Dave Farquhar, lunch ninja

My boss doesn’t think I’m human. His proof: He asks anyone who knows me if he or she has ever seen me eat. No one has.

They’ve seen evidence of me eating. But actually taking a bite? No. Not even the time we went out for BBQ.

Read more

Defusing in person

My name, and my department’s name in general, gets thrown around a lot at work. We have a bit of a reputation as the can’t-do guys.

Professionalism dictates I not go into specifics about what kinds of things we reject or disapprove, but if I were to explain them, no security professional would disagree with me.

The other side of the argument, of course, is that the system still does its job the way it’s supposed to do and the system cost a lot of money. Here’s a story of a tense situation and how we were able to come to an understanding. Read more

Working for Canonical doesn’t make you pro-Free Software?

Stuart Langridge works for Canonical. Canonical produces Ubuntu, a popular Linux distribution. Apparently, this means he favors proprietary software in some people’s minds.

Yes, this is the same Ubuntu Linux you can download freely. You can make copies of it and sell them, legally. You can modify it, if you have the ability and inclination. Just setting the record straight.

Canonical does what it has to do to get Linux working well on your computer. And it succeeds rather nicely. If a computer can run Windows XP or newer, it can run Ubuntu, and installing Ubuntu will be easier than installing Windows in many cases. The computer this website runs on was built on a variant of Ubuntu, and it literally took longer to burn the CD than it took to run the installation. It blew my mind.

This is a case of software being like religion.

I am Lutheran. Almost militantly so, to the annoyance of some people who know me. I break from the traditional Lutheran camp in two regards: favoring music in the service that was written during my lifetime, and not being uptight enough about doctrine. I take the concept of grace alone, faith alone very seriously, and to an outsider, that plus the Lutheran definition of grace–God’s riches at Christ’s expense–is enough to make you Lutheran. That’s good enough for me. Some vocal Lutherans expect you to be able to recite precisely what makes John Calvin a heretic. I neither know nor care about that. I read the Bible, in its entirety, and concluded that Calvin puts certain responsibilities on you, a human being, that Luther puts on God. Since I believe that God is more reliable than me, I concluded that the Lutheran view is safer. I believe that ought to be enough.

The big question is whether I care if I’m Lutheran enough for some people. And the answer is no, I do not. I just ignore the rants about heresy that I see on Facebook, or better yet, stay off Facebook for long stretches at a time, and go about my business.

I guess that’s easier said than done in the Free Software community. There are a lot more witch hunters in that group. I suppose the people who can’t write working code try to make up for it by concentrating on ideology, or something like that. I do know it’s a whole lot easier to crusade for ideology than to write code.

The silent majority of people just want a system that works. They don’t want to hunt down drivers and compile them, or spend hours editing configuration files. I can’t tell you how many e-mail messages I received over the years from people who tried the most popular Linux distribution of the time, ran into difficulty, and gave up. (It’s one reason my e-mail address isn’t on this site anywhere anymore.) Even if the problem was something I could answer relatively easily, they just gave up and installed Windows instead. In their minds, if Dave Farquhar knows how to make that work, then whoever made that particular Linux distribution ought to make it work automatically. And they have a point.

So if Ubuntu installs a driver or some other low-level code that isn’t completely Richard Stallman-approved, the majority of people really don’t care. They’re happy it works. If their freedoms are infringed upon, they don’t know it.

I’ve said before that I could re-train my mother to use Linux. In fact, she could probably get all of her work done in Linux and emacs, and I’m sure John the Baptist Richard Stallman would be absolutely thrilled. But it would take her several years to learn the nuances of emacs, and some of her job duties would take much longer. Perhaps she wouldn’t mind occasionally spending hours to do something that can be accomplished in minutes using a more specialized, albeit proprietary, tool. In the end, when she’s a master of emacs, I’ll be able to tell her that she’s free. And she’ll tell me, “It wasn’t worth it.” Or, if she’s feeling a little more reasonable, she’ll throw something at me.

It’s easier said than done. But perhaps when the witch hunters come knocking, it would help to ask them if they had anything better to do?

After all, he could be a total sell-out like me. In my job, I’ve recommended Linux-based solutions when appropriate, but I spend the overwhelming majority of my time supporting things that run on Windows. Perhaps they would prefer he do that.

