2012 Christmas List

What better use of a blog than to share your Christmas list with family, friends, and billions of strangers? Without further ado, here are some ideas for those shopping for me for the holidays…

Green Laser Pointer. Available from ThinkGeek.com. Red laser pointers are yesterday’s news. Even your cat is bored of them by now. But green laser pointers, man, those things are cool. They’re much brighter than red lasers, so much that their beam is visible in darkened conditions. You can actually use them to point out things in the sky like clouds and constellations. Be careful though – a green pointer is bright enough to damage a pilot’s vision if you shine it at their eyes accidentally.

PiBow. Available from PiBow.com. Yes, I am a nerd. Not a huge nerd, but a nerd nonetheless. As a nerd, I love gadgets, and my favorite one by far is the Raspberry Pi. It’s a tiny computer, the size of a credit card, with enough power to run linux software. To make the Raspberry Pi as cheap as possible, it comes without any accessories – no power supply, keyboard, not even a case. I’ve got a couple of “naked” RasPi’s sitting around that really need to get covered up. The PiBow fits the bill. I need two of ’em.


Posted in Random

2012 Jack-O-Lanterns

I finished up the last Jack-O-Lantern for Halloween 2012 just last night. Evil spirits beware! Happy Halloween Everyone!

Posted in Random

Sticker Art

Enraged at the Princess’s refusal of his marriage proposition, the wicked prince drew his sword. Her true love, turned to a frog by the Queen’s evil spell, drew his sword and lept to her defense.

Posted in Random

Hidden Treasures in Central PA

Last Friday my brother and I dedicated the day to exploring some of his favorite places in central Pennsylvania. The whole area was once booming with activity from the timber and coal industries. As mines have been exhausted and forests deforested, a lot of old infrastructure has been abandoned. These are the places that fire his imagination – relics from the past that are slowly being overtaken by the land they once intruded upon.

First Stop – Mine Exhaust Blower

Abandoned mine exhaust fans at the entrance to a train tunnel

Our first stop was a train tunnel. We drove his old Chevy Nova into a remote neighborhood, parked in the weeds, zipped through a backyard, and slid down a rocky slope to get access to the tracks. After a walk through the train tunnel (always an unnerving experience) we came to this abandoned blower equipment at the other side.

I’d love to know more about the history of this place. The train tunnel clearly intersected with a coal mine at some point. I would guess that the train tunnel was originally dug to blow fresh air into the mine tunnels and allow coal to be hauled out. Eventually the mine was abandoned and the tunnel expanded into a train tunnel.

Colin in front of one of the blowers

All that’s left now are these giant fans rusting and rotting by the tracks. Inside the tunnel we could see a brick wall sealing up the old mine.

Second Stop – Coal Processing Facility

Abandoned coal processing facility. The structure on the right houses a long conveyor belt stretching up from the (now flooded) mine.

Although our departure from the tracks was watched by a shirtless, beer-drinking neighborhood resident, no-one complained and we drove on to the next stop. This sort of exploration demands discretion as most locations are on provate property and liberally sprinkled with No Trespassing signs. Our next stop was an abandoned 10-story coal processing facility rotting away right next to a new strip-mining operation. It’s the kind of place that is hard to hide, making it less likely that you’ll be the only one visiting at any given time. So it’s always best to park far enough away to not attract attention, and keep your ears open when exploring.

Equipment on the ground floor. Some sort of machine repair shop?

We started by poking around on the ground floor. more detail to come later…

Third Stop – The Quarry

Abandoned Quarry

Fourth Stop – The Road to Centralia

Posted in Random

Zombies vs. Ninja

I was practicing in my dojo this morning when a zombie grabbed me and tried to eat my brains!



I quickly defeated him, but more zombies were right behind. Soon I was surrounded! I used my gun to shoot a protective circle of bullets around me. But my ammo was running out…



Luckily, my Fairy Godmother (just back from the Jersey Shore) arrived just in time to save me!



“Don’t worry!” she said. “They don’t want Brains. They want Brans! They won’t hurt you!”


Posted in Zombie

Raspberry Pi Webserver

My Raspberry Pi finally arrived a couple weeks ago and I’ve been fooling around with it ever since. I’m not a “real” programmer or particularly skilled sysadmin so I’ve mainly been trying out different bits of software, screwing something up, flashing a new OS image and diving back in. My first project was setting up a webserver.

