Update on moving in

As we continue unpacking and getting set up, I’ve found one system that didn’t handle the move too well.
About four years ago, my storage system (for music, photos, videos, backup, VM images, and so forth) consisted of two Firewire 800 boxes: a WD Macbook Studio (2TB) and an 8TB RAID enclosure. Since my latest iMac didn’t support Firewire, I used a Thunderbolt-to-Firewire adapter. This mostly worked, although the RAID enclosure usually needed power cycling after I rebooted the iMac. Performance was decent.
When I got around to unpacking everything and setting things up on Saturday afternoon, I was met with a lot of noise from the RAID enclosure. Some of it was a failing fan, but there were other worrying undertones. And about 10 minutes after booting, the RAID system simply went away. Ouch.
Fortunately, all of the really important stuff was on the Studio. The RAID was mostly used for local backups and staging to Backblaze (my cloud backup), and I knew I could retrieve or recreate everything on it. (And I was willing to retire a few hundred gigabytes of VM images from OpenStack and CloudFoundry testing.) But I knew I would need more space than the 2TB on the Studio. After lunch, I headed over to the nearest Best Buy and picked up a new Seagate Backup Plus Hub. 8TB for around $200. Who would have thought it, eh?
So today everything has been consolidated on the Seagate, and both of the older units have been retired. I’ve reconfigured my Backblaze setup, and all of the laptops and other devices are happily backing up to the iMac again. And Firewire is history…

How would an average user handle this?

I’ve been using an iMac as my primary home computer for the last five years. Nice system, both as a desktop and as a server for the rest of the apartment, with a string of FireWire drives hanging off the back. It came with 4GB RAM, and in 2012 I added an extra 8GB so that I could run VirtualBox VMs. However in recent months it’s started to misbehave; about 10% of the time the display won’t come back from screen saver or sleep, and I have to restart via Cmd-Ctrl-Power. So I decided to replace it with a new iMac. Nothing too extravagant: a 21.5″ Retina iMac with Core i5, 16GB RAM, 1TB Fusion disk. (I looked at the 27″ model with a discrete GPU, but I couldn’t justify the expense. I’m not really a graphics junky. More practically, the 27″ wouldn’t fit under my over-desk cupboards.) I also ordered a FireWire-to-Thunderbolt adapter, hoping that my existing storage setup would just work.
The new iMac arrived yesterday, and I had a decision: clean install, or transfer from the old system? With the previous iMac, I’d done a transfer from my Mac Mini, so I knew that there was quite a bit of cruft in there. On the other hand, my Mail, iTunes and backup (Time Machine and Backblaze) configurations are complicated, and I was inclined to let the Migration tool take care of them. So I booted up the new system, hooked them together with an Ethernet cable, and let it rip. Six hours later, it was done. I plugged in my FireWire chain, using the new adapter, and everything just worked.
Sort of.
I spent a couple of hours testing and tweaking stuff, amused to see which apps required re-authentication and which ones treated this as a reincarnation of an already-trusted system. And then I remembered that I’d forgotten one cardinal rule: I hadn’t checked for software updates. So I did… and the OS X 10.11.1 update wouldn’t work. It just hung. Perhaps it was a “first boot” issue; I’ve often noticed that things in OS X don’t work quite right after an update, and a reboot usually fixes them. So I chose restart.
Black screen. “Bong” sound. White Apple logo. Then "kernel panic" in the top left corner.
Tried again. Same result.
I contemplated the time required to do a full reinstall of OS X. I wondered about Genius Bar appointments. And then I decided to reboot in Safe Mode (holding down shift right after the “Bong”). That worked, though the system was glacially slow.
So I grabbed my rMBP (what would I have done with only one computer?) and started searching for kernel extensions that might be causing the problem. Eventually I found this piece about VirtualBox-related panics. I opened a terminal, deleted the offending files, and rebooted. The panic was gone – and, equally important, the 10.11.1 update installed correctly. Later today I’ll try a clean installation of VirtualBox to see if it’s OK. (I use a VirtualBox VM to cache all of my context for open source work, including keys and git scripts.)
(And the Retina 4K display on the new iMac is just gorgeous.)

