Friday, December 29, 2017

A beautiful sunset...

A beautiful sunset...  Debbie and I took a drive up Blacksmith Fork Canyon last night just before sunset.  We'd been wanting to go for several days, but there was an avalanche watch posted so we refrained.  Anyway, last night we got to Hardware Ranch not long after sunset, and were treated to the view at right.  I took that photo from the high end of the visitor's center parking lot, right where the road enters it.  Glorious, it was!

We also saw several large groups of does and yearlings, plus one doe with two yearlings, all near the road.  We didn't need our binoculars at all!  And of course the entire herd of elk is now in the enclosure at Hardware Ranch.  We didn't see any moose, though.

We love living here...


Genius!  If you live in an area with freezing temperatures, chances are that you find yourself spreading salt on icy walkways.  If so, then you need this product!  It makes it trivially easy to spread trhe salt in any density you want – far better than using a scoop or your hands.  It's basically a giant salt-shaker, with holes just the right size for the salt sold as de-icer.  The handle on it fits perfectly even if you're wearing thick mittens.  It holds plenty of salt for all our walkways.  Best of all, it's under $7!

iMac Pro update...

iMac Pro update...  It took me a while, because I screwed up a couple times, but I now have successfully moved my entire working environment over to my new iMac Pro.  I'm using it exclusively when working at my desk (on bills, at the moment).  What's it like?  The short answer: fast!

The only compute-intensive thing I've tried so far is OCR on scanned documents, and (quite predictably) that's very fast indeed, especially when there multiple documents queued up.  But other things are also notably zippy.  For instance, Firefox with 60 or so tabs isn't noticeably slowed down at all.  I'm sure that's basically because of the insane amount of RAM in this machine.  At the moment I'm running with 16 GB of RAM used (out of 128 GB).  The OS isn't even thinking about swapping :)  That's something I do every day (the tons of tabs), and that zippiness is most welcome.

Just playing around, I've loaded up both Chrome and Firefox (simultaneously) with 100 tabs.  Both of them are just as fast as they are with a single tab.  Woo hoo!  My development tools (Jetbrains' suite) have lost any noticeable lag in anything I tried (on the laptop quite a few things have noticeable lags).

Nothing I've done so far has caused the CPU to even break a sweat.  The CPU consumption graph looks like a flat line at zero.  I haven't heard any fans in the iMac, though I know they're present – I'm actually not sure whether they're just really quiet, or I haven't worked the machine hard enough for the fan to be required.  I haven't done anything that's working the GPU hard, either.

The three screens are magnificent to have available.  I'm experimenting with layouts.  Right at the moment I've tiled my right-hand screen with email, messaging, and iTunes; three things I'm constantly using.  My left-hand and center screens are for my work - plenty of screen real estate for anything I do.

My this is nice!

Nikola NZT...

Nikola NZT...  We plunked down a deposit on one of these when we first heard about them, roughly a year ago.  Originally delivery was estimated for early 2018, but that's been pushed out a year.  We're not too fussed by this, however, because this thing looks fantastic for the kinds of things we do in the boonies.  The company just released the marketing video at right, showing off what appears to be the same model (of ATV, not girl) that we ordered.

We're really looking forward to being able to tool around quietly in the remote areas we like to get to – even places with what could only barely be called a road.  We've looked at gas-powered ATVs sporadically for years, and we've always been turned off by the noise and smell.  It will also be interesting to be able to tow the Nikola NZT behind our Tesla Model X, getting us to the areas we want to explore in some comfort and style, while still being able to explore the boonies in the NZT.  Woo hoo!  We're definitely going to have to get a trailer to hold both a generator (for recharging both vehicles) and the NZT.  With that rig, we can go anywhere we want to...

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

A most pleasant surprise...

A most pleasant surprise...  In yesterday afternoon's UPS delivery, there was a giant, odd-shaped box from Apple: my new iMac Pro, two days early.  Furthermore – unusually for an Apple product, and especially for an expensive one like this – there was no signature required.  Yay!  This morning I unboxed it, which, as always with Apple's products, was a memorable experience all by itself.  The box engineering is superb.  The iMac Pro was swaddled in clear plastic, then wrapped in a cloth-like cover.  That went into a fitted inner box made of formed paper.  The formed paper inner box went into a display box of ordinary cardboard, but very well made with a glossy printed paper outer cover.  That went into an outer box whose insides were covered with shock-absorbing foam.  No tools were required to unpack it; there were little pull tabs that allowed the whole thing to be opened very easily.

