A timelapse of Bucharest

I recorded this over the course of two days (12-13 march 2017) in Bucharest’s Sector 1, with a very nice view of Herastrau Park, courtesy of our hotel room at the Pullman. We were there for our spring expo. Enjoy!

A couple of suggestions for Waze

Waze

I’ve been using Waze for over a month and I love it. If you haven’t tried it yet, you should. It’s surprisingly accurate, even in a country where you wouldn’t think there’d be a lot of users, like Romania.

The traffic updates can get a little overwhelming in large urban areas like Bucharest and sometimes it doesn’t find an address I need, but overall, it’s a wonderful app and the idea of a user-driven (and updated) map is awesome. Live traffic alerts and automatic calculation of the best route based on current traffic conditions are awesome options (these used to cost a pretty penny with GPS devices and weren’t very good nor up-to-date).

Here’s a way to make Waze better: use the accelerometer in our iPhones to automatically determine if the road is unsafe, based on braking, swerving, stopping and yes, even driving (or falling) through potholes. I love being able to report a road incident but when I’m swerving through potholes and recently dug up roads (like the one between Medias and Sighisoara), I don’t have the time nor the multitasking brain cycles to tap on my phone and report a hole in the road. So doing this automatically and reporting it to the users would be a wonderful new addition to Waze. I’d love to get an alert on my phone as I’m driving through fog or rain, when the visibility isn’t great, telling me there’s a pothole ahead. And by the way, Waze, have you thought about hooking up weather info to the traffic reports?

One thing that always annoyed me with GPS devices is the constant repetition of stuff like “take the 2nd exit” or “turn left”. The new version of Waze seems to be doing the same thing. I’d love an option in the settings where I could specify that I’d like to be reminded about such things a maximum of two times (not 3 or 4 times…)

A big thanks to the Waze team for the awesome work!

A tally of my post ratings

On July 28, 2008, I installed the WP-PostRatings plugin on my blog, and since then, watching what and when people rate has been an interesting experience. If you haven’t yet enabled ratings on your website, it might be a worthwhile effort to do so, because you’ll get another sort of feedback about your content beside the usual reader comments. I think many people who are too shy to comment, or those who haven’t got the time to do so, would still like to give me an idea of what they think about my articles by a quick click on some stars, and that’s very helpful to me.

By now, I’ve gotten 1,339 post ratings. Considering I’ve had the plugin installed for 533 days, that works out to 2.51 ratings per day. Since 7/28/08, I’ve had 374,756 unique visitors, 415,857 visits and 595,078 page views on my website. That means 0.23% of my page views yielded a rating.

Let’s compare that to my comments for a bit. Since that same date, I’ve had 1,754 comments posted to my site, or 3.29 comments per day. That means 0.29% of my page views yielded a comment. It’s slightly better, but not by much, though I should specify that, by and large, the folks who commented didn’t leave ratings, so that means I got feedback from two different sets of readers.

Still, if I combine the two types of feedback together, it means I got 0.52% of my readers to give me some sort of feedback. I’m interested to find out how these percentages stack against established benchmarks, so if any of you can point me to the benchmarks, please do so.

Even if my feedback stats may or may not be something to brag about, I can be happy about the quality of my ratings. My rating score is 6,370, which means my average article rating is 4.76 out of 5. I like that.

I thought I’d tally up some of my highly rated and most rated articles below, for historical reference.

These are my top ten highest rated posts:

  1. Hardware review: Drobo (5.00 out of 5)
  2. The underrated Betta fish (5.00 out of 5)
  3. Matrei im Osttirol (5.00 out of 5)
  4. Hardware review: WD My Book Studio Edition II (5.00 out of 5)
  5. Hardware review: Elgato Turbo.264 (5.00 out of 5)
  6. Automatic redirect from HTTP to HTTPS (5.00 out of 5)
  7. A Dell order and return experience (5.00 out of 5)
  8. American habits (5.00 out of 5)
  9. Hardware review: Logitech Alto Connect Notebook Stand (5.00 out of 5)
  10. A few words on the economic crisis at hand (5.00 out of 5)

These are my top ten most rated posts:

  1. Hardware review: Dell S2409W Flat Panel Display – 61 votes
  2. Stranded in Frankfurt thanks to United Airlines – 21 votes
  3. How I got cheated on eBay – 14 votes
  4. USPS Priority Mail is anything but that – 13 votes
  5. Hardware review: Second-Generation Drobo – 12 votes
  6. Hardware review: Drobo – 11 votes
  7. Big problems with the WD My Book Pro Edition II – 11 votes
  8. The underrated Betta fish – 10 votes
  9. WD TV is better than Apple TV – 10 votes
  10. Using the economy as an excuse to shortchange employees – 10 votes

These are my top ten posts with the highest scores. The list is a combination of the highest rated and most rated lists. It’s the posts that have gotten the highest and most ratings.

