It’s time that cable television admits that YouTube exists

Like most of America at one point, I have a cable television box. In fact, the service that I currently use is AT&T’s U-verse. It’s actually a good system. I’ve previously had Comcast and Dish Network. The service is adequate, easy to use and has plenty of channels to choose from. In general, I’m pretty satisfied with it.

 

However, this last Christmas I bought a Nintendo Wii box for the sole purpose of being able to watch streaming Netflix programming and YouTube videos. While I turn it one maybe once a week, it never fails to impress me with the variety of shows that are available. My wife is a big fan of BBC programming like As Time Goes By and Keeping Up Appearances. I’ve found that we can watch compete episodes any time we like via YouTube.

 

But, honestly, it’s still a bit of a pain in the ass. I have an older HD TV that doesn’t have an HDMI input. And the Wii has only a simple video and audio out. So whatever shows we watch are in standard definition. And to watch programming with the Wii requires handling a few remotes and doing searches for content with the Wii controller, which is a job only for the sure-handed.

 

All of this brings me to the point that I’d like to make. The cable box that AT&T provides is actually a programable platform. If they really wanted to, AT&T (or the cable box manufacturer) could provide “apps” that allow me to watch content directly from Netflix, YouTube, Hulu or whomever. As a consumer, I would consider this to be ideal: I would have fewer remotes to fiddle with, could conceivably use the DVR capabilities of my box to record shows from these other sources and in general make my cable box the hub of my entertainment universe.

 

I think that this is an important distinction to make. Apparently the cable companies think that I’m not aware of these other content sources. The fact is many people have already unplugged. They’re watching their shows using Wii boxes, PlayStations, Roku boxes or even now Chromecast. Or they’re watching on the laptops or even their phones.

 

Listen up cable providers: this is your last chance to add value to your service. If you don’t, the appeal of the alternatives is going to continue to peel off more and more customers. Cable TV is expensive. I get that your worried that by opening up your box and allowing other providers to use your boxes and network that you’re going to lose control over what your customers choose to view. Guess what, they’re doing that already. Make yourselves invaluable to us as the sole provider of everything; otherwise you run the risk of being the provider of nothing at all.

 

A speed limit for guns

Like all Americans, I was horrified by the killing of so many innocents in the recent Newtown Connecticut shootings. I’m very Libertarian in my views about most things. However, this tragedy has pushed me past the limit. Something must be done about the unfettered access to weapons.

Predictably, there has been an almost immediate and fervent push-back by gun enthusiasts. Or worse, such as those that are convinced that somehow all the guns will be rounded up and taken away. I’m certainly not in favor of that nor do I believe are most reasonable people that support some fair restrictions. So what we’re left with is marketing. How would a successful campaign to limit gun violence be won?

One thought would be to approach this like another public safety issue: speed limits for cars. I think that we can all agree that speed limits for cars are a reasonable idea. If we were all able to drive as fast as we wanted, not only would be we killing ourselves in greater numbers but many other innocents would be taken out in the process. Nobody has had their car taken away because it could go too fast. Nor has the government legislated a horsepower cap. If you have the money, you can buy the fastest car possible. You’re just required to operate it safely on the public roads.

So why can’t we frame this discussion in this way? The point is that limiting firepower is a public safety issue, not one of personal liberty. If you must own an assault rifle, be prepared to be licensed to operate it and have the size of your magazines limited to a reasonable “speed.” If we can think of this issue in this way, it might be easier to come to a compromise.

 

Did I mention how f***ed up the iPhone IOS6 podcast app is?

Here’s the deal. I actually like how podcasts were moved out from under the wing of the music player in IOS6. Listening to a podcast is an entirely different experience than listening to music. Having different controls is a good idea. Kudos to you Apple for figuring that out.

Having said that, I’m really mad right now. Overnight my phone nearly entirely drained my battery, as well as sucked down almost a GB of cellular data. As best as I can figure it, it’s because I *had* set my favorite podcasts to auto download. And so they did: over and over and over. I called AT&T and their suggestion was to backup and restore my phone. Why is that always the solution for everything? People, these aren’t PCs! But I digress…

So the Podcast app has some major bug in it that I have to manage by killing the app each time I’m done with it. Great. But that’s not even the most annoying feature. It’s the way that every old podcast that was ever available displays on my phone. This is entirely stupid. One of my favorite podcasts is the NPR podcast Fresh Air. There’s over 500 episodes available. A lot of Fresh Air is pop culture fluff that I ignore. On iTunes on my computer, I can easily remove all those Fresh Air’s that I don’t want to ever download so I have a nice clean list of the 20 or so ones that I’ll get around to listening to during those available moments.

