A Day in the Life… What to do When the ‘Net is Down

Having vented spleen in our last post about waiting for the phone company to install their next-generation equipment so we can get even the slower speed access we pay for (until our neighbors upgrade to the faster service, which all shares the same base bandwidth), we have to do something with ourselves when the DSL starts crashing.

As readers may know, the Unix Curmudgeon’s partner in life, the Nice Person, is an accomplished fiber artist–spinner, weaver, and quilter.  As you may  or may not know, there are strong connections between weaving and computer technologies.  The invention of the Jacquard system of controlling multi-shaft looms 210 years ago, in 1801, became a foundation idea for data processing.  Using punched tablets to control the weave patterns was adapted by Hollerith to electrically operate counters to tabulate the results of the 1880 U.S. Census.  Punched cards were used for electronic data tabulation for the next century, and, in the early 1950s, extended to include not only the data, but the programs in von Neumann architecture computers.  With the development of computer terminals and portable magnetic storage, punched cards became relics.  Even Jacquard looms became controlled by computers.

So, it is natural for computer-oriented folk to migrate back to the beginnings, with hand-weaving techniques.  A couple of months ago, the Unix Curmudgeon tuned up an old 4-shaft table loom and took a weaving class, producing an acceptable pair of placemats and matching hotpad.  The final exam, so to speak, is to make a scarf, using our own selection of materials.  For this, I chose to use one of our floor looms, a 4-shaft Gilmore, and to weave a doublecloth piece in Tencel (a silk-like man-made cellulose fiber) and wool.  As with computer programs, the design takes a bit of time and calculations (I used the draft from a magazine project as a template, but the fiber mix and project size adapted to my idea); the coding and debugging (dressing the loom) takes a long time, and the testing (actual weaving) not so long.

Of course, a complex threading pattern, like a complex computer program, is inevitably fraught with errors.  Some are caught in a “bench check” — visual inspection, and some only during testing, which often takes one back to the drawing board.  In my case, the tie-on revealed a few sleying errors (threading errors in the reed, or beater), which also revealed what I thought was a minor threading error in the heddles–a thread on the wrong shaft.  For this, I tied a new heddle and rethreaded a couple of warp threads.  But, an inch or so into the weaving, when the weave structure became visible in the cloth, it became apparent that the “fix” did not fix the problem: all of the warp to the left of the misthreading were offset.  At this point, the only solution is to unweave, reversing the treadling sequence and passing the shuttles in reverse order, until the warp, and rethread about 100 warp threads.  Hey, this is just like writing a program, when you don’t have a clear grasp of the structure or simply make an error.

4-shaft doublecloth project
Oh, oh. Can you spot the threading error? All of this got unwoven and the left third of the warp rethreaded.

So it goes.  Like quilting, weaving is a lot like computer programming. Design, built, debug, test, redesign, build, etc.

This, hopefully, will end up as a wool/silk (Tencel is a less-expensive substitute) aviator scarf.

A Day in the Life… Network Woes at Chaos Central

Chaos Central (our Pacific Northwest home and office) seems aptly named these days.  We have a number of projects and crises going simultaneously, all to keep us active into our golden years.  Of course, the golden years are turning out to be peeling gilt rather than solid gold, but we are surviving the recession and housing bust.

Item:  after 20 months on the market, we have gradually lowered the price on our Big Sky cottage to what we refinanced it for in 2003 to repair the roof and replace the heating system.  The market is picking up, but prices still falling, with new houses in the development on the east side essentially going at cost.  Meanwhile, we are still working, and will for some time, as our home equity, once a valid retirement investment, has evaporated: retirement has become an artifact of the 20th century.

Item: our DSL connection, on which we depend for our livelihood, has always been a bit variable, but has been essentially unusable between 9:00am and midnight for the last five or six weeks.  We have a nominal 7Mbps line, which, early in the morning runs at a respectable 5.5Mbps, but drops to 500Mbps by mid-morning.  By the time high school is out in early afternoon, it specs out to about the 19.2kbaud speed of fast dial-up connections available 20 years ago.  The PPPoE connection, which used to stay up for weeks at a time, starts resetting as often as every two minutes, which stops file downloads dead, drops remote login sessions, and times out name service lookups.  We are basically off-line.

