Archive for August, 2008

Time for Rap and Breakdancing

August 7, 2008

I’m about 25 years behind the cultural curve.

Back in the early 1980s, in high school, I had a friend (a white guy a year younger than me) who was a heavy metal fanatic. Then suddenly he changed his passion to breakdancing. I couldn’t relate. I was a rock snob.

I’d hear Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” and Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” on the radio and thought they were OK, but that was about it for rap music.

Fast forward 20 years. A black guy from D.C. named Curtis Allen joins my church and releases his first Christian rap album, and I actually like a lot of it. I like a lot of his next album, too.

This spring, I found myself the as main engineer and co-Executive Producer of his third full length CD, and I love it. He told me I is officially gangsta. Here’s a picture from the recording sessions (we also made a video):

Several years ago I got married. My wife Bridgette loves dance and gymnastics, and it’s kind of starting to rub off. A few weeks ago I was flipping through the TV channels and came across a show that’s a competition to be named “America’s Best Dance Crew.” I discovered that the crew I liked the best were some breakdancers from Las Vegas called Super Cr3w. They’re acrobats, really. Here’s a sample (the performance starts around 1:45 in the video):

I’m up with the times. I just take 25 years to adjust.

(And I still like rock.)

When Your Naming Scheme Runs Dry

August 6, 2008

The group of system administrators I worked with for over a decade had a tradition of giving Unix computers host names that followed a different theme for each cluster of computers.

We started out as students running the computer labs for the College of Engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park in the late 1980s. Our first public computer lab was a dozen or so Sun 3/50 and 3/60 workstations named after Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Host names included shire, bilbo, gloin, rivendell, etc.

When the Sun 3’s became obsolete, we turned them into X terminals connecting to several Sparcstation servers, which got their own naming scheme: coke, pepsi, jolt, and mountain-dew. We could have kept adding soda names for awhile, but we didn’t need many servers for that lab.

In the staff office (the “Hackers Pitt”, with spelling from Buckaroo Banzai), the Sparcstations we got for testing and software development were called tweak, twiddle, and frob. Good thing we didn’t need to come up with any more names in that series!

Here are a couple of pictures of the Hackers Pitt. Dave, Josh, and Chris:

Kurt, Dave, and Randall:

Later, we opened up another lab, consisting of Decstations, I think. We decided to go with names of computer languages as the naming scheme, so we had workstations called basic, cobol, lisp, perl, etc. There was a networked Postscript laser printer in the lab, and someone got the bright idea to give it a name in the same scheme, so naturally it had to be called postscript! A few months later, though, we had to rename it, because some software would get confused and malfunction when encountering a printer queue called postscript.

Aerospace Engineering named their computers after airplanes. Their Sun3 server was called hellcat, a WWII fighter.

There was one department in the College of Engineering that simply numbered their workstations: Chemical Engineering, whose computers were named cm##. The student sysadmins didn’t like that scheme much, because it was hard to keep those computers straight. Their names had no memorable personalities, so we had trouble remembering whether we were supposed to do something to cm18 or cm19, or cm23 or cm32.

Within a couple of years, many of us started work at UUNET and created one of the first commercial web hosting services. We took our penchant for naming schemes with us. Here’s a picture of Josh, Chris, and Kurt in Kurt’s office at UUNET assembling some servers:

The infrastructure servers (email, rdist, backups, etc.) had names of butlers from literature: jeeves, nestor, smithers, alfred. That was a clever but very restrictive scheme. It turns out there aren’t very many well-known butlers in literature. Now there’s a Wikipedia article listing them, but at the time we were beating our heads against the wall trying to think of more.

For Kerberos (secure login) servers, the list was the most limited. The first one was called keymaster (from Ghostbusters). When we added a second one as a backup, we had to make up a name. Would it be keyslave or keyminor? Hmm, maybe that wasn’t such a great idea.

For customer web servers, we decided on a larger class of cleverly appropriate names: spider names. The first few were easy: charlotte, blackwidow, brownrecluse, tarantula, trapdoor, funnelweb. After exhausting the well-known ones, we had to get more creative or obscure: peterparker, banana, garden, huntsman, crab. Customers had to login or FTP to the machine’s name to administer their servers, and it felt a little silly to tell them their web server was hosted on, say, banana. Who actually knows there’s such a thing as a banana spider? As we got more customers, we wasted quite a bit of time researching and compiling lists of spider species so we’d have enough names for new servers we were bringing online.

It all started out as good fun, but these days I’d just call them all web001, web002, mail, etc. and be done with it. No creative naming scheme will scale to hundreds of computers.

I confess that at home, I adopted a naming scheme based on classical elements: fire, water, air, earth, and a few more inspired by that pattern. I haven’t changed it partly because the limitations of that scheme help motivate me to not keep too many computers at home.

The Computer Museum Moved and I Didn’t Notice

August 5, 2008

In the early 1990s I was working as a programmer for the Free Software Foundation, mostly remotely from Maryland but I’d go up to Cambridge, MA for a week every so often to work face to face with people. One highlight from those trips was visiting the Computer Museum. Besides the exhibits, one thing I enjoyed was in a side room they had a Sun workstation you could see through a window. I’m not sure what it did, either helped run exhibits or provide networking for the staff. When I was there, the screen was in text mode scrolling, I think, “le0: No carrier”. So I felt right at home; it was just like at the University of Maryland.

Around the middle of the museum was the exhibit on computers of the 1980s, which had an endless loop of part of MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” playing through a speaker to set the mood. If you started to get disoriented in the exhibits, you could just head toward the rap music to find your bearings.

In October, 2006 I went back to the Boston area for my brother’s wedding, and found that the Computer Museum doesn’t exist any more. Some of its exhibits are in the Boston Museum of Science next to the Hall of Electricity. That includes parts of a huge mock-up PC. My wife took my picture standing in front of a giant Adaptec AHA-2940 SCSI controller card on the wall. I still had a couple of those cards then; one was in a Linux PC driving a Plextor CD-ROM which I used for digital audio extraction until I switched mainly to a Mac in January, 2006.

Then I stumbled on a video of an hour-long talk of recollections by Woz:

It was posted by the Computer History Museum, and the introducer, Len Shustick, says “I’m always surprised at the number of people who knew about the Computer Museum in Boston… and who don’t know that it no longer exists…. We are its reincarnation, and starting in 1996 we filled up tractor trailers and moved them west….” I provide anecdotal support for that comment!

It’s interesting that they reopened in Mountain View, CA, where I worked the next summer in 1993 at Cygnus after my time with the FSF.