However, on my phone, those unwanted podcasts are like zombies. They won’t die. In order to find anything to listen to, I have to scroll through all 500, and if I’m lucky, I might actually spot one of those that I’ve got saved to listen to. If I’m lucky. If I scroll too fast or too far, the podcast app bounces me back to the upper menu so I can start all over again. Congratulations Apple – you’ve made all my Fresh Air podcasts completely useless to me because I can never find one through the wave of zombie crap that I don’t want.

Fix this please and fast! I hate not loving my phone. Oh, and Apple you owe my $40 for overage fees on my cellular plan.

Parallels Plesk, Backups and the Cloud

In 2011 I made a major change in my website hosting business. Up to that point, we had owned and operated our own servers. Finally, though, we reached the crossover point where it got cheaper to retire our gear and go “into the cloud.” (A wonderful euphamism this “cloud.” AWS really operates such a thing but every hosting provider sells it, even though it’s really just virtual private servers.)

 

Eventually we settled on a hybrid solution for hosting our client sites. One group that needed the highest security level got moved to a VPS at a local cloud computing company. Others, that needed an older version of PHP, we moved to a VPS at a volume hosting provider (1&1). Lastly, the rest of the clients went to a dedicated server managed by yet another volume hosting provider (HostGator). In the end, we wound up saving hundreds of dollars a month.

 

When we ran our own rackspace, it was easy to dedicate a server just to the task of being an external hard drive to receive the backup tar files. This was an ideal situation because the backup files were not on the same hard drive as the website files (thus insulating the site from drive failures) yet on a server also on the same gigabit switch (so retrieval would be as rapid as possible if needed). However, now that we were having to pay for servers and drive space, it was unrealistic to justify buying servers just to hold those backup tar files.

 

So I tried a lot of different solutions to the problem. A number of the volume hosting vendors will sell you website hosting space with unlimited traffic and unlimited disk space. That sounded perfect: just grab one of those accounts and have Plesk send the backup container files to the website hosting space via FTP as we had done before. But it didn’t quite work out that way.

 

First, those unlimited accounts of course aren’t. In reality, I found all kinds of limitations: certain file types weren’t allowed on their server or maximum file sizes were capped. And in general the hosting providers discourage using their accounts for parking files. So I tried another approach: cloud-based storage.

 

After an extensive search, I ultimately settled on iozeta (a division of LiveDrive). They had several advantages over the many other cloud-backup/storage vendors: 1) They had FTP access to their storage (many of the other vendors did not) and 2) I could get up to 2TB of storage if I wanted that much. And there were no file type or size limits either! So I started weekly backups on the various client accounts on the dedicated server spaced out over all days of the week.

 

Yet, after a couple of weeks things were not going well as I hoped. For whatever reason, FTP transports were failing. As of this writing, I’m still trying to get an answer as to were the failure lies. Could have been just network congestion causing FTP to time-out. Or perhaps a glitch on their side. Either way, because uploads to their server are like transactions, it’s either pass or fail. The old trick of being able to go back and restart a partially completed FTP transfer just won’t work. So what was happening was that I was getting a logjam of Plesk backup tar files stored in the “local repository.”

 

Side-note: Here’s one of my bones to pick with Parallels. Their management of backup files is pretty weak. You can download a backup set. You can upload a backup set. You can transfer a backup set from the remote repository to the local one. But you can’t manually instruct Plesk to transfer a backup set from the local repository to the remote one. So, if you were having failures like the ones I was having, you’re screwed. Those backups just sit there eating up valuable disk space threatening to take your server down if you run out of space. This really needs to be fixed!

 

So faced with the situation I felt the only choice that I had left was to write software to get around the problem. My strategy was this: switch from sending the backups to the remote iozeta server and instead always send them to the local repository; but lower the backup set retention to one. In this way, I can at least plan for a known maximum amount of disk space consumed. I then wrote some software in PHP that, on a nightly basis, compared the local repository against the remote one on iozeta. If the local file didn’t exist on the remote site, transfer it using FTP. When I changed the settings for the backup retention, I also switched to multi-part backup container files of 255MB in size. I was shooting from the hip on the size but my gut tells me that’s probably a reasonable size in terms of transmission reliability. Finally, I set up a remote server retention policy of 28 days. If any file on the remote server is older than that, it gets deleted. That way I can manage my available space on the remote server site.

