June, 2008:

Lost Season 4 on TV/DVR

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Lois and I watched the first three seasons on DVD over a relatively short period of time. On balance, we both really like the show a lot (me more than she, I believe). There were frustrations at times, but it’s a very creative story, with lots of twists and turns to hold your interest.

One of the things that is great about watching it on DVD in concentrated doses is that you can keep the very complex plot twists in the front of your mind pretty easily. In addition, even when they take a wrong (sour) turn, you can wash away that feeling quickly, by powering through and getting hooked again in the next episode (or two).

With that in mind, both of us were a little nervous about watching Lost on TV (actually, DVR) this season. The entire rhythm of the experience had to be different, not necessarily worse, but likely so. That’s exactly how it turned out (worse).

The DVR helped a drop, as we typically got to watch at least two episodes in a row (sometimes three). But, there were very long stretches in between, both because of our travel schedule and because of the writers strike, which caused a long delay between new episodes.

At best, this meant losing threads and missing some nuance.

As far as the show is concerned, they are still extremely clever, and can still regularly give me a jolt (in the good sense) of blowing my mind with their creativity. That’s great!

On the not-so-great side, they switched gears from a technique that worked wonderfully the first three seasons. In those, they used flashbacks to give great depth to each character’s development, especially in explaining why/how they might react in certain ways to different situations. It was one of the more interesting parts of the show.

In the third season cliffhanger, they introduced the concept of flash forwards. Unfortunately, they overused the technique (IMHO) in Season 4. I believe that they think it builds a sense of excitement when you know what’s going to happen, but you can’t conceive of how it can possibly come to be. For a very few story lines, that’s true, and indeed, they did achieve that effect relatively cleverly and seamlessly a few times.

Still, it’s a trick, whereas the flashbacks (to me) weren’t, as they were explanatory. This is meant to tease you as to what might be possible. To repeat, it’s not unclever, but it’s overused and generally unnecessary.

On to the story itself (don’t worry, I have no intention of giving away anything). This season was touted as being more self-contained, meaning that more stories would be wrapped up within each episode, and more would be revealed in general throughout this shorter season (by design, not just because of the writers strike). To that I say: hogwash.

Very few episodes were self-contained. Very few story lines were wrapped up even within a two episode stretch. The big reveals (as they say on HGTV) came mostly in the season cliffhanger. No doubt that there were some brilliant moments during the season. I am definitely still hooked by the general story line and characters, so I’ll definitely be watching next season. But, this season was extremely choppy, made worse for us by the long stretches between episodes.

Why did we watch it on TV/DVR then and not just wait for the DVDs? Mostly, because (unlike Lois) I really don’t want to know anything about the show before I see it. I don’t read fan sites, don’t want to hear what happened in an episode I haven’t seen yet, and I’m not interested in the speculation of what might be going on in the story line. I like to allow the actual creators/writers of the show to unveil the story to me the way they meant it.

So, I was nervous that even commercials (particularly deep into the season) would annoy me. Of course, now that I’ve written about Lost a few times, I was also worried that friends might say something, assuming that I was relatively up to date in my watching. I decided that I would rather watch it semi-regularly, than risk having some of the surprises ruined.

I’m not sorry I did that but it may very well have contributed to the feeling that this season wasn’t as well done as the previous three. Lois certainly was not enamored with this season and probably could have given up watching if I wasn’t still a big fan. In the end, this season’s cliffhanger is also a mind-blower, but it too suffers from the futuritis syndrome (which is all I’ll say about that!).

Acoustic Alchemy at Towne Crier Cafe

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Last night we saw Acoustic Alchemy at Towne Crier Cafe, the same place that we saw Cherish The Ladies at back in April.

I’ve only seen Acoustic Alchemy live once before, in 2006 at the Blue Note in NYC, but they’ve been my favorite Jazz group for a very long time. I owned 14 of their CDs (none of them being a Greatest Hits variety), until I bought last year’s CD This Way last night (signed, of course). πŸ™‚

Aside from being an all-around music lover, I’m a guitar nut and I’ve written about many awesome guitar players. One of of the things that makes Acoustic Alchemy special is that they have two awesome guitar players, who complement each other and blend their sounds deliciously well together. They also produce (consistently, for 21 years!) very melodic music, putting them at the forefront of the Smooth Jazz style.

They were at the very top of their game last night. Aside from their obvious, extraordinary talent (that is always there), Towne Crier is a special place (in general), and special to them (in particular). They have played there a number of times, and in fact are returning there for another show this coming Sunday, June 22nd. Don’t miss it if you’re anywhere in the NY area.

Tonight (probably too late if you didn’t know already) they are playing at BB King in NYC. The show tonight benefits Pancreatic Cancer Research, so if you can make it, in addition to hearing a fabulous show, you will be doing your part for a very worthy cause!

Here’s a shot of them all on stage together. Unfortunately, Greg Grainger was tucked in behind his drum set, way in the back, under the Towne Crier Cafe sign, and was invisible from Lois’ angle:

Acoustic Alchemy

Greg Carmichael is one of the two original founders of the group. 21 years later, his fingers still fly up and down a Nylon string acoustic guitar. He produces such a clean gorgeous sound, and has a generally wonderful (and generous) spirit on stage. He’s a joy to watch and listen to. The other co-founder, Nick Webb, sadly passed away from Pancreatic Cancer in 1998. He too was an extraordinary musician. You can read a moving tribute to Nick and their last collaboration together.

Greg Carmichael

Miles Gilderdale replaced Nick Webb as Greg’s partner. He had played with the band previous to being elevated to the co-lead position. He plays both Steel string acoustic and electric guitars. In addition to his amazing guitar playing, he has a fantastic stage presence, and had the crowd in stitches (and at the edge of their seats) when he introduced the amazing band one-by-one during the second set.

Here are two shots of Miles, one on acoustic guitar and the other with him holding his electric guitar and speaking to the audience:

Miles Gilderdale AcousticMiles Gilderdale Electric

Fred White played keyboards. I can’t say enough about this guy. His fingers fly on the keyboard, producing both pure piano sounds as well as funky electronic organ ones. He took a number of exceptional leads, but he’s also incredible when he plays background to the guitars. The reason I put background in italics is that he often shadows their phenomenal guitar leads on the organ, so that even his background playing is stunning.

Fred White

Greg Grainger played the drums. He’s a great Jazz drummer, who has been playing with Acoustic Alchemy (and others) for a very long time. Back in the 80’s, he also played drums for Whitney Houston (in her prime), so he’s been at the top of his game forever, and continued that tradition last night.

Greg introduced his older brother, Gary Grainger to the group a while back. As mentioned above, Lois had no view of Greg. She passed the camera to me for one shot, and I snapped one of Greg, but he’s partially obscured by his own cymbal. In the second shot, Lois snapped him while he was getting up to join the others in a bow, so it too isn’t a great shot. Sorry Greg!

