Well, THAT Sucked

The last few days my Web host has been having a tough time. I don’t know the exact nature of the problem and I doubt I ever will, but this site has been broken. For a while it would not load at all, and then it was in ‘read-only mode’, Which meant that it was still performing terribly and I couldn’t even put up a notice that I knew things weren’t going well but the solution was out of my hands. Not a good situation when my credibility as a programmer is an important asset.

I couldn’t even make a backup.

Things seem to be getting back to normal (though they are not there yet – the site is still quite slow). There’s even a chance that I’m running on a brand-new server that is not being shared with as many other people. Or at least a brand-new server. Unfortunately, however, while I have come to appreciate iPage the company, which was very helpful and patient getting me up and running, iPage the service has not been so great.

I have vowed that the next move I make will be to a server that I control completely, so I can choose who shares it with me. I’m looking at Co-location deals now, though I might wimp out ant take the middle road. A VPS (virtual private server) gives me all the control of having my own machine, but in fact it’s an illusion — I still share physical hardware with an unknown number of others.


The Drupal Attitude

I’ve been doing some geekery with Drupal lately. Drupal is a free, open-source server application that makes it easier to build really complex Web sites. It allows you to create complex data types and establish relationships and do fancy database stuff… without actually touching the database. That’s not too shabby. Drupal is rapidly becoming more popular, but there are a few things standing between Drupal and world domination. At the top of the list is the Drupal Attitude.

I will illustrate with an example. Things will get geeky for a while as I set the stage, then mellow out as I focus on the human interactions between various groups.

From a technical standpoint, Drupal’s biggest flaw is that it sucks when it comes to many-to-many relationships. Imagine I have a data type called “shirt” and another called “color”. It is very easy for me to set up “shirt” so that it can have several colors. So, when I look at a specific shirt in my database I can see that it has red and yellow in it. That’s all pretty straightforward.

The catch comes when I want a list of all shirts with yellow in them. If I had direct control over the database, many-to-many relationships like this are trivial and do not diminish the performance of the server. Drupal has no built-in way to get a list of all shirts with yellow in them.

But wait! Drupal is open source, and better yet has been built to be easy to extend by outside programers. Into this glaring hole in Drupal several folks have stepped forward with modules that solve the problem in a variety of different ways. Some of these methods are clever (one uses the indexes built by the search engine, for instance), but all have trade-offs and weaknesses.

So, you’re a Drupal developer, and you want a list of shirts with yellow in them. Which module do you use? Each module works differently, each requires some installation and fiddling to get working. Then there are the two modules by the same guy that are for similar but different purposes, yet the actual differences are not spelled out very clearly. What would help a lot would be some concrete examples of when to use which.

Now we’re getting closer to the Drupal Attitude. Remember as I rant about this that all the modules I’m evaluating are free, posted by geeks who wanted to contribute to make Drupal better. So, some slack-cutting is in order. BUT…

I had already spent more time than I had available trying to figure out which module to use, when I found a question posted by a guy asking “can I use this module for x”, where x was very similar to what I needed. “Aha!” thought I, “Now we’ll get a definitive answer!” Except that the response to the question was, “In this discussion (the article was about the differences between two modules) we want to focus on generalities, not specific applications. You should download both modules and fiddle with them for a few hours to determine which is right for you.” Or something like that. Notably absent from the answer was a pointer to where specific questions would be answered.

The guy who asked the question responded a bit harshly, pretty much saying, “Would it kill you to just answer my question? I don’t want to spend hours learning something you already know and could tell me in fifteen seconds.”

Well, this is just the sort of uppity user that the Drupal community loves to hate. Several people piled on in defense of the developer who had refused to answer the question. “He’s doing this for free, he’s helping the community, you should be grateful, blah, blah, blah.” None of them deigned to answer the original question either. There is a real, entrenched cadre in the Drupal community that says, “we learned things the hard way, and you should too.” Who needs documentation when you can read the source code?

Let’s step back for a moment and ask ourselves, “Why did the developer give this code back to the Drupal community?” The obvious answer, the one everyone talks about, is that he wants to make things easier for other Drupal users. That is a noble motivation and one I wholeheartedly support. He wants to be useful. Perhaps he just isn’t aware that a huge part of utility of software lies in the documentation. Perhaps he isn’t aware that a few choice examples of what his modules are meant to accomplish would have cost him an hour of his time and improved the acceptance of his work dramatically. He’s a coder, after all, not a marketer or a technical writer.

