Tuesday, December 30, 2008

“Digging up” some long lost relatives (Geni.com)

Well, I'm late again. This is NOT going to become a habit! (If you know me, you know that's likely going to be a lie)

I wanted to write this week about a discovery I made (alright, I was pointed to this by @TS_Elliott on Twitter). I've always had an interest in genealogy, but never had the time or ability to do it justice. That's where this discovery (alright already! She already got credit. Leave me alone!) comes in.

Check out www.Geni.com. Geni is a combination genealogy website and social networking site. Let me give you an example of how this works out by talking about my experience.

Like I said already, @TS_Elliott pointed me to this site from Twitter because we may be related (I guess she used to be a Stratton in a previous life J). So, I went to the site, started an account, and started putting my family tree in by having Geni search my Gmail account. OK, this looks familiar; sort of like Facebook or Linkedin. Same concept. Then I built the relationships of the people I added (my brothers and sisters and my dad), filled in the holes, then sent out invites to all the family emails I had. That's when the magic happened.

The next day I got an email from Geni. One of my brothers had connected with Geni and updated lots of information.

I need to make a small break here and add some information, because I'm starting to sound like a bad son and brother. I'm from a BIG family. Huge by today's standards. Five brothers, two sisters (ok, three if you count Jackie; and most of us do because she lived with us all but the first 5 ½ or so years. Sometimes sharing life experiences is thicker than blood). AND both my parents came from big families. And most of their brothers and sisters had big families. So you see where I'm going with this. As an example, when I went to my parent's 50th wedding anniversary, I had cousins come up and introduce themselves to me. Yeah, it's a big family. So, that said, it's hard for us to keep up with each other, especially since we're scattered to the four winds in the US.


OK, where was I? Oh, yeah. One of my brothers had connected with Geni and updated lots of information. I was never the organized one, so I was happy about that part. Then I started getting more emails. My daughters and my wife connected and updated their info. My mother-in-law got on and updated her family information. My daughters' in-laws got on and updated their information. My sisters got on and updated their information. Then the real magic happened. My nephew got on to Geni.

I have since learned that Shawn has been doing genealogy research on our family tree for a few years or so. He had many many generations of information in another program on his computer, but couldn't share it with anyone, and was sort of floating alone in a sea of names and birthdates. One of the many benefits of Geni is the ability to import GEDCOM formatted information into the website. GEDCOM is short for GEnealogical Data COMmunication, and is a standard for transferring genealogical information from one program to another. This is one standard in my life that has come in useful!

Geni also has some other neat features, like a Google Map of where people in your tree were born (not very interesting if you never left your home town, but interesting for some of us "far flung" folks). You can also connect your tree to other trees if you can find a link point. That's where trees start getting big. Also, each tree has "Awards " (in World of Warcraft terms they would be Achievements). I started my tree on December 18th. I've added over 200 names to the tree (Shawn added over 1000!), invited 14 people, and uploaded 5 photos. Cool stats if you're into stats (and I am).

So, to top this all off, I'm now connected to 1,347 people on Geni (and I just got an email from them saying my tree is growing!). I'm learning things about my family I remember hearing about but was too young to care about (like being a descendent of Christopher Martin who signed the Mayflower Compact and died in Plymouth Colony on January 18th, 1621 (exactly 342 years before I was born). Also that the Crocker family line was descended from English Gentry, the Cole family line descended from the Norse invasion of England, and lots of other fun facts!

Geni.com is a really cool website, with features that make it fun, educational, and a great way to keep in touch with your family (especially if it's as huge as mine is). I highly recommend it. Check it out.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Social Site for World of Warcraft (L33tLink.com)

As promised, I'd like to introduce you to a "new" website that I found using Twitter. The site is L33tLink.com. To quote their website, "L33TLINK.com is a start-up company based in Montreal, founded by a guild of MMORPG gamers that wanted to have an easy way to organize and stay in-touch."


I know what you're thinking; "MMORPG gamers that want to stay in-touch in RL? No way!" I have one thing to say to that: WAY. I looked at their site, signed up, and I was hooked. I asked the folks there at L33tLink if I could blog about their site and they graciously agreed. I hope I do them right.


So what is L33tLink really? It's like FaceBook for gamers. That's the best way I can describe it. Once you sign up for your account, you start importing your toons into L33tLink. That's when the fun begins. You are automagically included in groups for your realm (server), your battlegroup, and your guild if you're in one. If you're the Guild Master you become the admin for your guild group on the site. Cool. I found one problem with importing my toons into the site, but I'm guessing most people won't have this problem (unless you're in my guild). Most of us are altaholics, so we have many toons in the guild. In fact, I have 10 (the max) toons on Rexxar, all in my guild (Lolli Pop). I had to keep bouncing back and forth between L33tLink and the Armory to get my toons in. But like I said, you probably won't have this problem unless you're like me.

[<stand at podium> "Hi, I'm Phil, and I'm an Altaholic" <crowd> "Hi, Phil!"]