Once I had the iMac Pro out of its cocoon, I set it up on a table and lit it off.  As always with an Apple computer, it was ridiculously easy to set up.  I was led by the nose through a series of “do this” screens that got the keyboard and mouse (both Bluetooth) connected and a WiFi connection established.  At that point it slid into the “Migration Assistant”, as I had indicated that I wanted to transfer my stuff from another computer (my Macbook Pro laptop that has been my main computer for ten years now).  Again I was led by the nose through running Migration Assistant on my laptop, getting the Migration Assistant on the laptop talking to the one on the new iMac Pro, then starting the process of moving my stuff over.  At this point I have just over 500 gigabytes of stuff on my laptop, and it's moving over WiFi, so it's going to take something like 7 or 8 hours to do the job.  But – it's completely hands-off for me, and I know from past experiences that when it has finished my new iMac Pro will reboot into an environment that looks exactly like what I've been using on my laptop. 

It's been ten years since I last had my working environment on a workstation-class machine, and of course these machines have become far more powerful over those years.  I can hardly wait to see what it's like to work on this!  My new iMac Pro is quite a machine, with ten 3 GHz cores, 128 GB of ECC RAM, 4 TB of SSD, and a hot Radeon GPU with 16 GB of RAM for itself.   The iMac Pro has a built-in 27" screen, of course, and I'll be using my additional 27" screens as add-ons to it – so I'll have three full-sized screens to work on.  That will be so nice when I'm programming!

This afternoon I'll get to try it out...

Monday, December 25, 2017

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Merry Christmas, everyone!  We've had a lovely few days, filled with friends, a relative, and a painful amount of delicious food.  I was very surprised that I could still squeeze into my pants this morning!  That's my brother Scott at right, as he was yesterday afternoon.  He's having a “snack” – a roughly one pound chicken salad sandwich Debbie made for 2:30pm, so he didn't starve before his dinner at 6 pm.  He also had a half cup or so of a (very rich) chocolate mousse. We played Mexican Train with him for a couple hours, then he took off for an evening with his friends in Newton, including a home-cooked meal with their family.

We've had a string of visitors the past couple days, including by a local family we've become very good friends with.  The matriarch of the family is Michelle, the woman in the yellow shirt to the left.  We see her several times every week, and talk or text nearly every day.  The young woman in the middle is Lizzy, Michelle's daughter and the mother of Michelle's first grandchild, Lily, being held by her dad (McKord) in the back row.  We see Lizzy and Lily often, as they're frequently with Michelle and live nearby (in Hyrum).  The young boy at front left is A.J.; he loves our dogs and now has one of his own (a year old border collie).  The rest of that crew is Michelle's husband Kevin (at right) and her other five kids, plus one daughter-in-law.  They have a quirky family tradition that's lots of fun: Michelle makes matching pajamas every year for the whole clan, and they wear them all day on Christmas Eve.  This was much easier when the clan was just her, Kevin, and one or two babies – it's a tad more challenging now! 

I don't think that families like their realize quite how much they mean to Debbie and I.  We just showed up in their midst less than four years ago, two weird, non-Mormon people from a place (California) most people here see (accurately, I have to say) as a den of iniquity and progressive stupidity.  Instead of burying us on the back 40 (as any sensible community would have done), they welcomed us and made us part of their community.  The same thing is happening with my brother Scott, 20 miles away in Newton, with an entirely different but equally welcoming community.

We love this place!

Sunday, December 24, 2017

“Are you dead?”

“Are you dead?”   That's what Tim, our friend and neighbor, asked me when he called last night.  What prompted that?  Well, it seems he drove by our place yesterday evening and noticed that I had not plowed the 2" or so of fresh snow that had fallen the previous night.  It seems, I discovered, that I have a reputation in the area for being the first guy to plow his driveway.  I never thought of it that way before, but it's true that usually I try to get the snow off my driveway as quickly as possible.  My main motivation for that is to prevent it from melting and turning into a sheet of ice.  Yesterday, however, I was so busy with our big meal that I decided just to let it go.

Tim was relieved to hear my voice. :)

Yesterday we had a whole lot of visitors, plus the UPS man.  I'm going to guess that 10 or 11 cars traversed our driveway, when the temperatures were around 30°F (about -1°C).  That had the effect of crushing and melting a lot of snow on our driveway.  This morning the temperature is 3°F (about -17°C), and all that crushed snow has frozen into what might as well be granite.  I just got back in from (belatedly) plowing, all bundled up and with warmers for my hands and feet, and it was a very different experience from the usual.  Mostly what I accomplished was to knock off any bits of ice that were standing up.  The sheet of ice covering my driveway was basically unaffected by the snowplow.  Furthermore, driving the tractor (which is 4WD) on the ice was an exercise in probabilistic steering: when I turned the wheel, the tractor might change direction as intended.  Or it might just keep going straight.  Or it might go sideways.  Or it might turn in circles.  Interesting, it was.

Now I'm back inside with a nice, hot cup of tea.  Shortly I venture forth again to shovel the sidewalk, then salt it, then feed the birds...

Chili, snowy dogs, and bearded brothers...