Even with all that, however, when someone, in the form of a question, contributes to the documentation by providing a specific example, he didn’t answer the question. No light came on that even if that was not the place for the question, then spending five minutes creating an FAQ would have helped the community far more than adding a new feature to his software. So an opportunity to spend just a few seconds and make his contribution to the community better went completely ignored. His supporters congratulated him for not capitulating to the demands of his potential users for more clarity.

Any of them could have stepped up and helped the newbie, probably in ten words or less, but none did. None of them wanted improved documentation. “We had to learn it the hard way, so you should too,” with a side order of “we make lots of money because we’ve figured all this stuff out.” Ladies and gentlemen, the Drupal Attitude.

If the guy posted his module but doesn’t seem interested in making it useful, then why did he post it? Well, he’s certainly getting lots of love from the people who figured out his work the hard way. They can all feel good about how smart they are.

And in the end, should I be thankful this guy shared his work with the rest of us? Actually, no. In my case, the presence of his modules ultimately had negative value. They cost me time, and never getting an answer about which was appropriate for my task, I went with a module developed by someone else.

So, Drupal contributors: If you don’t want to document your module, and you don’t want to answer straightforward questions from people who need to get a job done in limited time, don’t bother posting your fucking module at all. I don’t have time for endless fiddling and I sure as hell don’t have time for the Drupal Attitude.


Night of the Busy Brain

I couldn’t sleep last night. My brain just wouldn’t quiet down. Kept thinking of stuff. Sometimes those times are productive, however. Last night I thought of:

  • Why my algebraic attempts to calculate the point on a sloped line where the two halves of the shape had the same area were turning out so complex
  • How to make money off PeoplePost (ten years too late).
  • What to call my next version of PeoplePost
  • One of the reasons Tomcat won’t run as a daemon on my machine
  • There was a WordPress thing, too. What was it?
  • Sometimes a weasel with a hammer… um… maybe that wasn’t so productive.

Anyway, eventually I fell asleep. That was about two hours ago. I’m more convinced than ever that alarm clocks are the bane of our civilization.


Things I Learned while Moving to a new Web Host

You probably can’t tell, but this site is now being served by a different host. The reasons I switched were many, but once MMHosting got hacked I decided it was time to move. Then when a particular PHP library was not on their servers (one that allows WordPress to read the date of an uploaded image), I actually did the move.

After quite a bit of looking around in which all the dang hosts started to look the same, I chose iPage. They are not quite the cheapest, but they purchase carbon offsets for wind-generated power. They also had a stronger emphasis on security.

At this writing, I still don’t know if my new host has the needed php library. I’ll be finding out when the dust settles. If not, I can install it in my site myself, I suppose, but let’s keep fingers crossed.

So, I learned a few things, and remembered a few others.

  1. Among sftp clients, RBrowser may have my favorite interface but it’s glacially slow with multiple files.
  2. Without ssh access to my site (none of the big hosting companies allow that on their cheap plans), I had to use phpMyAdmin to copy my databases over. Here’s an interesting bit of trivia: if your data has the phrase ‘drop database’ anywhere in it, phpMyAdmin will stop executing the import right there and then. This is to protect you from SQL injection attacks, where people sneak malicious data into your database that later gets executed as an instruction. ‘Drop database’ can be pretty devastating, so the software simply refuses to complete the import, even if the phrase is safe in the text of a post.

    The way phpMyAdmin is configured at my new host, however, when it stops, it doesn’t say why. It doesn’t even admit that anything went wrong, or indicate in any way that not all the data was imported. This can be inconvenient when you have a bulletin board for a product that has a drag-and-drop database feature. (Now it has a drag-and-drop database.)

  3. You can’t tell Safari not to uncompress zip archives it downloads (that I could find), but the original zip files can be found in the trash.
  4. jerssoft_phpb5 and jerssoft_phpbb5 are not the same thing, no matter how many hours you spend banging your head on them.

So iPage has been great (although their control panel is not completely Safari-friendly when it comes to processing payments). I’ve interacted with them in three different ways now — phone, chat, and a support ticket. Two of the interactions were due to the afore-mentioned payment glitch, and once for technical support trying to get my files copied and the site ready to go before I switched the domain registry. Although I didn’t get the answers I was hoping for, the tech was competent and knew what she was doing.

If I continue to be pleased with iPage, I will provide a link for those looking for a Web host. Because we all need Web hosts these days, don’t we?

