Saturday, November 27, 2010

. . . Logitech Revue

Have you seen this video on YouTube??

Yesterday the Fed Ex man dropped off a package that I have been expecting -- it contained the Logitech Revue unit that I am supposed to review as it is one of the feature gadgets in this year's Gadgets and Gifts for Gamers feature piece.

If you do not know it, the Revue is a device that turns your TV in to a fully net-connected web and media browser as well as providing access to Google TV, and other online TV content. One of its stand-out features is that it really displays YouTube videos well.

I have to admit that I was not expecting much -- I remember WebTV and while that may be old tech, it left me with a very hard to defeat opinion that TV's do not make good web surfing interfaces. OK, so I have to change that opinion now, because the Revue is the bomb! It is not just amazing, it is -- combined with its keyboard with touch pad interface -- simply amazing. I fully expect to see these as standard equipment in hotels all over the world by this time next year, that is all I am saying.

Back to my story -- so I set it up, patched it, and used the Revue for a few hours yesterday, just to put it through the basic paces, and a random search of videos turned this up:

Every now and then I come upon a video on YouTube that causes me to go glassy-eyed and sort of all hit with a hammer stunned -- not so much that someone thought of it, but that they made it in the first place. This is one of those videos. It is so self-depreciating for the bloke that made it, and at the same time so funny, that I feel bad and amused at the same time. Conflicting feelings aside, you really need to watch this one...

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

. . . Fall Feelings

I woke this morning to the sound of the wind blowing against the side of the house, rattling the screen just enough so that I was able to identify the sound, reminding me that it is once again time to pull down all of the screens and store them in the shed, and put up the storm windows that will add a layer of glass and air between the inside and the outside. There was a chill in the room... I was going to need to turn the heat on.

That was the thought floating in my head when I realized from the number of warm lumps pressed against me that, at some time in the night, my dog Calvin and our three cats, Pixel, Midnight, and Lightning, had joined me on the bed.

They were each curled up in their own special way, reluctant to be disturbed in their warm furry sleepy goodness. Commander Calvin had burrowed under the covers and had assumed his "I am a doughnut!" shape pressed against the backs of my knees, while Pixel (a 19 year old American Shorthair cat) had somehow managed to position himself between my pillow and shoulder, partially covered by a fold of the down comforter.

The two sisters, Midnight and Lightning, occupied the end of the bed by my feet, and were curled up together for shared warmth -- an unusual position for them as they are more cat-like in their aloof haughty ways. They must have really been cold to share the same few cubic feet with Commander Calvin willingly...

Clearly sensing that I was now awake, Calvin emerged from under the covers, the still-sealed package of Jack Links Premium Cut Teriyaki Beef Jerky chunks in his mouth. After he negotiated the cat pile he made his way to my pillow and dropped the package in my chest, clearly saying: "Oh good, you are awake now. Would you mind terribly opening this package? There are treats inside and I want them."

At this point Pixel noticed the package too -- though the jerky really is treats for Calvin, our dean of all things Cat is not above having a taste or two when he can, and this morning he decided that was a good idea. As I struggled with the package, which was wet and slippery from someones drooling on it all night -- it was with the insistent thwap-thwap-thwap of a tail smacking me on the arm, and a dachshund nose pushing my fingers this way and that, you know, to "help" me in getting it open.

Pixel stretched in this amazing transformation move that somehow makes him twice as long as he normally is, paws stretched in every direction, big yawn, blink, yawn, blink, then an inquisitive "Bleeerrtt?" which roughly translated means "Why is this taking so long?!"

I get the package open and give them each a piece of jerky, and they happily munch, the distinctive aroma of the teriyaki making me think about a Burrito Supreme from Taco Bell, but as we do not have a Taco Bell conveniently nearby it will have to remain simply thought. The girls are ignoring us -- they do not want jerky, they want my wife to wake up, and until that happens they are content to stay right where they are, curled into a warm pile of cat.

Suddenly the bump on the other side of the bed moves, and it is as if time suddenly freezes. Four sets of animal eyes lock onto that motion, as I become a thing to be ignored. I can actually hear the mental telepathy based conversation between them...

"She is awake?"

"I believe that she is!"

