Archive for December, 2007

I’ll alter the bait

December 31st, 2007 — Wordman

Seeing samaBlog tackle an office pool of 2008 predictions from the New York Times, I thought I’d do the same. The only thing is, I think many of the choices suck. So I’m going to answer free-form. Also, I’ll not repeat the questions or choices, so you’ll need to follow along in one of the links above:

  1. The SEC does not allow me to answer this question.
  2. No Country for Old Men
  3. Portions of either the DCMA or the Patriot Act are un-Constitutional. Preferably both.
  4. Tree of Smoke.
  5. The World Without Us.
  6. …services offering media without access control financially crush those that require DRM, and find that “old media” sales (CDs, DVDs) for such “open” titles actually increase as well.
  7. …the 50 trillion dollar shortfall that will fiscally destroy America pretty soon will continue to be unmentioned.
  8. Pervez Musharraf.
  9. Cuba.
  10. …hell freezes over.
  11. …whichever of them happens last. I might even care by then.
  12. …slightly higher than it is now. Also, October and November will be bloody, as the insurgency attempts to influence the U.S. Presidential election.
  13. …roughly equivalent to shuffling deck chairs on the Titantic, as it will be something other than the only one that actually matters (see answer #7).
  14. …something very loud but, ultimately, not important that skews the results of one or more party’s nominations. In the actual election, the standard advantages of height, hair and the “beer factor” will turn out to not play a role.
  15. Hillary Clinton-Robert “Bob” Kerrey
  16. …almost certainly a pair for whom I will not vote.
  17. “Anyone but Bush”. This theme will likely be just as disastrous as the soccer-mom “I just think it’s time for a change” theme that brought Bush to power was. Alternately, the winning theme may be the real lesson learned in the 2000 election: “I can rig election results better than you”.
  18. …something other than the only thing that actually matters (see answer #7).
  19. …the consequences of a 50 trillion dollar shortfall that no one has done anything to fix.

Comics

December 20th, 2007 — Wordman

I lucked into my love of comics. The first bit of luck came from glancing at a comic rack in a supermarket and seeing the cover of something called “the Uncanny X-Men”. I wouldn’t have given it much thought, but I remembered the X-Men from reading my cousin’s copy of Son of Origins, years earlier (that was the second bit of luck), so, I decided to check it out. The third bit of luck was that the storyline in that issue happened to be smack dab in the middle of the “Dark Phoenix Saga”. After that, I was hooked. Perhaps it is nostalgia talking, but this particular story arc is probably the most significant storyline in the most significant comic book of its day, more or less the defining moment in that particular era of comics. The Dark Phoenix Saga, along with a shorter story arc that followed a couple months after called “Days of Future Past”, still resonate now.

Time passed. Somewhere along the line (high school, I think) I stopped reading comics. It wasn’t that I outgrew them. Far from it. It’s that the comics started to suck. With the Claremont/Byrne team gone, lots of mergers and weird (doomed) media deals, and most of the titles trying create yet another version of the X-Men, Marvel sort of lost its way (and I didn’t consider other comics companies worth reading even before that). My loss.

It wasn’t until meeting my high school friend JM in San Fransisco most of the way through college that I started reading comics again. She raved (justifiably, I discovered) about a comic called Sandman. While I haven’t become a comics guru or anything, I have read, and continue to seek, some of the better comics made. They’ve really grown up since I was 10. Maybe even more than I have.

A month or so ago, I was going on and on about comics to a friend of mine, and told him that I’d post some of my favorites. As I don’t have my nose buried deep in the comics scene, many of these will be old news to purists, but they’re worth reading anyway. These days, I don’t have the patience for single issues, so tend to buy trade paperbacks collecting a storyline instead. (Like I said, purists may cringe. I don’t care.)