But I wouldn’t. I really like the work Canonical is doing.

The stunning fall of Mark Hurd

I didn’t believe it when the news broke late Friday that Mark Hurd, CEO of Hewlett-Packard, had suddenly resigned under fire.

Hurd wasn’t flamboyant or a quote machine like many technology CEOs. He just steadily turned HP around, increasing profits, passing Dell in sales of PCs and IBM in sales of servers, and buying companies like EDS and 3Com. He was exactly what investors liked.

In the following days, it turned out there was more to the story.Some people believe the infraction that HP cited for Hurd’s downfall was a cover, that HP wanted him out. The reasons make some sense. The one that resonates with me the most is the logic that Hurd increased profits by squeezing expenses to the bone, slashing the workforce to the minimum, then slashing salaries. Doing more with less, in other words–the mantra of IT during the entire previous decade.

The result? Record numbers of applications from HP employees at competitors. So far, no Steven Slater-style meltdowns, but when demanding more and more while paying less isn’t a good long-term strategy. The Slater story brought attention to this problem and got people talking about it, and it looks like HP may have been a few days ahead of the curve on that.

Other accounts have said employees don’t like working for Hurd and he’s unpleasant toward him. Which lead to some defenders questioning when "being nice" was a job qualification for a CEO.

Well, five years ago I was consulting for a Fortune 500 company. I stepped onto an elevator, and the company CEO stepped on right after me. He extended his hand, introduced himself, and asked me my name, what department I worked in, and what I did there. It was a 30-second exchange.

He stepped off the elevator and literally never saw me again. I don’t know whether he forgot about me the moment I stepped off the elevator, or if he jotted down a note that if he needed a printer fixed he could call Dave Farquhar and filed it away. But unlike a certain very famous CEO, he gave me no reason to fear sharing an elevator ride with him.

And I do think an important qualification of being a CEO is knowing who to call when they need something done quickly and done right. Being friendly is conducive to that. Being ruthless at all times is not. Even Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun knew when to be kind.

Then there’s the question of the consultant. The consultant who had, among other duties, the questionable job duty of "keeping Mr. Hurd company on trips," but with whom Hurd didn’t have an affair (both deny any sexual element to the relationship), and whom Hurd didn’t sexually harass (HP said no harassment took place, and the two settled out of court and kept the terms private). The consultant with whom Hurd concealed $20,000 in expenses in order to hide the relationship.

To a CEO of a multibillion-dollar company, 20 grand isn’t much. Hurd could have paid that back, and he offered. The amount of money isn’t the question nearly so much as the motive. Why did he feel the need to conceal having dinner with one particular subordinate?

The sexual harassment claim gives weight to the claim of it not being a sexual affair. But the job duty of "keeping [any male in a position of power] company" is a common euphemism for something less innocent. I’ve also read speculation that some of this consultant’s past work–namely, acting roles in several R-rated films of the type that gave the cable TV channel Cinemax the nickname "Skinamax"–may have contributed to these expectations.

Some have said that’s blaming the victim. But no means no, and the definition is the same no matter what the person’s job description was for most of the 1990s.

If Mr. Hurd jumped to certain conclusions because his consultant once had a starring role in "Body of Evidence 2," that says more about him than it says about her.

If I remember one thing from my freshman orientation in college, it’s sitting in an auditorium and being told repeatedly that no means no. Regardless of how much she’s had to drink, or what she’s wearing, or what reputation she has for whatever reason.

Since the charge was harassment rather than something else, it sounds like perhaps someone thought a no on Monday might not be followed by a no on Tuesday. That’s better than thinking no means yes based on reputation, but it was still problematic enough to settle out of court rather than try to get it dismissed.

We’ll probably never know HP’s full motivation behind the dismissal. Mark Hurd left over what appears now to be a relatively minor matter of $20,000 worth of incorrect expense reports and a slightly inappropriate relationship with a subordinate, both things that would go completely unnoticed or be easily rectified if it was a different company, or, perhaps, a different person.

The key is to not leave that something relatively minor laying around.

The American Dream vs. the American Greed

Last week at church, our newly-installed vicar preached about greed vs. generosity, and he ripped a little on the American Dream, which he defined as each generation having better stuff and living more comfortably than their parents did.

