A decade of writing this stuff? Seriously.

In tinkering with my blogging platform and playing with different technologies, I’ve just realized that I’ve been writing online for well over a decade now.

It started a long time ago, when I was writing personal stuffs on a public Open Diary back in 1995, under an alias, which for the life of me, I can’t recall. The site is currently unavailable, and I was curious to see if they still indexed old entries, and see if I could dig anything up from back then.

It was a place that I tossed out whatever I had in mind, a place to jot down the ideas running through my head, a place for a creative outlet with the safety of knowing nothing would ever come back to me, since I lived behind the veil of anonymity (since back then, PRISM was just a dream…), and I was able to express whatever I wanted, in a safe-like place.

After writing there for a couple of years, I was witness to the 1997 Ben Yehuda Street Bombing – I was at a cafe off the street with some friends, when it happened, and went to offer whatever help I could, having had some First Aid training. After spending some 2 hours dealing with things that I’ve pushed far to the back of my mind, I was gathered by a friend, carted to his house, and sat in shock for a few hours, before making my way home.

The next day, I wrote about it on OD, and referenced my friend by first name only.

A couple of days later, a comment came on my post, asking if my friend was ‘So-and-so from Jerusalem’, and if so, that they knew him, and agreed that he was a great help. We began discussing our mutual friend, and eventually met in person.

This was the first revelation I had – you’re never truly anonymous.

We became pals, hung out a few times, and continued to stay up to date with each other for a while.
I did notice that after a while, my writing dwindled, now I knew that there is someone out there who knew who I am, not that I was saying anything outrageous, but the feeling of freedom dropped.

During my time in the Air Force, I wrote extremely rarely, since getting online was near impossible from base, so after discharge in 2000, I pretty much had stopped writing altogether.

In 2003, my friend Josh Brown invited me to the closed community (at the time) of LiveJournal, where it quickly grew into the local social networking site, where we could post, comment, and basically keep up with each other’s lives.
Online quizzes were ‘the thing’ and posting your results as an embed to your post was The Thing to do.

After spending 4 years on LJ, they began providing additional customizations, added features for paid-only users, and I didn’t want to spend any money on that, rather I wanted to host my own site.

So I did, for a while. In 2006, I built my own WordPress 2.0 site (history!), hosted it on my home server (terrible bandwidth) and began on the journey of customized web application administration. Dealing with databases, application code updates, frameworks, plugins, you name it.

I think I actually enjoyed tinkering with the framework more than actually writing.

Anyhow, I’ve written sporadically over time, about a wide variety of things, both on this site, and elsewhere.
The invention of Facebook, twitter, and pretty much any social network content outlet has replaced a lot of the heavier topic writing that went on here.

But it does indeed fill we with some sense of happiness that I’ve been doing this for a long time, and have preserved whatever I could from 2003 until now, and continue to try and put out some ideas now and then.

My hope is that anyone can take the to express their creativity in whatever fashion they feel possible, and share what they want to with the rest of us.

My foray into web development

I like browsing the web. I do it a lot throughout my day.

A lot of people work hard at making the web a cool-looking place. Some sites make simplicity look so easy, that when you look under the hood, it’s all chaos and destruction, folded and crunched together, all to present something really nice and smooth for the end-user.

I’m not a developer – much less a web dev. There’s a lot to know in any field of computing – and in web it’s pretty much the most visible part of computing as a whole, since pretty much anyone anywhere is going to use a web browser to view a site at some point.

I mean, sure, we all learned some HTML – hell, I wrote some sites back in the days of Geocities, and it was awesome to learn about tiling backgrounds of animated GIFs, and when CSS came around, minds blown!

And I left that field for the frontend developers, and went into infrastructure and operations.

And as time passes, you find yourself managing a variety of systems and knowledge, and at some point, you may say to yourself, “I wish I knew how to answer this question…”

And then you write some code to answer it. Voila! You’re a developer, of sorts.

I’m a huge fan of data visualization. Telling stories with pictures dates back millennia, and it’s very relatable to most people. Recently, I wrote a tool to help myself display the dependency complexity of Chef roles, and I found that, while being very useful, the output is very limited, as it’s a static generated image, whereas we live in a web-friendly world where everything is interactive and fun!

So when I came across another hard question I wanted to answer, I thought, “Why not make this a web application?”

This time, the question I wanted to answer was: As a GitHub Organization owner for my company, what human-to-team-to-software-repository relationships do we have, and are they secure?

If you’ve ever managed an Organization in GitHub, there are a few key elements.

