Review: The Circle by Dave Eggers

[NOTE: While I try to avoid out and out spoilers, purist may want to skip this post].

The easiest way to describe The Circle by Dave Eggers is as some sort of 1984 prequel for the digital age.

It is not a happy book.

The story follows Mae Holland, a relatively recent college graduate who is working a dead-end, soul sucking job at a local utility in a small town in California near Fresno that no one has heard of.

Through her college roommate Annie, she manages to land a job at The Circle, sort of an über Google/Facebook/Twitter company in The Valley. Annie quickly rose through the ranks at The Circle and is now part of the Gang of 40 – the 40 most influential people in the company. Through her, Mae is introduced to the culture of the company, including learning about its three founders, called the “Three Wise Men”.

Ty Gospodinov is the boy genius who created TruYou, a now ubiquitous single sign-on technology that made sure that people on the Internet were who they said they were. His goal was to remove some of the hate and vitriol that anonymity on in Internet permitted, and TruYou soon became the standard for most web-based commerce. Socially awkward and a bit of a recluse, Ty hired the other two wise men: Eamon Bailey and Tom Stenton. Eamon was the ebullient visionary and Tom the corporate man who found a way to commercialize Ty’s product which resulted in a huge IPO. They later subsumed their competitors and became the main social, search and e-commerce company in the world.

Mae was extremely happy to be at The Circle, on its gorgeous campus with all the perks one could hope for and working among all the amazing people employed there. The Circle even allowed her to put her parents on her health plan, which was important because her father suffered from MS and was having issues with his current insurance company. It was like a dream come true.

Mae’s initial role in the company was in the Customer Experience department, basically customer service. While she gets off to a great start, things start to sour in wonderland when she is reprimanded, in the nicest way possible, for not being “social” enough – not sharing enough of her life, her likes and dislikes, and getting involved with the rest of the Circle community. At times it comes across as a little sinister, and much of the story follows her fumbling steps to become fully integrated at The Circle and her efforts to excel there. She does attend more company events which eventually creates a love triangle between her, a shy fellow employee named Francis with whom she feels empowered, and a mysterious stranger named Kalden who randomly appears and disappears at the oddest times, but for whom she has a strong attraction.

My favorite aspect of the book is the technology that Eggers introduces. I’m not sure if he came up with it all on his own or, Malcolm Gladwell-like, just assembled it into a narrative. My guess is a little of both. One such innovation is called SeaChange – an inexpensive, tiny camera that can be deployed anywhere and introduced with the slogan ALL THAT HAPPENS MUST BE KNOWN. As the book progresses we learn about the impending “closing of the Circle” which is identified as the completion of some grand plan that would make Big Brother blush.

Not everyone is as thrilled as Mae with The Circle. On a visit home she sees an ex-boyfriend named Mercer. He delivered one of my favorite quotes of the book:

Listen, twenty years ago, it wasn’t so cool to have a calculator watch, right? And spending all day inside playing with your calculator watch sent a clear message that you weren’t doing so well socially. And judgments like ‘like’ and ‘dislike’ and ‘smiles’ and ‘frowns’ were limited to junior high. Someone would write a note and it would say, ‘Do you like unicorns and stickers?’ and you’d say, ‘Yeah, I like unicorns and stickers! Smile!’ That kind of thing. But now it’s not just junior high kids who do it, it’s everyone, and it seems to me sometimes I’ve entered some inverted zone, some mirror world where the dorkiest sh*t in the world is completely dominant. The world has dorkified itself.

I learned that Eggers was the founder of McSweeneys, which is really cool, and although this isn’t “Literature” with a capital “L”, his prose is well written and easy to read. I only had one issue with the book, concerning a subplot where CEO Stenton has The Circle create a submersible so that he can go to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, a lá James Cameron, and return with specimens. These animals are kept in a normal aquarium, exposed to atmosphere, which really bothered me since any life that could live at those depths would simply explode when the pressure was removed. He also talks about coral and other things that simply wouldn’t exist at those depths. I’m willing to forgive him since the whole thing is required for an metaphor at the end of the book, but it still bothered me. Plus, The eventual denouement is a little predictable, but overall I really enjoyed the book.

My reference to 1984 is not casual. While Orwell was working with post World War II technology, The Circle is what he would have imagined had he written the book today. Even the iconic “WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH” is mimicked as “SECRETS ARE LIES, SHARING IS CARING, PRIVACY IS THEFT”.

There is much more to the book, many more little jewels of social interaction that I loved, but I am trying hard not to spoil anything. It is worth checking out, and I’ll end with another of my favorite quotes, this one from Mae when she is distressed about some “frowns” she receives:

Why was there so much animosity in the world? And then it occurred to her, in a brief and blasphemous flash: she didn’t want to know how they felt. The flash opened up to something larger, an even more blasphemous notion that her brain contained too much. That the volume of information, of data, of judgments, of measurements, was too much, and there were too many people, and too many desires of too many people, and too many opinions of too many people, and too much pain from too many people, and having all of it constantly collated, collected, added and aggregated, and presented to her as if that all made it tidier and more manageable – it was too much.

Review: The Snowden Files

As someone with very strong opinions of the illegal surveillance being performed by the NSA, I was eager to read the account of how they became exposed in The Snowden Files by Luke Harding. I highly recommend it to everyone, especially those people who believe the government exists at the will of the people and not the other way around.

Do note that the book is entitled The Snowden Files and not The Ed Snowden Story. While Edward Snowden does figure prominently, the book is much more about the Orwellian domestic spying machine his revelations describe than the man himself. It has a lot of detail on the NSA as well as organizations such as Britain’s GCHQ, massively funded by the NSA to spy on people both domestically and abroad.

