Shortcutting Domains

This is pretty cool.  The people at OpenDNS have released a tool to allow users to create shortcuts for web sites.

I think this is a great idea.  Instead of typing in something like this:


We can simply enter:


What I like most about this is that the shortcuts would be globally available to every computer on your network.  So if everyone visited the same site often enough, the same shortcut could be used by everyone while at home.

Shortcuts like this have been available for quite some time (Opera and FireFox do this quite well), but they often require being set up computer by computer, and login by login.  If five people were sharing the same computer, that would either mean five items in everyone's "Favourites", or potentially five people setting up their specific shortcuts in their browser of choice.  OpenDNS gets around this.

All this said, there are a few issues that may need to be worked out.  One of which is how many current browsers try to make sense of what people type.  If someone were to type in "mail" in Safari or Camino, the application would automatically assume you mean to have a www. in front and a .com at the end.

Despite all the ranting on OpenDNS' blog for the feature, I think this is a great little tool.  It will save a bit of time in the long run and I'm sure developers are already thinking of ways to extend this for their applications.

Great work, OpenDNS.  I look forward to the potential benefits of this tool.

BBC's Superstorm Series

Everywhere you look, people are talking about the weather.  This subject alone has probably accounted for 30% of all conversations since the beginning of language, and it's presense in the media has only intensified with such highly polarizing subjects such as Global Climate Change.  So what better way to capitalize on the subject than by creating a tense drama regarding the potential hazards of humans interfering even further with the weather?

Superstorm is a 3-part mini-series airing on BBC Two.  Much like every other drama on BBC, the characters all carry with them personal baggage regarding the matter they try to control.  In this case, it's the weather.

The jist of the story is this; the US government puts together a team of talented scientists in the hopes of creating a mechanism to avert seriously damaging weather patterns such as hurricanes.

While this is an incredibly noble jesture that can be paraded around under the banner of "protecting lives", this can also be used as mankind's most potent weapon.  It would make the fruits of the Manhattan Project pale in comparison.  Several medium-sized hurricanes carry enough raw energy to power every city on the planet for weeks.  The atom has nothing on Mother Nature.

The idea behind this drama is to get people thinking about the role humans should play in controlling the weather.  In the span of 200 years we have already modified the weather patterns of almost every ecological system available.  But these have been small-scale byproducts of our global market expansions.  Direct access to the weather has never (as far as we know) been successfully implemented on such a grand scale.

So there's the question:  Should humans interfere with weather patterns that could cause havoc for the markets?

That's what this is all about, after all.  I doubt any government as powerful as the US (or many European and Asian countries) would worry too much about human suffering.  It's much easier to deal with gross loss of life involving people we've never known than watch our financial net worth plummet amidst a market collapse, right?

I don't think we are responsible enough as a planet to try and control the weather.  In the right hands, this sort of technology could bring regular rain to drought-ridden areas of the world and improve the lives of billions.  In the wrong hands, this could send countries to their deaths as decade-long winter storms lay seige to the land day after day.  It doesn't take long for governments to collapse when people can't eat.

Controlling the weather is definately something we will learn one day.  I'm sure it will play a pivotal role in the teraformation of Mars and other planets as we spread the species throughout the galaxy.  But at this point in our evolution, I think we'll just be getting in way over our heads.

Earthlike Planet Found 20 Light Years Away!

This should be on the front page of every newspaper on the planet today, but chances are, it will be just a footnote.

Astronomers with the European Southern Observatory have discovered the most Earth-like planet to date outside our solar system.  One, they say, has the potential of holding liquid water … an essential ingredient to life as we understand it.

The planet was found orbiting a red dwarf star about 20.5 light years away, and it's one of the smallest extra-solar worlds found to date.  With a diameter 50% larger than our own planet, and five times the mass, the planet orbits its cold little sun in under two weeks.  Just to make things more interesting, it also lays 14 times closer to the star than we are to ours.

But because red dwarf stars are smaller and colder than our bright yellow sun, the planet's close proximity potentially puts in a temperate zone for water to remain between 0 and 40 degrees Celcius.  Using models, Stephane Udry, a scientist from the Geneva Observatory in Switzerland and the lead author of the report, predicts that the world will either be rocky like our Earth, or covered in oceans.

This is the second planet discovered around this red dwarf (Gliese 581).  The first one has a mass 15 times that of Earth and orbits the sun every 5.4 days.  It was discovered two years ago.  There is also the potential for a third planet with about eight Earth-masses, but this has not yet been confirmed.