 

I’ve been running my software on a nightly basis via a cron job for a couple of weeks now. There are still some transmission failures. However, in reviewing the audit trail logs that my process generates, any files that get skipped the first time around usually get loaded the second time. And since I run my backups per customer on a staggered weekly basis, there’s plenty of time to get everything copied outward before the following week’s backup resets the files. Overall, I now have some peace of mind that, in the face of some catastrophic failure of a server, I’ve still gone something pretty current to fall back on.

Thoughts regarding iPads and education

A lot has been written already about using iPads (or similar technology) for education. But nonetheless I’m going to make a few points that I feel need to be said.

First, I think that starting with the second grade children should all be given a tablet. If every child gets one, there’s no jealousy over who has one and who doesn’t. All the books and exams should, in some way, be done and submitted using the tablet. Why? Many reasons:

  1. Currently many school districts have eliminated lockers so the kids have to carry all their books back and forth to school. In some cases that weight causes injuries. Enough already!
  2. Lots of money can be saved. While some network infrastructure needs to be built, overall it wouldn’t take that long to start saving money over having to buy books.
  3. The learning process can be more dynamic and interactive. With the potential of being able to use software tools and networking, teachers could respond to students after formal class hours.

My second point has to do with the schoolbooks. School districts are facing tighter and tighter budgets. Money can, and should, be saved wherever possible. I believe that an open-source effort should be made to develop community-owned schoolbooks. While some subjects are likely to be more controversial than others (think math vs. history), with the support of the right educators this could be done.

More Parallels Plesk ranting

I just spent four days of my life trying to restore a lost domain from the external backups stored on another server. I figured out most of it but just couldn’t get it completely right. So I bit the bullet and plopped down $75 to open a support ticket. Eventually I figured it out but it was only marginally due to their help. Parallels wrote to me asking if they could close my ticket. Here’s my response:

“Okay, here’s the thing. I purchased a support ticket a few days ago because I couldn’t figure out how to restore a domain from a backup. The original server that it was created on was gone, so all I had to go with was the “personal FTP repository” tar file to go with. After looking at all the documentation, the forums and Google searches, I was still stuck. So, as a last resort, I purchased a ticket request in the hope that I could talk with somebody who knew something at the support desk that might get me the last ten yards.

What I got instead was a person on the phone who I couldn’t understand. Thick accent.) Actually, that two hours after I purchased the support ticket. And that was a long two hours as, at that point, I was at my wit’s end with the issue. Anyway, the best that the support person could offer was to log into my server and restore the backup for me. Whenever that might be.

Well, that turned out to be 4:30am (my time) the next day. And then they didn’t actually restore anything. They couldn’t because of a simple issue (which I didn’t know because there’s nothing in the documentation saying that). So I used the support person’s suggestions and actually got the domain restored myself.

So, is the support issue resolved? Technically, I suppose it is even though the support person did nothing other than offer me advice which I would have happily accepted the day before. Do I feel like I just poured $75 down the drain? You bet I do. Here’s why:

The whole reason why I had such an issue with restoring the domain is that there is *zero* documentation on what to do with tar files saved in external directories. This makes absolutely no sense to me. You have at least *some* documentation on restoring data from the “server repository.” While that’s nice, it completely ignores the possibility that hardware could fail. Well guess what: it does. Servers crap out and hard drives crash all the time. That’s a very compelling reason to store your backups on another server if not also offsite. This is the reason why I do that at my company and why 99.99% of the rest of the world does the same thing.

So, getting to the bottom line: fix the documentation! The online help and the HTML documentation from your resources page is very weak. I’ve read the letter from your company’s president that promised to improve the quality and the customer support experience of Plesk. Here’s another area that badly needs attention. If I could have found the answers that I needed in the first place, I would have a lot fewer bad feelings about Parallels and Plesk and wouldn’t be out $75 for nothing.

— David Spencer, PageWeavers”

My recent experience with Parallels Plesk Server software

I’ve recently been having a lot of trouble with email since the “upgrade” from version 8.6 to 9.0 of the Plesk Server Administrator control panel. I’m very angry about this situation and I feel the need to explain why.