Greg Grainger ObscuredGreg Grainger

Gary Grainger played the electric bass (five string, named after him!). I don’t know where to begin. He’s mesmerizing. Basically, while most bass players (even great ones) lay down solid but straight-forward bottoms to anchor the sound, they reserve any flying fingers for the rare solo that they are accorded. Not so with Gary. He’s essentially playing a beautiful melody all night long, complementing the lead (whether it’s guitars of keyboards) in more of a harmony than just support.

His fingers are in constant motion (both hands) and he is playing a song within a song. Simply gorgeous. His smile also lights up the room (as you can see on any number of YouTube videos of him). He’s played with many greats (you can read a partial bio in the link above about the Bass named after him).

Here are two shots of Gary. One playing the bass and the other with Gary both playing the bass and scatting at the same time:

Gary GraingerGary Grainger Scatting

Anyway, to round it out, all of them are extraordinary musicians, who play together tightly and generously, covering a selection of music that is simply beautiful on so many levels.

They played roughly half of the songs on the current CD (This Way, released in 2007). They also played some of the great oldies (including the title cut from their first CD: Red Dust and Spanish Lace).

The crowd was comprised of Acoustic Alchemy lovers. They couldn’t have been more appreciative of the performance, and gave long and vigorous ovations after each and every song. No wonder Acoustic Alchemy likes coming to Towne Crier!

They came out at 8:06pm (for an 8pm announced show). They played 54 minutes in the first set and left the stage at 9pm. They returned at 9:17 and played until slightly past 10pm. After leaving the stage for two minutes, they returned for a thrilling one-song encore. Total time on stage, including the encore, just under two hours. Absolutely fantastic!

We had a 6:30 dinner reservation for the 8pm show. We arrived at 6:20 and were seated at a very nice table for two. Folks, I mentioned it before when I wrote about Cherish The Ladies, this restaurant is really terrific. Before we even sat down, my mouth was watering for the little jalapeno pepper corn bread that comes with the chips in the basket. It didn’t disappoint! The chips are served with a fantastic chicken salsa.

Last time, we each had soup (I had carrot ginger and Lois had black bean). This time I went for a Caesar Salad as an appetizer. Lois tasted it (more than once) πŸ˜‰ and declared it to be the best Caesar Salad she’s ever had. I loved it, but nothing is ever likely to top my regular Caesar Salads at the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, clearly produced by the staff selling their souls in return for making perfect Caesar Salads! πŸ™‚

Lois had a salad as her main dish (and loved it) and I had one of the many specials of the day, Chicken and Shrimp Jumbalaya. Wow, it was mouth watering, with just the right amount of spice for flavor and heat. Towne Crier is famous for their desserts, but we couldn’t have stuffed it down our throats even if we wanted to, so discovering whether they taste as good as they look will have to wait for another day.

The drive there was about 44 minutes, and about 40 minutes back, so not too bad all around. We did wait around for a bit after the show, to get the CD that we purchased there signed by both Greg Carmichael and Gary Grainger (the others hadn’t come out yet, and we were too tired to hang around much longer).

We had a fantastic night, and can’t wait to see Acoustic Alchemy again, or see anyone else that we we like at Towne Crier. Unfortunately, we will not be around next Sunday, or we could accomplish both tasks simultaneously! πŸ™‚

Girlyman Discovery

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OK, so it’s been way too long since I’ve even mentioned Girlyman in this space, let alone actually written something specific about them. πŸ™‚

I was intending to walk (my long exercise walk) on Wednesday, in NYC. Instead, as I mentioned in yesterday’s post on Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, I had lunch with an old friend. That made me itch to exercise (though it was a very good trade!).

Today, I scratched that itch by walking in the woods near our house. I reported on this new (to me) path from our house to Rockwood Park and back in this post. That’s the exact route I took again today. One hour of very vigorous walking, with tons of uphill climbing.

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been listening exclusively to podcasts of The Business from KCRW. I’ve written about them before, but I’ve let them just build up, knowing that I would enjoy them if I just listened. So, I’ve eschewed the music, and started whittling down the number of unlistened to episodes, and I’ve enjoyed every second. Each episode is 29 minutes, so I listen to four on my NYC walks and two on these new walks at the house.

So, I planned to listen to two more today. Each episode generally has two separate topics. During the first episode the second topic ended up being a repeat. So, I started the next episode. Again, the second topic was a repeat. So, instead of starting a third episode, I decided to go back to my roots, Girlyman.

I started playing the Live album, Somewhere Different Now. I’ve listened to it many times, and the songs that are on their studio CDs have been listened to more times than I can count. So, I know them well (or so I thought), and I sing along to almost every one out loud, if I’m alone, or if I don’t mind bugging Lois. πŸ˜‰

Perhaps, because I was walking alone, in the bliss of nature, I had an epiphany during one verse of This Is Me, that I’ve sung along with out loud many times (so I knew the words cold), but never thought about them before. The second verse (not including the chorus) is:

The noble mind, it traps four pieces of the heart inside
We came in twos, and two by twos it seemed of little use
We felt the rain, our faces cold and pale, the colors drained
The oceans grew until we floated on a deeper hue

I had the most vivid vision of Noah’s Ark when I heard this verse. I realize that’s not a stretch when you read “We came in twos…” and “The oceans grew…”. But, when you read the rest of the lyrics, it doesn’t (necessarily) tie in to that theme, so when these words come in the middle, they don’t necessarily evoke that image.

Of course, Girlyman (Nate and Doris specifically) may not have meant that at all. I don’t care, which is one of the great things about great music/lyrics, you (the listener) get to bring your perception to the experience! πŸ˜‰

Anyway, it was a wonderful moment for me, which feels a little trivial now, reporting it here in the cold light of the laptop, but I’m sharing it more for the renewal of spirit that comes from a great walk in nature, than for any insight about this particular song.

So, go, enjoy nature, listen to Girlyman, renew your spirit, then continue to do whatever it is you do, a little better for it! πŸ™‚

Robert Plant and Alison Krauss at WaMu

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Longtime readers know that both Lois and I are Alison Krauss fanatics (just look at the title of my post when we saw her at the Beacon Theater). I’m also a long-time big fan of Led Zeppelin, and therefore, by extension, a big fan of Robert Plant. When we heard that they were pairing to produce the Raising Sand album (and now tour), we were excited.

I already wrote a long post about the album and how I finally came to purchase tickets to the show. In that post, I mentioned that the seats were in the seventh row. It turns out that the row was labeled G, but it was the fourth row, since the left side didn’t start at A. πŸ™‚

The seats were awesome. As usual, I’ll give more color to the venue and the crowd in general, after discussing the show itself, including covering the opening act.