Qwest, our internet service provider, finally admitted it was a bandwidth problem, caused by congestion on the circuits.  The last time this happened, only a few short months ago, they suggested it was a “bad modem.”  But, curiously, the service seemed to improve before I could get the replacement installed, and the session drops continued, though at a slower rate.  At that time, I had written a Perl script to check the WAN IP address on the PPPoE session once an hour and post the address to a file on our external web site, so I could connect with our network services while out of the office.  But, with the session dropping every few minutes, this obviously won’t work anymore, so I rented a static address ($25 setup plus $6/month forever), which doesn’t improve service one whit, but does make it easier to reconnect.

Supposedly, the equipment needed to fix the problem is sitting on the loading dock at the phone company, but will be installed and configured “in due time.”  Meanwhile,  our only recourse is to shift office hours earlier and earlier.  If service does not improve, the other solution is to switch to cable, which, for all we know, potentially has similar problems.

Interestingly enough, at the same time the providers are struggling with oversold network capacity, they are advertising even faster speeds.  I’m convinced this is simply a program of competitive sales pitches between DSL and cable, and provides no actual improved service on the part of either provider.  Now, one can still purchase T-1 (DS1) service, at a guaranteed 1.5Mbps (versus 5.5 to zero, probably average less than T-1), for about 10 times what ADSL service costs, with appropriately larger equipment and installation costs.  That’s appropriate for a 10-12 person office, but a bit of overkill for a two-person shop.  But, if it means the difference between doing business and not, it is something to look into.  ADSL (Another D*n Slow Link), like ISDN (It Still Does Nothing), is yet another telephone technology that doesn’t live up to the promise.

The problem with the phone and cable companies is they can’t build infrastructure fast enough to keep up with demand.  Ever since the explosive growth of the Internet started 20 years ago, capacity has lagged behind demand by orders of magnitude.  Some of the demand is fueled by the aforementioned competitive claims of every faster speeds offered by the two major broadband providers, the phone company and the cable company.  Don’t be fooled by fantastic speed claims: it only lasts until your neighbor subscribes, too, and there is no minimum speed guaranteed. Caveat emptor.

The Accidental Bicycle Tourist: A Life Journey

Spring finally comes to the Pacific Northwest on a clear, cold April day in 2011, overdue for the first bike ride of the season. I’m on the road at last, after a long wet winter that started with ice that cut short December riding in Montana, and heavy rains that discouraged riding in Washington. A couple of early spring trips to the gym to ride the stationary beast had at least verified that not all the strength and endurance had wasted away over winter.

This first ride is planned as an overnighter, to our son’s house in Olympia Saturday afternoon, then home on Sunday via Ruby Street Quiltworks in Tumwater, a total distance of 55 miles. It’s not exactly a tour, more of an extended commute: Judy, my life partner and tandem stoker, is off at a weekend weaving workshop in Olympia, while I had an afternoon writing workshop in Shelton: I plan to join her to babysit the grandchildren in the evening and to attend my meeting in Tumwater the next day, without driving separate cars, in the age of four-dollar gasoline.

bicycle commuter
The Bicycle Commuter, 2009

My steed these days is a 15-year-old Specialized Hard Rock, more suited to the short commutes to work for which it served for a dozen years or so than touring or long-distance training, but it’s what is in the stable now, for another month at least. The fat tires roll along at cruise between 12 and 15 miles per hour, for an average trip speed of 10 miles per hour, down a mile or two from when the bike and I were both younger, and much slower than my old road touring bike, which is still in Montana.

Grandson Ethan, ready to ride

The ride goes smoothly, following the gentle grades of US Highway 101 toward the city, then a few miles of quiet beach drive rolling along the inlet before climbing through West Olympia and diving down and across the city. The afternoon ride ends after a climb up the Woodland Trail, a rail-trail pathway parallel to Interstate 5. Grandson Ethan, 7, who rides the trail with his father, is impressed as I arrive, knowing it is more than 30 minutes in the car at freeway speed to Granny and Grandpa’s house.

