all your eggs in one basket

Poor Hosting365.

They suffered a massive power failure today which meant that a large number of their customers' sites were unavailable for around four hours. Right now, their status blog entry detailing this problem (and how the repairs are coming along) has 159 comments.

Most of these comments are of the frustrated-yet-understanding variety. A worrying number of them are terrifyingly puffed-up with their own sense of self-importance. And far too many are threatening to move their operations to another hosting provider.

Having worked as a system/network administrator for a while, I know exactly what Ed and the guys at Hosting365 are going through, so I sympathise completely. I’ve had those awful days where the worst thing that could possibly happen actually happens and you’ve got angry customers demanding a full report on how the problem happened, what steps you will be taking to fix the problem and how you will prevent this happening in the future while you’re focusing all of your efforts on just restoring a basic level of service. Horrible days, to be sure, but they have their uses.

To those people who are thinking of moving away from Hosting365 I say: stop. If I was using Hosting365, I would not switch to Blacknight now precisely because Blacknight haven’t suffered from something like this – yet. Whereas, I’ll bet you €100 that, after today, Hosting365 will be putting all of their attention into their reliability, focusing how to make sure that something like this never happens again.

And to those people that are complaining about their mission-critical services running on Hosting365, I say: well, I don’t know what to say without sounding rude. I’ll just say that if I was a reseller and it was my ass on the line, I’d make sure that my ass was covered. From a business perspective, a secondary server (from a different hosting company) is cheap as chips and worth its weight in gold when your primary server suffers from extended downtime.

Failing Now.

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Our Macbook had been crashing frequently over the past week or so. It would hang randomly when doing minor things, like copying a new program into the Applications folder. Sometimes it would take the computer two or three minutes to get itself together. Other times, it wouldn’t get itself together at all and a hard reboot was the only option.

Eventually, I took a look in Disk Utility. The hard drive was listed in red. It told me the disk was dying. I used smartmon to give me more information, and this is where I got the image at the top of this post - my “Reallocated Sector Count” was at 0, and my disk was “FAILING_NOW”. I’ll spare you the gory details of what this meant, but the shorthand version is “ABANDON SHIP! WOMEN AND CHILDREN FIRST!”

Necessity: the mother of invention

Fortunately, we had a spare laptop hard drive lying around, so that wasn’t a major issue. We also had a spare 400GB desktop hard drive, with a USB adaptor. Unfortunately, we only had two power adaptors. Which meant I couldn’t power the macbook, the hard drive to be backed up and the hard drive I was backing up to.

We’d bought a bunch of spare power adaptors in the airport before we came but in our excitement, walked off the plane without them - oops.

So for the past month, we’ve been carefully swapping power adaptors around as needed. The hairdryer, the iron, our phones, the PlayStation, the computers, the wireless router… it got a little silly, but we managed. When I’d google for a place to buy electrical equipment in rome, I’d found that the main place is called “GPL”. And Linux has completely ruined that search term.

So when the hard drive began to die, I ran out and didn’t stop using my broken Italian and eleborate hand gestures until I came back with a bunch of power adaptors and two-prong figure-eight plugs.

(PS, for anyone searching google for ‘electrical equipment’ or ‘travel adaptors’ in Rome, I found a GPL on the corner of Viale delle Milizie and Via Giordano Bruno.)

Backing it all up

I’d heard a lot about SuperDuper, an application for backing up your Mac. A lot of people have said how it saved their necks, so that was the first thing I tried.

Unfortunately, it’s not so good for saving your neck when your hard drive is already on the way out. When it encounters a bad block on the disk (and your disk can’t replace the bad block, as mine couldn’t), SuperDuper will try a bunch of methods to access the data and then crap out. It throws its hands up in the air, shouts “I can’t work with these amateurs” and goes back to its trailer.

Tar wasn’t much better. In the end, I created a disk image on the 400GB hard drive and used plain ol' ‘cp’. When it came across a bad block, it complained of an I/O error but kept on truckin'.

