Vietnam in HD – History Channel series

I love Netflix streaming. There is a constant stream of recommended shows that are hit and miss. One, “Aliens on the Moon, the Truth” was a miss. However, “Vietnam in HD” was outstanding.

It is a series, 6 episodes (40 minutes each, so originally broadcast, they were hour episodes) of commentary and footage from home movies, journalist cameras, and other sources. The commentary were from veterans, or people who were inextricably linked to the war. Fascinating watching, and once I started I couldn’t turn it off.

Having been born at the beginning of the escalation, it was before my consciousness, so I really had little opinion on the conflict from my direct experience. I of course couldn’t avoid reading about it growing up, but it seemed distant. A conflict to prevent the spread of communism, a domino theory in the cold war between east and west, it seemed remote.

This show dispelled that notion. It starts off with the lead in. The advisors had been in country for a decade (starting in the mid 1950’s) but boots on the ground didn’t commence until 1965.

The story in the first episode about taking hill 875, and the 12:1 ratio of dead Vietcong versus Americans, and how this created the new metric for conflict, the body count.

Read more…

My online history

My blogging/online history

I started blogging late, in 2009. I was stuck in a bad job, that had gotten much worse due to some serious political wrangling by the executive suite.

At first I just grabbed a wordpress.com site, and made a couple of posts that were really not meant to be read by anybody. Venting about the stupid crap that I saw every day.

Very quickly, I wanted more. I had been spending time reading some of the major blogs about product managment at the time and wanted to get my own voice out there.

A friend of mine, a photographer, was interested in improving her online presence, so I dove into hosting.

the wordpress days

I had my own domain that I bought back in 1998, and used for my main email. So I used that domain and found a web host.

My first blog was based on WordPress, and it was easy to setup. I bought a commercial theme, did some simple customization, and I was up. I focused on product management, and a few personal items.

WordPress served me well, but the ubiquity of the platform, and the spectrum of add ons was fun. I hooked my twitter handle to it, and a lot of other cool things.

But, that era, WordPress was a common target of hackers. The first time I got hacked, my host helped me clean up. The second time, I got whacked really good. I had to wipe and start from scratch.

When a few months later I got hit a third time, it was time for a change.

enter Joomla!

I had been playing with some of the more industrial strength CMS’s, starting with Drupal. While it was easy to setup, and very well appointed with features, it was a bit beyond what a novice needed. It does power the Economist, so it is a professional strength solution.

At the start of 2012, I got involved with a local non-profit. A group that rescues retired Greyhounds, they were just getting started, and I got drafted to build their web presence.

One of the other “communications” people, who would be helping with content creation and maintenance had experience with Joomla! so we decided to go that route. (Unfortunately, she quickly vanished, and I do virtually all the maintenance and content creation) The other option was WordPress, but by then, with the exploits I had to deal with, it wasn’t worth entertaining.

A crash course in Joomla, creation of a custom theme, and the site went live in June (there was a quick and dirty WordPress site that just tided us over.)

Joomla was a good intermediary between WordPress which while very flexible, is at its core a blog environment, and Drupal, a heavyweigh. A lot of moving parts, but there was a method to the madness. And, importantly, it had a pretty solid ecosystem of add ons, with mostly professional coders who would support, and take care on security. I was able to get the site up and running, build a front end access system that allowed the adoption people to maintain the “available” dogs list without needing to do any HTML coding.

When I became comfortable with Joomla, I moved my wordpress site, tralfaz, home of product management to the Joomla platform. It wasn’t a seamless transition, but there were tools available to smoothe the transition.

Joomla has a good balance between extensibility, flexibility, and performance.

Hosting goes to hell

One of the hazards of running your own website, especially if you don’t have a machine in a rack in some data center, is the hosting company you select can turn out to suck.

I didn’t know who was good or bad at the time in late 2009, but I figured out that the rating sites were pretty rigged. The highly rated hosts surprisngly had lots of people trash talking them.

I selected Media Temple. They seemed to be very professional, and had a really solid platform. I gave it a try, but quickly converted my trial into a paying service. They were expensive, but they had awesome performance, great flexibility, and support was fast and responsive. A win, win situation.

When I was setting up the non-profit’s website, they had registered their domains with GoDaddy. I decided to go with GoDaddy’s linux based shared hosting. At $6 a month, it was less than 1/3 the cost of Media Temple. It was far more restrictive, and “idiot proof” than Media Temple. But it worked, and it was easy to setup the site.

However, GoDaddy is a slimy company. They use every point of contact to try to sell you more useless stuff. More emails, more domains, etc. Every time I log into them I am barraged with their marketing. As a marketer, I understand the desire to use your opportunities to place product and ads.

But I deal with it for this organization. The things I do for the hounds…

In September 2013, I got the cheery email from Media Temple announcing that they were purchased by GoDaddy. Ugh. Regardless of the professions of it being a good thing, and that GoDaddy wouldn’t interfere, I knew that I needed to move my web properties.

