Now With Extra Pixie Dust

:date: 2022-01-09 15:49 :tags:

Welcome to 2022!


Remember that Sign Painter Problem? That refers to the fact that a bad sign advertising a sign shop is a bad sign. As a computer nerd I take this seriously and have been hard at work recently fixing up my computer nerd stuff. Yes, yes, I know... Still looks like crap, but consider that not only am I not a web artiste but unlike 99% of computer "professionals", I have a basic website. It is really quite a technical achievement under the hood. And this is the season of major improvements!

First up is something quite banal  —  a new cable. I replaced the CAT5 cable from my ISP to my network with a CAT6 one. But the minor electrical details of ISO/IEC 11801 are not the important thing in this case. Certainly it is dumb to potentially hobble my splendid Verizon Fios connection with a less than optimal cable. But the real improvement was the routing. When it was installed the installer drilled randomly in my office floor and popped out in the basement inside a heating duct. Whoops. Ok, retry that somewhere else, right? Heh heh, oh no! This is a cable installer! He ripped open the heating duct to extract the cable. Yes, and left it sliced open with the cable dangling over the sharp sheet metal (leaking thermally controlled air). I was finally able to drill the hole in the correct place and run the correct cables, correctly. And patch the heating duct. The moral of that story is watching installers like a hawk is not enough! They will do the most awful installations possible and you need to budget for cleanup and repair. (I once had one route a CATV coax line by lying it along the inside of a gutter.)

This cable allowed me to finally set up a nice server area in my basement. I also added a new switch to the network down there to hook up multiple devices. And I also added a new electrical outlet. Now my main server is not on the same circuit as my garage door opener and, sometimes, my chainsaw.

This infrastructure now allows me to set up a new server to replace raven15. Since I first started getting obsessive about fanless hardware in the early 2000s, it has come a long way. I was able to buy this device which is ready to go as a low power silent server. This one specifically overcame the cognitive dissonance of convention and even mentioned Linux specifically by name. I bought it last March and have had it running since then to test it. Finally I was able to make the big switch to it.

This server is my main computer where I do most of my serious stuff. I am composing this post on it now. My raven15 had some very fancy RAID1 and Xen VM setup. That turned out to be useful exactly zero times in 7 years. This time I'm going with a simpler strategy that hopefully will be easier to recover from even if it means I'll have a slightly greater chance of needing to. So new storage media arranged in a new design.

Another big change is that after at least 17 years of using Gentoo Linux as my main computer, I'm finally trying something different. Gentoo is the most Linuxy Linux distribution and can be really technically interesting. It taught me a lot, but the regular maintenance of it can be a real job. The hardware of raven15 seems fine actually, but my hand is forced because Gentoo today can not compile GCC on this lightweight CPU with very little RAM. I used to have to go to heroics by cross compiling (almost defeating the purpose) or making massive swap partitions on disk (slow!) to get through the process.

Now my server has joined all of my other computers with 100% wholesome, clean Debian Linux.

As I started setting up the new server, I started to run into weird problems. I would get corruption in files I was trying to edit. It turned out that GNU Screen with my escape key (escape ^gg) plus a modern version of Vim causes weird file corruption. Great. Besides the insane default escape key ([ctrl+a]) I've always hated the terrible name of screen  —  go on, do a search for "screen"! In their defense, this was written in 1987. Just like no one today uses Bill Joy vi or Vixie-cron, it might be time to move on. So up to my neck in newness, I took on the jump to tmux which is a very good system for terminal multiplexing. It also has a very sensible name.

Speaking of Vixie-cron, I was probably one of the last people to use original ancient versions of that. If you received an email notification, vixie-cron was probably triggering it. Now I've switched to a modern ISC cron like all normal people.

Obviously the biggest work I've put into all this has been to write from scratch a replacement for the ancient Python AsciiDoc processor I used to use to turn all of this text into HTML. This new system is Nerdtext. That project turned out well and I'm trying to get all the other pieces back in order so I can start to apply it to my website as planned. Currently the main page and old material may still use ancient but the post's individual page should be using Nerdtext now. Which is pretty cool!


But there is a lot more going on behind the scenes. I actually have a few little scripts that help organize everything and naturally they did not work. They were written around 2015 and used Python2. I just spent some time fixing them to be happy with Python3.

And then we come to the hosting. Since "dynamic" IP numbers seem to be astonishingly stable these days and DynamicDNS is a thing, I'll probably additionally host my own web server publicly soon. For now it's just internal. But since 1998, I have used as an isolated external web host and email server. Recently I found out that they were offering plans with way more storage than I was getting for about half the cost. The catch was I had to sign up for a new account as a new customer  —  in other words, they were charging a premium to leave me alone and not force me to do this. So I just finished going through that process and now I have a completely different host machine  —  formerly BSD, now Ubuntu. They also gave me a new stable IPv4 number which is interesting; aren't these things a precious commodity? Whatever. Seems to work fine as you can see here: I'll take it!

If you've been paying too much attention to the technical details of my acerbic web site, you might notice that my URLs now support the extraneous magical thinking of SSL (or is it TLS?). So a new service protocol. This will be its own post/rant! But enjoy the break from browser warnings.

The email server change was ok. I want to stress that I was able to change email providers (kind of, not really) and you do not need to care! My address did not change because I own my own domain. I highly recommend that! Keep using your goomail or iFruitmail or whatever, but if you own/use your own domain, you can easily jump ship if they piss you off. For me it was just an administrative change and configuring a new modern version of Mutt.

As you can see, I do not think I left any hornets' nests unpoked. If you read this, it will truly be a miracle! Welcome to 2022!