Forza Italia!

A few weeks ago, while I was visiting family in Georgia, the subject of Italy came up.  Somebody asked me if I would consider moving to Italy, and my reply was, “in a heartbeat, if I could figure out how to make it work.”

Vanessa’s uncle Mike asked why, and I replied “the way of life is better.”  He didn’t buy it.  And I understand why.  There’s a lot going wrong in Italy, especially at the moment.  And, as a red-blooded American myself, I also have a natural instinct to defend the USA as the best “way of life” there is.

But the proof is in the pudding, as they say.  I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Italy now, and feel at least marginally qualified to back up my claims.

But First The Downsides

Lest you think I’m irrationally positive about Italy, here’s a quick rundown of some of its many flaws.

Government / Financial Collapse

Italy’s government is fundamentally broken.  It’s on the verge of catastrophic bankruptcy, it’s run by criminals and clowns, and it’s completely hog-tied by crushing levels of bureaucracy.  Not unlike America in about 20 more years.  Italy is living proof that with government, smaller really is better (pro tip: vote Libertarian).

It’s a common misperception that the problem with Italy is that the society is too socialist and the people are too lazy and unproductive.  This is totally false.  Italy actually provides modest and reasonable social-welfare benefits which are well within its means – Italy spends less of its GDP on social welfare than the USA.  Italians are also very hard working and highly entrepreneurial.  Most importantly, unlike Americans, Italians do not have a culture of personal indebtedness.

The problem is, quite simply, a bloated and corrupt bureaucracy.  From the thoroughly corrupt former Prime Minister, Silvio “Bunga Bunga” Berlusconi on down, the country is strangled by a government grown vastly beyond its requirements.  Something like 50% of government expenditures goes to paying needless government employees and their exorbitant pensions and benefits.  Once you get a government job, you’re set for life.  Just like in the USA but much, much worse.  For example, thousands of employees get “work cars” – Mercedes S350s.  You see them everywhere.

Unless you haven’t watched the news in a year, you know that Italy is on the verge of insolvency, and when that happens, it will probably take out the world economy.  It’s far too big to bail out.  Curiously, Italy actually runs a primary surplus – the government takes in more money than it spends on its services – but it’s carrying a mountain of old debt, and it’s the interest on that debt that is breaking the budget.

Unlike Ireland, Spain, and Greece, however, Italy has a very strong manufacturing base and a large GDP.  Even a 1% uptick in GDP would resolve the current debt situation.  GDP, however, continues to stagnate.

Americans, beware.  This will be you, if you don’t change course.  (see pro tip, above).

Crime

Here in Lucca, crime is not a problem at all.  It’s a very safe town.  But there are certainly parts of Italy that are overrun by crime and are relatively dangerous.  The mafia is alive and well here in its native land.  The corruption that plagues the country is in no small measure driven by organized crime which controls various aspects of government.

Third-World-ism

It boggles the mind that the society which literally brought Western civilization to light (and which brought us Gucci, Ferrari, da Vinci, Versace, Verdi, Galileo, Maserati, Michelangelo, Puccini and even Chianti) also produces some amazingly craptastic products sold in supermarkets that rival Fiesta and Dollar General for sheer tastelessness.  Some of the world’s most beautiful and well-constructed architecture sits in stark contrast to ugly industrial plants and bleak, communist-era high-rise condos.

There is no doubt that this country has a deep and rich legacy of the world’s best art, science, design, construction and manufacturing, with a deep appreciation for quality and taste.  You see it literally everywhere – so many things are so freaking right. And yet, there’s a lot of serious crap.  I have yet to see an Italian airport that didn’t look like something you’d find in the Congo – dirty, ugly, stinky, hot, and confusing.

Technology

The civilization that brought us running water and sewer systems seems to be content with Roman-era amenities.  There are plenty of “squat toilets” still around (though in truth, they’re getting pretty rare, but hell, it’s the 21st century already!)  Showers are often completely uncontained – you just stand in the corner of the bathroom and get water everywhere.  There is internet, but God help you if it goes down, and free wi-fi is extremely rare.  Most Italians are not very Internet savvy and Italian websites look like something from 1997.  Most businesses have no Internet presence whatsoever.

Energy & Transportation

Energy is extremely expensive.  A gallon of gas costs about $9.00!  Natural gas and electricity are also far more expensive than in the USA.  There is a good highway system here (the autostrada) but it’s toll-based and relatively expensive to drive on.  There are trains, too – including the thoroughly badass 200 MPH Frecciarossa – but they can get expensive.