Larye on the Hiawatha clunker, with Jane, 1953

It’s been 60 years since I, at Ethan’s age, pedaled away from my father’s steadying hand for the first time. My first–and, for the next 25 years, only–bike was an ancient Hiawatha one-speed with 24-inch wheels, fat tires, and impossibly wide handlebars. I rode mostly in the summer, and never to school or on my newspaper delivery route. A few of my more affluent friends had “English” bikes, with large, graceful wheels, skinny tires, dropped bars, and three-speed internal hubs. Mine wasn’t even a motorcycle-wannabe cruiser—just a clunker. I last rode it between my freshman and sophomore years in college, home for the summer with no job.

I was 32 the summer of the Bicentennial, living in Newport, Rhode Island, when I decided to try riding one of a pair of Sears folding 3-speed bikes to work, so the family could have the car during the day. The bikes were a legacy from my then in-laws, impractical monsters with heavy frames and 20-inch wheels that actually came apart rather than folded, held together by tab-and-slot and two large wing nuts on steel plates that joined the halves of the triple down-tube. Taken apart, the bikes would fit in the trunk of a very large sedan, but barely. The weight of the bike and years of pastries, cigarettes, and a sedentary desk job took their toll. My legs were so rubbery after the first 4-mile ride, I fell down when I dismounted at the bike rack at work. But, I persevered, continuing to ride except in the worst winter weather, and soon developed endurance of a sort.

I knew nothing about bike maintenance, having ridden the clunker of my youth so little it rarely needed servicing. When the tires wore bald on my commuter, I simply switched bikes, as we had two of them. After a couple of years of steady bike commuting, I decided I needed a better bike rather than repair the folders. I trotted off to the toy store (also knowing nothing about performance bicycles) and bought the biggest 10-speed they had, a powder blue C. Itoh, about three sizes too small. But, it was relatively light and vaguely resembled the European racers. I put several thousand miles on that bike, to the point where I would have had to consider a major overhaul, when it was stolen, the cheap combination lock-chain filed through while I was hoisting a few at the pub after work in the spring of ’79.

By this time, recreational bicycling and even racing were enjoying a resurgence in America, so I was aware that there were serious bicycles available. I also realized that, as an all-weather bicycle commuter, I was at least a semi-serious bicyclist. This time, I discovered actual bicycle stores, with light, strong frames sized to fit adult riders and “name brand” drive train components. I bought a new red Fuji Gran Tourer, with a six-gear freewheel for (theoretically) 12 “speeds” (actually, gear ratios).

The Fuji proved to be a wise purchase. A few months after I acquired it, my family packed up and moved to New Mexico. The bicycle became my only vehicle for the next year. Most of my riding was from wherever I was living to work, but I had ridden one of the old three-speed folders to the auto wrecking yard at the north end of the island for car parts once. With the superior fit of the Fuji, I began to ride farther, touring the city on weekends and making at least one 45-mile round trip to Massachusetts. I became interested in performance, charting the gear ratios and practicing step changes while keeping a steady cadence.

In the summer of 1980, my bicycle and I boarded a plane and headed for Bremerton, Washington for a new work assignment at the submarine base on the Hood Canal. With my commute extended from 4 to 15 miles, I outfitted myself with black wool cycling shorts (with the real chamois pad—no spandex in 1980), cycling shoes and toe clips, a helmet, fingerless cycling gloves, and, of course, for the Pacific Northwest, a cyclist’s rain poncho and ski underwear for chilly mornings. With no car, a new territory to explore, and some decent riding gear, weekend excursions extended to 80-mile round trips. The family joined me in the fall, but, with only one car, I continued to ride year around, even when my commute extended to 17 miles one way, from Bremerton to Poulsbo. With mileage increased to 3500 miles per year, I soon learned about bicycle maintenance. All-weather biking and long miles took its toll on the drive train, brakes, tires, and cables. I went through several sets of tires, tubes, and chains a year, and had to replace the rear freewheel gear cluster about once a year and the front chain rings every couple of years. Pedals wore out or got trashed in potholes. A rear axle broke once, three miles from home. I started carrying spare tubes after discovering repair patches don’t stick to tubes in the rain: it took three hours to get to work one rainy morning after puncturing on road construction debris, normally a one-hour ride. And, I got tire liners to keep glass cuts from slitting the tubes.