So, what I really wanted to do was more than just a review of the site, but also to tie in some of the geekiness that is me with the actual planning and development of the site. I sent the team at L33tLink 10 questions to answer for me, and they did just that. I also had a "secret shopper" join the site (thanks Erin!) and send me some thoughts. First the geekiness.


Every great venture has an evil genius behind it. L33tLink's evil geniuses are Jordan Greenberg and David Heuff. They saw a problem and tried to fix it in a unique way. They wanted to be able to interact with their WoW friends even when they weren't playing. Odd, I know. Why would you want to not be playing WoW? Anyway, their guild Echoes is testing the site and providing lots of feedback. What I find interesting is the fact that most of the guild is geographically situated around Montreal, but there are a few stragglers in Arizona. I guess they couldn't handle the cold. Anyway, they started the site with the guild and a few developers. And it's moving forward in a big way.


I found L33tLink on Twitter like I said before. L33tLink now has over 250 followers on Twitter, and that's without advertising. There'll be more.


The guildies all play (of course) and five of them already have level 80's (a feat I have not yet achieved because I got side-tracked into playing my new Death Knight, at least that's my excuse). I'm not alone in being an altaholic, Echoes has one of their very own with 30 alts. I think that even beats me.


I asked Jordan how the development schedule was holding up, and I got the answer any good program manager would give: we were behind schedule, but we're all caught up now! ;-) Within the next few weeks they should be sending out an official press release announcing the launch of the BETA. They are also planning to release a WoW-themed video filmed a few months ago. Jordan says "the video does a great job of bridging the gap between the game and real life, which ultimately is the true purpose of the site". I'm looking forward to seeing it and hope it gets pushed on WoW Insider and other blogs bigger than mine.


I can't say enough about this being a cool site. This is a cool site! Right now, they're focusing specifically on World of Warcraft, but if any other MMOs get even close to being as big (<cough, cough> Warhammer Online <cough, cough>) they have plans to expand and support them, too.


So, what's the "Out of Box Experience" like on L33tLink? I had a secret shopper set up an account and let me know what she thought. One word of warning, she's an altaholic like her dad (yeah, that's what I said. I play WoW with my kids. Get over it. They're adults.).


Quote with editorial changes and comments:

I started the process of signing up at 10:12. It's 10:23 and I've registered all my Rexxar characters up on the site. The interface is really cute, nice color scheme and the layout is nice, too. I like it, but definitely have all your characters names written down before you start though. I can't remember my Ysera characters' names, so I can't get them on there. I think it's pretty cool that you can see the armor that I have equipped, and what I have used my talent points for (she's never used the Armory before). It's really easy to find people, especially if they are in your guild! I found you in like 2 seconds, all I did was look at my groups. There you were in Lolli Pop. It really seems like it's a MySpace for WoW.


Well, there you have it. I highly recommend signing up for an account on L33tLink. It's a great site, great way of organizing the information and keeping in touch with folks in RL. And you can organize your raiding schedule on the site, keep track of folks (I haven't seen Killer in a while, I wonder where he's at?).


Great site, two thumbs up, and 5 stars! Great job Echoes, keep it up!


Monday, December 15, 2008

The Cobalt Bomber and dead servers

Well, I missed my (self imposed) Saturday deadline, but I think I have a good excuse. This weekend was REALLY busy. Friday (I took the day off) was my wife's birthday. No I won't tell you how old she is; I'm not stupid. Saturday morning was the church Leadership Meeting in the morning, tutoring Java in the afternoon and my company "Holiday" party at 6:30. And Sunday? Sunday I should have just stayed in bed. Let's just leave it at that.


Well I wanted to tell you about some of the favorite things in my life. First I want to write about my baby that's almost 7 years old now.


As I said earlier, I drive a Honda Insight. She's Monte Carlo Blue Pearl, but one of the guys at work calls it the Cobalt Bomber, so I'll stick with that. I test drove her during Christmas vacation up in Maine in 2001/2002. She was the first standard transmission Insight I drove, and I loved her. She even handled well in the snow. But living in the Virginia area, I expected I'd have to buy my Insight down there. I was wrong.


I was waiting to find out if I got the job teaching Air Force ROTC at the University of Maryland. Once I found out I got the job, we knew I needed to buy the Insight, just to be able to make it to work and back in a reasonable time. I lived about 60 miles from the school, and if you know anything about the traffic on I-95 in the DC area, you don't do that route fast by yourself during "rush hour". And Virginia law says you can take a hybrid car in the HOV lanes alone. Sweet.


Over the years, I've put lots of miles on her. 136,000 miles so far. And I'm still on the first set of hybrid batteries. I'm not sure if that's some kind of record or anything, but I think it's cool.


Break Break.