First of all, the reason I’m angry is not because qmail failed to work properly with the new update. Software has bugs. Engineering can’t always simulate every possibility during testing. I’ve been a programmer for 30 years and I get that.

Here’s why I’m pissed.

First of all, the new version of the software was delivered without features that were present in the previous version. Backups and the client/domain migrator were glaringly missing. In my mind, the first rule of software engineering is never deliver an update to anything that removes important and needed features. And in the case of this update, there was no warning given prior to application of the update that I would be losing that. No hint whatsoever.

So what is the result of this decision? I’m now on an island with no exit strategy. My automated backups aren’t working so if there’s a system failure, my customers (and I) are screwed. The migrator doesn’t work, so I can’t evacuate critical websites to alternate servers. So now that I have an issue with a component not working, what recourse do I have? Very little. Either I try to document the problem and pay for Parallels technical support to try and solve the problem or I find a way to manually move my critical customers off that server. Neither is very acceptable because A) I don’t like having to pay to fix something that I didn’t break, and B) I don’t like having to spend for a lot of overtime for workers to manually migrate sites in the dead of night.

Here’s the second reason why I’m mad.

Seeing how I was stuck with a server that won’t reliably deliver email, I figured that my first and best option was to have technical support look at the problem. I made this decision after combing the forums. Some people had some good ideas but no working solutions. So I purchased a support ticket. (I won’t go into it here; but that process in of itself was a disaster. The forms were very difficult to find and didn’t work properly.)

For the next week and a half I swapped emails with the support team. I tried as best I could to create conditions that would reproduce the problem and provide whatever assistance I could. What I found was particularly irritating, though, was that half the time I wrote back with an answer to a request or question it was as if the tech support person had never bothered to familiarize themselves with the thread of what had come previously. I could log into the support site and look at my ticket and see every question and response that each party had sent to the other. Why couldn’t the techs do that as well before responding to me? I’ll quickly grant that the problem with email was intermittent and difficult to reproduce. However, I was left with the feeling that no forward progress was being made and rather that I was just being kept preoccupied until either the problem went away or I got tired and just gave up out of frustration.

So that leaves us with the aftermath.

I still have a broken server. After much pleading from one of my largest customers, I was up until past midnight directing a manual transfer of 775 email accounts from the primary server to a secondary one still running 8.6 . I’m not happy but the customer will be. And that’s the whole point of this, isn’t it? Keeping the customer happy. Well I’m certainly not and it’s not because I’m irrational. Being an engineer that has been delivering software and services for thirty years, I know shoddy decision-making when I see it. Shame on you Parallels for putting all your customers at risk for no apparent reason. Have you guys never heard of the hippocratic oath? Let me repeat it: First Do No Harm. You need to institute and live by this simple rule:  whenever you deliver a software update, provide a way to get out of it if there’s a failure. You provided none in this case. That is the equivalent of software malpractice.

And the third and final reason I’m upset.

I checked the support forum this afternoon to find that there’s an announcement dated today. And it looks like the update addresses my issues. Against my better judgement I’m applying it now and crossing my fingers. After all, I still have other customers that are still having email issues. But this begs the question: didn’t anybody in Parallels know that this update was about to be posted? If it indeed addresses my issue, couldn’t they have contacted me? Given the choice, I would have gladly been a test site for the patch. Had I known, I could have possibly avoided spending half the night at the office moving resources to other servers. I would like to think that this isn’t the case; but on the face of it, this sure looks like incompetence to me.

And that’s why I’m angry.

These guys deserve biopics

Two of the funniest men who ever lived, Jack Benny and Bob Hope, are unknowns to the current generation. In their primes, they were at the top of the entertainment industry. Isn’t it about time they were reintroduced to America? I’ve already figured out who should star in these pictures.

For Benny, I can’t imagine a better actor than Kelsey Grammer. He looks like Benny and often acts like Benny. He’d be perfect. And in doing a brief Google search for the two men, I see that Grammer even hosted a one-hour special in 1995 about Jack and his bio lists Benny as an influence on his career. Who could possibly be better?

And for Hope, I’m thinking Tom Hanks. Hanks has the same nose as Hope. He and Hope have been strong supporters of our troops. Hanks rose to fame for his comedic roles so he could easily pull it off. Hope had a very long and admired career as had Hanks. In my mind, he’s the natural candidate.