I didn’t ride much for recreation those years, though I did take the Boy Scout troop on Cycling merit badge rides and even made a couple of courier trips to Seattle to pick up package shipments. I also took bicycle commuting to the limits, packing the bike on the plane for a business trip to Minneapolis. I took a day off after the business meetings to ride to my parents’ house, 30 miles north of the airport. Returning to Seattle a day ahead of my colleagues, I rode home to Indianola, on the Kitsap Peninsula, via the Bainbridge Ferry, discarding the bike box at baggage claim. The only thing I didn’t plan for, arriving late at night, was extra batteries for my lighting system, which left me pedaling the 15 miles from the Bainbridge Ferry by starlight and the taillights of rare passing cars.

In the early spring of 1983, I had been the one to leave home as my first marriage finally unraveled.. This time, after bicycling everywhere became impractical, I bought a junker car that cost about the same as I had paid for the Fuji. No longer commuting to work, but with free time, I started training after work for long-distance rides, participating in the Chilly Hilly ride on Bainbridge Island in February and making increasingly longer rides, with my first “century” ride of 100 miles on Mother’s Day, 1983. I upgraded to aluminum wheels, replacing the stock steel wheels. On the summer solstice weekend, I joined a thousand other one-day riders for the 4th running of the 200-mile Seattle-to-Portland Classic,, which I completed in just under 14 hours, placing 750th. I was 39 years old. I had started riding at the same age that Lance Armstrong would be when he won his sixth Tour de France amid rumors of impending retirement, and I had graduated from city bike commuter to endurance cyclist.

That summer, after the double-century ride, I became a true bicycle tourist for the first time. I made several long-weekend camping tours, traveling as far as Victoria, British Columbia. A knee strain put me off the bike for a few months by late summer. Even so, I logged 5,000 miles that year. In the previous seven years, I had ridden far enough to circumnavigate the earth, and had the chiseled thighs and calves of a professional bike racer, if not the speed. In my one and only (unsanctioned) race, I came in next to last, between a guy older than me who recently had a knee replacement and a 5-foot tall woman on a bike heavier than mine.

In late spring of 1984, I was transferred back to Rhode Island, arriving as I had left, by plane with my bike in a box. I strapped it on the rental car, drove to Newport, dropped off the car, and settled in my new home, ten miles from work, a beach cottage at the extreme north end of the island. I rode the whole summer, renting a car about one weekend a month, as I had children visiting for the summer. When school started, I had one child at home yet. I bought another $300 clunker car, and dropped my son off at school on the way to work, putting the bike aside. When I transferred back to the West Coast in early 1985, I junked the Rhode Island car, getting my other junker out of mothballs back in Washington.

Judy and I married soon after I returned to Washington, becoming a two-car family, and I gave up bicycle commuting for ten years. She was interested in keeping recreational bicycling as part of our life together, rather than me spending all my energy commuting. But, like most adults then, she hadn’t ridden since childhood, and I was used to riding 100 miles before lunch. To even the field, so to speak, we ordered a Santana Arriva XC mountain-style tandem for our first anniversary in 1986. We took delivery of the “Leviathan”–as a co-worker christened our big black bicycle, with its oversized frame and fat tires—on Capitol Hill in Seattle, taking our first ride at a terrifying 25 miles per hour through downtown Seattle traffic to catch the ferry, stopping once to fix a loose handlebar. Amazingly, we are still married, 25 years later.

Deception Pass, MS Tour 2006

And, through those 25 years, the Santana tandem has served us well, through more than 10,000 miles, most in the first five and last five years. We rode the Seattle-to-Portland (the two-day version) in 1987. Over the years, we’ve toured the Flathead Valley in Montana, the San Juan Islands, Victoria, Hood Canal, Skagit Valley, Sumas Valley, and Bitterroot Valley. In 1988, we rode across Glacier National Park and through the Canadian Rockies from Radium Hot Springs, BC to Jasper, Alberta. The first years, we rode many of the big 50-60-mile spring classic rides in the Puget Sound area and joined group rides as well as making our own weekend tours. After a ten-year lapse, with few outings, we hit the road again in earnest after moving to the Bitterroot Valley. From 2005-2007, we rode the 100-mile weekend MS Tour in the Skagit Valley and Fidalgo Island, and the 2007 100km Ride the Rogue tour in Oregon.

