When I was in fifth grade, we had a student teacher in English. I’ll call her Mrs. N. I guess we were doing a lesson on literal versus figurative speech at some point that year and Mrs. N taught it. On the test at the end of the unit, there was a question to the effect of “What does the sentence ‘It’s raining cats and dogs?’ mean literally?” Now, I could tell that she really wanted to know what it meant figuratively, but that’s not what she asked, so I answered the question with “Cats and dogs are falling from the sky.”

After she’d graded them she returned them and I saw that she marked my answer wrong, with a comment that “the question was confusing.” I went up to her and pled my case – everybody else in the class answered the question she’d meant to ask, but I answered the question she actually asked. Figuratively, that sentence means “it’s raining very hard.” Therefore, the literal meaning is just what I wrote, and my answer shouldn’t have been marked wrong. I appealed to the real teacher and she told Mrs. N that I was correct.

I bring this up because the meaning word “literally” appears to have been eroded in recent years to the point where “literally” is no longer the literal definition of literal. I was reminded of this today when I read this story about Lara Logan:


As another data point, if you now look up the word literally in Google, it shows you a definition that includes the words “used for emphasis or to express strong feeling while not being literally true.” Yes, Google’s official definition indicates that “literally” means “not literally.”

This is just one of the many infractions I see on a daily basis that burn my retinas (another being ‘irregardless’).

Digital Ocean – First Impressions

For the past few years I’ve been hosting this site on an old desktop in my basement on my FiOS connection. This was one of the things I really liked when I switched from Cablevision to Verizon – they don’t block port 80 inbound, so I didn’t have to pay for separate hosting. My “server” was an old AMD desktop with 1 gig ram and a sata drive. It was ok; my site was slow but I was ok with that. I configured Nginx to cache the static assets which sped most things up to “ok” levels but it was never fast.

This setup had a bunch of problems though, and the biggest one was power. Namely, it goes out in my house all the time. I probably have 4 or 5 brief outages each month, and my old box doesn’t come back up properly on reboot (some bios conflict with an eSATA disk I have hooked up to it). Plus, since my basement became a huge bathtub during Sandy, my site was down for about a month, but that wasn’t really a big concern at the time.

Anyway, via a “Promoted Tweet” on Twitter I found Digital Ocean, a VPS provider with rates starting at $5/month for an SSD-backed VM. They also had a promo at the time for a $10 credit, so I figured I’d give it a try.

Account creation was simple and I didn’t need to enter my CC until I actually created a server (“droplet” in their parlance). Server creation was pretty trivial: select the OS image (I chose CentOS 6.4 but they offer Ubuntu, Arch, Debian and Fedora as well), the size (512 MB ram through 16 GB), the region (San Francisco, New York, or Amsterdam), enter a hostname and your SSH pubkey. In about 60 seconds your server is ready to go, with a public IP and everything. My VM has a 20 GB disk and the base OS install was about 900 MB. I installed Apache, Nginx, MySQL and some other stuff, then dumped my WordPress DB and uploaded it to the new VM and copied the entire Apache docroot over as well. Within about 30 minutes of spinning up the VM I had everything up on the new box, and I made the DNS changes shortly after that. Pretty straightforward.

It’s only been a couple of days but so far I’m really liking the performance. My site doesn’t get a lot of traffic to begin with, but since I cache most stuff to disk, and the disk is SSD, it’s really quick. I’ll keep an eye on it but so far this is looking like a great choice for small website hosting. The only thing is I’ll need to setup some sort of offsite backups, but I can just cron an rsync to my home machine for now.


Blog rename again

I hate calling this site “Evan Hoffman’s Blog,” but it seems that when I Googled my own name most of the results were about this guy. So let me just clarify… that’s not me. I enjoyed having the title be obscure lyrics from songs I love but drastic times call for drastic measures. And let me tell you… renaming a blog is serious business.

