Dec 142010
 

SD Urban linked over to a story at SD Uptown News about the “Restoring the Magic” trolley project concept.  It seems like a great idea – bring back the old school trolley cars, run them downtown for a while and push the route up north to connect along some of the old San Diego Electric Railway lines. It is mind blowing that the zoo isn’t connected to the trolley, let alone Balboa Park or the beach. For a tourist city, we sure do make it hard for tourists to get around.

Anyone who has ever visited Trolley Barn Park in Normal Heights has probably thought about what the city would look like if the old street car lines still existed.  It is a shame that the move to buses and the Great American streetcar scandal killed all the infrastructure and investment in those old lines. Getting that infrastructure back will have a large cost, but seems worth it to me.

Dec 082010
 

Too much money, too much downtime. That sums up my experience with my web hosting company over the last couple years. My shared hosting account costs about $120/year, and sure didn’t feel like I was getting my money’s worth. Due to ridiculous email downtime and failing SSL certs I moved email services to Google apps a year ago. That helped a lot, but many times over the last few months my web server has gone down for hours at a time.  The alternatives were to deal with another unknown web host (with likely the same problems), or buy a VPS (virtual private server) for a more than what I am paying now. Amazon web services was out of the question for personal use, as a small instance was $300 per year.

All that changed this fall though. Amazon introduced micro instances – 613 MB RAM machines which provide a small amount of consistent CPU and burst CPU capacity when additional cycles are available. This is plenty of horsepower for my little website; probably more overall resources than it had access to in shared hosting. Importantly the pricing is quite reasonable when you consider reserved instances. The three year reserved instance works out to $88.65 per year, plus storage and bandwidth costs (minimal in my case).   The real kicker though is that Amazon is eating the costs for micro instances + services for one year with their AWS Free Usage Tier to try to get more customers using AWS.

You can’t beat free, right?  This sounds like a hell of a deal, and it is. But this does come with hidden costs – your time and experience with two aspects:

  • The Amazon Web Services platform. I’m pretty familiar with AWS already – I’ve been using Amazon Web Services (EC2, EBS, S3, etc) at work for about two years now. It is great for being able to expand out with as much processing power as you want. Though things have been quite simplified these days (boot from EBS, elastic IPs, web control panel, etc), the service and concepts can have a fairly steep learning curve if you are new to it.
  • Configuring & running a Linux server. I’m using Amazon’s Linux image for my server with mysql and apache installed. Getting applications like Gallery and WordPress running happily on a new server does take some reading up if you aren’t familiar with linux and web concepts (e.g using yum to install dependencies, editing config files to enable php modules and htaccess). You also need to think about things which are normally taken care of by your web hosting provider, like backups.

This page is being served to you from my Amazon micro instance.  It took me an afternoon to transfer my files from my old hosting provider and get everything setup correctly on Amazon. If you were new to the platform or Linux, it would take longer than that. But if treated as a learning experience, it is an amazing opportunity. AWS Free Usage Tier lets you try out a server for a year for free, that’s pretty damned amazing.  Frankly, I don’t know of a better learning lab – you can pick and choose from hundreds of starting images, destroy them, and start fresh at any time easily and quickly with no cost.

The real question is – will I still think it is a good idea to run my own web server a year from now?  Probably not, but it was an fun little project.

Dec 052010
 

During our weekend in Brussels we missed out on some sites like Cantillon Brewery, but we managed to hit Bier Circus before it closed Saturday night. The food was pretty good, but it was the beer selection we came for. We poured through their beer menu and had some lovely selections over the course of the meal and evening. While their regular menu is impressive enough, we also paid a god awful sum to try an off menu choice, Westvleteren 12.

That name doesn’t mean much to most people. Westvleteren is one of only seven Trappist breweries in the world. The others you may recognize – Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, Westmalle, Achel, and Koningshoeven (aka La Trappe). All are well known for their excellent beer. The critical difference with Westvleteren is that unlike the other monasteries, it has no interest in producing commercial quantities of beer. Westvleteren only brews enough beer to cover monastery costs, no more, regardless of demand. People have to call in to the abbey in advance to make a reservation on a particular day to pickup a case of beer (and no more than a case). Given the rarity of the beer, it has produced a bit of an obsession in the beer world and has consistently ranked one of, if not the best, beer in the world.

The “best” just seems silly to me. Ranking is such a strange concept when applied to intangibles and variances. A prime example is travel. When someone asks me “what has been your favorite place to travel to”, I honestly don’t have an answer. I’ve love to return to any of them; each brought a difference experience to the table. I feel the same way about *the best* food or drink.