Chili, snowy dogs, and bearded brothers...  A few days ago, Debbie made a gigantic pot of chili, filling our 25 quart pan to within a few inches of its top.  It's a great batch: meaty, tomatoey, and not too spicy hot for my taste.  After it cooled down, and after we made two meals of it, the leftovers got vacuum-bagged.  This is what it looked like when we finished bagging.  That's a lot of chili!  If you're wondering what the “RTE” means, it's “ready to eat”, meaning no meat needs to be added (though Debbie may want to put more meat in anyway – my girl loves meat!).

A few days ago we let the dogs out into the back yard while it was still snowing heavily.  They went out and played in it without a care, of course.  I took the photos below when they came up on our deck to see me.  Note that many of them are blurred from motion: getting them to stand still was basically impossible!

That's my brother Scott at right.  I got a photo of him when he was (I think) unaware of it, concentrating on his game of Mexican Train in our kitchen.  Debbie is beating the crap out of us, of course.  We'll be finishing this game later today,  and I'm sure in the end Debbie will be victorious again.  She's running about 9::1 wins against me.  We had our big dinner yesterday mainly because the lobsters arrived on Friday.  We'd originally planned to have Scott here for Christmas Day (and his birthday) as well, but his new friends and neighbors near Newton had other plans for him.  He's been invited to spend Christmas Day with a family nearby him, people he's become friends with over the past year or so.  Today he's going caroling with a local group in the morning, and he's got some other activities this evening.  He'll be with us for a few hours this afternoon, for chocolate mousse and to finish letting Debbie whip our butts.  It's wonderful that he's finding so many caring and accepting people near him – he's got a support network already!

We got surprised yesterday ourselves by what seemed like a non-stop series of visits from friends and neighbors.  These ranged from people we see often to one couple we hadn't seen in two years!  What a delight it was to see all these people, unexpectedly!  Many of them brought gifts, too, we caught us completely by surprise.  It's plain these people know us well, as our gifts all fell into two categories: things for the animals, or food for us. :)  Our birds are getting two presents this morning: a beautiful new feeder for black oil sunflower seeds, and some “pears” made out of seeds glued together with a suet/honey mixture that was somehow solidified (not sure how they managed that!).

We love living here, in the postcard that is Cache Valley...

Ah, what a dinner!

Ah, what a dinner!  Debbie and I started cooking around 9 am yesterday morning, and (along with my brother Scott) we sat down to eat at around 2 pm.  The menu had only three items: lobster l'americaine, peas, and creme brulee.  We'd made the creme brulee the day before, which meant it was in the refrigerator and nicely cold by yesterday.  Nearly all the cookery yesterday revolved around that lobster l'americaine: Julia Child's recipe, which we've made twice before with excellent results.

The first step was to boil those three lovely lobsters (photo at right).  We have a gigantic (25 quart) cauldron that Debbie uses for soup and chili; this made a fine boiling pot for our three ocean-going bugs.  Debbie had to leave the kitchen for this part; she's quite squeamish about executing lobsters for culinary purposes.  Generally her squeamishness is directly proportional to the cuteness of the animal involved, but that surely cannot explain her reluctance to off a lobster!  So that was entirely my job. :)  As usual, the lobster's claws were held shut with thick rubber bands.  I'd always removed them in the past, but it occurred to me that I didn't know if I actually needed to risk having a lobster pinch me (they can get you pretty good!).  So, being 2017, I googled it – and discovered that there is quite the debate about this on the intertubes.  One fellow waxed eloquent on how removing the rubber bands connected him with the lobster.  That article didn't help me at all.  Another, from a famous restaurant, revealed their dirty secret: they'd been boiling lobsters with rubber bands for years, and nobody ever noticed any odd flavor.  Another cook said she couldn't detect any rubber band flavor either, but that she just couldn't abide the thought of boiling lobsters with rubber.  I decided she had the right idea, and removed the rubber bands once more.  I escaped with all my fingers, despite the best efforts of the biggest one of the three.

The next step was the most challenging one: disassembling the boiled lobsters into their essential four parts.  Actually, this was less challenging than it was tedious.  It involved some muscles, though, and a few tools (tools - yay!).  The basic idea was to extract the four key components of the lobster for the purposes of lobster l'americaine: the meat, the shell, the coral (roe), and the tomalley.  If you've ever eaten a lobster, you know there's not much left after extracting those four elements: just the “guts”, which we discarded.  Some people use them in the lobster l'americaine sauce, too, but some of the intestinal tract is quite bitter and I prefer the milder flavor without it.  At left you can see the “parts” of our three lobsters after two hours of disassembly.  Starting with the big red bowl and going clockwise: the shells, chopped or torn into small pieces, the coral (roe) from the two female lobsters we had, the tomalley, and the meat.

