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Date: Monday, 05 Jan 2009 04:11

One of the goals that I’ve set for myself for 2009 is to be a more social person. I’ve always had a problem making “small talk” in situations where I’m not entirely comfortable. If the topic or situation is one that I’m extremely interested or discussion is in an area I consider to be myself well versed in, I usually don’t have a problem speaking up and being heard. However, if I’m in a completely social situation or there are discussions of a topic that I don’t know very well I tend to clam up and just listen.

This tendency that I’ve noticed in myself also extends to online conversations. I tend to be more of a lurker and rarely jump into the conversation unless I can speak with absolute authority on a subject or I know lots of people from the community really well. Out of the dozens of forums I formally belong to, I post on two of them with any regularity. The same goes for Twitter and Friendfeed; I lurk and rarely jump in with my own comments.

I have sat down to write a new post at least a dozen times since my last post and probably a dozen times before that. The main reason I never did it was because I found myself wanting to discuss the election or politics since that was what was mostly being discussed anywhere. I am very confident in my beliefs and thought processes about politics, but that is the area I feel the least comfortable discussion with total strangers. So, I opted to keep quiet and just listen instead.

It’s not that I’m shy, if someone asks my opinion I’m glad to give it. It’s more of a control thing. I want to know how each person is going to react to what I say. If I know the subject really well or I know the people really well, I can gauge their reaction and make my response as non-controversial as possible. Otherwise, I feel out of control of the situation so I’d rather not saying anything.

I’ve come to realize that I’m probably missing out on some great opportunities to learn new things, explore ideas I’m not familiar with, and most definitely I’ve missed out on some great networking opportunities.  I attended a training class in December and won a book on breaking the ice. The book made some great points on what can come out of being bold enough to break the ice and talk to total strangers.

I plan to start slowly and working to increase my comfort level with jumping into the fray with people I don’t know. I hope that will translate into blogging more often (maybe starting a new blog), posting more meaningful posts to twitter and friendfeed, and even striking up conversations with random people I meet on the street. What trouble could that possibly get me into?

Author: "Craig" Tags: "Musings"
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Date: Saturday, 29 Nov 2008 15:42

Money matters are certainly on a lot of people’s minds these days. Concerns about a recession and possibly a depression, government bailouts of financial institutions and automakers, the holiday retail season , and a dozen other things. Our household has been no different.

It tough for me to admit that we’ve made lots of financial blunders, even the same ones over and over again. Of course, I thought I had it all figured out in college until the credit card offers started coming in. I fell into the trap of thinking that I needed a credit card to ‘build credit’ to buy a car or a house later. That’s where it all went wrong.

The Debt Myth

Dave Ramsey points out that credit is one of the most aggressively marketed financial products ever. It is so pervasive in our society that most people could not fathom living without debt of some kind. The reason is that it plays to our instinct that we’ve got to have more stuff. We’ll figure out how to pay for it later, just give me more stuff. Think about all of the “0% interest” and “No payments for until 2040″ ads you hear or see on a daily basis.

I’ve talked to people who have elaborate systems for transferring their debt from one credit card to another every few months so they can keep paying low interest. No doubt it works, but it’s clearly walking a tightrope and eventually you will make a mistake and fall. A lot of people are finding themselves in similar situations because they bought way more house than they could afford at low interest rates thinking they would sell or refinance before the interest rates went up. Only the value of their house went down faster than their equity went up and they’re upside-down and default.

Is Debt Free?

I’ve been ‘debt-free’ several times in my life. I’ll work like a dog to pay everything off, but because my spending habits and basic philosophy about money hasn’t changed, I end up doing it all over again. It’s like a smoker claiming that they quit every time they extinguish a cigarette.

This time, though, I’m vowing that it will all be different. After reading, The Total Money Makeover, my wife and I sat down and discussed the principals and our goals of where we want to be. The first goal is to be debt-free except for the mortgage and the student loans within 12 months. This is quite aggressive when you consider that this includes some medical bills, a loan for a piano, and two cars.

Fortunately, we already recognized that we were getting killed by credit card payments and took steps to consolidate those earlier this year with a 401k loan that is paid directly from my check. This may not have been an ideal move and one I may not have done if I had been listening to Dave Ramsey before I did it. However, the 401k loan has a definite end date, a significantly lower interest rate (which I’m paying to myself), and the payment is less than 1/4 of what the combined minimum payments were. I’m not counting this loan in my ‘debt-free’ goal as it’ll take care of itself.

The Budget

Before we could start the baby steps, we had to do two things: commit to never using credit ever again and develop a budget.

I’ve done budgets before. Simple, right? Take a guess at how much you need to spend in each category and make sure you don’t spend in total more than you make. Doesn’t work, I always overspend. The trick that no one ever tells you is that I need a 0-sum budget. Every single penny of income must be earmarked for something.

What we discovered works for us is that we first make sure there is a minimum amount in the savings account for the emergency fund and a minimum amount in the checking account so we don’t have to worry about overdrawing if we get stupid for some reason (shouldn’t happen, right?). If either account is below the minimum, we get them to the minimum before spending anything.

Then we start subtracting committed expenses for the month (electricity, mortgage payment, water, cable TV, cell phone bill, etc). Then we budget for items that we will need to spend (gas, groceries, entertainment, etc). Then we take out minimum payments for debt (piano, student loans, medical bills) so they all get paid. Then, and here’s the important part: anything that’s left gets added to the Debt Snowball.

