Alan Porter's minimal net presence

January 2014

January started with a cold. I recovered faster than I normally do, I think, because I kept a water bottle in my hand for a solid week.

We bought an inexpensive graphics tablet from Monoprice, and now the kids are excited to use Inkscape. I gave a brief show-n-tell about Inkscape to the Apple developers at the local Cocoaheads meeting.

While the girls were tracked out, they worked on school projects. Sydney built her Invention Convention project, a crane that demonstrated several “simple machines”. Audrey build an mbira (thumb harp) for Science Olympiad.

Our family went skiing at Appalachian Ski Mountain in Boone. The girls had never been, and their parents had not been in 10+ years. We had a good time, and the weather was perfect, clear and sunny and cool, with a touch of snow in the late afternoon. The next day, we went tubing at Hawksnest, and left after just two runs down the hill – it was cold (9°F) and super windy, with long lines and slow walks back up the hill. I don’t think I’ll go tubing again.

After we got home, we had a modest snowfall, maybe an inch. Just enough to build a short snowman, but not much else. Still, we missed four days of school. FOUR DAYS! The first missed day was before the snow even started falling!

At work, I got involved with a large testing project that involved setting up hundreds of Linux servers. I enjoy an automation challenge, and so this was a fun exercise that exposed me to lots of nice administration tools.

February 2014

Gong Xi Fa Cai… Chinese New Year was a little early this year. As always, we got together with our Asian friends (and friends of Asian friends) for food and games and talk.

February was a snowy and nerdy month.

We had our second snowfall of the season. More substantial than the January snow, about 4 inches. But the shocking thing was how fast it came down. When I left work at noon on Wednesday, the first few flurries were just starting. Before I was home an hour, the entire yard was white. It’s the kind of super dense snow that remind you that air is a fluid. With the air filled with so many snowflakes, you could easily see every tiny wind current and eddy. After the snow hit the streets, it quickly turned to ice. We missed three days of school.

Valentines Day was a snow day, so everyone stayed home. I worked from home that day. We had a “surprise” visit from a quartet of harmony singers, who wished Foong a Happy Valentine’s Day.

With all of the nasty weather, I stayed inside and tinkered on many computer projects (who am I fooling… I do that even when it’s beautiful outside).

I gave my personal web site a complete overhaul:

  • I threw out my old 2000-era perl script back end and replaced it with Jekyll, a static web site generation tool that uses templates.
  • I upgraded all of the HTML code to first be HTML 4.01 compliant, and then HTML 5 compliant, using CSS style sheets for layout, rather than the old tables and blank pixels that were popular 10+ years ago.
  • I created an SSL certificate authority and shiny new SSL certificates so my site supports SSL/HTTPS.
  • I upgraded more of my site (and home network) to support IPv6.

The Linux server work was not restricted to home projects. I also set up a WordPress site for a doctor’s office client. They badly needed an upgrade from their 2005-era custom-written PHP scripts. And I set up a new mail server for some other clients.

North Carolina weather… one week after the Valentine snow, it was 70°F outside!

March 2014

The geekiness continues, with three pretty cool projects.

I bought a “Pogo Plug v4” for $20. It’s basically a small embedded Linux box with a USB3 adaptor and gigabit ethernet. You can plug a SATA or USB hard disk into it, and it acts like a file server. But I had other plans for it; I installed my “flashback” backup program on it, and now it does the backups for all of the other computers in my house.

My second geeky project this month was the upgrade of my garage door monitor to run on the Raspberry Pi. Previously, it had been in two parts: an Arduino sensor and a Python program which ran on “bender” (my Linux-based home server). Now it is a stand-alone system, and it sends messages to my phone when the door opens or closes, or if I leave it open too late at night. The motivation for switching? My neighbor wanted to build one like it, so I just bought parts for two and we built them together.

