My Second Chance Year

My wife and I started playing the California lottery on a regular basis shortly after we got married some seventeen years ago. No big prizes yet but we’re always hopeful. 🙂

I’m always the one who buys the tickets. We play the same numbers each time so I use the “advance play” option which means that I only have to deal with it once every month or so. When I bought my tickets at the grocery store in January, I noticed something new. The California Lottery added a new raffle called Second Chance.

The Second Chance is a little code that appears at the bottom of your ticket. To use it, you log into their website and register for an account. Once you’re in there’s a place where you enter the code. That enters you into a drawing for cash prizes. Weeks or months later, the drawing is made and the winners get from one thousand to ten thousand dollars. Nice!

For the first month or two I entered just the codes from my own tickets. Then one day, after checking my expired tickets at the lottery machine at the store, I went to throw them away in the trash can conveniently placed next to the machine. I noticed that there were other discarded lottery tickets laying there in the trash. I decided to scoop them up, take them home and enter those codes for myself. Why not?

Well, one thing rapidly lead to another. The lottery website has a thousand ticket per month limit. I wasn’t coming close to reaching that but I started going by the trash each time I was in the store and collecting as many tickets as I could. I was getting nearly a hundred entries a month.

Then another realization hit me. Besides SuperLotto tickets, there were also Scratcher game tickets in the trash too. They had Second Chance codes on them as well. Why wasn’t I collecting those? By this time August had rolled around. I was still doing around a hundred a month. What if I really tried to get as many Second Chance entries as I could – maybe go for that one thousand limit? Could it be done??

The California Lottery website has a lot of information posted on it about the Second Chance promotion. According to their documentation, they have imposed the monthly thousand entry limit as a means to protect players from themselves. It was supposedly a means to prevent players from compulsively playing too much by buying too many tickets. But I wasn’t playing any more than usual. Instead I was picking up discarded tickets from people who didn’t want to bother with the Second Chance drawing. Their loss was potentially my gain. I decided for the month of September I was all-in. I was going for the limit!

My plan was simple. While my local grocery store was a plentiful source of tickets, I had to expand my territory. I needed to find every outlet that I could where people would buy and discard their tickets. So I got in my car and did a little driving around. Gas stations and convenience stores sold SuperLotto and Scratchers tickets. But space was limited so they didn’t have dedicated space with lottery machines. No machines, no way to check and therefore no trash cans. So that cut out a lot of opportunities right away. That took me back to grocery stores. I found four stores that were local to me that had machines and a trash can that I could check. The game was on.

As I was making my rounds throughout the month, I started noticing some patterns. While I was collecting some SuperLotto tickets, most of my scoops were Scratchers tickets. And not all Scratchers were the same. In fact, there was quite a range of games, from $1 up to $20 a ticket. The $20 tickets are awesome – when the game is concluded, 180 days later they will hold a drawing for $5 million dollars in prizes. That’s a raffle I want to be in.

Another thing I noticed was the players. Sometimes when I went to check the trash, somebody was already in line buying tickets. Curious, I would stand in line or linger nearby pretending to be looking at merchandise but watching what they would do. There were many times when I would see somebody pull out one or two hundred dollars in twenties, feed them into the Scratcher vending machine and buy all $20 tickets. It got me wondering how much money was involved in all of it.

So I went to the California Lottery website and found the financial reports section. I had to do a little digging but I got some very interesting results. Slightly more than half of all the State lottery was generated by Scratcher sales. For 2013, that was three billion dollars! Of that total, sixty percent is paid back to players in prizes ($1.8 billion). No wonder I was seeing so many Scratcher tickets. The odds are a lot better: typically one ticket in four is some kind of winner. Compare that to the astronomical odds of the SuperLotto. Having said that, though, the odds of winning the grand prize is still very remote. Still, the Scratcher games are obviously the public’s favorite game.

So September ended and I managed a total for the month of 417 entries on the website. In many ways it was like an Easter Egg hunt. You never knew what you might find on a daily basis. Some days I would score tons of tickets. Others barely any. And throughout all of it I have yet to win anything. But that’s not unexpected. The Second Chance drawings are like an exercise in delayed gratification. You put in your entries today but it could be six months before all the drawings are completed.

As I write this I’m on track to hit that thousand entry mark; but for the entire year – not one month. I suppose that there are others out there that have gone completely all-in on it. Dumpster diving behind convenience stores and making rounds over great swaths of territory. I know that I have competitors out there. I’ve stood in line only to see the guy in front of me scoop up the trash before I had my turn. But I wish them well. It’s a numbers game and all I want is something, anything to show for my efforts. Doesn’t anyone?