"Oh most excellent! The life giver will present us with feasts. The smelly one has served its purpose!"

They move as one to the other side of the bed and begin prodding, poking, and making friendly noises to the lump.

"Good morning!" my wife says.

"Indeed it is," I agree.

Monday, November 22, 2010

. . . Fallout: New Vegas

One of the strange aspects of playing Fallout 3 was the way it made you feel nostalgic for an era that came and went long before you were born. I do not know how the developers managed to do that, but they did it in spades.

Even allowing for the fact that as a child of the 70's (OK technically I am not really a child of the 70's because I was one of those kids who was sort of half-in the 70's half-in the 80's, but I was there man, I remember the 70's) there is a tacit connection to the era of the 1950's. What am I talking about? Well, there is an established trend in our culture with respect to fashion, TV, and to a lesser extent, cinema, that looks back 20 years.

The streets of New Vegas -- go armed or go home!

In the 00's the 80's were the nostalgic era -- though having lived in that era I have to wonder about how the writers of TV shows chose to reflect upon that decade. Of course they focused upon the Breakfast Club stereotype, but the truth is that the 80's was a cold and vicious decade that is best summarized by one word: Greed. But I am getting off-track here.

In the 1970's the era of nostalgia was the 1950's, which goes a long way towards explaining why Happy Days and Lavern and Shirley were major hits on TV, why retro TV was Andy Griffin and The Honeymooners, and why a number of 50's staples in the comic book world made a reappearance. Suffice it to say that the adult TV watching generation at whom this nostalgia was targeted got to see the best parts of an era that otherwise can be defined by one word: Fear.

The developers who created Fallout 3 dialed right into that vibe and then nailed it like a Malibu surfer on a glassy 5 foot noon-thirty swell on an otherwise flat day. In the process of building the atmosphere they picked iconic music, images, and perhaps more significant, cultural fears and combined them into horror entertainment.

Fallout: New Vegas takes this perfect combination of elements and doubles its impact, its effect, and its ability to haunt you long after you turned the power on your console off and try to do other life-related things. It does not help that anytime a song from the 50's pops up on the radio or TV you are reminded of the game, practically everything reminds you of the game! Spooky.

It started slow but...

When I first slotted the game it started slow, but very quickly ramped up the tension when I found myself being executed by a gunshot to the face. Not the best way to begin your day, clearly, and yet there you have it. I would not want it any other way.

Now to be fair, a bullet in the face is not always fatal -- even in real life -- but you would think that a bullet in the face followed by being buried in a not-so-shallow grave would prove to be a fatal combination, and yet... Not so much.

Let me be candid here -- having you "lose" your memory as a result of your injury is a slick way to handle the start of this epic adventure. Bear in mind that last game we began by being born, and then observing some of the character shaping events of your young life before jumping in at adolescence and taking over, but then in the last game we were born and raised in a Vault, and that is not the case this time around because -- this is so cool -- the area of the country we were born in was not so badly ravaged as the east coast was by the nuclear war!

Now that is not to say that the Great War did not have any impact at all -- it did, whoa baby! Having traveled through that part of the country, and even on those roads, through those towns, it is painfully clear to me just how destructive the war was on the region, and yet once you get past the rubble of the urban landscape and reach the center of what used to be the casino district -- or as the locals refer to it, the Strip -- you are left with a very vivid and clear impression that you are in Las Vegas!

That is really as far as I have gotten in the game at this point. I am getting over a very bad bit of illness -- about a week of which I was not in my right mind -- so you should probably take that into consideration as far as my warm and fuzzy feelings about the game go. Still, fever or not, I am impressed!

This promises to be a long and interesting journey.

- - - - -
Standard Disclaimer: No ghouls or mutant were harmed in the filming of this video game.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

. . . Subscription Fees

In the past 24 hours I have received -- at last count -- 43 email messages from readers who are concerned with the new pay-access plan that is now in place at the Cape Cod Times. I understand the concern that this is causing, but it is not as bad as it may seem.

First, it is not completely restricted to pay-for-access -- there are actually three levels of access:

(1) Unregistered Access -- visitors who have not registered an account at the paper are allowed to access up to 3 articles a month for free, based upon the computer that they access the paper from. So if you access the paper's site from your work system, you get three articles, and then if you access it from home, you have three more.