Cash is more painful to use than writing a check or swiping the check card. So, anything that we’ll be spending throughout the month is taken out in cash and placed in envelopes marked with what they are for. If we run out of cash in the grocery envelope, we either have to take it from another envelope (e.g. entertainment) or not buy groceries until the next month. The result is that no one needs to carry a checkbook or check card around with them for any reason. Anything in the budget that can be paid through online billpay is directly taken out of the account and everything else is taken out in cash.

The main reason budgets didn’t work for us before is that we tended to leave a ‘cushion’ in the account to make sure we had enough to get by until the next paycheck. The only problem was that as the next paycheck got closer, this cushion became ‘free money’ and tended to get blown on things we didn’t need. There’s no way to do that when you are budgeting every penny.

The Debt Snowball

We’ve taken all of our debts and listed them smallest balance to largest balance regardless of interest rate or other considerations. When we complete our written budget for the month, we take anything that is left and send it to the smallest debt. Once that debt is paid off, the minimum payment that was going to it becomes extra and gets added to the debt snowball.

If I’ve done my calculations correctly, we can easily make our initial goal of paying everything off except the mortgage and the student loans within 12 months. We will continue the same process and I’m hoping it will only take us another couple of years to get the student loans paid off. Once we do that, it’s off to baby step #3.

Intensity

As I mentioned, we are in a slightly better position than a lot of people starting this process because we already had an emergency fund started and we had recently reduced credit card payments to the point where we could actually start a debt snowball just by creating a budget. However, we were fully prepared to get extremely intense and we had worked ourselves up to quite a state before we actually sat down and realized that we just needed a proper budget.

We were prepared to cancel all forms of entertainment except for the Internet, sell one of the cars, turn off the cell phones, and seek additional employment to make this work. That’s how committed, intense, and fired up we got after reading what’s possible by following this plan and becoming debt-free.

We’re still having to make sacrifices and plenty of them, but fortunately we don’t have to go to quite the degree we thought we would. That makes the victory that much sweeter.

Author: "Craig" Tags: "Musings"
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Allowance   New window
Date: Saturday, 18 Oct 2008 13:06

How the government defines a spending “cut”…

A child comes to his mother and asks for a raise in his allowance.

The mother tells the boy “You’re right, you could use a raise, let’s move your allowance from $12.00 dollars a week to $18.00 a week, but, I’ll have to discuss this with your dad first.”

The mother talks to the dad about the allowance, and the dad replies, “You are right, the boy could use a better allowance, but he’s crappy with money. Let’s raise his allowance from $12.00 to $15.00 a week instead.”

The mother then returns the the child, looks him dead in the eye and says; “Your Father just cut your allowance by $3.00!”

Author: "Craig" Tags: "Musings"
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Date: Saturday, 18 Oct 2008 01:52

I’ve known my wife now for 15 years. One of the things I love about her is that she is a talented story teller and writer. Whether it’s a fictional story or a story about a funny thing that happened to her that day, I think she has a knack for unfolding a story in a funny and entertaining way. She tells me I’m biased, but I’m not the only one to tell her that she should be writing for a living. She also has a pretty healthy ego and confidence about herself, but when it comes to her writing she just refuses to put herself out there in any real way. I’m not sure if it’s the fear of rejection or whether she really doesn’t have confidence in her work, but she will only share her work with a few people and some of her writing she won’t even share with me.

I’ve tried for years to convince her that the Internet is a good place for her to familiarize herself with sharing her work in a semi-controlled way. Several years ago, I set up a completely anonymous website for her to post her stories and get comments and feedback from people. No one would know it was her work, but she could get some valuable insight into whether her stuff is any good beyond what her loving husband says. As blogs, podcasts, and social media sites have come along, I’ve tried again and again without much luck to convince her to give it a shot and go “online”.

The closest I got was for her to agree to record an audio version of one of her books and let me serialize it on a podcast, but in the end she backed out when we started discussing technical details like what to call the podcast. For someone who will tell every stranger we meet on the street our life story, she claims she doesn’t want to share anything about herself online. She refuses to sign up for Facebook, saying that if she wanted to connect with someone she knew, she’d just call them (yes, honey, I know). Even dismissing the whole writing angle though, I just think it would be cool if I could send her messages on Twitter. :)

So, the other day when my lovely wife walked into my office and announced, “I want you to set me up with a blog,” I think you can imagine just how long it took me to recover and pick my jaw up from the floor. Even more shocking was that she passed the “what do you want to call it” seriousness test. So, I helped her create a WordPress.com account and configure her very first blog.

I can’t promise you’ll get to see the results of her great American novel, but she’s already posted a couple of stories. One is the background story for the name of the blog and the other is her take on a funny incident that happened last night. Before I sent you off to read it, let me give you something to compare it against. My post to Twitter regarding the incident last night was, “just spent 20 minutes chasing a small bird around the house. Caught him with a towel over the cat litter box and let him go outside.” Now, keep in mind that Twitter purposely limits messages to 140 characters (why it’s called microblogging) and go read my wife’s tale of the same incident. See if you can’t see what I see.

Author: "Craig" Tags: "Musings"
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Date: Monday, 01 Sep 2008 15:01

The other day I watched the video for “It’s Pitch Black” by MC Frontalot which is a tribute to text adventure games. The chorus is, “You are likely to be eaten by a Grue. If this predicament seems particularly cruel, consider whose fault it could be. Not a torch or a match in your inventory.”