Evil Flash Cookies

NOTE June 1, 2019: This is a rather old post, and most major browsers have addressed this problem directly. I ultimately solved the problem by simply not installing Flash. It’s dead tech.

For a long time now we’ve been aware of browser cookies. These are little bits of data that a Web developer can set on your computer to keep track of your visits, or which ads you’ve seen, and things like that. Cookies are regulated by your browser and you can set up rules to reduce the amount that other people learn about your habits.

Way back in the day the makers of Flash realized that it would be handy to store little bits of information on the user’s computer as well. They developed LSO’s, otherwise known as Flash Cookies, to do that. This site uses an LSO so the banner animation doesn’t run every time you change pages. (See my rant about html.)

Advertisers and less benign sites also use LSO’s, and this has people worried. There are fewer restrictions on what LSO’s can do compared to cookies, and management of these little bits of information is not done through the browser. Many people out there in the Wild Wild World of the Web have said “There’s no way to manage them! aaaah! AAAAAAH!” in mildly hysterical voices, but that is simply not true.

So, just how worried should you be? If you do nothing to manage the cookies on your browser, then you probably don’t need to get too worked up about their somewhat-more-evil cousins. You’re already telling the trackers all they want to know. The potential for outright evil is higher with Flash LSO’s, but not that much.

Still, it’s a good idea to control who leaves what on your computer, and LSO’s are a good place to start. There are two complimentary strategies – control what gets saved, and clean up after.

Control What Gets Saved

First, let’s look at how to keep most of the unwanted items from being saved in the first place. This is done by managing the settings of your Flash Player. You do this through a control panel on the Macromedia Web site. You can access this panel any time by right-clicking any Flash on your page (including the banner of this site) and choosing “Global Settings…”. This control panel is written in Flash and when you make changes it will save your settings to your computer – in an LSO file.

Let’s look at what’s already on your computer. Choose the Web Storage Settings panel:

Flash Web Storage Settings Panel

The Web Storage Settings Panel

I cleaned everything out recently, but you can see that since then I’ve been to two places that put Flash cookies on my machine. Only muddledramblings.com is actually storing anything; www.kfox.com had stored something on my machine, but it has since been cleaned up. Even after you clean up a site’s cookies, Flash will remember you were there, and if you set special rules for that site, it will remember them, too.

So at this point the easiest thing to do is probably to make Flash forget everything and clear out all the cookies stored on your machine. If you’re curious you can go down the list and see what’s there. “Delete all sites” is probably your best bet, however.

Now your Flash Player has totally forgotten where you’ve been. It’s a good time to set rules for how Flash should behave when you encounter a new site. Click the “Global Storage” tab:

Flash Global Storage Settings Panel

The Global Storage Settings Panel

Note: these settings will not affect sites that already have storage allocated.

There are two things you can do to limit who puts stuff on your computer. The first is to move the slider to 0 KB. This will force any flash animation to ask permission before storing something on your machine. If you check Never Ask Again, you have effectively turned off all Flash cookies from everywhere. That’s pretty drastic, and may break some of your favorite sites, though.

The second thing you can do is uncheck “Allow third-party blah blah blah”. That allows the Web site you’re visiting to store stuff, but no one else. For instance, let’s say that on this page I had advertising. This setting would allow only Flash from muddledramblings.com to save stuff, but an ad served from eviladvertisinggiant.com would not be allowed. Basically, only Flash that comes from the domain showing in your browser is allowed to store stuff. That way my site will still work correctly but others won’t be able to track you.

Note that in a few cases, Web sites put their own Flash stuff on different servers (there are good reasons for doing this), and this setting might break those sites. You can turn off the restriction temporarily and allow that site to run, then turn the restriction back on. There is no way that I know of to say set the “Allow third-party…” value for a particular site.

OK, now that you’re keeping most of the drek off your machine, it’s time to tackle the other prong in our battle for privacy: cleaning up unneeded LSO’s.

Periodic Cleanup

In general, benign LSO’s only need to save stuff while you’re on the site. When you go back, it’s not going to harm anything if previous data has been deleted. Any information they do store from session to session might just be snooping. For the most part, then, we can just empty out the stored data and never notice a thing.

What NOT to delete
There are two kinds of LSO’s – those set by the flash animation, and those set by the Flash Player to store information about a site. Deleting the second type can actually undermine your security if you’ve made special restrictions for specific sites using the control panel above. Also, for some few sites (pandora.com, in my case), you want Flash to remember your info between visits. As you decide on a cleanup strategy, keep that stuff in mind. There is one LSO used to store the settings you made from the control panel above, and I strongly recommend that you NOT delete it. Both the cleanup methods I mention below preserve that file by default.