So now I’ve got a proper backup, we’re working off the spare hard drive (with half the capacity, but it’ll do), and I got an RMA from the hard drive manufacturer.

Hopefully things will be back to normal next week.

New Mac Ad – Security →

Miaow. Coming barely a week after Bill Gates went off on one about Mac security? Saucer of milk for Steve Jobs.

Listal: Catalogue your stuff!

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My DVD collection has reached the point where I can no longer keep track of what I’ve got, what I’ve loaned to other people or what I haven’t yet watched. So for the past couple of weeks, I’ve been slowly loading my entire collection into Delicious Library. A very pretty application, with a number of really nice features (easy to mark an item as “on loan”; export to iPod, so I almost always have a copy of my collection on-hand), but still had problems for me. Most importantly:

  1. It’s Mac-only

  2. Needs a powerful computer to run properly (which I don’t have at home)

  3. Needs a fast internet connection to run properly (which I don’t have at home) Last week, I stumbled across Listal. From the website:

Listal is a social website where you can list all the movies, books, music and games you own and want!

Despite of the lack of a decent “import” feature (right now, you can only import from DVD Profiler), meaning I’m having to enter each one of my DVDs by hand, I’m moving my catalogue from Delicious Library into Listal. Why? Well, there’s a few reasons.

  • It’s internet-based I can access (and edit) my catalogue from any computer on the internet, not just my Mac

  • Thin-client suits my crappy internet connection

The listal server does all the heavy lifting meaning my Clearwire connection remains relatively unruffled.

  • RSS feeds for every context

Besides the obvious applications of any kind of RSS feeds, it also means I can export my RSS feed to something like iDropper to dump the RSS feed onto my iPod, replicating the functionality of Delicious Library. This will probably get even easier when Listal finally has a “proper” export facility.

  • User-specified tags, ratings and lists

This is really what sold it for me - the ability to completely tag my collection as I want to. So I can have a whole bunch of movies listed as “hangover movies,” “Sunday matinees,” “Cheesy horror.” You get the idea. And this is without even touching on the “social” part of the application - being able to see friends' collections, recommend new films and easily arrange loans.

My listal profile is here. I’ve barely added 25% of my collection and even then, I’m going to have to go back and tag them all properly, so I’m going to be working on it a bit more. If you’re on there, add me as a friend!

Microsoft: Codename Max →

Microsoft released Microsoft: Codename Max, a photo-organisation application, just like not at all like iPhoto or Picasa.

I haven’t had a chance to try this out properly just yet (still firmly entrenched in iPhoto territory), but my first impressions are: Wow, Microsoft are really going after the Apple dollar now. Right down to jacking their smooth gradient web style.

Although, I’ll give them this much - the transparent box icon is very cute.

Technorati Tags: Microsoft, Max, Software

Minor update

I’m still waiting for Irish Broadband to contact me about an installation date, so I’ve had four days away from a computer. And so much has happened.

Apple to use Intel Microprocessors beginning in 2006 Christ. This had been rumoured for a couple of weeks now (and a couple of years before then), but still… wow. John Gruber suggests that Apple may not transition to x86 chips. But then again, he also discounted the possibility of Apple releasing the iPod Shuffle and last week attempted to debunk the rumours of Apple switching to Intel. But this is so completely huge that it’s easy to understand why he was a litle skeptical. Apple say they’re looking at completing the transition to the Intel chips by the end of 2007.

Nintendo Revolution’s classic Nintendo games will be free Nintendo, who have been keeping quiet in this round of “Our console will have hi-def” “Ours will massage your feet while you play!” have dropped a bombshell in the form of massive amount of backward-compatibility for free! They will be releasing almost every game they published for their previous consoles as a free download, available from the launch of their new console, the Revolution. This includes things like Ocarina of Time, GoldenEye, Perfect Dark, Zelda II and one of my favourite games, Uniracers (Unirally over here). Miyamoto (the creator of Mario and Zelda) has said that he’s tired of sprawling epic games and is appealing to developers to create something unique and fun (but not neccessarily huge or big-budget) for the Revolution. I guess this is Nintendo paying attention. Update: Full list of games available for download

My copy of Difficult Questions about Videogames was waiting for me when I arrived in work today. This should give me plenty to chew through for the next couple of days, at least until GTA:SA and God of War arrive and start soaking up all my free time. Update: A few pages in, and I’m convinced of something that I’d always suspected - Kieron Gillen needs to find himself an editor.