I think he’s right, letting that consume you definitely leads to problems. But I was taught that the American Dream was more about opportunity than it was about materialism. And maybe that’s where we’ve gone wrong.

I’m probably 10 years older than the vicar is, and I attended schools that didn’t exactly value new history books. So what I was taught probably dates back two generations, not just one.

And when I was in school, for the most part they taught us that the American Dream was about opportunity, and about parents giving their kids better opportunities than they had.

Today, I hear marketers on the radio saying, "That’s the American Dream, isn’t it? Owning a home?" Or tying the American Dream to any other materialistic thing.

Note the shift. It shifted from the kids to self.

I don’t know exactly why my direct ancestor, Adam Farquhar, came to the Americas in the 1700s (perhaps 1729). Presumably it was because he couldn’t get land in Scotland. But you see the American Dream working from generation to generation. Adam’s son Benajah owned land. Benajah’s son Edward became a doctor. At least five of Edward’s sons, including my ancestor Isaac, became doctors. Isaac’s son Ralph didn’t become a doctor, but he became a successful businessman who hobnobbed with some very powerful people. Ralph Jr. revived the family tradition of being doctors, and he was wealthy enough to give my dad every opportunity in the world.

My dad never did become as wealthy or as successful as his dad was. But by Dad’s own admission, he was a slacker. It wasn’t for lack of opportunity. Look at things strictly in material terms, and Dad set the Farquhar line back a couple of generations.

But Dad gave me opportunities. Wherever we lived, he got me into a good school. When circumstances found us living in a town that didn’t have a good high school, Dad moved us out before I turned 14, so that my sister and I could go to good high schools. And Dad saw to it that we would be able to go to college.

My sons aren’t old enough to go to school yet, but they live in a good school district. And I did what I had to do in order to ensure they would have a choice between several good preschools, to get them a good foundation. I don’t know if either of them will be reading at age 3 like I was, but I’m going to make sure they have that chance.

I may have to make some personal sacrifices in order for them to have what they need. But for what Dad spent getting me a good high school education, he could have been driving Lincolns instead of those Dodge pickup trucks he drove. (And this was before pickup trucks became status symbols. Dad didn’t want his patients thinking they were paying for him to have an extravagant lifestyle.)

So I don’t have any problem brown-bagging my lunch, driving an older car, or using an older computer so my sons can go to good preschools. And given the choice between a smaller house in a great school district and a bigger house in a bad district, I’ll keep what I already have, so they can go to good schools.

What they make of it is up to them. But never let it be said that I didn’t get them the opportunity.

Dave Farquhar\’s rules, Part 1

Unlike Colin Powell, I haven’t canonized my rules for living, but there is one of my rules that I think is worth wasting electrons to publish.

Don’t go to movies based on video games.What prompted this? I saw a link referring to a movie based on the game Doom. How you make a movie based on a game where you run around shooting monsters, I don’t know.

Probably the way you make a movie based on a game where a scantily clad woman with impossible proportions runs around in tombs gathering treasures and shooting baddies.

As I recall, Tomb Raider got about as much critical acclaim as Rambo. People went and saw it anyway, but I know it wasn’t for the plot. It was for the chance to see Angelina Jolie in tight clothes. But Doom won’t have that benefit.

But is either of them worse than making a movie based on two Italian plumbers who run around knocking down killer turtles and eating mushrooms? Discuss.

Backup Exec misadventures

(Subtitle: My coworkers’ favorite new Dave Farquhar quote)

If your product isn’t suitable for use on production servers, then why didn’t you tell us that up front and save us all a lot of wasted time?

(To a Veritas Backup Exec support engineer when he insisted that I reboot four production web servers to see if that cleared up a backup problem.)When I refused to reboot my production web servers, he actually gave me a bit of useful information. Since Veritas doesn’t tell you this anywhere on their Web site, I don’t feel bad at all about giving that information here.

When backing up through a firewall, you have to tell Backup Exec what ports to use. It defaults to ports in the 10,000 range. That’s changeable, but changing it through the user interface (Tools, Options, Network) doesn’t do it. It takes an act of Congress to get that information out of Veritas.

What Veritas doesn’t tell you is that the media server (the server with the tape drive) should talk on a different range of ports than the remote servers you’re backing up. While it can still work if you don’t, chances are you’ll get a conflict.