Having said all that, don’t let the decisions stop you from moving forward. In the following techniques just using the defaults will work just fine for almost everyone.

NOTE June 1, 2019: BetterPrivacy doesn’t exist anymore, because Firefox absorbed this functionality. You can learn more about Firefox cookie management here.

This is by far the best solution — If you use Firefox. Users of Firefox have access to BetterPrivacy, which provides lots of options for which LSO’s to clean up when, controlled from a pretty nice user interface. By default BetterPrivacy leaves the Flash Player preferences alone, but if you make different settings for specific Web sites, BetterPrivacy will delete those unless you tell it not to. If you do put special restrictions or grant special permissions to a site, be sure to protect the settings.sol file for that site.

If you keep your browser open pretty much all the time, you can set BetterPrivacy to clean up the LSO’s periodically.

I don’t use Firefox that much. What am I to do? A Web search will tell you there’s a Mac application called Flush, but don’t bother. As of this writing, it’s completely broken. I didn’t find a good solution for non-Firefox Mac users out there, so I made one. You don’t have to thank me, it’s what I do.

Jer’s LSO Cleanup script for Mac
First I set up a simple cron task that just deleted the folders where LSO’s live. That was too ham-fisted, however, since it also deleted beneficial LSO’s, as mentioned above. Then I wrote a little script. I used Python to write it simply because I’d never used Python before, and it seemed more appropriate than php. You are welcome to use the script as well, but there’s a little fiddling involved. Nothing major, but you’ll be using the terminal.

Right-click to download lsoclean.sh here.

OK, now for the fiddling:

  1. Download the file and put it somewhere that won’t clutter up your life. (I used /usr/local/bin/)
  2. (optional) Edit the file to choose your paranoia level and what sites you don’t want to clean up. The default leaves LSO’s from your own computer (for Flash developers) and from pandora.com
  3. Tell the OS that the file is actually a script that it can run. To do this open Terminal.app and type chmod +x /path/to/lsoclean.py. TIP: if you just type chmod +x (with a space after the “x”), then drag the file from wherever you put it into the terminal window, it will automatically fill in the path. Neat!
  4. (optional) The script can now be activated by typing the full path to the file in the terminal, but that’s not very convenient. Better to set up a way to have the thing run every so often. There are plenty of ways, like using AppleScript (ptui) or iCal (which would have been clever of me), but the simplest (if geekiest) is to set up a cron task. You can use CronniX to avoid editing the crontab file directly. Here’s what I did:
    1. Download CronniX here.
    2. Run it. It’s a little… incomplete. Start by clicking “New”
    3. Choose the “Simple” tab
    4. Check the boxes next to Month, Day of Month, Hour, and Day of Week. Leave Minute unchecked and set to 0.
    5. In the command field, put the full path to the script file. (You can copy it out of the terminal window where you dragged the file before.)
    6. Click Apply, then Save
    7. Quit CronniX

    You have now set up the task to execute the script once an hour.

  5. Test: Visit some sites that use flash, and look in ~/Library/Preferences/Macromedia/Flash Player/#SharedObjects/8JA5UY2L (the last bit is random) to see the .sol files.
  6. After an hour, go back and see that they are gone! Hooray!


The CronniX UI when everything is set to go.

That was a quite a bit of fiddling for those not versed in the ways of cron, but now you can forget it ever happened. If you find yourself having to reenter information in a Flash-based Web site and it annoys you, add the domain for that site to the list in the script.

If anyone wants to take this little script create a reduced-fiddling version with automator or whatever, I’d love to provide that for download here.


You’ve just struck a blow against invasive advertisers! Hooray! Now the ads you see will be less focussed on what you are interested in. That’s OK, because it nobody’s damn business what you’re interested in. Now you can carry on with your life like none of this ever happened.


None of Your Damn Business

After reading a post in my buddy’s blog (and the articles that post links to) about National Security Letters I started to get more and more irate. Apparently, our government sends out thousands and thousands of letters to Libraries, Web hosts, and the like, saying, “We’re the government, we’re fighting terrorists, so give us everything you have about this person. Also, you’re not allowed to tell anyone about this, not even your lawyer.” This is not like a search warrant, because there is no judicial oversight.

The FBI’s use of national security letters to get information on Americans without a court order increased from 16,804 in 2007 to 24,744 in 2008. The 2008 requests targeted 7,225 U.S. people.