Exciting news in the realm of the exo-planets.  While I doubt that I will live long enough to see them with my own eyes, I would love nothing more than to know that my children might have the opportunity to venture out into space across these seemingly vast distances to witness the marvels and complexities that are in this little corner of the Milky Way Galaxy.

Under Attack At Home

WTF with these two port scanners?

I seem to have a bit of a dilemma.  There are two IP's sending an average of 125 hits to my DSL modem per second, scanning my TCP ports between 30000 and 65000.  Once they reach 65000, they start over again at 30000 and continue in a seemingly endless cycle.

These cycles happen daily between the hours of 5:30 PM PST and 2:30 AM PST, and have been happening for weeks.  Of course, because of the constant cycling, and the excessive calls to the very-consumer-grade DSL hardware, my modem freezes every 5 to 15 minutes and resets itself.  This, naturally, interferes with my downloading, IRC, MSN and a few other applications that I use on a regular basis when not doing the work that I should be concentrating on.

I've tried asking my ISP to block the IPs from their end, but they seem to be either unwilling or incapable of providing such service.  For the moment, my firewalls are able to keep the offending computers from gaining access to my network, however, because the attacks are hitting the modem so hard, I can't block the traffic before it even hits my hardware.

This is quite frustrating.

Does anyone on Telus know if there is a way to block an IP right at the ISP level?  Is there some kind of account management screen that I could log into and manage permissible IP ranges?

Finding the right NAS OS

It appears I'm at an impasse.

Yesterday I mentioned that I was going to build myself a NAS (Network Attached Storage) with a good amount of space that would also be easily expandable.  Before the thought was even coherently formed in my mind I had thought to myself: "Hey, if I can build one for a good price, why not try to market them on eBay?"

Why not, indeed.  These devices fetch a good amount of money, and if I could construct a good looking unit that came with a decent amount of space, could easily be expanded by people, and was super simple to maintain, then I'd be laughing all the way to the bank … maybe.

Being the geek that I am, the hardware was all spec'd out before yesterdays post was even available online (most all posts are future dated by a few hours or days).  I can build a respectable 1 Terabyte NAS with good expansion in a small form factor for under $600 CDN.  Less if I make use of old parts from eBay.  The problem came when I tried to find an OS for the box.

FreeNAS and Darma NAS came to mind immediately, as did Windows Home Server.  FreeNAS and Darma NAS are open source projects that are freely available and, unfortunately, Darma is no longer being maintained or enhanced.  Windows Home Server is currently in testing and is most definately not free to use.  From all accounts, WHS is going to be an OEM-only package that may or may not be made available to the masses.

That said, I investigated each of these potential platforms to find which ones might work best for me.  But when it was all said and done, none really solved the need that I see in the market.  FreeNAS is alright for people who understand what they're doing, but it can't be used by the average user.  Darma has some really nice features, but if it's no longer supported, then I can't in good conscience put that in a box that leaves my sight.  Windows Home Server, I thought, has lots of potential … but I was disappointed by the lack of hot-swap-ability.

No, I don't think any of these solutions will fill the need that I have.

So to that end, I might just take the plunge and start developing my own NAS system.  It wouldn't be too much of a stretch, either.  I still have my source code from a Solaris-based network indexing system, and I could easily take OpenSolaris and integrate my requirements into that OS.  The base platform would run light enough that it could be implemented on almost anything, and because it's Solaris, I know it will work like a charm.  The functions and requirements that I require from such a network device could certainly be built into my existing code-base, and I'm sure that it would be an enjoyable project.

Now the hard part … what should I call it?

An Affordable TeraByte NAS

Is anyone in the market for an affordable Network Attached Storage device?

The home server market is ready to pick up steam as more and more homes in many parts of the world begin to have several computers all connected to a simple network.  Many of these home may already be working with network shares across the various computers to easily distribute music, videos and pictures, or to share a single printer and internet connection.  One small problem with having network shares for people who are power-conscious is that a given computer (or computers) must always remain on for that data to be accessible to others.  With the explosion of notebook sales over the last five years, this is becoming more of an issue as people can often take their data out of the house, leaving gaps at home.

To solve this, some people put an old computer to use as a simple file server and leave it running somewhere out of sight.  However, some people don't have an old desktop PC lying around, or they don't want to have a huge box running somewhere and using a respectable amount of electricity.  To that end, many people are now purchasing NAS (Network Attached Storage) devices.

I've been using a Synology NAS for a while and it's been relatively decent for what I've asked of it, but I find that there have been some issues cropping up lately and I need to replace it with something that offers a little more breathing room.  The model in question is the DS-106j.  It's a great little box just a little larger than a standard USB drive enclosure, has 3 USB ports for external USB hard drives and certain printers.