At Convoy, my print and web design company, we create all of our sites in WordPress. So naturally I wanted to see see if the RasPi could handle a WordPress site. The short answer is, yes it can. But the problem is, a typical WordPress hosting environment, including Apache, MySQL, and PHP requires so much memory that that’s very little left over for handling anything more that light traffic.

So – how can one lighten the memory requirements for WordPress hosting? There are a variety of ways to go about it…

Replace Apache with Nginx

Apache is what they call a Heavy webserver. It spawns several processes to handle concurrent requests. Each process contains a full running copy of PHP and its extensions. It’s a powerful piece of software but it does not scale well. Naturally, when software gets bloated, other teams step in to offer lighter alternatives. Nginx is the current favorite.

The problem with Nginx is that it doesn’t support .htaccess files, and WordPress relies on them for it’s readable and search-engine-friendly URLs. Redirects can still be configured, it’s just a different process. And the non-standard system means that plugins that rely on custom .htaccess rules will need to be configured by hand rather than Just Working.

Replace MySQL with SQLite

MySQL is also a bit heavy. Maybe not compared to it’s Enterprise-grade alternatives like Oracle and Microsoft SQL Server, but when you’ve got 224 MB to work with, any robust database will be feeling the pinch. SQLite, on the other hand, writes it’s database info directly to flat files and has the added, ahem, advantage of having no security, so there are no user accounts to configure. And you can back it up simply by copying the files off your server via FTP.

Does WordPress work with SQLite? The answer is a qualified yes. There’s a WordPress plugin that allows you to use other databases for the back end via the PDO database abstraction layer, which SQLite supports. But it’s not that easy because it has to be installed before WordPress itself is installed, since your Pi won’t have MySQL available, and WordPress is built for MySQL by default.

Also disturbing is that the plugin hasn’t been updated since early 2010, which does not suggest that the author is maintaining it anymore.

If you want to try it, there’s a prepackaged WordPress with PDO plugin available for download. Since there’s no MySQL to configure, copy the files over to your Pi and you’re done. Comments on the board suggest that the prepackaged installation can then be upgraded to the latest version of WordPress and everything keeps on working.

The Middle Road – Tightening Your Software’s Belt

Sometimes the best solution is a combination of ideas. I did not want to get bogged down in an endless stream of esoteric performance tuning options, so I went looking for someone who had been down the road before me. As it turns out, the prevalence of cheap virtual servers with impossibly low memory configurations has inspired many before me to wring the most performance possible out of a meager 256MB. If didn’t take me long to find this article on lowendbox.com.

Not only has the author crushed a working installation of Nginx, MySQL, and PHP down to Lilliputian proportions, he’s provided a handy shell script to install and configure the packages for you. The script will even download the latest WordPress and set it up, and it works with multiple installations.

Now if I was really devoted, I’d set up a perfectly tuned webserver with a demo WordPress site, create an image, zip it up, and make it available here for download. That’s the beauty of Raspberry Pi. Once you’ve got a great setup, configured to your exacting specifications, it’s easy to share it with the rest of the RasPi community without having to worry about people with slightly different hardware configurations complaining that it doesn’t work. And with SD cards so cheap (I bought three 8GB cards for $6 each earlier this week) anyone with a Pi can swap cards around and work on several projects at once. Personally I’m waiting for an enterprising individual to package a MAME emulator, a tall stack of games, and a tuned up Raspbian install and distribute the ultimate Arcade-In-A-Box.

The Fatal Flaw of the Raspberry Pi Webserver

If the RasPi has the chops to run a decent webserver, why aren’t I running this site on one? It’s simple – webservers have to be up and running all the time to be useful. I’ve only got a single Raspberry Pi computer, and I’m not willing to dedicate it to a single purpose just yet. Maybe when I’ve got a few lying around I’ll change my tune. But for now, I’ve got to get Quake 3 running!

Posted in Raspberry Pi

Truly Disturbing Photo

This photo shows the Monticello Dam in in Napa Valley, California. The dam has an unguarded spillway 87 feet across. Just looking at it gives me the creeps in a big way.

For more photos of the Monticello Dam, visit this page.

Posted in Random

Is a Yellow Pages Listing Effective?

I got a phone call recently from a sales rep representing the Yellow Pages. Generally I try to politely cut phone solicitors short and move on with my day. But the Yellow Pages piqued my interest. Does anyone even use the Yellow Pages anymore? The whole idea is a relic from the pre-Internet past. Who needs the Yellow Pages in the age of Google?

