Popular Music

One of the reasons I never found the whole P2P MP3 file-sharing thing as interesting as many of the people around me is that music in general has just never been a really big thing for me. I can be moved by a great piece of music, be it classical or popular or folk, I do occasionally go to concerts (mostly Lucy Kaplansky), but I generally haven’t felt a need to hear ten new songs a day like so many other people seem to.

Lately, though, I’ve been taking more of an interest. Partly it’s because I’ve found some names for how music I’ll like tends to get categorized, so I can find it without having to trawl through tons of stuff I’ll hate. Shoegaze, trip-hop, slowcore, emo – terms I’d never heard before. I also found a couple of good sites to hear or buy good music:

  • CD Baby sells CDs by relatively new and obscure artists. I’ve bought five CDs from them, and four were not recognized by CDDB. Every artist’s page lets you listen to two-minute clips of from two to ten songs, which is usually enough to get a feel for the music. Particularly noteworthy are the humorous order-confirmation email and the new arrivals page, which lets you see and listen to whatever’s new that day in the genres you like.
  • Epitonic is more of an MP3-based band-promotion site. It’s particularly notable for its “radio” feature, which lets you select a bunch of genres and then streams 20 random songs from those genres to you.

Both sites have pretty good “if you like this…” functionality, which I have used successfully to find other artists I like. Now I often start my day with the new arrivals at CD Baby, then a dose or two of Epitonic radio.

Serendipity

A couple of weeks ago I went looking for websites for debate about politics and current events – preferably where there’s not one dominant ideology and anyone who shows up with any other is instantly tag-teamed from all sides. I didn’t find any. This week I found America’s Debate. They’re trying very hard to eliminate the kind of mindless flaming that plagues most other discussion sites, with a pretty good set of rules and guidelines that actually seem to be enforced.

The interesting thing is how I found them. They’re a featured site hosted by Burton Hosting. How’s that for an odd coincidence?

Feature Price Update

I just found out that CreatureLice is forcing a massive server move for all of their customers. If you can read through that incomprehensible gibberish it sounds like they’re adding a new level of virtualization software to machines that are already overburdened with as many as 550 sites on a single host. Then they’re forcing everyone to download and re-upload their entire site even though the data is already in their data center on a machine no more than a stone’s throw away.

It’s a good example of “we have to show we’re doing something [even if it's actually the wrong thing]” crisis response.

Big Pile of Links

Just for fun, I converted my bookmark collection to an HTML page and uploaded (the non-confidential parts of) it here.

On the Move Again

Many of you will have noticed by now that I’ve moved to yet another hosting provider – #4, for those who are counting. This time the transition should have been seamless; I’ve become pretty good at this, and this time I had the benefit of the old site still being up. I want to emphasize that Host Color did nothing wrong and I intend to continue my account with them as a “hot spare” in case something happens at Burton. In fact, you can still see a (slightly out of date) copy of this site on their server. My decision to switch was based primarily on the fact that when I chose Host Color I was in an emergency situation and hadn’t been able to do as much research as I would have liked. Now that I’ve had that chance, several factors lead me to believe that Host Color is a fine hosting service but perhaps not the best I could find. For example:

  • Host Color seemed a little bit slow to satisfy what I thought was a pretty simple domain-alias request (so that pl.atyp.us and www.platypus.ro would serve the same content). They did get to it, and they got it right without undue hassle, though.
  • I can’t help but wonder if part of the problem was that Host Color’s support personnel are in Bulgaria. Yeah, I know, my (old) domain is in Romania, so perhaps that’s appropriate. ;-) Nonetheless, and not meaning to imply that there’s anything wrong with Bulgaria, for me sitting here in the US that might not be my first choice.
  • I was also somewhat put off by the blatant “astroturfing” on Host Color’s behalf on the various review sites. At one after another, I saw the same names – many Bulgarian – on the glowing reviews. One frequent reviewer has the same not-so-common last name as the Host Color support guy who sent me my account information. To be fair, I can’t say for sure that the reviews I saw for Burton were any more authentic, but I have to go with my gut and say that they probably are. Maybe Host Color is as good as they say, but the astroturfing still puts me a little on edge.
  • The thing that stood out about Burton in the reviews was the excellent reachability and responsiveness of their support personnel. I can confirm that. Even before I’d purchased my piddly little personal hosting account, I’d had four email exchanges with one of their support people – and it was after midnight in the UK where he works. Matthew at Burton is awesome – a true paragon of how to provide a positive customer experience.
  • Burton also uses CPanel and Webalizer, which I like a little better than the Ensim software used at HostColor. They offer on-demand on-site backup/restore in addition to “backup via download” – not that I won’t be doing the latter anyway, for obvious reasons, but if the on-site backup is available it’s more convenient. Other minor details such as raw-log and SSH access also seem to be handled a little more smoothly.
  • Burton’s closer network-wise, and seems faster.