Classics

Most of the graphic novels still on my shelf are the result of three authors: Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore and Frank Miller. The art of Alex Ross also makes quite a few appearances. Pretty much anything these guys do is a cut above other comics. This is one reason a lot of their work gets translated into (usually bad) movies. Here are some of my favorites:

Season of Mists Watchmen Kingdom Come V Uncle Sam

Season of Mists – 1992

This isn’t the first volume of Sandman, but it is as good of an introduction as any. If the X-Men were the adolescence of comic books, Sandman is almost certainly its maturity. Neil Gaiman’s writing in Sandman is seriously called literature in a number of places, and is one of the few comics worthy of serious annotation. Honestly, if you haven’t read any of the comics in this post, track down all of the volumes of Sandman first. Probably the best comic series ever.

Watchmen – 1986

You will hear more about Watchmen in the coming years, because it is being made into a movie. I suspect the film will be pretty bad, since there is no way to cram the coolness of this graphic novel into two hours. Watchmen is almost certainly Alan Moore’s best writing, which is saying quite a lot. It has also been annotated. A real strength of the book is (with one notable exception) a lack of superpowers, focusing a lot on how crazy you would need to be to dress in a costume and fight crime and, then, what happens when a real superhero shows up.

Kingdom Come – 1996

With possibly the best art in any comic book ever, Kingdom Come was one of the first comics to approach the idea of super heroes from the point of view of the mere mortals around them saying “do we really want these superpowerful beings around” and where the collateral damage from the fights of powered heroes is more palpable. Mix in Armageddon, heroes fighting, and a good story, and you have a winner.

V for Vendetta – 1982, 1988

I have mentioned this book before, and you may have seen the better-than-expected movie version (and, I thought, particularly well cast, for the most part). This book is fairly different from the film, and better in most ways. Like the film, it is fairly wordy, but contains many more literary, historical and artistic references. And, yes, I was surprised that the film didn’t raise more furor than it did. I’m not sure what to make of that.

Uncle Sam – 2000

Being politically loaded, this book changes each time you read it. It features a Uncle Sam as a homeless derelict, lost in many flashbacks of the nation’s past. It’s the type of thing where two different people read it entirely differently. Plus, it looks great. Packed with historical references, it’s annotations are more useful than most. This book also marked the only time I’ve ever been tempted to purchase the original art of a comic image, but it looks like someone else beat me to it.

Dark Night Returns Sin City God Loves, Man Kills Killing Joke Marvels

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns – 1986

It has taken a long time for the film version of Batman to catch up with what was being done with the character in the comics over 20 years ago. The upcoming film with the similar name is not related to this book, which, along with Watchmen, turned the comics industry on its head. This was the book that turned Batman into a darker, more brooding character, in a tale filled with moral ambiguity from all sides.

Sin City: Booze Broads and Bullets – 1991-1997

Frank Miller’s Sin City covers a number of volumes, but I think I like this one best. It’s more like a collection of short stories, all told in the stark noir style the series made famous. The first film did an interesting job of replicating exact panels from these books, which are sort of fun to look for.

God Loves, Man Kills – 1981

This may not be as well known as some of the others, but is worth picking up if you can find it (particularly in its original format). It’s one of the first comics I read that really dealt with religion and prejudice. It’s also fairly gorgeous. I often wonder if it would have been released at all had it come along a bit later into the Reagan years.

Batman: The Killing Joke – 1988

This book makes the list because it is the first time I read a comic about an insane evil villain where I really believed the villain was insane and evil. It also was the first I remember that mentioned Batman himself also needing to be insane to do what he does.

Marvels – 1994

Marvels retells a number of classic Marvel stories from a much different perspective, and killer art by Alex Ross. The “mortals suffering on the sidelines” motif in Kingdom Come originated here, where it is more pronounced, but also more hopeful. It is sort of a stroll through the day of a normal human in a superhuman world.