I could go on.  While Italians enjoy some of the best health outcomes in the world, the public healthcare system seems pretty vintage.  The big cities (Rome, Milan, Bologna) are dirty and shabby.  Italians are generally obnoxious and careless drivers.  The old sewer systems sometimes stink.  It’s impossible to find good sushi.  And so forth.

So let it not be said that I’m a Pollyanna who only sees the good side of Italy.

Cost of Living

Compared to America, to live with equivalent amenities in Italy will probably be marginally more expensive, if for no other reason than the cost of energy and taxes.  I’ve mentioned the energy / transportation beat-down.  Taxes are roughly 30%-ish – not too much worse than the USA – but there is also a 21% “sales tax” on many items that definitely affects the cost of things.  However, some things are curiously less expensive, even including the tax.

I pay about 2/3 the price in Italy for high-speed internet and maybe 1/2 the price for high-quality 4G cell phone service that’s better than what I get at home in Dallas.  If you are dependent on your cell phone like me, Italy is a big win.  Service is exceptional, data speeds are high, and it’s pay-as-you go – no contracts.  I spend about $20/month for service that surpasses the typical $60-90/month service in the USA.

Gas is super-expensive so cars are super fuel efficient.  In the USA there are a handful of cars that get 40+ MPG, and they’re all north of $30K.  In Italy you can get decent, highly fuel-efficient cars cheap (if you like Fiat) – a 65 MPG (no shit!) 2012 Panda will set you back about $11K – a great little car, actually, and nothing like the flimsy rust-buckets from the 1980s.  It’s a good driver with good build quality and simply astonishing mileage at a value price.  And unlike a Prius, there are no batteries to replace or recycle.  Fiat also makes a turbodiesel van that seats 9 (or 6 + tons of storage) and gets better than 30 MPG highway (compare to Ford E-series at about 17 MPG).

Most food is cheaper than in the States – about 1/2 to 2/3 the price for equivalent food.  A cappuccino at Starbucks will set you back $3 – in Italy they’re a buck (and they’re a lot better than the swill they serve at Starbucks).  High-quality drinking water is completely free in most areas and tastes noticeably better than anything you can get in a plastic bottle.  A delicious three course dinner for two with wine and coffee can be had for under $20 apiece.  Groceries are maybe 1/2 to 1/3 cheaper.  A totally tasty sandwich is about $3.  More on the food later.

You can take the high-speed train from Florence to Rome (about 180 miles) for about $30 and it’ll get you there in an hour.  A second-class train seat is roughly the same comfort and space as a 1st class domestic flight on a major airline like Delta.  By comparison, a 180-mile flight on Southwest (also one hour) costs twice as much and offers no comfort.  And the trains have no security lines and are rarely delayed so they are actually considerably faster and lower stress than flying.  You just run up and hop on.  I think Americans oppose high-speed rail only because they’ve never used it.  It’s a vastly superior experience to flying, especially for under-500 mile trips.

But cost of living is only part of the story.

Way of Life

Let’s get real about cost of living: cars are freaking expensive.  Say you drop $25K on a decent car.  Then there’s insurance.  Fuel.  Repairs.  It’s pretty hard to own and use a car in the USA (as a typical American driver) for under $8K per year.  A lot of people spend two or three times that much, easy.

There are a few cities in the USA where you can live well without a car: New York, Chicago, DC, Boston.  Any American will tell you: these are the rare exceptions.  Otherwise, if you’re American, and don’t have a car, you’re struggling.  Let’s just say it’s not a good life for a carless Dallasite.

We love our cars.  They’re awesome, fun, exciting, and provide a nice ego-boost for us less-well-endowed men.  However, they’re totally non-value-added.  Meaning – they don’t actually make our lives better – they just provide comfort and sex appeal while we get from point A to point B, all the while draining our bank accounts.

But what if you didn’t need a car?  And by that, I mean: what if everything you needed – everything – was practically within arms reach?  What if you could live as well without a car as you could with one?

What if you could live better?

That’s the case for a large number of Italian towns and cities.  Let me give you an example.

Our apartment

Here in Lucca, we have a little apartment on an ordinary street in a nondescript and workaday part of town.  In the photo on the left, our apartment is on the top two floors of the gray building in between the white and blue cars.