I’m hoping that what I have now is the best of the best as my primary site, and a solid player as my backup. That should prevent any outages like we’ve seen recently.

Balance in the Force

I’ve been thinking a lot about decentralization lately, in both a technical and political context. Writing about the technical side is difficult because the examples I’ve been thinking about involve stuff at work that I can’t talk about, so I’m going to concentrate on the political context.

The first example of political decentralization is military and foreign policy. I was in a discussion about “American hegemony” yesterday, and it made me think of an article in last January’s Atlantic magazine. The specific article was by Benjamin Schwartz and Christopher Layne and was entitled A New Grand Strategy (I can’t link to it because the Atlantic doesn’t seem to make old articles available for free on the web any more). Its thesis was that the US is trying too hard to maintain its status as “sole superpower” when it should be better off pursuing a more multilateral strategy. We are, the authors state, keeping our allies in an “infantile” military state, assuming the role of global policemen on their behalf – and against their wishes – because the alternative would be the development of their own military capability to a point where it might rival our own. This worries us even though they’re our allies, because we can’t bring ourselves to trust them. Yeah, I know, the right-wingers are thinking of France and saying of course we can’t trust them. Grow up. They might not be cooperating as much as we’d like, but the idea that they’d actually attack us is flat-out ridiculous; we can trust them that much. Wars happen when one side thinks it can win. If they are one of many approximately-equal powers, where all are committed to act together against aggressors, nobody will think they can win. We can afford to let others “responsible” nations develop their military capabilities, and scale back our own. Not only would we save a ton of money that could be used to address domestic problems (or be put back in citizens’ pockets), but we’d also be more secure if we weren’t the sole scapegoat for every dysfunctional society or regime on the planet.

The second example of political decentralization is economic policy. Centralization of political power has the same drawbacks as centralization of military power, or centralization of control in a computer system. OK, I couldn’t stay away from the technical stuff forever. ;-) Here are some of those drawbacks:

  • In a centralized system, a failure or flaw in the central component can have a devastating effect on the entire system.
  • A centralized system’s capabilities tend to be limited by the capabilities of its central component.

Concentration of power is bad. So what? Here’s the key: wealth can be translated into power. It can buy information, and access, and visibility, and time (not necessarily one’s own) to pursue power; some think it can simply buy politicians. Therefore, concentration of wealth is also bad. The problem is that concentration of wealth is a natural phenomenon. There’s a big difference between “earning” interest and paying interest, between being pursued by merchants and being avoided by merchants, between hiring an assistant and being an assistant. Wealth naturally tends to become concentrated, and that’s a danger to everyone.

The solution, of course, is not to concentrate power somewhere else – e.g. the government. The real solution is to create a balance between sources of power, just as in the military example. The government is the only entity capable of countering the problems of concentrated wealth; it, in turn, can and must be restrained by the people from the arbitrary exercise of its own power; the wealthy, in their turn, exert significant influence on the people. It’s a three-part system, similar in some ways to the three-part “separation of powers” that underlies the US constitution – checks and balances, so that nobody can “win” and cause the game to be over.

I could go into a lot more detail, of course. In particular, there’s a huge tangle of follow-on ideas about taxation and its use to promote or retard the accumulation of wealth, but I’m deliberately not getting into that right now. The idea I’m trying to get at is that, in the political realm as much as in computers, multiple entities able to exert influence on one another can result in a system more stable than one in which one entity tries to control all the rest.

The Whole Sad Story

If you’re seeing this, it means that you’ve reached my site’s new home. Yes, I had to move again; I’ll explain why in a moment. Right now, the status is that I was able to grab all of my data from the old site, and I think I’ve fully restored it here except for some images and sounds that I don’t want to upload from here (“asymmetric” DSL means slow uploads). I’ll try to get that finished when I get in to work tomorrow. As usual, let me know if you find any glitches. Here are the details for those few who are interested in such things.

The story began on Friday, when I noticed that my site had been unreachable practically all day. The occasional glitch I can tolerate, but this had been going on a bit too long. I verified the problem by asking a bunch of friends to check, and by checking some public traceroute servers myself. Then I went to log a trouble ticket with my provider, Featureprice. I immediately made a couple of discoveries:

  1. They had a new support policy: $25 per incident if you wanted a guaranteed response. Otherwise, you could only send email, once per day, and hope for the best.
  2. While they were at it, they added a bandwidth cap. The primary reason I’d switched to them was that, at the time, they didn’t have any hard cap; they’d throttle your traffic back if you were being a hog, but there was no particular amount per month over which you’d get charged extra.