Among my social circles, Snowden is a bit polarizing. There are those who think that he broke an oath when he used his position as a contractor at the NSA to obtain these documents and that the end didn’t justify the means. Other more public figures describe him as “a grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison“. However, most of my friends tend to believe, and this book demonstrates, that Snowden is a patriot in the truest sense of the word.

The Snowden portrayed by Harding is a rather humble and shy man. Nothing in this story indicates he is a narcissist. Perhaps his brief association with Wikileaks and Julian Assange (a narcissist of the first order) is where the idea comes from, but I think that NSA apologists feel more comfortable portraying him as a man acting in extreme self interest. If that were the case, he would have sold the information secretly and be living out his life in some warm paradise instead of remaining as a “guest” of the Russian government.

The only inflation of his position I found in this story was in the beginning when he describes himself as a “senior” member of the intelligence community. He was, in fact, a rather junior member, and the mere fact that he was able to acquire all of this extremely secret information just goes to demonstrate that the government can’t be trusted with it. I’m pretty much willing to forgive him for that, since had he prefaced his initial press contact with “yo, I’m a contracted sysadmin for the US government and happen to have a treasure trove of sensitive documents” he wouldn’t have been believed.

Critics will often cry that he should have used formal channels to express his unease. This book shows several examples of people who tried to do just that and found their lives ruined and their careers over. It is hard to trust in the system when people like James R. Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, lies directly to Congress and not only still has his job but is not in prison.

While the book is written in a very “matter of fact” manner, parts of it read like a spy novel. One of the more surreal chapters deals with the forced destruction of computers at the London offices of The Guardian. Great Britain doesn’t have a written Constitution nor does it guarantee freedom of the press. So to avoid possible incarceration of Guardian staff, Two GCHQ agents named “Ian” and “Chris” arrive to oversee the physical demolition of the computers used to break the story (of course, The Guardian simply moved the operation to their US offices and while there were similar threats nothing at this level occurred).

Personally, I think Snowden’s greatest “crime” was embarrassing the powers that be. President Obama won his first term on a campaign to overturn the Constitutional abuses of his predecessor and Snowden demonstrated that he not only continued those policies but strengthened them. The British government in this affair comes across as not only petty but pretty much lap dogs to the US intelligence service, with US tax money going to fund the GCHQ. Congress is currently full of self-interested sheep who take being lied to in stride as long as they don’t look weak on “terrorism”. Basically, forget popular opinion, just don’t end up on Jon Stewart.

While I try very hard to avoid Godwin’s Law, perhaps I should mint Balog’s Law, a corollary where all discussions of national security abuses end up referencing Al-Qaida.

Often, power is referred to as a “structure”. In my experience it is much more fluid, and right now it is flowing into the hands of a small minority of people. I know from first hand experience that these people are way more concerned with their own wellbeing versus mine, regardless of the rhetoric they spout to the contrary, and the end result will be disastrous.

There are things you can do to make power flow in the other direction. In general these are things like shopping locally (the more self-sustaining a community is the less they can be influenced by central government) but concerning privacy in particular there are a number of steps you can take to make the NSA’s job more difficult.

Use encryption. It is easier than you think. There are a number of tools that can plug right into your e-mail client. I use Enigmail for Thunderbird. OS X users should check out GPGMail. There is even GPG4Win for you Outlook users. Once installed and configured it can be pretty seamless to use. The biggest thing you lose is the ability to search your encrypted mail.

Use as much open source software as you can. The Snowden documents reveal that the NSA has been actively trying to both subvert encryption standards (making all of us less safe from foreign prying eyes) as well as to install backdoors into commercial software. This is much more difficult with open source. Even if, say, Canonical put in a backdoor to openssh-server into Ubuntu, someone would notice that the package they compiled had a different hash than the binary on the server, and an investigation would ensue. Even if you can’t make the jump to an open source desktop operating system, a lot of open source applications (think Firefox and Thunderbird) are available on proprietary platforms such as Windows and OS X.

Also, limit what you share. Remember that if you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product, so think twice about your Facebook habits. You can also learn about tools such as Tor that allow your Internet traffic to be somewhat anonymous. I also “sandbox” all of my Google activity within the Chrome browser but do most of my work in Firefox using Firefox Sync to coordinate with all of my devices.

To bring this somewhat “more rambling than usual” post to an end, I just want to point out that totalitarian societies do not happen overnight. Instead, there is a gradual erosion of personal freedoms until one day there is nothing left. Some people I’ve talked to about Snowden reply with “of course the government is spying on me”, in much they same way that getting groped at the airport is now “normal”.

It doesn’t have to be that way, and sometimes it takes brave people to point that out.

Review: Dell "Sputnik 3" Ubuntu Edition

I’m in the market for a new laptop, or at least I was. My first generation Dell XPS 13 is getting a little long in the tooth and I really could use a little more screen real estate. I decided to order the latest third generation XPS 13 after trying out the second generation Lenovo X1 Carbon. After all, it has a nicer screen, Haswell, and since it still ships with Ubuntu 12.04 the hardware ought to be supported, at least with Linux Mint, my current desktop distro of choice.

When talking about laptops, it is hard to not make comparisons to Apple. While I think Macbooks are overpriced and too proprietary, they are nice machines and for the most part “just work”. I just wish I could buy something as good that runs Linux well.