The next step was very much like making soup stock from a chicken or turkey skeleton.  In our biggest frying pan I sauteed the shell fragments along with some celery, onions, and carrots.  After that I poured some cognac on the shells, and set it on fire.  Julia Child specifies this in her recipe without explanation; I'm not sure what that adds to the end result – but the end result is so good that I'm disinclined to mess with the recipe!  Then I simmered that mixture along with some vermouth, tomatoes and herbs.  The kitchen smelled wonderful during that process!  The frying pan didn't look very tasty, though, with all those shell fragments in there.  After about 45 minutes, we ran all the stuff in that pan through a fine-meshed strainer, squeezing out every drop of the juices that we could  What remained was an almost-clear broth that absolutely reeked of lobster.  We thickened it per Julia's recipe, with butter and flour paste, and colored and flavored it with some tomato paste.

After that, the rest of the recipe was really easy.  We sauteed the lobster meat in butter (a little bit of it accidentally fell into my mouth at that point), added the sauce, the coral, and the tomalley, got it nice and hot, then ladled it over some freshly cooked white rice.  We ate it immediately, and I forgot to take a photo of it.  Fortunately my brother Scott went back for seconds, and I got a photo of his round two.  The green herbs are a mixture of parsley and tarragon, and the white is grated Parmesan.

That was one heavenly main course.

For dessert we waited a couple of hours, then had the creme brulee that we'd made the day before.  We put some brown sugar on top, popped them in the broiler to caramelize the sugar, then sat down to eat them.  The custard was still cold while the sugar was hot, just as it should be.  This creme brulee recipe is one we got years ago from the Gastrognome restaurant in Idyllwild, California.   We'd had their creme brulee for dessert and loved it, and to our surprise they happily shared the recipe with us.  It's still the best we've ever had, even in my travels to Europe.

Friday, December 22, 2017

The lobsters have arrived!

The lobsters have arrived!  Three beautiful, live 2 1/2 pounders from Young's Lobster Pound in Belfast, Maine.  Our Christmas feast (which is actually happening tomorrow) menu: lobster a l'americaine over white rice, scalded fresh green beans, and creme brulee.  You should all be envious!  :)

Monday, December 18, 2017

A bit of this and that...

A bit of this and that...  I took the photo at right (click on it to embiggen) last night, standing on our deck and looking northeast, after the sun had set on the valley but while it was still playing on the Wasatch Mountains to our east.  As we like to say: we live in a postcard...

I've spent a few days basically sitting at the kitchen table.  At first that was because I was feeding the Plex monster (copying BluRays, DVDs, and music CDs).  Later it was because I didn't feel much like doing anything at all, and feeding the Plex monster was about as challenging as I cared to get.  This morning I'm feeling much better, and I wandered out to my office to wrap Debbie's presents and catch up on things a bit.

As I walked into my office, the Sisyphus table was churning away.  I took the photo at left a few days ago, but it was finishing up the same pattern when I walked in this morning.  And speaking of Sisyphus...  The Sisyphus app lets you upload vector graphics (.SVG) files to make your own patterns.  I couldn't make it work with any hand-crafted files, though, and I couldn't figure out why.  I asked the Sisyphus folks for some help, but it turns out this is a feature they haven't explored much themselves!  They couldn't even give me a sample file, and it turns out they use a completely different mechanism to make pattern files themselves.  After a few emails back and forth, their tech Micah felt sorry for me, and made some test files with Adobe Illustrator (which I don't have) and emailed them to me.  They worked!  With an example in front of me, I was able to make my own file that also worked.  And that means I can write software to make arbitrary files to print whatever pattern I want to.  This is gonna be fun!

We had snow a few days ago, and again yesterday (I had to go out and plow for the second time this year).  That put the kibosh on any more rock work getting done.  The good news, though, is that they're largely finished with the rock work.  All three walkways are complete, and all the retaining walls are in place.  All that remains, so far as I know, is gluing the top few runs of rock on the retaining walls, and backfilling the dirt-facing side.  Some photos of the rock work below.  You wouldn't know it from the photos, but the rock is actually quite colorful and full of sparkly material.  At the moment it's all covered with frozen mud and rock dust, so it will probably be spring before we can pressure-wash it and get the nice stuff showing again.  The rock is heavy and non-porous, with the general look and feel of amorphous quartz with colored impurities.  It's the perfect sort of rock for a walkway that will suffer the abuse of grinding boots and winter salts...

Sunday, December 17, 2017

A bit under the weather, am I...