  1. Hardware review: Dell S2409W Flat Panel Display – 61 votes
  2. Stranded in Frankfurt thanks to United Airlines – 21 votes
  3. USPS Priority Mail is anything but that – 13 votes
  4. How I got cheated on eBay – 14 votes
  5. Hardware review: Second-Generation Drobo – 12 votes
  6. Hardware review: Drobo – 11 votes
  7. The underrated Betta fish – 10 votes
  8. WD TV is better than Apple TV – 10 votes
  9. Using the economy as an excuse to shortchange employees – 10 votes
  10. Big problems with the WD My Book Pro Edition II – 11 votes

These are my ten lowest rated posts:

  1. When it comes to home computers, k.i.s.s. and forget it! (1.00 out of 5)
  2. Pet snakes in the Everglades(1.00 out of 5)
  3. Elie Wiesel: biography of a Holocaust survivor (2.00 out of 5)
  4. How many of my photos were stolen? (3.00 out of 5)
  5. Why I turned off comments at Flickr (3.00 out of 5)
  6. The Exakta EXA Ia analog camera (3.00 out of 5)
  7. A lesson in civics and citizenship (3.00 out of 5)
  8. Romania’s orphanages still a bad place for children (3.00 out of 5)
  9. More about Cartoon Network (3.00 out of 5)
  10. Fat clothes for fat people (3.29 out of 5)

It’s enlightening to see that some articles I care about happen to be on this last list, and it goes to show that no matter how attached I as an author can get to something I’ve written, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will resonate pleasantly with my readers.

It’s been an interesting experiment so far, and I plan to continue it.

So long, Contenture

According to their website and blog, Contenture is going out of business. That’s unfortunate. I signed up with them back in June of 2008, endorsed their services here on my site, and while I didn’t make a lot of money with them, I knew the idea of micropayments for web content was something that would eventually catch on, if only given enough time to take root. It’s sad to see them go, and I’m sorry they couldn’t hang on until they saw some profits.

I only know of one other company that offers similar monetization services, and it’s called CancelAds. Here’s hoping they stay in business, and the idea of micropayments/subscriptions for web content continues to gain momentum.

Using Contenture to handle micropayments

Back in April, I wrote about micropayments, and why I thought they were an equitable way to reward web publishers for their time and effort. I shared my thoughts on ad revenues, which, for most people, are minimal and not enough to live on, unless you are one of the relatively few websites that gets massive amounts of traffic.

In that same article, I also talked about how I thought micropayments should work, via a standard, instant way to charge readers a few cents per article, through protocols that were integrated into each browser. Instead of charging fees for each transaction, which would be impractical for such small amounts, micropayment processing centers would charge for bundles of transactions which exceed a set limit.

Fast forward a few months, and ZDNet publishes an interview with Barry Diller, one of the early Internet millionaires, where he talks about the very same thing: the need to go beyond falling ad revenues by charging small amounts for useful information. That article was hotly debated on FriendFeed, which is where I found out about it. Among the comments, I found one pointing me to Contenture, a newly launched micropayment system (it saw the light of day on 5/26).

contenture

Contenture’s method of handling micropayments is different from what I envisioned, in that it involves a monthly subscription. Here’s how they say it works:

“… a fully automated system that requires no user interaction. Users simply pay a set fee to Contenture on a monthly basis, and that money is automatically distributed to the sites they visit. How much each site gets from each user is determined by how often that user visits that web site, relative to all of the other Contenture sites they visit. Users get their seamless experience, and the site actually makes money. Everybody wins.”

So what’s involved on my end? I installed Contenture’s WordPress plugin and pasted in an extra line of code to customize the ad hiding behavior. Others might need to paste a Javascript snippet in their footer, which is basically what the plugin does for you.

On your end (the reader), the code will check to see if you’re a Contenture user, and will automatically distribute your subscription fee to the websites that you visit, based on how often you visit each site. As an immediate benefit, all ads on my site are hidden from you. They’ll load as the page loads, but they blink out of view and the ad space collapses unto itself as soon as the page finishes loading. It’s pretty cool.

Other benefits I might be able to offer you in the future are the ability to view exclusive content, or perhaps to even close off the archives to those who aren’t Contenture users, although I’m not too keen on that, since Google won’t be able to index me properly any more if I do it. At any rate, the ability to offer more benefits is built in, and that’s nice.

Contenture’s model is opt-in (also called freemium) and so it has some limitations, in that I don’t get paid for everyone that accesses my content. My micropayment model, the one I envisioned and the one Barry Diller and others are talking about, is standardized across platforms and browsers and works for everyone, all the time. Eventually, I think we’ll get there, but Contenture has made a good start of it, and they did it now, which is why I signed up with them.