The Sputnik 3 could have been that laptop but I had to send it back due to pretty severe LCD backlight “bleeding”, especially along the bottom edge. It was very apparent when I was booting up to install Mint, but my pictures don’t really do it justice. Here you can see a sort of “half moon” bleed on the left side:

and here is a similar area on the right:

Since I knew I couldn’t live with it, I decided to send it back and just stick with my older laptop awhile longer. While we have a small Macbook available to me that would probably run Mint just fine, I just can’t bring myself to use Apple products when they are so determined to use their marketing clout to prevent competition. I can’t go a day without reading about another example, such as the one I just read about Apple pulling a bitcoin app from their store.

I’d rather deal with “old shiny” than to give up my freedom like that.

Review: Second Generation Lenovo Carbon X1 with Linux

As a Christmas present to myself, I decided to get a new laptop. My second generation Dell “Sputnik” Ubuntu Edition is getting a little long in the tooth. The screen resolution of 1366×768 is a little confining, and I’ve never been in love with the trackpad.

Now, while most of the folks at The OpenNMS Group are Mac users, the freetards in the group tend toward the Lenovo X1 Carbon. As Eric says, when it comes to Linux laptops you can’t go wrong with Lenovo.

Well, apparently you can.

While I ordered my unit in late November, it didn’t ship until the new year. I got the shipping notice the same day they announced the second generation X1 carbon at CES. Since I wanted the new shiny, I called Lenovo (their customer support is located in nearby Raleigh and is awesome) and returned the unit before it arrived. I then ordered the new model with the the extremely high density “retina” display. It arrived last week and I started playing with it this weekend.

In short: do not buy this laptop if you like Linux.

While sleek and stylish, the first thing they broke is the trackpad (one of my main reasons for switching). Instead of discreet mouse buttons like most Thinkpads before it, it is a single unit. I found it very hard to get used to using the “pseudo” buttons. Plus, it is mechanical and it feels really clunking when you press down on it.

The next thing they broke was the keyboard. While I’m not sure if the top row is OLED or just OLED-like, the functions keys are now programmatically displayed and gone are things like volume and contrast (those do exist when booted to Windows 8). And while I don’t know if this is new, but the “backspace” and “delete” keys are right next to each other which I found annoying, as I would often hit the wrong one.

But I could live with that, as it is only a matter of time before someone starts doing something cool with that technology and I could get used to the keyboard. Here is why I’m sending it back:

  • Suspend Doesn’t Work: Well, technically, resume doesn’t work. The system will suspend, but the OLED top row never dims and the laptop just starts heating up as something is obviously still running. The pm-suspend.log shows an error free shutdown, but once “suspended” you have to hold down the power key until it turns off and then reboot.

    UPDATE: I got this to work, sort of. Once Hibernate worked I ended up using this post to determine the issue was with the xhci_hcd (USB3) driver. I disabled it and now suspend works. However, the network doesn’t come back nor do the function keys.

  • Hibernate Doesn’t Work: Since this is a solid state machine with something like an 8 second boot time into Linux Mint, I’d be okay if I could hibernate instead of suspend. However, hibernate is just a shutdown with no warning to save your work.

    UPDATE: I got this to work, sort of. Removed the encryption on the swap partition and then updated /etc/initramfs-tools/conf.d/resume to match the new UUID and then “update-initramfs -u” to re-read that file. The resume isn’t always flawless (when run from the command line the mouse never came back and once I had to bounce the network).

  • Backlight Doesn’t Work: I like having a backlit keyboard. You can see the backlight come on when booting, but it never comes on when running under Mint.
  • Fingerprint Sensor Doesn’t Work: While I don’t know how much I’d use this, the model in this laptop by Validity Sensors (USB device ID 138a:0017) isn’t supported under Linux yet.
  • Weird Power Issues: Sometimes the unit fan turns on for no real reason, like something with Linux and the power management are out of sync.

I took this laptop on a road trip and was very unhappy with all of the effort I had to put into a system that was just supposed to work out of the box. At one point in time I changed a BIOS setting that wiped out grub (I had left Windows 8 on the system in a partition) and Windows Bootloader took over and wouldn’t let me back in to Mint. I finally based the whole thing just to see if that might help (I had to turn of secure boot to get Mint on it in the first place and thought maybe some weird UEFI issue was at play) but it didn’t improve things.

So it is a very sad day for those of us who looked to Lenovo to provide us Apple-quality laptops for Linux. Snatch up those Generation 1 models while they last or check out the new Dell “Sputnik 3“, but don’t buy this laptop.


Back in December a friend of mine I met through OpenNMS offered up a Google Glass invite. While I have privacy concerns about the whole thing, I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to play with the technology, so I accepted.

Well, it took awhile, but this week Google got around to offering me the opportunity to become an “Explorer”. After putting in my code, the Glass was added to my Google Wallet shopping cart and soon on its way via overnight shipping to the office.

Unfortunately, I ran into a problem right out of the gate. Apparently Glass doesn’t fit my head. While the picture above looks pretty normal, in order to actually see the screen I have to do this:

And that is painful. I soon had a vicious headache that stayed with me until I went to bed.

The way the Glass display works is pretty cool. It sits in front on the right eye and consists of an optically clear rectangular solid (made of plastic I believe). I’m going to call it a “cube” for lack of a better word, even though it is twice as wide as it is tall so it isn’t officially one.

The left side of the cube is mirrored, and the LCD is actually located on the right side, perpendicular to the long side of the rectangle. In the middle of the cube, at a 45 degree angle, is some sort of optical material that serves as the actual “display” – light from the LCD on the right passes through it, hits the mirror and then gets diverted toward the user’s eye.