Robert Plant and Alison Krauss came out at 8:55pm. There was instant electricity in the crowd, and many people gave them a standing ovation as they walked out. They launched into a couple of numbers from the album, and again, I was amazingly underwhelmed. It was certainly interesting (OK, even enjoyable) to see them live, but my heart wasn’t skipping any beats (and in fact, my feet weren’t unconsciously tapping along either).

To be clear, there are no flaws in their performance. They are both fantastic singers, with fantastic stage presence, backed by a pretty amazing band (I’ll cover them individually in a bit). The problem is the material. It’s nice, nothing more. I consider it to be background music. It does nothing to grab or hold my attention, but it sounds pleasant while your mind freely wanders to other thoughts…

Here they all are on stage, just to give you a sense of setting, though they shifted around a bunch throughout the show:

Raising Sand

Then, on either the third or fourth song, one of the band members (Stuart Duncan) started playing solo banjo (yes, banjo), and within a few notes, the crowd recognized it to be the lead (and repeating theme!) from Black Dog, a very famous Led Zeppelin number. I couldn’t help but smile at the thought of an iconic rock song being played on the banjo!

Robert then sang the song, in a slow, relaxed style, and it was really cool. Toward the end, it got a little much for me (sorry folks), as the original is so great, and this was more of an interesting play on it, that dragged on a bit for my taste. Here’s Robert singing (not necessarily during Black Dog):

Robert Plant Singing

Robert also had awesome stage presence throughout the show, often acting as a cheerleader for the rest of the band. One of the hallmarks of the Raising Sand sound is both Alison and Robert clapping to the rhythm when they aren’t singing. Here’s a shot of that:

Robert Plant Clapping

Throughout a long show, they did the majority of the new album. They also did a mini-set of Alison singing without Robert, and Alison singing with Robert (and the others) singing background (including Robert standing toward the back of the stage). Here’s a shot of Alison singing:

Alison Krauss Singing

They did a couple of other Led Zeppelin numbers, including a cool (and slowed down) version of Rock and Roll, on which Robert had a great rapport with the crowd.

Both Alison and Robert left the stage for a bit, giving T-Bone Burnett (the producer of the album and the tour) an opportunity to sing lead on two songs with the rest of the band. Those songs were good too (he has a good voice, and a great on-stage persona).

One of the better numbers (again, just my opinion!) was entirely a cappella. Alison started out alone (as she always does on this number), not only singing alone, but the only one on stage. She sang Down to the River to Pray. After a verse (or two), Robert Plant, Stuart Duncan and Buddy Miller slowly walked on stage (reverently), and all shared one microphone to sing backup vocals. This version was way closer to the version on Alison Krauss and Union Station, Live, than it is to the version on O Brother Where Art Thou (where Alison sings with a choir, including many female voices, in a much more up-temp version).

They performed the song flawlessly last night, and the three men all sing great, individually and collectively, and blended with Alison to perfection. Here’s a strange shot of them (due to the lighting), but it’s also kind of cool, because it shows Alison in an ethereal (or ephemeral?) light, with the others singing in the background:

Alison Krauss Down to the River

One of the problems (to me) is that they don’t really know what sound they want. Bluegrass? Check! Rock? Check! Blues? Check! Soul? Check! Cajun? Check! All of the above, simultaneously? Check! Oops, therein lies at least part of the problem.

They finished up the show with Gone Gone Gone. I enjoyed it live, but it’s more fun on the video. Let me cover the band first, then circle back to the encore. Before doing that, here is a shot of the three headliners (Alison, Robert and T-Bone), clearly beaming righting after they finished Gone Gone Gone, rightfully so. The crowd was in a frenzy!

Robert Plant Alison Krauss T-Bone Burnett Beaming

Left-to-right on the stage (not including Alison and Robert) were:

Buddy Miller playing electric guitars, peddle steel guitar, electric mandolins and autoharp. He also has a MySpace page. His fingers literally fly on the guitar. He is a truly great lead guitarist. He has an excellent voice as well. For the first 1/2 of the show, he may have had a problem with his amp, as he wasn’t all that easy to hear, but his fingers were astounding to watch, even then. Then they replaced his amp, and his sound came alive, and he was awesome.

Here’s a shot of Buddy (with Stuart Duncan in the background), followed by a shot of Buddy’s amplifier, being worked on during the show:

Buddy Miller Stuart DuncanBuddy Miller Amp Work

Stuart Duncan played fiddle, mandolin, banjo, guitar, all brilliantly. He sings really well too. Alison Krauss called him “my favorite musician in the whole world”. Wow, quite a compliment. If you read the awards he’s won (linked to his name above), clearly, she wasn’t being sarcastic. Still, even though he is incredible (truly!), that’s quite a statement, especially given who she plays with regularly, Jerry Douglas, Dan Tymninski, Ron Block and Barry Bales.

If Alison Krauss is going to call you her favorite musician, she may as well sing a duet with you:

Stuart Duncan Alison Krauss

Here’s Stuart on the mandolin:

Stuart Duncan Mandolin

Dennis Crouch played the upright bass. He was solid the entire night, but never highlighted. Amazingly, he could be heard (but never too overpowering!) even during the louder Rock numbers. I thoroughly enjoyed his play. Here’s a shot of Dennis:

Dennis Crouch

Jay Bellerose played the drums. I’m quite sure that most of the people in the audience considered Jay’s performance to be awesome. It was certainly impossible to ignore. Jay drums in a reasonably frenetic style. To me, there was nothing wrong with his drumming (meaning, he keeps a good beat, etc.), but he was a little over the top, in particular, in trying to carry the Rock parts. Nothing wrong, just not up to par with some of the drummers we’ve seen recently. Here’s Jay:

Jay Bellerose

T-Bone Burnett played rhythm guitar (and took a rare lead too). He’s certainly fine on the guitar, but I didn’t notice anything special. He sings well, and as mentioned before, has a very nice stage presence. Definitely seems to be enjoying himself on stage, in an infectious way. Robert goes out of his way to credit T-Bone with making this entire project happen. Kudos to him for that! Here he is during his two-song set:

T-Bone Burnett

Back to the encore…

When they left the stage, the entire audience was standing and making a giant ruckus. They were off stage for longer than most bands nowadays, but there was never a doubt that they were coming back! The house lights never came on, and the energy level in the crowd was awesome.

When they came out, it was without Alison. Robert said some beautiful words praising Bo Diddley in noting his passing, and they played a wonderful rendition of Who Do You Love. Alison then joined them and they did at least two more numbers (possibly three), making it a very long and excellent encore.

The show was nearly two hours, including the encore.

My bottom line is that I am very glad we went and I loved the experience. The show itself was choppy for my taste, but at least the worst parts were pleasant. The great parts were excellent, though even those weren’t quite like some of the shows I’ve written about in the past year.

Opening for Robert Plant and Alison Krauss was Sharon Little. She was backed by a five-piece band, including Scot Sax on guitar, who co-writes the songs with Sharon.

