I just got back from vacation on the Gulf Coast

Nine days away from pagers, e-mail, Internet, and even, to a large degree, telephones. It was nice, let me tell you.

Actually Emily and I tried to bring Internet access along, but my closest Southwestern Bell dialup number was long distance.It wasn’t exactly a honeymoon, as it was designed as a family vacation. Yes, I just went on vacation with all of my in-laws and enjoyed it. I knew Emily was something special when I met all of her family for the first time and liked them.

So, here’s a rundown of what I learned about the Alabama Gulf Coast (which pretty much looks like the Florida Gulf Coast, but is less expensive and a bit shorter drive for us).

Lulu’s has to be the most overrated restaurant in the whole state, if not the entire Southeast. I’ll be blunt: If it weren’t owned by Jimmy Buffet’s sister, it would be out of business. Five items on the menu: a couple of burgers (of course) and a few seafood dishes, the quality of which is comparable to Red Lobster. The live music was two dirty old men being crude in front of children. And the staff was incredibly rude.

You can get hamburgers and Red Lobster-quality seafood anywhere. There’s no point in wasting your time with that place.

The next night, Em and I went to Original Oyster House, which was every bit as good as last year. Their stuffed shrimp is amazing. Well, everything there is amazing, but the stuffed shrimp is another level of amazing. One hint: If you need to add salt to anything, use the sea salt in the special container on the table, rather than the plain old table salt in the traditional shaker. It’s healthier and tastes better.

Another hint: Get there early. We got there at a little after 4:30. There were four parking spots left. They seated us pretty quickly, and we were eating by 5. By about 5:15 you can’t get a seat without a long wait at that place. It’s worth the wait–last year we waited two hours for a seat and we weren’t disappointed–but it’s nicer to avoid it.

There are two grocery store chains down there: Bruno’s and Winn-Dixie. Bruno’s is the less expensive of the two.

I bought a big bag of Clementines for 99 cents. Clementines are a sort of mini orange. In Missouri you can’t get them very often, and they cost a lot more than that. If you’re a Yankee like me, they’re an indulgence, but they’re a cheap indulgence down there.

If you get a place with cooking facilities, bring along some recipes and stop off at one of the many roadside seafood markets. It’s nice to get fresh seafood for what you’re probably used to paying for beef.

Lillian’s in Perdido Key, Florida (just across the border) is a good pizza/Italian place. Em and I skipped it this year since there are half a dozen places just as good within a 10-minute drive of home, but if you’re not from St. Louis or Chicago, you’ll enjoy it.

The Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida is always a worthwhile visit. It’s free. If you have any interest at all in space, the Navy, aviation, either of the World Wars, or American History, it’s got something for you. The tour of the facilities where they restore airplanes is great.

We didn’t make it to the USS Alabama, which is in Mobile. That’s on my list.

It’s easy to find country/western and classic rock stations down there. If your tastes lean more towards a AAA format (Adult Album Alternative), 92.1 FM is one of the better commercial AAA stations I’ve heard. They play plenty of unexpected stuff without being totally obscure.

Expect things to be sporadic until 10 PM tomorrow

At around 9 PM last night, Southwestern Bell lost a data line. My DSL connection became sporadic and my telephone became so full of static as to be unusable for voice. Within an hour, I lost all use of my voice line. DSL would drop and come back occasionally.

They are aware of the problem and gave an ETA of 10 PM on Wednesday of clearing it up. The DSL has been reliable for a couple of hours now, but that’s not really an indicator. We’ll see what happens.

Problems the last two days

The site’s been up and down, mostly down, the last two days. The reason is simple: my DSL connection has been mostly down the last two days.

Why, I don’t know.The only thing I can possibly think of is we got some unseasonably warm weather for October, and temperatures in the house topped 80 degrees. The DSL modem doesn’t seem to like heat very much.

I set the DSL modem on an unused piece of Lionel track to raise it up higher in the air and get better air circulation on all four sides.

Powering down, letting it cool off, and then powering back up seems to have helped, especially now that I have the temperature back down to 73 degrees in the house.

We’ll see what happens. Southwestern Bell swore this Speedstream 5360 modem was less finicky than my old Alcatel 1000, but I don’t know. I think both of them can have their moments. Maybe I need to open up the Speedstream and kludge a fan in there, since it seems to have its worst problems when it gets warm.

Setting the MTU automatically in Debian

I run this website off a server running on an ADSL line in a spare bedroom of my home. That causes some weird issues from time to time, like the time I had to figure out setting the MTU automatically in Debian.