The right earpiece is also a touchpad and you can interact with the device by swiping your finger along it. You pair it via Bluetooth with your phone, and that allows the Glass to have network access, although you can connect it via Wi-Fi as well.

But to be honest I never got to play with many of the features simply because I could not see the damn screen very well. I called the support line to see if there was anything I could do to adjust the screen on the glass downward, much like the “heads up” display on my wife’s car can be adjusted vertically, but unfortunately if you can’t get it to work by adjusting the nose piece you’re out of luck. You can rotate the display slightly left to right, but that wasn’t my problem.

The return process seems pretty easy. I called Google and they are sending me a box and shipping label. Once they get it and confirm it is not damaged, they will refund my money (and considering that the only thing I took out of the box was the Glass itself I’m not expecting any problems).

To say I’m disappointed is an understatement. If the display could just be a little lower in my line of sight I would have experimented with it a great deal. I’ve even taken it out of the box no less than three times during the writing of this post to see if some adjustment would give me some relief, but all I got was a headache.

I hope the return box shows up soon so I’ll quit trying to play with it.

Happy Money

Happy Money

As someone who has dedicated most of his professional life to open source software, it may seem strange that I think about money a lot. With respect to the company, the decisions I make not only impact myself but all of our employees, and personally money provides a certain amount of comfort and security.

Awhile back I was reading on Dan Ariely’s blog about a new book called Happy Money. I bought it on impulse (which I found ironic) but it took me a little while to get around to reading it.

It’s my kind of non-fiction book, meaning that about a quarter of it is references for the copious footnotes. If you are planning to change my mind about something, it helps to be able to back it up. I am still blasted for my review on Amazon about Life, Inc. which made sweeping and sometimes nonsensical generalizations and the author just expected us to take his word for it (or more likely, he just wanted to make a buck by telling people what they wanted to hear).

The authors of Happy Money, Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton, start off with the premise that there are a lot of books out there that tell you how to make money, but few that tell you how to become happier with the money you have. Their book details numerous studies undertaken by them and others, and they found five main things one can do with money that can have a large impact on one’s happiness.

The first thing was to buy experiences versus things. The studies they cite show that people get a lot more happiness out of, say, a trip to an exotic locale than in buying something like a fancy car. While owners of expensive cars reports a higher level of happiness when thinking about the car itself, when thinking about the last trips they took most car owners report about the same level of happiness no matter what type of car was used. So if you are driving to the store in the rain behind a dump truck because you are out of milk, it doesn’t matter if you are in a BMW or a Kia.

One example given in this chapter are the Tough Mudder races. These events are hardcore obstacle courses designed by British special forces. People who complete the course report a very high level of personal satisfaction, and it is in part because these events require teamwork and thus the experience fosters a sense of connectedness with others. While buying a new TV is for the most part a solo experience, working with others to get over a 12 foot wall requires teamwork. There is a bond created among finishers that can’t be purchased.

I occasionally play the lottery. I never win, but I do it for the daydreams I can have while I wait to find out that I’ve lost (I file it under “entertainment”). My rule is that I can spend $1 for every $100 million in jackpot. My spouse and I have talked about what we’d do if we ever won big, and the recurring fantasy would be to move to someplace like Positano, Italy, for a year and immerse ourselves in the culture. Then we might move on to Germany, or Argentina or Japan. Our lottery fantasies rarely include a big purchase.

The second thing they talk about is making things treats. They credit the comedian Sarah Silverman for this wisdom. She loves “pot, porn and fart jokes”, but she insists that you have to make it a treat. To truly enjoy something it helps if it isn’t available all the time. To go back to the car analogy above, most car owners report the same level of happiness with their vehicles, but when asked about a time they drove their car just for the fun of driving it, those with more expensive vehicles reported a higher level of happiness even if it didn’t happen as often.

The book talks at length about this issue of how availability results in “diminishing returns”. One example is candy corn, which tends to be easily available only certain times of the year (the Internet makes year round acquisition of almost anything possible year round, but let’s discount that for now). Or, as I just saw on television, the McDonalds McRib sandwich, which comes and goes off the menu, is available again. There is even a McRib Locator website to help people find them.

One example that I experienced talks about how people are more likely to savor something if they learn it won’t last. I lived in Northern California from 1994 to 1995, and when we decided to move back to North Carolina we rushed to visit Monterey, Alcatraz, etc. even though we had months to do so before the moving deadline appeared. When access to something is presumed to be always available, people are less likely to use it.

The third tip presented is the idea of buying time. I never have enough time, but I’m also cheap and tend to do a lot of things myself. One thing we always did on Saturday morning was clean the house. A couple of years ago, when my bride’s career took off, I was talked into hiring a cleaning service that comes in every other week. While they don’t do the job as well as I would, they do give us back our Saturday mornings, and that time is worth much more than the money I spend on the service.

Studies have shown that wealthier people tend to feel like they have less free time. In my lottery fantasy, having lots of money would give me more free time, but this book points out that people, especially those in my position who bill out their time on a hourly basis, seem to have issues doing things that don’t directly result in revenue. Why take a walk along the lake if that time could be spent helping a client?

The solution suggested by the book is to find ways, such as volunteer work, in order to purposely give time away. Giving time away reduced the feelings that time not spent working is wasted time, and thus increases happiness.

Step number four is to “Pay Now, Consume Later”. In the US our culture is geared heavily toward “Get It Now, Pay Later” which both fosters consumption, such as a new TV, and adds a future burden of payment. Not only is the happiness created by the purchase fleeting, as covered earlier, the added onus of having to come up with money to pay for it later greatly decreases the pleasure obtained by getting the thing in the first place.