New(ish) Stuff

Lately, I’ve been reading sort of on and off, mostly off. I’ve liked a lot of what I’ve seen, though. Such as:

Zombies 1602 Y Red Son Justice

Marvel Zombies – 2007

Have you ever wondered what would happen if heroes like the Hulk, Iron Man and Wolverine became flesh-eating zombies? I haven’t either, but Ralph Macchio has. No, not that Ralph Macchio, in spite of what the writer might have you think. This five-issue miniseries takes place in an alternate universe, and manages to be be jaw-dropping, funny and disgusting all at the same time. Not that intellectual, but fun. There’s also a sequel which pulls in the Evil Dead franchise. Unrelated to this series is another, which I haven’t read yet, but want to: Zombies vs. Robots vs. Amazons.

1602 – 2007

Another alternate universe story, this one exploring what the world would have been like if the “silver age” heroes of the Marvel universe came into being in 1602 AD. Dr. Strange, for example, is court sorcerer to Elizabeth I. Mythology making as only Gaiman can deliver.

Y: The Last Man – 2003

Y, a reference to the lead character as well as the male chromosome, is a long running series about a world where all the male mammals, humans included, suddenly drop dead. All except Yorick, an unexceptional guy, and his monkey. It’s a good concept, well executed, with great writing.

Superman: Red Son – 2004

In the 1930’s, suppose Superman landed in Stalinist Russia instead of a field in Kansas. Red Son explores this idea, and the result is not what you might expect. For one thing, Superman is much less of a dick than usual. This is not the first alternate location for Superman either. The first one I remember is a short story that has him landing in Germany, called “Übermensch!” by Kim Newman (excerpt). There was also Superman: True Brit, co-written by John Cleese (yes, that John Cleese) and drawn by John Byrne, which I have not read.

Justice – 2007

Justice gives Alex Ross a huge canvas and cast of heroes and villains to work with. The story is also pretty good, though it starts better than it finishes. It’s also a little pricey and oddly packaged (three different volumes).

Inhumans Eternals Secret War Danger Girl Earth X

Inhumans – 2000

One of the many bizarre products of the illustrious mind of Jack Kirby (and probably a number of chemicals), the Inhumans have always seemed to occupy a strange area in the Marvel universe. I frankly, never really cared about them before reading this. The story is decent and the art is great, making particularly good use of black pages.

Eternals – 2007

Another concept from the mind of Kirby, the Eternals came much later than his Inhumans did, and were gods among men. His series featuring them didn’t live long, and languished (though had a fairly long reach in the mythology of Marvel). The Eternals were sort of a C-list title, frankly. But that may have changed with this book, the story picked up by Neil Gaiman, manipulating and inventing mythology as only he can.

Secret War – 2006

Not to be confused with Secret Wars, a miniseries from decades ago, this is a shades-of-gray, post-special-ops type story, with both emotional and political fallout. It’s also a painted comic, a style I like. The concept is better than the execution, but it is still enjoyable. Along with 1602, it made me like Nick Fury

Danger Girl – 2001

This is not new, but I only read it recently. Danger Girl is designed to work like an episodic pulp action melodrama, where all the characters are unapologetically gorgeous or hunky. It’s sort of mash up of Indiana Jones, James Bond and Baywatch, where the characters are drawn suspiciously like particular actors. It is definitely not literature, but lots of fun. Plus, with an into by Bruce Campbell (yes, that Bruce Campbell), how can you go wrong.

Earth X – 2005

Like Danger Girl I only read this recently. Earth X attempts to tie all the weird mythologies of the Marvel universe into a single unit. It almost even succeeds, though it takes a few, much more contrived sequels (stay away from those). One of the things I like about it is that, like Red Son, it is not afraid to explore the political consequences of superheroes. Beings with super powers probably really would take over countries and so on.

I may add to this post periodically, but that should do for now.