Needless to say, they had not even bothered to inform customers of these changes, which apparently happened around the beginning of the year when there was a big management shakeup and they also switched brands of server-management software. The per-incident support seems to be a sham anyway; it asks for a username and password but won’t accept any of the values a customer might have set before the change. Even the forgotten-password helper rejects my email address, which is the only email address that has ever been associated with my account. Anyway, I sent the email at around 4pm. I got an almost instant reply; here’s how it started:

===========ATTENTION!!!==================
YOU ARE ALLOWED ONE TICKET PER DAY, YOU MAY ASK AS MANY QUESTIONS
AS YOU WOULD LIKE, BUT YOU CAN ONLY HAVE ONE TICKET. BE WISE WITH
THE USAGE OF TICKET AND QUESTIONS YOU ASK, THINK ABOUT WHAT YOU 
WANT AND NEED TO ASK OR HAVE ASSISTANCE IN AND SEND OFF ONE TICKET
AS ALL ADDITIONAL TICKETS WILL BE REMOVED FOR THAT DAY.

That little nastygram was all I got until about 9:30pm, at which point I got another email from “Ravindra” telling me that the state on my ticket had been changed to “closed”. I checked, and immediately discovered that my site was still not reachable. So I replied.identifying a half-dozen servers providing evidence that the problem had not been resolved. I got another immediate reply, this time with the subject “Correspondence not recorded” plus a body consisting of “Permission denied” plus the text I’d sent. Nice. This is the point where I started looking for a new hosting provider.

While looking for a new provider, I decided to check what people were saying about Featureprice. It turns out that they are now considered the absolute worst commercial hosting provider, bar none, in the world.

  • At review site after review site, Featureprice had the most reviews, and they were all very strongly negative. At yourhostsucks.com they have a whole section devoted to them.
  • There are several sites devoted exclusively to horror stories about weeks-long outages, support runarounds, billing problems, domains held hostage, and data deliberately deleted.
  • Disgruntled ex customers are everywhere.
  • Apparently several of the website-hosting review sites which rate Featureprice highly do so because they’re owned by the same person – Austrian resident Fathi Said – as Featureprice itself.
  • The BBB has listed Featureprice as “unacceptable”. The Florida AG’s office and office of consumer affairs have 2500 complaints against Featureprice, and are starting to move. There are several attempts under way to start a class-action lawsuit.

Phew! Pretty ugly, huh? I eventually went back to looking for a good provider instead, and settled on Host Color because they seemed to get good reviews at a great many sites, with no complaints worse than the occasional grouse about performance and occasional downtime – nothing like the Featureprice horror stories. They have the features I need, at a very low price. There’s always a possibility that they won’t work out (they seem to be taking longer than they should about adding pl.atyp.us as an alias of www.platypus.ro) and if that happens I’ll probably try LeHost next. I’ve sort of resigned myself to the idea that no one provider is going to be the solution for ever and ever; even Featureprice managed to do pretty well until the reshuffle in January.

So, you might be wondering, how did I get my data even if my site’s still down? Well, after the third round of Featureprice “resolving” my problem without actually doing squat, and two rounds of legal threats, I noticed that the host was back up. My site had been removed from the Apache config, and I couldn’t get to all of my statistics, but I guess they were too incompetent to shut off FTP or phpMyAdmin. I went in just as quickly as I could, started grabbing my data as fast as I could (in priority order) just in case someone down there finally grew a brain cell, and got the heck out of there. Now I have all the stuff I really need from them and Featureprice can go jump in a lake of flaming monkey turds. I seem to be a lot luckier than most of their customers.

Snow Platypus

It’s raining today, so the snow has become much stickier than it used to be. I decided that it’s time to make a snow platypus. Here’s the result.

Snow Platypus

Pictures of snow are hard to do well. I’ve tried to tweak the contrast etc. to SHOW the detail on the platypus (at the expense of making the image of me look terrible) but there’s only so much I can do so I apologize if it still looks awful on your monitor.

Argh

It looks like I might have lost a bunch of content. I could swear I last backed up the site no later than the end of January, but I can’t find anything since September. I’ve also done some research regarding Featureprice. Every hosting-service review site is full of people who’ve been screwed over even worse than I have – sites down for weeks, billing problems, etc. I found at least three or four sites devoted solely to FeaturePrice horror stories, and a half dozen people actively trying to start a class-action lawsuit. There are rumors that FeaturePrice’s Austrian owner, Mr. Fathi Said, also owns some of the hosting-review sites that recommended FeaturePrice so highly. There are also indications that there was a change of management near the beginning of this year, which is about the same time the support tools and policies were changed (without notifying customers). The only guaranteed support response is now on a pay-per-incident basis, and support has apparently been outsourced to people in India whose capabilities are limited to changing the status on trouble tickets without actually taking any action.

At this point I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to get my DATA back. I rarely get so mad that I want to do physical violence, but right now I’d really like to punch Mr. Said in the face.

Combinatorics

This seems like something I should know, but I’ve been struggling with it and it’s driving me nuts. If you have p processes each involving s steps, how do you calculate the number of possible orderings for all steps across all processes? Any formula or algorithm requiring no more than p*s steps (factorial counts as one step) would be appreciated.