Why Debian?

My server of choice is Debian, because it’s Linux which makes it fast, reliable, and cheap, and Debian makes it pretty easy to install only what you want and need, so I can have a server OS that’s only using 125 megabytes of disk space, leaving most of my drive available for content. I like having space for content.

This will work in Debian-derived systems like Ubuntu and Linux Mint too.

PPPoE issues

Now, the downside of modern DSL: Southwestern Bell, like most ISPs these days, uses PPPoE. So not only can your IP address change with no notice whatsoever, you also have the hassles of PPPoE. With the default settings, some unknown but noticeably large percentage of web users won’t be able to access a web server running on a DSL connection using PPPoE.

The reason is MTU and fragmentation.Yes, you remember MTU if you used Windows 9x back in the bad old days of dialup. Tweakers would play around with the MTU settings in hopes of squeezing just a little more performance out of their 56K modems, and they would swear that one utility did a better job than any others, or that this MTU setting was optimal and the conventional wisdom of 576 stank… Remember those flamewars?

Well, with broadband, theoretically the right setting to use is 1500. Trouble is, PPPoE steals some of that packet space, and the result is something worse than slow speeds. In some scenarios, you completely vanish.

Setting the MTU

The way to make my website reappear is to issue the command ifconfig eth0 mtu 1472. The exact number doesn’t seem to matter much. It appears for me that 1472 is the maximum I can use. (It can vary from ISP to ISP, in case you’re wondering.)

Excellent. Problem solved.

Not so fast. Problem solved until my server reboots. Linux doesn’t need to reboot, right? Right you are. But here in St. Louis, the power likes to hiccup a lot, especially in the summertime. My server is on a UPS, but every once in a while, in the middle of the night, there must be a long enough power failure that my UPS dies, because every once in a while I fall off the ‘net again.

To set the default MTU permanently–that is, to change it automatically on bootup–one normally would change the ifup script or the rc.startup script. Except Debian doesn’t have either of those.

My kludgy solution: cron. Log in as root, issue the command crontab -e, and add the following line:

*/2 * * * * ifconfig eth0 mtu 1472

With this in place, only seconds will elapse between the time my power comes back on for good and I reappear on the ‘net. I can live with that.

More Debian tricks

If you change your network card or motherboard, you don’t have to reinstall Debian but you may lose eth0. Here’s how to get eth0 back. And here’s how to get a list of the installed packages in Debian.

Outages

Yes, I’m still alive and so is my server. Unfortunately (note to self: cue up “I Hate My Frickin’ ISP” by Todd Rundgren in the background) Southwestern Bell seems intent on proving my theory that their technicians’ favorite thing to do when bored is to run around unplugging stuff to see what happens.
What usually ends up happening is my Speedstream DSL modem gets hopelessly confused and I fall off the ‘Net. Although this weekend the problem wasn’t that my modem couldn’t connect, it’s that I couldn’t authenticate. Hello? How could I have changed my password? I was offline!

Now, maybe my Speedstream is a piece of junk. Maybe Southwestern Bell is a piece of junk. Were I in the habit of looking around in toilets, I’m pretty sure I could find a better modem and ISP. Unfortunately, I signed a one-year contract. It expires in October. I look forward to telling them to find another sucker.

Meanwhile, yes, I’ve been on a bit of an unannounced sabbatical. What happened? Well, an editor on a power trip over at Wikipedia turned me off to all writing for a time (Zoe, if you’re reading this, just because you don’t know how to write or research doesn’t mean you need to take it out on the world, OK?) and then I found myself swimming in a video editing project that made me believe anew in curses, because I don’t think I’ve seen so many things go wrong since a weekend about four years ago when Steve DeLassus and I tried to install about 4 different flavors of Linux on his 486SX/20 and turn it into a router. When I finally put that project to rest, my leisure activities tended to drift towards anything that didn’t involve a computer.

So I’ve been tired and just haven’t had the energy or will to write much or deal with questions. It happens sometimes.

I guess the Wikipedia snipe deserves a little clarification. I love the project idea. I love writing history. Unfortunately, the project is tainted by several editors who delete anything they don’t like, often without much reason. An article I contributed to about osteopathy garnered a comment from an overzealous editor saying the article raised more questions than it answered and if those weren’t answered he was going to delete it. Well, duh! A lot of things raise questions. If osteopathy didn’t raise any questions, then allopathy (the medical techniques practiced by your friendly neighborhood M.D.) wouldn’t exist. The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know, and if you don’t understand that you really have no business associating with anything with the letters “pedia” in its name.