To let site visitors know they can support my site, I placed a small link in the header, as you can see below. I also have a link in the footer, also shown below.

header-screenshot

footer-screenshot

I look forward to seeing Contenture’s user base grow, so I can tell whether I’ve made the right choice. I want to keep writing and publishing online for a long time to come, but the only feasible way for me to do that is if I get rewarded properly for my efforts. I believe micropayments are the way to do it. It’s affordable for the readers, and it scales up nicely for me, the web publisher. Time will tell exactly which micropayment method will work best, and you can be sure I’ll continue to monitor the options available out there.

My Drobo review is first at Google

A couple of days ago, I noticed an increase in the traffic to my Firewire Drobo review, most of it from search engines, so I did a quick search on Google for the phrase “drobo review“, which is what people were using to find me. To my surprise, my review was the first search result that came up! I’d been in the #2 spot for a long time, just under CNET, for the same phrase, but now, without having made any changes to my review since I’d written it, I ranked first.

drobo-review-google-search

This makes me happy, because when I created my site, I wanted to sit down and write good articles while staying away from any unethical SEO tricks or even white-hat SEO tricks like keyword loading and other such unappealing, tedious stuff. I just wanted to create good content and get noticed because of that, not because I’d tricked the search engines into ranking me higher up the page. That would have been an empty success indeed.

It also makes me happy because I like my Drobos. So far, they’ve worked well for me, and I’m glad I’ve found a reliable and expandable way to store all my data. It’s also worthwhile to note that my Firewire Drobo review was published months after it came out officially. I did not get a review unit, I didn’t have to pull any strings to be among the first to get one, and I didn’t spend a feverish night working on my review after it first came out. You know how the press clamors to get review units of products when they first come out… I didn’t do that, and it’s very refreshing to see that after taking my time and really putting my Firewire Drobo through its paces, intensively, for a prolonged period of time, I was able to write a truthful review that is now ranked first at Google.

It’s been about three years of intensive writing, and my work has begun to pay off. (I began publishing multiple articles per week in 2006. I’d only been publishing sporadically until then.) In 2007, almost two years ago, I noticed I was getting more and more traffic from search engines, and made a list of the articles that were getting noticed. For a lot of them, I was either on the first page of search results, or among the first few search results, right at the top.

Still, it’s something to be the first search result for what is a fairly common tech phrase such as “drobo review”, and it really makes my day that I, a writer working alone, using WordPress and hosting my site on my own little Ubuntu web server at SliceHost, has outranked CNET and other big names such as Engadget and others, on Google, the world’s biggest search engine. It serves to illustrate very well a point Matt Cutts from Google has made time and time again: just focus on writing good content, and the rest will come. You’ll get indexed, and as your site builds a larger collection of articles, your online trust will cause you to rise up among the search results, until you make it to the top. You don’t need tricks, you don’t need to get headaches from trying to squeeze SEO juice out of every paragraph and page title and others — you just need to write informative articles.

I’d like to thank God for this. You see, I live by certain principles which are rooted in my religious beliefs, most notably in the Ten Commandments found in the Bible. When I began to write online and created my site, I didn’t want to steal, and I didn’t want to lie. Taking content from others (content-scraping) is theft, so I don’t condone it or do it. Using dirty SEO tricks to rank higher in search results is also theft, because those who do it are robbing others of those spots and robbing tech engineers at search companies of their time, which they will have to use to modify algorithms and clean up the search results. And using those same dirty SEO tricks is effectively a lie, because those who do it are misrepresenting their websites and their articles. That’s not me, I don’t want to do those things, and I’m really glad to see that God proved me right when I stuck by my principles. I’m also glad to see that a company such as Google exists, and that it rewards honest, forthright behavior.

Micropayments: the only equitable way to reward web publishers

The more time I spend writing and publishing articles on the internet, the more I realize that trying to get paid for my efforts through advertising is not a sustainable way to make a living. I get decent web traffic, but that’s not enough. Have you seen the going CPM rates these days? I’d need to get ridiculous amounts of traffic in order to see any sort of worthwhile profits, and even then, I’m not so sure the costs of running my website wouldn’t trump my revenues or at least take a big bite out of them.

The current system is messed up. Most web publishers don’t get tons of traffic, which also means they don’t make money. They’re lucky if they break even with things like Google AdSense or affiliate programs or other some other ad programs. They, like me, don’t want to load up their websites with ads, left and right, top and bottom, inbetween the lines and everywhere else. They just want to worry about writing and publishing informative articles. They don’t want to spend ¾ of their time (or more) advertising their site and getting their buddies to vote up their posts on Digg or StumbleUpon or who knows where else. They’d much prefer to not have that headache at all, and to only write and publish. But they can’t, because the system is faulty. It only rewards the very few who get the most traffic.

Do you want to know why newspapers aren’t making money these days? Why they’re going under? Sure, blame shoddy journalism, blame whatever else, but the truth is they relied mostly (or solely) on advertising for their revenues, and look where they are now. Subscription fees were kept artificially low, and as circulation numbers started to go down, they couldn’t charge their regular rates for ads, and revenues went down fast, in a vicious spiral that fed itself.