Merry economic war

December 20th, 2007 — Wordman

You don’t have to look very far to find dire warnings about Chinese goods these days. For several months, the focus has been on toys with lead paint in them. Before that, however, there were beads containing GHB, toothpaste containing diethylene glycol, and poisonous petfood. If you think back to this same time last year, I don’t remember any such thing being so prevalently in the news, even though it is difficult to imagine that these goods went from being perfectly safe to the deadly poisons the news harps about in twelve months. It’s possible that these stories have reached the mass consciousness organically, feeding on each other to dominate mind space. Maybe they are sort of a fad, where the U.S. media (ever hungry for stories to scare the crap out of you) finds they consistently sell better when China is trying to kill everyone. Yet, when you think about the fairly rapid rise of these stories, the broad range of their repetition, and the staying power they seem to have, I wonder if there isn’t something a bit more to it. I’m wondering if it’s an American attack in an economic war between China and the United States.

Honestly, I hope it is. It should be. In the first place, there is some reason to believe that China has been conducting large scale industrial espionage against the U.S. for some time. More troubling, China has been accumulating a vast reserve of U.S. dollars for years. The quantity of this horde seems far in excess of Chinas needs, and opens the possibility of China using this reserve to intentionally manipulate American economic policy for its own benefit, largely through a kind of economic blackmail. In August, coincidentally close to when the poison goods stories kicked into high gear, a number of Chinese officials began hinting they they would do exactly that if negotiations didn’t go their way. As early as 2002, China was also the second largest holder of U.S. bonds, which likewise frightened people, although some called China a scapegoat (Communism was just a Red herring).

This year saw another new development as well. Long content to let others come to it, China began seriously reaching out into the world. They recently bought a large chunk of Morgan Stanley, have a large and growing influence in Africa, and will be hosting the Olympic Games in less than a year. A few months ago, an author being interviewed on NPR (I can’t remember who, sorry) made the observation that, when you look at most of written history, the economic dominance of China has been the “natural state of the world”, with recent centuries being the fluke.

In October, both Japan and China started selling U.S. bonds for the first time. This is troubling because it can have cascading effects, since, in economics, perception of reality often causes a belief in that reality, which can easily cause that reality to occur. Laurence Kotlikoff, in his book The Coming Generational Storm, warns that the logical conclusion of present US economic policy is an inevitable collapse which, most likely, will be forced on us by just such an event, where the collective market suddenly stops believing in U.S. creditworthiness.

So, many punches come at America, but few were going the other direction, at least until the “China is trying to kill us” furor began. As a weapon, I’m not sure how effective it is, though. There have been some costly recalls, but these tend to hurt American companies as well (just ask Mattel). Other than an object lesson to companies to (unrealisticly) seek other partners, that doesn’t seem to do much good. As propaganda designed to rouse “don’t buy China” sentiment, catered to mess with Christmas sales as much as possible, it succeeds a bit better, but to what end? As a negotiation ploy? If that’s the plan, it doesn’t seem to be working.

Talks with China recently failed to accomplish much. According to that story, chief negotiator Henry Paulson thinks that:

The biggest issue we have with China right now is economic nationalism, the problem of its domestic industries welcoming competition. In China, what you find is that you’ve got an increasingly powerful domestic industry that is a strong lobby.

Trying to penetrate the Chinese market is an extremely old tale. So far, there seems to be little the U.S. can do to accomplish it. Here’s hoping we’re actually trying.

Update: not surprising.

Backing up a 1&1 root server

December 4th, 2007 — Wordman

I have a simple need. I want to use rsync to copy various directories on a root server from 1&1 to my Mac. I set all this up this before, but a couple of days ago, the root server refused to reboot. After a lot of tinkering (and swearing) using the recovery systems and FAQs supplied by 1&1, I couldn’t fix it (also, see “An Aside” below), so re-imaged the entire machine. This completely rewrites the box, so the backup must be set up all over again. Setting up an rsync backup turns out to be more difficult than it needs to be, requiring a number of additional steps. Naturally, I didn’t write these down last time, so had to rediscover both the problems and the solutions again. This time, I’m recording them here so that a) I can find them when I need them again and b) on the off chance that they might help somebody.

I should mention that I am not a Linux guru by any stretch of the imagination. What follows will probably bore real Linux geeks to tears. Or, maybe just make them chuckle at my incompetence. Some or all of the following could be wrong or a bad idea. If so, please leave some comments (that’s the third reason I’m posting this).