And the geekiest project of the month, the one that ties them all together, is my LED sign. About 15 years ago, I bought a “Beta Brite” LED sign, an 80x7 LED array that can show about 15 characters of text in 7 colors. What originally attracted my attention was the serial port. But at the time, the serial protocol was not published, so the sign sat on a shelf. Now the protocol is published and sample code is available. So I hooked the sign up to “bender”, and I wrote a little Python program to display stuff like my Twitter feed… and how my backups are progressing on the Pogo Plug… and whether my garage door is open or closed. It is really cool.

It was also a month of words.

Sydney went to the state Scrabble championship (which was a lot smaller than it sounds – there were only 26 teams – I think they have not publicized it much outside of the RTP Triangle area). She was competing against middle school kids, and so her goal was to “not come in last”. She succeeded at that… just.

A week later, Audrey went to the Wake County Spelling Bee. The expo hall started out crowded, with about 100 competitors. But after lunch, the crowd whittled down. Audrey made it to the last round, finally being eliminated by missing “velitation” (which my spell-checker is underlining as I write this). The winner had the relatively easy “anaconda”.

It was month of performances.

Sydney performed in a “tinikling” show (another spell-check underline). It’s a dance with long poles that the dancers hop over in rhythm.

Then Audrey was a dancer in the middle school’s performance of “Guys and Dolls”. The whole cast did a great job, and the kids celebrated with a party and then a sleepover.

March was shaping up to be a pretty good month, but then the unthinkable happened. Foong’s brother-in-law from China passed away suddenly. He had been in the US to have surgery for a chronic illness that had been getting worse. The surgery seemed to go OK at first, but then he developed complications and he passed away overnight. We were all stunned. Foong went to Texas to be with her sister, and to help her make all of the arrangements so they could go back to China and then on to Malaysia. It was a big logistical mess which nobody was prepared for… I am just glad that Foong could be there to help.

Sydney and I finished off March with a weekend at Camp Seafarer, with the YMCA Y-Guides (or as we always called them, “Indian Princesses”). This time, though, we were attending as volunteer staff. Every year, the camp has a theme, and this year’s theme was cowboys. So we spent the entire weekend running the rodeo lasso station. We showed the kids (mostly boys) how to throw a lasso and rope a steer – a plastic steer head attached to a bale of hay. It was no “weekend at camp”… it was real work. Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate much. Our weekend was punctuated by chilly rain and sustained 20-30mph winds blowing off of the Neuse river (and directly into the back of my skull, and then back out through my eye sockets). It was insane, and we ended up getting soaked and chilled. The campers were not phased by the weather, and they seemed to have a good time with the lassos. A few of the kids said that it was their favorite activity. In the end, I judged that it was not a particularly “fun” weekend, but it was rewarding.

April 2014

In the weeks following Spring Outing, I decided to let my beard grow out some more (we had started with a little stubble for the cowboy theme). It took a few weeks, but it started filling in a little, although with a touch of grey on my chin. But if I kept it trimmed, it looked OK. On the last day, I tried a mustache by itself – like I wore for most of the 1990’s – but that just looked goofy to me. I was happy to trim it off.

At work, I transitioned from pure development to a mix of 75% development and 75% second-level tech support… and two bosses… and being on call. I have traded my code-wrangling prowess for pure juggling ability.

In general, our family does not watch much TV. Momma watches a lot of Asian movies on the internet, and we all enjoy NetFlix. But we never watch broadcast TV and never bothered getting cable. However, when one of the middle school science teachers recommended we watch “Cosmos”, we added that TV show to our “family time” entertainment. Science!

We participated in our neighborhood’s annual garage sale. Stop haggling, you don’t understand, we want to get rid of this junk!

One of my goals for 2014 has been to refine my organizational habits. So I evaluated several different “To Do” list systems. I had been using Remember The Milk off and on, but I was uncertain about how much I bought into it. So during April, I migrated completely off of RTM and onto a pretty hard core command-line tool called “Task Warrior”. I liked the concepts, like tagging and better insight into recurring tasks. But after a week or so, I started missing using my phone to enter and check off tasks. So I test drove some more tools, WunderList and ToodleDo, before finally moving right back to RTM. In the process, I think I am making better use of RTM lists and tags, and I can appreciate what I am getting for my $24/year. Sometimes, it’s not the destination, but the journey.