Had a decent micropayment system been in place, the web would be a flourishing, profitable, preferred way to make a living nowadays, instead of the insane, overloaded, “buy, buy, buy, look at me, no look at me, no, I’m better, wait, my titles are more interesting, I get more traffic, I make more money, I know how to increase your traffic, I have more free stuff” nuthouse that it has become. Everyone’s desperate to publish more articles, to make the titles and text more titillating, to grab an extra click from you here and there, to make you vote or like or bookmark their stuff so they can supposedly get more clicks and votes and likes and bookmarks and more and more and more meaningless crap that leads nowhere and contributes to nothing.

Unfortunately for the world and the web, micropayments were talked to death, even in the early days of the internet, and all the fancy initiatives went nowhere. A lot of people were wronged because no one bothered to get things going. Just think, all this time, web publishers of all sizes could have been making an honest living! Fortunately, this nasty situation can still be set right.

Here’s my micropayment initiative. I think it’s workable, and more than that, it would allow a lot of people to make a decent living by doing what they love: writing, not hustling and wasting their time pushing their site on people.

First, we need all the browsers and feed readers to work with the companies or organizations that would process micropayments. Whether the functionality is built in or added through plugins is up to the browser makers and feed reader makers to decide. Users would enter their account information directly in their browser’s or feed reader’s preferences, and their micropayment accounts would be automatically charged every time they access a micropayment-enabled article, on the web or via a feed. There’d be no logging in every time, like with PayPal, which is a hassle when all you want to do is read an article.

Second, search engines and websites would display the price of the article next to its title, just like they’d display the site or the date the article was written. The browser itself would display an extra icon when such a web page is accessed, just like it displays a lock when HTTPS websites are accessed. Perhaps a dollar sign or some other currency sign would show up next to the website’s address. If the user would move their mouse over the button, the price would be displayed, similarly to the behavior of the alt or title tags.

Third, and this would happen behind the scenes, the browser itself would read the price tag of the article the user is reading, and would send that information along to the micropayment service along with the user’s account information. Notice this means the user could use their micropayment service of choice — so there wouldn’t have to be just one — and the browser or the website wouldn’t care. The micropayment service would then transfer the price of the article from the user’s account to the web publisher’s account. The transaction fees would best be charged in bulk, per 50 or 100 transactions or so, and would be deducted from the web publisher’s balance.

That’s it! It’s so simple I just don’t know why it hasn’t yet been implemented.

As for the price of the articles, each web publisher could set their own price. I propose 5 cents per view. When candy and soda costs 75 cents to $1 or more, I think no one would balk at paying 5 cents to read a good article. But let’s have a look at some proposed traffic figures just to give you an idea how 5 cents can add up.

Say you get 5,000 views per month. That’s a modest amount of traffic, but at 5 cents per view, you’d still make $250 at the end of the month. That’s nothing to scoff at. Tell me if you wouldn’t be happy with that money in your bank account!

How about someone who gets 25,000 views per month? That’s a fairly decent amount of traffic. At 5 cents per view, they’d make $1,250 per month. That’s already a line of income. That’s money in the bank you could be using to pay your bills, but you’re not seeing it because micropayments don’t exist yet. Isn’t that infuriating?

How about someone who gets 50,000 views per month? That’s a nice amount of traffic. At 5 cents per view, they’d make $2,500 per month. That’s practically a decent salary right there. If you keep your expenses low, you might even be able to live off that in the US. If you lived in another country where living expenses are less, you could live nicely on that money.

The best part is this: it isn’t free money, and it isn’t money that could be yanked away if your advertisers get pissed off with something you wrote. This is money each and every web publisher has rightfully earned through their work, and yet there is no micropayment system out there to make this possible. This means all the web publishers out there are currently being cheated out of money they could be earning. Isn’t it ridiculous and completely unfair? Think of newspapers, where dedicated journalists work, day in and day out, and who have to close when they could focus their efforts on web publishing and turn a very nice profit with their traffic!

What about developing countries? I suppose the price for reading an article could differ based on your country of origin. The micropayment processor would automatically charge those countries less per article, say 30 to 40 to 70% less, depending on their general economic status.

What about subscriptions? They’re nice but not sufficient. They’re nice because you can predict your income more reliably when you know you’ll have so many subscriptions coming in every month, but not sufficient because users don’t pay per usage. If they end up spending less time on your site, then they’ll feel like they’ve wasted their money on the subscription. Also, just in case you haven’t noticed, subscription numbers are down everywhere these days. When money gets tight, subscriptions are among the first things to go.

What about goodwill, and doing stuff for free? That’s nice, and I already do plenty of stuff for free, but the problem with goodwill is that this world still functions with money. When was the last time you paid your mortgage with goodwill? When you buy your groceries, do you pay with a smile and a hug?

Micropayments are the best way to go forward. I wish people would stop talking about them already and someone would get going with the idea. It goes without saying — but I’ll say it anyway — that I for one would be glad to work with any legitimate company that wants to start processing micropayments.