The other thing Veritas doesn’t tell you is that you need a minimum of two, and an ideal of four, ports per resource being backed up. So if the server has four drives and a system registry, which isn’t unusual, it takes a minimum of 10 TCP ports to back it up, and 40 is safer.

Oh, and one other thing: If anyone is using any other product to back up Windows servers, I would love to hear about it.

Time for a core dump

I’ve been keeping a low profile lately. That’s for a lot of reasons. I’ve been doing mostly routine sysadmin work lately, which is mind-numbingly boring to write about, and possibly just a little bit less mind-numbingly boring to read about. While a numb mind might not necessarily be a bad thing, there are other reasons not to write about it.
During my college career, I felt like I had less of a private life than most of my classmates because of my weekly newspaper column. I wrote some pretty intensely personal stuff in there, and frankly, it seemed like a lot of the people I hung out with learned more about me from those columns than they did from hanging out with me. Plus, with my picture being attached, I’d get recognized when I went places. I remember many a Friday night, going to Rally’s for a hamburger and having people roll down their windows at stoplights and talk to me. That was pretty cool. But it also made me self-conscious. College towns have some seedy places, you know, and I worried sometimes about whether I’d be seen in the vicinity of some of those places and what people might think.

Looking back now, I should have wondered what they would be doing in the vicinity of those places and why it was OK for them to be nearby and not me. But that’s the difference between how I think now and how I thought when I was 20.

Plus, I know now a lot fewer people read that newspaper than its circulation and advertising departments wanted anyone to think. So I could have had a lot more fun in college and no one would have known.

I’m kidding, of course. And I’m going off on tangent after tangent here.

In the fall of 1999, I willingly gave up having a private life. The upside to that is that writing about things helps me to understand them a lot better. And sometimes I get stunningly brilliant advice. The downside? Well, not everyone knows how to handle being involved in a relationship with a writer. Things are going to come up in writing that you wish wouldn’t have. I know now that’s something you have to talk about, fairly early. Writing about past girlfriends didn’t in and of itself cost me those relationships but I can think of one case where it certainly didn’t help anything. The advice I got might have been able to save that relationship; now it’s going to improve some as-yet-to-be-determined relationship.

There’s another downside too. When you meet a girl and then she punches your name into a search engine, if you’re a guy like me who has four years’ worth of introspective revelations out on the Web, it kind of puts you at a disadvantage in the relationship. She knows a whole lot more about you than you do about her. It kind of throws off the getting-to-know-you process. I’d really rather not say how many times that’s happened in the past year. Maybe those relationships/prospective relationships were doomed anyway. I don’t have any way of knowing. One of them really hurt a lot and I really don’t want to go through it again.

So I’ve been trying to figure out for the past few weeks what to do about all this. Closing up shop isn’t an option. Writing strictly about the newest Linux trick I’ve discovered and nothing else isn’t an option. Writing blather about the same things everyone else is blathering about is a waste of time and worthless. Yes, I’ve been saying since March that much, if not all, of the SCO Unix code duplicated in Linux is probably BSD code that both of them ripped off at different points in time. And now it’s pretty much been proven that I was right. So what? How many hundreds of other people speculated the same thing? How could some of us be more right than others?

I’m going to write what I want, but I’m having a hard time deciding what I want to write. I know I have to learn how to hold something back. Dave Farquhar needs a private life again.

For a while, this may just turn into a log of Wikipedia entries I made that day. Yes, I’m back over there again, toiling in obscurity this time. For a while I was specializing in entries about 1980s home computing. For some reason when I get to thinking about that stuff I remember a lot, and I still have a pile of old books and magazines so I can check my facts. Plus a lot of those old texts are showing up online now. So now the Wikipedia has entries on things like the Coleco Adam and the Texas Instruments TI-99/4A. Hey, I find it interesting to go back and look at why these products were failures, OK? TI should have owned the market. It didn’t. Coleco should have owned the market, and they didn’t. Atari really should have owned the market and they crashed almost as hard as Worldcom. So how did a Canadian typewriter company end up owning the home computer market? And why is it that probably four people reading this know who on earth I’m talking about now, in 2003? Call me weird, but I think that’s interesting.