What I don't like about the device is that it runs a very stripped down version of Linux and uses a proprietary version of ReiserFS on the hard drives.  Although there is support for FAT32, I cannot suggest to anyone using drives larger than 80 gig to use it.

One of the pros behind the proprietary ReiserFS format is security.  If someone were to come and take some of the USB drives connected to this box and try to read it elsewhere, chances are they'd be hard pressed to get any data from it.  Other Unix boxes with Reiser support will not be able to read the data and most data recovery places that I've checked out online have even said that recovering data from proprietary file systems will cost quite a bit more than standard ones.

But of course, this is also a pretty big con.  If a hard drive dies and I need something that was on there, I can expect to pay some big bucks for the chance to get it back.

As it sits, I have this device pretty much filled to capacity.  I can't add any more external drives, and it's just too labor intensive to buy a larger drive, put it in a USB enclosure, and then trickle the data from one of the drives I'd be replacing.

So this leaves me with a few options.  I can either:

  1. buy another Synology NAS device and a hard drive, and add more USB drives as required

  2. buy a different NAS product

  3. build my own NAS

Each of these options has been seriously weighed, with the second option being weighed more often than not.

Buying another Synology device and a hard drive, then chaining a bunch of USB drives to the end of it seems to be a waste of power and money.  While the disk (or disks) in the NAS itself will spin down to conserve power and reduce heat, the USB devices will just keep on going.  Normally this isn't a problem, but I don't want my drives to be running if they're not going to be accessed for several hours or days.  I like that the Synology product has a great team of developers and a thriving community that is constantly working to make this a better product, but I feel it's just too costly to implement in a fashion that I require.

I need a TeraByte to start (in addition to the TB that's already in place), so that means getting something like the CS-406.  As of this writing, that device sells for $560 at NCIX … and it doesn't even come with hard drives.  All said, I would need to spend about $1300 to have this particular NAS and enough drives to make up a TeraByte.  That's a No-Go.

The second option, buying a different NAS product, has been on my mind for a while as well.  D-Link has their DNS-323, and I could put together a simple TB worth or storage for under $700.  Netgear has their sexy little SC-101T, which would also run about $700 for a TeraByte of storage.  On top of this I've considered the offerings from other vendors such as the Buffalo TeraStation Pro II, Infrant ReadyNAS NV+, and even one of the iOmega StorCenter Pro units.

What I don't like about these is the sheer cost of startup, and the limited future growth potential.  Aside from the StorCenter Pro, none of the other solutions even come with hard drives.  The NAS enclosure itself is $800+.

I like my data readily available … but for that price, I'm almost tempted to go back to massive DVD binder libraries and a comprehensive indexing method similar to the Dewey Decimal System.

So to that end, I've decided to go with the third option; building my own.  With all the hardware options and operating systems out there, I shouldn't have too much trouble putting together a decent NAS solution for my needs.  Basically it has to have a few basic things.  The NAS must:

  1. be contained in a small and unobtrusive case

  2. be almost silent

  3. be easily affordable by almost anybody

  4. be easily expandable either by easily adding more internal drives, or USB devices

  5. use very small amounts of power unless under heavy load

As I go forward with this little project of mine, I'll post updates and images of the system as it progresses.  Depending on the final cost of the solution, I might just consider building these for sale on eBay.  If an empty enclosure can fetch $700+, then I'm sure I can sell a custom unit with storage media for the same.

Canada's Own Ted Stevens

I pay 26.9 cents for every dollar earned to federal government representatives like Joy Smith?  I think it's time we demand a refund.

Joy Smith, a conservative MP, introduced her proposed "clean internet act" (Bill C-427) for first reading in Parliament today.  The full name of this act is: An Act to Prevent the Use of the Internet to Distribute Child Pornography, Material that Advocates, Promotes or Incites Racial Hatred, and Material that Portrays or Promotes Violence Against Women".  That's quite a title … "Clean Internet Act" works for the moment, but soon it will be referred to as "The Bill that Never Was".

The idea is that this bill would grant the industry minister special powers to search data as well as the ability to order an ISP to block content deemed inappropriate.  It would also force ISPs to exclude service to convicted offenders, and leave company officials legally liable for failing to comply with certian provisions.

This seems to be a very noble cause, but how can any government agency actually control what content Canadians submit or collect from the internet?

I'll use myself as an example of what a particular government would need to do in order to discover what I was uploading and downloading.