WordPress Stats plugin has gone cuckoo

For over a month now, I have been unable to rely on the official WordPress Stats plugin. (I say official because the folks that made WordPress also made this plugin.) It, all of a sudden, started assigning all site visits to the same article, so that all of my stats became completely skewed. Let me explain it with a screenshot:

WordPress Stats has gone cuckoo

Instead of seeing the proper distribution of site visits by titles, which is what happened in the past, almost all of the site visits get assigned to a random post. I have no idea any more which titles get the most traffic for a given day. I know this is wrong because I’m also using Google Analytics. Here’s a screenshot of the 20 most popular titles for the past 30 days.

Google Analytics Content by Title

I like WordPress Stats because they aggregate the data almost instantly, whereas there’s a 3-4 hour delay with Google Analytics. Sometimes they even correct the data a day afterward (this happened to me recently) so you can’t rely on their figures until 24-36 hours after the fact [reference].

I stopped using WordPress Stats for a while, hoping the problem would somehow work itself out, but when I re-activated the plugin, all that happened is that it started assigning all site visits to a different random post. Whoopee…

If someone at WordPress reads this, please let me know if it’s something I’m doing wrong, or if it’s something that you’ve got to work out on your end. I posted about this problem in the WordPress forums, but I have yet to receive a reply there.

Run WordPress by itself or cached?

I’ve been running an experiment for the past three months. I wanted to see how well WordPress would do if I ran it by itself, without any sort of caching. So far, so good.

About four months ago, my web server kept getting pummelled into the ground almost daily, and I couldn’t figure out why it kept happening. After researching the issue, I found the prevailing opinion to side with the need for a caching plugin. People were complaining that it’s just not optimized well, and must be run with the aid of such a plugin, otherwise higher levels of traffic will bring the web server down. Trouble was, I already ran my WP install cached, using WP Super Cache, had been doing so for over a year, and my server still went down. (I should specify it had only recently started to go down.) What was I to do?

I posted a message in the WP forums asking why WordPress doesn’t generate static files. Were there any plans to do so in the future? To my surprise, Matt Mullenweg (WP’s founder) replied to my post, and told me that while there are caching plugins out there, WordPress.com doesn’t run any, and they’re doing just fine hosting millions of blogs. Others chimed in as well, and their replies got me to make the following changes:

  1. Made the switch to a VPS (Virtual Private Server) with SliceHost. Four months later, I’m still very happy about that move.
  2. Doubled the RAM on my web server (to 512MB from 256MB).
  3. Turned off WP Super Cache and started running my site by itself.

Each step followed the other in succession. I wanted to make gradual changes so I could see why my server kept having issues. Switching to a VPS host was good, and it was needed, but for my traffic levels, it wasn’t enough. Doubling the RAM was good and it was needed, and while the new RAM is enough for now, I’d still be having problems if I didn’t also disable my caching plugin.

Here’s where I think the crux of the caching/non-caching issue lies: it has to do with the load placed on the server as cached versions of the pages get created. Normally, that’s a non-issue. But as I monitored my server carefully, I discovered that it went down only as it started to get indexed heavily by search engines. Their bots visited my site in spurts, with traffic peaking, then falling back down. They spawned multiple threads, over ten at times, following links and slurping up the content. It’s when bot traffic peaked that an incredible load was placed on the web server. It kept generating cached versions of pages it hadn’t already cached, RAM and CPU demand increased to unsustainable levels, and it went down.

No amount of tweaking the Apache and MySQL config files helped with this sort of scenario, or at least it didn’t help me. You see, the difference between peak traffic levels with search engines vs. people is that people will go to a single article or a group of articles that are in demand. A caching plugin works great for those sorts of situations. There’s a limited number of pages to worry about caching, and those pages get served up time and time again. The load is acceptable. When a search engine bot starts indexing your site, it’ll call up any and all available pages that it can find. That can place a huge load on the web server as it scrambles to serve up those pages and build static versions for the caching plugin. I believe that it’s too much for most medium-sized servers to handle, and they will usually go down.

In my case, disabling the caching plugin and making sure no traces were left in the .htaccess file were the only things that helped. Now, I might have up to four different search engine bots crawling my site, each spawning multiple threads, and my server will usually not go down. Sure, there are times when the server will get dangerously low on RAM, and will be unresponsive for 5-10 minutes, but that’s an acceptable scenario for me. And if I should all of a sudden get huge amounts of people traffic to a post, it’s possible that the web server will also become unresponsive, at least for a time. But the great thing about running WordPress by itself is that Apache will usually take care of itself. As the requests die down, Apache will kill the extra threads, the available RAM will go back up again, and the server will recover nicely. That wasn’t possible while I ran the caching plugin. When it went down, it stayed down, and that was a problem.

