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  • Michael Krakovskiy 5:50 pm on December 11, 2009 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , backup solutions, Black Sea, clunky hardware, , , , floppy driver, , Jeff Atwood (CodingHorror), job search web page, Load balancing, Off-site data protection, Olympus, precious driver, reversible computing, , , , , , virtual machine   

    December 11th – National Backup Awareness Day 

    Something horrible just happened to Jeff Atwood aka CodingHorror.

    “ugh, server failure at CrystalTech. And apparently their normal backup process silently fails at backing up VM images.”

    “I had backups, mind you, but they were on the virtual machine itself :(“

    It’s a times like these we start wishing for a time machine, a cosmic undo button or reversible computing.

    Jeff’s blog was read by tenth of thousands of programmers and system administrators for many years. It contains information that is very valuable for these people, and represents an unthinkable amount of hours spent by Jeff. An agency rate for somebody like Jeff is between $250 and $500 an hour, but this is like appraising a priceless family heirloom.

    I am not going to go through the motions of telling everybody how to backup things, about how important offisite backups are, how disk drives are fragile, how I don’t trust virtual servers, how raid is not a backup strategy, and how version control is not backup strategy, etc, etc. JWZ wrote a good article about backups.

    Here are things I want to say. First, we are all not backed up sufficiently and likely have already lost data that we would want back.

    I can’t find my grandmother’s recipe book (I still hope it’s only lost), my wife’s first email to me, my first web page through which she found me, my first job search web page that had a picture of the Twin Towers and said how I wanted to work there, my early school grading papers, a rare book about fishing in the Black Sea, a stamp from the Orange Republic that used to be in my father’s stamp album, the password to my very short-numbered ICQ account. A lot of stuff.

    All of our digital information is susceptible to an electromagnetic pulse, fire, flood. Spinning platter hard drives are particularly bad – they have very short lifespans measured in low single digit years. CDs are even worse – aluminum inside them rots (I have a cd with a lot of outlook emails that reads as a blank filled with 1s).

    So the first thing that I would like to mention is that if you never simulate a failure, you’ll never know if your stuff can be replaced. It’s not an easy thing to practice, though – restores and failovers are tricky to do.

    A few jobs ago we were getting a fancy new load balancer set up. It was up and running, and supposedly we had failover: if one of the servers died, we would not even need to do anything, the backup servers would pick up the slack. I suggested that we should test it by pulling the network plug on one of the machines off hours. My boss would not allow that, saying that we could possibly break things. My argument that it’d be better if something like that happened when we were ready it would not be as bad if it happened when the actual failure would occur. When the actual failure did occur the load balancer did not switch, and we had an outage that was a good deal longer (it happened at night).

    Load balancers are not backup solutions, but this story highlights an irrational streak in system administration: nobody wants to practice failure: it’s just too nerve-wracking, and a lot of hard work. It’s much easier to assume that somebody up the line did everything correctly: set up and tested backups, startup scripts, firewalls and load balancers. Setting up and validating backups and testing security are thankless jobs.

    This brings me to a another point. The act of taking a backup is not risk free in itself. The biggest data losses that I suffered happened to me in the process of setting up backups. As an example I’ll bring up the legendary story about Steve Wozniak (whom I met yesterday):

    The Woz was creating a floppy driver under an extreme time pressure, not sleeping much and feeling sick. The end result was a piece of software of unimaginable beauty: it bypassed a good deal of clunky hardware, and thanks to a special timing algorithm, was fast and quiet. When other disk drives sounded like a machine gun (I dealt with a few of those when I was young), Woz’s purred like a kitten. Finally he wrote the final copy onto a floppy, and decided to make a backup of it. Being dead tired, he confused the source and destination drives, and copied an empty floppy onto the one with the precious driver. Afterward he proceeded to burnish his place at the top of engineering Olympus by rewriting the thing from memory in an evening.

    It’s really the easiest thing in the world to confuse the source and destination of a backup, destroying the original in the act of backup! The moral of the story?

