Turn to Your Left at the End of the Sky

Watching the Olympics on TV Tonic

I’ve been watching the Olympics on TV Tonic’s platform. NBC collaborated with TV Tonic to provide viewers with the ability to watch the Olympics over the internet.

Some scattered thoughts in no particular order:

  1. It’s great that NBC has finally realized that some of us want to watch the Olympics over the web and this is a huge leap forward from prior years.
  2. NBC apparently managed to sell ad space to only one company: Lenovo. I used to contemplate buying a Lenovo laptop. After watching the same ad 15-20 times a day I can now say I will never buy a Lenovo laptop.
  3. It’s great to be able to watch sports sequentially. I no longer have to have gymnastics coverage interrupted with rowing. Far less time is wasted.
  4. The user interface becomes somewhat unuseable after a while. It’s difficult to see which events you’ve watched, they don’t always seem to appear in chronological order. Also, it would be nice to be able to remove the heats and only download the finals. Even better would be able to specify exactly which events to download rather than having NBC decide for us.
  5. I realize that nothing is live for us poor saps in the USA but posting the content more than 24 hours later makes a mockery of the idea of live sport.
  6. It’s a pity the water polo isn’t broadcast in higher definition. The compression algorithm completely choked with all the water and the end result is that you can’t see the ball. That detracts from the experience but leads to my next point…
  7. We all want HIGH DEFINITION. You’re making us wait until the next day to watch the events everyone was talking about at work….at least give it to us in high definition. People watching the Olympics over the web have a decent setup. You should cater to them or risk ending up on the scrap heap of failed internet video start ups.
  8. Those Chinese gymnasts definitely aren’t 16. (That was obvious even on the low def video that NBC slopped up to us.) Let’s call it what it is: CHEATING
  9. Phelps is a legend in any quality video.
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August 14, 2008 Posted by | Computers & Internet, Internet, Sport, Technology | , , , | Leave a comment

New Relic RPM & Mod_Rails

Unfortunately, the New Relic performance monitor for Ruby on Rails doesn’t work with mod_rails (Passenger). According to a support email from them it currently “only supports mongrel and thin (without sockets)”. They plan to support Passenger in the future. That’s great news because they provide an excellent performance monitoring tool which is very easy to install and use.

Update: New Relic has added support for mod_rails. I received this email from their excellent customer support:

I was just digging through my support emails and found a few people who had inquired about RPM supporting Phusion Passenger, aka mod_rails.

 

I wanted to let you know that we released a version of the agent with ‘beta’ support for Passenger.

 

If you’re interested, check it out and let us know how it works for you!

 

To try it out, just do:

 

script/install –force http://svn.newrelic.com/rpm/agent/newrelic_rpm

 

Bill Kayser

New Relic RPM Developer

 

August 1, 2008 Posted by | Computers & Internet, Internet, Ruby on Rails, Technology | , , , , | 1 Comment

Linux for the masses

Every now and then it is forcefully driven home to me that Linux is not yet ready for mass adoption. I have been trying to set up my back / forward mouse buttons on Feisty Fawn. There is no reason why this should be difficult but the official instructions are alarmingly non-deterministic! Exhortations to “experiment” are just plain annoying. Plug and Play (TM) might not be perfect but it gets the job done most of the time.

July 1, 2008 Posted by | Computers & Internet, Engineering, Internet, Technology, Thoughts | , , , , | 5 Comments

A Recovering Programmer

I was once a respected coder. But for 5 years I’d designed ASIC’s using Verilog (where everything happens at once) and then for 5 years I’d turned to business. And it all changes in a decade. I’d let my skills lapse and in the interim C++ had morphed to Java and then suddenly CPU’s got really fast and scripting was back in vogue. 

I realized that my CS undergrad was quickly becoming worthless. Web programming was a complete mystery to me. (Whether that was really a problem is a philosophical question beyond the scope of a humble blog entry). Here is my road to recovery. In bullet point form amenable to PowerPoint and as buzzword compliant as possible.

Jan 1st, 2008: Resolve to brush up on programming skills.