The Problem

Using rsync to backup a machine makes backups much more quickly than using, say SFTP. This is because rsync only copies things that have changed since the last time you ran it. So, the initial backup pulls everything, but after that each time it runs, only the small number of altered files are transmitted over the network. This requires rsync software on both the source and destination machine, as they communicate to decide if a file needs transmitted, and this is where my problem is.

I re-imaged the server using a 1&1 supplied image that sets up the box using a Fedora distribution, all set up to use Plesk and the other standard bits that 1&1 provides. Unfortunately, rsync is not one of those bits, for reasons that are not clear. It is possible that 1&1 wants you to buy backup services from them instead. So, you need to install rsync on the server.

The “Fedora way” of installing software is to use a tool called yum, which “automatically computes dependencies and figures out what things should occur to install packages”. This tool is included in the 1&1 Fedora image, so the following command (as root) should do the trick:

yum install rsync

And here is where things get ugly. While the yum program is present, it’s configuration is messed up:

# yum install rsync
Setting up Install Process
Setting up repositories
core                      100% |=========================| 1.1 kB    00:00
http://update.onlinehome-server.info/distribution/fedora/linux/core/updates/6/x86_64/repodata/repomd.xml: [Errno 12] Timeout: 
Trying other mirror.
Error: Cannot open/read repomd.xml file for repository: updates-released

At this point, I could just manually install rsync and call it a day, but I really would like yum to be working for some other reasons. The error indicates a URL timeout, which means that yum is likely trying to contact a site that isn’t actually there. So, an obvious thing to try is changing yum to point to a different server.

Yum uses two main configuration concepts: a /etc/yum.conf file and a number of files in a /etc/yum.repos.d directory. A quick grep onlinehome /etc/yum.* shows the bad URL is in /etc/yum.conf. Looking at all the other repos in /etc/yum.repos.d, it isn’t clear if the two repos in /etc/yum.conf are even needed. They appear to be 1&1 specific, pointing to a server that 1&1 doesn’t seem to be paying attention to. Certainly, for rsync, they are probably not needed. So, let’s try telling yum to ignore those two. According to the config file, they are named “base” and “updates-released”. A look at the man page and try this:

yum clean all
yum --disablerepo=updates-released,base install rsync

This seems to work like a charm. So, the source for the backup should be ready to go.

There may also be another solution. The update server that 1&1 uses is inside the same firewall as the root server, so can’t be seen from the internet. Even from the root server, it appears that, by default, the root server can only get to the update server using ftp, not http. This is why yum times out when trying to connect to it. It could be that altering the config to use ftp URLs would work.

I have no idea why the install images provided by 1&1 are configured in such a way that they don’t actually function. I’ve sent them mail about this, but they have not replied.

The Destination

The destination of the backup information is a disk on my Mac, which is running Leopard. Rsync comes with Mac OS X, so should already be ready to go. I have set up a “webbackup” script, tailored to the specific sites I want backed up, and I was running this at noon each day as a cron job.

Or, I was. Until I installed Leopard.

Unbeknownst to me, doing an “upgrade” install of Leopard empties out the crontabs of all users, stashing copies in /var/cron/tabs. This deactivates your jobs without warning. This means that the webbackup I thought I had actually hadn’t been updated for several weeks. Fortunately, I managed to suck down a copy of my web folders and the MySQL data folder the hard way (see “An Aside”, below) before re-imaging everything.