However, the anticipation of an event can increase its happiness. Prepaying for, say, a beach trip and then thinking about it as the date approaches provides more pleasure than the trip alone. The book refers to the example of a Virgin Galactic flight. A woman and her husband both dreamed of going into space but couldn’t afford it. Unfortunately, the husband died. His wife decided to use the insurance money to pay the US$250,000 for a seat on a Virgin Galactic flight.

While the time spent in space will be measured in minutes, she gets to experience a number of things before the trip that both increase the anticipation and add to her happiness. There are astronaut-only events, trips to view the test flights and the training for the trip itself.

In my own experience I can think of a number of things where the run up to the event was as fun as the event itself.

The final step was called “Invest in Others” that shows that people tend to get a lot of enjoyment out of spending money on others more than just on themselves (the most pleasure came from spending money on others while with them). They even discuss a study where pre-verbal children seemed happiest when giving things to others (have you ever visited a friend with a small child who insists on bringing you things like their toys?).

While the book gave me a lot to think about concerning my own life, I was happy to find that working with OpenNMS tends to hit on all five. Working with OpenNMS users has provided me with a number of amazing experiences around the world. Due to the fact that I’m almost always traveling, revisiting my favorite places is a treat, from macarons in Palo Alto to Schwarzer Hahn beer in Fulda. I do a crappy job of buying time, but as we grow as a company I’m trying to learn to delegate more. Just this morning we got a notification that the drink machine was low on Fresca, and Tina was there to take care of it instead of me. As for “pay now, consume later” I like to think that all the hard work we put into the company will pay off in the future, and it is exciting to see our product grow over time, and finally the whole basis of free software is the idea of sharing and helping others.

Happy Money is a short read if not an overly easy one, and if you find yourself focusing more on getting money than being happy, you should check it out.

Review: Sheryl Crow at DPAC

Another post for me to practice my typing, with no OpenNMS content, although some of you might find it interesting.

This weekend I went to see Sheryl Crow perform at the Durham Performing Arts Center. I remember the exact moment I got old, and that was at a concert as well. It was Sting with Natalie Merchant opening, and Andrea and I decided to leave during the encore to beat the traffic. Contrast that to watching The Boss at the LA Civic Center where we stayed until they kicked us out as we sat watching the roadies tear down the stage.

This concert also made me feel a little old, as we were at the lower end of the age demographic. I was introduced to Sheryl Crow’s music by my friend Bill Hinkle, but that was twenty years ago back in 1993. I didn’t realize that Sheryl was 51, several years older than me, and the average age of the crowd was higher than that.

Not that we old folks don’t know how to rock.

The main reason we went was that I managed to score fifth row seats. They were toward the left of the stage, but as I’ve grown older I’ve come to expect a little comfort when I go out. Sad, I know, and it is rare enough that I don’t go out often, but I think my stage rushing, general admission days are over.

The opening act was a trio headed by Dustin Lynch. He was accompanied by another acoustic guitarist and a pretty blond woman on fiddle. The set was kind of forgettable, but I can remember thinking to myself “Do I like this guy enough to steal his music?”

I didn’t.

I also thought it was funny that the cameraman kept the camera on the blond through most of the set, even when she wasn’t actively doing much.

He tried to pander to the audience, bringing up references to our troops overseas, God, etc. Not that I mind those aspects of country music but it came across as patronizing. At one point he launched into a bit about how all the men in the audience where there because their woman dragged them to the concert, and Andrea and I were both like “wha?”. First, I got the tickets, and second, it’s Sheryl Freakin’ Crow, known to appeal more to men than women on average.

Anyway, the main event started about 9pm. Sheryl came on stage with a custom red, white and blue guitar and a rocking band consisting of two other guitarists, a drummer, a bass guitarist, a woman on keyboards (married to the bass guitarist, we learned later) and another keyboardist/slide guitar/jack of all trades guy to round out the group.

It was a pretty good show.

She is a tiny woman – even in platform shoes with five inch heels she wasn’t very tall, but her voice is still huge.

The theme seemed to be fresh guitars, as there were new ones swapped out almost every song. I’m not sure if Sheryl uses a unique tuning for each song, but it was kind of fun to keep count of the different instruments. At one point she played something that I think was a baritone mandolin, something I’ve never seen before, but it had eight strings and a shape that seems to suggest a mandolin on steroids.

She did the hits and a number of new songs. They also did a couple of covers, including “Don’t Bring Me Down” by ELO and they ended the show’s encore with Led Zeppelin’s “Rock ‘n Roll“.

My biggest complaint was with the sound. Lately, every show I see, the vocals just aren’t mixed right, and you simply can’t make them out. Luckily I was familiar with enough of her music that it didn’t ruin the show.

While she is going for more of a country flair vs. rock in her later music (not a bad business move in my opinion) one song that I think will be a hit, maybe even a crossover hit, is “Shotgun”.

With the lyric:

Drive it like it’s stolen,
Park it like it’s rented,
What’s the use of money,
If you ain’t gonna spend it?

I was sold. Here’s a clip I found of it, and at least the part of the band on the front row was with her in Durham.

Sheryl Crow – Shotgun (Live) from Bootheel Vids on Vimeo.

It was a fun evening. The DPAC is a great place for shows, and even though there was a Bull’s game going on at the same time, it was pretty easy to park and leave. Of course, I did have one chore to do before leaving.

Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Note: I don’t think there are spoilers here, but if you are overly sensitive, don’t read on.