Is the Westvleteren 12 an excellent beer? Definitely. The best? It doesn’t matter. I’m just as happy with a St. Bernardus Abt 12 or Trappistes Rochefort 10. Perhaps that’s for the best. Scarcity and expense have an impact on our perception of how much we think we will like something. But research shows it doesn’t work out that way – we frequently like the cheaper stuff better.

Dec 022010
 

brussels brussels
Photos of Brussels, Belgium

We stayed in Brussels over the weekend, in the north part of downtown, off Koningsstraat. I say that because I think it has a lot of impact on our impressions of the city. The city center was a complete ghost town over the weekend. Everything except Grote Markt and area of course. Those small streets were humming with activity and markets. Packing my suitcase at De Bier Tempel, a sample or four at La Maison des Maitres Chocolatiers Belges, and of course a waffle at Manneken Pis. I can’t say we were very original, but it was still a lot of fun.

Nov 272010
 

bruges bruges
2010.10 Photos of Bruges, Belgium

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect of Brugge/Bruges/Bruge. It looked like a gorgeous little town, but very heavily touristed. I have a low tolerance for wandering through gawking crowds – Disneyland is torture for me – so I was worried I would quickly grow to hate the tiny town choked full of tour groups.

Thankfully, I was completely wrong. Though offset by the low season and rain, there were still plenty of tourists in town. But the charming streets and canals seemed to swallow up the crowds with ease. If the crowds get too thick, duck in for a fantastic beer in a hidden bar or window shop chocolate. This is my kind of place.

Nov 252010
 

paris paris paris paris
2010.10 Photos of Paris, France

Like any large city, Paris changes a bit with every visit. The bicycle is back, mostly in the form of Vélib’. Wifi in the parks is pretty cool (though frustrating to try to use with an iPhone) and though your batting average for a good cafe is never in jeopardy, yelp and other services give you a pretty good idea if you will like the menu before you even arrive.

But the things Paris is famous for haven’t really changed – the food and sights are still the main draw in the worlds most visited city. We focused less on particular goals for our 6 days, and were much better for it. The boulevards are gorgeous to stroll, the farmers & street markets are perfect to pickup a meal, and one can do much worse than simply sitting in a park to enjoy the sun.

Oct 072010
 

The first round of SSH clients for the iPhone presented some problems when connecting to Amazon Web Services EC2 Linux server instances. EC2 instances require a private certificate key file to be used to authenticate to the server during an SSH session. This lead to some workarounds where one had to export the iPhone’s key and add that key to the EC2 server instance. This wasn’t much fun to do. Thankfully, the latest versions of many SSH apps for the iPhone support private key imports. For my example bellow I’m going to be using the iSSH app:

1. Find the .pem key file saved during keypair creation in Amazon Web Services for the instance you launched.

2. Get the the content of the .pem file into the iPhone’s copy/paste memory. There are several ways to do this, here are two of them:

– 2a. Save the pem file to dropbox and open the file on the iPhone using the dropbox app (note you likely need to rename the pem to .txt in order for iOS to allow you to read the file).

– 2b. Open the .pem file with a text editor and copy the contents into a new email to an iPhone account

3. Open iSSH, go to General Settings -> Configure SSH Keys -> Import Key…

iSSH home screen

4. Paste the content of the .pem file into the lower text box; ignore the Key Password field unless you have specified one when generating the key separately (Amazon keys don’t typically have passwords).


Save the private key file

5. Go back to the iSSH home screen and select Add Configuration…

6. Select the Use Key and select the key file saved earlier.

Selecting the key

7. Save the configuration and connect to the server instance.

Connected to AWS EC2 Linux server

Oct 052010
 

Stuff breaks. Usually when I’m nowhere near a computer. These 4 apps help keep me sane:

1. Jaadu Remote Desktop (app store link). Pricey, but the best RDP client of the bunch. This plus the built in iPhone VPN client and I can access all of our Windows based servers.

2. Citrix Receiver (app store link). Only really applicable if you have significant Citrix investment (e.g. Citrix Access Gateway), but this app works great for a quick check on things in our hosted environment.

3. iSSH (app store link). Great SSH client for the iPhone. The private key import function (copy paste pem contents) is critical for using this app with Linux servers on Amazon Web Services.

4. iAWSManager (app store link). This is a fantastic app if you are heavy into Amazon Web Services. There is an amazing amount of functionality packed into it – CloudWatch monitoring graphs, EBS manipulation, security group access, etc. Given the choice, I won’t be launching new EC2 instances from the app because of the screen size, but it is amazing to have the option.