Working along with one or two others, we were able to answer enough questions to save that article. But I was mad. The osteopathy article had minor problems and was on the chopping block, yet the article on Joseph Smith was so biased and incomplete as to be unusable, but was being ignored?

At one point I got into the habit of checking the historical events of the given day and looking for holes in the linked articles. It was fun, I learned a lot, and I think some articles improved for the better. I fondly recall writing about Joseph Pulitzer (as in the Pulitzer Prize). He’s a very misunderstood figure in history. On one hand, he was one of the biggest innovators in journalism, ever. On the other hand, he and William Randolph Hearst pretty much created the Spanish-American War just to sell newspapers, which is despicable. (Hearst falls a bit lower on the slimeball scale though; at least Pulitzer didn’t ever openly advocate the assassination of a president.) I came out of that endeavor with more respect for Pulitzer than I’d had before though.

But one day I found a photograph of Booker T. Washington at the Library of Congress and uploaded it. It got deleted when I neglected to answer a query as to its copyright status after 24 hours. Was the picture copyrighted? Very highly unlikely. Washington died at the turn of the 20th century and any published work prior to 1922 is now in the public domain. The Library of Congress isn’t willing to guarantee that particular picture is in the public domain, but they provide a huge, archival-quality TIFF for download, suitable for commercial printing use. So they must be pretty certain. You think the Library of Congress wants DMCA-related legal problems? William Jefferson Clinton may be above the law, but the Library of Congress isn’t.

Yet it turned into a controversy. A huge controversy. That particular editor wasn’t interested in improving the quality of Wikipedia; she was on an ego trip. Somehow she got gratification from teaching me and the person who re-uploaded my image (and then replaced it with another one) a lesson.

Meanwhile, an unattributed image of Britney Spears remains.

Of course there’s another lesson to be learned: When you’re trying to be an open-content encyclopedia, you need to attract people. You attract people by having lots of articles. The more articles you have, the more people read you, and the more people you have reading you, the more readers you’ll be able to convert into contributors. The Wikipedia would be a much better place with that editor writing articles and not harassing people who are also doing their best to make it a better place.

I do expect to return someday, but when I do, I’ll be writing the biographies of people like Calvin Schiraldi. Few people besides Red Sox fans care about Calvin Schiraldi, but that’s the point. I’ll get left alone if I linger in the obscure and I don’t upload images. I’m less valuable there, but we’ve already seen what happens when I think about value.

But in the shorter term, I need to find a paying gig. I’ve got a couple of leads on that. I can really use the money, but besides that, it’ll be nice to do some writing for magazines again. For me, writing stopped being about money at about age 19.

Analysis: Big retailers unite to make DMCA look stupid

A quartet of retailers ganged up on FatWallet.com and made it take down some ads for next week’s big sales, citing the DMCA. The ‘Net is up in arms.
It’s stupid. But not for the reasons you think.

In case you’re wondering, it’s been common practice for years now for someone to get hold of stores’ sales flyers in advance, then go on some forum somewhere (FatWallet.com isn’t the only place they go) and post scans of the flyers, or links to scans of the flyers, so people know what’s going to be on sale where. People make the biggest deal abut the holiday sales flyers, but it’s pretty easy to get the sales flyer from any old Sunday’s paper a few days in advance. If I want to know what’s on sale at Office Depot next Sunday, I can probably know by Thursday without going to too much trouble.

Retailers are starting to crack down on this.

The DMCA is the wrong law to be invoking. We’re talking scans of paper ads here. The stuff wasn’t digital media until someone other than the retailer made it into digital media. The appropriate law to be invoking is plain old copyright law. Let’s not make things more complicated than we need to. Unless we want to make the DMCA look like the stupidity that it is. They can feel free to do that if they want.

The community at large is in an uproar because they’re mad that the ads can’t be distributed in advance and big retailers who can afford lots of lawyers are picking on a Web site, probably operated on a shoestring, that definitely cannot. Yes, the legal system is a bunch of bullies. But that can go two ways also. Big companies can harass individuals or little ones, but if everyone who’s offended by these actions sued all four companies for $250 in small claims court in their home counties, that would be legal harassment as well, because it would cost these companies more than $250 to defend themselves from the nuissance suits. They would win, but the fight isn’t worth fighting.