I realize that what works for me may not work for others. I have not tested what happens with WP Super Cache on a larger server, for example one with more RAM. It’s possible that the larger amount of RAM there will offset the greater demand placed on the server as it builds static versions of the pages, although I’m not sure what to say about the CPU usage. That also peaked as the caching plugin went crazy. Not sure how that’ll work on a more powerful server.

WP Super Cache has some options that allow you to cache more pages and keep them cached for longer periods of time. Perhaps fiddling with those options would have allowed me to keep running the plugin, but I wanted to see how things stood from the other side of the fence. Like I said, so far, so good. Caveats aside, running WordPress by itself was the cure for my persistent web server outages.

Sorry about the growing pains

My sites were out of commission yesterday afternoon, evening, and part of the night as well. Each outage lasted anywhere from half an hour to a couple of hours, and drove home very clearly this message: I need a web server upgrade.

While it was certainly frustrating to see my sites go down, and to see that no matter how much I tuned Apache or MySQL, I couldn’t meet the traffic demands, it’s also encouraging to see that I first outgrew shared hosting plans, then outgrew a small dedicated server, and had to (now) upgrade to a more powerful dedicated server. My site stats show this same trend. Traffic levels have been growing steadily throughout this year and even more in the last few months. October in particular has been rough on my little web server.

Yesterday, Google and Yahoo had been indexing my sites, on top of the usual, fairly heavy traffic. I started having serious performance issues during the afternoon, which led to a small outage. Google got done with my sites after that, but Yahoo kept going, and Cuil, the new search engine on the block, joined the party as well. Cuil is known for taxing web servers heavily when it indexes sites, and it was merciless on me last night. It, together with Yahoo, brought my server down and kept it down for close to one and a half hours.

I got it back up and re-tuned Apache and MySQL with Chris Johnston‘s help, but at some point during the night, it went down hard, and stayed down. When I woke, I decided enough was enough. It was high time I upgraded.

Thanks to my awesome hosting company, SliceHost, I was able to double the specs of my previous server in less than two hours. Before non today, my little web server morphed into a larger, more powerful one that can handle the current traffic levels with ease. We’ll see how long it can keep up before I need to upgrade again. You can help there. I don’t mind at all if I have to upgrade again in the near future, should my traffic levels warrant it.

Thank you for sticking around!

Cabin John cops are the coolest

This past Thursday, I was on my way home from work, in a hurry, because my wife and I wanted to be on time to the Gipsy Kings concert that evening. Traffic on 495 was much nastier than usual, and it was pretty clear to me that I needed to take an alternative route home, and also find another way to get to Wolf Trap. After jumping on 495 from the Georgetown Pike to get over the Legion Bridge, I got off immediately on the Clara Barton Parkway and headed down to the Cabin John exit.

There’s a stop sign there as the exit ramp meets the bridge over the parkway. Usually, no one stops, but I try to, just the same. I think you know by now what I’m getting at. My mind was on the concert, on the projects at work that I’d been working on that day, on the weather, which I hoped would hold up… and I did a lame rolling stop right past the sign.

As I did that, I saw two cop cars on the side of the road ahead. They’d been looking at me, and one of them signaled me to pull over. I knew the instant I saw them that I’d get pulled over, and I knew why they were there, too.

So I pull over, and this towering cop comes up to my window and asks for my license and registration. I start fumbling around. My license was in my wallet, which was in my camera bag on the back seat. I turn around, pull it out, then try to remember where my registration is. Okay, it’s in the glove compartment… somewhere. I pull out the owner’s manual because I think it’s somewhere in there. All of my papers should be neatly placed in a little folding booklet, which I locate and start going through.

The cop is getting a little impatient. What can I do… I don’t get pulled over that often, and now I can’t remember where things are. It’s not like I rehearse what to do when I get pulled over. One doesn’t prepare for it.

Finally, I hand him what I think is my registration, but it turns out to be my insurance. He’s reaches into my booklet himself and fishes out the registration. “Has your license ever been suspended or revoked?” he asks me. I give him a “Huh?!” look as I mumble a “No”. Fine, he goes back to his car to look up my record.

Meanwhile, I start thinking what I’m going to tell him when he asks me why I didn’t stop. I’ve recently seen the “Don’t Talk to the Police” videos [part 1, part 2]. Should I try to put that advice into practice? Will it work? Would it even apply in my situation? After all, they clearly saw me not stopping at the sign. Shouldn’t I be honest and admit I screwed up? Maybe he’ll be lenient, right? Yeah, but what if he’s an ass, like the Virginia trooper that screwed up my driving record to make his ticket quota?