Beginning in 2004, we rode my “birthday miles” on the tandem at the beginning of fall, as a training goal to break out of the short daily commute rut. But, in the last three years, I’ve been on my own, and now back in the Pacific northwest, I need a better bike. I keep the Fuji in Montana to ride to work when I am in residence, but 12 speeds just never were enough for modern riding styles and hilly terrain, even 30 years ago. The Hard Rock, which I acquired for commuting through the Duwamish industrial district in Seattle in the mid-90s and then rode through ten Montana winters, is, well, a low-end no-suspension mountain bike, not well-suited to the kind of road riding I do solo now. The three bikes have absorbed the bulk of the lifetime riding miles, now approaching 50,000, and are, while well-maintained and serviceable, no match for the currently available technologies. Also, both the Fuji and the Santana are designed around Suntour drive-train components, which have not been manufactured for 20 years and are getting scarce, not something one wants to risk failing on tour, with little recourse for repair.

Finally, in 2011, we traded in our 17-year-old Jeep bike-hauler, replacing it with a modern one that our venerable Yakima tandem rack won’t fit on. Bike-friendly buses and trains in the Pacific Northwest are great range extenders, if we could take advantage of public transit, and the Santana is just too big. We’d like to be more flexible in our options and be able to travel with our bike instead of transporting it. So, we’ve ordered a modern, light-weight take-apart convertible tandem/single system from the Green Gear folks in Eugene, Oregon. We expect to take delivery of our new Bike Friday Tandem Traveler Q model by mid-May, in time for our early summer Montana tour, and have it well-broken in for an Adventure Cycling early fall tour in Upper Michigan. What started as an expedient way to maximize utility in a one-car family 35 years ago has become a major life-style activity as we ease into our “golden years” and take more time for travel and to focus on keeping fit and healthy enough to enjoy watching grandchildren and great-grandchildren grow—and, maybe, to ride with them.

Emerson's first bike ride

Meanwhile, the season-opener weekend ride continues: in the morning, I help install a bike seat for two-year-old Emerson on his dad’s bike, and the four of us ride around the neighborhood before parting, me headed south toward Tumwater, and they north toward the bike trail. Of course, it rains, a downpour just ending as I start from Tumwater toward Shelton, prompting me to unpack the rain gear, then repack it a few miles down the road, but keeping it ready at hand as black clouds loom over my destination. The last mile, like the first, is in rain. I have a bit of post-ride stiffness, but not bad for a 20+ mile ride early in the season, and back-to-back riding days with no residual soreness. Bicycling is truly for all ages—the weekend is proof that, at 67, I’m in much better physical condition that I was when I started at 32, justification enough to invest in a new bike and keep riding.

Strung Out and Warped

The best kept secret of system administrators is that we get to play with the most powerful computers in the world. Not only that, we get paid, too! So, you ask, if work is so much fun, what do sysadmins do when they are not at work?

Well, actually, most of us are on-call, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, but we do other things on those rare moments away from our keyboards: extreme sports (mine is bicycling); reading books that are not software manuals (usually science fiction or mysteries); and artistic or intricate handcrafts (mine are building full-sized aircraft, quilting, and, most recently, weaving).

The latter, weaving, is my latest affliction. Most of our hobbies have some relationship with the primary activity, computer programming and computer maintenance, and mine are no exception. Assembling a quilt is like executing a computer program, with subroutines and loops to cut patches, assemble them into blocks, blocks into strips, and strips into a quilt. I’ve dabbled in loomwork beading, where the beads are arranged in a grid like pixels on a computer display, to form a picture or pattern. And now, fabric weaving, which reminds me of the old days when computer backplanes were a grid of closely-spaced circuit-card pins, interconnected with tens of thousands of tiny wires. The backplanes were initially wired by robotic machines, but what we now call firmware changes had to be hand-wired, using fine crochet hooks and drill-like wire-wrapping tools to remove the old wires and weave new ones into the mat.