It’s not a special location – in fact, for central Lucca, it’s a little out of the way.  But life is pretty freaking sweet.  Let’s draw an imaginary line 100 yards around the apartment and walk around, shall we?

I can buy vegetables and fruit from a vendor who is literally 150 feet from my front door.  And these aren’t crappy Wal-Mart vegetables grown in Chile and genetically engineered to survive two months of storage and transportation.  Quite the opposite: these are organic fruits and vegetables (grown typically within 20 miles of town) that totally outclass the best stuff you can buy at Whole Foods or Central Market.  Tomatoes that taste like the ones grandmother grew in her garden – no, forget that, they’re better.  I’m talking about real food of the sort you can’t even find in America.  Shit that makes you actually like salad.  The best part?  It’s about  1/4 to 1/2 the price of the Wal-Mart crap!  Seriously – we routinely make dinner for two for under $5 – and this isn’t Hamburger Helper, it’s totally top-shelf gourmet stuff.

Other food is the same.  Across the street from the vegetable guy is a store that sells freshly baked breads and homemade prepared foods.  They have better bread than the good stuff from Whole Foods (a half-loaf is $1.20) and cured meats (prosciutto, salame, pancetta, etc.) better than anything available anywhere in the USA for about the price of Oscar Meyer bologna prepacks.  The milk is produced less than 20 miles away and barely pasteurized – it’s the milk we old dudes had when we were kids – and it’s cheap as dirt.  In Dallas I buy bottled water, because the tap water tastes like calcium and rust.  Here, there are community fountains of aquifer water (UV-sanitized) that is deliciously clean and soft.  The closest one to our apartment is across the street from the bakery – still within the 100 yard radius.

But I’m just getting started.  A few doors down from the vegetable guy is the cobbler.  He makes custom-fitted shoes to order.  And they’re HOT.  I mean, seriously badass.  There are at least four or five styles that are some of the coolest shoes I’ve ever seen.  They cost $100-$150 – which, if you knew the quality of these shoes, you’d realize what a bargain they are.  And they’re custom made in your choice of materials and colors and individually fitted for your feet (which are always different sizes).  Try to find that kind of quality anywhere in the USA.

Next door to the bread guy is the leather bag guy.  He makes bags, purses, briefcases, etc.  He has a lot of cool stuff ready to buy but also will custom-make a bag for you.  For about $80 I’m getting a new leather bag for my camera and the other stuff I carry around – and it’s custom made to fit my camera, lenses, etc..

There’s a laundry next door to the shoe guy and a laundromat down from the bag guy.  Next to the laundry is the butcher.  Chianina beef is as good as the best USDA Prime beef from Texas and sells for about the price of Choice.  All steaks are cut to order from freshly-butchered sides of beef that have never been frozen.

There are three bars within the 100 yard radius.  In Italy a bar is not just a place to drink beer but also your coffee-and-pastry shop in the morning and sandwich shop in the afternoon.  Each one makes coffee that’s better than 98% of the coffee you can get in the USA, terrific homemade pastries, and awesome sandwiches on homemade foccacia bread.  A coffee and delicious pastry will set you back about $2.

Across the street from the shoe guy is the gelateria.  They make all their gelati every day from scratch.  A 2-flavor gelato is $2 and better than pretty much any ice cream you can get anywhere in the USA.

There are at least four sit-down restaurants within the 100 yard radius.  Each one is completely amazing, serving delicious local food and wine.  A typical dinner at one of these places (with a pasta or meat, a vegetable, and a glass of wine) is about $20 per person.  There are two places in Dallas that offer Italian food of equivalent quality and you can’t get in and out for under $50 per head.  I had a roasted pork dish at one of them that was simply the tastiest damn pig I’ve ever eaten in my life.  One of the restaurants does a delicious “plate lunch” type meal and you can usually get in and out (again with wine and bottles of water) for around $10-ish.  Tipping is not customary so you save money there too.

Are you getting the point?  Almost everything I want to do on a typical day is not just within walking distance, but within crawling distance.

If you want to talk about walking distance – meaning, up to about a 1/2 mile – then the entire inner city is available to you.  Let’s talk about that for a minute.

To begin with, Lucca (link to Wikipedia) – like hundreds of other towns in Italy – is simply lovely.  Lucca is surrounded by a medieval wall that is at least 30 feet tall and 30 feet wide, which is now lined with trees and closed to cars.  It is one of the most lovely parks I’ve ever visited.  At approximately 4 km circumference, it’s walkable and easily bikeable.