A bit under the weather, am I...  Yesterday I felt kind of blech all day long, and unfortunately I'm not feeling any better this morning.  Despite the blechs, we managed to get some errands done (mainly grocery shopping) and mostly I spent the day at the kitchen table loading content into our new Plex server.  That was a nice, easy job that felt within my limited capabilities for the day. :)

Below is a sample page (click to embiggen) from our new Plex server, with the movie Casablanca.  We can now see this on every device we own: Macbooks, iMacs, iPads, and iPhones.  We can see it anywhere our WiFi reaches, which includes the entire house, barn, and about three acres of our yard.  I've got movies, TV shows (like Pride and Prejudice), music, and (soon) videos and photos.  All of this content is being backed up into the cloud, using my favorite service (Backblaze).  If I choose to, I can make this Plex server available to the Internet, which means we could access all of it even when on the road.  It's very easy to operate if you want to browse and watch (or listen to) any of the content.  Putting the content up there isn't terribly difficult, but it does help if you have a bit of technical knowledge, are comfortable using a variety of ripping software, and understand file system organization.  Setting up the server in the first place is likewise not terrifyingly hard, but does require a bit of ability with program installation, configuration, and even router configuration.

One very pleasant surprise for me is the quality of the user interface.  It's superb, which is all the more remarkable because this program is free open source software.  Well-crafted, polished user interfaces like this take an amazing amount of work to get right.  They are generally the kind of thing only funded by large companies.  Plex is built entirely by unpaid volunteers, and in this case, some darned good ones!

Friday, December 15, 2017

Several people have asked me...

Several people have asked me ... what I think about yesterday's repeal of “net neutrality”.  The left half of the world is quite predictably declaring the repeal to be a disaster that will end the Internet as we've known it.

The short version of my reaction: exactly the opposite is true.  The imposition of “net neutrality” (which is actually just code for what really happened: the first regulation of the Internet in the U.S.) is what would end the Internet as we've known it.

The hysterical reaction to this from the left is actually quite funny, as it ignores just about every observable fact on the ground.  The first amusing aspect is that we had no “net neutrality” before 2015, when the Obama administration imposed it.  Perhaps I'm unobservant, but it doesn't seem to me that the Internet suffered from all the ills proffered as the reasons for needing “net neutrality” in the first place.  Nobody in the U.S. was suffering from slow Internet on some services and not on others.  Nobody had to pay to get fast Google or Netflix.  So why all this talk about “net neutrality”?  That's very straightforward, and abundantly documented in the political debates of 2014/2015: the left had an agenda of regulating the Internet as a public utility, but they needed something to scare people into supporting it.  The real agenda – the regulation – was to gain some control over the content on the Internet.  “Net neutrality” was never their goal – regulation was the goal, and they achieved it.

And regulation is what was repealed yesterday, not specifically “net neutrality”.

So why do I think regulation was a bad idea?  Part of me wants to scream it out: if you have even the tiniest bit of business understanding, you would immediately know why regulation (including the “net neutrality” provisions, but even worse the inevitable incremental accumulation of regulatory control that would occur) is bad for business, for innovation, and for the customers of that business.  Regulation is always bad for the broadest definitions of business and customer, and always good mainly for the business incumbents, and the bureaucrats and legislators who regulate them.

But so many people seem unable to grasp this, despite the myriad examples before them.

So here's a thought experiment for those amongst my readers who have bought into the “net neutrality” hype.

Think about the parcel business.  Imagine for a moment that they had a regulation imposed upon them that required all parcels to be delivered in the same amount of time.   You can't charge more for delivering parcels faster.  You can't charge less for delivering parcels more slowly.  You can't charge more for heavy parcels, or less for lightweight ones.  You can't take more money from Amazon to deliver parcels faster.  You can't offer discounts to volume shippers.  None of that.  Just one price for one class of service.  You could call this “parcel neutrality”.  It is exactly what the 2015 imposition of “net neutrality” regulations required of the Internet service providers, but for data packets rather than parcels.

Now think about what that would mean for parcel shipping customers.  That means ... you couldn't pay extra to get that Christmas present on time.  When you need to get paperwork to a bank across the country quickly ... you couldn't.  If you're Amazon and you fill 10,000 UPS trucks a day ... you get no price break for volume.  You don't have to think about that very hard to see that it's not exactly a brilliant idea.  Pricing is a wonderful way to allocate a scarce resource (shipping capacity) intelligently according to the needs of the customers.  You know it is, because you use variable pricing all the time.

But what about from the shipping companies' perspective?  Suppose we had “parcel neutrality” – what would that mean to the shipping company?  For starters, consider their motivation to innovate to provide faster service.  Would Federal Express invest in more planes to enable better overnight service?  Of course not, because they couldn't charge any more for overnight service, so they have zero incentive to do so – they wouldn't have overnight service in the first place.  Federal Express would never have existed.  Would UPS invest in more automated parcel sorters, so they could accept higher volumes of parcels from Amazon?  Of course not, because they couldn't cut any deals with Amazon to make more money from this capability, so they'd have no incentive to do so.  In fact, “parcel neutrality” provides the most incentive to make no investment in innovation at all!  The best best course of business for the shipping companies is to exploit their current infrastructure to the max, make no investments in new infrastructure, and to pay their employees as little as possible (since their performance has no impact on revenue).