Read More

Those are all requests for personal information with no warrant, no need for probable cause, and no right to legal counsel even for the people who are not themselves under investigation. I’m not a trained legal scholar, but good lord, this can’t possibly be constitutional.

Well, it’s not like I have anything to hide, but if my ISP got served with one of these letters, would they turn over the information, or would they fight? Would Google protect the emails mouldering in that account that I rarely check? What about my Web hosting provider? I would love to see each entity that has my personal information publicly state that they will not turn over information without due process.

The only way this governmental bullying will be stopped is if everyone agrees not to be intimidated.

On a personal level, I’ve decided to start a policy of encrypting my emails. Not because there’s anything incriminating in there, but because if only secrets are encrypted, then everyone knows where the secrets are. And really, it’s nobody’s business but mine what I put in private correspondence. If everyone encrypted all their messages, the constitutional rape called National Security Letters would be pointless.

Toward that end I have installed Gnu Privacy Guard, which is based on OpenPGP (Pretty Good Privacy), a system which can withstand any attacks feasible at this time (naturally as computing power increases, the encryption must be made ever-more sophisticated).

It takes two to pass a secret message, however. I’m not able to encrypt messages to people who do not also have GPG or PGP installed, and who do not have my public key. The system works with a pair of keys – one I keep secret and another that everyone can see. When the message is encoded using one key, it can be decoded using the other. So if I have your public key, I can encode a message that only you can read.

It’s a bit of a hassle to set up GnuPG (available for Mac, Windows, and Linux), but once you have your key generated and all the pieces in place, it’s pretty transparent to use. My public key is now available on many servers, so once you have the plugin to your email program installed, it’s easy to load.

You can learn more through the link called “Jerry’s public key” on the sidebar in the top section. Please join me in taking the teeth out of National Security Letters and the bullying bureaucrats that use them.

Addendum: Comcast’s privacy policy states that they will not disclose information without a subpoena, warrant, or “other valid legal process”. Then they go on to say they will also disclose information if they think “the disclosure of information is necessary to prevent financial loss“. That means they reserve the right to sell out their customers if they think they could end up incurring legal costs to protect them. Sigh.


Google Calculator

Here’s a little trick I discovered by accident a while back: Go to Google, and put 250-(tan(4pi/6))^2 into the search field. Hey presto! It does the math. This came in handy yesterday as I was evaluating things like

E.x = Origin.x + sqrt(1/((rv2/rh4)(tan2θ) + 1/rv2)

To find the point on an ellipse where the tangent is at a given angle. My little calculator widget was not remotely up to the task.


Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) and PHP

Often when dealing with Cascading Style sheets, or CSS, I find myself wishing that the CSS mechanism included variables. This is especially true when dealing with colors, since you want the same color applied to lots of different things. It can be a real pain to go back through an old style sheet and find the code for the color you want. I was quietly surprised that no one making up how CSS worked had addressed something like this.

Then, a while back I was giving a buddy of mine a few exercises to introduce him to the exciting world of Web programming, touching on CSS, HTML, PHP and MySQL. I gave him pretty much no guidance; I just thought up plans that would introduce him to the concepts and gave him a list of my favorite references. (I’ll be posting those exercises here in the nearish future.)

Anyway, without me to tell him how to do things, he went and dug around and one of the first style sheets he sent me for evaluation had a .php extension rather than .css.

Bingo! Once you see it in action, it’s obvious. PHP can be used to generate CSS files just as easily as it can be used to generate HTML files. Now my style sheets can change based on external conditions or can simply define a set of colors that all the style definitions share. Why did it take me so long to figure this out? It seems like this technique should be a lot more common than it is.

Here’s a quick code snippet for those who want to try it for themselves:

	header('Content-Type: text/css');
	$header_back_color = '#dddddd';
#corner_table th {
	background-color:<?php echo $header_back_color ?>;
	text-align: center;

A couple of notes: the <?php MUST be the very first thing in the file. No empty lines, no spaces. The reason is that the next line, with the header() function, has to be called before the server sends any page content. (Once the server starts sending content back to the browser, it’s too late to be fiddling with the headers. Any whitespace outside the <?php tag will be considered content.) The header line is necessary because you need to tell your browser that what you are sending really is a css file.

In the <head> of the html file, you call the style sheet just like normal, but of course the file you fetch will have a php extension:

<link rel="stylesheet"
      media="screen" />

That’s all there is to it. Why have I not done this with every css file?