Besides, when you scan an ad and you put it on the Internet, you are breaking the law. Copyright is just that–the right to decide who can copy something. Or can’t. And the conditions can be stupid and ludicrous. Or reasonable. And they can change over time too.

“But it’s a collection of facts!” people are whining. So is the telephone book. The telephone book is copyrighted. You can print your own telephone book (McCleod does just that, printing up its own alternative to the Southwestern Bell Yellow Pages), but if you copy someone else’s, they can (and will) sue you. There are bogus entries in every telephone book to keep people from doing that. A lot of copyrighted things are nothing more than collections of facts.

Other people are bemused that the store’s ads are being circulated, more widely than otherwise, for free, and the stores are offended that people might show up to buy stuff.

That argument I buy. But it’s not the public showing up that they’re worried about. I’m not sure that it’s the public knowing in advance what’s going to be on sale and for how much that they’re worried about either. Waiting an extra week for a sale before making a purchase is pretty standard practice anyway–it’s just that 20 years ago, you had to guess what might be on sale.

No, it’s that Target and Wal-Mart don’t want each other to know their sale prices. Best Bait-n-Switch doesn’t want Circuit… City to know its sale prices. Staples doesn’t want OfficeMax and Office Depot to know its sale prices. The longer the competition knows the prices in advance, the more time they have to adjust. It happens to be a lot easier for me to get in and out of my local Best Bait-n-Switch, so my natural inclination is to go there. Someone who lives a little north of me will find it a whole lot easier to get in and out of Circuit, so if Circuit has known its rival’s pricing for a week, its prices will all be the same anyway, so they’ll go there. Best Bait-n-Switch wants those people who live to the north to go to the extra trouble of making a left turn on Lindbergh (it’s a pain, as anyone familiar with the area can tell you) to save a few bucks.

So what can FatWallet.com do? I’m not a lawyer, so I don’t know for sure. They’re on much stronger legal ground if they don’t present scans of the ads. Just the facts, ma’am. A list of goods and prices in plain old ASCII is probably protected free speech. If it isn’t, adjust the prices. You know how everything sells for $19.95 or $19.99 or something similar, right? Round the prices up. It’s easier to type anyway. Presenting them in the same order as they are on the page might be too close of a copy. Sort the items alphabetically.

It takes more time for someone to sit down and type up a few dozen items and prices. But the person who does it probably stands on good legal ground. After all, the ad itself is copyrighted material. But the facts, as they say, can’t be.

I’m back.

My DSL was down for about 36 hours, possibly longer. Southwestern Bell evidently was able to fix it during the night.
I’ve got to get in to work to babysit a server and call Compaq and scream bloody murder for not dispatching a technician when they said they would. I’ll be back in a while.

Time to talk about big, manly computers

Enough of this other stuff. I actually felt like messing around with computers yesterday. I read about Eric Raymond’s new PC (IBM was nice enough to finance building an obnoxious Linux box for Mr Raymond and Linus Torvalds), which is, in short, a dual Athlon-1200 setup with two big SCSI drives. Unfortunately, he neglected to mention how much memory he put in it. I’m assuming he splurged and got a gig or two. His comment? “I tried hard to gold-plate as much of the system as possible and load on all the extras and accessories I could, and was nevertheless unable to raise the total parts bill over $7,000.”
When they made the machine more reasonable (pulling the exotic tape backup drive and 21-inch monitor and other niceties), the system still cost $4,200. One participants’ comment? “People pay more than that for crap computers all the time.” Yup. I know one guy at work who had about $10,000 left in his budget at the end of July, so he decided he needed a new Macintosh. He spent every dime of it and didn’t get half the computer Raymond described.

The true test, of course, was compiling the Linux kernel. How long did it take? Two minutes, 21 seconds. I don’t think I have a computer that can compile it in under 10 minutes. Needless to say, I’m extremely jealous.

I had lunch with one of the seminarians assigned to my church (actually, seeing as it was at 3:30, I’m not sure what you would call that meal. Well, since people tend to argue whether the afternoon meal is lunch or dinner, and whether the evening meal is dinner or supper, I guess the 3:30 meal must be dinner). He mentioned that Best Bait-n-Switch had 256-meg Kingston DIMMs on sale for $25 after rebate, so we went. I picked one up.