Domestic Instiki

Since we’ve got broadband again, I’m finally getting to play with all the nifty things I’d had ideas about, but no way of executing. The first of these is a local Instiki server at home.

I use this all the time in work for note keeping and simple project management. At home, I’m finding a hundred different ways to use it.

Like keeping track of recipes.

I like to try out a whole bunch of different recipes. Nothing too fancy - I don’t make my own chicken stock or anything like that - but I do try to go beyond the simple food strategy of meat-and-a-tin-of-sauce. This doesn’t always go to plan. The most recent food-related disaster was my attempt at making a chicken maryland, which turned out squishy and odd-tasting. Live and learn.

Using instiki, I threw together a ‘web’ called “FoodWeLike”, where I’m keeping track of the ingredients of the recipes that work for us, as well as simple cooking instructions. This is mainly useful because we have a central repository of ingredients and recipes (instead of trying to remember which cookery book had what), but any web server (or file server) could do this. Instikis is particularly useful because as well as a way to easily edit these, it gives us the ability to easily categorise the recipes any way we like - for example, “We really like”, “We occasionally like”, and “We don’t like”. We’re also able to organise these into weekly meal plans. And, most usefully, plan our weekly shopping run using a page called “ShoppingList” where we can just paste the ingredients from other pages, or update as we run out of something.

And this is just one a hundred ways Instiki is useful in a domestic environment. Well, our domestic environment.

(By the way, I know this could probably be achieved using any wiki software, but I’m specifically choosing Instiki because of its simplicity of installation and also because, right now, I have a major boner for apps built with Ruby on Rails)

Ubuntu

Every couple of days, the hard drive of the G4 I use in work starts ‘clicking’. Well, more like ‘ke-CHUNK’ing. If I’m lucky, my computer freezes for a few minutes and comes back to life. If I’m not, I spend the next half hour or so rebooting until it goes away.

Finally, I’m facing up to the fact that my hard disk is dying and until I can get a replacement, I’m without a Mac to work on. So I’m giving Ubuntu a whirl.

One of the biggest complains thrown around about ‘free’ software is that it’s only free if your time is worthless. The hours wasted getting things configured just the way you like them do add up. It’s very easy to spend an entire day tweaking your desktop instead of just acccepting what you have and getting on with your job.

The guys in Ubuntu seem to understand this - they’ve packed Debian (the smart choice of a Linux distribution) in such a way that they take all the pain out of the installation and day-to-day administration.

My personal experience is that Ubuntu has detected almost everything I’ve thrown at it - sound and video were auto-configured (and in a nice way too, any previous attempt at auto-configuring my video in the past has left me with a headache-inducing 60hz refresh rate and no obvious way to change it). Bluetooth setup was relatively painless (gnome-bluetooth and gnome-phone-manager took care of this). Today, it even auto-detected my USB keyring and auto-mounted it, putting a link to it on my desktop.

But there are also some things I dislike about Ubuntu. For example, the default behaviour for nautilus (the file manager) is a variation on the new ‘spatial’ nautilus. When you go into a child directory, nautilus closes the parent window automatically. I love spatial nautilus, but hate this behaviour. After a little bit of playing around, I found that it could be changed with the following:

gconftool-2 --type bool --set /apps/nautilus/preferences/no_ubuntu-spatial true

Matthew Thomas recently provided a fantastic round-up of other outstanding issues with Ubuntu.