  1. An Organization can have many Repositories
  2. An Organization can have many Teams
  3. A Repository can have many Teams
  4. A Team can have many members, but only one permission (read only, read/write, owner)

So sorting out who is on what Team, what access they have, across many repositories, can be a security nightmare. Especially when you have more than 4-5 repositories.

During my first foray into solving this, I cobbled together a command-line tool, using Ruby with the Graphviz library. I’ve like Graphviz for years – it’s straightforward, as structured text gets rendered into a graph and then can be output to a file.

Very straightforward, has some limitations, but basically allows you to store graphs as text, and re-render them when changes happen. Basically, it’s like storing source code and not the binary output.

But since there were some limitations, and I wanted this new question to be more than a command-line tool, something I could share with the world at large, without requiring any client-side installation of any tools or dependencies.

So I spent a lot of time hemming and hawing, looking at web frameworks and trying to figure out some of them, and “how does this work?” came up a lot.

Finally, yesterday I set out to sit down and accomplish this task. I sat in a Starbucks in New York City, and had a Venti. I started banging away at about 11:30. I took a break for a refill and a snack around 1:30, and when I sat down again, I kept hacking away until 9:30pm, when I deemed completion.

The code was written, tested by me locally, pushed to GitHub, deployed to Heroku, DNS name wired up and all. As soon as I completed, I left Starbucks, and heaved a huge sigh – it was one hell of a mental high, I was in “the zone” and had been there for a long time.

You are more than welcome to browse the source code here and the finished project here. I call it the GitHub Organization Viewer, hence “GOVweb”.

I have a bunch of other ideas on how to make this better, how to model the data, which visual style to use, but I think for now, I’m going to leave it for a bit, and see what I think about it in a couple of months.

But all in all, this reinforced my opinion to never be afraid to try tackling a new idea, a new project, a new field you’re unfamiliar with – as long as you can read, comprehend and learn, the world is your oyster.

Spread your wings and fly…

Commercial flight is no longer something I look forward to.

There was a time that I would get excited about traveling through the air, it was different, exotic, something reserved for special occasions.

As I have grown, and flown more, it feels like when you can see beyond the intricacies of a magicians’ web of illusion, and realize that the trick wasn’t that complicated after all. It’s all simple mechanics, and seeing the same trick performed again and again, it becomes routine and mechanical.

I guess that’s true of anything though – take the fact that I am writing this mid-flight, over the Atlantic Ocean, on a device that did not exist a few years ago – a netbook computer – and how much that has become a routine part of our lives and like many technological advances is taken for granted soon enough.

My traveling companion for this trip is my uncle, who rarely flies internationally, and just requested that I don’t write about him. Apparently he doesn’t realize that the request in and of itself a reason to do so – everyone say Hi to Uncle Dennis!

Today’s trip started with us meeting at the airport, and spending a few moments weighing our bags with a mini-bag scale that I carry on trips, to verify that our checked luggage would be within the weight parameters and not incur hefty overweight fees. A short re-distribution took place, where we exchanged some items for others between our bags so that we were both at the appropriate limit of each bag being under 50 pounds (or 22 kilos).

Then we joined the line of the many people trying to be processed at the El Al check-in desks. This is a different procedure than any other airline, as El Al has their own security screening process, which isn’t that secure, I hate to tell you.

Once you finally get around enough of the line to reach an actual security person, they ask you a few standardized questions – pretty much the ones that George Carlin has ridiculed in epic words – before sending you off to the right, to wait in line again, where your checked luggage (only checked luggage!) will be scanned by their heft X-ray machines.

Waiting in this new line showed a degree of inefficient operation that I have grown accustomed to, and just like everything else when it comes to international flight, I simply sigh, suck it up, and ride the waves of despair. There are two large scanners, and only one person loading bags on to them. One line shuts down while we are waiting there due to a large family with a bunch of children having some sort of issue with putting the stroller through, or something else.

Most of the staff are American TSA workers – except two – an older Israeli guy who kept fluttering around and interrupting any kind of flow that was slowly being achieved, and a younger Israeli girl whose sole job, it seemed, was to place a “scanned” sticker on bags that gad been scanned. She couldn’t do that very well, as a family had to come back from their lengthy check in process to ask for a sticker – which she simply gave to them.

Insecurity Note #1 – who is to say that bag was scanned or not? What is to prevent me from taking the same approach, simply not choosing to scan one bag, then coming back to the desk and getting a sticker for the second?