The walls of Lucca

 

Via Fillungo is the “main drag” for shopping.  If you can name it, they probably have it.  Gucci, Versace, Armani, Boss, Lucky, Nike, Diesel are just a tiny number of stores on that street.  There are local tailors who make beautiful designer suits to order.  There are probably 100 different stores, all selling The Good Shit.  There are at least 6 shoe stores and 4 eyeglass shops selling awesome designer frames – really cool frames, not the Lenscrafter stuff.  Stuff that’s really hard to find, even in D/FW, a metro area of over six million people.

And that’s just Via Fillungo.  Branching out onto some side streets, there are hardware stores that have locally-made ironworks, camera shops carrying the full line of Canon and Nikon lenses, a B&O stereo store with super-nerdy hi-fi gear, bike shops selling kick-ass custom bikes and stationery stores selling hand-bound notebooks.  There are literally a hundred different bars, dozens of restaurants and wine shops, custom-made wood furniture, leatherworkers, and on and on.

All of this is within a 10-15 walk from the house.  Or less than 5 minutes by bike.

The best part of all of this is that Lucca is a small town – about 20K people in the central area.  If I told you that I was going to move to a small town of 10-20K, you’d probably wonder about me.  In most of America, unless it’s a suburb of a large city, living in a small town pretty much is a guarantee that you’re living in the sticks.  I’m thinking of maybe Granbury or Palestine, Texas.  Even a cool small town like Durango is kinda small-townish.  The country is nice, but the amenities usually suck.

By comparison, a place like Lucca is like having all the benefits of the most cosmopolitan cities and all the benefits of a small, friendly town at the same time.  It’s clean and safe and mostly quiet, like a small town.  You quickly meet lots of people and make lots of friends, but all of the creature comforts of the big city are right there.  Hell, Lucca is even home to a summer music festival that brings in artists like Paul McCartney, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Blink-192, and Norah Jones.  Walking distance.

And if you’re willing to hop on a train for an hour, for under $10 you can go here:

Or here:

Or here:

Or here:

Or any of a hundred other places.

Hopefully, you’ll come visit us sometime in Lucca, and let us show you around.

The Problem with EC2 Micro Instances

If you keep up with my blog you know that I really dig the EC2 micro instance running the Bitnami WordPress stack.  I’ve written about it before.  I’ve been hosting a few low-utilization web sites on mine for over a year now and generally speaking, it’s a great concept.

The problem is the occasional lockups.  Maybe once a month or so, the site dies, and the only information I can find that helps me to troubleshoot is that there has been prolonged periods of high CPU utilization whenever the crash occurs.

Well it turns out this is a problem with the Amazon micro instance.  On a micro instance, Amazon allows CPU bursting of up to 2 cores – but if CPU utilization stays high, it gets severely throttled.  And when that happens, sometimes, it crashes the server.

Today I decided to move up from a micro instance to a small instance.  I’m using the same disk image, so I’m running the same virtual machine.  But where the micro instance has up to 2 cores (with throttling) the small instance just has one core.

How much difference did the change make?  Turns out, a big difference.  Micro instance throttling is far more debilitating than I ever would have guessed.

Here’s typical CPU utilization for my server running as a “micro” instance:

As you can see, there is a bump every half hour as a cron job cranks up – and sometimes the CPU is maxed out for several minutes.  That almost certainly results in the web site becoming unavailable or at least very sluggish.

Here is the exact same virtual machine running as a “small” instance:

Wow – that’s an incredible difference: almost 10X the performance!

So while the micro instance is a great way to “get started” with EC2, the “small” instance provides far greater value – at 4X the price, it offers roughly 10X the performance.

Bring Social to the Blog, or Bring the Blog to Social?

I create content: I write, I shoot photos, and I create music. I also make the occasional video.

I want an online location where I can keep up with all my content, and my interaction with others.

My website – a WordPress blog I self-host – the one you’re reading now –  is the only place that truly gives me the control I want over my content. With my blog, I can

  • Create text posts with any length or formatting I like
  • Upload photos at any resolution with my choice of viewers
  • Upload music for download or insert Soundcloud or Bandcamp widgets
  • Interact with my guests using comments or Disqus
  • Integrate 3rd party content from other sites that offer feeds
  • Maintain 100% creative control over the look, feel, format, and style

The problem is – and it’s a biggie – is that the now-dinosaur-like “blog” format is completely isolated from social media. If I post something here on the blog, a few dozen people will see it. Nobody really reads my blog. But if I post something there, on Google+, a few hundred or even a thousand people might see it. It might even go viral, and millions of people might see it. On my blog, there is a next-to-zero chance that any content will go viral.