While I’m still thinking, he shows up at my window again, with a stern look on his face. “Do you know why I stopped you?” he asks. All my logic goes out the window and I suddenly become stupid. “Um, ah… no?” I mumble. “There’s a stop sign back there. Did you see it?” What am I going to do now? I got myself into this mess with my fancy double talk, now what? I stick my dumb head out the window and crane my neck, trying to look at the stop sign I know too well. “Um, ah… um, yeeeeeaaaah, that one,” I say, and feel like a certified dolt. He gives me a look that speaks volumes…

I finally decide to fess up and say something lame like, “I’m sorry, I was in a hurry and forgot to stop.” At least that’s true, even if it sounds really lame. He gives me the sort of look that says, “Yeah right, buster,” and goes back to his car. Oh crap, now he’s got me. I’m going to get it for sure: a ticket and some extra points just for kicks. It’s a moving violation, after all.

So I sit there, wondering just how much it’s going to hurt, and it doesn’t take long. He comes right back and sticks a piece of paper in my hand. I can’t look at it, my eyesight’s just gone fuzzy. “That’s a warning!” he says, and a very audible sigh of relief escapes my lips. “Thank you!” I say. I think my whole being effused gratitude that moment, because the corners of his lips started to crack into a smile.

He goes on, intending to give me a stern lesson, “You gotta stop, every time. No rolling stop, no California stop, you have to make a complete stop.” I look up at his face while he’s talking. A father, in his fifties, with mostly white hair with tinges of bronze blond. An honest face, with green eyes that pierce when he talks, and you can see he cares about people and about safety. A good cop. I try to allay his concern by saying, “For what it’s worth, officer, I do stop at the important stop signs,” then realize how stupid I sound, and continue, “but mostly no one stops at that one.”

“I know,” he says, “and that’s why we’re here! Drive safely!” he says as he turns away. I pack up my papers and start on my way, knowing that this would not have turned out the same way in Virginia, where the cops are out to get you no matter what.

Am I saying I deserved to get only a warning? No. I clearly ran that stop sign, the cops saw me, and I expected a ticket. I wasn’t going to argue about it. I dreaded the points though. I hate the points. It seems they get dished out more and more these days, and your insurance goes up, and they make you a liability when other cops stop you and they see you have points — it makes it more likely that you’re going to get another costly ticket. Points beget more points. It’s a vicious circle.

Thankfully, this cop decided he was going to do something really nice. Perhaps he looked at my record and saw that I’m a careful driver, or perhaps he’s just a really nice person. I don’t know why, but he only gave me a warning, and I’m truly grateful for it. Believe me, it had the same effect as a ticket. I’ve obeyed every stop sign since, and will continue to do so, because every time I approach a stop sign, I think about not getting pulled over again. If it happens again, I know I’ll get a ticket.

Thank you, Officer McDonald! You are one cool cop!

My take on the fading car culture

2003 MINI Cooper S

As I read through my feeds, I noticed a headline about the fading car culture. It seems a Nissan executive has noticed how interest in cars is waning, due to congestion costs, interest in public transportation, or desire to spend money elsewhere, like gadgets.

I also noticed something disingenuous in that article. It was his response to the 35mph mandate by 2020: “It is not an issue,” he said. Really? Is that why Nissan was one of the car companies that lobbied against it? I don’t want to lay the blame for this on Nissan alone, as most of the major car companies lobbied against fuel regulations in the past, and some are still doing it. By the same token, the blame for the fading car culture does fall on most car companies, though there are other factors at play.

For one thing, car designs got horribly bad at some point in the late 60s. While cars are made better and they last longer, car designs have lost their soul. There isn’t that visceral response to a car nowadays that one has when he or she looks at a classic car, one that was built to look good, not just function well. Everything is about streamlining nowadays — the wrong kind of streamlining, that is. There are no bold design decisions made anymore. Every great conceptual design gets neutered before it enters the production floor. I’m talking about curves that serve no purpose other than to make the cars more appealing. I’m talking about bold grilles, wooden or metal accent dashboards, gauges and textures that make you want to touch them. I’m talking about classic design elements. Just look at cars made in the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s.

The old Mercedes

Fiat

Tears from the headlight

Stout and solid back

I’m not suggesting these photos are the best examples. This is what I have in my photo library, so that’s what I used. I’m sure there are a ton of great examples out there, and those familiar with car history know what I mean. That’s what I’m talking about. And that’s exactly what you won’t see on the market today. The few companies that might still include classic styling elements don’t do it wholeheartedly. We’ve got most people driving around in boxes nowadays. And they’re supposed to like it?

Another reason is an increase in fuel prices. Let’s face it, it’s no fun to drive around in a car that will put a serious dent in your monthly budget. Who’s to blame? Well, besides things that can’t be helped, like a dwindling oil supply, unstable world conditions and an increase in demand, I can think of a certain group I could finger: car companies. After all, they’ve been lobbying against fuel economy regulations for some time, and they’ve also refused to focus on economical models. Well, that same desire to save pennies on the dollar on improvements here and there is now going to cost them dollars — lots of them, and they’re the ones that have helped to dig the hole they’re in.