Disappointment with 1&1

It seems that all I write, when I write, is about bad customer experiences. I’ve got another one to detail today. But before I do so, I’d like to make the point about why I write these reviews. First, I can get this aggravation off my chest. I’ve had to take action that I didn’t really want to. The reason why was entirely preventable. And that’s my second point. This is a teaching moment. When something annoying happens and I feel compelled to write about it, it’s a reminder to both myself and the world that it could be done better in the future. Hopefully we all learn from that.

I purchased a dedicated server at the end of July from the very large hosting provider 1&1. The server was for one of my best clients so it had to be right. Without boring all the details, let’s just say that it’s purpose was to host 1K+ email accounts and be a hot-backup and fail-over machine if the primary server goes offline.

After bringing it online and loading it up, it ran well for a while. However, by mid-August the server began freezing and/or crashing. Their technical support department was remarkable little to no help. Their attitude was “it’s your server, it’s your problem.” I could accept that judgement if I was running some funky custom set-up. However, it was off the shelf CentOS 6 with all the patches and Plesk 12. Nothing strange here.

Eventually I gathered enough evidence to show that there was a hardware problem. I reported this to a sympathetic tech support rep. The next day, without prior notice, engineering took my server offline and replaced the hardware. Then the server wouldn’t work because the MAC address had changed. Once again technical support offered little help. Eventually I was able to get the server repaired by the grace of a friend of mine (and sysadmin of Khoza Tech) and carry on. However, the crashes didn’t end there.

Once, after logging off from using the 1&1 web admin panel to restart the server, I was presented with a feedback form. I leapt at the chance to write a detailed note explaining my frustration with the server. The result of that feedback? Nothing. No contact from 1&1. No acknowledgement whatsoever.

Ultimately I had to move on. By early September I had documented ten separate occurrences of mysterious crashes. I’m a patient guy but enough’s enough. My dream of geographically diverse servers was not to be. Instead I had to settle for a slightly more expensive solution in Fremont. While that’s still probably far enough away to survive just about any disaster short of an asteroid strike, I’m still disappointed. I’ve been doing business with 1&1 for years. I recommended a dedicated server from them to a good client. That server has been rock solid for years – never a crash or failure. Perhaps the hardware they were using for the server I picked is just not reliable. After all, I’d never heard of using multi-core Atom processors for generic hosting before. Either way, the real issue is a failure by 1&1 to take care of me as a customer. I would have gladly locked in with them for years but they didn’t even acknowledge me after I had gone out of my way to get their attention and tried to get things right. I hope that they’ve got other satisfied customers because they lost this one.

How to destroy a TV show

One of my favorite shows on television is one that appears weekdays on ESPN. It is called Pardon The Interruption, or simply PTI. The show began broadcasting in 2001. I’ve rarely missed an episode. The format is simple: two veteran sportswriters sit at a table and talk about the sporting events of the day with a shot-clock. When the bell rings, they go on to the next subject. Entertaining and my primary source of daily sports news.

The trick is that the show broadcasts each day at 5:30pm Eastern time. Since I’m on the west coast, it’s not practical to find a TV and watch it live. In the early days, I set up my VCR to record it for that evening. Now I just record it with my DVR. And since we’re in the age of smartphones, my preferred form of consumption is to download the daily podcast which is usually available about two hours after the show airs. Then I can listen while I exercise at the gym. Which is a good plan, because ESPN will sometimes spontaneously move the show to another ESPN channel without warning, defeating the DVR.

Lately they’ve been getting increasingly sloppy with posting the podcasts. There have been some days where the podcast hasn’t been available until after 5:30pm my time; sometimes not until the next day. The production quality of the podcast has also gone down. The audio is so faint that I have to turn up the volume to maximum just to hear them. So when an ad is interjected in-between breaks, I’m nearly deafened by it.

The first rule of show business is to reliable. Repeat viewers are your core audience. Make it available at the place and time you tell people. Each time I am disappointed that the show isn’t there, the higher the probability that I won’t come back.

The second rule of show business is to make your best effort, every time. To do less is being disrespectful to your audience. If the quality is low, they’re less likely to come back.

In both of these areas, I give ESPN a failing grade. It’s ironic because the hosts were recently given contract extensions. They may have a show; but unless ESPN gets it’s act together soon, they won’t have any viewers left.