This brought back some of the old text adventure games I used to play. I remember Zork, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Leather Goddess of Phobos, and several others I remember but don’t recall the names. I remember sitting for hours every day after school trying to solve the puzzles and typing endless commands like, “pick up book” and “put book in backpack”. It was like reading a book, but one that you could interact with and control the outcome of to a degree.

In some cases, I bought the Infocom hint books. These books contained clues to get you past the more difficult parts of the game, but they allowed you to control how much information and how quickly they gave you hints. Each question was answered first with vague answers and then they got more specific, finally just outright revealing the answer. The innovative part is that you’d use a marker to reveal the answers one at a time as you needed them.

When I was in college, the Internet was more widely available to me, and I discovered multi-player text adventure games like MUDs, MOOs, MUSHes, and others. One particular MUD was responsible for me ducking into the computer labs between classes to kill goblins and shrews. I spent many, many hours building and scripting objects in more than one MOO and even ran my own MOO (LynxMOO) where I met some lifelong friends.

If you Google my name, you’ll find me listed in the credits for enCore, a distance education project using MOOs. If I remember correctly, I scripted an overhead projector object which the professor could load with pre-prepared slides and as she advanced to each one the text would be displayed to all of the students at the same time. The enCore project still exists and they have switched their focus to providing a web-based interface for text-based MOOs.

I suppose you could say text was the basis for my fascination with MMORPGs. I’ve played at least a dozen different MMORPGs over the years and I’m currently active in two. I play Tabula Rasa every day with a great group of friends from my time in Neocron and Neocron 2 (where I was also a volunteer GM for 2.5 years). I also casually play Eve Online. Tabula Rasa is very fast paced and intense so Eve provides a calmer, more social experience when I’m in the mood for that.

Back to text. Surprisingly, text is not dead. You can find plenty of places to play text adventure games online, including the original Infocom games. There is still an active community for MUDs, MOOs, and MUSHes. In particular, I revisited a MUD a co-worker introduced me to almost 5 years ago called Medievia. They just celebrated 17 years of being online and they are still adding features!

They now have a special font which allows them to easier draw ASCII maps of the world and sound triggers that can be configured to play specific .wav files when certain events happen in the game.

I was surprised how quickly everything came back to me. I remembered where things were in the world, how to cast specific spells and when. What dangers to avoid and where to go to level. Strangely enough, it was like picking up a book you haven’t read in a while and finding new details you never noticed before. I think I’ll pop in from time to time to see how things are going and maybe kill a goblin or two.

Author: "Craig" Tags: "Musings"
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Date: Friday, 20 Jun 2008 00:36

For at least 6 months, my family has been harassed by one very persistent telemarketer. I have received postcards, letters, and flyers in the mail. My wife and I have received calls on at home, work, and cell phone numbers (home number registered with the Do Not Call Registry). Most recently, they somehow got my son’s cell phone number which was just activated with a brand new number less than a few months ago. The cell phone was intended for limited use by family and for emergencies and we haven’t given it to anyone. That means Verizon Wireless either sold the number to them or they are war dialing known wireless exchanges (most likely the latter).

The amazing thing is that I was not able to get the company’s name until today. They are using an automated system to call and play a message informing you that your automobile warranty will expire (it’s always the 2nd and final notice) and you should contact them to secure a renewal right away. If you listen to the message, you are given an option to talk to a representative or have your number removed from their records. If you choose the second option, the call immediately terminates (and obviously doesn’t remove your number).

Both of my vehicle’s factory warranty expired some time ago and I have an extended warranty through my credit union. I have no need for their services, but I have talked to a rep numerous times to find out who they are and why they won’t stop calling. If you talk to a rep and start to inquire anything about who they are, they hang up on you. If you ask them to remove you from their list, they hang up on you. If you ask to speak to a supervisor, they hang up on you. If you say you want to buy their service they ask for make, model, and VIN number and have no idea who you are otherwise. If they are supposed to be renewing an existing contract, why don’t they ask for my name or other information to lookup my account?

The calls started out weeks apart, then became several times a week, and now they are several times a day to different numbers. I recently had another run in with another telemarketer who wanted to give me a free cruise which followed the same pattern, but after yelling and screaming and threatening lawsuits they have finally stopped calling (so far). The numbers which show up on caller ID are always bogus - if you call them back, it’s a disconnected number.

The rep my wife talked to today apparantly wasn’t informed that he was supposed to hang up on anyone who asks what the company name and/or business location is, because he actually gave it to her after giving him enough fake information to make him think she was really interested. They are National Auto Warranty Services out of St. Lous, MO.

It would appear that National Auto Warranty Service is already in a bit of trouble with the Attorney General of Missouri for calling people on the Do Not Call list, providing misleading and false information, and failing to honor requests not to be called. It would also appear that things were going so well in Missouri that they have now branched out nationwide. You know it’s bad when people leave comments on your company’s job postings.

If they’re sales and marketing tactics aren’t bad enough, I’m sure you won’t find it any surprise that even if you do buy one of their warranties you may have trouble getting your claim paid or cancelling your policy.