Which language should I learn? Web development seems cool….what’s involved in that? Narrowed it down to a) the LAMP stack or b) Ruby on Rails. Do I want to be a) paid as a programmer or b) hip ?

I went with Hip. Rails it is.

Here are the steps (and mistakes) I took on the road to recovery:

  1. Linux – I remember that: “ls -al” and all that. It’s the sine qua non for a real programmer.
  2. F@(k. That’s a lot of variants of Linux. Go with Ubuntu because I’m semi-African.
  3. Hmm… Windows XP is standard issue at work.
  4. Get an old PC from my IT guy. Spend an entire day installing Ubuntu. Realize I’m now a web programmer so start again and install the server version. What the hell? What’s involved with web programming anyway. Will I be writing the client or the server?
  5. Call college roommate who is on “tiger team” at Yahoo. He says: “Buy Pickaxe“. Sold. In a flash of environmental sympathy I buy the PDF version. It also saves $10. Print it out on corporate printer. Double sided to save the environment.
  6. Need the Rails part: Buy “Agile Web Development with Rails“. We invested in an Agile software company so “agility” must be good.
  7. Start reading. In the interest of time and an anxiety to see the global greeting I dispense with Linux and deploy InstantRails on Windows –> Instant gratification. (Nice to see those programmer types have dropped their antipathy towards Microsoft. I’m a web programmer. Even if it’s only on localhost. (Wow: It’s only February and I could compete with Amazon if I wanted to and if I knew where to buy all the books for my bookstore)
  8. I have a bookstore up and running. No one can see it. That’s ok….how hard can deployment be.
  9. March. Deploytment is hard. People don’t recommend Windows. Could I be the only person writing Ruby code in a Rails environment on Windows XP. Seems to be from my google searches.
  10. Let’s reinstall Ubuntu Linux.
  11. Install ruby gems. Rinse. Repeat. Rinse. Repeat. Check dependencies. Rinse Repeat. Rinse. Repeat.
  12. Install MySQL. (It’s nice that I don’t need to think too much about the database. Seems like something business people should concern themselves with).
  13. Stuff is working. Slow as all hell on this ancient PC but what the hell. People will wait for the page to load.
  14. Becoming a problem that I can only work on my hobby at work. Can’t afford another PC at home.
  15. VMware to the rescue. Downloading an Ubuntu VM on my home PC is a cinch. And hip. Which is important.
  16. Realize I need a real hosting service. (Weeks of agonizing research). Settle on Dreamhost. (I love those guys!)
  17. Deploy app. Hmmm…this is a f@(k1ng nightmare!
  18. Passenger (mod_rails) is released a few days later. I realize I’m back on the cutting edge. Deployment is now piss easy.
  19. www.assetcorrelation.com (Live as of June 1st, 2008 — 5 months start to finish)
  20. Start to harass Google to show me some organic search love.

It’s been a wild ride. And not as hard as I thought. In the end, we return to the beginning. I still hate writing test benches. Hacking is still fun. And not having deadlines is the way to go. 🙂

June 25, 2008 Posted by | Computers & Internet, Engineering, Internet, Ruby on Rails, Technology | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

US Datacenter Energy Consumption

I was at a conference this morning where Spansion and Virident were presenting their latest flash memory technology designed to replace DRAM in web servers. Some interesting facts:

  1. Cooling and power distribution losses account for 50% of the electricity consumed in US datacenters.
  2. Datacenter power use doubled from 2000 to 2005 and will almost double again by 2010. Growth in electricity use has been slowed somewhat by the advent of server virtualization over the last few years.
  3. US datacenters use more electricity than countries like Sweden and Iran
  4. Datacenters use almost 100 billion kilowatt hours each year at approximately $0.10 per kilowatt hour. Datacenter electricity consumption is growing at 15% per year (!)
  5. Datacenter memory (DRAM) uses 2x more electricity than the total capacity of US solar panel installations.
  6. US, EU and Japan use 3/4 of the world’s electricity.