When the admin of your online community dies

In 2000 or 2001 I started playing EverQuest. I was relatively late to the game, joining after the 3rd expansion (Luclin) was already out. I played it for a few years, at one point obsessively. In truth, I was never really that good, but I was in a guild that I loved and for the most part we all had fun. Like in other MMOs, when you start playing EverQuest you need to choose which server to play on. Basically I picked a random one to create my character on: Tarew Marr (most servers in EQ were named after the deities in the game).
Continue reading “When the admin of your online community dies”

Upcoming downtime

I’ll be moving this site to a new hosting provider over the next few days, so there will likely be some downtime. Not that this site gets that many repeat visitors, but figured I’d give a heads-up so Google can cache this ahead of time.

Graphing SSH dictionary attacks with HighCharts

After my 10-year-old basement Linux server died this week from a power outage, I took the sad step of giving up on it. It’s died before and I’ve patched it back together with a new power supply here or an addon PCI SATA card there, but I finally decided to throw in the towel since I had a newer old computer that had been idle for several years. The one that died was an Athlon K7 750 MHz with 512 MB ram. The new one is an Athlon 2 GHz (3200+) with 1 gig. For my uses, specs don’t really matter that much, but it’s nice to have more power for free.

I put CentOS 6 on it and configured Samba and copied all the data off the old machine and was back up and running within a few hours. Since I forward ports through my FiOS router to this box I did my standard lockdown procedure, including adding myself to the AllowUsers in sshd_config. Afterwards I took a look in /var/log/secure and saw the typical flood of dictionary attacks trying to get in as root or bob or tfeldman or jweisz. I have iptables configured to rate-limit SSH connections to 2 per 5 seconds per IP so the box doesn’t get DoSed out of existence, but some stuff does make it through to sshd.

Looking through /var/log/secure, I got to thinking it would be interesting if there was some way to visualize the attacks in a handy graph. Then I remembered, oh, wait, I can do that.

I wrote a perl script to parse out the attacks from /var/log/secure and insert them into a Postgres DB. This turned out to be pretty easy. Then I thought it would be more interesting to tie the IP of each attack to its originating country. I’ve used MaxMind’s GeoIP DB pretty extensively before, but I was looking something free. That’s when I remembered that MaxMind has a free GeoIP DB: GeoLiteCity. I grabbed it and yum-installed the Perl lib and added the geo data to the attack DB. Rather than worry about normalizing the schema I just shoved the info into the same table. Life is easier this way, and it’s just a for-fun project.

So I got that all working and parsed it against the existing /var/log/secures via

[root@lunix2011 ~]# zcat /var/log/secure-20111117.gz | perl 

I wrote ssh.php to see what’s in the table:

ssh.php list of hacking attempts
ssh.php list of hacking attempts

So now that the data was all in place, time to move on to the graphs, which is what I really wanted to do. Last time I wanted to graph data programmatically I used JPGraph, which does everything in PHP and is super versatile. But I wanted something… cooler. Maybe something interactive. A little Googling turned up Highcharts which is absolutely awesome, and does everything in JavaScript. I basically modified some of their example charts and pumped my data into them and got the charts below.

Pie chart of attacks grouped by country for the past 30 days:

Pie chart by country
Pie chart by country

Bar graph of attacks per day:

Bar graph of daily attacks
Bar graph of daily attacks

So, that’s that. Code is in github if anyone wants to play around with it. I’ve cronned to run every 5 minutes so the data gets updated automatically.

Displaying currently-playing iTunes track in the Mac menu bar

In an attempt to teach myself Objective C, and because I couldn’t find anything that did what I wanted, I wrote a little utility to display the currently-playing iTunes track in the Mac taskbar. Originally I had it display the full track name right in the taskbar but it was too much text for such a small space (especially on a 1440×900 screen), so now you click a little musical note and it shows you the info in a menu.

Here’s a screenshot:

The code is all in github. If you’re looking for a similar utility, and are brave enough to try my first-ever Obj-C app, you can download it here. But the freshest version will probably be in the github project.

As an aside, I was surprised at how easy it was to cobble this together having never written ObjC before. I found some good examples that I mostly ripped off, but it was still remarkably easy to have the app listen to iTunes for track changes, etc.