Alan Porter's minimal net presence

January 2009

Since our girls are on a year-round school schedule, they do not have one big break in the summer. Instead, they have four shorter breaks spread throughout the year, usually lasting three weeks. However, track 4’s winter break takes up the entire month of January. Plus, it backs up against the Christmas holiday, giving them 5-1/2 weeks off!

On inauguration day (Jan 20th), we got a couple of inches of snow, so work was canceled. School was out, too, but we were already tracked out. I spent the morning playing with the girls in the snow. Then we came inside and warmed up and watched all of the presidential hoopla on TV.

I have decided that 2009 will be a year of trying new things online, and my first technology experiment of the year is electronic bills, or “paper-less banking”. I have been paying bills online for a while now. But I always liked having paper bills that I could file away for future reference. I think having PDF’s of the same bills will acheive the same goal, but I can replace my big heavy file cabinet with a thumb drive.

At work, I was assigned to a new group that is developing a web framework that goes into many of Tekelec’s network management products. This is new territory for me, since all of my web development experience has been very informal and hack-ish.

February 2009

Last summer, we got rid of our old sofa to make room for a new one (we were thinking that we would be more motivated to go shopping if there were a big empty space that needed filling). But then Foong broke her leg, and we spent a lot of time at home, and we did not go shopping much. Then we got used to that big empty space in the living room. This month, we finally filled that empty space with a new sofa!

The Circus came to town, and we took our girls to see the show. It was dazzling, with acrobats, crazy clowns, animals, songs and stunts.

Following the new experiment with doing more stuff online, I opened a new bank account at my local credit union. They have a special deal, featuring a much higher interest rate for using a totally paperless account.

Since I have an S-corporation for consulting business, I have to file four tax returns: corporate state and federal, and personal state and federal. There are some early deadlines for corporate filing, so I went ahead and did all of them this month.

With my new work assignment, and with 2009 being the year of trying new things online, I decided to take up my company’s offer to occasionally work from home. The plan is to start working from home one day per week.

As of this month, Foong and I have known each other for 21 years!

At the very end of the month, the Triangle Linux User Group found that its server had been compromised. At first, we did not have any details about the nature of the break-in, other than there was an IRC server (a botnet control point) installed on our server. I was asked to reinstall and reconfigure the system from scratch. That pretty much consumed a weekend.

March 2009

Continuing from the end of February, I spent the first few days of March rebuilding TriLUG server and resetting user passwords. Once the basic packages were in place (pretty much a one-man job), I started to receive a lot of help from the other sysadmins and volunteers. We eventually found that the server was broken into due to a bug in “RoundCube”, a web mail package.

While other companies are trimming their staff and laying off employees, Tekelec is celebrating a super 2008 with a generous bonus.

I attended a two-day “hacker convention” in Chapel Hill called “CarolinaCon”. Like last year, the talks were informative and entertaining. Some were timely and topical, while others were more esoteric and of more academic interest.

April 2009

We went to an Easter egg hunt at Bond Park. 1000 kids lined up in the infield of a baseball field, candy spread all over the outfield, and some poor schmuck in a bunny costume yelling “GO”, just before getting trampled by the kids.

I bought a little gadget called a “Sheeva Plug” to tinker with. It’s a very clever little computer that is small enough to fit inside of a “wall wart” (the “brick” part of a power supply). It has a very low power requirements, only 3 watts! It has an ARM processor, and no hard disk – only flash memory for storage. And it runs a fairly standard flavor of Linux. I hooked it up to a USB hard drive and I run “BackupPC”, a free software package which makes backups of all of our other computers in the house.

We went to the NC Zoo in Asheboro. Most of the time, we like to park in Africa and work our way up to North America. This gives us a better chance to see the more exotic animals earlier in the day, when they are more active. But this time, we started in North America, since we’re usually in a hurry by the time we’ve worked our way up there, and so we tend to miss those animals.