Determining my uploads:  First, confiscate my entire digital library, networked computers, notebooks and any PC I've had direct contact with in the last 14 days, including workstations at various employers and their servers (good luck with that).  Second, hand me over to the Syrians for a year to beat the passwords out of me for the 256-bit encryption coded archives I have on my off-site servers and NAS.

Determining my downloads:  First, confiscate my entire digital library, networked computers, notebooks and any PC I've had direct contact with in the last 60 days, including workstations at various employers and their servers.  Second, hand me over to the Syrians for a year to two in order to beat the username and passwords out of me for the various online servers I have over the globe in order to obtain backups and offline content.

There are only two places where my passwords are kept … in my head, and in God's book.  I wouldn't give these to anybody for any reason.  Not because I have anything illegal to hide, but because my encrypted files contain the source code for the various projects I've done for past employers.  I'll take these things to the grave before I break the Non-Disclosure Agreements I've signed.  A year or two in the slammer protecting a company's secrets might just be some good PR.

Now, I use this example for a few reasons.  ISPs can't track everything we see and do online.  It's just not realistically feasible.  Sure, they can track what sites we visit, what files we download, where we get them from, what IPs we visit most often … the list goes on.  But what about the content of those files?  If the feds are truly worried about people distributing or witnessing child porn, inciting racial or sexual intolerance, or violence towards women, then I guess sites like 4chan and half the online forums on the planet will be blocked from all Canadians.  Heck, even Maddox's tongue-in-cheek "Civil Disobedience is Still Disobedience" image would need to be moderated.

But how do you moderate a file called 1390192804018.jpg ?

This bill just seems to highlight the problems that some people have with understanding the internet, and it's most likely the result of a late-Friday afternoon luncheon with a bunch of free speakers who talk about things they just can't comprehend.  Throw enough buzzwords around like SEO, Web 2.0 and Google, and the masses will be sure to think you know what you're doing … right?  I think the only thing this bill is missing is a reference to Ted Stevens' now famous speech:

"Ten movies streaming across that, that Internet, and what happens to your own personal Internet? I just the other day got… an Internet was sent by my staff at 10 o'clock in the morning on Friday, I got it yesterday. Why? Because it got tangled up with all these things going on the Internet commercially.

… They want to deliver vast amounts of information over the Internet. And again, the Internet is not something you just dump something on. It's not a big truck. It's a series of tubes. And if you don't understand those tubes can be filled and if they are filled, when you put your message in, it gets in line and it's going to be delayed by anyone that puts into that tube enormous amounts of material, enormous amounts of material."

- Ted Stevens, United States Senator (R-Alaska)

I've been waiting months to use that quote.

The internet can't be regulated with traditional styles of laws and enforcements.  Moderating the internet would be like moderating your own inner-most thoughts.  This isn't to say that we're all closet pedophiles who are so racially intolerant that we beat women just to amuse ourselves (beating men is okay, I guess … so why did George W get so much guff about Guantanimo?), but it would be nice if the people who tried to make the internet a morally cleaner place for Canadians or the world in general actually knew a thing or two about it.

I hope that Joy Smith has the opportunity to make a Stevens-like comment in the House of Commons.  If I'm paying almost 27% on all earned income, the least I should expect is some comic relief from the governments who are sworn to protect us.

Intel Prepares Phase-Change Memory

Phase-Change Memory … the very name evokes visions of science fiction stories and far off technologies.  Intel is just about ready to make this type of storage go from theory to practicality.

Intel has been developing this technology for the last 30 years with hopes that this will one day replace flash memory.  The Phase Change chip, code named "Alvertson", is composed of material that is divided into chunks, with each representing a bit or element of data.  As the material is heated, it crystalizes, changing it's state or "phase" from an amorphous one.  The crystaline bit reflects light, which is interpreted as a binary value of 1.  If it's reheated, then the state can be reset to 0.

It's expected that the first applications for this technology will be cell phones and digital cameras and everything between.

The ability to increase the capacity of flash memory components is nearing the limits of the physical universe.  Phase change memory, which can store large volumes of information, will use less power than conventional silicon-based chips and may just address the problem.

I'm quite excited about this technology.  Not only because of it's potential storage capacities, but because of the incredibly small amount of power that will be required for this medium.  Uses could include multi-TeraByte NAS devices the size of a single hard drive, and TiVo-like devices capable of storing a week's worth of HDTV media without even coming close to it's storage limit.  With fewer moving parts, there would be less mechanics to break, and if that's not enough, this would be a God-send to anyone that wants a truly silent PC.