Other nice things:

  • evolution has some really nice new features aimed at increasing productivity, including an ability to create a task from a message with one click
  • liferea has a ‘condensed view’ option for feeds, a feature I’d previously praised in Pheeder. Even better, this is feed-configurable, so you can set only certain feeds to use the ‘condensed view’. Liferea is still my favourite RSS reader on any platform.
  • beagle is amazing - I know that something similar is going to be available in Tiger, but… wow.

But I still miss Quicksilver. Gnome Launch Box just doesn’t cut it.

Five applications I couldn't live without

Okay, so maybe the title of this post is just a little melodramatic. I could certainly live without them. In my fits of whimsy, I sometimes imagine a life where I got rid of all my software and all my computers and went to live in a cabin in the woods with a typewriter, only peeking my head out long enough to release some bone-crunchingly beautiful prose like Annie Dillard or something.

Until that day, here’s the five pieces of software I couldn’t live without

(In no order)

Instiki

I don’t like Word documents because they’re mean and nasty and hard to access and I tend to get so bogged down in making my documents look pretty, I never get anything actually written. At the same time, I don’t like text files because they’re so plain and isolated and static. Yet I need some way to keep track of a lot of things.

Enter Instiki.

Just a small personal wiki site that lets you keep all of your documents together. It has all of the advantages of a full website such as links to other places and documents, and the ability to view it from anywhere but with more like an easier markup language (I am fluent in MarkDown) and an easier management interface.

I use my Instiki to keep track of work projects, personal tasks (e.g. “Move bank account”) and various other notes that I want to keep in a local place, such as my personal ‘wishlist’ of all the fancy stuff I want to buy myself.

Quicksilver

Quicksilver is like a remote control for my Mac. It has cut the amount of time I spend doing noddy things like finding the application I want to launch or browsing to files to append a word to the end of them.

And I’m constantly finding out new cool things to do with Quicksilver. Browse over to Merlin Mann’s 43 folders if you want some real Quicksilver evangelism.

Synergy

Like many people working in the IT community, I need to have a Windows machine on my desktop in work for all the proprietary applications that we use and that I can’t get a Mac version of. Using Synergy, I am able to control both my PC and my Mac from the same keyboard and mouse. Without it, my desktop would be a mess of cables, keyboards and mice. With it, my desktop is empty and zen-like beautiful.

Virtue or Desktop Manager

Coming from Linux, I learned the amount of joy that virtual desktops can bring. Now, it’s hard for me to imagine working without them. You might as well ask me to work with one hand tied behind my back: they’re that essential* to me (Microsoft has finally picked up on the importance of Virtual Desktops and included it as part of the ‘Power Tools’ for Windows XP and then went on to try and patent the idea).

Both Virtue and Desktop Manager are fine, free Virtual Desktop managers. I have yet to see someone fail to be impressed by Virtue’s window-switching animations (if you’ve seen Panther’s fast user switching in action then you know what I’m talking about), but it doesn’t seem to be written as well as Desktop Manager, so you will end up fighting with it a little bit more.

But it’s so pretty, it’s almost worth it.

Pheeder

I’ve tried a lot of RSS readers on the Mac, and until Pheeder, I wasn’t blown away by any of them. They either try out some fancy interface tricks and end up looking just plain dumb, or else they just lack basic features (how can we have an RSS reader in 2005 without a “Mark all as read” button?!).

Pheeder is by far the best RSS reader I’ve found on the Mac.

I love its simplicity and its power and even the elegant choice of colours and fonts. What I especially like is the ability to click on a feed name and get a one-page overview of all the articles in that feed. This way, when I’m in a rush, I can scan over a feed quickly without lots of clicking.

I only have two complaints. It is expensive, for what it is. At $25, it’s roughly a quarter of the price of Panther but with only a fraction of the functionality. And I don’t know how relevant it will be after Tiger launches with its built-in RSS support.


There was loads of other stuff that deserves a mention, so quick shouts to blender, ImageWell, del.icio.us and Romeo