Warping the loom (front)
Threading the heddles and reed

Dressing a loom (threading the warp threads through the heddles and reed) is much like modifying the old wire-wrap backplanes.  In the photo above, the thread tied on the front of the reed is the half-way mark.  The warp threads on the left are grouped next to the heddles through which they will be threaded.

rear view of loom
Warp beam and raddle

The above photo is the back of the loom, showing the warp threads wrapped on the warp beam and spaced through the raddle, which will be removed after the warp is threaded and tied to the cloth beam in front.  There are 342 threads in this warp, each of which must be threaded through a heddle and a reed slot in a particular order.  The heddles, on four shafts, are raised and lowered by six foot treadles, each of which is tied to one to three shafts, according to the design.  The treadles are pressed in a specific order to create the weaving pattern.

So far, this has been a relaxing diversion from the keyboard, and brought back memories of, well, working on memories (of the computer kind).  The piece to be woven is a mix of synthetic viscose fibers and wool, so the result may or may not be successful, depending on the shrinkage rates of the two fibers.

Stay tuned.  Meanwhile, back to the more abstract concepts of kernel tuning and performance analysis of parallel and threaded (the execution flow kind) software.

The Blogification of the Web

Blogging is all the rage, even for folks like the Unix Curmudgeon, but largely blowing in the wind. The only comments we get are from WordPress blogspammers who troll the blogstream for new posts, to which they comment with praisebabble in hopes of getting their advertisement page cross-linked for search-engine cred.

But, blog we must, and link at least to our own websites.  The basic problem with web sites this this: custom ones are expensive and hard to change without calling up $CONSULTANT and paying big fees.  Custom sites with backend content-management systems are even more expensive.  So, most folks craft or commission a nice front page, maybe a sample of their portfolio, and there the page sits.  How to keep it fresh and current?  Enter the blog.

As you, dear constant reader, know, the Unix Curmudgeon is charged with the care and keeping of the Nice Person’s artful web sites, but they are oft-neglected in the rush to chase after the whims of $CLIENT (for $$, naturally), on the part of both of us, one too busy to anticipate the needs and the other too busy to articulate needs in sufficient detail. No surprise, then, that the Nice Person requested a blog of her own, complete with a short tutorial on the care and feeding of same, the feeding part being where the main web sites get neglected.

So, it launched yesterday, a painful process, in light of the semaphore flag and signal mirror speed of our Internet connection while we wait for the phone company to liberate some of the cash we’ve been feeding them on the promise of much better service and put it into actual hardware that can handle the load.  But, there it is: http://blogs.judyparkins.com.  The actual installation was a bit smoother than the user tutorial, since most of the work took place on the remote server using a light-weight text session between our balky connection and the server.  It is truly amazing how much advertising, cookies, cross-linking, flash and static images, and other commerce-driven traffic goes on when you load a simple web page, all of which grinds to a halt when the network is overloaded to begin with.

We now have multiple blogs hosted in our stable of webs, and associate them with different domains, so some additional PHP programming was needed to steer the curious to the proper one, with a minimal URL specification.  While our web hosting provider, Modwest, offers one-click WordPress installation, we prefer to manage our own.  Even so, adding another blog site was relatively easy, by downloading the latest version of WordPress and installing it in a separate directory, taking care to assign a different prefix for the database tables.  Because of the slow web connection, I chose to directly edit the configuration file, but the web setup is the normal way to go, and WordPress defaults to the setup page when first accessed.  As content management tools go, WordPress is easy to set up, easy to use, and easy to customize, as long as you like the basic layout and presentation model.  It’s great for blogs, and an inexpensive way for folks who are savvy with content but don’t want to learn HTML or PHP coding to run entire web sites.

Teaching the Nice Person to use the image upload and edit features was a snap, much easier than going through the intricacies of The GIMP to crop, size, rotate, and otherwise tweak photos.  Though, I did use The GIMP to prepare a header photo from our personal collection.  WordPress comes with a nice set of images, but nothing puts your personal brand on a site than using your own graphics. And, a WordPress site has so much more depth than a Facebook stream (and, unlimited character and photo count), though we do also use Facebook to link to our other web products.  

There is a simple procedure for adding a “like” button automaticaly to posts, but the rather frequent WordPress upgrades blows away any customized code: caveat emptor.  It may be possible to add buttons inside a post.  Hmm.  But, a bother, even if you have to have the code handy to paste in… Oops, it didn’t work–can’t embed an iframe in an iframe… Well, just have to remember to add the code each update..