I have another phrase for “net neutrality” that I think is both more accurate and more descriptive: “net socialism”.  The underlying notion of fairness in the “net neutrality” arguments closely resembles the notions of fairness from supporters of socialism.

If you know me at all, then you know I'm the original anti-socialist. :)  So I am certainly no supporter of net socialism (or parcel socialism).  I opposed the imposition of Internet regulation in 2015, and I'm delighted to see it rolled back two years later...

Thursday, December 14, 2017

I've been waiting so long...

I've been waiting so long ... (since 2007!) for Apple to come out with a workstation with the features that I wanted.   I scrapped my Windows PC just weeks after starting work at ServiceNow in 2007, and ever since then I've been working from laptops.  Nice laptops, to be sure – but without the memory, I/O, storage, and screen capability that I really wanted.  They just started selling a great new workstation today: the new iMac Pro.  Mine is on order, should be here in a couple of weeks.  I can hardly wait...


Plex...  A friend recently told us about a free, open-source program named Plex.  With this program, their family was able to view any movies that anyone in the family owned, whether they were at home or anywhere else with an Internet connection.  They could watch the movies on their iPads, on their phones, or on their TVs.  That seemed like magic to me, so I went and checked it out.

The basic idea behind Plex is that you host a server that has copies of your DVDs and Blu Ray disks, which must be ripped (copied) using other software.  Free ripping software is available on just about every platform under the sun.  The Plex server can run on a Mac, a Windows PC, or a Linux box.  You can also attach tuners and video capture devices, and the Plex server can act as a DVR.  The real magic with the Plex server is that Plex clients can attach to it to view any content held on the server, and those clients are available for PCs, laptops, IOS devices (iPads and iPhones), and Android devices.  Furthermore, there's a relatively simple way to expose your Plex server to the Internet, so mobile devices that are not on your home network can attach to it.  All your content, anywhere you want it, any time you want it.  Pretty good trick!

The biggest challenges the designers of Plex faced, I think, are these:
  1. The user interface had to be easy enough for Grandma to use (it is).
  2. No matter what the source of content is, and no matter what bandwidth the connection to the client is, the content must be streamable.  This requires a technical operation called “transcoding” (converting from one compressed format to another), and this is something the Plex server is very good at. 
One thing the Plex designers didn't do (and wisely, I think) was attempt to make the setup and installation so easy that grandma could do it.  To get Plex running well, you have to have a real server – a computer with a fairly beefy CPU, lots of memory, a DVD/Blu Ray reader, and (most especially) lots of hard disk storage.

After checking it out thoroughly, and seeing what Debbie thought of the idea of “content everywhere” (she loved it), we decided to get Plexed ourselves.  I chose a Mac Mini as the server computer, then added an external 6TB hard disk disk storage subsystem and an external DVD/Blu Ray reader (actually, it's a writer as well).  These three pieces of kit are remarkably small and completely silent, two attributes we prized for something that would be in our TV room.  Also, the choice of a Mac box (versus Linux) brought another benefit: it means I can use BackBlaze as a backup service.  Their service has no limitation on the size of the backups for a single flat rate – perfect for backing up our content library.  Should we ever need a restore, they'll deliver it on a loaner hard disk.

So we ordered the components, and the last of them arrived on Tuesday afternoon.  Yesterday I spent the entire day installing, configuring, and starting to load content into our Plex server.  I've got a client installed on our TV, on our iPads, and on my iPhone – it all works flawlessly.  There's a bit of a learning curve (which I'm still climbing) when it comes to ripping the content, but none of it is really difficult and there's lots of help online.  For a modest outlay, we've got a very interesting new capability.  Not the least of the benefits is one I haven't mentioned yet: the Plex server keeps a searchable database of all your content – no more searching your shelves and boxes for your DVDs or Blu Rays – just type a few characters of a movie's name and poof! – there it is!

No Geminids for us :(...

No Geminids for us :(...  The pre-dawn sky this morning should be the absolute peak of the annual Geminids meteor shower, and this year was supposed to be better than most – maybe better than ever.  The haze is thick here right now, though.  I can just barely make out a planet and a few bright stars, and (of course) the moon – all else is invisible.  Only the very brightest of meteors would show through this muck, dang it.

Years ago we had a memorable Geminids viewing opportunity: on the western slopes of Mauna Kea, on the Big Island of Hawai'i.  We drove up to about 8,000' altitude, well above any hint of haze or pollution.  The air is so clean there that distant lights of Kona (the largest city on the west coast) had no discernible effect on our viewing.  We saw a lot of meteors that early morning, just lying on our backs on a field of cinders...

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Christmas trivia...

Christmas trivia...  Last year we bought a new Christmas tree stand, the first one we've ever owned that actually did make it easy to set up our tree.  Click on the image at right to take you to Amazon's page for it.  We got our tree a couple days ago, and once again this year we had it up in just seconds, perfectly straight, with no rusty screws to tighten.  These things are made in Germany, and the mechanical workings are quite clever.  There's a water gauge, too – quite a handy thing, actually, because you no longer have to stick your finger in the water to see where the level is.