May 2009

The folks at TMIO informed me that the server machine that I shipped to them last year had quit working. So I quickly created a hosted virtual machine at Tektonic (a web hosting provider). I uploaded a complete copy of what was on the TMIO server, changed the network addresses, and viola – they were back online. But now it is cheaper, the network is faster, and the machine is hosted in a real data center.

My neice Ashley graduated from NC State, and we celebrated with her at 518 West, a fancy restaurant in downtown Raleigh.

The girls started practicing on the swim team, the Brookstone Barracudas.

Back in January, I was loaned to another department to work on web-based application (PHP and Javascript). I am now learning enough to be able to make some code changes, and I feel like either (1) I am doing it all wrong, or (2) these tools are tremendouly sloppy. I talked to a friend who does web development for a living, and while he can’t rule out #1, he says #2 is definitely true. Apparently, the whole web is built out of duct tape and paper clips!

June 2009

I went to the first (?annual?) South East Linux Fest in Clemson SC. It was a one-day conference on Linux and open source software. I especially enjoyed the sessions on SQLite (D. Richard Hipp), Open Street Map (Richard Wealt), and Ubuntu kernel development (Pete Graner). But what pushed the conference over the edge (from just “interesting” to “fun”) was the after-party at Rockhoppers pub. (Hmm, “rockhopper”…)

Our girls danced in a ballet/jazz performance of “The Little Mermaid”. Sydney did a “pearl” ballet dance. Audrey performed two numbers, a jazz routine and the whole-cast “Under The Sea” song.

Audrey and Sydney started taking piano lessons from our friend Denise (Tim’s wife).

At work, I started using a new tool called “Tiddlywiki” to completely replace my lab notebook. Now, I take all of my personal notes on a wiki, which is stored as a single HTML file on my pen drive. It’s accessible from anywhere, I can keep backup copies, it’s searchable, and it’s very organized. I really like it!

July 2009

Audrey celebrated turning eight with a party at the Ice House skating rink.

We went to the beach for July 4th weekend. After years of saying that we should, we finally went on the Cape Lookout catamaran day cruise. Then we watched the fireworks from the beach. We wrapped up the trip with some shopping at Wings, where we got a hermit crab… his name is Peek-a-boo.

When my Verizon cell phone contract expired, I jumped ship and bought a new iPhone (and a hefty data contract from AT&T). This device seems to be everything that I had hoped the Palm Pilot would be ten years ago. Now I am hoping to learn how to develop mobile apps.

What is this new Twitter thing all about? I am trying it out… my user name is rockhopper.

Syndey lost her first tooth!

Highlight of our summer: we took a week-long vacation in the mountains of NC. We visited a gem mine in Hiddenite, we spent a day at Grandfather Mountain, one day at Tweetsie Railroad, a day hiking at Linville Falls (and Linville Caverns), and quick visits to Mystery Hill and Blowing Rock. We filled in the gaps with some geocaching and general exploring.

August 2009

I bought a Mac Mini, so I can get started learning how to write iPhone applications. It’s a nice little machine, but I am not quite ready to get an Apple tattoo just yet. If Windows were a ‘0’, and Linux were a ‘10’, I would rank the Mac as maybe an ‘8’. The main things that I am trying to get used to are: 1. having to agree to another legal document at every turn 2. the window manager and the mouse/keyboard focus policy, just foreign 3. the minimalist-design dock that has several features overloaded onto it (launch icons, minimized apps, downloads, documents, and a trash can) 4. the idea that apps may still be running even if they have no main window active 5. home/end going to the top/bottom of the page instead of beginning/end of a line 6. some other keyboard mappings, like shift-del and shift-ins not cutting and pasting 7. the inconsistency of “spaces” (virtual desktops).

All in all, if given the choice (like, at work) between Windows and a Mac, it would be a no-brainer decision. But it still drives like a rental car at the moment, not quite second nature.

I spent one Saturday at BarCampRDU. Like the previous two years, this was a good chance to get exposure to a lot of cool new technology and to social trends. I enjoyed the talks on “Free” (a new book by Chris Anderson), programming for the new Palm Pre, “Geek Dads” and the “Productivity of a Submariner”.