Of course, I can do what Guy Kawasaki does: publish on my blog, and link back to my blog from social media. But by failing to bring the content actually into the social media stream, I’m losing a lot of potential readers.

Or I can do what guys like Robert Scoble do: post everything everywhere. Scoble is ubiquitous. I don’t know how he can keep up with it all. In the memorable words of Mick Jagger, “I just don’t have that much jam.”

Alternatively, I can migrate to the available social tools instead. I can post my text diatribes over on Google+, but I have no control over the formatting and the layout is terrible for anything longer than a few paragraphs. I can also post my photos there and that works, mmm, OK, at best. I can’t post music, but I can share videos (a terrible situation) if I upload them to YouTube first. I can interact, which is probably the best feature. But I have zero creative control over the look and feel of my content. And I can’t integrate with 3rd party tools like Instagram, Twitter, Tripadvisor, or Hipster where I also create content.

So I end up with most of my most important content – my long blog posts and my music – hosted outside Google+.

What I really want – what someone needs to figure out – is how to have my cake and eat it too. Allow me to have my content on my blog – give me full creative control over it – but also allow me to interact on my blog through social media.

Alternatively, allow me to do everything I can do with my blog on a social media platform: customize it, post anything on it, and integrate anything into it.

The closest thing out there, actually, is Tumblr. Tumblr offers a social platform that is rich in content and customization and strong in supporting “viral multimedia.” The two problems Tumblr has are:

  1. Almost zero support for interaction – the only real interaction on Tumblr is sharing others’ posts, and
  2. Almost zero support for long text, since 99% of the content on Tumblr is visual. It just doesn’t work well for long posts, like this one.

Let’s figure this problem out together! I know I’m not alone. What are you doing to combat this problem?

Nobody Speaks for #OccupyWallStreet

Adbusters occupy wall street

I think it is critical to spread the word of where Occupy Wall Street came from, because as it gains momentum, we are seeing many political groups trying to bend it to their wills.

Occupy Wall Street began as a single-issue protest.  It started when Adbusters posted a message suggesting a protest whose central demand is that President Obama “ordain a Presidential Commission tasked with ending the influence money has over our representatives in Washington.”  This is a broad-based demand that should (and did) unite people on all sides of the political spectrum, from ultra-Liberals to Tea Partiers.  In fact, as many point out, the target of the rage should be Washington as much as Wall Street.

Now, we are seeing lists of “demands” from a variety of parties who claim to speak for the few thousand people participating in the protests.  I am very skeptical of anybody who claims to speak for this group.  The lists of demands – several have been floated, all quite different – range from fairly specific legislative proposals to more whacko rantings of ultra-leftists.

And the groups which have stepped in to participate all have their own unique agendas.  Labor unions, for example, are supporting the cause – which is ironic, since labor unions definitely are part of “the influence that money has over our representatives in Washington.”  What’s next, support from Exxon?

What really got me suspicious was when I found out that MoveOn.org was supporting the cause.  In 1998 I joined Wes Boyd and MoveOn.org because it claimed to be an issues advocacy group focused on ending the impeachment of Bill Clinton.  I was no big fan of Clinton, but I was furious about the impeachment and its resultant waste and misdirected politics.  But instead of being a single-issue group focused on “moving on” from the impeachment, MoveOn.org was instead a PAC raising money for the Democrats.

Lo and behold, I had apparently signed up as a card-carrying member of the left wing of the Democratic party.  That was hardly my intent.  I just wanted the Republicans to get back to the business of the Contract for America and off the stupid and wasteful impeachment proceedings.  I had been co-opted by a so-called “issue group” into a PAC for the Democratic party.  Likewise, I suspect a lot of people occupying Wall Street are probably rather surprised at the demands that “they” are now supposedly advocating.

That’s what happens when a movement gains steam – people get out in front of it and try to use it for their own purposes.

So ask yourself: how can labor unions and MoveOn.org be in support of “ending the influence money has over our representatives in Washington” – they _are_ “the influence money has over our representatives in Washington!”