New Features here at MR&HBI!

First, allow me to call your attention to the episode immediately before this one. You might notice the little icon is a camera. “huh,” you might be saying to yourself, “I don’t remember seeing that one before.” Very observant, Buckaroo! It’s for a new category, Photography, that I added. “But,” the even more observant amongst you might say, “There are already a handful of episodes in that category.” Right again, Wisenstein! I recategorized a couple episodes that were under The Great Adventure and found a couple in Idle Chit-Chat that were better filed under the new category. I expect there are plenty more; the trick is finding them.

The icon is actually my camera sitting on an opened unabridged dictionary. That may seem staged, but that’s actually where we keep the camera these days. Yes, we have an unabridged dictionary open on a stand at all times. No, that does not make us geeks.

Second, way down at the bottom of the sidebar, there’s a section called Other Muddled Stats (or something like that). That’s a wordpress widget I made that counts all the words in all the episodes, and keeps a tally of how many comments there have been as well. I plan to add other stats as well next time I have the hood open. Perhaps the number of times I’ve said “You don’t have to thank me,” or the number of times I’ve blamed the Chinese for things. (Hm… haven’t done that in a while…) Anything you’d like to know? The number of letters typed? Words in comments? Most prolific commenters? If it’s on these pages, I can count it.

The WordPress plugin itself is hand-crafted by yours truly. I started by downloading a different word-counting plugin, but it counted the words on every page load and didn’t have a sidebar widget. All it was was a database query and a loop. My version only counts when the relevant value changes – it only counts words when a new episode is posted, for instance. Once I tidy it up I’ll be adding it to the WordPress repository, so others can also gather useless stats about their blogs. It’s all about sharing the love.

Lost in Translation?

Even if you’re not a programmer, take a look at the following lines of code:

public function sendCommunication($oCommunication)
    if (self::emailMode != EMAIL_TEST_MODE_NONE) {
        if (self::emailMode == EMAIL_TEST_MODE_LOGGED_IN_ONLY) {
            // EVER
            // FOR ANY REASON
            $oCommunication->to = $oCommunication->from;
            $oCommunication->cc = '';

Now, I ask you, even if you’re not a programmer, you know there’s one thing you would never, ever, do to the above code. Right? Now let’s say you are a programmer, a professional, being paid because of your ability to find solutions to problems and express them in an abstract language.

Now further imagine that changing the above code can lead to the customers of the people paying for this work getting spammed with confusing emails with our client’s name on them.

Yeah, you guessed it.


In with the Old

I got a message today that Haloscan is closing down. That is the service that provided refreshingly spam-free comments on my old blog. A year ago I finally abandoned iBlog for WordPress, and I’m glad I did. At the time, however, I didn’t want to tackle moving the old comments over into the new system. In my conversion I embedded a link into each of the old episodes to the legacy comment system, and left it at that.

It is fortunate I found out about Haloscan when I did. Another week and 8500 comments would have been lost forever. That’s a big part of the underlayer of this blog, the part people sink gradually into as they hang around more, and they realize that this isn’t just about me. There are some pretty interesting conversations, observations, poems, and even stories in those comments. With the timer running I set to work to get the comments out of Haloscan and into WordPress.

The move turned out to be pretty straightforward. (Simpler, perhaps, than it had been to put the links into the posts.) I’ll go into the technical details in an episode tomorrow, but for now, why don’t you pop into the archives for 2004 or so and find an old episode with good comments? Maybe you’ll find something interesting someone said once. Maybe you’ll see the name of someone you haven’t thought of in a while. Maybe you’ll see something you want to comment on, even.

MacPorts and GIMP

Preamble for those here by the grace of Google: Yes, I do eventually get around to talking about Gimp in this episode. Short version: it works but takes hours. Anyway, on with the show!

Setting up a new computer can be a tedious task; there are all kinds of settings and programs and files and whatnot that need to be passed from old to new. When you work with Web development things can get even more cumbersome, as one finds oneself descending deep into the world of IT. There are programs to install that all have to talk to each other, and configuration files to be tweaked. Many of the applications that are required have no user interface of their own, they simply run in the background and answer requests from other applications.

I found myself facing (for the third time in three months) the need to install the latest Apache (and set up virtual hosts), PHP, Pear, MySQL server, PHP email addons, Propel, and on and on. For many of these items, the instructions for installations go something like:

1) Download the source code
2) Configure the build
3) Compile the application

And the instructions go on from there. For most of the above there are shortcuts, and probably-recent-enough versions of some things come built-in with the Mac OS, but when you install it yourself you can get everything where you want it and avoid conflicts. Still, this can be a long, tedious, pain in the butt to get going. And when you install something and it doesn’t play well with the others, finding that one line in the secret config file that’s causing the problem can be a real pain.