What’s another problem? Congestion on the roads. It’s no fun to drive bumper to bumper. Yet, increasingly so, that’s what driving has come to mean for those living in urban areas. When driving equals commuting, and when commuting means teeth-gnashing and extra stress you don’t need, do you really think people will want to drive, or that they’ll associate their cars with warm, fuzzy feelings? With the cost of new roads being so prohibitive, we know this isn’t going to change. If anything, we’ll start incurring more tolls in the future.

Congested highway

There are other costs that are driving this trend, such as car insurance and the high cost of traffic tickets, particularly when they’re falsely given out, which happens quite a bit when police departments want to put some money in their coffers. It happened to me, and that false ticket not only cost me about $150, but a day in court as well, and an extra $700 as well because of an increase in my car insurance. You think someone’s not going to consider public transportation options when driving starts costing them that much, particularly when they did nothing wrong? And what do you think they’re going to think about the crooked police officers that put them in that mess? I tell you, every time I remember what that thieving bastard did to me, smoke comes out of my ears. I hope he gets all that’s coming to him for what he did to me and probably to countless others…

More importantly perhaps is this: public companies react in unhealthy ways to market plateaus. That’s because they’re geared toward constant economic growth. Their market share or number of products sold or profits have to continually increase in order to satisfy the hungry appetites of investors and market analysts. Anything less than an increase on last year’s take is considered a failure. An extreme case of this very screwed up way of looking at things is Intel’s current situation. They earned 45% more in 2007 than in 2006, and yet their stock price dropped when they announced that their projected earnings in 2008 would be about the same as those of 2007. Instead of rejoicing over a stellar performance, the greedy investors want more and more.

That puts public companies in a very awkward and hard to sustain position. We’ll leave the microprocessor market alone, since I’m talking about cars at the moment. But do they honestly think that they can sustain (no, increase) their growth rate in a plateauing market? Who are they fooling? The demand for cars is going to continue to plateau, and quite possibly decrease. Sure, China and India are starting to develop, but they haven’t got the infrastructure or the economy to sustain a similar car-per-family ratio that we see in the States or Europe. What’s more, petrol supplies have already peaked. They are now going to start decreasing. Even if their infrastructure and economies could support a lot of cars, the Earth couldn’t, thank goodness. Have you driven in China or India lately? Their urban areas are packed chock full with cars of all makes and 2-cycle scooters already. They’re polluted to high heaven. I doubt we’d want more cars in those places. Add to that the upcoming flooding of the car market with cheap cars (enter India’s Tata car), and you’ve got a worldwide car market in serious trouble.

It seems to me there are a few things that could be corrected:

  • Stop the insanity of always expecting more from the market. Economic supply is not unlimited. Economists that made up that cockamamie idea should be taken out and horsewhipped, and recordings of those punishments should be posted to YouTube… Car companies need to realize that demand for their products will plateau. It’s a given. (Do I really expect public companies and their investors to change their perspectives? Yes, but it’s not going to happen. People are inherently greedy.)
  • Boring designs need to be retired for good. Serious inspiration needs to be drawn from the era of automobiles when the term motoring really meant something. Give people a reason to be passionate about their cars. Look at what Apple is doing with computers. Well-designed cars will sell, but they’ve got to look and feel so good people will drool over them.
  • A true focus needs to be placed on fuel efficiency and alternative propulsion methods. Ethanol-enhanced gasoline or even pure ethanol is not going to be the solution. I doubt it, and only one of the reasons is that corn agriculture cannot be sustained at the levels needed to mass-produce ethanol without turning all of the fields into dust bowls. Read up on soil erosion in agriculture if you want more info on this. Hydrogen fuel cells are expensive and still need oil to be produced. Not viable long-term. Now is the time to really look at other ways, such as bacterially-produced fuels, or steam/other water-based fuels. Electricity, if made through solar or wind power, is infinitely sustainable, and electric cars are already viable alternatives.
  • Car companies could focus on producing efficient, well-made public transportation vehicles in addition to personal vehicles. We know they’re going to be needed more and more in urban areas, and yet very few of the major car manufacturers have focused their efforts on fleets. Buses are still horribly inefficient when it comes to fuel usage, and they’re ugly and non-aerodynamic to boot. They usually get 5-8 miles per gallon, they’re loud, slow, unsafe, and they start rattling after only a few months of usage. They could stand a lot of improvement. The market is there and will continue to grow. Did you know, for example, that the Washington, DC metro cars were made in Italy and are very expensive? While it’s nice to know that DC metro goers ride in Italian-made wagons, why couldn’t they be made here in the US?

These are just a few ideas, but they’re meant to get the discussion started. Want to know what Nissan is doing about it? They’re ready to follow in the footsteps of the Tata car, and are readying their own designs for a cheap car. How that’s going to play out in the large scheme of things, no one knows for sure. But what we do know is that we don’t need more pollution and more congestion…

I leave you with a photo of the car that acted as a catalyst for change back when it was introduced. It can be done again, and in all the right ways. We just need a daring and willing company.

The classic MINI