Oliver Twist on bandwidth…

The obvious quote is “Please, sir, I want some more.” However perhaps more apposite is another from the same book: “Some people are nobody’s enemies but their own.” A year ago, we moved from Santa Clara to our new apartment in downtown San Jose. We’d been using an old DOCSIS 2.0 cable modem together with an Apple Airport Extreme for Internet service, and for various reasons it hadn’t been very satisfactory. When we arrived in San Jose, I decided to replace them with an all-in-one solution: a DOCSIS 3.0 modem with built-in Wi-Fi router from Netgear.
For the last 12 months we’ve put up with the consequences of this misguided attempt at simplification:

  • My company VPN keeps dropping the connection, requiring a tedious security scan while it re-establishes the session.
  • Video and audio through WebEx (our standard collaboration tool) is so unpredictable that I usually arrange for a call-back to my cellphone.
  • While watching a movie on Netflix we can expect at least a dozen shifts between different video quality levels as the streaming codecs try to compensate for bandwidth and jitter.
  • Elder Scrolls Online is… challenging.
  • Speed tests routinely showed less than 15Mb down, which is a lot less than we’re paying for. (I’d love a good long-term jitter measurement tool…)

A couple of days ago I (again!) started poking around the net looking for solutions. This time, I discovered that a number of other Netgear users had experienced similar problems, particularly with VPN access. Moreover the consensus was now pretty overwhelming: all-in-one solutions are just too inflexible. So today I replaced the C3700 with a $99 Arris SB6141 – a simple, no-frills DOCSIS 3.0 modem; no Wi-Fi, no GbE switch. (OK, it does have efficient channel bonding (8 downstream, 4 upstream), but hopefully that will be completely transparent.) After calling Comcast to provision the new modem, I dusted off the old Airport Extreme and plugged it in. And then I ran a speed test.
66Mb down, 12Mb up.
Not South Korean speeds, or Google Fiber, but a lot better than I’d been used to. And this setup should be able to handle the 150Mb upgrade that Comcast is trying to tempt me with. In the meantime, it’s going to take a few days of testing – particularly streaming video during peak hours – to see if this kind of performance is sustainable. Fingers crossed…

All the planes I've flown on

This post was prompted by two things today. First, Tom Gill remarked on how important it was to pick the right kind of aircraft for the season (e.g. avoiding range-limited types when there are lots of delays, headwinds, etc.) and tagged me in his post. And second, I realized that my second flight today (IAH-SFO) was on a type of aircraft that I’d never flown before. And got got me thinking: what have I actually flown on?
My first flights, back in 1961, were on Aer Lingus Vickers Viscounts. Today these would be categorized as regional turboprops, along with Saab 340s and so forth. I’m not interested in those. But apart from those, what does the list look like?
Airbus A300: Yes, Air France and Eastern
Airbus A310: NO
Airbus A318: NO
Airbus A319: Yes, mostly United
Airbus A320: Yes, many airlines around the world
Airbus A321: Yes, US Airways and various European carriers
Airbus A330: Yes, various inc. Aer Lingus
Airbus A340: Yes, including Olympic and Jet (but never on the A340-500/A340-600)
Airbus A350: NO (not surprising, given how new it is)
Airbus A380: NO (but I really want to)
Avro RJ: Yes
Boeing 707: NO
Boeing 727: Yes, various, inc. Lufthansa, United
Boeing 737: Yes, all models except the 737-600 (Boeing’s equivalent to the unloved A318)
Boeing 747: Yes, 747-100, 747-200, 747-400. Never on the 747-300 or 747-800
Boeing 757: Yes, both 757-200 (more than I can count) and 757-300 (United, ex-Continental)
Boeing 767: Yes: 767-200, 767-300, and (finally) 767-400
Boeing 777: Yes: 777-200 with United, BA, and many others; 777-300 with Singapore.
Boeing 787: Yes, 787-800 (China Southern); not yet on the 787-900
Canadair CRJ: Yes, all models
Embraer RJs: Yes, most variants
McDonnell Douglas DC8: Yes, various, mostly United.
McDonnell Douglas DC9/MD8x/MD9x: Yes, various, mostly American, Eastern, Northwest, Delta
McDonnell Douglas DC10: Yes, United
McDonnell Douglas MD11: Yes, American
Vickers VC10: Yes, British Airways