And baseball, well, Darrell Porter and Dick Howser didn’t have entries. They were good men who died way too young, long before they’d given everything they had to offer to this world. Roger Maris didn’t have an entry. There was more to Roger Maris than his 61 home runs.

The entries are chronicled here, if you’re interested in what I’ve been writing lately while I’ve been ignoring this place.

Yes, I’m still alive

I had to take some time away to clear my head and find myself. It’s a survival tactic; the guy other people wanted Dave to be hasn’t been getting the job done.
Besides, anyone who’s worth anything will like the real Dave better than Dave the Chameleon anyway. Those who like Dave the Chameleon better can go find themselves someone else to be a chameleon. There doesn’t seem to be any shortage of people who are willing. But I think it’s rude to ask someone to change before you really get to know him or her, don’t you?

So I’ve been ignoring the site partly because when I’m paying attention to it, it’s really tempting to try to figure out what to write to make myself popular. And partly because it’s a distraction when I’m trying to figure out who I am. Writing is a big part of me, but it’s only part of me.

So I dug out some things I enjoyed in the past. I’ve been reading F. Scott Fitzgerald and listening to Peter Gabriel and U2 (early stuff, long before they got popular) and Tori Amos and Echo and the Bunnymen. The way I used to do things was to go look for stuff that most people overlooked, rather than letting current trends tell me what to like. So none of that’s cool anymore. Big deal.

The majority isn’t always right. Exhibit A: Disco.

I remember when I was in high school, either my freshman or sophomore year, a popular girl a year older than me came up to me and told me I needed to be more of a rebel. I thought about that and came to the conclusion that I was a rebel. She and her crowd were rebelling against authority figures. I was rebelling against conformity.

Oddly enough, I ended up sitting next to her boyfriend in Spanish class not long after that. We couldn’t stand each other at first, but then it turned out we had a lot more common ground than either one of us could have imagined and we became friends.

I can’t help but think of Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald was the spokesman of his generation, a generation not at all unlike ours, a generation that lived to excess and partied harder than any generation before, and up until GenX came along, or since. It’s obvious from Fitzgerald’s writing that he saw the excesses and even though it fascinated him, obviously there was a lot about it that he didn’t like. Yet his lifestyle didn’t change much. The result? The Voice of the Twenties was dead, aged 44, in 1940. Although some of his contemporaries recognized his greatness then, he was mostly remembered as a troublesome drunk.

Would Fitzgerald had lived longer if he’d been more of a rebel of a different sort? Well, I’d like to think so.

I’ve also been playing with computers. I pressed my dual Celeron back into duty and upgraded to the current version of Debian Unstable (I last did that sometime last summer, I think). It’s much, much faster now. I suspect it’s due to the use of GCC 3.2 or 3.3 instead of the old standby GCC 2.95. But I’m not sure. What I do know is the machine was really starting to feel sluggish, and now it feels fast again, almost like it felt to me when I first got it.

I’ve also been playing with PHP accelerators. I know I can only speed up a DSL-hosted site by so much, but my server serves up static pages much faster than my PHP pages, so I want that.

I’ve played around with WordPress a little bit more. It appears the new version will allow me to publish an IP address along with comments. I like that. I’m sick of rude people slinging mud from behind a wall of anonymity. I’m sure they’re much smarter than I am. So they ought to set up their own Web sites, so they can say whatever they want and enlighten the masses. If, as my most recent accuser says, what God wants is for Dave Farquhar and people like him to shut up, it won’t take much to drown my voice out.

OK, I’m done ranting. I’m gonna go in to work tomorrow and be my own person. I’m going to do what’s right, and not what’s popular, even when doing what’s right makes me unpopular. I’m going to stay focused and driven. The possibilities ahead are more important than the mistakes of the past and whatever happens to be missing from the present.

And there’ll be less missing with my vacationing coworkers back in the office.

And everything that’s true about work is true about life at home as well. Speaking of which, when I was out this weekend I noticed I was drawing second looks from girls again. Eating healthy again must be helping. That can’t be bad.

Well, this has to be the most disorganized and unfocused thing I’ve written in years. But I need to post something.

I’ll be back when my head’s more clear.