Sharon has a very good and powerful voice and the band members are quality musicians. That said, the material didn’t do it for me. Also not unpleasant, even for a second. The sound was repetitious and Sharon over-emoted (to my tastes) quite a number of times, trying to force a feeling down my throat. Whenever she did that (or attempted to switch singing styles into something more bluesy or soulful), her voice was not as clean or nice as it was when she just sang straight up.

They were on stage for exactly 30 minutes, followed by a 23 minute break before Robert and Alison came out.

If you read my previous post (linked above) about the difficulty I had in getting good tickets, then you might be as surprised as I was that the section we were sitting in (which were awesome seats), was relatively empty. The three rows in front of us only had six people (out of 24-28 possible seats) for the opening act, and even during the main show, there were at least 15 empty eats. Only four people were in the front row.

No one sat in front of us during Sharon’s set. But, just as the main event began, a couple sat in front of us. The man was a giant, with a bushy beard and wild curly hair (very much a Mountain Man type). The woman was short. She sat in front of me, and he sat in front of Lois. It was a like a giant eclipse of the sun for Lois…

I begged her to switch seats with me, and she refused. After two songs, I insisted, and forced her to switch. It made all of the difference in the world, as Lois got to see and enjoy the show. That said, the couple were annoying and distracting as hell, but then that’s often par for the course at these type of events.

In other crowd news, a number of people (including two of the people in the front row of our section) gave a standing ovation after every single song. It’s nice to be fans, and I’m sure they truly feel it, but come on, it’s a tad much.

Most of the crowd stood for the entire long encore. Since my view wasn’t blocked, I sat down when they returned to the stage. Lois stood, or she wouldn’t have been able to see. A number of people (including the annoying super fans who sat in front of us) left before seeing even a minute of the encore. It was definitely a long show, so I can understand wanting to beat the crowd (or get home to relieve a baby sitter), but they missed a very nice encore indeed.

WaMu is a very nice theater. The maximum capacity is 5600 people (I would have guessed 2500 seats, so I was way off!). The last (and only) time that Lois and I were there was 23 years ago, when we took our godson (then three years old) to see a Muppets On Tour show. He just graduated medical school. My how time flies… πŸ˜‰

Finally, we drove in to the city yesterday morning (and back to the house this morning). In between, I had lunch with one of my all-time best friends (we met on our first jobs after graduating college) and worked together at our third job as well, for many years. I haven’t gotten to spend much time with him over the past few years, but my feelings for him have never lessened, he’s just an awesome person in every respect.

So, we had a terrific sushi lunch (my first in a while, which was also a good thing to rectify), and we have promised each other that we won’t let this kind of time elapse between future get together’s. Our third job was at First Boston, but he is not one of the people who attends our semi-regular Boys Night Out dinners. We’re going to rectify that too, and ensure that he joins us on the next one. πŸ™‚

Getting Very Tired of AlertThingy

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I’ve been using AlertThingy for a while now. I like the concept a lot. It started out as an Adobe Air front-end to FriendFeed.

Let’s begin (briefly, at least brief by my normal standards) πŸ˜‰ with FriendFeed itself. At a minimum, FriendFeed is a social media aggregator. You can have it create a feed for you, with many (currently 35!) different services (e.g., Twitter, blogs, Google Reader, iLike, Facebook, etc.). Now, if someone wants to truly follow you, they can become your friend in one place, and not have to have accounts and joint friendship with you on all of the different services that you belong to (or will in the future!).

Great idea, and for my limited use so far, pretty darn good execution as well. I’m definitely a FriendFeed fan.

There are a number of ways to consume FriendFeed, including just by visiting their website only when you want to see what your friends are up to. You can also get updates via email. Because FriendFeed is part of the wonderful trend of services that provide full APIs, you can also use other clients to access FriendFeed.

AlertThingy started out as one such client. While it has a nice UI (at least a reasonable one), one instant quibble is that I can’t find a way to quit the program (perhaps I’m just dense). I have to go to the tray, right click on it, and select “Exit AlertThingy”. Yuck. Also, on the settings page, I have checked off the Launch at Startup box, and yet, it continues to launch every time I start up Windows. πŸ™

So, let’s start with the good. Instead of having to log on to the FriendFeed website, and refresh every once in a while, AlertThingy will instantly alert me to anything that the people I’m following have to say on any of their services. Cool. Perfect? No.

The first problem is that not everyone that I follow has a FriendFeed account (or I haven’t bothered to look for them there, etc.). So, in addition to following some people on FriendFeed, I still have to check (in any number of ways) Twitter (for example), for those people whose tweets I’m interested in. Of course, if I launch a Twitter client (Twhirl is fantastic, also written in Adobe Air), I’ll see the tweets I’m interested in. But, I’ll also get an alert in AlertThingy as well, for the same tweet, if the person is also connected to me on FriendFeed as well.

That’s not the end of the world, but it’s not pretty (or conducive to managing interruptions) either. Now multiply the problem for every service you check (beyond the one Twitter example above), and you can see that it could get out of hand quickly.

Of course, this is not an AlertThingy problem, just a social media proliferation one, where the FriendFeed aggregation is getting in the way, by duplicating things. Of course, in this particular instance, if everyone was on FriendFeed (well, at least everyone that I cared about), that one part of the problem wouldn’t exist.

Now on to my real complaint, and why I’m getting tired of AlertThingy. AlertThingy was not satisfied in solely being a front end to FriendFeed. Since other services have APIs too, they started (a while ago) offering direct Twitter integration (Flickr too, and probably more coming).

Sounds great at first. I don’t have to launch Twhirl any longer (for example), since now I can see tweets from non-FriendFeed people directly in AlertThingy. Of course, when you think about it, it’s not a great idea, because it becomes it’s own sort of FriendFeed, while still providing FriendFeed… Ah, so there will be duplicates for people who are on FriendFeed, no? No! AlertThingy cleverly (yes, italics are there for sarcasm) removes duplicates (at your request).

No, they do not do it cleverly. They do a few things wrong, including alerting you multiple times. First, you get an alert when the real tweet comes through. Then, you get another alert when the FriendFeed broadcast of the same tweet comes in, even though AlertThingy only shows it once. But, that’s not the real problem at all. When they de-dupe, they totally screw up the timestamp. One or the other message gets timestamped with Greenwich Mean Time rather than local time.

For me, that means that these alerts get sorted to the top. Then, a new alert comes in on FriendFeed only (say a Google Reader share), which never gets duped, so it has the correct timestamp. That will be sorted below the de-duped stuff. Possibly, even pages below, since I’m five hours behind GMT!

This one super-annoyance is maddeningly easy to fix, and I sent feedback to the author on his site (and never heard back). All one needs to do is never accept a timestamp in the future (dupe or otherwise). If a message is about to get timestamped (and sorted), it should be the lesser of now and whatever timestamp the message claims it is. Simple.