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Author: "Craig" Tags: "Musings, DNC, national auto warranty ser..."
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Date: Friday, 30 May 2008 06:15


(Click on the photo to view the larger version or here to view the album)

Author: "Craig" Tags: "Musings"
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Date: Monday, 21 Apr 2008 03:49

As if finishing up my final semester of grad school wasn’t stressful enough, the professor for my Capstone class went missing around the beginning of March. He posted our mid-term exam on March 5th with the due date to be prior to the start of Spring Break a week later.

At the same time, we had two major assignments due - a research paper due on March 31st and a case study on April 16th. Students had plenty of questions about both assignments, but professor wasn’t responding to e-mail or questions in the (online) classroom. He did post an announcement on the 30th that we could have a deadline extension for a week and the Powerpoint in the syllabus was optional and required only for the face to face class. WHAT? Why couldn’t we have known that before we did it?

As the deadline for the next assignment started to get closer, the students were wondering why we hadn’t been assigned a case study to work on or assigned to groups. The assignment was supposed to be a group project and we’re supposed to be assigned a case study to bring up to date. The deadline for the assignment came and went with no word.

Finally, this week we heard from the professor that he was on an emergency business trip to the UK and Ireland and he had no Internet access. That’s a relief that he’s okay and that he’s back now. I just curious how this will all be resolved. As it stands, I have no graded work so far in this class and the final us coming up in a week or so. Am I passing? Am I failing? I don’t know.

I wouldn’t be so worried, but I’m flying out to Maryland for the commencement and I’d really like to know I’m going to walk the stage.

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Author: "Craig" Tags: "Musings"
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Date: Friday, 18 Apr 2008 03:51

I’m pretty active on Twitter (mostly lurking anyway), but it’s taken me a while to really get into it. For example, tonight we had a large storm come through the area. I’m also a ham radio operator and I’ve been to weather spotter training, though I haven’t volunteered. I prefer to stay home and listen to the other spotters on the ham radio. So, tonight I decided to twitter what the spotters were saying since I knew a few people from the area had started following me on twitter.

It was a really cool experience to interact with other people in the same area and having the same experience. Afterwards, I noticed that I gained several new followers all from this area. Maybe I’ll do more weather spotter twittering in the future.

My biggest challenge has been explaining to friends, family, and co-workers what Twitter is and why they would want to use it. Fortunately, Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos.com has done a better job than I ever could. Have a look.

Beginner’s Quick Start Guide and Tutorial to Using Twitter

Author: "Craig" Tags: "Musings, ham radio, thunderstorms, torna..."
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Date: Wednesday, 02 Apr 2008 00:27
Author: "Craig" Tags: "Musings"
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Date: Sunday, 23 Mar 2008 01:42



2nd place and voted strangest shape

Originally uploaded by craig010101

Congratulations Brock on the 2nd place finish in the Pack 348 Pinewood Derby! He also won the honor of the most unusual shape!

Author: "Craig" Tags: "Musings"
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Date: Wednesday, 12 Mar 2008 11:53

This was posted on a forum I read regularly. Sorry, I don’t know the author.

Being Old in America
ALL ABOUT BEING BORN BETWEEN 1930 and 1980….

First, we survived being born to mothers who smoked and/or drankwhile they were pregnant. They took aspirin, ate blue-cheesedressing, and tuna from a can. They didn’t get tested for Diabetes and there are no Ultrasound photos of us in the womb.

We slept on our tummies, in baby cribs layered with lead-paint. We had no child-proof medicine bottles, doors or cabinets.

We rode in cars as infants and children with no car-seats, booster-seats, seat-belts or air-bags. We got older and rode our bikes without helmets. We even…hitch-hiked! No one drove us toschool in an SUV. A special treat on a warm, summer day was to ride in the back of a pick-up truck. We never fell out.

We drank water from the garden hose, not a plastic bottle. We shared one soft-drink with four friends, and we all drank from the same bottle. No one actually died from this.

We ate white bread and real butter. We drank whole-milk and Koolade made with ‘too much sugar.’ But we weren’t overweight because we got plenty of exercise playing outside. School recess was mandatory, twice a day, and always outdoors.

We would leave home in the morning and play all day — as long as we were home before dark.

No one was able to reach us all day. And we were O.K.

We spent hours building our go-carts out of scraps. We’d drive down a hill, and would be surprised to find there were no brakes. We ran into the bushes, and learned how to solve the problem…by ourselves.

We fell out of trees, got bruises and cuts and broken bones…and we lost teeth. There were no lawsuits from these accidents.

We ate mud-pies and worms. The worms did not live inside us forever.

We kicked-the-can, made up games with an old tennis-ball and a stick. Contrary to what we were told, we never put out someone’s eye.

We had Little League tryouts, and not everyone made the team. Those who weren’t picked, and their parents, learned to ”deal with” the disappointment….And it was unheard of for a parent to bail us out of jail. If we broke the law, they actually sided with the law.

We did not have Playstations, Nintendos, or X-Boxes. We did not have 150 cable-channels, or color-TVs, or VHS, or DVDs. Nor did we have CDs, Walkmans, surround-sound, personal computers, Internet, chat-rooms or…cell-phones. Instead, we went outdoors. We rode our bikes, or walked to a friend’s house and knocked on the door, sometimes just to talk.

There are more ”things” for children today. But we had the most important thing a child can have. We had the freedom to fail….We are generations of risk-takers, problem-solvers and independent thinkers. We have created an explosion of ideas and innovation. We learned “to deal with it all,” perhaps because as children we didn’t “have it all.”