Roll your own news aggregator in PHP

M.Kelley: I’m also wondering how hard would it be to pull a PHP/MySQL (or .Net like BH uses) tool to scrape the syndicated feeds off of websites and put together a dynamic, constantly updated website.
It’s almost trivial. So simple that I hesitate to even call it “programming.” And there’s no need for MySQL at all–it can be done with a tiny bit of PHP. Since it’s so simple, and potentially so useful, it’s a great first project in PHP.

It’s also terribly addictive–I quickly found myself assembling my favorite news sources and creating my own online newspaper. To a former newspaper editor (hey, they were student papers, but one of them was at Mizzou, and in my book, if you can be sued for libel and anyone will care, it counts), it’s great fun.

All you need is a little web space and a writable directory. If you administer your own Linux webserver, you’re golden. If you have a shell account on a Unix system somewhere, you’re golden.

First, grab ShowRDF.php by Ian Monroe, a simple GPL-licensed PHP script that does all the work of grabbing and decoding an RDF or RSS file. There are tons of tutorials online that tell you how to code your own solution to do this, but I like this one because you can pass options to it to limit the number of entries, and the length of time to cache the feed. Many RDF decoders fetch the file every time you call them, and some feeds impose a once-an-hour limit and yell at you (or just flat ban you) if you go over. Using existing code is a good way to get started; you can write your own decoder that works the way you want at some later date.

ShowRDF includes a PHP function called InsertRDF that uses the following syntax:
InsertRDF("feed URL", "name of file to cache to", TRUE, number of entries to show, number of seconds to cache feed);

Given that, here’s a simple PHP page that grabs my newsfeed:


<html><body>

<?php include("showrdf.php"); ?>

<?php

// Gimme 5 entries and update once an hour (3600 seconds)

InsertRDF("http://dfarq.homeip.net/b2rss.xml", "~/farquhar.cache", TRUE, 5, 3600);

?>

</body></html>

And that’s literally all there is to it. That’ll give you a very simple HTML page with a bulleted list of my five most recent entries. Unfortunately it gives you the entries in their entirety, but that’s b2’s fault, and my fault for not modifying it. I’ll be doing that soon.

You can see the script in action by copying and pasting it into your Web server. It’s not very impressive, but it also wasn’t any effort either.

You can pretty it up by making yourself a nice table, or you can grab a nice CSS layout from glish.com.

I can actually code tables without stealing even more code, so here’s an example of a fluid three-column layout using tables that’ll make a CSS advocate’s skin crawl. But this’ll get you started, even if that’s the only useful purpose it serves.


<html><body>

<?php include("showrdf.php"); ?>

<table width="99%" border="0" cellpadding="6">

<tr>

<td colspan="3" align="left">
<h1>My personal newspaper</h1>
</td>

</tr>

<tr>

<td width="25%">

<!--- This is the leftmost column's contents -->

<!--- Hey, how about a navigation bar? -->

<?php include("navigationbar.html"); ?>

</td>

<!--- Middle column -->

<td width="50%">

<p><h1>Dave Farquhar</h1></p>

<?php

// Gimme 5 entries and update once an hour (3600 seconds)

InsertRDF("http://dfarq.homeip.net/b2rss.xml", "~/farquhar.cache", TRUE, 5, 3600);

?>

</td>

<!--- Right sidebar column -->

<td width="25%">

<p><h2>Freshmeat</h2></p>

<?php

InsertRDF("http://www.freshmeat.net/backend/fm-releases-software.rdf", "~/fm.cache", TRUE, 10, 3600);

?>

<p><h2>Slashdot</h2></p>

<?php

InsertRDF("http://slashdot.org/developers.rdf", "~/slash.cache", TRUE, 10, 3600);

?>

</td>

</tr>

</table>

</body></html>

Pretty it up to suit your tastes by adding color elements to the <td> tags and using font tags. Better yet, use the knowledge you just gained to sprinkle PHP statements into a pleasing CSS layout you find somewhere.

Finding newsfeeds is easy. You can find everything you ever wanted and then some at Newsisfree.com.

Using something like this, you can create multiple pages, just like a newspaper, and put links to each of your files in a file called navigationbar.html. Every time you create a new page containing a set of feeds, link to it in navigationbar.html, and all of your other pages will reflect the change. This shows another nice, novel use of PHP’s niceties–managing things like navigation bars is one of the worst things about static HTML pages. PHP makes it very convenient.