I discovered podcasts this month. First samples included “TWiT”, Anji Bee and Dave’s Lounge. Did I mention that I had the idea for “downloadable radio” back in 1997? Why didn’t I capitalize on it at the time?

In my on-going 2009 goal of experimenting with social media and “new things” in tech space, I re-joined LinkedIn, and I tried out Facebook. They seem very similar: LinkedIn is a lot like Facebook… without the fun.

Foong went to her college room-mate’s wedding in San Francisco. While she was gone, the girls and I some quality dad-n-daughter time. No, we did not trash the house (much).

A few weeks ago, our friends Alfred and Minashi were visiting from Asheboro, and they mentioned that there is a covered bridge a few miles from their home. There are only two covered bridges in NC. So I guessed (correctly) that someone had probably hidden a geocache at the site. They were intrigued by my tales of using a billion-dollar satellite infrastructure to find someone’s lunchbox in the woods. So we spent a Saturday in Asheboro, visiting with them, finding the covered bridge geocache (GC1DD1) and doing what we always do… eating good food!

September 2009

Through a strange coincidence (my Twitter name “rockhopper” is the same as the main character on Disney’s “Club Penguin” web site), my kids discovered Club Pengin. Move over Webkinz… there’s a new game in town!

I attended the first (?annual?) “Evil Robot Conference” – I see a trend developing here. This was a day-long event, a lot like BarCampRDU, but focused on open source software. I attended five sessions: (1) open itunes server protocols (2) code on life support (3) git (4) Erlang (5) btrfs.

On my birthday, we went to an r/c airplane show called “FlyForTots”. It was a lot of fun, with stunt planes and realistic replicas, a simulator van, helicopter rides, and a candy drop for the kids!

We took advantage of the slowly-expanding economy (a good combination of still-low interest rates and banks starting to loosen credit) by refinancing our home loan. We got 4.5%!

At the end of September, we started our three-week trip to Malaysia. More on that next month.

October 2009

We spent most of October in Malaysia, with a few days in Singapore and Hong Kong. Unlike most vacations, we did not really do much on this trip… we spent the entire time visiting friends and family. But we did have a good time.

I had some adventures trying to get my new iPhone to work as a PHONE. AT&T decided that I might not be credit-worthy enough to roam internationally (let’s forget that I had just signed a contract to spend $3000 with them over the next two years). When they finally flipped the “roaming” switch on, I found out that they charged $2/minute for voice calls while overseas! Compare that to Skype, which charges $0.03/minute. They also had an equally-as-attractive data plan. So I decided to use the iPhone as if it were an iPod Touch, and we just bought a pre-paid SIM card and we used a normal GSM phone.

The entire time we were in Malaysia, we only went to ONE place that I had not been before: a wildlife preserve in Pahang that collects elephants. They educate the public on the need to move elephants from developing areas to more remote jungles, and they allow guests to visit the elephants up close: bathing in the river, hand-feeding, and even riding bare-back!

Our trip happened to coincide with a two-day security conference in Kuala Lumpur called “Hack-In-The-Box”. I attended several sessions: hacking parking meters in San Francisco, electronic voting reform taught by an old school phone phreaker, clobbering the cloud, Blackberry spyware, browser ghosting attacks, wikileaks, hacking a smart card by watching its power consumption, lock-picking, an inside view of the Russian hacker underground, step-by-step drive-by “pwning”, and hacking from the restroom. That’s what I call a well-rounded education!

Our trip to Singapore was a lot shorter than I had hoped. We only had time to visit our friends Chin and Mui-Ling (who used to live in Apex NC), and to spend some time at Sentosa, a theme park island.

On the way home, we spent two nights in Hong Kong. Again, this part was more rushed than I had hoped, but we really enjoyed seeing the city, mainly around the Central-Mid-Levels escalator (a covered moving sidewalk and stairway, half a mile long).