(2) Registered Access -- Visitors who have registered an account at the paper's site have access to 10 articles every month. Registering for an account is free, but requires you to provide a valid, working email account from which you can verify the registration.

(3) Subscriber Access -- Visitors who have registered a free account and then chosen to subscribe (pay) have unrestricted access to the online version of the paper each month.

That basically sums up the situation. The subscription service only applies to the newspaper content on the site -- the articles and content that are from the print version of the paper -- and not the regular online content, like the Blogs, and the chat section.

It may feel like this is a hassle, but the reality is simply that charging for access to the content on the site is a necessary evil -- in this economy there are more people accessing the online version of the newspaper than there are people who subscribe to the print version, that is a reality. The Cape Cod Times resisted moving to a pay-for-access format for a long time -- much longer than most papers in our region.

On the flip-side of the coin is the fact that a paid subscription base also means that they will be able to expand the content that is published in the online version to be more in parity to the print version, so in that respect, this is a good thing.

Change is often a disturbing element of life, and like a lot of people, I am not a big fan of abrupt change -- and this move felt to me like it was abrupt despite the fact that I knew it was coming a month ago. Still, I am hoping that it turns out to be a good thing! Anything that improves the economic health of the paper is a good thing in my eyes, and honestly, I can see the day coming when most newspapers are not newspapers, but websites.

With the increasing popularity of digital electronic publishing, hand-held book and newspaper readers, and the inevitable expansion and refinement of that technology, it really is only a matter of time before the printed newspaper disappears from the American landscape. I will be sad to see that day come, and I do believe that this change is the first harbinger of that change, but as a wise man once said, you cannot stop progress.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

. . . How I became a Webmaster

In 1994 if you asked me my profession, I would have instantly answered that I was a Network Security Engineer.

If you asked me to describe what it was that I did for a living, I would have said that I design and secure networks, test the security of networks, and advise companies on methods that they can use, and policy that they should adopt, to keep their business network secure.

At some point in the Summer of 1994 that all changed.

At the time I worked through an agency that provided technical expertise -- for a price -- to mostly corporate clients.

XYZ Corp might have had a bad security compromise, and be in need of an expert to come in, trace the compromise to its source, and implement whatever changes had to be made to protect them from it ever happening again. In the process they usually also asked for a complete security profile of their network in case there were other holes that they did not know about. In a nutshell, that is what I did -- and I liked it!

The first two weeks of the month I might be commuting to Boston, and the last two weeks I might be in Denver or LA. Business sometimes took me overseas -- mostly Europe and Asia -- and it was very cool... Until I learned that we were going to be parents. As I contemplated the idea of being on the road two to three weeks out of every month, while my pregnant wife sat at home waiting to have our baby, it was no longer as appealing as it had been.

Then I thought about how much I would not like it that I would be traveling instead of spending time with my family, because my wife would not be able to go with me on trips anymore -- once you have kids it changes the way you have to live.

I realized that I needed a regular job; a place to work where I went to the same place, and where I worked predictable hours, so I told my agent at the company that represented me to the market, and she went to work looking for a gig that fit the bill. A months after the New Year she called me and said she had something -- maybe.

It paid a little more than I was averaging on the road minus per diem, and while it was not network security per se, it did require a strong background in that area.

"What is the job?" I asked.

"Webmaster for a game company," she replied.

"Web what?! What the hell is a Webmaster?!" I asked, and she told me.

Webmasters -- The people behind the curtain

Back then a Webmaster was much more than the person who organized and oversaw the creative side of a website. You have to remember that in the Summer of 1994 the World Wide Web was still pretty new, and the position of Webmaster was not a formal and well understood job.

At some companies the Webmaster was only responsible for writing the code that was the website, while at others they were also responsible for overseeing the web server, securing the companies net connection, and anything else that a resource manager responsible for what was really a new communications media could be convinced was part of their job!

The company that had contacted her was looking for more than just a person who understood how to configure a web server, or new how to build a web page. They needed someone who could do all of that, sure, but also put together a team of people to help construct what was, arguably, the first fully-automated web-based platform for Fantasy Sports.

