Saturday, January 29, 2011

Amazon EC2

I think I'm in love again.

Amazon Web Services (AWS) is an API that you can use to interface w/a suite of products including the mind-altering EC2 service, which allows you to boot up virtual boxes in the Amazon cloud infrastructure for, all things considered, very reasonable rates. I've just written my first AWS Python script, and I've booted my first EC2 image. It will be my always-on mail server, which will prevent the dilemma I'm in now from ever happening again.

Yes, my ISP is run by incompetents who did not realize that AT&T was going to drop me last night at approximately 2:30am, while I was just wrapping up a change window for work. I'm now without Internet, and they do not expect to have my service back up until tomorrow sometime, maybe. How am I writing this you ask? Well, my friend Tom was kind enough to donate his Cradlepoint to me, so I supplanted my own DSL modem with it, thereby putting me on the Internet via 3G, but since it works on what seem to be frequently changing IP addresses, I can't re-establish my mail server with it, so I had to urgently configure Google Apps as my email service and point my MX records to it, and manually enter in about 4 dozen email aliases. Not an ideal situation, because now my mail is being delivered to Google. It's nice to have some server accepting my mail, but it sucks to have it being stored on a different server than it usually is, because now it's split.

Anyway, check out my new EC2 server. This is a "micro" image. It's the smallest category of image they offer, and will run me about $18/month. The memory footprint is modest, but adequate for the image:
    [ec2-user@pyrocumulus ~]$ cat /proc/meminfo
MemTotal: 610612 kB
MemFree: 359064 kB
Buffers: 6104 kB
Cached: 205492 kB
SwapCached: 0 kB
Active: 88092 kB
Committed_AS: 32908 kB

And the CPU provided is ostensibly a Xeon E5430:

[ec2-user@pyrocumulus ~]$ cat /proc/cpuinfo
processor : 0
vendor_id : GenuineIntel
cpu family : 6
model : 23
model name : Intel(R) Xeon(R) CPU E5430 @ 2.66GHz
stepping : 10
cpu MHz : 2659.996
cache size : 6144 KB
fpu : yes
fpu_exception : yes
cpuid level : 13
wp : yes
flags : fpu tsc msr pae cx8 cmov pat pse36 clflush dts mmx fxsr sse sse2 ss ht pbe syscall nx lm constant_tsc up arch_perfmon pebs bts rep_good aperfmperf pni dtes64 monitor ds_cpl vmx est tm2 ssse3 cx16 xtpr pdcm dca sse4_1 lahf_lm tpr_shadow vnmi flexpriority
bogomips : 5319.99
clflush size : 64
cache_alignment : 64
address sizes : 38 bits physical, 48 bits virtual
power management:

And just look at this little tiny install image! I chose the standard Amazon Linux 64-bit AMI image, which they say is based on CentOS 5, but it has the RHEL 6 kernel:

[ec2-user@pyrocumulus ~]$ df -k
Filesystem 1K-blocks Used Available Use% Mounted on
/dev/xvda1 8256952 963668 7209400 12% /
tmpfs 305304 0 305304 0% /dev/shm
[ec2-user@pyrocumulus ~]$ uname -a
Linux pyrocumulus #1 SMP Fri Oct 22 18:48:49 UTC 2010 x86_64 x86_64 x86_64 GNU/Linux

And there is a fully-stocked YUM repo handy, so I could immediately install Postfix with exactly what you would expect, "yum install postfix".

I guess it's about time something forced me to take a look at this stuff.

Sunday, January 23, 2011


Inclination is a dirty word in our coach's circle right now. But I am finally beginning to understand the principle in a way that I can vocalize.

Who here would deny that we learn every time we coach? Who here is the expert? I'm not. I'm constantly trying to understand the turn, the weight shift, the dance with gravity. Who here stands around during practice? No coach stands around. Drew might THINK we're standing around, but we're watching, studying. We're constantly studying the racers. What are they doing?? What are they doing right? What are they doing wrong? What can I say to that child to improve his or her technique?