Hand in hand with the To Do lists, I also looked at my cloud storage usage. I dumped Dropbox entirely because it is not encrypted. I also dumped SpiderOak because their headless client is such a CPU pig, and I always seemed to be cleaning up after it. I gave up on’s never-ending promises to support Linux “soon”. I briefly looked at SeaFile. But the one that really caught my eye was Bit Torrent Sync, which is not really a “cloud” solution as much as it is an encrypted peer-to-peer shared directory among my own computers. I decided that it made sense for at least one of them to be “always on”.

The girls drew some doodles for Google’s Doodle competition. No award-winning entries from us, but I think they learned some mad computer art skillz.

Audrey’s Blue Notes chorus group traveled to Gatlinburg to compete again in the Smoky Mountain Music Festival. They brought home a few trophies and a lot of great memories.

May 2014

May is the one month in NC when we can keep the windows open. But we have to keep an eye out for thunderstorms!

With the weather warming up, we decided it was time for bigger and better bikes for the girls. But girls, being picky, can be hard to shop for. Stay tuned… so far, we only have one bike for two girls!

I spent two days at CocoaConf, a conference for Apple iPhone/iPad app developers. It was a firehose of interesting information, but a little hard to for me to digest, since iOS development is not my primary gig and my app-development time is limited.

The neighborhood pool opened. It started off a little too cool for me, but I think we’re going to get a lot of mileage out of the pool this summer.

We spent Memorial Day at a party for our Asian lady friends and their families. Those ladies know how to cook, eat, and talk (mostly “encrypted” talk).

The girls wrapped up their after-school activities with performances in chorus, recorder club, and tinikling.

June 2014

The Chinese school year ended, and to celebrate, they had a horseback riding event. I know, it didn’t really make sense to me, either… but that does not mean it wasn’t a great idea! Audrey had been riding before, but this was Sydney’s first time. She started off cautious, then nervous, then cried to get off. We lost sight of her as the team went down the trail. But by the time they returned, all of the tears were gone, and she wanted to go to riding camp.

After building my garage door monitor, (a Raspberry Pi that sends me messages when the door opens or closes), I probably watch my door a little more closely than your average homeowner. I was surprised when the opener stopped working. I had over-tightened the chain and the teeth on the plastic gears had ground down to nothing! So we went “old school” for a while, manually opening and closing the door, until I could install a replacement gear.

We went to Maker Faire NC again this year. It was bigger and better than ever. I felt like we only scratched the surface in the four hours we spent there. The biggest hit with our family was not a craft or project at all… one of the woodworkers had brought his pet sugarglider, which completely captivated Sydney.

I notice that I tend to write longer accounts here of things that are happening in my thoughts, rather than about the stuff we DID. This month is no exception. A few different motivating factors combined this month to get me thinking about exercise as part of my daily or weekly habit. It was pretty easy to eliminate impractical time slots as either too busy, too hot, too inconvenient or just too unpredictable. So I tried a week of morning exercise, walking and swimming, before going to work. Surprisingly, it fit into my schedule quite well, it motivated me to get up on time, and I found myself in a better “work zone” when I got to work. And the bonus prize: I found some “me time” where I could listen to podcasts and gather my thoughts for the day.

At the end of the June, school finally ended. We’re so proud of our girls. Audrey made straight A’s and earned a handful of certificates. And Sydney graduated from elementary school! They’ll both be in middle school together next year.

July 2014

Following our family tradition, we spent July 4th at the beach. My parents are selling their beach condo, so this might be our last one at Atlantic Beach. The fireworks were a little more exciting than usual, with wind conditions just right for dumping sulphur ashes and mortar debris on us during the show. We spent one afternoon at Professor Hacker’s golf and go-carts, where we found that Sydney drives like a grandma on her way to church.

Swim meets were in full swing in July.

Audrey had a “My Little Pony” themed birthday party. Every piece of the party was crafted after something from the TV show, including a special “Marzipan Mascarpone Meringue Madness” birthday cake! (That’s from the “MMMystery on the Friendship Express” episode.) Everypony had a good time.