One of two things has happened / is happening.  Either

  1. The entire Occupy Wall Street protest was intentionally organized by Adbusters to tap into the general anger and then co-opt the group into a hard-left movement, or
  2. Seeing the success of the protest, a bunch of hard-left activists are trying to co-opt the original goal of “ending the influence money has over our representatives in Washington.”
So here’s a message to all the souls protesting in Wall Street: don’t become a shill for someone else’s agenda.

Lights Out In The Tunnel

In his new book, “The Lights in the Tunnel,” Martin Ford postulates an interesting (if not novel) thought experiment: what if the Luddites were right?

I have to start by confessing: I have yet to read the book.  I have only read this review of the book.  And looking at my schedule, I may not have time to read the book.  So my comments are not directed at the book, but at the synopsis presented by the reviewer.

The premise (according to the review) is that “the Luddite Fallacy will only remain a fallacy so long as human capability exceeds technological capability” and according to the analysis of his book, once that tipping point is reached, people will be unable to find work, and without jobs or purchasing power, the economic system will collapse.

On the surface, it makes sense.  Only large corporations will be able to invest sufficient resources to fully automate hospitals with robot doctors, produce food entirely without human intervention, or run governments with robot bureaucrats.  Over time, the means of production will be controlled by a small number of people who will aggregate weath, but with no jobs, there will be nobody to purchase products.

Here’s where this thesis falls apart: in a world where all work can be best performed by machines, the cost of a product is, essentially, the cost of the energy used to power the robots that provide the service.

If energy continues to be increasingly scarce, then the cost to automate becomes high relative to the cost of human labor.  For example, people will always be cheaper than machines if oil is the only way we produce electricity and costs $500 a barrel.  So the economics remain much the same as they are now – people will be used where they are cheaper, and robots will be used where they are cheaper – and the economy will move along.

So the premise – that the Luddite tipping-point is reached once machines achieve the technical capability of humans – is incorrect.  For the tipping point to be reached, two things have to hold true:

1. Machines’ technical capability must exceed human capability (Ford’s premise), and

2. The cost to power the machines is low relative to the cost to “power” a human

But, if condition 2 hold true, then Ford’s thesis falls apart again.  Here’s how:

Let’s postulate a world in which energy is so abundant it’s practically free, perhaps by having robots that operate on internal micro nuclear reactors or robotically-built multimillion-acre solar and wind farms.  In this world, the cost to produce something by robots is, basically, free.  After all, the cost of the raw materials in your cars is negligible.  It’s the cost of transforming iron and sand and oil into steel, glass, and rubber that costs money.  And the cost to transform something (raw iron to steel) is equal to the labor cost (the workers) plus the energy cost (the energy used to fire the smelters).  In an all-automated world, the “labor” cost equals the energy cost. If energy is practically free, then the products will be practically free, too.

Viewed in this way, it’s much more a Utopian fantasy than a Luddite nightmare.

Backing Up a Bitnami WordPress Stack on an AWS Micro Instance

If you follow me, you know that I am quite enamored with Amazon’s EC2.  Scalable, reliable, powerful, and cheap – it’s a revolution in computing.

The smallest and least expensive EC2 instance is the Micro instance.  It’s perfect for a light-duty web server: it has low memory and CPU capability but is capable of bursting to two processors, giving it responsiveness when you need it.  And Bitnami has the perfect partner for your Micro instance: a WordPress stack customized to live in the cramped space of the Micro instance.

What you get in the package is nice: a complete LAMP stack running on a simplified Ubuntu 10.04 server with WordPress preconfigured and ready to go.  Bitnami conveniently puts the entire stack in a single directory – you can zip that directory and drop it on another server and with very little effort you’re up and running again.

There’s plenty of info on the Bitnami site, so if you’re interested in setting it up, head over and check it out.

Where I was left a bit in the dark was… backups.

My first instinct was to use an S3 rsync tool to sync the Bitnami stack to S3.  There’s S3rsync, but that costs money, and I’m seriously committed to spending the smallest amount of money possible on my web server.  So I passed and instead settled on using S3cmd instead.

Using S3cmd, I was able to write a simple script that performs the following:

  1. It stops the Bitnami stack temporarily (this is acceptable in my application)
  2. It ZIPs the contents of the Bitnami folder to a ZIP file that uses the date as the filename (2011-07-11.zip)
  3. It copies the ZIP file to an S3 bucket
  4. It restarts the server

As a once-a-week backup it worked pretty well.  Backups were a little large, because they contained a full snapshot of the entire stack, but S3 storage is cheap, and it’s nice to have your entire stack in a single backup file.