    Do as much backing up as possible, while being careful not to destroy your precious data in the process. Have an offsite backup. Print out your blog on paper if it’s any good. In fact, print out as much stuff as you can. Your backup strategy should be like a squirrel’s: bury stuff in as many places as possible (well, except sensitive information, which is a whole other story in itself).

     
  • Michael Krakovskiy 2:17 am on June 3, 2009 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: B. White, Black Sea, , BoingBoing.net, , Corporate blog, , daringfireball.net, , , , , , , , , , , , kottke.org, Louise Bourgeois, , , , , Nick Denton, , online articles, Oster, , , , Steve Yegge,   

    Homer Simpson’s Toothpick Method of Blogging 

    There’s something that has been bothering me for a while, something that I call “Homer Simpson’s toothpick school of blogging”. In one of the Simpsons episodes Homer is marauding a grocery store at brunch, making a meal out of free samples. He proceeds to eat a few non-sample items by proclaming that “if it has a toothpick in it, it’s free” and sticking his toothpic into a variety of items. He even drinks a beer, piercing it with a toothpick. The most successful blogs are basically like that: they either paraphrase or directly quote juiciest pieces of online articles. There might be a little bit of commentary (the snarkier – the better), but the meat of these blogs is in the quotes.

    This is known as “curating” – the successful toothpickers have excellent taste in content. The people they quote and take images from are very glad to receive traffic from these A-listers. BoingBoing.net, kottke.org, daringfireball.net are like that: short, high volume (once you get the hang of it, it does not take much to turn that interesting site in your firefox tab into a pithy little wrapper around a juicy quote), very enjoyable. More so than mechanized versions of the same thing like digg.com and stumbleupon.com. For one, submitters don’t do a very good job of quoting or paraphrasing, and you find yourself clicking on links more. Very successful blogs stick their toothpics into so much content that you don’t really need to click through to the originals much: I can read BoingBoing, Gothamist or Lifehacker without clicking too much – the juiciest stuff is already there. In fact Gothamist seems to be almost completely pulled from from New York Times and New York Post headlines. It’s a bit like a segment on some NY TV news stations where they read the latest headlines from local papers.

    Now, there isn’t anything unethical about quoting and paraphrasing – it’s all squarely in the realm of fair use. These blogs are a bit like suckerfish that attach themselves to whales or sharks in that they benefit immensely from their hosts. Well, actually, unlike suckerfish they repay the favor by driving traffic.

    In fact, I owe most of my readers to the low point in my blogging career, when after failing to submit my post about the Starbucks Siren to BoingBoing through their official black hole form, I begged Cory Doctorow to post it in a personal email. He did, I received tons of traffic and literally thousands of links from BB readers. Now that article shows up at the very top of Google search results for Starbucks logo.

    Therein lies a problem: good content on the Internet does not always bubble up to the top on it’s own. Blogosphere is a bit like the Black Sea, which has a layer of very active and vibrant biosphere at low depths. But it’s very deep, and below 200 meters the depths are full of poisonous hydrogen sulfide, which luckily does not circulate very much (unless there’s a particularly strong storm). Think about digg.com or StackOverflow.com– at the top stuff circulates, gets upvoted and downvoted. But below, there’s a poisonous cesspool of Sturgeon’s Law’s 90 percent. And most of the time, new and worthwhile content starts not at the top, but at the bottom, or flutters briefly in above the mediocrity and the bad, does not get noticed and gets buried.

    Speaking of StackOverflow, Joel Spolsky and Jeff Atwood recently touched on the topic of blogging success in their excellent podcast. They were discussing Steve Yegge’s retirement from blogging, and tried to pinpoint what it meant to be a successful blogger. “Perhaps one metric of success is getting people you respect and admire to link to your writing in an organic, natural way (that is, without asking them to).” I am a miserable failure on this front. Sure, I have some high profile readers, but their link love is rare, while I’m not really below begging for links.