During our summer track-out, we pointed the van north and drove to Philadelphia and Boston. Both cities had plenty of historical sights to see, as well as first class science museums. We found that the car is best left parked while in Boston… otherwise, Daddy starts shouting at the three GPS’s that are providing conflicting directions! On a related note, we did get to drive by Fenway Park… just as a crowd of 37,000 fans poured into the streets!

For us, the end of July means “back to school”. For one year only, our girls will be attending Salem Middle School together.

August 2014

In August, my parents’ condo at Atlantic Beach sold, and so we went down there one last time to clean it out, and to say goodbye to it.

My friend Jeremy arranged to have a vendor booth at the “Cryptolina” bitcoin conference in downtown Raleigh. I helped him with his booth, and so I got to explore the vendor area at the show. Those guys are… “out in front”.

Audrey started taking tap dance lessons, and Sydney started a Jazz dance class.

I dusted off the ukulele that our family got in Hawaii in 2011, and I started learning how to play. As an engineer, I can’t just learn the finger patterns for the chords – I also have to learn about music theory and the science behind music, scales and chords. So most of my music time was spent reading books.

Our neighborhood had an end-of-season pool party. We’ve spent a lot of time at the pool this summer.

September 2014

Since I have been tinkering with the ukulele, I decided to look online to see if there were any local uke meetup groups. By chance, I found a new group in Cary that had its first meeting this month! So Audrey and I went. The meetings are basically jam sessions where we all sit in a circle and play together for two hours. One of the other attendees was nice enough to loan us an extra ukulele so we could both play. What a workout!

My friend Jeremy and I went to see so-called nerdcore rapper “MC Frontalot” in downtown Raleigh. He was pretty funny… but his opening man “Corn Mo” almost stole the show with some unexpected warm-up tunes.

We attended a dragon boat race at Regency Park.

I moved my web and mail server to a new host, and I upgraded Linux versions in the process. It was also a good time to streamline things, turn off services that I am no longer using.

It’s been just about a year since Tekelec was acquired by Oracle. Now that the dust has settled, I’ve been weighing my options – both within Oracle, and also at smaller companies. I’ve decided that it is time to make a move. Watch this space.

October 2014

As it gets cooler, we signed the kids up for YMCA memberships, so they can continue to swim… and maybe do some other activities, too.

Both girls performed in a school play called “Death to the Drama Club”. The story was about a drama club that puts on an original low-budget version of “The Wizard of Oz”. Since the story itself is in the public domain, but the movie music is still under copyright, they were forbidden from singing. Audrey played the starry-eyed Dorothy, who yearned to sing at every dramatic moment. Her friends interrupted her and dragged her off the stage to prevent any unintentional copyright infringement. The Dorothy role was a perfect fit for Audrey’s quirky sense of humor. Sydney made her acting debut as the assistant to the evil witch.

This year was the second annual IBMA World of Bluegrass festival in downtown Raleigh. While we did not have much time to listen to the music (because of drama club performances), I had a mission. Last year, after watching the bands playing, and the street crowds playing, and even my kids playing at one open mic tent; I decided that I needed to learn to play an instrument well enough to play at the open mic. So this year, I played the ukulele… very badly… in front of a crowd of dozens. Thus, I accomplished my mission. You saw it here first, folks!

During our October track out, we took an extended weekend trip to the Outer Banks. We stayed in Kill Devil Hills, right across from the Wright Brothers Memorial. We carried our bikes with us, and rode them on the flat island terrain. We also toured the Bodie Island lighthouse and Jockey’s Ridge State Park.

Sydney and I started weekly computer programming lessons on Saturdays. We’re learning how to write programs in Python. She hates it, but I think she will learn structured thinking, and that will help her not just with science and math, but with her speaking and writing, too.

Our Malaysian friends gathered at Raven Rock State Park for a fall cookout. Fall in NC is so nice!