I'm no expert on inclination either, or really any particular aspect of ski racing, but I can explain what my current understanding of inclination is, and why it makes sense to me.

Gravity is our friend. But it must be tamed. Of course, taming gravity is a ridiculous proposition. Just an illusion, like any control you have in life, the only real control is how you respond to the world. So we control gravity by controlling our responses to it. It pulls us down the hill. It pulls us sideways, it pulls us in vectors relative to our stated direction.

What is the quickest way to get from 1000' to 0'? Free fall, with the lowest drag coefficient possible. Of course, we're required to follow a slope down, and we're required to make turns as we go, but gravity is our engine, and our goal is to be as close to a free fall as possible, while maintaining absolute control of our bodies.

Stacking. What are the five fundamentals of alpine racing?

Basic Skiing (Athletic Stance, Parallel Position)
Pole Plant
Carving Turns and Transitions
Jumping and Terrain

What is the most important fundamental? Yes, we pick favorites, and it's Basic Skiing, of course, and the most fundamental element of Basic Skiing is the Athletic Stance. Why?

Why is the athletic stance so important? Because we are perfectly "stacked". Our whole body, all joints, bones, etc., is aligned in a way that maximizes our stability - our CONTROL over gravity - relative to the surface we're resisting gravity against. When we're standing on flat ground, gravity pulls straight down on us, and we therefore have the canonical Athletic Stance. However, when gravity is pulling in a different direction, we must adjust our stance in order to remain stacked. Shown here:
These flagrantly simplified drawings do not take into account movement, of course. While we are moving down the course, we're making turns: initiating turns, performing turns, completing turns, preparing for upcoming turns. These are all simplified drawings of positions that can only be explained in the context of a dynamic, modern turn, but the principle is clearly illustrated.

Gravity pulls our body in vectors relative to our stated position. Gravity is the engine that pulls us down the hill. In order to maximize our control over gravity, we must maximize our stability, and we do that by FINDING the Athletic Stance w/r/t our given position, which may be at an ANGLE or INCLINE relative to the surface we're gliding across.

Monday, January 17, 2011


Altruism. Forgiveness. Motives.

Somehow these concepts kept showing up today, whether by choice or coincidence. I woke up this morning on the couch, fully clothed, except for my shoes. I had fallen asleep after three trials of a new (to me) cocktail called Sappho, and a review of season 1 of Archer, which I just got in the mail. There were many dishes to be washed, so I got right to work. And while I was doing that I tuned into a podcast of one of my new favorites, Radiolab. Specifically, I was listening to The Good Show, which explores the question of how to rationalize altruism with Natural Selection.

As is typical for Radiolab, the arguments were illustrated by poignant stories of research related to the question, and tales of altruism so touching I was actually moved to tears. There was a story of a college student who saved a woman who was being mauled by a bull, and another one about a man who pulled three drunk teens from a car engulfed in flames, and another one about a man who saved a stranger who fell into the subway tracks due to a seizure by laying flat on top of him while the train actually passed over!

The other side of hearing these stories is that you naturally must question your own moral composition. The problem with the question is that, as they suggest on the show, the only way you can be sure of the answer is if you've actually been faced with one of these situations.

Later this evening I made some dinner and felt the need to watch something strong. I had bought this Dogville DVD several months ago at a Blockbuster store closing because it was written and directed by one of my favorite directors, Lars von Trier. I guess I had never gotten around to watching it for one reason or another, so tonight seemed as good a time as any...

When we were freshmen, living in the dorms, I remember one night when Damian and I were rambling on, I said wouldn't it be weird if suddenly you could just see everyone without the walls around them? Like, neighborhoods, but the houses just disappear and everyone is just huddled about like they normally would be. We would all look so ridiculous! I remember years later Damian recalled the imagery, so I guess he thought it was an interesting idea. Well I'll be damned if that isn't EXACTLY what von Trier does in Dogville! Ha! So right off the bat I like this film. But it gets SO much better.