So come on guys – whomever owns the film rights to these famous comedians careers needs to get this deal going. America needs a good laugh and these men were some of the funniest who ever lived. They deserve another look.

09/04/2007: How to “fix” the WNBA – a modest proposal

(This isn’t the first time that I’ve made the case that the WBNA will ultimately fail unless they make some fundimental changes. However, this is my first “public” attempt at making my case outside of letters to the WNBA and ESPN. I originally wrote this in 2007 and am finally now posting this as a Blog entry now that I have a blog. Since then events have overtaken my opinion with Candace Parker twice dunking in games. Fans have been predictably enthusiastic…)

This year (Fall, 2007), the WNBA finals was marred by the embarassing fact that the championship series was played in front of small crowds. Overall growth in attendance (and therefore interest) in the women’s league has stalled. This puts the league itself in danger of disappearing. The reason is simple and the reason is crass: there are no dunks in the WNBA.

I assure that I’m a big fan of the sport: I held Kings tickets for ten years and now, thanks to satellite TV, purchase an NBA league pass each season. Yet, it’s my opinion that the WNBA will never grow beyond the current base of fans because basketball, both college and pro, has been relentlessly marketed for years in a way that emphases the dunk. People just expect to see it and for good reason: it’s an exciting play. And though the WBNA is a fundamentally sound version of the game – in fact, more sound than the men’s game in a number of ways – the potential for that devastating power-jam just isn’t there so there’s little anticipation brought to the game. Frankly, for the common, casual fan, the WNBA is boring.

So how can we fix it? The answer is easy, really. Just lower the rims. Wait, you say, that would tarnish the game somehow, or otherwise lessen it by destroying it’s “purity.” But that’s an argument with merit, as it’s already a modified game from the men’s sport:

  • The WNBA ball is smaller
  • The WNBA 3-point line is closer
  • The WNBA games are shorter

Those are fairly major tweaks to the sport. Yet it continues to work fine. Lowering the rims would simply complete the conversion to parity with the men’s game.

Let’s examine another team sport that’s played by both men’s and women’s teams: volleyball. Both games are played with identical equipment and rules on the same court. The only difference is that the women’s net has been lowered to accomodate the fact that women are overall shorter than men. The lowering of the net in volleyball brings parity of the two games. And if you’re a fan of volleyball, you’d know that the women’s game is just as exciting as the men’s.

I did a quick search on Google and it told me that the average height for an NBA player was 6’6″. It appears that the average height of WNBA players is about 6′. I believe that I read that NBA players have an average vertical leap of 24″. My educated guess is that average WNBA player jumps 18″.

As a rule, it seems today that 95% of the players in the NBA can dunk a ball. Lowering the rim from ten feet to nine feet would make it possible for all the WNBA centers and forwards to certainly be able to dunk balls and probably a lot of the guards. That might not get you 95% but certainly a high number. Don’t you think that the possibility of a WBNA player flying down the lane and slamming the ball through the hoop in somebody’s face would generate some excitement? I certainly do. Would that make SportsCenter? You bet it would!

One final word to the purists. I bet you’re concerned that somehow players won’t be able to make jumpshots. Not a problem really. I’ve taken shots at lower baskets at schoolyards many times and quickly adjusted to the difference. To stick with the ten-foot baskets any longer is just being stubborn. WBNA, if you want to stay in business, listen to the people and bring the dunk into your game.

Welcome to the 20th Century

Well, I finally did it. After 12 years of having a personal website, I finally got around to starting to use it. I imagine I’ll be hearing from the media any moment now…

Meanwhile, now that I have a blog, it causes me to reflect on why I registered a personal domain in the first place. Yes, it’s very handy for email. No ISP can ever pull the rug from under me. (Over the years I’ve seen that happen to far too many people.) But I’ve always thought that thought that all bloggers seem to enjoy once in a while, if not often. What if I wrote things down that mattered to me and other people read those thoughts and they had some sort of positive impact. Wouldn’t that be cool? Sure it would – and now that there are a bazillion other bloggers out there I’ve guaranteed that nobody is likely to know or care! Such is life. 😉

Anyway, if you, unknown reader, have made it this far, then good. Thanks for visiting. I hope you enjoy. Because in the end, all writing that matters is really a labor of love. It made me feel good doing it. And if it had an impact on you, then that’s all the better.

 

– Dave