I think it was Ben that introduced me to Neil Gaiman. Actually, that isn’t true. Howard let me read his Sandman comics in college, as long as I was careful and I read them in his dorm room. He didn’t have many, since they had just come out, but as someone who always thought comics books were only about super heroes, I found them fascinating. But I still thought about them as comics and not books, and so I focused more on the “Sandman” part than the “author” part, as much as I still think of “Superman” and “Batman” and not the people who make the stories and the pictures.

So I guess it was still Ben who introduced me to Neil Gaiman the author. The book was American Gods and it was spectacular. Amazing. I read it and then immediately re-read it. It cemented me as a Gaiman fan forever.

From there I read Neverwhere, and I can never ride the London Underground without thinking about it. Then there was Stardust, which I liked but it didn’t “wow” me. And I realized I had read him as a co-author since I had read Good Omens, but I remembered more the Terry Prattchet side of that novel.

I was very eager for his post-Gods work, and I bought Anansi Boys the day it was released. It was solid, but while Gods was an elaborate, multi-course meal, Anansi Boys was more of a well crafted dessert. I began to wonder if Gaiman had peaked. That would be nothing to be ashamed of, since American Gods is a masterpiece, but I wondered if it would be the masterpiece.

So I bought The Ocean at the End of the Lane sight unseen and got it the day it was released. The first thing that hit me was the slimness of this book. It is tiny. It weighs in at a mere 181 pages. I don’t own many hardbacks that small, and I just looked up Damage by Josephine Hart, which I thought was small, and it clocks in at 208 pages. While 27 pages doesn’t sound like much, that is a full 15% of Ocean.

I figure I’ll be vilified by at least one of my three readers for harping about the size of this book, but I feel that when writing a review the reader needs to understand my biases, and I was expecting a full novel and not a novella. And let’s be clear, this is a novella. There is one story plot told from a single point of view where most of the action takes place over a couple of days. The problem is that there is no market for novellas, yet someone with Gaiman’s star power can manage to sell one as a novel.

Despite that, it is a brilliant story. It is told from the point of view of a seven year old boy who lives in Sussex. After an unfortunate death, he starts to experience strange events. In trying to understand them, he is introduced to a family that lives on a farm down the lane from his house. The family consists of three women: one old, one young and one middle aged (an obvious reference to the Fates). The youngest one, Lettie, takes him on an adventure to help solve these strange events with dire consequences.

Gaiman is a great storyteller, and while I enjoyed the whole book I couldn’t help but be disappointed. I think he has done so many children’s books and screenplays in recent years that the long form eludes him. It would be nearly impossible to craft a novel on par with Gods with all of the different projects in which he is involved. In reading the on-line reviews, many state proudly “I read it in one sitting!”. Well, who couldn’t? This is pretty much a children’s book with one or two young adult scenes, and I thought I was getting an adult novel I could sink my teeth into.

Fanboys prepare your flame throwers.

I will probably buy anything he writes, but for the next one I won’t pre-order it. I’ll wait and see what it is, and I’ll try to set my expectations properly.

Review: The HWg-STE Ethernet Thermometer

Soon after my review of the AKCP Sensorprobe, I was contacted by Jan Rehak of the HW Group in the Czech Republic. I was asked if I would review one of their SNMP-based sensor units. I replied “of course” as I thought it was cool that anyone would want to send me an evaluation unit of anything, and I wanted to embark on my new career as super-duper, top-notch web reviewer-guy (are you listening, Telsa Motors?).

A few days later I received an HWg-STE Ethernet SNMP Thermometer, which is their most popular unit.

The HWg-STE supports two sensors, and it comes with one for temperature. The cable is pretty long so it can be placed some distance away from the unit. The unit is very compact, and molded into the case on the top and bottom are places for mounting screws. I installed it on the wall in the server room next to the Sensorprobe2.

One of the things I liked about the description was that it said it supported Linux for installation. Like most units of this type, the main configuration is done through a built-in web server, but a lot of vendors ship a small application to aid in the initial setup. The HWg-STE shipped with a CD that was Windows only (same as the Sensorprobe2) but I was able to find a Linux version on their website.

Unfortunately, I was unable to get it to work under Ubuntu 13.04, which is my current desktop at work. The application launched but failed to find any sensors. I did install the application via the CD on a Windows 8 machine we have in the office and it located the unit with an IP Address of I changed it to match our LAN addressing scheme and then did everything else from my desk using a web browser.

Once on the network, setup was a breeze. The webUI is very clean and easy to navigate. I was able to label the sensor which was also reflected in the data I was able to receive via SNMP.

Both the HWg SNMP MIB and a short OID description document are accessible from the “System” menu of the interface. The HWg-STE does support the ability to send e-mails when a threshold is reached, but I was a little disappointed with the lack of SNMP trap support. Also, like many devices like this, it only supports SNMPv1 – an SNMPv2 GETBULK request will fail. Like the Sensorprobe2 there is no IPv6 support.

It was pretty easy to add the device to OpenNMS for datacollection (and the configuration will be included in version 1.12):

The values returned are close to the values reported by the Sensorprobe2:

I don’t have any way to determine if one is more accurate than the other, but they both seem to be close enough for the accuracy needed to monitor a server room temperature.

Overall, I really liked the size of the HWg-STE and the look of its interface, but the missing SNMP trap support is frustrating. I would also like to see more information in the MIB, such as high and low thresholds, so that those can also be graphed. Proper SNMPv2 support as well as IPv6 support would be nice, but as much as I like IPv6 I am not seeing it as a requirement in the marketplace at the moment.

UPDATE: Jan wrote me back with some clarifications.