With that, I had enough stuff to build a PC to replace several of the boxes I have laying around. Compare my setup to Raymond’s new setup:

CPU: AMD K6-2, 350 MHz
Mobo: AOpen AX59Pro
RAM: 256 MB Kingston
NIC: Generic cheapie Macronix (DEC Tulip derivative)
SCSI adapter: Initio 9090U (it came bundled with my CD-R way back when)
Hard drives: 850 MB Seagate IDE, 2 GB Quantum SCSI
CD-ROM: Generic, flaky 24X ATAPI
Video: STB Velocity 128 (nVidia Riva 128)
Case: InWin ATX desktop, no idea the model#, $37 at Directron a few months back

Yep. Pathetic. For whatever reason the machine wouldn’t boot off the Sorcerer CD, so I ended up installing Mandrake 7 on it (I wanted something reasonably modern that didn’t use the infamous GCC 2.96 compiler). It’s going to be an experimental mail server, so it doesn’t have to be fabulous.

Getting Courier-IMAP proved difficult. Someone at Inter7.com decided he didn’t like PacBell, and Southwestern Bell by association, so he blocks access from their networks. How nice of him. I understand not liking the companies (I hate Southwestern Bell as much as anyone), but punishing their customers isn’t going to accomplish anything. I’m stuck with SWBell because I don’t want to pay for basic cable so I can get a cable modem. If I get DSL from anyone else, then I’m using Southwestern Bell plus someone else, so they can blame each other. And who knows? If I connected from someone else who’s also using SWBell’s network, would I be blocked?

He posted his complaints to PacBell, and I have to wonder if part of the reason PacBell ignores him is because of his liberal use of a phrase that contains the word “mother” and implies incest…

At any rate, there’s an easy way to get past rude people who are blocking your ISP. Use someone else’s network. Go to www.anonymizer.com, then punch in the forbidden web page. Now I’m not using Southwestern Bell’s network, but rather, Anonymizer’s network, which is then forwarding the information I requested.

Unfortunately I didn’t get the mailserver built, as Courier-IMAP is even harder to get running than it is to download, but it was kind of fun to mess around with Linux again.

If you’re interested in what I was doing, here’s the article I followed.
Hey, it’s playoffs time. And ESPN is highlighting 1986, which as far as I’m concerned, is the second-best postseason ever (no one can top my Royals’ magical 1985, of course). ESPN’s doing a “voices of 1986,” but I noticed the voice I most want to hear isn’t up there yet. They’d better not forget him. I’ll never forget the photo of young Bosox closer Calvin Schiraldi with his face buried in a towel after Game 6. Hobbling first baseman Bill Buckner was the goat, but Schiraldi took it hard.

I actually met Schiraldi three years later. He was pitching for the Cubs by then, trying to put his career back together in spite of manager Don “Gerbil” Zimmer’s best efforts to prevent it. Nice guy. All people remember now is an unreliable relief pitcher (the specifics: a 13.50 ERA in the World Series, thanks in part to a home run he gave up to Ray Knight and the three consecutive singles he gave up preceding Buckner’s error) and they forget his 1.41 ERA in the regular season, followed by his 1.50 ERA in the playoffs. I remember a tired, overworked pitcher who gave everything he had and in the end just had nothing left. Boston had four pitchers worth having that year: Bruce Hurst, the incomparable Roger Clemens, “Oil Can” Boyd, and Schiraldi. In the postseason, those four men pitched until their arms fell off, and Boyd and Schiraldi were never quite the same after that. Hurst went on to have a respectable career; Clemens of course is still pitching and is now known as one of the biggest jerks in the game. These days, Schiraldi’s a high school teacher and coach in Texas.

I went looking for stuff on Schiraldi and I found this short story: The Girl who Hated Calvin Schiraldi. Obviously I don’t see it her way.

04/29/2001

Please bookmark http://208.190.221.250 . There’s no guarantee the site will stay there, but Southwestern Bell’s DHCP servers tend to give systems that stay on 24/7 the same IP address over and over. It seems like editthispage has at least one outage a day now. Frankly, I’d rather trust Southwestern Bell’s DHCP servers, scary thought as that may be.

I’ll be making arrangements soon for an address with words in it. New content will be going up over there. I don’t want to give myself even more stuff over here to migrate. That would be kinda like buying new furniture the week before moving day.

For those of you who are curious, I forwarded port 80 on my router to a Pentium-120 running Mandrake Linux 7.2. I’m running the Apache Web server, and Greymatter on top of that. It’s fast. I’ve got a DSL connection, which isn’t the fastest upstream connection, but it’s reasonably quick. Greymatter’s demands aren’t all that high.

Anyway. Time to finish writing up some content, then run some errands.