The company was called Replica Corporation, and prior to moving toward a web-based platform, they provided their gaming service via computerized phone systems. The gamers would call the number for their "service" and using the standard phone keypad, log in, negotiate a series of menus, and make the choices they wanted to make for the game that they were playing, which for Replica meant either Fantasy Sports like football and baseball, or Fantasy Stock Market games.

It sounded like a good fit for me -- I had an advanced knowledge of web servers and the daemon, and a fair bit of experience with building web sites -- but mostly they were either personal, or volunteer efforts, because at that point the web had not caught on and simply was not the destination that it would become only a year later.

She set me up for an interview... The company created Fantasy Sports and Investing Games, from Sports Illustrated Fantasy Football to the Fidelity Investment Challenge, and it sounded like an interesting place to work!

My Introduction to the Web

In April 1991, I found myself backpacking on the Franco-Swiss border and badly in need of a place to stay the night. I had failed to make reservations at the youth hostel where I thought I was going to stay, unaware that in that part of the world reservations were a necessity, and the cost of a hotel for the weekend would have rivaled the price I had paid for my plane ticket to Europe!

Fortunately I remembered that a friend from university had managed an internship at the Conseil EuropĂ©en pour la Recherche NuclĂ©aire -- also known as CERN -- or what is now called the European Organization for Nuclear Research. After a few false starts — CERN is more a city than it is a facility — I managed to track her down.

Grace is a physicist, and a kind and gentle soul who was happy to put me up for a few days in her flat and be my tourist guide that weekend. It was a Friday morning and she needed to be at work, so we met in front of the market and she parked me in her flat, showed me how to operate the TV, the espresso machine, and the water closet, and hurried off to do that physicist thing she did at CERN.

Bored, I turned on the TV, but every show was in French, which I do speak, but rather slowly and not with a vocabulary suited to daytime TV. The folks on the telly were speaking so fast I got about one word in three if I was lucky, so I made myself an espresso and searched the well-packed bookshelf for something to read, certain that I would find a book more entertaining than the TV.

Everything in the bookshelf that was printed in English related to physics — except for one shelf full of bodice-ripper romance novels -- and I was not that bored!

Among the shelf after shelf of books in languages I did not read at all, or at least not well, I finally found one spiral-bound book that was in English; entitled "Information Management: A Proposal" by a bloke named Tim Berners-Lee, who it turned out worked at CERN.

Tucked into this book was a packet consisting of a proposal for use and notes from what I believe was a presentation on the use of this new software. As I read the book I experienced my first epiphany of my life — the book was about building a hypertext standard and a client-server model that would be called the "World Wide Web." When I finished reading it, my first thought was, "This will change the way people use the Internet!" My second thought was, "I cannot wait to see what this looks like!"

That weekend I had the chance to see the Web on one of the NeXT Slabs (a workstation computer that could also function as a server that was designed and build by Steve Jobs after he left Apple). The Web Server was a NeXT Cube, and both the server and client software was created at CERN, largely by a man named Tim Berners-Lee, who moved from CERN to a position at MIT later that year.

I did not get to meet Berners-Lee at CERN -- though I would have the opportunity to meet him a few years later at MIT and during the 4th International World Wide Web Conference in Boston, where I was a member of the MBone Team.

The point to all this is that I learned about the Web in that tiny flat in Switzerland, and a few years later after I acquired my own NeXT Slab, I actually ran my own web server, and created a few web sites. Did that qualify me to be a Webmaster? Well, sort of...

The Interview at Replica

As is often the case, there was more to this job than was instantly obvious. When I showed up for my interview it was with the company CFO and CTO, who sat me down in a meeting room and told me all about what they did there -- Fantasy Gaming -- and what they hoped to do on the World Wide Web very soon. They asked a lot of questions about my background, but what surprised me was that they seemed to be more interested in my abilities as a Systems and Network Engineer than as a Webmaster...

As the conversation moved towards the end of the interview I grew a little suspicious -- there was nothing concrete that I could point at and cry "foul!" but there was something slightly off. As we were shaking hands and saying our good bye's I asked them point-blank: "You are not in critical path on anything, are you?"

"Oh no, not at all," they lied, with sincerity.