I decided to ask the sales rep a few pointed questions and see if she could convince me that YP is relevant. I asked her why anyone would even visit YP when they could just go to Google. She said Google is a partner and started rattling off the names of the other major search engines and directories. I asked how being listed in YP would help get more leads from people already using those services. She didn’t have a clear answer but she assured me that my YP contract would help us get more business.

I decided to pick a specific example to use for my questions, so I asked for the name of some other design businesses that have YP accounts. She listed a few and I picked one at random (for that sake of discretion I’ll call them XYZ Studio). I asked if they were getting good new sales leads from the service. She assured me that they were and described the weekly reports they send to their clients which show how many times the appear in YP search results and how many clicks they get. “They’re getting a lot of new business from their ad”, she told me with confidence.

“Sounds promising!” I said. “I’ll contact them to confirm the results they’re getting.”

“Excellent!”, she responded. “Call me afterwards and we’ll get your account set up.”

So I sent a note to XYZ Studio’s general contact form to ask how they were liking their YP account. I figured I had a 50-50 chance of getting a response. But I got one, and from the CEO! Here’s what he said:

So far, I haven’t seen the slightest return on the investment.  I’ve avoided the YP like the plague for many years now and thought a national listing priority would help land a few big clients. It’s been 2 months now and NOTHING…. not even a bone.  If they had a money back guarantee, I’d already be in line.  Not only that, but it’s pricey as can be to list national.  For the price of the insertion rates, I could have hired an additional designer, or hell, even a f/t traveling sales staff w/ experience.

I’m not trying to sound all pessimistic, but from one business owner to another, I feel honesty is owed.  I don’t blame YP for their services offered, but I’m a believer that they are becoming more and more irrelevant.  Kinda bums me out now thinking I could have filed an additional full time sales personnel with the budget spent on the YP.

If anything, maybe once a day we get a call looking for a small time, home-town job like printing business cards ($50 job).  They become aggravated to learn we’re not a local based company to them.

But what about all those clicks showing up in their weekly report? Here’s what he said:

With my listing manager, it appears I’m getting tons of impressions and even hits which I may, but it’s not translating to calls. It’s only been 2 months, so you never know, but one thing FOR SURE, and I did predict it to my staff is that the YP would open us up to a world of solicitation.

Even in regards to dead-end legitimate service inquire leads ratio to solicitation from the listings…… it’s about a 10 to 1 scale in favor of more solicitation.

Needless to say, we won’t be buying an ad in the Yellow Pages.

Posted in Business

I Love Fiverr.com

It’s a rare treat to get a great deal on something handmade. And when that handmade thing is a portrait of yourself, that’s something special! Last week I stumbled across fiverr.com, an online marketplace where people offer to provide a good or service for five dollars. I’ll admit, there’s not a lot being offered there that I actually want. But for five bucks anything even remotely interesting can be a compelling impulse buy. When I came across Paopeipao’s offer of a handmade MANGA style character headshot I was compelled, and I bought.

Posted in Random

Obama Publicly Supports Gay Marriage

It’s about time. What I find most interesting about this is the rationale for his decision. The President knows plenty of gay couples. His kids do too. How could he deny those couples the same rights that straight couples have? At some point you have recognize your prejudice and deal with it, popular opinion or not.

Here’s his message:

I’ve always believed that gay and lesbian Americans should be treated fairly and equally. I was reluctant to use the term marriage because of the very powerful traditions it evokes. And I thought civil union laws that conferred legal rights upon gay and lesbian couples were a solution.

But over the course of several years I’ve talked to friends and family about this. I’ve thought about members of my staff in long-term, committed, same-sex relationships who are raising kids together. Through our efforts to end the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, I’ve gotten to know some of the gay and lesbian troops who are serving our country with honor and distinction.

What I’ve come to realize is that for loving, same-sex couples, the denial of marriage equality means that, in their eyes and the eyes of their children, they are still considered less than full citizens.

Even at my own dinner table, when I look at Sasha and Malia, who have friends whose parents are same-sex couples, I know it wouldn’t dawn on them that their friends’ parents should be treated differently.

So I decided it was time to affirm my personal belief that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry.

I respect the beliefs of others, and the right of religious institutions to act in accordance with their own doctrines. But I believe that in the eyes of the law, all Americans should be treated equally. And where states enact same-sex marriage, no federal act should invalidate them.

Posted in Politics