So, what happens to me is that AlertThingy makes a noise and flashes, and then I have to look through a very long list of alerts to see which one is new, and it might be 20 down from the top. I can’t stand it any longer…

What makes it really bad for me is that I follow one particular person who is a prolific social media person (it’s part of his job, so I’m not blaming him). Today alone, he has created 43 separate alerts that are still visible in AlertThingy (others have already scrolled off the bottom and have been archived). It’s not only 43 new things. When he blogs, I get a blog alert, a tweet pointing to his blog, a Tumblr alert, etc. That’s a FriendFeed problem, as he needs to ensure that people see his stuff no matter where he posts it, and he too can’t be sure those people know about his FriendFeed.

He’s not uninteresting, and he’s one of the nicest people I know. That said, I’m dying to unsubscribe from him, but I don’t want to hurt his feelings. Since he’ll likely read this (and know who he is), perhaps I can get away with unsubscribing now. Especially today, since he started using Digg beyond belief, and his FriendFeed automatically picks them up. His acceleration of alerts is killing me.

So, I’ll probably both ubsubscribe from him, and also stop using AlertThingy, and start checking FriendFeed on the web (less frequently) or via a once a day email. I’ll hear about things later than I would have (other than tweets, which I’ll likely still follow via Twhirl), but my sanity will return…

NginX Reporting for Duty

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Last week, my friend Jamie Thingelstad tweeted from the Rails Conference that he was considering switching to NginX (I’ll probably drop the caps starting now) after sitting in on a session about it.

Prior to that mention, I had only heard of it once, when an internal tech email at Zope Corporation mentioned that one of our partners was happy with it as their web server. I didn’t pay too much attention to it at the time…

I was curious, so I downloaded and built nginx-0.7.1. Since there is no equivalent to mod_php for nginx, I also had to decide on a strategy for managing PHP via FastCGI for this blog (I use Zope to serve up all other publicly available content on the site). It seemed that the most prevalent solution out there was to use spawn-fcgi, part of the lighttpd web server package (another very popular alternative to Apache, which is what I was using).

After searching further, I noticed that a number of people were recommending a package called php-fpm (PHP FastCGI Process Manager). I decided that I’d give this one a try first.

Finally, while researching all of this, in particular noting results by WordPress users (after all, that was my one use case for doing this), I also decided to install an op-code cacher for the first time ever, settling on XCache (also brought to you by the fine folks who bring you Lighttpd!).

Within minutes I had nginx installed and running, serving content on an alternate port (so Apache was still serving all production content on port 80). Shortly thereafter I had php-fpm installed and running as well. XCache installed easily too, but it did take me a few minutes longer to correctly change one particular entry in the conf file.

I had some serious frustrations along the way, all of which were due to a fundamental lack of understanding on my part of how things are ultimately supposed to work (meaning, nothing was wrong with the software, just with my configuration of it!), but to underscore the bottom line, nginx/php-fpm/xcache are all in production now. If you’re reading this in your RSS reader, or in a browser, it was delivered to you by that combination of software (unless this is far in the future, and I’ve changed again). πŸ˜‰

If you aren’t interested in the twists and turns of getting this into production, then read no further, as the above tells the story. If you care to know what pitfalls I encountered, and what I had to do to overcome them, read on…

Getting everything set up to generically serve content on the alternate port was trivial. Like I said earlier, I was serving test pages in minutes (even before downloading php-fpm and xcache). In that regard, you have to love the simplicity of nginx!

With extremely little effort, I was able to write a single line proxy_pass rule in nginx to serve up all of my Zope content on the alternate port. Done! I figured that this was going to be really easy, since the WordPress/PHP stuff has so many more real world examples documented. Oops, I was wrong.

To begin with, the main reason that I was wrong is due specifically to WordPress (hereinafter, WP), and not nginx or PHP whatsoever. Basically, I ran into the same problem the first time I fired up XAMPP on my laptop to run a local copy of my production WP installation.

WP stores the canonical name of blog in the database, and returns it on every request. This means that your browser automatically gets redirects, which at a minimum (in the nginx case) dropped the alternate port, and in the XAMPP case, replaced localhost with www.opticality.com. The fix for XAMPP was easy (yet still annoying!). I had to go into the MySQL database, and change all references to www.opticality.com to localhost.

In the case of nginx, I couldn’t do that, since I was testing on my live production server. In retrospect, this was stupid (and cost me hours of extra time), since I have a test server I could have installed it on, run it on port 80, change the blog name, etc., and been sure that I had everything right before copying over the config. Of course, I learned a ton more by keeping my feet to the fire, especially when my public site was hosed (which it was a number of times this weekend!), perhaps shortening the overall learning experience due to necessity! πŸ™

That made testing WP extremely painful. Instead, I tested some standalone php scripts, and some other php-based systems that I have installed on the server, but don’t typically activate. All worked perfectly (including my ability to watch xcache return hits and misses from the op-code cache), so I was growing in my confidence.

Sometime late Wednesday night I was mentally prepared to cut over (since switching back to Apache would only take a few seconds anyway), but I decided to wait until the weekend, when traffic to this blog is nearly non-existent (come on folks, you can do something about that!). πŸ˜‰

Saturday morning, very early, I stopped Apache, reloaded nginx with a configuration that pointed to port 80, and held my breath. I was amazed that everything seemed to be working perfectly, on the first shot! I moved on to other things.

Later in the day, I visited the admin interface for WP (Firefox is my default browser, though I obviously have IE installed as well, and for yucks, I also have Safari, which I very rarely launch). Oh oh, I had zero styling. Clearly, something was causing the CSS not to be applied! I quickly ran back to the retail interface and thankfully, that was still being served up correctly. That meant that I could take my time to fix this problem, as it only affected me!

I turned on debugging in nginx and saw that the CSS was indeed being sent to the browser. That’s not good either, as it seemed that this wasn’t going to be a simple one-line fix in nginx.

Yesterday morning, after nginx had been in production for 24 hours, I decided to check out IE for the admin pages. They showed correctly! Firefox was still showing zero styling. I compared the source downloads, and Firefox was larger, but had everything that IE had as well (including the CSS). At first I incorrectly assumed that perhaps it was the extra ie.css that IE was applying, and Firefox was ignoring, but that really couldn’t have been it, and I didn’t waste any time on that.

Now that I had a data point, I started Googling. It took me quite a while to find a relevant hit (which still surprises me!), and I had to get pretty creative in my search terms. Finally, one solitary forum hit for a php-based product called Etomite CMS (I had never heard of it before) describing exactly what was happening to me. Here’s the link to the forum post.

OK, their take was that the CSS was coming down with a MIME type of text/html, rather than the correct: text/css. I went back to Firefox, and did what I should have done at the beginning (my only excuse is that I’ve never had this type of use case to debug before!). I enabled Firebug on the admin page (I already had Firebug installed, but I’ve rarely ever needed it).