    Jason Kottke, an A-list blogger and a primo toothpick sampler, was reflecting on the monetary success. He likened business blogging to shining shoes: there might be some individuals who can get rich by running a chain of shoe shining stores (Jason Calacanis, Nick Denton), and maybe even some individual outstanding shoeshiners (Dooce) who can make a decent living, but for the majority of shoeshiners it’s not a very good career choice.

    I’ve read somewhere about my hometown’s “king of shoeshiners”, a very colorful character. He was the best shoeshiner Odessa has ever seen, famous and loved by all, but he died poor and miserable. On his monument there was a short quote: “life is waksa” (waksa is a Russian word for shoe polish with a connotation of something pitch-black).

    For me blogging takes a good deal of effort. In the immortal words of E.B. White “writing is never ‘fun'”. (White almost rejected an assignment to write an article that became the finest piece ever written about New York when an editor suggested that he might ‘have fun’). What makes blogging less fun for me is looking at server statistics, number of comments, ad revenue, and thinking about payoff and success. And feeling like that I maybe should have done something else with my time.

    My high school Economics teacher, Mr. Oster, taught me one very valuable concept: “opportunity cost“. Whenever you make a decision do something, you almost always pay the opportunity cost – the difference in value you might have gotten by doing something better. Oh, there could be hundreds of things that have a better payoff than not very successful blogging.

    I personally do not blog for money, and certainly don’t blog professionally (the ads on my site cover my hosting expenses). Well, not yet, anyway – I am preparing stuff for a commercial venture that I’ll soon announce. I blog in order to meet people (hanging out a Web 2.0 events and meetups would probably have been more productive), but mostly to get things out of my head. In that sense I’m a bit like Louise Bourgeois. I’ve recently seen an exhibition of her work, and I’m pretty sure that if she did not create all those sculptures and paintings, the inspiration for them (which must have been glipses of extra dimensions, cellular automata that drive our reality, and super disturbing things that can’t even be described) would have made her a raving lunatic and not a lucid and sane 97 year old woman that she is.

    I don’t really intend on changing the format of deadprogrammer.com – the intricate, long, winding, interconnected posts about obscure topics. I probably would have had a lot more success if I just kept a photo blog about New York City. If I’d just stick to one popular topic and posted every day – I know I would have attracted a lot more readers. Instead, I’m going to start a new, for-profit blog. You’ll hear about it soon. I think I should be able to make some shekels with my mad shoeshining skills. And while I agree with Mr. White about writing not being fun, the fund is in having written.

     
  • Michael Krakovskiy 2:48 am on August 27, 2008 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Black Sea, , , , , Robert Heinlen, ,   

    Deadprogrammer Visits Odessa : Part II : Balconies and Yards 

    When I think about Odessa, I often remember the title of Robert Heinlen’s novel, “The Door into Summer“. Odessa is a summer city. If I were to pick one word to describe it in the summer, it would be sun-dappled.

    The soil in Odessa is pretty bad, and there aren’t any local sources of fresh water. Because of that there are only three types of trees that thrive there: acacia, sycamore (locally known as “shameless” trees because they shed their bark), and horse chestnut. Acacia is one of the symbols of Odessa, and horse chestnut is that of Kiev. These trees are thriving in Odessa, and many hundred year old specimens provide a lot of shade.

    The tree shade and the bright sun bathe everything in these spots of light, like in Renoir’s La Moulin de la Galette.

    Here’s a very old acacia on the corner of the street where I grew up. Notice the parking sign: in Odessa the sidewalks are so wide that cars can be parked on them. Also, they are now selling melons out of cages that are locked for the night. Acacia blossoms cover all the sidewalks and produce and intoxicating aroma.

    As I mentioned before, Odessa was built on the grand scale and by the best architects. Even the lesser buildings are very decorated. Atlases were very popular.