When something entirely familiar changes unexpectedly

What happened to my credit card?
I’ve been using credit (and debit) cards for around 40 years. In that time, the card has barely changed: 85.60 × 53.98 mm laminated plastic, rounded corners, with the number embossed across the middle, my name and the expiration date embossed below it, and a signature panel on the back. A few decorations have appeared – a chip on the front, a hologram, a security code on the back, even my own photo. But the basic card has remained the same. And many other cards that I own follow the same form factor, for obvious reasons.
I just got a new card (a Chase Mileage Plus Explorer), and it’s different. Radically different. It’s half the thickness, for a start. On the front my name is printed (not embossed) in slightly raised letters. On the back, my name, the card number, and the expiration date are printed below the signature stripe, using the same slightly raised style. There’s a hologram, but no chip. (Boo!)
I’m sure this is going to be more convenient in everyday use. The merchant can read the card number, my name, and the signature without turning the card over. It’s thinner: if all my cards were this thick, I could use a much slimmer wallet. (As it is, I’m worried about this one falling out of the slow.) On the other hand, I can’t see how this would work with an old-style carbon-copy credit card machine. If not, will some merchants refuse it? (I’m not the first to worry about this, see here and here, including the comments.) Does this card conform to the ISO/IEC 7810 ID-1 standard? It certainly looks thinner than 0.76 mm.
Above all, I’m surprised that something so simple struck me as such a big deal. Probably time to re-read Don Norman’s “The Psychology of Everyday Things”.

Switching ecosystems (again).

Yesterday I bought myself a Google Nexus 5 phone to replace my iPhone 5C. Although I’m a rock solid Mac user – I couldn’t imagine trying to live with either Windows or Linux on my desktop – I find myself drifting away from the iOS world. In the last year, for example, I’ve used my Kindle Fire tablet far more often than my iPad. But the main thing provoking the switch is that I really want to increase my use of my Google Glass. Restrictions in iOS (especially the inability of user apps to route IP traffic between BlueTooth, WiFi and LTE), coupled with the flakiness of the iOS Mobile Hotspot feature, mean that Glass simply works better with an Android phone. (And before you say, “but of course”, the changes that have affected interoperability have all come from Apple.)
Now I’ve tried this Android switch once before, and it was not a pleasant experience.In August 2011, I acquired an AT&T Samsung Infuse. It was big, fast and gorgeous, as I wrote here. But my infatuation soon wore off. The problems were many: overheating, bloatware, lockups, buggy software, the failure of AT&T and Samsung to keep the software up to date, and a handful of incredibly annoying “features” with no workaround. (Posting a notification when the phone was fully charged – often in the middle of the night – was the most asinine.)
So that experiment lasted less than 6 months, and then I returned to the walled garden. So this time I’m trying to be smarter about it. By choosing Google’s own Nexus, I can be (pretty) sure that I’ll always have up-to-date software. And I know where they live….

This blog has been very, very quiet for the last year

2013 was an eventful year in many respects. There were professional moves – first to Vyatta, and then to Cisco – and a number of changes affecting family and friends. I remained interested in the topics that I’ve written about over the years – technology, politics, philosophy, atheism, books, music, and so forth – but none of this touched geoffarnold.com.
The main reason, I think, is that my work-related stuff all wound up on my tech blog, speakingofclouds, which had a modestly successful year. Reviews of books and other media were posted to Amazon.com. And I shared most of my ephemeral content – news and opinion – over at Facebook.
With all that said, I’m not going to close this blog, even though pundits are once again declaring that “the blog is dead”. I want a place where I can do a little long-form writing on non-technical topics, and this is the best I can think of.