I attended the second annual “All Things Open” conference in Raleigh. There were so many topics, it was hard to choose. With ten parallel tracks, it was hard to commit to any one talk for fear of missing nine others! The most memorable ones were on defining your own company culture and why open source tends to clash with how government projects are managed.

While I was downtown for ATO, I bumped into a guy with a curiously-shaped music instrument case, and I chatted with him for a while. He turned out to be David Marschall, viola plater for the NC Symphony! He invited me to bring the family to see their upcoming performance with pianist Di Wu. So the whole family went, and we enjoyed some music by Tchaikovsky and Strauss. The highlight was taking the kids up to the stage to talk to David before the show.

Tekelec (Oracle) had an off-site gathering to celebrate the v6.0 release of the Diameter Signaling Router. I had worked on DSR 6.0 for more than a year, and so it was nice to see it released and running in customer networks.

For Halloween, I dressed up as “Where’s Waldo” (I hear that outside the US, he is known as “Wally”). Audrey dressed as a character from a black and white movie, in old style clothing and completely in monochrome. Sydney was a rain cloud. My parents came into town to spend Halloween with us, and so that meant Foong could join us in the neighborhood. She dressed up as a genie.

November 2014

The hard disk in my MacBook started acting up, and I having some crashes and “beach ball” moments. So I replaced it with a solid state storage device. Wow, that’s fast!

Sydney started an off-season (indoor) swimming class. She is so much happier when we can get her out of the house to burn off some of that energy.

Every year, the eighth graders at Salem Middle School take a field trip to Haw River State Park, just north of Greensboro. They stay overnight, and they learn about nature, outdoor skills and teamwork. I was a chaperone, which put me sleeping a cabin full of tween-age boys. My guys were a bunch of cut-ups who just wanted to stay up all night. But they surprised me in the morning, when they shaped up and cleaned up the place in record time. On that trip, I learned a lot about boys – a subject that I don’t have much experience with, living in a house full of girls.

Renowned ukulele player Jake Shimabukuro came to Wilmington in November, and that’s just close enough to justify a road-trip. So Audrey and I went, along with my friend Jeremy and his daughter Kacy. We had a nice trip down there, a quick visit to the NC Ukulele Academy (a uke store), and then the concert. Icing on the cake, after the show, Jake came out for pictures and autographs, and some genuinely friendly conversation as well!

A few months ago, I decided that I had given Oracle a year to make an impression, and that they didn’t really do much with that chance. So I have been putting out feelers. This month, I talked with a medium-sized network security company called “Lancope” that are starting a brand new development group here in NC. The project and the team look promising, and they made me an offer! I decided to join them at the end of this year.

The girls had several holiday chorus shows with their group, the Blue Notes. They put on a good show. I especially like their choice of tunes. My favorites were “Cool Yule” (originally by Louis Armstrong, 1953) and “Jing-a-Ling” (originally by The Andrews Sisters).

Sydney turned twelve, and she had five girls over for a sleep-over to celebrate. When they woke up, we all walked down to Dunkin’ Donuts for breakfast.

We spent Thanksgiving with “the Buttheads” (my brother’s family).

December 2014

The Salem Blue Notes continued their holiday shows into December.

I spent my last few weeks at Tekelec/Oracle cleaning up works in progress, documenting things I had been working on, and visiting the many friends I’ve been working with for the last eight years.

My old high school buddy and college room-mate, Michael Steele, threw a small Christmas party for the old gang. It’s funny how rarely we all get together these days, if you consider how close we were in college.

I started my new job at Lancope. I will be working on the company’s new cloud-based product, a “software-as-a-service” that monitors business networks for suspicious activity or security threats. My work will be split between our “war room” in RTP and working from home, with occasional trips to the HQ in Atlanta.

We spent Christmas with my parents. Their new Florida room is now complete, and it houses their Christmas tree. Our girls did not want any special gifts for Christmas this year, but they did get tickets to see “Wicked” next month.

We ended 2014 with a holiday week off. We spent it at home, “doing nothing” (resting, gathering our thoughts, getting our act together). I spent New Year’s Eve catching up on this edition of Porter Family news.

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