Thanks and a hat tip to my friend in Hammond, Indiana

Also, I would add, that I survived having my feet xrayed in the shoe store, even thought it was fun!

Author: "Craig" Tags: "Musings"
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Date: Monday, 24 Dec 2007 19:18

Here’s a little Christmas video I put together with some help of some friends. :)

Author: "Craig" Tags: "Musings"
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Mozy   New window
Date: Saturday, 22 Dec 2007 16:36

I’ve always had a huge problem when it came to backing up my personal data - it costs too much to do it right. Every time I buy some “system” for backing up, it’s always woefully inadequate. I’ve purchased tape drives, optical drives, and external hard drives in the past and it’s not possible to keep enough backup media around to ensure you can recover from a bad backup with the rate at which hard drive sizes are growing. Unfortunately, I’ve had an urgent feeling (call it geek’s intuition) the past few months that I really need to backup my data somehow. Enter Mozy, an online backup service for Windows and Mac (beta) acquired by EMC in October 2007.

I found this list of “Alternatives to Mozy” on their website. It’s funny because I’ve done most of them.

  • Burn a new CD or DVD every Sunday night and store it at your brother-in-law’s office.
  • Pay $200/year for an online backup service that uses old, mediocre software.
  • Buy a $200 external hard drive and hope your office doesn’t burn down.
  • Do nothing and don’t worry about backup. (We suggest closing your eyes, plugging your ears and repeating “I’m in my happy place, I’m in my happy place.”)
  • Run a cron job of rsync, gzip and mcrypt piped over ssh to your friend’s server over his DSL line.

So how does it work? Using the Mozy software, you define what data you would like to backup by directory, file type, last modified, etc. It even comes with a very comprehensive list of backup sets already defined. Once you setup a regular backup schedule, Mozy takes care of the rest. In the background, it will encrypt your data with 448-bit Blowfish encryption and send it to the Mozy servers via 128-bit SSL. You can either use the default Mozy key or supply your own, but if you lose your key your data is lost forever since no one will be able to decrypt it. If you use their key, they will not view the data you backup or sell your information (see privacy policy).

Once Mozy does the initial backup, it works in the background (set it and forget it) to detect files which have changed and sends only the blocks which have changed over the network. This will save storage space on their end and time and bandwidth for you. The good news is that both the CPU time used for encrypting and the network bandwidth can be throttled easily and flexibly. The Mozy software can even backup files which are currently open (locked) and backs up Outlook files (.pst files). Essentially, the whole thing is a block-level continuous incremental backup.

I initially signed up for the free MozyHome service with a 2GB quota just to try it out. It’s perfect if you just had a few files that you wanted to keep safe like your most important documents. However, I quickly found out that this would not be enough since my wife has 26GB just in digital photos she’s taken. The initial selection of files from the default backup sets came up to 89GB (I was able to trim this down to 69GB with some additional filters). Luckily, there is a MozyHome plan which is $4.95/mo per computer (you get 1 month free if you pay a year in advance and 3 months free if you pay two years in advance) for unlimited storage space. Yes, I said unlimited.

So Mozy’s been running in the background for a while and disaster strikes. How do you recover your data? If you’ve just accidentally modified a file you didn’t intend to, you simply right-click on the file in Windows Explorer and select “Restore Previous Version” and you can restore any version within the last 30 days. You can also access the “MozyHome Remote Backup” virtual drive in windows explorer and browse the files on the Mozy servers before restoring. If you need to restore files to a computer which doesn’t have the Mozy software installed, you can use the web-based restore. Finally, if the ultimate disaster strikes and you need a copy of all of your files and don’t want to download them, you can request that your data be burned to DVDs and shipped to you overnight. There is a fee for this service, obviously.

I already have an increased peace of mind knowing that my most critical documents and folders were backed up when I was trying out the 2GB quota. Now that I’ve gone to the unlimited, I will feel even better knowing that all of our family photos, music collection, and home videos will be safely stored with a company that is an expert in data storage.

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Tags: backup, online, emc, mozy, mozyhome, privacy, unlimited

Author: "Craig" Tags: "Musings"
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Date: Friday, 07 Dec 2007 17:52

Things are winding down here at CMG and I took most of Thursday to work on an assignment that is due this weekend. It’s been a fun week despite being sick, but I’m ready to get back home.

Millicomputing: The Coolest Computers and the Flashiest Storage

This talk was presented by Adrian Cockcroft and discussed the idea of using very low-power technology such as that found in cell phones to build a cluster of lots of servers in a very small space. Each individual device use less than a watt (milliwatts) so hundreds of these things can be packed into a very tight space.

The other advantage is that these device would use flash storage which has very good transfer speeds with no seek time and no rotational latency. The only disadvantage is the number of writes are finite so these devices would have to be used for most read-only applications.

In terms of cost, the average device can be purchased for less than $100 and a 6GB high-capacity high-speed SD card only costs about $75. For the cost of a typical full-sized server you can purchased hundreds of these things.

Consolidated Capacity and Performance Reporting

This is my session which is starting in about 30 minutes. Wish me luck!

Then it’s off to the airport….

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Tags: cmg, cmg2007, millicomputing

Author: "Craig" Tags: "Musings"
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Date: Friday, 07 Dec 2007 17:51

Things are winding down here at CMG and took most of Thursday to work on an assignment that is due this weekend. It’s been a fun week despite being sick, but I’m ready to get back home.