Immediately, I could see that the CSS had been downloaded (I knew it was sent from the nginx logs, but now I knew it was received and processed). I could also see instantly that the CSS was not recognized as CSS. Going to the Net tab in Firebug revealed the headers for each individual request, and indeed, all of the CSS came back with text/html as the type. So, IE ignores that, and applies the CSS anyway, because it sees the extension (I’m guessing), but Firefox doesn’t. Fair enough.

But, why is it coming back text/html? I checked the nginx MIME types file, and CSS was coded correctly (I didn’t touch that file anyway). Looking at the headers again, I spotted the problem. All of the CSS files were being returned by PHP, not statically by nginx. In other words, my nginx config was wrong (even though it was otherwise working), as it was passing requests for CSS files to the FastCGI PHP process, and getting back an incorrect MIME type for those files!

A very cursory search didn’t reveal how I would tell PHP to return a correct MIME type. I’ll save that investigation for another day, as it would have been an immediate, but suboptimal solution anyway, since these files can be served faster by nginx to begin with. That meant figuring out what was wrong with my nginx configuration.

The docs for nginx are pretty good (with a few exceptions, but I’m not quibbling). There are also a ton of cookbook examples, some good and detailed, some should be deleted until they are completed. I realized pretty quickly that even though my retail interface was working, I had less of an understanding of how the different stanzas in my configuration file were interacting (specifically, the location directives).

I really didn’t want to revert to Apache, so I decided to experiment on the live server. It was Sunday evening, and I figured traffic would be relatively light. Sparing you (only a drop, given how long this is already), I hosed the server multiple times. I could see that search bot requests were getting errors, and my tests were returning a variety of errors as well. At one point, I had nearly everything working, and then promptly screwed it up worse than before. πŸ™

Eventually, under a lot of pressure (put on myself only by me), I simplified my configuration file, and it all started working, retail and admin alike. Whew. I’m now serving all static files directly from the file system, and all php files through the FastCGI process. The world is safe for blog readers again. πŸ™‚

Like I said above, the problem was never with nginx, though I can’t say the same thing for PHP returning text/html for a CSS file. Clearly, PHP shouldn’t have to process those files, but if it does, it should do the right thing in setting the MIME type. Of course, if it had, I would likely have never noticed that my static files weren’t being served as I intended them!

One real complaint, aimed at nginx. Since I use the proxy_pass directive to serve up all Zope content (and like I said, that worked from the first shot, and has worked ever since!), I was quite frustrated by the limitations on where it can be used, and how. Specifically, it can’t be used within a regular expression based if test, even if you aren’t using variable substitution in the proxy_pass itself. That simply doesn’t make sense to me. And, now that I mentioned it, there are other rules about when/how you can use variable substitution as well.

Clearly, I got it working, so the above isn’t a giant complaint, it just eludes my current understanding. As for getting the rest to work, I have a better understanding than I did, but I’m sure that if I were to muck around a little more, which I’ll inevitably do, I’ll break it again, showing that my understanding is still at the beginner level.

In any case, for the moment, it’s doing what I intended, and is in production. πŸ™‚

Aside from Jamie’s pointer, in doing the initial research, what got me excited was reading that WordPress.com had switched to nginx for their load balancing (and might eventually switch for their web serving as well), and that Fastmail is using nginx for the IMAP/POP mail proxying as well. Clearly, nginx is ready for prime time (my puny blog notwithstanding). πŸ™‚

Chuck Mangione at Tarrytown Music Hall

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The minute this concert was announced, many months ago, I bought two tickets. Tarrytown Music Hall is a great place to see concerts (as I’ve reported a number of times before), it’s only four miles from our house, and I have loved Chuck Mangione’s music for decades.

This was the third time that I saw him live. The first time was eons ago at Radio City Music Hall. It was a spectacular show. The second time was two years ago ago at the Blue Note Jazz Club in NYC (briefly mentioned in this very long music catch-up post). It too was terrific, and very intimate, as we sat a few feet from the stage.

Last night we were in the 10th row, dead center. The acoustics were perfect. Chuck was great. His band was/were perfect. With over 40 years of material under his belt, Chuck could play anything he wants to. Unlike some other acts that have survived this long, he tends to give the crowd what they want, rather than cater to his own personal mood.

He played pretty much all mega-hits last night. In no particular order (meaning this isn’t the order he played them in!), he played:

  • Counsuelo’s Love Theme
  • Give It All You’ve Got
  • Bellavia
  • Main Squeeze
  • Children Of Sanchez
  • Land Of Make Believe
  • Dizzy Miles
  • Feels So Good (this was the big encore!)
  • Fun And Games
  • a number of others πŸ™‚

Here they all are together on stage:

Feels So Good Band

In addition to playing the Flugelhorn and keyboards himself, Chuck is very generous with highlighting the talents of his band members (as are many Jazz artists), which was particularly appreciated last night, as each member of the band was simply wonderful.

One of the longest members of Chuck’s band (with a long break in-between) is Gerry Niewood. Last night he played Sax, Flute, Clarinet and Piccolo. He was flawless and fantastic. The crowd gave him rousing applause every time he was featured. He played with Chuck at the Blue Note when we last saw him, and we sat two feet from him, so we’re well aware of his extraordinary talent.

Here he is on three of the four instruments he played last night:

Gerry Niewood ClarinetGerry Niewood PiccoloGerry Niewood Saxophone

Continuing left to right (stage-wise) was the keyboards player. Corey Allen (sorry, couldn’t find a good link to him directly, though he gets good credits on other people’s albums) plays beautifully.

Corey Allen

Charles Frichtel Kevin Axt (corrected due to Dave Tull’s comment below) plays the electric bass (also couldn’t find a good direct link, but he too gets credits, including backing up Michael McDonald!). Chuck highlighted Charles Kevin a number of times, including the uber-famous and wonderful song Fun And Games, which starts off with a funky bass solo (of course, he let loose even more live, later in the song, than they do on the studio version). Most excellent.

Charles Frichtel

Dave Tull is the drummer and the only one who sings. He’s been with the band since 2000, so we must have seen him at the Blue Note, but I wasn’t blogging then, so I didn’t pay as much attention to names. πŸ™

First, let’s get the trivial stuff out of the way. Dave sang lead on two songs, DizzyΒ Miles (wonderfully) and Children Of Sanchez (amazingly). He has a gorgeous voice. Now, on to the more important stuff.

The fist time I saw Chuck Mangione, at Radio City, his drummer was Steve Gadd. There are many people who believe that Steve Gadd is the greatest drummer ever. Many more who believe he is one of the greatest drummers ever. I’m definitely in the second camp, but I admit that when I saw him that night at Radio City, I was in the first camp, for sure! So, listening to another drummer play the same songs can be an unfair starting point for comparisons.

