Monday, August 29, 2016

Ubuntu Upgrades for MythTV Server

I recently upgraded LittleDell, my Ubuntu Linux box running MythTV, to the 16.04.1 "Xenial Xerus" LTS release.
When I first set up this machine, I used Ubuntu 14.04.5 LTS (server version). The LTS stands for Long Term Support, and is supported for 5 years. Using an LTS version minimizes the need for major upgrades, though it's still important to keep up with minor security patches regularly.

The initial version of 16.04 was released back in April, but I didn't see any need to upgrade right away. Why run the risk of problems? In July, 16.04.1 was released with some minor updates, and shortly thereafter I got a notification that the upgrade was available. I could have skipped this one as well, since 14.04.5 is supported until 2019. But at the same time, one of the hardware drivers used by my machine under 14.04.5 was also going out of support. I figured this was a good time to upgrade and avoid any potential driver issues, as well as getting onto the latest Ubuntu version.

The actual upgrade process is very simple: you log into the machine, and run "sudo do-release-upgrade" at the command prompt. I did it over an SSH connection, though that runs a minor risk since you might lose the connection in case of any problems. The installer is kind enough to set up a backup SSH port just in case, but fortunately I didn't need it. The process took a couple of hours, though most of that was just waiting, so I just left it running while I did other things.

The upgrade made extensive changes: according to the installer, it installed 252 new packages, upgraded 907 more, and removed 32. 695 MB of downloads were required. Most of that consists of behind-the-scenes system changes, of course. Everything it did was logged in /var/log/dist-upgrade, just in case I need to look back at it later.

The installer also told me that 13 packages were no longer supported. I went ahead and did the upgrade, but was curious afterward about those packages. After a bit of searching, I found the list in the installer log (grep "demoted" /var/log/dist-upgrade/main.log), but didn't recognize any of them. Several were related to perl, which I'm not using extensively anyway.

After the upgrade and a reboot, everything started up normally. But of course it couldn't be perfectly smooth - I ran into trouble with MythTV when I tried to access my recorded programs. The upgrade had caused two problems:
  1. The PHP-MySQL interface used by the MythWeb browser interface wasn't installed by the upgrade. Easily solved by "sudo apt-get install php-mysql" and a restart of the Apache server.
  2. MySQL changes from the upgrade caused an error when getting the list of recorded programs from the MythTV backend. I had to do some Google searching to resolve this one, and eventually found a solution. In the /etc/mysql/conf.d/mythtv.cnf file, add the line "sql_mode=NO_ENGINE_SUBSTITUTION", then restart MySQL and MythTV. Apparently that line is needed to force the upgraded MySQL to work more like the older version that MythTV was expecting.
At this point, everything seems to be working normally. Assuming no additional issues crop up, this machine shouldn't need a major upgrade for another few years.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

MTG: Conspiracy: Take the Crown

I visited a couple of local game stores this weekend to play in Conspiracy: Take the Crown events.
Competitive Magic: The Gathering is usually played one-on-one, but many of the more casual formats are multi-player. Commander, for example, is usually played with 3-5 people. Conspiracy is a casual draft format, where players are organized into pods of around 8 people to draft cards, then assigned to games with 3-5 players.

I wasn't playing when the original Conspiracy set was released, and had never really looked at the format. The release of this new set was a good opportunity to try it out, though. I went to one event at Big Kidz Games on Friday night, and another out at The Gaming Warehouse on Saturday afternoon.

The draft process for the Conspiracy format is different from normal MTG drafting in that some of the cards actually affect the draft process. Some let you look at what other people are drafting, some can affect the other cards that you draft, some have different power levels based on when you draft them (generally, better if taken late in the current pack). I enjoyed the process during these events, but I'm glad that all that added complexity is the exception, not the rule. It would get pretty tedious if every draft required all the extra bookkeeping that you need for a Conspiracy draft.

The signature mechanic of the Conspiracy format is the Conspiracy card type, which you put in play at the beginning of the game. The effects range from added abilities for a particular creature in your deck to changes in the basic game rules. One Conspiracy even turns deck construction on its head by prohibiting basic lands, instead allowing the player to sacrifice cards in hand to get special lands. This set added another signature mechanic, the Monarch, which is a title that moves from player to player as the game progresses and gives special abilities. Conspiracy cards are generally only used in the Conspiracy format, but the Monarch can be used in any format where the cards are legal - I expect Commander players in particular will get some use from it.

The actual gameplay in my two events felt very much like most free-for-all multiplayer MTG games. Everyone put out a bunch of creatures, but mostly didn't do much with them for fear that other players would take advantage of their lowered defenses. When one player got an obvious advantage - a big flyer, lots of card drawing, a powerful enchantment - the rest of the table ganged up on them. In both of my events, the players with the best early cards died first since they were seen as the early threats. The eventual winners started out more slowly, and eventually built up just a bit more power than the other remaining players. The Conspiracy format mechanics affected how the game was played, but not the way that these free-for-all multiplayer games generally play out.