However, occasionally, the ZIP process would crash the little Micro instance (HT to +Ben Tremblay for first noticing during a heated debate on his Google Plus page).  So I started looking for another solution, and realized there is a much more elegant and powerful option: automated EC2 snapshots.

Turns out there are a number of different ways to skin this cat.  I chose Eric Hammond’s ec2-consistent-snapshot script.  Turns out this was a good choice.

Since the Bitnami Ubuntu 10.04 server was a bare-bones install, a number of prerequisites were missing, notably PERL libraries (DBI and DBD) etc.  Fortunately all of the answers were already available in the comments section of Eric’s web page.  For me, all I needed to do was:

sudo apt-get install make
sudo PERL_MM_USE_DEFAULT=1 cpan Net::Amazon::EC2
sudo apt-get install libc6-dev
cpan -i DBI
cpan -i DBD::mysql

The first time I tried it, it worked.  One line of code – in about 0.8 seconds I had taken a snapshot of my disk.  In no time at all I had installed a CRON job to automatically snapshot my server.

EBS snapshots are always incremental (only the changes since the last snapshot are written to disk) and restore in a flash.  I’ve done a restore and it takes just a few seconds to reinstantiate a machine.  And the actual backup is absurdly gentle on the machine – the script runs in about a second.  Bang! Instant incremental backup.  It’s a miracle.

The script is designed to flush the database and freeze the file system so that the snapshot is performed in a “guaranteed consistent” state.  Unfortunately, to freeze the filesystem, you have to be running XFS, and the Bitnami machine uses While I agree that it is important to quiesce the database prior to snapshotting, I don’t know that it is required to flush the filesystem, since EBS volumes are supposedly “point in time consistent”.  Regardless, my web sites do so little writing to disk that it is inconceivable that my file system would be in an inconsistent state.

In short: *rave*.

Kickstarter Campaign Launched

As we all know, the music business is in a new era. People are decreasingly willing to pay for music and the business is decreasingly willing to fund its production. As a result, quality artists like Vanessa – who would have had no trouble securing a solid label deal in 1995 – are turning to new social models in order to fund the expense of record production.


Please support this endeavor by visiting Vanessa’s Kickstarter Campaign.

Lessons in WordPress Conversions

Over the past few days I’ve been performing a pretty significant WordPress migration for a set of sites that I have been hosting.

The source is a set of individual WordPress sites running on an small Amazon EC2 Windows instance.  I migrated them to a multi-site installation running on a micro EC2 Linux instance.

Over the course of the conversion I learned a variety of lessons.

First, I learned that the WordPress multi-site (“network blog”) feature is still fairly half-baked.  You have to be prepared to get your hands pretty dirty if you want to make it work.

I also learned to really appreciate the Bitnami WordPress Stack AMI.  It allows you to spin up a fully-configured, ready to use Ubuntu LAMP / WP stack onto an EC2 micro instance with a minimum of fretting.

I will update this post with some details of the process for those interested.  In the meantime – success is mine!

The Descobleizer: Solving the Scoble Problem on Google+

Today, Rocky Agrawal offerred an interesting article on Techcrunch, “Solving the Scoble Problem on Social Networks.”  it’s a good read.  The gist is that in certain social networks (for example, Google+) there are certain people whose presence in the stream actually ruin the value of the stream, even though their content is worth reading.

Rocky uses Robert Scoble as an example.  Robert has so many avid followers that when he posts, there is so much commentary that his posts dominate the Stream, shouting out all other commentary.  Rocky concludes that there is no choice for him other than to block Robert Scoble altogether.

As a solution, Google+ allows you to view the content from individual circles.  This feature is useful, for example, to see only the posts from your family or a specific group of friends.  But it doesn’t solve the problem of having your main Stream wrecked simply because you happen to follow Robert Scoble.

What Google+ needs is a way to filter the main Stream by excluding one or more circles.  By curating a circle of “noisy” posters, it is then possible to easly “de-noise” the stream by deselecting only those circles.  I call this solution “The Descobleizer”.

 

As you can see, I’ve filtered out the “noisy” elements of the stream by de-selecting my “Acquaintances” and my “Following” circles.  What’s left is a non-noisy Stream of everybody else.  This maintains the value of having a Stream as well as allowing me to still follow guys like Tom Anderson and Robert Scoble.