Dave Tull was so incredible last night (and probably every night), that I truly can’t do justice in describing how awesome he was/is. It’s likely the second best live drumming I’ve seen in recent memory, the other being Chris McHugh, covered here. The comparison between them isn’t really fair, as the style of drumming was radically different. Anyway, Dave Tull was mesmerizing last night. Speed, grace, style, voice, without ever overwhelming any other instrument. Astounding!

Dave Tull

Last, but certainly not least, Coleman Mellett on guitar. Sometimes, the Jazz guitarist in a band like this can get a little lost. Coleman does a great job of avoiding that fate and Chuck made sure to highlight him a number of times. In particular, during the very long and slow intro to Children of Sanchez, while Dave Tull is singing, the only instrument accompanying him is the guitar. Coleman is excellent, and complemented the sound the entire evening, on both lead and rhythm guitar.

Coleman Mellett

So, that covers the band. No small feat, as they are not listed on Chuck’s site (a big shame, which I’ve pointed out as a shortcoming on other artists websites as well). In fact, I had trouble finding any of their names, with the exception of Gerry Niewood, who’s been with him forever. After dozens of various Google searches, I was finally able to (accidentally) stumble on Dave Tull’s name, and with that info in hand, was able to locate this article, which gave me the remaining names. Credit where credit is due, thanks Herald Tribune!

At one point during the show, Chuck gave a moving tribute to Jim KcKay who passed away yesterday. Chuck met him during the 1980 Olympics, when he was commissioned to write the song Give It All You’ve Got for those games. Jim McKay described Chuck as the world’s foremost practitioner of the flugelhorn. After talking about Jim, Chuck and the band played a gorgeous version of Amazing Grace.

Chuck Mangione Speaking

And here’s Chuck on the keyboards:

Chuck Mangione Keyboards

When they ended the main show, Lois and I shot out of our seats in a standing ovation. Amazingly, not a single person in the nine rows in front of us (a couple of hundred people!) stood up. I didn’t look behind me, so I don’t know if we were the only two people standing in the entire place. I can assure you that the crowd was thundering in its applause during and after each song, so it had nothing to do with not liking the show, or sending Chuck a message. It was strange, to say the least.

Chuck briefly left the stage, but the others stayed on. After a minute, Chuck returned. They played Feels So Good (as noted above), and snuck in America The Beautiful woven into one part of it (Chuck asked the crowd to sing while they played, and many did!). It was awesome. When they finished, everyone shot up in a standing ovation (quite rousing). So, either we shamed them, or they don’t stand but once a night. πŸ˜‰

If you’re a New Yorker, you have a number of additional opportunities to catch them this year. You can check the Tour Dates link on Chuck’s site, but specifically, they’ll be at the Blue Note for six straight nights starting July 15th, and for four straight nights at the Iridium Jazz Club on December 18th. Don’t miss this wonderful show!

Not much of a back-story here. We live right near the theater, and so we had our normal daily routine at the house. We had trouble finding parking (street parking is legal, it just happened to be very crowded), but finally found a spot two blocks away. We walked into the theater at 7:58pm. I wasn’t worried, as they rarely start their shows on time (I don’t like that part one bit…).

At 8:05, the band wandered out, with the house lights still on. Then the M.C. came out and talked about upcoming shows for a bit. Finally, he introduced Chuck and the show began (roughly at 8:12pm). They played for 40 minutes and took a 23 minute intermission. When they returned, they were on for just under an hour, including the encore. So, just under 100 minutes of music. Fantastic!

How Software Is Built Interview

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A few weeks back, I was interviewed by two guys, Scott Swigart and Sean Campbell, who are doing a very interesting survey called How Software Is Built. The transcript of our session just went up last night. It’s long (as most of these are), but if you’re up for it, here’s the link.

Boys Night Out

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Or rather, BNO, if you’re in the know, or are cool. πŸ˜‰

If you worked at First Boston Corporation in the 80’s (now known as CSFB, or Credit Suisse First Boston), odds are you were somewhat cool. If you worked in the department that I did, while you were definitely a geek, you also had high odds of being smart and cool as well.

In the 90’s, most of the people in my department dispersed to other firms, with the overwhelming majority of them staying on Wall Street. At some point in the late 90’s, a bunch of them started getting together irregularly (at least once a year) for dinner. They called it Boys Night Out.

For the first few years, I wasn’t invited, and wasn’t even aware that these dinners were being held. I assume that they thought I wouldn’t be interested, but I’m not sure. After some number of missed dinners, I was finally invited, and I happily accepted. Since then, they’ve been kind enough to invite me every time (or at least I think so) πŸ˜‰ and even take my crazy travel schedule into account in asking me when I’ll be in town before picking a date. Thanks for that too guys!

There is a core of seven of us who try hard to make it each time. There are a few additions that used to make it occasionally, and to be honest, I’m not sure they continue to be invited, having missed too many to prove their coolness (or is it loyalty?). One time, we even had a woman join us from the old group, though we staunchly insisted that it be called BNO, even that night.

Last night all seven of us confirmed that we could make it, but at the last minute, one person had to back out due to work requirements. All but two times, we eat at a top steak house. Last night was our second time (at least only my second time with the group) dining at Sparks Steakhouse. It’s a fantastic place, and gigantic to boot.

One of the things that distinguishes each member of the group (perhaps other than me!), is that they are each extremely witty/funny/sarcastic/sardonic/etc. I can’t stress this enough. Don’t hang out with these guys if you have a weak bladder or a fragile ego. After you soil yourself, you’ll also have low self-esteem.

While we occasionally (OK, perhaps rarely would be a more apt word) discuss serious things (aside from the normal catching up on what’s going on in everyone’s lives), most of the evening is a raucous romp, ending with my cheeks hurting pretty badly. It’s most definitely not politically correct, so it’s best that it remains BNO to the extent possible. Unfortunately, we are louder than I typically care to be in public (yes, I’m totally guilty of being carried away with the merriment). It’s probably OK, because these large steak houses tend to be pretty noisy, but if we offended anyone (with our content, or just our volume), I offer up my most humble apologies!

Last night marked at least the second time in a row (but by no means only the second time!) that one particular member of our group insisted on treating us. The last time he treated, it was the most expensive meal I have ever been a part of (I can’t bring myself to mention the number in public, it was jaw-dropping), so the last thing we expected was to be treated again.

In fact, we tried (not as hard as we should have!) to split it, but he would have none of it. Sparks is not cheap (in the least), and we always order multiple bottles of fine wine, so again, he picked up a big one (but I’m guessing that it was less than 20% of the really big one, mentioned above, with the same number of people!).