I had a good time with these Conspiracy: Take the Crown events, but I don't know that I'd go out of my way to play more. A nice change of pace from normal drafting, but not something I'd want to do regularly.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

The Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin

The Three Body Problem is a science fiction novel by Chinese author Liu Cixin. It was originally published back in 2008, but an English translation wasn't available until 2014. I picked up a copy from the library recently.
There are a lot of different aspects to The Three Body Problem. At the core, the novel is about discovering an alien species via long-range contact. Along the way, it goes through political and cultural upheaval in China's Cultural Revolution, explores the psychological effects of knowing we are not alone in the universe, uses virtual reality gaming as a teaching and recruitment tool, and shapes an entire alien race based on the physics of their star system. All of this and more is revealed bit by bit as characters meet and learn each other's stories.

There's a lot to absorb in the world that Cixin has created, which I admit did cause me to work a bit at suspension of disbelief. The science and alien aspects were the easiest. Advanced nano-materials, discovering a way to greatly amplify signals to the stars, full-body virtual reality suits, the existence of aliens...those are pretty standard science fiction themes. Later on the advanced alien technology did some things that were more difficult to believe, specifically some strange dimension-warping actions with subatomic particles. But I had the hardest time with the idea that a large number of educated people, upon learning about the aliens, would decide that there's no hope for humanity in the long term, and we'd be better off either wiped out by the aliens or under subjugation. I'm used to that kind of thinking being the province of lone fanatics or cults, usually driven by charismatic individuals dominating the poorly educated. Here, though, it's a well-organized and funded world-wide conspiracy consisting mostly of society's elites - business leaders, academics, government officials. I had to stop and adjust my thinking a bit through that part of the story.

One of the most interesting aspects of The Three Body Problem for me was the difference in style and culture from the Western works that I'm used to reading. There's a lot of references to recent Chinese history, mostly related to the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Footnotes are strategically placed to explain those, which I appreciated. More subtle aspects of Eastern culture show through in the writing style, and in the actions of the characters. For instance, in several places Wang Miao, one of the main viewpoint characters, is upset by the rudeness of others, most notably the policeman Shi Quiang. His reaction is quite a bit stronger than I'd expect from a similar situation in Western culture. Those kind of small differences are present throughout.

The translator Ken Liu did an outstanding job. He wrote a note explaining his goal, which was not just to translate word-for-word, but keep the flow of the story and maintain the tone. I've not read the original Chinese work, obviously, but I certainly felt like he accomplished the goal of keeping the Eastern feel to the novel while making it accessible to English readers.

There are two more novels that follow The Three Body Problem, which is a very good thing since many of the biggest plot threads remain unresolved by the end of this book. The English translation for one of them is already available, and the other is due out later this year. Looking forward to having a chance to see how it all unfolds.

Friday, August 26, 2016

The EpiPen Price Outcry

EpiPen prices have increased like crazy over the last few years, and the media has been all over the story in the last week or so. It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone when this sort of thing happens.
An EpiPen is an auto-injection device that administers epinephrine to treat anaphylactic shock, usually from an allergic reaction. The actual epinephrine is really cheap, around a dollar's worth according to Wikipedia. But an EpiPen was $97 in 2007, and the price has gone up to $600 for a package of two in 2016. There's certainly some value in having the drug available in a pre-measured dosage that's easy to administer, so the 2007 price makes some sense. Hard to see what justification there is for the huge jump since then, though.

There's all kinds of stories in the news about this, usually featuring footage of potential allergy-victim kids and their worried parents. Congress is getting involved, demanding to know why the price is so high. (Not taking any actual action, mind you. Just a lot of talk and posturing for the cameras.)

I don't get why anyone is surprised by this or any other health care price increase. All that the manufacturer Mylan is doing is following the incentives that we've built into our health care system. They've produced a product, protected it with patents, marketed it to consumers, and are making as much money from it as they can. (Some of that was done by the prior owner before Mylan bought the rights in 2007, but it's the same incentives either way.) Consumers get hit with the cost, either directly or indirectly through insurance.

Having said that, I do see why people aren't happy. I wouldn't be either, if I had to spend hundreds of dollars on something that I might need to save my life in an emergency. But going after Mylan won't fix the problem, even if they end up reducing the price in this specific case. The incentives in the system are still going to push companies to do similar things in other areas. And not all of those will lend themselves easily to media-friendly shots of kids and parents that drum up outrage from the public.

If we want to fix the problem, the incentives in the system need to be changed. Health care products and services need to come from organizations that have patient health as their top priority, not a profit motive.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Happy 100th Anniversary, National Park Service

The National Park Service is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.
I'm not an outdoor person, for the most part. I like my comfortable chairs, air conditioning, and lack of insects too much to spend a lot of time in the wilderness. Nevertheless, I have fond memories of the visits I've made to places of natural beauty across our country, and many of those are part of the National Park system.

Congress created the National Park Service back in 1916. National parks existed before then, but there was no single agency to manage the entire system. According to Wikipedia, the US Forest Service actually opposed the new agency, for fear of losing control of various lands being used by the timber industry. Doesn't sound all that different from environmental-versus-industry battles from more recent history.