When I got back to work, I was moved to a new group which does “number portability” applications. These are the databases that allow you to switch carriers and keep your existing phone number.

Sydney and I went to our first YMCA Indian Princess meeting. Ten excited first grade girls! A week later, our tribe went on an overnight camping trip. Our camp site was – conveniently – across the street from a Bar-B-Que restaurant… forget cooking on the campfire! Some time in the middle of the night, it started raining.

We wrapped up October with my favorite holiday of the year: Halloween. I wore my Scream mask. Audrey was a witch, and Sydney was a vampiress.

November 2009

We attended the Salem Elementary school book fair. We shopped for books, and then we were entertained by magician Gary Shelton.

The girls went to their first sleep-over party. It was an over-night birthday party.

Sydney and I attended the YMCA Indian Princess “Fall Outing”. After a day of hiking and outdoor activities, we were treated to a first-class nighttime initiation ceremony. We followed a trail of hundreds of flaming torches down to the lake, where an Indian chief arrived in a canoe, lit a bonfire, and welcomed the new tribes. How How!

I spent the last half of November coughing. Foong got a two-week head start on me, and her cough still lasted longer than mine.

I attended a couple of Triangle Android Meetup meetings, where we discussed the new Google Android phone platform, and how to develop software for these phones.

Sydney celebrated her seventh birthday at the bowling alley. She and her friends totally pounded that lane… some of the kids used the “ramp” to roll the ball, some rolled it properly, and some just dropped the balls with a loud THUNK.

We wrapped up November with Thanksgiving with Mimi and Pops.

December 2009

Right after we got back from Mimi’s house, Sydney and I started work on the invitations for the YMCA Indian Princess meeting that we would be hosting. We decided to make a “podcast”. We wrote our lines, recorded our voices on the computer, cut out the mistakes, added some background music, burned CD’s, and drove them to each of her friends houses.

Two days later, we hosted our meeting. We started off with the normal tribe ceremony stuff, and then we did our craft: making feathered head-dresses.

After several months of watching videos from Stanford University on iPhone programming, I submitted my first “app” to the iTunes App Store. It’s a simple tip calculator for use in restaurants. My goal was to go through the process, from soup to nuts. I specifically chose an application that did not require network access or database storage or fancy 3D graphics, and one that would not require a lot of time on the application logic, since I wanted to concentrate on learning the tools and the process of submitting an app for world-wide distribution. The app can be found here.

We went for a walk on our neighborhood greenway, with Sydney on her scooter and Audrey on her bike. After our walk, we asked Sydney if she wanted to try the bike… her first time without training wheels. She did just great! I think she’s going to want to ride a lot now.

My friend Atul went back home to India. We’re not sure if he will be coming back in the spring, or if we’ll be working together again.

I won the lottery! Don’t get excited… it was just $259.

Audrey sang in a holiday performance given by her school’s chorus group. After they finished, we were treated by a breathtaking show by the school’s jump rope team, called the “Skip Its”.

We went ice skating at the outdoor rink in downtown Raleigh. It was cold, but Krispy Kreme kept us warm with doughnuts and coffee.

Our only share of the big snowstorm of Dec ‘09 was about an hour’s worth of really huge puffy flakes. Nothing stuck. My parents got eight inches!

I celebrated the winter solstice with a midnight visit to Waffle House with bunch of geocachers. I can’t think of a better way!

Our family got a new gas water heater for Christmas. And our garage floor got a wash. And we got to stimulate the local economy!

We had our “best Christmas ever”. The girls both got bicycles from Santa, Nintendo DS’s from Uncle Tony, and r/c cars from their mom and dad. We had a real classy Christmas dinner at my brother’s house, and we spent the weekend with Mimi and Pops.

We wrapped up the year at First Night Raleigh, where we saw magicians and comedians and some live music. Sydney was asked to go on-stage during Glen Singer’s comedy act (… she’s a natural!

Hosted at Linode