It will be interesting to see whether Spansion’s newly announced EcoRAM can put a dent in these problems. They are citing some impressive numbers:

  1. 1/5th the power of DRAM at comparable read performance.
  2. 800x faster than NAND flash access times.
  3. 30 mins to write 1TB of data on EcoRAM vs 5 hours using traditional NOR DIMM’s.

On the other hand, the representatives from Intel and AMD certainly weren’t giving their unqualified support to EcoRAM.

June 24, 2008 Posted by | Computers & Internet, Global Warming, Internet, Technology | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Optimal Memorization

Wired has an excellent article on an optimal memorization algorithm developed by Piotr Wozniak. The technique has been embodied in a software program called SuperMemo and an open-source alternative called Mnemosyne

I’m somewhat skeptical that spending more time on memorizing facts is that useful but given that a few months ago I could barely remember the equation for the roots of a quadratic perhaps I should be more open-minded.

The algorithm is straightforward:

  1.  
    1. Split the knowledge into smallest possible items.
    2. With all items associate an E-Factor equal to 2.5.
    3. Repeat items using the following intervals:
      I(1):=1
      I(2):=6
      for n>2: I(n):=I(n-1)*EF
      where:
      I(n) – inter-repetition interval after the n-th repetition (in days),
      EF – E-Factor of a given item
      If interval is a fraction, round it up to the nearest integer.
    4. After each repetition assess the quality of repetition response in 0-5 grade scale:
      5 – perfect response
      4 – correct response after a hesitation
      3 – correct response recalled with serious difficulty
      2 – incorrect response; where the correct one seemed easy to recall
      1 – incorrect response; the correct one remembered
      0 – complete blackout.
    5. After each repetition modify the E-Factor of the recently repeated item according to the formula:
      EF’:=EF+(0.1-(5-q)*(0.08+(5-q)*0.02))
      where:
      EF’ – new value of the E-Factor,
      EF – old value of the E-Factor,
      q – quality of the response in the 0-5 grade scale.
      If EF is less than 1.3 then let EF be 1.3.
    6. If the quality response was lower than 3 then start repetitions for the item from the beginning without changing the E-Factor (i.e. use intervals I(1), I(2) etc. as if the item was memorized anew).
    7. After each repetition session of a given day repeat again all items that scored below four in the quality assessment. Continue the repetitions until all of these items score at least four.

June 20, 2008 Posted by | Computers & Internet, Internet, Science, Technology, Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment

Skype 4.0 and GUI madness

Skype has released version 4.0 (beta) and seem to have completely lost the plot on GUI design. In prior versions it was possible to have one’s contact list docked on the right side of the screen leaving plenty of real estate for working. The new layout now takes half of a 21″ monitor and can’t be made any smaller! That now makes it impossible to keep Skype open and periodically monitor online contacts. I would be ok with Skype taking over my screen once a call has started. Before that time, though, it should remain as unobtrusive as possible while still allowing me to monitor my contact list.

Skype needs to realize that our PC’s are not phones. Communication is a means; not an end.

I would recommend staying with Skype 3.8 until this issue is resolved.

June 18, 2008 Posted by | Computers & Internet, Internet, skype, Technology, Uncategorized | , , , | 1 Comment

SmugMug for Photo Hosting

I have been using SmugMug for hosting my photos for a while now. There are a few benefits that make it worth the small annual subscription and don’t seem to be available from any of the free offerings:

  1. Your friends and family can download photos in full resolution
  2. Absolutely zero ads. Not having ads posted alongside your photos makes them look a LOT better.
  3. Unlimited storage and quick/easy bulk uploads
  4. A personalized URL
  5. Backups in 3 states.
  6. No need to login to view the photos (strangers really aren’t interested in your photos!)
  7. More professional look and feel. This is a website that is used by many pros.