VPS, more control, and scary too

A while before that I had contemplating going to the next level in hosting. Instead of being on a shared linux box with other users, who at times would consume all of the resources, I wanted to go to a VPS. Not quite dedicated hardware, but my own instance of linux, and a guaranteed IO and bandwidth. This was the nudge that put me over the edge.

I did a bit of searching before I focused in on a new provider. A Small Orange had good reviews, and their site and product offerings were pretty solid I took the plunge, and signed up for a 2 core system with 1.5G ram, and 40 gigs of SSD storage. Getting it setup was trivial, and within 30 minutes I was up and running.

The truth is I am a bit of a novice in linux. I have used it at various times in the past, but never connected to the world. But the standard configuration of the system offered by A Small Orange was solid and well configured.

It took a while to move all my properties from Media Temple to A Small Orange, and ensure that they were properly setup, but it went smoothly.

Coda

I started as a complete babe in the woods. I knew enough unix CLI to be dangerous, but the awesome support of Media Temple kept me out of trouble.

I started heavily reliant on the WYSIWYG editors built into WordPress, then Joomla. They worked well, but after editing and re-editing posts, things got pretty hosed. Particulary with the greyhound site, where I was constantly updating the main page.

Add to that the fact that I would often get articles to post in Microsoft Word format, it was a real chore to import that text, and strip out the stupid shit Microsoft embeds into their files.

So, I started using a text editor and hand coding a lot of HTML to get things the way I like. This worked well, but it was a chore, particularly for things with lots of formatting.

Then I discovered markdown. I was unsure of the use of it at first, so while i learnt the basics, I never did anything with it. Then I figured out how to convert to plain HTML, and it has become a godsend.

Now I do most of my work in markdown, and it is a snap to format, and make the text look just how I want it.

There are a couple of good markdown editors on the Mac (I am currently using Mou) and an industrial strength one on the PC (markdownpad).

Summary

I am currently hosting my sites, my wife’s business site words by barbara, my friend’s photography site, and a few others.

I still have the original wordpress.com site gander2112 where you are reading this now. My old posterous postings moved over, and this is my personal, for friends and acquaintences blog.

I have learned a lot in the past 4 years, and I am sure I will learn much more.

Some thoughts

I have been doing a lot of reading of history, deep into European history from the middle ages to present, as well as a pretty deep dive into US history. Sparked by a conversation with a colleague in Europe who was showing me where many historical events happened in Frankfurt-Mainz during a day of sightseeing on a trip last year. It reminded me that I knew very little about actual European history, apart from what little is covered when studying the US Colonial period.

I find that in my facebook friends feed, I have several people who are dedicated Tea Party adherents, and they love to toss out quotes from the founding fathers in support of their beliefs. However, I find that many of these quotes are so far out of context that they are contorted into precisely the opposite of the original intent. Additionally, it is clear that these folks have a pretty thin knowledge of US history, likely what they learned in secondary (high) school.

I of course had Civics in highs school as well as the required US History curriculum, and I lived happily ever after … until in my 3rd year of college I took a university level US history course. My eyes were opened. The high school level course was superficial, and outright hid/lied about many of the formative events throughout the history of these United States. The curriculum was clearly molded to make America appear to be a beacon of all that is right in the world, and that she never, ever did anything wrong. But America is made of men, and men do many dumb, and unsavory things. Much of this came out in a fairly unbiased text when I was in college. I have additionally read a few different historians to broaden my knowledge and understanding, and I remain just as skeptical of the claim that the USA is the most, bestest, and complete beacon of freedom in the world.

Unfortunately, as I stated at the beginning of this post, the Tea Party believers/adherents in my circles seem to have halted their study of history and political affairs after that biased high school history and civics course.

To truly understand the writings and intents of the founding fathers, you need to understand much more than just a high school history and civics education. You do need to understand what was happening in the world at that time, and leading up to that time, and then you will have a very different appreciation of the words written in the federalist papers, and the other formative documents of the revolution, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Jefferson certainly had in mind the lessons of the 30 year war, and how state sanctioned religion tears apart the fabric of society. How the rigid class system with ~ 5% nobility, 10% clergy, and the rest being serfs tied to a landlord. How systems of revenue generation of states by increasingly squeezing the serf population with taxes, while exempting both the higher classes.

There is much more context, and turmoil in continental politics, and people who want to have an understanding of the forces and fires that forged the American experience ought to take the time to read up on the history that preceded the revolution, and the subsequent development of our constitutional republic.

Some sources that are good reads:

European history – A complete history of Europe from the middle ages to the present – by John Merrimack – Professor of history, Yale

American history – Daniel Boorstin has a series of very approachable books that are worthy, and chart the evolution of the Americas from early colonial times through the 20th century.