The rest of the gang teases him when he treats, saying that it’s appropriate that he do so, since he’s the only one in the group without a job! I like to point out that I’m semi-retired, meaning that I work full time, but have zero income. πŸ˜‰

Of the six of us who were there last night, I directly hired three of them (including our benefactor), one of the others ended up working for me for seven straight years, even though I didn’t originally hire him, and the last guy worked with all of them, but the two of us never really worked together. That said, I’ve maintained more of an active relationship with him than with the others.

When I thanked our benefactor at the end, he told me that if I hadn’t given him a start on Wall Street (he had no college education at the time), he wouldn’t have been able to afford to treat. Obviously, I had a good eye for talent, as he greatly eclipsed my not-too-shabby career, long ago. The rest of them have all done very well for themselves as well, so in that regard, I’m proud of all of them!

Another fabulous evening in the books, and I’m already looking forward to the next one!

P.S. I almost always order a Fillet Mignon when I order steak. I love it, love it, love it. When I mentioned last night that I was going to order it, two of them insisted that I was crazy, and that I had to try the Sirloin Shell Steak. I did, and it was perfect. It won’t get me off of Fillets as a rule, but I admit that I savored every single bite last night…

Rube Goldberg and SSH

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Rube Goldberg would be very proud of what you can accomplish with SSH. If you don’t know what SSH is, you really should just stop reading, as not only will this post be meaningless to you, you wouldn’t care about the result (or technique) even if you followed it perfectly! πŸ˜‰

A while ago, I gave an ancient laptop to a good friend who was sharing her husband’s laptop while they lived in Princeton for a year (he just finished a fellowship there and they are returning home in a week). Given the age of the laptop, the amount of RAM, the size of the hard drive, etc., I was hoping my friend would be willing to live with Linux rather than Windows on the box.

She’s a Gmail user, so she was indifferent (obviously, having never tried Linux before), given that she basically lives in the browser most of the time she’s on the machine. I installed PCLinuxOS on it (the 2007 release) because it looks a bit more like Windows than some other popular Linux distros. Today, I would make a different choice, not that there’s anything wrong with PCLinuxOS.

Anyway, for the most part, it has worked out very well for her, and she’s felt connected to the world, especially when her husband was in the office, and there was no laptop at home. Unfortunately, there is a bug somewhere either in PCLinuxOS, in her hardware, in their Linksys router, or in the timing between all of them, because on occasion, when the laptop boots, it doesn’t get the correct DNS server info even when it gets a good IP address via DHCP.

In what has to be a very painful process for my non-techie friend, I have given her a series of a few commands to type into a terminal window to correct the problem, when it occurs. Of course, it’s entirely Greek to her (rightfully so), but it works, and she patiently types them away and it all magically starts working again.

On occasion, she’s had trouble getting all of the commands in correctly, and she feels guilty calling me, even though I keep telling her that I don’t mind helping whatsoever. That got me to thinking about how I could fix it permanently, without making her life even more miserable trying to talk her through the various things I’d like to try in order to be sure I found the right solution.

I don’t have time to visit Princeton this week, and soon, she’ll be back in Indiana, and I definitely won’t be visiting there in a while. So, I need to have remote access to her machine. I can’t just SSH into it, because I certainly don’t want to talk her through port forwarding on her Linksys router, nor do I want to leave that port permanently open. That cuts out a vanilla VNC connection as well (which would be overkill, but if it was available, would work as well).

So, I thought that perhaps I would try one of the web-based remote control services. I have had excellent success with the free service from Yuuguu.com when I help my Dad with his Windows machine. It works on PC’s and Mac’s, but apparently, not yet on Linux, even though it’s Java based. That was disappointing. A peek on a few others yielded similar results.

After scratching my head a bit, and searching the net a bit more, I came across a very simple solution, entirely via SSH, but with Rube Goldberg implications in that I was solving a very simple problem, with a built-in option of SSH, but jumping through tons of hoops to get to the point where the simple command could be issued.

The solution (tested by me, but not yet done with my friend, because I wanted to be sure before subjecting her!) is as follows:

I’m running Windows XP. I could run an SSH daemon there (in a number of ways), but since this is a temporary solution, which I don’t really want to think about, instead I fire up VMware Player and launch my new favorite mini-distro, CDLinux 0.6.1. It automatically fires up an SSH server.

I then poke a hole in my firewall (I didn’t need to talk myself through it either) πŸ˜‰ with an arbitrary port number (for argument’s sake, let’s say it’s 12345). I forward that to port 22 on my CDLinux instance (running under VMware, and therefore having a different NAT’ed IP from my Windows box!). I can even leave the firewall in that state permanently if I want, since 99.9% of the time, CDLinux won’t even be running, and even if it was, and someone luckily got in, it’s a Live CD image, with nothing to really harm!

OK, we’re almost done! On the remote machine (my friend’s), she would type the following, in a terminal window:

ssh -l cdl -p 12345 -R 54321:localhost:22 the.name.of.my.remote.machine

She’ll get redirected to my VMware instance, and be prompted for a password, which I’ll give her in advance (can’t use ssh keys for this, since I don’t want to over-complicate this). Once she is in, I open a terminal window in my instance, and type:

ssh -l her_user_name -p 54321 localhost

Voila! I’ll now have a shell on her laptop, through an SSH tunnel, without her poking any holes in her firewall, and without me even needing to know her IP address, unless I want to restrict my SSH port forward to her specific machine, which would make this dance even more secure.

I’ve tried this a few times from different machines, all with success, but my friend isn’t online at the moment, so the final test will likely have to wait until tomorrow morning. In any event, a cool (and relatively simple solution) to an otherwise thorny problem. Just as a footnote, if I needed more control over her machine, the exact technique could be used to reverse tunnel a VNC port, giving me graphical control, or I could SSH back with -X (for X-Windows tunneling), and launch graphical clients one at a time, etc.

Update: OK, so today we got to try, and it worked perfectly. The only kink was that sshd was not automatically started on her laptop, so I had to talk her through becoming root and starting the service (simple enough!).

After we got it going, I did the unthinkable, and offered to upgrade her system. It was reasonably old, with Firefox at 2.0.0.7 (for example), and lots of other packages that could probably stand a security update. I warned her that it’s often better to leave these things alone when they are running smoothly, but in the end, we both decided to go for it.

So, I ran an apt-get upgrade. I then asked her to reboot. The machine came up, but only in terminal mode. She was able to log on, but startx failed with tons of errors. Oh oh…

Thankfully, the network did come up, and she was able to log on and run the ssh tunnel. I was then able to get back on her machine. I decided that instead of poking around too much, I’d try one last thing, which was to perform an apt-get dist-upgrade. This ran for a bit, and then I asked her to reboot again.

Voila! The machine came up correctly, and the networking worked again. So, for the moment, it seems that we accomplished everything we set out to do today, including her running Firefox 2.0.0.14 (I know, not 3.0 as yet…). Whew! πŸ™‚