While you're watching this film, which at first seems so strange, with the set drawn out in two dimensions on the floor of a stage, and the actors walking about, other characters visible in the distance, you become absorbed in the story and the town, so that you eventually realize that your mind is filling in missing imagery exactly as if you were reading a book! Holy shit! It's amazing! Even now, as I think back about what I saw, it's as if there was so much more, visually, but there wasn't, it was as minimal as possible, but the story draws in your imagination like a book, and only the objects that are actually necessary to tell the story are present, exactly like a George Saunders story. My god it's brilliant.

The story itself turns out to be a very subtly layered tale whose symbolism become more obvious as you get to the end of the story, and the final revelation of that symbolism is so skillfully and tactfull unveiled, you just want to turn around and watch the whole thing over again. It is my new favorite von Trier movie. I want to go back and watch it again, right now, even as late as it is. I want to talk more about it, but I don't want to spoil it in case you haven't seen it yet.

After the movie I finished the frames. The large one is made from that ash wood I recovered. These ones are all bridle joints. They recall Escher's ever-ascending/descending staircase. Each of the four pieces has one end a tenon and the other end a mortise. My house is in desperate need of more pictures, but I refuse to pay money for frames when I can make them myself... but then I never make them, so here are two. They just need to have the outside edges trued up with a plane, have the groove rabbeted in the back, and be varnished... OK, I guess I'm actually about half done.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

A lyric

"Love, it will not betray you, dismay or enslave you, it will set you free to be more like the man you were made to be." - Mumford & Sons (Sigh No More)

I am utterly bewildered that a man of only 21 years could consider love with such maturity. That's about how old Marcus Mumford was when Mumford & Sons recorded Sigh No More. I'm assuming he wrote it. I'm just amazed at his perspective.

Of course, it's not the most graceful sentence, and I believe he is referring more specifically to a love of God, not a woman. Most of his songs have a strong Christian message, but if you listen carefully, those messages are often simply lessons in faith, not flagrant evangelization, and I believe those messages describe characteristics that I've seen in truly great men. So, for me, the love he speaks of in this song is any kind of love. He's speaking to the hesitancy or even fear that we feel when we deal with commitment and devotion.

I think one of the biggest dilemmas we must deal with in a post-religious, heterarchical age is how to retain and cultivate the advantages of religion. There are very strong, distinct benefits that come from having faith, and history has shown that people with strong faith are able to overcome devastating challenges where people who are not imbued with such faith cannot.

I just remembered a dream I had in college, and it might explain some of this. I was a boy back in summer camp. We were in the main building eating dinner, and every kid was seated at one of many banquet tables, digging into mashed potatoes and whatever else. The echoes of a hundred boys' and girls' voices bounced off of the shiny concrete floor. I looked up and saw two boys seated with their heads down, quietly saying grace. They were brothers and I didn't know them, but they looked a bit larger than everyone else and more neatly dressed. They even looked majestic there, although they made no effort to attract attention to themselves. Their presence was just that strong. I was astonished by their unashamed devotion, and I wanted to be just like them.

See, everyone at those tables knew that you should say grace before you start eating, but nobody wanted to be so uncool as to say grace when there were no adults around to mandate it. But those two strangers didn't look uncool at all. Instead they projected quality and strength. They were simply doing this thing because it was right.

That dream doesn't actually relate directly to the faith thing, but I'm talking about the kind of character I think could get lost in a post-religious society. Of course, it won't, as long as we don't let it. Maybe I'm just talking about myself.

On the other hand, just to reassure you that I am still me, despite this unprecedented public reflection on love and faith, I can't stand people who talk about their faith or put it on display or try to get others to be more like them or relate to their god the way they relate to it. It's shallow, vulgar, ugly, vain, and divisive.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

At the risk of becoming backwards-looking

What is the word for backwards-looking?

I love how the word brûler means to burn, and in the aforementioned Jacques Brel song, Ne Me Quitte Pas, he uses the phrase "des terres brûlées". French poetry in the time of end rhyme must've been really something. I need to learn more.

These lyrics...

Et quand vient le soir
Pour qu'un ciel flamboie
Le rouge et le noir
Ne s'épousent-ils pas!?