Last week my Linux server crashed. It was a slow and painful death. It WAS a Fedora Linux server with Samba and Galleon on it. I was using Galleon to move my TiVo files from my 2 TiVos to my server, then decrypt the files to mpeg files and make them available for other computers on my network. That was all well and good, until something happened. It may have been from too many power fluctuations (although with the UPS connected to it, that shouldn't have been a problem), or it could be just that the disk drives are getting old. It started with occasional disk errors (bad inodes). It slowly went downhill from there. I think it took 3 days before everything crashed. I was running my conversion script on the TiVo files to decrypt them when I got so many inode errors it wouldn't finish anything. I had to reboot the server and run fsck on the disk.


Maybe it was the fact that I was using logical volumes, but I thought that ext3 was a "self-healing" file system. Whatever; it's dead. Now I'm looking for a copy of Microsoft Home Server. Lots of places sell it, and if you install off a demo CD, you get a 60 day trial before you need to register it. So I'm trying to cobble together a system that will run Home Server. I'll pass on what I learn once I get it up and running. I've learned there are all sorts of cool programs for Home Server. More later on that. Next week (hopefully on time this time), well actually on Saturday, I'll have a review of a new social website for World of Warcraft players.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Thin Client Doesn’t Mean Anorexic Counseling

Another Saturday morning rolls around, and since this was my first full week back at work, I have nothing but work on my mind. That can be a bad thing. Especially if you expect me to blog about World of Warcraft or anything non-IT related today. Sorry. Not going to happen.


Can someone explain to me when and why we've started moving back to the mainframe mentality? It seems like the only thing I've heard this week is "thin client" this and "thick client" that. But I guess it's the natural progression.

I remember back in '89 (I'm starting to sound like Homer's father Abe!) everyone was saying "eventually the network will BE the computer". I thought that was a cool idea, but there was no way that would happen. Well, we're getting there. Ever use Google Docs? What about Gmail? OK, those can be extreme examples, but what about AOL (the old AOL with the dial-up connection, not the website). Everything you needed to get to was available at 14.4kbps. Now things are much faster, and we can do so much more. Do you really need a powerful desktop computer? Not if you have a reliable network connection.


That's where the idea of the netbook computer came from. What we would have classified as a wimpy little laptop with no future, with some storage space, but not a lot, connected to a big network "pipe" so you can do everything you need to do somewhere else. You don't really need anything except a browser anymore. I won't make a list because there's one here. I hope it's up to date (not that it's possible to be up to date because things change so fast).


We're actually getting to the point of the network being the computer. Or at least that's what it looks like. It's more like the old mainframe. All the processing (or at least the heavy lifting) is done at the far end, and all your system does is the rendering (not like a meat packing plant, or maybe it is and it just smells better). Thin clients are like this, but the "browser" is in firmware. Take it off the net and you have a nice doorstop with a monitor, keyboard and mouse connection. Sort of like the old 3278 terminals or X-terms, depending on your era. Here's the main question about thin clients: are they cost effective and are they more secure. Ok. That was two questions. Sue me. I'm writing this, not you.


Are they cost effective? Well, that depends on your timeframe (and we had this discussion at work). There is an inherent up-front cost of implementing a thin-client solution. You need the clients (which are about $300 or so). That's the easy part. Now you need the back-end horsepower. Some places are using hardware solutions and some are using software. Hardware-wise you have blade servers, where each "blade" contains multiple processors and RAM, and multiple blades are connected across a high-speed backplane for communication between systems. However, that requires a storage solution, usually a Storage Attached Network or SAN. Software solutions need to run on mammoth computers with lots of horsepower; the desktop that is rendered on the thin client is run in a virtual machine. Storage can be local or SAN (SAN for really BIG solutions). So, you can see, there is a big up-front cost to implementing thin-clients. However, that investment, done wisely, can last for a longer timeframe than a desktop investment. So, short term, no they are not cost effective, but over the long term, they can be if done wisely.


Are they more secure? Well, again, that depends; but this time it depends on your definition of secure. For physical security, thin clients are great. There's no data that physically leaves the data center, unless it's printed. Everything is stored in a secure facility, so it's "safe" (physically). There are some aspects of computer security that are inherent with the thin client solution. If you're using virtual systems, security updates can be installed almost instantaneously, and the need for system administrators is decreased (but NOT eliminated!). So if you're using a Microsoft based client and it's Patch Tuesday, you can push the patches to your VM image, then force all your clients to restart (not a long process if you store your client state correctly), and Bob's your uncle. But, the opposite is also true. If there is an unknown weakness in your VM image, all your clients are vulnerable and so is your data.


As an aside, why are people in the IT industry using environmental terms to describe security problems? Data leakage? Data Spill? Call it what it is: a security problem. Someone did something they shouldn't have and now everyone knows something they weren't supposed to know. It's not a diaper; it's your data system.


So I guess my point is that the network is becoming the computer. But that doesn't mean things will get easier for the IT geeks out there. In fact, I think you'll need to be more careful because there is a false sense of security because "All my data is locked up in the datacenter, why should I worry". Trust me. Worry.


ADD moment: Before I close this, I want to say I've been introduced to a new social networking site for gamers (I know, social and gamer don't go together, ha ha, get over it). It's still in beta, so I've asked for permission to share info on it with you. Once I hear something, I'll let you know.