Millicomputing: The Coolest Computers and the Flashiest Storage

This talk was presented by Adrian Cockcroft and discussed the idea of using very low-power technology such as that found in cell phones to build a cluster of lots of servers in a very small space. Each individual device use less than a watt (milliwatts) so hundreds of these things can be packed into a very tight space.

The other advantage is that these device would use flash storage which has very good transfer speeds with no seek time and no rotational latency. The only disadvantage is the number of writes are finite so these devices would have to be used for most read-only applications.

In terms of cost, the average device can be purchased for less than $100 and a 6GB high-capacity high-speed SD card only costs about $75. For the cost of a typical full-sized server you can purchased hundreds of these things.

Consolidated Capacity and Performance Reporting

This is my session which is starting in about 30 minutes. Wish me luck!

Then it’s off to the airport….

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Tags: cmg, cmg2007, millicomputing

Author: "Craig" Tags: "Musings"
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Craig   New window
Date: Thursday, 06 Dec 2007 19:38

Here’s a summary of the sessions I attended:

Application Performance and How Apdex Makes It Better

This session was about application performance management as a component of Business Service management (Infrastructure Service Management being the other component) and how the Apdex spec can help. The most interesting aspect of Apdex is how simple it is. If you can measure some component from the perspective of the end-user and determine at what point the end user is satisfied, tolerating, and frustrated then you can calculate an index of application peformance. The index goes from 0 to 1 so it is fairly easy to compare results from many applications and determine which ones might need some attention.

In order to measure an application using apdex, you need to determine the point at which end users “feel” the impact of a performance problem. If the application is an average web-based application (e.g. a blog), then most users feel a website is responding well if the page returns in under 2 second. Between 2 seconds and 8 seconds, most users will continue to use the site but may flip to other things while waiting. Beyond 8 seconds, most users will give up and go on to something else.

Of course, this will vary by application. One theory put forth is that the time a user will spend on a given page will determine how quickly they get frustrated. If the page is a login page or some information with a “next” button, then they expect a quicker response time than if it’s a blog post that they will spend several minutes reading.

The formula is: Apdex = Satisfied Count + (Tolerating count / 2) / Total Samples. What it boils down to is that you get “full credit” for satisfied responses, “half credit” for tolerating, and no credit for frustrated. If taken as a percentage, the three values always add up to one (see the Apdex Cases session for a neat use for this fact).

Once you have an Apdex score, you need to determine what is a “good” score and a “bad” score. Goals can be set to improve the Apdex score as part of the Application Performance Management process. Typically, a score of .94 to 1.0 is consider Excellent, .85 to .93 is considered Good, .70 to .84 is Fair, .50 to .69 is Poor, and anything less than .50 is unacceptable.

Apdex Process

This session covered more information on Apdex and how to develop a process for incorporating it into an overall APM (Application Performance Management) strategy. Keep in mind that traditional capacity management (Infrastructure) of the servers, network, and storage is still important. APM simply gives you another angle of attack to the problem. Each user “flows” through the infrastructure in a different way and just looking at individual components of the infrastructure is not enough.

Some of the different kinds of vendor tools which can gather Apdex metrics and/or generate Apdex reports. This includes active monitoring, passive monitoring, and end-user agents. Also discussed was potential pitfalls to using these types of monitoring when new technologies like WAN accelerators are used.

The Best at Better

The Plenary speaker was Dale Dauten, author of several nationally syndicated newspaper columns and several books. He was not the kind of speaker you would expect at a technical conference, but I think this is what made the talk so good. He asked everyone to think to think of someone who they consider to be the best boss they ever worked for and think of what makes that person the best. Through his storytelling, he gave us some really good things that make those kind of people who they are.

The Laughing Warriors: How to Enjoy Killing the Status Quo

This breakout session was also hosted by Dale Dauten. It was in a much smaller room and he was better able to have a more intimate discussion about the concepts he covered in the larger Plenary session. After some “warmup” exercises, Dale asked us to break into groups and think of our favorite place to visit and why. Could we run our businesses or departments like that place? For example, our group picked Six Flags because it’s a fun place to go even when you have to stand in line and you always leave feeling like you didn’t do everything there was to do. Indeed, you want to go back.

Setting Performance Objectives Using Apdex

This session was all about how to determine what “T” should be for an application. This is a critical factor for determine the Apdex score. Peter Sevcik gave us 10 different methods to choose from as possibilities. They ranged from going to the users desk and using a stopwatch while watching their body language for signs of tolerating or frustration to calculating a mathematical inflection point (don’t ask, I didn’t understand this one).

Apdex: Case Studies

Three different case studies were presented of companies implementing Apdex reporting. The first case study was from AOL and covered how they initially began using Apdex to monitor various web properties and the refinements and tweaks they made to the process over time. The second was a case study from Keynote discussing using Apdex with a VoIP provider to monitor call quality with metrics such as call clarity and delay. The final case study was the use of the Barycentric Coordinates system to display lots of scores for applications in a visually appealing and compact way. This topic was also covered in the Barry session I attended earlier in the week. Good stuff.