Of course we have other devices with SNMP Traps & more detailed MIB. But you know, product segmentation..

Our main product is the Poseidon family
Many more sensors, I/O, etc..

Yes we plan SNMP v3 + IPv6 to new generation Poseidon2.

Review: Ingress by NianticLabs@Google


This is a review of the augmented reality game Ingress, and contains no OpenNMS content. Ingress combines a massively multi-player on-line game with geocaching, and it can be quite addicting. I’ve spent a lot of time this week going from Level 3 to Level 4, and while I enjoyed it I don’t have enough interest to spend a lot more time on it. I do find some of the civil libertarian issues it raises, such as citizen access to public spaces, interesting. Currently Android only, it is a great example of how not all cool things are invented by Apple.


The backstory is the weakest part of the game. It goes something like this: an alien race called the Shapers appear on Earth, and with them, portals. Portals are gateways to another dimension, etc. that leak something called “exotic matter” or XM. You pretty much need XM do to anything.

This event has caused the world to divide into two factions (three, if you count those that don’t give a flip). One, the Enlightenment, wants to spread the influence of XM in order to take humans to the next evolutionary level. They are the “green” team. The other, the Resistance, seeks to limit the influence of the aliens because they fear it is harmful. They are the “blue” team.

Why I think this is weak is that it really doesn’t affect game play at all. Each team uses the same items and methods for similar objectives: the creation of control fields across the land. The idea is that all of the people (mind units, or MU) under the fields are either protected from the alien influence (in the case of a blue field) or more prone to enlightenment (in the case of a green field). Estimated world totals of MU by factions are displayed in the app.


Okay, the key to everything are those portals. Portals are placed by Niantic and are usually associated with public places such as post offices, fire stations, and libraries. In North Carolina with have a system of historic markers, and it looks like they have imported the whole database in order to place portals. In order to interact with a portal, you have to be next to it (for the most part). Hence the geocaching aspect of the game – you physically have to visit places in order to do anything. Note that tie-ins with companies like Zipcar and Jamba Juice have added those locations as portals as well, so it isn’t limited to just government buildings but instead the only rule is that they are supposed to be publicly accessible (which is stressing the definition in some cases).

The way you interact with the world of Ingress is with your scanner – i.e. the app on your Android phone. Combining the GPS and Google Maps, when you are close to a portal it will show up on your scanner. Your position is represented by a little arrow icon, and your area of influence is represented by a circle around that icon.

XM is represented by little, blobby white dots. Once those enter your influence, they will fly toward your icon and increase your XM totals. They can be found anywhere, but tend to cluster near portals.

Portals show up as smoky/glowing/other-worldly columns. Those controlled by the Resistance show up as blue, and those owned by the Enlightenment show as green. Uncaptured portals are gray.

In order to capture an uncaptured portal, you first have to be in range. Then you place an item called a resonator on the portal and then your faction will own it.

Completing actions earns you Action Points (AP). This is similar to “experience points” in other games. The more AP you collect, the higher your access level. Most items in Ingress have a level associated with them, and the higher your player level the more items you can use. At the moment the lowest level is L1 and the highest is L8.

There are seven things you can do to a portal. First, you can “hack” it. This is the main “farming” task in Ingress. Hacking a portal will give you items most of the time (sometimes you get nothing). Once you hack a portal you can’t hack it again for 300 seconds, and there is a limit to how many times you can hack a particular portal in a given amount of time – I think it is currently four times in a 24 hour period but I’m not sure. If you try to hack a portal before you are allowed, your scanner will display a “portal running hot” message with the time you must wait until your next attempt. If you have exceeded all attempts for the day, you get a “portal overloaded” message with no time displayed.

The next thing you can do to a portal is place a resonator, assuming the portal is uncaptured or belongs to your faction. There are eight spots for resonators at the cardinal points around the portal. A single player can place up to eight L1 resonators, but only 4 L2 or L3 resonators, etc. The higher the average level of resonators, the higher the level of the portal and the more energy it can store.

If a portal is fully populated with resonators, you can link it to other portals, assuming you have an item called a Portal Key. By hacking portals (of any faction) you can collect multiple copies of these keys. If you are at one portal and you have the Portal Key for another nearby portal, and both portals are owned by your faction, you can attempt to link them. Whether or not you are successful depends on the distance between the portals and whether or not there are any other links in the way (links cannot cross). The higher the level of the portal, the longer the link can be. The Portal Key is destroyed when the link is created.

Now the big thing to do is create a control field by linking three portals in a triangle. This results in a lot of AP and on the “intel map” the underlying area will show up as being controlled by your faction.

So, that’s three things (hack, place a resonator and link). The fourth is the ability recharge a portal. Portals hold Energy proportional to their level, but that energy is constantly draining, especially in the presence of links and fields. In order to keep the portal from decaying totally and becoming uncaptured, it has to be recharged. You can recharge it from your XM reserves if you are next to it (and it belongs to your faction) or remotely if you have a Portal Key.

The fifth is that you can upgrade the deployed resonators to ones of a higher level.

The sixth is that you can “target” a portal. All this does is show the distance and direction to the portal on the scanner.

All of these, except hacking and targeting, assume your faction owns the portal or it is uncaptured. The final thing you can do is attack a portal. To do this you need an item called an XMP burster. These are farmed through hacking and are single use. The higher level bursters do more damage, of course, and are used first in an attack. The more Energy a portal has, the longer it will take to destroy. A user for the faction that controls a portal can recharge it during an attack assuming they have XM and are either nearby or in possession of a Portal Key.