I've visited the oldest National Park, Yellowstone, on a couple of different occasions. I have some good memories of the neighboring Grand Teton National Park as well. Seeing the Grand Canyon is something that I think everyone fortunate enough to visit won't ever forget. I haven't been to anything close to the entire system of parks, but I certainly appreciate all the ones that I have seen.

Happy anniversary to the National Park Service. May all the places under its management stay natural and beautiful for future generations to enjoy.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

First Seven Jobs

I'm late to this party, which is the usual for Twitter trends. I rarely watch what's happening on my feed. But I did hear about a #FirstSevenJobs trend on Twitter not long ago, where people talked about the first jobs they held. It seemed like an interesting topic to explore in a bit more than 140 characters.
Here's my list, as best I can remember.
  1. Strawberry picking
  2. Newspaper delivery
  3. Pizza at Little Caesars
  4. Espresso cart
  5. Computing center help desk
  6. Construction
  7. IT consultant
Two of those barely count, since I lasted only a day or two as a strawberry picker, and only a few days at the construction site. I was terrible at the former, and miserable in the Louisiana summer weather at the latter.

The newspaper delivery was only partially my job, since the rest of my family was just as much part of the job as I was. The delivery route wasn't what you see in the movies, with a kid on his bike delivering a few dozen papers before school. You needed a car to cover many miles of neighborhoods, handling around 300 papers each morning. Not my favorite employment memory, but it did teach me some discipline, getting up before the sun every morning. I also learned that a manual transmission is a terrible idea when your car is making 300 stops a day.

Working at Little Caesars and the espresso business were good opportunities for a high school student, plus the year I took off before going to college. The food service industry didn't lose much when I left, though. I was pretty good at doing the routine work, but dealing with irate customers isn't my strong point. And in those jobs, there are always irate customers.

I felt much more at home when I went to school and got a work-study job at the computing center. There were still irate clients, but I could almost always do something to deal with the problem. The paper route early-to-rise experience came in handy, since generally no one else wanted the early shifts. Eventually I was put in charge of all the other work-study students, which looked great on my resume, as well as providing very useful experience for my future consulting career.

With a computer science and mathematics degree, I could have gone on to graduate school, but I was anxious to get out into the real world. Partially that was to make money, of course, but also because I was tired of theory at that point. I hadn't even really considered consulting as a career choice before I started going to all the various events that companies held for prospective hires. The idea of working in many different fields for a variety of clients sounded much more appealing than a job with a single company. It worked out well - I spent nearly 10 years as a consultant before deciding that I'd like to stay home a bit more often, and switching to a single employer.

Interesting idea, that #FirstSevenJobs trend. I hadn't thought about most of those first six jobs in years.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Magicians (Season 1)

With my recent subscription to Playstation Vue came access to Syfy's on-demand episodes. Perfect opportunity to check out The Magicians, which has been on my radar since it was announced last year.
The Magicians is based on Lev Grossman's novel of the same name. I've read the book, but it was several years ago, and I barely remember anything more than the general setting and very high-level plot. Most of the show seemed vaguely familiar because of that, but I certainly didn't feel like I knew what was coming next in any specific sense.

The general idea behind The Magicians is that magic is real, but hidden from normal people. There's a hidden magical university in upstate New York called Brakebills where magicians are trained. Yes, that's basically Harry Potter on the other side of the Atlantic, but much more worldly. The characters are college-aged and fully aware of (and engaged in) drinking, drugs, and sex. Brakebills isn't entirely filled with good guys, and those outside it aren't entirely bad. The magic-versus-muggles part is more or less the same, though.

The Magicians also borrows from another classic fantasy work in its use of a magical world called Fillory, which shares a whole lot with Narnia. Fillory turns out to be pretty dangerous, which I suppose isn't entirely unlike Narnia, but it certainly feels much darker. That's true of the entire show, in Fillory or elsewhere. It's not quite full-on horror, but there are plenty of dark and frightening elements, from psychological breakdowns to haunted houses to a mysterious and murderous Beast.

I wasn't greatly impressed with any of the primary characters at first, but some of them have grown on me as I got further into the episodes. I think that's largely because there's so many: Quentin is clearly the main protagonist, then there's his childhood crush Julia, his classmate and eventual girlfriend Alice, and four other classmates that have extensive roles. That's a whole lot of development needed to connect the viewer to each one. That makes for some early confusion, but by about halfway through the season, their motivations and personalities were mostly clear. You definitely want to watch this series all the way through from the beginning, as otherwise much of how the characters act won't make sense. There's too much going on in their heads to fill in the gaps from missed episodes by context.

Events progress through this first season fairly quickly, with a lot happening in just about every episode. Some parts move almost too quickly, such as Julia rising through the ranks of a "hedge witch" group practically overnight. There are only 13 episodes, which is more like half a season than a full one, so that's not entirely unexpected. The story is kept interesting even as it moves quickly, with a "big mystery" aspect set up in the very first episode with the first appearance of the Beast. I think the pacing is done well, considering the limitations of such a short season format.

The Magicians has a very worldly feel with plenty of adult themes, so it's probably not for everyone that likes Harry Potter or Narnia (particularly younger folks). But if a darker take on those magical fantasy worlds sounds interesting to you, then The Magicians is well worth a look.