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Tags: cmg, cmg2007, apdex, dale dauten, apm

Author: "Craig" Tags: "Musings"
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Craig   New window
Date: Thursday, 06 Dec 2007 03:27

Things are really moving along now. Lots of sessions to attend, not much time between them. Here is my summary of the sessions I attended today:

Statistics for Performance Analysis & Capacity Planning

This session was actually presented in 3 separate sessions each an hour long by Ray Wicks from IBM. I’m probably at a bit of a disadvantage to many of my colleagues because I have never taken a statistics class or had to work much with them. It was very enlightening to get an introduction to many of the concepts in statistics, at least the ones that pertain to Performance Analysis and Capacity Planning. There was still a lot of the Greek alphabet, but I think I walked out of the session with new and valuable information.

To Instrument or Not to Instrument, That is the Question

This session covered instrumenting code (regardless of language) to make application performance management much more effective. The focus was on “always on” metrics that could be useful for keeping tabs on what’s happening. I think the main point was that by the time you know you have a problem, it’s too late to change the code to add instrumentation and increase the probability of introducing new bugs. The happy medium is somewhere between no logging and leaving debug turned on in production.

Death to Dashboards

This was probably one of the more highly anticipated sessions of the conference so far and has certainly been the most entertaining. The main theme was that displaying information on “traffic light” dashboards can only indicate so much information. For example, that server shows red but “how red” is it? How long has it been red? How important is the system? The presenters, Peg McMahon and Justin Martin from Sprint Nextel presented some of their experiences in implementing a capacity and performance monitoring system. The alternatives presented went along with some of the other data visualization techniques discussed in other sessions. The one I had not seen previous was Treemaps - a neat way of visually displaying lots of information in a small space using different sizes and colors. It reminded me of tag clouds in a way, but more graphical.

ITIL v3 Capacity Management: A Review

I’m not sure what I expected to get out of this session. I’ve heard ITIL mentioned numerous times in the past few years, but I don’t think anyone really gave me a one or two sentence summary of what it’s for and why you would use it. I guess I have a little better understanding now, but a lot of the references in this session were assuming you already knew a little of ITIL v2. Still confused a little, need to do some more research on the concept.

Coming on Friday

Before I close this summary, I thought I would post the abstract for the session I’m presenting on Friday:

There are dozens of tools available for monitoring application and system performance, each with their own particular flavor or specialty. Over time, tools may be added to meet specific needs and “tool sprawl” can occur. This session explores the effort to deploy a consolidated Capacity and Performance Reporting solution. The team pursued a solution using Cacti, an open-source front-end to RRDTool, and existing tools. The end result was a cost-effective, multipurpose solution to the “tool sprawl” problem.
Author: "Craig" Tags: "Musings"
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Date: Tuesday, 04 Dec 2007 09:35

Since I now have a full-blown cold, I woke up early and unable to breathe which makes it hard to sleep. So, I figured it was a good time to take some sunrise photos from my 15th floor hotel room overlooking the Marina. You can’t see them, though, because I sent them into Cowpie Buzz for her photo contest. I’m sure they’ll show up there for you vote on eventually. :)
Since the conference didn’t officially kick off until the afternoon and I was up early, I decided to have breakfast in my room. I just have one question, who thought asparagus for breakfast (or anytime) was a good idea?

Breakfast

After breakfast I spent some time catching up with work and actually made some pretty good progress on my paper which is due this coming Sunday. It wasn’t a lot of progress, but certainly more than I’ve made to date - combined. I hope the block I’ve had getting started on it is broken now.

For lunch, I headed back down to Seaport Village to eat at a place called Buster’s Beach House and Longboard Bar. I opted for the Pork Luau sandwich which was really good, but it took longer than I would have wanted for the food to be delivered. Then again, I’m impatient like that.

Keynote

The keynote was given by Jerred Ruble, President and CEO of TeamQuest Corporation and was entitled “Is Capacity Planning Still Relevant?” Obviously, the answer at a conference for capacity planners has to be “yes”, but he had some very interesting things to say about how capacity planners (read: IT geeks) must learn how to frame capacity and performance metrics in terms of business metrics. As tools and techniques have evolved, it’s more critical than ever to convince executive teams that capacity planning is still relevant.

After the keynote there was a panel of former A.A. Michelson Award winners discussing the next steps beyond Best Practices which were dubbed “Next Practices”. I thought it was very interesting and telling that when asked how many in the audience had Myspace or Facebook pages, hardly anyone raised their hands. When the same question was asked about the audience’s children the story was very different.

I’ve already made the observation that the CMG conference still seems to be attended by a lot of Mainframe types and could do with some attention from the social networking and Web 2.0 crowds. The keynote did shed some light on this, but the approach seemed to be for the normal attendees to embrace the new technologies rather than go out and recruit the new generation of developers and bring them into CMG.

The expectation is that the hottest topic for next year will be “Green IT”.

Using Simulation to Forecast Performance: A Case Study

This was an interesting extension of some of the modeling and Queuing Theory covered in yesterday’s workshop on PDQ. This presentation seemed to be lacking in substance and referred a lot to the paper itself, but I understood more than others I think because I attended the PDQ workshop. To the author’s credit, she was presenting a case study and not trying to cover Queuing Theory.

Seeing It All at Once with Barry

This session was the most interesting of the day. It was presented by Dr. Neil J. Gunther and Mario Jauvin, both of whom presented in the two workshops I attended yesterday. The concept was about Barycentric coordinates and other ways to create ways to present large amounts of data in a visual way. This is similar the stuff being done at Gapminder.org and Digg Labs’s Swarm.