Something I saw last year at Home Depot, but stupidly did not buy, is a crazy-long funnel for filling the Christmas tree stand with water.  I rectified that this year – I bought the one pictured at left.  It's about 3 feet long, just the right length to let me stand alongside the tree while I fill the stand.  I've filled it three times so far, and haven't spilled a drop of water yet.  Genius!

And speaking of trees, here's a photo of our tree this year in the dark.  It's a seven-footer, the perfect height for our living room.  The lights on it are the same string of individually-blinking LEDs that we used last year – both of us love those things.  They remind me of the “transformer lights” my dad bought for our tree when I was young.  Those lights ran on 24VAC, and each bulb blinked individually.  Those blinking incandescent bulbs used to be readily available, but not any more – I did find some a few years ago, but they were outrageously expensive and poorly made.  Those bulbs worked mechanically, using a bi-metal strip that bent as it heated and cooled.  The LED string we have uses electronics in each bulb; they should last basically forever.

Just as we did last year, we bought the tree from a family-owned Christmas tree farm from Kalispell, Montana.  Their trees are beautiful specimens well cared for – not at all like the typical junky trees we see at the larger commercial outfits.  One thing we particularly like about their trees is that they have a lot of natural variation.  We like our tree a bit more sparsely branched than most people seem to like, as we want room for the lights and ornaments.  The Robinson family sends a truck and a couple of employees all the way down here to Logan (about 500 miles) each year to sell their trees.  When I looked them up on the Internet, I discovered they have a few other lots they sell from, all in northern Utah.  It's an interesting story.

Those blinking bulbs were originally meant to simulate the really old-fashioned way to put lights on a Christmas tree: with candles.  I remember one Christmas – just one – when I was dispatched to my grandparents house (on the same farm I grew up on) to help with their Christmas tree.  This was while my great-grandmother was still alive and before my grandfather's terrible auto accident, so I'm guessing '58 or '59 – I'd have been 6 or 7 years old, and that feels about right.  I remember clearly just two things about that experience.  First was the tinsel.  It was carefully packed in funny-smelling tissue paper, and had been used in many previous years.  There wasn't a whole lot of it – maybe 50 strands – and my grandmother was very protective of it.  The tinsel was made of very thin, very shiny metal – possibly actual silver (which is what tinsel was originally made of), stored in anti-oxidant tissue.  My great-grandmother and my grandmother carefully placed each individual strand.  I wasn't allow to touch it. :)  The other thing I remember is the candles: dozens and dozens of tiny candles, slightly larger than what you'd see on a birthday cake.  They were in small tin or aluminum holders that hung on the tree.  I lit a few of them myself, carefully supervised.  Can you imagine putting flames on a Christmas tree?  Those candles only burned for 30 minutes or so before they were exhausted, and we stayed right by the tree until they were done – but still.  Flames?!?!

Debbie and some local friends made two beautiful wreaths for our house last Friday.  I keep forgetting to take photos, but finally here they are.  The left-hand one is on our interior kitchen door, the right-hand one on our exterior front door.

Internet vulnerabilities...

Internet vulnerabilities...  Over my career I've been responsible for running several Internet-facing datacenters.  These all ran businesses that were utterly dependent on the Internet, so we paid a lot of attention to failure modes – ways that things could go wrong that would result in a business interruption.  We eventually waded through enough data on actual failures that we could identify three primary concerns.  Together these accounted for all but a tiny percentage of outages actually experienced by real datacenters.  In order, these were (ten years ago; things may have changed):
  1. Backhoes.  Most datacenters are connected to the Internet by just one or two fiber-optic connections.  The most common cause of an Internet outage in a datacenter is a backhoe cutting through one or both of these connections.  Often the failover to the backup connection is inadequately tested, and cutting one cable results in an outage.  Also, all too commonly both connections run in the same underground route, and a single backhoe swipe can sever them both.
  2. Undersea or buried backhaul connections.  That's what this article is all about, focusing on undersea cables.  Buried cables on land are, if anything, even more vulnerable – there are hundreds of miles of them running along Interstate highways and railroad right-of-ways that have nobody guarding them.  A bad actor with a backhoe could sever one in minutes.  A single cable cut wouldn't severely impact the Internet – but cut several carefully chosen cables at once and you could.  This sort of attack is within the capability of any but the most feeble American adversaries, and requires minimal cleverness.  Detailed information like this is readily available to anyone.
  3. NAPs and MAEs.  Network Access Points and Metropolitan Area Exchanges are a largely American phenomenon.  These are the places where major customers connect to the Internet, and where various Internet carriers interconnect with each other.  There are a relatively small number of these, and while they have some security they are not secure against a determined military attack – and certainly not against an artillery or rocket attack.  If you were a well-funded adversary to America, and you wanted to maximize your impact on American commerce and communications ... these would be obvious targets.  
Having pointed out the vulnerabilities, I'd also like to point out something else: the Internet, with all it's redundancies, is not a trivial thing to damage.  You'd have to make quite a few breaks in the system to seriously and broadly impact Internet connectivity in the U.S.  Damaging a particular customer or geographic area is somewhat less difficult.  However, it could be done by a determined (and sufficiently funded) adversary – and I don't immediately see how to defend against such an attack other than by increasing the amount of redundancies and diluting the points of concentration (meaning, mainly, MAEs and NAPs) by making more and smaller interconnections.  The latter is challenging because the economics greatly favor fewer and larger interconnection points...