I’ve used SmugMug for three years now and have been extremely happy with all aspects of the service. If you’d like to save $5 on a subscription, enter the following coupon in the ‘Referred by’ field:  LQvt6m1M08vGw

June 18, 2008 Posted by | Computers & Internet, Internet, Photography, Technology | | 1 Comment

Migrating Rails App to Dreamhost using mod_rails

Over Memorial Day weekend I migrated my Rails Application to Dreamhost using mod_rails (Passenger). It was not an entirely smooth process but I was also upgrading from Rails 1.8.x at the same time. That was compounded by making the foolish mistake of trying to rebuild my database using Rake migrations. (That’s a bad idea. I could have saved many hours by just uploading the schema)

Here is the procedure I followed (hat tip to Nock):

  1. cd ~/
  2. rails your_app_name -d mysql
  3. Copy app/, database.yml, routes.rb, db/
  4. Change public/.htaccess from .cgi to .fcgi
  5. put your app into production mode (uncomment line 5 in environment.rb)
  6. run rake db:migrate RAILS_ENV=production
  7. chmod -R 755 ~/your_app_name/app
  8. rm your_app_name/public/index.html
  9. killall -USR1 dispatch.fcgi
  10. killall -USR1 ruby

One comment on step 4. For some reason none of my stylesheets would load. Much of the advice gleaned from endless Google searches seemed to suggest that the problem would be fixed by setting the RewriteBase in /public/.htaccess. That turned out to not be the case.

My stylesheet problem was caused by having this line twice in my .htaccess file

RewriteRule ^(.*)$ dispatch.fcgi[QSA,L]

DO NOT uncomment the one before RewriteEngine On , as all the tutorials seem to imply, just change the .cgi to .fcgi in the block below it.

Thanks to Dreamhost for their stellar support over a frustrating (for me!) Memorial Day weekend. In the end, (as is so often the case), very little of the frustration was caused by Dreamhost or mod_rails but, rather, by some of the vagaries of Rails. I’m guessing that future deployments would be much smoother as this was my first time deploying to a shared hosting environment.

May 27, 2008 Posted by | Computers & Internet, Internet, Ruby on Rails, Technology | , , , , , | 3 Comments

Dreamhost Supports Passenger and mod_rails

I use Dreamhost to host my websites and they have now added support for Passenger (a.k.a mod_rails). Ruby on Rails deployment hassles should be a distant memory soon!

If you’re looking for a cheap and cheerful hosting company for your Rails app, I highly recommend Dreamhost. It’s great for the solo developer (or small team) because for a small amount per year you can launch your site on a shared hosting service and then later easily migrate it to a virtual private server as your needs change. 

Dream in Rails

May 26, 2008 Posted by | Computers & Internet, Internet, Ruby on Rails, Technology | , , , , | Leave a comment

Adding Links to Amazon

To link to Amazon, use the following code

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/<10 digit ASIN number>/simplelight-20

Simply insert the relevant ASIN number for the product that you are linking to. You can find the ASIN number at Amazon’s Associate page

For example, to you would link to For One More Day by Mitch Albom like this:

May 25, 2008 Posted by | Computers & Internet, Internet, Technology | , , , | Leave a comment

Peer-to-peer Lending

The internet continues to exhibit an untrammeled elimination of the middleman. A new company, Prosper.com, now allows direct person-to-person lending. I have set up standing orders (one of the best features of the site as it allows automatic bidding on the loan requests) and have created a loan portfolio with an even risk distribution. People submitting loan requests are graded with a risk rating from AA all the way down to HR (high risk) and NC (no credit rating). The risk ratings are based on the credit scores obtained from the credit agencies.

As of writing, Prosper has 90,000 members and has originated over $18 million in loans.

It appears that there is currently a far greater demand for loans than there is a supply of capital bidding on each loan. The implications for my risk-adjusted return are not yet clear, but I think it’s a great idea. 

October 21, 2006 Posted by | Internet, Investing | Leave a comment

Is Skype Growth Slowing?

I love Skype and I’ve tracked the growth in online users since October 2003. I’ve noticed a disturbing trend the last few months. The number of concurrent online users peaked at around 6.5M users in May 2006. This peak usually occurs around 7am (Pacific Time). June and July had similar peaks but since then I have rarely seen numbers over 6.3M online users and never greater than the previous maximum. Is this caused by more people being on vacation during the summer? The next few months should answer that question.

Skype Users Online Concurrently

Increase/Decrease in Peak Skype Users Online

August 17, 2006 Posted by | Internet | Leave a comment