Barycentric coordinates are useful when you want to represent data that must always sum to one. For example - usr, sys, and idle time always add to 100%. The Apdex metric also results in the sum of its value equal to 1. This works because distance from a point plotted inside of a triangle (or tetrahedron) to the each of the three side (or four sides) must always equal the height of the triangle. (See more).

Interestingly enough there is a conference-in-a-conference on Apdex on Wednesday this week and I’m planning to attend as many of the sessions as I can. This looks like a great way to measure create an application performance index.

Business Meeting and A.A. Michelson Award

I usually don’t bother attending the Business Meeting, but I knew the buses were leaving for the harbor cruise right after and I didn’t want them to leave without me. I’m glad I attended, it was definitely a positive experience to see the inner workings of CMG and the work that goes into putting on the conference. It makes me think about volunteer besides just writing a paper and presenting for future conferences.

Congratulations need to go out to all of the various award winners this year, but especially Adrian Cockcroft for winning this year’s A.A. Michelson award. His contributions to CMG and the field of performance management, particularly for Solaris are well-known to most in the industry. I think the most interesting part of his acceptance speech was his advice in presenting metrics to Executive Management: metrics should be presented as dimensionless or in terms of dollars or they will try to convert the to dollars. Sometimes they even try to convert dimensionless metrics to dollars as well. I also enjoyed what he called the “Cockcroft Law of Book Writing“.

Adrian also touched on a talk he is giving later in the week on something he has dubbed “millicomputing” because the power consumption must be measured in Milliwatts. These are very small, low power devices with flash storage (limited write capability, but very fast reads). However, Adrian’s idea is to use arrays of these small devices to create a very powerful, low power cluster. Unfortunately, I think I’m going to miss the talk but I’ll have to check out paper once I get back home.

PARS (Performance Analyst Relaxation Session)

This was a don’t-miss event. As far as I know and according to everyone I’ve asked, this is the first year they have had a outing for PARS. Usually PARS is food, drinks, and entertainment in the convention center. This year they moved the food, drinks, and entertainment to a ship, the Inspiration Hornblower, as it cruised around San Diego Harbor.

Inspiration Hornblower From the dock Onboard the Inspiration Hornblower
View of the bridge Top Deck of Inspiration Hornblower Dining Area of Inspiration Hornblower

I would have gotten more pictures, but the battery in my phone was low. We cruised out beyond the large bridge you can see in the photos taken from my hotel room, turned around, and cruised back. We even passed a large battleship as it was heading back out to sea. Speaking of which, everyone was talking about touring the USS Midway and now I have to make time to go see it.

 

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Tags: sandiego, cmg, cmg2007, inspiration hornblower, buster’s, seaport village, barry, barycentric

Author: "Craig" Tags: "Musings"
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Date: Monday, 03 Dec 2007 17:01

The CMG Sunday workshops are an opportunity to get a more immersive and hands-on experience with Performance and Capacity Planning topics. Since it all happens before the official kickoff of the conference on Monday afternoon, it’s also a great way to get the jump on the other attendees.

In the morning, I attended a workshop by Adrian Cockcroft and Mario Jauvin called “Performance Management with Free and Bundled Tools”. They have actually presented this same workshop for several years now and its updated each year with the latest information on dozens of tools. It was this workshop in 2005 that led me to implement several open source tools and write my own paper about the experience which I’m presenting at this year’s CMG.

Photo_120207_001.jpg Photo_120207_002.jpg

For the afternoon session I opted to sit in on Dr. Neil J. Gunther’s “How to Move Beyond Monitoring, Pretty Damn Quick!”. This was a very enlightening session for me because it discussed how to move from merely monitoring performance to modeling and predicting performance. Previously, I’ve looked at using statistical means of predicting performance such and there are obviously some drawbacks and limitations to this. Namely that statistics assume that response time will grow in a linear fashion. However, a computer system is really a circuit of queues and Queuing Theory tells us that it will be more like a hockey stick. PDQ is a an open source tool which allows you to build queuing models and use them to predict performance. For example, if my server farm has an average response time of 300ms with a load of 1,000 requests per second then what will performance look like at 6,000 requests per second? At what point does response time become unacceptable and I should add additional capacity? I’m looking forward to exploring this further once I get back home.

After the workshops, I set out to find someplace to dine that wasn’t terribly expensive and since I’m limited without a rental car and don’t want to take taxi, I decided to explore Seaport Village some more. At the far end, I found a place call the San Diego Burger Company. The price was more reasonable than other places in the area, but still expensive for a burger joint. However, it was definitely worth the price. The burger was great, but the onion rings as far from crispy as you can get.

On my way back to the hotel, I came across a unique site. A carousel inside of a building.

Photo_120207_003.jpg Photo_120207_004.jpg


I realized as I was walking back to the hotel that because of the time zone change, my class assignments which are due at midnight EST would now be due two hours earlier here on the west coast than at home. I hope my professors will understand why I was an hour late turning in my assignment. I’m looking forward to a bit of relaxation and a chance to work on my paper since there’s nothing scheduled until Monday afternoon. It seems that Monday evening’s social/networking event is a harbor cruise which sounds fun.

Tags: sandiego, cmg2007, cmg, seaport village, performance, pdq, free, open source, san diego burger company

Author: "Craig" Tags: "Musings"
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