I went away thinking that the interview had gone well. I knew that they had a dozen other people to interview, so I did not expect to hear from them any time soon, but the following day I got a call from my agent: Replica wanted to hire me.

"They want you," she said. "But not as a contract. They want you as salary, and they are willing to pay us our buy-out fee," she added. I whistled, then clucked my tongue. The buy-out to hire talent away from that agency was $50,000 and even in 1994 that was a lot of money.

"Are they serious?" I asked.

"They want you to start tomorrow," she answered.

My First Day at Replica lasted 336 hours

After all of the paperwork was signed -- my contract, my salary papers, insurance and other legal papers that included a stack of NDA's, I was shown my office, and asked what I needed as far as computers were concerned, both for myself, and for my staff. What staff? I asked. Why, the staff you will need to hire -- you have to do that, it is part of your job, they said.

As I sat at my mostly barren desk making the list of the kit we would need, I also made a list of the staff that I would need to hire, and I only just finished that when the manager in charge of the database section came in and dropped a bomb in my lap.

He wanted to interface with me on how soon I expected to get an Internet Connection in to the building, and whether or not the existing network would work for that, and would we be hosting our own email? I must have looked odd, I am sure I looked confused -- and then he said, "Man, I don't know how you are going to manage getting that game built and deployed in less than 6 weeks! You must have brass balls or something!"

A few targeted questions revealed that not only was Replica in critical path on a project -- it was now MY project, and they had a contractual obligation to a major Financial Services company to get that game up and running in one day less than 6 weeks! They had known that for half a year, they just only got around to hiring the Webmaster that week!

I was in trouble. I instantly understood that. I went directly to the CTO to get the true word -- how bad was the situation? Very bad.

I needed to put together a game that had precisely Zero lines of code already written, test it, get it online, and then make sure it worked under load. But before I could do that, I had to get them an Internet connection -- they had no Internet services. Oh, and I needed to get staff as well, to actually build the game!

That night I went home for the last time in the next two weeks -- when I showed up for work the following morning I had my sleeping bag and a duffel full of the things I would need, and I lived in my office.

I slept under my desk, and I ate take-away food from nearby restaurants. The space that we were in had previously had a gym attached to it, so there was a large bathroom with showers down the hall, and it had a decent lunch room, but not the sort where you could cook anything more sophisticated than a microwave meal.

I was hired on a Tuesday. Using connections from previous jobs and contacts at Verizon, I was able to bypass the usual roadblocks that are put up by the provisioning office, and get an order for a full T-1 line and Internet connection fast-tracked for installation three days later on Friday afternoon. I quickly revised the list that I had written on needed hardware, and I also revised the list on needed staff, changing it from what I wanted to what I knew I needed.

The server I chose was a Sun Netra Server, which had to be ordered through an authorized Sun Computer distributor, but that too was fast-tracked for delivery on Friday. I put the orders in for the PC hardware, expediting that through the CTO's office, and then I drove over to U-Do-It Electronics and bought the tools I needed, and a box containing 500 feet of CAT-5 wire, a dozen surface-mount boxes and all of the kit that went with it.

I spent Thursday wiring the office that I had been assigned -- a room about 30 feet by 40 feet in size sectioned off into six cubicles of varying sizes. Mine, for instance, was a little larger than the others, and had my desk and chair, and a love seat style couch, coffee table, and single matching upholstered chair in it, ostensibly for meetings. The couch was too small to be used as a bed, so when I slept it was under my desk, in or on my sleeping bag. I did not sleep much.

The PC's arrived late on Thursday, and I spent most of the afternoon and evening evening getting them installed on their respective desks, and hooked to our network, which was itself connected via a fiber backbone to a new switch in what was destined to be our server room -- a small area that was adjacent to the servers being used by the database and programming departments, and the client systems belonging to the IVR department.

At that point, Replica had about 200 computers on tables running the length of the building in four rows, staffed by part-time college students who would take the calls of the customers, and using the computer in front of them, enter their "moves" into the system. That was in addition to the automated telephone input and response system that was in the process of being phased out, to be replaced by the Internet.

Friday Arrives

When I woke up under my desk on Friday morning, I had a fully-functioning department with a staff of one -- me. On each of the six desks were two computers each -- one running Windows, one running Linux.