Enter MacPorts. MacPorts is a project that has developed a system that does all the steps of the installation for you, and puts everything in standard places so everything else installed with MacPorts can find it and talk to it. There’s still some configuration to do (tell PHP where the database server’s socket is, and set passwords for instance), but overall things are much simpler, and there are very good instructions out there for tweaking and troubleshooting MacPort installs. Since the person writing the instructions knows where all the files are in the standard install, instructions can be much more specific.

With MacPorts installing php 5.3.1 was a simple matter of typing “sudo port install php5” and letting the MacPort system do the rest. Hooray! Setting up a server is suddenly much simpler.

As an aside, MySQL didn’t work when I used MacPorts to install it on a previous machine. Don’t know why. Ran the install, followed the instructions, nothing. After a few hours banging my head against it, I went and got the excellent binary installer. It worked without a hitch. This time around I didn’t bother with the MacPorts version at all.

Anyway, thanks to MacPorts, I was able to get a complete development system up with nary a hitch, in a fraction of the time. Knowing where all the config files were this time around helped as well. I found several useful links on the Web, particularly from HiveLogic and my new buddy Danilo Stern-Sapad who took a little grammar rant from me with grace.

On that note, I read the phrase “How to setup…” so many times in so many places it’s amazing I still have teeth.

Edited to add: I have now written my own tutorial which does into greater detail than the above, and includes a works-every-time MySQL install.

Last night I realized I hadn’t installed GIMP on this computer yet. GIMP is an open-source graphics program that wishes it rivaled Photoshop but it doesn’t really. It’s free, however, and when you consider the incredible amount of work that went into it, you have to be impressed. I don’t do a whole lot with graphics, so GIMP is usually adequate for my needs.

When I went to the Web site for GIMP I found a couple of options for installation, including MacPorts. Just type “sudo port install gimp” into the terminal and that’s that. Pretty sweet.

One thing about a program like GIMP: it’s really a collection of a bazillion smaller parts. Many of those parts require other bits to work. When you run a traditional installer, all the parts are already there and they’re already tied together in a neat bundle. MacPorts does things a little differently; each part knows what parts it depends on to work, so when you say “install gimp” it first looks at the parts gimp needs, then at the parts those parts depend on, and so forth. You get to watch (if you choose to pay attention) the parade of all the little pieces as they’re installed, each the product of an individual or small group of people who have allowed their work to be exploited for free.

For GIMP, the list of dependencies goes very deep. I watched as X11 was installed. X11 is already on my computer, but ok, this is MacPorts and they keep their own realm and that way they can update parts without worrying about how that will affect non-MacPort installations. It’s redundant, but that’s why God made big hard drives.

Then I saw Python 2.6 install. Later, Python 2.5 went by. One of the little pieces seems to depend on an earlier version of Python. This probably means the person in charge of that bit just hasn’t updated it recently. On the installation went. After a while the Gnu Compiler Collection came down the pipe. gcc is a collection of compilers for building programs, and I watched as gcc was built… using the gcc already installed on my machine. Hm. And what’s this? Fortran! Yep, somewhere in the great tree of dependencies (maybe ‘root system’ would be a better term), someone decided that a Fortran compiler was necessary to run GIMP.

Actually, that’s not quite fair; the piece that loaded the Fortran compiler might need it for other tasks not related to GIMP. Just because GIMP uses a library doesn’t mean that’s the only use for it. Still, I ended up with a lot of stuff I don’t need. It’s all invisible and I’d never know it was there if I hadn’t watched the install (which took hours), so it’s not a disaster or anything. And next time I need Fortran I’m ahead of the curve!

Time slipped past, the install continued. I went to bed. When I got up this morning to check if the build was finished, I discovered there had been an error. Yep, the MacPort version of gimp-app doesn’t currently compile on 64-bit operating systems. All that other stuff that was installed? Python 2.6 and Python 2.5, the Gnu Compiler Collection (including Fortran), libgnome and libbonoboui and tkl and tk and gd2 and dozens of other things I don’t know what are, they’re still there, waiting to be useful in some way.

Edited to add: The compile bug has been fixed; I recently used MacPorts to install Gimp on my 64-bit laptop. It took a long, long, time, but now it works just fine.