Monday, December 11, 2017

It's a winter wonderland here...

It's a winter wonderland here ... because of weather conditions that have given us lots of hoar-frost here for the past few days.  I took the photos below yesterday morning, but this morning it looks just like that.  When the fog clears (generally around noon), for an hour or so we have brightly lighted frosted trees (and irrigation pipes, fences, cars, etc.) everywhere in the valley.  We look out the window of our home, or from our car as we drive, and marvel at the beauty all around us.  We've seen this occasionally in the past, but this morning makes the fifth or sixth morning in a row with these sights all around us.  We're driving to Tremonton this morning to pick up our granite shelves, and we're expecting to see this all the way there.

The word “hoar” is derived from the Old English word meaning “venerable” or “august”, itself derived from an Old High German word of similar meaning.  It's pronounced identically to the word “whore” – a word with a notably different meaning.  Last year, while on a drive with a good friend here – a Mormon woman, about 45 years old – I mentioned the beauty of the hoarfrost.  She was absolutely shocked, and could not bring herself to say the word – much to the amusement of Debbie and I.  We found out last week that after that conversation, she went home and looked up the word – she was skeptical of my explanation. :)  This year, she's able to say the word – as now she's certain that I'm not playing a trick on her!

I took the photos below yesterday – the first batch before the fog cleared, the second batch after.  The last photo is a bit different: it shows the shadow of my car on our driveway pavement.  Before the sun broke through, the entire driveway was covered with hoar-frost.  After the sun broke through, the frost on all the unshaded parts of the driveway sublimated within a few minutes.  If you look in the shaded part of that photo, you'll see that the frost is still there – as it is in a thin band around the edge of the shadow, where the frost was so recently exposed to the sun that it had not yet sublimated.  You could measure the time of sublimation by measuring the width of that band and doing a little math, but I didn't think of that in time to make the measurement...

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Best. Illusion. Evah!

Best. Illusion. Evah!  This is a really powerful optical illusion.  All the lines in the image at right are sinusoidal curves.  Yes, even those lines that appear to be triangular.  Click the image to embiggen it, then put a ruler up against the “straight” lines.  They're curved exactly like the ones that appear curved!

Most illusions I can sort of “talk” myself into a state where the illusion disappears.  Not this one.  Much more on it here...

Snowflakes in action...

Snowflakes in action...  A group of Cambridge University students has created a database listing over 1,000 movies that contain scenes of rape, abuse, and sexual harassment.  Their objective was to allow sexual assault survivors to vet what they watch.  A laudable enough goal, though I do wonder whether it's actually a good idea for assault victims to avoid exposure to fictional depictions of things which actually do occur in the real world.  The whole notion of “triggering” strikes me as questionable.

But that's not what caught my eye about the story above.  This did: in that database is the Christmas classic It's A Wonderful Life.  It's cited for a scene of a man chasing a housekeeper while insisting he's in love with her, and another where a woman is being ogled on the street.  Really!  If someone needs to be protected from scenes like that, how could they possibly function in the actual world?

I once read a science fiction story about a human society so uncomfortable with personal interactions that everyone lived alone, isolated, communicating with others only by means they found comfortable.  In the story, a person from a different society came along and basically conquered the world simply because he was willing to knock on doors and confront people face-to-face.  At the time I read this, perhaps 50 years ago, I thought the underlying notion quite far-fetched.  Maybe not...

Sisyphus table in action...

Sisyphus table in action...  And a couple more photos.  The video at right shows the Sisyphus doing an “erase”; it's nearly finished.  The photos below show a few more patterns.

I've had a few questions asked about the table...  The patterns it makes are preprogrammed.  The device comes with a couple dozen patterns, and there is a community where people can share others.  It runs continuously, day and night, though the company says they have plans for a scheduler.  You can control the speed of the ball, and I have it running slowly to minimize the noise (which is nearly zero when slow).  You can make your own patterns simply by creating an SVG file with a single path.  Lots of graphics tools let you make SVG files, but what's most interesting to me is that it's easy to create them in software – they're just specially formatted XML files, which is an especially easy file format to create in a program...