At the time I was partial to Slackware, so that is what was installed on the systems. We needed both -- the Windows boxes to interface with the existing network, and the Linux boxes for development. I was not sure what the staff would prefer -- Windows or Linux -- so I figured that having the option was the way to go. The Linux boxes were all configured for X11, and although we did not have an Internet connection at that point, could talk to each other and the DSN Servers I had put together using Slackware and deployed in the server room just fine.

The T-1 crew showed up early, and by 1 PM we had a fully-functioning Internet connection sitting behind a commercial grade firewall, with a DMZ containing our DNS servers and connections for our Web Server when it arrived. There was much rejoicing.

The folks from Sun showed up an hour later, and by 4:30 PM we had our web server deployed, tested, and functioning, but not connected to the Internet because it needed to be hardened and have the unnecessary services and ports closed. I could not do that immediately, because I had somewhere that I needed to be that afternoon.

-- 2600 The Hacker Quarterly --

At that time, in Boston, on the first Friday of every month, a colorful collection of characters gathered in the food court at the Prudential Center for the monthly 2600 Meeting. 2600 being 2600 the Magazine -- or 2600 the Hacker Quarterly as it was officially called. From all over the Boston area and points covering most of Eastern Massachusetts, parts of Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Maine, computer and phone hacking enthusiasts would gather to chat, view impromptu presentations, and be social.

After grabbing food and beverages, the meeting would come together in the far rear corner of the dining area, and while it was half social and half serious, it was all fun. We played games like Spot the Fed, and talked about more than just the latest issue of 2600 or what the people were up to in our group and the groups within our group. It was a different era -- much different than what you find today -- but more important than that, it was where I needed to be, because it was where I was going to recruit the core members of the Web Staff for Replica!

The first person that I "recruited" was Sean Hamor -- AKA Sciri -- one of the smartest and most capable net geeks I know. As soon as I arrived at the meeting I sat down next to him, and I asked him how he liked his job -- at the time he was working for the City of Boston or maybe it was the MBTA? Anyway, he was working as a temp -- and he hated his job.

"Quit," I said. "Today."

"I can't quit, I need the money," he explained.

"Quit. Come to work with me. I can get you three times what they are paying you -- maybe more," I said.

I am not sure if he believed me right then or not... I called the CFO and told him that I had found the first member of the Web Staff, and I needed to have him in the office, first thing Monday morning, ready to start, and what would that take?

He had to be interviewed. He had to fill out some papers. It was mostly formality, I was told. And that was true. Sean started to believe me as the call progressed. On Monday instead of showing up for work at the City, he showed up at Replica, had his interview, worked out what he wanted to be paid, and moved into his desk that day.

The second person I hired was a young woman named Window Snyder, who was a genius at code and fully grok'd the World Wide Web. Based upon their recommendations we hired a coder -- a bloke named Steve who would have been right at home on Haight-Ashbury Street in 1968 -- and Replica had its Web Team!

After Replica sold its online gaming assets and closed up shop, the team scattered to the four winds -- Sean went on to work for Lucent Technologies, and eventually ended up as Operational Systems Administrator for Canonical USA, which I understand is a place and position he likes a lot. Window took the job as network security boss at Mozilla, where she hardened my favorite browser, Firefox, before moving on to Apple Computer, where she is the Senior Security Product Manager. I do not know what happened to Steve... But that, in essence, is the story of how I became a Webmaster!

The team that I assembled pulled off a major miracle, building the game from scratch from outline to finished code in less than 5 weeks. We did the Sports Illustrated Fantasy Football game, the Fidelity Investment Challenge, and a half-dozen other projects before the company was shut down, having sold-off its game business for serious money.

That introduction to the world of All-Area Utility Webmaster served me well, and the skill and knowledge that I acquired in the process has proven useful at other jobs, and in the volunteer work that I have done and continue to do.

What is a Webmaster?

To this day I am still not sure what the answer to that question really is... Despite the fact that the World Wide Web is nearly 20 years old, the reality is that the position of Webmaster still means many different things depending on the company.

To my way of thinking the easy definition is this: The person who is responsible for the day-to-day operation, planning, content, and content deployment for a web server and site. That sounds about right.