Need More Computing Power

I’m working with several products from Adobe corporation right now. That means several things: first, getting used to various ‘quirks’ in the user interface that no other company does the same way. I occasionally say, “There’s the Mac way, the Windows way, and the Adobe way.” The Adobe way doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing in different Adobe products, alas.

Second, running multiple products from Adobe, along with their infamous memory leaks, means that my little Mac Mini is severely challenged. Adobe makes big products, and seems much more worried about features than performance. I have an income (made in part from using Adobe products), and can justify upgrading hardware at some point, but then what happens to the old machine? There’s still plenty of computing left in the little guy. It’s actually pretty fast.

Then it occurred to me that the perfect answer would be a second mini just like the first, that I could connect in such a way that they could share the workload. Suddenly my upgrade gets a lot cheaper and I’m not getting rid of a perfectly good computer.

I know that there is a supercomputer built from a bazillion macs all hooked together and sharing the load, so why can’t I get some of that action? What would it take to get two macs hooked together to become a single computer? It seems just too damn obviously a good thing to not exist.

I’m filing this under Get-Poor-Quick Schemes, since it’s probably one of those ideas that looks good on paper but is in fact a major PITA. Still, what a great OS feature that would be.

Filling a Need

I dragged my sorry butt out of bed just before 7 a.m. Big meeting. I put on my fuzzy bathrobe and plunked down in front of the computer while my sweetie made me tea. Then she went back to bed. We stayed up way too late last night.

Skype lit up and away we went. The meeting was more about my employer and the evolution of their corporate character than about technology, deadlines, or the transient issues of the day. How do you make a company run smoothly when you span from San Jose to Moscow? How do you make sure everyone is having a good time while you’re at it?

At one point in the conversation I was asked for bio data for my employer to put up on their Web site. I thought I would throw them a link to the bio page here here first, as a joke and also to let them learn a little more about who I am (or who I want to be, at least). I popped over here and saw… that this site had been suspended by my Web host. I checked my email. No notice. I checked my account on MMHosting’s site. Suspended, no reason given.

Some Mondays are Mondayer than others.

I sent off an urgent help request and spent the rest of the day bouncing between databases, php server code, and Flex client code, generally trying to be smart enough to deserve what they are paying me. Eventually I got a message back from MMHosting.

First, they said they had in fact sent an email. I searched everywhere I know how to search, and I couldn’t find it. No matter; they also turned the site back on. The guy said that some of my php files (code that runs on the server and builds these pages) was loading bazillions of times and slowing down the server. Uh, oh! Looks like some plugin I’m using ran amok. The people sharing the server with me probably weren’t happy.

That’s what I thought until I started looking at the numbers, anyway. Runaway software? Not at all! It turns out this table I wasted way too much time on got mentioned in a prominent place, and twitter and digg took care of the rest. When you look at the graph, remember that the site was down for much of the time during that traffic spike. Holy Schnikies!

Traffic for the last month. The bulge at the beginning is from Cyberspace Open traffic. Things have been slow since I started working - until today!

Traffic for the last month. The bulge at the beginning is from Cyberspace Open traffic. Things have been slow since I started working - until today!

I really did put a lot of work into that dang table, so I’m glad people are picking up on it. Maybe there are other CSS3 features I could tote up – transform and shadow come to mind.

Boy, I sure wish I had a killer episode at the top of the blog to hook some of these visitors. Oh, well.


None of Your Cheese Wax

I’ve been pretty busy for the last week, coming up to speed on the project, fixing bugs, and generally stressing over the fact that I failed to provide instant lift. I always provide instant lift. Not this time. While I was familiar with all the tools used in this project, putting them all together at once was a lot to assimilate. So I’ve been sitting in this chair, typing on this keyboard, but not doing much to advance the Media Empire.

I have busy fingers, however, and I will always find something on my desk to fiddle with while I’m thinking. On day one of this project my sweetie brought me lunch at my desk, gave me some words of encouragement, and left me to mutter at the screen. One of the items in my lunch was a little round of soft cheese, wrapped in red wax. I love those things.

My meal finished, I started to play with the leftover wax, and I made a little sphere. The next day, another cheese, another shape, this time a cube. A tradition was born. Each day I would start to fiddle with the wax, never sure what I’d end up with. Here is the result of my first week on the job:

Cheese Wax Figures

Cheese Wax Figures

The dumbbell-shaped one was the most recent; I’m breaking out of the simple geometric mold. What will be next?