable for someone in her position. Mostly though I think the problem here is that the technology did not exist that allowed her to do her work pragmatically. It still doesn’t exist. Email is not quite the right medium for what she needed, but it was a tool everyone had. A private email address and mail server was a pragmatic solution to a difficult problem.

It may well be that Hillary Clinton is as paranoid as Republicans believe she is, and that all their theories about her are true. If so she has plenty of company among Republicans. I strongly suspect that she is guilty of being pragmatic and efficient, and using these somewhat unorthodox means allowed her to be the highly productive Secretary of State that most historians agree that she was. And given the unique sensitivity and nature of her work, I think the ends largely justified the means here. I also believe that if there were a technical solution available that would have met her requirements, she would have used it.

 
The Thinker

The joys, glee and occasional giddiness of virtualization

We are living increasingly virtualized lives. From posting about our lives in Facebook, to wearing Google Glass, to playing games online where we don alter egos, most of us mask ourselves behind walls of electronic processors, networks and software. I’m typical. As for me, aside from Facebook there is this blog, which is not quite a true representation of me. Rather it is a projection of some part of me, perhaps my ego that I choose to share with the world. Most of you don’t know who I really am, which is by design. I go so far as to hide my domain details behind a proxy.

But there are other meanings to virtualization. In the computer world, virtualization is running a computer inside a computer. In my case, I am running Windows inside my iMac. It used to be I had separate machines, and the Windows box was a laptop provided courtesy of my employer. When I retired, I turned in the laptop, leaving me Windows-less. This normally would not be a problem, unless you need to teach a class where students will be doing work on Windows. That’s when I decided that rather than buy a new computer just to run Windows I would cheat. I would run Windows virtually inside my iMac instead.

There are a couple of ways to do this. The cheapest (free) way is actually to use Bootcamp. This allows you to boot to a Windows partition when you start your iMac. This works fine but is inconvenient. You must shut down Windows and go back to Bootcamp to boot your computer as a Mac. What I really want it to run is Windows and the Mac operating system at the same time and be able to share content between them. In short, I needed virtualization software.

Ah, but how to do it on the cheap? Windows computers aren’t that expensive, after all, so a virtualization solution would have to be cheap. It helps to be teaching a class, because I qualify for software at an academic price, roughly half the retail cost. That’s how I acquired Parallels, neat virtualization software that allows me to run Windows (and lots of other operating systems) virtually on my iMac. With discount it cost me just under $40. The only downside was I had to wait a couple of days for the USB drive with the software to arrive in the mail.

There was also the question of how to get a cheap license for the Windows operating system, as I didn’t have one lying around. Fortunately, the college where I teach has an agreement with Microsoft, which it uses on its desktop computers, wherein we teachers could install a free Windows license at home so we could do our work without having to come to campus. If you already have a license for Windows, you could install it in a virtual instance too. And after installing Windows, that’s where I stopped. I did not feel the need for a license for the Microsoft Office suite for Windows. I already have one for the Mac. Frankly, Microsoft Office is becoming obsolete. My needs are modest. I can generally do what I need using Google’s free tools, and they have the bonus of being easily sharable not to mention accessible in the cloud pretty much anywhere.

I did wonder if virtualization technology really would be reliable. I thought there must be some Windows software that simply cannot work in a virtualized environment. And there may be, but I haven’t encountered it yet. It all works perfectly fine. On my spiffy new iMac it runs at least as fast as it would if I had a dedicated Windows box.

Why bother in the first place? It’s not like I like Windows. For the class I teach, the students install a “lite” version of Oracle, Oracle 11g Express Edition, and it’s available for Windows and Linux, but students will install it on Windows. Even in a “lite” version, Oracle is a CPU and memory hog, so I was skeptical it could be run virtually, but it worked fine.

There was some puzzling installing Windows in a virtualized environment. I needed a Windows image file, which I got from the college. Since Parallels is a virtual wrapper around Windows it is software too, specifically it is a hypervisor. This is software that oversees virtual operating systems. In principle, a virtual operating system instance runs in its own little sandbox and cannot harm my iMac’s operating system. In practice though, the Windows instance may be virtual but it is still susceptible to viruses like a non-virtualized operating system, so I loaded the free Avast antivirus to keep it safe.

Aside from my needs for Windows for teaching, I have found it’s useful for other purposes. In retirement I earn income from consulting. Since I am doing web work, it helps to have web environments to do work in. Over the weekend I was involved in a hairy upgrade of a very large forum (about 670,000 posts) from phpBB 2 to phpBB 3. I tried it a number of times on my client’s shared hosting, and it kept failing. I ended up downloading both the programs and the database to my machine. I placed it in my virtual machine and converted it there. While it’s possible to install web server environments on the Mac, it’s more of a hassle. There are turnkey solutions for Windows web server environments, like XAMPP that I am using, that are so much faster to install and maintain. On my machine of course I did not have the limitations of a shared server and I was able to convert the forum.

There are some things that are just done better or more elegantly on Windows. Obviously, if you do any work for a business, they are likely using Windows, so having a Windows environment may be necessary. But there are some programs for Windows that are so nifty that there really is no equivalent for the Mac. Winmerge comes to mind and it is also free. I do have DeltaWalker for the iMac, but it is much harder to use. I have a version of Quicken for the Mac. The Windows version is much better. At some point I may move my Quicken files into my Windows virtual machine and take advantage of all these new features.

Beyond Windows, all sorts of virtual machines can be created using Parallels. I don’t have much need to install versions of Linux like Debian, but I can install it rather easily if needed and still have my iMac purring away. Parallels is also smart enough to allow copying and pasting rather easily between operating systems. In the Windows world, copy and paste is done with CTRL-C and CTRL-V. In Parallels, it will recognize the Mac’s CMD-C and CMD-V, which is more intuitive. Sharing files is more problematic. There are ways to do it, but so far I’ve been moving files on flash drives.

Overall, I am impressed by the ease of the Parallels virtualization technology. I effectively got a Windows machine without having to buy any hardware. With a free Windows license, my only real cost was the cost of the Parallels software. I have the benefits of both a Windows and a Mac without a lot of Windows hassles. I can do eighty percent or more of my work in the Mac operating system, but when I need Windows it is there reliably and transparently. Should I choose to get rid of Windows, it could not be simpler. I simply tell Parallels to remove my Windows virtual instance. Bing! Done!

So my computing life is good. I feel like I won the lottery. Among all the other benefits, virtualization technology is also environmentally friendly because I am running one physical computer instead of two. In short, it’s a slick and easy to use solution. Don’t be afraid to virtualize this aspect of your life.

 

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