The Concussions Must End

I was watching a football game the other day. One of the players that was on my fantasy team got knocked out of the game early. I was bummed. Then I got what I thought was a brilliant idea. Why can’t they get some of those accelerometers that they use in cell phones and put them in helmets? The thinking is basically this: load the helmets full of accelerometers and connect them to a CPU with some LED lights that are installed on the top. When a player is hit (or hits) hard, the light goes from green to yellow. Yellow players must sit a “down” before they can return to action. If the hit is even harder (on the impact scale) then the red light goes on and the player has to sit out the rest of his team’s possession. If it’s a very dramatic hit then all the lights start to flash. The player is done for the game and automatically has to undergo the concussion protocol. By using the technology in the helmets, players are dis-incentivized from turning themselves into missiles and instead tackle with their arms.

I thought I was so smart. Then I went to the Internet to see if anybody had also thought of that. Of course they did. The NFL begin experiments with accelerometers in football helmets years ago. Apparently it’s easy to judge the force of an impact but not always whether that impact translates into a brain injury. Still, something needs to be done. In the years since the publicity began of former players committing suicide, youth football participation is down ten percent. While football is still widely popular, this is still a concerning trend if you’re an owner of a team in the league or a fan of the game. In time, if there isn’t a fix for the concussion problem, no parent will allow their child to play football. And that would be bad for all of us with fantasy teams.

HostGator Survey

On August 2nd, the network switches to the Ace Datacenter in Utah went down, taking out millions of websites managed by HostGator, BlueHost and many others. The majority of my customers were on a dedicated server at that Utah facility. The outage was massive and an entire day of business was lost. Along the way I, along with many other surprised customers, learned that HostGator (who manages my dedicated server) and many many other hosting companies had been absorbed by Endurance International Group. EIG apparently is a private equity company who is backed by, among others, Goldman Sachs. In the first few hours that followed the outage, the brave people at front lines at HostGator actually tried to respond to every tweet. At least until they reached some kind of Twitter “tweet limit” that nobody knew Twitter imposed on accounts. Many many hours after the outage started EIG finally assembled a website and directed customers and media to it for updates. Eventually, some 12 hours later, the problems were fixed and the network went back online.

However, in the following days there was nothing. No aftercare from HostGator. Nothing really at all relating to accountability. Yes, we got a bland statement from the CEO of EIG apologizing for the downtime. We were offline for an entire business day yet there was no offer of compensation nor a plan put forward how they’re going to prevent this from happening again in the future.

Furthermore, while we were offline that day, I had a lot of time on my hands to investigate the dealings of Endurance International Group. In a very quiet way, they’ve been cornering the market for cheap web hosting. They’ve gathered up dozens of brands under their umbrella and continue to operate them as “separate” entities while moving all their operations to Ace Datacenter, a huge hosting facility in Utah. While they can certainly gain lower costs through economies of scale, they did run the risk of putting all their eggs in one basket. And what irritates me the most is that HostGator sent me a notice in July that they wanted to move my websites from the dedicated server I had in Texas to a “new one.” Little did I know that it was in Utah. Now find out that BlueHost is also in that datacenter but the exact same server is $80 a month less. So I’m currently weighing my options.

Anyway, this morning I get a quick Customer Service survey from HostGator. I let them have it:

“I’m currently down on HostGator primarily due to the revelations exposed as part of the complete blackout of services in August. What I learned was that HostGator had been sold to a aggregator that placed all their eggs in a single basket. Then, when that “basket” failed, there were no contingency plans in place to route around the problem. In addition, there was no plan in place to communicate to the customers what had happened, what was going to happen next and any estimates as to how long that might take. Basically it was up to the customers themselves in the early hours of the outage to figure out what had gone wrong. Eventually EIG put a few things together to communicate to their customer base but it was long after the horse was already out of the barn. To top things off, after things were repaired, HostGator has been operating like nothing ever happened. So far I’ve seen no offers of compensation for downtime nor has there been a concrete plan put forward showing how this kind of outage isn’t going to reoccur to reassure customers. And the topper is this: I’ve learned that I can get exactly the same dedicated server from BlueHost for $80 a month less than I’m paying now. This makes me feel like a complete chump for paying more than I have to. I can certainly say that at this time I am keeping my options open. I’m an IT professional that has been in the business for a very long time so I understand that things happen. However, at this point I would recommend changing your mascot to an ostrich because management has their heads in the sand thinking that we, as customers, are just going to forget about what happened. Failures of this magnitude require accountability and so far I have seen none.”

Perhaps too bitter? Maybe. But I meant every word of it.

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.