    Apparently the current location of Odessa used to be under the Black sea, and the bedrock consists of a somewhat soft yellow sedimentary rock formed out of shells of sea creatures. It’s a type of limestone, I guess. This rock turned out to be a perfect building material: cheap and abundant, soft enough to cut and carve, but durable enough to build with, not too heavy, very good for thermal and sound isolation. So many buildings were built this stone that the quarries below the city formed a humongous labyrinth known as “catacombs“. It was used by contraband smugglers and WWII guerrilla fighters. It would have been super easy to build a subway in Odessa, but somehow it never happened.

    There are two architectural features of the old limestone buildings that became very important in the Odessa way of life: balconies and courtyards. Just like the wide sidewalks, these are the artifacts of the town mostly built in 1800s, in the era of horse buggies, no air conditioning, and gas light. Balconies provided a breath of fresh air, and internal courtyards let architects let in light into all apartments.

    Some balconies are very charming, with cast iron railings and pleasing shapes and aging gracefully.

    Some did not survive and were replaced by ugly shitboxes.

    Some are unsafe Frankenstein monsters.

    Some are huge, with fancy statues, and in horrible state of disrepair.

    Some are maintained.

    Some are elegant, curved around gorgeous bay windows. Notice the hanging laundry.

    Some instead of laundry are draped in grapevines.

    I have no idea how these grapevines survive: they grow in the street, are peed on by dogs and are never watered.

    Some of the most gorgeous buildings with the most awesome balconies are in such state of disrepair, that in New York they would have been immediately boarded up, but yet there are people living there…

    These old buildings are what New York realtors are referring to as “pre-war”: they have very tall ceilings, big rooms, parquet floors, fireplaces, and other bourgeoisie niceties. After the revolution most of these apartments where turned into communal flats: instead of a single family with help, now 5-7 families were crammed into it. The process kind of reversed itself in the 90s, with rich people buying out communal dwellers, but some still remain: here’s a picture of the doorbells on one door. You can visit a site about communal living in Russia. Interestingly enough, despite the Marxist spirit, in communal apartments even the doorbells were hooked up to separate electric meters, and the excessive use of a lightbulb in bathroom was a major point of contention.

    These buildings are old: many have horse hitches out front:

    Once you tied your horse down, you enter the building through a gate.

    Sometimes the gate is old and beautiful.

    Sometimes it was replaced by a horrible modern monstrosity painted with signs like “angry dog” and “there’s no toilet here”.

    Sometimes it’s missing altogether.

    The gate leads you through a passageway. What will you find in that passageway?

    A bunch of semi-destroyed soviet-era mailboxes. I am not sure if they are still in use. Here’s one of the better preserved specimen.

    The passageway, a utility space, often has interesting ceilings, which are almost always mostly ruined.

    Some are less ornate though.

    Often there are very cool windows within the passageways.

    The passageway will lead you into the yard. There will be entrances to apartments, parked cars, laundry.

    Here’s something that used to be very common, but is actually a rarity now: drying plastic bags.

    Some more cars and a kid riding a bike.

    Grapevines, cats, old cars.

    Restored all cars and walls that are in bad need of restoration.

    Sleeping dogs and more drying laundry.

    A non-functioning fountain.

    A little garden. This one used to be my grandmother’s.

    A granny reading a newspaper.

    Peeling walls: I distinctly remember this particular wall from my childhood, it used to look exactly the same. It’s a testament to the quality of work of the old builders that with next to zero maintenance these buildings survive.

    A seemingly functional pigeon coop.

    An old tree. These old trees move move in the wind in a very hypnotic manner. Being so tall, they can be used to forecast the size of waves in the sea by the speed at which the tops of them move.

    A decorative drinking well. I’m not sure, but it kind of looks like it could have been a real well once.

    A woman feeding cats who will tell you to stop taking stupid pictures like the dumbass that you are and go and do something productive.

    Walls with WWII bullet holes. Odessa is one of the few cities granted the designation of hero city for valiant resistance. When the Germans and Romanians entered the city there was a lot of executions.

    A sad, sad sight: an ad for apartments in a newly constructed building.

    Deadprogrammer visits Odessa : Part I : Introduction

     
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