Insecurity Note #2 – once the bags were scanned – only checked luggage, mind you – they are returned to our possession for a lengthy wait for the check-in desk. During this time, I literally could have placed anything at all from my pockets, or even anything larger from my carry-on or backpack into my luggage that now, thanks to the security girl’s ability to focus for a moment, has a nice, official “scanned” sticker on it.

Uncle Dennis and I chat about this, shake our heads in despair and continue on with the show. I could have brought a bag full of firecrackers with me.

The check-in desks never seem to operate fast – every traveler in line in front of me seems to have a very specific set of problems that has never been encountered in the past 40 years of flight, and requires involvement of a supervisor, a manager, and sometimes a quick chat with the captain. However, it must be me, that I take the time to figure out the rules of this stupid game and adhere to them, as the moment I step up, I am typically checked in, have my boarding pass and luggage tags all in under three minutes.

From this point forward is the move to the last security scan before the gates, and the last time beloved ones will see you – gone are the days where they can stand at the door of plane, wave at the aircraft as it taxis away to wait forever in line on the tarmac for clearance to take off. Now they say their goodbyes, and sometimes watch as the mass of humanity gets funneled slowly into another snake maze line, where their passport and boarding pass and given a cursory glance before shunting them into another processing line where the most exciting part of all of this takes place – the metal detector and carry-on x-ray.

Why is this the most exciting? Because it has become a challenge to me to beat this system at its own game. I have been stopped more times than I can count at this gateway.
My shoes are unlaced and come off, my bag pops open and the netbook comes out into a plastic tub, the shoes go in there too. Everything in my pockets – phone, wallet, and change, anything – goes into the bag. My belt flies off into the plastic tub. My jacket is already in there. Everything goes on the conveyor belt.

Then, with a deep sigh, I step forward to the beckoning TSA agent at the metal detector. And with a sense of “I know this thing is going to beep at me”, I walk through and stop, waiting for the questions about my pocket contents, any medical metal hardware or whatever else they can ask me.

Guess what? I won this time. Maybe the machine is malfunctioning. Maybe the sun is shining just the right way right now, or maybe the magnetic poles of the Earth are aligned perfectly for me right at this moment.

No call for a bag check, no red light went off, requiring a roundabout impromptu interrogation by a security idiot, for whom petty power has corrupted beyond all proportions, and no further hold up for me at this station.

Sigh of relief, grab my shoes, bags and laptop. I had almost considered doing this trip in only my pajamas.

Up until this point, I think I’ve waited in about four lines, and there’s one more – boarding the plane. Not the most efficient process to say the least – as this airline does not board by section, row or reason – simply board now. There’s a line that stretches to two gates away for this flight only. We take a seat, and wait for the line to be processed at a snail’s pace.

Once on board, again it seems like people have forgotten all semblance of “how things work”, not realizing that we’re all going to be compressed in this tin can for the next 10 hours or so. Crowding in the aisles, stopping and talking with people already seated, blocking the passage of everyone else from boarding, tossing their carry-on in to the overhead compartments and sitting down.

Before leaving home, I took the time to visit the El Al web site and look at their carry-on luggage policy – and got out the measuring tape to verify that my bag did indeed meet the required size limits, and it did. However, a Boeing 747-400 (how long ago was this particular aircraft made?) center overhead compartments are about 1 inch smaller than the advertised capacity. My frustration of trying to jam my own bag into their compartment were heard for a few rows, and a few people smiled in sympathy, and nod. I guess they had a similar experience at some point.

I walk farther down the plane looking for space in one of the overhead compartments that face the windows, large enough to share, and as I see an opening and begin to raise my bag, a guy tells me that his “seats are here and this room should be reserved for him and his family”. I grumble and move along further down, finally spot a vacancy 10 rows away, rush there, toss my bag in, slam the compartment shut and sigh in relief.

Fighting my way upstream to get back to my seat, I look and see that, of course, I’m sitting next to a guy that has had his (and mine and yours) share of good meals, and that his gut spills over on to the armrest, to squash against my right arm, prompting me to fly with my arms folded in front of me for most of the flight.

The woman in front of me comments loudly that she cannot believe how small the seats and space between rows is. I smile in sympathy and nod.

And we haven’t even begun to taxi to the runway yet.

Time goes by, so slowly

I seem to be letting larger amounts of time slip by between posts, and that kind of makes me sad.

Between having the ability to Tweet, Facebook status update and Google Buzz, i feel that sometimes I just don’t want to write, and that is a Bad Thing.