I will probably not accept any comments, as I really don’t want to get into ideological rants. I just hope that I spark a few people to look more at what was happening around the time of the formation of the USA and how we fit into the world of that time, and how we have changed to where we are today.

The good ol’ days – Technology edition

Like everyone who makes it to middle age, I have a rich tapestry of memories. Today, while bicycling, I reminisced about my first computer, an Atari 800.

My first personal computer
My first personal computer

The year was 1979, my freshman year of high school, and I got exposed to the new computer lab at school. It had (I think) 4 Apple ][+’s each with two disk drives, and small color composite monitors.  I was in love.  Of course, I couldn’t afford one of these, but Atari had just released their line of computers. Not as slick and sexy as the Apple ][‘s but it was in a price range that I could afford on my paper route money.

After saving my nickels, I went out and splurged on an 800, and an 810 disk drive.  I added a Basic cartridge, and I bought a game.  Star Raiders if I recall correctly. I had am amazing amount of fun exploring that system.  I found some local users, and we started swapping disks of software, and I was happy.

I learned Atari basic, some very simple 6502 machine language, and some of the cool capabilities of these systems. Then sometime in 1981 or 1982, I learned about electronic BBS’s.  At the time, the IBM PC hadn’t been launched, and if you wanted a personal computer, it was Apple, Atari, or Commodore (This was before the VIC20 and the C64 – so it was the older PET computers). I had heard of this thing called BBS’s, and I once again saved my dimes to buy a modem. I also had to buy an interface box (called the 850 I think, or was it 815?) to connect it to (the box had 4 RS232 ports), and I got online for the first time.  There were a ton of great Atari BBS’s, probably 40 – 50 in the San Jose area (no toll area for me), and I logged in to most of them. There were message boards, file exchanges, and even chatting with the operators of the BBS’s (called “Sysops”).

I was hooked. I had a growing collection of software, and was enjoying the interchange, but the bug to run a BBS bit me.  I found a copy of the most used program, FoReM (Friends of Ricke E Moose), and off I went.

The name was “The Hotel California” (I was going through an Eagles phase), and I made the entire board a music theme. I probably had 20 calls a day on the average. In those days kids, you had to use a phone line to call another computer. I also did a fair amount of customization to the software (It was written in Basic XL) which was a struggle because it barely fit in memory to run.  Often you had to rewrite a subroutine to save a few bytes before you could add somewhere else.  I added a lot of hardware to the system as time went on, more disk drives, a special adaptor that let me use 8″ disks (3X the storage per disk) and from a 300 baud Hayes modem up to a 1200 baud modem (don’t recall the brand). I also remember writing some assembly code that was executed from a string to be able to transmit data at 1200 bits per second.  Heady stuff indeed. Eventually it ended up on an Atari 800XL that I had hacked 128K of memory into (used the extra memory as a ramdisk to speed the message board IIRC).

I ran the BBS for a bunch of years, and had a blast, but eventually I moved on to a 16 bit Atari, and to a PC clone. I made some friends that I still have today (Mike Davis, and Vern Anderson who ran the “Rat’s Nest” bbs, and was my guitar teacher).

I have a 130XE, the last of the 8 bit line for Atari that I break out to play games on once in a while.  I have a ton of old software that I can run in an emulator, or on the real hardware. It is “fun” to return to the archaic past, and relive some experiences, but it reminds me of how well we have it now.

Next installment – my migration to the world of PC clones.

What I am reading: History of Modern Europe

I am an avid reader, have been since I was in my early teens.  While most of my reading tends to favor the SciFi genre, I have developed a taste for history.

When I was in High School I had the usual US history, and with it a smattering of world history. Of course, my 3rd year of university, I took a college level US history course, and learned how badly we were lied to in high school. Since then I have read more granular accounts of the US experience, and I have enjoyed it.

Lately though, I have come to the realization that I have a severe deficiency in my knowledge of European history.  Late last year, I was in Germany, and one of our local people took me to the Frankfurt Christmas market, and he was explaining to me about the history of the Frankfurt/Mainz area. I realized that I had almost no knowledge of the history of the Continent.

So I have resolved to rectify that shortfall.  I first found a course on the Itunes university on modern European history, taught by John Merriman, professor at Yale.  I also picked up his monstrous tome, “A History of Modern Europe from the Renaissance to the Present” (fortunately I was able to grab a used copy for $40 on Amazon).  It starts with a smattering of important topics from the medieval time, as that laid a lot of the groundwork of the renaissance.

I am through the renaissance and into the Reformation. It is a riveting read, and John Merriman is a gifted story teller.  The pace is good, and the illustrating stories are very helpful.  As this book is more than 1400 pages long, I will take quite some time to read it, and thoroughly learning the path from feudal medieval Europe into the states that exist today.

(I also read a lot on the history of mathematics and physics, but reading about real history helps place the development of mathematics in context.)

I will drop back in and report as I am working my way through this.