Position when using XMP busters is important. Like Phasers, they do more damage close in, so you will want to position yourself next to the resonator when using them. Once all the resonators on an enemy portal are destroyed, it becomes uncaptured and you can then deploy resonators to claim it. Note that hacking and attacking enemy portals are frowned upon by the portals themselves, and they will zap you with an XM draining bolt. When your XM gets too low, you won’t be able to hack, and when it gets even lower the scanner will stop operating until you find more. Being drained of XM does not appear to kill your character.

There are some other aspects of the game. On the Niantic website they drop clues to figuring out passcodes that can be entered into the scanner to receive XM, AP and items. There are power cubes of XM that you can find. But basically the idea is to capture unclaimed portals, destroy enemy portals, create links and control fields.

My Experience

I was first exposed to Ingress through Michael Shuler on G+. I didn’t really understand it more than it was a geolocation game. I strain to call it augmented reality, since you don’t actually see these portals through a camera but instead on a map, but since it was (and still is) a closed beta I didn’t pay too much attention to it.

Then at the OpenNMS Users Conference I saw how interested Alex Finger was in the game, and I decided to apply for an account. He was on the green team so I was determined to be blue just to be contrary, but he pointed out that most of the area where I live is blue, so I should be green just to have something to do. It was a great piece of advice, since you can’t change factions and I later learned that my friend Donnie Springfield was also on the green team and he’s local.

A few days later I got an account and started playing with it, but it didn’t really take off until Eric Evans came to the main OpenNMS office for the week and really showed me how to play it. He is on the blue team, so we made a bunch of jokes about “smurfs” and “frogs” but as I mentioned before the backstory really doesn’t matter – it’s still capture the flag.

The week I spent with Eric and for the weeks after I started playing more. I found myself going out of my way to visit portals. I attacked and captured my first one. I visited portals while traveling for OpenNMS. As I started closing in on Level 4, Donnie showed me how to look for uncaptured portals on the Ingress Intel map. You have to zoom in real close so it can be tedious, but when I discovered a cluster of seven(!) uncaptured portals nearby, I headed out into the country in the early morning rain to start farming AP to level.

When I found myself in a light sprinkle, knee deep in a cow pasture straining to get a data signal so I could fling a resonator out to that remote portal – I knew I had a problem.

I hit Level 4 this morning and I’m going to back way off for awhile. First of all, I’m too busy for such games. Second, even though being at a higher level is fun, nothing in the game play really changes. It takes 70K AP to reach L4, and 1.2M to reach L8. No matter how long a link you create, you get 313 AP. A link that creates a field gets you 1250 more. Hacking an enemy portal gets you 100 AP. That’s a lot of play to reach 1.2M (see the Wikipedia article for more complete info)

When I drive I do find myself hitting the brakes when I see a historic marker or a flag.

I think the game play could be improved by increasing the AP for longer links/bigger fields, or better yet, put the “multi” back in multi-player and have groups of people get more abilities when they work together (I’ll form the head).

I am curious as to the bandwidth requirements of this game, especially if they make it a truly augmented reality app. As I fly by at 60 mph in my car with Ingress running, I can’t imagine the amount of data that would have to flow to keep up. Multiply that by thousands if not millions of others and you have a cool engineering challenge.


I was in San Francisco a few weekends ago and was meeting Geoff Davis for dinner near 24th and Mission. It’s not a bad neighborhood but it isn’t exactly great. I got there early so decided to spend the time hacking the numerous portals in the area. At one point I looked up and found myself in an alley, narrow walls surrounded by some pretty amazing graffiti, but not exactly the safest place to be in the evening carrying around a couple of grand in electronics.

Trust me – in many places wandering around in circles while constantly looking at your phone is not considered normal. Since many if not most portals are near public buildings, in this post-9/11 world expect to be questioned if not threatened.

As I was attacking the fire department portal this week, I had to wander around back to get close to that last resonator. When it died I let out a little “whoop” and turned to see three rather large firemen looking at me all unfriendly-like, and one asked “May we help you, sir?”.

I laughed, told them I was playing a computer game, and showed it to them on my phone. They thought it was pretty cool.

Compared to actual geocaching, Ingress doesn’t require anything to be left on the property or anything to be dug up, etc.

I got a different experience last evening when I was attacking the post office portal. The postmaster, a tall, somewhat severe lady, was taking out some trash so I made sure to say “hi” and let her know what I was doing. She wasn’t happy and suggested that it was illegal for me to be outside of the “public” areas of the post office building. Now, I was under the impression that any area outside of a post office was public, and since I wasn’t interfering with business nor destroying property that I had every right to be there. I spent some time last night doing research and I think I am correct. First off, the idea of “trespassing” is predicated on there being “no trespassing” signs clearly posted. There is an “Authorized Vehicles” sign but nothing about “Authorized Personnel”.

It started to piss me off, and indicates one problem I have with this country. People at all levels of government seem to have forgotten that they serve at the will of the people, and especially at the lower levels, from TSA employees to rural postmasters, seem to want to claim more authority than they really have.

Now I’m not saying she shouldn’t have asked about a weird guy acting strangely next to a government building, but once explained I was hoping she’d have the cool and friendly reaction of the firemen. Instead, she decided to fluff up her feathers and imply it was verboten. Part of me wants to force the issue but the lazy part of me wants to pick a different battle.

Which brings me to the name “Ingress”. I think it is brilliant. Not only does it refer to “signal leakage“, such as the portals “leaking XM” into our world, but also property law, as in the rights of a person to enter a property.

If you are into this sort of thing, and you have an Android phone, I encourage you to check it out. In any case, I think Google has a hit on their hands.