Writing is a great way to dump some of the thoughts, feelings and ideas from inside this mess of a brain to written word, and in the past has allowed me to review these at a later date to see what the heck I was thinking and talking about.

Now I am not committing to writing regularly, or even on any set schedule, but just doing it now and then seems to help out.

In recent past, I’ve been tinkering with all kinds of technologies – from TCL to python and powershell, from WordPress php and css to Google AppEngine, and even more in the hardware and software realms.

Some of the things I am teaching myself is how to understand enough of the lowest possible level to get the core ideas to then be able to make that jump into the high-level arena, where having the big picture is crucial.

Some of that lies within data visualization, some of it relies on knowing the inner workings of a system, another is how to get data in and out of a management interface, and trying to figure out what is the question you want answered.

I think figuring out these kind of things are the challenges I like most.

Site was down

My site apparently got hacked about a month ago, thanks to me not keeping my site software up to date, and left a small vulnerability open, so something went wrong, and I was offline for about three months, until I sat down, and started fresh, with the same content database. It might take a few weeks until all the software is brought back into play, so let me know if anything is broken, and I’ll try to fix it.

Staying on top of patching software is not easy, especially when you do that by day, and when you get home you don’t really want to look at a computer anymore.

But it’s back, and I’m happy. Life is better.

Climbing to the top

Today, some crazy Frenchman decided to climb the New York Times building. A more detailed story here.

I was set to meet some improv pals at 39th and 8th Ave – one block away from the NYTimes building, and as I approached, throngs of people were in the streets, yelling and pointing.

It seems like there’s a second climber, who also wanted to scale the impressive building.

So naturally, i stopped, yanked my camera out of my bag, and snapped off a few.

See here:

Continue reading Climbing to the top

He’s back, and he’s bad.

It’s been a couple of weeks since I left for my visit home, and while I have to complete my full vacation post (and it’ll be a long one), suffice to say that I am still alive, despite random attempts to change that, and had a great time.

Jet lag is annoying, and I think I’ve finally kicked it, and I started my 201 improv class – it’s gonna be great.

Back in New York City, I am happy to report that it’s still on the map, and hasn’t scurried off and hidden under the grandfather clock in the foyer in my absence.

D00d, I’m in NYC!

OMG, where to start?

Well, this has sure been a fairly eventful week or so. OK – first things first.

Thursday night’s party was awesome – so thank you everyone for coming and partying with us! Over 60 people came through my door and I think just about everyone had a good time. Much booze was consumed, and thanks to Dan’s predictive abilities, we had exactly 2 bagels left over the next morning (which were promptly consumed).

Thanks a mil to Alter & Naomi for Friday night’s dinner (and also to Josh for organizing it, and Shawn & Yaffa for being there to tolerate me one last time).

Thanks a TON to Ruth, who got up in the middle of the night and drove me to the airport.

My flight was thankfully uneventful – I caught up on a few episodes of “The Inside”, slept some, ate some cookies that Batsheva had sent over on Friday afternoon (YUM!), slept some more, ate terrible airline food, and had some fun conversations with my seat-mates.

I got picked up from the airport by my aunt & cousin, and they drove me back to Manhattan. The traffic is horrible – I’m resolved to try and stay on public transport for as long as possible. I’m still unsure which is the more cost-effective MetroCard to get – the pay-per-ride for $2/each or a weekly/monthly? I guess it depends on whether or not I’m planning on more than two rides a day – any advice?

So I’ve spent a couple days recuperating and trying to get on track. Got most of my stuff folded & put away – still a little more to deal with before I have a clean living room.

Last night, I made it to “Avenue Q” on Broadway, and it was a hoot. Little advice: you can get Box Office tickets for about $48 in the Rear Mezzanine, or add another $10 over at TKTS and get much more superb seats. It was a lot of fun, and I’d go see it again anytime.

After I had gotten my ticket at the window, I kept hearing screaming from somewhere around the corner Continue reading D00d, I’m in NYC!

Discount price? No problem.

So today I was out and about in Manhattan, and I met with the guy that sent me out on the quick fix-it job last week in Brooklyn.
He thinks that there is definitely something to develop with me and him. I am guessing that he is looking to finally start structuring the business part of his company and letting someone else deal with the day-to-day client/project/tech team management. We’ll see what develops, as tomorrow I’m meeting with some of his team at a client’s site to discuss some strategy.

After that, I moseyed on around and got lost at Penn Station looking on how to Continue reading Discount price? No problem.