Anyway, my backup script looks similar to the following:

#!/bin/bash

# The full path to the place on the local machine that will hold the backup
DEST="/Volumes/Backup Disk"

# The full path to the place on the local machine that will hold database backups
SQLDEST=${DEST}/sql

# The name of the target domain. This name is used both to connect to the
# target server, as well as the name of a directory created in ${DEST} to
# hold the backup data.
DOMAIN=yourdomain.com

# The username and server that are used to log into the target machine.
USER=user@${DOMAIN}

# The path to the directory on the target that will get echoed to the local.
# If you use a relative path here (no starting slash), it will be relative to 
# the home directory on the target machine. So, if you leave this empty,
# if will suck down the whole target directory. You can also use absolute
# paths.
USERPATH=

mkdir "${DEST}"
mkdir "${DEST}/${DOMAIN}"
mkdir "${SQLDEST}"

/usr/bin/rsync --recursive -t --delete --ignore-errors -e 'ssh' ${USER}:${USERPATH} "${DEST}/${DOMAIN}/"

# For each database, do the following
MYSQLDUMP="mysqldump --opt --quote-names -u dbuser --password=dbpassword database_name"
/usr/bin/ssh ${USER} "${MYSQLDUMP}" > "${SQLDEST}/tmp.sql"
if [ -s "${SQLDEST}/tmp.sql" ]; then
   mv "${SQLDEST}/tmp.sql" "${SQLDEST}/database_name.sql"
fi

Being intended for use on Macs, this script should work even for file paths containing spaces. It would use a lot fewer quote characters if you didn’t need to worry about that. You should be able to adjust this script to add additional database backups, extra domains, etc.

This script uses ssh, as does rsync. So, when you run it, most likely you will get asked to enter your password several times. This is irritating and, if the idea is to have this happen automatically, problematic.

It is possible to set up ssh such that keys can be shared between the target and local machines, using them for validation instead of a password. This is less secure, because any ssh connection from the same local user to that user/target combination will automatically connect without a password. If you are away from your machine while logged in, this can be a bad breach.

I create a special “backup” user on my Mac to do this kind of thing. This user has limited rights to the rest of the machine, and serves only the purpose of backing up stuff. Since I am almost never logged in as this user, it minimizes the threat of me accidentally leaving the machine still logged in has “backup”.

Once this is done, try running the webbackup script from the local machine by hand a few times. Once it works the way you want, put the script somewhere (referred to here as /path/to/webbackup. To add it into cron, you need to add an entry to your crontab. Log into the local machine account you will use for backing up and get the crontab into editable mode using crontab -e. The command I use backs up every day at noon and looks something like this:

0 12 * * * /path/to/webbackup >> /path/to/webbackuplog.txt 2>&1

An Aside

I mentioned at the start that I tried using 1&1’s recovery tools. These boot the system from a minimal image, rather than the OS on the box, allowing you to rummage around the box. This allowed me to suck the data that hadn’t been backed up off the machine before I re-imaged it, which saved my butt. Doing this requires that you manually mount the machines disks. They provide instructions on how to do this, but as of the writing of this post, these are now out of date. Their servers now use a RAID in mirrored mode (a.k.a. RAID 1), which can’t be mounted following their instructions. Following their document, your mount commands return errors saying the device is “already mounted or /mnt busy”. This error message is even semi-true. What seems to be happening is that the RAID is marking these drives as “in use” but the whole RAID is not mounted. So, you need to mount the RAID. This is similar to their instructions, but uses different devices. A forum entry suggested the command cat /proc/mdstat to display the names of the raid devices. In my case, these were /dev/md1 and the like. It turned out that these were set up with similar mappings to those described in the 1&1 instructions, so similar mount commands worked. The file systems were also autodetected, which helps:

rescue:~> mkdir /mnt/raid
rescue:~> mount /dev/mda1 /mnt/raid
rescue:~> mount /dev/hda5 /mnt/raid/usr 
rescue:~> mount /dev/hda6 /mnt/raid/home 
rescue:~> mount /dev/hda7 /mnt/raid/var
rescue:~> ls /mnt/raid/var/www/vhosts

Once you have these drives mounted, you should be able to use scp to suck the data you need off the machine, at the very least. Ideally, you should also be able to alter whatever files caused the problem that necessitated the recovery tools. In my case, the problem seemed to occur out of the blue, not from messing with config files or something, so after a few attempts to figure out what was going on, I just nuked the system.