Intel plans on releasing some development models to manufacturers in the next few months, and it will likely be another few years before we start seeing this appear in our devices, but I'll be looking forward to the great potential that this technologies can offer us.

David R. George III

It's a little known fact, and I'm sometimes afraid to admit it, but I've read every Star Trek book ever published.  Some more than thrice, no less.  This doesn't include the countless magazine articles, "technical manuals", map books, and slew of fan-fic stories that have been released since I could first read and get my hands on the reams of printed paper.

Over the years as my command of the English language progressed and matured I have enjoyed a slew of authors from this enjoyable escape of reality.  Peter David and Keith R.A. DeCandido are among my favourite authors, and after reading his latest trilogy in tribute to 40 Years of Trek, David R. George III is in this list as well.

The first book I read from this author was from the Deep Space 9:Mission Gama series entitled "Twilight".  What I liked most about this book was the way the story played on the characters.  We were still becoming accustomed to the new players in the DS9 field and learned quite a bit about them as the story progressed.  Unlike 95% of all other Trek books, this one focused more on the people than action.  I'll admit that every book needs a little action, either with massive star ships trading paint, or some sort of away mission happenstance, but David George managed to bring the characters to life and giving the story that much more perspective.

One of the sorry habits I've noticed with many Trek authors (especially with TNG) is that either too much is left to the reader's imagination or things happen due to sheer dumb luck.  This creates for a very dull book, or a story where you're left scratching your head saying "WTF?" so often that you consider asking for some money back.  You won't find that with these books.

The next book was part of "The Lost Era" saga.  Book two (Serpents Among the Ruins) takes us on some of the missions carried out by Captain Harriman on the Enterprise-B.  This was a book that just couldn't be put down.  From the slight glimpse of Captain Harriman that we see in Generations, I was expecting a sub-par performance from the centre seat.  Instead we are introduced to a strong leader and a dynamic crew.  The action was well sequenced and the character growth was superb.  I've read this series twice, and in both cases, this was my favourite book of the series (not just because of the Romulan involvement).

Then, of course, comes this author's latest (and I think best) work so far.  The Crucible trilogy.

During the course of reading these three books, I had actually considered calling in sick at work so that I could keep reading.  Each book focused on a different character in the Original Series of Star Trek.  We were able to learn an incredible amount about McCoy, some of the missing pieces in Spock's life, as well as why Kirk ended the way he did.  All three stories have a central pivotal moment and everything goes from there.  There were several times while reading McCoy's story that I was quite upset with how things turned out (I won't get into spoilers, but anyone who's read every book will see a few alterations of the Trek history … again), but after everything was said and done, the story unfolds beautifully and things manage to smooth out for most of the other works … aside from J.M. Dillard's "The Lost Years".

Of course, David R. George III has done quite a bit of work elsewhere in the Star Trek universe and this little entry really doesn't do his work justice, but I would strongly recommend to any Trek fan that has not yet read any of his books to get on it.  The story lines are rich and intelligent, the characters are three dimensional and believable, and dammit, they're just plain fun to read.


The Grounded Astronaut

Barbara Radding Morgan - NASA AstronautI was reading today about NASA's revised shuttle launches and came across an astronaut that seems to have had some pretty big events get in the way of her trip to space.

Barbara Radding Morgan was a backup candidate for the NASA Teacher in Space program on July 19th, 1985.  From September of that year to January of 1986 she trained with Christa McAuliffe and the Challenger crew.  Shortly after the training, Challenger exploded as it made its way to space.  The result of a failed O-Ring in one of the solid rocket boosters.  Had Christa McAuliffe been unable to fly for any reason whatsoever, Mrs. Morgan would not be here today.

She was then scheduled to go up into space on the shuttle Columbia in November of 2003 … but unfortunately, that trip was put on hold since Columbia broke apart over Texas in February of 2003 during re-entry.

Now … this makes me wonder if God is telling her something.  Both of the vessels she trained to work on have been destroyed.  These are the only two shuttles that NASA has lost in a quarter century.  Sure, there aren't too many other shuttles to choose from, but still … this is a remarkable coincidence.

She's now scheduled to launch into space on August 9th, 2007 aboard the newest shuttle, Endeavour.  This is assuming that the external fuel tank for the shuttle can be completely repaired in time.  I really hope that nothing else happens to prevent this highly trained person from reaching space.  For quite some time she's been on stand-by, and only a few lucky people have ever ventured so far from the safety of our little world.

Best of luck to Mrs. Morgan and the rest of the Endeavour crew.  God speed.